“Negative G forces coming. Hold on to your lunch.”
Captain Josie Lockworth, USAF upped the throttle and pushed forward on the stick of her T-38 supersonic jet. Out of courtesy only, she offered the warning to reporter Shannon Conner strapped into the back seat.
Not that she had anything against reporters. Hell, she’d flown with top notch embedded journalists in the Middle East. Her best friend was even a television correspondent.
This reporter, however, could only be called a hack. Her news network soaked up scandal like a thirsty rag. Josie couldn’t afford bad press derailing her multimillion-dollar military test project. Forget the money, actually small change as far as the government was concerned.
Her mother’s honor had been held hostage long enough.
The T-38 pierced a low-lying cloud. Blood rushed up to her head with negative G forces, the reverse of positive Gs that pushed blood down. The body tolerated fewer negative Gs before passing out. One negative G. Two. Three. Spots danced in front of her eyes on the mountainous horizon of the California desert.
Adrenaline sang through her veins. Sweat popped along her back through her T-shirt. Her flight suit clung like a second skin. But then the uniform was already as much a part of her as any epidermal layer.
She pulled back on the stick, glancing up at the mirror to check her passenger. Shannon was awake but slumped in her seat in the tight cockpit, one strand of blond hair sneaking out of her helmet to stick to her pale face.
No hurling yet. A twinge of respect trickled through Josie’s steady focus, even a bit of sympathy.
But she did need to keep the reporter busy and disoriented. How better than nonstop acrobatics in a supersonic and nimble airplane? Shannon had insisted on the full-out flying experience. And Josie always delivered one hundred percent.
Tucking sideways, she slipped through a mountain pass. Through her clear top canopy, she watched the sandy landscape scroll past.
Josie forced oxygen in and out. Her huffed exhales echoed through the headset Darth Vader style. Near silence swallowed the cockpit, the only sound the rasp and drag of breathing through the oxygen mask since they’d left noise behind with speed.
As always, she flattened her frustration with familiar routine of flying. The trainer jet zipped along over a range near Edwards Air Force Base, approximately a hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. Not much longer left in this flight until she landed where she worked in a military detachment at the nearby Palmdale testing facility, also known as Air Force Plant 42.For a test pilot, steely nerves were mandatory, leaving no room for cranky emotions jangling her at a critical second. And during test missions, any second could be critical.
Okay, so this wasn’t a test and she was pissed.
That someone like Shannon had been allowed access to Josie’s current test project just proved higher ups were only paying lip service to endorsing her work. Someone wanted this resurrected project that had once been her mother’s to fail. Damaging press could facilitate their cause.
And yeah, yeah, she mentally rolled her eyes at her annoying voice of reason. Part of her still resented Shannon from their prep-school days at the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women.
Advancement? Shannon had tried to advance Josie right out the front gates on a trumped up charge of stealing.
Good God, as if.
Her stomach which held strong against negative Gs grew downright queasy over the notion of taking so much as a post office pen. But back then, Shannon had convinced everyone Josie was off her rocker like her washed up military mama. Who could expect reasonable behavior from a Lockworth lady?
Anger fired hotter than an afterburner, jangling the singing adrenaline off key. Her combat boots braced on the rudders. She kept her right hand loose on the stick, her left on the two throttles, flicking up to adjust dials then landing back on the stick. Not a HOTAS – hands on throttle and stick, with all the buttons attached. In the T-38 she had to take her hands off the stick and throttle to work the controls. But for Shannon, she’d give a new spin to the HOTAS – Hands On Tummy and Sickbag.
She ran the stick fore and aft, gliding the T-38 through the sky in a porpoise-style swim along the rolling mountain range. Push for a hint of a negative G at the top of the sine wave. Pull for the kiss of a positive G at the bottom of sine wave. Push, pull. Push, pull.
“Uh, Josie?” Shannon’s thready voice echoed over the headset. “Where’s the eject button again?”
Crap. She’d gone too far, something she never did anymore. She steadied the stick. “Just a little PIO – pilot induced oscillation. My fault, and nothing to worry about. I’ve got it back under control.”
Time to get herself under control as well. She needed to tamp down the old impulsive Josie in favor of her more structured self she’d cultivated after her mother’s breakdown. “We’re on the straight and narrow now. As long as you keep your eyes forward, all will be normal.”
Unlike looking to the side where everything blurred with speed.
She hugged the terrain with skill and calm. No one would ever have reason to accuse her of weakness or emotional instability. She knew how hard she would have to fight even a whisper of that label since her mother had been locked away after “the incident.” But with this test project, Josie hoped to clear her mother’s name – and shake free of that dark legacy.
“Doing okay back there?” Josie’s gaze flicked up to the mirror again.
“Just fine,” ever-prideful Shannon replied, brown eyes wide, make up still impeccable.
Pride, Josie could understand. She had her fair share of that. Sad thing was, Shannon really packed a genius brain under all that uptight pettiness. Given the right direction, she could have been an incredible asset to the Athena Academy alumni list – if she’d even made it to the twelfth grade instead of being punted out on an honor violation.
