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Christy watched McQueen exit the bar, and slumped back in her
seat. Whew! I thought I was gonna get it.
What for, you didnt do anything, Cooper told her.
I know, but everyones acting like I did.
Mark said, Youre just embarrassed, Christy. Look, I can understand how you wouldnt want to say anything in front of Crazy Judy, or worse yet the Colonel, but if you want us to go convince those guys to leave you the hell alone, believe me they wont bother you any more.
What am I, everybodys baby sister this week?
Mark laughed. I already told you, I always wanted a sister, so Im gonna adopt you. You dont have anything to say about it.
She smiled. Cooper could see the same closeness between Christy and Mark that existed among the Wild Cards. Cooper was often confused by those emotions, afraid hed make a wrong step in a minefield and hurt someones feelings...just as he had with Shane yesterday. But Christy seemed so confident and self-assured. She said, I dont want you guys to get in a fight with those idiots. Nothing happened. If you start something, itll just look bad on us. Besides, if you got hurt, it would be my fault, and Coop already has a sore hand.
Insulted, Coop said, We wouldnt be the ones getting hurt.
Oh, Jesus Christ, I am *not* going to get into a discussion about who can whup, she said. She took a swallow of her cooler. Now maybe you guys can explain to me what the Colonel was talking about.
Cooper said, Lets just say...I know a few dirty tricks. I cant get into where I learned them, but its stuff thatll get you out of jams like that.
What are you, some kind of a ninja?
Not exactly, but something like that, okay? Cooper answered very quietly, looking around the bar to see if anyone was near enough to overhear their conversation.
Youre serious. Okay, I just wont ask. But I dont know what you guys are thinking. Ive been in the gym while you and the Colonel were sparring a few times, Ill never be that good!
Look, thats exactly what he was talking about, okay? That was *his* style. In a straight up fight, he could take me any time. The only way Id have a chance is if I got to use some of the dirty tricks I know how to do. McQueen would never let me have an opening like that. But those guys today, if theyd been serious and youd known a few of the moves Im talking about, youd have had a lot less to worry about.
Well, okay, but... She looked back and forth between them. I guess we better hit the gym, huh?
Mark said, Coop, want me to tag along for a sparring partner? I wouldnt mind learning some of this myself, and youre not going to be doing too much with that hand messed up.
Coop asked, Are you sure? One of these days somebody might ask you where you learned it.
Miller laughed, and asked, So what should I tell em, besides how far they can shove it?
These aint the kind of people you tell to shove it.
The Navy aviator gave Cooper a thoughtful look before he replied. A while ago, I might have agreed with you, Cooper. But after that fire...you know what, I dont think theres anyone I wouldnt tell to shove it, if I had a good enough reason. You can only die once, and when its supposed to happen, itll happen. In the meanwhile, Im just not gonna worry about it. Im sure as hell not about to hide under my rack because someone that Id probably like to kick in the ass anyhow might ask me a few questions.
Cooper had to agree, that was a pretty good way to look at things. Mark sounded a lot like Nathan, in a way. He could see why Christy liked him. Meet you in the gym in twenty.
Christy pulled her hair back into a ponytail and looked around the gym. Not too many people were here right now, she waved at a couple of nurses that she knew and ran over there to join them at the exercise bikes, jumped on one to get warmed up. How did it go?
We shipped the worst ones from the docking bay hit out to the Nightingale this afternoon. There's room to turn around now!
What are you doing on the bike, I thought you liked to run?
I do, but--oh, its a mess. Some guys were bothering me earlier, and Col. McQueen found out about it, so now I have to learn karate.
The girl two bikes over said, You mean from that dream-boat you were talking to the other night? He is so good looking, I saw him with Mark a minute ago. Oooh, where can I find some guys to bother me?
Oh, Sandy--! All three nurses started giggling.
Christy said, That isnt all, were playing paintball Friday.
Christy, those guys--they didnt really-- are you okay? Asked Melissa.
Im fine. Crazy Judy caught them at it, you should have seen how fast they disappeared.
Sandy said, You should have reported them. Sexual harassment is serious.
Christy made a sour face. They werent harassing me because Im a woman. They were harassing me because Im a tank.
Sandy said, That shouldnt happen, Christy. Im sorry that it does.
Melissa made a disgusted noise. They should be thinking that you are a *nurse.* An SAR nurse at that! Some people just have no appreciation.
Sandy looked over toward the locker room and whistled softly. Speaking of appreciation, girls, heres Christys karate instructor.
Christy bounced off the bike. You just remember I saw him first! She joined Coop and Mark over at the ring.
Mark held the ropes up so Coop could get into the ring easily with just one good hand. Christy asked, Now. What am I supposed to be doing?
Just minding your own business.
Just walking down the street, minding your own business, Coop told her. He glanced at Mark--who grabbed her around the throat and started dragging her towards the other side of the ring.
