It was the day that the Red Devils were scheduled to rendezvous with the Odysseus, the day that signalled the start of a new life for Willow Rosenberg and it started badly before she even woke.
Willow had the kind of dream where one thinks that they have woken up quite normally. For Willow, this sense of normalcy barely lasted a minute. She opened her eyes to stare at the familiar bare ceiling of her quarters, shrugging off the last vestiges of sleep. Glancing at her clock, she saw it wasn't quite six o'clock, Willow always woke before her alarm. She always set it anyway just in case... Willow was a 'just in case' kind of girl. However, when she went to roll out of bed something prevented her from doing so. Willow frowned and tried again but when she tried harder there was a small groan behind her. Her eyes shot open when she realised there was a body spooning her from behind, the arm that was tucked snugly around her waist was what was preventing her from rolling out of bed.
Okay... so how good a night did I have last night to make me forget falling into the sack with someone? Wait, where's my hangover... hang on... I so did not drink last night!
Gingerly, Willow lifted the arm enough so that she could crawl out from beneath it. She felt a strange sense of reluctance when she did... it was odd. Willow swung her feet to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. It was then that she realised she didn't have a stitch of clothing on, the cool morning air raised goose bumps on her skin. Willow shivered and reached to the floor for a discarded shirt.
"Is it that time already sweetie?" a soft, sensual but very sleepy voice asked behind her.
Willow's eyes flew open at the sound of the unmistakably female voice.
Okay... go me?
Willow was torn. On one hand she was congratulating herself for finally having the guts to make a move on a girl... or maybe the girl had made a move on her? Now that was a definite turn on. She started to grin but then shook her head quickly to get rid of it...
Okay, how cruel is that! first time sleeping with a girl and I don't remember it!
While Willow was struggling with several thoughts running through her head, there was an almighty rumble outside and the earth shook as though the world was cracking in two. Suddenly the room was bathed in a fiery orange glow, seconds later the windows were blown inwards and glass filled the air. Willow was thrown backwards, over the other side of the bed where she landed hard in a tangled pile of limbs. She was knocked unconscious for a few moments and when she came to, the air was hot, filled with smoke on which Willow began choking violently. Piercing yells and screams rent the air...
Willow struggled to pull herself back together, feeling the sickly taste of blood in her mouth as well as the sting of dozens of cuts all over her body from the flying glass. Everything hurt and yet she knew that she only cared about one thing... that the mysterious girl was alright...
How can I care about someone who's name I don't even know?
She crawled back to the bed, using it as a lever to pull herself up. The sheets were stained red by the hot, sticky blood that covered them. Willow had the image of a pale body lying torn and broken on the bed and she felt herself begin to retch...
"No!" her name! I do know her name... it's...
Willow sat bolt upright in bed, a scream still on her lips. Her chest heaved as though she had been running a very long distance. She even had the sweat beading on her brow to match. Her hand patted the spot beside her on her narrow bed and she was strangely disappointed when she felt nothing... or to be more precise, no one. The bed was empty save herself, she was still clad in her blue and white striped pyjamas and she clearly remembered going to bed the night before with only a book to keep her company.
There had been a name on her lips before she woke and yet now, struggle as she might, the name eluded her completely. The name had belonged to the dream girl lying beside her... she wished she could remember it, even though the girl had been nothing more than a figment of her imagination.
"You really need to get out more Rosenberg... and get laid," Willow whispered to herself as she climbed out of bed and crossed the room to the mirror.
Willow stared at herself, dark circles under her eyes from long hours spent training to get them up to scratch before they flew out for the Odysseus. Her red hair fell limply down to her shoulders as she raked out the tangles with her fingers. To top it all off the world's biggest pimple had taken up residence on her chin.
Self-pity Rosenberg... that's not like you, since when have you ever cared what you looked like... well, excepting when you're about to be torn to shreds by your commanding officer... for doing nothing more than the most brilliant manoeuvre in the world, Willow wrinkled her nose, some people just didn't have a sense of humour, And now I'm getting sent to a freakin' carrier to be surround by over a thousand men... I'm never going to get laid!
With an irritated huff Willow grabbed her toilet kit to head off for a cold shower.
