ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Call Sign Part 4

Chapter 7: Do and Don’t Die

Four weeks later the blow of Marcus leaving had been swallowed up in the increasing demands of training. Not that any of them had forgotten ... all of them had questioned themselves, testing that internal certainty that being a fighter pilot was the calling they should be pursuing. The fact that they were all still there, despite the internal introspection, was probably answer enough ... for the time being.

A month of ACMs had gone by with good results for most of the rookies ... except for Cade, who still struggled to get real runs on the board. Something was holding him back but Lorne just couldn’t work out what it was, no matter how many times he’d tried to talk to the younger man. It wasn’t knowledge – Cade knew his stuff forwards, backwards and upside down. And it wasn’t flying skill either ... before air combat manoeuvres Cade had been one of the most talented fliers of their group. Evan had wondered about the killer instinct side of things – after all, that was what had brought Marcus down. But in Cade’s case Lorne really did think he had everything it took to be a fighter pilot. At the end of the day Evan was forced to conclude that it was as simple as confidence and the fact that Cade had let his failures deflate his. Unlike Drew’s problem with night flying, Evan didn’t have a simple fix – there really wasn’t any way he could take Cade up in the sky and trick him into believing in himself again.

The young Lieutenant had been given four additional hours of flight time with which to repeat the ACM missions he’d failed. He’d scrapped through a couple of them but was looking at having to repeat ACM5 after two failures. If he didn’t pass the mission the third time he’d be up for review and in all likelihood out the door.

The day before Cade was due up again Evan watched him settling into the study room, books and folders open around him. Strategy theory and practice. Reports from his prior attempts. Reports of successful missions the others had flown and offered up for Cade to study. It was the same routine the younger man followed before every mission and Lorne realised suddenly that he couldn’t let him continue.

“Stop,” he said abruptly, causing Cade and the others to all look at him in confusion.

“Stop what?” Cade asked with a frown, glancing down at his open folder and then back to Lorne with a puzzled frown.

“This,” Evan waved a hand at Cade’s workstation. “Studying until you can hardly see straight.”

“I get one more chance!” Cade shot back impatiently. “If I don’t pass this mission tomorrow then I might as well pack my bags and head home because for sure the review board is gonna kick my ass out of here!”

“I get that,” Evan said mildly. “What I don’t get is why you think doing the same thing you’ve done every other time is going to get you a different result.” It was a saying Evan’s grandfather had always repeated whenever Evan had been upset about a childhood disappointment like not getting selected for the basketball team because they’d said he was too short. If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It sounded simple but it still surprised Evan how profound it could actually be. People were creatures of habit ... they sat it the same chair for every training course, drank the same drinks at social functions ... and prepared for tests the same way every time.

“Well, what would you suggest then?” Cade’s tone was just shy of sarcastic.

“Combat of a different sort,” Evan said simply, grinning as he watched interest dawn in the young pilots eyes. Turning to look at Drew, Lorne raised an eyebrow questioningly. “You in?” he asked.

“In what?” Drew asked at the same time that John started to chuckle.

“Count me in,” John said, nodding to Evan approvingly. He might not have worked out the specifics but he’d deduced enough to know in general what Lorne was planning.

“Me too,” Neil agreed, laughing as he continued. “I have no idea what for but whatever it is I’m in.”

“Let’s do it then,” Evan said, getting up and heading for the door, trusting that Cade would follow the others.

oOo

“Paintball?” Cade asked disbelievingly, his eyes shifting from the building they’d pulled up outside of to look at Lorne. “You want to play paintball?”

“Why not?” Lorne replied. He’d called Steph before he’d joined the others out in the car park, getting directions to ‘Skirmish’. It was the name of an indoor paintball business he only knew about because she’d mentioned it a few weeks before. They had to go indoor because winter had already set in at Cold Lake and the entire area was blanketed in a covering of white.

“This is gonna be great!” Neil grinned excitedly, getting out of the vehicle and squinting up at the ‘Skirmish’ sign. “How do we do this?”

“Teams,” Evan said. Noticing a car pulling into the car park he grinned. “Three a side,” he added, waving at the man who got out and headed towards them. He'd made a second call back at the base, needing to even up the numbers.

“Marcus!” Cade grinned, meeting the other man half way and holding out a hand. Marcus grinned too, slapping a hand to the other mans shoulder, his relief apparent. It was the first time they’d seen him since he’d left the course voluntarily – it would have been normal to worry that Cade would hold a grudge, given his initial reaction and the troubles he was currently having. Thankfully that wasn't the case.

“Guys,” Marcus said, nodding to everyone.

“So ...,” Evan began after all the greetings had been done, looking at Cade. “Drew, Marcus and I against you, Neil and John. Capture the flag.”

“You’re on,” Cade looked relaxed, putting his concerns about the next’s days mission aside.

Skirmish was a large warehouse divided into four smaller enclosed areas. Inside, each had been divided in half with its own base of operations and barriers strategically placed around it for protection. Evan and Cade each took one base for their team, all six men gearing up with protective masks and thick shirts to cover their arms. Armed with paintball markers – guns with hoppers to keep the ammunition loading – they each retreated to their own base of operations to talk strategy.

The aim of capture the flag was to move on the enemy base of operations, steal their flag and return it to your own base. If you did that without getting tagged then you won. If you were hit with a paintball from the opposing side then you became one of the opposition, shifting the weight of numbers to the enemy.

“What’s the plan?” Drew asked Lorne as the three gathered together.

Evan had assessed the ‘terrain’ on their way over, getting a map in his head of the most defensible positions as well as possible paths to the enemy base.

“The better question is what will Cade’s plan be?” he replied.

“He’ll go on the attack,” Marcus stated confidently. “He’d keen to get the win so he’ll leave his base vulnerable.”

“Exactly,” Evan grinned. “So we use that against him.”

“We let them come to us,” Drew concluded.

“To start with, until we’ve got the numbers in our favour,” Evan agreed. “Then we go on the attack.”

Agreeing on their defensive positions, the three men crept towards the barriers they’d chosen. Drew and Marcus were guarding the team flag, taking cover such that they could maintain vision on the most likely approach and pin down any targets before they could get too close. Lorne was playing defensive sweep, hanging back and covering the less likely routes. If they held position – didn’t let themselves be drawn out or distracted into creating blind spots – they should be able to hold their flag indefinitely.

Cade held true to their assessment. His confidence was on the ebb and rather than think about his opponent he was thinking only about what he needed to do to get that winning feeling back. The aim of the game was to capture the flag, not defend it, and that was all Cade was focussed on.

It was a risk ... Lorne’s plan to teach Cade something from the way he lost might only result in flattening Cade's confidence even more, assuming Evan’s team did in fact manage to take the victory. But Lorne believed it would do the trick where everything else had failed – flip that necessary switch in the other man’s head so he could look at aerial combat differently that he had so far.

Rather than send his team out one man at a time Cade had gone for a combined frontal assault while he himself tried to come around the back. Drew and Marcus waited patiently until John and Neil drew close enough, firing warning shots to pin the other two men down behind the last barriers for their side. Cade paid the open battle little attention, focussed on his own objective without considering that Lorne might have done the same thing – committed most of his team in an obvious show of defence while holding himself back.

Evan couldn’t help but grin as he watched Cade creeping slowly forward, moving from barrier to barrier swiftly as he headed around the outer edge of the battle zone. Lorne let him pass his position before making his own move. Cade had taken cover behind one of Lorne’s barriers but rather than help his team by taking out Drew and Marcus, instead he had his sights only on the flag. He didn’t notice when Lorne moved forward silently.

“I don’t think so,” Evan said quietly as he placed the nozzle of his gun in the small of Cade’s back.

Cade groaned as he turned and looked behind him. “Damn,” he muttered as Lorne calmly shot a paintball so that it just grazed the back of his shirt – at that close range a direct hit would have caused more than a little pain and left a nasty bruise behind.

“Now you work for me,” Evan announced in a low voice with a smirk. “And the first thing you’re gonna do is head back to your base acting like you’ve got our flag. Your team won’t know you’ve been converted until they see the back of you. We’ll cover you until you get to that point and take them out when they least expect it.”

“You’re enjoying this aren’t you?” Cade muttered, shaking his head when Lorne just grinned and shrugged. “Fine,” the younger man tried to keep his expression disgruntled but couldn’t in the face of Evan’s obvious delight in having got one over on him. “Tricking John and Neil should be worth a few laughs,” he admitted, shouldering his paintball gun and heading out.

Evan moved closer to Drew and Marcus, quickly filling them in on the revised plan. It went like clockwork, John and Neil’s loud protests when Cade got behind them and they saw that he’d been hit clearly audible. Before they could do anything else Marcus and Drew had shot them and it was game over.

“You knew I’d go all out for the flag didn’t you?” Cade asked Lorne as they regrouped to discuss the first round.

“You’re looking for an ego boost,” Evan said bluntly. “Understandable but it’s a weakness too easy to use against you. Now that we’ve shown you the error of your ways you can forget about that and focus on the battle itself.”

Cade frowned, looking for the meaning in Lorne’s words. Evan let him think for a moment before explaining. “Every battle has to be about winning,” he said, “but it’s more than that. Winning isn’t a general thing – it’s a specific battle against a specific enemy and you have to use everything you know about that enemy. If you’re just thinking about winning you’ll ignore who it is you’re trying to win against.”

“Like I’ve been doing in the air,” Cade commented, his expression making it clear he wasn’t taking offence but instead listening intently.

Exactly,” Evan agreed with a nod. “Take Major Baker for example. He’s got a tonne of experience so he’s probably seen every play in the book. Beating him means doing something he wouldn’t expect – having that at the forefront of your mind. I’m not saying it’s easy because we’re all still just trying to get our heads around the basics but if you’re thinking about it then maybe you see an opportunity you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“I’ve been too ‘by the book’,” Cade looked at Evan with dawning understanding. “I had a set of plays I’d worked out and memorised. Every mission sticking to the game plan wasn’t working but I couldn’t see any other way to go.”

“Game plan is good but there’s too much going on up there to rely solely on that,” John spoke up at that point. “Anything can give you a victory if you look at it the right way. Like SureLorne here ... he used our loyalty against us because he knew we’d see you coming back our way and we wouldn’t believe you’d trick us like that – until it was too late.”

“That was sweet by the way,” John added, grinning at Lorne with obvious enjoyment. “I don’t know about Neil but Cade had me completely fooled.”

