I called Emily up later and told her things were okay. She demanded an explanation, and I figured that I owed her that much. I had just potentially put her in danger, not to mention scaring the living shit out of her. A proper explanation was the least I could do. Made some burgers with moose meat and pepperjack cheese. The hope was that it would be a short evening, but who knew.
When she got over we ate and I told her about what happened with Bethke.
“So, does that mean you can make up with the rest of your sisters?” she asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know how they’ll react. Bethke is a hot-head, but she has always and probably will always see me as big sister who she can’t stay mad at. We worked things out in the way that it had to be for us. For the rest, I’m not so sure. There’s going to be some ugly feelings all around.”
Nodding, she took another bite. “Well, I hope you can make up with the rest of the girls. You sound like you miss them.”
“More than you’ll ever know, kiddo. What we had together was something magical. Maybe, if I hadn’t left, had stayed with them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
She looked down. “Then we wouldn’t have met…”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, a lot of shit has been royally fucked in my life ever since Jean died. I don’t know who I am, sometimes.”
Looking back at me. “I know who you are.”
“Aye? And who am I?”
“Super awesome ninja badass, Quinn Pierce.”
I chuckled a bit. “Thanks for that. It’s nice to know somebody feels that way about me.” Kept eating my burger. There was some quiet time then.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” she said.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“What was getting ready for a mission like? I know you can’t tell me all the deets, but what was it like going out on a mission? Been trying to imagine it, but I’m drawing a blank.”
Chewing my food for a bit, I nodded. “It was…intense.”
“What can you tell me?”
“Hm…” Taking another bite, I thought for a moment. There was one good story that I didn’t think would reveal anything important.
“Alright, so typically we would just be wherever and get called in, but sometimes we’d have prolonged deployments when they had missions for us in succession that had to be done as part of an active ZOI.”
“Zone of Interest. Somewhere that the brass wanted to be dealt with. Could be for whatever reason. We never asked why. You have a job, you do it. That’s how it works in the Navy. When you do work that is already classified by virtue of you being there, questions really won’t help.”
Kiddo was hanging on every word.
“Anyway, when we’re in an active ZOI, we’d be mobile. The ship that they’d have us deploy from was a brand new kind of destroyer, made specifically for stealth. It was top of the line. They only ever made a couple, because of the cost, and each of them is understood to be a place where we are based. We’d have our own quarters that were typically shared with one rackmate. For a long time, they put me with Rodriguez. Though I shared quarters with Crow and Beacham, for a while. Days would get pretty boring. Because we had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, we typically didn’t get duties like any other sailor on that ship. Had a LOT of people jealous for a while, until they realized that we are dangerous. Though we still had the reputation of the FDUs.”
“Frigid Dykes Unit.”
Emily rolled her eyes. “Were all of you gay?”
“No, actually. Just me. We had a theory that Pennyfeather had dabbled, but no proof. I was the only lesbian in that team, far as we were aware. Didn’t stop people from talking. Really didn’t help when scuttlebutt was making the rounds about me and Jean. But anyway, off topic, because this was a ship geared toward stealth, alarms were all about lights. Anytime the lights changed, we knew something was happening…”
Wished this thing had exterior windows. It was genuinely claustrophobic in here sometimes. Like being in a submarine. Which was why I always preferred to spend time on deck. Oh well. Was laying on my rack, staring at the bulkhead. It was so damn quiet in this thing. One thing about being on ships, there was typically noise coming from something. But not here. It was genuinely disconcerting sometimes. On an average ship, if all noise stops and it isn’t general quarters, that typically is a bad thing.
As if to answer when I said that, the lights went red. In a flash I was up, along with Rodriguez, who had been playing Solitaire on the deck of our quarters. We knew the drill. If the ship was under attack, the audio alarm kicks on, because then keeping quiet is irrelevant. Lights means that Alpha team was up and the rest of the ship had to get things ready.
We slipped on the NWUs and ran out. Saw the others and greeted them silently. It was typical when we were getting ready to stay silent. We had to do that for actual missions, might as well do it and get ourselves used to it.
“Wait, you can’t talk during missions?” Emily asked.
“Not unless absolutely necessary. Part of our education was to learn ASL, so we could give commands in a way that was least likely to give away our positions. And if we did have to use the comms, we were instructed to only speak Blackfoot.”
“You know Blackfoot?!”
“Aye. Or, if you prefer, áa oko’s.”
“Whoa. And you know sign language?”