As Willow sat in her quarters and pulled on her flying leathers, she turned her mind to more important matters than odd dreams. She remembered the shocked looks on the faces of the rest of the Red Devils when she had informed them of their new assignment. She fully expected them to respond with anger, indignation at having to share in her punishment. Instead, the five pilots had just looked at each other and shrugged,
"Carrier duty, now there's something you don't get to do everyday," Alex had said with almost real excitement in his voice.
Willow smiled when she remembered her best friend's response. Flight Officer Alexander Harris was her second in command and could always be replied upon to make her feel better whatever the circumstances.
Willow pulled on tight brown leather pants over her stockings, every piece of her flying gear was designed for warmth. It was freezing at twenty thousand feet. So cold that ice had had tendency to form on a pilots oxygen mask if they weren't careful. A heavy white woollen jumper went over her chemise, the roll neck sitting snugly under her chin. Wool lined boots went on her feet over her thick socks. Lastly she pulled on her jacket, a wool lined leather jacket with a high collar which reached almost to her knees. Grabbing her flying helmet and goggles, she took one last look around the room. Most of her stuff had already been cleared out and was enroute to the middle of the ocean. It had never been anything special, just a place for her to sleep when she wasn't flying.
Willow walked the few hundred meters to the officer's mess, hands covered in her flying gloves to ward of the chilly cold that hung in the air like an unwelcome blanket. The bright sun, although a pleasant contrast to the rain of the previous day, held no warmth in it.
She had the cooks fill her breakfast tray with mashed potato, sausages and the horrible powdery scrambled eggs that she loved to hate. It wasn't hard to spot the five other pilots of the Red Devil squadron eating their breakfast. Usually the loudest and most boisterous bunch in any room, they now sat in a sullen silence punctuated only by the occasional burp. When they saw Willow approach they cleared a space for her tray on the table and waited patiently for her to explain what the heck was going on. Alex smiled quickly as she sat next to him, giving her a jab with his shoulder as if to say 'cheer up old chap,' as he was prone to do.
Willow looked at each of her pilots in turn and wished they would let her apologise for being the reason they were about to experience was it was like to never have a dry pair of socks. Barret Askew sat with his empty tray in front of him, it never took him long to eat a meal. His arms folded over his barrel like chest, the reason that everyone called him 'Barrel' rather than Barret. His physique and craggy visage made him look more like a boxing champ than a pilot, although he handled his plane like a dancer. Sitting just beside him was Charlie Young, he was an Australian but despite that he was a likeable chap. Willow just wished that he would stop calling her a 'sheila' all the time. Then there was Spike Williamson, no one actually knew his real name, he had just always been Spike and no one even knew where he had picked up the nickname.
"Why are we all being assigned to carrier duty? I mean, not that I don't want the squadron to stay together but..." Dennis Emers asked, the last and newest member of the group... he was just a kid really, barely a year out of Air Academy. Assigned to the squadron just a few weeks prior, following the accident which had killed their previous Captain. He wrote to his mother every week and ironed his underwear. He was a good pilot though... as were all the Devils.
"Hey pimple face shut up," Barrel jabbed the young man in the chest with a finger, "Where the Captain goes... we go."
"Barrel," Willow said his name with a cautionary note to her voice before addressing the question, "I don't know Dennis, I can't answer any of your questions because I don't know anything myself. We make for rendezvous with the Odysseus and I guess we'll spend our time doing whatever it is that carrier based squadrons do."
"Learning to swim," Alex remarked with a grin in Willow's direction.
"And covering our arse cracks in the showers," Charlie added with a snicker, "Especially pretty boys like Spike here."
Spike grabbed Charlie around the neck in a choke hold, making him knock his still full tray to the ground with a clatter while food went in all directions. As though on cue, the entire mess began a raucous chorus of catcalls and whistles in their direction. Spike and Charlie bowed to their appreciate audience before returning to their seats in a more sedate manner. Willow looked down at her own food tray and suddenly realised she couldn't eat a bite. She pushed the eggs back and forth for a while with her fork, succeeding in putting herself off eating completely while staring at the runny goop that laughingly passed itself off as eggs.
