Hello, Stranger by JaneLebak
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Story Notes:
This was the first fanfic I wrote, before I really felt comfortable in this universe and posting to the group.
Hello, Stranger
Hello, Stranger
by Jane Lebak (10/95)

He had tried for the entire trip home to remember what it was he had seen. Jason slouched in his chair, legs stretched as far as they could under the weapons console as he listened to the hum of the Phoenix knifing home just ahead of the sunset.

Three day mission, this last one. He closed his eyes and wondered how long ago he'd had his last night's sleep.

Princess snickered from her chair. "I call first shower!"

"You'll have to fight me for it," Keyop said. He pivoted in his chair so the lights from his display glinted off his helmet. "Besides, the Chief will want to debrief you guys. He won't care if I don't report."

Tiny began their descent, and Jason swallowed hard to pop his ears. Princess radioed their flight path.

I know I saw something. Jason had picked out the commanding Galactor officer with no trouble, as though he'd known what to look for, and now he couldn't remember what the costume looked like. Smooth, he thought. Kinesthetics: he'd seen the costume and known immediately how it would feel to lift off the mask and drape it over his face. But not what it looked like. Heavy, flexible fabric sliding through his fingers, but not the color or the design.

As they deplaned, Jason grabbed Mark by the arm. "Were there any tapes of this mission?"

Mark rubbed his eyes--none of them had slept much. "Whatever the black box got. What do you want to check out?"

"Their commander. That's all."

Mark grinned. "Well, you got the best view of all--while it lasted. Having a teammate with perfect aim is pretty handy sometimes."

Jason let it go. He said nothing in the report to Chief Anderson, folded his arms and leaned back against the wall as Mark asked the others to elaborate, and walked out with the rest. While the others hit the showers, he disengaged the G-2 and took it to the surface. Back in his civvies, Jason drove away from the city, away from the team.


Princess roughed up her hair with the towel long enough to keep it from dripping on her t-shirt. She picked up the three-day overdue rental video from her dresser and slapped it lightly against her thigh. She wondered if this would be yet another film they began just to unwind after a mission, only to wake up two hours later to a blue television screen?

Outside Mark's room, she leaned one hip against the door. "Guys always take forever!"

The door opened to reveal a cleaner, smiling Mark. "Only when you use all the hot water."

"All the water period," Princess said. "The whole Pacific went down our drains in the last hour. Come on, say it."

Mark joined her in the hall. "Whatever." They gathered Tiny and Keyop. Jason wasn't in his room.

"Hey, G-2," Mark said into his wrist band, "get your lazy butt out of the shower."

"I don't think he got in yet," Keyop said.

Mark snickered. "Or are you just going to content yourself with sandpaper and a chisel?"

When Jason didn't reply, Princess frowned. "Maybe the Chief sent him somewhere?"

Keyop brightened. "Popcorn run!"

"No." Princess tossed Tiny the video. "You guys start without me. I'll go ask."

"It won't take long," Mark said. "I'll go with you."

Keyop and Tiny followed them down the hall. "Where's that trailer of his?" Keyop asked.

Princess rapped him on the head. "He carts it around, dork. That's why it's called a mobile home."

"Maybe he just wanted to be quiet for a while." Keyop rubbed his head. "I'll go see if the G-2's gone."

Keyop got in the elevator when the other continued walking the hall to Anderson's office. Mark was shaking his head. "He'd have answered if he only wanted time alone."

Anderson's eyes narrowed when they asked if he'd sent Jason someplace, and he ordered them to try the wristband again. "Tiny, you call."

Mark paced the room. "Get the least offensive person to do it?"

Tiny walked a distance away before speaking into his wrist band. "G-2, this is G-5. Reply."

Anderson had his head down. "Order him."

"G-2, you've been ordered to respond. Reply."

During the next pause, Mark imagined Jason considering his options.

"This is G-2, responding dutifully."

Mark rolled his eyes.

"What's the idea?" Tiny asked. "We're wondering about you."

"Don't." Some static in the background, but it didn't interfere too badly. "I'm alive."

"You're missing the movie."

"Heaven forfend."

