Chapter Thirty-Three: Of Monsters and Men

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New Arrows Air Base, East Usea.
September 14th, 2019.
1300hrs.

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They all knew what was coming. When they were all told to get ready for a briefing, it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that something had come up. Something big. Today was the day that they were going to finally put an end to the Alicorn, and send it back into the depths where it belonged. Naomi knew it was a horrible way to go out, but the crew had made their bed and now it was time that they lay in it. Their target was Osea, and Naomi wasn't about to let them get away with it. So, as she was told, she reported to the briefing, taking her usual place between Count and Tabloid. She felt determined, and she'd slept better the previous night than she had in a while. She was ready, and by the looks of things, so were her wingmen.

It seemed as though everyone was holding their breath while they waited for the briefing to officially start. Long Caster was finishing up with something on the computer, meanwhile David was patiently waiting for them to finish up, watching silently. Skald and Lanza whispered something back and forth to one another, shortly before Fencer joined in. Jaeger shushed them just as Long Caster pulled up a 3D image of the Alicorn on the display screen. Wiseman looked around as everyone went quiet. "Good. Now that everyone's here and we're done with our computer troubles, we can finally get started. Though I'm sure you all know why you're here. David, go ahead."

From the looks of things, David was in a rather good mood. "I've got some good news for you all. The Erusean military finally sent over parts of the Alicorn's specs, as you can probably see for yourselves. More details than you're used to, right?" he asked them as they all looked over the image on the screen. Plenty of text was displayed, with lines drawn to specific parts of the submarine. "It's basic capabilities were as we predicted. But what's interesting is...this over here." He typed something into his own computer, and the text around the Alicorn was swiped away as David zoomed in on the model. Part of the shiny, blue and white, mostly transparent model began to move. It looked as though a slab of the flight deck was raised up, looking like an odd, electronic cannon of some sort in Naomi's opinion. Like something out of a science-fiction film. Sure enough, her suspicions were confirmed as David explained it, the screen further centering on the cannon as a line of text appeared beside it. "In addition to their main railguns, they have a 600mm/128 caliber rail cannon. The barrel of this thing exceeds 70 meters! Gotta admit, that's pretty cool, huh?"

"Cool, but deadly," Naomi said, studying the model carefully, trying to pinpoint the best places to target. There was no guarantee that they could destroy the gun, so she knew she needed a backup plan. But for now, it was probably best to focus on one thing at a time. She leaned back in her seat, nodding at the screen. "So, what's the official word on the range of this thing? We looking at more or less from what we suspected after Anchorhead?"

David went on without any hesitation. "It's range is over 3,000 kilometers." The screen zoomed all the way out and overhead of the model, marking the range from 1,000 all the way out to 3,000. "That matches what we calculated from the bombardment on Anchorhead Bay." He zoomed back in on the cannon, now showing something being fired from it. It froze in midair, and David said, "The mini nuke they seemed to have obtained has a yield of one kiloton." The animation resumed and followed the projectile as it travelled to the 3,000 kilometer point and made impact on a small circle in the screen. "It'll destroy anything within a 400-meter radius of ground zero. Casualties are to be in the tens of thousands."

The area around 'ground zero' turned red, showing the estimated number of casualties at 200 meters and then the amount at 400 meters. Overall, the estimated number was a little over 82,000. The status was all the same, though. Their deaths would be instant. Not to mention countless people that might end up suffering after that. It would take Osea years to recover from a blow like that, and even then nothing would be the same. It was Skald that said what no one else would, though. "I know that some things are better left unsaid, but let me say it..." Skald said with a sigh, all of them taking the excuse to look away from the screen. "That's less damage than I expected."

"Nice catch. Do you remember this speech?" David asked them, nodding to Long Caster to pull up the sound file.

He did so, also bringing Torres' photo and information along with it. The recording began to play, and Naomi and the others all went silent as they listened to the ominous speech. "This boat has the means to end this hideous war in a definitive and elegant manner. The world shall be horrified by the number of lives we will take. Only then will they let go of their weapons...weapons that would have taken the lives of ten million!"

The recording stopped and the window with Torres' photo was closed, bringing the video call with David back to the front. "The imagery invoked by those words and the actual predicted damage just don't match."

"So, here's a question!" Count quipped in an attempt to lighten the mood, wearing a smirk. Naomi found herself grinning at what he'd said, trying not to laugh. Something about the delivery cheered her up, and Tabloid and even Avril cracked a smile at it.

"Sorry, got no quizzes for you today," David said with a chuckle as the screen moved away from the Alicorn, all the way back to the Usean continent. "But moving on, I believe that they will launch the nuke on September 19th."

Húxiān crossed her arms and huffed. "Why are you so sure?"

"Because that's the anniversary of the end of the Continental War," David explained, and Long Caster moved the screen from the Usean continent over to Osea, displaying images of the city as they centered on the capital. "Anti-war demonstrations and victory parades are in full swing in Oured, starting from today and going through until next week. There's about a million participants in total, and that number will rise on the anniversary." Everyone let out a collective groan, but David quickly went on. "However, this nuke isn't that powerful. They'd have to thread through the eye of a needle to achieve their desired result."

"Terminal guidance would probably be needed," Tabloid said, leaning forward in his seat with a thoughtful look on his face. "Like they did over Anchorhead. It's precise and reliable based on everything we've seen."

"Right," David agreed. "How do they intend to achieve it when even their GPS won't work, though?"

Avril rolled her eyes. "You're all thinking way too much about this," she said.

Húxiān nodded in agreement. "She's right. If we just sink the submarine, it's problem solved."

"Crude, but effective," David said, an impressed look on his face.

Naomi and the guys all chuckled as Avril and Húxiān shared an annoyed look, almost seeming offended by David's comment. It was Húxiān that made it clear that she was taken aback by his assessment of her idea, echoing the word he'd used almost as a warning. "Crude?" she scoffed, and had David been standing in front of her he probably would have been a bit worried. But considering the fact that all she could really do to him was hang up, Naomi could tell he found the reaction more amusing than he did intimidating.

"Alright, look at this. The Alicorn's expected course." David went on with the briefing, and the display moved between the Osean and Usean continents, highlighting several areas along the coast of Usea, in the Spring Sea. "We know that it was off Anchorhead Bay and it has to get to Oured within range before September 19th. They must avoid being detected by Osea and its allies' sound surveillance system and ships. Erusea, although still technically their allies, are just as much a threat to them as Osea is, provided that some in Erusea's government recognize the captain's misguided plan."

The screen was now covered in red and blue lines and digital arrowheads, both red and blue, with Oured covered with a transparent, red circle to show the range if the nuke hit Oured dead center. Through the mess of Erusean and Osean ships and surveillance systems, a pathway appeared and the camera zoomed in. David continued, while Long Caster was hurriedly updating the LRSSG's display as soon as new information came in. "Taking into account its maximum operating depth, this is the only possible route," David explained, and a small arrowhead meant to represent the Alicorn moved along the path until it reached a small square closer to Osea. "The Alicorn will move along the Azalea seamount chain and reach a rather blandly named body of water called PX80443."

Long Caster pulled up an image of what Naomi guessed would be their operation area, the model of it circling and showing several rocks and small islands scattered on the surface. "The waters here are shallow due to an undersea mountain range and nearby islands," David said, and the look on his face shifted from excitement and enthusiasm to concern, sighing before he went on. "This is where it'll be. We also know roughly when they'll arrive in the area, and it gives you and your allies just enough time to reach it and take it down."

Naomi's father, who'd been silently watching up front as usual, smirked and studied the screen for himself. "That's quite the prediction you have there."

David smiled and nodded. "Indeed. But if it makes it through, then you're looking at Peony Trench." The screen zoomed on the very edge of the area, showing a large red area running along the edge. "The sub's max operating depth is 600 meters. Tracking it there would be impossible. Whatever you do, don't allow it to make it to the trench." David looked to Wiseman and leaned back in his seat, reaching for his drink out of frame. "Major, I'll let you take over from here."

"Right. Thanks, David. I'll be giving you the mission details, so listen up." Wiseman stepped forward, clearing his throat. The screen zoomed back out to show the entire location, several blue blips appearing and fanning out as Wiseman began his half of the briefing. "Our mission is to cooperate with the International Union Peacekeeping Force's patrol aircraft to find the Alicorn." Naomi perked up upon hearing the mention of the IUN, and Count and Tabloid noticed this and gave her a curious look, but she held her tongue and let Wiseman continue. "In the first phase of the mission, multiple patrol aircraft will spread out and drop sonobuoys to build a sonobuoy barrier." He traced his finger along the screen, following the arrowheads representing said patrol aircraft as they went down a line, pinpointing the locations they would drop said sonobuoys. "Then, in the second phase, we narrow down the possible location of the Alicorn by analyzing the data obtained from the sonobuoys."

The arrowheads came back down the line and covered the rest of the ground as the fleet and what Naomi assumed were their squadrons began to move forward. Wiseman motioned for Long Caster to zoom in and he chose a random spot, highlighting it as a 'probable location'. Wiseman then pointed to it and looked back at them. "The results of our analysis will be data linked and shown on an overlay on your radars. And for the final phase...Trigger, you're gonna look for the submarine."

Naomi looked between Wiseman and the display screen as she heard her name, noticing an arrowhead marked with her name moving towards the location on the screen. "So, I get to do the honors of finding our whale, eh?" she asked, rhetorically, but she still received a nod of confirmation from Wiseman. Her father looked over at her as if trying to look for something else in her reaction. However, Naomi was fairly determined and willing to do whatever it took to end this thing. She wasn't about to complain or show any sort of fear, even if the sub was terrifying to her. "How am I supposed to find it? Fighter jets aren't exactly made for underwater combat."

Long Caster was the one that stepped in to explain. "We've acquired one special MAD — a Magnetic Anomaly Detector — for this. It will be on Trigger's plane." He put something in to the laptop hooked up to the display screen, and Naomi's own little blue arrow began to fly in a circle around the area as Long Caster continued his explanation. "You're going to fly over where we expect the Alicorn might be. If the submarine is right beneath you, your MAD will detect it. You'll also have nautical charts on your radars, so use them."

Wiseman stepped in again, pointing out the fleet on the screen. "Once it's found, our fleet will commence a unified attack with ASROCs and sink it."

Fencer glanced at the others, almost looking concerned. "And if we miss?" he asked, keeping his voice level although there was something underneath it. Fear, perhaps, which was unusual for him.

David's face appeared back on the screen, much smaller than before and off to the edge of all of the maps. "Four ships will be joining the operation. There won't be a second salvo."

"Hmm. So who's flying, Wiseman?" Jaeger asked, nodding to the screen.

"Everyone except for myself and Tailor," Wiseman replied, crossing his arms.

"Whoah!" Lanza said with a chuckle, an excited look on his face. Everyone else shared in his excitement, except for a rather frustrated looking Tailor. Naomi almost felt bad for the kid, but he was better of staying on base, especially for this.

The Strider and Cyclops emblems appeared on the screen, the roster for each one below it, and Wiseman nodded to it before looking them over. "Trigger and Fencer will be leading Strider and Cyclops respectively, while I'll be remaining here with Tailor to monitor everything. When you get to the operation area, you'll be joining up with the patrol aircraft and two of the IUN's squadrons. There's gonna be a lot of people out there, and I want you all to have each other's backs. This is an order." He was fighting off a smile as he motioned to the door. "Now get your fat asses moving!"

No one needed to be told twice. Everyone scrambled to their feet and started towards the hangar to make some last minute preparations, but Naomi stopped and let the others run ahead. Count, Tabloid, and Avril stopped as well once they realized that she wasn't following them. She looked over her shoulder at her dad, Wiseman, and Long Caster. She even glanced at David once. The reason she stopped seemed unknown to her, but she waited for something. At last, her father gave her a small smile and nodded, his eyes almost lighting up. Any doubt or concerns about the operation ebbed away, even for just a little while, and she returned the smile, finally continuing on her way.

Her friends gave her a confused and curious look, but she brushed it off. Naomi grinned and put her arms around Count and Tabloid like she had done during the briefing before Operation Sighthound, when they'd first encountered the sub. "C'mon, guys, what're we waiting for? We've got a monster to slay! Let's go show those cocky bastards what the LRSSG can do!" Without any protest, the four of them made their way towards the hangar, Avril moving as fast as she could. Something about the operation sent a chill down Naomi's spine, and she felt excited and terrified all at once. They had more than just their superiors counting on them, and there was an added responsibility to the operation.

In their excitement and rush, Naomi never thought to ask who the two squadrons they'd be teaming up with were, but part of her was hoping, even praying that she might get to fly with her old squadron and wingmates again. And yet there was a part of her that knew that with something this dangerous, there was more risk than they'd had in a while. But she wasn't going to lose anybody. Today it was time to test if Tabloid's theory really, absolutely worked. Torres may have more power and motivation at his disposal, but the LRSSG had a better, stronger reason to fight. Their hunt was about to come to an end, and Naomi would happily be the one to deliver the final blow.


Spring Sea, Usea.
1700hrs.

Torres made his way along the flight deck of the Alicorn, knowing that his magnificent submarine wouldn't be on the surface much longer and wanting some fresh air while it was available. SACS Squadron would be taking off shortly, waiting in the skies to face the pilot that they knew would be coming. Torres had been well aware that it was only a matter of time before Osea's military discovered their location, and it was almost exactly what Torres wanted. If he could put an end to Three Strikes then there would be no further challengers and their plan would go exactly according to plan. But from what was showing on their radars, it was going to be happening much sooner than he thought. Perfect.

As he approached the three aircraft with the intention of speaking to the pilots before they took off, Torres took in the sights and smells around him. The smell of the ocean and a crisp, early autumn breeze...it didn't get any better than that. He recalled his time aboard the Tanager, back when he could head out on deck whenever he pleased and enjoy the air and the view. As the sun was starting to set, it gave everything a bright, almost golden hue. Even the scattered, dark clouds didn't do much to detract from the afternoon's beauty. It truly was a spectacular sight. A shame to think that such a questionable act would soon take place, but sacrifices had to be made in order to end this disgusting war and Torres intended to end it so quickly and flawlessly that no one would ever care how he did it.