"You gonna eat that Cap?" Charlie asked seeing as the floor was wearing his breakfast.
Willow slid the tray over to him, grateful to have it out from under her nose. She turned her attention away from the conversations that surrounded her and looked out the window at the bright winter sunshine. It was a perfect day for flying, the clouds were few and high... mostly there was just an expanse of beautiful blue sky.
Willow rode in the front seat of the jeep, her feet up on the dashboard as a pimply faced private drove the Devil Squadron to their planes. The boys riding in the back had struck up a badly out of tune version of their favourite drinking song which actually only sounded good when everyone was drunk. Now it just made Willow cringe... and smile at the same time. It was good to joke around before a three hour plane flight... three hours of freezing her arse off as they flew over the Atlantic, three hours with nothing to do but listen to the boys swap stories of their latest conquests over the radio. They were always the same stories told over and over again... just a little more embellished than the last time they had been told. Willow and Dennis were the odd ones out, Dennis was too young to have stories and Willow... well, Willow wasn't getting any and she preferred it that way.
The jeep ground to a halt and there was the sound of five pairs of boots leaping down to the ground from behind her.
"Happy flying sir," the pimply faced private said as she climbed out of her seat.
Willow nodded her thanks and turned her attention towards the six planes sitting in one neat line up in front of her. The Supermarine Draken, Willow remembered seeing it for the first time... a sight that had closely rivalled her first trip to see the dinosaurs at the British museum as being the most spectacular sight in her life. The Draken had once been the fastest plane in Air Command, replaced now of course by the latest American model but Willow wouldn't reequip the squadron for all the speed and firepower the American plane could offer.
The Draken sat like a squat, silent predator in the bright red colour scheme that gave the Red Devils their name. As far as planes went, even single seater fighters, it was fairly small but that worked to its advantage in the air. Fast, agile, it could turn on a dime and was a joy to fly. It's nose was dominated by a huge Bristol Mercury radial engine, a three bladed propeller and black painted exhausts. Willow ran her hand along the leading edge of the solid wing until she reached the barrel of the one of the four 20mm cannons that could punch a hole through pretty much anything.
"It's still you and me little Devil," Willow patted the metal wing twice before leaping up onto the wing.
She checked the ground crew had stowed her parachute in the bucket seat and more importantly to Willow, the small inflatable dinghy which clipped on to the parachute harness.
"Ready to go swimming?" Alex called out with a grin as he slipped himself into the cockpit of his plane.
Willow made a rude gesture in reply but she had a playful smile on her face. Like she had done so many times in her flying career, Willow climbed into her own cockpit and slipped down into the seat. No matter how many times she did this, she always felt as though she were coming home every time. She pulled her leather flying helmet on over her hair and waved a signal to the other Devils.
Priming the ignition switch, the engine spluttered a few times before roaring into life. Willow looked out to her left and saw the other five, identical planes starting up in turn. The plane lurched forward, slowly starting to move before gathering speed as it moved out onto the grass runway.
Like a flock of evil looking ducks, the Devils rolled down the runway. Willow was in her element as she felt the plane loose contact with the ground and she was away. Undercarriage up, gaining height steadily. Willow circled over Shoreham and waggled her wings as she flew past the control tower where she knew Bryant would be watching.
"Fuck you Bryant," she thought to herself as the base gradually disappeared behind her, she flicked the radio switch and pulled on her mask so she could talk to the other Devils, "Devil leader to Devil Squadron... radio check guys."
"Devil two here, say Will, did you remember your snorkel?" Alex chuckled over the comm.
"Devil three," Barrel's deep voice rumbled, "I don't know about you guys but I have some sexy swimming trunks."
"Attack of the great white whale!" Charlie laughed and Willow had to agree with him, the mental picture of Barrel in swimming trunks hadn't been a pleasant one, "Devil four here."
"This is Devil five saying that there had better be some fine looking dames on this boat or I'm going to turn around and fly all the way back," Spike purred in a voice that had won over many a young dame.
"Devil six checking in sir," Dennis' small voice piped up, "A-are there really girls on the carrier?"
