.The Characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters in this story, with the exception of Major Raymond Butts and General Dawson, were the creation of this author. The characters I created may be used in other works of Fan Fiction, provided the author has been contacted and approves.s


Comments are always welcome at Tom Bissett




Tom BIssett

Part One
Earth, 2026

She came into the world kicking and screaming, as if she were announcing her intention to be heard over everyone else.

"It's a girl!", the doctor said to both parents as he handed the proud new father a pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord.

"Doctor! Blood pressure's dropping! She's going tachycardic!" the nurse attending the mother yelled.

Confused, the father just stood there, not sure what to do.

"Gimme those!" the doctor ordered. Grabbing the surgical scissors from the fathers hands, he quickly severed the connection between mother and baby, handed the newborn off to an attending nurse, and ordered, "Take care of her. I gotta go work on Liz." Looking at the nurse attending the mother, the doctor ordered, "Start an IV of Ringers, wide bore needle, and push the fluids. Something's gone wrong and we gotta find out what it was . . . quick. Call down for blood. Stat!"

Before being removed from the room, the new father watched the doctors and nurses with a clinical detachment that masked the fear he felt. Understanding he would only be in the way, he followed the sound of a newborn baby's cry and found the nurse examining his daughter. "She's a beautiful little girl, dad."

"Must have gotten that from her mother." the father replied, suddenly fearful of what was happening down the hall with his wife.

Despite efforts of the doctors and nurses, the mother died. No stranger to death, the father took the news with his usual stoic calm. There would be time to grieve later.

Sitting in the nursery, cradling his new baby, he thought of how to raise a child by himself. Determined to make her life as easy and comfortable as possible, he gave her a tiny little hug and said through the tears he would allow no one else to see, "Don't worry little Katie, Daddy's gonna always be there to protect you. I'll be there to help you through the rough times, and I'll be there to share your happiness." Letting one full sob escape before realizing he might be heard by the hospital staff, he looked down at his daughter and saw her smile up at him.

"Major Davis? Sir?" Looking up at the sound of a voice, he saw the Nursery Attendant looking into the room. "We've got to take her and get her vitals, sir. You can come watch if it'd make you comfortable."

"Yeah. I think I'd like that."

Fort Lewis, Washington,

"Dad, I think I want to be in the military, just like you." Kate Davis said to her father over dinner one night. "I've already talked to the ROTC recruiter, and he said that with my background and test scores I'll be a shoo-in for a slot and commission."

"You've already talked to a recruiter, have you?", Major General Davis asked.

"Yeah, I have. I can start next week at the ROTC Encampment and get the indoctrination out of the way. I also figure I can finish in just under three years, provided I bust my butt studying."

Chuckling, he said proudly, "I have no doubt you will. What is it you want to do? Be a nurse, lawyer, what?"

"I want to be a pilot, dad. I want to fly."

"Fighter squadron? You don't mean," looking as if he just bitten into a lemon, he continued, "Air Force?"

"Maybe. Or maybe Navy or Marines. I don't know yet, and I haven't made up my mind. I do know one thing, though."

"What's that?", he asked, expectantly.

"I want to be a general some day, just like you." Walking over to her father, Katie Davis gave him a fierce hug.

"That's daddy's little girl. Just as stubborn and pig-headed as your mother was."

Reserve Officer Training Corps Graduation
Summer, 2045

"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the graduating Reserve Officer Training Class of 2045 and their valedictorian, Second Lieutenant Catherine Marie Davis!" Leading the newly minted second lieutenants in the parade formation past the reviewing stand, Katie was happy to be able to pick out her father among the crowded stand. "Man, he's starting to look old. I imagine raising me was hard on him.", she thought to herself.

After the ceremonial graduation parade, it was time for the "pinning on" ritual. Lieutenant Davis selected her father, who had risen through the ranks and was a four- star general in the Army, and one of her favorite instructors to pin her bars on. As both men approached her from different directions, the instructor stopped short and snapped off a salute to her father. Returning the salute, General Davis asked, "Who's he, Kate?"

"Dad, please meet Staff Sergeant Robert Willoughby."

Extending his hand, the General was pleased to find a firm, professional grip from the other man. "What's your job here, son?"

"I was your daughter's Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion instructor, sir."

"Really? How'd she do?"

"She surprised me, General. I expected this class to be as wimpy and unmotivated as most of them are when they come here, sir. You daughter," he said, nodding in her direction, "motivated her classmates to try virtually everything we could legally let them try."

"Legally, son?", the general asked with the beginnings of a smile. "When I went through SERE the instructors were a bunch of sadists and masochists who enjoyed eating bugs and running around in the woods behind the four-legged animals."

Chuckling, Willoughby continued, "Well, sir, we still do, except we now put on hip-waders before we get behind the four-legged beasties. And, I must tell you your daughter tried everything. She was the only one we weren't able to catch during the escape portion of the exercise." Momentarily forgetting who he was talking to, he continued, "Among us instructors, we called her "Sneaky Bitch" . . ." Realizing his possible error and not wanting to anger the parent of his prize pupil, who just happened to be a four-star general, he swallowed hard, and said " . . . Sir."

Feeling a laugh start to boil up from deep in his belly, the general said, "Well said, son. Well said. She always was tough to keep track of as a kid. Sneaky bitch, here," he said, pointing at his daughter, "would hide in places no human had been before, and contort her body in these really unnatural ways to do it. I don't think I was ever that flexible."

"Dad! All right, you two, that's enough. Let's pin on these bars of mine so I can start my career, OK?"

While they were pinning on her bars, the general looked up, caught the instructors attention, and said, "These were my bars when I was first commissioned. It's nice to be able to pass them on to my only child. How about afterward, we all go change. You can forget I'm a General and you're an NCO, and we'll sit down and discuss my little girl here over a couple beers. She can buy."

"Sounds like a plan, sir. Count me in."

Once the pictures had been taken and formalities completed, General and newly appointed 2nd Lieutenant Davis were walking back to his car when he said "You know, you're now an officer and gentleman by proclamation. To me, you are always going to be my little girl."

"I know, daddy. I know.", she said through a smile. "Meet me and Bobby down in the bar at seven?"

"I'll be there. Now, go change. I want to hear all about this "Sneaky Bitch" stuff." Walking to his car, he stopped, looked back at his daughter, and said to himself, "Bobby? She called him Bobby?" Shaking his head, he climbed into his car.

Officers Club Bar
1930 hours

". . . So there we were, all but three of the students captured and held at bay. What should have scared us was this one here," he said, pointing at Kate, "was one of the students still on the loose. I was leading the patrol to find the others, and we heard snapping wood, you know, footfall in the forest, and we saw two of them trying to sneak off. I stayed back, set a couple booby-traps, and then what I saw was so beautiful, it almost brought tears to my eyes."

"What happened?", the General asked, now absorbed in the story.