In spite of his efforts to savor his walk, he reached the pilots and the rest of the crew preparing the takeoff in a short time. He didn't say anything to them, but those that noticed him silently stood at attention, although they were quickly dismissed with a patient nod and a very small smile. There was only one pilot that he was interested in speaking with, and the young man was flying number two in the formation that was about to go up. The man in question was young, in his late twenties, brown haired and blue eyed. Although he was eager when it came to fighting and skilled at his job, Torres noticed that there always seemed to be something troubling him. Perhaps why he was so eager to accept what was essentially a suicide mission. They all knew they were sacrificial lambs, and they all had their own reasons for going along with his plan.

At first, the young man was completely focused on preparing his aircraft, and Torres waited a few seconds before calling to him. "Lieutenant Louis Barbieri?" he said, and the lieutenant was quick to turn around, startled by Torres' sudden visit. He saluted, a motion which was quickly returned by Torres, but he remained in a stiff position until Torres told him otherwise. "You can relax, Lieutenant. I simply wanted to see you off before our battle begins. There was something I wanted to ask you as well."

Barbieri looked confused, relaxing his position slightly. "Umm, of course, sir. Is something the matter?"

"Not exactly," Torres replied calmly, trying to think of a subtle way to bring it up. "I simply noticed that you have yet to sign a will. I wouldn't want your family to be left without, should you give your life for our cause."

An almost haunted look appeared on Barbieri's face. A look that quickly turned to guilt and fear, and a look that Torres knew well. Before Barbieri even answered him, he'd already guessed what he was going to be told. "I lost all my family in the war, sir. My parents, my sister...and my wife and daughters. They were killed on accident, in an air raid on Farbanti, back when the war began..." Barbieri replied, and he took a deep, shaky breath, adopting a stone cold expression as he straightened up. "I have nothing but our great kingdom and military to live for, now. And I will proudly give up my life for them, to bring justice for my family's death."

"You are a truly noble soldier, Lieutenant Barbieri. Fit to be part of our salvation," Torres replied, his smile widening. Barbieri's eyes flashed with hesitance, however briefly, and his confidence seemed to waver, but he was quick to regain it. Torres began to back away from the soldier and his plane. "Very well, then. If you have no one to write to, and no one to leave behind, then I won't stop you from fulfilling your goal as well as ours. You have my permission to take off."

"Aye-aye, sir!" Barbieri replied, quickly returning to going over his pre-flight checks.

Torres stood back on the deck, watching as the squadron prepared to take to the skies. The three pilots climbed into their aircraft, the man leading the formation shouting to them as they readied themselves for takeoff. "We're dead men walking, so we have no reason to fear death!" he called out to them, and Torres felt a rush of pride for the soldiers he had on his side. Loyal and obedient to the very end, as he believed a soldier should be. The flight leader continued. "Three Strikes revels in the killing, so catch her while she's at it!" He raised his voice to a furious shout, one that carried clearly on the wind. "Let's go! It's time to rip the wings off that degenerate, and take the dogs that she leads down with her!"

"For salvation!" The three pilots let out that final battle cry, and a few minutes later they took to the skies.

Once they were gone, Torres watched their planes group together and fly in perfect synchronization, back in the direction they had come from to face Three Strikes when she would likely, inevitably arrive. Once the sound of their engines had vanished, everyone prepared for the ship to submerge and Torres returned to his place at the bridge. When he finally got to the bridge, he found that the crew was already making preparations for their dive and the command duty officer jumped to his feet when Torres arrived.

The chatter and chaos among the crew as they began the final preparations began to die down, and the command duty officer was finally able to speak. "We've been monitoring the radar, sir, and we've detected a large group heading straight for us. At that size, we're guessing it could be a large fleet with air support," he explained quickly, following Torres as the two ventured further onto the bridge. "Should we clear the baffles, Captain?"

Torres thought for a moment and then shook his head as he came to a stop in front of his seat. "No. They won't chase by sea. Pursuers will be airborne, as we've gathered from previous operations. That should give us the advantage in a fight."

"As if we needed it. Or didn't already have it," the CDO replied smugly, and Torres couldn't help but chuckle a little as well. "They're probably going to be very frustrated. It'll be nearly impossible to find us in these open seas. I just hope their 'aces' are up to the challenge."

With that, the officer dismissed himself to tend to other duties as they began their dive. Torres took a seat, able to vividly remember the face of the famed Three Strikes from the file he'd read. She was young and inexperienced, but he knew he shouldn't underestimate her. He'd seen what she could do first hand, even if she was reckless and bad at strategy. This opponent of his was, although fierce, nothing that he couldn't handle. Three Strikes was basically a child that knew nothing of a real war or of real victory or even of real salvation. If SACS didn't do her in then Torres gladly would.

He scowled, staring ahead at the screens they had scattered around the bridge, showing footage from the lead plane and from a few of the UAVs they had sent up and the ones they'd be using for terminal guidance. They were ready. "Time to see how far you're willing to go to defend your precious nation," he sneered to himself, although the comment was directed at the Oseans that would be arriving shortly to his battlefield. "Come if you dare, Three Strikes, and face me like a real soldier..."


1743hrs.

Strider and Cyclops arrived over the Spring Sea in a matter of only a few hours, the question of who they were joining up with starting to spread throughout the group, a few people trying to think of what IUN squadrons they knew from past operations. Long Caster wasn't interested in telling them anything, probably getting a snack in before the operation started. Probably for the best, considering that it might be a while before he'd be able to eat again. Last thing they needed was him slipping up during the fight. As they came within visual range of their allies, Naomi was finally able to see how many were joining the operation. Four patrol aircraft and seven fighters, the fighters armed to the teeth just as Cyclops and Strider were.

It was then that Long Caster spoke up, silencing their off topic conversation as he announced their arrival to the other aircraft. "This is the LRSSG. Strider Squadron and Cyclops Squadron are entering the airspace. They'll be leading the operation for the most part," he said. Without waiting for anyone to say anything else, he skipped straight to the introductions and as he called out the names of the flight leaders to them, Naomi felt relief and pure joy hit her like a brick. "Trigger, I believe you're already familiar with Captain Turner and Captain Pierce. They're leading Golem and Mage Squadrons, and from what we've heard they're more than happy to assist in the operation."

Naomi couldn't help but laugh, feeling the grin spread across her face. She already had her suspicions, and she'd never been so happy to be right before in her life. "Holy shit, you've gotta be kidding me! It really is you!" she called out to them as Strider and Cyclops got into formation behind them, her wingmen all staying silent as they listened to the reunion of sorts.

"Well, nice to see you haven't forgotten about us, Trigger!" It was Clown that was the first to reply, sounding as though he was smiling as well. "We've all got a lot of catchin' up to do once we get this sub outta the way." There was a pause, and then he introduced his two new wingmen, though Naomi could already guess who they were based on what her father had told her. "It's not just us, either. I'm sure you remember your old friends, Kathryn and Grimm. Blaze, Archer, say hello to everyone!"

"C'mon, Clown, you know that Grimm gets shy around strangers. You shouldn't put us on the spot like that!" Kathryn, now flying in Naomi's place as Mage 2, answered first, not sounding as excited as Clown but still as friendly as Naomi remembered her. There was little protest from her husband, as he only let out an annoyed, very fake laugh. Kathryn ignored him and continued. "As a side note, we're both excited to get a chance to fly with you, kid. We're gonna have a helluva time keeping up with you, I can tell that much already."

"Let's see if you can live up to all those stories we've been hearing about you!" Naomi recognized the voice of Boggard, and his comment was followed up by Footpad and Faun scolding him for pressuring her. She knew that the others must be confused, but there would hopefully be plenty of time to explain things.

At last, Knocker spoke up. "Alright, everyone, get your heads in the game. There's a time and a place to goof off and reminisce, and right now is neither of those things. Let's not forget what's at stake here, alright?" he said, and Naomi actually for once didn't mind hearing him scold her old friends. Or even her, since he still had the authority to do so. What surprised her, though, was what he said next. "Trigger, we're following the LRSSG's lead on this one. Strider, Cyclops, and Long Caster, feel free to boss us around all you'd like. So long as you keep Specter Squadron safe and stop that submarine, I don't care what you do."

"All aircraft, listen up. You've entered the AO," Long Caster said to them quickly, and everyone was sure to listen to him. "Commence the operation and find the Alicorn. Good luck everyone."

Count chuckled. "Well, it's time for some treasure hunting, Trigger."

Lanza let out an excited laugh. "Oh, boy! I'm excited!"

"Yo, Count, Trigger! You up for some competition to lighten the mood or are we gonna be all business today?" Tabloid called out to them. Naomi looked over her shoulder to get an idea of everyone's location, finding that everyone was close together and still in formation. Tabloid and Lanza were obviously chomping at the bit, sounding as though they were ready to fly ahead of everyone and get straight to the fighting.

"A kill competition, eh?" Footpad's voice followed that, and Naomi, in spite of the situation, felt good about the operation. After all, she really did have all of her friends here. Footpad chuckled, something she hadn't heard in a while. "Ha! Y'know what, I like these guys already!"

"I'd be a little worried if you didn't," Fencer replied with a laugh. "After all, you're the guys that are watching our asses out here."

Naomi was about to say something, but Húxiān beat her to the punch, scolding the guys for their banter. "Hey! Stop screwing around! We can't afford to mess this up!"

Count let out an irritated sigh. "Jeez, don't be such a hothead, Húxiān. We all know what'll happen if we screw up..."

"Everybody calm down for a minute and get yourselves ready for a fight. It's just a matter of time before the enemy shows up, and I don't want you wasting your energy," Naomi said, trying not to let out a sigh of her own. Unfortunately, she had to keep a level head during the operation, at least at the beginning, as much as she hated it. Just a few minutes and she and the others could finally be let loose. "But, if anybody is interested and it gives you the motivation, by all means turn it into a competition. But for now...Specter Squadron, are you ready to get started?"

An unfamiliar voice belonging to a young man answered her. "This is patrol aircraft Specter 1. We're ready, ma'am. We'll deploy the sonobuoy barrier in just a moment!" The use of the word 'ma'am' caught her off guard, and as she had predicted it would, made her suddenly feel much older than she actually was. Truth be told, this guy was probably older than her by a couple of years. He went on, suddenly taking a darker turn than Naomi would have liked. "We're all prepared to buy the farm, and that's why there's so many of us..." he paused, almost nervously continuing. "According to calculations, just one needs to fly to locate it."

"Those aren't the sort of calculations we like, are they, Trigger?" Count asked her, adjusting his position on her wing slightly so that he was closer to her in the formation, preparing for when they'd finally break.

"You're right, Count. I don't like those calculations at all," Naomi said, once again realizing that she was going to be bearing the weight of just about everyone during this mission. Not only did she have her companions from the LRSSG, but the guys from Fort Grays were here, not to mention how many people were aboard the patrol aircraft. They couldn't just throw away those lives. "No one is going to buy the farm. We're all getting out of this alive, and I'm not letting anyone go down."

"Damn right!" Húxiān agreed. "Same for the rest of us, too!"

A beeping sound caught her attention and Naomi instinctively looked to her radar, noticing three new blips, all closing in on their allies. "Strider 1 to Long Caster, I've got some new blips on my radar, heading straight for us," she said, part of her comment being a warning to the others to get ready for a fight. "They're going pretty fast, so I'm guessing they're fighters. And I'm willing to bet that these guys aren't on our side."

"Confirming as hostiles. Looks like they're here, just as predicted," Long Caster replied. He updated their HUDs as the aircraft came into view, difficult to see against the sun, though. They looked like little birds, though Naomi knew they were a bit more of a problem then a couple of seagulls would be. Below them, the small fleet of ships that had finally caught up was at a risk of an attack from these fighters, and that would probably be one of their first targets. Long Caster at last finished whatever analysis had to be done of the newcomers. "They're definitely aircraft from the Alicorn! You're all cleared to engage!"

It was Wiseman's voice that she heard next, the major having been silently monitoring everything up until this point, alongside her father, Bandog, Avril, and probably Tailor back at the base. His voice was urgent, though, and he left no room for any question in his order. "Trigger, you take the lead! The fleet and the patrol aircraft must be protected. All aircraft, follow Trigger!" No one hesitated. Everyone sounded off, confirming that they understood and would follow the order. Wiseman seemed relieved but he maintained the urgency in his tone. "You all can make it, I know you can. We're all counting on you!"

Naomi slowly increased her speed to start with, wanting to test the engine a bit before she started to push it. Avril had warned her to take it easy on them, but that wasn't Naomi's style. Satisfied after just a few seconds, Naomi throttled up all the way and flew to the front of the formation. The enemy would be in range shortly, and she had barely a minute to figure out the best way to go about this. There were only three, so it would be easy. At least for the time being. Having to think faster than usual, she began reeling off her plan to everyone. "Count, you come with me. Jaeger, Húxiān, you two cover us in case they manage to get on our sixes. Fencer, you and Cyclops fan out in front of the formation in case something slips through. Mage Squadron, you three handle the sides and the rear. Golem Squadron, you cover the fleet for now. If anything changes, I want all of you ready."

"Wow, you really have gotten bossy, haven't you, Miss Bigshot?" To her surprise it was Faun that made the teasing comment, although not as snide as Boggard likely would have gone for. Still the more mature of the group, it would seem. He didn't argue with the order, though, and he followed Knocker and the others and lowered his altitude.

Just as she had ordered, everyone moved into position. Cyclops Squadron spread out, each one taking up a position in front of a patrol aircraft, still giving said aircraft enough room to avoid a collision. Clown and Kathryn covered the sides, flanking the formation. Grimm stuck to the trail position, which Naomi could only tell based on his position on her radar. He was pretty much perfectly in the back, lined up with her position. She didn't have too much time to be mildly impressed, as she and Strider had to get to work. Count stuck close to her wing, while Húxiān and Jaeger trailed behind them slightly, fully prepared to pick off the third fighter on their own if the need and opportunity presented itself.

Naomi went for the lead aircraft, she and Count promptly met by gunfire once they were within range. She got a missile lock, that much she knew, but right as she was about to fire the three aircraft pulled up sharply and climbed up above the clouds. Count had been quicker to react and fired, his missiles streaking underneath his target and towards the sea as he let out a furious and surprised growl. The enemy fighters, Rafales like the ones from Artiglio, had circled back around when Naomi and Count raised their altitude to meet them. They were tracking her on radar, and she grunted and pulled a high-G turn to get free of the lock they got on her.

