76: Star Light 8 – Search Party

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Commander Natalee Wilkins’ LRP squadron flew out of Abernathy. Despite that, she would never have known Jared was here if the commodore hadn’t pulled her in for the search. Now she sat across a dinner table from him in the Officer’s Club. She wished it could be a longer reunion.

She had heard that her old squadron mate had become a cruiser captain, but she had never been able to picture it. The undisciplined aviator with the goofy grin had seemed destined for either the brig or an early, glorious death.

He had sure cleaned up nice. When she first saw him, she had trouble believing this forty-ish, steely-eyed space captain was the boy she once knew. It was as if a donkey had somehow grown into a thoroughbred.

She also heard not a trace of the Creole that once peppered his English and made him impossible for foreigners to follow on the voice comm. He now spoke in neat British Academic perfection.

The rock-solid captain had been there all along, she supposed. The man had a relaxed, confident attitude, a lack of posturing, which he had worn even as the teenager. Out on a mission, he was never the hotshot that he play-acted on the ground. He was a steady presence, especially when things went pear-shaped. It’s Jared all right, it just isn’t Cobra. He got rid of Cobra along with the dreads.

She also knew he was the same man beneath it all when she saw the echo in his eyes, during the meeting, as they discussed the girl in the hospital. He sees Mako in that girl. Mako and Gorgon crashed out somewhere near here.

“Senior Commander Jared Ross.” she declared, “My squadron assembles for take-off in less than an hour. If we are to have any dinner conversation at all, Sir, you need to proceed.”

It wasn’t fair to be a huffy date with him, she told herself. After all, she was the one who dragged him to dinner in the first place. But he was not going to sit there and pick at his food if she could help it, not when she hadn’t seen him in almost twenty years.

He flashed a self-conscious smile. “I suppose I’m not good conversation today, Nat. We should try doing this sometime when we don’t have a situation.”

The only reason we’re seeing each other again after all this time is that we have a ‘situation’, she thought at him. She chose instead to say, “You’re thinking about the two who crashed out near here.”

He nodded. “Aren’t you? When we first knew we had a drifting fighter to pick up, I thought it might be one of them.”

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“They’re dead by now, Jared. Even if they were in Freeze-up, it would be too long for a revival.”

“They’ve revived Freeze-ups after twenty years before.”

“A very, very few. Most aren’t viable after that long.”

Another uncomfortable silence lingered over the table. Jared finally broke it with a curious chuckle and mentioned, “So, me ‘ear you ‘ad a couple dem pickney.”

Natalee almost strangled on her tea, laughing. “Lawd, Jared, that’s the first Jamaican I’ve heard from you all evening! I had just been wondering where it went.”

He brightened, his old easy smile come home from wherever it had also gone. “I had to work pretty hard to separate the Jamaican from the English. You guys always thought it was a put-on, but the truth was, I couldn’t help it. But they wouldn’t give me the time of day at Christ Church, so I hired a language coach.”

“At where?”

“The college I attended. At Oxford.”

She contemplated the new Jared and thought about the old one. “Kinda sad. ‘Dreadies In Space’ are no more, you know. The Force closed the base and moved out of Ja. Our old unit flies out of London now.”

“No choice. That mess with the drug runners, you know. So, there’s no more ‘Bad Bwoys’. I wonder if they kept the unit nickname.”

“Well, the whole dreads thing was a sham anyway,” she pointed out. “There wasn’t a real Rastafarian in the bunch. That was just an image you guys were putting on.”

He shook his head. “You never understood, Nat. It wasn’t about religion, it was about nation. We were one little Jamaican squadron lost among all the American units, Euro units and Asian units. It was our way to be known.”

He thought for a moment, and then smiled. “So you do have a couple kids like I heard?”

She grinned. “Sure do. I married a nice boy in Battle Fleet. He was serving on the Minerva when I transferred to the carrier group there. I took LOA and settled down to be a stay-at-home mom for a while. Surprised?”

“Of course not. I’m surprised you didn’t stick to it. You always were a bit kid crazy. I expected you to wind up a kindergarten teacher some day.”

“Cho, I’m de squadron commandah, sem t’ing.” She chuckled, until she couldn’t keep up the humor and gave him a sad smile. “He died out in Interstellar, and I went back into the service.”

He was studying her, she noticed. She wanted a topic change. “I’d rather not talk about it. My parents have Ministry jobs, so they are in a much better position to take care of my daughters than I would have been, in the state I was in.”

While he busied himself with a forkful of Eggplant Parmigiana, she found her new subject. “You guys gave me an awful wide search zone.”

“Guilty as charged, but we’re still trying to narrow it down.”

“The thing with the gun photos.”

“Metzger and Ludow will be heading in to work on it again after supper.”

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“You know, when I’m out there, it will be a long shot to find anything. The RF antennae on my Luna Moths aren’t sensitive enough to catch the beacons farther than a light-hour away. Even spread out, with only twelve craft I’m not going to be able to check more than a couple light-hours radius at a time.”

She tilted her head and looked over at him. “Have you considered that there may not even be any beacons? You do realize they won’t work inside a capture field. Electromagnetic signals get scrambled. We’re depending upon a wreck or two being outside the capture field.”

“We already know there is one,” he pointed out. “The girl did not go into the capture field to pull out that body. The wreck of the dead pilot’s craft is floating free somewhere.”

“And the beacon’s working?”

“She succeeded in chasing the wreck down after the fight. I would have to bet, yes, it had a working beacon.”

She shook her head and smiled. “You would have to bet.”

“Stay inside a light year of here, for now. From the charts, it’s hard to imagine she could have got too much farther under pure sail power in two or three hours. Even in a Banshee. The doctor didn’t think she could have sailed any distance at all.”

She nodded and settled into thought. He must have guessed she was doing sailing time calculations, as he was leaving her alone to think.

He finally broke the silence again. “Once they’re done massing Orion up, we’ll be heading out there to join you. We have more sensitive ears.”

“But you have only one Orion.”

“True, that. We can only hope Ludow and Metzger narrow the search area down further.”

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