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Authors: Anne A. Wilson

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BOOK: Hover
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“You know, it's not like it matters,” Brian says. “There's no way we're running flight ops in this weather anyway. We were just about to cancel everything when you guys showed up. And the weather's only getting worse.”

“So that means our guys won't be able to deliver anything. Or deliver anything right away, anyway.”

“I doubt it,” Brian says.

Visions of a stranded Commander Claggett race through my head. He's so tightly wound anyway, this is definitely going to set him off.

“Lego, do you need anything?” I say.

“No, ma'am. We're just removing some panels here to get a better look-see.”

“Okay. I'm going to head in for a moment.”

“No problem. It's not like we're goin' anywhere soon.”

I start to turn away, but stop. “How long do you think we'll be here?”

He looks at his hands, wiping them with a grease rag, as he considers it. “Let's see.… We'll have to pull the rotor head, the flight controls, all of it, just to get the tranny out. If we work through the night, we can probably get that done. Then if we get the parts in the mornin', the tranny change itself is easily over ten hours of work. And then we'll have to do the check flight, too.”

He looks up. “I'd bet a paycheck we're lookin' at two nights on this ship.”

 

5

Two nights—as in, we're going to be spending the night. And this is one time I'm not prepared. Normally, I keep a toothbrush, extra hair ties, and a few toiletries in my helmet bag just for instances like this, but I cleaned my bag the flight before last and never got around to resupplying it.

But what a dumb thing to be worrying about in light of what just happened.

“Come on,” Brian says. “We'll show you to the wardroom.”

I shove my helmet and gloves in my bag and follow the group into the hangar. We maneuver around two tightly packed H-60 Seahawk helicopters, turning sideways to squeeze between the bulkhead and an auxiliary power unit crammed in the corner. This is a far smaller space than our hangar on the
Kansas City.
I vow right then that when I return to our ship, I will never complain of claustrophobia again.

As we walk, I think about the fact that we're stuck on this ship and are going to need a place to stay. For the guys, it won't be a problem. For me? Different story. In an anomaly that has yet to be explained, the
Lake Champlain
has deployed without any women. Granted, women make up only roughly 15 percent of a carrier strike group, but the
Lake Champlain
has deployed with them in the past, so I'm not sure why it would be any different this time.

I'm no stranger to being in the minority, though. I've been assigned to short deployments as the only woman in the detachment, or perhaps as one of only two. But I haven't minded. I put my head down and do my job with two goals. Be competent and blend in—be the small dot.

Unfortunately, finding berthing for me in this instance is going to be a big dot thing. It's not like they have guest rooms. If Zack was here in my place, they would throw down a cot in one of the pilots' staterooms and he'd be set. Not so with me. They're going to have to jump through hoops to accommodate me. Someone is going to have to move out of his room. Shoot. I hate this. It's such a glaring you-are-not-part-of-the-fraternity moment. Special treatment for the female. The guys are going to groan. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.

We enter the
Lake Champlain
's wardroom, a tight, confined space, with one long, rectangular table running down the middle. The mess cranks—what the navy calls its cooks—are preparing for dinner and these guys barely have enough room to squeeze behind the chairs. They're also having difficulty keeping their feet, leaning and stumbling due to the ship's unpredictable movements—an always delicate balancing act.

“Why don't you have a seat here,” Brian says. “I'll grab some coffee.”

I take a seat at the far end of the table, the other pilots dropping into chairs around me. But curiously, Eric stands apart, moving to the other side of the room. Brian returns, coffeepot in hand, followed by one of the mess cranks, Seaman Ogilvy, who holds several mugs.

“So, welcome aboard the
Lake Champlain,
” Brian says with a grin.

Seaman Ogilvy takes over, pouring the coffee—only halfway, so it doesn't slosh out—and serving. I don't think a cup has ever tasted so good.

“We've worked it out so that you'll take my room and I'll move in with these guys,” Brian says. “Nick will stay with the XO,” he adds, referring to the executive officer, who is second in command of the ship.