"This soaking wet, mud-covered forest demon snuck up behind my partners, kicked one in the back of the knee, took his weapon from him as he was falling, and held them as prisoners." Shaking his head in wonder at the memory, he continued, "It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."

"Yeah, it was. Now tell him the rest of the story.", Kate said, smiling.

Looking at her for confirmation, and deciding the next words, Willoughby continued, "I snuck up behind her, stuck my rifle in her back, and rescued my instructors. Why she did what she did next, though, I'll never figure out.", he said, sipping some more beer.

"Well? What was it son?" the General asked with some impatience.

"She started to cry, sir. Whole body shaking, tears flowing kind of sobbing." Starting to laugh, Willoughby said, "Wait, there's more. As soon as one of the other instructors saw this, I guess he felt sorry for her, and tried to put his arms around her for comfort. She, uhh, then, uhh -- retaliated, sir."

"Retaliated? Surrounded by three of the military's finest survival instructors? How'd she do that?"

"She kicked him square in the nuts, General sir. Then took his knife and tried to fight her way out."

Looking at her with pride only a parent could have for a child, he said "All Right! That's my girl!"

But, wait, Dad. There's more." Pointing at Willoughby, she said "Go on, finish it up."

"Well, sir, we gang tackled her, hog-tied her, and then hung her upside down from a tree limb. Sort of an initiation ritual."

"Induction? Into what?", the general asked with interest.

"It was something we used to do in Special Ops, sir. After we did all we could to break your spirit, we'd try to humiliate you to see how much more you could take. She took it all. She wouldn't break.", he said with obvious admiration.

62nd Pilot Training Squadron
Luke Air Force Base, Arizona

"Lieutenant Davis reporting as ordered, sir," she said, holding her salute.

Returning the salute, Navy Commander David Jackson said, "At ease. I understand you're interested in learning to fly some of the new platforms."

"Yes, sir, I am. I feel it would be an asset to the Corps if this pilot was able to fly anything at any time. Sir."

"Admirable trait, Lieutenant. But why would you want to go from the sexy new Hammerheads and conventional atmospheric aircraft to the ISS Class vehicles?"

Looking up at him, she replied "I feel it's my duty to be as able a pilot as I can. Besides, the more airframes I'm qualified in means I get more flight time. Wouldn't you do it if you had the chance to?"

"I suppose I would." Looking down at his desk and flipping thorough the papers one last time, he said "Consider yourself assigned to the next class. Since you already know how to fly, you're going right into hands-on training. These ISS class vehicles are pretty straight forward in their design. You shouldn't need more than a couple weeks to get familiar with them. As soon as you graduate, you'll be up for grabs to a squadron. Any questions?"

Barely able to control the smile, she sprang to attention, saluted and answered, "No sir!"

Returning the salute, he said "Dismissed, Lieutenant. Check with me again in two weeks and we'll discuss assignment options."

"Can we talk about my assignment now, sir?"

Looking up in surprise, he asked "Now? Before you've completed your training?"

"Just trying to get the best assignment possible, sir."

Becoming irritated, he asked, "Don't you think you are being a little pushy? Before she could answer, he continued, "Your options are simple, Lieutenant. You can pick the squadron of your choice out of these.", Jackson said as he handed her several sheets of paper.

Taking the papers, but never breaking eye contact, Davis said, "Sir. I would like to attempt to take my flying expertise and use it in an unconventional way."

"Unconventional? What are you trying to get at, Davis?"

"I would like to be assigned to Special Ops, sir."

"Special Ops? Why?" he asked, skeptically.

"Because I'm good at it, sir. And I heard from a friend of mine that Special Ops is looking for pilots."

"Jesus, Lieutenant. First you come in here, all but demanding to learn to fly every friggin' airplane we have. You got that. Now you want to skip flying in a normal squadron for a living and want to go play in the mud with special ops. Is there anything else you need--Lieutenant?"

"No sir. That ought to do it." Taking a folded sheet of paper out of her flight suit, she reached out her arm to hand it to the Commander.

"What the hell is this?" Jackson asked as he snatched the paper from her hands.

"My request for Special Ops training and assignment, sir. All I need is your concurrence and signature."

Shaking his head, he grumbled, "In my nineteen years service, I have never, ever seen a junior officer as pushy as you." Signing the paper, he handed it back to her and said "Here. Go away. Go play in the muck and eat snakes and bugs. I don't ever want to see you darken my doorway again, Lieutenant. Understood?"

Standing and saluting, she replied, "Understood perfectly, sir. Thank you." Turning on her heel, she departed his office.

Continuing to shake his head, Jackson yelled out to the secretary, "Anyone else out there? Anyone in trouble?"

Startled, his secretary answered "No, sir. You have no further appointments this afternoon."

"Goddamnit! Then find someone who needs and ass chewing. I want someone's butt!"

Special Operation Training Center
Hurlburt Field, Florida

Hurlburt Field had originally been an Air Force Base, home of the USAF Special Operations Wing. However, with the consolidation of military assets in the 1990's and early 2000's, all special operations training centers for each of the services had been shut down and then combined here. Each service brought in their best and brightest instructors to form the cadre. Part of cadre duty was to greet new students and give an overview of the class.

"My name is Captain Mackall. I am an Air Force member, and your team chief here in this portion of your training. I am six foot seven, I weigh three hundred and six pounds, and have a current body fat measurement of less than two percent. I bench press almost five hundred pounds and can run the New York city marathon. My resolve is so severe, my will to succeed so strong, I have made graduates of the Navy's wimpy BUD/S training break down and beg for mercy. Are there any questions as to who is in charge here?"

Looking at the ranks of the new candidates, he saw no one raise their hand. "Good. Now, let me introduce your instructors. Bear in mind, that when they tell you to do something, you are to do it as if I were the one telling you to do it."

While the captain was making the introductions, other cadre members were walking along the ranks of students making sure none of them were having difficulty in the Florida heat and humidity. Not really paying attention to anything, just looking mean, one of the instructors stopped, looked from the back along the profile of a student, and whispered: "Just what the hell do you think you're doing at my training school?"

Not replying, but making the connection to the voice, she suppressed the smile as she remembered her favorite SERE instructor.

"You'd better hope you're not in my class, little girl. If you thought life out in the woods was rough then, you ain't seen nothing yet." Walking off, he decided to talk to the Captain and pull in some favors.

"Captain! Captain Mackall! Wait up, sir!" Willoughby called out to his commander after the students had been dismissed and sent off to find their bed spaces.

Stopping, Mackall turned and asked, "What's up, Bob?"

"Sir, there's a student I want to try and get transferred into my class. She was one of my SERE students, and I want to make sure she's trained right."

"She? Aww, hell, I don't care. Just don't get involved, OK? We have a class act here and don't need any charges about sexual harassment or discrimination, you know?"

"Understood, sir. Thanks. I'll make the changes to the class rosters."

The Next Day
For an August morning, it was cool and humid. The air was filled with the sounds of insects buzzing and birds chirping; every now and then a quiet cough or snore could be heard. As the hands to the Instructors watches hit thirty minutes after the hour, the piercing sounds of three air horns split the air.