"Be serious." Tiny looked around at the others, but they didn't offer any help. Keyop had returned, shaking his head. "You took the G-2. The Chief's worried you'll crack it up and send the insurance premium through the roof."

"Touching." Jason sounded as though he were smiling, though, and Tiny relaxed a little.

Mark said, "Find out what he's doing."

"Mark wants to know what you're doing."

"Taking a shower." Tiny laughed as the static sound resolved into the distinct splash of water on the wrist band. He stopped when Mark gave him a dark look.

"What about afterward?"

"You're just going to get upset, aren't you? I'm going to go exploring."

Mark resumed pacing, hands in his pockets. "Damn him. Tiny, tell him to get his free-spirited self and that ISO property he drives back here before I take up the G-1 and blow his trailer to hell."

"Mark says he wants you to return," Tiny said.

"I'm sure." Tiny glanced at Anderson during Jason's next pause; the Chief had taken a seat behind his desk and had written something on his calendar. "Look," Jason said, "I'll be back in a few days."

"Mark said--"

"And I say, I don't care."

Tiny looked around for a chair. "He's pretty insistent, guys."

"Remind him we're a team," Princess said.

"And team-mates," Mark said, "don't go ignoring everyone else just to have things their own way."

Tiny sat down and closed his eyes. "What if Mark goes with you?"

Silence from both Mark and Jason, although Mark had given Tiny a death-look. Tiny could imagine the same look occurring in Jason's trailer, for the same reason. He waited out the both of them.

"I don't need to be babysat," Jason said.

"But we'll feel better if you don't go alone. This sounds important to you." When Jason didn't respond, Tiny added, "Please?"

The voice on the wrist band had a resigned quality to it. The static had stopped--presumably the end of the shower. "Where does he want to meet?"

Mark said, "How about right here in this office so we can nail his shoes to the floor?"

Princess shook her head. "He won't like that."

Tiny said, "Where do you want to go?"


Tiny sat up. "What?"

"That's a hell of a drive," Keyop said.

"Mark can meet me at the airport," Jason added.

"Why am I going to go with him?" Mark said. "Against orders, no less."

"Because it's the only concession he'll make," Tiny said. "Because he trusts you even when he doesn't like you. Because you two work well together?"

"Fine, but I'm flying us. We'll be really inconspicuous on a commercial flight, won't we?"

Tiny raised his wrist band again. "Can you get to Mark's air strip? He'll fly you."

"I'll be there in an hour. Bye."

Mark pulled his flight gloves from his pocket. "No problem. Sicily, you said?" He headed toward the door. "I'll take one of the ISO planes. A nice, relaxing flight to follow a relaxing mission."

"Hold on." Chief Anderson sat on the edge of his desk. "Does he have his medication with him?"

Tiny shook his head. "I'm not calling back to ask."

Anderson turned to Mark. "Bring it. He might be acting out from depression."

After Mark and the others left, Tiny shook his head. "You're wrong about that, Chief. He's determined, he's curious, not depressed."

"He may be depressed when it's over," Chief Anderson said. "Sicily was where I found him when he was eight and his parents had just been killed."


Jason went over the story in his head as many times as he could during the flight. Mark hadn't spoken to him much, other than "Get in," and "There won't be any in-flight peanuts." Fine with Jason, actually. Time for thinking. Time for napping.

Galactor had an outpost in Palermo. He knew that. And he'd come from Palermo when Chief Anderson had taken him out--after his parents' murder. Someone--a gun, that's all Jason could remember. No face, no voice. His father on his back with his jacket and chest blown open, his blood on the ceiling and the lamps, reflected figure eights where the drops had sprayed on the mirror, and red salt on Jason's mouth where he crouched behind a chair near the piano. His mother had run in the room calling for him, or for his dad, and the gun had been turned on her, too. And then he didn't recall anything else. Not even the airplane ride home--to the place where the Chief had brought him to meet Mark, and a few months later, Tiny.

He didn't remember much Italian. "Non mi piaque," he remembered, and "no." Even in high school, he hadn't regained a sense of familiarity, only a sense that he'd heard it differently, that the dialect was all wrong for him. What they taught was Florentine, not Sicilian.

