The ISSCV was crowded, Marcy had shared the ride out with
sixteen Marines and a couple of Navy nurses. So far, her cover
had held up fine. She hardly missed her ranging lenses at all
anymore, the software equivalent shed developed was working
She was going to be in repeated contact with the four Marines who were being assigned to the 58th squadron. Shed made an effort to get to know them, but after hearing young Lieutenant Averys story, she was almost sorry she had. He was a danger to her, she knew that. But she couldnt blame him for his anger. And she enjoyed talking software design with him, hed shown her some of his work and he was very good.
Lieutenant Moore was the natural leader of the group, the others were just kids but she had an air of practicality and confidence about her that had come from experience at survival. Marcy had already decided that if she had to trust any of them with the truth about herself, it would be Moore.
She thought that Yamauchi and Lucas should still be in school, Lucas especially. He was only nineteen, that more than anything made Marcy suspect that General Jeffords was right about how serious the situation was becoming. Nineteen year olds hadnt been called up until just recently.
They were matter-of-fact about having to enlist to avoid being drafted, and there was no reason why they shouldnt be -- most kids their age did wait to volunteer so they could stay in school a semester or two longer. Marcy had heard the General comment that kids that age knew which song was at the top of the charts and how near their draft number was to being called up -- and little else. Marcy credited them with a little more sense than that ... but she didnt expect the General to have too much patience with green recruits, either!
Someone by a forward viewport spotted the Saratoga, which created a lot of excitement. Theirs wasnt the first shuttle to land, so they got to watch a couple of patrol squadrons take off. Marcy found herself unexpectedly caught up in the excitement of it, she agreed with Anita that it was awesome to watch the fighters in flight.
Their turn came, the hatches were sealed and the passenger box was dropped off on a lift. The engine section of their ISSCV went on about its business, to pick up a cargo box on its way back to Earth with things to be repaired
The lift descended into the carrier. Marcy quickly collected her carry-on bag and checked her reflection in the nearest viewport to see to it that her civilian-employee uniform was in order. She was suddenly very nervous about meeting McQueen again after all these years, about how he would react to her. Well, whatever happened, shed meant the promise shed made to General Jeffords.
The briefing room hadnt had this big a crowd in months. There were too many of them for the corner table now. The squadron stood as Vansen walked in, though she caught the smile in Vanessas eyes. Hawkes looked like he was about to crack up laughing, but he didnt. West and the kid next to him -- that had to be Jims boy -- were wearing the exact same serious, studious expression. Vansen almost lost it herself over that. But protocol did take the butterflies out of introductions.
Once that was out of the way, she described the mission. It will be the usual drill. Damphousse and Hawkes will be piloting the ISSCV, and the rest of you will be flying fighter cover. Since we will be traveling away from the front lines, it isnt likely that well run into a chig patrol, but anything's possible. If they see an ISSCV, theyll always try for it, because they know its usually going to be carrying brass or wounded. They cant resist either one. The other possibility is that whoever was behind our spy might make another attempt before we can reach the Kennedy, well have to be ready for that too. Any questions?
There were none. Vansen said, Okay, I want everyone on the flight line at exactly 1800.
Marcy had little trouble locating Commodore Ross office. She knocked and waited.
Whos at my hatch?
Marcy Brannigan, she replied.
A beat. Enter.
She did so. McQueen was there, he had changed a lot in five years but then so had she.... She turned her attention to Commodore Ross. General Jeffords had advised her that the first thing she had to do was get on Ross good side somehow, because on that bucket, he is God! She understood what the General had meant.
Marcy had thought of a lot of things she was going to say to accomplish that goal. For the next twenty minutes, however, she ended up just listening to Ross lay down the law about exactly what an AI running loose on his ship was and was not going to do. She kept her mouth shut except for saying yes sir and no sir at the expected intervals. By the time McQueen finally got her out of there, she was firmly convinced that if Glen Van Ross wasnt actually God, they were close relatives. This wasnt going to be easy!
McQueen said, It isnt too late to catch the shuttle back out, if the Commodore scared you too badly.
His voice was perfectly serious, but when she looked up, she caught the hint of laughter in his eyes, and her chin came up a notch. I promised the General that Id do my best, Ill just try to stay out of Commodore Ross way while Im doing that! She replied, with far more bravado than she felt.
All right, then, lets get you settled. We havent got much time. Ive been called to the JFK to testify in a court case and well be leaving shortly.
