The nightmare just kept getting worse.
Weren't you supposed to be able to wake up from nightmares? As terrifying as they were, and as long as the effects of them could linger at times, weren't you supposed to be able to wake from them?
All Jon wanted to do was to wake up.
The destruction of the base had been the beginning. The fear when he'd realized she was there by herself, the terror he'd felt when she'd insisted on following backup procedures. And it had only gotten worse.
And then she'd been gone.
Somehow, they'd gotten to the rendezvous point. They'd found the extra suits, the backup for Mentor. She'd managed to get the things they'd need most to them – everything except her. Jon still didn't remember how they'd gotten to the Passages after that. The next thing he'd remembered was sitting in the jumpship in the hangar there. He had no idea how long he'd stayed there, simply staring at her empty chair. He hadn't physically been able to move. All will to do anything had completely left him. A quiet part of him recognized the grief from when his parents had died…but this was even worse than he remembered from those early days. She was gone. He'd never get to tease her again, laugh with her again…talk to her again. He'd never get a chance to tell her how he felt. She'd never know that someone felt for her as strongly as she had for him. She'd never been given the chance to hear someone tell her they loved her, and now she never would. All because he couldn't get up the courage.
He remembered Matt trying to get him to leave the jumpship, trying to get him to rest or eat. He had eventually given up and sat with Jon for a while, talking at him quietly about situation reports and offers of help from the people at the Passages. It had all been a faint buzzing in his ears – he knew it was there, much like a mosquito, but he didn't have the strength to even swat it away. Matt had finally left him there in the jumpship, but Jon had been vaguely aware that a member of the team had stayed either in or directly outside the ship the entire time he'd closeted himself in there. Sometimes they tried to draw him out, but mostly they'd just let him be. He'd stayed there for almost two entire days, until the buzzing became louder and he realized that it was Scout's voice arguing with Tank and Matt.
"If there's a chance, we have to take it!" he yelled "If Dougherty was right, and that's the sound that came through at the end of the transmission was –"
"Rob, none of us want to believe she's gone, but we have to face it –"
"And if she's not? If she's trapped in that damn machine? You're going to just leave here there? She'd never leave any of us – ever. She'd fight until she was sure there wasn't a chance –"
"What chance is there? We watched it happen!" Matt was yelling back now. "There wasn't time –"
"We were all focused in on her. We couldn't even see Blastarr from where we were. What if we missed it? What if we were so caught up in our own panic and grief that we missed it? The recording is there – an 80% chance that it was a digitizer firing up as she was talking to us. There were so many flashes, why couldn't one of them have been the beam –"
"You've seen Jon," Matt almost snarled. "Do you know what this would do to him? If he thought there was a chance and then we were wrong? It'd kill him. I don't know about you, but I can't handle losing another team member right now!"
Jon was aware that Tank's voice, firm but calm, had broken in and was trying to reason with his two emotional teammates. But he was fixated on bits and pieces that Scout had said.
Was there really a chance?
Suddenly, he'd been able to move again. He'd appeared at the hatch of the ship, demanding a report. Matt had stalked away, furious, but Scout, desperate to believe that his friend wasn't gone, had filled him in on how one of the techs there had picked up the last transmission from the base…and how he had heard the sound none of the rest of them had because they'd been facing the idea of losing one of their own. Once Scout's report was done, they all looked at him, waiting to see what he'd do. He'd done the only thing he could have – he ordered them to leave immediately, to go back to Colorado.
And he'd held his breath almost the entire way. If he breathed too much, he knew he'd get too hopeful. And Matt was right – he couldn't handle being wrong. It was everything he could do just to function now…if he had to go back down into the pit he'd been in, he was certain he'd never come out.
