Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Twenty-two: Enterprise

    Sara delivered the moon buggy that night, but made an uncharacteristic fuss over it, like a teenager being asked to take out the trash. Then she announced that she needed to take a vacation.
    A vacation?
    To Italy.
    Italy?
    No coherent reason was given, but Italy was what she had set her mind on. It was the height of the European summer vacation season, and she said she needed two weeks. Alex gave in at one week, making a lame joke about little birdies flying from the nest. Dinah guessed the attraction was the food -- every region had its own unique flavors and specialties, and Sara could never get enough in any one local Italian restaurant. But Mrs. J knew the real reason.
    "Boys. Hah!"
    Sara took her credit card and a few clothes, which she stuffed into her cape. On anything but a local flight, there was simply nothing else to wear but her unshreddable uniform, unless she wanted to crawl along at 55. Her makers had pretty much thought of everything -- it opened along the side seam and any clothes she threw in got rearranged somehow and came out cleaned and neatly pressed. Really pressed, as in paper thin. You couldn't tell from looking at the billowing cape that there was anything in it, even though Jimmie had once tossed an old, rusty Volkswagen bumper in there to see what would happen. It came out cleaned and pressed, too.
    When she came back, she was her cheerful self again, so whatever she did seemed to have worked for her. Naturally, Alex, Dinah and Mrs. J pumped her for details. (Jimmie seemed to have disappeared.)
    She'd met a bunch of students in Rome who were taking a bicycle tour around the Italian countryside. It was easy enough to get a beat-up old bike at a pawn shop for practically nothing, along with enough baggage to look the part of a student on holiday. Naturally, she spoke Italian well enough to be taken for a native, and they didn't mind her tagging along if she could keep up with them -- which she managed to do somehow.
    They'd stayed at youth hostels or sometimes just on the side of the road and ate bread and cheese washed down with wine and sang to the stars while Antonio played along on his guitar. Antonio -- who had such lovely eyes (she mentioned at least four times) -- said he'd write her, and she promised the same (though neither one ever did). Despite Alex's uncomfortable misgivings about guitar players in general -- and young Italian ones in particular -- it seemed that she'd just had a lot of good, clean fun, finishing up the week in high spirits, with her companions exhausted, sunburned and ready for school.
    Dinah rather ominously asked her, "You didn't happen to pass through Pisa, did you?"
    "Pisa?" Sara repeated innocently.
    "Yeah, you know," pressed Dinah, "As in 'The Leaning Tower of Pisa'. Or, should I say, 'The Formerly Leaning Tower of Pisa'?"
    "Oh, that," she replied, like it was no big deal. "I could tell when I saw it that it was gonna fall just about any second, so I went back and fixed it while the others were sleeping."
    Alex looked surprised. "You fixed it?" He hadn't seen the news lately.
    "Straight as a plumb bob," Sara responded with a touch of pride in a job well done.
    He and Mrs. J laughed, but Dinah was sternly disapproving. "You can't just go around 'fixing' historical landmarks. A lot of people around there could get hurt economically if your little stunt affects tourism. You've got to think about consequences..."
    "Is no big hoo-hah," Mrs. J interrupted. "For vhile, anyvay, tourists vith cameras comink to see miracle."
    "It really was messed up," Sara said defensively. "All the traffic was vibrating the base full of teeny cracks deep inside where nobody can see 'em. They had all these big weights trying to counterbalance it, but that was just making the cracks worse. It was ready to slide. I just rearranged the ground underneath and it sorta floated upright. They'd better get rid of the weights, though, or it'll lean the other way."
    Sara got Dinah's lecture anyway, about responsibility and interfering in other peoples' business just because she had the power to do so. What Sara thought of as a good deed could have unforseen effects on other people, yadda, yadda, yadda...
    She endured the scolding with good grace and at least the appearance of humility, but changed the subject as soon as she could.
    She turned brightly (too brightly) to Alex and said, "Coming home, I flew over one of those ships like you used to be on in the Navy."
    "A carrier?" he said with great interest. Dinah and Mrs. J rolled their eyes to the ceiling and bailed out, leaving Sara to face his eager reminiscences alone.
    Dumb move, they thought, fleeing. A good scolding would only be half as bad.
    "They spotted me as I went over. I was only about ten miles up and doing Mach 3 or so and they thought I mighta been a missile -- I could hear their radio chatter."
    "Bet you scared the crap out of 'em," said Alex gleefully.
    "A little, maybe," she admitted with a sly grin. "Some of their planes were flying around, so I played tag with 'em, especially this one pilot who was a woman. She -- her handle's 'Firefox' -- was really good. She kept trying to get close enough to get a good look at me, but from a distance I probably did look a bit missile-ish."
    "Women fighter pilots," Alex shook his head. "It's a mistake to select for something so critical and demanding based on current 'politically correct' social theory. Pilots have to be chosen for incredible reflexes and warrior instinct. Some of these ladies made the cut simply because the Navy caved to feminist pressure -- which speaks to me of an essential cowardice in our military leadership that frightens me. There have been accidents because of it."
    "Well," said Sara, "This woman pilot showed a lot of talent. I'm a female 'pilot' myself, you know, and I can tell."
    "Maybe so. There sure weren't any women on ships when I was in the Navy."
    "When you were in the Navy," she teased, "There weren't any propellers on ships."