They were faster and seemingly more determined than the ones Naomi had faced before, but after a bit of back and forth, Naomi finally got the upper hand. She followed the Rafale into the clouds as Count kept the second one off of her tail. Jaeger and Húxiān engaged the third and were working together to bring him down and herd him away from the patrol aircraft. Naomi's visibility was reduced in the clouds, and droplets of water spattered and rolled over her canopy as she tried to see through the mess. It was hard to get a steady lock on the enemy plane, what with his rolling every time she managed it. At last, they broke out of the clouds. Her line of sight cleared up and as soon as she heard a solid tone she fired a pair of missiles.

This time, the Rafale's pilot was not so lucky. He reacted too slow and miscalculated, one missile grazing him and the other striking his wing. Half of the wing was blown off, leaving a trail of smoke in its place. The aircraft, as expected, started to waver in its flight and began a downward spiral towards the water below. Naomi found herself waiting for the enemy pilot to eject. If he was going to punch out, now was as good a time as any. But he never did. Naomi watched the plane go down, the pilot going along with it, and felt a sudden sickness and dread building up in her stomach. He either died on impact or he'd drown. Not the best way to go out.

But there wasn't much time to feel sorry for the enemy, nor was there any time for her to start getting scared. The thought was a horrible one, but she had to get over it. Not like it was anything new. Pulling back around, she went to rejoin Count and the others, finding that they'd successfully shot down the other two planes. Jaeger delivered the finishing blow to the last Rafale, regrouping with Húxiān once he was done. "They must have been waiting for us in the air," he observed, almost bitter at the thought. "If that isn't some dedication to their mission, I don't know what is."

Strider Squadron circled around their allies as they waited for more enemies to show themselves, if any at all, as Specter Squadron announced that 20% of the sonobuoys were dropped. They were making good progress on their mission, but they couldn't let their guard down. Wiseman's voice came once again, however this time he wasn't speaking to them. "David, here's a question," he said to their analyst friend, adopting David's own catchphrase. "How many aircraft can the Alicorn carry?"

David answered promptly, the first time they'd heard his voice since the briefing. "Twenty to thirty, depending on the type of aircraft, which I believe are mostly Rafales...but it's unconfirmed intel. Could be more...much, much more if they really pushed their luck." There was a certain heaviness to his words, one which Naomi didn't like, especially with how optimistic he'd been in the past. However, he was quick to return to his regular demeanor as he added, "But with Three Strikes on your side, you could reduce them to a single digit."

Naomi felt herself a bit embarrassed by the comment, wishing she could be as confident in her abilities as David seemed to think. She knew she was a good pilot, but all of those planes on her own? Definitely too much for her. She'd never be able to take all the credit, and she didn't want to. Count spoke up, sounding as cocky as ever, and voiced the thought that Naomi was too reluctant to share, "Well, I'm not sure it's gonna be just because of Trigger, but those are calculations that I do like."

A sharp alert sounded in Naomi's ear, bringing her attention away from her thoughts, and Long Caster's voice quickly followed. "We're detecting additional hostiles, and our analysis shows that they're UAVs! Intercept them, now!"

"Shit! They must have had more hiding!" Naomi spat, checking her radar and suddenly feeling very overwhelmed. The patrol aircraft had all spread further out, all of the allied fighters had spread out to follow them. There were three groups, all of them outnumbering their fighters.

"Trigger, can you get 'em?" Húxiān called out nervously.

Naomi realized that they had no choice but to break their original formation and spread out to attack. It left the patrol aircraft open and at a bit more risk, but it gave them a better chance of keeping the UAVs at bay. Was this how Wiseman felt all the time, overwhelmed by responsibility for everyone? Having to weigh the best options in a split second? She'd done it before, sure, but now there was a much larger group to keep tabs on. They had no other choice, though. "Everyone, spread out and attack the UAVs! Strider won't be able to reach them all on our own. You need to make sure not one of them slips through, otherwise it's game over. These bastards are slippery, so watch each other's backs!"

"Roger that!" was the reply from Knocker, Clown, and Fencer almost simultaneously. They moved away from the fleet and from the patrol aircraft, charging the enemy head on. Not that they were left with any other choice. It would be easy to corral them, but Naomi didn't think to try that. She would leave maneuvers like that up to their flight leads. They were smart. Once they got to them, she trusted them to lead their squadron in the most effective way and work together whichever way was best for them.

The UAVs may have been faster and more maneuverable, but she was pretty sure that they weren't autonomous. They were controlled. At least, that's what it sounded like from everything she'd heard. So their skill was only as good as the person controlling them, unlike the drones that Erusea had been deploying. A few of the UAVs were immediately picked off by the Osean fighters. From what Naomi could see, she'd knocked off two as Strider Squadron engaged their group, and Count got one at roughly the same time. Fencer and Tabloid were working together with one another on Cyclops' end and took out two each, Cyclops Squadron being the nearest to Strider. Meanwhile Lanza and Skald made a perimeter alongside Jaeger and Húxiān to catch any of the drones that tried to slip through.

Farther away, but still in visual range, Mage Squadron was hunting the drones like a pack of wolves. The movements Naomi caught glimpses of them doing were almost flawlessly pulled off between the three of them, as though they'd been doing this their whole lives. Clown and Kathryn would basically trap the drone between the two of them, countering its movements and keeping it within a certain area. Grimm would jump on it and deliver the finishing blow, either surprising it when it tried to dodge or waiting for it when it tried to escape into the clouds. They brought the number up once one was down, trying it with two, and then three. One for each of them.

She couldn't see exactly what Golem Squadron was doing, but it seemed to be going well on their end as Boggard let out a victorious howl. "Alright! That's three for me! We're catching up to Trigger and her squad now! You're all toast!"

"Umm, who's toast? Trigger's squadron or the UAVs?" Footpad asked, bewildered. Naomi would have liked an answer to that herself, but she was perfectly fine without one. It was nice to see that those two hadn't changed much, recalling how tense everyone was before she was shipped off for her trial. Boggard hadn't grown up any, Footpad was still a voice of semi-reason, and Faun was still the only one with a good head on his shoulders.

Boggard was quick to answer Footpad's question, sounding out of breath when he did as though he had just finished performing a difficult maneuver. "Trigger's squadron, you idiot. I mean, obviously the drones too, but we're not in a competition with them, are we?"

"We kind of are, though. I mean, if you really think about it..." Faun answered with a mild air of superiority, cutting himself off with a startled grunt as a missile alert blared in the background. Naomi felt a surge of anxiety as he went silent, but she didn't hear any announcement that he'd been shot down. A quick headcount and look at the radar told her everyone was fine and still flying.

Ignoring the banter from her old friends, she jerked her head around to try and get a visual on Count. There were two drones left for Strider, and she wanted to make sure they hadn't gotten the jump on Count. Or her. But Count was her main concern. Right as she was about to ask him where he'd gone, his plane shot up in front of her, neither coming close to colliding but it seemed he was going for the same UAV she'd had her heart set on shooting down. She wasn't about to let him steal her kill, not when there was a perfectly good one nearby (though Jaeger looked to be bagging that one). So she hit her afterburners, trying to get ahead of Count. They both ended up in lock on range at the same time, and although Naomi knew that she fired first, Count fired a few seconds after her and both missiles hit, making it hard to tell who shot it down first.

"That one was mine, Trig!" Count called out to her with a laugh. "Looks like the Count's gonna be number one today, eh?"

"To think you call me the dumbass!" Naomi retorted as she and him flew side by side, returning to formation with their wingmen now that all the threats were eliminated. "That was mine and you know it!" Before Count could continue to argue, already telling that they could fight about this for the rest of the day, she offered a solution. "Okay, fine. Since no one can tell who shot it down, we both take credit for it. It's either that or no one gets it. So, what's it gonna be?"

It didn't take long for Count to make up his mind. "Fine. We both take the credit. Now let's hurry up and help the others out. Maybe then we won't be tied...I hate ties."

Húxiān let out an exasperated scoff. "Then shut up and shoot, genius!"

As usual, she sounded like a strict older sibling and kept Count from saying anything more. Likely because he didn't have an answer for her. There were only a couple of drones left, all the way over at Specter 2's position with Golem Squadron. Boggard and Faun were fighting off one, while Knocker had downed the another a good distance away. Footpad was trying to get a pair of drones off his tail, struggling against the wind and trying to lure the UAVs away from Specter 2, but they kept stubbornly dividing their time between giving him a hard time and trying to shoot the patrol aircraft down.

One of the drones, as if 'noticing' Naomi and Count's approach, broke off and headed for them. It's mistake was taking them head on, in the perfect position for an attack. Naomi waited until she had a lock, going nose to nose with the drone. She held her fire, then banked to the right and fired a missile once she had a lock, getting free of the now destroyed drone and not putting herself in the way of the fiery debris. Count banked left to avoid it as well, and Naomi performed a full roll to level back out. Her next target was the last one, and she was pretty sure that Footpad was sick and tired of it harassing him and Specter 2.

It was an easy target, and Count didn't try and fight her for it. She got within machine gun range and finished it off with her gun instead of using a missile on it. It was practically shredded, and followed its companions down to the ocean. She heard Tabloid chuckle in her ear, and figured Cyclops and the rest of Strider must have followed her and Count in case they were outnumbered. "Damn, Trigger, you're really on a roll today. Nice kill! They won't give the patrol aircraft anymore trouble."

Footpad let out a relieved breath. "Thanks, Trigger! It's nice to know you haven't lost your touch. Or your drive, it would seem."

"You actually thought that she would? Ha." Count grumbled, letting out a very dry, extremely fake laugh. He almost sounded...jealous. At the very least, he was somewhat upset by what Footpad had said, and Naomi had no idea why. "Makes me wonder just how well you actually know her."

Sensing an argument coming on, and wondering why Count seemed so annoyed, Naomi was grateful when David brought about a change of subject. "Hey! Do you have moment?" His voice was nervous, and raised above whatever was going on in the background. It sounded like shouting and various other loud noises. Where the hell was he?

"Yeah. What's up?" Naomi asked him, surveying her surroundings.

"It's chaos here. Two groups of demonstrators have clashed, and now people are running away," David replied. His answer explained all the noise going on in the background. She couldn't imagine what could possibly cause fights to break out when most of what was going on in Oured was supposed to be peaceful and celebratory. Then again, she knew for a fact that people could start fights over just about anything and everything. May be stupid, but even she'd gotten into her fair share of dumb arguments. Why was David out in all of that though? He continued, not giving any indication that he was too worried about leaving. "I see a lot of signs held up. There are even banners flying in the air! They're advertising drones! That's...interesting."

"Whoah, what? You're in Oured?!" Count demanded, showing more concern for David's safety than David himself was.

David huffed and apparently decided he was going to be snarky about the whole thing. "Well yeah, I live here." He paused, then gave a far nicer explanation. "I haven't solved the terminal guidance mystery either, so I'm trying to work on that!"

Count groaned in exasperation. "I meant, why aren't you running, you dumbass!" he snapped.

"Hey, you guys aren't running, are you?" David asked, and it sounded as though he was smiling. Well, he'd made his point at least.

"Damn right, we're not!" Lanza said with a laugh.

There was a pause, and then David's voice came again, confused and distracted. "Running...wait, running?" Another pause, and then David eagerly said, "Yes, those drones aren't running away!"

"What do you mean?" Fencer asked him, as equally as exasperated as Count had sounded earlier, if slightly more patient with him.

David didn't answer the question, instead saying, "I'll call you back! Alex, I need you to check something for me!" With that, the transmission from David ceased, leaving them all with more questions than answers. And who was Alex? Naomi shook her head, glancing at her radar. That couldn't have been the only other wave of hostiles. She had to stay focused.

Sure enough, just as she had guessed, another wave of enemy aircraft showed up on their radars, and Long Caster was quick to inform them of the development. "All aircraft, be advised! We've detected additional hostiles on our radar," he said quickly. "There are fighters mixed in with the UAVs, and they're in larger groups than the first one was. Protect Specter from the enemy at all costs. We only need you to hold out a little bit longer."

"Alright," Naomi said, nodding to herself and preparing herself for another attack. "Everyone, spread out and work together. Try and attack from every direction you can, give them very few places to run to. And if you need help then you need to say so."

"Trigger, the other guys are standing their ground just fine, but in the end it comes down to you," Wiseman said to her, and there was both encouragement and authority in his voice as he spoke. "Do us proud. We're all rooting for you over here. Hmm...what?" He paused for a moment, distracted by someone, and then chuckled. "And Avril wanted me to remind you all not to trash your planes. She says that if you make more work for her and Bandog, she'll kill you herself."

"Tell her to stop worrying so much," Tabloid said with a laugh, and Naomi couldn't tell what he sounded happier about. The fact that he was flying again, or that Avril was concerned for their wellbeing. Tabloid knew as well as anyone that, although she seemingly cared more about their planes, it was just her way of saying that she wanted them to be careful. She was warming up since their time in Spare, slowly but surely, and Naomi knew that she was worried for them. Especially on an operation like this. Tabloid knew what to say to put her mind at ease, though, as usual. "We'll be coming back safe and sound, planes and all. Besides, we'd have hell to pay if we didn't."

"Specter Squadron, this is Mage 3," Grimm's voice came over the radio, the first time he'd said more than a few words. He definitely wasn't the kind of guy to try and grab the spotlight, something Naomi had figured out when she first met him, so it was a bit surprising that he was taking the initiative and checking up on the patrol aircraft. Naomi felt a bit embarrassed that she hadn't thought to do it yet, but none of her mentors said anything to scold her for not speaking up. They all stayed quiet as Grimm went on. "I know those flies slowed you down a bit, so how's your progress been so far?"

"This is Specter 4," replied one of the patrol aircraft, sounding a bit tired and shaken after a close call, but otherwise fine. "A missile grazed us earlier, but we're all still flying. 70% of sonobuoys are dropped."

"Alright, just a little longer!" Count said, half-cheering but thankfully not getting too confident. Naomi knew that she and Count had that in common, but she was grateful that Count was making an effort to tone it down. He was always ready to rally everyone, though, and eagerly added in an almost growl, "C'mon, guys! Just like before, let's go get 'em!"

Everyone did exactly that, refusing to let Specter take any casualties. Even if only one of the patrol aircraft was necessary there were still people on those planes, and if Naomi could help it then not one of them was going to go down. She took the lead once more, firing the first shot at the new group of enemies. A couple of fighters were among them, and Naomi wanted to take care of them first. It was entirely possible that they were controlling the drones, if not that then they were providing necessary cover. So she forced one of the fighters away from his formation, matching his movements and countering his attempts to reach Specter.

