The sound of her alarm beeping woke RIFT Corporal Skye Larkins out of a restless sleep. She slapped groggily at the nightstand until she succeeded in turning the alarm off and then rolled onto her back, staring upward and blinking to try to clear her vision. The metal ceiling of the room that served as her personal quarters and office was the only sight that greeted her and she sighed, mumbling softly, “Fuck.”
The last eighteen months hadn’t been an alcohol-induced dream. She was still stuck at Camp Lejeune. She was still just a former Reconnaissance In Force Team member who was now a lowly flight instructor. After several minutes she rolled over onto her side and sat up on the edge of her bed, reaching up to massage the sides of her head. “Fuck,” she muttered again at the twinge of pain.
The headache wasn’t as bad as it could have been and certainly wasn’t as bad as many other mornings, but it was enough to make her regret the night before. She looked over at the half-empty whiskey bottle sitting on her nightstand. “Not like I’m gonna learn my lesson,” she said tonelessly, picking it up and opening the door in the front of the nightstand to slip it inside, hiding it in the dark corner in the back with several other bottles of different types. The last thing she needed was to be caught with any of it in her room given that alcohol wasn’t even allowed on the base.
Standing up, Larkins gently pushed on her jaw to move her head first to the right and then to her left, making her neck crack loudly several times. It relieved some of the pressure in her head and made her feel a bit better, but it couldn’t take away the empty, heavy feeling in her chest. She reached for her pants and pulled them on, fumbling slightly with the buttons. That feeling in her chest had become a near-constant over the last year and a half. It was there every morning when she woke up and stayed with her every moment she was on duty. The only time it went away was the evenings when she was able to drink enough to drown it, and sometimes even that didn’t work.
When she was finished dressing, Larkins pulled up the blinds in the window, letting the sunlight pour in. She blinked slightly, feeling for a moment as if she was back on LV-327 where there was no nighttime. The sky was a beautiful brilliant blue, just like her eyes, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. She turned away and eyed her sunglasses sitting on her desk. Her headache was minor enough that she wouldn’t have needed them if it had been overcast outside, but with the sun shining brightly, she debated for a moment. Was it bad enough that she needed them this morning?
In the end she decided against it, even though she knew Evison had gotten used to her showing up to training wearing sunglasses at odd times and after the first few times when he tried to ask questions and she had quickly shut him down, he had stopped asking why. As far as she could tell he had no suspicions as to the reason why she wore them. He didn’t know that his partner instructor was a raging drunk.
Evison meant well but he had been nothing but a source of constant annoyance since she had arrived at Lejeune after completing her six weeks of training to be an instructor. He was too soft and didn’t push the trainees hard enough. They didn’t learn as quickly as they should and he passed them too easily.
Larkins had only taught one flight of RIFT recruits since becoming an instructor, but those sixteen months had shown her that it wasn’t going to be nearly as easy or productive as she had first hoped. After being removed from her unit and from under the iron boot of her team leader, Sloan, becoming an instructor had been a reason for Larkins to keep living despite her depression. The weeks between arriving home on Earth and the beginning of training that first flight had been the most hopeful she had been in a long time. She was going to take all of the abuse and bad treatment she had endured under Sloan and turn it into something positive. She had imagined she would be the one to train the best RIFT pilots the Corps had ever seen.
That dream had barely lasted a month into the course. She had quickly realized that the trainees were much more resistant to learning than she had expected. In Larkins’ eyes, the vast majority of them were either too undisciplined or too stupid. They didn’t push themselves hard enough physically and they made no effort to excel in the classwork. Evison was no help. He would keep them in line and he wasn’t bad at teaching in the classroom, but his constant coddling of the trainees was nothing short of infuriating for Larkins.
“How the fuck do you expect any of these dimwits are going to be fit for field assignments when you won’t push them hard enough?” she had demanded angrily after two months had gone by.
