Calendia Martin is happy to work Christmas. With no family near and few friends, she’ll take the extra-long shift and avoid the whole Christmas glad-tidings-and-good-cheer-thing. But Christmas has other plans for Callie…
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Technical Sergeant Calendia Martin walked down the dim, dripping, drafty tunnel of Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, avoiding the puddles of ice, her footsteps echoing in the o’dark-thirty silence. She didn’t mind working on Christmas—Bryant could watch his kids, two and four respectively, madly ripping open presents. And Winters would have Christmas with his family. She glanced at her watch. Bryant would probably be blessing and cursing her in just a couple of hours. She laughed, the sound bouncing around the tunnel, mixing with the snowmelt running and dripping from the rock overhead in an oddly cheerful mix.
She walked around the final bend, showing the badge pinned to her collar to the lone guard stationed at the massive blast door. The poor guy was wrapped in so much cold weather gear she could hardly see him. The guard said, “Merry Christmas,” white teeth flashed in a smile, and his arm waved her through.
She smiled back. “Merry Christmas to you too. Stay warm.”
He snorted a laugh. “I’ll try. Just a couple more hours.”
Continuing through the semi-truck-size double-airlock doors, she crossed the cavernous space. The high rock walls, covered in white plastic—in a mostly futile attempt to keep the snowmelt from dripping on everyone and everything—amplified the sound of running, dripping, and splashing water. The damp cold quickly penetrated her coat. Callie passed plastic-wrapped pallets of emergency supplies, one adorned with a big red bow in an odd attempt at holiday spirit. She shook her head. MREs were nobody’s idea of a good present.
She mounted the steps, boots ringing on the corrugated metal, and stepped into the first of the bland, beige, slightly musty three-story buildings housing the various military operations centers. Even on Christmas, crews staffed each center, continuing their mission, keeping the country safe, night and day, every single day. Holidays meant little to the enemy.
The corridors themselves were unusually empty, so for once, Callie could see everything. The beige metal walls looked more like a Navy ship than a building; it was easy to forget you were thousands of feet under a mountain. Callie smiled. It looked like a Navy ship because Naval shipbuilders did the design and construction; they thought all the metal would help in a nuclear attack. By the time they finished building, the nukes were so big there’d only be a glowing hole left. She plodded along, footsteps echoing from the raised flooring despite the worn industrial carpet squares.
No, she didn’t mind working Christmas, she didn’t even mind working a sixteen-hour shift on Christmas. She’d only been stationed here three months. Too new to get Christmas leave, her options were limited. One, she could sit in her apartment and sulk. Two, accept one of the many thoughtful Christmas invitations and make awkward conversation with people she hardly knew. Three, hang out at the base chow hall with all the other newbies. None of those options held any appeal. She’d far rather work, letting someone else enjoy the Christmas cheer.
Trudging along, the hollow thuds of her feet varied in tone and volume; probably because the number of cables, conduits, fiber, and equipment hidden under the flooring varied too. Decades of military operations with hundreds of different computer systems left miles and miles of ghost cable—maintenance techs constantly had floor tiles ripped up, trying to figure out which cables and pieces they could safely remove. You had to step carefully in Cheyenne Mountain.
She kept walking down the hall, turning into a much narrower passage, meant for crew only. No, the only thing she didn’t like was the way her fellow crew members wanted to split this shift; coming in at zero-two-hundred was not her idea of fun. Why couldn’t Winters just leave at zero-six? Callie grimaced. Some Christmas.
She made the turn into the even narrower stairway, barely wide enough for two people to pass by, and up three flights of steep stairs—whoops, no, they were ladders. Callie grinned; if she didn’t use the correct naval terminology, someone would surely point it out. Loudly.
Finally, she reached the Space Surveillance Operations Center door. Another massive, metal door, decorated with security warnings and measures, an obvious camera staring at her face. Callie worked through the security protocols and opened the door. Inside the big, dimly lit room, many of the crew members were staring at the front of the room, oddly colored lights washing across their faces. In this light, the four different service camouflage patterns looked even less ‘uniform.’ From the sarcastic male voice booming out, they were watching The Santa Clause. Occasionally, one looked down at a computer and typed, then returned to the movie. She walked to the back of the big room, passing the three rows of half-empty computer stations, and into the tiny break room. Putting her coat on a hook and her purse in her locker, she remembered to transfer her badge to her uniform collar then went back out to the ops floor.
“Hey Callie, thanks again for coming in at this ungodly hour. I know it’s a big ask, but it lets me get home in time for Christmas service with the family. I gotta drive all the way to Durango, and it’s snowing. I owe you,” Staff Sergeant Winters said, his coat and hat clenched in his hands. A big grin sat on his pale, round face, his brown eyes twinkling with happiness.