    "Ha," said Alex, "Ha."
    "Anyway," Sara said, "I wish I could have met her and told her that I thought she was cool to do what she does so well."
    "You shoulda landed on the ship and said 'Hi'. That woulda given 'em a thrill."
    "I thought about it. I don't know -- there's an awful lot of people on one of those things, so it woulda been kinda obvious. I didn't think you wanted me to do anything really public 'till after NASA."
    "Hmm..." Alex thought for a moment, then said, "Y'know -- if you did it just right, you could leave them with a really big mystery to try to explain away. Heh -- I can just imagine the Captain trying to fill out a log entry."
    The more he thought about it, the more he laughed, until Sara was afraid he was becoming borderline hysterical.
    She said, "I thought you liked the Navy."
    Recovering partially, he replied, "I like some of my memories, like any 'old-timer', but one of my memories is that I couldn't wait to get out. I mean, I was just enlisted swine. Lower than low. Scum. Whale snot. You can't understand what it's like, the whole thing about officers. No way I could pass up a chance to instigate a little payback."
    He challenged her, cocking an eyebrow above his smirk, "That is, if you think you're up to it."
    "You mean, use me to pull some kind of prank so you can get 'even' with people you never met, just because you don't like officers? I don't know..."
    "What...? You straighten up the Leaning Tower -- people will have a hell of a time trying to explain that one -- and now you get all squeamish? If you take Dinah's lectures so seriously, you'll never have any fun. I mean, she's basically right, but do you want to turn out like her?"
    Belatedly realizing how bad that sounded, he trailed off somewhat embarrassedly, "Uh, as far as being some kind of serious crusading avenger and all that, 'cause -- actually -- I really like her..."
    "Anyway," he went on, "As your official guide and sensei in earthly matters, I have an ulterior motive which my vast experience in these areas informs me I should not reveal to you, since, 'knowledge is the destroyer of fate,' as your buddy Gundolf would say."
    She sighed. Sara was compelled to 'respect his opinions', even when they were obviously stupid, but she wasn't actually required to carry out his every whim. Still, he'd demonstrated plenty of times that his gags had the effect of being tremendous learning experiences and a lot of fun. Like the roundball incident. She'd just have to be careful not to seriously damage the giant warship accidentally.
    "What d'ya have in mind?"
    "Think you can find it again tomorrow?" he asked.
    "Well, if it sinks in deep enough water, it might take me an hour."
    "OK, here's what you do..."

    Petty Officer 3rd Class Lester Emmert was up on the flag bridge when the first report came in. It was nearly deserted since Admiral Piccardo and most of his staff had flown home from Spain rather than ride out the homeward bound leg of this deployment. Commander Ryker was the only officer on 'duty', such as it was. There really wasn't much to do but watch flight ops.
    Everybody down in the combat information center was still jumpy after yesterday's close encounter with some kind of missile or UFO or whatever. Word was that officially it was a falling satellite, but the pilots swore it was playing tag with them -- at twice their top speed. One rumor called it a secret test of the latest Skunk Works project.
    Kilanowsky down below in CIC gave Walker a heads up on a bogie crossing their track making 60 knots at 10,000 feet. He motioned Emmert over to his console and pointed it out.
    "At least it's not another missle, not that slow," he told Walker.
    "Yeah, but they're all freaked out down there 'cause it popped up out of nowhere just a couple or three miles out. No way it should have got through the screen without gettin' picked up. Heads will roll."
    "Not our problem," said Emmert. "What is it?"
    "Nobody down there knows. From the kind of blip they're getting, it's too small even for a Cessna, which we're way too far out for anyway. Could be an ultralight, but it would have had to have been launched from a ship nearby, and there aren't any. Might be an RPV, but not one of ours. Got no visual, just like yesterday, 'cause it's staying in the cloud cover -- which civilians don't like to do. Naturally, there's no IFF or radio response."
    Ryker had come up behind them, listening in. Anything that broke the boredom, even a little bit, was a welcome relief.
    Walker adjusted his headphones and said, "Looks like we're gonna pass right under it in a couple of minutes."
    Ryker went out to the weather bridge and reached for the binoculars. Emmert followed him. There was nothing to see but clouds, the ship's scurrying planes, and a couple of choppers -- which seemed to be racing toward a particular patch of high clouds dead ahead.
    As the ship got nearer, there was an unexpected flash inside the cloud, like maybe from an explosion. A chunk of debris fell through the bottom seconds later. There was some shouting down on the ship's bridge. All the momentarily idle airedales on the flight deck craned their necks to see what the fuss was about.
    It wasn't debris. Or if there was debris, it was too small to see. The chunk of falling matter turned out to be a parachutist, only with his chute just partially deployed.
    Now there was a lot of shouting, with men running around the deck pointing to the plunging figure -- who was evidently aiming for the ship.
    Ryker finally acquired the swiftly moving image in his binocs and whistled appreciatively.
    "Sir?" answered Emmert reflexively as he squinted into the bright sky at the figure.
    "It's a chick! I mean -- a girl... A young woman. Whoa!" Ryker would never have tolerated such a lapse of PC-speak in a subordinate. He was excited. "And that's no parachute. Looks like maybe a Rogallo wing, but it's too small. And it's fubar somehow. Oh, man! She's gonna try to land on the ship."
