Josh bent close to Steve's ear. “Dad! Wake up!” Josh stood impatiently by the bed, waiting for Steve to wake. His Mother continued sleeping, peacefully.
Bending over again, “Dad, it’s time to get up.” Josh gently poked him in the shoulder.
A muffled groan could be heard as Steve slowly woke, opening one eye to find an impatient Josh standing with arms crossed, toe tapping. “I’m awake, I’m awake,” Steve muttered.
“I’ve already made coffee,” Josh said quietly.
“Good, good,” Steve replied, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed into a sitting position. “Give me a few minutes to wake up and I’ll take my shower.”
“Okay,” Josh started to leave the room when Steve quietly called his name. He turned to face Steve.
“Happy Birthday, Josh,” Steve said, smiling at his growing boy. On his tenth birthday, Josh now stood almost 5 feet tall, starting a growth spurt a couple of years early. The birthday boy returned the smile and bolted down the stairs.
Half an hour later, Steve entered the kitchen, fully dressed and anxious for his coffee. He found Josh sitting at the table, reading the comics.
Steve poured a cup, and then seated himself opposite Josh. "Morning," he said in-between sips.
Looking up from the comics, “Mom still sleeping?”
Steve nodded. “We discussed it and decided it would be best if she stayed here. At 5 months pregnant, I didn’t want her to be scared to death when you climb into the plane.”
Josh nodded, understanding the concern. “Maybe some other time. There will be another time, right?”
“Yes, I’ll take you again as long as you do well with this first trip,” Steve replied. “Are you ready to go?”
“Sure am," Josh replied. "I've been up since six and have gone over the training manual twice."
“Alright then, let me gather a couple of items and we’ll head for the Base,” Steve said. He returned his coffee cup to the sink and headed into his office to retrieve a couple of documents he needed to deliver.
Josh was out the door and in the car by the time Steve returned to the kitchen.
Arriving at the base, Steve dropped off the folders in his superior’s office, and then took a wide-eyed Josh, who had been looking at all the plane pictures on the wall, by the arm and dragged him out into the morning sun.
“Flight suits first, right?” Josh asked while keeping pace with Steve as they walked toward the flight school building.
“Yes, suits first, then pre-flight check,” Steve replied. They stopped for a moment to watch a jet soar skyward. Steve stole a glance at Josh, who stood looking upward with childlike wonder.
“Let’s get going,” Steve urged, dragging Josh along.
Once inside the building, Ted Anderson, the base commander, helped Josh into a slightly modified suit while Steve climbed into his. Ted instructed Josh on the various mechanisms built into the suit and their purpose.
“Excited kid?” Ted asked. He had bonded with Josh over the past few months, having found a willing student would listen carefully to all his stories, tall and true.
Steve was amused and thankful for the friendship between the man and boy. Ted had been a good friend of Steve’s for years, but had never married. Ted loved kids, and adopted anyone who took an interest in flight.
Walking out to the plane, Steve gave Josh some last minute instructions on what to expect. “Just remember, if it gets to be too much for you, speak up. We can land at any time.”
As Steve climbed into the cockpit, Ted helped settle Josh in the back, making sure he was strapped in correctly and that everything was in its place.
“Okay back there,” Steve asked over the intercom. He arranged his mirror so he could watch his passenger.
“Ready to go,” Josh announced as he strapped on the mask.
Ted put the canopy in place and gave the thumps up sign to Josh, who nodded back.
Once on the ground, Ted headed in to flight control so he could monitor the situation.
A rush of adrenaline streamed through Josh as the jet engines came to life. Hearing his Dad receive instructions from flight control, he knew they’d be off soon.
Steve taxied out to the designated runway, all the while keeping an eye on Josh. Once on the runway, he taxied to a halt to receive final clearance for takeoff.
Steve was instructed to hold while a private jet landed. Once the air space cleared, he was given permission for take-off.
Josh heard the whine of the engines and knew they’d be moving soon.
“Ready son?” Steve asked.
