It was a Saturday, and Bravo had the morning off. Still sort of half-asleep, he adjusted his position on his sleeping mat as he yawned and took in the bursts of static word salad from his room's radio unit. Even in the digital age, aircraft hadn't entirely given up the familiar crackle of signals intoned into mikes, bouncing through the atmosphere, richocheting off earth and clouds, snatched from the ether by antennas and finally squawking out of speakers. Radio was simply part of what every aircraft breathed from birth, though internet and text were making their presence known among the kids of Wendy's age cohort -- at least those on the outside who had the PC's, the smartphones, and the wherewithall for a data plan.
It was finally force of habit and years of conditioning that caused the partbred Hornet to lift his head off the mat, flare his nostrils and strain his ears to make sense of the morning's smells and sounds. Already, Bravo could smell coffee and warm seedcake; though his head was inclined to snatch the rare opportunity for a few more minutes of snoozing, his empty insides issued a veto on that. He pulled himself up, yawning again as he stretched his U/C joints and shook out his control surfaces. The food smells were really calling out to him now, and he was just about to leave when the radio beeped. "Juneau Tower to Bravo. You have a civilian caller, identified as... Dusty Crophopper. Shall we patch him through?"
Bravo let out a snort and blinked before answering. "Affirmative, patch him through."
"Uh, thanks a bunch guys." Dusty's voice still carried the self-deprecating tone of a midwestern country boy. "Bravo? Hope I didn't wake you."
The fighter pressed his floor button. "Nah, I just got up. Just didn't expect to hear from you, though I definitely have no objections. So how've you been?"
"Good." Dusty replied. "Been gearing up for the Ace Factor series in Reno, at least we won't be flying anywhere over water in that place. Maybe the odd puddle, though."
"Yeah, salt water doesn't go down so well, does it?" Bravo commented dryly. "Well, at least you can say you've been places I haven't".
"Well, the ocean floor is kind of... I should say, overrated." Dusty's tone winced slightly. "But at least it was in a relatively shallow place and I'm still alive and flying. Speaking of that, I heard that you had a bit of a hard landing on your last mission."
"Dropped right down on the flight deck like a brick and just caught the third wire." Bravo chuckled ruefully. "Of course it was pitch-black, the boat was pitching and rolling and the nearest bingo was out of range. Didn't have an abundance of choices there. Now I'm stuck on shore till the repairs integrate, about six months. So what else did the "little birds" tell you?"
"They got you... working with kids or something? In Alaska. It was one of the plane captains on shore leave who was telling me this. She came to my last race on the west coast."
"Wouldn't happen to be Andrea Stills, would it? She had Echo on the last tour."
"Yeah, Andrea, that was her. Well, I AM 'working with kids', Dusty... just... VERY troubled ones. It's at one of the state juvenile facilities."
"Really? Wow. So how are the kids there?"
"Mostly there on minor stuff, like shoplifting, fighting, truancy, drugs, that kind of thing. But one in particular... she's fighter stock, and grew out of the foster system. They just didn't know what else to do with her and she's kind of wild."
"Fighter stock?" Dusty's voice raised an octave. "I didn't think the Department of Defense people would just leave a kid like that to a state system. Even in my case, social workers were always around. Mom certainly wasn't, and it was Dottie and Chug's folks who basically brought me up."
"Hmmm." Bravo's left eyeshade rose. "So you know something of what that's like?"
"I'd think it'd be worse for a fighter, though." Dusty continued. "How do they deal with that, the people at the home?"
"I can't say too much, confidentiality and all, but I can say, not too well." Bravo frowned. "Teens push boundaries and press buttons and answer the call of the wild hormones, right? It's almost their sacred calling. Fighters that age are like... teen squared. I was quite the hellion myself at that age. Mom and Dad credit their white muzzles mainly to me."
There was the trace of a sigh on Dusty's end. "Mom and Dad. That sounds nice anyway."
For once, Bravo was relieved that Dusty couldn't see his facial reaction to that last statement. In Dusty's case, there were caring adults present to make up for the absentee parent. What she'd rather do than stay around and bring up her child, he didn't know and wasn't about to pry, though he had his speculations. "I should introduce you sometime. They follow the races, and lately the three-day events, though that's mostly fast jets. Best of the outmodes. My kids might be doing that someday... if I have any."
