Chapter 1 – The Call

It rang three times before she picked it up.  For those few moments, Jason paid close attention to his feelings. He put his hands flat on the small counter, looking at the display screen without blinking. After a moment, the grey-green numbers started to blur.  This was possibly the most important part, he told himself.  Talking to her again would tell him everything he needed to know.  He needed to pay attention.  He’d thought about recording the call – it wouldn’t be the first time – but in this case, he knew his first reactions would most likely be right.  There would be no point in going over a recording of this call.  He made a mental note of his own emotional state, took a deep breath, and then let it out when he heard the click.

He had been worried that she wouldn’t answer.  Her screen wouldn’t list the incoming call as being from a public comm point, but if she didn’t recognize the number, she may ignore it.  But she got plenty of calls from friends of hers, from all over campus- dead screen batteries, minor emergencies involving drinking, someone new to the school getting behind on work and calling the nice graduate student they’d met the day before.

Her voice was chipper and relaxed.  She’d been working and studying hard, but she was passionate about the subject.  It was never work for her, and it was (almost) never stressful.  She was slightly out-of-breath; probably had the screen on its charger, and had to cross the room in a hurry to get it.

STOP IT, he commanded himself.  There’s no need to analyze any more.

“Hello?” she’d said.  He paused a moment, as he always had.

“Well, well.  How are you?” he said.  His voice was exactly as it had been last time.  But a public comm point wouldn’t have the best quality of sound, and he’d turned the visual off.  She didn’t recognize him.

“Who is this?” she asked.  Mild impatience.  She thought it was a classmate or coworker playing a prank of some sort.

“Who do you think it is?” he asked, gently.  It amused him- it had been a long time since she didn’t recognize his voice.

“Stop it- who is it?” The impatience grew.  She had a lot of work to do.  He’d have to make the call short.

“You know very well who I am.” He paused for a moment.  “You almost got away from me, didn’t you?”

“Oh, my God…” the impatience had disappeared.  “You- you can’t be.  You can’t be!”

And there it was, plain as sunrise.  The old frustration, the exasperation that she used to speak with was completely gone.  Terror now dominated her voice.

A part of him had still hoped she’d react differently.  That part would take a long time to go away completely, but he knew it would.  It would just take time, and he had plenty.  He took another breath, and let his voice change again.  The tone he used to reserve for her would be abandoned now, and he’d speak to her just as he spoke to everyone.  He hoped she’d recognize that.

“That’s how I thought you’d react.  Alex, please don’t disconnect.  After this call, you won’t hear from me again.  You won’t see me again.”  Another pause, to give her a chance to understand what he was saying.  He had to take this slowly.  “When have I ever said that to you?”

She was silent for a moment.  “What do you want?”  Her voice was guarded, still shaken, but she was curious now.  He’d certainly gotten her attention.

He spoke slowly. “I’m calling to say goodbye.  I didn’t say it last time we saw each other, because I didn’t believe it would be the last time I saw you.”  He shifted his feet, straightening up a little even though the display was dark.  “You know, it only took me three weeks to find you here.  Your friends at Witness Protection didn’t do a very good job.  Next time you need to relocate, you should keep your father from preparing your new home directly.”

He gave her a chance to speak, but she was silent.  He could hear her breathing, so she was still there.  He continued.

“It took a lot of work to make sure you wouldn’t spot me, though.  Watching you without getting busted was quite a trick.  I had thought about writing you a letter, but I’m sure they’ve told you not to open them at all, haven’t they?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Are they listening to this call?  Are they on their way to this pay-phone?  I didn’t hear the beep of a panic-call from your screen.  I’m sure they’ve still got a response system in place.  Did you alert them?  I can make their job easier- I’m at a public point, in the connector between the primary Dome and the Beanstalk.  Black pants and blue shirt.  I hope they give me enough time to talk to you, though.  I really want you to know why I’m saying goodbye.  It’s important, and I think you’ll agree.”

She paused, then said, “Hold on-“ after another moment, he heard a quiet, high-pitched ‘beep’.

His eyebrows rose.  “You cancelled the alert.”

She didn’t answer.  This conversation was certainly turning out to be different.  Well, it would only get more so from here.  He took a deep breath before continuing.

“I watched you for 8 months, Alex.  Not all the time, but enough to know your routine, even though you tried hard not to stick to one.  You’re just too methodical, too schedule-oriented.  But you’re smart enough to devise such a complicated schedule that it looks like chaos.  You’ve been putting a lot of effort into it.

