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AT LONG LAST I HAVE RETURNED!!!
Close to a week passed after the shoot-down of the Arkbird with no new missions for any of the pilots. Slowly, cabin fever began to take hold on everyone associated with the rogue fighter wing and the missions they were performing. From the Captain of the Kestrel down to the lowest of the carrier's sailors, everyone began to get irritable and frustrated with boredom, fatigue, and more importantly, each other. Even the daily PT that the pilots had decided to start doing didn't help matters any.
Forrest was in his cabin, running a white towel through his hair as he had just come from a shower after the pilots' daily workout, when the phone in his cabin suddenly began to buzz.
"Forrest," he said, picking up the receiver that functioned as both a standard telephone and an intercom for the ship. Pops was on the other end.
"Kid," the elder ace said, "we've got something new from Andromeda."
"More lat longs?" Mobius 1 asked, using the abbreviations for latitude and longitude.
"Not this time. It's just a day and time." Elation flooded the ace. Finally, they would be getting some action, something to break up the monotony of daily life. This dull routine was exactly the reason Forrest had gone to the Osean military in the first place after he'd emigrated from ISAF. After all the excitement of the high-speed high-adrenalin environment inside a fighter's cockpit, the prospect of dressing nicely to go work in a faceless business and do something that couldn't even compare to flying as high and fast as you could was so unappealing to the fighter ace that even thinking about it made his stomach lurch.
"Nope," Pops replied. "Well, I shouldn't say that. It also says that we should be near a radio when the time comes."
"What do you think it means?"
"I think it means," Pops said slowly, "that Bartlett might be contacting us directly." Forrest's heart gave a little leap at the news. No one on the Kestrel really believed that the mysterious source that had been giving could possibly be Bartlett, but then again, how could it not be? After all, he was the only man who really knew Wardog, or the pilots who used to call themselves Wardog at least, knew the frequencies for the Osean military bands, and was currently MIA.
"Roger that," Forrest answered. "I'll let the guys know." He hung up, pulled on an olive drab flight suit that was still warm from a cleaning, then jogged down the hall, going for the mess, where the pilots liked to hang out when they had nothing better to do. He grinned when he saw the duct tape sign over the doorway. The silver tape had been written on in sloppy handwriting in black marker. If the ace had to guess, he would say that it was either Chopper or Eddie's doing.
The sign read 'Warning: Cranky pilots. Enter at own risk'.
Just as the tape notice foretold, the mood inside was distinctly sullen, with no one talking to each other, all absorbed in their own distractions, though Brian didn't miss the glazed look in most of their eyes.
"Hey Kid," Chopper muttered. "Come to join in the boredom?"
"Actually," the ace said slowly, as if hesitating about telling them all something that could take their minds off of their slow descent into insanity, "I was wondering how you all would like to come up to the bridge tomorrow at 1015."
"What's so important about the bridge?" Edge asked sullenly. She'd been even more snappish than the rest of them, though she'd managed to tone it down around Forrest. That didn't make him immune to it though and they'd had a bad shouting match about nothing earlier in the week.
Blaze wondered how they would take this. "Well, I just heard from Pops. Bartlett may be giving us a call tomorrow." Everyone was instantly alert and focused. The fighter pilot couldn't keep the grin off his face.
"Are you serious!?" Grimm and Chopper shouted together.
"Capt. Bartlett?" Edge repeated, stunned. "When did you say it was?"
Forrest repeated the time.
"Dammit!" Chopper moaned, "Tomorrow can't come fast enough!"
When the day finally came, the four original Wardog pilots crowded around the radio like kids fighting for a piece of candy from the candy store. They were a good half hour early and each pilot kept flicking glances up at the clock that hung on the bridge's back wall. Forrest thought that the hand would never reach the appointed time. Ironically, right as he thought that, the hand clicked over and the speaker blared to life.