“I’m teaching them the way they need to be taught,” he had responded with an irritated expression. “Constantly screaming at them won’t get them anywhere. Haven’t you seen that they tend to shut down when you go off on them? You’re not doing them any good.”
She didn’t care that he was older than she was or that he had already taught several classes before working with her. She knew damn well there was a right way and a wrong way to train people to become RIFT members, and there was no way Evison’s methods could ever make them ready. They would never be able to hold up under the command of someone like Sloan. Or the day would come where they thought or moved just a fraction of a second too slowly and got killed for it. So she continued pushing them, training her flight the way she thought they had to be. But it didn’t make her feel one bit better, and she never felt like she was actually making an impact on the young men and women she was responsible for.
In the end, only three of the members of the flight she and Evison were responsible for had passed the course. The other seventeen had all failed out or quit at one point or another along the way. According to Evison, the normal attrition rate was a minimum of eighty percent, or at least sixteen members of a flight. Larkins didn’t care how many passed. The ones that failed were the ones that weren’t ready and didn’t deserve to pass, and she wasn’t going to sign off on people she didn’t feel were properly equipped to take on the responsibilities of the position.
Larkins walked sullenly across the compound to the building that housed the mess hall, ignoring the other base personnel and trainees standing in line or already sitting at tables with their food. The flight she trained had graduated four weeks before, but there were two other flights currently in training along with numerous units for other RIFT occupational specialties. Larkins grabbed a cup of coffee and a tray of food and sat down at the table reserved for her, Evison, and their flight. Evison looked up from his plate. “Morning, Larkins.”
Larkins said nothing in reply. She tried to avoid speaking to Evison except when she had to. The other corporal continued, “I think we’re all set up for the next class except for the new computer we’re supposed to get for the classroom. Radwan down in supply said it got in yesterday, so if you don’t mind going down to pick it up, I’ll make a final check of everything before our new flight gets here this afternoon. Here’s the requisition form for Radwan.” He slid a paper across to her.
“Fine,” Larkins mumbled around her coffee cup. Evison gave her a look but said nothing else. He had mostly given up trying to talk to her outside of work-related topics.
As quick-tempered and short on patience as she was, Larkins did have to admit that after being removed from her unit there were times where she wished she could interact with more people. It was an odd change in her loner nature that she didn’t like. She had held a universal disinterest in all people for most of her life and didn’t want to get involved with them. That had worked out just fine when she was younger and during her time assigned to LV-327, but now she was starting to feel different. She still disliked people just as much, but sometimes she wished there was someone she could talk to or someone who would give her just the slightest hint that she was valued or would be missed if she disappeared from existence overnight. It was that loneliness combined with the frustration and anger that Evison and her flight members caused that made her turn to drinking more than ever before. A bottle was a poor companion to have a conversation with, but at least it made the pain go away most of the time.
After finishing her breakfast, Larkins headed towards the supply building to pick up the new computer. Although she was enlisted, her status as a RIFT instructor meant the only person on the base she answered directly to was General Graham, the base commander. RIFT instructors were always given a great deal of autonomy to conduct their training as they saw fit within the overall course requirements in the same way RIFT field units were largely autonomous and usually only reported to high-ranking officers. Larkins could only imagine how much more difficult it would be to have to work under the direction of a senior non-commissioned officer or a commissioned officer who coddled the trainees as much as Evison did. She’d never be able to get anything done.
When she entered the supply building, Sergeant Radwan was handing over two new uniforms to a young man with the gold bars of a second lieutenant on his collar. When the lieutenant had gone, Radwan turned to her. “Corporal Larkins. I take it you’re here for the new PC that came in yesterday?”
“That’s right,” Larkins confirmed, handing him the requisition slip.
“Alright, let me just make a copy of this and then I’ll get it from the back for you.”
The moment Radwan left the room, a brunette corporal a few years younger than Larkins appeared from a side room and gave her a smirk. “Hey, Larkins, what’s up? Hear anything interesting lately?”