“Yeah, me too,” Neil admitted. “Didn’t suspect a thing – I really thought you were coming back with their flag.”

“That’ll only work once,” Drew pointed out. “What are we gonna do for the next round?”

“There’s always another trick,” Cade said it before Evan could.

“We’re toast now,” Marcus muttered, pretend glaring at Lorne. “You couldn’t wait till after we’d whipped their asses before sharing your wisdom?”

“Where’s the challenge in that?” Evan shot back with a laugh.

oOo

After another three rounds that included swapping the teams around, the results ended up pretty even. Cade had taken Lorne’s first victory to heart, continuing to lead a team as he tried to both think outside the box and anticipate what his opponents would do.

Games done, drinks drunk and farewells to Marcus completed, the trainees headed back to Cold Lake base. Maybe the afternoon of recreation would help Cade up in the air the next day and maybe it wouldn’t. At the very least he’d take a fresh perspective into his next mission ... he wouldn’t be repeating the same approach he’d tried before. Lorne could only hope the end result would be different as well.

oOo

While Cade went up for his final shot at ACM5 the rest of the group were headed for an entirely different kind of mission. At their briefing the new Standards Officer, Major Steven ‘Jimmy’ Bond laid it out in plain English.

“You guys have flown battle missions,” Bond began. “You’ve outrun, outgunned, and out manoeuvred every enemy so far but there’s one enemy you can’t win against. The ground. And while it might seem beyond stupid to court disaster with a low flight, sometimes it’s either that or getting taken down by the enemy. You skim the ground to survive even though down there you’re only two seconds away from your very own crash site.”

He let that sink in for a few moments before continuing. “Low level flying is one of the most dangerous lessons you’re going to learn here. The mission will simulate the process of getting below enemy radar – or shaking a missile on your tail. You’ll be nervous as hell ... and so will your instructors.”

“Why?” Neil asked, surprised. “Haven’t they done hundreds of low flight missions before?”

“So you’re telling me you’d be completely comfortable sitting in Major Baker’s back seat doing 600 miles an hour 300 feet off the ground?” Major Bond returned. “There’s only a small window of opportunity to correct the situation if it doesn’t go according to plan – nobody’s experienced enough to take that without the nerves making an appearance.”

Lorne nodded, knowing it was true. He’d be nervous doing a low flight no matter whether he was flying or just along for the ride. If he was honest, he’d prefer to be the one doing the flying – the one in control – and trust had nothing to do with it. You didn’t become a fighter pilot because you were the type to be happy letting someone else do the work.

“So you aim for 300 feet,” Major Bond continued, “but you settle at the level you’re most comfortable with – inside your fear of death range. If that's 350 feet or even 400 feet then no one’s gonna even comment on it.”

It was what the instructors called the altitude a rookie naturally gravitated towards. They were supposed to fly at 300 feet for the mission but in most courses rookies settled at around 400 feet. And that was perfectly okay – this was the one mission where students weren’t pushed hard because screwing up had dire consequences and you couldn’t complete a mission if you’d already hit the ground.

“Okay, gear up,” Bond concluded, waving a hand for the rookies to proceed.

“You nervous?” Drew asked quietly as he dropped into step beside Evan.

“Am I breathing?” Lorne muttered back, grabbing his flight suit and pulling it on.

Drew laughed, slapped him on the back and then went to grab his own suit.

Evan continued his preparations, knowing Drew thought he was joking. Truth be known Lorne was feeling more than a little nervous, the whole idea of skimming the ground a little too close to the tail end of his worst nightmares.

The Hornet, skimming the tree line mostly out of control. The screaming of the engine reverberating in his ears, the natural noise of the plane being amplified that low to the ground. The boom and the cloud of smoke that always appeared just before he woke up.

Don’t go there,” he told himself, the familiar mental words somehow helping him refocus.

“Ready Captain,” Major Baker strode in, already geared up.

“Yes Sir,” Lorne replied, straightening, helmet in hand.

“Okay, let’s get this over with then,” Baker replied with a smirk.

Nodding, Lorne led the way outside, walking across the tarmac under a cold winter blue sky. Moments later he had the plane in the air and was ready to begin the low flying portion of the day.

“Drop it down to 300 or your comfort zone,” Baker instructed.

Lorne responded immediately, setting a flight angle that had them approaching the ground smoothly. He took it to 400 feet to start with, getting a feel for how the plane handled that close to the ground and how he felt being there.

The ride was rough ... turbulence hammered the plane enough that you could see it in how the wings visibly wobbled up and down. He had to control the stick more, keep a firm but steady hand ... and he had to ignore the way the ground seemed to loom underneath him as though just waiting for the chance to reach up and reclaim him.

It was scary and unnerving to begin with but then Evan began to feel something else ... exhilaration. His blood was pumping determinedly and his heart was beating a rapid pulse throughout his body. He felt alive and strangely in control in a way that was different than when he was up at a higher altitude. It was enough to have him dropping the plane carefully to 300 feet only seconds later.

“Keep it steady,” Baker cautioned needlessly from the back, the first sign that he wasn’t exactly feeling his usual comfort levels.

“Rolling for ten,” Lorne announced, turning the plane upside down. The ground felt close enough through the clear canopy to reach out and touch. “Horizon,” Evan announced when they were dead straight but upside down. Taking it back around again the plane ended up at around 4000 feet again. “And back to basics,” he concluded once he’d righted the plane.

“Nice work,” Baker complimented. “How did that feel?” It wasn’t the usual question but the mission was one that had even the most hard assed of instructors getting in touch with their soft and cuddly sides.

“It felt good,” Evan admitted, still amazed at himself.

“Okay, good, good,” Baker agreed. “Continue.”

“Continuing,” Lorne acknowledged. “Ten for five.” He took the plane back close to the ground again, settling at just over 300 feet. “And there we go,” he added with a grin.

The ground was a blur beneath them as Evan followed the landscape for a few moments ... so low the feeling of speed was more intense than it would have been up higher.

“Ready with 400 knots,” Evan announced once he was all set to do the next low flight manoeuvre.

“Go,” Baker instructed.

Lorne dipped the left wing down as he counted out the time and actions. “Five, ten, fifteen, a thousand one, a thousand two, rolling for five.” He swung the plane back the other way, levelling and then dipping the right wing. When he straightened they were back to just over a thousand feet.

“Terrain is flat, five for four,” he reported, taking the plane back down towards the ground. “Levelling,” he announced when they were at 300 feet again, the last of the required patterns done.

“All right,” Major Baker said with clear relief in his voice. “We’re alive. I’m alive. It’s all good.”

Mission completed – the only low level flight of the course – Lorne headed back to Cold Lake. They ploughed the tarmac as needed but it was still like landing into a sea of white ... Lorne wouldn’t admit it but the lines of runway appearing out of the distance appealed to the artist in him, in a minimalist way. Touching down he quickly brought the plane to a standstill and did all the post flight activities to park her.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it Sir?” he asked as the two men headed back to the main office of 410 squadron.

“You flew it a little lower than my comfort level for a rookie,” Baker admitted ruefully, “but you seemed comfortable so ...,” he trailed off with a chuckle. “I take it that means you enjoyed it?”

“I did,” Evan agreed. “Surprised the hell out of me Sir because I was pretty damned nervous beforehand.”

“Everyone usually is,” Baker replied. “But you did good – takes you one step closer to the end.”

“Yes Sir,” Evan returned, his thoughts turning to Cade and wondering how he’d gone.

They didn’t have to wait long to find out, the grin and general air of relief mixed with triumph evident as soon as Cade and his instructor walked in the door.

“Passed,” Cade said simply, smiling at the spontaneous round of cheers and back slaps his words generated. Lorne felt relieved even as he joined in with congratulating his team mate. Cade had been given an hour to turn his fortunes around – probably the most high pressure hour of his life – and he’d come through. He’d still be under scrutiny, still couldn’t afford to mess up another mission, but it was a very definite step in the right direction and hopefully a turn around the corner towards passing the course. You only got one shot at being a fighter pilot and Cade had shown that he still deserved to be in the game

oOo

When you served on a military base November 11th wasn't just another day. It meant something ... even if you'd never seen combat yourself, never lost a comrade to war.

Remembrance.

Taking the time to actively remember the service men and women who’d made the ultimate sacrifice for their countries, as well as civilians who’d died during times of war. The fact that most ceremonies were timed for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to align them with the time when the major hostilities of World War I were formally ended in 1918 gave left no room for excuses in not pausing for those moments of reflection.

In Canada Lorne discovered the day was a public holiday with ceremonies held in various places around the country. For the squadrons and personnel of Cold Lake base it meant putting on their dress blues and pinning red poppies on their lapels to participate in a time honoured tradition.

Evan carefully smoothed down his collar and made sure his poppy was secure as he followed his classmates across the frozen ground towards Cold Lake’s memorial site. Standing to attention, hand on his chest and breath wafting a faint cloud of warmth into the cold air, he listened respectfully as the commanding officer of the base spoke.

“Today we pause to remember the courageous individuals whose names are inscribed in this four wing memorial, knowing that a tremendous and overwhelming debt is owed to all our fallen heroes.”

The words were rousing and sentimental and sincere. Official address complete, all those present removed their hats, waiting for the next part.

“I would ask you at this time to read the names of those who have died,” the base commander concluded.

Evan had been given a name along with everyone else the day before. “Captain Michael Hardy,” he said in a strong voice when it was his turn, his thoughts on what he’d found out about Hardy when he’d asked around that morning. It didn’t seem enough to Lorne to remember a name without attempting to put a personal face on it. What he’d discovered was that Michael Hardy had been an earnest young man of 25 ... and a talented pilot who’d been killed during training ten years before, leaving behind a mother, father, and brother to miss him. It was a harsh message about what could happen, even when war wasn’t at your doorstep.

The reciting of names complete, the ceremony ended with eight servicemen standing single file, shouldering their rifles and each firing a single shot into the air simultaneously. Evan walked back to squadron headquarters with his class, thinking that it had been a few weeks and he really should call his Mom ... just to let her know he was doing okay.

oOo

At Cold Lake the weather was almost like another classmate they had to allow for – a demanding, random, inconsiderate and often painfully annoying classmate who got way too much attention. When winter descended on the base it usually maintained its grip for five long months, months during which the lake became a 140 square mile slushy. From a meteorological point of view it was probably fascinating to see the churning mess of icy water slowly releasing the heat it had soaked up during the summer months, warm moist air that mixed with the cold air above it. Sometimes, when the wind was blowing just right, the result was a base that was centre stage inside a giant swirl of snow, like a snow globe someone had set to continuous movement.