"Hey! It's me!" The voice was unmistakable. It was the gruff, tough-as-nails, and somewhat crotchety fighter pilot that Forrest had flown with all those months ago at the beginning of the war. It seemed like halfway to forever since it had happened, since the shootdown that had thrust him from being Brian Forrest, nugget, to being Brian Forrest with the flight to command. "Get the wax out of your ears and listen up!"
The ace grinned. Only Bartlett could be that candid in everyday speech. From the way Kei suddenly grabbed his hand, she was thinking the same thing and a quick glance showed him right off that bat that the other pilots from the original group were feeling similar. They were all grinning like idiots and even Chopper's eyes were a little wet.
"We found Nikanor, the Prime Minister of Yuktobania. This war wasn't his doing at all." Bartlett went on to outline how the war had really gotten started, as a ploy by the Gray Men in Belka to plunge both superpowers into a war that would bankrupt them both and possibly drag the rest of the world into it too. He also said how he'd somehow ended up with the rebels inside Yuktobania and they were planning an operation to bust out the captured leader.
"That's where you guys come in," Bartlett went on. They were still trying to figure out if this was a recording or if it was real. "We're gonna need air support if we wanna get this operation off the ground in one piece. In one hour, we'll send you the coordinates for the place and the time we expect you. It's gonna be an early one, so set your alarm clocks, kiddies." The pilots laughed. Heartbreak One hadn't changed at all, it seemed.
"You heard him. We'll get the jets set and prepped then we'll hit the sack," Forrest said. "Pops, can you and Capt. Anderson get the right loadout for us?"
The two men nodded then put their heads together and started murmuring to each other. By the time the sun was setting over the chilly northern sanctuary, the jets were set and the pilots were hitting the hay.
It seemed to Forrest that by the time his head hit the pillow, his alarm was going off. He blinked blearily as he sat up. He stumbled out into the corridor, not aware that his hands were busy zipping up his flight suit. However, though Brian Forrest was not a morning person by any means, he was awake by the time he reached the briefing room, almost five minutes later. It seemed that the rest of the wing wasn't too happy about being up either. Eddie and Chopper's heads were together and both of them were snoring like logs. Edge's hair was disheveled for the first time Brian could remember, and Grimm had the look of someone keeping their eyes open against their will. Edge gave Forrest a small smile as he sat down next to her, right behind Chopper and Eddie. The ace exchanged glances with Nagase, then calmly raised one foot and gave both chairs a firm kick. The two sleeping men were thrown out of their seats, swearing and shouting threats.
"What the Hell!" They demanded at once, shaking their fists at Blaze and Edge, both of whom were cracking up, along with the rest of the wing.
"Sleep later, boys," Forrest said, still chortling. "We gotta job to do."
"The good General's right," Pops said, coming into the room. The second he was standing in front of them, all hints of tiredness were gone. There was nothing among the pilots that hinted they were all bone-dead tired. Low blood pressure, Kei decided, was a bitch. "We do have work to do," the older ace went on, "Now listen up. Capt. Bartlett has apparently found the location of Nikanor, the PM for Yuktobania. That said, he's partnered with the resistance forces in that country to help bust the leader out and he's called on us for air support."
"So who's doing what?" Eddie asked.
"Mobius Alpha will be top cover. Mobius Bravo will be flying with a mixed loadout of SDBs and Sidewinders. The Razgriz will have a similar loadout. We anticipate heavy action for all three flights as they make their ingress."
"And since this is Nikanor we're talking about," Blaze murmured, "you can bet we'll probably have some stiff air resistance too. Maybe Grabacr?"
"Ofnir and a mixed formation of the two is a distinct possibility and let's not forget that there is still a Yellow Squadron pilot floating around," Pops added. "All told, they could put up a significant number of aircraft that are able to give even the Kid here a run for his money. Which is why we're imposing some Rules of Engagement on you."
"What are they?" Forrest asked, holding up a hand, forestalling the mutinous murmurings that had broken out among the pilots. Up till now, they'd pretty much had free run of the sky when it came to the dogfight. If it wasn't friendly, shoot at it was what they had been flying under until this point.