“Nothing that I would share with you, Heath,” Larkins growled, her voice low. Heath worked under Radwan, and there was nothing the corporal liked better than gossiping. If there was news or a rumor going around base, it could be taken as a guarantee that Heath had started it or was at least one of the first to know. She had a skulking, obsequious nature and a serious lack of personal hygiene. Larkins had heard of people being referred to as having a ‘greasy’ personality, but with Heath it seemed like the word could be used literally. There was always a strange, heavy scent hanging around her that Larkins could never figure out how to describe, and she invariably looked like she started every day by dipping her fingers in bacon grease and running them through her hair. She didn’t want to know how infrequently Heath showered or brushed her teeth, or how there hadn’t been more complaints about her. Heath was the type of person who hurt the Corps’ reputation, and Larkins always felt the overwhelming urge to take a shower after being in the same room as Heath was.
“Right,” Heath said slowly, still smirking annoyingly. “Well, you’ll let me know if you get anything good, right?”
Larkins had had enough. “Fuck off, Heath,” she snapped. “Go take a shower or something.”
“Okay, okay,” Heath said, flashing one last smarmy grin and leaving the way she had come in. Larkins sighed in annoyance. Fucking bitch.
Radwan returned a few minutes later with a large brown cardboard box in his hands. “Forms are all signed and approved. Here’s your copy,” he said, using his chin to gesture towards the paper sitting on top of the box as he handed it over. “You’re good to go.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Larkins said as she took the box and turned to leave.
She didn’t waste any time making her way to the building that housed the camp’s classrooms. Once she was inside the room reserved for her and Evison, she opened up the box, pulled out the bulky new laptop, and laid it on the desk at the front of the room to begin setting it up. She sat down in the chair behind the desk, looking idly out the window as she waited for the laptop to run through the initial boot-up phase.
Their new flight would be arriving in a few hours. That meant twenty fresh, ignorant faces to get used to. Twenty new lost idiots she’d have to introduce to RIFT flight training. Twenty new names she had no desire to memorize but needed to anyway. “Fuck me.”
Larkins rested her elbow on the desk and leaned forward to support her forehead on her hand as she stared at the floor blankly, dreading the arrival of the new trainees. She didn’t want to have to deal with them. She wanted to go back to a RIFT again. She wanted to sit at the controls of an MD-4L Cheyenne dropship in the middle of a combat drop again.
But it was a hopeless wish. She could never go back to a combat unit again. She had lost that privilege after what happened to Mathis, her copilot. Mathis had been young, ignorant, and entirely unprepared for the situation she had been thrown into when she arrived on LV-327. Sloan had been bad enough, but in the end it was Larkins who had hurt Mathis the most. What started as an emotional breakdown for Larkins as a result of Sloan’s abuse turned ugly when Mathis got in Larkins’ way at the wrong time. The red-haired corporal’s temper had snapped and she hadn’t been able to stop herself as she punched Mathis repeatedly and stomped on her stomach, breaking her nose and leaving her with severe bruising on her abdomen.
It was a miracle she hadn’t been thrown directly into prison. That would have been the fate that awaited practically every other Marine in the Corps if they had done what she had. She was lucky that Berkley, her RIFT platoon commander, was as poor an officer as he was. He wasn’t a bad person, but he didn’t deserve his rank or the position he had. Any other officer, even a RIFT officer, would have had Larkins court-martialed and sent for a cozy stay in a dark prison cell, but not Berkley. His bright idea of advocating to have Larkins stripped of her combat status and reduced to being an instructor had been both her punishment and her salvation. She knew it was partly because Berkley didn’t want to have to deal with the difficulties of punishing her properly when they were weeks away from Earth and partly because he just didn’t want her to be his problem, but regardless, she shouldn’t have been put where she was.
She might not have deserved her position initially, but she was determined to make herself worthy. She pushed herself hard to be the best instructor she could, not just for her own sake but for the pilot trainees and the units who would receive those who passed. She could save lives if she trained the new pilots well enough. That was her primary goal now.
