Chapter 26 – Do You Believe in Ghosts?

December 14, 2010 1942hrs, Kirwin Islands

When we got back yesterday, I immediately isolated myself from everyone on my team because I knew they wanted to know what was up with me while we were on mission over Belka. Rico was pissed off about how damaged my plane was and I avoided him all together. Captain Snow had won our bet and I expected him to rub it in my face when we got back, but he didn't mention it at all. Grimm was concerned about the harsh words I said to Snow yesterday and I heard that he was looking for me the whole time. However, Kei knew exactly where I was and judging by her attitude, she wanted to talk to me about what Rico had told her. But she kept her distance from me. I knew what it was and that just gave me more reason as to why I avoided everyone. I wanted to talk to her about it, but I got the feeling that she'd hate me for not telling her about it sooner. I have to tell her about Miranda. I spent the past couple of days hiding out in Sea Goblin's helicopter. I packed my USD with a sleeping bag, a bunch of MREs, and another set of clothes so that I could pretty much live in there. It was rather peaceful. Maybe that's what I needed the most. I was about to fall asleep when I heard a knock on the side door of the helicopter. It was Kei and she didn't look too happy to see me. I opened the door and I expected her to hit me, yell at me, or both. But instead, she just stood there looking at the ground with her fists balled up.

"Come on in," I whispered sullenly and Kei climbed in. She shut the door behind her and sat on one of the seats while I just continued to sit on the floor. I felt really awkward just sitting there in silence because I didn't know how to start off this conversation. Just say something. "Did Rico tell you what happened to her?"

"No," said Kei softly.

"But he still told you about her," I said.

"Yeah," she replied in the same tone. I sat there in silence for about a minute longer because I didn't know what else to say.

"I shouldn't have left her," I muttered to myself.

"You let her die?" asked Kei like she knew where I was going with this.

"No, I didn't," I said as I looked away from Kei. "But it's my fault she died. The car crash was just a cover for what really happened."

"What car crash," asked Kei and she just looked at me suspiciously after I began to reveal the truth.

I leaned back down on my sleeping bag and organized my thoughts before I told Kei the whole story. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I should've been faster. I should've killed him when I first saw him. I should've stayed with her the whole time. I told Kei everything from the last time I spoke to Miranda in person, to the time she died. I had to pause multiple times during the story so that I could keep my grief under control. When all was said, Kei just looked at me like she usually did when she believed me. I didn't know what else to tell her other than to tell her to talk to Rico if she still doubted me. Rico didn't know the whole story, but he knew how I felt about everything.

"She died in my arms. Miranda was the first girl that I ever had feelings for. You never forget something like that," I said.

"Why did Becca have her necklace?" asked Kei.

"Miranda asked her to hold onto it while she was performing for one of her competitions and she never gave it back."

"And why did you give it to me?"

"Because you're the only one who deserves to wear it," I said and Kei looked at me in disbelief at what I had said. I knew that I had used an extremely poor choice of words but I couldn't think of any other way to say it. I had to clarify what I meant. I got up off the floor and sat in the seat opposite of Kei. "I gave that necklace to her so that she knew how much I loved her. When Miranda died, I accepted it. There was no denying it. One of the best things in my life had been taken away from me because of one man's pride and I made sure he paid for it. I buried everything after that day and I did my best to move on. But as much as I want to forget about what happened, I can't. No one can ever let go of something like that. I was afraid to love again, which was why I was reluctant to become involved with you. When I gave you that necklace, it was a reminder of how much you mean to me, Kei. There's no point for me to dwell on the past. I can only look to the future and try harder for you."

Kei looked at me in understanding but it was clear that something was still bothering her. "Why not just let go of that necklace? Why do you keep it?"

I activated my USD and selected the sling bag that I used to carry my laptop in. Kei looked at me as I sifted through it until I found what I was looking for. I held the red hard cover book that she held so dear to her heart in my hands and looked at her. "The same reason as you held onto this. They both remind us of someone we loved."

"Why do you have this?" asked Kei as she opened her book.

"I recovered it from when we escaped Sand Island and I forgot that I had it until a few days ago," I said and I moved in to sit next to Kei. "It's not easy to lose someone you love. We hang onto whatever memories we can so that they live on in our hearts. Your father lives on with this book and I knew how important it was to you when I grabbed it."

Kei started to tear up as she ran her fingers down the cover of her book. She then reached into her pocket, pulled out Miranda's necklace, and handed it to me. As I looked at it, I felt my sorrow growing because I felt like had to finally let go completely. There were so many things that I wish I could've said to Miranda, but I knew I'd never get the chance to. I got up off the seat, walked out of the helicopter, and stood at the end of the main aircraft elevator so that I was looking out towards the water. The sun was setting and I couldn't really see anything out there. Maybe it was better that I couldn't see anything. I heard Kei walk up beside me and it was clear that she was wondering what I was doing. Tears started to build up in my eyes and my grip tightened around the necklace. Don't think just do it. Letting go of everything I had left of Miranda was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do and I collapsed to the ground after I felt her necklace leave my hand and disappear into the night. The only things I had left of Miranda were bittersweet memories. I wanted to forget them but at the same time, I wanted to keep them. I owed Miranda a lot more than my own life for what she did for me. She showed me how to open up and have a soft side. In her words, she pulled the stick out of my ass. I laughed at the thought of what she said to me, but now it was all antiquity. "Goodbye, Miranda," I muttered to myself. Kei knelt down beside me and hugged me tenderly. I don't know if it was the feeling of nostalgia or Kei's touch that calmed me down, but it felt nice. The warmth of her touch seemed to envelop me to the point that I just seemed to forget everything. I turned towards Kei and embraced her just as tenderly. I didn't want to be alone tonight.