Yeah, the weather was a pain in the ass, messing with schedules across the entire base. For 410 squadron the impact often saw the duty officer in charge of scheduling practically pulling his hair out as he tried to fit essential training flights in around the activities of a fully operational air force base. The fact that they were rookies only made it harder because visibility below a certain level restricted rookie solo flights, not that there were many of those.

The weather was a fickle classmate too – all too often it would be bad in the morning but a couple of hours later open up enough for a few missions to be run. That meant you had to hang around to be there if it happened so you could take advantage of it. It was a rollercoaster of anticipation, preparation, disappointment and boredom that had everyone on edge.

As the class moved from ACMs into ACTs – air combat theatre – the weathers contribution to the pressure was just another element for the trainees to absorb. For Lorne it was all about keeping up his facade – he hated the cold and spending months in the midst of it hadn’t improved his position on that. Of course Drew knew he was putting on the brave face and liked nothing better than to rib Evan about it.

“You’re looking a little cold there buddy – you want a blanket or something?” he asked with pretended solicitousness the night before one of their key ACT missions.

“Now that you mention it ...,” Evan trailed off, looking at Drew expectantly.

“Right,” Drew laughed, getting up and grabbing a rug someone had left in the study room the day before. Throwing it so it landed over Evan and half his books, he laughed harder as Lorne tried to untangle himself without knocking everything to the floor.

“You can laugh now but remember one thing,” Evan said lightly when he was clear. “I’m only here for another year. You’re stuck in the land of cold for the rest of your life.”

“You’ll miss this when you’re sweating your ass off back home,” Drew countered.

“I don’t think so,” Lorne shot back. “Now shut the hell up – I’ll trying to study here.”

Still chuckling Drew opened his own books and got down to work.

oOo

“Welcome to the mission brief for ACT 8,” Major Bickford greeted them first thing the next morning.

This was the one Evan had been looking forward to. A combat scenario that was as close to the real thing as you could get.

“Directive 6828 has been invoked and supported by all nation participating coalition partners,” Bickford continued, displaying a map on the overhead projector. Three countries had been labelled ... Redland, Blueland and between the two Orangeland. Three fictional countries to represent what was a real air combat scenario. “Redland doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Orangeland and as such that area has been under dispute,” the senior instructor explained. “We’ve received word that Orangeland is about to be attacked. The mission is to defend their airspace against unknown enemy air threats. For your threat today we have up to 6 MIG 29 Charlies.”

Lorne listened intently as Major Bickford continued to explain how the day would work. Each student would be a part of a two ship formation. An instructor would fly lead with a student on wing flying solo. They wouldn’t know what they’d be up against – anywhere from 1 to 6 enemy aircraft (flown by top gun pilots they’d brought in to pose as the bandits) in any number of groups or formations. Each pair would defend the airspace until they’d almost run out of gas and then a fresh team would take over. That meant timing would be critical, each new pair having to arrive to overlap with the retreating pair.

Evan was teamed up with Major Baker again and did his best to hide the excitement bubbling away inside. It wasn’t a game but it did feel a little like they were heading out to play war games. Eyes fixed on the sky outside, Lorne kept his mental fingers crossed that the weather would hold steady. They had clear sky showing in patches through snow laden clouds and as long as visibility continued as it was they’d be good to go. Any worse and they wouldn’t get to fly – not solo anyway.

The order and make up of the teams had already been decided. Lorne had drawn the short straw and was up last so he had quite a wait ahead of him. Cade was up first with Captain Reed flying his lead, Neil was next with Major Bond, then John with Major Bickford, Drew with Major Wilson and finally Lorne with Baker. They all hung around the main office, watching as the first team headed out.

“This should be interesting,” Drew muttered under his breath, eyes fixed on the runway as Cade and Reed took off in formation.

“Yeah,” Evan agreed. “Playing the bandits has to be an adrenalin high for these guys.”

They fell silent, wondering what was going on up there but having no real way to know until Cade returned. With a tank of fuel on board the Hornet could go around 1200 miles which equated to about an hour of continuous flight under fighting conditions while still leaving fuel for the return trip home. Neil was geared up and ready to go a few minutes before schedule and bid them all his usual sunny goodbye as he headed out to relieve the first team in the air.

“How are things going with Steph?” Drew asked out of the blue.

“Fine,” Lorne returned, frowning. “Why?”

“No reason,” Drew shrugged. “Just making conversation.”

“Right,” Evan narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“You gonna keep seeing her after we graduate?” Drew queried curiously.

“You’re asking me about that now?” Lorne asked incredulously.

“What, you haven’t thought about the what next?” his friend countered.

“No I haven’t,” Lorne shot back intently. “There’s still a ways to go yet and I’m not assuming anything. Besides, there’re no guarantees on what squadron we get placed with after training.”

“True,” Drew agreed. “And some of them aren’t exactly local.”

“It’s gonna be bad enough having the class split up,” Evan admitted to having thought about that at least.

“It’ll be different but the distance won’t matter,” Drew said decisively. It was true ... the months of living in each other’s pockets, going through the same pressures and triumphs created a bond that lasted a lifetime.

Before Lorne could reply their attention was drawn to the tarmac where Cade’s Hornet was coasting to a stop. Moments later their classmate was pushing open the door, grin firmly in place.

“Now that was fun,” he announced.

“The airspace of Orangeland lives on undamaged,” Captain Reed said as he followed Cade inside.

“Good to hear,” Drew grinned over at Evan, both of them relieved to see the old, confident Cade still firmly in residence.

oOo

It seemed the day dragged on until finally it was Evan’s turn to gear up and prepare to take Drew’s place in the air.

“We’ve tried your patience today son,” Major Baker commented with a smirk as the two walked across the tarmac. Miraculously the weather had held long enough to get Lorne into the cockpit solo. The sky was darker and heavier though, the threat of snow and increased winds driving them to get up there before conditions at base got any worse.

“My Mom would remind me that it’s character building Sir,” Evan returned.

“Well with any luck those bandits will be tired out enough to be easy pickings,” Baker replied.

“Hopefully not too easy,” Lorne added, getting a chuckle from his lead before they split and headed for their respective planes.

Most of the training missions were flown with an instructor in the back, so getting to fly solo was a rare pleasure Evan had every intention of enjoying. Taking off like two choreographed birds Lorne and Baker headed their Hornets for the disputed territory over the fictitious Orangeland. Turbulence was heightened by the conditions until abruptly at 7000 feet they broke through the clouds into a blue sky.

“Trap line single group bullseye 0406 25000 ft estimate two contacts,” Ground radar warned them they had company before they’d even taken over defence duty.

“Alpha five one trap line copy,” Major Baker replied. “Let’s relieve our friends Captain,” he told Lorne.

“Bravo three one and three two this is Alpha five one and two preparing to take over the field,” Lorne got on the radio to Drew.

“Bravo three two acknowledged,” Drew replied.

Evan had his eyes on the HUD, looking for signs of the bandits on approach. That’s why he didn’t realise at first that there was an unexpected drama unfolding below him.

“Bravo three two ... I’ve got a slight problem here,” Drew’s voice was calm but Evan knew immediately it was more than minor.

Craning his head back, Lorne searched the sky, looking for Drew and Major Wilson’s planes. When he spotted them a wave of dread and fear washed over him.

Major Wilson was circling high over a dark shape that was gyrating from side to side even as it dropped like a brick.

The Hornet was capable of flying slowly, nose high without stalling. But if you pushed it too far, let the power drop too low, sometimes the plane would respond by shifting into an uncontrollable pattern, slamming from side to side as it dropped straight down.

They called it the falling leaf. Imagine holding a leaf high and then letting it go, at the mercy of gravity ... Evan had done that as a kid too many times to count, and now he was seeing a version of it unfolding below him.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he muttered, dropping altitude and shifting into a tight circling pattern without conscious thought.

“Hold back Captain Lorne,” Baker’s voice in his ear was firm and commanding, the tone one you didn’t ignore.

“Yes Sir,” Lorne complied, holding at 15000 feet but instinctively maintaining a simple circle flight path so that he had full view of the nightmare unfolding below him.

“Don’t panic Drew,” Major Wilson was speaking in a supportive, encouraging voice. “Take your hands off the controls.”

“But,” Evan could hear the fear in Drew’s voice now and it had him tensing, the mission forgotten.

“Listen carefully Captain,” Wilson interrupted. “I know it feels like you’re out of control but you have to trust your aircraft now ... take your hands off the controls.” He paused for a moment and then continued. “Now keep your eyes on the HUD. What’s your current air speed?”

“100 knots,” Drew reported back.

“Keep watching it,” Wilson ordered. “When you hit 180 knots you take the controls back and fly that plane straight back up. You got that?”

“Yes Sir,” Drew seemed to take something from Major Wilson’s calm certainty.

To Lorne it seemed like the space around him was frozen in time even while below him Drew’s Hornet appeared to be plummeting towards the ground at high speed.

“This is insane,” he muttered under his breath.

“You okay Captain?” Major Baker asked him. He’d kept them distant from the other pair but allowed Lorne to follow the drama down, knowing there was no way he’d get Evan to just fly out of there without knowing that Drew was safe.

“Yeah but I’m not the one dropping like a stone ... Sir,” Lorne replied grimly.

“Keep it calm,” Baker urged him. “You know the physics. It can take 10,000 feet before there’s enough speed to break out of the falling leaf.”

“I’m not sure Drew’s got that much altitude Sir,” Evan couldn’t help the fear that leaked out of his voice.

“Major Wilson is there Evan,” Baker reminded him that Drew wasn’t alone, even though he was flying solo. Lorne knew what he was trying to saying without being explicit. If there was a danger that Drew was going to run out of air before he could correct the problem Wilson would be ordering him to eject.

From frozen everything went into overdrive abruptly when Major Wilson spoke suddenly. “Eject,” he ordered firmly.

Lorne swallowed hard, eyes tracking Drew’s plane which was still falling erratically, searching for the evidence that he’d done as ordered. He was tempted to switch to upside down flight so he could see better but knew that Major Baker would have a hit if he tried. He'd have to make do with craning his head over his right shoulder as he continued a tight circle that was slowly shaving off precious feet of altitude.