“I'm sorry about this,” I say. “I don't want to kick you out of your room.”

“Hey, it's not a problem. This is a small ship and when we have guests, we have to move to accommodate. It's not just you.”

I smile in thanks. It was probably just an offhand comment, rendered without much thought, but Brian has no idea how much what he just said means to me.

The other pilots begin to pepper me with questions about the emergency, and while I'm answering them on the one hand, a separate part of my brain is hyperaware of the man leaning against the opposite bulkhead. Perhaps because he's looking at me. In a watchful way … a guarded way.

I sit straighter when his eyes narrow. He shifts to face the wardroom entrance.

Commander Claggett storms into the room like an ice pick in a sea of floating balloons. He dispenses with all pleasantries, not even acknowledging the others. “There you are,” he says. “I wondered where you'd disappeared to.” His tone is insolent and rude, like I've purposely been avoiding him. And I've heard this before, unfortunately.

“We need to send out the Hazard Report,” he says. “Come on. We're going to Radio.”

Keep your cool, Sara. Just keep your cool.

“I'm sorry, Brian,” I say. “I have to go. Thanks for the coffee.”

“You're welcome,” he says. He then looks to Commander Claggett. “We've called a detachment meeting in the hangar in thirty minutes to plan for tomorrow and see what we can do to help. Maybe you can stop by after you finish.”

Commander Claggett nods and motions for me to leave. I follow him to the wardroom door where he stops before opening it. “And what's with the hair? You need to put that up.”

The blood rushes to my face and I grind my teeth. Hard. What an ass. What a complete ass. Everyone in the room just heard what he said, too. If I pride myself in one thing, it's my professional comportment, in both manner and dress. I can't believe he's zeroing in on this when we're in such a unique situation.

I take another breath—a deep, composing one—gather my hair, and tuck it down the back of my flight suit before starting forward.

Fortunately, the crafting of the message is quick, so we return to the aircraft hangar, where the Shadow Hunters' meeting is still in progress. Maintenance personnel are squeezed into nooks and crannies around their two aircraft, listening to Brian, who stands in the door of the maintenance office on the opposite side of the hangar. He motions for Commander Claggett to join him.

I stay where I'm standing, and thirty pairs of eyes remain on me—I suppose I am a bit of a novelty on this ship—but when Brian gives the floor to Commander Claggett to report on the planned schedule of events, everyone's attention shifts to him. Everyone's attention except one. Eric's eyes haven't moved from my position. I hold his gaze for a moment before returning my focus to the front.

When the meeting wraps, I make my way toward Commander Claggett. I don't want him to complain about not being able to find me. By the time I reach him, he has already ducked into the maintenance office, huddled with Brian and the maintenance crew of the Shadow Hunters.

I slip into the corner to wait and Eric quietly moves to my side. He holds out his hand to give me something. A rubber band.

I stare at it, taken completely off guard. Day to day, the navy throws its share of curve balls, but I'm rarely surprised and almost always prepared. But this small act of kindness stuns me.

I shift my eyes from the rubber band to him, at a loss for what to say. I'm so dreadfully embarrassed about the whole episode, I was hoping everyone would have forgotten. But someone obviously didn't. It takes me several seconds to recover before I mouth the word “Thanks.”

I pull my hair back, wrap it tightly in a bun, and fasten the rubber band around it as the rest of the Shadow Hunter pilots file into the office.

“Okay, guys,” Brian says, “since flight ops will be on hold the next couple of days, this is going to be a great time for knocking out some training. Grady, do you have your lecture ready on Russian sub profiles?”

“Yep, all set. But be forewarned,” he says. “It's Russian subs like you've never heard it before.”

The group laughs and Brian joins them. “I don't doubt it,” Brian says. “Let's plan on that tomorrow just before lunch, at eleven hundred.”

“Brian, would you mind if Lace sat in on that lecture?” Commander Claggett says.

“No, not at all.”