    She passed the ship to port, heading in the opposite direction as it moved swiftly below her, then wheeled around in a graceful 180-degree arc, evidently steering with her fluttering 'wing', making a classic approach maneuver. Her forward velocity wasn't much more than the ship's, but her rate of descent was alarmingly high.
    By now, all of the several hundred men who were watching were yelling, "Pull, pull, pull!" She was running out of time to pop her reserve 'chute.
    At the last possible moment -- as some of the crowd turned away in reflexive horror, unable to watch her splatter -- her 'wing' made a sail-like snap, catching the gale that blew across the deck and slowing her in an instant to a hard landing on the roughened steel that just had to hurt -- if it wasn't fatal.
    She collapsed into a low crouch, practically kissing the deck for an agonizingly long moment before springing up, flinging her arms wide and smiling for her audience, like a gymnast who had just stuck a perfect dismount. Her 'wing' turned out to be no more than a big scrap of cloth, a cape blowing behind her in the stiff breeze, flapping dramatically above the third 'wire' that caught landing planes' tailhooks.
    After a brief moment of stunned silence, the onlookers burst into cheers and applause at her 4.0 landing. And her appearance.
    Ryker grabbed the binocs again and focused in on her. "Holy shit!" he blurted out.
    The mob on the flight deck began to move in her direction as a single animal, like fans streaming to surround some new champion with their admiring homage, until the Flight Boss' amplified voice boomed out, "Attention, flight deck personnel. We have not -- I say again -- not secured from flight ops. The show's over, let's take care of our business. Chief O'Ryan, secure the area and then escort our visitor to the island."
    The chief had been in the van of the rushing throng. Reaching her quickly, he turned to scowl at anyone who might be following, then gallantly offered his arm to 'his' guest.
    Ryker turned to Emmert. "You," he pointed. "As of now, you're the flag runner. Grab the duty belt and get down there ASAP. Find out what you can and where they're gonna debrief her."
    Emmert was having trouble tearing his eyes from the scene below.
    "As in today," Ryker snapped. "Right fucking now."
    Emmert snapped to, "Aye, aye." He started off.
    "And don't take no shit," Ryker called after him. "You're not ship's company. You work for the admiral, got it?"
    Emmert trailed a fading, "Aye, aye," behind him as he hurried through the hatch.
    "And report directly to me," Ryker yelled after him. Jeez, he thought, What a doofus.
    Jeez, thought Emmert as he hurtled down the ladders, What an asshole.
    He made it to the flight deck next to the island hatch before anybody else and watched the chief and the girl casually strolling toward him, shouting conversationally at each other above the wind and noise.
    The girl was definitely a babe, in every sense of the word -- drop-dead gorgeous, blonde hair flying, blue eyes sparkling, and a thousand-watt smile born of pure joy. No more than a teenager, but obviously confident, outgoing and fearless.
    And her costume...! Damn if it didn't look just like she'd stepped right out of a comic book. His comic book. His somewhat guilty pleasure and number one fantasy. He realized his mouth was hanging open as she glanced at him and gave a little nod of acknowledgement. His jaw snapped shut and he blushed deeply, feeling the sudden heat in his face without knowing why.
    A lieutenant (junior grade) appeared with a couple of Marines to take charge of the girl. "I've got her now, Chief," he said dismissively. "You're done."
    The girl gave the beaming O'Ryan an appreciative peck on the cheek and then followed the JG into the little island passageway, out of the wind and most of the noise. Emmert trailed them, ignoring the Marines' glares.
    "Miss," began the JG, very officiously, "I must inform you that you are under arrest for unauthorized entry of a retricted military facility, criminal trespass, federal security violations, overflight of a restricted area, failure to file an approved flight plan, criminal endangerment, interfering with military operations, reckless behavior and attempted suicide, as well as other charges that may be determined following an investigation." He droned on with the military version of her Miranda rights while she just stood there showing a cheerful lack of concern for his dutiful pronouncements.
    "Regulations require that we handcuff you before proceeding to a holding area where you'll receive a preliminary medical screening and interview," he concluded almost apologetically, motioning to one of the Marines.
    "OK," she replied diffidently, offering her wrists to the private. He fumbled around before carefully fitting them to her. Her hands dropped briefly and then came up again, holding the now unfastened and obviously broken cuffs in front of her.
    "Oh, my. I'm afraid these aren't any good," she said, handing them back to the Marine, little metal fragments falling from the keyholes. "Got any in a nicer color?"
    Nobody had quite seen what happened, but Emmert thought he'd heard a faint crunching sound. The private took the remains from her, shaking his head. The JG looked at the other Marine, who shrugged his shoulders.
    "Well," said the JG, "One of you is going to have to hold on to her for the duration."
    Both Marines practically jumped out of their combat boots to grab an arm each. The girl giggled prettily and succumbed to her capture.
    As the little party moved toward the ladder with Emmert following, the JG informed him, "Return to duty, sailor."
    Emmert swallowed visibly and replied, "Flag runner, sir. Commander Ryker's orders. I have to report back to him as to what's going on and where she's being taken."
    "This is ship's business."
    "Yessir. What do you want me to tell Commander Ryker?"
    "Tell him to..." the JG began, but thought better of it. "Look, just buzz off, willya?"
    Emmert knew the JG had just blinked first. "No can do, sir."