“Did you hear me Captain?” Wilson demanded moments later.

“I’m almost there,” Drew returned. “125 knots. I can do this.”

“You don’t have time,” Wilson’s voice was urgent now. “Eject ... now.”

“You heard him Captain Rider,” Major Baker had the second in command voice down pat. “Follow orders and eject.”

Evan’s heart was beating triple time as he waited. Looking at his own HUD wasn’t reassuring. They’d followed the other pair down and were now at 10,000 feet ... which meant that Drew and Major Wilson were about to crash through the hard deck past 7000 feet.

“147 knots,” Drew reported, his tone determined.

“Talk to him Evan,” Major Baker said.

Lorne wasn’t sure he’d even be able to speak – he felt almost sick with the adrenalin and fear coursing through him and a headache hammered at the back of his eyes as he grimly repressed a host of personal memories and emotions before they could take hold.

“Drew,” he said in a low tone. “Don’t do this.”

“I’ve got time,” Drew tried to sell it to his friend.

“Yeah, I bet that’s what my Dad thought too,” Evan shot back, his voice suddenly hard. “Right up until the point he realised he didn't and ejected into the dirt in front of thousands of spectators. Now press the damned button!”

The dark shape of Drew’s plane continued to gyrate as it fell but its pilot was no longer on board. As Evan watched, the chair shot rapidly up from the top of the falling Hornet, the parachute bursting out moments later.

Time sped up again ... to Lorne it seemed Drew wouldn’t have time to get clear of 32 million dollars worth of technology and metal determined to make it’s lasting mark on the landscape.

And then abruptly it was over ... thirty seconds of intensity that had felt ten times longer to Lorne culminating in one final moment.

The Hornet crashed into the ground with an explosion of dirt that was visible even from their altitude, followed moments later by the tiny white umbrella shape that was Drew’s parachute touching down to earth.

Evan wasn’t aware of Major Baker calmly radioing in to base Drew’s location, getting the rescue crews always on standby out to the site with all possible haste. Instead he was fixed on that point below ... he’d almost lost a friend that day, just as he’d lost his father 16 years before. The similarities were disturbing in a way that had him feeling cold and disjointed from reality.

“Captain.” The tone of Baker’s voice hinted that perhaps that wasn’t the first time he’d tried to get Evan’s attention.

“Sir,” he startled abruptly, coming back to the present, lucky that even in his mental distraction he had been flying his plane, although hardly with the attention and respect it deserved.

“Let’s get back to base,” the Major ordered, tipping a wing to turn his plane towards home.

Wordlessly Evan followed suit, completing the flight home in silence. Major Wilson dropped in to fly formation on Evan’s other side, the three planes gliding in to land without further incident.

Evan had never moved so fast to complete post flight tasks ... he was out of the cockpit and halfway across the tarmac and would have hitched a ride out to the crash site if Major Baker hadn’t stopped him.

“No,” Baker said firmly. “We wait ... let the experts do their job.”

“Yes Sir,” Evan said reluctantly, letting himself be led to the 410 squadron main office. Thankfully it was deserted since his had been the last flight of the day. Glad not to have to put on his facade for the time being, Lorne knew it wouldn’t last. The gossip machine on base was very efficient – as soon as the others heard they’d be congregating, demanding information he didn’t have.

The waiting was unbearable. Lorne paced the small space intently ... five paces to the wall of open lockers where all the pilots kept their helmets, five paces to the windows, five paces to the duty officers desk. Evan did the circuit repeatedly, determinedly keeping his eyes away from the empty locker space where Drew’s helmet usually resided.

Major Wilson and Major Baker settled in for the silent wait too, the paperwork and other required tasks after such an incident held over until the outcome was known.

Evan was the first to spot the rescue vehicle returning to base, making its way across the runway towards them. He was up and out the door before anyone could stop him, running until he was only a few paces away. He halted, breathing hard as he watched the four wheel drive intently.

The passenger door opened and Andrew Rider emerged, holding himself carefully in a way that suggested he’d hurt something if he moved too quickly. He looked pale and weary as well but in all other respects was alive and well.

The feeling of relief that swept over Lorne was intense but all too quickly got swamped by other, less pleasant emotions. Evan looked at his friend for a moment, not sure what he could say that wouldn’t open a crater of history he didn’t want to explore.

Drew met Evan’s eyes as he walked closer, attempting a classic Easy smile that fell just a little flat. He watched as his friend struggled with his emotions, knowing the afternoon had been just as hard for Evan as it had been for him. When Evan turned and strode away without a word, quickly disappearing back into the main office Drew was set to follow.

“Give him time Captain,” Major Baker, standing only a few steps away drew his attention. “Evan has history as well as your little stunt today to work through.”

“I know,” Drew replied, frowning as he looked again towards the entrance to 410 squadron.

“He’ll come around,” Baker reassured the younger man. “In the mean time, let’s get you checked out by the medics and then debriefed,” he suggested, putting a hand to Drew’s shoulder to get him moving. As they walked to the main office, the Major smiled. “By the way – nice to have you back here in one piece.”

“Thank you Sir,” Drew smiled back.

“We’ll send you the bill another day,” Baker joked, chuckling as Drew held onto his smile with difficultly. Andrew knew the other man was joking but ditching a 32 million dollar asset of the Canadian forces wasn’t something you lived down in a lifetime ... or more.

oOo

Wanting to avoid anywhere too public, Evan moved quickly through the main building and out the other side. The Hornet hangar was large and at that time of the day staffed only with a couple of maintenance people charged with bedding down the last few planes used that day. There was a balcony of sorts spanning one end of the hangar with metal stairs leading up. From up there it was possible to see an entire F-18 in one go, getting a much needed perspective on the big picture that couldn’t be achieved from the ground.

Lorne almost ran up the stairs, slumping down to rest his back against the wall, his head on his raised knees. All he needed to do was organise the jumble of thoughts in his head back into some semblance of order, get his game face firmly back in place, and he could return to his job.

“Right,” he muttered, rubbing hands over his face impatiently. “Because that's always really easy in practice.”

Dropping his head back against the wall Evan closed his eyes, letting the thoughts come. Was that what it had been like for his Dad, that feeling of invincibility, that surety that he was in control? Had he felt the same fear and panic Evan had felt at the moment he’d realised Drew wasn’t going to pull up in time?

Had the people who’d witnessed the death of his father felt that same horror mixed insanely with the ridiculous hope that everything would work out okay – up until the moment when it hadn’t and the shock had slammed into him forcefully?

Had Jonathon Lorne regretted his choices in those moments when he’d realised what they would cost him? Would he give back the thrill, the joy of flying if it meant he could be spared that ending? Evan suspected the answer would be no, just as it would be if he asked Drew the same question. He felt the anger bubbling inside – at his Dad and his friend and at himself too because he knew, deep down, that he was no different.

“Enough!” he pressed his palms to his eyes, intent on stopping himself from thinking things he couldn’t change.

He’d never talked about how he’d felt when his Dad died. At the age of ten he’d become the man of the house and in his child’s eyes men of the house didn’t cry. They didn’t complain and they didn’t talk about things that couldn’t be changed. It galled him to admit at the age of 26 that he’d never shifted his views on that, even when he’d reached adulthood and been out on his own.

“You okay?”

Evan looked towards the stairs, seeing John Jones standing a few steps down, his expression concerned.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Lorne replied blandly.

“Oh I don’t know,” John took the remaining steps, coming to sit next to his friend. “Maybe because you just witnessed Drew cratering an F-18 almost too late to eject. I don’t care who you are – that’s gotta bother you a little.”

“But he’s okay, right?” Evan realised he hadn’t checked Drew’s condition after seeing that he appeared to be okay.

“Yeah,” John said reassuringly. “He’s pretty sore – probably won’t be able to move tomorrow – but he’ll make a quick recovery and be back to annoying you before you know it.” Letting that sink in for a moment, the oldest rookie continued. “I heard about your Dad,” he admitted. “How come you never mentioned it yourself?”

“Can we not do this now?” Evan requested impatiently, intent on avoiding the question.

“Sure,” John agreed lightly. “I just wanted to make sure you knew that if you wanted to talk about it – especially after what almost happened to Drew today – any one of us would listen.”

“I know,” Evan sighed, rubbing a hand to his forehead as he shot a look John’s way. “It’s not something I talk about ... even within my family. I was just thinking before that I never even talked to my Mom about it.”

“Maybe you should have,” John suggested.

“She had enough trouble dealing with her own grief, without me lumping her with more,” Lorne shrugged. “The more time that went by ... the less likely it seemed we’d ever talk about it.”

“You’re a different person now,” John pointed out. “And maybe she can handle a lot more than you think she can.”

“Maybe,” Evan agreed quietly.

“Do you want me to call Steph?” John asked suddenly.

“No!” The sharp word was out of Evan’s mouth before he could call it back. Taking a calming breath he tried again. “No thanks – I’ll call her later. She probably knows everything by now anyway.”

“Probably,” John agreed, frowning slightly but refraining from pointing out that Evan might have looked to his girlfriend for support, given the difficult day he’s suffered through.

They sat in silence for a few moments before John roused himself, getting up and looking down at Lorne. “We’re going to the officer’s club,” he said. “Got plenty to celebrate tonight. See you there?”

“Later,” Evan promised. “I think I’ll sit here for a bit longer.”

“Sure,” John hesitated for a moment before nodding. Taking the steps two at a time he quickly disappeared from sight, leaving Evan alone with his thoughts again.

Lorne returned to resting his head against the wall, closing his eyes tiredly. Rather than think about the day’s events instead he turned his mind to the past, unwrapping the few memories he had of his Dad like treasured keepsakes. He wasn’t even sure anymore if they were actual memories of events or just scenes he'd constructed from people telling him about them. It didn’t really matter either way – they were still strong enough to have him swallowing back his emotions.

Sitting in the cockpit behind his Dad as he took his only son on a joy ride through the sky.

Jonathon Lorne whooping gleefully as he sent the plane spinning and looping, a seven year old Evan giggling as much at his Dad’s antics as he was in enjoyment.

Sitting in front of an old chalk board as his Dad drew diagrams to explain the aerodynamics behind some of the patterns flown by the Blue Angels and thinking that his Dad must be the smartest man on the entire planet.

