Kunsan AFB, Korea; September 12, 2060-
Scott Aaron Tracy was a great deal less recovered than he tried to make out, but as a fighter pilot and flight leader… and newly-minted Major… he didn't like to appear weak, or troubled. So, he hid the limp and the bad back; anything at all to keep flying. But it was a fact of life that high speed ejections, blasting through the canopy of a disintegrating fighter jet, tended to mess you up. On the whole, he'd been lucky, though; he might have lost that leg, or, like Captain Mercer, his life.
At the time, he hadn't really considered his actions; he'd simply done what no one else was in a position to do. It was the United States Congress, not Major Tracy, who saw fit to call it "courage, above and beyond the call of duty." But that had been months ago…
This patrol had been peaceful enough, ending in the wintry light of a Korean dawn with six perfect landings on runway 180. Everyone safe and accounted for, and all planes running well.
The tarmac glistened with partly-iced puddles and waver-y, reflected lights, with here and there patches of thin fog slipping between concrete buildings and red-leaved trees. The sky above seemed pure, distant and pale; fresh washed.
Scott's breath misted as he tramped along from flightline to Ops Center, a little behind the rest of the pilots. Not that he didn't enjoy their boastful give-and-take, usually; just that he wanted time to stretch those damn back muscles.
'Going to be a cold day…' he thought, shoving gloved hands deeper into the pockets of his leather jacket, green nylon helmet bag dangling from the crook of his right arm. The flight suit didn't offer much insulation, even with thermal underwear beneath.
Sarah Shelley flashed Scott a long-toothed grin over one shoulder. She was his wingman, and somewhat less than totally respectful.
"Pick it up, Grandpa!" she teased, drawing snorts of laughter from the others, and Scott, himself. "All those medals and decorations slowing you down, old man?"
"Naw…" Lieutenant Grant drawled, off to one side with rainbow-slicked puddle water all over his black boots, "It's the weight of those big, brass b…"
Captain Shelley threw a punch at the junior officer, gently reminding him that there was a lady present. She was only one of the guys when she felt like it, Sarah Shelley. A little too squared-off and hard faced to be pretty, with curling red hair and a loud laugh, she was fully the equal of any pilot present, except Scott (and this was a good thing).
Had she been any more feminine, her handsome flight leader would have been plunged into blank and useless confusion. Pretty, confident women gave him fits. Always had.
Dogfights, yes. Flirting… hell, no.
"Actually," Scott replied, bringing the conversation back to more important matters, "I was planning the post flight de-brief. Pays to be prepared, gentlemen… and lady."
That settled them all down a bit, as each pilot present mentally replayed their actions during the long patrol. Joking around was fine, in its place, but as a flight leader, Scott Tracy had a duty to coach and instruct, one he took very seriously.
He got a surprise in the Ops building, though, in the form of a letter and Colonel Albert Shaw, the squadron commander. As soon as they stepped off the morning-wet flightline and into the heated building, Scott's superior officer strode briskly forward, yellow envelope in hand.
"Major, I need a word with you, please."
The 'now' was unspoken, but still plainly there. Scott directed the others into the debriefing room, and then followed Shaw into a small break area, which the grey-haired colonel cleared with a single, fierce glare. Steaming coffee mugs in hand, about half a dozen pilots suddenly recalled vital errands and hastened away, nearly tripping over themselves in the process. Moments later, Scott and Colonel Shaw were alone amid vending machines and microwaves, a muted television and the pungent ghost of spilled coffee and cigarettes.
"Sir?" Scott prodded uncertainly, when the others had gone.
The older man tapped an official letter against the palm of one hand, looking less angry than betrayed.
"New orders are in, Major. Seems that a request you filed to resign your commission has been accepted. Under the circumstances, I can't argue with your decision to get out… you've certainly earned the right, and a medal of honor trumps colonel's birds, every time… but I believe I deserved notification, at least."
Wordlessly, Scott accepted the letter… which upon examination proved to be legal… and which mentioned both financial conflict of interest, medical issues, and the business needs of his father, Jeff Tracy.