“No worries, I don’t mind.” Much, she thought.
“Well, the sum total of nothing happened last night. Normal, normal, normal. Just lots of work for us, nothing for the rest of these guys, waiting for war to break out. Any. Second. Now.” He shrugged and grinned again. “So, are you good?”
“Yeah, go.” She tossed her head towards the door. “Be careful on the drive!”
“Oh, I will be.” He was already heading for the door, putting his coat on as he wove his way around the desks.
“Sergeant Winters, I’m not too worried about your drive there since you’ve been on nights, but when are you coming back?” Lieutenant Colonel Carns called out from his seat towards the front of the room.
“Oh, don’t worry, Sir. I’m off for the next three days, so I’ll be staying home, and shifting back to day cycle while I’m there.”
He nodded. “All right. Be careful. Drive smart. And Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks, Sir, you too.” SSgt Winters walked out the door, whistling a Christmas carol that clashed dissonantly with the movie soundtrack.
“Well, it may be normal, normal, normal, but since we’re short a crew member, we’ve got a lot of work to get done, and Sergeant Winters was too distracted to be efficient.” Lieutenant Colonel Carns gave her an inquiring look. “I hope you’re ready to work and work hard, Sergeant Martin.”
“Yes, Sir. I’d rather be busy.”
“Got that in one.” He spun back to his terminal.
She logged on to the computer and got to work. Her piece of the mission might not be exciting, but updating the orbits on the eight-thousand-plus objects circling the globe at 17,000 miles an hour was important. Sure, they were mostly pieces of junk, like old rocket bodies and dead satellites, but that junk could be deadly for the folks on the International Space Station and cause catastrophic damage to working satellites. Knowing the precise orbit of each piece was critical; the ISS and the working satellites could maneuver and miss the junk.
She clicked object 25544 and discarded the bad sensor readings. You’d think the computer could do a better job, but the radars and optical sensors tracking all this junk weren’t much newer than Cheyenne Mountain, and the computer systems were almost as old. Fortunately, space is big, so it was rarely necessary.
Before she knew it, the zero-six shift change arrived. Lieutenant Colonel Carns went home, and Lieutenant Colonel Lewis sent her off to get some breakfast. One of the on-coming crew grumbled, but he shut up when Lewis barked out she’d come in at zero-two for a sixteen.
Stomach rumbling, Callie headed back out to the narrow corridors, taking each corner slowly. Between the solid steel construction, the narrow spaces, the airlock doors, and the stairway—no, ladder—entrances that required two one-eighty turns in quick succession, it was all too easy to run into someone. And since a large number of those people outranked her, she had to be careful. It was also easy to get lost since all the corridors looked the same: bland, beige metal, grey carpet over the hollow flooring.
Blast it. Callie thought she knew the way to the chow hall, oops sorry, dining facility, by now. But no, she faced an unfamiliar door. She spun around and ran smack into a solid wall of Air Force camouflage.
“Whoa there. Are you okay?” A deep male voice asked from above her head.
She looked up and took a quick step back. Dang, this guy was tall. And broad. And solid muscle. Callie rubbed her nose. Oh, thank heaven, he wasn’t an officer. “Sure Sergeant…” she looked at his name tag quickly, “…King. I’m sorry, I thought I knew where I was going, but I’m lost. Again.”
The wall of camo shifted with his shrug. “Don’t worry about it. Happens to everybody.” He smiled, white teeth in a tan oval face with dark brown hair and eyes. A friendly face, one that looked like he smiled and laughed a lot. “Where are you headed?”
“The chow hall.”
He chuckled, the low sound coming out more like a rumble. “Come on. I’ll show you back to the dining facility.” He winked as he emphasized the name.
Callie stepped up next to the man-mountain. “Thanks. I thought I knew my way around now, but I guess not.” She sighed.
King waved a hand. “It’s all too easy to get turned around in these corridors. They’re all the same boring beige. I still get lost now and then, and I’ve been here two years.” He grinned down at her. “The only difference is that I can figure out where I am once I start paying attention, but you probably have to go back to the main entrance and start over, right?”
“How long have you been here?”
He threw out a hand in a half wave. “Well, then, you’re not doing too badly. I won’t let some of my folks wander the halls by themselves for a good six months or more.” He laughed.
King had an infectious laugh, low and booming. She couldn’t help but chuckle and check out his twinkling eyes. As they neared the dining facility, more people entered the corridor, all of them looking tired and down. The jumble of different uniforms didn’t help; all varying shades of dirt, they just added to the dreary atmosphere.
She tried to move over to the side to thank Master Sergeant King and let him get back to what he was doing, but the press of people behind her made that impossible. They shuffled up to the entrance, hemmed in by the crowd. The scent of warm butter, cinnamon, and slightly burned toast made her stomach rumble.