All a moot point since, more importantly, that genius brain could twist things against Josie in a heartbeat if the intellect wasn’t otherwise occupied. And if her navigational calculations were correct, they were seconds away from a guaranteed distraction.
Bingo. Right on target, there it was, a nifty distraction for any brain. “Bet you wouldn’t expect to see that out here.”
“A nudist colony.” She hoped her words didn’t convey the grin she couldn’t stifle.
Silence echoed over the headset, then, “You’re making that up to get me to look over to the side where it’s tougher to keep oriented with the motion. You just want to freak me out again.”
“I’m only playing tour guide.” Oh yeah, completely in control again. “Not that I have anything against nudist colonies, but I can’t help wondering. Why have one in the desert? I mean think about it. Wouldn’t the sunscreen sting in sensitive places? And sitting on a metal lawn chair, a guy would really have to watch his butt and be careful of his, uh, well, hoo-hah hanging out there.”
“And this helps me with my feature how?” Broadcaster neutral tones livened up with an extra touch of bitchiness.
“I’m trying to show you some of the local scenery. But if you don’t think it will work, no problem. Besides, hoo-hah might be too technical a term for your viewers.”
“You’re so not funny.”
This whole damned flight wasn’t funny. And the threat Shannon posed to her career was downright terrifying, but Josie had to find moments of levity where she could.
“You’re right. I totally understand if you don’t want to look. It’s much easier to keep your lunch down if you’re focusing forward.” Now wasn’t there a nifty life lesson there? “Watching out the side is only for folks with steely nerves.”
She’d tossed down a gauntlet and Shannon would undoubtedly accept the challenge. Wait. Wait for it.
“Oh my God.” Shannon’s face went waxy in the mirror. She jerked back around front, gaze fixed on the horizon.
“Been that long since you saw a hoo-hah, huh?”
Shannon’s growl echoed through the headset.
Josie concurred on a number of levels. Sadly, it had likely been even longer for her since she didn’t have time for a man lately, much less his hoo-hah. Not that she would admit that to Shannon.
The woman resented her, always had. Right from their early teenage years at Athena Academy, Shannon had envied Josie’s connections through her grandfather, past CIA director Joseph Lockworth. Poppy had been directly responsible for starting the prestigious all-girls prep school designed to empower women, many of them going on to government security jobs. With only two hundred students from grades seven through twelve, the bonds forged among students were tight and lifelong.
She still sweated bullets over how Shannon’s little stunt had almost cost Josie her dream. Luckily, her best friend Tory Patton had worked her own investigative skills and proved Shannon was responsible for stealing the class’s petty-cash fund and setting up Josie.
Josie’s hands fisted tighter. She should just get over it. Besides, she had the Athena diploma. She could afford to be magnanimous. Adult.
Easing back the stick, Josie skimmed a more scenic route along California’s desert valleys cut by the ridges of the Sierra Nevadas with the Kern River running through. She cranked an east turn away from the river valley, out of the Sierras back over flat land of dry lake beds and creosote bushes, closer to her Palmdale testing facility near Edwards AFB and closer to dropping off Shannon.
Josie continued a tour-guide litany while her passenger stayed silent for once. Thank God.
A road splitting the desert stretched straight and long ahead of her, marred only by the dust kicked up from a motorcycle bearing down toward the test facility. She lined up along the lone band of road, pacing, gaining ground on the rider. And why not? Everything in an aviator’s life was a chance for competition.
Fringe rippled from the arms of the biker’s leather jacket giving off a Mad Max air that fit well with the scattered miners, desert rats in rusted trailers. Wild and untamed, like the old Josie who was no longer allowed free rein. The taboo element entranced her all the more for being forbidden. Even while she rambled her scenic explanations to Shannon, Josie couldn’t look away from a sight and yearning that held her attention beyond any hoo-hah.
Her headset crackled with a cleared throat. Shannon’s interruption yanked Josie’s attention back to the cockpit.
“Too bad you couldn’t get Tory to cover your dog and pony show. No doubt she would have televised anything you wanted. That loyalty among classmates is something else. You two even covered for a pregnant friend once – what happened to Kayla and her kid anyway? Did she ever find a man to marry her?”
Okay, that ripped it. The old Josie still humming just below the surface kicked her adrenaline level up into a freaking aria. “For a smart woman, you sure do say some mighty unwise things at times.”
She could put up with someone smacking at her. But her innate sense of justice which had once earned her the label “Josephine the Tattletale Queen” really balked at letting an injustice go unavenged.
Nobody messed with her friends.
“You know, Shannon, I don’t think I’m lined up just right. We need to go around.” She clicked on the radio. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero on the go.”
Josie popped the jet into afterburners, dumping raw gas into the exhaust stream like a pilot light on a stove igniting, pumping up the speed. Thwump. The plane jolted from the swift kick in the ass. Exhilaration trilled within her like the final high note exploding free to reverberate through an auditorium.
Her eyes flicked to the mirror. Shannon’s face turned cucumber.
“Ah, hell, Shannon–” she couldn’t quite suppress the sarcasm “–I probably should have told you I was going to do that.”