“Ready to roll!” Josh replied. He felt the plane slowly taxi forward, then gather momentum as it sped down the runway. He was slowly pushed into his seat, loving the sensation. A moment later, they were airborne. He heard the landing gear retract and the doors slam shut. “This is great,” he exclaimed, laughing.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Steve replied. Steve pulled back on the throttle, almost into a vertical climb. He heard a yell of delight from his passenger, “You okay?”
“Great Dad. This is great!” Josh replied.
For the next hour, Steve went through various maneuvers, and when he determined Josh could take it, he did a barrel roll, which thrilled Josh.
When Steve announced it was time to land, Josh didn’t complain. As far as he was concerned, he was the happiest kid alive.
Steve brought the plane in on a smooth landing, stopping short of the hanger. Once he shut the bird down, he opened his faceplate, spotting Oscar and Rudy standing in the distance.
A member of the flight crew helped both him and Josh out of the plane. Josh didn’t see the two men standing over to the side, he was too busy replaying everything he felt and saw to his Dad.
Josh continued his monologue as the changed out of the flight suit, Steve all the while grinning at the enthusiasm.
“Josh, stop and breath son,” Steve urged, leading him outside to the car.
Josh laughed. “Sorry Dad, it’s just, it’s just,” he said, not able to finish his sentence.
“Hey birthday boy,” a voice called from behind Josh.
Josh spun around, grinning. “Uncle Oscar, Uncle Rudy!” He ran the short distance to give both men hugs. “Did you see us up there? It was great!”
“We sure did,” Rudy replied. “How did you like it?”
Steve rolled his eyes, “Okay Rudy, he can ride to the house with you since you asked.”
Rudy laughed, “Fine by me. Oscar can ride with you.” He wanted Steve and Oscar to talk. Oscar hadn’t been the same since Shelly’s death.
“No problem” Steve said. He and Oscar climbed in Steve’s car and headed for home.
“How are you doing?” Steve asked.
“I’m alright,” Oscar replied.
“Bull,” Steve said curtly. “You are far from fine. Rudy’s worried about you, as is Callahan and a multitude of people who work around you. I may not work for the O.S.I. regularly, but I still have connections.” Rudy and Callahan had kept in contact with Steve, giving him updates on Oscar’s progress. Since Shelly’s death, Oscar had turned more inward than normal, focusing strictly on work, spending very little time outside the office. Rudy had to drag Oscar along to Josh’s party; otherwise he would have stayed in Washington, working the weekend.
Oscar sighed. He had expected as much from Steve. “Really Steve, I’m fine. I have my ups and downs, but I’m surviving.”
“Surviving? Yeah, I guess you could call it that. You’re definitely not living,” Steve replied. “Do you really think Shelly would want you to shut down just because she’s not here? Personally, I think if she could, she would give you a swift kick. From the short time I knew her, I could tell she was a no-nonsense kind of gal.”
Oscar sat, staring out the passenger window. He had heard the same thing over and over from others and figured he’d hear it again from Jan.
“Steve, look at it from my point of view. Every person I’ve ever loved has died an early or violent death. With Sam and Shelly, it was both early and violent. I’m just not good for people.” Oscar leaned against the window, holding back his tears. Crying around Shelly was one thing, but around Steve was an entirely different matter.
“No Oscar, on the contrary, you are good around people, in your own way. I’m living proof. I know in the beginning I was just a project to you and that I resented you for it, but I got over it. If you hadn’t pushed so hard for your project, I wouldn’t be here. I would have killed myself years ago. Now I have a wife, son, and twins on the way,” Steve said, throwing in final piece of information to change the subject and peak Oscar's interest.
“Twins?” Oscar asked, looking at Steve for the first time since entering the car.
Steve gave a quick glance to Oscar, smiling. “Twins. We found out a couple of weeks ago. We know one is a boy, but the other is hiding. We may find out with the next visit.”
Oscar smiled for the first time in months. “Twins. You both are going to have your hands full.”
“Josh too. He’s just as excited as the rest of us. The idea of being a big brother has gone to his head. He insists on helping pick out the names, and wants to help out with everything possible.”
Oscar returned to staring out the window. “He’s grown up so fast. It’s hard to believe three years have past since the plane accident.”
“I know. And speaking of growing fast, did you notice how tall he is? He’s five foot tall at age ten. Heaven knows what he will happen when he hits the teen years."