"Yes, but they all have 'real men only' written on their foreheads so no luck for you baby chicken," Spike replied.
"There is no fraternising between sexes on the carrier," Willow interrupted tersely, "So none of you are going to be seeing any action of any kind."
"Hey, someone's a sour puss this morning," Charlie joined in, "Do you want me to give you some tips on picking up girls Cap?"
"I think I can manage on my own," Willow replied, glancing down at the map in her lap to check they were on the right path, she awkwardly marked their position with a pencil, "Besides, our tastes in girls Charlie... waaaaay different."
"Hey Dennis," Alex began excitedly, "Did you ever hear about the time the Captain socked this American chap with the best roundhouse I've ever seen just because he said she handled her stick well?"
This is going to be a long flight, Willow thought with gritted teeth as she glanced out below her and saw the sun-tinted Atlantic passing by beneath them.
When Willow couldn't feel her arse any longer she was well and truly ready to be on her feet again, even if it was the floating deck of an aircraft carrier. They had sighted the fleet three hours and twenty minutes out from Shoreham just when Willow thought her navigation skills had somehow disappeared over night along with her desire to eat. There, near the centre of the fleet, was their home the carrier HMS Odysseus. As the Devils began circling waiting for Willow to land first, Willow had a momentary panic that she had suddenly forgotten how to do a deck landing. It was as though the dozens of dummy deck landings they had been doing all week in preparation had never happened.
She lined up the Odysseus in her sights and the 740 foot deck suddenly appeared to be the size of a cricket pitch.
I hate swimming! Willow thought for the tenth time in the last few minutes, although realistically if she went off the side of the deck she wouldn't be doing any swimming...
Willow went through a mental checklist just to check she had everything under control. Down undercarriage, yes, some wheels were good, down arrestor hook to catch one of the eight wires strung across the deck. She pulled back the cockpit canopy, locking it open. Biting cold air suddenly hit the few patches of her face that were uncovered. Willow increased pitch, flaps were lowered as she moved abeam of the stern of the ship. A few hundred yards out now... the batsman had his bats out horizontally signalling that everything was just fine. Willow chopped back the throttle and held the stick steady as a rock. Wheels hit the deck... suddenly the arrestor hook did its job, catching on a wire. Her body lunged forward, straining against the harness with the sudden deceleration.
Willow blinked and realised she had done it, a perfect carrier landing.
Like I was ever worried! Willow thought with a grin.
She taxied forward over the crash barriers which had been lowered, cutting off power to the engine the Draken came to a complete stop. Willow pulled her flying helmet back off her sweaty brow and laid her head on the Draken's instrument panel with an almighty sigh. She was startled when there was an urgent rap on the glass of her canopy, groggily Willow looked up to see one of the crew men looking in on her. Willow quickly unlatched her cockpit and slid it back.
"Sir, are you alright..."
"Oh!" Willow said, a little redundantly, she clambered out of the cockpit so the crew could unlock the Draken's wings from their extended position and fold them for storage in the hanger beneath the flight deck.
Willow stood on the wooden flight deck as Alex also landed perfectly.
Well, she thought glancing around at the bustling flight deck, Home...
"Captain Rosenberg... your presence is requested on the bridge."
Willow raised her eyebrows and wondered at the abrupt summons. She had barely had time to cause trouble of any sort... well, save holding up the landing pattern. After watching the Draken disappear beneath the flight deck completely, she turned to follow the ensign.
She was lead the main bridge of the carrier, the brain of the ship. It was a hive of activity and Willow had to dodge through several busy sailors clearly each with an important task of his own. Willow was busy staring at the instruments cluttering the walls, most of which she had no idea what they were for, when a voice snapped her out of her reverie.
"Ah, Captain Rosenberg..."
Willow spun around to come face to face with a rather imposing figure standing in the centre of the bridge. Perhaps in his early forties, his hair was greying at the temples beneath his peaked cap. His dark brown eyes regarded her calmly from a weathered face and all in all, he reminded Willow of her standard three teacher, a man she had liked very much. He was dressed in an impeccably crisp white naval uniform, his hands clasped behind him in the classic pose of a stoic leader of men. She couldn't help but look down at her own worn flying leathers. She felt somewhat underdressed for the bridge of the carrier even though she knew it was the other man who was over-dressed.