As he sat there thinking about the man who’d shaped his life as much by not being there as he had by planting the seeds of flight in a young boys heart Evan came to a very simple and yet profound conclusion. As much as it had hurt to lose his Dad, it was one of those meant to be events – because his Dad had needed to be who he was, just as Evan needed to follow his dreams despite knowing that some of them brought back painful memories for his Mom.

He would have preferred to reach that level of understanding without first witnessing an almost carbon copy of the past – thankfully without the painful conclusion. Especially since he now owed Drew an apology for bailing without a word.

Dragging himself back to his feet, Evan stifled a groan. And he’d have to put up with the curiosity and probable questions – even without someone spilling the beans on his past, Lorne had let the cat out of the bag himself when he’d mentioned it while trying to get Drew to eject. That meant it was on the tape which meant everyone would be hearing it when they did the officers review.

“Great,” he muttered darkly, dusting off his pants. There was nothing he could do about it now ... he could attempt to gloss over it with his usual deceptive openness but he suspected that wasn’t gonna fly this time. “Time to face the music,” he thought, jogging back down the steps and heading for the door.

As he did he realised he'd forgotten to ask John if Orangeland had survived it's day of attacks. Hopefully it had, and in much better shape than Drew or Evan. Not that it mattered because the two would have to repeat ACT8 as soon as Drew was up for it. "That'll be interesting," Lorne thought with a faint smile.

Authors Note:

The usual acknowledgements to Jetstream and wikipedia without which I'd have to make up a hell of a lot more stuff that wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting. The quote I attribute to Evan's Grandfather is something my Granddad used to say ... not sure on it's original origins.

 

Chapter 8: Bombshell

Training to be a fighter pilot was a serious business but sometimes ... well, sometimes it was a little bit funny too.

Drew and Lorne had caught up on the last ACT mission, defended Orangeland after a two day break where both of them were strongly urged – translation ordered - to speak to the base psychologist. Evan didn’t really mind too much ... the guy was a professional and Lorne was smart enough to reveal as much detail as was needed for honesty and sincerity without needing to dig too deeply into wounds that were finally starting to heal without the intervention of a third party. The man had finished the session by encouraging Evan to speak to Drew and he’d agreed that he would.

Drew himself appeared to have come through the whole thing with ease, despite the new call sign he’d been dubbed with. Crater. Turns out you could change your call sign, but only if you were dumb enough to do something worse than what had earned you the first one.

The review of his actions had determined the falling leaf had occurred because of a low but usually acceptable speed and an abrupt gust of wind that had combined to send the aircraft out of control. If Drew had been going faster or the wind had been not quite as swift then it wouldn’t have happened. The official ruling that came down a week later said accident - a welcome relief to everyone because no one wanted to see Drew ousted for such a bizarre set of circumstances coming together at the wrong time. When the base commander said that Drew was now the property of the Canadian government, that he owed them so much it’d take the rest of his life to pay back the debt he wasn’t sure it was entirely a joke. 32 million dollars was a scary number and he hoped like hell there wasn’t a number cruncher somewhere docking his pay every week and keeping account of how much he still owed.

Major Baker himself had briefly filled everyone in on the small slice of Lorne’s history he’d revealed as he’d argued for Drew to press the ejection button. The way everyone just nodded, hardly paying Evan any more attention than usual said they’d probably already talked it through before the debrief. More than likely John had warned them all off – after all, none of them would have known Evan’s history if he hadn’t felt compelled to use it get Drew to save himself.

Of course, that unspoken pact didn’t apply to Drew ... he’d already known about the fate of Jonathon Lorne – not that Evan knew that – and he’d heard the torment in Evan’s voice, up in the air ... seen it on the other man’s face before Lorne had walked away without a word. There was no way he could just let that go, even if Lorne seemed quite content to do so.

“Evan ... you got a minute?” Drew stood in the open door of the study room in the early evening a week after their second mission over Orangeland. He’d given Evan a few days to approach him but since that didn’t seem like it was going to happen, was taking matters into his own hands. The only other person present was Neil Somerton and he very studiously bent his head over his books, ignoring the sudden tension in the room.

“Ah ...,” Evan looked up, saw the determination on Drew’s face, and sighed. “Sure, okay,” he conceded, getting up and following the other man down the corridor.

Drew chose one of the empty classrooms, waiting until Evan took a seat before closing the door behind them. “I already knew about your Dad,” he began without ceremony, “before last week I mean.”

“And?” Evan frowned, wondering how but not wanting to ask. He was seeing the conversation as being for Drew, not him, and let his friend guide things where he needed them to go. Lorne had known Drew had things on his mind, things he wanted to say ... Evan just wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them, especially if any of it was about thanking him.

“And ...,” Drew floundered for a moment, “that doesn’t bother you?”

“It’s all public record,” Evan shrugged. “Anyone could have read the news reports for themselves – if they knew where to look.” He met Drew’s eyes intently. “I wasn’t actively hiding what happened ... it’s just not something I’m accustomed to talking about. And I never wanted an easy ride or any favours just because my Dad was killed in action.”

“I can understand that,” Drew agreed. “I wouldn’t have deliberately dug for information about your past ... it was Steph’s Uncle Jimmie – he still knows some people ‘in the business’ and asked about you. Jimmie only told me because he thought it would help me get over the flying in the dark thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Evan said. “If that’s what you’re worried about, forget it. I’d have gotten around to telling you the story eventually ... you know, in a few years.” He smirked, sure Drew knew him well enough to see the humour in that truth.

“I’m sorry,” Drew abruptly shifted the conversation on. “Most of what happened last week is starting to feel a little blurry but ... I know I wouldn’t be standing here right now if you hadn’t been up there with me -,”

“Please don’t do the gratitude thing,” Evan interrupted, his expression pained. “You’d have worked it out on your own in time.”

“Would I?” Drew shot back. “I think you know that’s not true ... I bet you’ve done plenty of research on pilots ejecting, just like you learned aerial manoeuvres and got yourself a seat for Hornet training. You more than anyone else here would understand the headspace you get into when you’re faced with the real prospect of ejecting. The reluctance to just quit, the fear, the huge $ signs flashing at the back of your mind ... that and the delusional certainty that it’s really not as bad as your lead is making out. Time went all weird for a while there too – I knew intellectually that it’s seconds rather than minutes for a plane falling like that but at the time those seconds felt long enough to go to the moon and back. Without your brutal reminder of what happened to your Dad I would have stuck it out longer and then who knows what would have happened. Even if I had ejected it might have been too late ...,”

“Just like it was too late for my Dad?” Evan finished.

“Yeah,” Drew shifted uncomfortably. “So even though I know you don’t want to hear it I’ve gotta say it anyway.” He looked at Evan intently. “Thank you ... you dug into wounds that are still pretty painful to help me, and ah ... I appreciate it.”

“Whatever,” Evan said ungraciously, eyes twinkling at Drew’s almost offended expression. Relenting he shrugged. “It was all heat of the moment Drew ... I’m just glad I had something that got you thinking clearly again.” He paused for a moment and then grimaced slightly. “I should probably apologise for that walking away without a word thing. I was relieved to see you get out of that truck in one piece but I was also mad as hell about the entire thing ... not your fault though.”

“And now?” Drew asked curiously.

“Now I know you’ve gotta be what you are,” Evan said simply. “Even if it means you end up like my Dad, God forbid. If I did help you up there it was more his doing than mine ... I reckon he’d be proud of that.”

“He’d be damned proud of you,” Drew added insistently.

“Yeah,” Evan smiled with a touch of sadness. “So, are we done here?” he asked. “No other meaning of life things you want to get off your chest?”

“Have you spoken to Steph?” Drew took the invitation as sincere even though he knew Lorne had only been jesting.

“Aww, come on,” Evan folded his arms across his chest defensively. “What is it with everyone’s interest in my love life?!”

“Is that what it is ... a love life?” Drew watched the fleeting look of almost panic that swept over his friends face.

“Steph and I both know what it is,” Lorne said dismissively, not wanting to talk about it.

“So ... not quite in touch with all your inner demons then,” Drew commented with a knowing look.

“Hey, it took me 16 years to get a little resolution on my Dad,” Evan shot back. “Give me a break here.”

“Fine,” Drew nodded. “As long as you know you can talk to me when you need to ... preferably before you fuck the whole thing up.”

“When you’ve got more than a few casual encounters to talk about you can start handing out relationship advice,” Evan suggested pointedly.

Knowing he wasn’t getting anything more from his friend that day, Drew let himself be drawn into a teasing debate on his current philosophy of dating.

Evan had known he had a tough decision looming as the last weeks of the course approached. He wasn’t ignoring it or avoiding it – he genuinely hadn’t known what he was going to do about Steph once his time at Cold Lake was done. What had started as a casual relationship had shifted and blurred around the edges. There was real feeling there ... on his side and probably hers too. Now, after the almost end of Drew, after coming to the realisation that he was more like his father than just his appearance, Evan knew what he needed to do. He just wasn’t sure how to do it ... or when.

oOo

So, back to the funny side. They were on week 30 of the training, only 7 weeks to go, and it was time for them to learn about air to air refuelling. It was a necessary requirement for all fighter pilots – they had to have the capability to fill up and go on the go. Without it their flying range and time were severely hampered and in a live combat situation that was a handicap no military force could afford to carry.

At the first briefing, when the rookies saw just how a refuelling was done ... how it looked ... the innuendoes made perfect sense. They called it getting a poke, putting the thing in the thing, or for the more circumspect amongst them ‘tanking’. There were probably more lurid references than that but no one had mentioned them in front of the rookies ... yet.

Lorne sat in the classroom watching a video of an F-18 refuelling and thought that it was not unlike a mating ritual. Cast the huge Boeing 707 – modified to be a flying gas station – in the role of alluring female, trailing her hose with the basket at the end to entice her prey. Then cast the Hornet as the male needing to demonstrate his abilities in the air to be granted the right to ‘get some’. The ‘pop out’ drogue on the F-18 only reinforced the mating ritual idea – the red phallic like implement literally rose from the bonnet of the plane at an angle that would challenge anyone to see it as anything other than an eager male very excited by the presence of the right female.

All jokes aside, refuelling in the air was something every pilot had to master, and they all had stories about it. Even on paper it was one of those things that sounded almost inconceivable. Get closer than 50 feet to a huge jet at an altitude of 18000 feet and then line up the drogue to hit a basket about the size of your head at just the right angle while doing speeds in excess of 250 knots. Not only did you have to be able to do it on a peaceful clear day but you also had to do it at night, in rough weather and in hostile skies.