    The JG gave up and hurried after the Marines with Emmert on his heels. They wound up in Ready Room 4 with the Marines guarding the door, one inside and one out.
    They didn't have long to wait before one of the Marines bellowed, "Attention on deck!" and the Executive Officer, the Senior Medical Officer and a yeoman entered the compartment. The JG said something to the XO while pointing at Emmert, who overheard him reply, "I don't want him running back to Ryker now."
    He turned to Emmert and said, "You're our witness. If our civilian guest here decides to make any claims of official mistreatment or harassment, she'll need your testimony. Understood?"
    "Aye aye, sir." Thank you, God.
    The JG made the introductions, "This is Doctor McCroy. He's going to make sure you're fit to answer questions. And this is the ship's Executive Officer, Commander Speck, who'll be in charge of this preliminary interview. Yeoman Rande will be taking notes and this enlisted man will witness the proceedings."
    She looked at him expectantly, so he replied, "Emmert, miss. Lester Emmert."
    She smiled at him, "Pleased to meet you. May I call you Lester?"
    He nodded enthusiastically, like his head was attached to a spring.
    "And I'm Lieutenant Junior Grade Chekoffsky."
    "My name is Sara Corel. You can call me Sara," she told them.
    The XO replied, "On behalf of Captain James T. Klerk and the crew, welcome aboard the USS Enterprise. Though I must say, as an uninvited guest, I hope you realize that your actions have put you in a great deal of legal jeopardy. You can't just drop in on a warship any time you feel like it. We're going to have to keep you under arrest until we get back to Norfolk and then turn you over to the proper authorities to face some pretty serious charges. Do you understand this?"
    "Sure," Sara replied, "But I really can't stay for more than a few hours. I've got plans for this evening."
    The XO raised his eyebrows at this and looked at the doctor, who stirred himself and said, "Ah, yes. Well, first things first. I'm just going to give you a once over -- to check for broken bones or anything that might require medical attention...?"
    She shook her head.
    "And ask you a few questions to make sure you're really with us." Which he did, getting it over with fairly quickly, announcing, "Clear-eyed and bushy-tailed -- none the worse for having dropped onto our steel home without a parachute. Maybe what she did looked crazy, but I'll certify her as competent enough to answer questions."
    Bruskly, the JG started in, "I'll need to see some ID."
    "Gee, I don't have anything with me. I don't really need a driver's license, I left home without my credit card and, anyway, a purse is kinda impratical, considering. Of course, there is this," she said, pointing to the emblem on her chest.
    Emmert couldn't help but stare. When she glanced at him, he realized that his jaw was nearly on the floor again. He nearly bit his tongue off closing it. His face felt hot enough to set off a fire alarm.
    The JG began again, "Are you a citizen of the US?"
    "Well, actually I'm an alien living in the US."
    "Please state your country of origin."
    "Not that kind of alien, silly."
    The JG wasn't getting it, but Emmert was. He had to stifle a laugh. Sara winked at him and he winked back.
    The XO remained impassive. He explained to her patiently, "This is not any kind of legal proceeding, per se, but you should understand that the security of this ship is my principle concern. You have breached that security and I want to know how and why. Depending on how hard you make it for me to get to the bottom of this, you're potentially facing anything from a misdemeanor to a lot of very serious felony charges when we get back to port."
    "Very logical, Mr. Speck," she answered, "But if I told you everything, you wouldn't believe it anyway -- and it wouldn't be nearly as much fun."
    She turned to the doctor, as someone who wasn't quite so seriously involved and who had shown a touch of ironic appreciation for the situation. "Why do you think I'm here?"
    "Me?" He answered bemusedly, "Wouldn't be surprised if this was a publicity stunt for a movie. You're certainly dressed for it."
    Sara laughed, "That would be a good guess."
    The JG said, "If that's the case, you'll find that the Navy does not appreciate being used for promotional purposes without going through proper channels."
    "I'm not saying that that is the case," she countered. "The middle of the ocean is kinda isolated for that kind of thing, don't you think? And I'm betting you guys try to cover it up."
    "Look," the XO said. "I want to know how you got here and how you evaded radar detection."
    "How else? I flew here under my own power. And my alien computer brain phase-cancelled your radar waves. I had to -- yesterday you thought I was some kind of missile."
    Emmert tried to cover up his sudden laugh with a cough. The doctor didn't even try to hide his laughter. The yeoman broke her pencil.
    The XO and the JG looked at each other, obviously not pleased.
    "I'm really being very cooperative," she said. "You guys just don't know it yet."
    She added, "Can I go to the bathroom?" One of her favorite tricks, but they didn't know that yet, either.
    The JG sent the private down the passageway to secure the closest head and sent the yeoman in to keep her company, posting the Marine at the hatch.
    As the JG escorted her past the sentry, Sara turned to him and said, "I'd really love to stay and chat, but I want to see more of your nice ship and talk to some of the sailors before I leave."
    She blew a little puff of air at his face and he instinctively blinked. His ears popped suddenly and he staggered slightly as the air in front of him seemed to buckle.
    The long passageway was empty. She was gone.

    News of Sara's arrival swept through the ship on afterburners. Rumors abounded, but most seemed to parallel the doctor's guess. Half the guys topside during her landing swore she was some famous movie star or other, the rest figured that she had to be a stunt double. A few witnesses -- obviously not very close -- swore she was a stunt man in a wig. Other guesses included that she was a BASE jumper out for the ultimate score, or some crewmember's desperate girlfriend.
