Jon casually balled up the now useless uniform and tossed it down the garbage chute. That was one uniform that wouldn't do anyone any good anymore. He would have been happy to destroy all the stolen uniforms they had but he knew they would be needed in some future subterfuge. He just had to deal with the fact that Jennifer might have to risk her life again posing as a Dread Youth.
He was tired of "dealing" with that particular danger. He never wanted her to have to masquerade as one of Dread's soldiers ever again. She was uncomfortable doing it, and truth be told, it scared him. One day, someone might realize who she was and if she was captured…
Jon stopped the thought mid-sentence. She wasn't caught, she got out safely, she was alive and they got the information. The mission was a success. What-if scenarios worked when planning tactical assaults, but at that moment, they were ghosts haunting his worst imaginings.
He looked back at Jennifer as she lay sleeping in the infirmary bed. She spent time in the regenerator to heal her bruised ribs, torn muscles and concussion and she was going to be fine. He needed to be grateful for small favors when they presented themselves, but he could have lost her. He knew how close it had been. So did she. She had made light of the situation in her own unique fashion even after he got her back into the jump ship.
"There's no way Hawk could have flown the ship here in ten minutes," she amusingly scolded Jon for pushing her ship beyond its safety specs.
"Hawk didn't," Jon told her as he made certain she was comfortable in the sleeping bunk. She was hurting, and there was no way she could fly the ship. They needed to see if she had broken bones or worst wounds. That meant she needed to rest and stay still until they got back to base. "The ship knew you were in trouble and flew here that fast all on her own."
Jennifer gave him a disbelieving look. "The ship flew herself that fast?" she smiled at him. "Now why do I find that hard to believe?"
Jon grinned. "Well, you won't yell at the ship if she flies past specs. You'll yell at Hawk," he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss. "Next time, you wear your suit and no crashing at the Flats."
She reached up and brushed some of the sand out of his hair. "No, no more crashing here. Digging through sand isn't fun."
Fun, she said. How she could deal with the dangers better than he could and make a half-hearted joke about all of it amazed him. Maybe he hadn't acted like it, but he'd been terrified he was going to lose her again. Speaking over the radio, calmly explaining what she was going to do while he was far from her, helpless to do anything. It was too close to what happened before…
He pushed that thought out of his mind. He wasn't going to think about that time.
He focused on how the mission went overall. Despite what happened, his people worked together as a team. For the first time, Jackson behaved as a member without bringing any of his lone wolf attributes to the forefront. He had been a marine, so he knew how to work within a group, so it really was a matter of him learning how to work that way again. He used his knowledge and skills to complete the mission and they all survived. Ranger had not focused her attention on Tank and didn't 'decide' to blow up the facility on her own. They each did their part; they worked within the team structure and they completed the mission.
For months, he'd been plagued with questions about his decision to allow Ranger and Andy to join the team. Did he make a mistake? Was he wrong? Did he make a hasty decision without weighing all the facts? Did he let emotion cloud his judgment? Did he make the biggest mistake of his career? Putting together the original members of the group had been a serendipitous process. One by one, he met each person, they proved their worth and they merged into a team so easily that it seemed as if Fate had stepped in and chose the team for him. There had been no doubts, not about any of them.
What had changed?
The truth was he had. The threat that one of them could be killed on a mission was turned into fact, and Jon was faced with the unalterable fact that he held people's lives in his hands – people he cared about, people who were his family. It was a responsibility he knew he had but had never truly realized until that day when Blastarr attacked the base and Jennifer was there alone. When he lost her… when she was gone… when new people were needed to round out the team, it was ultimately his decision. New people would place their lives in his hands, and he could send them on a mission where they wouldn't come back.
It didn't matter that each person on the team knew the risks and was willing to die to stop Dread. That was expected of every Resistance fighter on the planet. Jennifer had said as much to him before they went after the jet. What mattered was that each person on a team knew that one of them could die and they had to work together to keep that from happening if at all possible. That had been the one doubt that Jon couldn't dispel. Could two lone wolves like Ranger and Andy put the needs of the group above personal vendettas or old habits?
