Chapter Four: Mission Of Interest
When they arrived in the hanger a briefing had already been set up, with chairs set out for the pilots and a slightly raised platform for Jester to stand on and address them. Most of the back chairs were taken and Paige and Cien walked to the front row sitting next to Michael. “See what being late getting her gets you?” He said with a teasing grin. Paige punched his arm lightly. “Well you’re sitting up here to boy.” “Point.” Michael replied with a smile. Slowly the last of the pilots, still recovering from last night’s escapades trickled into the hanger. When the last pilot had finally been seated, Jester walked in and climbed up on his platform, standing in from out the podium mounted there. He cleared his throat, looking out over the assembled pilots. When no one stopped talking, he repeated the gesture, slightly louder. When this too had no effect, he pulled out his pistol and fired two shots into the ceiling. “Good morning ladies and gentleman, this is your wakeup call!” The whole group fell silent and Jester smiled. “Much better. I’ve brought you all here to discuss a mission of great importance. The enemy has acquired an F-35X prototype fighter. They cannot be allowed to keep it and incorporate it’s technology into their Air Force. We intend to steal it, if possible, or if necessary, to destroy it to keep this technology from being used against us. This is a dangerous mission and I wanted to have volunteers instead of assigning someone to such a volatile and dangerous situation. If you can accept this responsibility, please stand.” Paige glanced at Cien almost apologetically, and then stood. Several others stood after her and Jester sighed slightly. He had not wanted her to stand. This was one mission where he had wanted her to stay behind and be safe, even though he was going himself. The other pilots who stood were good, but none as good as her. He sighed, left with little choice. “Alright Archer, you’re with me.” He waited for the others to sit before he continued. “We will leave in the morning, early, so get some rest. I’ll tell you the rest you need to know on the way. Dismissed!” As the rest of the pilots stood, Cien smiled down at her. “Come on, let’s go fix that lock of yours.” They walked out hand in hand.

Paige looked up at a knock on her door. She stood from where she had been sitting in front of her computer and opened the door. Cien smiled down at her, his blue-violet eyes strangely sad. Paige furrowed her brow and he walked in turning to look at her, his eyes searching her face. “Love…” He pulled her close and kissed her gently. As they pulled apart, his eyes searched her face again. “Promise me…” He said softly, but trailed off with a sigh. “What Cien…? Anything for you.” Paige whispered softly, placing her hand gently against his chest. She could feel his heart beating softly beneath it and Cien placed his hand over hers. “Jester came and talked to me today about the mission you two were going on…Paige…it’s so dangerous…I love you so much…” He pulled her close and Paige felt tears spring into her eyes as he said those words she had longed to hear from his lips. She turned her face toward his ear. “I love you too Cien. More than anything…” He buried his face in her hair and breathed deeply of her scent, memorizing it and everything about her just in case she did not come back after this mission. They stayed like that several long minutes before he spoke again. “Promise me you’ll be careful, Paige, please.” He turned her face to gaze deep into his eyes. Paige felt the tears well up in her eyes and she just nodded. “I will come back, you know that Cien.” Cien sighed. “I hope so love…but I wanted to be sure you knew how much I loved you before you left.” Paige nodded. “I knew Cien, you never had to say it.” Cien nodded and kissed a tear that had spilled over. “Come on love. Don’t want Jester to get cranky because you’re late.” They gathered her flight gear and he helped her into it, and then walked with her up to the hanger. Jester was standing beside and F-14. Cien handed her, her flight helmet and kissed her check. Paige smiled at him slightly, then turned and walked over to Jester. He was looking away and as he looked up as she approached, she saw him repressing a flash of pain. Paige’s looked away in apology. When she looked back after a moment Jester shook his head slightly, just once, the pain there again, unrepressed and open to her. Then he buried it again and turned to climb into plane. Paige followed, settling herself in the navigators seat. Jester didn’t speak until they were in the air. “Our ETA is five minutes. Once we get there, we will bomb the barracks and a few of the hangers our sources say hold most of their planes. Then we land. The plane should be located in one of the warehouses to the left of the runway. There are three and it is guessed that it’s in the one closet. We’re to expect opposition, but we should make ourselves an advantage when we bomb the mess and barracks as this early most of the soldiers are in one or the other of those places.” He fell silent then. “Is that all?” Paige asked. “We’ll