Blaze woke up the morning after their sinking of the Hrimfaxi to an empty bed. He looked around, slightly worried, until he saw a note on the door. Taking it, he read:

Edward, to the briefing room.
We've a rescue to accomplish.

-Kei

Immediately, he dressed and started making his way to the briefing room, where he found the other seven pilots sitting and waiting for him.

"I read something about a rescue mission?" asked Blaze.

"Yeah," answered Mobius 1 from the other side of the room. "But that's only part of it."

"Part of it?" asked Blaze, confused. Mobius 1 responded by gesturing towards the projection screen, where a map of Yuktobania was shown.

Our ground offensive is continuing its fast-paced push into Yuktobanian soil.

A POW internment camp was discovered during the offensive,
and a team of marines has attacked and captured the camp.

The marines have secured the camp's radio room,
and a flight of helicopters is en route to retrieve the prisoners.

Your mission is to provide close air support
for this rescue-and-retrieval operation.

The radio room could be retaken by the enemy at any moment.

If it is, the enemy will report the attack,
and the rescue will end in failure.

Find and shoot down all enemy aircraft in the local airspace,
and secure air superiority across the entire area.

"Pilots, questions?" asked Colonel Perrault after entering the room. To the surprise of all, Blaze raised his hand, and Perrault acknowledged him.

"Do we happen to know how many enemy craft are flying air cover over the engagement zone?" he asked.

"We just received a confirmation of twelve craft flying cover," answered Perrault. "Obviously, you'll have to destroy them all before the helicopters ingress into the area." He then proceeded to point them out on the projected map of Glubina. They seemed to be concentrated in the center and northwest corner of the area, until Perrault pointed out a small squadron of three craft around the southern border of the area, almost right on top of the rescue area.

"We should leave that squadron for last," chimed in Altman from the back of the room.

"I agree," concurred Chopper, to Blaze's right. "This way, we're already in the camp area when the rescue choppers come in."

"One-stop shopping," piped up Yellow 13, on Altman's left.

"Black Knights," began Blaze, turning to face the other pilots, "you're a squadron after my own heart. I swear, I was thinking that exact same thing."

"Anything else, First Lieutenant Randolph?" asked Perrault impatiently, breaking up the skull session.

"Oh, sorry," answered Blaze. "No, that covers it."

"Then get to your fighters already," ordered Perrault, already on his way out the door.

Chapter 14: Ice Cage

A few hours later, Black Knight Squadron, all in their usual planes, were flying over the snow-covered plains of Glubina, ready to begin their strike at any time. They were in a formation resembling a possible design for an eighth Dragonball. (1) Blaze was in the lead, with Nagase right behind him, Pixy and Mobius 1 beside her, Grimm behind her, Chopper and Altman beside him, and Yellow 13 in the trail position. All pilots had their heads on a swivel, looking for the POW camp.

"This is Archer," called out Grimm. "Captain, can you see the POW camp?"

"That's a negative, Archer," replied Blaze.

"Well, we should be able to see it soon," reassured Yellow 13.

"You think the Captain...uh," corrected Grimm, his words still directed at Blaze, "I mean...Captain Bartlett...you think he's in there?"

"I bet he is," put in Chopper. "He's probably busy cussin' out all the other POWs and takin' charge right now. Right, Nagase?"

Silence.

"You're not still blaming yourself, are you?" sighed Chopper, slightly exasperated.

"No..." came the barely audible reply over their helmet comms. Even through the speaker, Blaze could tell Nagase was lying through her teeth. But he understood why she was lying: She didn't want them to worry about her. Besides, he could empathize with her survivor's guilt, having experienced it for himself. Unbidden, the grave of his last girlfriend came to the front of his mind.

"Fighters," said a crisp voice over the comms, jolting Blaze out of his thoughts, "I can hear the roar of your engines approaching."

"Identify yourself," requested Blaze, a little more harshly than he had intended.

"Uh..." the voice hesitated, evidently surprised at the roughness of Blaze's voice. "This is Sea Goblin. Am I speaking to the Four Wings of Sand Island?"