“Thanks for your help, Master Sergeant King. I appreciate it.”
He smiled a big, friendly smile. “No problem. Actually, getting something to eat isn’t a bad idea. Do you mind if I join you?”
“Not at all. Much better than eating alone.” She smiled back, then turned to give her order to the cook. They moved down the food line, trays in hand and found a table towards the back of the rapidly filling room.
“So, I’m Josh King, and I work in network ops,” he said, holding out a huge hand across the table.
“Callie Martin, I’m in space surveillance.” She shook his hand, her not-so-tiny one engulfed in his. His was warm and strong, the fingertips callused.
“Ah, a space geek.” He grinned, laugh lines showing. “No wonder you can’t find your way around, there’s no stars to navigate by and no GPS.”
“Funny guy. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the stars or navigation, GPS or otherwise.”
He shrugged, the miles of camo covering his huge, muscular shoulders shifting strangely in her tired gaze. “Well, stay in long enough, and you probably will. It seems like all the space folks end up in GPS eventually.”
She smiled back at him. “I hope so. I’d rather make the short drive east to Schriever Air Force Base every day than the flight to Thule, Greenland once.”
He laughed again, the sound booming across the room. She smiled when everyone in the room turned towards him. Not a guy who worried about people looking at him, she thought. He was so big; he was probably used to the attention.
“I guess a year-long remote tour is always a possibility.” He winked. “I could end up there too. Anyway, this certainly isn’t your first assignment. Where are you from originally?”
“Nope, you’d be right there. Portland, Oregon.”
He tilted his head. “Hmm. How does someone from the liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon, end up in the Air Force?”
Callie shrugged. “She wants a college education, and can’t afford one, just like a lot of other folks.”
He nodded. “Good reason. Well, I’m an Air Force brat, from everywhere, mostly the South, and I joined for the same reason.” He chuckled. “Well, that and I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I really wanted to get out of the house.”
“Also a good reason. So, how long have you been in?”
“Ten years now. This is my fourth assignment. My first was at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.”
“Ooh, California. Warm, sunny beaches. At least in the summer. I was there for training, but it was winter.”
He smiled and shook his head. “You didn’t miss anything. It’s the same in the summer. It’s foggy, and sixty-five degrees or the wind is howling, and it’s sixty-five degrees, and you can’t go to the beaches because the snowy plover is nesting.”
“Oh, yeah, really.” Josh nodded ruefully. “The beaches are beautiful, but if you want sun and surf, you have to go an hour south to Santa Barbara or an hour north to Pismo Beach.”
“I knew I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque!”
He laughed again. “A Bugs Bunny fan! Excellent. I love those old cartoons.” He raised his brows in an inquiring look. “And why are you working on Christmas?”
“Single, no kids, newbie. You?”
“Single, no kids, supervisor.” They shared rueful smiles. Then he glanced up at the big digital time display on the wall, set to Zulu time, local, and half-a-dozen other locations. “Hey, I gotta get back.” He grimaced. “I need to get my guys to chow. It was nice meeting you, Callie Martin.”
“Nice meeting you too, Josh King.” They put up their dishes and walked out together.
He smiled down at her, heat radiating off his big frame. “Can you get back from here on your own? Or shall I walk you up?”
She smiled. She was reluctant to finish the first non-work-related conversation she’d had in a while, but she had to get back. Everyone else had to eat before breakfast closed. “Oh, I can get back, I just wasn’t paying attention. I came in at zero-two, and I’m a little tired.”
Josh nodded. “Ah, well then, I’ll see you around.” He turned at the next intersection, then spun, walking backward for a second to wave at her.
She smiled and waved back. “Thanks again!” Callie headed back upstairs, carefully paying attention to her route. She made it back and immersed herself in the never-ending work, making sure each orbit was as accurate as possible. A hand closed on her shoulder and shook it a bit. She jumped and looked up.
Lt Col Lewis looked down at her; head tilted slightly, eyebrows raised. “Sergeant Martin, are you okay? I’ve been calling your name.”
“Oh, sorry, Sir. I guess I got a little too focused.” She stood quickly; the room spun, and blood rushed. “Whoa, must have been sitting too long.” She put a hand on the back of her chair and blinked. The room stabilized.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, Sir. Just been sitting longer than I thought.” She glanced up at the world time display. “Is it really eleven-hundred already?”
“Yes, it is. If you’re okay to walk, why don’t you get some food? And some water.” He still looked concerned. “You can do without sleep, or without food, but not without both. And you always need water.” He picked up her water bottle and handed it to her.
She nodded and drank. “Thanks, Sir. I’m fine. I’ll be back shortly.”