everything else is not important. I’m flying the F-35X home. You’ll be bringing this bird. I promised Jerund I’d bring it back in one piece.” He fell silent again after that and Paige watched the time scroll down. Paige looked out for the base and finally spotted it. “There.” She said. Jester saw it as she did and brought the plane in low and fast, dropping the bombs in one quick pass. He pulled a tight hard turn and made a screaming landing on the runway. As they jumped out the base was eerily quiet. Paige reached back in and grabbed her M-16 then jumped to the ground beside Jester. They turned looking around. The fires they started burned fast and hot and they turned trudging over to the small cluster of warehouses, their shoes crunching loudly in the gravel. Jester reached out for the door, opening it careful and glad for doing that as gunfire erupted from the inside. He jumped back and pulled a grenade from his pocket, lobbing it inside, the turning and hitting the dirt several feet away. Paige followed suite, the resulting explosion half knocking her there. They rose together and turned back. The door lay in the dust several feet away from the warehouse. As they advanced again there was no gunfire and as the walked inside they could see that, the grenade had done its job well. Jester kicked a severed arm away and walked toward the back to a tarp-covered mass he could see, leaving bloody footprints behind him. Paige followed, scanning the warehouse for any other signs of life. Jester reached for the tarp and smiled and he lifted it, seeing his prize beneath. He was just about to pull the tarp from it when a voice called out “You! Put you’re hands in the air!” He turned and looked at Paige, the two of them diving behind the plane for cover as the enemy soldiers fired. They fired back then Paige looked behind them. “Will, another door.” She said softly. “Jester looked, then nodded and they took off for the door as one. The soldiers guessed their ploy though and as they ran back toward the plane, shots trailed them. Paige outdistanced Jester but she could tell he was right behind her by his ragged breathing. Then he grunted and fell. Paige turned. “No! GO!” He ordered. Paige ignored him, hoisting him up and over to the plane. As she did so she felt a shot graze close, tearing through her flight suit but not hitting her. She climbed up and into the front seat slamming the canopy down as turning the plane to face the right way. As she screamed up into the air, Jester groaned from the back. “You alright?” She asked. “Yea, I’ll live.” He said. “Thanks…” Paige smiled slightly. “What’s the first thing they teach you Will? Do you remember?” Jester thought a moment as they speeded back toward their base. “Never leave your wingman…” He said softly. “I don’t intend to break that. Ever.” He chuckled. “Nice to know.” He fell silent then until Paige landed on the runway, groaning as the wheels touched down, jarring the plane slightly. Christina walked out of the hanger. “Come help me, Jester is wounded.” Christina nodded and together the two women managed to get him down. As they half carried him toward the hanger Jerund walked out. “Where were you hit?” He asked Jester. “Just in the leg, thigh, left.” Jerund nodded, kneeling to look at the wound. He looked at Paige. “Are you injured?” “No sir, I managed to get away without it somehow.” He nodded. “Good. Get a shower and some rest then. Christina and I can get him to the medical ward. Paige nodded and walked into the shack. Cien met her in the mess hall as she was going for a clean flight suit. “Love! Are you okay? There’s blood all over you.” She gave a slight tired smile. “I’m fine…Jester took a shot to the leg, it’s all his blood. Cien nodded and kissed her cheek. “Look, you go on up to the shower. I’ll bring you your flight suite okay?” Paige nodded. “Thanks hon.” Cien gave a lopsided smile. “Anything for you love.” Paige walked up to the shower she closed the door behind her and started the water, grabbing a towel out of the stack by the door. When the water ran hot, she shed her soiled flight suit and climbed in, letting the water run hot over her. She bathed then laid her head against the shower wall, the water pounding her back. She should have been dead today, several times over. She bit her lip, fighting back tears and turned off the water, stepping out and wrapping a towel around herself. There was a knock on the door then Cien walked in, carrying her clean clothing. Seeing her face, he slowed. “Are you okay love?” Paige shook her head, sinking to the floor and pulling her knees up close against her. His arms were around her in and instant, holding her close and rocking her gently. “Just let it out love…” he held her close until she stopped sobbing, and then helped her dress. He brushed out her long hair gently and picked her up, carrying her down to her room. She just clung to him, shaking badly. As he laid her on the bed, she grabbed his hand. “Don’t leave me…Please…” She begged softly. Cien nodded and closed the door, laying down beside her and pulling her into his arms again. She lay her head on his chest and fell quickly to sleep.