"It's eight now," answered Blaze, but yes."

"Eight?" asked the soldier. "Who else is with you?" The Aces declared themselves.

"No way..." said the soldier, overwhelmed. "If that's not a dream team, I don't know what is."

"Agreed," cut off Blaze. "Sit rep?"

"We've safely recovered the POWs," reported Sea Goblin. "Guess our copter's not here yet." Then, in an undertone: "Man, and I thought if I joined the Marines I'd get to work on tropical beaches all the time..."

"Then you joined for the wrong reasons," chimed Altman, though not unkindly.

"So I've been told, Cormorant," answered Sea Goblin. "Anyways, as I said, we have the POWs and are safe for the moment."

"Well," noted Pixy, "you're gonna have to babysit them a little bit longer. I'm picking up enemy planes on my radar."

"Roger," acknowledged the soldier. "We'll keep them safe for as long as possible."

"That's all we ask," shot Chopper. Then, to Blaze, "These enemy air patrols are really cramping our style."

"Then we better find and shoot them all down," advised Mobius 1, "or else the helos won't be able to get close. Black Knights, split off!"

"Uh..." stuttered Blaze, realizing that Mobius 1 had completely stepped over his line. "Someone remind me who was squadron leader this sortie?"

"Relax, Eddie," laughed Mobius 1. "Just busting your chops." Blaze laughed, as well.

"You heard the man," he then called out. "Divide and conquer!"

The Black Knights did just that, splitting into pairs, each going a different direction. Blaze and Nagase headed northwest, poising themselves to take out most of the planes in the area. The first two planes fell with the ease of falling asleep: Blaze and Nagase snuck up behind them so quickly that nose-gun fire had barely left the barrels when they struck the planes. The ensuing explosions nearly took out Blaze and Nagase, as well.

The process repeated with every other plane in the area, until all were destroyed.


Meanwhile, in the POW camp, Staff Sergeant Jack Bowdoin, more commonly known, jokingly, as "Captain Jack" to his fellow Sea Goblin company-mates, noticed that his men-and the POWs-were starting to become a little restless. Some were even swearing that they could see the silhouettes of Yuke soldiers moving fast within the swirling snow. To help put the men and women at ease, "Captain Jack" picked up his radio and spoke into it:

"Sea Goblin to Yellow 13, come in."

"Go for Yellow 13," answered said pilot.

"Does it seem like the enemy aircraft have noticed our infiltration? Over."

"Negative on my end. Over."

"Roger," responded "Captain Jack". "We've cut off the enemy's lines of communication here, but it's just unsettling not being able to tell what the situation is."

"Someone ask for a sitrep?" called out Blaze unexpectedly.

"Yeah, that was me," replied Bowdoin.

"Well, worry no more," reported Blaze. "All enemy aircraft have been splashed. Better still, no losses of life on either side."

"How is that better?" asked Bowdoin. "Dead pilots don't fly another day."

"True," admitted Blaze. "But every life we take means one more innocent is thrust into the horror that is war to take his place."

"Also true," conceded Bowdoin. "OK, you win this one."

As he put the radio down, his second-in-command said quietly, "You know, I can't shake the feeling that we're being watched..."

"Take it easy, Ryan," he said to the young man. "I just talked to Yellow 13 and Blaze, and they said all enemy aircraft have been shot down." But right on cue, one of the POWs called out,

"Hey, did you see a figure behind that window over there?"

"You don't think they've found us out and surrounded us already," whimpered Lieutenant Ryan, "...do you?"

"I heard some Yuke bastards talking to each other," cried another green soldier from across the room before Bowdoin could open his mouth, "I swear!"

"Hurry up with the retrieval," cried the POW who had spoken earlier. "The Yukes aren't that stupid!" Again, right on cue, there came the sound of gunfire, directed at the camp.

"Oh, no!" cried Bowdoin.


Blaze was about to call the SAR unit for an ETA when Sea Goblin came back on the radio, sounding frantic beyond belief.

"Black Knights, this is Sea Goblin! The enemy's spotted us! They're headed for the radio room!"

