James woke with a start. The clock read 0520, still an hour before he’d normally bother getting up. He was about to close his eyes again when he realized the base was buzzing with activity. He heard the wap-wap-wap of several helicopters, the whine of jet engines and groans of trucks. There were people calling out to one another, not in alarm but with the hurriedness of preparing for action.
Then the shooting began. Sitting up, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and strained to listen. The voices were still no-nonsense and orderly. No sense of panic or desperation. They were not being attacked.
Must be zombies at the wall, attracted by all the damn noise, he thought. Even if they weren’t being attacked, something was happening and he wanted to find out what. That no one had woken him for a briefing told him his dad was still pissed.
Let him be pissed, he thought as he pulled on a clean flight suit. A few minutes later he was outside. Two A-10s were on the tarmac, spooled up and armed. One of them was Ringo and for a moment he considered grabbing a ladder, running up to the plane and asking him what the hell was going on. The canopy was closed though and James thought better of it.
A supply sergeant ran by and James ran to catch up with him before grabbing his sleeve. The sergeant was in his mid-40s with close-cropped graying hair that had receded into a widow’s peak. He gave James a dark look until he realized who he was and saluted.
“What the fuck is going on, sergeant?” James said.
“Emergency op. We found our pilot and we’re gonna go him, sir!”
The sergeant shrugged thick shoulders. “A radio station is all I know. You should take it up with the General, I just move bullets, sir.”
James let him go and went looking for the Air Chief, who would likely be Will Garrett at this hour. He found him by the hangar bays, pouring over a scratch sheet while someone held a flashlight for him to see by.
The whine of the A-10s turned into a roar, and James turned to see Ringo’s fighter begin to roll down the runway, flaps down and engines flaring. The mission was beginning. If he didn’t hurry, he wouldn’t be on it.
“Sir!” James called to Garrett, a Major both back in the Air Force and here in Black Dawn. Garrett turned and James saluted him.
“Lieutenant,” Garrett said, frowning.
“Sir, I want in. Got a plane for me?”
The Major licked his lips, turned back to the clipboard he’d been reading and then shook his head. “Nope. Orders are you’re grounded.”
“I have orders that you are to remain on the ground, Lieutenant. Signed by the General. Need me to speak a little slower?”
James bit back a curse. How could his dad ground him? So he’d punched Holden, okay. That was pretty bad but this was a rescue op! They were going to save Jazz, a fellow pilot, a comrade! You didn’t ground people for that!
“Sir, I’m fit for duty. I respectfully request that—“
“No. You’re grounded, good evening, Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.”
Garrett turned his back on him and returned to his list.
“Lieutenant if you are not gone in three seconds I will make sure the next thing you fly is a toilet seat.”
James set his jaw, ready to argue but before he could do so, Garrett began to count. On two, James spun and marched away. He was pissed, more than pissed! He was livid. He’d go right to his father and demand he put him on this mission.
When he found him, Gideon Fitzpatrick didn’t even look at him. He had his arms crossed, eyes squinted, watching the preparations. He was in full battle dress uniform, complete with the stars on his cap.
“I know what you’re going to say so can it, son. You’re not flying tonight.”
“Sir, that’s General, sir,” Holden said. James didn’t even see him standing there until that moment. He wore a rather self-satisfied smirk on his face that James felt an almost irresistible urge to punch into oblivion.
“Fuck you, Holden.”
“That’s enough!” Gideon said, turning his eyes on James. His face was dark with anger, eyes squinted, lips pressed tight together. James knew better than to test him when he was like that. He still felt the last time he’d made his dad this mad.
“James, go back inside and stay in your quarters until I send someone to get you. You are relieved of your flight status until you prove worthy of it.”
“You struck a superior officer while intoxicated during a mission briefing. This is not the fucking Air Force. This is Black. Dawn. We are God’s soldiers, representing His mighty fucking wrath and you go ahead and strike a Major?”
“I was feeling pretty wrathful, da— sir.”
“Shut your mouth. Your cutesy snark jokes might have cut it for you back in Italy but it’s shit here. You are grounded, end of story. Get back to quarters.”
James bristled again. The urge to resist, to fight back, rose in him. This was for Jazz, not for him. He needed to go, needed to be part of it. He was a pilot, that’s what he did. Couldn’t his dad see that?
The look in his father’s eyes told him that he didn’t. There was such indignation in his gaze, such anger, that James knew his cause was lost. Slowly, his face burning, he saluted his father.
Gideon Fitzpatrick merely turned back to the preparations, as if his son were entirely forgotten. Holden turned back as well, but he was smiling. Neither of them returned the salute.
James walked away, heading in the direction of the barracks. Anger and bitterness churned within him. His father had literally grounded him and sent him to his room. He was a fucking pilot, a goddamned warfighter, not a ten year old.
The voice was hoarse and female. He looked around, a sudden fear that Elena was there, an undead version of herself come to add to his misery. When he found the owner of the voice, it wasn’t Elena. She was a compact woman of middling height with dark, short hair and pale skin.
“Bubbles?” he said, amazed. She was sitting on the stoop of the barracks building, right arm in a sling. There were white bandages on her neck and right cheek and James saw some residual burn marks higher up on her cheekbone.
Janine Henderson earned the callsign “Bubbles” when she ejected over the Persian Gulf. The story went that she was in the drink for almost twenty hours before the navy picked her up. Now she’d been burned.
“What the hell are you doing out of sickbay?”
“Came to watch the fireworks. I’m fine, Cubby, just some scratches and a few blisters.”
James sat down next to her and leaned against the barracks door. They said nothing for a few minutes, watching the operation prepare to go on without them. When he looked over at her, she was staring at the last of the A-10s to take off.
“It’s not right, coming back alone. I shouldn’t have left him. Should have gone back. I had plenty of gun rounds left. Enough for every one of those fuckers.”
“Yeah… I… it isn’t right we’re fucking stuck here. What happened out there?”
Bubbles shrugged and glanced over. In the light of the runway spot lamps and truck headlights, he saw that her eyes were green. She was pretty, in her own way. Unlike Elena, she had narrow jawline and full lips. Her eyes were narrower though, less full of life somehow.
“Guys with ManPads in the woods, one in the radio tower. Jazz didn’t even see the one that hit him. One went off behind me, caused an engine to go up. Limped back and bellied it. Left ass gear was out, you know the story.”
“Look,” she said, nodding towards a group of troops preparing to board a truck. They all wore a full kit with flak jackets, helmets, gas masks, and arm and leg armor. “Bet you could get lost in a crowd like that.”
He looked back at her and found she was staring at him. Her lips were pressed tight, her jaw set. She was pissed and anxious and ready to fight, just like he was.
“None of them have a shattered right arm though,” she said, her voice dead pan.
He understood. Standing up, James gave her a nod. She reached up with her good hand and took his, gripped it tight.
“Kill one of those fuckers for me,” she hissed.
“Bring him back, Cubby.”
Then her hand was gone and James was running towards the armory. He needed to change. The General might have forbidden him to fly but he didn’t say anything about riding a truck.
Hang in there buddy, he thought. We’re coming.