"Maybe he'll become a basketball player if he continues growing the way he is," Oscar suggested.
“Nope. He’s taking after me. Josh has discovered the wonderful world of science. Not just astronomy, but all others. He’s particularly fond of botany.”
“Josh is in what grade?”
“At 10, born in April, he should be in the fourth grade, but on the suggestion of his teachers and guidance counselor, he was tested and promoted to the sixth grade.” Both Steve and Jan had misgivings about Josh skipping grades, but they wanted what was best for their boy.
“It’s a good thing he’s tall,” Oscar commented. “At least he looks like a sixth grader.”
Steve agreed. He filled Oscar in on the rest of the family life, trying to get him involved before arriving at the house. He looked in the rearview mirror to see Rudy laughing while Josh gestured wildly.
Jan woke to a quiet house, a rarity these days with two men in the house doting over her every need. She enjoyed the couple of hours to herself, and now waited for her men to return home. She knew Oscar and Rudy would be in sometime in the morning, but didn’t know they had already arrived.
She glanced out the window, noticing two cars pulling into the driveway. Jan opened the front door, waiting.
The foursome climbed the stairs to the front porch, greeted by Jan.
“Mom, you should have been there. It was great!” Josh bolted inside to the kitchen, looking for something to eat.
Jan hugged Oscar and Rudy, then turned to Steve. “How did he do?”
“He did just fine,” Steve replied. “You’ll hear all about it, at least three times no doubt.”
Once in the family room, Jan grabbed hold of Oscar’s arm before he had a chance to sit and dragged him out onto the deck.
“Please sit,” Jan said, making herself comfortable on the swing. Oscar sat beside her as instructed.
“Steve read you the riot act on the way here, didn’t he?” Jan had tried to temper her husband’s approach to the subject the night before, but figured she failed.
Oscar simply nodded; staring out at a couple of birds perched on the birdbath.
Jan reached out and held his hand. “Steve doesn’t understand, that’s all. He hasn’t really lost anyone close to him. We’ve discussed Shelly and you on numerous occasions and I can’t make him understand what it’s like.”
Oscar turned to her, “How did you cope with Dale?”
Jan thought a moment before replying. “I guess I realized that Dale wouldn’t want me to dwell on the past. Yes, I had Steve nearby to help, but it was still something I had to work through on my own. It takes time.” Jan had silently mourned Dale’s loss for months; finding that time truly was a healer.
“It still seems like it was yesterday,” Oscar said. “I was looking at the engagement ring when Rudy walked into the office and told me the news. I had just talked with her the night before and suddenly she was gone.”
“I’ve never quite figured out what is worse, seeing a loved one die slowly from a disease, or die in the blink of an eye,” Jan commented. “The fact is, you have to take it one day at a time. Don’t look at the big picture. Focus on living day-by-day, plan on doing certain activities. As each day passes, you’ve accomplished something. Over a period of time, you’ll notice each day is easier to face than the last. And for heaven’s sake, if you want to talk to Shelly, just do it. Wherever she is, she will hear you. I still talk to Dale when I’m here by myself. I’ve always felt that he’s nearby, keeping track of Josh and myself. After what happened with Sarah Ann, well, I believe anything can happen.” Sarah, of course, was the child lost a car accident the prior year. The child came to both Jan and Steve in their dreams, prompting them to plant a tree as a memorial.
Oscar smiled slightly. “I’m glad to hear I’m not crazy,” he commented. “I talk to Shelly every night and sometimes feel she’s in the room with me.” As he prepared for bed, Oscar felt her presence snuggling up to him. Of course, he passed it off as his imagination, not giving the supernatural a second thought. Talking to Shelly had just been a way of making himself feel better.
“You’ve got to learn to enjoy yourself again. Shelly wouldn’t want you moping around all the time. Go out on a hike to a favorite spot. Find some secluded area to sit and talk with her. You’ll feel better in the long run.” Jan wanted desperately to help her friend and was trying to come up with as many suggestions as possible.
“No promises, but I’ll try,” Oscar said.
“I’m not even part of the O.S.I., but I have connections too. I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” Jan teased.
Oscar chuckled. “What about you? How are you coping with the knowledge of twins on the way?”