December 15, 2010 0606hrs OSF Kestrel

"So who's this lovely looking thing?" I asked as Kei showed me a picture of a black and white, blue-eyed Siberian husky.

"This is my dog, Nina. I had to give her away to one of my friends when I left for flight training at Heierlark," she said. "I trained her myself and she was the best dog ever. She'd sleep with me every night it rained because she was afraid of the thunder."

Kei and I were lying in my sleeping bag that I brought with me when I locked myself in Sea Goblin's helicopter. She had finally shown me what was in her book last night. She had pictures of her friends, family, and places she visited in there. Most of it was just the pages she rewrote the story on, but she also used the book as a small scrapbook as well. With the help of Genette, she managed to gather several pictures of me and Kei together since we got together on Sand Island. After we finished looking through all of her pictures, we continued to cuddle in my sleeping bag for the rest of the morning. The moment ended when someone opened the helicopter's side door and spotted us. There's never a chance for privacy, is there? I sat up to see Sea Goblin's door gunner, Chief Petty Officer Dennison, looking at us and he quickly saluted. Kei quickly covered herself with the sleeping bag and I just looked at the guy.

"Sir… Ma'am," he stuttered.

"May you please shut the door, chief, so we can get dressed," I asked and Dennison complied.

Kei and I quickly got dressed in our flight suits and exited the helicopter. I stayed behind to clean up my mess from the past couple days and I followed Kei back to our quarters so that we could get ready to start the day. The first thing I did was take a long hot shower. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Even though the memories of Miranda were still buzzing around in my head, I felt better knowing that I had fully moved on. I didn't know if this was a lesson that everyone learned in life, but I guess that part of living is to experience joy as well as pain. I was sad that Miranda had died, but I was glad that I got to know what emotion was. We were an odd couple. But then again, so were Kei and I. We've only been together two months, but it seemed like it's been longer than that. Maybe war has a way of bringing people closer together. I got out of the shower and headed to the mess hall to get some actual food instead of eating my last MRE. I was in luck because they were serving French toast and bacon. Crispy, greasy, savory bacon…. I didn't waste any time picking a table to sit at and chow down. The others from the squadron joined me soon after I sat down and they all just gawked at me as I went to town on my food.

"Jeez, Captain, slow down, it's not going anywhere," said Grimm and I gave him an annoyed look.

"Do you know how long it's been since I had bacon?"

"A week ago," said Grimm sarcastically.

"Okay, let me rephrase that question. Do you know how long it's been since I had bacon that didn't taste like shit?"

Grimm nodded in understanding and Kei giggled at me as I continued to eat. I had just finished up my meal as Captain Snow took a seat across from me. I couldn't hide the disappointed look on my face, knowing that he was now in command of our group. I also couldn't help but remember what I had said to him the other day and I needed to apologize for it. "Captain," I said respectfully to Snow.

"Don't call me that," he replied casually.

"Yes, sir," I replied in the same manner as before.

"Don't call me 'sir' either."

"Then what should I call you?"

"Marcus," said Snow indifferently.

"Okay, Marcus. I need to…" I began but Marcus cut me off.

"I know, Captain. You don't need to apologize to me for anything," said Marcus. "I need to apologize to you."

"For what," I asked.

"For causing you and the others so much trouble," he said and we all looked at each other, wondering if Snow had turned over a new leaf or something. We didn't say anything and we just waited for him to say something else. Snow seemed like he was beating himself up over something. "I know that I've been put under your command since the beginning and I've been acting like an ass. It's hard to go from being a flight lead and then going back to a wingman after so long. It's even harder following the orders of someone who's lower than you in rank."

"I understand," I said delicately. "Listen, I need to apologize to you as well."

"No, Captain, you don't."

"Yes I do. I had no right to say what I did."

"Yes you did, Castillo. It was my fault my men died and I put my mission ahead of them," said Snow.

"You did the right thing," I said and everyone looked at me. "Captain, we volunteered for this and we know that anything can happen out there. You know this better than any of us. I know it sounds hollow coming from me, but I know how you feel. There's always a hard choice we have to make at some point in our lives. A decision like that caused me to kill my first flight lead and cost one of my friends his life. I'm right there with you and I would hate for someone to talk down to me like the way I did you, so I'm sorry."

Snow slowly nodded in understanding and he looked up at me. "Are you willing to keep making the hard decisions like that?" he asked.

"I'd rather it be me than anyone else," I said without missing a beat.

"I don't think I could do it anymore. I'm not trying to shift the blame onto you by letting you keep your command, but your people trust you. I won't get in the way of that."

I couldn't help but smile knowing that everything had fallen into place. Razgriz's infighting had finally ended and now Snow wouldn't give me or the others any more grief. As we ate, he actually lightened up around us. He told us that he got his degree in Software Engineering and planed on retiring after the war to work for a video game company. Snow kept in touch with his wife and daughter whenever he could, but he couldn't tell them what we he was up to. His daughter, Emma, followed my squadron up until we were branded traitors and she believed it. Apart from that, it felt good knowing that we actually inspired the young too. We all continued talking for the rest of the day until we decided to call it a day. While everyone went to bed, I went towards the hangers to check on Rico. I didn't even look in his direction when I landed in my plane the other day because I knew he was going to bitch at me again. When I arrived at the hanger, he was already in the process of replacing the damaged engine and he already patched up all the holes in the fuselage. Rico always worked fast because he loved his job. He would always complain about the battle damage I suffered, but he always gave me a death glare whenever I came back without a scratch. Rico didn't think I noticed this, but I did.