Now he knew. Commanding a seven-person team wasn't as easy to do as a five-person team, but the mission proved to Jon that they were going to work. Maybe he could put away his misgivings once and for all.
Now he just had to assign them ranks in the hierarchy.
"Hey," he heard her say. He saw she was awake and trying to get in a more comfortable position on the rather uncomfortable bed.
"Hey," he sighed with relief as he walked over and tucked another pillow behind her head.
"You looked like you were a million miles away," she commented as she leaned back into the pillows.
He rested his hands on the mattress, leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "Not quite that far. I was just thinking about… things."
"Things?" she asked. "Anything you want to talk about?"
Did he look bothered by something? Maybe he did. She was always more perceptive of his moods than he was. "Mostly about the mission," he told her.
She frowned a little, then said, "Are you still worried that you may have made a mistake letting Ranger and Andy join the team?"
He should have known he couldn't keep anything worrying him from her. "Not anymore. I think what I was worried about has worked itself out."
"I see," she said, her expression indicating that she was in a rather playful mood. "Well, if they're going to stay, you're going to have to assign them a rank."
She knew he was wondering about ranks? He nodded. He really couldn't keep his reservations from her. One day, he was going to learn that fact. "I was just thinking about the team and how well we worked together, but we have to have the military hierarchy. Got any suggestions where to put them?"
She gave Jon a very direct look. "As long as Andy doesn't outrank me…" she smiled.
He smiled in return. "Okay, I'll see what I can do. How are you feeling?"
"Sore," she told him. He sat down next to the bed and she took his hand. "I don't want to do that again," she said in a low voice.
"I don't want you doing that again," he agreed wholeheartedly as he weaved his fingers with hers. To think that he might not have been able to do something as ordinary as hold her hand ever again…
She turned their hands over, looked down at their interlocked fingers. "What about the jet?" she asked.
"Tank and Jackson rigged towing cables to it and pulled it out of the sand once the sandstorm died down," Jon told her. "Jensen's team has it, and the engineers are absolutely positive they can rebuild the tail section from the plans Jensen stole. They think they can hammer out the damage to the hull but it's more likely they'll have to replace the entire outer layer. The canopy can be replaced, and the programs were intact. They were very impressed with how you got out of the pit and I think Jensen's mechanic said something about only a member of the Power Team would be crazy enough to shoot off the back end of a plane to crawl out of a hole. The big complaint is that the sand still in the cockpit seems to keep growing and they can't get rid of it."
Jennifer would have laughed if her ribs weren't still sore. "Why haven't we ever heard of this man-made sand before?"
Jon shrugged. "I think it's like a lot of things that used to exist. It's been forgotten by most of us. Someone has been using it though. That's where the fine grain in the sandstorm came from. Andy picked up a signal north of the crash site that indicated someone may have been building bricks."
Building bricks – maybe someone was trying to build structures, build a permanent town, maybe even stockpile building materials for when the war was over?
"No time to investigate?" she asked.
He held her hand a little tighter. "We had more important things to do." He paused for a moment, then, "So what did you think of the jet?"
He saw her eyes light up. "That ship could fly faster than anything we have in the Resistance, even the XT," she said, the excitement of the fast ride still apparent in her voice. "It handles well on banks and steeps. I think the design of the body reduces wind resistance to such an extreme that it might actually reach Mach 3 in less time than any of our aircraft."
He just knew it – she was a pilot, and the jet was like a big toy for her. "Do you want one?" he teased her. "I'll see if the techs can backwards engineer one for you."
She grinned as she gently pulled his hand until he sat next to her on the bed. He put his arm around her shoulders and she settled down against him. "Oh, it was fun to fly, but not nearly as reliable as my jump ship. Every single part of that jet could be used as some type of weapon. The wings can come off, the tail section can be removed – at least I know my jump ship will stay in one piece for the most part." She looked up at him, seeing the disbelief in his eyes. "But if they happen to have one of the jets just lying around and no one flying it…"
He hugged her to him. "I'll see what I scrounge up," he joked. "You're sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," she assured him. "I really am just a little sore." She paused for a moment, and then admitted, "I misjudged how the jet could react on impact when we were looking at the plans."