"It's that you're to stick to your assigned roles. I know that you're used to darting all over the place, doing whatever you need to. This time, you don't do that. The ground targets are what we need to strike, to clear the way for Capt. Bartlett's convoy. Once the way is clear, they're going to highjack a C-130 and fly out, where you will provide escort and air cover. Don't be heros, get in, get out, and get it done. The PM takes priority without him, this entire thing is a moot point." He looked sternly around at the pilots that were normally used to doing things their own way. Some looked mutinous, but for the most part he saw quiet acquiescence. These were men and women who were famous for getting the job done and doing it right. "Ready?"
"Yes sir," Forrest answered, standing up, the rest of the group following his lead. They saluted each other and the ace turned to his men. "Alright. You heard Pops, let's get going!" The group stood in a flurry of olive drab, heading for the ready room. Soon they were in their jets and heading out over the sea, going for the site in Yuktobania where the Prime Minister was located.
Some hours later, the sun was just rising over the horizon when the three flights arrived on scene. Below them was an inhospitable landscape with rising and rolling crags and spires of rock. Mesas and plateaus abounded and in the middle of it all wound a network of roads, with bypasses that would take the convoy around most of the stiff resistance. Forrest was already contemplating how they could get the convoy down those shortcuts without using too much ammo or fuel.
From the ground, the twelve jets looked like nothing more than black dots against a lightening sky, the roar of the engines barely audible in the oppressive silence of the high desert.
In his cockpit, Forrest looked down at the clock on the panel of his jet. It was close to the appointed time. His gaze wandered out the canopy of his F-22 and below him he spotted a small line of dark dots at the head of a column of dust. He was almost sure that those were Bartlett and the resistance. He angled for the deck, the others following his lead as they swept low over the road, roaring over the cars as the occupants waved up enthusiastically. Forrest, in the brief seconds he had, counted close to twenty armored vehicles, humvees of all shapes and sizes, from troop carriers to an anti-aircraft version, with eight small missiles for shooting down harassing aircraft.
"Quite a force," Eddie remarked as the twelve zoomed skyward again, beginning to circle the resistance forces. "All for just one man."
"Well he is the Prime Minister," Grimm reminded the other pilot. "I wouldn't take any chances either."
"The kid's right," Yeager grunted from his place at the back of the formation. "The entire war might hinge on this mission."
"Agreed," Edge broke in, "we can't let this mission be the one we fail."
The radio took that moment to crackle with an incoming transmission.
"Well well," said a familiar voice that brought a smile to Forrest's face behind the oxygen mask. It was Jack Bartlett. There was no doubting that gruff and rough voice. "It's about time you guys showed up."
"Captain!" Edge cried, the relief evident in her voice. For the longest time, she'd believed that she'd been responsible for the gruff man's predicament, because of her ineptitude he'd been forced to take the missile hit that would've been meant for her.
"Nagase? Is that you?" Bartlett's voice was surprised, but everyone who'd flown with the man knew that he was only teasing. He was just as happy to see them as they were to see him. "You still fly like that and you're not dead yet?"
"Good to hear."
"Hiya Captain!" Chopper broke in.
"Hey Rock 'n Roller," Bartlett answered. Forrest could almost see the grin on the old salt's face. "Have you learned to shut up yet?"
"That's a big ol' negative, sir!" Chopper shot back. "Nothing could ever shut me up!"
"That I don't doubt. Well that's two out of three," Bartlett answered, "so I guess that we've got the Kid and someone new in the other positions?"
"Negative," Snow answered, "I'm Capt. Snow, with the Naval Defense Force."
"And I'm Archer…uh, Sergeant Hans Grimm!"
"Captain Snow…ah! Now I remember! Callsign Swordsman. My ol' buddy Anderson has nothing but good things to say about you."
"Thank you sir!"
"And Hans Grimm. Well well, nice to see that you've got yourself a jet. I was thinking about bringing you into Wardog later anyway."