It was *Mark*, after all, so Christy was more surprised than scared. She caught on quickly, though. She got her weight balanced and threw him over her shoulder, jumped clear. Now, while that mugger is getting up, I run for it! She told them.
Coop asked, What do you do if theres nowhere to run?
Mark got up and dusted off his dignity. Hey, I want another try at that!
This time, since he was ready for it, Christy had a little more trouble getting away from him, but she knew that judo throw very well, and once again Mark found himself on the ground. This time, though, before he got the chance to get up, Christy was down on the mat with him where she could kick with impunity. She had been taught well, that a womans strength was mostly in her leg muscles. That and In Vitro reflexes were a powerful combination. Mark, on the other hand, didnt know how to counter that kind of an attack. What he did finally was grab her ankle and twist. She yelped -- that hurt, even if he was going easy on her -- and yanked loose by sheer strength. She followed up with a kick with the other foot, that would have hit him in the eye if she hadnt stopped just short. Realizing she did not dare let him get his hands on her again, she kept up a barrage of kicks until Cooper stopped them.
Mark sat up, looking at her with a new respect. Okay, squirt, you didnt tell me they got some of your DNA from Bruce Lee!
She laughed. I told you Im not helpless! Im really not afraid of one guy. But there were six of em, what was I supposed to do about the other five while I was kicking the crap out of the first one?
Cooper said, Well, youve got to narrow the odds fast. Youre right that you dont have time for this kind of stuff if theres a bunch of them. You were going for a knockout. You cant afford to do that against a gang. Youve got to do something thats going to put at least one of them out of the fight real fast, either kill him or hurt him so bad hes wont be giving you any more trouble. Thats going to give you an opening to get out, most of the time. It doesnt matter who wins, you just want to live.
Christy nodded. I can see that....
For the rest of the session, they concentrated on things Christy could have done to get out of the situation shed found herself in that afternoon. Cooper found out teaching was a lot harder than he'd thought it would be. He didn't want to act like the damn monitors had when theyd been teaching him. Theyd yelled and made him feel stupid even when hed done his best, that wasnt right. He found himself trying to teach the way McQueen did -- just going over and over it patiently until you got it right.
They quit when the gym started to fill up, hit the showers then went for pop and chips. They found a quiet table in the rec room and Cooper told Christy, You learn really fast.
You would too, she pointed out.
Can I say something without you getting mad?
I guess so.
Look, those guys followed you from the cafeteria, right? Okay. Youve got to keep your eyes open for stuff like that all the time. I mean, youre usually not by yourself. But when you are, you just have to keep in mind that there are some people who think like that. Watch your six.
Yeah...I guess I just never thought about it. Back home in Aspen, if Id been walking down the street at night, Id have been careful. But here...I guess I felt safe. I was wrong.
Mark did a slow burn and crushed his potato chip bag into a very small paper wad. He said, You know, that says a hell of a lot about us. I mean, thats really something for the Navy to be proud of. Ive got to tell you, Im proud to be a Navy aviator. And Im not happy with the way those guys acted, it reflects real badly on the rest of us that are just out here doing our jobs!
Christy said, Not everyones like that, Mark, nobodys blaming anyone except those few guys. I mean, lets get real, Ive heard remarks and jokes before, but come on, most people just dont know any better. There arent too many people like those guys.
Cooper said, A hell of a lot of people are. Not as many in the service, though. Here, at least most of the time if you do what youre supposed to be doing thats all that matters. But when I was back in Philly, there were plenty of people who were prejudiced. Plenty of people.
Im not going to live my whole life paranoid, though. I mean, I know what youre saying about keeping my eyes open in case people are following me, but still...
Yeah, right, if you get so down on natural-borns that you dont even give them a chance, then...well, the bigots win, I guess. Cause we go off in a corner and dont talk to anyone except each other.
Mark took a long drink of his soda. Yeah, thats what theyre trying to accomplish, all right.
Vansen ran her hand over the smooth lines of her fighter. The hangar bay was cool and quiet. She had exchanged salutes with the lieutenant on duty in the launch control station when she first came in, but they had ignored one another afterwards. She had noticed that her controls were a little stiff today, her crew had done their usual efficient job of finding and correcting the problem.
She switched off the trouble light she was using. The bay was otherwise dark, except for the walkway lights. She heard a hatch open and looked up. She smiled across the bay as McQueen walked in. He stood at the railing and waited for her to join him. She stopped a proper distance away, but the warmth in her eyes bridged the space between them. Have you seen Cooper this evening?
Hes with Christy, McQueen told her. He informed her of the days excitement.
Her lips compressed to a thin line. Im sorry that happened.
Dont waste your time apologizing for damn fools like that. What are you doing this evening?
Sim session, she replied. Want to come along? You can watch me be bored for the next two hours.
He laughed. Sure, why not.
