MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Two)

Caroline had stringent comfort requirements, which meant it sometimes took her a while to get dressed. If something didn't feel right on a particular day, she took it off and put on something else. Before she left for work each morning she sat, stretched, twisted, moved her arms back and forth, then lifted them over her head to see if her clothes were going to irritate her during the day. She couldn't bear being distracted by an uncomfortable seam or an aggravating fit.

Women's fashions were a sore point with her. Why were most designers men? She thought it should be against the law for a man to design women's clothes. She had decided while still in adolescence that men had no idea how uncomfortable women's fashions usually were and really didn't care, since they themselves weren't called upon to spend hours standing in tendon-shortening high heels, encased in sweltering hosiery, bound either by bras or dresses tight enough to take over the job of lifting and separating, or pushing together to create cleavage, according to the dictates of the occasion.

And why were women's fashions made out of flimsy material, while the temperatures in most offices and restaurants was always set low, so the men in their suits would be comfortable? She found this stupid on two counts: one, why were men required to wear jackets anyway-and was there anything more ridiculous than that remnant of the breastplate, the necktie, that they knotted around their throats like a hangman's noose, interfering with a few basic things like breathing and swallowing-and why weren't women allowed to wear coats, too, if the men felt unable to give theirs up? Fashion, in her mind, consisted of equal parts stupidity and lunacy. In a logical world, people would wear functional clothing, like jeans and loafers and sweatshirts.

She couldn't change the world, but she could control her own small part of it by insisting on her own comfort. Today she chose a full, gathered white skirt mat came to midcalf, with an elastic waistband. She topped it with an oversize white T-shirt and twisted two scarves, one melon and one aqua, together to be tied around her waist as a belt. Her shoes were white flats. She was cool, coordinated and comfortable, just the way she wanted to be.

During the night she had tried to analyze just what it was about Colonel Mackenzie that had so discomfited her; other men had come on to her like gangbusters and she'd managed to handle it, so why had his rather mild remark, coupled with a look that wasn't mild at all, sent her into such panic? It was definitely the look that had done it. She'd never seen eyes like those before, pale blue diamonds glittering in a bronzed face, so piercing it felt as if they were cutting right into her flesh, and she'd sensed that the man behind them wasn't like any man she'd met before, either.

There were several possible reasons, but none that she could pin down as the primary cause of her reaction. She would just have to handle herself as well as possible, keep her guard up and try to make certain there were always other people around whenever she had dealings with the colonel. Why couldn't he have come around earlier the day before, when the rest of the team had still been working? If he had, she would have slept better last night.

She glanced around, making certain that everything was switched off, then patted her skirt pockets to assure herself that her keys were in there. Pockets were required; every outfit she wore had to have pockets, because handbags were another of her pet peeves. Why were women condemned to lug them around their entire fives? Why couldn't women have pockets like men? Because fashion said that it ruined the "lines" of their clothes. Because women were thought to be too vain. Because men were continually handing items to women with a casual, "Put this in your purse," meaning, "So you can carry it and I won't have to." For women to be truly liberated, she thought, they should have burned their purses instead of their brassieres. And then thrown their high-heeled shoes onto the bonfire.

To keep from having to carry a bag, she had stocked her desk the day before with the grooming items she was likely to need during any given day. After all, not liking purses was no reason to go without lipstick. She did have personal standards to uphold.

She was normally the first person at work, and that morning was no exception. She liked mornings, and dawn in the desert was something special, with everything so clear and crisply outlined. Later in the day heat waves would blur the edges of the landscape, but right now it was perfect. She hummed as she made coffee. No matter how hot it got, coffee was a necessity in every workplace she'd ever seen.

She tore the wrapper off a honey bun, slapped the pastry into the microwave and zapped it for ten seconds. Breakfast was now ready. She settled into her chair and began rereading a report on the targeting system's last performance as she absently pinched bites from the pastry.

Thirty minutes later Cal Gilchrist came in, looking surprised when he saw her at her desk. "You're in early," he said as he went straight to the coffeepot "I didn't see you at chow."

"I ate a honey bun here." Having finished reading, she tossed the report aside. Of the other three members of the team, Cal was the most amiable. To be honest, she admitted, he was more amiable than even herself. He was good-natured, friendly and capable, maybe thirty years old, still single and he enjoyed an active social life. She had met him before, but this was the first time they'd worked on a project together. They actually worked for two different companies, she with Boling-Wahl Optics, which had developed the laser targeting system, and Cal with DataTech, which had teamed with Boling-Wahl on the computer program that ran the system.