Jan groaned. “I seem to be taking it better than Steve or Josh. They are just beside themselves, trying to think of all the possible scenarios we should be prepared for when they arrive. Tell me Oscar, why is it that men feel they need to control what Mother Nature will handle naturally?”
Oscar truly laughed. “Maybe it’s that we don’t like not having some sort of control over a situation. I don’t know.”
It was Jan’s turn to laugh, “Yeah, well, Steve lost control of the whole situation after that one romantic night!”
They sat chatting for another hour while Steve and Rudy caught up on current events.
Steve grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch while Josh and a few friends played, climbing in and out of the tree-house style swing set Steve built for Josh’s birthday. The adults lounged on the deck, watching the kids.
“Only if we could bottle that energy and sell it,” Rudy commented. “We could make a fortune.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Jan agreed. “Sometimes just watching Josh race around the yard makes me tired.”
While flipping the burgers, Steve said, “Let’s face it Jan, climbing the stairs makes you tired.”
Jan stuck out her tongue at her husband. “You mind your own business and cook those burgers, Mister Austin.”
Rudy and Oscar exchanged glances for a moment, Oscar nodding. “Steve,” Rudy started, “I think Josh needs a dog.”
Jan and Steve looked at each other for a moment, then to Rudy. “I’ll bite,” Steve said. “Why do you think Josh needs a dog?”
Rudy shrugged. “I just happen to know a good dog who needs an equally good owner.”
Steve finished turning the hotdogs, and then put down the grill top. “Okay Rudy, what’s up?”
“We have a dog in need of a home,” Oscar started, checking to see the kids were out of earshot. “His name is Maximillion.” He paused, waiting for Steve to put together two and two.
“Maximillion?” Jan questioned. “That’s a heck of a name.”
“He answers to Max,” Rudy explained.
Steve stood, staring at Oscar with a furrowed brow. “Are you implying what I think you’re implying?”
“Yes, I am.” Oscar replied.
“About six months before your accident,” Rudy replied. “Remember when I disappeared for a while, shortly after your moon shot?”
Steve opened the grill and started flipping burgers again. “Yeah, I remember. You never did say where you went.”
“I had some financial backing before the O.S.I. entered the picture, so when a lab animal came along, well I took my chances. Max is the result of my efforts,” Rudy said.
Steve turned to Oscar, shaking the spatula at him, “Are you really comfortable giving him up?”
“Not really, but it’s not fair to him to be cooped up all the time,” Oscar replied. “Rudy just doesn’t have the time to spend with him anymore. The longer Max stays cooped up, the more uncooperative he becomes. We need to get him out of there, soon. We don’t have many options.”
Surprisingly enough, Steve sympathized with the dog. He knew what it was like to be ‘chained’ to a location for extended period, a lab experiment. He wasn’t sure, however, if a dog was a good idea with twins on the way.
Jan apparently thought the opposite was true; having a dog would provide Josh with companionship and responsibility. “I think it would be a good idea.”
“Jan,” Steve started, “Max isn’t a normal dog. He’s like me.” He waited for the information to register. It didn’t take long.
“You mean he’s, special?”
“Yes,” Rudy replied. “All four legs, and lower jaw.”
“Whoa. A jaw? Doesn’t that make him dangerous?” Steve asked, taking the burgers off the grill and placing them on a plate.
“Only to doorknobs,” Rudy chuckled, “but we’re working on that.”
“Doorknobs?” Jan said.
“He hates closed doors,” Rudy explained. “So I’ve taught him how to open a door. He’s got the concept, but hasn’t tempered the amount of strength to put into it.”
“Over the past year alone, we’ve gone through at least a hundred door knobs or handles. He’s almost got it, though. The last few I’ve seen only contained small dents,” Oscar finished.
Steve and Jan locked eyes, as if telepathically communicating. A moment later, “Alright, we’ll give it a try,” Steve said. “We’ll tell Josh later.”
Rudy sighed, relieved. His only other option would have been to put Max down, which he did not want. “I really appreciate it. He’s a good dog, really smart and independent. Heck, if you leave the can of dog food out, he’ll feed himself.”