Paige woke still cradled in Cien’s strong arms. She wondered what had woken her until her pager buzzed like an angry bee on her beside table. She picked it up, her stirrings waking Cien. He looked down at her as she read the message. ‘Come to the medical ward- Jester.’ She looked up and he kissed her cheek gently. “Go see what he wants. I’ll be waiting on you.” Paige nodded and rose, straightening her flight suit then heading down the hall. As she opened the medical ward door Jester looked up from the paperwork he had been doing. “You’re going back.” He said simply after the door had closed behind her. Paige nodded. “I figured as much, the mission isn’t completed.” He nodded. “Choose a wingman. If you can’t steal it, destroy it. If we can’t have it neither can they.” Paige nodded in understanding. “When is the mission scheduled for sir?” “Tomorrow evening. Relax today. You’re dismissed.” Paige nodded and turned, leaving the medical ward. Cien was waiting on her outside. “Well love?” “I’ve got to go back. I’m supposed to choose a wingman and go back tomorrow evening.” Cien’s eyes grew hard. “If you’re going back, I’m going with you.” He said firmly. Paige could tell by his eyes and voice that there was no way he would be dissuaded and she simply nodded. “Alright. He told me to use the two days to relax.” Cien nodded. “Then relax we will. How about some lunch? We slept rather late today.” Paige nodded, blushing as her stomach growled, betraying her hunger. Cien chuckled and they walked together up to the mess hall. Paige furrowed her brows when they entered though. A bank of computers now took up one wall and the kitchen was locked. Cien saw her confusion and grinned. “Just watch love.” He said and walked over to one. “I want a steak, medium rare, a baked potato and a glass of iced tea.” The computer screen darkened, then a door in the center opened and Cien’s food was sitting there. Paige smiled. “Nice.” Cien took his food to the table then walked back to the computer. “What would you like Love?” He asked. “The same, only I want my steak medium.” The computer darkened again then her food appeared in the slot. Cien carried it to the table and they sat down together. He slapped his forehead. “I forgot the silverware.” “I’ll get it.” Paige said and walked over to the computer. “I need two knives and two forks.” She said. The computer darkened and the door opened, only revealing the two knives. “Where are the forks?” She asked. “Fork dispenser jammed, attempting to clear now.” The unit groaned then forks started shooting out everywhere. Cien said something incomprehensible as he was it hard enough to hurt and dove out of the way. Paige did also, and then suddenly the stream of forks stopped. “We appear to be out of forks, would you like another utensil?” The machine asked. “No!” Both Paige and Cien said at the same time, then looked at each other grinning. They gathered up the forks, piling them on the table. Paige giggled and Cien looked at her. “What is it?” She reached up and pulled a fork out of his hair. He chuckled and they walked back to their food, sitting down to eat. Midway through the meal he looked up. “Paige?” She looked up at his question. “You know I love you right?” Paige nodded. “Of course hon.” Cien looked down at his plate, and then rubbed his neck. “Well, I was thinking…” He trailed off and looked up at her. “What is it Cien?” He just shook his head. “Never mind.” As they finished eating, he wrapped and arm around her waist. “You know they’ve set up some ping-pong and pool tables in the hanger. You want to go play?” Paige smiled. “Sure, lets go.” He smiled and together they walked off toward the hanger.