"There's another test at 0800," Cal said as he sipped his coffee. "When Adrian and Yates get here, we'll all go to the control room so we can listen in on the flights. Colonel Mackenzie's going up today. He always comes back to the control room after a flight, and I'll introduce you to him."

"We've already met," she replied. "He came by last night before I quit for the day."

"What did you think of him?"

She thought for a moment, trying to come up with a concise answer, and finally settled on "Scary."

Cal laughed. "Yeah, I wouldn't want to cross him. I would have sworn that fighter pilots didn't respect anything, but they sure as hell respect him, in the air and on the ground. One of them said mat Mackenzie is the best pilot in the Air Force, period. That's saying a lot, considering none of this group are slouches."

The other two members of the team arrived. Yates Korleski, a short, sturdy, balding man, was the senior member and head of the team. Adrian Pendley was Caroline's fly in the ointment on this particular assignment He was tall and good-looking, divorced, and unrelentingly negative about having Caroline on the team.

When she had first gone to work for Boling-Wahl he had given her the rush, and he'd never forgiven her for the brush-off she had given him in return. He was good at his job, though, so she was determined to work with him, even if it meant ignoring his incessant little gibes.

He walked past her without speaking, but Yates paused beside her desk. "Did you get settled in okay?"

"Yes, thanks. Met the head honcho last night, too."

Yates grinned. "What did you think of him?"

"Like I told Cal, he's a bit scary."

"Just don't ever make a mistake, or you'll find out how scary."

"No allowing for human error, huh?"

"Not with his birds or his men."

Yates wandered off in the direction of the coffeepot, and Caroline decided that maybe her panic of the night before had been justified. Yates had been working on defense contracts for twenty years, so if he was impressed, the colonel wasn't any ordinary joe. She grimaced at the inadvertent mental play on words.

At the appointed time they all trooped to the airfield, where the flights were being monitored. Their IDs were checked before they were allowed to enter the control room, reminding her of the tight security. The place swarmed with guards, and she knew that the Night Wing project was only one of several going on. There were a lot of civilians working at Nellis, people with both the highest credentials and the highest security rating. Just being here meant that her background had been checked so thoroughly that her file probably even contained the brand of breakfast cereal she'd liked best as a child.

The control room was a busy place, lined with monitors and people manning them. Practically every part of the Night Wing aircraft incorporated some radical change from how aircraft had been designed in the past, so there were a lot of different companies and defense contractors working to make certain everything was operational. A group of pilots had gathered, too, some in flightsuits and some in regular service uniforms. Several whistles filled the air when they caught sight of Caroline, and one grinning pilot clasped his hands over his heart

"I'm in love," he announced to the group at large.

"Don't pay any attention to him, ma'am," another of the pilots said. "That's the third time this week, and it's only Tuesday. He's fickle, very fickle."

"But good-looking," the first pilot said in defense of himself. "So what about it, beautiful? Want to get married, live in a rose-covered cottage and have beautiful children?"

"I'm allergic to roses," she said.

"And men," Adrian muttered behind her, just loud enough for her to hear. She ignored him.

"Forget the roses," the pilot said grandly. The tag on his shirt said his name was Major Austin Deale. "I'm adaptable. And fun. Did I mention that we'll have lots of fun?"

A deep voice came over the speaker, and as if a switch had been thrown, the pilots stopped their bantering and turned toward the monitor. It took Caroline a moment to realize that it was an in-cockpit camera, letting them see what the pilot was doing and seeing.

"There are four planes up today," Lieutenant Colonel Eric Picollo said, setting up the situation for them. "Two Night Wings and two F-22s. The F-22 is the only thing in production fast enough to give the prototypes a good test. The Night Wings are doing some stress maneuvers, and then they'll test the targeting system."

The deep voice came from the speakers again, laconic and matter-of-fact, as if the man weren't screaming along faster than the speed of sound high above the desert floor. Caroline shivered, and goose bumps rose on her arms.

"Go to MIL."

"Going to MIL," another voice answered.

"Military power throttle setting," Cal, who was standing just to her right, whispered. "All or more of an engine's rated thrust."

She nodded her understanding, her attention fixed on the monitor. All she could see of Colonel Mackenzie was his gloved hands and long legs, with the throttle between them, but she knew it was him she was watching rather than the other Night Wing pilot. There was just something about the way he moved.