“She needs to get her recce up to speed and this will give her something useful to do tomorrow,” he says, looking at me directly.

Son of a …
This is twice now. First the hair and now the inference that my knowledge of submarine recognition is lacking. But the last comment is the worst—like the husband whose wife accompanies him on a business trip and he sends her out shopping to
give her something useful to do
.

Brian gracefully covers the awkward comment. “Sara, we'd love to have you and get your input. It'll be nice to hear your opinion … to get a different perspective.”

And Brian does it again. I allow myself a small moment to imagine what it would be like to have an officer in charge like him. Open. Progressive. But I quickly banish the thought, knowing I need to remain where I am mentally, so I can deal with reality.

“Well, that should be everything,” Brian says before turning to Commander Claggett. “They just started dinner in the wardroom if you'd like to join us.”

Commander Claggett agrees, which comes as a bit of a shock. I was sure he was going to find something for us to do that was more pressing.

When we enter the wardroom this time, it's crammed with ship's officers, most of whom are clustered around one end of the table near the ship's commanding officer. Brian walks toward him, motioning for Commander Claggett and me to follow. His name tag reads
ROBERT PLANK.

“Sir, this is Nick Claggett—the Sabercats' officer in charge—and Sara Denning,” Brian says.

Captain Plank has silver hair worn high and tight—Marine Corps style—his eyes so dark, I can't discern the pupil from the iris. At his side, strapped in a holster, he wears a Beretta M9 semiautomatic pistol.
What is a ship's captain doing with a weapon on his person in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

He doesn't bother with pleasantries. “How long until you're off my deck?”

“Sir, we hope to have the transmission changed by tomorrow evening and then fly off the following day,” Commander Claggett says.

“Two days … Well, ensure that it happens.”

“Yes, sir.”

The air detachment has congregated at the far opposite side of the wardroom. Brian takes his seat at the head of the table, opposite Captain Plank, and Commander Claggett takes the seat next to him.

Unfortunately, I have to sit next to Commander Claggett. I'm already bracing for the dinnertime conversation and wonder if by some miracle I'll be able to escape more humiliating treatment. Eric sits on Brian's other side, directly across from Commander Claggett.

Seaman Ogilvy rushes over to find out what we would like to drink and gives us the menu selections for the evening. I'm not very hungry, so I opt for a small salad.

The conversation is animated due to the weather. And speaking of weather, boy does this ship move. Everything is tied down because the pitching and rocking would knock anything un-stowed to the ground. I hold my glass so it won't slide, and proceed to eat my salad in a mental cocoon. Conversation hums around me, but tonight, I'd rather just stay out of it.

While I'm eating, I find that I can let go of my glass and it doesn't slide. Hmm. The ship is pitching buckets, but the plates and cutlery are staying put. I finally realize it's the table covering. I run my hand over it, touching my fingers down one at a time. It's sticky. We don't have this on the
Kansas City.

I look up and see that no one else is holding on to their glasses or silverware either, including Eric, who watches me with a lighthearted look on his face as I explore the sticky tablecloth.

“Culinary non-skid,” he says, grinning.

I smile, only to receive a scathing look from Commander Claggett, like I've interrupted him or embarrassed him or something.

But his caustic expression doesn't come close to rivaling Eric's. His eyes have turned cold.

So I'm rather surprised when he starts speaking to Commander Claggett in an upbeat voice. “Sir, I wanted to let you know that we've already started writing up our witness statements to attach to Sara's award recommendation.”

I almost choke on the cucumber I'm chewing.

“Excuse me?” Commander Claggett says.

“Sara's NAM for her handling of the emergency today,” he says.

NAM? Navy Achievement Medal? What on earth is he talking about?

“Her NAM?” Commander Claggett says.

“Oh, I'm sorry. You probably weren't thinking NAM. You were probably thinking COM, which is certainly understandable given what happened today, and I think our witness statements would support that. Don't you?” He turns to the other pilots.

BOOK: Hover
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