"GET UP! GET OUT OF BED! You're under attack! You maggots better get a move on it!" Captain Mackall's amplified voice filled the air. "I had better see one hundred shinny faces here in front of me in exactly three seconds, or you snotty-nosed little kids are gonna do push-ups until I'm tired!"

It took the students more than two minutes to get in some semblance of dress and in a ragged, loose formation. Each one still looked sleepy and confused. "Gunnery Sergeant Willoughby! Do you see this mess in front of us?"

"Yes, sir, I do. Pathetic, isn't it?" Willoughby replied.

"Well, Gunny? What do you suppose these worms need?"

Realizing this was all an act, Davis watched with keen interest. She wished to herself that this act had occurred a couple hours later in the day, though.

"I believe our students would appreciate a shower and a chance to have breakfast, sir." Willoughby answered.

"I believe you are correct, Gunnery Sergeant. Let's take them to breakfast."

"Roger, that, Sir. However, the smell from these people is offending my delicate nose. May I suggest they shower first?"

"Good suggestion, Gunny." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small signaling device. Exactly seven seconds later, the sound of a helicopter could be heard overhead. A heartbeat after that, several hundred gallons of ice-cold water rained down on the assembled students.

As they tried to duck and run for cover from the aerial assault, the rest of the Cadre opened fire hoses up on the students. The assembled students were all sprayed until they were soaked through. Some of them still tried to run and find cover; others realized that there was nothing they could do except get very wet. "Line up! Get into column formation! Davis, you and the other Lieutenant up in front. MOVE!" Willoughby ordered. "I have decided a nice relaxing five mile jog is just what we need to wake up. Any problems with that? Good! I didn't think so! Forward HARCH! Double-time, HARCH!" It took a little over thirty seconds for the formation to get started and in step.

As the run progressed, the verbal assaults from the Cadre became more and more colorful. Each student started to learn new words and phrases; some even started to hate the instructors. Most were planning unique forms of torture.

"Come on, ladies. We've only got a couple hundred yards to go. Tighten up the formation. Those of you in the back try and help bring the stragglers up to speed and push them along. Captain Mackall likes to see everyone in formation." Willoughby said.

"I bet the son-of-a-bitch isn't even out of breath and breaking a sweat." Davis thought to herself.

As they ran into the compound, the order they were all waiting to hear finally came: "Column, HALT!"

Many of the students bent over, many squatted, some still stood. All were trying to catch their breath.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I see we've got a long way to go with the physical conditioning. Don't worry . . . Before you graduate, you'll be able to out run me." Pausing, he continued, "Wait, that's incorrect. *Maybe* you'll be able to outrun me. For the next sixteen weeks, you will be worked harder than you have ever been before. You will be required to run, crawl, shoot and become jump qualified before you graduate. This first week will be spent with classroom familiarization and some basic navigation techniques. We will also be spending a lot of time on physical conditioning. Class rosters have been posted on your tents; should there be any questions, contact your senior instructor. You have one hour to shit, shower and shave. Assemble into formation here and we'll go get what might be the last real food of your stay here. Class dismissed."

Turning, Captain Mackall looked over at Willoughby and asked, "How was the run?"

"Not too bad. The pace was a little faster than I'd like to have taken it the first morning, and there were only a few who couldn't keep in formation. For the most part, they did well." Looking back in reflection, he continued, "I'm kind of impressed."

"I guess that means we have to work a little harder to mold them, don't you think?"

"Maybe, sir. Just Maybe."

Willoughby walked to the front of his class and found a note on the podium. It read: "I would like a minute alone with you." It was signed "K.D." Looking up at his class, he gave one slight nod to her stating he had received the message and would comply with her wishes.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the first day of classroom instruction where we will learn to be a unit that can be swift, silent and deadly. Upon completion of the class we will be the sneakiest bastards who have ever walked God's green earth. My name is Gunnery Sergeant Robert Willoughby, and I'm Team 9's senior instructor. You five," he waved his hand around the room, "Are Team 9. I look forward to working with each one of you." After he had completed, he asked each member of the class to introduce themselves.

The first student to stand was a tall, sturdy male. "Lance Corporal David James, Gunny. Born and raised in Missouri. I joined the Corps to see the World."

"Why are you here, son?" Willoughby asked. "Why Special Ops?"

"Because this is where the action is, Gunny. I always wanted to be a Marine, and now that I are one, I want to try and make a difference."

"OK, son. We'll see. Who's next?"

A woman, medium build and looking like she spent a lot of time on a southern California beach, stood and said, "Lance Corporal Suzanne March. I'm a medic who volunteered to work in special ops. I thought I'd be flying in support aircraft, not pounding the ground."

"You want out?" Willoughby asked.

"No sir, Gunny. I'm going to prove a woman is just as good if not better than any male." Sitting, she looked at the floor, not wanting to embarrass herself any more.

"We'll see about that, won't we? Welcome."

The next student was an Asian male, trim and well muscled. "Air Force Staff Sergeant Adam Trent."

"Adam Trent?" Looking him over, Willoughby asked, "Air Force? Explain, please."

"My great-grandparents were from Taiwan, and when they came to America, their name was changed to Trent. My mother reads the Bible every day, and since I was her first son, I was given the name "Adam." My nickname is "Ho". Does that help?"

"Yeah. Sure does. Who's next?" Willoughby said.

"Ensign Milliard Miles. I'm Navy, and unfortunately couldn't complete BUD/S physical because I got pneumonia. I was told that once I got well I could try and complete this schooling, and maybe go back to SEALs."

"Welcome, Ensign. We'll try not to let you get sick. Next?"

"Lieutenant Katherine Davis. I'm a pilot."

"Is that all you're going to share with us, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Gunny. It is."

Standing behind his podium, Willoughby concluded the introductions by saying, "Very well. From this point forward the grade book is opened. If one of you gets a demerit, the whole team does. Conversely, if one of you gets a plus point, then the rest of you benefit. You will learn to be a unit; to have one mind and act cohesively. You will learn to sneak into your enemy's bed, kick some ass, and sneak back out. By virtue of the rank structure in this team, Lieutenant Davis is the team CO. Ensign Miles is the XO. I am the team's equivalent to God. Your chain of command is to be used. Now, by my watch it is seventeen minutes before the hour. Take a break, and reassemble here on the hour."

As the students filed out, Davis remained behind in order to be alone with Willoughby. "How have you been, Ma'am?", Willoughby asked.

"Don't Ma'am me, you peckerhead. You should have told me you were Cadre here when you wrote and told me of the openings." she said, admonishing him, grinning all the while.

"Irregardless, you're here and I'm your teacher. Just like the old days." he said, smiling.

"Yeah, it is good to see you again, Bobby. You want to tell me what that crap was yesterday?"

"All an act, Katie. You should have seen the panic in the eyes of the people who heard me talking to you yesterday. It was priceless!"