"We're almost here. Why Sicily?" Mark's voice still sounded snappish by the time it got from his headset to Jason's.

Jason squinted. "Why not?"

"You wanted a pizza?"

"Look, I didn't ask you to take me. I was fine on my own."

Mark sighed, and Jason's earphones picked up the static of it. "You wanted to drive there?"

"I have an ISO credit card and an ISO ID. I had reserved a seat on a commercial flight, and a hotel room, and a rental car. Official ISO business."

Mark made a choking sound. "Credit card fraud is one of the only reasons they can kick you out of the ISO."

Jason adjusted his microphone. "Take my wrist band and hand me a pink slip. It isn't fraud if I pay it off, at any rate. They can't do anything if I'm sincerely sorry, can they?"

"Like hell." Mark began descending, and Jason swallowed again. Not as hard as in the Phoenix--the slower descent helped, and here they didn't need to penetrate sea level.

Mark parked the plane in an ISO hangar and went with Jason to pick up the rental car. Jason drove to a hotel in the center of the city, and they checked in.


Lucky for computers, Jason thought. While Mark radioed the Chief that they'd arrived safely, Jason pulled out his map of Palermo. The Palermo Chamber of Commerce, or whatever the Italians called their equivalent, had a web site now, and the downloadable map had all the tourist traps he could have wanted. The map had directions from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to one other important place in the city.

"What is it about us that has us always staying in dumps?" Mark kicked the bed. The frame groaned.

"What do you expect for fifty thousand lire a night?" Jason grinned. "I had to upgrade the room, and that was all I figured I could spare. You didn't sound amenable to helping me pay it off."

The one window was covered by a room-darkening drape which seemed to darken the room only because of the dust caked in its folds. The easy chair in the corner looked as if someone's cigarette-smoking two-hundred-year-old grandfather had owned it first, and it smelled to match. The two beds were covered by drab bed spreads, and Jason amused himself by noticing that a full-sized mattress sat on a queen-sized box spring, at least on his side. They hadn't even been given a clock, but Jason had brought his clock radio tape player, and he plugged it into the lone outlet. "Do you think this night table will hold the lamp and the clock at the same time?" Mark didn't crack a smile, though.

Thanks to the computer, Jason thought again, genealogists had it lots easier. Type in a family name and find out who was buried where. Find the exact plot of anyone you wanted. For example, Giuseppe Assacura. Or Giorgio Ignazio Assacura, age eight.

Jason lay back on his bed and waited for Mark to do the same. Jet lag and three days without sleep followed by an international flight: Mark had to be tired. Jason closed his eyes momentarily and sighed. His arms and legs slackened into the mattress, and the lines around his eyes eased.

Mark, sitting in the corner chair, had his head thrown back. He breathed deeply. His black hair looked tousled, as though it hadn't finished drying before he'd replaced his helmet.

It was probably more dangerous for him to fly me dead tired than for me to go alone, Jason thought. He'd napped a little in the plane to catch up on sleep. Or at least, catch up on Mark.

The sun had started to set, and Mark didn't move as Jason pocketed his copy of the room key and slipped into the hall. He left the door ajar so the click of the lock wouldn't wake Mark.

He'd made it to the roof and transmuted to birdstyle without being caught, and he looked over the city to get his bearings. West, three miles, the highway--and he'd find the cemetery.

"You agreed," Mark said.

Jason didn't turn. "I agreed to let you bring me here. We're in Palermo, and I have something to do."

"Not alone."

"Don't follow me."

Jason could hear Mark reaching for his boomerang, and he touched his gun. Silence. He waited. The breeze rippled through the dark blue wings of his cape, fingering the paler lining, caressing his fingers resting lightly on the gun. He'd hear it when Mark moved.

Nothing. Mark waited him out.

Trained by the same man, Jason thought. Just as dangerous as I am. Be careful.

Mark said, "You're depressed again, aren't you? I brought your sertraline, you know."

Jason could hear the taunting smile on Mark's mouth. It distorted his voice.

"Why the hell," Jason said, "does everybody think I need to be drugged for disagreeing with their opinions?"