Unfortunately, they were outnumbered by the drones, and several slipped through and jumped on Specter's lead aircraft. Frantically, the officer on board called out for support. "This is Specter 1! We've been hit by a missile! We can still fly, but we've got more incoming!" The panic in his voice seemed to set everyone on edge, and Naomi quickly tried to figure out who was closest and able to provide support, all while dodging an enemy missile from a drone that decided to pay her a visit and help out the Rafale she was chasing.

Right as she figured out who was closest to provide support, and right when she was about to call out to them to tell them to get their asses over their, Clown took charge and did it for her. "Mage Squadron, follow after me. Let's go give our friends a hand before those damn flies shoot 'em down!" He waited a second, then added, "Don't forget, we're their escorts. Shield 'em with your bodies if you have to, so long as they make it out!"

Kathryn and Grimm followed him without any argument, the three of them fanning out and taking the drones on one-on-one. Naomi caught glimpses of their fighting. They were quick to react, with aggressive movements, but there was something elegant and precise about their flying as well. She could see a bit of Clown's style in their flying, especially Kathryn's. They were strategists, waiting for the right moment before they made their move. It didn't surprise Naomi that Clown had picked up their own flying style, having sat in the back seat with Kathryn throughout the last war. He was a great pilot, and he learned this from equally as great pilots. But as Naomi glanced at them, and watched them fight and listened, it was clear that their break from flying and the fact they were getting on in age was making it difficult. They were good, but they started losing it halfway through the fight, barely making the kill. Clown was actually showing them up, in spite of being several years older.

Boggard and Footpad were taking on another group of drones alongside Fencer and Tabloid, the four men flying almost as though they'd been fighting side by side their whole lives, making few mistakes and having very little close calls with one another. Skald and Lanza were picking off the drones on the edges, while Knocker and Faun covered them. Jaeger and Húxiān had gone to back up Mage, keeping any more drones from reaching them and causing any trouble. Thanks to Count, Naomi was free of the drone on her tail and had downed the Rafale, moving on to her next target. Knocker broke off from Faun and joined in her pursuit of the remaining fighters, downing one of them while Naomi took out the two wingmen.

From there, everything was easy. They had the drones handled. Naomi shot down two of them when they'd tried to target Húxiān and Jaeger, then Count helped Tabloid, Fencer, and Boggard finish off the remaining five. Naomi had stopped keeping score, but they could look into that later. They hadn't even decided what the winner would get, but there would be plenty of time for that. Besides, Naomi was tired, nervous, and ready for this operation to be over. They could worry about the competition later. Making sure that there were definitely no more enemies in the area, Naomi proceeded to check up on Specter. "Specter Squadron, you had us scared for a minute there. Status on the barrier?"

"This is Specter 1. Sorry to scare you, ma'am. Some of our crew was injured, but we all made it out okay," the radio officer replied. He seemed briefly concerned with other things, which was understandable, but he excitedly followed up with an answer to Naomi. "All sonobuoys dropped! Barrier is completed!" Likely after preparing to send the data to Long Caster, the officer suddenly sounded much more upbeat and younger than he likely was as he added, "All of us making it out alive certainly wasn't in our calculations...we owe you! Big time!"

Naomi felt embarrassed by the comment, wanting to protest and argue that she was only doing her job, but Count chuckled and it caught her even more off guard than Specter Squadron's praise. "You can't really calculate outcomes when you've got an X factor with you!"

"I can't take all the credit," Naomi said to Specter, and what she said was the truth. She'd have never made it on her own. Not without Count and the others. "These guys pulled their weight just as much. Besides, let's not celebrate too early. Once we get that sub and make sure Oured is safe, then you can thank us." Although she didn't want to seem too strict, they really shouldn't jinx it. Once everyone was safe and that sub was sent back to the bottom of the ocean where it belonged, then they earned the right to celebrate. She knew Wiseman would have said the same thing.

As they waited for Specter Squadron to finish with their analysis, Naomi took a breather and looked around the skies. It wasn't over yet, but she could still enjoy how peaceful things looked, but the general atmosphere was still tense for her and the others. The sun was slowly setting, but everything was still bright and practically glowing. There were small areas where rain was falling from dark clouds, and areas where the clouds blocked the sunlight and formed an eery blanket of dark gray which helped add to the tension. At least from Naomi's perspective. It was a great relief when Specter Squadron radioed them again and she directed her thoughts back to the mission.

"Signal analysis complete!" came the familiar voice of Specter 1's radio officer. Boy, was she happy to hear him. "Data linking the Alicorn's navigable zones!"

Long Caster got right to work, clearly making sure that things continued to move like clockwork. "Roger that! Trigger, I'm displaying the search area on your radar map." Naomi heard a sharp chime and looked down at her radar, noting the updated chart. Another new addition was a large ring to the north, right smack in the middle of the ocean, just as expected. Long Caster quickly explained. "The Alicorn is somewhere inside that ring. Activating the MAD!" Naomi was barely being given enough time to process everything as a sudden line appeared on her HUD, being flat and a solid red color until Naomi reduced her speed and turned toward the ring on her map. Long Caster went on. "Do you see the waveform indicator above your HUD?"

"Yeah, I see it," Naomi replied, slowing her speed slightly. It changed from red to green, but the waveform seemed staticky and weak, pathetically beeping every now and then. Naomi was confused and intrigued all at once. "How the hell do I work this thing, exactly?"

"Well for one, the MAD won't function at high speeds, so you'll have to fly slower than eight-hundred kilometers per hour. And I'm afraid that it also won't work as effectively at higher altitudes, so you'll need to step out of your comfort zone a bit, Trigger. I'd say keep your altitude below 600, but it might take more than that. Sorry." Long Caster did sound truly apologetic, and Naomi reluctantly lowered her altitude, flying higher than Strider had been forced to do at Anchorhead but still low enough that the MAD would work. Long Caster continued with his explanation as Naomi began to close in on the circle on her map. "Fly over the search area and look for a location that induces a change in the waveform."

"So, looks like we're treasure hunting for real, huh?" Tabloid asked with a deep breath, recalling Count's comment from earlier. "This oughta be fun..."

"I hate missions like this. I'm just glad I'm not the one that has to use that thing," Kathryn said, sounding suddenly irritable. "Any sort of searching from a plane is a pain in the ass. Especially when you've got so much at stake. Believe me, I know firsthand."

"We all just need to grit our teeth and get through it," Jaeger patiently said to Kathryn and Tabloid, still sounding fairly stern, though. "Trigger's doing the difficult part on her own. We should just be grateful that we don't have the extra responsibility."

"I take it our job is just to make sure that our girl stays in the air?" Count asked Long Caster, and Naomi noticed that he was trailing further behind her than he usually did but was still pretty close. The others were just now starting to catch up to them.

Long Caster replied calmly, trying not to get everyone too on edge, especially with the comments that the others were making. "That's right, Count. All aircraft except for Trigger, you're on contingent combat air patrol. If any more aircraft show up, make sure that Trigger stays safe."

Naomi knew that none of them needed to be told more than once, and all of them spread out around her, performing a protective perimeter just like they'd done for Specter earlier. She felt a little jealous that they got to fly so high, meanwhile she was stuck, feeling sick to her stomach and nervous about flying so low. One wrong move and she'd be dead. She hated it, but she wasn't going to complain. One way or another, it would have to be done, and she might as well make it as easy on herself as she could. Naomi reached the edge of the circle, and the MAD's signal started to grow stronger. She made sure her speed was right and entered the ring. "I wish there was an easier way to do this..." she mused aloud.

"Yeah. Would've been so much easier if it could sing and let us know where it was," Count replied, only half-joking.

"They were in silent running." It was Grimm that answered him, sounding as thoughtful as Jaeger usually did. "I doubt that they even breathed, let along sang. Otherwise, we probably would have found them already."

"The submarine may be huge, but it's still gonna be like looking for a needle in a haystack," Lanza put in, easily sounding the most eager for a fight out of the entire group.

"We're just going to have trust that that MAD picks up whatever trail the damn thing left behind," Knocker said with a sigh as he and Golem flew alongside Cyclops Squadron. Mage and Strider were flying closest to Naomi, while Golem and Cyclops were a bit higher up.

Naomi was trying to pay attention to both the conversation going on among her allies and still focus on the MAD. She wanted to narrow down the search area, but they didn't have a lot of time, so she was pushing the limit with her speed a bit more than she would have liked, trying to pick it up on the edge and move inward. The waveform wasn't picking much up, only occasionally chirping at her and sliding up ever so slightly. Meanwhile, her wingmen continued their conversation. It was Skald that spoke next, possibly doubtful of Knocker's comment. "Do titanium hulls even leave magnetic footprints?"

Faun answered him. "Well, with it's size it seems like it would be impossible not to. The thing's massive, and with all that metal, it'd be amazing if you didn't pick something up."

"He's right, Skald," Jaeger said next. "All the deperming measures in the world won't change that."

From there, the conversation stopped, and Naomi put her full focus on her search. It was a slow process, but at last the MAD's waveform began to move enough that it was worth pursuing. She had to use subtle movements, meaning yawing to the left and right, in order to get where she wanted to go. The waveform started to get less and less consistent, chiming more often and rising. Naomi, unsure what else to do, turned in the direction of the peak and the signal seemed to grow stronger. "This is Strider 1! I'm picking something up. Long Caster?"

There was a pause before their AWACS finally answered. "Okay, Trigger, you're right. Your MAD's getting something. I'm guessing the waveform on your HUD peaked. Just keep turning and flying in the direction where the waveform peaks."

"Alright..." Naomi continued to do what she'd been doing, adjusting her position and tweaking her speed ever so slightly. The waveform began to beep and peak more and more frequently, and Naomi yawed to the right so that it peaked in the center. She'd be approaching it head on. The MAD was getting a much stronger reaction than before, and it was getting louder and more annoying too. "Long Caster, I'm getting a stronger reaction. You getting anything on your end?"

"Not yet, but if your MAD's getting a stronger reaction then it must mean that the Alicorn is near," Long Caster replied.

"You've set the hook!" Clown called out with a laugh. "Now you just gotta reel it in!"

"C'mon, sharky, where are ya?" Húxiān muttered, and Naomi could hear the nervousness and anticipation in her friend's voice.

The sound continued in Naomi's ear until she finally began to close in. The tempo of the waveform changed, becoming much faster and much louder until finally a new sound drowned it out. A sharp, fast beeping of her radar trying to get a lock on something but failing miserably. Why? Because the target was underwater. Naomi tried not to get too excited, but this was it. It had to be it. "Long Caster, I've got something! I think we've found our whale!"

"Yes! We're picking up a magnetic signature!" Long Caster said quickly and obviously relieved. But as luck would have it, they both spoke too soon. Right as he finished announcing that, Naomi's HUD suddenly glitched and the waveform indicator turned to nothing more than static, the once annoying beeping being replaced with white noise. Naomi actually missed the annoying sound, now. She would have taken that over what she was forced to listen to now. Long Caster's relief turned to frustration. "Dammit! Signature lost! I'm seeing strong noise in the MAD's signal!"

Naomi wanted to make a sharp comment. He wasn't the only one. At least he didn't have to listen to it. She didn't get the opportunity to say anything she might regret later, which was probably was for the best, since David had come back and had been listening in to everything the last few minutes. "Shit!" he spat, perhaps the angriest out of the group. Actually, Naomi could have given him a run for his money. "They predicted we'd use an MAD! Looks like the captain was smarter than we gave him credit for..."

"Just great. Seems like this is our contingency..." Count said with a huff of annoyance, although Naomi could hear that he was tired from the fight earlier. She was too, but they had to get past this somehow.

"Does anyone see the source of the noise on the ocean surface? It's likely similar to a buoy!" David informed them, and everyone began to look for what he described, even though they had little details and the odds of them seeing it were unlikely.

Unfortunately, the sun beating off the surface of the water and making it a mix of way too light or way too dark made it almost impossible to see anything on the surface. The visor on Naomi's helmet made it easier to fight the sunlight, but it didn't do much to help with the darkness. She squinted and looked around, leaning forward and against her harness to try and increase her field of vision, but she couldn't see anything at her altitude. And she wasn't about to lower it. Judging by the hushed and confused radio chatter, her wingmen and other allies weren't having any better luck. Not surprising. It was pretty pointless to look in the first place.

Naomi fell back into her usual sitting position with a deep breath, regretting trying to pull herself forward in the cramped space to begin with. "This is Strider 1. None of us have a visual on anything, and our radars aren't picking up anything out of the norm. And we can't fly any lower to look for anything." She took another quick look at her surroundings, but there wasn't a point. She'd never be able to spot anything, and she felt a sense of uselessness for a moment. "What about you, Long Caster?"

"Well, I don't have a window, so I don't know about buoys, but I'm detecting strong radio sources," Long Caster said, and Naomi guessed they'd just finished up their own search. Obviously they had better luck up there than Naomi and everyone else had.

"Correct!" David quickly responded, and Naomi noticed that the noise on his end from earlier hadn't died down much. He didn't seem to bothered by it, though. "That's it! That's what they're using, it's gotta be!"

"Sending the locations of the jamming devices." Not long after Long Caster informed them of this, their HUDs and radars were updated, and Naomi looked over the locations he'd marked. There weren't many, but they were spread out over a fairly wide area. Although the order wasn't necessary, Long Caster gave one nonetheless. "Destroy them, now."

Without any hesitation, they all spread out to make the task go by faster. It wasn't like the buoys were a major threat. It's not like they could shoot at them like drones could (at least Naomi hoped they couldn't), but they wanted this to go by as fast as possible. Lanza was the first to get to work, perhaps the only one happy about having more work to do. "Ha! Like these cheap toys are enough to help them escape our net. This like target practice!" he said with a quiet laugh, obviously not having lost his excitement from the start of the mission. At least he was eager. With that kind of motivation and enthusiasm, they'd win in no time.

Naomi and Lanza were the first to destroy the buoys they targeted, followed almost immediately by Count. As soon as their missiles made contact, there was a muffled and yet still obvious booming sound and a flash from under the surface of the water. It caught Naomi off guard and she instinctively pulled her plane up and away from the water, something she'd been dying to do for a while now, but she knew she'd probably just have to go back down and destroy the others. While she and Lanza were too confused to say anything, Count was startled enough to speak up. "What the...?! A huge explosion just went off underwater!"