A new voice, a feminine voice, cut in. "So which one's your brightest student?" She asked. She had a distinctly Yuktobanian accent and Forrest wondered for a second who she was. Then he remembered about what Pops had said about some Yuke woman breaking Bartlett's heart back during the Belkan War. It was probably, he realized, the same woman that Pops had spoken of, the one who'd given Bartlett the nickname Heartbreak 1 in the first place.
"I don't know," Bartlett answered, clearly puzzled. "Hey! Kid didn't get shot down now did he?"
"No sir," Forrest answered, all but laughing, "I'm still here."
"Well then where the hell are you?" The other Captain demanded. Before the ace could answer, the radio erupted with gunfire and Forrest spotted crimson red tracer rounds flying in two different directions, flickering and dancing, some skipping off rocks and tumbling through the darkness. "Ah hell. Never mind. Hey!" Bartlett called back to his compatriots. "When are you guys going to wake up and smell the coffee!? Return fire!" Almost instantaneously, the fire coming from the humvees doubled as machine and miniguns came to life, spilling a wall of hot lead that gutted the resistance from the Yuke forces.
"There's too many of them!" One man howled as more spilled out of the compound.
"Aw shut up," Bartlett snapped back. He turned to his driver. "Run the gate over!" The driver blanched, but stepped on the gas, the engine roaring to new levels as the vehicle leaped forward, barreling right towards the gate, made of solid iron bars, formidable and deadly looking, but the humvee smashed right through in a screech of metal on metal, one gate flying clear from its hinges into the darkness.
The convoy rumbled on.
"Well that's one way to make an entrance," Chopper chuckled.
"Hey shut it," Bartlett retorted, "I didn't see you guys getting off your high and mighty horses to come and help out!"
"You didn't ask," Grimm replied brightly. The gruff Captain responded with a series of curses that would've singed the ears of a sailor, but just made the four original Wardog Squadron members laugh all the harder.
"Hey, looks like a pass up ahead," one driver said into his radio some minutes later. The pass he spoke of was the main dirt road and a longer, rougher road that would be akin to the high desert regions of the world. "Which one do we take?"
"The shorter one, obviously," Bartlett replied. He hefted the radio. "Hey, how about some air support!"
"On the way," Edge answered. "Razgriz, attack targets about five miles ahead."
As one the F-35s dove for the deck, four streaks of black against the steel blue sky. They were coming in close to super sonic, so by the time the Yukes realized who'd dropped the bombs on their heads, the fighters had already passed by, the tracers and bursts of flack popping well behind them. The triple-A was cut short when the convoy rolled through, automatic weapons singing, spitting streams of red lead killing everyone and every thing that wasn't behind cover yet.
"Thanks for that!" One of the convoy members whooped as his truck bounced and bumped over bodies and debris. The next station fell in a similar manner, the Razgriz bombing the place and the convoy mopping up any leftovers. They were just getting to one of the last checkpoints when a new voice, Sky Eye's, came over the radio.
"Bandit confirmed, vector 360," the controller called. "Looks like an AC-130." Almost on cue, the howitzer shells and shots from the other guns on the attack ship began landing around the convoy. Earth, sand, and rock flew everywhere. Screams filled the radio as one of the trucks took a hit from the Bofors gun on the Specter. The jeep went up in a fireball, throwing chunks of flaming metal and rubber across the barren landscape like rain. A second vehicle narrowly missed a similar fate, the howitzer round missing only by the narrowest of margins, the explosion and subsequent shockwave almost rolling the humvee, but some fast work by the driver kept it upright and on track.
"Hey! We're getting shot to pieces down here!" Bartlett yelled. Forrest turned in his seat just in time to catch the strobe of another howitzer round.
"I see him. Hang on." The General's Raptor stood on a wing and pulled hard, cutting across the sky like a bird, rolling out right on track to intercept the aircraft. Forrest's fingers danced on the HOTAS, locking up the bandit in only seconds. The range was too close for an AMRAAM shot, so Forrest threw the switch to kick over to the dogfight mode. The growl tone was loud and constant in his headset. "Fox Two!"
