chapter six
Part Two

She turned to leave but paused as she stood and turned back to him, "You're looking good."   She meant 'better than before', he had dropped nearly twenty kilos in the last few months.   "It's nice to see."

Then she left.   Ethan watched her walk out and then continued to stare at the threshold a while to make sure she didn't return.

When he was convinced of that he turned back to his drink.   His friend was already there. He was angry. "Why didn't you tell me she was coming here?"

Ethan looked at him, "I didn't know!   Hell, I was just as surprised as you."

"You didn't look it."

"I didn't want to give anything away.   You know how suspicious she is." It was true.

Ethan didn't know how long the two of them had worked together, but he knew it was longer than he'd known either of them.   His friend continued to eye the door suspiciously, but with each moment his agitation dissipated.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out Ethan's keys.   He held out the unit.

Ethan took it and looked at it.   "What do I do?"

"When you're ready you get to WestCan..."

"WestCan?"   It seemed improbable that the drop-off point was in the most integrated region on the planet.

"You get to WestCan, Regina. Down to the south end of town.   You're looking for an old house, rezoned as commercial."

"What do they do?"

"Doesn't matter.   The address is 1936 Lockwood.   You got that?"

Ethan nodded.   He'd remember that, it was the one benefit from these last few years that he'd take with him, a nearly perfect memory.

"You get to that door and put your finger tips to the access panel, just like you did here". He held his finger tips up, just like he'd made Ethan do earlier. " But the moment you do this you can't come back.   Ethan Frohman will no longer exist then."

Ethan nodded as he looked at the keys in his hand.   All he had to do was get to Regina.   1936 Lockwood, the address of freedom and the first stop in his new life.

But before that he'd have to gather a team for this last mission.   Who could he recruit?   O'Herlihy for sure, and Nolan, Vichy and Xuereb.   Oh, and Finnegan.   Finn would definitely be an asset for this.

* * *

Finn's eyes remained closed as he rested.   His legs spilled into the cockpit of the tiny craft but the rest of him was flat on his back, lying in the fast-track bed of the access tube of the Hornet, just aft of the pilot.

In truth he could've slid further back, locked the bed in place and laid down properly.   There were even soft nets on the sides that would secure him while acting as a blanket, but Finn wanted to stay ready.

Ahead of him was the lone pilot seat of the Hornet.   It looked like a normal cockpit seat, it had the coil induction rails that would eject the seat and pilot upward at high velocity once the canopy was blown, but in the base of the seat was the primary life support unit for the craft, a brilliant design, ensuring that should the Pilot eject she'd be taking her oxygen scrubbers and re-constitution system with her.

At the back of the seat, blocking much of Finn's view forward, was the Emergency Escape Velocity-Decent Inhibitors, military bureaucratese for the micro Gravity-Plate that would fold out like cricket wings should the pilot eject and allow her to fly the seat like a small craft, at least until the power cells faded.

Finn thought about that while he lay there in a near meditative state.   Previous to this training, had this craft sustained critical injury, enough to warrant the Pilot needing to bail, Finn would most surely die.   But this whole mission was to prove that was no longer the case.   In seconds an exercise would begin that would put him in real jeopardy, and he'd be left to his own devices.   It didn't bother him one bit, after the last few weeks Finn was confident that he'd survive.   Fantastic what a few weeks training could accomplish.

He opened his eyes and pulled his head up, ducking to clear the tiny opening to the aft track.   He peered past the seat, trying to look at the controls for this vehicle.   They were small, crisp and elegant, deceptively so, he thought.   Finn suspected the vehicle was a lot harder to master than it looked and he frowned at that thought.

That career track was forever shut off for him, even though he kept up his licenses.   He wondered if he could somehow sneak Hornet operations into that regime.   It was a thought that made him smile.   Combat pilots looked down at their Hornet cousins, they looked down at Astrals too but Finn wondered if any of them could begin to understand the joy one of their own felt leaving Fleet for Ground Ops.   He doubted it.   The elite never understood joy; they were too wrapped up in the pursuit of achievement and status to appreciate such simple pleasures.

The approach marker chirped; they were nearing position.   Finn reached back and took hold of his Imaging Helmet - the one, last link this Astral certified Ground Combat Officer had to his former career.   The Astral Forces he socialized with now didn't understand his preference for the "Fleet Weenie hat", as they called it, but Finn found the Imaging circuits in the Astral gear inferior to the intuitive interface of this Rigel built system.

And while the crude but reliable Anex built internal Environmental systems of a Combat Helmet would keep him alive, the Rigel system sensed his need for more oxygen during times of crisis and responded with added supply.   Finn found that helped his performance, tactical response and success rate.   Regardless of what the equipment was, Finn never messed with results.