"An explosion?!" David was caught off guard, bordering disbelief, but he quickly snapped out of it. "That doesn't sound good. Patrol aircraft, tell us what's happening underwater!"

"Underwater listening is impossible! We're only hearing explosion echoes!" Specter 4 replied quickly, obviously frustrated. There seemed to be a lot of that going around.

"There's a reason they did that with the buoys, so what is it?" Boggard demanded shortly, having taken out one of the buoys farthest away from the original search ring. Naomi and Count had turned to fly towards two that were pretty much side by side while Húxiān went for the one nearest to Boggard's location.

David sighed. "The Alicorn will use the noise for cover and head out at full speed." He paused, and then groaned. "Dammit, I should have known they'd do something like this! Specter, I need you to determine the sub's location again, as soon as the noise dies down. As for everyone else, destroy the rest of them! Hurry!"

"We're not gonna let them get away! We can make it!" Naomi quickly replied, trying to reassure herself more than anyone else but secretly hoping it helped calm David down a bit. He seemed more anxious than anyone else was, or at least he was the only one to express how anxious she was. Naomi didn't really get that luxury, not that it did anything to change how she might react. The seconds it took to reach the target felt like hours, and finally Naomi made one last dive towards the surface, lining up the sight on her HUD and firing the machine gun. The buoy was wiped out in just a few hits, another explosion underwater confirming this. Two more followed, with a brief, fairly dull flash of light and muffled boom, confirming that Count and Húxiān had destroyed their buoys as well.

"Nice work. All jamming buoys have been eliminated," Long Caster said.

"Specter, how'd it go?" Fencer asked, uncharacteristically nervous. "You pick anything up yet?"

"No. Wait for the sonobuoys to respond." Specter 2's reply was simple, perhaps a little annoyed by Fencer's impatience.

All of them were impatient at this point, as proved when Húxiān spat, "Argh, Goddammit! They're gonna get away!"

Naomi wanted to agree or argue or something. Just anything to break the tense silence that fell over them all. They had nothing to do but fly around and wait and feel useless. And helpless. There was a lot at stake, but they had no way of speeding up the process. So for about a minute, every single second of which was spent in agony, they did the only thing they could do. It was all spent in silence, but after a bit, they'd all become tired of the quiet. Kathryn was the first one to speak up, her tone harsher than what Naomi was used to from her, "Hey, you guys okay over there?!"

There was a pause before Specter 1 replied. "Analysis done! Data linking!"

"Dammit! It's location has moved!" Long Caster raised his voice, more scared than angry, and several of the pilots all exclaimed in surprise and frustration. There wasn't much time to waste, and Long Caster knew this, quickly updating their radars. "Trigger, I'm sending you the search area. Now go! Don't let it get away!"

"Shit, the Alicorn's almost reached that trench we heard about earlier!" Grimm cried out. "We're almost out of time! Hurry!"

"Relax, Trigger's already on the hunt!" Count said, although even he sounded worried.

That was all Naomi needed to push herself forward. She made a sharp turn, bringing her nose around and throttling up, she was closing in on the location as fast as she could. At this rate, they might not make it in time, but Naomi wasn't about to give it up. Even if they couldn't make it, they had to try. And she had to make it. As she reached the edge of the ring, her heart feeling like it was going to burst out of her chest, a bunch of blips appeared on radar and a small swarm of SLUAVs burst out of the water. "What the hell?!" Naomi heard a missile lock warning and immediately got a lock of her own, firing one missile and switching targets to fire again as she banked to evade the missiles that had been fired at her. Luckily for her, she managed to take out the two they'd fired at, but she couldn't dogfight. "I could use a hand over here! They've launched UAVs!"

Húxiān sputtered for a moment before she found the words she was looking for. "They can launch them from underwater?! How...how the hell?!"

"It doesn't matter!" Lanza replied quickly, and Naomi checked to see where he and the others were, her missile warnings making it hard to think straight. They were almost there. "If you can splash even one, it'll be that much easier for Trigger!"

Naomi had no choice but to awkwardly dodge a couple of stray missiles, as well as keeping a steady altitude to avoid slamming into the nearby rocks jutting out of the water. She couldn't focus on the task if she ran the risk of getting shot out of the sky. Just a little longer. She grunted as she rolled clear of a missile, spotting it continue to fly through the air, hitting the surface of the water harmlessly. As the UAV that fired it was getting ready to take another shot at her, Count swooped in and fired a missile of his own, wiping out the drone without a moment's hesitation. "We've got your back, Trig! Just focus on finding the submarine, and leave these pests to us!"

"Strider, Cyclops, we don't have much time left," Wiseman said gravely. If he was starting to grow tired and worried then the others wouldn't be far behind.

"Don't you worry!" Count said through gritted teeth as he worked with the others to keep the UAVs off of Naomi. "Trigger will find it! I know she will! Everyone else, get in there and keep the drones away from her!"

Naomi lowered her altitude and speed, however hesitant she was. Her mouth was dry and her heart was still pounding, all the while she had to fight the instinct to pull up and turn and fight when that familiar tracking warning went off in her ears. Thankfully, her wingmen were all jumping on the drones every time they tried to threaten the mission. They were tired, though, and their fighting was much sloppier than it could have been. Naomi didn't blame them. She was in the same situation. Húxiān seemed to be struggling more than usual, and let out a weak shout of frustration, musing aloud, "Trigger's given me so much cover and I still...Shit, I'm just pathetic!"

"Húxiān, we all need you to hang in there!" Wiseman said firmly, a little harsher than usual but enough to get everyone's attention. Naomi had a sinking feeling that they were going to be cutting it a little too close, as confirmed when Wiseman quickly added to her in a panicked shout, "Double-time it, Trigger!"

It wasn't the first time she'd heard that. She was going as fast as she could for the MAD to still function, and she was following that stupid waveform right down the middle. So where was that damn sub? She'd started sweating somewhere early along in this search, feeling like she was burning. Suffocating from fear was another thing that it felt like. The chiming and the waveform was starting to speed up, just like it had done the first time. "Where are you? C'mon, you stupid sub. Come and fight..." she whispered to herself. It felt like the whole world stopped moving until finally she heard that familiar sound from earlier, and everything came rushing back to life. She needed to be sure. "Long Caster?"

"You've reeled it in! Positive hit on the MAD!" Long Caster confirmed, sounding as though he was smiling. "Strider 1 found the submarine Alicorn!"

"Yes!" Naomi couldn't help but let out an ecstatic cheer, which the others all joined in on, even the crew on board the patrol aircraft.

"I guess all that flying around finally paid off, right Trigger?" Footpad asked with a chuckle.

"We ain't done yet. Time for some real fun," Count said next. "Let's give it the finishing blow!"

It was now that the Osean fleet they'd brought along stepped in, having been silently moving along while the fighters did all the work. Naomi may have wished they'd done some more help, but in all fairness they hadn't really been targeted. Besides, it was this part which would determine how the rest of the day went. "Target coordinates acquired," one of the sailors announced to everyone, and Naomi could just imagine how chaotic things were on those ships now. "Coordinates reentered."

It was the captain of the Canary that spoke next, his voice booming. "Commence preparations to fire the VL-ASROC!"

"VL-ASROC ready for launch!" a female crewman announced, the fleet having finally moved into position.

"The line of fire is clear," another man confirmed.

"Ready!" a fourth and final officer called out. Naomi figured that it must have been soldiers from each of the four ships, making sure that the attack would be coordinated.

"Fire all missiles!" came the order from the Canary's captain.

"FIRE!" The officers had all shouted the command at once, and almost exactly at the same time the four ships fired the missiles into the air.

"Missile away!" Long Caster called out.

"All anti-submarine missiles have been launched!" announced the ship captain.

The four missiles shot up into the air with a roar, leaving a white streak behind them. They went directly up and then arced, falling down towards the surface of the water. Naomi had been circling the location, watching as the missiles went up into the air. She made her turn a bit wider than she usually did, happy to finally be allowed to climb higher. The missiles' descent was slowed after their arc, each one having deployed a parachute. This gave Naomi time to slip underneath them, bringing the nose of her Eagle up and into a straight climb. She took a deep breath, looking over her shoulder as much as she could at the missiles before leveling her fighter out and going to rejoin her wingman.

From where they were, they watched the missiles hit the water one after the other, sending a spray of water into the air. The splash had to have been several feet high, but there was no way of knowing for sure. It was obviously big, though. As they hit the water, hopefully falling down to their target and letting the plan go smoothly, the Canary's captain spoke once more, hesitant and obviously nervous. Like he didn't really want an answer to his question. "Report the results...did we get 'em or not?"

The water was still for a moment, or as still as it was going to be, and then something broke the surface and Naomi felt a growing pit in her stomach. The Alicorn burst from the water, breaching like a vicious, metal whale. Its front end went a good ways into the air before it came crashing back down, almost majestically, allowing the rest of the submarine to fully surface. As it hit the water, staying afloat above it, it made a cracking sound like thunder and the water around it was sent straight up. It created a massive, temporary white wall that covered the Alicorn before falling back down to the ocean, most of their wall of water fading into sea spray and falling victim to the light wind that hit it. The Alicorn readied the railguns it kept concealed at its side, and turned towards the fleet.

"Holy shit...no..." Kathryn breathed out through a shudder, and Naomi heard nothing but sheer terror in the older pilot's voice. The Alicorn's intimidating display combined with the fact that one of the Razgriz was scared by it sent a chill down Naomi's spine and she immediately knew that this wasn't going to be as easy as everyone had hoped. Or planned for that matter.

"Alicorn spotted; it's surfacing!" Húxiān said quickly, her own fear starting to show through for once.

Both of the other women's reactions flipped a switch in Naomi's mind. She had to keep it together. They had to focus on destroying this thing, and if she allowed herself to get scared then everyone else was going to suffer and she needed them all to come back alive. It didn't matter what had to happen in order to accomplish that. But as soon as they heard that the Alicorn hadn't been hit, fear and anger seemed to take the forefront in everyone's mind. Lanza's voice was the first to rise clearly above the surprised shouting. "Surfacing?! We haven't sunk it?!"

"If we had sunk it, it wouldn't be surfacing, now would it?!" Skald, usually the calmer of the two of them, snapped at Lanza. It was unusual that the two of them ever raised their voices at each other. They were like brothers, and Naomi had figured this out since the first day she met them. The stress must have been getting to him. Just what they needed.

"They're attacking our fleet!" Tabloid said, his voice laced with concern for their allies. "Shit, this isn't good!"

"Son of a...!" Count didn't finish the sentence, and Naomi couldn't figure out why. But almost with a growl he said instead, "We didn't hit 'em!"

"Dammit!" That was Knocker.

Naomi wasn't about to sit around any longer, so as soon as new blips appeared on her radar and Long Caster indicated the targets all across the submarine, she made a dive for it and picked up speed once more. "You're wrong, Count!" she called out to her wingman, readying herself for the fight. She knew exactly what to target first, and switched through the targets until she was tracking the railgun. That was the first order of business. "We may not have hit them, but we have backed them into a corner! And it's time to show them just what Osea is capable of!"

She was still trying to get into range, unfortunately unable to stop them from firing at the fleet. But she could stop them from getting the remaining ships. As she was on her way, the others started to pick up speed and follow, spurred on by Wiseman. "She's right. They're vulnerable now that they've surfaced!" Wiseman said to them, backing her up even if he wasn't physically there. "All aircraft, follow up on Trigger! Destroy the Alicorn!"

Everyone sounded off, and Naomi felt a surge of determination. She finally got a lock on the railgun, firing as soon as she could and pulling up as the Alicorn sent out a volley of anti-air fire. Machine gun fire and missiles...it looked like just about everything that they had to throw at them. Missile warnings blared in her ear while the crew of the crew ships below began to shout over one another, announcing the loss of the Seagull and the Canary. They were starting to abandon ship, but in this mess it would be risky. The four ships had spread themselves out, allowing the Alicorn to pass between them. What other choice did they have?

Wanting to finish this battle as soon as possible and with as few casualties on their end as they could manage, she checked the damage that had been done to the submarine as soon as the others finished their attack, preparing to circle around for another run. Unfortunately, their hits hadn't done much. The CIWS the Alicorn had was protecting it, and only one was making it through at a time from each plane. This wasn't going to be easy, especially with the sub's constant attacks on them. One of the railguns was damaged, but a bright blue light from the two of them told Naomi that it was powering up, and a red line appeared on her radar.

"You're being locked onto by the railguns!" Long Caster warned her. "Increase your speed and run, Trigger! The same goes for everyone else!"

"Shit!" Naomi quickly circled around, trying to get one final hit on the right railgun before it fired. She switched weapons to the pulse lasers, carefully lining the circle up with the target, ignoring the alarms in her ear. She had to try it. The railguns turned and their angle was adjusted so they were tilted back slightly, in perfect firing position for any aircraft. Great, just what we needed. Naomi ignored her thoughts as the circle on her HUD turned red, and she began firing, hoping some of them were hitting. A muffled whirring sound was starting to get louder as she got closer to the railgun, and she could only assume that it was the sound of the guns powering up. She quickly switched weapons and fired a missile before pulling up, not wanting to get any lower to the water or any closer to the gun.

"If one of those railguns hits us, we'll be torn into a million pieces!" Count said as he followed Naomi into a climb, having managed to take out one of the SAMs they had mounted on the very end of the flight deck. The others were finishing their run as well, cutting it rather close. Unfortunately, all of their attacks were being weakened and right now it seemed the best course of action was to decide what to hit first. The damn thing was huge.

"They're aimed at the sky, singling out the aircraft!" Naomi informed everyone. "Don't flutter about, or you're gonna get hit!"

"Throttle up!" Count growled.

Their fighters were forced to make hard turns in order to get out of the railguns' line of fire, and they all barely managed it. Right as Boggard and Footpad were clear from the line shown on their radars, the Alicorn fired. There was a ripple in the air as the shell took flight, shaking their fighters as it did. The shot missed all of them, and when Naomi tried to get a lock on the railguns, the Alicorn was quick to retract them again. Frustrated, Naomi targeted the next thing her radar switched to, wanting to land another shot in before the Alicorn tried anything else. It was one of the ballast tanks, and one of the higher priority targets that Long Caster had designated.