Shannon grappled at the face mask. Her throat worked, then cranked down in a swallow. Impressive move, holding back the volcano of vomit that would have spewed up through the mask.
Enough payback for one day. Point made. The last echoes of justice faded, leaving an emptiness inside her that grew increasingly difficult to ignore.
Josie leveled off at five hundred feet above the runway. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero requesting left closed.”
“Left closed approved. Repeat base.”
“Bat two-zero, left base with gear.”
The control tower responded, “Bat two-zero, clear to land. No traffic.”
Coming in. Landing. One hundred and fifty miles per hour at impact, the tires screeched in protest of the brakes. She kept the nose up to bleed off speed as well until poof, the plane’s nose tilted down and kissed asphalt. The plane taxied down the runway at a sedate pace.
Hand easing back on the throttle, she slowed, pulling off onto the hammerhead toward Shannon’s waiting television cameraman. “Palmdale, Bat two-zero clear the active. Going to ground control.” She switched frequencies. “Palmdale ground, Bat two-zero. Clear the active. Request parking.”
“Bat two-zero, taxi via Alpha,” ground control responded. “Back to spot sixteen. Caution construction. Right hand side of Alpha at Bravo.”
A blue pickup truck slid in front of her with a “follow me” sign in back to lead her onto the tarmac. The sun’s rays baked through the clear canopy, desert temps still notching in November. Her flight suit stuck to her back against the leather seat as she followed the truck past the guy waving wand flashlights toward the parking spot–
And toward a uniformed man, the major, her boss, standing waiting.
Not good. The murky cloud over her day went opaque.
Major Mike Bridges had no doubt made the trip out to the flight line to coincide with her landing for a reason. Since he stood by the hangar housing her two modified test models of the Predator unmanned spy drone, he must be here for her. A problem? If so, she needed scoop-hungry Shannon Conner out of the way before any discussion.
Josie whipped off her helmet and deplaned. Wind tore across the treeless expanse, lifting her short hair, drying the sweat on her body with gritty gusts. Her combat boots smacked steamy asphalt three steps behind Shannon, who was staggering toward the nearest trash can.
Shannon gripped the metal edges and leaned, her borrowed flight suit stretching across her heaving back. Wonder if the cameraman would document that part?
Her boss frowned. Josie cringed, then braced. He’d only assumed command a month ago, so she still wasn’t sure where she stood in regard to his approval and respect. Still, she’d followed orders today – show the reporter around and pull out all the stops. Okay, so she’d worked in a little revenge for her friend along with it. And at a totally sucky time.
She needed to lay low after the fallout from her helicopter diversionary stunt she’d pulled to help one of her Athena grad friends with a mission a few months ago. Another wrong she’d leaped in to avenge and damn the consequences. She’d never quite understood why being right wasn’t always the right thing.
Regardless, her flight and fun were over.
A rumble from behind the hangar interrupted her thoughts seconds before a Harley rolled into view. The same low rider cruiser she’d seen from her plane roared up with the guy wearing black leather.
The motorcycle jerked to a stop by the fence gate. Fringe rippled on the man’s arms rippled. The growling engine shushed.
One boot slammed the cement. A muscled thigh in faded blue jeans and black chaps swung over. The second boot pounded pavement. He tugged off the helmet, shaking free coal dark hair longer than any military regs allowed. The thick mane hit his shoulders.
Definitely not military.
He smacked along his leather-clad thighs, dusting, the action and chaps drawing attention to a hoo-hah package that–
Nope. Not gonna go there even in her mind. Too much talk of hoo-hahs must have her hormones on overload.
Her P.C. call sign might have started out as a Josie and the Pussy Cats reference, but she’d quickly redirected it to Politically Correct. She had rights and wrongs down pat. Checking out a man’s hoo-hah was as disrespectful as an ass-check from him.
Even if this guy didn’t have a problem with women who flew jets and shot the big guns like other men she’d seen outside the workplace, she didn’t have time for a relationship. Hell, she barely had time to do her laundry.
Once she cleared her mother’s name, her life would be different. Then she could shake off the ghosts of her past and not worry so much about the repercussions of letting the occasional emotion slip free.
She turned her attention back to the upchucking reporter, reaching into her thigh pocket for a pack of tissues and a peppermint. Silently she passed Shannon the candy and tissues.
Blond hair straggling forward, Shannon snatched the offerings and started restoring order for a camera appearance. “My feature about you is going to suck, you know.”
“We both know it was going to anyway.” Josie popped a peppermint into her mouth as well and clicked it to the side against her teeth.
Life might not always be right or fair, but people were predictable for the most part. There was something comforting about that, even when it brought negative garbage her way. At least she could see it coming and strategize.
After her mother’s breakdown and discharge from the Air Force, Josie had submerged all impulsiveness, clinging to clear-cut reason and stability. Except for a brief lapse today with shaking up Shannon, she’d stuck to her plan. Emotionalism, injustice, any upset in the cosmos launched jitters in Josie’s tummy that left her HOTAS.
Her wayward eyes skipped right over to the biker making his way toward her commander. What the hell were the two of them plotting? Her instincts screamed ambush ahead.