“But what I’ve noticed most is how happy you’ve been.  I noticed it right away. I can’t say it’s surprising – working for SRD and doctorate work at Atlantis Medical? I remember you talking about this sort of thing when you were picking classes in high school.” He paused.  “You’ve been lit up inside in a way I’ve never seen you. I thought it was your work, how far you’ve come. But it wasn’t just that… it was that you thought you were free of me, wasn’t it?”

It took her a long time to say “yes,” and he let her take her time.

“Don’t be afraid to say it, Alex.  I’ve been trying to make you this happy ever since we started dating, you know?  That’s all I really wanted from us, and when I was following you, I kept thinking that if I could just arrange the right moment, the right accidental meeting, that you’d give me another chance.  But it would have happened by now, don’t you think?”

“Yes.”  This time didn’t take so long, he thought.  Her confidence is returning.  Good.

“It’s more important to me that you be happy, than for us to be together.  I was crazy about you, but not so crazy that I wanted us to be together even if you didn’t want to be.  I had always nurtured this hope that somewhere, inside of you, some part of you wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with you.  School was taking a lot of your time, your work was so important, and you had so much to do in your life that you just thought there wasn’t time for me- but I had always hoped that part of you would make the rest of you see that we could still have been together.”

“For the last three months, I’ve been staying completely away from you.  It wasn’t easy being on the same campus as you – even on Atlantis.  But instead of spending all my time thinking about where you were, or what you were doing, or how I’d catch a glimpse of you the next day, I’ve been doing things for me for the first time in a long time.  I know,” he said, smiling, “that’s what you’ve been telling me to do for years.  I guess I had to come to that place on my own.”

He heard her snicker.  After another pause, he continued.

“I know now that you have what you need without me, and you’ve been happier in the knowledge that I wasn’t following you around.  That fear of me could finally leave you.”

“Then why are you calling me tonight?”  Her fear was almost gone from her voice now.  Her voice held a challenge to him now, and it had been a long time since she’d spoken that way.  Again, good.

“Because I want you to know- not hope, not think, not believe, but know- that I’m not out there watching you.  I want you to leave behind the habit of looking over your shoulder for me, of scanning a crowd to see if anyone is watching from behind sunglasses or around a corner.  It’s a hard habit to break, but maybe I can help.  I want you to know that you’ve helped me get past this thing.  I’m off to find out who I really am, instead of always seeing myself as a part of your life.  I needed to see you the way you are now before I could really go- before I could really let go.”

He took another deep breath.  “I’m taking a job on the Mars colony.  I’ll be leaving in a couple days here.  I can’t think of any reason we’d run into each other in the meantime.  My new job means some travel, but I have a little control over that.  I used to spend a lot of time arranging accidental encounters, but from here on out, if you bump into me, it’s your fault.”  He chuckled a little at that thought.  “So- good luck with your doctorate, and with SRD… and take care of yourself.  Goodbye, Alex.”

As he tapped the display to disconnect, he thought he heard her start saying goodbye.  He hadn’t expected her to- she’d said it enough times before.  It was his turn.

*****

Alexandra stared at her screen for a long time after the call disconnected. Finally she set it back down on the charger stand. Hearing from Jason had shocked her, and she knew it would take some time for her heart to slow back down. The old panic had risen up in her chest so fast, it had almost made her faint.  She crossed the room to her couch, easing herself down into the cushions and letting her head fall backward until it rested on the padded backrest. This was her most comfortable spot for thinking, head tilted backward, eyes shut, breathing slowly and deliberately – but now, the familiarity of this seat was just beginning to soothe her nerves.

It was the view she had from here that had sold her on this living unit. It was in the colony’s primary dome, and through the skylights in her ceiling she could look straight up through the curved crystal/glass and out into space. The colony oriented itself to point the dome at the sun, and at that moment was just orbiting out of Earth’s shadow, creating the colony’s equivalent of a sunrise.  Without an atmosphere to scatter the sun’s rays, it would never look like it did planet-side, but the heavy filtration of the dome had it’s own prismatic effect.

Jason Anderson, the one person who had never failed to find her, no matter how hard she and her father tried to cover her tracks.  And he’d been watching her for eight months.

Eight months. Her mind replayed their conversation, picking it apart as it went. For the last three months, I’ve been staying completely away from you. That was before Samara had been transferred out to the Sirius Project.

Exiled is a better word for it, she thought bitterly. One day, her best friend had been planning a birthday party, the next she was on a long-range shuttle for Sirius.

Three months. He wouldn’t have seen anything she’d been doing since Samara had gone, any of the preparations she’d been working so hard on.

Damn it, Jason… you might have ruined everything.

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