Instead of using regular missiles to destroy them, knowing full well that the CIWS was still in mostly working order, Naomi started to make more use of her pulse lasers. She fired at the ballast tanks, which offered a very small, short-lived victory when it finally was destroyed. That and the hits that the others had made, wiping out two more SAMs and working to damage anything else they could hit, was putting the submarine in a world of hurt. Their attack abruptly came to an end as the Alicorn began to retreat underwater, sending up several UAVs to distract them as it did. "Dammit, the Alicorn is diving!" Jaeger called out as a missile he'd fired just before the sub began to dive ended up hitting the water instead of its target.

David's voice came over the radio. He sounded much calmer compared to before. "Don't worry. Its ballast tanks should be damaged, so it'll have to surface again soon!" he told them quickly, and there wasn't any doubt in his voice. Naomi trusted him. "In the meantime, it'd be a good idea to shoot down the drones that have been launched, and work on your plan to attack the next time the sub surfaces. When that will be, though...I can't predict that for you."

"Specter Squadron will continue our surveillance," Specter 1 said, and Naomi felt bad that she'd almost forgotten about them. They were smart to stay high up and out of range, but still low enough to do their work. "We might be able to locate the sub if it's about to surface. It won't give you much, but it will give you a bit of time." He let out a tired chuckle. "Besides, I'd say that it's the very least of what we could do after you saved our tails back there."

"Don't worry, buddy. That's more than enough," Long Caster replied. "All aircraft, position yourselves to hit the Alicorn as it surfaces!"

"Righto!" Count said.

While they waited, they did what David had suggested and targeted the drones. There weren't many of them, and it didn't take long to wipe them out. Naomi and Count got two of them, then Clown and Grimm got a couple on their own, and Skald, Tabloid, and Footpad finished them off. That left them with nothing to do but anxiously fly around and obsessively check their radars to see if the Alicorn was showing up on it yet. At last, Specter Squadron pulled through for them once again. "Sub spotted! Sending underwater coordinates!"

Not wasting another second, they all flew towards the blip on their radar, reaching it right as the Alicorn settled itself on the surface and continued on its way. "The Alicorn has surfaced! Commence assault!"

"Clown, Grimm, you guys remember um...you remember the Scinfaxi and the Hrimfaxi, right? Y'all remember taking them on?" Kathryn asked the two of them, and both men responded quickly that they did. "Well, if we did it there, then we can do it here. I say that we team up and target the CIWS to make the attacks easier. They're our biggest problem right now, and if we take those out then it'll be easier on Naomi- I mean, easier on Strider 1 and the others." Naomi was amazed that Clown was just letting Kathryn speak up like that, practically giving the orders herself, but he didn't seem to mind. It did make sense, considering she used to be the one calling the shots.

"Well, I like the sound of that plan, Blaze," Clown said in reply. "Good thinkin', Kid. Hopefully it won't be too hard, right?" He paused, then the three F-16s that Mage Squadron was flying broke off to do just what they said they would. "C'mon, guys, it's time to do our part. Those things are pretty damn tough, so I'll go in and hit 'em to start. Then Blaze, you and Grimm come in and give them the finishing blow. May not be as effective as it could be, but it'll save us some ammunition. Trust me, we might need it later."

Naomi was waiting for the railguns to make an appearance again, so she could get rid of those before they continued to threaten the mission. They got rid of those, then all they'd have to do was destroy the rest of the ballast tanks and there hopefully would be less anti-air resistance. The red line appeared on her radar, and it wasn't hard to spot the bright blue glow from either side of the Alicorn. Showtime. She lowered her altitude just a little to make a clear approach and switched back to her pulse lasers. Once her shot was lined up, all that was left to do was fire. And that was precisely what she did, hitting the railgun one shot after the other until the glow disappeared from that side and a small explosion took its place.

"This is Strider 1!" she called out, managing to smile. That was one less problem they had to worry about. "I can confirm the destruction of one of the railguns. One down, one to go!"

"Yes!" Skald cheered. "That's one horn snapped off!"

"I feel like now you're just showing off, Trigger," Faun said with an out of breath laugh.

"You'll have to celebrate it later. There's still one left, and I think you pissed them off," Long Caster said to them, and unfortunately he was right. "You're being targeted by the remaining railgun, Trigger. Shake 'em off!"

She got herself out of range just in time, the others doing the same. Mage Squadron and Golem Squadron had teamed up and done a number on the Alicorn's defense, while the LRSSG had taken out the remaining SAMs and another ballast tank. That left two more. The Alicorn would be a sitting duck if it lost the remaining ballast tanks, and its crew obviously knew this, securing their railgun and throwing everything else that they could at their enemy. Naomi's missile alerts started going crazy as it began to launch as many missiles as it could in any direction, sending up a swarm of UAVs along with it and forcing Naomi and the others to break off their attack and dodge the incoming missiles.

Through the chaos, Naomi saw movement on the deck of the ship, and two Rafales took to the skies to join the fight. From the looks of things, there were two more waiting to take off and follow their wingmen. Long Caster, shocked and confused, announced the new enemies. "The Alicorn has launched aircraft!" he practically yelled. "They're fighters, not UAVs!"

As the other two followed, they began to circle around and evaluate in a far more calculated and experienced manner than their unmanned companions. "That's some real skill there!" Jaeger said through gritted teeth, rolling clear of one of the last of the Alicorn's missiles. Although he sounded in pain and furious, something unusual for him, there was a hint that he was impressed by the enemy pilots. Naomi wasn't about to fault him for that. Even she was surprised by that. Jaeger added, "They've got serious guts to take off right now!"

"It ain't guts!" Húxiān snarled in reply. "They're just damn crazy!"

As Naomi was about to move in for another attack, a bunch of objects flew up from the ship in the same manner as the UAVs, but much smaller and there seemed to be a glow similar to that of the railguns coming from the center of them. "The Alicorn has launched flying objects. Their signature is different from the UAVs we've seen, but..." Long Caster said, but he trailed off. "Wait, what? This is...that doesn't make any sense! All aircraft, the drones' signature is similar to that of the Arsenal Bird. Can anyone confirm what the hell we're seeing up here?"

Right as he said this, Naomi had to break off from her attack as the drones activated blueish green shields, nearly diving straight through them. It was Skald that answered Long Caster, quick to assess the situation. "The small UAVs have activated EM barriers," he said.

"He's right, Long Caster. I have a visual on them," Naomi said, although a mere 'visual' on it was more or less an understatement. "They do look similar to the Arsenal Bird's defense systems, but they might be a lot weaker. Then again, I'm not about to fly through them to find out for sure."

"So, what do we do about it then?!" Tabloid asked quickly. "It's not like we have Stonehenge to bust through them, and they're keeping us from the sub!"

Naomi quickly looked over the area the drones were covering, and realized Tabloid was right. Their entire purpose was to give the sub enough time to dive again, but there were a couple of gaps in their defense. It wasn't much, but it was enough to fly through and get another hit before they went under again. "Not for long, Tabloid...everyone, you think you could keep the enemy aircraft busy for a minute? I'm gonna try something and I'd appreciate them not chasing me the whole way." Count was the first to react, downing the first drone that tried to jump on her, as if it could tell what her plan was. The others were quick to follow Count's lead, which gave her enough time. Or she hoped it would.

Bringing her plane around, she adjusted her altitude and flew at a bit of an angle, being forced to make slight adjustments thanks to the wind. But that was the only gap she could find that didn't involve crashing into the sub or slamming into the water. Picking up speed, she targeted one of the remaining ballast tanks and made sure she was tracking it as she made her approach. She flew between the brightly colored bubbles, focusing on the target and not hitting the drones. As she got between them, there was enough space between the drones and the sub to fly, and she could probably squeeze out underneath the shields on the other end.

Quickly, she fired a pair of missiles and rolled her plane back onto its belly, clenching her jaw and her fists as she flew under them and pulled her plane clear of the water once she was finally free. She let out a deep breath as the barrier drones began to drop their shields and began to fall down to the ocean, as if there was a time limit on how long they could keep up the shield. The Alicorn would be diving soon, but it wouldn't be a problem. Húxiān confirmed her success, calling out, "Trigger's attack hit! I can visually confirm hull damage! Looks like she blew that thing to pieces!"

"Let's follow her lead!" Count grunted as he made a hard maneuver to get a UAV off his tail so he could shoot it down.

"You're going to have to hold off on that, Count," Long Caster said. "The enemy submarine is diving. Handle their air support until it resurfaces."

They watched the submarine go under, and the rest of the drones fell down to the water with the others, just harmless pieces of scrap now. With the submarine running again, they didn't have anything else to do but fly around and engage, but it seemed that the enemy fighters that had taken off were trying to drag the fight on to give their allies more time. David's voice came over the radio again, and it sounded as though he hadn't been keeping tabs on the last few minutes. "Hello, this is North! Sorry about that, I had to confirm a theory of mine. What's the situation on your end?"

"We've got a moment or two," Grimm answered him. "Statrep?"

David wasted no time answering him. It sounded like the only thing keeping him from a full blown panic attack was the fact that he had a job to do. "It's the advertising drones! These guys are doing the terminal guidance, and we had no idea! They were right under my nose the whole time and I couldn't figure it out until now!"

"Hey, hey, chill!" Lanza said quickly, trying to calm David down enough to explain without yelling. "Take it slowly instead of just vomiting the words out!"

"Just listen! Like I've been saying, there are advertising drones flying above the demonstrators! They're perfect for a guidance systems, but your opponent is that captain...I've gotta find a way to stop them from here, but how..." David paused to do his thinking like he'd done since day one of this submarine chase. "I'll be right back! Alex!" It sounded as though he had set his phone down and walked to another part of whatever room he was in. "How far away is the nearest air base?"

"Roughly 82 kilometers," came the monotonous voice of what Naomi guessed was some AI assistant he had. The voice sounded like it was from one of those 'home assistants' that was popular nowadays, but David's probably had a better purpose than giving recipes and playing music.

Once again with nothing left to do but wait, the sky seemed to become cramped as they all engaged the enemy aircraft. Golem and Mage had a fun time with the UAVs, toying with them for lack of anything better to do. It didn't bother Naomi, though. This wasn't a real pilot they were harassing, just a dumb UAV that was either acting on its emotionless programming or being controlled by a very frustrated crewman on the submarine. The four fighters spent their time giving Strider and Cyclops a hard time, surprisingly able to drag the fight on for longer than expected. They were trying to buy time for the submarine, and they seemed to be doing a good job of it.

With all the chaos and how crowded things were getting, the enemy squadron seemed to have the advantage. They had just taken off and weren't tired from a long day of fighting and chasing down a submarine, which shouldn't have been an excuse for poor fighting on Cyclops and Strider's parts but they were doing the best they could. Somewhere along the line, the enemy had the idea of separating Naomi from Count during the battle, and then tried to lure her away from the others. They were either trying to take out her wingmen or they were trying to take out her, but either way she wasn't about to allow it. They took her two on one, while the other two tried to piss off everyone else.

Naomi managed to shoot down one of them, but the other was stubbornly sticking to her tail and there wasn't much that she could do about it. She realized quickly that the other pilot had basically just given up and let her shoot him down, realizing how easy that was. And just like before, no one bailed out. A missile warning began blaring in her ear, and she was pretty sure that her only options were to try and fail to evade or waste whatever flares she had left. Had she used them already? At this point she couldn't even remember, and she didn't have the time to check. The goal right now was to just not die, and it wasn't looking like she was going to succeed in completing that goal.

"Strider 1! Missile incoming, evade it!" Húxiān called out to her, her voice shrill and anxious. The tone that Húxiān used acted like a splash of cold water, and Naomi mustered up enough energy to pull a very sharp, very fast turn and roll to get away from the incoming missile, and she braked and sent the Rafale flying over her. It felt like someone hit her in the chest with a boulder, but at least she was alive. She looked up as she tried to recover and chase after the enemy plane but Húxiān was already after him. With a couple of swift, short movements, Húxiān had gained the upper hand and fired a pair of missiles to finish the job. The missiles hit the engine and the Rafale didn't stand a chance. The pilot had time, but like the others he didn't eject. Húxiān circled back around and Naomi climbed up to join her, the former letting out a huff. "What are these psychos, a suicide squad? Guess it doesn't matter now. That twisted death wish of theirs just came true...you alright, Trigger?"

"Yeah, I'm fine...those guys really know how to tire their prey out, don't they?" Naomi replied, leaning to the side to look down at the water. She leaned back into the ejection seat and took a deep breath. "I would have been dead without you, Húxiān. Thanks for the help."

"Well, for one it's my job. And I still owe you from when you saved my ass back at Yinshi Valley. That's a pretty big debt I have to pay back," Húxiān replied casually. Naomi wasn't expecting the answer, nor did she want her wingman to feel as though she owed her a debt. Húxiān didn't owe her anything, and just flying with her was payment enough. She was a great pilot, and it was nice to have some company other than the guys. Trying to lighten the situation, Húxiān was soon to add, "Besides, you think I wanna have to listen to Count bossing everyone around for the rest of the mission? Ha! No thanks! I have to listen to his griping enough as it is."

Although the two of them laughed at the joke, Count on the other hand was not quite as amused. "Very funny, you two. I'm glad that you're both having fun at my expense, but I'll have you know that I could take charge just fine. And I don't gripe!" he said, but that only made them laugh more.

This time, Tabloid joined in with his own chuckle. "I dunno, Count. I feel like the girls make a good point. Otherwise you wouldn't have complained."

"Why don't you just shut up, Tabloid?" Count shot back, although he knew it was just some friendly teasing.

Tabloid just laughed off his sharp comment as he flew along with Lanza rejoin Skald and Fencer after the latter two helped Count and Jaeger run down the last two fighters. Without any enemies to help the time go by, they just had to wait on Specter to find the sub. Surely they couldn't stay under that long, though? There was no way, and yet it seemed like Torres was trying to push his luck as much as he could. If he could keep most of his crew alive at the bottom of the ocean for two years then maybe there wasn't anything he couldn't do.

In the middle of their agonizing wait, David had kept his word and called them back. "Hello?"

"About time you called back!" Naomi said to him, actually relieved to hear him. He had either figured out the answer or he was close to it. "We're right in the middle of a search. How are things?"

"I just got off of a call with the air base just outside of the city!" David informed them excitedly, which Naomi took as a sign that they'd been able to find a solution. He went on. "We're going to jam this entire region using the air force's EW aircraft!"

"Whoah!" Lanza gasped.

"Well, I guess that's one way to do it," Fencer chuckled.