Jan laughed at the image. “Did you teach him that?”
“No, he taught himself. One evening his trainer was preparing the food when he was interrupted. The can hadn’t been opened, so Max grabbed it and peeled off the top. He then set the can down, got a grip from the side and dumped it into his dish. From that point on, he insists on doing it himself,” Rudy said. He was amazed the first time he saw Max feed himself, not truly believing the trainer’s version of the event.
Jan struggled out of the swing, and made a beeline for the bathroom.
Once out of earshot, Steve turned to Rudy, “You were going to put him down, weren’t you?”
“As a last resort,” Oscar replied. “My decision, not Rudy’s. We would have had no choice. As it is now, he has a titanium cage, the only metal, which holds him. He’s been fine recently, but if he has to spend long periods in the cage, he becomes moody and unmanageable.” Not wanting to change Steve’s mind, Oscar left out the incident where Max lunged at him, having just been let out of the cage. No one was hurt, just startled.
Steve finished picking the food off the grill and announced it was time for lunch.
The afternoon was a success. Josh had a good time opening his gifts after cake and ice cream.
Uncle Oscar provided Josh with the Jayne’s Encyclopedia on planes, a book heavy enough that it would not only provide an education, but build muscles as well. Uncle Rudy, having previously checked with Jan, bought a high-powered microscope and accessories. Jan and Steve upgraded the prior year’s bicycle, which was too small for the growing boy, and an assortment of botany books and supplies. They also bought him the newest gaming system on the market, the replacement for Pong.
By mid-evening, Josh had gone to bed without a fight, leaving the adults sitting in the living room, nursing drinks, non-alcoholic, in deference to Jan being unable to partake of the spirits.
“You two went way overboard on Josh,” Jan commented. She was sitting on the couch with legs up, resting on Steve’s lap.
“We know,” they answered in unison.
“Let’s face it, we’ve adopted him,” Oscar confessed.
“I like the idea of sharing my interests with him,” Rudy continued. “I think it’s great he’s become interested in the sciences.”
“Science and math,” Jan commented. “Give the boy a complicated math problem and he’ll be happy for at least an hour.”
“We’ve considered having his I.Q. tested, but decided to let it be for the moment,” Steve added.
Oscar sat, fidgeting. He needed to talk to Steve, privately, about a possible mission, but he didn’t want to ruin the evening.
Steve recognized his former boss’s body language. “Oscar, let’s going outside on the deck and talk.”
Jan gave Steve a puzzled look as he gently placed her ankles on a couple of pillows. He placed a quick kiss on the top of Jan’s head, and then followed Oscar outside.
After closing the door, he leaned on the rail, close to Oscar. The moonlight shone down, casting long shadows on the side of the house.
“What’s on your mind, Oscar?”
“I need your help.”
Steve groaned inwardly, suspecting as much. “What does Rudy say about it?”
“It’s your call, yea or nay. Please hear me out before you say no,” Oscar asked, seating himself at the deck table. Regardless of how Steve felt about the O.S.I., Oscar knew his friend would at least listen.
Steve seated himself across from Oscar. “Alright, give me the details.”
“It’s nothing dangerous,” Oscar started. “Honest. Rudy can tell you as much. I just need someone that I can trust implicitly.”
“You need someone you can trust implicitly and it’s not dangerous?” Steve didn’t feel the two went together. Plenty of good men and women at the O.S.I. could be trusted. They would lay down their lives if needed.
Oscar sighed. “Okay, I’ll level with you. I do not believe the assignment will be dangerous, but if someone attempts to steal the paperwork from you, you’ll stand a better chance of bringing the documents home than the next agent.”
“How about giving me an overview so I’d know what you’re getting me into,” Steve suggested.
“Fair enough,” Oscar said. “Three months ago a nuclear physicist defected from the Soviet Union, taking with him the details of a new long range nuclear device which is under development. Our agents managed to get him to safety in Switzerland, but have been unable to get the documents out of the country due to Soviet spies watching their every move. The documents have since been duplicated and relocated to a safe location along the Switzerland border. The Soviet spies are still following our agents, who in turn are leading the Soviets on a wild goose chase.”
“So where are the documents now?” Steve said.