The Sidewinder leaped from the side bay, burning across the sky like a flare. The flare vanished as the rocket motor on the missile burned out, the weapon coasting towards its target like a silent reaper.
An explosion lit the sky. Blaze caught sight of a slab of black with two nubs on it, a wing and its two engines he realized, fluttering away from the Specter, the aircraft itself falling towards the earth, left wing missing, and the entire side of the assault ship wreathed in angry orange flames and oily black smoke. "Splash one!" The ace called as he reversed his turn, dropping flares as a precaution. Ships like the Specter were always accompanied by at least one escort and he didn't want to get some heat-seeker up the ass. Stealth did wonders to hide his craft from radar. Heat was another story.
"Alright!" Bartlett crowed. "We're at the airport!" Below the convoy blasted onto the compound and began tearing its way up the runway, while sections of the column split off and began going up the taxiways, getting to the hangars in record time. The humvees stopped and men began to pour out, dashing into the hangars one after another, probably clearing it with gunfire and grenades like some video game, then moving onto the next one. The fighter wing began to circle, providing top cover until they could extract the Prime Minister.
"I've been listening in on the enemy's radio chatter," Sky Eye said suddenly. "They've sealed off the roads. You won't be able to get out the same way." He hadn't been present and the briefing and therefore didn't know about the C-130
"That's alright," Bartlett answered quickly. "I've already got us a way out of here."
"We have him!" One team crowed. "We have Nikanor!"
"Hey!" Bartlett snapped. "If you have time to tell us then you have time to get his ass over here! So move it!"
A small knot of cars drove from one end of the airfield to another, guns flashing. It was too surreal, Forrest decided, watching the battle from high above, with the lights and smoke from explosions. He knew it should be loud and raucous, but even more disquieting was the utter silence with which he and the others watched.
"New contacts on radar," Sky Eye cautioned. "They just appeared. Better be careful."
"How far out are they?" Forrest asked.
"About a hundred miles, but they're moving at supersonic speeds."
The ace did a quick mental calculation. "Great. Five minutes at best. Hey! Captain Bartlett! We've got inbounds, so hurry up!"
"Roger that. Nikanor's on the plane now and we're just warming up the engines."
"Well warm faster," Chopper shouted. "We're not all outfitted for air to air up here!"
Four minutes and thirty seconds later, a C-130 rolled out the end of the runway as tracer rounds plinked away at it. "Leaving in the the Herc now?" Edge asked. "He can't be serious! With bandits right here?"
"Bogeys now entering combat area," Sky Eye said calmly.
"Shit we have no choice. Mobius 1 engage!" He rolled into a turn and held it until he was going to merge with the enemy targets, then rolled out. "Here we go."
"Right behind you Boss," Eddie said quickly as Mobius 2, 3, and 4 joined up with him and spread out, taking positions across the sky, all ready and primed to fire.
"Then let's do it! All craft, you are free to fire!"
"Mobius Bravo, Razgriz, cover Capt. Bartlett as he exits the combat area!"
The eight other aircraft began flying protective circles around the slow moving transport.
Bartlett let out a loud whoop of joy. "Hello sky! I'm coming home!"
Forrest hardly heard. He was busy focusing on the enemies in front of him, which his IFF had just tagged as Grabacr. "Well, here we go. Let's go play with the Belkans."
"Time for some grabass with Grabacr!" Eddie chuckled. It was a four on four fight, with each fighter squaring off with his counterpart. In the swirling mayhem, Mobius made sure that Grabacr couldn't get a shot off at the retreating C-130, which was whipping over plateaus and mesas down on the deck, Bartlett's flying at its best.
"These guys are screwing everything up!" One of the Grabacr guy shouted. "How much longer are we gonna have to put up with their bullshit? Didn't you hear how they fucked up everything for Ofnir?"
"Quiet," the lead replied coldly. "Fly well and do your duty and they will fall just like the rest. With any luck, even the ISAF will get drawn into this war and we'll have a big old World War III to have fun in."