"All radios are going to be disabled! Controlling the drones with terminal guidance will be impossible!" David continued, talking almost as fast as Tabloid did if you got him going on something. With a sigh he decided to add a jab towards Húxiān and Avril, "It's crude, but effective."

Húxiān stifled a laugh which turned it into an amused scoff. "Bastard!"

David ignored her comment, answering only with a chuckle. "Unfortunately, all cell phones will probably stop working as well. This might be our last call, but I'm going to do everything I possibly can to stay in touch. If you're all sticking this through to the end, then you damn well better believe that I am!" Even if he wasn't out there fighting with them, Naomi had to admire the drive and dedication that David had to this operation. She hadn't known him long, but she'd really grown to like him. He didn't seem to want to leave, but he had to say a quick goodbye anyways. "Well, they're gonna start the jamming any minute now, so I don't have much time. If I can't get back, I want to wish you all the best of luck in stopping Torres!"

"Go! We've got everything handled over here!" Count called out to him. "Thanks for all the help, though. In spite of all the quiz games you made us play, you really pulled through in the end. Appreciate that."

"It's the least I could do when you guys are out there putting your lives on the line for us," David replied, sounding as if he was smiling. "Bye, you guys. I'll talk to you back at the base when you all come home safe and sound."

Just like that, the call with David ended and Naomi doubted they'd hear from him for the rest of the mission. Still, she hoped that they might be able to somehow. He deserved to share in their victory. Even if she wasn't as optimistic about the outcome as he was, whatever happened he deserved to be a part of. Without him they probably wouldn't have even made it this far, and Naomi and the others really owed the guy. Maybe once the war was over then they could get in touch with him, find a way to thank him for the help. She couldn't dwell on this for too long, as at last Specter had something for them. "Alright, we've picked up the Alicorn underwater! Sending coordinates!"

As the Alicorn surfaced, everyone rushed to reach it in time, catching it right as the water settled around it. Right as they began to target it, their HUDs began to glitch and no one could get a clear lock on it. Right at that moment they chose to fire whatever anti air defenses they had left, a couple more barrier drones being among them. "What the hell?!" Kathryn blurted out, having to dodge a missile and barely managing to get out of the way in time. "Long Caster, my HUD's glitching! I can't get a lock!"

"I think we're all in the same boat," Jaeger said with a sigh, and he broke off along with a few of the others. Naomi continued to circle around the sub though, looking for a way to get through somehow, and Count followed her. Jaeger took notice. "Trigger, Count, how're things over there?"

"Same on our end..." Naomi replied, trying to stay focused on her task. "Long Caster?"

"We've identified the source of the jamming and it's location aboard the Alicorn," Long Caster replied quickly. "I'm guessing they're pulling out all their tricks now. Trying to protect what little they have left. You could still make the shot, but it would be better if you didn't waste ammo and risk your lives when you don't have to." After he said that, he updated their HUDs to show the location of the jammer. "If you can find a way to, destroy the jammer and the rest should be easy from there on out."

The location of the jammer was right on top of the Alicorn, on the arch above the flight deck. She couldn't get to it unless she went in low, and there was an almost perfect gap in their defenses and between the barrier drones, but they were readying the remaining railgun. But if her timing was right, there might be a way to kill two birds with one stone. It wouldn't be easy, and she'd have to be precise, but she'd done crazier things before. "Count, I'm gonna fly in and take out the jammer and the railgun. You remember how I like flying through things, right? Just like that, but...y'know. Higher chance of dying, I think. Should be easy though.

Count let out an exasperated sigh and worriedly replied, "No, no, no, Trigger. You better not be thinking about doing what I think you're gonna do. Absolutely not, you dumbass! Just wait for the damned drones to go down!" When Naomi didn't answer him and instead began to work her way around and make her approach, he huffed and added mostly to himself, "Fine, go and get yourself killed, you freaking maniac. Ugh...why did I think that sinking this stupid sub was gonna be easy?"

"Relax, Count. I've done crazier things before, right?" Naomi asked, but he only grumbled out a reply. She couldn't quite make out what it was, but she was pretty sure it was 'cocky dumbass' or something close to that. She let out a quiet, dry laugh, his comment for some reason giving her an extra boost of confidence. It gave her an extra reason to do this. Nervously, she lowered her altitude and once again flew through the gaps in the drones' shields. The railgun had been raised at this point and the blue light from it along with a muffled whining sound told her that it was preparing to fire. First order of business was to destroy the jammer, so she switched to her pulse lasers immediately after making it through the barrier and fired as quickly as she could.

By this point, the crew must have realized what she was trying to accomplish, and somehow got a rather damaged machine gun up and running to fire at her. Her plane was pelted with bullets from it and it nearly knocked her off course. She had no choice but to stop her attack on the jammer, running out of time and having the option of either destroying the jammer or destroying the railgun. Switching to regular missiles as she was halfway along the flight deck (barely keeping her plane from stalling) and managed to get a lock on the railgun. Before she lost it, she fired, and the missiles barely managed to find their way to the target before it followed the same fate as the first one.

The barrier drones were starting to fall now, but she figured she might as well stay on this course. It was easier that way, and although she took a few more hits from the gun, she could still pull it off. Thank God for Avril, she thought as she glanced at her wing to assess the damage. Just a couple of dents and scratches, but nothing that the great Scrap Queen couldn't fix. Well, time to go big or go home. Picking up speed before she stalled right into the flight deck, Naomi flew her plane right underneath the arch on the Alicorn. The rest of the drones fell to the water and as she reached the other end she pulled up as quickly as she could and put a comfortable distance between herself and the ocean below, dodging another volley of missiles and machine gun fire that the Alicorn desperately sent at her, almost getting hit but managing to evade just in time.

"Jammer is still active, but both of the railguns have been destroyed!" Long Caster announced to them. "Awesome!"

"Hahaha!" Count let out a loud, genuine laugh that made Naomi grin wildly, a strange feeling of comfort and pride washing over her at the sound of his laugh. "Trigger tore both of its arms off! Ha! Your craziness actually paid off for a change!"

"For a change?" Naomi scoffed, but she wasn't actually annoyed with him. Not any more than usual, anyways. She chuckled. "Ha! What do you mean 'for a change', asshole?"

Before he could answer, Knocker cut in. "Hey, I wouldn't let my guard down, guys. There's no guarantee that monster only has a pair of them, and the last thing we need is for someone to lose focus and get themselves killed."

"He's right. All of you, watch yourselves or you're gonna get hurt," Jaeger said, although Naomi didn't expect anything less. They were the more experienced and even if Naomi was in command it didn't mean that the older pilots weren't going to let her know what they thought. Or bring her back down if she got too confident. Naomi also knew what happened when someone lost focus, and she wasn't going to let that happen. Jaeger didn't stay serious for long, and happily egged them on. "Now let's go and slay this beast so we can go home!"

Naomi was quick to react, and they all hung back and let her take the lead. She switched her target to the final ballast tank and made a dive straight for it, preparing to fire another pair of missiles. Their jammer hadn't been destroyed, but it looked as though it was damaged enough to stop working. At least temporarily anyways. She got a lock and as usual fired as soon as she did before pulling out of the dive. Both of missiles went straight down, hitting the ballast tank and Naomi could only hope it was destroyed. She circled around, ready for another run, but it had been destroyed. Long Caster confirmed it a moment later, "Target hit! The ballast tank has been destroyed!"

"The submarine's outer hull is severely damaged!" Faun called out excitedly. "It won't be able to dive like that!"

Everyone let out their own shouts and cheers of victory and Naomi joined in, all of them letting themselves get caught up in the moment. To her surprise, David's voice joined in. "Awesome work! The submarine is stuck like that! They're too vulnerable to attempt anything else!"

"David?" Skald asked, his cheers coming to a stop and the others being quick to follow. He chuckled. "It's great to hear from you again, but I thought you couldn't make calls anymore!"

"I'm using a payphone!" David chirped, as though nothing nerve-wracking or any near death experiences had just happened. "And for the first time, too!"

In case they had to keep fighting, everyone was still on edge, but they managed to laugh a bit at what David said. The Alicorn was still moving, and the remainder of Osea's fleet had managed to catch up by now, cruising along a good distance from the submarine. A new voice came over the radio, with ringing and nervous chattering in the background. The voice wasn't unfamiliar. It was the same cold and almost haunting voice that had given the speech they'd heard before. Naomi immediately tensed up, the voice letting out a defeated sigh. But something about the tone was off, in spite of the comment that it made. "We surrender..."

Everyone else was just as disturbed and confused as Naomi was. "What the hell? Who is this?" demanded Clown.

"What's going on?" Lanza asked nervously.

"Is that the enemy?" Boggard added in.

"Everyone, quiet!" Naomi ordered suddenly, her voice sharper than she'd meant for it to be. She wanted to know what was going on as much as everyone else, but they couldn't find out if they never stopped talking. "I recognize that voice..."

Torres' voice came again, more frantic than before. It actually sounded like he was on the verge of tears, but not quite there yet. "This is the submarine aircraft cruiser Alicorn. We surrender!" he raised his voice slightly as he called out to them. "Do you hear me? We surrender! Stop shooting!" The last two words were spoken with extra emphasis, and the fear in his voice was more evident than before. Naomi wasn't sure what to believe. It still sounded...off. Wrong, somehow.

"All aircraft, cease fire!" Long Caster ordered quickly, in case anyone had any ideas.

Nobody tried to continue the attack, but not everybody seemed happy about the order, Naomi among them. Count was the first to speak up. "That's a con man talking," he said with a huff. "Trust me, I should know."

"Count makes a good point," Naomi said, holding back a shudder. From what little she knew about Count, he was a fraud. He knew when people were faking, and after what Naomi had been through with previous commanders, it wasn't hard to guess when someone was lying or what lengths they'd go through. "We shouldn't just trust them blindly like that, not after everything we've heard about them. Not after everything they've done since they escaped the first time!"

"You remember the Puffin, don't you Long Caster? They're cowards who'll do anything and kill anyone to get to their goal. There's no telling what they're gonna do the second we let our guard down!" Húxiān practically yelled. "C'mon, let's just sink it!"

"Negative!" Long Caster snapped at her, trying to keep his usual demeanor but seeming a bit more annoyed than usual. "We cannot attack those that have surrendered! It's a breach of international law!"

Torres cried out once more. "I repeat! We surrender! Please!"

The sound of his voice made Naomi nervous, and she wasn't sure what to do. With everyone starting to argue, she couldn't take sides but her gut was telling her to fight. To make sure the enemy was gone. Frustrated, she radioed Long Caster, "What do we do, Long Caster?! We have no reason to trust them! It's either them or the people they're trying to kill!"

"Weapon use is prohibited!" Long Caster said sternly.

"They're monsters, Long Caster!" Count replied with a growl, starting to lose his temper. Naomi wasn't far behind him. "If they don't play by the rules, then why the hell should we?!"

"Count's right. We're not dealing with honorable men, we're dealing with war criminals!" Tabloid joined in on the protesting. "Why hold international law so dearly?"

Grimm scoffed, obviously not agreeing with the sentiment. "Are you guys out of your minds? We obey international law because we'll no longer be soldiers the moment we don't!"

"Then I'll happily quit my career!" Count retorted. "Don't you idiots see that there's more at stake here than a couple of lousy, pointless laws and protocols we have to follow?"

"I've seen enough pointless violence during my life and career without you all adding to it because you're too hot tempered to know when to back down!" Kathryn joined in on the argument. "Until you've seen the shit that I have, you don't get to act like you get to decide who lives and dies! They surrendered! That alone is enough of a reason to trust them, you moron!"

Although she liked Kathryn, the comment and insult directed mainly towards Count set her off. "You have no idea what we've seen since this war started! Count's right, and you idiots are taking your morals too far!" Naomi said, feeling her temper coming to a boiling point and it wasn't going down any time soon. And she most definitely wasn't done with her lecture. "This isn't an 'us versus them' situation anymore, so why don't you all get that through your heads! We're betting someone else's life here! We're gambling with civilian lives! With your own goddamned families!"

Everyone around her went silent, not expecting her outburst, and Naomi did feel bad for yelling at Kathryn after the help that Kathryn and her husband had given her during her trial. But her gut instinct was still telling her that the captain was lying. What Count had said only confirmed her suspicion. He was lying, and there was no reason to trust him. Long Caster, on the other hand, did not keep quiet and continued to make it clear what the order was. "Do not attack, Trigger!"

"Fine. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt," Naomi sneered, not liking it but not moving in to attack. If she didn't, then she trusted that Count and the others that were in agreement with her not to attack. "Captain Torres? We have your word then?"

"Trigger...so you're Three Strikes, then? I've heard many things about you. And your brother and father. It's an honor to...unofficially meet you at last," Torres replied. He didn't sound sinister when he said it, more curious and tired than anything else. Every bone in her body was telling her not to relax and to be ready for anything. Torres let out another sigh, the bells in the background from earlier having gone silent. "We will surrender. We're currently making preparations to be disarmed."

"Captain Torres, I'm David North, an analyst at the Osean Intelligence Agency," David said slowly and calmly, likely having heard the argument between everyone and trying to speak ini as soothing a manner as possible. Either that or he was just wanting to tread lightly with everyone. "Captain, we've already jammed your terminal guidance system over Oured. It was wise to surrender. Even if you hadn't, your shot would have missed its mark."

"Oh, really? Is that so?" The change in his tone, almost as if he was playing dumb, made Naomi swallow hard, clenching her free hand and her jaw. If he tried anything, then he'd regret it. But Torres seemed to be taking his time, carrying out a rather casual conversation with them. "Let me tell you a story, analyst. Three Strikes, I'd advise you to pay close attention as well. Back when I was a gunnery officer, I had to aim at an enemy ship 30 kilometers away in the middle of a storm." He let out a dark chuckle, and Naomi could spot movement aboard the Alicorn's flight deck. "The seas were rough that day, and still, I landed one of the two shots."

"Here's a question for you. Was your plan elegant?" David asked, but the only answer was an irritated sigh from Torres. David went on. "The answer is...yes." With that, he chuckled. "Well, at least it was until Three Strikes ruined it!"

"WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF BEAUTY?!" Torres roared at him, the eerily cold calm that he had earlier long gone. The movement on the flight deck came to an end, only because the barrel of the railgun they'd been shown in the briefing had risen up from it. Naomi wanted to shout to let everyone know that he was still going to try and fire, but nothing came out when she opened her mouth. She acted on instinct, and immediately broke from the formation they'd gotten back into and began a race towards the Alicorn.