The pilots took the aircraft through a series of maneuvers, and the sensors embedded in the aircraft's skin sent back readings of the stress levels on the airframe.

"Twenty degrees alpha," the deep voice said, confirming what the digital readout on the computer screen was telling them. "Thirty… forty… fifty… sixty."

One of the pilots standing behind her muttered, "Damn," in a nervous tone.

"Alpha is angle of attack," Major Deale whispered, noticing Caroline's puzzled look. His own expression was tense. "Most high-performance aircraft can only do about twenty degrees before they stall out. We've taken Baby to fifty degrees, because her vectored thrust gives better control, but even the X-29 wasn't controllable above seventy degrees."

"Seventy," said the calm voice. "Seventy-five."

The major had turned pale. He was staring at the changing numbers on the computer screen as if he could control them by willpower alone.

"Seventy-seven… seventy-nine… eighty… controls feel a little spongy. That's enough for now, leveling out."

"How'd Mad Cat do?" someone asked.

"Sixty-five," another someone replied, and the group chuckled.

"Was that his alpha, or his pucker factor?"

"I was sweating at fifty."

"We'll have to haul Mad Cat out of the cockpit. He won't have any starch left in his legs at all."

"Bet Breed's heart rate didn't even go up. He bleeds ice water, man, pure ice water."

Next, the aircraft pulled both negative and positive Gs, provoking more comments as the speakers carried the sounds of the grunts the pilots made to force more oxygen into their brains and keep from blacking out A trained pilot could normally withstand up to six positive Gs before gray-out began, but with specialized breathing techniques tolerance could be raised to about nine Gs for short periods of time.

The colonel was pulling ten Gs.

"Level out, level out," a captain said under his breath.

Major Deale was sweating. "Don't do this to me," he muttered. "Come on, Breed. Don't push it any further."

"Levelling out," a calm voice said over the radio, and she heard the quiet release of air from several pairs of lungs.

"That son of a bitch is a genetic freak," the captain said, shaking his head. "Nobody is supposed to be able to tolerate that. How long?"

"Not long," the second lieutenant at the monitor replied. "He actually hit ten for about four-tenths of a second. He's done it before."

"I can only tolerate nine for that long. And he was making sense when he talked! I'm telling you, he's a genetic freak."

"Gawdamighty, think what he must've been like ten years ago."

"About the same as now," Major Deale said.

The next series of tests involved the laser targeting, and Caroline edged her way closer to the monitors. She felt oddly shaky inside, and she tried to gather her thoughts. When she had been chosen to replace Walton on the test site, she had done some quick research on jet aircraft, and that, coupled with her general technical knowledge, told her exactly how dangerous those maneuvers had been. He could have lost control of the aircraft at such extreme angles of attack, or he could have blacked out pulling so many Gs and not regained consciousness in tune to keep from drilling the aircraft nose-first into the desert floor. The reactions of the other pilots told their own tale.

Adrian slipped in front of her, effectively blocking her view, since he was so much taller. Caroline brought her mind back to the current situation. She had no doubt he had done it deliberately, and if she let him get away with it he would only do something worse the next time. "Excuse me, Adrian," she said politely. "Since you're so tall, let me stand in front of you so we both can see."

Yates looked up and smiled, either not seeing or choosing to ignore the sour expression on Adrian's face. "Good idea. Step up in front, Caroline."

The targeting test went well. They were currently sighting in on stationary targets, and all of the components performed within the acceptable range. The data streamed across the screen, each item swiftly checked and noted against the hard-copy lists they all carried.

The four aircraft landed safely, and the atmosphere in the control room suddenly lightened to an almost giddy buzz. The laser team stood around Lieutenant Colonel Picollo and went over the rest results with him. Caroline was initially surprised at his knowledge of the subject, then realized that she shouldn't be. After all, he and the other pilots had been working on this project for some time; they would have had to be brain-dead not to absorb some of the information. "The colonel may have more questions," he finally said, "but it looks like we can start testing how well it targets and tracks a moving object now."

An arm slipped around her waist, and Caroline went rigid. Her head whipped around. Major Deale grinned at her as his arm tightened. Behind him, she could see the other pilots watching and grinning, too. They all looked like posters for a dental convention. Dismay filled her. Damn, it was starting already.

"So, beautiful, where do you want to go for dinner tonight?" the major asked.