The wind whipped up momentarily, and Jason faced Mark. They looked at each other, each one thinking, He's tired. A nap on the Phoenix, an hour in the back seat of an ISO plane: it didn't erase three days' vigilance, didn't replace the strain of waiting to fight and the energy used in the struggle once it happened.

Jason drew his gun and fired. Mark leaped to the side, but he'd moved where Jason knew he'd go, and the dart caught his wrist--his bracelet--as Mark avoided it. Jason kept the gun levelled on Mark as he landed in civilian clothes. The wrist band skittered across the roof and glinted in the street lights.

"Don't follow me," he said. "Go downstairs and get some sleep. I'll be back before morning." And he jumped into the street.


The map had been accurate after all. Jason overleaped the wall at the cemetery, and he followed the markers to where the computer had told him he'd find the graves.

Catarina Assacura. Giuseppe Assacura. Giorgio, their son.

Jason stepped cautiously. Ten years later, and he'd finally seen his own tombstone, his parents' grave, and the end of his peace.

I forget sometimes, he thought, that I'm the only G-Force member to have seen his own death certificate.

He'd been shot--the Chief had told him that. He didn't remember any pain, just the taste of his father's blood.

And white marks on his stomach. Microsurgery hadn't stopped all the scarring.

Jason touched the stone. He could make out enough Italian to read birth and death dates. His own birthday--two days earlier than he'd thought. Not that it mattered. He read the words under the names, but he wasn't sure--a Bible verse? "And they shall fly with wings like eagles, run and not grow faint."

Jason stood, and he put his hands where his pockets should have been. He slouched a moment, then pulled himself up with a bemused smile. Trying to make a good impression?

Came all the way to Sicily. He rubbed his chin under the helmet. I should do something.

The wind whipped around him, and Jason straightened his legs, looked down at the grave. The streetlights gave no light this far into the trees and headstones, and overhead clouds had obliterated the stars. Old leaves rustled on their branches, and a mouse darted from one clump of grass to the next.

"Hi," Jason said. "Here I am, after ten years. I wanted to show you who I am now, what I've become."

Jason's eyes swept the graveyard, but he saw nothing more than the upright formations of grey-white tombstones standing at attention. He could barely see the dark blue edge of his cape as it fluttered in the wind.

"You made me what I am," he said. "I wouldn't be this person if you hadn't died--I'd be just another person waiting for his world to be saved, not one of the five out saving it."

A car beeped just outside the cemetery gates, and Jason glanced in its direction. The low bellies of the clouds pressed down, stifled the air, threatened rain.

"I'll avenge you," Jason said, walking away. "I'll see Galactor destroyed before I'm done."


Two AM, and Mark had waited up.

"Geez." Jason fell into bed. "And I thought the Chief had an obsession."

Mark folded his arms. "What the hell--"

"I'm back, already." Jason kicked off his shoes and struggled under the scratchy blankets. "Get some sleep. I've got plans for tomorrow."

"What's your problem?" Mark lunged forward and yanked the blankets back. Jason sat long enough to pull them up again.

"I'm really, really, really tired," Jason said. A low voice worked better than a shout sometimes. "That's my problem."

Jason closed his eyes and listened until Mark crossed the room to his own bed. Momentarily, the lights went out.

Jason counted to ten before saying, "And if you ever again suggest I need to be drugged into submission, I'll cut your throat while you sleep. Got it?"

Either Mark ignored him, or he'd already fallen unconscious. Soon Jason had as well.


"It was an early morning, yesterday. I was up before the dawn. And I really have enjoyed my stay, But I must be moving on."

Mark reached for the alarm before remembering he wasn't at home, and it was unlikely to be where he thought. Opening his eyes hurt, but it told him the time. 9:00.

"And I will go on shining, Shining like brand new. I'll never look behind me. My troubles will be few."

Mark sat up and looked for Jason, only Jason's bed was empty.

He gave a groan that might have solidified into a "damn it" had it been later in the morning.

"Goodbye, stranger, it's been nice..."

Mark reached for the clock radio on the night stand. "Funny." He snapped it off. "Really flaming hysterical."

His wrist band chirped at him, and he said, "Yeah?"

"Sweet devotion...is not for me...just give me motion...set me free..." The voice broke into laughter.