Larkins stood watching as the newly-arrived flight members climbed out of the two trucks that had brought them from the airfield. There was no great difference between them and the last group. Just another a mix of males and females from various ethnic backgrounds; nothing remarkable or unusual, and no one that immediately stood out.
“Alright,” Evison said loudly. “I want everyone lined up in two rows for initial orientation.”
Larkins gave them a moment to get into line, but to her dismay, the group was just as disorganized as the last one and there was a good deal of stumbling over bags and feet and some accidental shoving before she lost her patience and yelled, “How in the fuck did you little shits pass basic when you can’t even form a simple line?!”
She started grabbing them one by one and alternately either holding them still or shoving them into place until they were arranged satisfactorily.
Evison shook his head, saying, “Lay off them, Larkins.”
Larkins whirled on him, her lips curling in an angry snarl. It hadn’t even been a full sixty seconds and he was already coddling them. “Fine. You get them organized. We’re already wasting time here.”
Evison got the rest of the new trainees into line. He took much longer than Larkins would have liked, but she forced herself to breathe deeply and try to calm down. That lasted for all of a minute until Evison began his introduction.
“Before we get everyone settled, I’d like to introduce ourselves—” Evison started.
“Does this look like fucking summer camp to you?!” Larkins demanded impatiently. Evison had an annoying tendency to say more than he needed to at the worst times. “They don’t need to know our names! They just need to know what they’re going to do for the next sixteen months and that most of them are going to go home on a bus crying because they failed out!”
“They still need to know how to properly address us,” Evison continued, and Larkins gave him another glare and fell silent as he gave out their names and gave the new trainees an introduction to what the course would cover, although she couldn’t resist interjecting in an attempt to make it very clear just how difficult their experience was going to be. It wouldn’t help any of them to have any delusions about what to expect. Eventually she took over from him and laid out the ground rules for the trainees, but when Evison gave the group a smile and asked, “Any questions?” she had seen enough.
“We can do fucking Q-and-A later. Let’s get these kids in the damn barracks,” Larkins snapped and turned to yell at the trainees. “Flight face left!”
They were at least all able to pivot in place reasonably well, and Larkins waited for Evison to lead them past her so she could bring up the rear. They all kept their eyes straight ahead, except for one young man who was about two inches shorter than she was and had close-cut brown hair. He looked down as he passed her, and Larkins couldn’t stop herself from scolding harshly, “Eyes straight, fucker.”
She couldn’t see if he actually obeyed as he continued on, but she decided to let it go and fell into place at the rear of the two lines. They came to a stop inside the barracks hall, but before Evison could say anything, Larkins heard low voices from the middle of the two columns and she stormed angrily up the line, looking for the offenders. She was just in time to catch a young woman with short brown hair whispering to the trainee next to her, the same one who had looked down as he passed her, “Colette Ferro. Nice to meet you.”
Larkins grabbed Ferro’s shoulder roughly, spinning the younger woman to face her and demanding, “Did you receive permission to talk? Did you?!”
A look of shock crossed Ferro’s face and she opened her mouth as if to respond, but said nothing.
“Yes or no, Private?!” Larkins demanded impatiently.
“N-No, Corporal,” Ferro looked as if she was struggling to resist the urge to start crying, which only enraged Larkins further. This was no place for a crybaby, especially an undisciplined crybaby. Ferro needed a quick, immediate lesson in respect and following the rules.
“You address me as ‘ma’am’, understood?!” Larkins yelled.
“Yes, ma’am!” Ferro nodded.
“Your number one rule here is to never step outta line,” Larkins snarled. “I catch you disobeying the simplest rule again and you’re getting a one-way ticket back to wherever the fuck you came from, is that clear?”
Ferro nodded again, but this time said nothing.
“Answer me, damn you!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ferro sobbed.
“Good. Now shut the fuck up and don’t so much as twitch until you’ve been given permission.” Not fully satisfied but realizing there was no point to continuing the confrontation, Larkins released Ferro and stomped back to the rear of the columns. The requirements for basic training must be getting easier. There was no way Ferro should have made it past basic let alone get into RIFT training.
