I'm done. I'm just completely done. I'm so done. With this mission, this war, Colonel Perrault, Thunderhead, this jungle, and especially these DAMNED MISSILES.
I bank left slightly and pull up, angling away as I pull out of the ravine and yet another missile shoots past me. They weren't kidding during the briefing when they mentioned heavy AA coverage. I just didn't think there would be so many of them. It seems as if every tree in the jungle has another soldier with a shoulder-fired launcher, and they're just waiting in line and taking turns to fire at us.
I swept my wings back again and dove into the next ravine, lining up for an attack run on the next tunnel, ignoring the omnipresent blaring of missile warning alarms, letting my speed carry me away from them. Fortunately the shoulder-fired missiles don't maneuver too well, and the soldiers firing them don't seem capable of lining up any proper shots.
I release my missile and pull up and away, angling right this time, when another missile appears dangerously close to me, and I have to bank hard and spiral away to evade it. It's fine, a simple operation, but in my exhausted state it leaves me disoriented and lost for a second as my head catches up with my HUD, and it catches up with my aircraft. A quick shake of my head clears it again and I push the throttle farther, sailing away from still more missiles.
I sighed, and took a long circle around to my next target, using the time to breathe and focus and remember how to fly. This felt like our thousandth mission in less than a thousand days, and the strain was starting to show. Not just to each other, but in ourselves too. I can feel it in my bones.
Sometime not too long ago, the pressure set in. That pressure you get pushing in behind your eyes that comes from exhaustion. That push you feel every time you look around, or move your eyes, or your head, or blink, or breathe too deeply. It can't have been around long, but I can't remember when it arrived. It's just a fact now; like the way my shoulders and hips are made of set concrete, and my fingers hands wrists feet and toes are made of lightning, electricity crackling up and down them, asking my brain for signals and commands, wondering why it can't keep up.
Nagase's voice comes through, firm but smooth, as she asks me how the shooting is going; if I'm having any trouble lining up our rounds to land in the tunnels. It's a bit of an annoyance, honestly, having to split my focus again; to put in the effort to listen and reply. But I'm not mad, really. Just tired.
If I were mad, it was with Thunderhead and Colonel Perrault, certainly. After God knows how many missions, flying constantly since the landing on the Bastok Peninsula, a reprieve had finally come...
...But not for any good reason. Seriously, being called back to the capitol to be interrogated by a panel of military bigwigs...well it had been embarrassing, disappointing, and frustrating. If we really were as valued as people kept saying, (and supposedly proving through constant promotions and constant deployments) then why were we suddenly being treated like criminals? Was there no gratitude there? And Thunderhead, they had just dropped the ball entirely. They were supposed to be watching us up there, and they weren't doing it when it mattered most. And so we were put in front of a tribunal. It's not like we would actually ever shoot at civilians, for any reason, ever. But the military had to look like they were taking the matter seriously and so they had to put on a show.
On the other hand, they needed us, and so while we had at first been glad for the chance to rest (even if it was just to be yelled at) it had quickly turned into another sortie, as we were deployed to protect Apito International Airport from a surprise attack.
Then we had immediately been sent back to Sand Island, and thrown right out again to go bomb this munitions stockpile, given as much ordinance as our planes could hold and sent off to yet another mission.
And the Colonel. He could have been a bit friendlier; shown a bit of support. We have served him faithfully since before the declaration of war, as well as saving his ass not once but twice so far, first in the surprise night attack and again during the enemy's amphibious assault.
But no, all he had to say was: "If you all really are innocent, I suggest you prove it out there on the battlefield!" Normally I didn't mind his patriotic rhetoric, and sometimes I even found it a bit entertaining, but this time it just made me scowl. Thanks for nothing, you ungrateful windbag.
Although that annoyance could have been the exhaustion talking. It meant I was short on patience, and everything grated on my nerves.
Case in point: Chopper. Here he was again, complaining now about hearing Thunderhead's voice. Normally his constant chatter was a comforting white noise in the background, but now I just wanted him to shut the hell up. And Grimm, good old Grim, responding. Somehow his voice calmed me down. It's smooth and true, and there's something about it that always made me smile, even if now I was too tired to do more than lift one corner of my mouth slightly.
I kept flying, destroying my next target as Thunder head came across our radios: "This is Thunderhead. Our search radar is clean. We can't see the launchers!"
"Man, you're useless!" Chopper's retort manages to bring up a small flare of emotion in me: damn you Thunderhead. You weren't watching us when it counted, and now you can't even spot targets for us.