"Jason, you bastard--"

"Don't get all worked up. I'm downstairs. In the coffee shop. I'll treat you."

"On the illegal credit card?"

"You're so picky."

Mark dressed carefully. His head hurt still, and his shoulders ached.

Jason had the map of Palermo spread before him on the table. He already had a cup of coffee, and the waitress stood over him with the pot, pointing to various places on the map and speaking in slow, precise Sicilian.

"My Italian's coming back!" Jason said, beaming as Mark approached. "Un cafe per mi amigo, per piacere."

"The only dialect you speak is high school." Mark looked at the waitress. "You have pancakes?"

Jason placed the order as well as he could and then returned to the map. "I took out the rental car this morning and drove around Palermo before the traffic started. I hit a bunch of places marked as tourist traps, but nothing familiar."

Mark attended to his coffee, raising one eyebrow.

"I made a circuit of the city," Jason traced with his finger, "and then I criss crossed the business district. When the traffic began to build, that's when I returned."

Mark leaned over the map. "And?"

Jason squinted.

"What I'm asking is, what are we looking for?"

Jason shrugged. "Answers. That's all--I can't even begin to tell you. But I was raised here until my parents got killed, so whatever answers I need have to be here."

Mark put his head in his hands. "Of all the moronic--"

"It's not!" Jason quickly lowered his voice. "There's so much I don't know about myself. I don't remember a thing before the murders! You at least have some memories of your father, but I don't."

Their breakfast arrived then, and conversation ceased for a while.

Jason finally looked up. "The point is, I'm not as effective."

Mark struggled to swallow quickly. "How the hell effective do you want to be?" He rolled his eyes. "I'll go to the moon and put an apple on my head, and you can take aim with your eyes closed--"

"I almost hesitated yesterday," Jason said. "Or whenever it was--it feels so long ago--because I recognized the uniform. That's when I thought, I have to go home, to Palermo. I have to remember what happened."

Mark said nothing.

"Do you still think I need to be sedated?"

Mark put down his fork. "Quit that, okay? So it wasn't a fair remark. I'm sorry." He looked up to judge Jason's frame of mind. "Besides, I didn't say you needed the seconal, just the sertraline."

Jason snorted. "Antidepressants are for if you feel despondent when there's nothing wrong, but I think watching your parents get shot qualifies as something the matter. When they were prescribed three years ago, I didn't take them, and I still won't. I don't like training my body to react to drugs. It could be unhandy in this line of work."

They finished off their breakfast, and Jason paid the bill, tipping the waitress a little extra "per mio povero italiano." They headed to the rental car, but as Jason reached the driver's side, he tossed Mark the keys.

"What's that for?"

Jason slipped into the back seat. "I wouldn't have been driving as a kid, would I? Just cruise until I tell you to stop."

Mark pulled into traffic, hesitant at first, then forced into aggression by the Italian drivers. Jason watched, hanging over the front seat, looking first out one side and then the other. Eventually he moved into the seat behind Mark.

"Turn here," he said.

They went slowly because of the morning traffic, and Jason studied the architecture, the layout of the streets, the trees--things that might not have changed in ten years. He felt jarred by some of the store fronts, although he couldn't remember what belonged there instead.

"Turn left." Mark cut off two cars to do it, but he made the turn. Jason hardly noticed. He made a couple more directions, then said, "Park if you can."

Mark found a space a block away, and they got out, looking around.

"It looks like an art district," Mark said.

"This way." Jason closed his eyes for a moment. "I'd been here a lot in the past."

Leading the way, Jason walked briskly. They stopped before a building with a wide marble staircase.

"I think this is it."

"Great." Mark studied the columns, the cornice. "Now what?"

Jason ascended the steps. His eyes had trouble adjusting after the brightness outside, but he stepped to the left of the doorway. A sign-in book sat on a table. He signed in as Giuseppe Assacura.

Mark looked over his shoulder. "Is that wise?"

Again Jason led the way--up one flight of steps and into a large, fairly dark room. Fairly empty too, except for a few middle-aged gentlemen at brunch and the waitstaff. Jason sat at the table by the door.