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Forrest snarled as he pulled a fast maneuver. The Grabacr F-15 Advanced on his tail overshot and went speeding out in front of him. The cannon came to life, but the F-15 plugged in his afterburners the second he overshot and pulled away. "Fine. Mobius 1, Fox Two!" Forrest's last Sidewinder shot out in front of him and began pulling lead on the target. The F-15 saw it too late and actually rolled into the onrushing missile. A mere second before the aircraft exploded, the canopy was thrown clear and the ejection seat blasted out. Brian rolled over and dove, both to regain speed and to try and find any potential hostiles that thought they would be funny and bounce him from below.
"These guys are really starting to piss me off!" Yeager growled, loosing a Sidewinder of his own. The F-15 that was his target evaded it, but didn't react in time to the second one that impacted a second later. The older pilot had ripple fired his two Sidewinders to ensure a hit. "Let's finish them and be done with it!" He buzzed the pilot, who'd ejected at the last second and pulled up to rejoin with Zivi as Forrest arrived off Eddie's wing and joined his number two in the hot pursuit of another craft.
Only thirteen seconds later, both aircraft were headed down, the pilots safely in their parachutes.
"We won't forget this," the leader of Grabacr vowed over the open channel as the four victorious Mobius Alpha Raptors pulled away to link up with their comrades. "Count on it, Ribbons."
"I wouldn't want you to," Forrest answered. "Remember it all you want, so you won't be as easy to step on the next time around." He switched over again before the Grabacr could reply. He really couldn't explain why he'd said that, but for some reason, the pilots of that formation just grated on his nerves like nothing else in the world could. Maybe it was because they were the only squadron he'd ever had to run from when he had the skill to beat them.
The flight back was light hearted, with the pilots bantering back and forth with each other, catching up with Bartlett and generally being rowdy. They had good reason to too. They'd just helped to rescue another leader of one of the countries involved in the war. All that was left now was to get Nikanor together with the Osean President and the war would be called off and peace could be restored once again.
"This is it," Forrest muttered to himself. "It's the endgame."
The former members of Wardog, except for Forrest, lost no time in dashing to the flight deck after they landed, where Bartlett was standing, waiting for them. It was a nice little reunion, with laughter, and back-slapping going on all around. Chopper had even found a bottle of wine in the ship's stores, so that went around to all the pilots and people on deck. Forrest shook his head. He was down on the ramp of the airfield, looking over the Raptors, making sure nothing was seriously wrong with them for the next sortie. Even from his distant position, he could hear the laughing and shouting going on.
"So you are the legendary Mobius 1?" Asked a voice from behind him. Forrest turned around. It was Nikanor, who'd snuck away from the festivities on the flight deck with the quiet ease of a politician accustomed to leaving parties and gala events without being noticed. Forrest snapped up a quick salute, which the PM of Yuktobania returned.
"Yes sir. Major General Brian Forrest at your service sir."
The PM looked puzzled. "Why are you here, General Forrest and not with your comrades up on the flight deck."
Forrest waved a hand at the eight F-22s behind him. "Just checking over some last minute details. I can never sleep with any degree of ease until I've given my plane a good thorough post-flight inspection."
"It seems like you do not trust your patience crew," Nikanor said.
"It's not that, sir," the ace replied. "It's just my own paranoia." He tossed one final gaze over the sleek gray craft and nodded. "I guess it was unnecessary."
"Perhaps, but one that is done in good sense. Would you be so kind as to walk with me back to the festivities?"
"My pleasure, sir."
The two started off across the cold tarmac together. "I would like to thank you, General Forrest," Nikanor said without preamble. "I was beginning to lose hope that I would ever get out of that dingy closet of a cell that my captors put me in."
"President Harling said pretty much the same thing," Forrest replied with a grin.
"Never the less," the other said in return. "My appreciation and thanks are very much heartfelt. I have already met the other members of your crew, but you were not among them. The woman in your formation said that I would probably find you where I did."
"Kei," Forrest said fondly. "Well she does know me pretty well. So was that all you wanted to do? Just thank me?"