    When she showed up unannounced in the crowded crew's mess, it caused a sensation. So many men packed around her on the starboard side that the bridge crew felt the enormous ship list slightly.
    She mentioned something about being a little hungry and, almost immediately, piles of messkits appeared, loaded with pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans and some unidentifiable sticky confection, straight from the chow line. A rain of candy bars and sweets from the gedunk added to the smorgasbord which Sara sampled enthusiastically -- which kept her from having to answer the hundreds of questions that swept over her like a seventh wave.
    She had questions for them, too, that they were eager to answer.
    "What's your name?"
    "Where're you from?"
    "How do you like the Navy?"
    "You married?"
    "You like being on a ship like this?"
    "What do you guys do out here for fun?"
    They ate it up. It was what a USO tour was supposed to be like.
    Then some bright, eager lad thrust a comic book at her along with a pen. She asked him his name and then signed it --"With love" -- to him in a big flourish. That set off another stampede, rocking the ship back and forth like an unseen gale as men rushed back to their racks to retrieve their own copies of every comic book imaginable, along with a few Playboys which Sara laughingly said she didn't do.
    Normally, the ship's Master-at-Arms petty officers would break up what appeared to be some kind of friendly riot, but they had comic books, too. And nobody would have paid them any attention. Besides, they didn't have any orders.
    Eventually, news reached the Captain, who dispatched a gunnery sergeant and a squad of Marines with non-defective handcuffs to apprehend her.
    "Gently," he told the gunny, "but firmly. She is not to wander off again," he said, glaring at the unfortunate JG.
    When they got to the mess, Sara had disappeared as suddenly as she had in the passageway. Nobody admitted to seeing which way she had gone. Nobody would have told the Marines even if they had seen her leave. All they could do was march back to the Captain, looking stupid.
    "Men and women of the Enterprise, this is the Captain," his voice crackling through every space on the ship. "As many of you are by now aware, we have a special guest with us, a young lady who unexpectedly dropped in on us in the middle of flight ops this morning. While we would like to extend the hospitality for which our ship is famous, this individual has not been given the run of the ship and her wandering around is disrupting good order and discipline. Now, we all know that it's easy for a civilian to get lost and very easy for a youngster like her to get hurt if they don't know what they're doing or where they're going.
    "I'm going to ask Miss Corel to please stay wherever you are right now and somebody will assist you shortly. Any officers or crewmembers who see her should immediately contact the Officer of the Day and report her location.
    "That is all."

    Sara was already in a different ready room talking to the pilots she had played with the day before (though they didn't know it yet). They were trying to work out the aerodynamics of her landing that morning while she smiled enigmatically and admitted nothing.
    "Terminal velocity for someone her size can't be much, especially with all the hair and the cape adding lots of drag," one of them reasoned.
    Another one chimed in, "She probably couldn't fall at a hundred knots if she tried. With a good angle of attack and spreading out like a flying squirrel, she's bound to be able to slow her airspeed down below 80 knots."
    A pilot went to the blackboard and tried to work out a few calculations. "So," he said as he drew, "If she's doing 80 knots total airspeed and manages to get a glide ratio of even one-to-one, then she might manage about 40 down and 40 forward, which -- minus the ship's velocity..."
    "Nah, that's not right," the first one countered. "It doesn't work that way. Here, let me show you." He added his own scribblings.
    "What do you guess for her total surface area compared to her weight?" another added. "Then we can get some surface-loading numbers."
    "She'd get a lot more out of that cape if she had some batts in there to stiffen out the edges," said another one.
    Sara let him examine her cape. He looked disappointed for a second and then ventured, "OK, how about foot stirrups? Or something..."
    "Well, if she does manage to make 40 forward, that's only about ten knots or so across the deck before she even hits the ground effect."
    "Yeah. That'll give her a bounce so she can more or less stall out at the last second. Looked like she was doing less than 10 forward net, and maybe 25 down when she hit the deck."
    "Like jumping off a two-story building."
    "Or a high dismount off of parallel bars, like at the Olympics."
    "Yeah, but they don't land on steel."
    The problem that was at the back of all their minds was how you could practice such a feat. And how anyone would ever have the confidence to actually try such a thing. Even if they could figure out the math involved with complete certainty (they had their doubts), none of these brave and accomplished fighter pilots would take such a leap of faith.
    They couldn't decide whether to admire her skill and guts -- or believe the impossible alternative.
    When the Captain's announcement came over, one of the pilots reluctantly got up to head for the intercom.
    Sara looked at the lone female pilot in the room and asked her, "Do you think I look like a missile now, 'Firefox'?" She turned around, her 'flame' of golden hair flowing over the 'smoke' of her black-red cape.
    "Try squinting your eyes and imagining that I'm a couple of miles away and you're pulling eight G's," she added helpfully.
    Firefox narrowed her eyes, wondering how the girl had known her handle. Then it hit her, her eyes opening wide in astonishment. "Belay that call, Jack."
    Her wingman turned to look at her, reaching for the intercom key. "Are you kidding?" he asked.
    "Or I'll break your arm," she hissed. "Look. I mean really look, from this angle."
    He sauntered over and looked. "Jesus H..." he trailed off.