“Yup. When we were together or in pairs on a mission, we’d sign. The idea was to have us be utterly silent, making as little sound as possible. And since we couldn’t be sure that the enemy wasn’t listening in to the comms, Blackfoot was the obvious language we would go to. We had a team member who spoke it and could teach it.”
“Aye. A LOT of girls failed from the training because they couldn’t learn it. STARS training wanted to weed out those who were just looking to shoot at people. We had to be more than assassins. We had to be able to think, learn, improvise, adapt. It was the most demanding job I’ve ever had.” Couldn’t help the nostalgia in my voice.
“You miss it?”
“The job? A little. But the camaraderie I miss more. Six women, working together, getting shit that couldn’t be done by anyone else. accomplished. It was a feeling like no other.”
“It was. Anyway, we got side-tracked. At the start of every mission, there is the briefing. Those are long. Movies always make it out to be a short thing, where people are just told to do stuff and that’s it. Wrong. We go through equipment we will need, mission protocols, mission objectives, infil point, exfil point, infiltration routes, obstacles, potential political fallout, and if we have fifth freedom or not.”
She frowned. “Fifth freedom?”
Gave her a serious look. “The freedom to break the law for the greater good. In essence, if we have permission to kill people or not. Sometimes we don’t.”
A confused response. “Why wouldn’t you have permission to kill people?”
My face was dead serious. “Because sometimes we had missions in places that are allies, and we aren’t supposed to be. If anyone gets killed in those missions, it would cause massive political fallout, so we are not given fifth freedom. Or you have instances where an enemy is politically volatile, so killing a target would inevitably incite an incident. These are things you have to think about during a mission. And we are expected to know when the parameters of a mission change. The OPSAT cameras in our TOS give Command constant info of what we see, and little ear-pieces give them an update on what we hear. So they’re able to tell us in real time when things have changed.”
Girl looked so invested. “That is so cool. Sounds like spy shit.”
“You don’t even know. The TOS has special bendable touch-screen tech so they can send us encoded updates in real time.with new info. We had top of the line gear.”
“What’s the TOS?”
Thought for a moment. “I suppose I can tell you a little. It’s the Tactical Operation Suit. First of its kind. This thing is made to be flexible and protect you from the enemy. There is a kevlar layer, and Gore-Tex. The former offers protection from gunfire, while the latter makes you effectively invisible to infrared and night-vision. Got lots of other neat tech integration, but I can’t say too much about that. Classified as fuck.”
She pouted. “Okay. What did it look like?”
“Whatever we wanted. Color, pattern, whatever. It’s part of the cool tech, but I really can’t say too much about why. It is next level combat armor, and they gave it to a bunch of chicks who are trained to be ninjas.”
“Bad ass! Was it fun to wear?!”
Now I frowned. “Not even a little. This shit was skin-tight and awkward as fuck. You’re naked getting in and out. And since most of where we went had hot as fuck weather, it was mad uncomfortable. This is part of why we do operations at night. The stuff breathes, but sweating is the worst. We didn’t have to worry about overheating, but we did have to worry about feeling like we were wearing glue. Felt bad for the people who have to clean that stuff. We have a special crew who have to clean each suit. It’s a giant process, because they might have to replace some of the layers and do repairs. Those who do are specially trained and have special clearance that others don’t. Everyone associated with STARS had TS clearance or higher. Every person in this outfit earned their place there.”
It felt kinda nice to be getting this reaction from someone. Admiration. We damn sure earned it.
“What was getting in and out of that stuff like?”
“Getting in was the easy part. Getting out reminded us why you shave. EVERYTHING.”
Her eyes went wide. “Don’t tell me…”
“A natural replacement for waxing, if you don’t. First time we were wearing the things was agony to remove, for the others. Thankfully, once I had a razor at my disposal, I already liked to be clean shaven all over…”
Nobody tells you how incredibly awkward it is to be in a room full of women, hearing them groan as they are stripping naked. Worst part is, so we don’t damage the suits, we have the techs there as well. Boy howdy, this sucked. There are not words to describe how uncomfortable it is. We had trained in the TOS, but never put it to the test like this. Thankfully, since I had shaved everything and even my head (because dealing with hair isn’t worth it in the military, what with all the rules of how to do your hair and how long you have to do it), it was like peeling a layer of skin. I suddenly got how it must feel for snakes. That thought was cool.
For the others, however, it was constant moans of pain.
“Mierda!” Rodriguez screamed. “There goes my lightning bolt.”
