Author's note: I chose to place my Christmas offering right in the blank two weeks between the end of Literary Giants and the beginning of Holding Up the Sky. If you have read L.G. then you know that McQueen and Kylen have formed a bond during their rehabilitation. They have created an almost private code using literary quotations, and that McQueen had declined an invitation to spend Christmas with the Celina household - preferring to go down to Loxley to get his final medical release to active duty. Then there is that whole thing about the key of A-flat. It is Christmas Eve. McQueen finds another level of truth behind his battle in Angriest Angel - and he finds a new love.
Happy Holidays, Wheels
Comments are welcome at M. Wheels
Loxley, Alabama 2064
Lance Corporal Jackie Montgomery was bummed out - pissed off, actually. He was on duty, moping around the Quartermaster's office. Somebody had to be there, he supposed, but why did it have to be him? Like anybody was going to be requisitioning flight gear on Christmas Eve, right? Anybody who was supposed to have gear would already have it. True, squadrons were flying in and out all the time now. Two had flown in earlier in the day, three others had left for places unknown, and Bogus had run the Nuggets - the pilot trainees - ragged. The base was on alert, but there were still (alcohol-free) parties and dinners and, even though dry, all the base social clubs were open for business. People were trying to celebrate, and Mama Montgomery's little boy was on duty.
Jackie was sucking on a candy cane and checking the underwear inventory when the buzzer rang. 1830 hours. Who the hell wants equipment at 1830 on Christmas Eve? he thought. Oh great, a full Bird, no less. Oh man, I couldn't have screwed anything up that bad.
"Good Evening, Sir. How may I help the Colonel?"
McQueen handed Jackie the requisition. "One pair boots, black, size 11 M. One flightsuit, size M, black."
"I can get you the boots, Sir, but I'm sorry there aren't any black flightsuits. At this base, only the 127th were issued the black. The 'angels', we have heard, Sir, were all gone."
"They aren't, Son. Don't believe everything that you hear," McQueen said. It was irritating, but it wasn't this kid's fault that there weren't any black flightsuits. "Give me what you've got then."
"Right away, Sir."
The sessions with the flight psychologist had been a royal pain in the ass - just as McQueen had expected - but, after three hours with the shrink, he now had that wonderful blue slip of paper. McQueen had been released to active duty. There had then been a murderous three days in simulators: The ISSCV and the Tarpon. He had declined the enthusiastic flight instructor's invitation to try out the Hammerhead sim. If I can't fly a 'Hammer' full out because of the MEF device behind my ear - if I can't bend it to my will and make it scream, make it sing, make it my own - then I won't pilot a sim either. Why bother. McQueen saw no need to punish himself.
For once the official policy of the Corps was now working in McQueen's favor. When medically grounded aviators got their 'get out of jail card' - the blue 'fit for duty' card - all air stations were under orders to get these pilots re-qualified ASAP. To a man, all the flight instructors had been accommodating, and in fact down right eager to be of assistance. McQueen found that his name and reputation - whatever that might mean - had preceded him. It was obvious that people wanted to see just who he was and what he could do. This was nothing new. It was a battle McQueen had been fighting for fifteen years, but it carried a different 'feel' now. He chose not to analyze it. He rode it through in a manner that had always worked. Cool. Distant. Professional.
He had signed all the papers, attended all the classes and passed all the simulations, had filed his flight plan, and just as sure as the stars shine above, McQueen was going to fly whatever he could fly. He was going fly tonight, and he was going to go up solo.
There were three black VTOL VS-53 Tarpon Surveillance aircraft lined up on the tarmac. Pilots have always taken it as an article of Holy Writ that only beautiful aircraft can fly. If it ain't pretty - it ain't gonna' fly. The Tarpon was no Hammerhead, but McQueen had to admit that even if the bird wouldn't pull more than eight Gs - his limit - it did indeed have a certain beauty. The Tarpons were stealth black and generally carried a crew of three on reckon missions. Not heavily muscled, but definitely toned. Sleek like a seal is sleek. Full-bodied. A hunter, not an assassin. Junoesque. Yin.
Yes, the Tarpon can fly, he admitted.
McQueen fired up the engines, took off, brought her around, and did two 'touch and goes.' He got the go-ahead. Punching the power - Trust thrust - he took her almost straight up and flew out over the ocean into the night.
There was some sloppy air at 15,000 feet. Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors, McQueen thought. He fought through the turbulence for ten minutes - just to let 'them' know that he was able to handle the craft in dirty air - before getting the OK to go up to 22,000 feet. He broke through the clouds, and the black aircraft was bathed in moonlight.
There had been no moon on Omicron Draconis. The universe had coughed up twin suns - and considered that more than enough to give that useless piece of rock. A moon would have been a luxury. McQueen had never seen moonlight until he had been brought back to Earth. He briefly recalled his early horrified fascination. He had watched the light in the sky change shape every night. Watching it melt away little by little every evening and then disappear altogether, only to regrow again and again. Tonight the moon was full. He had seen the reflection of other moons on planets light years away, but he had never seen a moon that reflected back such a cool, but comforting silver-blue light. 'This is the light of the mind,' he thought.
When he reached the 'Box' - the area designated for his maneuvers - McQueen gently challenged the Tarpon: "OK, Baby' sing me your song."
McQueen put the ship though half of the required re-qualification maneuvers: rolls, turns, climbs, and dives. The Docs hadn't lied to him. He could feel the MEF device starting to 'buzz' at 7.75 Gs.