    Sara turned back to Firefox and told her, "I just had to tell you, I think you're a terrific flyer. I mean, it's easy for me, but having to master all that intricate stuff like that, it's really amazing to me that you can make it look so natural. You really have a feel for it, I can tell. And what with landing such a tricky machine so dangerously on this little speck in the middle of the sea... Wow! That's real courage. I'm surprised there aren't more women like you flying. Anyway, that's all I wanted to say."
    The other pilots weren't sure what had just happened. They looked around at each other and the blackboard, then back at Sara.
    "Gotta run," Sara waved at them as she headed for the hatch. "I'll be taking off between the forward cats in an hour, and I still haven't seen half the ship yet."
    "Wait!" called Firefox, leaping after her. "You can't go now!"
    There wasn't even a blur in the passageway when she got there.

    In the next half hour, reports flooded into the OD. She'd been spotted nearly simultaneously in every part of the ship, from the chain locker to the fantail, from the engine room to the wardroom. She talked cheerily to everyone she met, signed autographs and posed for pictures, and then seemed to almost vanish. She appeared to have a sixth sense when it came to the Marines sent to every reported sighting. There weren't enough to go around, evidently. It was like she had them surrounded.
    The gunny took his squad to the vast, cavernous hangar bay, nearly empty in the middle from flight ops. She was making the Marines look foolish, and Marines don't like to be made to look foolish. They were quite capable of looking foolish on their own, without any help from some damned little girl.
    He figured she'd show up here sooner or later, and he deployed his men so that she could check in -- but not check out. They stayed just outside of the space itself, carefully sitting down in chairs in the various shops and offices that surrounded the hangar, looking busy. He chased off the squids, who were undoubtedly aiding and abetting.
    Dammit, he had a mission, and he'd get it done if he had to tackle her himself. He pulled a live round from a little pocket on his right trouser leg and carefully loaded it into his service .45.
    Sure enough, they didn't have to wait long. She came skipping into his little net and he pulled the string, blowing his whistle and bringing the rest of his squad running.
    No more Mr. Nice Guy. "Halt!" he bellowed in his very best parade-ground voice. "Yew will put yore hands on yore haid. Yew willturn around. Yew will drop and press yore belly to the deck. Yew will not move until I tell yew to."
    She did none of those things, ignoring the onrushing Marines and grinning at him.
    "You're really good at that!" she told him. "Just like the movies."
    He was pissed at her goddamned attitude. "Shut... The fuck... Up... And put... Yore fucking hands... On yore fucking haid." He raised his pistol, pointing it straight up to emphasize that he was not playing around.
    "How rude!" she exclaimed. "Does yore momma know yew talk to girls like that?" she mimicked.
    His squad had her surrounded. He walked up to her, still pointing his piece at the overhead. "Cuff 'er, Danno," he growled at one of his men.
    Something seemed to be wrong with Danno's cuffs. They just kind of crumbled. Same with everybody else's. It was embarassing, what with a gathering crowd of sailors looking on, catcalling. Government issue wasn't for shit these days.
    To hell with it. He grabbed at her, but she wasn't there. She sort of twisted and ducked, and then she was out of their little circle, waltzing away without a care in the world toward the enormous elevator opening, blue sky and rushing sea shining in the sun on the other side of the giant oval.
    "Gawd. Dammit. Bitch. Freeze! Or I will fucking shoot yew." He pointed his piece in her direction.
    The catcalls turned to cries of alarm. Even the other Marines were yelling at the gunny like he was crazy. A few made as if they might lunge at him. Sara didn't respond at all, skipping away and ignoring his threats completely.
    Shit, he thought, Shit, shit, shit. He carefully aimed a couple of feet to her right, through the huge opening in the side of the ship, and squeezed off a round.
    At the last instant, she seemed to dart right into his line of fire. The sharp report was followed by her sudden spin and collapse to the deck.
    Everyone was horrified, frozen momentarily by shock. The gunny dropped his piece and ran to her, falling to his knees, a knot clutching his stomach. A crowd gathered around them instantly, not knowing what to do. There were shouts of 'Corpsman!' from the jugheads, mingled with uglier shouts from the squids directed at the Marines in general and the gunny in particular. It looked bad.
    He could have sworn it was her shoulder that got in the way of his bullet, but couldn't find anything -- which wasn't necessarily unusual. He turned her over, looking for an exit wound, but didn't see one. He felt frantically around, thinking that maybe the projectile had bounced around in her ribcage. It could have come out anywhere, or not even come out at all.
    "I can't find a pulse," one of the other Marines shouted.
    "She's not breathing," yelled another.
    The gunny threw off his hat and got ready to administer mouth-to-mouth, wondering frantically where in the hell the fucking corpsmen were.
    But as he bent over her, she opened her eyes and said, "Whew! You ever try oral hygiene?"
    She sat up and handed the gunny a smoking bullet. "I think this belongs to you. Careful, it's hot."
    Hotter than hell. He dropped it involuntarily. Everybody backed away, looking at the slug and the girl like they were part of a dream.
    "It's OK," she told the gunny. "You're just doing your job. I was a real brat, wasn't I?"
    She bounced up. "It's been fun, guys, but there's one more person I have to see before I leave. Catch ya later."
    Before anyone could react, she ran over to the elevator opening and nonchalantly stepped over the edge, grabbing some tiny projection and climbing swiftly up the side of the ship like a monkey, clambering over the safety net and onto the catwalk, disappearing once more.