Dad was pulling him out of the Air Force? Away from flying? For what? A nice, safe corner office in the damn London Branch?
Scott felt his face reddening. He could protest, of course. Fight this clear to Congress… most of whose members Jeff Tracy had helped elect or contributed funds to. Or, he could call his father and demand an explanation.
"Colonel Shaw," Scott said aloud, after quietly clearing his throat, "I'm not sure exactly what's going on, here, but I can assure you that there's been a mistake. I have no intention of leaving the Air Force, Sir, or the Wolf Pack. Just, give me a chance to straighten this out, Colonel, before you sign anything."
Shaw's heavy eyebrows drew together, but he managed a very brief, wintry smile, and a tight nod.
"I hope like hell you're right, Major. It's no stretch to admit we'd hate to lose you."
"Yes, Sir," Scott replied stoutly, meeting his superior's hard gaze. "I'll take care of it, Sir."
Yet, less than a week later, Major Scott Aaron Tracy was on his way; not home, but to some fly-speck island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a million miles from nowhere.
Local FBI headquarters, Newark, NJ; interrogation room 5-
Carl Whitehead, Special Agent in Charge of the Newark division, stamped into the small white room where a young man in his late teens slouched in a rigid metal chair. The detainee's arms were folded across his thin chest and his head was down, face half-concealed by long, blond hair… legs stretched far under the table. He did not look up when Whitehead entered the room, nor did he speak. There was an untouched food tray on the table before him, the third the kid had rejected since being brought in.
Whitehead didn't bother closing the door behind him, though it would have made him feel good to scare the little shit. But in this case, luck, influence and a very large fortune were all against Agent Whitehead.
"Looks like you're free to go… Mister Tracy. All charges dropped, investigation closed, files to be sealed; just like that."
Frustrated, Whitehead slammed both hands down against the tabletop, making the boy's food tray jump, even if he didn't. A plastic spoon bounced a little in its tray slot, and a lidded cup of apple juice nearly tipped over. The young hacker, however, did nothing but glance upward through bars of ice-pale hair, apparently quite bored. Whitehead's scowl deepened further.
"Before you walk out that door, I want to leave you with one very important thought, Mister Tracy: If I or any of my agents… hell, the city dog catcher… detect your presence on the internet, ever again, the deal's off. I'll have your worthless ass buried under this building beside Jimmy F-king Hoffa. Got it?"
This time, the young man looked directly at Whitehead, without discernable interest. His eyes were very blue, and utterly expressionless. The captured hacker said,
"Yeah. Whatever. Pleasure doing confinement with you, Officer Friendly."
Worn by his self-imposed fast, John Tracy got carefully to his feet. He needed caffeine, or a few dozen alertness tabs, far more than he did food.
He'd made certain promises to one of his father's attorneys, though, and in return secured release for Denice and Rick, as well as himself. Drew was gone; probably forever. He'd sold his soul to Jeff Tracy, and the hell of it was, this FBI drone in his bad toupee seemed to think that John had somehow won. He had no idea. No idea, at all…
Shrugging, John Matthew Tracy looked once more away.
"See you," he mumbled, sincerely hoping not.
Two days later, he'd left Princeton, summoned to a private island by his powerful, inescapable father.
In the fall of 2060, Virgil Tracy was quite probably the handsomest, most popular boy at his school. A gifted athlete, with an endearingly earnest way about him, he was liked by everyone and loved by more than a few. With Scott away in the Air Force, saving entire cities, and John burrowed deep into the stacks at some weird, pansy college for future liberals, Virgil was just about all that the local girls had left to hang their dreams on. Of course, he was already spoken for. Twice. Shari and Teena Redfeather were still his girlfriends, and they, too, attended Burlington Senior High School.
They came to all of his games and practices, even more faithfully than the college football scouts. Same as Granddad had done… until the heart attack. That was hard; a big, aching hole Virgil had no idea how to fill, especially with Grandma Tracy gone so quiet and sad. Virgil would have liked to talk about missing Granddad… his hoarse, coal-shaft-deep voice, his fishing advice and good sense… but the twins had problems of their own, and he didn't want to burden Grandma.