Larkins let Evison do most of the talking as he introduced them to the barracks hall. Larkins looked around silently as he explained the stacked room concept, which offered the trainees privacy by giving them their own small room but saved space by having two levels of rooms in one hall, with the upper level accessed by a ladder that led to each door. She only spoke up once, to point out that she had no intention of helping any of them climb the ladder into their room on days where they were tired and to make it clear that she wouldn’t tolerate anyone playing around on the ladders either, but other than that she simply watched.
She was glad that her room was slightly larger than the trainees’ rooms. While their rooms were about seven feet in length and width and slightly less in height, and were just wide enough for a bed and desk to fit on opposite walls and still be accessible, her room and Evison’s were about seven feet wide and ten feet long with much higher ceilings. Above each of their rooms, the extra four feet of height up to the hallway ceiling was a small crawlspace that was used for storage. Larkins was glad she had the room on the outside wall with a window that made it feel more open. Evison was on the opposite side of the hall and although he also had a window, it looked out onto a wall of one of the building’s other wings just a few feet away. But either way, it was better than the cramped trainee rooms. Larkins remembered what it had been like spending sixteen months living in the tiny space. Her claustrophobia had meant suffering constant, never-ending stress, and there had been more than one night when she struggled to choke back the cries and sobs of a panic attack, afraid that one of her flight members or worse, one of her instructors, would hear her. Her new room was just large enough for her to be comfortable with it.
When Evison had finished talking, Larkins joined him in sorting out the trainees and assigning them to different rooms. When they had finished, Evison began walking up and down the hall checking on each trainee in turn to see if they needed anything, while Larkins went back to her room and began looking through the list of files on the new flight members and trying to remember their names. She found Ferro’s file and stared at it for a moment, looking at the young woman’s picture. The kid’s behavior earlier warranted keeping a close eye on. It was exactly that kind of loose discipline that could easily earn a trainee an escort to the gate and a boot to the ass on the way out. If Ferro needed to go, Larkins would rather deal with her sooner rather than later.
Checking her watch, Larkins saw that it was closing in on dinnertime. She leaned back in her chair and tilted her head backwards to stare up at the ceiling for several minutes. When she felt sufficient time had passed, she got up and went back out into the hallway to call out, “Alright, everyone quit playing around and get out here to go down to the mess hall!”
This time they got into two lines just fast enough and orderly enough for Larkins to not feel the need to scream at them, and she marched silently behind them, following Evison and keeping a sharp lookout for someone to break step or speak without permission. This group was nothing she couldn’t handle. They might need a little more instruction and a tougher hand than the previous group, but she could get them disciplined as long as Evison didn’t interfere.
When they all had their food and sat down, Larkins watched the trainees as they ate and talked to each other freely for the first time. Talking at mealtimes was something she still wasn’t fully used to after eight years of serving under Sloan, who forbid talking of any kind in the mess hall unless she was addressing someone. The trainees mostly seemed happy and Larkins felt a twinge of sadness as she watched them laughing and begin to make friends. But which was causing her greater sadness? The fact that she knew how quickly friends could disappear under difficult circumstances, or that deep down there was a tiny part of her that wished she could join in?
“Don’t be stupid,” she whispered to herself, making sure to keep her voice low enough that no one else could hear. It didn’t matter whether they were her subordinates or her equals; she could never join in with them. She couldn’t make herself laugh and sound happy like they could. Even apart from the need to keep discipline, she didn’t have it in herself. That was why she never tried. “You’re alone, Skye,” she continued. “You’ve always been a loner and now that’s all you’ll ever be because it’s all you’re worth. It’s all you deserve.”
Even if she cared and even if she could make herself fake it, she knew she didn’t deserve to have any friends or companions. Not even one. After the angry, selfish way she had treated almost every person she had ever come across in her life, she had more than earned a life of loneliness for herself.
