Monday, October 26, 2015

Great Big Sky (06 AUG 2016)

It was usually fairly quiet in the pilots' barracks, and today wasn't any different. Unlike the barracks for the troopers, there were rarely more than 6 or 7 personnel at any given time, unless there was a pilot awaiting transfer to another air base. Most of the pilots were a mix of U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots, with a smattering of pilots from other countries. There was only one former U.S. Army pilot; Flight Officer Thaddeus "Big Sky" Gentry.

Lt "Casper" Fallis and Flight Officer "Raven-4" Johnson were sitting in the common room, playing a casual hand of blackjack; The pot was the next week's trash duties. XCOM didn't employ any cleaning staff, so excepting the occasional punitive work details, all personnel were expected to maintain their own living and work areas. Johnson was a rookie pilot for XCOM, only recently in from the Interceptor course. His pre-XCOM record was impressive; all of the pilots had impressive records from before, all of them with actual combat missions under their belts. Still, Fallis knew that Johnson really didn't know what it was to fly against the aliens, and it couldn't really be explained, no matter how many simulator missions you ran or cockpit recordings you viewed.

"So, what's up with the bus driver?" Johnson asked, nodding toward FO Gentry's room. "He never seems to come out of there except to hit the chow hall, gym or showers."

"Dude," Fallis said, disgust coloring his tone, "shut the fuck up."

"What'd I say?" Johnson asked, his features warring between surprise and anger. "I'm just asking what his deal is."

"His deal," the Lieutenant replied, allowing himself to take on a lecturing tone, "is that he's not a fucking bus driver."

"Whoa, chill out," the rookie shot back. "I know his mission is important, I'm not trying to disrespect the guy. But he hauls the kids back and forth. He's not out there exchanging fire with the X-Rays."

Fallis just stared at him for a long moment, letting the silence stretch out. Johnson flushed, and the anger started to come to the fore. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Fallis cut him off.

"You really don't get it, do you?" His tone was now more surprised than critical. "Lemme ask you something. How many of us are there, Interceptor pilots?"

"Um," the junior pilot considered for a moment. "Between us here and the pilots in the African base? A dozen or so."

"Nine," Fallis supplied, "to be exact, including those on recovery rotation to South America. Next question: How many "bus drivers" does XCOM have?"

"Just him, so far as I know."

"Exactly. He's flown dozens of missions. I'm the most experienced Interceptor pilot XCOM has got, and I've flown barely five, most of which didn't result in a downed enemy."

"So?" Johnson shook his head. "His missions are cakewalks. Fly in, drop off the squad and wait around until they're done."

"Tell me something. You ever see any ground combat?"

Johnson shook his head. "No. Plenty of fights in the sky, though." Lieutenant Fallis rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then lifted his card to peek underneath, buying time to think.

"I was shot down in the early phases of the Iraq war. Got cocky, barely made it out alive. I broke my leg when the eject mechanism misfired, but I made it to the ground in one piece. I had to sit in hostile territory and wait for Para-Rescue to come get me, and I will tell you something; Having to shoot a man in the face before he can do it to you is a very different thing than what we do in the sky."

"I got no disrespect for the troops-" Johnson cut in.

"I'm not finished. What we do in the sky is a video game. Line up the dots, push the button, and we're rewarded with an explosion if we do it right. He," Fallis paused, nodding toward FO Gentry's door. "has to get down in the weeds every day. Yeah, he's waiting outside the combat zone for the squad to get back, but the X-Rays don't always follow the rules. You know he went through 3 co-pilots in the early days, before he asked the Commander to stop giving him one? Having to sit in the LZ and hope the X-Rays don't come sniffing around isn't a cakewalk."

"I didn't realize," Johnson said, glancing toward the closed door. "So what then? He doesn't socialize because of his dead co-pilots?"

"It's a lot more than that," Fallis said. "Do you realize that we've lost four troopers just in the last month? Two of them veterans who've been here since the very beginning."

"Yeah, I heard about those."

"Gentry's got to bring all of those people back, plus many more wounded. They've got another LT in critical care right now, after the last UFO. They're not sure if she'll pull through."

"Yeah..." Johnson said quietly, his face troubled.

"We've got the luxury of not seeing all of that," the Lieutenant gestured around. "We've got our own barracks, separate from the troopers. All we really see is the bulletin board announcements. Even though we fail to take down the enemy more often than not, we usually manage to make it back alive, and get the crazy stories to tell."

"Okay, fuck man, I get it," Johnson said, raising his hands in surrender. "I'm an asshole, alright?"

"Nah," Fallis said, finally knocking the table to indicate he'd stay on the nearly forgotten hand of cards. "You're just new here. This is a different kind of war than we've ever seen before, and we cannot afford to bring old prejudices with us." Johnson also decided to stay, so they flipped up their cards to reveal their hand. "Shit, twenty one. Looks like I've got trash next week." The senior pilot glanced toward Gentry's door as they shuffled their hands back into the deck. "Honestly, I worry about him," he said quietly.

Then, almost as if the comment had summoned him, Gentry's door opened, and he stepped out dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes, with a towel around his shoulders. Johnson looked at Fallis quickly, then seemed to make a decision.

"Hey, Gentry!" he called, rising from his seat. "You're headed to the gym, yeah?" FO Gentry stopped, and gave a cautious nod, his deep southern accent rumbling a quiet affirmative. "You mind if I join you? I won't be but a few minutes behind you, just gotta change." At the non-committal shrug, Johnson glanced back at the Lieutenant with a brief, apologetic smile, and moved toward his room.

Fallis leaned back in his chair, and shuffled the cards a few times, meditatively. He doubted that FO Gentry would be drawn out of his shell so easily, but maybe it was a start. This war didn't look like it was going to end any time soon, and if they wanted to survive this, they'd all have to learn to lean on one another.