Am I supposed to go with you, or what?
Itll look strange if you dont, and you may be able to make some valuable observations while we're there.
Who all knows--?
Besides myself and the Commodore, only the C.O. of the 58th, Major Vansen. It would have been nearly impossible to keep a secret like this from her.
They got on a lift with several other people, during that time McQueen gave her a quick run-down of her daily duties. With the number of reports and so forth that four squadrons generated, she would easily be kept busy. Especially since shed have to do everything the old-fashioned way-- she doubted she could get away with writing files in her own memory and downloading them to the office terminal!
Her space wasnt really an office, it was a little reception desk outside the office itself. McQueen watched her give it the once over, opening drawers and checking out the computer. Youll find the supply locker just around the corner. If you need anything else, youll have to file a request for it.
Your codes will give you access from this terminal, but there isnt much privacy here. Have you been to your quarters yet?
Yes, I dropped off my things. I can use the terminal there for anything I cant do here. Report to the General, I suppose! Ill need to go back there and pick up my things.
Youll have time, he assured her. He showed her around the office, but once hed shut the hatch, they were able to talk in privacy.
Marcy, did General Jeffords force you into this?
At first. But I dont blame her for that. She believes in this project, believes that we can make a difference. I have to try.
He nodded. Fair enough.
I doubt you were especially happy about it either. Im sorry to have dropped this in your lap. When the General found out wed met, that was that!
Im not surprised. I dont have a problem, Marcy. I agree with you and General Jeffords that this idea is worth trying. But other people do have a problem with it, and they have some very good reasons.
I know about Major Vansens parents. The General warned me to give her plenty of room. I didn't know that the Commodore would react so strongly...but I should have. Earnestly, she said, I dont want to cause trouble for anyone. I just want to do my job.
Thats all anyone expects of you, McQueen told her. Get settled and be ready by 1745, Ill pick you up then at your quarters and escort you to the flight deck. By the way, Commodore Ross was not joking about staying out of areas that are off-limits to civilians. We had a problem before you got here, that problem is not expected to recur. You could very well be shot if youre caught in the wrong place without an escort.
I have no intention to wander around! She assured him. Ill have to put myself at risk often enough just to do what Im here to do, without looking for more opportunities to get myself shot! I'll be ready on time.
Marcy took about half an hour to organize her desk, she found a great deal of pleasure in that. It reminded her of her time at Crosswell, before the AI war had started. She remembered her pleasant little desk near the window, and robins on the grass outside. After the war, she told herself, she would find a quiet place like that, with her work to do, and plays and concerts to attend ... a park to walk in, and birds to feed ... it would be nice to have a little apartment, and maybe a cat. Maybe, if she was very lucky, in time there would be a friend or two who could be trusted with her secret.
Her quarters were very tiny, there was room only for two narrow bunks, two lockers, and a little desk and chair. She had it to herself, that was necessary for her to maintain her cover.
The sealed container with her supplies in it had arrived, she opened it and assured herself that everything had come through the journey safely. She quickly chose a few items that she would need for the trip to the JFK and packed them with her toiletries.
She had just enough time to report in. She logged onto the net and entered the code the General had given her. Presently Jeffords face appeared on the screen.
How did it go?
Im in. Commodore Ross was --!
I tried to warn you.
I know you did. Colonel McQueen is going to help me, though. I havent got a lot of time, I have to be ... somewhere ... in a little while.
Good. This is probably a secure connection, but never bet your life or anyone elses on that. You dont have to report in again until you have something ready.
Maam. Good evening, General.
Jeffords gave her a grin and signed off, without ever realizing how Marcys throat had closed off around the word goodbye. She couldnt have said it to save her life.
Anita gave her cockpit a once-over. The lettering was fresh enough to still have a paint smell. Lieutenant Anita Moore. She still had a lot to prove, more to herself than to anyone else, but she felt like shed already proven something very important to a lot of people who had thought she would never amount to anything in the first place! US Marine all by itself definitely qualified as amounting to something, no matter what happened now. She hadnt had a lot of opportunities to be proud of herself, she decided it was worth taking a moment to experience the feeling.
At the same time, she was very aware that this was no dry run. As the Major had said in briefing, while they werent expecting trouble, they could run across opposition out there. She had done well in training, but that wasnt the real thing. That wasnt kill or be killed. Soon, she knew, if not this mission then the next or the one after, she would face that test as well.