"Sea Goblin, confirm: you're under fire right now?" asked Blaze.

"Affirmative! Where the hell are the helos?!"

"Finding out right now," answered Blaze. Flipping over to the SAR channel, he said, "Sea Goblin, this is Blaze. ETA to POW camp?"

"We're fifteen minutes out," came the reply. "Waiting for your call."

"Well, you have it," said Blaze. "All enemy aircraft are destroyed, but the POW camp is under enemy ground attack. You better haul ass."

"And so we shall," answered the SAR pilot. "We'll be there ASAP. SAR out."


"Captain Jack" was huddled under an access window when the gunfire started to come dangerously close to his person. At present, he was praying to anyone who would listen for the safety of his men and the POWs on this day.

"Blaze to Sea Goblin," came a summons in his helmet, "come in."

"Captain Jack here!" shouted Bowdoin. "The gunfire is intensifying! The Yukes must have brought a battalion!"

"Talk about timing," marveled Blaze. "I just got off from the SAR team. They're on their way and will be here ASAP. ETA: fifteen minutes."

"Captain Jack" cursed under his breath. "We're hilariously outmanned and hopelessly outgunned here!" he yelled to Blaze. "We won't last fifteen minutes!"

"How close is the gunfire?" asked Blaze. "Hiss or snap?"

"It's been hiss all the way so far-" Right on cue, he heard a loud snap as a bullet whizzed by two centimeters from his helmet. "Scratch that, Blaze! Never mind!" Throwing the radio down, he turned to his men.

"Men, combat positions!" Everyone took up a defensible position.

"We'll fire on three!" he yelled to his soldiers. "Three, two, one...FIRE!" Wasting no time, the soldiers opened fire with their M4s. "Captain Jack" grabbed a grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it out into the battlefield. It sailed for 50 yards before coming to a rest and exploding, throwing it's scorching-hot fragments up to 300 meters from the epicenter. He then grabbed his rifle, brought the sights to his eye, and fired a quick three-round burst directly at a Yuke soldier who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even through the thick, swirling snow, Bowdoin could clearly see two of the bullets impact the soldier's chest...and the man didn't even so much as flinch. The third bullet, however, caught the soldier square between the eyes, passing cleanly through the nasal cavity and exploding out the back of his skull. The man was slow to fall, but he finally crumpled down in the snow, never to rise again.

"Don't fire indiscriminately," he advised his men, "but don't hesitate, either! Just pick your targets, and SHOOT!"


In the lead SAR helicopter, the pilot noticed a bit of something on his dashboard.

"Hang on back there!" he called. "We're hitting some turbulence!"


Finally, Blaze saw the SAR force come into view: two CH-47s heading for the southeast area of the EZ. Unfortunately, he also saw some Yuke air cavalry hot on their heels.

"Sea Goblin," he called to the SAR choppers, "you've got bogeys on your 6."

"We see them," replied the pilot, calmer than he probably had a right to be. "Can you deal with them?"

"Roger that," answered Blaze. Then, to the other Black Knights: "Knights, this is squadron leader. Who's closest to kill box 10-India?" (2)

"That would be we Aces, Blaze," answered Yellow 13.

"OK, Exemplar, haul over to kill box 10-India and take out the Yuke air cav that's harassing the SAR unit," ordered Blaze. "Wardog and I will meet you there ASAP."

"Roger that," replied Pixy. "Aces out."

"Wardog, let's haul out," Blaze called out to the other pilots. "Air cav needs help." But they were barely halfway there when...

"Enemy reinforcements destroyed," reported Altman.

"Already?" said Blaze, surprised.

"Keep in mind," reminded Pixy, "I'm flying Morgan."

"Oh, right," laughed Blaze. "Laser weapon."


Meanwhile, the Yuke weaponfire had grown intense enough to somehow blow a good-sized hole in the roof of the POW camp. For no reason at all, "Captain Jack" looked up through the hole...and was very nearly killed by a bullet that grazed the front of his nose. He immediately dropped back down, more out of surprise than anything else. Then he looked up through the roof again...and saw the most beautiful thing in existence: salvation, in the form of two CH-47s coming in to hover over the camp.