Laughing, she agreed. "Listen, this is my break time. I need a cup of coffee in the worst way. You want one?"

"Yes, but not from you. For a little while longer, we need to work on unit cohesiveness, and shouldn't let the student's know that we know each other. So, I'll get my own."

"Have it your way."

Just as the pair exited the building, Willoughby suddenly stopped and yelled at Davis, "What did you say to me?"

"'Scuse me?" Davis asked as she noticed all eyes were on here and Willoughby.

"I asked, you muttonhead, what did you say to me?"

"I don't understand . . ." David replied, shaking her head.

"I will be known as Gunnery Sergeant or Gunny Willoughby. IS THAT CLEAR?"

"Yes, Gunny. Sorry."

"Lieutenant Davis, since you obviously need a little refresher, I would appreciate it if you would drop and give me twenty, Ma'am."

"Say what?" she asked, not sure she heard correctly.


As team 9 started their push-ups, Davis asked quietly so no one else could hear, "Another act, Bob?"

Nodding, he counted out "Nineteen, twenty. Recover." As they all stood, the rest of the team glared at Davis.

Looking at her team, she said, "Break's over. Team 9; let's get inside." Buying a cup of coffee, she calmly sipped it as she walked back into the building.

The rest of the day was devoted to simple academics--course schedule, unit structure, mission, and the need for covert and special operations. As the day wore on, Willoughby began to see that the first day's rude awakening had started to take it's toll. "All right, everyone. On your feet. Let's finish up the day by doing some calisthenics and another run. This one won't be as long, I promise. Meet me in front of the Team's hooch in 10 mikes."

Among the groans and sounds of displeasure, Davis said "You heard the man. Let's go get changed."

Willoughby watched Team 9 depart the classroom. He listened to the moaning and groaning and complaining. He was starting to make the connection to "his" children.

Special Operations School
Day One, Week Three

The day started out like most others; except now, the students were wising up to the ways of the Cadre. Mostly, everyone rose before 0430 to shower and dress. The morning water attacks had ceased once Captain Mackall had seen all one hundred students in formation awaiting his arrival. The morning calisthenics no longer sounded like medieval torture sessions, but were filled with the sounds of motivated men and women willing to push their bodies harder than ever before.

"This morning's run will be a treat for you, troops." Willoughby announced to his team. "Captain Mackall has graciously given us some of his time to accompany us on the run. This morning we will be doing seven miles. Any problems with that?"

"No sir, Gunny, we don't." Davis answered.

"Good. Stand at ease, in a loose formation, and move around if you need to keep limber. He'll be here in a minute or so. Lieutenant Davis, take charge of your squad."

Much to the surprise of the instructor, Davis kept her team in the position of "Attention". Captain Mackall approached the squad from the rear, and when he had moved approximately three paces to the front of the formation, Davis fired off a perfect salute and stated "Sir! Team 9 all present and accounted for, SIR!"

Returning the salute, he asked, "At ease, Team. Ready for a little trot through the wonders of the State of Florida?"

All members of the Team answered together "Sir! Ready SIR!"

Raising the eyebrow over his left eye, he asked Willoughby, "Are they always this motivated, Gunny?"

Not sure how to answer, and equally surprised at the display of motivation by the Team, he answered "Yes sir, they are. Care to take charge of the Team, sir?"

"No thanks, Gunny. Let Lieutenant Davis run her troops as necessary. You and I will bring up the rear. God help anyone who becomes a straggler."

At this, Davis did an about-face, ordered her Team to accomplish a left-face movement, and started the run.

"Is this pace comfortable for you, Sir?" Davis asked Mackall.

"It's a little fast, Lieutenant, but I'll keep up." Whispering to Willoughby, Mackall said, "Jeeze, Bob, do you all always run this fast? This is almost a full-fledged run."

"No, sir. Something's up. They were plotting something last night, and when I came into the hooch, they shut up and went on to something else."

"We're only doing seven, right?" Mackall asked, starting to sweat.

Mile 6
Team Nine's morning run

"Captain, you all right?" Willoughby asked, out of breath.

"Yeah. How you doing?"

"I'm a-doin'. I think these pukes are trying to run us to death."

"Captain! Gunnery Sergeant! Are you to feeling well?" Davis asked from the front of the formation. "If not, feel free to fall out and the Doc can take a look at you."

"No thanks, Davis. Press on." Mackall answered.

"Very well, sir. Since we are all feeling fine, may I suggest we tack on another three miles to make an even ten?"

"Ohhh, fuuuuccck." Mackall thought. "As you wish, Lieutenant." Casting a sidelong glance at Willoughby, Mackall was surprised to see him shrug, as if answering his look with bewilderment.

"Outstanding! Team Nine! Captain Mackall and Gunnery Sergeant Willoughby have decided to allow us another three miles. What do we think of that?"

"Faster, Ma'am! Faster! We love it! Hooyah!", they answered in unison.

The pace increased to almost one hundred thirty paces a minute; Mackall and Willoughby began planning their own unique ways to make the team pay for this. "You know, Bob, I'm gonna kill you and your team for this."

"You gotta beat me to it, sir."

Team Nine's Morning Run
mile ten completion

"Team Nine! Halt!", Davis ordered.

Still in step, Team Nine halted, and remained at attention. Captain Mackall and Gunnery Sergeant Willoughby tried to maintain composure while in the vicinity of the team. They almost made it. Mackall stiffly walked to the front of the squad, commanded them to be "at Ease", and thanked them for the run. He then dismissed them to their team hooch.

After the team had disappeared into its hooch, Mackall bent at the waist and said, "Damn, Bob, that hurt."

"Yessir, it did. That musta been what they were planning."

"Congratulate them for me. They did me in, I think." Mackall ordered, and limped off to his office.

Taking a minute to catch his breath, Willoughby walked to Team Nine's hooch and heard the sounds of cheering and high-fives from all of them.

Opening the door, he bellowed, "Lieutenant Davis. A moment, please?"

Smiling as she exited the hooch, they walked to a quiet spot; Willoughby walked stiffly, Davis still had a spring in her step. "So, what the hell was that extra three miles all about?"

"Just trying to impress the Boss, sir."

"Don't sir me, you pain in the ass. I think I need a doctor." Rubbing the stitch still in his side, he continued, "When did you find out he was gonna run with us?"

"You all didn't call me Sneaky Bitch for nothing, you know? I've got my methods. Besides, the extra three miles was Doc's idea."

"Remind me to kill her later. Take you team and get cleaned up. We've got a lot of stuff to go over today." Willoughby turned and limped off.

Entering the team hooch, Davis was immediately assaulted with questions. Raising her hands to quiet them, she said, "Well done, you all, well done. We just about ran them to death." Looking up at March, Davis continued, "Doc--beautiful idea. When did you come up with it?"

"That first day when the gravy-sucking pukes had us running soakin' wet. I thought it'd be fun to try and see just how far and fast Mackall and Willoughby could run. I'm kind of surprised they could keep up."

