What scared Jack the most, was that he couldn’t figure out what he didn’t remember.
After three days, he was at the point where he understood most of what was said to him, and could usually respond in kind. But too often, halfway through his sentence, he would grasp for a word that just wasn’t there. He would have no inkling that the word was missing until it wouldn’t come, and then he would have to sidestep it until his conversation partner (which varied over the course of the day) could figure him out and supply it.
The same happened even more frequently when Jack tried to read. The most basic words, what Anne called ‘sight words,’ came effortlessly, but then he would come to a word that he had no recollection of at all. He’d have to sound it out, like a small child, like it was meaningless gibberish, and then relearn its meaning. And the next time he saw it, and the time after that, he might have to repeat the process before it stuck with him. It was humiliating.
To his surprise, both Anne and Kat had limitless patience with him. Most of his waking hours were spent with one of the two of them. He talked as best he could about a variety of subjects; he read school-aged primers and named pictures shown to him.
Anne had made her interest clear early on; he was a unique medical case. “Loss of ability and memory due to brain damage has been studied in many patients,” she had explained, “but before now, the patient always had a damaged brain to go along with it. Thanks to your powers, Jack, your brain is completely healthy – a physically perfect specimen.”
“My brain grew back, but without any of my knowledge in it,” he had said.
“Yes. The powers can draw from your natural healing processes and your genetic blueprints, but the particular configurations of neurons that made up your memories and skills in the region or your brain that was destroyed are just gone.” Her look had been sympathetic, but excited. “But since your brain is completely intact, there is no reason you can’t relearn everything you’ve lost. The hardware is all still there. We just have to fill the software and data back in.”
Anne invested hours of every day helping him do just that. She also seemed constantly surprised by which skills he retained and which he lost; for example, he was immediately able to walk without trouble, but he had no reflexes for catching a thrown object. He had trouble holding a glass to his lips, but no problem feeding himself with a spoon. The joy of discovery continued to show in her even as he quickly mastered many of these basic living skills; according to Anne, he was moving through months of childhood development in a matter of a few days.
Kat was his other consistent companion, and her interest was more personal. She helped him explore the limits of his memory, diving into his childhood and his missions as a superhero (his identity was no secret here). His recall of people from his past was particularly poor. He could recall times spent with his Mom and Dad growing up, but when Kat first said their names and then later when he was shown pictures of them, he didn’t recognize who they were. Members of the US Super Team were the same, although once he was given the names and faces, he was quick to slot them in to memories of important events.
For Kat, much of the focus was in recapturing the emotions he paired with events and people. She was constantly asking him how he felt, helping him name his elation or embarrassment or anger. The time spent alone with her was intense, and she made no secret that she was attracted to him as he found himself growing quickly fond of her.
The living conditions were comfortable, if by no means luxurious. He missed the sunlight; the area where his bed and facilities were located was obviously deep underground, all the light provided by fluorescents and lamps strategically placed. He asked Anne about it, and she assured him she would look into getting him ‘a visit upstairs.’
Jack saw Doctor Stevens a handful of times, and each time only briefly. The old man’s physical frailty was obvious, especially compared with Jack’s own flawless physique. But Doc (as he insisted on being called) exhibited an acute mind that always gave Jack pause. He knew there was a reason he should be very wary of the man, but nobody else brought it up and Jack wasn’t sure how to do so.
Doc’s main reason for visiting seemed to be to confirm that he wanted to leave. Certainly Jack understood that the Stevens Research Lab was one of the few places in the world equipped to understand condition and help him recover from it? But Jack remained quite adamant: he wanted to go home, to Washington, DC and his friends and his life there.
His fifth day at the facility, while sitting across from Kat at the small table in his quarters and sipping a cup of coffee, Jack received another visit from Doctor Stevens. Two other men accompanied the doctor; he had seen them only once before, when he first woke up dazed and bewildered in Doc’s lab. They were introduced as Frank and Kyle. Kat quickly gave up her chair to Stevens but made no move to leave the room, standing near the two young men as the doctor began to speak.