He nodded slowly. “Take at least thirty minutes and make sure you walk around a little. You need it!”
“Yes, Sir.” Suddenly, Callie’s stomach was chewing on her backbone and rumbling unhappily about it. She checked her badge and wallet and headed back to the chow—dining facility. This time, she made it. She got her food from the bored cooks and ate quickly—there was no reason to linger in the almost empty room. Christmas.
The Colonel was right; she should stretch her legs a little. She could walk around the outside of the buildings and up the tunnel a little before she was due back. Callie smiled. Entering the maze of beige hallways, she bounced down the stairs towards the entrance. Swinging around the final stairway one-eighty, she tripped on something and fell forwards. Reaching out, she saw only black—the floor was gone! Clawing at the air, she stopped with a sharp jerk, her face a foot from the floor, her uniform stretched painfully tight around the front of her body. A band of steel circled her waist, hauled her upright, and pulled her into a solid, warm body.
“Whoa!” said a familiar deep voice. The arm tightened around her waist for a second, then released, letting her slide down to the floor.
Callie swallowed hard, stepped forward tentatively and turned, leaning against the solid, cold metal wall on the far side. “Whew. Well, Sergeant King, this seems to be your day to save me. Thanks.” She blinked and tried to recover.
Josh smiled at her and nodded. “My pleasure. Excuse me just a second.” He turned towards two wide-eyed Airmen kneeling on the other side of the hole. “And that, gentlemen, would be why we’re careful about where we place the carpet tiles after we peel them up. And why we use warning signs and safety cones.” Menace deepening his voice impossibly lower, he said, “Which I want to see up, yesterday!” He glowered down at the one-stripers, a massive fist clenched on each hip. “I believe you have something to say to Technical Sergeant Martin?” he bit out.
“Sorry, Tech Sergeant! Didn’t mean for you to get hurt!”
“I’m very sorry! It won’t happen again!”
The two boys spoke over each other, frantic in their apologies, scrambling to their feet. She looked down at them and snorted out a bit of a laugh. “I’m sure it won’t.” Callie turned back to Josh. “Thanks again, Sergeant King, hopefully, this won’t be necessary a third time.”
He grinned at her, laugh lines standing out around his mouth and eyes. “My pleasure. I love rescuing damsels in distress.”
Callie laughed. “Damsels in distress? Okay, that’s overselling the case just a tiny bit.”
“Well, sure, but it got you to laugh, didn’t it? Hey, come here a minute, will ya?” Beckoning with one hand, he led her halfway down the hall. Quietly, he asked, “Do you get off at eighteen-hundred?”
He smiled, a small, somehow sexy smile. “Well, I keep running into you today, but I haven’t in the past three months you’ve been here, so I figure if I’m going to see you again, I’d better get your number.” He tilted his head a little and turned up the wattage on the sexy smolder. “That is if you’re currently unattached and interested?”
She chuckled. “No grass growing under your feet, is there?”
He snorted. “There’s no grass around here, period.”
She laughed. “It’s a figure of speech.”
The huge shoulders shrugged, and he beamed down at her. “Yes, I know, I just like hearing you laugh.”
What else was she going to do? Sit home and mope? Or take a chance on the hot mountain of man in front of her? “Okay, sure. So, since we’re moving high and fast, do you want to share Christmas dinner together this evening?” She stared at him, challenge in her gaze. “Unless you had other plans?”
The sexy smolder was back at full throttle. “If I did, I’d break ’em. Meet you outside the guard shack after your shift change.”
“Sure.” She grinned. “Maybe you can catch me before I fall down the mountainside.”
He grinned and scanned her body. “The pleasure would be all mine,” he rumbled out.
Heat flushed in her cheeks, into her chest and pooled in her belly, but she laughed over her shoulder at him as she headed back. Callie stepped carefully over the big hole and around the Airmen, scrambling to set up their worksite safety gear.
Unable to stop grinning, she considered working Christmas. Working Christmas wasn’t bad at all. She laughed, the sound echoing in the narrow, metal enclosure. Nope, somehow, she’d managed to get a pretty good present out of a raw deal. She smiled the rest of her shift.
A huge “Thank You and Happy Holidays!” to the men and women serving in our Armed Forces during this holiday season, especially those far away from their families. I appreciate everything you do and the sacrifices you make to keep our country safe and secure. I will pray for your safety and that you find some joy, no matter where you are. You can find joy in surprising places—just keep looking!
Another big thank you is due to my first reader/developmental editor/fellow author, Julia Davinsky. Thanks, sis!
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Cheyenne Mountain Air Station is a real place; however, it no longer houses the Space Surveillance Center and security is far tighter than depicted. USAF Photo, www.af.mil.
Copyright © 2016 by AM Scott. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.