Flight simulator sessions were important, Vansen knew that as well as anyone. It gave them a chance to see what ever-changing tactics the chigs had taken to using recently. But Shane had found over the last months that the simulator was no longer capable of giving her a real challenge. Anyone could be taken down in a sim session, but the computer beat her now by throwing sheer numbers of enemies at her.
McQueen watched from the sim controllers booth as she settled into her unit and went through a quietly competent pre-flight checklist. He watched her sail through most of the simulations they tried. She only had trouble when she was faced with clearly overwhelming odds, and even when she lost, she made her virtual enemies pay a high price for their victory. Finally she asked over the radio, Come on, Mitch, is that the best youve got up there? A troop of Brownies could take me out if there were enough of them.
The sim controller, Major Mitch Valence, touched the mute button on his pickup and pushed back in his chair to look at McQueen. Shes right, sir, the sims cant keep up with her. Shes as good as anyone weve got on the flight line right now.
Valence didnt say it, that he was better than anyone on the flight line. McQueen hadnt been in the sims since the Battle of the Belt. There didnt seem to be any use in it, hed never been much for video games. That was all the sims were to him now...a video game that reminded him of everything hed lost. That had been nearly two years ago. Sooner or later, he had to let go.... Maybe now, with the chance to show off a little in front of Shane, it was high time. Shes not as good as I am. See if youve still got my file in there.
McQueen had a customized file of parameters, to account for his faster reaction time and his ability to pull more Gs than a natural-born pilot. A little too quickly, the sim controller pulled it up...like hed known where to look. He must have realized one day McQueen would be wanting it again, and saved it for him. McQueen remembered that Valence had once been a pilot himself. Thank you, Major. Set me up on unit two. And dont tell her its me.
Yes, sir, Valence grinned. He figured it wouldnt take Vansen long to figure it out, but it sure ought to be a good show. He turned his pickup back on. Stand by, Major Vansen. Your next sim will be pirate suppression.
Roger, control. Standing by.
Vansen looked over the briefing while she waited for the next sim to start. She had to admit, the computer did a pretty good job of making the sim realistic, when it didnt have to play her opponent. It was a straight-up one on one, the setting was a system with a hot rockball, an asteroid belt, and a gas giant with an assortment of moons. Her patrol sector was the gas giant and its moons.
Her opponent almost had her before she knew it, she juked as soon as her lock-on alarm sounded and a pair of missiles streaked by so close her cockpit windows flared with their jet wash. Ignoring that, she pulled into a spiraling turn that made her the worst possible target until she could find out what the hell was on her six. Hed come from behind one of the smaller moons.
Well, she reflected, shed probably located the pirate base, if she lived to report back to the carrier with that information! She pulled a tight Immelman, and as her VR screens darkened to indicate that she was right on the edge of blacking out, got him in her sights. Neither of them hit that pass. As she came about, she had a close eye on her LIDAR. Damn, he could turn faster than she could! She didnt have time to speculate about who she was up against. Shed complained about being bored!
West and Damphousse came into the control booth, they had a session as well. But Valence motioned them over, his finger to his lips. West did a double take. How did that start?
Major Vansen was complaining about the sims being too easy.
West and Damphousse exchanged a grin and then settled in to watch. Not too long after that, Hawkes showed up and joined the audience.
Vansen wasnt able to stay out of trouble much longer than that, although McQueen had to admit it had been a long time since anyone had given him that good a run for his money. He realized when text scrolled across a screen that she still hadnt figured out who he was. Thanks for a great sim. Would you like to make the next one more interesting?
He replied, Anything.
Vansen wasnt stupid enough to take an anything bet from an unidentified person who was clearly better than she was. But then Wests voice came over her headset. Whats the matter, Shane, dont have the nerve for it?
There was laughter in his voice. She vowed that, if West steered her into something shed regret, shed make him regret it. She typed her reply, OK, anything. She heard Vanessa and Cooper join in the laughter over the open pickup in the control booth, before it went dead again.
Well, she probably was going to regret making that bet, but it sounded good to hear her friends having a good time, so it was worth it.
Then, she realized something. Shed heard Mitch Valence and the other Wildcards over that open mike -- but she hadnt heard Ty. That meant....oh, hell, no wonder shed lost. Well, he was going to have to work just as hard for the next one!
Actually, knowing who she was up against gave her a little more of a chance, because she could anticipate a little better. But the result was eventually the same. Even so, she was in a good mood. She was wondering just what Ty was going to come up with to collect that bet...!
Vansen laughed quietly. She hadnt known West had that streak of the devil in him. Egging her on to accept an anything bet from McQueen -- right!
As McQueen got out of his sim unit to make room for Damphousse, he heard Vansens soft laughter. They had a lot of material from the battle the day before to cover during the rest of the session, so everyone got down to business. The word anything, however, was guaranteed to bring
down the house for the rest of the evening.
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