A hatch whispering open and then closed got her attention, she looked up to see where it had come from. It was Major Vansen, Moore came to attention and saluted sharply. Vansen had her hands full, she nodded and said, Lieutenant Moore.
Help you with that, maam? Vansens gear was light in Moores big, scarred hands. On the transport?
Third locker, Vansen confirmed. Thanks. She looked around. Especially up around the ceiling, you could still see evidence of the fire and the explosions. But the real damage had been repaired, all that remained now was singed paint. Her new cockpit was here, brought in with the new kids planes -- not that shed be allowed in it for a while yet.
Moore stashed her things for her. It had been polite of her to offer to do that, but Vansen recognized that the In Vitro probably wouldnt have been so quick to offer if she hadnt had her arm in a sling. She took Moore as the kind of person who quietly pulled her own weight, and naturally expected everyone else to do the same thing. Vansen respected, and liked, that attitude, she was the same way.
The rest of the squadron arrived one by one, West, Kenny and Lisa, Jimmy, Phousse and Hawkes. Anita joined them as they headed toward the lockers to get their gear. Finally, Ty got there with Marcy.
He stopped in the shadow of Shanes cockpit. For a long time now, they'd had a little good-luck habit of meeting there, all of the 58th, before a mission. The spy had noticed that, and taken advantage of it to plant a bomb there. Vansen had surprised him at it, and he'd almost killed her. She felt a sudden dryness in her throat, then her head came up as she jumped off the side of the ISSCV ramp and cut across to join him. They'd caught the son of a bitch, and he wasn't going to keep scaring her now that he was sitting in a jail cell!
Coming out of the locker room, West crossed to them also, followed by Hawkes and Phousse. The newbies knew about the explosion and McQueen and Damphousse heroic actions following it, but they didnt know the significance of that little ceremony...or why, when they had gathered, the launch controller dimmed the lights in her booth to attract their notice. When McQueen glanced up there, she came to attention and snapped him a sharp salute, which he returned. McQueen understood that was her silent thank-you for their capture of the spy, who had killed her friend Lt. Sedley.
Kenny gave Jimmy a what was that all about look, he shook his head a little.
It was the first time Jimmy had seen McQueen since spring break junior year, and he had changed a lot. He looked older, for one thing, and his injuries at the Jupiter Line and in the bomb blast had left their marks. Still, it was more than that ... there had been so many losses since the war had started. Jimmy felt most of them himself, the 127th, his father. And he knew there were others, people who had worn the Wild Cards patch on their flight suits before he had. He wondered if McQueen remembered happier times at Loxley ... that was past and gone now.
Jimmy glanced over at Nita. Her eyes were fixed on McQueen in that characteristic In Vitro stare that he had come to expect...but there was something else. All through basic training and AFT, Nita had stayed out of trouble with the DIs, except for Sgt. Bougus, who had ridden her pretty hard because he couldnt scare her. There was flatly very little anyone could do to scare someone whod seen the hell that she had. One night, when Jimmy had asked her a nosy question and then apologized for prying, she had finally decided to take the question on face value. Shed told him and the others a version of her story that had been as eloquent in the details left between the lines, as in the ones shed told them. Anita Moore wasnt afraid to die, or afraid to live, either one. Bougus had come somewhere in between ... and by graduation, Nitas quiet strength of will had earned his respect. Jimmy suspected that was about when Bougus had learned her history as well.
Now, however, for the first time since hed met her, Jimmy saw a genuine respect in her eyes...and looking back at McQueen, knowing what he had known all his life, Jimmy wasnt the least surprised.
Suddenly it was time to go. He headed for his pit, ran through the checklist. West started the roll call. Queen of Spades?
Moore replied, Roger, King.
Joker? West felt funny using those call signs. When Nita and Lisa had chosen them in all innocence earlier, Phousse had almost immediately spoken up and told the younger women to keep them ... she had been quite certain that Kelly and Paul would have approved.
Yamauchi replied, Roger.
Ten of diamonds?
Kenny had cut a deck to that card and taken what had come up, he had said playing what he was dealt had been the story of his life. Roger, King of Hearts.
Jimmy had chosen that callsign for luck, his birthday was the third of August. Roger.
Nathan said, Launch control, the Wildcards are go.
Roger, King of Hearts.
Jimmy drew a deep breath to control his excitement as his cockpit lowered to settle into his bird. Seconds later, he was forming up with the others ... and they were on their way.
<End Part Three>
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