"What do you mean?"
"I didn't take into account until after the crash that since the parts were removable, they could be turned into the weapons, not just be part of the ship when it crashed and exploded. It's what gave me the idea - the fuel line can go to the compartments where explosives are stored, but part of the blast itself could be funneled through the thrusters. That way, the ship becomes added shrapnel as well as a missile itself and the explosion covers an area greater than just an exploding jet alone could initiate. Dread could do a lot of damage with a design like that."
Jon considered the idea for a moment. What little information they had in the stolen plans hadn't mentioned any of that. "Could the designers not know that the fighter could be used that way?"
"It's possible," Jennifer agreed readily. "There's a big difference between designing a jet and flying a jet. Pilots have to improvise and perform maneuvers that the designers never thought of, push the craft past its limits or do patchwork repair jobs that the designers would swear should make it fall right out of the sky."
"So a pilot will know what an aircraft will do but the designer only knows what it was designed to do," Jon surmised.
"That could give us an advantage," Jon thought out loud. "If Dread does get this jet into production, we'll know more about it than he will, and since biomechs will be flying it, they won't get creative while they're in the cockpit."
Maybe they were getting a break? It had been a while since any good, useful information came out of any of their missions. Usually, it was attack and run, blow up a Dread facility, destroy biomechs, save a settlement – valuable information that could give them an edge in a battle was sometimes hard to come by.
Jennifer looked up at him, a slight grin still on her face. "So what's our next mission?"
That grin meant that she was up to something. "Well, I've been thinking about that. Maybe there's a way we could halt production on the fighters when we find out where the manufacturing facilities are, so we'll need to plan for several contingencies. Or maybe we can find out some information and tell Jensen he and his team have to sneak in a Dread base next time just to get back at them. I'm not sure yet. Any ideas?"
The grin grew just a little bigger. "Take a day or two off? I was thinking that maybe we could continue our conversation about a lock combination that couldn't be changed unless both our key codes were accessed?"
Control Room – One Month Later
The team sat around Mentor's console and watched the recording of Dread's latest project taking form – an advanced biomech with blaster-resistant armor.
"Oh, that's not good," Andy murmured.
Scout shook his head. "No, that will definitely take some of the fun out of shooting clickers."
"It gets worse," Tank showed another image of a particular biomech. This one was more gold than silver, taller, more streamlined and less machine-looking. "This one comes with a more advanced self-destruct and is programmed to run over uneven ground much more efficiently. I think we're looking at the next two generations of biomechs."
Jon leaned forward and studied the pictures. "Is this the only facility building these?" he asked Hawk.
"As far as we know."
Jennifer looked closely at the facility. "Security?" she asked.
"Usual for a manufacturing lab," Tank answered. "We may not run into any new surprises."
Ranger pointed to a particular area in the background. "I know this place. There are paths that lead up through the woods and right up next to the building. Tank and I could sneak in the back way and not be seen."
Andy checked the information concerning the contents of barrels scattered around the grounds outside the building. "Highly flammable. Could definitely light up the night sky with what's in there. I've got this one dandy little explosive that works great on barrels."
Jon sat up straight. "Since their armor is blaster resistant, we'll need something else to shoot at them. Ideas?"
The brainstorming began and within minutes, they had a working plan of attack.
When the meeting was over with and each went to gear up, Andy and Ranger lingered behind for just a moment. There was a synergy to the group that neither had experienced before but definitely noticed.
"So did what I think happen, happen?" Andy asked her.
"I think we figured out how to speak their language," she told him. "Notice no one had to go into details and we understood everything that was going on?"
Andy thought for a moment. "Yeah. I noticed how fast you volunteered you and Tank to sneak in the back way, too."
"You have your fun your way, I'll have mine my way," she teased.
"So… think we're members of the team yet?" Andy asked her.
Ranger didn't have to consider it. "Let's just say that maybe we're not replacements anymore," she said as she headed off to get ready for the mission, "but we still don't have ranks."
"I don't know about that," Andy argued as he followed her. "The Cap was talking to me about being a private…"