It was the same reason he'd ponied up his own money to take advantage of the Compact Agreement that allowed him to pay the differential between the base cost of an Astral approved weapon, the very fine Marwayne 350, for its more versatile and compact cousin, the Marwayne 500.   It didn't hurt that the 500 came with a circuit his Imaging helmet recognized which allowed him to fire the weapon by remote.

The secondary marker chirped and Finn rushed to secure his headgear.   Then he turned, took his 500 and slung it over his chest before tightening its strap firmly.   A procedure he repeated on his wrist and collar snatches before laying back.   It was time to begin and Finn didn't waste a moment as he reached up, took hold of railings and pulled himself aft on the track, toward the rear hatch.

Once he cleared the cockpit hatch it closed firmly behind him.   He felt the change in pressure as the access tube came close to matching exterior pressure, and then he braced for what was to come.

A second and a half later the rear hatch on the Hornet blew open and Finn was sucked out the back end of the craft for his 20,000 metre freefall over the Atlantic.

* * *

Finn held his limbs firmly to his body as he flexed each hand and stretched his feet.   No tightness, no pops or sudden gives, the integrity of his suit remained intact and that was very good.   His breathing was coming back under control.   Odd how exhilarating this was, dropping free fall from near space.   He began extending his body as he flipped over and took in the panoramic view this altitude offered.   This experience created a giddy rush and he would not have been surprised to learn he was sporting a very wide grin.

Finn looked around; there was nothing but open sea as far as he could see.   His helmet display was already feeding him altitude and acceleration figures, something the Astral helmets wouldn't have done either.   He triggered the Imaging systems and quickly filtered through the horizon until he spotted something.   That must be his target, ahead of his position and 30 kilometres off his starboard side.

Carefully Finn guided himself in that direction.   Windsurfing was completely unnatural to him.   Plummeting like this should have driven him to panic but instead it amped up the rush Finn was experiencing.   He triggered the internal systems and began counting off his speed and approach.   It was like the Academy all over again, only this time he wasn't in a Ramjet Trainer Craft approaching the Navy Carrier Nelson in a rough pitch, it was a smooth glide to a nearly even sea, and he hadn't even triggered the Grav-Vest yet!

His indicators began chiming, and quickly grew louder and more urgent.   He was rapidly descending past the minimum altitude for his systems to safely compensate in time.   Of course his systems were working on the belief that he was intending to continue straight down.   Using the Optic Keyboard Interface of the helmet Finn began keying instructions into his Grav-Vest, while he continued to glide Earthward.

He also triggered the Aeroform webbing of his Astral uniform.   The release of magnetic seams opened the air intakes along his limbs, which allowed the pressure of the air itself to begin filling the Aerotubes, and as they inflated the Thin-Tek fibres grew more rigid creating an inherent stability to his position.

Gracefully, as though morphing into another creature, tiny wings spread out from the inner seams of his tunic, filling the space between his wrists and waist with the rigid Aeroform web wings that would allow him to "free-fly".

The same was occurring between his pant legs, an unusual sensation, particularly since his helmet and the wind rushing past him in free fall restricted his head movements.

In seconds Finn looked like a leaf.   He activated the Aeroform features of his suit, allowing the tiny but efficient wings to slow his descent while keeping his scan signature to a minimum as he began his approach to target.

The slow down also gave him the time to access the Info-Pak on this mission and begin cross-referencing what he was seeing with the data he was given.

There was, as usual with these covert exercises, no information on what his target was, but as the only other thing around was the small watercraft he pretty much figured that had to be the target.   The preliminary scan indicated the target was 30.217 metres long, 5 meters wide and 20 high.   It was also gleaming white, hardly the sort of camouflage one would expect for a target in a covert training exercise.   Finn thought that was odd.

Then he spotted movement and immediately increased the resolution on his imaging system because he shouldn't be able to see movement from this distance.

"Bloody hell!" he muttered as the augmented image appeared, presenting a clear view of a large mainsail gently swayed to and fro on the high seas above a luxurious pleasure craft.

This was immediately suspicious.   He was rapidly approaching a gleaming white, and quite luxurious sailboat.   Why would they employ such a vehicle for this exercise?   He angled his body upward, gaining some altitude, but more importantly perspective, and did a more thorough Hi-Rez scan of the horizon looking for another target.

He also activated his passive receivers, checking for overhead Comm-Satellites.   If he could pick up three broadcast markers he could use them to triangulate his position.

* * *