I pull another turn as I leave yet another ravine. I can feel the pressure behind my eyes struggling to keep up with me, moving delayed as I drag it around with me. The last two fingers on my left hand seize up for a second as I adjust the throttle again. This is bad. I feel like I'm in a fog. If we don't get some sleep soon, things aren't going to go well. We'll start to drop out of the sky like flies. We're only human. We can't go on forever.
I see Archer pass in front of me: his turn looks a little shaky. Clearly he's feeling it too. Then my thoughts are interrupted by a huge explosion behind me to my left: I turn my head (dragging my eyes with it) and see fire erupting out of the ground. It looks like a volcanic eruption; an explosion from beneath the earth. As the shockwave stops shaking my plane and the noise fades away, I imagine I can feel the heat licking at my craft. But it's just the same heat I've been feeling since we started: the oppressive humidity causing gallons of sweat to slide down my skin, inside my flight suit, and pool in uncomfortable places. It just adds to my feeling of numbness.
I groan and stretch my neck, my helmet brushing against my canopy as I stretch out my body, trying to get some feeling back into my deadened nerve endings. I feel all my joints crack and pop, with stiffness or electricity I can't tell, and start to feel like my blood is flowing again. We're down to one last section.
"Alright, Wardog, form up on me. We'll make one last pass together in formation. Let's finish this and get out of here." The air raid sirens, which haven't stopped since we arrived, are rubbing on my brain now, making me want to claw at my head and get the noise out. I can't hear my missile warnings anymore, which haven't stopped since we arrived either, but the bright searing red color of my HUD digs into my eyes just as much as the sirens dig into my ears. I wonder if it'll ever stop; if, with enough abuse, my missile warning system will burn out, like a lightbulb, and stop attacking me. It's not like it would matter anyway; the missiles never stop coming and my search radar would still give me missile locations.
I shake my head again, ignoring the dull rolling waves of pain from the pressure behind my eyes, and focus. We're almost done. One more pass.
The attack run is beautiful. Glorious. Textbook. Until one of the barrage of missiles forces Archer to break off right, and the rest of us to adjust left. Breaking formation like this can be dangerous, but at this point the enemy doesn't have anything else to bring to bear, so it's little more than a nuisance. When it's finished, there's one last target left. A warehouse, presumably loaded with munitions just like the rest of this deathtrap. We're almost done.
As we circle around, another huge explosion erupts from beneath the ground, near the location of the first one, and Grimm says "Wow! It's like a volcanic eruption!" Even now, as he unknowingly repeated my earlier words, I can't get mad at him. Somehow, I can never get mad at him; his voice is just too peaceful. Chopper and Edge chime in, too, and I just can't find it in my to contribute. The only thing I can seem to feel now is fed up, along with my strange sleep-deprivation fog that seems to have me moving in slow motion, perceiving things only after they've happened.
"Alright, everyone, pull out. Circle around outside and hold a perimeter for me. I'll take the last pass. Then let's get the hell out of here."
They confirm, tiredly, and Chopper and Archer spread out. But Nagase moves in next to me, lining herself up with my pass.
"Edge, what..." I trail off. My frustrated "What the hell are you doing? I said to hold a perimeter." gets lost in my fatigue and I let it go. "Forget it. Let's just make this pass and go home."
"Sir, I..." Whatever she was going to reply dies in her own weariness, and...what sounds like maybe a little bit of hurt?
"Forget it. Let's do this." We sweep in together, her just below and behind me, dropping flares to cover us both as I release my ordinance. It lands right on target, with another spectacular explosion, and we pull up and meet up with Chopper and Archer outside the enemy's effective SAM range.
Thunderhead chimes in: "All armories destroyed. Mission complete. Return to base." He's being short with us. Maybe he's as fed up with us as we are with him. Maybe he's as tired as we are. Maybe he's just glad for us all to shut up and go home.
"Well, it's over." Chopper sounds beaten-down. Kei sounds just as disgusted as I feel: "Mission complete. Let's go home."
"Nagase." Chopper sounds weary, but manages to convey some emotion in the sentence: a comedic chiding, said with a slight smile. He lets it fade off, obviously leading into something else.
"Hmm?" She's too mentally checked-out to do anything more than hum in reply.
"You gotta say that with a little more feeling. At least we get to go home again today, right?" I can feel his smile in the words, picture it perfectly. He really is a relentless motormouth, but in this moment, I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Yeah." Nagase's tone hasn't changed.
"So cheer up a little, huh?" He really won't give up.
"You too, Chopper." There's the hint of a smile there, now, in her voice.
"Yeah...I know." His tone implies he's about to chuckle, but somehow it still feels sad.
I wake up a little, remembering where I am. I could say something, but it's too much effort, so all I do is turn my plane, and lead us home.