"The SEAL instructors would do that to us all the time, and when we started working together with our swim buddies, the fun-runs would get slacked off a little. We'd still run our collective asses off, but once the team concept was shown to their satisfaction, the serious training would start." Miles added with a smile.

"Well, troops, congratulations of Team Nine's first successful team operation. Anybody want to name it?"

"Let Doc do it. This whole thing was her idea." Ho replied as he gestured towards the team medic.

March looked at each of her teammates for a second and then said "How about Operation Pain. Operation Lots of Pain."

"Damn, someone remind me never to piss her off . . . " James remarked. "Has anyone thought up a name for us?" He spread open his arms, encompassing the whole group.

"How about Strikers, or Ninjas, or Death Dealers?" Ho suggested.

"Since we're probably gonna be working mostly at night, let's do something with the night." Davis replied.

"How's Nightstrikers sound?" Doc asked.

Looking at each of the other team members, Davis smiled and said, "By God, I do believe a nickname has been born"

The team concept was built into every waking and most sleeping moments. They ate together as a team; they slept in the same hooches as their teammates. They ran, shot weapons, and learned to depend on one another. One member's weakness was usually off-set by strengths of two others. When Ho caught a stomach bug and was so dehydrated he had almost passed out during PT, the rest of his team literally carried him through the last half of the run. When Doc (Lance Corporal March) didn't shoot the required score with her weapon for qualification, the rest of the team re-shot the course with her.

"So they're giving themselves nicknames, eh, Bob?" Captain Mackall asked, taking a sip of beer.

"Yessir, they've started to mesh. They've even named the team. They call themselves the Nightstrikers. Can't get much more hoo-rah than that, you know?" Popping open his can, Willoughby continued, "Everyone's got a nickname, except Lieutenant Davis. Trent is "Ho", March is obviously "Doc", Miles is "Swabbie", and James is "Beaver".

"So? Maybe she hasn't carved her niche yet. Wait . . . Beaver?"

"Yeah, as in "eager as a beaver." Thinking for a moment, Willoughby continued, "Back in SERE when she was a student, we gave her the nickname "Sneaky Bitch" because she was virtually silent in the woods. I'm not sure she'd appreciate that being brought up."

"You never know. Ask her what her problem is, and see if she's gonna open up. Nicknames are part of what makes us special. You know, cohesive . . . One mind."

0945 hours
Tuesday, week Nine

"Today, ladies and gentlemen, we're going to be treated to an exhibition of flying by your team CO. The mission is to fly to an undisclosed location in an ISSAPC, overfly and recon the target, covertly insert and set up locator beacons and laser target designators for an air strike. After the strike, we will patrol the immediate area, locate another ISSAPC and exfiltrate using that method of transportation." Willoughby looked around the room, noticing that each of them had their eyes trained on the map. It showed a mountain range on Mars, south of Olympic Mons.

"Sure beats walking, you know?" James asked rhetorically.

"Lieutenant Davis is going to show us all she learned in flight school by doing us the favor of flying us home. First round of beers when we get home is on Beaver for making such a dumbass statement. You have roughly one hour thirty minutes to get to the armory, draw your weapons and report to the flightline ops area with necessary equipment. Oh yeah," Willoughby pointed at Miles, "Swabbie, this time don't forget to bring your oxygen bottles and full environmental gear, OK?"

"Sure, Gunny. I make one mistake and get teased about it for the rest of my natural life."

"It works two ways like this, Miles. First, there isn't anything natural about your life, especially since you decided to be Navy, and second, one mistake by one team member--" Willoughby was interrupted by the rest of the team joining in unison -- "Costs the entire team."

"All right, wise-asses, get moving. Be on the deck in forty-five and ready to depart." Watching his charges depart the classroom, Willoughby couldn't help but smile. "`Bout time. They've finally gotten it. One unit, one mind."

0012 hours

"Stellar positioning indicates we're near." Doc said, her voice made somewhat distant and metallic through the radio ear pieces.

"Right. Beaver, hop up and see if you can locate the spar we saw on the overfly." Davis ordered.

James placed his weapon on the ground, squatted and sprang several feet into the red sky. "There! About twenty meters to our left."

"OK, people, listen up. Ho, you and me are gonna place the laser marker on that spar. From there we should be able to see the target. The rest of you, fan out and get ready to cover us should the shit hit the fan."

With a slight nod of her head, Davis and Ho moved slowly to the designated point. Ho opened the collapsible legs, and Davis placed a device that looked a lot like an old pirate spyglass onto the stand. The larger end was pointed to an old, hastily erected structure. Consulting her map, Davis determined they had found the correct target. Ho then attached one end of a cable to the small part of the laser designator. At the other end of the cable was a small digital read-out. "OK, inertial alignment completed; laser on." Looking up at Davis, he nodded, showing acceptable tolerances in the figures.

Raising a gloved finger, Davis pushed a small detent switch on top of the unit. The only indication the Laser unit was operating were a tiny whine and a small red light on the top unit starting to glow. "Doc--call in the air strike. Target's illuminated. We're gettin' the hell outta here!"

Through their ear pieces, the team heard Doc's voice say, "Demon Dragons, this is Tango seven-seven. Target illuminated."

The lead Hammerhead pilot replied "Roger that Seven-seven. This is Dragon- one, lead in a formation of two. Missiles have acquired laser splash and are singing bee-you-tee-ful music. Stand-by for launch. Copy two?"

"Two." was the only response.

As the Demon Dragons flew into attack formation, each Nightstriker looked up and saw two hammerheads streak past, separate to a safe firing distance, and saw a pair of missiles separate from each craft. As the missiles flew onward through the forces of inertia, the hammerheads peeled off and flew out of the area.

"Missiles away, Tango seven-seven. Thanks for the target practice. Have a good day." Dragon-one transmitted to Davis.

"Roger, Dragons. Have a good flight."

As the missiles flew on towards their target, the Nightstrikers saw four rocket motors ignite, and a moment later, four separate explosions rocked the Martian sky. There was nothing left of the building; only a smoking hole was where the structure once stood.

"Good shot, you know?" Beaver asked, rhetorically.

"All right, troops, lets get our crap and get outta here. My nose itches and I really want to get out of this suit." Willoughby ordered.

As Davis and Ho retrieved the laser designator, the rest of the Nightstrikers assembled around Doc's map and determined their next course of action. "We're here, and we gotta get to here," Doc said, tracing the path with a gloved finger. "That's about seven klicks from here. I figure about an hour's time." Looking up at Willoughby, she smiled and asked, "Unless, sir, you'd like to run?"

"No thanks, smart ass. Lead off. Remember, the idea is to patrol and be as silent and stealthy as possible. No need to break any speed records. Any one of you who does something stupid and gets me killed is gonna regret it."

The patrol towards the hidden ISSAPC was uneventful, and took much longer than the anticipated hour. The ISSAPC was located underneath some camouflage netting, up on a flat plateau. Beaver was just starting to stand when March reached out and grabbed his arm. "Wait--this is too easy. This thing might be a trap."