"Do you need any help?" I asked and Rico looked at me.

"I was wondering where you ran off to," said Rico. "Did you already talk to Nagase?"

"Yeah, I told her everything."

"You mean the bullshit cover up or the actual truth?" asked Rico and I gave him a perplexed look. "I was part of the R&D staff at Curtis, dude. I know about the rampage you went on and I don't blame you."

I looked away from Rico and clenched my fist at the thought of what I did and he saw me clench my fist when the whole event played back in my head. "I told her the truth," I said.

"Well, at least now you can finally move on. Besides that, if I could kick your ass for damaging your plane this badly, I would. The ADMM pods are damaged beyond repair because of your near death experience. I'm surprised the remaining missiles didn't detonate because if it."

"I guess the little luck I have is still holding out."

"Yeah, but it won't last forever. Anyways, I can still equip you with AGMs, AMRAAMs, JDAMs, or the BMDS pods in the central bays."

"How many of each," I asked.

"Twenty-four AMRAAMs or AGMs on four pylons, sixteen JDAMs on two pylons, or two BMDS pods with four drops," said Rico. "I also got another X-02 operational and Nagase already claimed it."

This could be interesting.

December 16, 2010 0840hrs, OFS Kestrel

Taking showers on any ship was kind of annoying because each person had a limited amount of time they could use it for. Back on Sand Island, everyone could us as much hot water as they wanted. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing in my case because I always took less than five minutes. Kei and Grimm kept telling me that this was the only thing they didn't think they could get used to and all I could tell them was to suck it up. We were all in the mess hall when we were ordered to report to the briefing room after we got done eating and we were all eager to know what our mission was. After we found out that we were too late to intercept the nukes in Belka, we hoped that the Andromeda would find out where they went.

"Do you think they found them?" asked Grimm.

"I sure hope so. If Belka uses any of the ones they deployed, then everyone on this planet is screwed," said Snow.

"I hope we're not too late," said Kei.

"Well hurry up and finish eating so we don't waste any more time," I replied with a mouth full of food and everyone got the idea.

It took us all but half a minute for us to finish our food before we left the table and raced towards the briefing room. We didn't bother taking a seat and Pops started to fill us in. The Andromeda did intercept another cagey radio transmission that specified a location in Yuktobania and everyone was guessing that this was where one of the nukes was sent. The transmission also contained a radio frequency that we were told to try and connect to once we were over the AO. Captain Anderson didn't want any transmissions from the fleet to be sent out because he didn't want to run the risk of them being traced to us. The AO was over a ravine that was covered by an AA defense system similar to the one over Akerson Hill in Osea. We didn't have the codes to transmit a valid ID signal so our only option was to fly below the rim of the canyon as we conducted a recon mission over the area just to see what was what. The ravine was pretty tetragonal with all of the valleys connecting with each other. We were going to be fully armed in case we ran into any problems. Once we were dismissed, we all rode on a jeep towards the hangers and pick out our planes. Kei and I were going up in our X-02s while Grimm and Snow chose F-22s. Kei and I were armed with twenty-four sidewinders and twenty-four AMRAAMs while Grimm and Snow were able to get hooked up with twenty-four sidewinders, twelve AMRAAMs, and six JDAMs. The sidewinders were stored in the OSDs located in the side bays while the two outward, central pylons held two OSDs that contained the AMRAAMs and two other OSDs contained the JDAMs in the center. I kind of wish I had a variety of weapons like them, but I didn't let it bother me too much because the thought of the Yukes witnessing the return of the Razgriz was kind of exciting. Harkin heard about our mission and shot me an e-mail telling us to be careful. He also updated me on the others, saying that they were all doing well over at North Point. When I told my team about them, the first thing they wanted to know was what Harkin was doing with them over there. I didn't know what to say and told them that we'd find out when it was time.

1503hrs, Payevlenie Ravine, Yuktobania

We were closing in on the target area and we began to fly through the Ravine. The satellite imagery showed that there was only one way into this ravine form the east so we didn't have much of a choice when it came to deciding on how we were going to ingress into our AO. The canyon was roughly a third of a mile wide and roughly fifteen hundred feet deep. I honestly thought that flying through this was no trouble at all, but I could sense everyone else's concern. They didn't say anything and the silence was just unsettling. We continued to fly through the ravine until I ordered us to switch over to the radio frequency that we were given. No one said anything as we waited intensely for some kind of indication as to who wanted us to come.

"Oh wow! It's true, they've come! Fighter jets! I can tell because I'm intercepting enemy alert signals as well. Can you hear this?" asked a voice over the radio.

"Who are you?" asked Kei. "Identify yourself."

"A great number of students and intellectuals are staging a resistance against the military government of Yuktobania. You can call me Alyosha…that's not my real name, of course. I'm so glad you actually came… It's just like he said."

"He," I asked.

"We have no time. Let me explain the situation. Some of our resistant members in the Yuktobanian military have captured a nuclear bomb that was planned to being used against Osea and brought it here. The problem is that it isn't from this country and our people were followed when they brought it back to our hideout, but the Yuktobanian military doesn't know its exact position. A physics graduate student from Yuktobania Central University is currently dismantling the nuclear bomb so that it can never be detonated again. We need you to hold off the Yuktobanian forces from entering the ravine until he finishes the task."