"Hands off, Daffy," came a deceptively mild voice behind them. "Dr. Evans will be with me tonight."

There was no mistaking the speaker's identity. Even if she hadn't recognized those smooth, deep tones, she would have known by the way her heart began pulsing wildly and her lungs suddenly constricted, making it difficult to breathe.

They all turned around at once. Mackenzie was still in his flightsuit, helmet under his arm. His black hair was drenched with sweat and plastered to his skull, and his eyes were bloodshot from pulling Gs. His expression was calm and remote as he looked at them.

"I saw her first," Major Deale protested, but he dropped his arm from around her waist "Damn it, Breed, you can't just take one look and decide-"

"Yes I can," Mackenzie said, then turned to Picollo and began firing questions at him.

The major turned and gave Caroline a slow, considering look, as if he were really seeing her for the first time, and maybe he was. Until then she had been just a reasonably pretty face, a lark, but now he had to look at her as a person. "I've never seen Breed do that before, and I've known him for fifteen years," he said thoughtfully.

"I don't know him at all," Caroline replied in a tart voice. "I mean, I met him last night. Is he always that autocratic?"

"Breed? Autocratic?" The major pursed his lips.

"Despotic," Caroline elaborated helpfully. "Dictatorial. Peremptory."

"Oh, that kind of autocratic. You mean, does he make a habit of commandeering a woman's company for dinner?"

"That narrows it down nicely."

"Nope. First time. He usually has to beat women off with a stick. They love him to death. It's the glamour of his profession, you know, the lure of the wild. Women looove uniforms, but underneath he's really dull and boring."

"Daffy…" The calm voice was both patient and warning.

The major looked over Caroline's shoulder and broke into a smile. "I was just singing your praises."

"I heard."

Mackenzie was right at her elbow, but she didn't dare glance at him. She had specifically asked him the night before not to single her out in any way, but the very next time she met him he had all but hung a sign around her neck that said "Mackenzie's Woman." She struggled to subdue the impulse to sink her fist into his belly. For one thing, violence was seldom the answer to anything. For another, he was the project manager, and it would be a very stupid career move. For yet another, he looked like he was made of tempered steel and it would probably break her hand.

So she did the prudent thing and concentrated on Major Deale. "Daffy? As in duck?"

"No," Mackenzie said with grim relish. "As in petunia."

"As in flower child," added the captain, who had been in the group watching the monitors.

"As in… blooming idiot," several others said in unison.

"Petunia," Caroline repeated. "Flowers. Daffy Deale. Daffydeale. Daffodil!" she finished with a peal of laughter.

The major gave Mackenzie a dirty look. "I used to have a good, macho nickname. Concise. Thought provoking. Provocative. 'Big.' That's a good nickname, isn't it? Big Deale. It made women think. Was it just a play on my name, or was there a deeper meaning there? Then this… this spoilsport started calling me Daffy, and Petunia, and I got stuck with it."

Mackenzie smiled. Caroline glimpsed it from the comer of her eye, and the reaction she had been trying to ignore was back in full force. She felt simultaneously hot and cold. Shivers ran up her back, but her skin felt flushed.

"Could you see me in my office in half an hour, Dr. Evans?" the colonel asked now. She hated the way he phrased something as a question when the underlying tone made it an order.

She turned and smiled brightly at him. "If you insist, Colonel."

His eyes gleamed with recognition of the way she had forced him to make it an outright order, but he didn't hesitate. "I do."

"Half an hour, then."

As she and the others walked back to their own offices, Adrian paused beside her. "Smart move," he said, his hostility plain. "Snuggle up to the head man and it doesn't matter if you screw up on the job."

She kept her eyes straight ahead. "I don't screw up on the job." There wasn't any point in denying that she had any sort of relationship with Mackenzie, so she didn't waste the effort.

Cal glanced back, saw Adrian walking beside her, and slowed his steps to allow them to come even with him. "The complicated stuff starts with the moving targets, but so far there haven't been many problems with the program. It's almost scary how well the tests have gone."

Adrian walked on ahead without speaking, and Cal whistled softly through his teeth. "He's not the president of your fan club, is he? When we heard you were going to be the replacement he made some snide remarks, but I didn't figure it was open warfare. What's the deal?"

"Personality conflict," Caroline replied. Trying to place the blame was another pointless exercise.

He looked worried. "We have to function well as a team, or Colonel Mackenzie will have us all replaced, and that won't look good on our records. They're under a deadline with these tests. They want something good to show Congress and the media when the vote for funding comes up, and that's in a few weeks, I think."