"Trap hell, this is our way home." James replied, shaking his arm loose.

"Beave, she's right. Just hang loose. Swabbie, you and Ho go on up and get a look. We've got your six.", Davis ordered.

As the two members approached the ISSAPC from different directions, the rest of the team split up and covered their fellow Nightstrikers. Davis and Willoughby watched through binoculars as Ho approached the port side and started looking in every conceivable nook and cranny.

"OK, engines look clear. Underneath is clear too, at least as best as I can tell. Moving to the front."

"You guys booby-trap this thing, Bobby?" Davis asked.

"Can't say one way or the other. But, remember, the whole point of this field trip to learn."

Nodding in her environmental suit, Davis showed her agreement. "You two stay sharp." She transmitted to Ho and Swabbie.

"I've got a thing sticking out up here . . ." Swabbie said.

"Pervert. Put it back and it'll go away." March answered with a chuckle in her voice.

Ignoring the remark, Miles continued, "It's definitely not part of this plane. LT, you wanna come up and get a look?"

"Be right there. Don't touch it."

As Davis made her way up to the ISSAPC, she noticed the object Miles was talking about. It was roughly three inches square, and had a few thin wires leading from it to a rock in front of the door. "OK, it looks like a bomb with either a timer or detonator pad under that rock." Davis then set her weapon on the ground and studied the wires. "Hmmm . . . They aren't insulated, so I imagine that's not an electric timer. It must be wired to a pressure pad. Don't nobody stand on or near that thing, it might also have a seismic sensor on it too." Thinking for a minute, she continued, "The trick is gonna be to keep the right amount of pressure on the switch while we remove this thing. Any ideas?"

"How about tape? Anyone bring duct tape?" Doc asked.

Ho put his pack on the ground, reached into it and pulled out some Velcro straps. "I've got this," he said, handing it to Miles.

"OK, here's the plan. I'm gonna reach under the detonator pad, pick it and the rock up real slow, and you're gonna wrap it together. Try not to get my hands. OK?" Davis looked up into Trent's eyes, and saw a quiet confidence in them. "Here we go."

"LT, I don't think it's wise for you to do this. I mean, none of us can fly, and you're our ticket home." Doc said, concern showing in her voice.

"It's OK, Doc. I'll be careful. Besides, it isn't right for me to ask you to do something if I wouldn't do it." Davis knelt down, dug under the loose soil, and placed her fingers on the pad. She kept the pressure of the rock with her thumbs. Offering a silent prayer to whichever gods might be listening, she slowly picked up the combination detonator pad and rock. "C'mon Adam, tape it!"

Ho quickly wrapped the straps around the detonator combination, careful not to get Davis' gloved hands. "Good job. Now, pry that thing off my plane, and walk with me to the edge of the plateau. Try not to separate the wires, 'cause that might set it off. Walk behind me; if I start to fall or stumble, you *will* drop the bomb and run like hell away from me. Is that clear?"

"Sure, Kate. No sweat. Running like hell is what I do best."

Together, Davis and Trent slowly walked the twenty meters to the edge of the plateau. While they stood on the edge, Davis ordered the rest of the team into the ISSAPC, and all doors shut. "OK, bud. The count's gonna be one, two, three. On two, we swing our arms back, and on three, we heave this piece of shit over the edge, and fall back in case it explodes. Ready?"

Ho nodded, wishing he could wipe the sweat from his brow. "I'll count, Lt, OK?" Seeing her nod, he began, "One, two, three!" They both threw their respective pieces of the bomb as far as they could, and both fell to the ground. Seconds later, an explosion once again rippled through the thin Martian atmosphere.

Taking a deep breath, Ho looked at his Lieutenant and said through a smile, "Gutsy thing to do. Now, can we go home?"

"Yeah, let's get outta here. Hey, Beaver, you all un-ass the APC and strike the cammo netting. I'll be there in a minute and we'll start pre-flight."

Sitting in the pilot seat of the ISSAPC, Davis began the pre-flight checklist. "Everybody strap in. We're gonna do this take-off in assault mode."

"Lt--we're gonna do what?" Miles asked, trepidation in his voice evident to all.

"Aww, nuts. I hate this crap." Willoughby muttered as he started taking the cammo netting away from the ISSAPC.

"Just sit down and strap in. This'll be fun."

The pre-flight checklist for the ISSAPC vehicles were designed with simplicity and speed in mind. Most of the gauges and switches needing to be set or checked were located within the pilot's grasp. Davis checked these with a practiced eye, and was satisfied with the readings from all of them. Flipping the engine start switches, she called back to the crew compartment, "Everyone buckled in tight?"

"Looks good from back here. Nightstrikers ready for liftoff.", Miles replied.

"OK, here's what's gonna happen: You're gonna hear a loud whine from the engines, and then I'm gonna let this thing shoot straight up for a couple meters. After that, it's gonna be nap-of-the-earth flying until we're out of visual range. Nobody distract me--I haven't been NOE flying in a long time. The next step is to climb outta here, and we'll be home before long. Once we're clear out of enemy occupied territory, I'll pump in the atmosphere, and you all can get out of the environmental suits. Any questions?"

Davis listened for a full ten seconds, and not hearing any questions, assumed everyone was ready for the flight. She then added full power to the engines. The rest of the team could feel the rumble of them in their chest, and imagined the dust storm kicking up outside. Before many of them could finish visualizing this thought, the ISSAPC sprang straight up; the sudden G-force caused most of the team's heads to take a small dip towards their chests. The only person who wasn't affected was Willoughby; he was pressing his body as far back into the seat as possible.

"Hey--what's he doing?" Ho asked as he tapped Doc to get her attention.

"I dunno." Looking over at Willoughby, she asked, "Hey, Gunny, what're you doing?"

Looking over at her, he answered, "This isn't my first NOE flight, and this helps keep everything in perspective. You all might want to pull your seat straps as tight as you can."

Taking control of the ISSAPC, Davis started flying Nap-Of-the-Earth. This mode of flight means the total altitude of the airframe was never more than a specified distance from the highest ground point. Davis had dialed in ten meters. The NOE system was a virtual auto-pilot system, using several sets of imaging equipment to accomplish its mission. One looked forward and searched for high and low ground, one looked out each side of the ISSAPC to make sure they weren't being flown down a narrow canyon, and one looked down to ensure the correct distance between the objects and the airframe were kept as constant as possible. The on-board computers did all of the work, and Davis only needed to keep ready to take over should any portion of the collision guidance system falter. The end result was the wildest roller- coaster ride any of them had ever been on, with deviations in altitude caused by trying to stay so close to the ground. Many times during the initial portion of the flight, the team members thought they were finally out of the NOE flying and beginning to pull up, but suddenly, they would take a swift dive towards the Martian surface. After several minutes of this type of flying, the team members heard, "That ought to do it. We're probably out of visual and weapons range. Starting ascent. Cabin pressure coming up."