His brother John had been a surprisingly good confidante, back in the day. Not because John had any answers (he didn't), but because he could sit still for hours and just listen. Scott would hear him out for precisely three minutes (you could set a watch by him) then offer suggestions in quick, decisive bursts.
…And, damn, he missed them all! Granddad, John, Scott… nothing and no-one was the same around here without them. Bereft and doing his best to hide it, Virgil handled things his own way, setting up an easel in the barn beside John's black car, and painting what he felt, but couldn't say. A lot of greys and blues and deep, downward brush strokes, with the broken parts of a person hidden in swirling dark clouds. He'd actually cut practice to finish the picture (which ended up in a corner of the hay barn, face to the back wall).
…And there was another source of trouble: football. See, Virgil wasn't merely good. He had All-American, professional caliber talent, and his coaches, family and teammates all knew it. Virgil Edward Tracy was the best running back in five states, scattering defensive linemen like chickens and carrying the ball for 1000 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns the year before. The college scouts were circling him like buzzards over an abandoned calf, and he should have been ecstatic… but, instead, all Virgil felt was queasy. His stomach flopped and his tongue grew thick in his mouth whenever he had to speak with a college scout, none of whom he promised anything.
Friday nights, he'd bust tackles like a bull elk, racking up points for his now state-champion team, the Wildcats.
"Number 34," the announcer would crow. "The hand-off's to number 34, Virgil Tracy!"
And he'd take off, seeing the dust-dry world lurching past through the bars of a helmet; painted white lines, green plastic turf, screaming faces and bloodied uniforms. Weaving, twisting, absorbing cannon-shot hits, he'd strain for the end zone and six more points.
Often, he got through. Other times, they caught up and piled on, elbowing, clawing and kicking in an effort to make him cough up that ball before (thank God) the referee's whistle blew.
There'd be bandages, ointments and shots, deep, grinding exhaustion and pain so intense that he performed his chores the next day like a robot, talking himself through each slow movement.
On the way home, his Granddad would once have gone over the entire game; one hand on the truck's steering wheel, the other holding a cigarette and gesturing out the window like an orchestra conductor.
All through town, horns would blare and lights would flash, as the local folks, his neighbors and friends, recognized the green truck, and who was inside. Only Troy Coulter, the starting quarterback, received more adulation. And all that next Monday, as he strode from class to class, he'd hear…
"Virge, great game!"
"That was some carry, Man! Eighty yards, straight up the middle!"
The twins ran block for him, days like that, Shari being especially good at distracting everyone's attention while Virgil retreated to his locker, whispering to the piled-up books and papers,
"I don't want to do this, anymore."
His fingers were too stiff from all the protective tape and beatings to play piano, but he could still hold a brush, sort of. Truth is, he was in hell with a Wyoming zip code; one he could have exited right now, here, today, if he'd just had the guts to take off the red-and-white uniform and walk away, letting everyone who loved him down.
What the hell was wrong with him?
He exchanged his books. Geometry for Spanish (which he would have had a 'C' in, had the teacher, Mr. Marks, not been willing to wink and say, "I know you've got a busy practice schedule, Virgil, so what say we just drop those last three test grades?").
Slamming his locker, sore and tired clear through, Virgil Tracy put his neutral, 'friendly' expression back on and turned again to run the gauntlet. Only, there was Teena Redfeather, the student office assistant, with an expression of big-eyed tragedy and what looked like a faxed withdrawal form. Pushing dark, long bangs from her wide face, the girl said,
"Virgil… you're leaving?"
Virgil took the paper in his bruised and swollen hands. It was, indeed, an official grades-release and withdrawal form, signed by the principal, Grandma and Jeff Tracy.
Like rain. Like a rope tossed down from above, with Scott and John at the pulling end.
Too numb to celebrate or even to hear the anxious words of those who'd gathered round him in the paw-painted hallway, Virgil Tracy merely stood there.
Maybe they hustled him straight to the office like a torch-wielding movie mob, and maybe he got some kind of explanation, but not until three days later, when he sat upright in the window seat of his dad's private jet, did it finally start to sink in: he was free.