    When the emergency medical team finally arrived, they had to take care of the gunny.

    Emmert was back on the flag bridge. Ryker had listened to his story with impatience and then took off, muttering to himself. Walker told him that Ryker had sent several radio messages stateside without receiving a reply. Something to do with stories on the Internet and the girl. Emmert had seen some of the stories out of Houston. He hadn't believed any of them before.
    Walker took off to see if he could find out the latest scuttlebutt, leaving Emmert alone. He sighed and headed for the admiral's head, since there was nobody around to write him up for it and all the others nearby were secured. In all the excitement, he'd neglected the un-neglectable.
    Shaking it out with great relief, he was just starting to let fly when he saw her out of the corner of his eye, peering out from the bottom of the little closet, watching him with amusement.
    He hosed everything in sight before he could stop.
    "You might as well let it all out, Lester. I won't tell if you won't."
    What the hell. He did, and she even helped him clean up the mess.
    "I figured the admiral's bathroom would be the last place anyone would look for me. And I wanted to tell you how nice you were down there. 'Preciate it."
    "And besides," she went on. "You know, don't you?"
    "Yes, I do. From the first moment."
    "Probably a lot of others do, too. But I don't think they'll admit it, do you?"
    "I think Commander Ryker knows. He's wants to get a gig with the CIA when he retires next year, but nobody's supposed to know that. He already filed a couple of reports about you."
    "Yeah, I know," she said. "I read 'em. Tried to get your admiral to order the Captain to turn me over to him. Like I'd go for that."
    "You read the messages?"
    "Sure. I can see radio waves and stuff. That's how I jimmied your radar."
    "What about the rest? That landing -- you were just trying to make it look like it was possible, right?"
    She shrugged.
    "And the handcuffs -- there wasn't anything wrong with them, was there? And you went down about a hundred feet of knee-knocker passageway while Chekoffsky was blinking. I saw it, but I didn't see anything. There was just a sort of a whoosh."
    Sara looked disinterestedly at her fingernails.
    "I heard that some Marine shot you. And you gave him back his bullet. Let me guess -- I'll bet you smoothed the barrel marks off of it so they couldn't get a ballistics match."
    Sara raised her eyebrows in appreciation. "Very good! You seem to have me pegged."
    "So you're really her, aren't you?"
    "No. I'm really me."
    "Well, I mean the same as. Everything she can do..."
    "...I can do better," she finished. "And then some. Sometimes I even amaze myself."
    "But you don't want anybody to know for sure. I don't get it. From everything I've seen or heard, you were very careful not to do anything that couldn't be nearly explained away somehow. Why?"
    "I'm not really sure," she said. "I thinks it's some kind of an experiment that my dad is trying to run, maybe for my benefit. I can't figure him out sometimes."
    "Your dad?"
    "Well, sort of a foster parent. I wasn't kidding about the alien thing."
    "Just like the comics."
    "Nothing like the comics. Maybe I'll tell you someday."
    "You mean it?" he said excitedly.
    She nodded, "Sure, why not?"
    "Wow, I'd like that. But if you do, you gotta tell me everything. Especially, what it's like. Y'know -- to be super. I've always tried to imagine what it would be like to fly and not have to worry about anything and being so powerful. I guess we all -- all of us regular humans -- dream about it sometimes. I just want to know what it's like."
    "Humph," she replied. "It's not all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes I think it's like being handicapped, and I don't even get to use one of those primo parking spaces."
    "Oh, you're kidding."
    "You know what I dream about? Being normal. Really. There's a lot of things superpowers are no good for, especially when it comes to other people. Sometimes I feel like I have bolts through my neck."
    Emmert stared at her in astonishment.
    She went on, "What I admire is people who are able to do things without having super powers. Like Firefox. You know her?"
    "I've seen her. She's an officer and I'm enlisted. Not the same social circle, you know."
    "You should talk to her someday. She knows about me, too. Anyway, flying for me just happens. I don't even know how and I don't have to think about it. Flying for her is the hardest thing imaginable. I can imagine she had to want it really bad to have a chance to do it. So between us, who's really super? And she'll get married someday and have kids. That's something I'll never be able to do."
    "I didn't realize..." He didn't know what to say
    "Hey," she replied, snapping out of her momentary funk. "Didn't mean to sound so gloomy. Really, I can't help what I am, and it has its advantages."
    "No," he said excitedly, "This is great stuff. I'm glad you're telling me this."
    "What -- you gonna write a book or something?"
    "I've always wanted to. A book about you. Actually, I've been thinking about it for years."
    "I haven't even been on this planet for too many years."
    "Maybe you haven't, but what you represent has been since Olympus, one way or another. You're made up the way you are for a reason, aren't you?"
    "Honestly, if I am, nobody bothered to tell me. There really is a long story that I don't have time for right now."
    "But you'll tell me someday, right?"
    "OK, it's a promise." She asked him, "In return, can you do me one little favor?"
    "Who do I kill?" he responded eagerly.
    She laughed. "Just tell the Captain that I had a great time and I'm sorry for the inconvenience. Someday, we'll all have a big laugh about it and I'll do something to make it up to the whole ship."
    "I don't know that he'll believe me."