"I can ignore Adrian," she assured him.

"I hope so. I'll try to be a buffer when I can, but at some point the two of you will have to work together."

"When it comes to work, I think both of us are professional enough to put our differences aside. But thanks for the thought."

Cal nodded, then grinned at her. "So, the good colonel's interested. He made it pretty plain, didn't he?"

"Without reason," she said grimly.

"Maybe from your way of thinking, but not from his."

It was foolish of her, but she began to look forward to meeting Colonel Mackenzie in the privacy of his office. Project manager be damned, she was going to tell him a few things. At the appointed time, she got directions to the appropriate Quonset hut and marched across the tarmac with anger propelling every stride.

The outer desk was occupied by Sergeant Vrska, a burly young man who looked better suited to a pro-football team than a desk, but he greeted Caroline pleasantly and ushered her into the colonel's private office.

Mackenzie had showered and changed into his summer service uniform; the blue of the material only intensified the pale blue of his irises. He leaned back in his chair and watched her calmly, as if waiting for her explosion.

Caroline considered exploding, even though he was obviously expecting it. For one thing, it would release a great deal of tension. Losing her temper, however, would only give the advantage to him. There was no invitation to take a seat, but she did so anyway, then crossed her legs and leaned back, her manner making it plain that the opening gambit was his.

"I read your file," he said. "Impressive credentials. You were always ahead of your age group in school, began college at sixteen, B.S. degree at eighteen, master's at nineteen, got your doctorate at twenty-one. Boling-Wahl considers you one of the most brilliant physicists in the country, if not the world."

She didn't know what she had expected, but a listing of her accomplishments wasn't it She gave him a wary look.

"You've never dated," he continued. Alarm shot through her, and she sat up straight, her thoughts darting around as she tried to anticipate where he was going with that line. "Not in high school, which is halfway understandable, considering your age and study load, but not in college or graduate school, either. You've never had a boyfriend, period. In short, Dr. Evans, you don't have any experience at all in handling a rowdy bunch like my men. It upset you when Major Deale put his arm around your waist"

She didn't speak, but continued to watch him.

"We all have to work together, because we have a lot to do and not much time left to do it in. I don't want morale wrecked by hostility, and I don't want you to suffer behavior from my men that makes you uncomfortable. They're men, and they live their lives flying on the edge of disaster. They're wild and arrogant, and they need to blow off steam, typically with booze and women and dumb stunts. One way to keep them from hitting on you is to turn this base into a war zone, with everybody disliking you and not cooperating with you, which won't get the work done. The other way is to let them think you're mine."

She didn't like his phrasing. "That's so Neanderthal, it has hair all over it"

"They won't bother you then," he continued, ignoring her comment "In fact they'll be downright protective."

She stood up and began pacing his office. "I just want to be left alone so I can work. Is that such a big thing to ask? Why should I have to hide behind a false relationship?"

"For one thing, they all assume that you've had the normal experiences of a woman your age."

She scowled at him, not liking the way he'd phrased the sentence. Her "age" indeed! He'd made it sound as if she were almost ready to file for Social Security.

"It won't occur to them that their actions could actually be frightening to you," he continued. "There's also the possibility that some of their teasing won't be so lighthearted, that a couple of them might make some serious moves on you and could turn ugly when you slap them down. I can't afford the disruption to the program if I had to bring disciplinary charges against any of my men. I need them, and I need you. Even if they knew you're so inexperienced, it wouldn't keep them from trying to get in your pants. If anything, knowing that you're a virgin would make it worse. The best thing is to mark you out of bounds for them by pretending you're involved with someone else, and the only man on the base they wouldn't consider poaching on is me. So from now on, as far as they're concerned, you're mine. All you have to do is act halfway friendly to me in front of them, rather than glaring at me as if you'd like to have my head on a platter."

"With an apple stuffed in your mouth," she muttered. Then the details of what he'd just said hit her and she stared at him in mortification, her eyes widening and color burning in her cheeks. Damn it, why hadn't she hooted with laughter when he'd talked about her being a virgin? Now it was too late to deny it.

Joe was still watching her with that calm, remote expression, but his eyes were narrowed and strangely intense.

She couldn't meet that penetrating gaze. Her embarrassment was almost unbearable. She summoned her last dregs of composure and said, "All right" Then, for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, she succumbed to the powerful urge to run from him.