"We'll take care of them. Razgriz, disperse and engage anything that poses a threat to the resistance. Weapons free," I ordered and we all went our separate ways throughout the canyon.

"It feels like the cliff is closing in on us. Flying through here is nearly impossible. Don't you think so?" asked Grimm.

"Meh, I've flown through worse," I said nonchalantly.

"Well, sure, maybe YOU'RE alright, but…"

"Grimm, calm down. You can do this," I said.

"This is going to be a real test of our flying ability. Let's do our best," said Snow.

"Well, I suppose there are worse ways to places to fly through," I muttered to myself.

"Like where?" asked Kei.

"That's classified," I said.

We all headed down the canyon until it branched off in two directions. Kei and Grimm went left while Snow and I went right. The first targets I spotted were a couple of Mi-24s that descended into the ravine. Normally, I would've climbed to a higher altitude and attacked from above but seeing as I couldn't go above the rim of the canyon, I couldn't do it. The enemy helicopters didn't see us coming and we each managed to take them out in the first pass. I fired my gun into the tail section of my target and watched it spin out of control towards the ground. Snow fired his gun into the main rotor of the other Hind and it fell as well. We saw another pair of Yuke helicopters up ahead and noticed that they were Mi-17 troop transport helicopters. Not only that, we also saw some gunboats patrolling the rivers and Snow headed for them. I headed for the two helicopters and fired my gun into their tail rotors, causing the pilots to lose control.

"If all they have are helicopters, then we can take them on," said Grimm.

"I got enemy fighters headed our way," said Kei.

Dammit, Grimm, you keep jinxing shit!

"We're now dismantling the nuclear bomb. This is a pretty tiny bomb. Maybe it's a tactical nuke. Hard to believe something like this can wipe out an entire city…" said Alyosha.

"Yeah, so be careful with that thing," I said.

"I just heard another jet engine… Are you managing to keep the enemy outside at bay?"

"There are only four of us and we're doing what we can."

"That's great… we'd better do our best too."

I rolled my eyes at the guy's comments and turned my attention back towards the enemy forces. Snow called out three enemy Su-30s headed our way and they spotted us right away. This isn't like the time we ran from the 8492nd. The Yuke fighter's weapon systems were working fine and they could attack us from almost any angle. The fact that we were stuck below the rim of the canyon was really starting to piss me off. Snow and I continued to engage the enemy helicopters and gunboats while the enemy formation moved in to engage us. We were coming up on a left turn in the ravine and my missile warning started to go off. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the missile head my way. Snow and I gunned our engines and raced for the turn. Come on, baby. Move! I followed Snow as he turned the corner and I heard the missile explode behind me. It couldn't track me around the corner and it impacted the side of the ravine. The explosion sent some ruble towards the side of my plane, but it wasn't enough to do any real damage. That was close.

""He?" Someone who knows us? Could it be..." muttered Kei.

I heard what she said and I wanted to tell her that Harkin could've had something to do with this, but then I remembered that he was at North Point. He could've contacted the resistance and told them to contact us. I started to think deeper into it when it occurred to me that Harkin would've told us about the location of the nuke if he knew about the resistance.

The enemy fighters were right on top of us again and this time they were gunning for us hard. The ravine branched off again and Snow peeled away to draw off some of the heat, but only one plane followed him. I tried banking unpredictably to as I continued to shoot down some of the enemy helicopters and gunboats. The enemy planes had launched another salvo of missiles at me and I shook them off by setting off flares. I thought they'd dive into the ravine and try to shoot me down with their guns, but they knew better.

"Captain, I got two on my ass and I can't shake them off!" shouted Grimm.

"Whoa… It's powering up the trigger circuit!" shouted one of the resistance members.

Holy hell!

"What? You mean it' going…"

"If you can't shut that thing down, we're leaving," I said.

"…oh, no, never mind, its fine. We shut it off," said Alyosha.

Grimm breathed a sigh of relief and he seemed to forget about the enemy fighters on his tail until he yelled in terror when a few cannon shells streaked past him. I saw Grimm come around the corner ahead of me and I was within range to use my AMRAAMs against his two attackers. Once I had them locked, I fired my missiles and they tried to maneuver out of the way. Kei must've been trying to cover Grimm as well because I saw two missiles streak up from the other side of the canyon and bury themselves into the enemy planes. I could see another enemy plane flying above the rim of the canyon and I assumed that he was shadowing Kei. I locked onto it with another AMRAAM and fired. The missile went right towards the Su-30 and impacted right behind the cockpit.

"Thanks, babe," said Kei.

