She applied to deactivate all avionics in one of her fighter squadrons, VMFA-323, the Death Rattlers, the only Navy squadron aboard the Business and the only one that still used the obsolete F / A-18 Hornet airframe. She would have two days to modify the aircraft in port and then all the extra time she could fly once she was underway. She would in effect turn one of her squadrons into a “stupid squad”.
The squadron commander protested fiercely. He had told Hunt that he wasn’t sure all of his pilots were ready for this type of flight – with no instruments, just the seat of their pants. She had dismissed his worries, not because she didn’t think they had merit, but because she had little other choice. She knew that in their next fight, they would fight blindly.
It was, of course, if she could find the Zheng He.
09:00 21 MAY 2034 (GMT-4)
Wedge just wanted to come home. Return to San Diego. Return to the beach. Return at 6 a.m. to the gymnasium, at 8 a.m. before the flight, to a first jump at 9 a.m., then lunch, then a second jump at 1:30 p.m., then after the flight and debriefing, followed by drinks at the officers’ club and a night spent in a bed which was not his. He wanted to wear his Ray-Bans. He wanted to surf the point at Punta Miramar. He wanted to talk shit to his squadron buddies, then come back to that shit when they did air combat maneuvers at Fallon Naval Air Station.
What did he not want?
He didn’t want to be in Quantico. He did not want the Master Sergeant the Marine Corps Headquarters assigned as his “escort while in WDCMA” following him. “What is WDCMA?” Wedge had asked the humorless Staff Sergeant, who had shit for ribbons except a bunch of drill-field praise and a dozen good conduct medals.
“Washington, DC, Metro Area, sir,” Master Sgt had said.
“Are you shitting me?
In the weeks since Wedge had returned to the United States, or CONUS, as the Staff Sgt alluded to, the two had had this exchange on several occasions. About Wedge’s denied request to have dinner with a former college pal who lived near Dupont Circle (“Are you fucking me?” See a movie (“Are you pissing me off?” “Negative, sir.”) , and finally – and perhaps most bitterly – whenever his forced stay in Quantico was extended first by a day, then by two, then by a week, then another (“Are you fucking whore piss me off? “Negative, sir.”).
The reason, theoretically, for Wedge’s longer stay was a series of debriefings. In the first week of his return home, he had gone through meetings with officers from the CIA, DIA, NSA, state and even the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. He had explained to them in detail the malfunctions he had encountered with the F-35, the series of troubleshooting procedures he had employed (including putting a bullet in the avionics – “When all the systems went unresponsive, I turned them off manually ”—which was greeted with skeptical looks by career bureaucrats and defense contractors), and he went on to explain his captivity. Or at least what he could take away from it.
“Tell us a little more about this Iranian officer.”
“Guy had three fingers on his right hand, a short temper, and kicked me. What more do you want to know? “
Bureaucrats scribbled painstakingly in their notepads.
Wedge was bored. This was the real problem. He spent most of his day sitting watching the news. “Thirty-seven ships,” he would often say aloud, as if from nowhere. Every time he said it, he hoped that someone – maybe the buttoned-up master sergeant – would rebut him and tell him that none of this had happened; that the Ford and Miller with all their escorts were still afloat; that it was all a dream, an illusion; that the only reality was American greatness. Wedge knew a number of pilots who had passed away from the Pensacola flight school a decade earlier. “We got our teeth pierced,” Wedge said of the battle, running his tongue over his own missing teeth. In his second week at Quantico, he had a four-hour dental appointment, and it was the dentist who revealed the real reason he was being held on the base. After finishing her job, a total of five teeth replaced, she raised the mirror so Wedge could take a look. “What do you think?” she asked. “You’ll be in good shape for when they take you to the White House.”