She made a request to disable all of the avionics in one of her fighter squadrons, VMFA-323, the Death Rattlers, the only Marine squadron aboard the Enterprise and the only one that still used the antiquated F/A-18 Hornet airframe. She would be given two days to modify the aircraft in port, and then whatever extra time she could steal once she got underway. She would, in effect, be refashioning one of her squadrons as a “dumb squadron.”
The squadron’s commanding officer had stridently objected. He had told Hunt that he wasn’t sure all of his pilots were up for this type of flying—without instruments, by the seat of their pants alone. She had dismissed his concerns, not because she didn’t think they had merit but because she had little alternative. She knew that when they next fought, they would fight blind.
That was, of course, if she could find the Zheng He.
09:00 MAY 21, 2034 (GMT-4)
Wedge just wanted to go home. Back to San Diego. Back to the beach. Back to 06:00 at the gym, to a 08:00 preflight, to a 09:00 first hop, then lunch, then a second hop at 13:30, then postflight and debrief, followed by drinks at the officers’ club and a night spent in a bed that wasn’t his own. He wanted to wear his Ray-Bans. He wanted to surf the point at Punta Miramar. He wanted to talk shit to his buddies in the squadron, and then back that shit up when they did dogfight maneuvers at Fallon Naval Air Station.
What he didn’t want?
He didn’t want to be in Quantico. He didn’t want the master sergeant whom Headquarters Marine Corps had assigned as his “escort while in the WDCMA” to keep following him around. “What the fuck is the WDCMA?” Wedge had asked the humorless master sergeant, who had shit for ribbons except a bunch of drill field commendations and about a dozen Good Conduct Medals.
“Washington, DC, Metro Area, sir,” the master sergeant had said.
“Are you shitting me?”
In the weeks since Wedge had arrived back in the States, or CONUS as the master sergeant insistently referred to it, the two had had this exchange numerous times. About Wedge’s denied request to have dinner with an old college buddy who lived near Dupont Circle (“Are you shitting me?” “Negative, sir.”), or the master sergeant insisting on coming with him to the base theater when he wanted to see a movie (“Are you shitting me?” “Negative, sir.”), and, lastly—and perhaps most bitterly—each time his enforced stay in Quantico was extended by at first a day, then two, then a week, and then another (“Are you motherfucking shitting me?” “Negative, sir.”).
The reason, nominally, for Wedge’s lengthening stay was a series of debriefings. Within the first week of coming home, he had breezed through meetings with officers from CIA, DIA, NSA, State, and even the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. He had explained to them in detail the malfunctions he’d had with the F-35, the series of troubleshooting procedures he’d employed (to include putting a bullet into the avionics—“When all systems became unresponsive, I disabled them manually”—which was met with skeptical looks by the career bureaucrats and defense contractors), and he had gone on to explain his captivity. Or at least what he could remember of it.
“Tell us a bit more about this Iranian officer.”
“Guy had three fingers on his right hand, a short temper, and kicked the shit out of me. What more do you want to know?”
The bureaucrats scribbled studiously in their notepads.
Wedge was bored. That was the real problem. He spent most of his day sitting around, watching the news. “Thirty-seven ships,” he’d often say aloud, as if from nowhere. Each time he said it he hoped that someone—maybe the buttoned-down master sergeant—would refute him and tell him that none of it had happened; that the Ford and Miller with all their escorts were still afloat; that the whole thing was a dream, an illusion; that the only reality was American greatness. Wedge knew a number of the now-dead pilots from flight school in Pensacola a decade before. “We got our teeth kicked in,” Wedge would say of the battle, running his tongue over his own missing teeth. On his second week in Quantico, he had a four-hour dental appointment, and it was the dentist who revealed the real reason he was being held on base. After finishing her handiwork, a total of five replaced teeth, she held up 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 over to the White House.”