I didn't reply because I was still being chased by two enemy fighters and there wasn't much I could do in this ravine. I guess I have to out turn these guys. When Grimm shot past me, I started to hug the right side of the canyon and cut back on the throttle. The enemy fighters tried to lock onto me again, but I began to execute an extremely tight left turn that almost caused me to black out. I throttled back up to get away and reengage the Yuke Helicopters. One of the enemy pilots pulled a split S to latch back onto my tail and followed me as I began to weave through the canyon. The enemy pilot was closing in on me with every turn I made and he knew that he couldn't get a good enough missile lock on me. When he was about a hundred yards behind me, I turned down the canyon Snow had veered off into and pulled Pugachev's Cobra as the enemy pilot came around the corner after me. The Yuke over shot and I came out of the maneuver to line him with my gun. My bullets tore into his left engine and the enemy plane began to trail black smoke. The pilot couldn't gain anymore altitude and he and his copilot bailed out over the river. The flight lead had just seen what had happened and he tried to launch another missile at me. I made it hit the side of the canyon when I turned another corner. The Su-30 was still shadowing me and I could tell he was getting frustrated that he couldn't bring me down. I had just sent a sidewinder into another transport helicopter when I saw the Yuke pilot dive on me and open fire with his gun when he was in range. I snap rolled to the right and watched him shoot past me. There wasn't enough time to down him with my gun so I locked him up with a missile and sent it his way. The Yuke deployed his flares too late and my missile tore the left engine in half along with most of the plane's fuselage. As the plane spiraled towards the ground, the pilot and his RIO tried to eject, but they timed it poorly. The pilot hit the side of the ravine and I saw his seat ricochet off the cliff face and tumble into the water. The RIO ejected while the plane was upside down and he just bounced off the river bank a few times before he hit the water and disappeared.

"Watch out, my hand's slipping!" shouted one of the resistance members. "It's gonna drop!"


"Hey, what's going on? Answer me!" demanded Snow.

"Uh…we're okay. We caught it just in time. Whew…"

"Look, stop scaring us like that."

"No kidding," I muttered. "How are you guys doing?"

"We're still running into resistance all around the ravine, but they're starting to thin out," said Kei.

"How much longer until that nuke is disassembled," I asked the resistance member.

"I'm cutting the wires, to the spark plugs. Stand back… there's thirty-two wires. This may take a while," he replied.

"Do you have any experience with explosives?" asked Kei.

"Ha, the best we've ever managed was making Molotov Cocktails."

Well that's very comforting!

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"Sure, I'll have it all figured out. In theory, anyways," said Alyosha.

We're all gonna die!

I continued to fly through the canyon and crossed paths with the rest of my team at one point or another. The Yukes still had no idea where the resistance was located and they were deploying squads all over the place. While I was flying through the center of the of the ravine's channels, I spotted what looked like building on top of a plateau with a dock of some kind on the west side of it. From what I observed, an infiltration team had already been dropped off and sent in to investigate. The other transport helicopters were deploying troops to scout out the other caves that were located all over the area. The whole time we were at our AO, the more I began to pray that the resistance didn't set off that nuke on accident. Not just because I didn't want me and my team to die, but because I feared the Yuke retaliation if that nuke did go off. Even though this area was out of the way of any populated area, a nuclear bomb going off on Yuktobanian soil would certainly enrage their military led government. I tuned in to the Yuke communications to get an idea of how their progress was coming along. We had already mopped up the enemy helicopters and PT boat in the ravine, but we couldn't do anything about the ground forces that were already in the caves. By the sound of things, their progress was going very slowly anyways. I guess we can only wait and see what happens.

"This is Ofnir 2, are you sure it's them?"

Who the hell is this?

"This is Ofnir 1, I said that's what I heard, the ghost of the 'Demons of Razgriz'."

"You're kidding me. They all sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Didn't the guys from Grabacr tell you that?"

"We'll find out if their ghosts or not… when we take them on in combat."

"Enemy aircraft…the guys from the surveillance photos," exclaimed Grimm.


"Be careful. Remember what Pops said, these guys are Belkan Aces," said Kei.

"Ofnir fighters… so they're the Yuke aggressors?"

"Yeah," I growled.

"Dammit, of all the places… I feel like they're hunting us like animals," said Grimm.

Grimm was around the corner from me and I soon saw a pair of Su-35s coming right for me. The leader of the element launched a missile at me and I barrel rolled over it. Snow! I knew that Snow was now out for these guys' blood and if what Pops said about these guys being good, then we were in some pretty deep shit. I gunned my engines and started to weave through the ravine so that I could find Snow before he got himself killed. Grimm joined on my wing and we soon met up with Kei. The three of us all sped through the canyon in an attempt to find our final teammate, but we ran into a second element of Su-35s.

"Ofnir Squadron, flying through this ravine is extremely dangerous," said an enemy pilot who was watching from above.

"Ofnir 1 to all planes. No obstacles to our flight observed."

"Hey, didn't you hear me? Turn back!"

I watched as the second Ofnir element flew past us and began to execute their evasive maneuvers. Not far behind them was Captain Snow and he was going after them at full speed. I pulled an extremely tight split S that Kei and Grimm weren't expecting, so they kept going. After I came out of my maneuver, I throttled back up and tried to catch up with Snow. Snow wasn't that far from me and I stuck to his tail as he trailed one of the enemy fighters. Ofnir's maneuvering was pretty basic because all they were doing were tight left and right banks that registered over eleven Gs. The more they pulled these maneuvers, the closer Snow drew to them.

"Snow, you need to back off. They're leading you into a trap," I ordered, but Snow didn't respond. I called out his name a few more times before I realized that he was dead set on shooting these guys down himself. I had to be quick if I was going to save him. I lowered my altitude so that I was flying only scant feet above the river as I closed in on Snow's F-22. He was closing in on the trailing Su-35 and I could tell that he was going for a missile shot by the way he wasn't pulling a lot of lead on his target. It wasn't until they flew down the part of the ravine that went on for five miles straight that the enemy fighter made his move. Snow was almost a hundred yards behind his target when the enemy pilot pulled Pugachev's Cobra and got behind Snow. As soon as the Ofnir pilot came out of his maneuver, I quickly climbed up behind him and fired my gun into his left engine. He must've seen me coming because he pulled his air brake and I ended up over shooting my target before I could send him to hell.