"Well..." Dusty powered through the slightly awkward beat of silence. Bravo was somewhat impressed. The one-time cropduster was persistent that way. "Don't write off your genes just yet. There's that Aardvark lady, the colonel. Maybe you saw her on TV last night? She got into... farming, when she retired. Now she's the biggest landowner in our corner of the state, half the cropland around Propwash Junction is in her holdings now. I told you about Leadbottom, he's just itching to get the fertilizer contract for all that acreage. Roped me and Skipper into going along when he sees her at her main farm. That's about... tennish. So I'd better get going."
"Well, thanks for dropping me a line." Bravo grinned. "It was very good to hear from you, Dusty."
"My pleasure." the radio speaker squawked one more time. "Maybe talk again later?"
"Yeah, sure." the fighter nodded. "Evenings are best during the week. Reception's better too."
"OK, got that. Bye now, over and out." The radio went silent again. Bravo digested this for a moment, then slowly turned for the doors. They were already well into breakfast, but somebody had saved him some cakes. The "D'oh! Why didn't I ask him?" moment wouldn't come until half an hour later.
"Nice." Leadbottom whistled as he and his companions approached the main nursery complex adjacent to the home of Col. Blanche Woodman (ret.). Below them, an apparent infinitude of cropland lay in sere late-autumn fallowness, but the area around the colonel's residence and admin center was surrounded by at least a hundred acres of greenhouses and was still a bustling hive of activity even at this time of the year. Many of the outlying structures were of the traditional long, rectangular sort, but there was also a cluster of large domes, constructed of inflated geodesic cells, that put Dusty in mind of some sci-fi movies he'd watched over the years. Leadbottom's whistle was more than justified. Even Skipper had blinked hard, twice, as he took in the scale of the complex on the horizon.
The radio operator on the premises directed them to a private airstrip to the west of the facility; the old biplane went first, followed by the other two landing together. A tug marshaller waved them onto a taxiway, which took them through leaf-patterned glass-and-verdigris gates into a large atrium that was also covered with a greenhouse roof, this one classic Victorian in style. The visitors registered a bit of surprise at the sensation of the air curtain that kept the cold from sweeping in with them. The gates then closed behind them, creating a seal. The air curtain shut off.
"Whoah." Skipper glanced about, wide-eyed, at the foliage that lined the courtyard-like enclosure. Reflexively, the Corsair folded his wings as his left tip brushed the fronds of a banana plant... bananas? BANANAS?!?! "Looks just like Hawaii in here."
"Oh, wow." Dusty could only stare at the tropical lushness that surrounded him; in addition, the aromas of a thousand orchids hit his sensitive nose at once. Most of them were way out of his frame of reference. Leadbottom just grinned. "Told you, but did you believe?"
"OK, I'm convinced." Dusty fanned his elevators. His system had acclimated for winter and the differential was still a bit of a shock. If he could guess anything, this was only the beginning.
"Good morning, gentlemen." Another pitty, one with the sleek lines of a receptionist, emerged from the tunnel of wisteria at the far end. "Col. Woodman had to take a call, but she'll be with you right after." She was followed by another staffer bearing a tray of refreshments. "Please help yourselves to some of our juices."
Wendy was outside this morning, as she was others. When the opportunity presented itself, she spent a lot of time outdoors. Her nose twitched as she read scents, other people's scents, determining who was happy or angry and over what. Oh, Bella and Evie are fighting again. Over what? The usual pissy stuff, probably. And we'll be having linseed mash again. I hope they put blueberries in it again. Kinda boring without. No muzzle and no bars meant no noisemaking, it kind of took away her thunder. Now bereft of the restraints she'd converted to a perverse security blanket, Wendy had nothing more than her voice and her brain to use, if there was something she wanted.
The fighter rose up on her shocks as she saw a tug coming her way, with a mash drum in his tines. The new guy. She feigned indifference as he slid the container into its receptacle beside the gate into her shelter, but her eyes went over him every instant. Now that the constant irritants had been removed, Wendy could focus on other people. The tug was whistling as he went about his business, not a bad sort, really. As he moved on, she gingerly approached the gate and took the straw in her mouth. Yes, blueberries and syrup this time.
Almost involuntarily, Wendy blew out in relief, as close to contentment as she'd ever been the whole time she'd been here. Momentarily, the tug paused, with a half-turn. After a beat, the corners of his mouth turned up a bit, before he resumed his course to other chores. Wendy had appeared dead-quiet when he'd approached, but he had seen her follow him in that corner-of-the-eye way. His father had worked on fighters during a stint in the Air Force, and told him that they were never entirely complacent, even at rest. They always noticed things. This jet was still a ways from being entirely approachable, but now, it seemed a possibility, however faint.