"I'm Commander Benjamin Boone," He nodded once, "Welcome, the Odysseus is my ship... but you, seeing that we're going to be such great friends and all... can call me Commander Boone."
Willow inclined her head in return and realised with disappointment that he was nothing like her old teacher.
"Thank you sir, it's good to be here," it was all Willow could think to say.
"No it's not," Boone replied curtly, "Having someone with your sort of reputation on my ship wasn't exactly on my Christmas shopping list but we all have to make the best of a bad situation now don't we?"
"Er, yes sir," Willow replied, not quite knowing whether it was rhetorical or not.
"Rosenberg, I'd like you to see something," he announced it in a voice similar to that of a child showing off a new toy knowing full well that it was better than any toy anyone else possessed, "Keep your eyes on the HMS Ajax, the cruiser at the centre of the fleet."
Boone raised his arm and pointed out a massive ship sailing off to their starboard side. It was unusual that he had said the cruiser was at the centre. Normally it was the place for the carriers of which there were two, the Achilles and the Odysseus, in the fifth Fleet. Willow watched the cruiser closely, not quite sure what to expect.
Suddenly there was a flash of light from the Ajax's midships, it was then that Willow noticed a tall mast which was unlike any other ships design she had ever seen. Gradually, as she stared harder, she saw faint traces of pink light swirling around that mast. They started small at first, rising up from the base and fading away to nothing in the air above the ship. Willow then had the distinct impression that they were growing in intensity, both becoming brighter and lingering in the air for longer periods of time.
Finally, there was a single beam of pink tinted light rising up from the mast in a continuous stream. Somewhere, high above the fleet the beam of light stopped moving upwards. With a twisting movement, it split off into many, many different strands. Each strand then shot outwards. It reached the edge of the fleet before falling down to the sea. The strands had joined horizontally as well, becoming a giant net that had the whole fleet ensnared within its grasp.
Her mouth agape, Willow walked to the window of the bridge. Her nose pressed against the glass as she looked up at the pink light shimmering in the air all around them. It was quite unlike anything she had ever seen before... obviously...
"Never seen anything like that have you?" Boone had snuck up behind her, giving her a fright so that she banged her nose on the glass.
Willow rubbed her nose with tears stinging her eyes as she shook her head, feeling all of her dignity leaving with her sense of balance.
"It's called a net."
Willow snickered involuntarily, "Couldn't think of something cooler to call it?"
Boone clamped a hand on her shoulder and Willow jumped again, "Bit jumpy aren't we Rosenberg. You're going to think that bit of pink fluff is pretty 'cool' when it saves our arses."
"How's it going to do that... sir?" Willow tried discreetly to shrug out of his grip but his fingers tightened to the point where they were digging into her skin.
"Number one, it keeps us from being seen. A plane could fly right over the Fleet and see nothing except water. Number two... and this is where it really gets good, you can throw anything at it and nothing will get through. I had the privilege of being inside it during a full naval bombardment, nothing like seeing eighteenth inch guns unable to make a dent in a bit of pink fluff. Can't say where they picked up the technology from," he said answering her unspoken question, "I'm just a sailor."
He finally removed his hand from her shoulder, leaving Willow to stand staring out the window and up into the sky. She could still see shafts of light rising at regular intervals from the Ajax, the big cruiser looking like a Christmas tree. It was puzzling though, Willow frowned and turned to Boone who was standing at the helm,
"Why do we need it?" she asked curiously.
"You ask a lot of questions don't you Rosenberg... I'd quit it if I were you. We're all just following orders... that's the way it works in the military."
The seas were beginning to churn as the weather worsened. Even on the huge carrier, Willow could still feel the rocking motion, dipping down into the waves and rising again on the other side. Willow knew instantly why she had never wanted to be a sailor. She watched as rain began to splash against the window, the water running in sheets down the glass. A shiver coursed through her and although she wasn't sure if it was the cold or the mysterious pink glow surrounding them, she pulled her jacket more firmly around her.
"As snug as a bug in a rug," Boone said, lighting his pipe.