"You're the Demons of Razgriz?" asked the Ofnir pilot.

"Yeah," I growled again.

"Then we're going to turn this place into a demon's graveyard."

"Sorry guys, our Captain's really good," said Snow

I began to bank as hard as I could to shake him off my tail, but it wasn't any use. This guy's good. The chase lasted an agonizing ten seconds before I saw Snow pull into a Kulbit and get behind both of our planes. I pulled my high G barrel roll and fell back with him so that we both ended up on the Ofnir pilot's tail. He had no idea what hit him when I pour more rounds into his engine and Snow finished him off by sending a missile his way when the enemy pilot lost control of his plane. I thought the pilot was going to burn along with the rest of his plane, but he bailed out at the last moment so that he didn't hit the side of the canyon. I didn't have time to worry about that pilot because Snow had already sped ahead to try and catch up with the other enemy pilot. I was still tuned into the wideband radio channel and I could hear the other Yuktobanian pilots talking about how one of the Ofnir pilots was just shot down. I didn't pay attention to it for long because I had to catch up to Snow again.

"Swordsman, what the hell are you doing?"

"I'm trying to give you an opening to take care of these guys. I'm not sure that trick is going to work again though," he said.

I see. He wasn't out for caught up in his vendetta. "Thanks for the assist," I said.

"Anytime, now go show those guys who we are."

I felt an evil grin form on my face as I pushed the throttle forward and latched onto the next Ofnir fighter. He was banking just as sharply as before and I was a good enough distance behind him so that I could get a bead on him without giving him the chance to counter maneuver behind me. He was still flying through the ravine and I thought he'd use his altitude advantage to try and draw me away, but he didn't. I see. You might have the Yukes fooled with who you are, but you're still Belkan. We came up on another straightaway and the Ofnir fighter hit his after burner to get away. I followed his example and began to chase him. Within seconds, I managed to get a missile lock on him and he broke it by flying only a few feet off the ground. Usually this wouldn't have been a problem if I was within gun range, but I wasn't going to make it in time. He also began to slow down in the hopes that I'd fall for his trap. It was too obvious and there was no clean way to shoot him down, unless I made him screw up. Ahead of us was a bridge that connected both sides of the ravine and I quickly targeted the bridge's support columns after I did a shit ton of complicated math equations in my head in a span of a couple seconds. When the Ofnir fighter was close enough to the bridge, I launched two of my sidewinders at each column so that it started to collapse and I quickly switched over to my AMRAAMs. The Belkan pilot saw that the bridge was going to fall on top of him and he began to pull into a climb. I got you now you son of a bitch! I had a clear lock on the Su-35 and fired three missiles at him missiles at him at intervals of a second each. The Belkan was going to try and break to avoid the missiles and lose a lot of airspeed in the process. I had him boxed in and he knew it, but he wasn't going to give me the satisfaction. He ejected before my missiles engulfed the Su-35 in flames. I had the pilot dead in my gun sights and as much as I wanted to send a 25mm cannon shell through his head, I couldn't bring myself to do it.

"Look, the enemy's running down Ofnir!" exclaimed one of the Yuke pilots over the radio.

"There's only one squadron I know who can shoot down Ofnir…"

"I was just thinking the same thing… Razgriz…"

That's right, motherfuckers! I wanted to ask the Yukes if they believed in ghosts, but I figured that outmaneuvering their best pilots was intimidating enough. I didn't have the chance to think about it for long when Kei warned me that the other element was right behind me. They were screaming towards me at full speed and they each fired a missile at me while bullets from their guns streaked by as well. I pulled another Cobra maneuver and ended up right behind them, but they were already pulling out of range for me to get a lock on them. Kei, Grimm, and Snow were already hot on their tail. The other Ofnir element was still banking sharply as they continued to fly through the ravine.

"The enemy's flying so tightly… it's almost beautiful," muttered Kei. "Is this how Belkan pilots fly?"

"No, they rely on cheap tactics and cowardice to defeat their enemies. None of them know how to fly worth a damn," I said.

"Watch who you insult, boy," said Ofnir 2.

"That was more truth than insult, dumbass. All you people have ever shown me was your ability to produce pilots who can't go toe to toe with an enemy who's obviously better than them. I've heard stories about Belkan pilots from a very good friend of mine and I've always dreamt of flying with them, but I guess those pilots are all dead."

"You insolent little punk, I'll show you that we're the best pilots in the world!" The enemy pilot peeled away from his wingman and came towards my team at full speed. He launched his missiles in an attempt to hit one of us, but failed.

"He's all yours, Snow," I said and I flew past him and Ofnir 2. "Grimm, lend him a hand if he needs it." Grimm peeled away from Kei while I joined on her wing. We continued after Ofnir 1. Kei had sunk her teeth into the enemy pilot and she showed no signs of letting up. I fell back behind her because I had the feeling that this guy was leading us into some kind of trap. We followed this guy for about a good half of a minute before I saw Ofnir 2 come towards us with Snow tight on his tail. Oh shit! The enemy wingman fired a pair of missiles at Kei and I and we had to break off from our target. Time seemed to slow down as everything unfolded in front of us. Kei and I broke in opposite directions to avoid the missiles and their owner pulled Pugachev's Cobra. However, instead of leveling off to continue flying in his original direction, he applied full right rudder so that he went from facing straight up, to facing straight down. When I broke left to avoid the missiles, I nosed over into a shallow dive, but this positioned me directly in his sights. The flight lead also fired a pair of missiles at Snow and Grimm, but they failed to track properly. Ofnir's plan was to shake us off and egress out of the area. If they managed to shoot us down in the process, then that was a bonus and seeing how I was about to be shot down myself…Well…shit!