Luckily for the rookies the morning of their first refuelling flight was of the peaceful and calm variety. As Lorne gathered his gear and headed out to the F-18, Major Baker acting as his instructor for the mission walking beside him, he cast his thoughts to the sky. Somewhere up there a Boeing 707 tanker circled, heavy with fuel, manned by an American crew also on a training mission.

Evan was flying the first of two missions for the day, the rookies going in groups of threes. Aside from himself, Neil and John were also flying the first mission, all three throwing each other a thumbs up unspoken ‘good luck’ before getting into their planes.

The first step, getting up to 18000 feet to rendezvous with the tanker, was second nature now and passed without a hitch. They had radar contact with the tanker before they spotted her circling the skies.

“Scepter three five, alpha five one,” Major Baker announced their presence.

“Alpha five one, sceptre three five. Go ahead.”

“Requesting to join,” Baker replied. Lorne was up first to attempt the refuel and didn’t mind admitting, even just to himself, that he was more than a little nervous.

“You are clear to join to the left observation,” the tanker crew advised.

“Copy,” Baker confirmed. Switching to an in jet channel he continued. “Okay Lorne ... you’re up. Make me proud.”

“I’ll give it my best shot Sir,” Lorne replied.

Hand clasped firmly around the stick he powered forward until he was close enough to request contact. The tanker was big and it punched a big hole in the air – the turbulence coming off the wings could be deadly if you approached at the wrong angle. Do it right and with an F-18 – fast and powerful – the ride should be relatively smooth. Do it wrong and you could get sucked into a collision – and unlike the Hornet, the guys in the tanker didn’t have ejection seats.

“Scepter three, alpha five one requests pre-contact, left hose,” Lorne spoke confidently.

“Five one, you’re cleared pre-contact left hose.” The tanker had fuel indicator lights that told the refuelling pilots when it was safe to approach. Red meant hang back, and yellow – the colour the lights went once Evan got confirmation from tanker control, meant he was good to begin fuelling.

Lorne acknowledged the confirmation, flying close and getting the plane stabilised just back of where he needed to be. He could feel the vibration of airflow off the tanker – its wake turbulence – but quickly adjusted. His drogue was extended, the hose and basket looming up in his front window. It was time to do the business.

“Alpha five one request wet contact left hose,” he said.

“Contact on the left hose,” the tanker controller returned.

Evan had studied up – he knew the secret of threading this particular needle was to not look at the basket and drogue. Instead he flew a reference off the wing, taking the odd peek at the basket but trusting that in lining the entire plane up right he’d be exactly where he needed to be. Applying a little right rudder and then a little more power he had the satisfaction of seeing the drogue and basket connect smoothly.

“Five one has contact,” the tanker controller confirmed.

Pushing it forward so that the line was pushed back into the tanker a little, Lorne saw the fuel indicator lights switch to green, meaning he was taking on fuel. That was the point at which a rookie could lose the connection – you had to switch from flying a reference to flying formation on the tanker again. If you didn’t, you’d lose the basket and have to back off and do the whole thing again.

Evan didn’t make that mistake. Flying off the tanker he watched his gas gauge climb steadily upwards ... taking on a hundred pounds of fuel before his tank was full and the basket disengaged. The whole thing had taken less than forty seconds ... which was a marvel in itself.

“Nice job,” Major Baker congratulated him as he broke formation on the tanker and dropped back to join his class mates. “Your first poke,” he added, the chuckle evident in his voice. “They say you never forget your first time.”

“I’m sure that’s true Sir,” Evan returned, avoiding the obvious innuendo.

His part done, Lorne got to hang back and watch first Neil and then John do the same thing. Neil did it in two attempts, John first time although he had to disconnect and go again when the fuel sprayed across his cockpit, obstructing his view. It happened from time to time and was a good lesson for all three rookies on the various dramas of air to air refuelling. For Evan, watching the others take their turns was fascinating and impressive and a real statement of human endeavour and engineering. Tracking the tanker across the sky he felt again the joy and certainty that he was in the right place doing exactly what he should be doing.

When they were done, Major Baker thanked the American tanker crew. “We really appreciate you guys coming north for us,” he said. “Thanks a lot, take care.”

“No problem,” the tanker controller returned. “You guys have a good flight.”

They’d mastered air to air refuelling and extended the range of their flight capability from 1200 miles to virtually any combat theatre in the world. It was a big step forward ... in skill and towards the end of the course.

oOo

“Have you invited your family yet?” Drew asked Evan at lunch one day. It was week 33 and they were preparing to begin the last big challenge of the course. Live ordinance ... strafing and bombing.

“To what?” Lorne was distracted, half his attention on the manual in front of him. He was reading up on the specs for enemy tanks they’d potentially have as targets during live combat. Although they’d been taught to ‘dog fight’ more often than not F-18 contributions to a war effort were about supporting troops on the ground by taking out threats from the air. Operation Desert Storm – the US land and air campaign in the Persian Gulf war – was a classic example of that. The coalition flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tons of bombs and widely destroying military and civilian infrastructure in Iraq. That was the mainstay of a fighter pilots life and they had to be prepared for precision strikes on designated targets.

“You’re joking right?” Drew said incredulously, breaking further into Lorne’s concentration.

Looking up, Evan saw the others all watching him with varying degrees of disbelief. “Sorry – did I miss something?” he asked with a frown.

Graduation,” Cade said pointedly.

“That’s still four weeks away,” Evan pointed out. “Aren’t we counting our chickens a little too early here?”

It wasn’t an idle statement. Major Baker himself had told them of a guy on his course who’d thought to coast to the finish and ended up failing only three missions away from graduation. It could happen – it had happened.

“What happened to Mr Optimism?” John asked with a smirk.

“I’m just saying ...,” Evan trailed off with a shrug. “Okay ... graduation. What about it?”

“You inviting your family to come up here?” Drew restated his original question.

“Ah ...,” Lorne hesitated. The question didn’t surprise him – he’d been thinking about it since the instructors had explained that traditionally the rookies had members of their families come to Cold Lake to be present for the last mission. Since Drew’s almost accident Evan had vowed to be a little more open with his friends – and here was the first time he could put that into practice. “To be honest I don’t think my Mom would come ... she hasn’t been on a military base since my Dad’s accident.”

“She didn’t want you to be a pilot?” John asked curiously.

“Not exactly ... she wasn’t thrilled I followed in my Dad’s footsteps even though he’d laid the foundations long before he died,” Evan admitted. “We kind of have an unspoken agreement – I don’t put her in the tough position of having to say no and we don’t talk about it.”

“What about your sister?” Drew asked.

“Hey, invite her ... she’s hot,” Cade flushed when he realised what he’d said. “I mean you should have someone here and she seemed like a really nice girl,” he tried to recover.

“Well I’m sure Elaine will be flattered to hear that,” Evan said with a smirk. “I’ll invite her – as long as we’re clear that none of you are anywhere near good enough for her.” He said it with a straight face but the twinkle of amusement in his eyes said he wasn’t serious ... at least not completely.

“Hey – back at you!” Neil retorted, referring to his two sisters.

That sparked a teasing conversation that shifted attention away from Lorne, just the way he liked it. He might have decided to share a little more but that only went so far ...

oOo

Forty five minutes from 410 squadron was a 90 square mile piece of land known as the Jimmy Lake weapons range. Scattered across the landscape were battered targets – old trucks and tanks painted bright orange and red, bearing the evidence of previous training missions.

Being the guy who helped the guys on the ground required a fighter pilot to have absolute precision ... their job was to become nothing less than airborne sharp shooters because the slightest deviation could be the difference between helping and accidentally killing someone on the ground. The only way to get there was to practice.

The Hornet could carry an impressive arsenal in a variety of configurations depending on the mission objectives. They’d conducted simulated firing of missiles in prior missions using all three missile types carried by the F-18. The AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range semi-active radar homing air-to-air missile, brevity code Fox 1; the AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking, short-range, air-to-air missile, brevity code Fox 2; and the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range, active radar homing air-to-air missile with all-weather, beyond-visual-range capability, brevity code Fox 3. It was pretty clever really – the whole brevity code idea – a multiservice set of tactical codes that allowed communication of complex information with just a few words. You announce Fox 3 on approach to an enemy plane in a dog fight and anyone listening knew you’d just fired an am-ram missile at the target.

The bombs used were a little less impressive ... MK82s, MK83s and MK84s all unguided, low-drag general purpose bombs, also called dumb bombs. They were the most common bomb used by the US and Canadian forces. Kitting them out with paveway guidance – precision avionics vectoring equipment – turned them into laser guided bombs which was much cooler but to Lorne’s mind not quite as good as the missiles.

Of course you couldn’t carry all of that for one run but the Hornet was a ‘boys with toys’ dream – missiles, bombs, and cannon guns clipping into place like a high tech meccano set. Evan had studied them all, their details easily slotting into place in his mind because it was all just that exciting. Sure, he knew what each weapon was ultimately for – take out an enemy on the ground and leave nothing but a crater behind. He was sure too that the severity of that would stay with him from the instance he dropped a real bomb on a live target. But in the lead up to their first live weapons mission the only thing Evan was really thinking about was that using live rounds and dropping real bombs on pretend targets would be the ultimate in war games.

Walking out across the tarmac the morning of the first mission, another clear day blessing the rookies, Lorne had his eyes fixed on the Hornet he’d be flying. It looked different ... deadly beyond its usual menacing facade because of the bombs clipped to the undercarriage of each wing. As Evan did his walk around he noticed that someone had written something in large chalked letters on one ... “Love’s first.” Laughing, he ran a hand lightly over the weapon, going through the additional checks required for carrying live ordinance before clearing the plane as ready to proceed.

To go with the bombs he had a Vulcan cannon mounted behind the radar. It looked like a Gatling gun and was a weapon that had been around since the dawn of time ... for a reason. It might be the most rudimentary of the weapons the F-18 could carry but in some cases was also the most effective.

The first part of the mission was a strafing run on a fixed target. It sounded impressive but was nothing more than the practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft. Their first target was a 20 by 20 flag they’d get one pass to fire at. Keeping score was a machine called a t-bar ... it recorded how many shot were fired through the fabric by picking up the sonic boom faster than sound bullets created when they went through.