But luck…or fate…or some kind of god had smiled down on him, he'd thought. They'd arrived at what had been their base – their home. It was the only home she'd ever known, and it was unrecognizable. But they'd picked up the biodread's homing beacon, and they had uncovered the digitizing unit just before Dread's forces had arrived, probably on the same kind of mission. The team had had to shoot their way out, but they'd made it. They'd brought the unit back to the passages and allowed Dougherty to examine it. Then the answer they'd been waiting for – the digitizer had been activated seconds before the biodread had been destroyed.
There was a complete pattern there, but it was caught in a loop, not having been completely processed before Blastarr had been destroyed. No one knew what that would mean. No one knew what kind of shape the pattern would be in when it was reintegrated. And the techs at the Passages only had a limited knowledge of the reintegration procedure, anyway. The team had to make a decision. As Jennifer's family, they were the ones who had to decide whether or not to risk reintegration. It wasn't really a hard decision – she'd told them enough about her life in the Youth to know that being trapped in there would be a fate worse than death for her. Scout had been right – she never would have stopped fighting if she'd have known that was one of their fates. They made the decision to try reintegration…and held their breath. The first word they'd gotten had been from the techs as they exited to give the doctors room to work. "She's there, Captain. She's there…but she's in bad shape. They're fighting for her now."
So they waited. And they waited. The first nurse brought out her Powersuit…it had survived the reintegration process intact. When he saw the amount of damage, he'd all but collapsed into a chair there in the hallway. The four of them never left the hall outside the operating room during the long hours the doctors fought to keep her alive. They received updates sporadically – that she was alive and seemed to be fighting, that the damage was worse than they'd expected. Once, a nurse came out simply to tell them that it would be a while longer. Afterwards, Jon would wonder if they really had worn paths in the floor while they alternated pacing with slumping in the uncomfortable chairs in the waiting area.
Finally, the doctor in charge had emerged to talk to them. He told them how she'd fought – how they'd almost lost her several times, but she'd held on. "That's our girl," Matt had whispered.
"She's alive, Captain. She shouldn't be, to be completely honest. But she's there. The next few days will tell. We're going to put her in the regenerator for as long as it's safe, and then we'll have to wait and see."
So the nightmare had gone on as they'd continued to wait. The others made repairs to the jumpship – Jennifer would want it in top shape when she woke up, they'd said. One of them came by every hour to check in on her condition, and on their captain since Jon had stayed in the medical ward. He refused to leave. He'd tinkered with her suit, but he needed more advanced tools to really repair it. He couldn't find anything else to occupy his time…so he'd spent most of his time staring at the door he knew she was behind. When it was no longer certain that remaining in the regenerator was helping her, they'd removed her. Jon hadn't been prepared for how small, how frail she'd looked under the sheet there on the bed. She was without a doubt one of the strongest people he knew. He almost didn't recognize her. Many of the superficial wounds had been healed in the regenerator, but she was surrounded by monitors and sensors – it was clear that she wasn't out of the woods yet.
It wasn't long after that that she'd shown the first signs of consciousness. Her hand would twitch in his, or she'd moan slightly. When she finally did, he'd come close to falling apart again. It had been in the evening, and the other three had just left the room. He wondered, afterwards, if their quiet conversation had been what had pulled her back to them. She'd moaned again, and stirred, and actually opened her eyes. She'd seemed confused at first.
"Hey there," he'd managed quietly around the lump in his throat. He knew his eyes were swimming with tears, but he smiled at her, leaned in close and brushed the hair back from her face. "I was hoping you'd come back soon."
"Jon?" she'd whispered feebly.
"Shhh…don't try to talk. You need to rest. I'm right here."
He didn't want to go into details about what had happened. "You've been out for a while…you were in pretty bad shape."
She'd closed her eyes again, and he thought she was fading back out. "Blastarr?" she'd whispered. She wasn't fading out, he realized then – she'd been trying to think, to remember what had happened.
"You took care of him," he assured her. "He didn't get anything."
She'd nodded slightly, and her eyes fluttered open again. "How…?"