"That won't work a second time, asshole," shouted Snow and I saw a stream of bullets rip into the Su-35's left wing. The wing tore off from the rest of the aircraft and the pilot managed to bail out before it was too late. "Get that last bastard for me, Blaze."

"Sure thing," I said and I applied full throttle to go after the enemy pilot. I could sense Ofnir 1's frustration as he tried to shake me. He might've been pissed off that we were actually showing him up, but he was still able to keep his focus. I couldn't get a missile lock on him and my gun was low on ammo which meant my only option was to get in close and make sure I didn't miss. Or, was it? I continued to close the gap until I was fifty meters behind Ofnir 1, but as expected, he pulled a counter maneuver and got behind me.

"I'll make you pay for what you've done," growled Ofnir 1.

I looked back to see him firing on me with his gun and couple of rounds impacted my left wing. Ofnir 1 was too far behind for me to barrel roll behind him and he was keeping up with every one of my maneuvers. I guess there's only one option I have left. I continued to fly through the canyon with Ofnir 1. The more he tried to shoot me down the more pissed off he got. I was hugging the left side of the canyon when we made a right turn and his bullets were slamming into the cliff faces. He even tried to fire a missile at me, but it back fired on him. When the missile hit the side of the ravine, it sent a bunch of debris into the air and Ofnir 1 got pelted with it pretty good. His canopy was shattered, but he was still alive. The only damage that had been done was mostly superficial, but I could tell that he was pretty shaken up over it.

"What's wrong, losing your nerve?" I asked.

"Shut up! I'll kill you if it's the last thing I do!" shouted Ofnir 1.

Here we go. "Come and get me then," I said as I pulled up into a climb with Ofnir 1 right behind me.

"Blaze, what are…?"

"He knows what he's doing, Captain Snow," said Grimm.

"Yeah, but I wish he wasn't doing it," added Kei.

I stopped my climb at three thousand feet and began to show off my usual dog fighting prowess. Ofnir 1 made full use of this advantage as well because we weren't flying through the canyon now. I broke hard to the left and quickly reversed my direction so that I could lead him into a scissors maneuver, but he stuck with me through every turn. Damn, he's good. However, the more he stuck with me, the closer he got. I knew that with the way he was maneuvering that I wouldn't be able to get a good enough lead on him with any of my weapons. When he finally got close enough, I pulled the high G barrel roll and dove away. I used my superior speed to put some distance between us and then I circled back to engage him. My master caution alert began to buzz in my headset and I quickly acquired a lock on Ofnir 1 with my AMRAAMs. Wait for it…wait for it! Time began to move slowly again as I waited for my missile warning to finally go off and when it did, I launched four of my AMRAAMs in wide intervals before I started to frantically search my surroundings for the incoming SAMs. My radar detected one coming in from my two o' clock, another from five o'clock, two from ten o' clock, and several from twelve o'clock. I dove for the deck and Ofnir 1 followed me with all of the missiles trailing us. One of the missiles towards my ten o' clock was a long range SAM while the others were shorter range. The ground was quickly approaching us as I weaved through the missiles and machine gun fire coming from every direction. I swear it was like trying to pass a laser maze in a zero G environment. I would move to dodge one missile, but I would be in perfect position for another missile to blow me to hell with Ofnir 1 on my tail. This was almost as stressful as my engagement over the Vladimir Mountains.

After an agonizing thirteen seconds of intense maneuvering and over a dozen close calls, I finally made it back into the ravine, but the long-range missile still had me locked. It had made a pretty wide arc to try and keep itself locked onto me and now it was diving into the canyon after me. Happy day! Ofnir 1 began to pursue me through the ravine and his shots were streaking by closer than before. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up and I could feel goose bumps form on my arms when I saw the long-range SAM head right for me from twelve o' clock high. I dipped my nose down to hug the deck and Ofnir 1 followed me without hesitation. I had him right where I wanted him and everything was set for me to finally end Ofnir 1. When the missile was a mile away, I suddenly pulled into a climb that put me a hundred feet ahead and fifty degrees above my attacker while I kept my eye on the missile. It was going to slam through my canopy if I didn't move. At the last second, I broke hard left and watched the missile shoot past my right wing. It was going to slam into Ofnir 1 as I thought it would, but my hopes were dashed when he broke right to avoid it. Oh well. While I broke left, I continued to roll to the left and banked right to get behind my opponent and I pulled into a left bank again to pull lead on my target when he reversed his direction in an attempt to get away. Ofnir 1 drifted into my gun sight and my finger closed around the trigger. My remaining 25mm cannon shells tore into the Su-35's fuselage and separated the cockpit and left wing from the rest of the plane. I didn't bother looking back at the wreckage because I felt like I had just proved my point about the experience of Belkan pilots. When I looked at my radar, I saw that all the other Yuktobanian forces were starting to egress out of the area.

"All Ofnir fighters shot down," said announced Kei over the radio. "Looks like the other enemy forces bugged out on us, too."

I breathed a sigh of relief as I headed for the center of the Ravine where I saw the resistance's hideout and I met up with the others. They had all seen what I had done and judging by the looks on their faces, they were all impressed. I undid my oxygen mask and leaned back in my seat. I was calm up until I remembered that we were covering the resistance until they dismantled the nuke and it worried me that they haven't said anything to us since Ofnir arrived. I was about to call Alyosha's name, but he announced over the radio that the bomb had been completely dismantled.