A voice in his head: Behave yourself at the club, you hear?

Mark leaned across the table. "Where the hell are we?"

Jason shivered. His father's voice? He couldn't even remember what the man had sounded like. The words might well have been his, but the intonation was Anderson's. Behave yourself. You don't want to embarrass us.

A waiter came to them, a challenge in his eye. Jason glared up. "Due cafe." The high school Italian had gone from his voice: his words were someone else's as he spoke. Mark gaped at him. The waiter glared and went away.

Jason looked at the place set before him, fingered the knife. "Spectran officer's club."

Mark scanned the room. "You mean--everyone here?"

"I suppose." The waiter brought the coffee and then stalked off. "He's probably going to get someone to escort us to the right place."

"Like hell." Mark put sugar in his coffee and stirred endlessly. "How did you know to come here? What does this mean?"

"I've been here." Jason touched the table, knowing the underside had rusted legs and metal bars around the edges, and pins in the legs you could scrape your forehead on if you didn't duck. "It's eerie."

"The waitstaff is staring," Mark said as Jason rested his elbows on the table and stared into the coffee. "If you're going to have an epiphany, have it soon."

One of the officers was looking, too. Jason, from his angle, could see what Mark couldn't, and the man had stood. He met the man's gaze. Mark followed Jason's eyes to watch the man approach.

Luckily, Jason didn't need to rely on half-remembered Sicilian. "Excuse me," the gentleman said, "but you closely resemble a man I knew. May I ask your name?"

Jason said, "I'm Giuseppe Assacura's nephew. I'm looking for my uncle."

The man nodded. "I can tell--you look just like him. May I join you?"

As the officer pulled out a chair, Jason continued, "My father, Uncle Giuseppe's brother, sent me here to find him. My father found out he has terminal cancer, and he wants to make amends with my uncle before he dies. They haven't spoken to each other for over fifteen years. Some family thing."

The officer's laughter sounded like a bark. "You Italians! It was probably over a woman."

Jason smiled politely, and Mark did the same.

The waiter had returned with a gentleman in a black suit, but they stopped when they saw the man who had joined Mark and Jason. Mark frowned at them, and the officer turned. "They're with me--it's okay."

"Thank you," Jason said. "This was the only place left for me to check for Uncle Giuseppe. He's done a good job of hiding himself, if he still lives in Palermo." He watched the man's face intently. This man had known his father--had Jason known him? Had this man sat at their dining room table drinking coffee long into the night, slicing off bits of pastries and arguing with his parents about how the world ought to work? The face meant nothing to him, only hope.

"You can tell your father he'll be meeting Giuseppe soon," the officer said. "Giuseppe died ten years ago."

Blood on his mouth, on the mirrors.

Jason frowned. "What happened to Aunt Catarina?"

"She too, and their little boy. I think his name was Giorgio. Gunshot."

Jason slumped in his chair breathing hard. He saw his father with his chest blown open, and his mother running toward him. The coffee turned to blood in his mouth.

"Pardon me," Mark said, "but are you implying they were murdered?"

The man nodded. "Even the boy. Don't take it so hard," he said to Jason, who had his head in his hands. "It happened a while ago."

A while ago: the rose figure had turned, the gun in her hands, and had chuckled lowly. Giorgio hardly heard her over the ringing the gun had left in his ears. "Your father's blood is on you," she had said, aiming at him. "No one betrays Galactor."

And she'd squeezed the trigger.

"I'm sorry," Jason said. "It's just--did they catch the murderer?"

The officer leaned forward. "There wasn't an investigation. I suspect the orders came from higher up--and there weren't too many people higher up, either. His loyalty had come into question."

A mask, a costume--Giorgio had lifted the mask off and put it on himself, and he'd laughed and tugged his father's sleeves.

Mark looked at Jason's face--ash white. "What happened to call him into question?"

Jason ran his hands through his hair. "Did he get a better offer from the government?"

"I wondered that myself, but I think," the officer said, "that it was the boy- that they wanted better for their son than Spectra could give. There have been a lot of boys turned into efficient soldiers by Galactor, but they don't have a lot of time for mother's day cards and letters home. Like most Italian mothers, Catarina probably wanted to keep her son sheltered, and she probably convinced Giuseppe."