“Take us to the range Captain,” Major Baker instructed once they’d reached cruising altitude.

“Yes Sir,” Lorne acknowledged, setting his heading for Jimmy Lake. Just over half an hour later they arrived. With the Major’s instructions fixed firmly in his mind, Evan began his first pass.

Step one ... invert the plane for the start of the dive down. Why? Because a straight up dive created negative G’s that would cause blood to rush to the head – the opposite of positive G’s. Pilots called it red out and it was exceedingly painful and to be avoided at all costs. Flipping upside down gave you positive G’s on the way down where all you had to worry about was the G-loc their flight suits had been designed to prevent.

Step one completed, Evan went straight into step two. Push to hit 510 knots while taking a 15 degree dive. That was the point when you had to sight on the target location ... even though it was a large target at ground level, from 2000 feet in the air it was practically microscopic. The HUD provided assistance in the form of a tiny symbol on screen called a pipper but that was all the help you'd get.

As Lorne closed rapidly on the target he righted the plane at the last possible moment and then focussed on step three ... lining up the pipper with the centre of the target. That’s when you got to pull the trigger.

“Remember ... shoot, track and then pull away,” Baker told him. “Make your application of trigger as smooth as possible.”

Like every other gun in creation, technique was everything – particularly for a first time the rookies would have to contain their excitement because any kind of abrupt movement on the stick, like recoiling, would spray the bullets all over the place.

“Alpha five three, in hot,” Lorne announced as he approached the target. Keeping his hand steady he squeezed with controlled force, his only motion being his finger on the trigger.

The shells left the Vulcan gun in a rapid burst of sound and motion ... Evan had to control the desire to flinch at the noise as well as the overwhelming urge to whoop like a cowboy. He’d been right – doing a live fire mission was like the best kind of war game and had him feeling not unlike he had as a kid playing Strike Eagle Jet Sim on his computer.

Evan’s bullets hit their destination at a rate of 100 rounds per second. Lorne tracked them to the target, ceasing to fire once he crossed the edge of the firing zone. Swooping low over the area he took the plane straight back up into the sky.

The last part was the hardest – waiting to hear from control whether you’d managed to hit the target.

“Line of fire was steady and straight,” the on duty control officer radioed in a few moments later. “Five hits. Forty five rounds. Well done.”

“Five hits?” Lorne repeated with a slight frown. From forty five rounds? Was that any good?

“Better than good, Lorne,” Baker answered his unspoken question. “Just getting a straight line of fire is impressive for a rookie.”

“Good to know Sir,” Evan grinned, relaxed again. Now that he’d done his first strafing run he couldn’t wait to do another one.

The second part of the day’s mission was dropping a bomb on a designated target, an old tank that already bore the scars of past students. They’d be dropping the Mark 82 – with no internal guidance system it was like playing lawn darts with a hand grenade except the MK82 carried 200 pounds of explosives.

Circling back around Lorne craned his head, looking for the target. Spotting it he shifted flight path to begin a pass.

“Alpha five three visual,” he announced that he had the target in sight.

As with everything else there was a set of prescribed milestones to help you get from circling the target to nailing it with a precision strike.

Fifteen miles out Lorne’s radar marked the target in the HUD with a flashing diamond. At that point he rolled the plane to start his 45 degree dive inverted. The degree was important – too flat and the bomb would fall short, too steep and he ran the risk of flying into his own fire ball when it exploded. Holding that for a few moments he then turned the plane right side up again.

“Alpha five three, in hot,” Lorne announced. Lining up the target marker and the velocity vector on the vertical line he then released his bomb. “Alpha five three off hot,” he advised as he completed the dive and headed straight back up again.

“Let’s see if we can spot her landing,” Major Baker suggested. Lorne nodded, changing course to fly over the tank.

They saw the bomb hit the ground, the small ball of flame and a tower of dirt rising up to announce its arrival.

“Looks good,” Baker said. “I think you nailed that sucker.”

“That was ... awesome,” Evan let his excitement at the successful mission colour his voice, not something he usually did but a first like that wasn’t something you just shrugged off.

Back on base later that day it was high excitement amongst all the rookies. They’d all enjoyed the hell out of the mission and they couldn’t wait to go up again. Strafing and bombing in an F-18 clearly wasn’t going to be something that brought anyone down.

oOo

In the end it was Steph who brought Evan’s concerns about their relationship into the light. He’d been steadily more and more elusive in the weeks since Drew’s incident, something she couldn’t have failed to notice. Steph had to suggest dates a couple of times before she finally managed to pin him down one Friday night.

They went for drinks in the officer’s lounge, much as they had on their first date. It was pleasant but Evan was distracted, eventually suggesting he walk her back to her room only a couple of hours after they’d arrived.

“Is everything okay?” she asked as they walked in the moonlit darkness.

“I guess,” Evan replied, shooting her a glance before looking away.

“No it’s not,” Steph returned as they arrived at her door. Opening it quickly she turned and took his hand, pulling him inside after her. “Talk to me ... and don’t tell me you’re fine because I know you’re not.”

“You probably know everything already,” Evan protested, slumping down in one her armchairs and rubbing a hand across his brow.

“But not from you,” Steph tried to keep the accusation out of her tone, and the hurt that he’d gone through something difficult and hadn’t sought her out for comfort.

“I’m sorry,” Evan looked at her, noting the tense line on her shoulders and how stiffly she was holding herself.

“Do you want to end this?” she asked abruptly. Evan was silent for too long and she took that as answer enough. “You do! Because of what happened with Drew?”

“No!” Evan replied insistently. “I told you in the beginning that I wasn’t looking for picket fences and forever after. I know you weren’t aware of all my reasons but I didn’t give you false promises ... did I?” He watched her carefully, concerned and wary of her reply.

“No – you’ve been consistent the whole way through,” Steph agreed sadly. “I let myself believe it was more ... because I ...,” she stopped, taking a shaky breath.

“My Mom struggled just getting up in the morning for months after my Dad was killed,” Evan spoke in a low tone, leaning forward to take Steph’s hands in his. “Every now and then I see her watching me and it’s all there in her eyes – memories of my Dad and pain even so many years later, because he’s not here with her. I grew up with that and I swore to myself I’d never be the cause of anyone feeling like that.”

Steph kept her eyes trained on his, listening as he told her more about what made him tick than she’d learned in all the months of being his ‘girlfriend’.

“When Drew almost went down ... when he didn’t eject the instant Major Bond ordered him to I realised something else,” Evan continued. “All these years a part of me has been angry at my Dad ... because he chose flying over his family, not just the job but in those final moments when he left it too late. He chose the plane over us and it killed him. When Drew walked away without a scratch I was angry at him and at myself too.”

“Why? It wasn’t your fault,” Steph pointed out in a soft voice.

“No,” Evan agreed. “But when I thought about it I knew my Dad would have made the same choice even if he had known how it would end up ... just like Drew would.” He paused, his expression intent. “Just like I would. That makes me a great candidate to be a fighter pilot but a shitty choice for those picket fences and two point five kids.”

“And it doesn’t matter that I love you anyway?” Steph almost whispered the words, looking down at their joined hands.

Evan thought for a moment before answering, ignoring the twinge of something almost like pain in his chest at her words. “It matters to me that there’s more feeling here than I ever intended when we started out,” he said carefully. “But ...,” he trailed off.

“But it doesn’t change your mind about what you want,” she concluded sadly.

“No,” he said simply. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Steph urged, trying to smile. “You’ve been nothing but honest with me Evan. It’s my own stupid fault for buying into my own press.” When Evan looked confused she explained. “Remember – the rookie your Mom would most like you to fall in love with,” she quoted her own words.

“I thought I’d lived that one down,” Evan teased gently.

“Not quite,” Steph squeezed his hands before resolutely letting go and standing up. Evan followed suite, not sure what more he should say.

Stepping closer, Steph reached up and put her hands to either side of his face. On tiptoe she pressed a hard kiss to his lips and then stepped back again. “You need to go now,” she said firmly.

“Are you ... okay?” he asked uncertainly.

“No,” Steph said starkly. “But after I’ve had a good cry and kicked the wall a few times I will be.” She smiled and Evan wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. “Not now ... but sometime down the track ... I’d like it if we were friends again,” she added lightly.

“Me too,” Evan agreed, not really sure how likely that was going to be in practice. He’d hurt her ... completely unintentionally and despite every warning he’d repeated along the way about where he was heading. Did that mean he was off the hook for feeling responsible? Or was it something he should have known would happen, despite Steph’s reassurances that she was comfortable with their caring but casual relationship?

“Stop thinking,” Steph ordered. “I’m fine ... you’re fine. And hopefully in a while we’ll both look back on this fondly.”

“I will,” Evan promised. “I really am sorry Steph.”

“Me too,” her voice wobbled a little and Evan took that as his cue to leave her to handle things in her own way. He knew she wouldn't want him to see her cry ... and even if she was okay with it Evan wasn't sure he could handle that much emotion right then.

Putting a hand to her cheek, he stroked a thumb across it gently before leaning down and kissing her one final time. “Goodbye,” he said in a low tone, turning quickly and heading for the door.

“Bye,” Steph whispered, free to let the tears come once he’d disappeared from sight.

oOo

“How was your date?” Drew asked at breakfast the next morning.

“We broke up,” Evan said abruptly.

“What?” Neil’s chin almost dropped in surprise. “I thought you guys were great together.”

“I’m only here for another year, 18 months tops,” Lorne didn’t want to share all the gory details but he knew some explanation would cut off further questions. “And we never meant for it to be permanent. Ending it was a mutual thing.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Drew frowned, looking for something hidden in Evan’s careful facade.

“I’m okay with it,” Evan confirmed, his tone and expression bland.

Drew didn’t say anything else but Lorne could tell he didn’t quite believe him. Evan was comfortable with his choice even though a part of him still wondered whether he’d just made a colossal mistake. Years down the track when he was long done being a fighter pilot, if he got to the old and still alone stage would he look back and wonder whether Steph had been ‘The One’? God he hoped not because there was no going back.

oOo

More live ordinance missions followed the first until abruptly they arrived at week 37 and were staring the finish line in the face. Nine months, 175 hours of ground school, and 50 missions in the F-18 Hornet all came down to one final mission.