He took a deep breath – he wasn't sure what she'd remember. Athena Samuels had remembered being digitized. The haunted look in her eyes when she'd spoken of her experience had been in the back of Jon's mind ever since they'd realized what had happened to Jennifer. What would she remember? "You were digitized at almost the same second the base exploded." Her eyes widened, but she stayed quiet. "You were caught mid-stream…it did a decent amount of damage. And you were in rough shape to begin with. The doctors weren't sure you were going to make it at all. We knew you wouldn't give up, though." He continued to stroke her hair. "I'm so glad you didn't give up," he whispered, nearly losing control of his emotions. She tried to move – to comfort him? - but gave up and moaned instead.
"Shh…they don't have enough medication right now to keep you sedated, so they made me promise to make you stay still when you woke up," he said. "I need to get the doctors, let them know you're awake." But she tightened her hand where he'd been holding it.
"Don't….don't go," she whispered.
He smiled at her again, held her hand tightly and kissed it. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm just going to poke my head out the door and get the nurse's attention, and then I'll be right back here. The doctors wanted to examine you once you woke up."
For a little while, he thought he was finally waking up from the nightmare. Someone had gathered the others for him, and they'd all spent a few minutes in her room drinking in the fact that she was still with him before they left to get some rest. Jon had dozed on and off in the chair there in her room, holding Jennifer's hand, and waking each time she had stirred or a nurse had come in to check on her. The next day or two were a blur. He spent almost all of it in the chair by her bed, holding her hand. He left only for a few hours when the doctors decided that she needed another bout in the regenerator, and he collapsed into an empty bed. After that, Jennifer drifted in and out of consciousness, but began to be alert for longer periods of time. They filled her in on bits and pieces of what had happened since the explosion at the base, what they'd been doing while they waited for her to regain consciousness – anything to keep her mind off the pain she experienced between doses of medication. The doctors were doing what they could, but her injuries were so severe that most of them were still amazed that she was alive. But she was alive and talking with them, albeit for short spans. The team started to breathe again. They began to discuss their next moves – where would they go? They needed to establish a new base. Scout was working on boosting the computers in the jumpship to handle Mentor's full programming, but there was still some work to be done. They tried to adjust to this new normal.
But three days after she'd woken up, things had started to change. Jennifer seemed to be in more pain than she had been before. Sometime during the third night, Jon had realized that the nurses were hovering around a specific monitor every time they came in. And the longer they stayed at the monitor, the less time passed between their visits. He wasn't sure what the monitor was, but he had started to get nervous. Jennifer woke again around dawn. She had been smiling weakly as Jon had told her about Scout's latest escapades with a pretty technician when the doctor had come in on his morning rounds. He'd greeted them both with a smile, commented on how they both looked like they could use a little more sleep, and then consulted the computer panel that held the nurse's observations for the night. He went back and forth from it to the same monitor for several minutes, double-checking the log on the machine. The silence in the room had pressed in on Jon until he had to stop himself from covering his ears. Something was wrong. But the doctor had excused himself, saying he needed to check in with the nurses and a few of his other patients. Jon settled himself back in the chair and tried to continue to distract Jennifer, but he was glad when Hawk, Scout, and Tank had entered the room. They took over the teasing and joking while he stared at the door, wondering when the doctor would be coming back in to explain what was going on.
He didn't have to wait long. A nurse had come in not long afterwards and explained that Jennifer needed yet another turn in the regenerator. Jon tried to rest, but unlike the last time, he couldn't fall asleep despite the fact that he was exhausted. When they brought Jennifer back to the room, she was asleep again, so he'd left the room to give the nurses the space they needed to get her settled again. The others joined him, having heard she was back. But as they walked down the hall towards the mess hall, convincing Jon that he needed to keep his strength up for her, one of the doctors was waiting for them. And the nightmare kicked back into full gear.
"Captain, I need to speak with you about Corporal Chase's condition."