"Yes," Nikanor answered as they reached the gangway and began to ascend it. It led to the Andromeda, who was in turn moored alongside and connected with the Kestrel. "Well, I must say there was a little curiosity on my part as well. We have all heard of the legendary feats of the famous Mobius 1. I know the mere mention of your callsign in my government gives my commanders fits when they think about pitting our air force against you."
"It's not just me. Even though I flew alone and did my own thing, I was always surrounded by other pilots. I watched their back and they watched mine."
"As it should be. I am surprised at how young you are, though. I would've expected someone much closer to Captain Bartlett's age."
"Well, I was younger when the war broke out. I was twenty or twenty-one, I can't really remember. But I had a good teacher and flying has always come naturally to me."
"Indeed?" They crested the gangway onto the Kestrel's deck. Nikanor turned to the ace, holding out a hand. "Well, General Forrest, I shall allow you to get reacquainted with the good Captain. I have some matters of some urgency I must discuss with Capt. Anderson and Mr. Beagle."
"It's been a pleasure, Mr. Nikanor," Forrest answered, clasping the hand. He was surprised by the grip. It was strong and firm, like a block of iron, and the PM's hand was calloused, as if he spent a lot of time working a field, and on a fairly regular basis.
"Then I will be seeing you later." The PM departed, but not before tapping Bartlett on the shoulder and motioning in Forrest's direction. The grizzled captain turned and smirked.
"Get over here, you conniving bastard," the former Wardog commander called. He put Forrest into a headlock the second the ace was in range. "I oughta kick your scrawny little ass for pulling a fast one like that on us."
"So Kei and them told you huh?"
"Sure did. Told me the whole damned tale." He poked the two black stars on his shoulders. "Son of a bitch, that means I gotta start calling you sir instead of Kid now huh?"
"That didn't stop me," Chopper put in.
Bartlett snapped his fingers. "I know! How about we call you Sir Kid! That'll work."
"Gee you're so kind," Forrest shot back as the rest of the wing busted up at his expense. "Drop and give me fifty."
The other ace answered by snapping up a crooked left hand salute and crossed his eyes. "Yes sir, General Sir Kid sir!" He hit the deck and did about five push-ups on his knees.
"That's what they tell me," Bartlett answered, standing.
"Yes but a man without a sense of humor is so boring," said a new voice. It was a woman, who'd been standing over near the helicopters watching. She pulled off her mirrored aviators to reveal a beautiful face. Forrest blinked, wondering where he'd heard her voice before, then realized it was the woman he'd heard over the radio that morning, when they'd gone into the operation. She held out a hand. "You may call me Natashya. I am Prime Minister Nikanor's personal assistant."
"Of course," she said with an enigmatic smile. Forrest, as a man, realized instantly why Bartlett had fallen for her. He flinched as he noticed Kei's disapproving glare and released his grip on the woman's hand maybe a hair faster than was prudent. "Your reputation precedes you, General."
"Reason number one why I went to Osea," he muttered.
"What ever the reason," she said seriously, "I'm glad that you are here. I have a mission for you all, one that could very well require your skills, Mobius 1." She held up a disk that hung from the chain of her dog tags. "It's on here and I shall show it to you tonight. It may very well be your final mission."
"Why not now?" Edge asked.
"You have not seen Jack in such a very long time," she said. "I'm sure that you would like to catch up with him, so I can wait until tonight." With that, she turned and walked through the hatch of the island and was gone.
"Aww man," Chopper fumed. "I hate long waits!"
It's been long in coming, full of false starts and constant promises, but I did say that I would get this chapter up and there you have it, I have. With any luck, I'll be able to get the rest of the chapters knocked out pretty soon and we can all have a big old celebration at the end, because it's just as Forrest said earlier in the chapter. We are now in the End Game. Four more chapters, the fleet attack, the strike on the SOLG command center, the killing of the SOLG itself, then an epilogue to wind it all down and I will be done with The Ultimate Ace. It's close but still a ways off, so I will see you all next chapter!