“In a safe deposit box at a Switzerland bank. I simply need you to fly into Switzerland, retrieve the documents from the box and bring them home,” Oscar replied.
“The old fashioned way. Walk up to the teller and ask for access to the box.” A false identity had been arranged for whoever managed to retrieve the documents, so Steve would simply assume the identity for access to the box.
Steve thought for a moment, considering the situation. “How will I get there?”
“Private jet,” Oscar replied. “Commercial airliner would take too long and a military jet would draw too much attention.”
Steve sat, looking into the house at his pregnant wife. He hated the idea of leaving her alone. The simplest of missions can turn ugly on a moments notice. Facing Oscar again, “How long will I be gone?”
“Just for as long as it takes to fly there, get the documents and return. A day, two at the most,” Oscar assured him.
“Where would I fly out?”
“LAX.” Oscar hoped all the questions meant Steve would take the assignment.
“Let me talk to Jan a moment,” Steve said, leaving the table.
Oscar sat patiently, waiting for Steve’s return. He could see the exchange between the couple and was pleased to see Jan nod and then hug her husband.
Steve returned a few minutes later and leaned against the rail. “Alright, I’ll do it.”
Oscar smiled. “Thanks pal, I do appreciate it. If you’d like, Rudy has volunteered to stay with Jan until you return.”
Steve nodded. “I’d feel a lot better if he did stay. When do I leave?”
“In the morning. You’ll fly to LAX with me, and then board a private jet for the flight. The pilot and co-pilot are agents; you probably know them. Russ will be with you for the flight and will brief you on your cover and any other details we’ve retrieved.”
“You already knew I’d agree, didn’t you? I mean, you’ve already got the jet and agents in place,” Steve teased.
“Honestly, no. I didn’t think you’d agree, but I also wanted to be prepared in case you did. It’s the Boy Scout in me,” Oscar replied.
“HA! You were never a Boy Scout Oscar and I know it. They kicked you out of the Cub Scouts for that little campfire incident,” Steve said, laughing.
“Yeah, well, that was a long time ago, pal. Let’s go inside and finish our drinks,” Oscar suggested, wanting to change the subject.
The duo returned to the living room where they spent the next few hours chatting about nothing in particular.
Shortly before midnight, Oscar and Rudy excused themselves, returning to their rooms at the base. Rudy would return to the house in the morning with his bag while Steve would meet Oscar for the flight to Los Angeles.
Rudy arrived the following morning with travel bag in hand. Seeing Jan and Steve on the porch, holding each other, Rudy decided to hang back out of earshot.
Steve held Jan, who had started to cry. Jan pulled back, sniffling. “Don’t mind me, it’s the hormones,” she explained.
Steve pouted, “And I thought you didn’t want me to go.”
Jan poked him gently in the ribs. “Of course don't want you to go, I just don’t normally cry like this.”
Steve held her one more time, planting a kiss on the top of her head. “I better go. Rudy is patiently waiting by the car.”
Jan glanced toward the driveway, not having noticed his arrival. She pulled away from Steve, wiping her tears. “Morning Rudy,” she waved.
Rudy picked up the bag and wandered up the sidewalk, meeting Steve half way. “Oscar is waiting on the plane. He’s anxious to leave.”
“Better not give him a stroke. You take care of my wife while I’m gone. I should be back tomorrow, but I learned a long time ago that Oscar’s concept of time doesn’t match real world time.” Steve has know Oscar's day to stretch into a month, so although he hopes the assignment will come to a swift end, he decided to take the time table with a grain of salt.
“Take care,” Rudy said as Steve climbed into the sports car. He climbed the stairs to the porch and hugged Jan as Steve drove away.
“He’ll be fine,” Rudy assured her.
“I know, I know.”
As they entered the house, Rudy spotted Josh with the microscope.
Josh looked up, “Hi Uncle Rudy. Want to help?”
“Let me put my bag in the spare room, then I’ll see what you’ve been up to since last night,” Rudy said.
A few minutes later, Rudy seated himself next to Josh, who had already prepared a variety of slides from backyard flora. Jan announced it was naptime and excused herself.
Rudy looked up as she walked away, “Sleep Jan, don’t worry.”