That’s the whole story, really. The tension comes from wondering what is happening, why the pilots are kept in VR, why they’re made to do flight simulations over and over again. Are they in rehabilitation? Have they been captured by the Meme? It’s readable enough, though it will remind you of other novels and short stories you’ve read.
One thing kept bringing me up short, though; there’s a black pilot who’s been given the nickname Token — not only that, but he actually calls himself Token. I’ve seen this discussed elsewhere, and some people who have served in the military have said that this is realistic, that a lot of people are given jokey, insulting names to build camaraderie, and that nobody minds. Well, maybe, but I’d like to see an actual black soldier weigh in on this.
There’s another problem with the name, though. This isn’t the US air force; it’s EarthFleet, with, presumably, pilots from all over the world. (At one point the characters go into a room with “the flags of the nations of all the pilots present.”) Where are the pilots from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, from the Middle East? Wouldn’t EarthFleet look for budding talent from all over the world and then train them, especially when faced with a threat like the Meme? Given all of this, it’s ridiculous that they have only one black pilot.
VanDyke has literally lost his own plot here. He forgets that something called EarthFleet should be a diverse, international body, and gives his characters resolutely Anglo-Saxon names: Stevie, Wild Bill, Hudson, Lock. The only exception is Vango, who we’re told is from South Africa. (Where, incidentally, white people are in the minority. Why isn’t it Vango who’s called Token?)
Armies in the United States haven’t been solely Anglo-Saxon for about a hundred years, maybe even longer. VanDyke’s story isn’t a picture of the future — it’s the past, and an unrealistic past at that, where almost everyone is white and the person who isn’t knows he’s there on sufferance. I’d call this one There Once Was War, or There Will Be Nostalgia.