    "He won't, and that's part of the joke. Oh, and one other thing. Tell him I'm leaving in exactly five minutes, from the flight deck, just like a catapult launch."
    "Five minutes!"
    "Yep. Gotta go. He's just below us right now on the bridge, so you won't have to go looking for him."
    He stood there uncertainly, so she gave him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek.
    "Now, scoot." She headed out the hatch onto the weather bridge and fell over the side.
    He scooted.

    "Five minutes, huh?" The Captain hardly knew what to believe about their elusive guest anymore. But it was as good a lead as any.
    "Yessir," Emmert reported. "She said to tell you, 'just like a catapult launch'. I'm sure she meant it, sir."
    "Can you explain to me why she decided to confide in you?"
    "Yessir. 'Cause I believe her."
    "Ah," the Captain smiled. "And just what is it that you believe about her? That she's some kind of superhero?"
    "Yes..." Emmert reddened under the condescending smirks of the officers on the Bridge. "Yessir, that's what I believe. From another planet."
    The Captain chuckled. "You know, son, I wish she was. Oh, she's good alright. World-class stuntwoman, gymnast and stage magician, no doubt about it. But, uh, flight ops has been secured for the day. Nobody's flying off my ship."
    A seaman wearing 'phones reported, "Lieutenant Zulu, Cap'n. Subject is on the flight deck amidships. He is proceeding to intercept."
    The officers crowded out on the catwalk to watch the show. Emmert ran down the ladders to the flight deck, not knowing what he could or should do. He ducked under the tail of an F-14 near the forward elevator.
    A party of Marines led by lieutenant Zulu was already closing in on Sara. They spread out to surround her, wary of her tricks. From dozens of catwalk hatches surrounding the deck, airedales and crewmembers poured up from below to watch the show -- the ship's TV station was feeding the scene to monitors all over the ship.
    Sara feinted left, but the jugheads stayed with her, like it was a football drill. She made as if to run at their line, but they braced themselves. She pirouetted, but they stayed with her. They made no move to grab her, waiting for some signal. The assembling crowd reacted like fans at a corrida, saluting each move and countermove with appreciation for the artistry of it all.
    Finally, the Captain called out over his bullhorn, silencing the onlookers.
    "Miss Corel, this is Captain Klerk."
    "Hi, Captain," she called back, her voice barely audible above the wind of the ship's passage.
    "Miss Corel, nobody is going to hurt you. You have my word on that, and I'm very sorry for the incident on the hangar deck. Please believe me, it won't happen again."
    "No problem," she yelled back.
    "You simply must stop running around my ship. We have work to do, and we need to be sure you're comfortable and safe until we get back to port."
    "I'm done, Captain," she shouted. "Have to go now."
    "The lieutenant will take you to your quarters. We'll have a nice talk tomorrow morning, alright?"
    "Sorry," she called out. "Only a minute left."
    While the Captain had been distracting her, two of the Marines crept up behind her. They each reached out to grab an arm.
    Too late, Emmert and about three hundred other men shouted out a warning. They needn't have bothered. She wasn't there.
    Somehow, she knew the precise moment to slip backwards between the two men, winding up behind them in a gap in the circle of Marines.
    The jugheads reacted quickly to surround her again, but couldn't quite pull off the flanking maneuver as she ran circles around the larger, slower men. The sailors roared their approval.
    It couldn't last. There were too many of them and they eventually closed in on her shoulder to shoulder until she was practically buried under a pile of Marines. There were scattered boos from the disappointed spectators. After a moment of struggling, the mass of men began to break up, revealing in their midst -- Lieutenant Zulu wearing handcuffs with his pants tied securely around his ankles. Sara was not to be seen.
    The squids laughed and cheered at the same time.
    In the shadow of the fighter, Emmert felt someone elbow him in the ribs. It was Sara.
    She said, "I don't know how they're gonna explain that away, but they will. I heard what the Captain said about me being a stage magician, so I thought I'd try the old disappearing bit."
    Delighted to see her, Emmert said, "That was great! What are you gonna do for an encore?"
    She knew he'd eventually have to tell the Captain what she said. "As far as they're concerned -- kill myself."
    She winked at him, then darted off suddenly, heading for the bow until she came to the spot right between the start of the two long catapult tracks. She was spotted as she crouched down like a sprinter setting up on her starting blocks.
    With a shout, the Marines hauled after her, but they were too late. She started her takeoff run, easily outdistancing her pursuers. She ran straight down the deck between the cats and executed a perfect swan dive off the bow, down and out of sight. She was not seen hitting the water -- or flying away.
    The Captain ordered an immediate man-overboard recovery operation, but no trace was found. Presumably, she was torn to pieces by the screws and scavenged by the sharks.

    "Gentlemen," said the Captain to all assembled, "I have to make a log entry. Unfortunately, it has to make sense. The Navy Department does not like to employ ship's captains who hallucinate."
    He mused, "Y'know, I like my job. And I want to keep it. Can any of you tell me how I'm going to do that?"
    After much deliberation and a whole lot of tunnel vision, they agreed it was a publicity stunt ending in suicide. A few enlisted men and Marines got reamed at the next Captain's Mast to make it look good.
    Emmert, the doctor and a certain female pilot called Firefox all got together afterwards and laughed themselves silly.


Chapter Twenty-three: Clear Lake


Table of Contents

Patrick Hill, 2000