“Jack, please,” he quickly interrupted. So far he had corrected the Doc the same way each time they spoke.
“Jack, then,” Stevens rasped. “As you’ve requested, we’re making arrangements to get you back to the States.”
Jack perked up at this, but he caught a movement from Kat. Her mouth was neutral, but when he looked her way, he saw a frown line in her forehead that meant she was concealing her disappointment. He turned his attention back to Stevens. “That’s good news. When do I need to be ready to go?”
“Late tomorrow, provided there aren’t any further complications,” the Doc replied. “But before we send you off, I’d like to talk to you about our situation here and make an important request.”
Doc waited to get Jack’s nod, and then continued. “We are in a precarious situation here. The research we do is often looked upon poorly by the rest of the world. The US government especially looks for opportunities to condemn us. I have no doubt that if they knew of our involvement with you here, Jack, they’d say we kidnapped and /tôrCHərd/ you.”
Jack cocked his head and glanced back at Kat again. “I’m sorry. Kidnapped and… what?”
“/tôrCHərd/ you. /tôrCHər/?”
When he shook his head again, Kat stepped up, typing the word on her tablet. “/tôrCHər/, T-O-R-T-U-R-E. Inflicting pain as punishment or to extract information.” She showed him the word, and his mouth moved has he repeated it to himself, working to commit it to memory.
“Thank you,” Jack asked, then turned his attention back to the doctor. “Why would they think I had been… tortured? You’ve treated me with nothing but kindness since I woke up.” He gave a two-handed gesture to designate his quarters. “Food, company, regular check-ups to make sure I’m okay.”
Stevens shrugged. “I just want you to understand that our involvement in your situation would cause us problems.”
Jack nodded. “When I arrive in the States, you’d like me to keep it a…” he swallowed. “… a…”
“A secret,” the Doc supplied.
Jack took a breath and tried again. “You’d like me to keep your involvement a secret. Not tell them where I’ve been all this time.”
“We’ve arranged a convincing cover for you,” Stevens said. “A paper trail, and even fake medical charts. Everything will show you were shipped from Ottawa directly back to the States and treated there, slowly recovering from total amnesia.”
“People will really buy that?” Jack asked. “I was a corpse when I left Canada.”
“Super powers are poorly understood. Quite a bit gets chalked up to ‘unexpected effects.'”
“Something your Agency has used as a convenient excuse more than once,” Kat added.
Jack swirled the remaining coffee in his cup and sighed. He looked up at Kat again, and she met his eyes. Leaving here meant leaving her… but he knew he had to get back to the person he was before.
He squared his shoulders as he addressed the Doctor. “Tomorrow, then. And make sure to provide me enough about my cover to keep it straight.”
“Thanks, Jack,” the old man said, briefly laying a hand on his arm as he rose to leave. “We appreciate your cooperation.”
Kyle helped the Doc up, but Frank lingered a minute while they left. The man wore the more revealing clothing that Kat said was appropriate for supers in Eutopia. His crisp, youthful features and darker skin made Jack mentally pair him with Kat – both attractive young people comfortable in their own skin.
“We will leave at sunset tomorrow evening,” he said without preamble. “Take a calming pill before the flight. Do you have fear of heights?”
“I… don’t think so,” was the best Jack could do.
“People find flying under my powers to be disorienting. I recommend trying to sleep on the flight.” He got a nod and took his leave.
As the door closed behind Frank, Kat slid back into her seat and refilled both of their cups. Jack added cream and took a sip. He liked coffee because the smell connected him to memories of his past. Coffee was familiar, and anything that could provide the comfort of a routine, however illusory, was welcome.
“We have talked about what you would have here,” Kat began. It wasn’t a new topic. “Look at Bonnie. Or Frank! We’re gods among men here.” She looked into her cup. “What are you back there?”
“Part of a team.” He hardly needed to remind her; she had helped him reclaim many memories: of purging poison from Greenery; of protecting Peregrin against Bloodphage; of saving the Dreamer from lethal wounds.