It wasn’t a tough one ... in fact it wasn’t really a mission at all. The last time Cade, Neil, John, Drew and Evan went up in the F-18 as rookies all that was required of them was to do a formation fly pass over the base. It wasn’t a tough mission ... but it didn’t need to be because it wasn’t what they were doing that was important, it was who was watching them do it. Parents, siblings, and family had come from all over the country to get just a small taste of what had kept their sons, brothers, nephews and grandsons so busy for so many months.

The main office was full to the brim – eager faces pressed close to the windows, eyes straining to catch sight of a loved one. For Lorne, catching a brief glimpse of Elaine as he made his way across the tarmac, it was bittersweet. He ran through his pre-flight checks like a pro, aware on the periphery of nine other men all doing the same thing. They all took off in quick succession, five almost fully qualified fighter pilots and five instructors, all flying solo.

There was joy and exhilaration in forming up ... Majors Baker and Bond in the middle lead, Drew, Lorne and Captain Reed forming the right side of a large V with John, Neil and Cade lining up on the left. Slotting into the middle trailing the lead instructors were Majors Wilson and Bickford.

It felt impressive in the air. Evan’s heart was beating rapidly even as his mind turned to Elaine watching back on the ground. They flew as one, making a wide turn and then heading towards the base, flying low enough for their spectators to feel and hear the power of ten Hornets shooting by. Once they’d passed the base, individually each rookie rolled away to break formation, one after the other. All that was left was to turn around and land and they’d be fighter pilots for real.

Back on the tarmac there was a round of hand shaking and congratulations between trainees and instructors, those who’d gone up in the air with them and those who’d waited on the ground. They formed a group with the instructors standing behind them for the requisite group photo.

And then it was the families turn to share some of the limelight and excitement. Lorne was aware of the increase in noise as Cade, Neil, John and Drew were greeted by their parents and siblings. Elaine practically threw herself into his arms as she congratulated him.

“That was just ... thrilling,” she exclaimed, stepping back and running her eyes over him as though she expected him to look different now he was a fighter pilot for real.

“Glad you got to see it,” Evan replied, keeping his arm around her shoulders as he steered her over to one of the planes. “Want to take a look inside?” he offered.

Nodding, Elaine stood patiently beside him, listening as he gave her a run down on the Hornets attributes. “I’m sorry it’s just me,” she said softly, turning to watch the scenes still unfolding around them. “I think Mom really did want to come but she couldn’t get away from school.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Evan said simply, appreciating her efforts even though they both knew that wasn't entirely true. “I’m glad you’re here and the rest of it I understand.”

“She’s proud of you,” Elaine stated firmly. “So am I.”

“Well thank you kindly Ma’am,” Evan smiled. “Wanna come over and meet the guys again?”

“Okay,” Elaine wrapped a hand around his arm as they started walking. “Are you sad it’s over?” she asked curiously.

“You know what? I think I am,” he admitted with a hint of surprise. “What you just saw is probably the last time we’ll all fly together like that. You spend nine months living in such close quarters, going through what we’ve been through, and it forms bonds. I wouldn’t have gotten through the whole thing so comfortably without them.”

“You’ll miss them,” Elaine concluded.

“Sure,” Evan agreed with a grin as they rejoined the main congregation. “Not everything,” he added in a louder voice, noting when Drew turned to look at them curiously. “You remember Drew?” he asked Elaine, getting a nod in return. “He’s a pain in the ass who likes the cold – won’t miss that at all.”

“Hah, knowing my luck we’ll end up stationed together,” Drew shot back, directing a friendly smile Elaine’s way.

“We’ll find out tomorrow,” John came over, shaking Elaine’s hand lightly when Evan reintroduced her. “What did you think of the fly past?” he asked her.

“It was great,” she smiled. “Exciting and ... loud.”

“You should hear the noise from inside the plane,” Drew replied.

“Maybe one day I will,” Elaine looked at Evan hopefully. “You do joy flights, right?”

“In an F-18?” his eyebrow rose sharply. “Not likely Sis. Besides, you’d be puking your guts up before I even had the chance to do anything interesting.”

“Don’t listen to him,” John countered, holding out his elbow gallantly. “I’d take you up there ... if you’re serious.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Elaine took John’s arm with a pointed look at Evan as if to say ‘see – this is manners’. Evan just smiled, happy to see her getting on so well with his friends.

That continued into the evening and their official graduation dinner. It was mostly informal, the new graduates gathering with all the instructors, their partners and family to celebrate. The only official part of the event was each being called up to receive a certificate that said they’d survived 410 squadron and were fit to be let loose wearing the title of ‘fighter pilot’.

“There’s one final task I need to complete before you’re all free to drink and be merry,” Major Baker stood at the dais, acting as speaker for the night. He’d began the night with a short speech so they knew that wasn’t his intent. “The Top Gun award,” Baker announced. “Each course it’s awarded to the rookie with the highest combined strafing and bombing scores. Now I could try and build up the suspense but I think all the rookies know who’s getting the award this year.” Holding up the plaque he looked at Lorne. “Captain?” he said. “You wanna come up here and get this?”

Grinning, Evan put a hand over Elaine’s and then jumped up, striding quickly to the front of the room.

“Congratulations son,” Baker said, handing over the title with a firm hand shake and a fond slap on the back.

“Thank you Sir,” Evan replied. Turning to face his classmates he held up the plaque, getting a round of applause. “This might have my name on it,” he said in a louder voice, addressing the whole room, “but you don’t get to the end of training by yourself. This is as much for me as it is for Cade, John, Neil and Andrew ... and for Marcus Price and Paul Merlin too. Since I’m up here anyway I’ll take the opportunity to thank my fellow classmates ... you were all pains in the ass at times but I wouldn’t have it any other way. You welcomed a Yankee interloper into your midst without complaining too loudly ... which can mean only one thing. I’m gonna have to be nice to every Canadian I meet for the rest of my career,” Evan saw Drew laughing and grinned in return as he finished up. “But if they’re anything like you guys that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Nodding to Major Baker again, Evan quickly walked back to his table and a proudly smiling Elaine. He wanted to thank Major Baker personally for his support and for giving him the chance to fly the F-18 but knew there'd be time once he'd found out where he was going.

It was a fitting end to nine months of continuous effort and unrelenting pressure. But as quickly as their last day had arrived it was done, and there was no time for vacations or reflection on what they’d achieved. The very next day they got their new orders.

Neil, John and Cade were all going to the 425 gun squadron in Baggotville, Quebec. Evan and Drew had both been assigned to the 409 gun squadron, located 300 feet across the tarmac from the 410. Lorne was staying in Cold Lake with Drew. He couldn’t have asked for more, except for the others to also remain there which was never going to happen. When he reported for duty at his new post it all felt a little surreal but Lorne knew that within days he’d be feeling like he’d never worked anywhere else.

oOo

Ten Years Later ...

Love Lorne?” the voice calling out too loudly had Evan turning with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. It couldn’t be. He’d seen the latest transfer list and James Reed’s name hadn’t been on it.

“It is you!” the now Major laughed. “Evan “Love” Lorne himself. Thought you’d dropped off the Earth years ago. How the hell you been?”

Looking around with the futile hope that no one else had heard Reed’s words, Evan had to smile. He moved forward and was enveloped in an enthusiastic trade of fond back slapping with someone he hadn’t seen in almost ten years.

“What are you doing here?” Evan asked.

“Last minute reassignment,” Reed replied. “Called to duty to help train -,”

Love Lorne?” Colonel Sheppard’s amused voice interrupting them had Evan freezing in dismay. Damn!

“Sir?” Evan turned from Reed, going for confused innocence.

“Your call sign is ‘Love’?” Sheppard’s lips twitched in amusement.

“That’s kind of irrelevant here, don’t you think?” Lorne commented, hoping to head things off before anything else was said.

“Yes Sir,” Reed said at the same time, straightening in the presence of a superior officer.

“Relax Major,” John addressed both men at the same time. “So ... Love ... what’s the story behind that? Because I’m sure there is one!”

“You know call signs Sir,” Evan dismissed. “They’re usually made up by a bunch of guys looking for revenge and trying to be clever.”

“So this is nothing more than a play on your last name?” Sheppard asked.

“Yes Sir,” Evan said firmly, stepping back on Reed’s foot when he scoffed in disbelief.

“Major?” Sheppard looked at Reed for an answer.

“That and the fact that Lorne was quite ... popular ... with the female population during training Sir,” Reed said quickly. “And then there was the whole ‘my girlfriend is an F-16’ conversation ... as rumour had it.”

“Colonel Sheppard doesn’t need to hear the details,” Evan said quickly.

“Maybe not, but he’s interested just the same,” John said with a chuckle. “So you two trained together?”

“Major Reed was an instructor at Cold Lake,” Lorne explained. The Colonel had seen his record so he knew Evan had done his fighter pilot training in Canada.

“Ah, so you were one of the guys behind ‘Love’ getting that tag?” Sheppard shot Lorne a grin, clearly enjoying the chance to see him even a little flustered.

“Do you have a call sign Sir?” Lorne asked, hoping to turn the tables and crossing his mental fingers that it wasn’t something cool like ‘Maverick’.

“You know Major,” John said. “You’re right ... call signs aren’t as important here on Atlantis. I’ll leave you and your friend to catch up.”

Evan thought he’d gotten through the worst ... Colonel Sheppard turned and took a couple of strides down the corridor but then he stopped, and turned back.

“’Shep’,” John announced his call sign with a smirk, “for obvious reasons.” He chuckled at the dismayed look on Evan’s face that it wasn’t more damning even as he turned back to Reed. “Major ... I expect you to fill me in on the full story about Love here ... after you’ve settled. Welcome to Atlantis.”

“Thank you Sir,” Reed said, trying not to laugh.

“Carry on,” John said, turning and continuing down the corridor.

As he watched the Colonel walk away, there was only one thought in Lorne’s head. Even Atlantis hadn’t been far enough away to escape his call sign.

Sometimes being a pilot really sucked!

The End!

Authors Note:

One final thank you to the Discovery Channel in Canada for making such a fantastic series in Jetstream and to Kavan Smith for lending his voice to narrate it, thus inspiring me to write this story. There are a LOT of quotes included in this chapter, particularly in air cool pilot speak. I used wikipedia for quite a few things too, mainly to confirm that things like the missiles mentioned were actually around in 1997. I also found an excellent forum at www dot airliners dot net slash aviation-forums slash military that had an excellent discussion about refuelling which helped a lot with that part.

 

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