To a person, the team members were grateful to feel the nose of the ISSAPC start to rise. Willoughby gave a silent slow 10 count, and then popped the seal on his environmental suit. After a slight hissing sound had ended, he took a couple lungfulls of stale cabin air. Scratching his nose, he looked at the rest of the team and said, "Best dang air around. Smells great. You can get out of the suits now, people. I'm going to sit up front with Davis for a few minutes." Willoughby then unbuckled his seat harness, rose and headed through the bulkhead separating the passenger compartment from the cockpit.

"How's it going up here?", he asked while slipping into the right-side seat.

"Not too bad. This thing handled pretty well during NOE ops. Everyone OK back there?"

"Yeah, they're starting to get out of their suits." Looking at her for a second, he continued, "Why don't you get out of yours, and I'll watch the autopilot fly this thing."

"Sounds good to me. Just don't touch anything. FTL drive is activated, and it won't be on for long. We'll come out of it just this side of the moon, and then it'll only be another half hour or so `till we're ready for atmospheric flight. The auto-pilot's set and course is designated. We should be home before much longer."

The rest of the flight towards Earth was uneventful. Davis and Willoughby spent most of the time talking about the team, and then went on to small talk afterwards. Eventually, he sat back and drifted off to sleep.

Checking her gauges one more time, Davis calculated they were in communications range with Ground Control at Hurlburt Field. Opening the comm channel to all team members, Davis transmitted, "Flight OPS, this is the Nightstrikers, do you read?"

From the small ear pieces each team member wore, they heard, "Roger, Nightstrikers. Switch frequencies to 266.934 and contact Eagle Site air control. Our orders are to have you put down there." Eagle site was a small communications site, several miles from the main parking area.

"Ahh . . . Roger OPS. Copy 266.934, Eagle site. Any reason why so far out?"

"Negative, Nightstrike. Sounds like a pickup."

Shaking her head with disgust, Davis replied, "Roger. En route." Ending the transmission, and switching frequencies, she mumbled, "Poor babies. Gotta ride in the big, bad ISSAPC. Can't make it home any other way. Pukes will probably want us to fly them halfway around the planet."

"You saying something?" Ho asked.

"Just talking to myself. I tend to do that a lot, so get used to it. Just start to worry if at some point when I'm talking to myself, I look around and say, "Huh?". Besides, back on Mars, it seemed OK to call me by my first name. I don't have a problem with that, unless we're around brass. Hey, we're a team, so I don't care what we call each other, just gotta play the military game back home. Out on Ops, though, it's fine with me."

"Uhh, yes ma'am. You're the boss."

"Eagle site, this is the Nightstrikers. Requesting permission to land."

"Roger Nightstrikers. Permission granted. You'll see the beacon."

"I know where you all are. Just have a hot cup of coffee ready for us when we get there. It's been a long day."

"No can do, Nightstrike. Leave the engines running and stand by for personnel and their carry-on to enplane. Your orders are to fly them to the new Aerotech facility in Nevada."

Suddenly, the cabin was filled with the sound of multiple alarms sounding. Each one of them indicated a major problem, and to have that many alarms sounding at once signified a major malfunction. "Wazzat?" A startled Willoughby asked.

"Shit. I don't know." Davis replied as she started punching buttons and silencing the alarms. "Looks like we've lost a couple steering pumps on the port side . .

. Now we've lost the port engine. And for some reason the fuel's been vented from the starboard tanks. Punch that switch." She pointed towards a small, blue toggle switch. "That'll keep the fuel flowing to the other side so we don't become way too imbalanced. Is this one of the Cadre tricks?"

"No. We don't mess with people this way. This is something wrong with this plane."

Just then, each of the team members could start to feel the buffeting of the atmosphere. "Everyone get a 'chute on and get strapped in . . . Also, get ready to separate the hold if I can't hold us together. We're gonna be high enough for a jump if it breaks apart . . . If it comes to that."

Looking at her with concern, he replied, "Can you handle this?"

"Been in worse, but only in simulators."

"Oh, yeah? How'd you do there?" Her answer was a shake of her head. "Great. What can I do to help?"

"Nothing. Wait . . . Wipe the sweat off my forehead, OK? It's starting to get in my eyes, and I don't want to take my hands off the stick. After that, try and get a fix on exactly where we are. This monster isn't gonna fly much longer, I don't think." Switching frequencies to the International Guard Frequency, she pressed the transmit button on her control stick. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Nightstrikers Tango seven-seven declaring an emergency. Any location receiving this transmission reply."

"This is Aerotech ground control copying Nightstrikers Tango seven-seven. State your emergency and location.", a voice immediately replied.

"Ahhh . . . Roger Aerotech. We're," looking over at Willoughby, Davis saw his fingers tracing a path over the Gulf of Mexico. "We're approximately Angles 45, smack dab over the Gulf. Request vectors to the nearest soft landing zone. We've lost pumps, port engines and we have a fuel transfer problem." Davis' voice was shaking-- not with fear or excitement, but was echoing the vibrations and bumpiness of the descent through the atmosphere.

"Copy location and emergency, seven-seven. Say altitude again."

"Smug bastard. Why's he want to know our altitude?" Willoughby asked. Keying his microphone, he replied, "Listen to me, Aerotech. I'll be the voice you will hear from here on out. The pilot is too busy to answer your inane questions. She told you once before that we are at forty-five thousand feet. Would you mind honoring her request and finding us a place to set this lumbering beast down?"

"Roger seven-seven. Relax, and follow these instructions. Turn right, heading of zero four zero, and try and increase glide path. You should make it to our site here in Nevada."

"Glide path, my ass. We've got one good engine and can't land on it. Our glide ratio is a lot like that of a brick. Are you equipped to handle a VTOL aircraft and possible casualties?"

"Roger seven-seven. Copy one good engine?", the controller asked as he looked back at the persons standing behind him.

"Starboard engine is nominal. We're gonna run out of gas before long, though."

"Roger seven-seven. Stand-by." Once again turning back to the group of men huddled in conference, the controller waited for instructions. After a few of the heads nodded, the groups' spokesman looked up and said, "I don't care how you do it, they need to land here. We've got to look over the ISSAPC and see why they didn't lose both engines." Stopping and looking around the room, he continued, "And if they do crash out these somewhere, you better get there and secure the site before anyone, and I mean ANYONE gets there first. Do I make myself clear?"

"Aerotech, this is seven-seven." Willoughby's tension-filled voice came through the speaker. "We're going to circle over the Gulf of Mexico and lose altitude and airspeed. We estimate enough fuel to be just south of the Texas Gulf Coast. We're going to ditch this thing in the water. We would appreciate it if you would find it in your hearts to scramble some Search and Rescue."

"Negative seven-seven. Assume heading and glide path indicated. Computer projections indicate you can make it here to a landing at the Aerotech facility."