Giorgio had once run through the club with the other officers' sons, hiding under the tables, pulling napkins off laps and stealing shoes.

"That's crazy," Jason said. "Galactor couldn't possibly--"

"Look around," the officer said. "We're all single men--no children, and very few wives who haven't left. The women who stay end up joining themselves. It's not the kind of thing you can believe in and not devote all your energy to. The cause takes a lot out of you, and you can't devote energy to a life outside it. Even two people who met inside and believed in the same things couldn't make it work!"

Catarina had stood Giorgio on a chair and let him look out the window to see his father drive away.

"Having a high position and a lot of responsibility might have added to the strain," Mark said.

Giorgio had called, "There's Daddy!" from the bleachers. He'd stood on the bench and waved.

The officer shook his head. "Wanting the wrong things was what added to the strain. There's no strain if you have the right attitude and know what comes first in your life. Giuseppe was a good man, but shortsighted."

Mark saw Jason's unfocused eyes, the tension around his mouth, and kicked him under the table. Jason didn't respond. The officer had gotten to a stand. "I'm glad I found you before security did. You really are a dead ringer for your uncle."

"Thank you." Jason maintained an expressionless voice. Mark's eyes followed the officer until he'd returned to his own table.

"Should we go?"

Jason stood. "There's nothing left here."

Leaves drying between the covers of a thick hardcover book. Rhyming stories illustrated in bright colors. Cookie baking in the rain.

"Do you want me to drive?"

Jason startled--they had reached the car. "No," he said, fumbling with the passenger side door. "Just drive back to the hotel."

Mark glanced at Jason as he got in, noticing the shaking hold on the seat belt, the heavy tug to shut the door. He stood for a moment before crossing to the driver's side.

Building blocks, balloons, miniature cars, red sneakers, a smock, bag lunches. A plastic dolphin filled with sand. Train rides to a house in the mountains. Beatrix Potter placemats.

They reached the hotel room without either saying a word. Jason's eyes had tightened, and once Mark had opened the door, he went straight to his bed. Lying on his right side, staring at the wall, he curled his knees to his chest and waited.

Mark closed the door with a gentle click; he watched. Jason didn't move. At times he closed his eyes, but for the most part he stared at the wall as though looking through the images coming to him. And he remembered.

A puppy--he'd had a spaniel puppy named Luger. Dad's white handkerchief had been a little too big for small hands. The apple smell of Mom's shampoo reminded him of plastic bath toys, and that brought back a thirsty white towel Mom used for drying him off when he stood dripping and shivering on the red bath mat.

Mark had sat in the corner chair again, so he didn't see how Jason had locked his jaws, how his throat strained with the effort of not making a sound, how his eyes looked eighteen years into the past and didn't see the room, only all the things he hadn't seen before.

Dad in full uniform. Mom on the phone late at night giving orders as she got him ready for bed.

A hand on his shoulder--Mark. He didn't move. Mark said nothing. The muscles in Jason's stomach spasmed, but he didn't moan. His arms had locked to stop the trembling.

Mark moved away from him.

"Wait," Jason managed. "You said-- You brought--"

Mark moved around to crouch in front of him. "What do you want?"

Jason had to stammer to get out the word. "Seconal. Two of them. I can't- "

Mark went to his bag. His groping hand found the two medicine bottles--one antidepressants, the other sleeping pills. He poured out two of the latter, and he sat beside Jason as he downed them both.

It took half an hour for the legs to slide away from his chest, for the fists to unclench and the jaw to slacken. Mark touched Jason and found him asleep. He shut the overhead light and sat in the dimness of the reading lamp. The heavy drapes kept out the light and sound of early afternoon.

The wrist band felt warm under his fingertips as Mark sat in the corner. Jason hadn't moved for twenty minutes now, and the sharp breaths had yielded to deep even ones, though fast. "Jason?" he said, and again.

Mark pulled down the blankets on his bed. He got Jason's shoes off easily and carried him there, settling him in gently. Jason didn't clutch at the blankets or stir when Mark returned to the chair in the corner.