"Whew," he muttered to himself. Then, into the radio: "Sea Goblin to Edge."

"Go for Edge," came Nagase's reply.

"Our ride's here," he said, relieved. "The ground's still crawling with weapons installations, though, so they can't land. Could you clear them out for us?"

"Blaze, that's all you," she relayed to him.

"On it!" called Blaze, and even as he spoke, Bowdoin could hear the whine of a jet engine approaching. When it reached its zenith, Bowdoin could just barely make out the outline of a Raptor as it darted by overhead. Within 45 seconds, Blaze was reporting that the last of the AA installations had been destroyed.

"I see the POW camp," crackled Nagase's voice over the radio. "The man I must..." She stopped, as if catching herself, then finished: "...the PEOPLE we must help are in there."

"Be careful," warned Blaze. "The weather's getting even worse."

"The Yuke soldiers are retreating!" yelled one of Bowdoin's men triumphantly. "We did it!"

Thank you, God, thought Bowdoin silently. "OK, POWs and soldiers, our ride is here! Everyone line up outside, POWs for one helo, soldiers for the other!" Then, into the radio:

"OK, thanks for taking out the trash. We're taking the POWs outside. Can you see their smiling faces?"

"No, but that's only due to weather conditions," answered Pixy with a slight chuckle. Bowdoin then noticed a Terminator headed towards a lower altitude.

"Nagase's actually going down to look?" asked an incredulous Chopper, laughing.

"OK," reported Bowdoin, "everyone's in the helos. Checking to make sure we got all of them."

"Edge for Sea Goblin commanding officer," called Nagase, "come in."

"Staff Sergeant Jack Bowdoin," he answered, "go ahead."

"Is Captain Bartlett there?" she asked, as if unable to restrain herself any longer. "Check for a Capt. Bartlett." Bowdoin walked among the POWs, asking names and birthplaces. Then he reported back:

"Hmm...no, nobody named Bartlett here." Noticing one person he hadn't checked out yet, he went to the person, saying, "Hey, what about you?" After he had the info he needed, he delievered the news.

"Nope, not here. None of the other POWs ever heard of him, either."

"But that can't..." gasped Nagase in horror. "Look, just check for me one more time!"


At that exact moment, Blaze happened to look to the south. He saw a missile battery cleverly hidden in the mountainside. He made to turn towards it and destroy it, but he was too late. The missile was away, and it had a scent...that of First Lieutenant Kei Nagase.

"Ah, damn it, Nagase!" he yelled out. "Watch it, you've got one on your tail!" (3)

"I see it!" she cried. Immediately, she started evasive maneuvers. Banking, looping, corkscrewing, rolling, she tried every possible trick she knew. The missile stuck to her more stubbornly than a bulldog with a bone. Then, an idea struck her at the same time a picture of Bartlett flashed in her mind.

"After all the Captain said to me, I..." Then she abruptly brought her nose to point straight up and killed thrust.

Blaze could only watch in horror as Pugachev's Cobra was foiled by a missile exploding on her port wing. About five seconds after impact, he saw a parachute opening from where the cockpit had been.

"You all right?!" he cried out.

To his relief, she replied, "I'm fine. My plane's trashed, but those are always replaceable."

The SAR team had evidently been watching, as well, because the next voice they heard was that of the Staff Sergeant:

"Sea Goblin to gunship. We're taking our guests home now. Can you guys rescue her?"

"Roger," replied the gunship pilot. "Weather conditions are getting worse. We'd better step on it."

"Damn straight you better," muttered Blaze. He was having trouble considering the possibility that something might go wrong.

"Landing point confirmed, roger," reported the gunship. "Heading in to pick her up."

As Blaze watched, the gunship headed in for Nagase. However, before it could get close, a freak downdraft grabbed the gunship and threw it with all force to the ground.

"The gunship crashed!" cried Blaze, realizing in terror that his worst fear was not far from realization.