"OK, son. Answer me this question. This is a VTOL airframe. How are we going to land horizontally? We got no engine, we got no gas, henceforth, you idiot, we got no vertical takeoff and landing capability." Willoughby's voice took on that tone often associated with parents and others more scholarly.

"The runway you'll be landing on is soft desert. We will be standing by with emergency equipment."

"Just ducky", Davis said under her breath. Transmitting, she answered, "We'd probably stand a chance of surviving if we ditched, but sliding across a runway while we're venting fuel is suicidal. I'm putting down into the water."

"Negative seven-seven. We are under standing orders to bring disabled military hardware to this location for analysis and repair. To do otherwise would be a violation of federal and military laws."

Closing her eyes for a second, and exhaling loudly, she answered, "Roger Aerotech. Foam the runway."

"Can do, seven-seven. Be advised, we have you on RADAR contact; you're at twenty-two thousand, speed is much too fast. Throttle back or commence airspeed reduction maneuvers."

"We're dropping like a ruptured duck, and you want us to slow down? Have you lost your friggin' mind?" Willoughby yelled into the mic. Only a quick reassuring squeeze on his forearm from Davis stopped his tirade. "It's OK, Bobby. We'll make it. I've got enough airspeed, and we're going to shut off the other engine until we need it." Reaching over to the engine control panel, she punched the button to shut off the starboard engine. "Do me a favor, and make sure everyone has a 'chute on." looking over at him, she continued, "That means you too, Gunnery Sergeant. That's an order."

Looking her directly in the eyes, he saw the same quiet determination in them as he had seen back when she was just a student in SERE. Sliding out of the seat, he said, "I'll be back. Don't crash without me."

Opening the bulkhead door to the crew compartment, he bellowed, "OK, troops. Everyone got a parachute on?" As he started struggling with his parachute harness, he looked over the four faces. Each of them had their jaws set, eyes locked straight ahead. Seeing no panic or fear pleased Willoughby. "The signal to jump, if it comes to that, will be three quick clicks on the intercom. Be paying attention. I want to see five good chutes when I go, and I'll be the last one out. Any questions?"

Re-entering the cockpit, Willoughby said, "If you can't hold it, we're all getting out, and I'll personally cut your seatbelts and throw you out ahead of me, so no arguments, OK?"

A quick nod was the only response, but Willoughby didn't really expect a verbal one. Davis was busy trying to keep the ISSAPC nose-up. "Nightstrike seven-seven, this is Aerotech Ground Control,", a new voice came over their ear pieces. "How's it going? We show you to be a couple hundred miles out; airspeed and altitude look good."

The nonchalant attitude of the new voice irritated Davis more than she could control. Keying her microphone, she bellowed, "How's it going? I'll tell you how it's going, you worthless puddle of pig drool. I've got a crippled spaceship on my hands, and your people wouldn't let me put it down where I thought we'd survive the impact. Is the runway foamed yet?" Giving a quick look at Willoughby, Davis saw him grinning from ear to ear. "What's so friggin' funny?"

"'Worthless puddle of pig drool? I thought I'd heard them all." Willoughby answered with a chuckle.

"Yeah, it was pretty original." She replied, breaking a little tension.

Giving a sideways glance towards her, Willoughby gently asked, "Katie--give it to me straight. How are we doing?"

"We're going to make it; the landing's probably gonna be rougher than I've ever done, but this thing wasn't made to roll out." Looking up through the cockpit window, she said, "I estimate 5 minutes until touchdown. Start looking out the window, and let me know if you see a runway." Transmitting over the intercom, she informed the rest of the team, "I'm starting the turns and flare maneuvers to drop bunches of airspeed, so don't worry. These turns aren't going to be much in the way of radical moves, just long, slow S-turns."

Busying himself with trying to find their landing zone, Willoughby decided that, should he be intact after the impact, he would look up the last mechanic who had worked on this particular ISSAPC and pull their spleen out through their nose. He also concluded this act wouldn't be because he had been placed in danger, but because his kids were being put in harm's way, and he couldn't do anything about it. Suddenly, he saw several long, intersecting lines, much too straight for something nature had constructed. He pointed these out to Davis. "There. About ten o'clock."

"That's them." Keying her mic, Davis said, "Aerotech, visual contact. Turning onto final approach."

"Roger seven-seven.", the disembodied voice answered with maddening calm. "Runway has been foamed. Good luck."

"Thanks." Looking over at Willoughby, she ordered, "Get on the intercom; have everyone strap in tight. It's gonna get bumpy in about 30 seconds."

Nodding, Willoughby keyed the intercom. "Pull 'em tighter boys and girls. Once we come to a stop, get out of this thing and meet off the port side. See you all after we land . . . Here we go."

The ISSAPC starboard engine rotated on its gimbals so it could be used for braking, and soon afterwards, short bursts of fire could be seen by those on the ground. When Davis was sure they had slowed to a safe speed, she rotated the engine back to it's standard setting, opened the flaps up all the way, and popped the fire bottles in both engine and fuel compartments. Seconds later, they hit with a jarring impact and started to slide. Each of them could feel the vibration through their seats, and they could have sworn the slide went on forever. In actuality, they slid for less than twenty seconds. Once they were stopped, fire trucks began spraying the ISSAPC in hope the remaining fuel would not ignite, and the team sprinted from the wrecked craft.

The last one out was Davis, who calmly walked towards her teammates and accepted their congratulations and thanks for getting them down safely.

"Doc--anybody hurt?" she asked.

"Nope. Looks like everyone made it, this time."

"I think my ass is still in pucker factor 30." James said. "I'm surprised it came off the seat."

"Doc, don't you have something to help James and his pucker problem?", Willoughby asked, adding fuel to the fire.

Getting a thoughtful look on her face, she started rummaging around in her medic bag. "Yeah, I suppose an enema might loosen that little problem up. Bend over, Beave."

"Oh, yeah. Very funny. Let's all just wait a minute here and delay the assault on my poor sphincter. How about we give the LT the bill for wrecking our ride home."

Watching the fire vehicles continue their work, Davis looked at her teammates and said, "You know, we were told in flight school that those many malfunctions shouldn't happen all at once. These things," she motioned to the wrecked ISSAPC, "were designed to be pretty simple in their mechanics."

"So what could cause that many problems all at once?" Willoughby asked.

"As best I can tell, only something like a missile hit . . ." Davis replied, looking at the fire suppression efforts. "The ISS class vehicles were designed to be used in many roles, and not have these type problems. I have no idea what happened."

"We'll have the maintenance weenies pull the recorders and run full tests on the circuitry and computers when we get back. If there's any left alive after I get through with them, that is." Willoughby added with a grin.

Taking a few more seconds to look at the mostly completed fire suppression activities, Willoughby joked, "Hey -- anybody got cab fare?" Looking around to see if anyone liked his attempt at humor, he realized he was standing alone. "God, I hate to waste a good one-liner.", he muttered to himself as he jogged to catch the rest of his team.

Next : Part 2

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