“A team that has grieved you and moved on.” She slowly moved a finger from her coffee mug to her chin, then up to trace her lips. She caught his eyes as they followed the motion. “The research here is going to save tens of millions of lives. Doctor Stevens says your abilities could cut years off.”
Jack looked at her, and she smiled back, her eyes imploring. But soon he looked away and shook his head. “I… Kat, I really am grateful to have met you here. And I don’t know that I can explain it. But I have a full life already, and I want to return to it.”
As Jack turned to meet her eyes again, he found that she had moved out of the chair and over next to him. Her eyes shined with the beginnings of tears, but her mouth was screwed up into an irreverent expression. “Then I guess tonight…” she moved her arms around him, leaning into him, “… is all we have.”
Kat guided him to the bed when their kiss finally broke, and were both delighted to discover another area in which Jack’s skills had remained intact.
It was just after sunset when the plane departed, carrying its two crew and its supercargo of one. Frank’s warning of the previous day was well-given when the entire vehicle vanished from Jack’s sight, leaving him floating in an inky blackness. He closed his eyes and appreciated that his other senses told a different tale; he could feel his seat and straps around him and hear the quiet hum of the plane in operation.
It was after midnight when they landed in an isolated pasture somewhere in western Maryland. As scary and surprising as the flight had been, the walk to the hospital wasn’t much better. The two black-clad men held his hands on either side as they found their way onto a country road and then eventually to a secluded private treatment center nearby, but Jack had to make the entire trip without the ability to see his body. He didn’t even lose sight when closing his eyelids.
Worse, throughout the trip, he would occasionally find that his vantage point had changed between one step and the next. This almost certainly involved another power, but he was too concerned about breaking their stealth to try and ask.
Within an hour of landing, Jack found himself staring up at the side of an imposing four-story structure, and a moment later, he found himself standing inside a dark and empty patient room. Frank and Kyle appeared (as did his own body) and helped him change into a patient gown, configure the bed and the room’s monitoring equipment, and finally unlock and open the room’s door. With a final nod and wave, the pair vanished again.
Jack expected concerned nurses to discover him at any moment, and so was surprised that during the rest of the night (in which he was too excited to sleep), a woman in scrubs glanced briefly into the room on two occasions, but otherwise he received no visitors. It was around 7 am, with the shift change, that pandemonium began.
Fortunately for Jack’s nervousness about his cover story, he was seldom addressed directly. Instead, doctors, nurses, aids, and administrators all talked about him to each other. While a few hold-outs insisted they didn’t remember him, most trusted the medical records that Jack had been there for some time.
It was early afternoon that familiar faces began appearing: his super teammates, although in anonymous civilian garb. Jack maintained the pretence of only grudgingly recognizing each of them, but was enthusiastically led to quickly remember.
The real shock came when a remarkably pretty woman with long, dark hair bustled in, her arms full of the most beautiful baby girl he had ever seen. The woman took one look at him, exclaimed, “Jack! It’s true!” and rushed to the side of his bed. She couldn’t seem to decide whether to crush him herself or let the baby do it for her.
Jack was overwhelmed by their attention, but genuinely confused as to who they were. Neither the woman nor the baby triggered any memories at all, and neither image had appeared in Kat’s daily quizzes. Still, the way the woman laid into him with kisses, cooing to the child about ‘Daddy’ being home, he soon was able to unravel the terrible truth.
It was a testament to his quick thinking and acting skills that the reunion of Mr. and Mrs. Jacque and Danielle Guillaume was not marred by his initial ignorance. Even as Jack subtly probed to learn the names of his young baby girl, and the boy toddler his mother presented moments later, he silently pledged to himself that no one would ever know the extent of what he had forgotten.
He realized why, on some level, he had been so insistent to come home, despite the appealing life he might have lived in Eutopia. He had a remarkable family, with a loving and dedicated wife.
His first priority was to fall in love with her again.