"Damn it!" growled Bowdoin. "The storm's too strong!"

"We can't just leave her behind!" argued Chopper.

"I'm with Chopper!" yelled Blaze.

"Look," reasoned Grimm, "I hate it, too, but we have to wait for conditions to get better before we can do anything."

"But this is the middle of NOWHERE, deep in enemy territory, IN A FREAKING BLIZZARD!" screamed Blaze, furious and terrified for Nagase's safety. "Nagase could be DEAD by the time conditions improve!"

"Nagase's resourceful," reassured Altman gently. "She'll be fine."

"Damn it," raged Blaze, "is there nothing we can do?!"

"I don't see how we can do anything, Eddie," answered Mobius 1 honestly, which, for Blaze, was the nail in Nagase's coffin.

"DAMN IT!" he shrieked.

"You said it," concurred Bowdoin.


Back on Sand Island, they delivered the news to Perrault right away.

The POW rescue operation was a success, and both the marines
and our friends held in the camp were safely recovered.

As for Kei Nagase, who was attacked and bailed out during the operation,
Colonel Perrault will issue orders on her behalf.

Central Command will be replacing Ms. Nagase's plane,
which was lost in the crash.

Perrault now stepped forth.

None of the rescued POWs saw Bartlett in the internment camp.

Now where could he be, I wonder?

An already furious Blaze found himself fighting not to stride up and throttle Perrault where he stood.

Upon more favorable weather conditions,
we will carry out a rescue operation for CAPTAIN Nagase.

That's right, you've all been promoted yet again.

You guys are burning through the ranks, you know that?
You can thank High Command for it.

Blaze strode boldly from the room in a blind rage once Perrault left.


Later that night, the empty crew room received a visitor in the person of Albert Genette, who turned on the light and saw a red book on the couch. He walked over to it.

She'd left her book in the crew room.

Picking it up and flipping it over, he noted the title and started thumbing through the book.

"A Blue Dove for the Princess".

That was the title of the book she left behind.

A favorite book from her childhood.

What he found within the book's pages absolutely stunned him.

The pages have torn off over the years
and she had been writing down the words that were on those pages,
trying to remember every sentence and every verse.

As he reached the famous picture of the princess feeding the blue dove for the first time, his mind flashed back to the conversation he had had with Nagase about this very book.

"I loved this book so much," she had said, looking at it wistfully, as if remembering all the times she had read it. "But I only have faint memories of what was inside," she revealed as her face grew sad. "I feel like I've grown so far away from everything since then."

I remember how she looked when she told me that.

Recalling another conversation related to the book, Genette closed it and looked off into the distance.

Did she choose to crash on purpose,
rather than having to take part in
the invasion of another country?


Blaze was sitting on his bed in his room, numb due to the day's events. He had done his best to let off some steam, but he could not shake his fear that Nagase would be dead before they could mount a rescue. And then he would have had to bury two loved ones.

A tear escaped his eye as he stared out of the window. Then he remembered her telling him she loved him: the way her face had seemed to glow when she said those words, the way her eyes twinkled in just the right light, her soft features, her angelic voice...

No, he thought to himself. No, I'll not let it happen. I flat refuse to lose you the way I lost Elsa. We-no, I will bring you back alive and in one piece. If not, I'll resurrect you so I can kill you myself.

As Blaze thought this, his face grew hard and determined, and his eyes grew cold and steely.

Hang in there, Nagase. I'm coming for you... (4)


A/N: Writer's block and Let's Playing are cruel, cruel mistresses. But I finally got inspired, and I apologize for keeping you waiting.

1: One of seven orange balls marked with from one to seven stars. When one collects all seven, they are granted one wish.

2: If this isn't how kill boxes work, please let me know. What I was trying to do was call out the square mile within the EZ which contains the POW camp.

3: This line is said by Red Leader in Star Wars: A New Hope, once the TIE Fighters enter the picture during the Battle of Yavin.

4: A line similar to this is used to close out the Steve Perry Star Wars novel Shadows of the Empire.

TBC...

NEXT: White Noise