"Did you fend off the enemy forces for us?" he asked.

"For now," said Kei.

"We're going into the ocean to discard the bomb, piece by piece. Nobody will ever be able to use it as a weapon again. If you can, please protect us until we make it into the ocean."

The ocean is almost two hundred miles away. I honestly doubt a speed boat would do a lot of good.

"We will, but what about…"

"Don't be surprised, but our ship… it's a submarine," said Alyosha. What the hell?! "There's nothing we can't get our hands on. I told you, we have a lot of allies."

"Alright," said Kei. "But who told you that we'd definitely be coming for you?"

"I don't know his name… but he left a message for your Captain. I'll read it. It says, "Hey Kid, I hear you're a helluva Squad Captain now." Do you get it?"

I felt a faint smile form on my face after I heard the message. That cheeky bastard is still alive. Kei couldn't contain her excitement and it was rather obvious in her reply. She told Captain Snow everything about him from when we first met up with him on Sand Island to the last time we saw him. It was kind of weird how Captain Bartlett became such a huge part of our lives in the short amount of time we knew him. The others soon realized it and we all tried to come up with reasons as to why this was, but we soon came to the conclusion that it was just one of those things that we couldn't really explain. The only reason we could think of was that he looked out for everyone he could. The subject of Captain Bartlett kept us occupied while we escorted the resistance's submarine into the ocean and spread the nuke parts at random points along the way. The one thing that we wondered about the most was when we were going to see him again. I was wondering what Pops would say when he found out.

1946hrs Kirwin Islands

We got back at around 1600hrs and as soon as I parked my plane, Danny scolded me for the damage I received from Ofnir squadron and I just ignored him like I used to. The others had already landed and we were all full of cheer as we headed back to the Kestrel together. The first place we headed was for the CIC where Pops was usually hanging out, but he wasn't there. The next place he tried was on the bridge, but he wasn't there either. Captain Anderson was the only one there and he told us that Pops was on the Andromeda. The Andromeda was further out to sea and the only way we could get to it and the other ships were by boat. We ended up waiting over three hours for him to get back. He and President Harling were over there for some reason. Genette was bitter about the fact that he wasn't allowed to head over there. When they finally did come back, I was already in bed. I did a lot of intense flying today and it really took its toll on me. I think I'm getting too old for this already. I was about to fall asleep when Kei came into our quarters. She looked like something had bothered her.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"You know how I hate it when people keep secrets from me?" she asked and I nodded. Please don't tell me I have more explaining to do. I scooted over on the bed so that Kei could sit down next to me. She leaned her head on my shoulder and sighed heavily as she sat down. "We just got done talking with Pops and we told him about how Captain Bartlett is still alive."

"Well, was he glad to hear about it?" I asked to which Kei looked up at me and frowned.

"Pops knew he was alive."


"Pops knew about Captain Bartlett the whole time and he never said anything about it," said Kei angrily. I could understand why Kei was upset about this. She spent the past three months thinking that her flight lead was dead when in fact that he was actually alive and kicking. She spent this whole time blaming herself for what happened to him and she pushed herself to her limits to make sure that it didn't happen again. The thing that got me though was that Captain Bartlett hadn't tried to get in touch with the Osean military. I remembered what Pops told me about how Captain Bartlett was dedicated to doing the right thing, so I could understand why he'd want to stay behind enemy lines to help the resistance. But why wouldn't he try to get in touch with our allies and feed them some kind of Intel? If the Yuktobanian resistance had the resources to get their hands on a submarine, then they sure as hell could muster up a long-distance phone call. Maybe there was more to it though. I thought back to when the war first started and I remembered that Perrault said that Captain Bartlett told him about my theory as to why the unmarked fighters attacked the nuggets in the first place. Did Bartlett know about Hamilton? More importantly, how did Pops know that Bartlett was still alive? "How could they just play it off like he didn't matter to anyone?"

I wrapped my arm around Kei's shoulder and held her tenderly. "Hey, come on. Captain Bartlett knew he mattered to you."

"Then why did he hide from us this whole time?"

"Sweetheart listen, the only times people lie are when they're afraid, which I doubt Captain Bartlett was. Or it's because they want to protect someone from getting hurt, physically or emotionally. That's why I didn't tell you a bunch of things before," I said and Kei looked at me kind of perturbed. "Babe, I know you would've wanted to know sooner, but in war, secrets are the most important thing anyone can keep, besides the people they love. Captain Bartlett is alive and he's doing something to keep the war from escalating."

"Yeah, I guess," muttered Kei. "But I don't want to be lied to anymore. I've had all I can take. That means no more lying from you."

"Ditto," I said and I pulled Kei on top of me so that we could go to sleep.

Well, it's been over a year since I began this story and I honestly didn't think it would be this popular. I guess I would consider this chapter a very late Christmas present to all of my followers, who are freakin' awesome by the way. I swear it brings a smile to my face whenever I get an email telling me that I have a new review or a new follower. Apart from that, here's where I have some explaining to do. I had just got done with another semester in college that consisted of nothing but writing papers. Word to the wise; if you like writing fan fiction and you're going to school, don't take a bunch of classes that involve writing a load of papers. I tried doing this and I had to rewrite this chapter three times because I kept saving it under the wrong name and my story outline got deleted too so now I have to try and remember how everything I had planned, connected. I'm busting my ass trying to get these chapters out, but it's still going to take a while.