"Everyone, they have no intention to surrender! Stop them!" David shouted. When no one else but her reacted fast enough, he gave her the warning instead. "Hit the barrel, Trigger! Hurry!"

"Wait, Trigger!" Lanza and Knocker both yelled at the same time, but Naomi ignored them.

"Stop attacking immediately!" Long Caster ordered, but again, there was no point. She wasn't going to listen to him.

As she began her approach, the Alicorn sent up another swarm of barrier drones to create a shield in front of her as an officer informed the captain that the railgun was charged up and ready. "Target is the Osean capital of Oured! To take the lives of one million people, 5,000 kilometers away, with my very own hands!" Torres yelled over the open channel, laughing maniacally as he did.

Forgetting her fear of drowning, forgetting the risk of crashing, Naomi pushed her fighter up to its full speed and flew barely 100 kilometers from the ocean surface. She was completely fixated on the barrel, which Long Caster hadn't marked as a target. She didn't care. One way or another, she was going to hit it. As she dodged the barrier drone's shields and drew closer to the target, all she could picture were the faces of her family. Her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law, her niece and baby nephew...if that shell hit the city then they'd all be gone. And they wouldn't be the only ones. Her heart racing and almost all sound around her drowned out, she finally was clear of the drones and flew straight for the massive railgun, firing once she was almost right on top of it before pulling up and clear of the explosion.

The barrel wasn't destroyed, but both missiles hit and the force of the explosion knocked the cannon off course right as the light in the center pulsed and sent a charge forward. The shell had been fired. In spite of what she'd done, the shell had been fired. Naomi's mind was rushing through her thoughts faster than she could process them all. Skald was the first one to find his voice, taking a moment to fully realize what had happened. "It...it fired!"

"It's okay!" David said. "The shell will miss!"

Naomi let out a relieved sigh, but the battle had only just begun. Torres let out a furious, surprised shout. "What happened?!"

Count let out a laugh and proudly declared, "That's a blatant violation of orders, ya dumbass! And that's what happens when you screw with Trigger!"

Torres practically snarled like an animal in response, quick to start shouting orders to his crew. "Load the next shell! After two years at the bottom of the sea, I will not allow our perseverance to be desecrated! Did we not leave our fears behind at the bottom of the abyss?"

"All aircraft, follow Trigger and destroy the Alicorn!" Wiseman ordered. It had been a while since he'd said anything, but Naomi knew he'd heard everything that went down. She felt a brief pang of guilt and fear, knowing that she would likely have consequences to face after her outburst. Wouldn't be the first time she'd gotten in trouble over a dumb mistake, but she needed to worry about that later. Right now, there were obviously more pressing matters.

"Trigger, aim for the base of the rail cannon!" David called out.

As the Alicorn sent up their regular, run-of-the-mill UAVs to intercept them, Naomi focused on the only high priority target on her radar. Missile warnings went off in her ear once again as the UAVs singled her out...there had to be at least twenty of the damn things, all of them swarming on her, and at least another ten launching as she approached. Her allies quickly jumped to her aid, Tabloid and Fencer teaming up with Faun and Knocker and Jaeger and Húxiān and driving them off in one direction, while Mage Squadron paired up with Footpad and Boggard and Lanza and Skald to take the ones in the opposite direction. Count covered Naomi as she went in, catching the ones that slipped by their friends and shooting them down before they could get to her.

The approaches Naomi had to make were nerve-wracking, and she missed the core of the gun with one missile, hitting it in the side and causing it to inch in one direction slightly. The second one hit it, but didn't do much damage to it, and Naomi had no choice but to pull up and try again. She could feel the time they had running out, but judging from the frantic conversation between Torres and a member of his crew, she knew that she had at least done something. "FCS error!" cried out a crewman on board the Alicorn. "Can't raise the elevation of the barrel!"

"Three Strikes in the sky is a sign of an ill omen...!" Torres muttered darkly, almost as if he was just realizing something he had heard before.

"Captain?!" The same crewman from before asked, his voice hoarse and worried.

Torres didn't waste any time, nor did he think to switch from the open channel, as he continued giving his orders. "All slow ahead! Flood the aft trim tanks!"

The officer didn't seem to like the idea, and almost seemed ready to just give in. As if he didn't see a reason to keep fighting. "There's no point anymore! Sir, if we do that then the boat will sink aft first!"

"And that'll give the gun the elevation it needs!" Torres yelled, followed by a deranged laugh.

Naomi shuddered, dodging a missile from a UAV as Count moved in to chase it down, lowering her altitude and flying low to attack head on and give it another hit. She was low on missiles, so she switched to her pulse lasers, figuring she'd use what she had left of those and get a better, potentially more powerful shot on the target. Unfortunately, it also meant she had to drag her approach out for longer. But she was taking the risk. She began firing after centering the target, managing to get a couple of solid hits on it that only spurred on Torres' cackling. She couldn't help but say something to him. Anything to stop that laughing. "You're out of your damn mind, Torres! What the hell do you think any of this will accomplish?"

He was way past the point of reasoning, but she still wanted to ask. "DON'T YOU SEE, THREE STRIKES?! Ten MILLION lives will be saved at the cost of a mere million!" Torres bellowed out, as if this was some grand idea. The perfect crime, so to speak. "The suffering would be only temporary! Future generations wouldn't know of war! It would be a fairy tale, something only minor fractions of which are told in history books! Your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren! They'd live in a paradise, a world in which boundaries aren't threatened in a show of pointless power! And all it takes is a small, INSIGNIFICANT sacrifice that you are unwilling to make! You're a coward, just like those that came before you!"

"You liar!" Naomi spat at him, grunting as she made a hard turn and lined herself up to fire again. "You just want to kill people and scare them into submission! You're a power hungry psycho, and I'm not gonna let you get away with it!" She switched to her missiles and got as close as she could as fast as she could, promptly firing when she had a lock on it. It damaged the gun, but it was still holding up. Frustrated and the image of her home and her family still stuck in her mind, she figured she'd join in on his yelling with her own declaration, "You're going to wish you'd died at the bottom of that ocean, Torres, BECAUSE I'M GONNA SEND YOU BACK TO IT, YOU BASTARD!"

"Trigger, you put an end this!" Wiseman ordered as a means to encourage her.

"Don't hesitate!" Jaeger added, in a more heated and determined voice than she'd ever heard from him. "They quit being soldiers the moment that they faked their surrender!"

Shouts of agreement came from all of the others, and although she was in pain and tired, she had a burst of energy. Enough to finally finish this. Naomi flew in low, made another hit...one more ought to do it, right? It was still holding up, but it wouldn't be for long. "Nice work, Trigger!" Long Caster called out to her. "Your attacks are hitting the base of the rail cannon! It won't be able to last much longer!"

"HAHA! You just made a statement right there, didn't you, Trigger?" Count asked her as he helped Húxiān finish off a drone that was trying to get free.

As the dogfighting continued, Naomi circled around and got ready to make what she hoped would be the final attack before that stupid sub called it quits. Torres continued with his monologuing as his crew desperately began following his orders, the ship slowly sinking and raising the nose and the cannon. The shot would be perfect. He was practically giving it to her. It was either genius or suicide. "A powerful boat, a powerful gun, powerful ammunition! Add to that lots of people and a precise aim! Then sprinkle death all over it, and the formula is complete! HAHAHAAAA!"

"You're nothing more than a mass murderer!" David said to him, raising his voice above the chaos around him and around Naomi and the others.

"Then indulge me! What makes you and I ANY different?!" Torres sneered, and Naomi was actually interested in hearing what he had to say. She shook off another couple of drones, noticing that they were getting more and more stubborn and determined. Count and Tabloid quickly chased them down. Torres went on. "You're willing to kill the three hundred men aboard this boat to save a million. They're both done in vengeance, to save the life of another! HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT?!"

"Trigger, give him the answer!" David said to her. "Have him take it to the bottom of the ocean!"

"Already planned on it!" Naomi replied, heading around once more and making sure she could get a good angle. She wasn't going to mess this up.

"Don't you see? DON'T YOU SEE?!" Torres demanded. "Landing a clean shot on a difficult target! That is what makes it elegant! THAT is true beauty!"

"Finish him off, Trigger!" Fencer yelled at her.

The crew of the Alicorn began finalizing everything in the meantime. "At plus 4!"

"Everyone, grab something!" the officer from earlier ordered, perhaps the only reasonable sounding one aboard that ship.

"60%!"

"Alas, you don't see, Three Strikes. OF COURSE YOU WOULDN'T!" Torres yelled at her, and Naomi began her final dive towards them, the gun's core exposed and vulnerable as the submarine. The captain chuckled. "And now it's time to see who the victor will be, Three Strikes. We'll know soon enough, now won't we?"

Naomi gave everything she had to get within range as quickly as she could, switching back to her pulse lasers and firing before she was even within range. Anything to try and speed along the process. It felt like it was taking forever. Her teeth were clenched and she had a white-knuckled grip around her flight stick, pulling the trigger as hard as she could to keep firing. The only thing she felt in her hand was pain. Her ears were ringing and her eyes were watering. The Alicorn continued to slowly sink, raising the elevation. They were almost ready. She fired everything she had left, making a split second switch from the pulse lasers to her missiles and firing the last two that she had, praying they'd hit and crying out against the pain she felt as she made a high-G turn and climbed up into the sky.

"Target hit! Target hit!" Long Caster called out.

"ALRIGHT!" Count cheered. "WAY TO GO, TRIGGER!"

"Oh yeah! That's the stuff, Trigger!" Skald joined in, everyone else joining in with their own cheering, mostly whooping rather than actual sentences.

"Confirming explosions!" Húxiān said through a grin. "The rail cannon's been destroyed!"

With her entire body shaking, Naomi surveyed the damage. The rail cannon had fallen back down to the submarine's flight deck, in flames and spreading the rest of it throughout the ship. The electrical charge from it was affecting the rest of the ship, speeding up their demise. As the explosions continued, alarms ringing aboard the ship, Torres continued his insane laughter and speech. "Don't you see?! One million! ONE MILLION LIVES!" His laughing seemed to be fading into pained sobs, and there was scattered, scared shouting from the crew.

Naomi felt bad for the crew aboard the ship, but thankfully their radio transmission cut to static as the ship continued to burst into flames. With the largest explosion yet, the Alicorn lurched upwards with the blast, bending like it was made of rubber instead of titanium. It looked as though it was broken in half, and Jaeger confirmed it breathlessly, "The Alicorn's hull is severely damaged...no, it's completely split in two!"

"She really pulled it off..." Kathryn muttered under her breath.

"And that's our final answer," declared David, and Count, Naomi, and the others all began to let out tired but overjoyed laughter.

The two halves of the Alicorn continued to sink back into the ocean, a once feared and powerful ship reduced to nothing more than a useless, unsalvageable piece of scrap. It sank under the surface of the water, groaning as it did and glistening in the setting sun. The black, metal beast was finally submerged once again. That wasn't the end of it though, and before the water settled over it, there was a muffled boom that sent a shockwave through the water and send a massive wave up into the air and scattered water like rain over the ships and allied aircraft as they flew underneath it. Naomi relaxed her grip and leaned back in her seat, lifting up her visor and watching the droplets of water scatter over her canopy.

"I see loads of floating objects in the waves," Grimm said quietly. "I don't think there are any survivors, Major Wiseman. It'd be a miracle if anyone made it out of that."

"Copy that," Wiseman replied with a deep breath. "The enemy submarine has been destroyed. The operation is complete. Time to head home, everyone. We're all waiting for you."

Húxiān chuckled, seeming in a state of shock. "That was just unbelievable. Just...all of it."

Count chuckled. "Yeah, you've got that right...but, that's our girl for you. Pulling off the impossible every day, right Trig?"

Naomi's cheeks felt hot from the compliment, and she didn't know what to say to answer him. David filled the silence with his own speech, as exhausted as the rest of them. "There are some who send those around them to their doom. Like Captain Matias Torres, who was the devil incarnate. But there are others..." Naomi closed her eyes as he spoke, finding the musing soothing after the battle. She was flying on auto pilot, taking joy in whatever relaxation she could get. David went on. "Others who show the way to everyone else. Those who stand at the forefront and cast a light. Those who follow them can't help but feel that they're in the right hands. That they'll make it. This is an era where there isn't a singular answer like a quiz question. The world awaits a hero to keep the torch aloft, banishing the darkness. A protector, bringing peace and hope. A true leader."

"Quite the poet," Tabloid said, and Naomi had to agree. That was some speech he gave.

"That's a story I'm gonna have to tell my kid," Jaeger said with a sigh.

"All aircraft and David, the operation is complete. Return to base and get some rest," Long Caster said to them. There was the sound of him rubbing his hands together, and there was anticipation in his voice as he said, "Oh man, finally time for some munchies! Could you hand me the burger over there? Oh, and the knife and fork too, please!"

"Okay, Trigger, I think the real threat is your AWACS," Boggard said quickly, feigning being worried. "What kind of a person eats a burger with a fork and a knife? You eat it like a man and make a mess or you don't get to eat one at all!"

"Ugh, stop talking about food or I'm going to eat my plane...I'm so hungry," Naomi said, sitting back up in her seat.

"Tell me about it," Count said, chuckling. "Once I get back to base, I'm heading to the mess hall."

"I'm with you on that one, Count," Naomi said, grinning. She pulled up and picked up speed, the others following. Just for the sake of things, she performed a little victory barrel roll and laughed. "Alright, guys, let's get outta here. It's time to go home!"


Author's Note: Well, that brings the Alicorn arc to an end and I'm kinda sad about that, since it's been a lot of fun. The next chapter will cover the debriefing and everything, then it's on to Cape Rainy, so stay tuned! We're almost to Farbanti and I've got some things planned. ;)

Sorry about the wait on this chapter and for how long this one is. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to include, and it was hard to really get it going, but I hope that it didn't disappoint and that you all enjoyed it. I'm off to take a really short break now and get some rest myself but I'll be back with the next chapter before too long. On an unrelated note to that, can you believe that this month marks a year since I started this crazy story? I just want to say thank you to everyone for the insane amount of support y'all have given me while I've been writing this and I hope you stick it out until the end!

Hope you all enjoyed the chapter and have a great rest of your week!