"This is G-1." His voice sounded too loud and too shaken to him, but Jason slept. The seconal had gone through him by now--he'd be in their grip for several hours. Sleep he needed desperately. Sleep Mark needed too, if only Jason didn't need it more.

"This is G-1," he said again. "Chief?"

He waited. Anderson might be at breakfast, at a meeting, in transit--Mark couldn't figure the time zones any longer--should he subtract ten hours, add them? Which day was today? Was it Anderson's day off after all?

He closed his eyes, wondering if Princess or Tiny would try to reach him even though he hadn't asked for them. Ten minutes. Jason turned over, and Mark began to find the one set of even breaths too hypnotic, too subversive. Jason would stay asleep. No need to guard him any longer.

"G-1?" His wristband chirped; so did Jason's. Jason didn't move. It was hard enough for Mark to respond.

Mark knew he sounded incoherent, but he did his best to relate everything that had happened. He awoke more as he talked. "And now he's sleeping. He asked for two of the seconal."

Anderson sounded official. "Don't give him that much again. He'll be able to handle it this time."

Nothing more.

Mark walked between the two beds and touched Jason's forehead. Warm. His breathing had slowed now.

"What should I do?" He whispered the question into his wrist band. "I've never seen anything--"

"Let him call the shots."

"He's more confused than I am!" Mark crossed the room and faced the wall. "Why didn't you tell him any of this? You knew it all, didn't you? You were coming here to get them anyhow, only Spectra got to them first, and all they'd left for you was a shot-up child!"

Anderson didn't reply.

"You're great at hiding all this stuff from us," Mark said. "My father, his parents--what other secrets do you have? Aren't we old enough to know?"

"I'm sorry," Anderson said. "I misjudged. I thought he'd never remember. It's been ten years now."

"He had a right," Mark said. "We all do."

Neither spoke for a moment. Finally Mark said, "I'm exhausted. I'll call again when I know more." And he cut the connection.

At first he intended just to sit on the empty bed, but then he found himself stretched out, and in the middle of wondering which day it was, Mark fell asleep.


"At night, when all the world's asleep, The questions run so deep for such a simple man. Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned. I know it sounds absurd..."

Mark heard the radio as if from a distance. He groped for the blankets he thought he must have kicked off and found himself lying on top of them.

"I'm sorry," Mark heard. "I didn't think you'd wake up."

Jason's voice sounded normal again. As Mark looked in vain for the clock, he realized Jason had pulled it near him under the blankets.

"What time is it?"

"About three. I didn't mean to wake you. You didn't wake up when I rewound the tape." The clock's numbers flashed at him as Jason turned the radio. He fumbled with a switch or two before the music silenced. "I want to go back home."

Mark pulled himself upright. "Are you okay?"

Jason chuckled. Mark looked aside.

"You know," Jason finally said, "I hadn't thought Spectra could take any more than they already had."

Mark pulled off his shoes and got beneath the covers. "Did they really?"

"I can't very well revenge myself on Galactor if they were only claiming their own."

"I don't know," Mark said. "Your father was willing to give up his cause for you."

"Am I supposed to be comforted?"

Mark closed his eyes and clutched his pillow. "My father gave up his son for his cause."

Silence. Then Jason put the clock back on the table. "I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too."

In the quiet, waiting for Jason to speak again, Mark fell back to sleep.


The two young men took their bags and left the hotel in the early morning. Jason tossed everything into the back seat of the rental car and drove them through Palermo with a distant look.

"Where are we going?" Mark studied the rapidly more sparse houses. "The airport's--"

"I wanted to show you something before we left." Jason shrugged. "The plane will wait."

Inside the gate to the cemetery, Jason turned left and idled up to a clump of trees. They walked the rest of the way up the hill, and there Jason pointed out the graves.

Mark ran his hand over the stone.

"Giorgio Assacura," Jason said, "died the same day they did."

Mark waited for Jason to say something or make some final gesture, but he only returned to the car. Mark gave one last look, and then he too departed.



"Goodbye Stranger" and "The Logical Song" copyright 1979 Almo Music Corp. and Delicate Music (ASCAP), used without permission although one hopes the copyright holders don't mind terribly.


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