Beacham rolled her eyes. “You’re in the Navy, my dear. At least PRETEND like you belong here, would you?”
Bethke looked over at me with an angry expression on her face. “Of course, you have no problem with it.”
Rolled my eyes. “Yeah, as if all the delicate skin didn’t stick right to it too. Bite me!”
Rodriguez gave me a horrified look. “Joder. Oh no…”
“Oh yes. Good luck.”
Stepping out, I put the suit onto a rack and the tech assigned to it took it to the other room. Now that that was done, I got to take my well-deserved shower. One of the perks of being a STARS member is we get our own showers, and the faucet heads aren’t shit. Limited time window, of course, but they are more flexible. After all, we had to scrub out a bunch of shit from our person.
After I scrubbed down and got cleaned up, I went into the locker room to get my clothes. Figured I should have kept the towel wrapped around me, but since I knew there was only us in this locker, and we had seen everything on each other before, I just didn’t see the point of feigning modesty. The air was cold, but drying me off quick. And after that desert nightmare, this felt so good.
As I got my uniform out of the locker, the door suddenly opened. I just assumed it was one of the others, since Beacham and Crow had gotten to the showers as I was heading out, so I didn’t think much of it.
“Oh!” I heard a voice say. That voice was familiar…
Turning around, I saw CWO Beryl standing there, looking awkward.
Oh shit! “Ma’am!” I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around myself fast. “Apologies. I didn’t know you had come in.”
“No, that’s fine. I assumed you were dressed. I was told to tell the team to report to Lt. Evans as soon as all of you are dressed. I know you’re tired, but better to debrief now. It was a textbook mission, but we gotta have this for the record.” The look on her face was awkward and red. Weird. I mean, she’s seen a naked woman before. We all went through boot. What’s up with her lately? Either she’s being cold or she’s being nice. Or now she’s being awkward. I didn’t get this chick.
Clearing her throat again. “As you were, Pierce.” And then she left very quickly.
My young companion chuckled. “So it went over your head too?”
“Aye. The TOS only left the eyes uncovered. That’s why it had to breathe, because you literally had to breathe through it. Six women with shaved heads. That was us. At least for the initial version. Later ones had a detachable head section that we could use, depending on the mission. That was a good day for our outfit. You lose so much body heat through your head, so it made things so much easier.”
“So cool. I guess there’s no pics of that.”
“Not a one. You’ll just have to use your imagination.”
She frowned, but nodded. “Okay. Sounds pretty epic.”
“It definitely was. The pain in the ass that they were, the suits definitely made us feel like high-tech ninjas.”
“So, you suited up. What then?”
Leaning back, I thought back. “Then we get to the vehicle we’re taking in. Sometimes it was Seahawk, sometimes it was a Zodiac, sometimes it was any number of things. We suit up, report to transport, then go on the mission.”
“A Seahawk is a helicopter?”
“Aye. Our ship had one posted on it, standing by for use anytime. Crew who ran that thing were no slouches.”
“Is it fun to ride in a helicopter?”
Had to think about that for a bit. “It’s…different. You fly in an airplane and you can feel it moving, but there’s always this deliberateness to it. Like a wind-up and cool-down. In a chopper it can turn on a dime and you have to be ready for that. Everyone who had motion sickness was axed from the program pretty quick. You gotta train for how to disembark from a bird correctly. Otherwise you risk broken bones. Movies and video games make that shit look easy. It’s not.”
Her head did that thing where she was trying to think of something more. “Hm. Well, I think that’s all I got for now. You probably can’t tell me about your weapons and stuff.”
“That’s affirmative. We had special gear in that regard, but can’t say a thing about it.”
“Hm. Well, thanks for telling me what you did.”
“No sweat, kiddo.”
We finished eating, and then she got up.
“I hope it goes well, with the others.”
I shrugged. “I’m not holding my breath.”
She gave me this look of incredulity. “I know that’s not true. You want it to go as well as I do. Your sisters mean everything to you.”
Sighing, I nodded. “Aye. They do. But I don’t know what’ll happen. So for now, I’m just going to wait and see.”
“We gonna finish decorating the tree this weekend?”
“You know it. Now get home. You got school in the morning.”
“Aye-aye!” she said, doing faux-attention.
I rolled my eyes. “Silly kid.”
“I’m gonna get this right, you’ll see!”
“Yeah, we’ll see.”
Normally, when I talk about the past, it hurts. Today, it felt good. Very good. I could live with that.
Until next time, a quote,
“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” – Doug Larson