He allowed himself if not to relax, then to back away from the edge. McQueen indulged in one of his favorite but rarely satisfied passions. He flew for the sheer enjoyment of flying. It was his heartbeat, his rhythm, his home, and he allowed himself a few minutes to appreciate the art and his surroundings. Kylen had once surmised what flying had meant to him: "After five years underground, in the mines, flying had to be a revelation. A freedom beyond thought - beyond anything you had imagined." Kylen, who had never been anything but a passenger, who had never even flown in a cockpit, who had not pitted her will against the clouds - her soul against gravity - Kylen had somehow understood.
He could not sense the silence one felt flying in space, 'The silence of astonished souls.' At one time in his life silence had bothered him terribly. It had deeply frightened him - at least until he had soloed in space. The first moment of breaking through the atmosphere by himself - the quietude - the absolute peace: It had seemed like the voice of God. And the voice had told him that this was what he was meant to do. Now, in this aircraft, there was only the quiet of the atmosphere and not the total silence of space, but at the moment the 'almost' silence of the stealth Tarpon was good enough.
He scanned the skies - not looking for enemies, or even friendly traffic - just to see what there was to see. To look at the stars and listen to the music of the spheres. To watch the cosmos dance. McQueen softly quoted Saint-Exupery. "Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive …. And all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again."
The Celina family would always hold a special place in McQueen's heart if for no other reason than they had introduced him to 'Saint-Ex,' French aviator and author. There had been a sympathetic bond from the first paragraph. McQueen had suddenly felt himself to be in the company of a good friend. He let his aircraft leisurely massage the sky for several minutes.
After returning to the designated 'flight box,' McQueen bent the Tarpon into a Cuban 8, three Immelmans back to back, some torque rolls for good measure, and then set her into a dive. The MEF started to buzz behind his right ear again. He moderated the angle of the dive and the buzzing stopped. Well, there it is - no denying it - the limit. He banked around a high cloud formation, standing the bird on one wing and keeping an eye on his airspeed.
It was time to decide. Time to decide what he could accept. McQueen had loved speed and Gs as much as he had loved the peace of the solitude and the silence. Could he fly within his new limitations, or would it be too painful?
For almost half of my life I've been the sharp point of the spear. I've been the arrow loosed at the target. One with the tension and one with the release. One with the freedom of flight. And one with the direct results. McQueen had the scars to prove it. They were the price one had to pay for the responsibility and for the gift.
There was another reason that McQueen had resisted getting into a Hammerhead simulator. And altogether unknowingly, Kylen was the reason. She was the person who had told him about the now infamous 'Queen 6 Maneuver.' Red-hot jocks on every base were puking their guts out in Hammerhead simulators trying to copy the final move of his dogfight with the Chig Ace, Von Richtoffen. For months to come, until other pilots mastered the maneuver with regular success, if McQueen were to get into a Hammerhead at any base - on any ship anywhere in the universe - a line would form to the right. A line of eager young hothead gunslingers ready to take on the 'old man.' I can only stand so many back channel pissing contests - only so much bravado, he thought.
If he didn't have the MEF, McQueen was sure that that he could do it again, but that did not mean it was an easy thing to pull off. It was a move that you couldn't do if you thought about it. You had to release yourself into it. He had been the archer, the bow, and the arrow - at one with all three. It had been pure Zen. He had always thought of himself as the arrow. And now he was forced to recognize that in the past year he had slowly become more the bow. He had worked to balance the right amounts of tension and relaxation. He had groomed his people as a fletcher grooms his arrows. He had aimed the Wildcards and they had flown at his command. He had released them as a bow releases the arrow. McQueen had, in that one split second of aerial combat, fused the elements of the Zen archer. He couldn't be only the arrow. He couldn't be only the bow. And he couldn't go back.
'The truth is what lives in the stars.' That's 'Saint-Ex', too, Kylen, he thought, but you already knew that, didn't you?
McQueen remembered that Saint-Exupery had not been an attack pilot - he had flown reconnaissance. McQueen would be in good company. He made his decision. He was an aviator and he would fly. There were two more hours of flight time left on his clock. He had completed all the in-flight tests. There was no need to rush, and there was clear weather over the Gulf of Mexico. It was as good a place as any to dance with the moon.
McQueen again spoke out loud. "Kylen, the moon isn't a door. Not one of my doors. 'The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right.'"
He turned his full attention to the aircraft, which he had decided was not only a good ride, but a 'Lady' as well. And as a Lady, she would never make the banshee scream of the Hammerhead: It wasn't her nature. She didn't need a hard taskmaster: She needed a subtle hand. If you had the touch, you could reason with a Tarpon, and she could sing for you. Open-throated and melodic. A voice full of silver bells and trumpet voluntaries. When you pushed her, she didn't scream: Her voice got deeper - more full. Arias and descants. Her songs stirred the heart, not the hormones. The Tarpon could not eat up the sky like a Hammerhead, spitting thunder and raining fire, but the Tarpon could do something else that the Hammer could not. The Tarpon could make love to the air.
T.C. McQueen could live very nicely with that.
"Merry Christmas, Baby," he said, patting the instrument panel. "Now, come on Baby. Sing me an A-flat and we'll show the world that not all the Angels are gone."
He pointed the Tarpon at an imaginary spot between the moon and the Evening Star - Kylen's star. Ready to dance again, he headed out into the waiting sky.