When dinner was over Larkins and Evison marched their flight back to the barracks and told them they had free time for the rest of the night. The amount of free time the trainees were given was annoying for Larkins. Their first evening was nothing but free time from dinner to lights out, and then for the first half of the rest of training they got two hours in the evening, and during the last half they only got one hour except for the field training segments, where they technically were given no free time at all. As far as Larkins was concerned, that was how it should be from day one. They came to learn how to be pilots for the Marine Corps’ most elite Special Forces teams, not sit around on their asses. There was no reason why they couldn’t spend those extra hours training and then shower and go straight to bed afterward. Those one or two hours a night could have been time spent teaching them even more, but instead they were wasted. It also didn’t help that it gave Larkins more time than she would have liked for reflection and introspection.
Once the trainees were all in their rooms or in the small private lounge at the end of the hall, Larkins shut herself in her room and lay down on her bed, looking up at the ceiling and breathing deeply. She listened to each rush of air entering and exiting her body, focusing until she could feel her own heartbeat and hear the blood pulsing steadily through the blood vessels around her ears.
When she grew bored of that, Larkins rolled over and reached down into the nightstand cabinet, pulling out the first bottle her grasping hand settled on. It was the same bottle of whiskey she had been drinking the night before. Larkins lay back down and set the bottle standing up on her stomach, eyeing it doubtfully. “How much do I hate the world tonight?” she asked herself, trying to decide if tonight was a drinking night or not. “How much do I hate myself tonight?”
Finally she decided that she didn’t need to get drunk every night and put the bottle back before lying down again and closing her eyes. She did that often enough. She could skip tonight.
Most nights she didn’t care she was a drunk. She knew she had an alcohol problem and had no interest in fixing it. Fixing it meant she couldn’t drink anymore. She couldn’t take away the pain and the heartache anymore. Larkins had long-since given up trying to process her own emotions, especially the more painful ones. Letting them take charge was a sign of weakness. Doing her job had been so important that she could never allow herself to be weak when she was part of a RIFT, but now that she had so many impressionable trainees under her it was even more important. The best solution was to wrangle her feelings into a tiny box somewhere deep in her heart, tie it up with rope, and then drown them in alcohol when they tried to force their way out.
But there were other nights where she hated what she did. She hated herself for being weak enough to need to drink at all. She remembered how Sloan had mocked her after the first time she lost control and got drunk at the base on LV-327. Sloan had been right when she said it was the first time for Larkins, not the last. She had been right when she said Larkins would never be able to control herself again. And Larkins hated herself for it. She had become the embodiment of every insult and curse Sloan had ever thrown in her face. She was a pathetic excuse for a Marine. A disgrace to the Corps. Undeserving of ever being cared for by anyone. Worthless.
Larkins felt something trickle out of her right eye and run down the side of her face along her temple. “Fuck you, Skye!” she spat, slapping herself hard when she realized it was a tear. “Fucking control yourself!”
She got up and began to pace, feeling the anger growing in her stomach. It was a sick, nauseating feeling, but it was better than tears, so she grabbed onto it and fed it, letting it grow and take over, her body tensing up as she worked herself into a frenzy. It ended when she stopped next to her bed and punched the mattress as hard as she could, imagining that instead of a mattress it was the face of every single person she had ever had a problem with, especially herself. But all of the anger disappeared the moment her fist landed, leaving her with nothing but emptiness. She sighed heavily and looked at the clock. It was still early but she had no energy left. She didn’t want to sleep but she didn’t want to stay awake either. She didn’t really want to do anything, not even think. But that was impossible, so sleep was the next best thing.
Taking her boots off and stripping out of her jacket and pants, Larkins went into her bathroom to brush her teeth before returning to bed and flopping down, closing her eyes determinedly. She needed to be in top shape for tomorrow. She had to give the new trainees her best. Maybe tonight sleep could actually bring her some peace.
Accompanying Music: Biting Cold – Darkseed