Cien helped Paige load the durendall anti-runway bombs onto the same F-14 she and Jester had left in two days ago. Cien smiles at her as they loaded the last one and pulled her into a passionate kiss. Jeter walked in, in time to see it and for a moment he considered reprimanding both of them, but suddenly he thought better of it. In the old days something like that would have merited swift and terrible punishment from him, or any other officer, but times had changed and he could not reprimand them now in good conscious and then send them into battle in a few minutes. Instead, he waited, clearing his throat after several long seconds. They turned to see him, Paige blushing and Cien sheepishly rubbing his neck. He ignored their reactions and studied the jets from where he was standing, leaning on his crutches a bit. He nodded, seeing that it was ready to go then turned his attention to the two pilots. “Are you two ready?” Paige nodded, the blush now gone and her eyes hard, determined. “We’re ready to go as soon as you tell us, sir.” Cien nodded, agreeing with her. Jester returned his nod. “Well, good luck to you both.” Cien nodded and helped Paige up into the plane then followed, taking the navigators seat behind her. Jester watched as the plane pulled out of the hanger and up onto the runway, then he sighed. A voice from behind him startled him. “They will accomplish the mission.” The deep bass voice rumbled. Jester turned to face Jerund. “I know, but I just hope that they both come back in one piece from it is all.” Jerund nodded, his dark eyes tracing the planes path down the runway and up into the sky. Something in them caused Jester to take a closer look. Worry perhaps, but something more… The quiet general looked down at him and Jester looked away, feeling as guilty as a recruit caught in a lie and not knowing why. “Don’t be up on your leg to long, major.” Jerund said, then turned and walked out. Jester watched him go then headed back down to his room.

  Paige lifted off the runway smoothly, turning and heading in the direction on the base. “How long a flight is it, oh beautiful one?” Cien queried from behind her. Paige chuckled. “No more than a few minutes.” “All the more reason to get rid of it” Cien replied. Paige just nodded, watching the radar for any threats as they approached the base. No treat appeared, making her only slightly nervous. “Target approaching.” She said softly. “Prepare to release bombs in five, four, three, two, one!” “Bombs away!” Cien replied. Paige executed a sharp turn, the g-forces pressing her back into her seat, looking down at the damage they had wrought. Fires burned in the few buildings that she and Jester had left standing from their last mission, other than the few warehouses. She landed her jet as quickly as possible. Even before she could get her M-16 out and open the canopy small arms fire was heading toward her plane. She opened the canopy and jumped out landing and trying to use her jet for what cover she could. She felt a shot graze across her chest and heard Cien cry out. She lobbed a grenade in the direction of the shooting and in the lull it caused, scrambled back into her fighter. As she closed the canopy, she realized Cien had never even left the cockpit. She powered up her engines, wincing at the white-hot pain from her grazed chest. “Cien? Are you alright?” he didn’t respond. She booted it down the runway, screaming up into the sky. The turned, back over the base and released the Durendall anti-runway bombs, cratering the runway, then unloaded the last of her 500-pound bombs on the warehouses, obliterating them.  She turned toward home then, trying again to get Cien to answer. “Love please…are you hurt?” There was no response but she could hear his regular breathing, deep and slow. She booted it up to full military back to the base, unable to take a deep breath for the burning pain in her chest. Her screaming landing at the base brought the monkey’s, Jerund and Christina running. Jester was not far behind, hurrying along as best he could on his crutches. Paige opened her canopy and jumped to the ground, her knees buckling beneath her as she jarred her body. Jerund caught her and simply picked her slight frame up. She saw Christina climb up onto the wing to check on Cien before Jerund turned toward the base. Jester met them as they were passing the shack. “Mission accomplished sir.” Paige said softly. Jester looked at her startled and nodded. “Please…Cien…” Jerund shushed her. Jester looked over toward her plane. “They’re getting him out now. Don’t worry Archer. Just rest.” Paige nodded and closed her eyes, allowing herself to sink beneath a black sea and rest.