Chapter 27 – The Bird of War

December 4, 2010 1827hrs, Sand Island AFB

It still wasn't easy coming back here without two of my friends and I wished that Justin had come to see me before he left. After all that happened and all I thought about, I was worried about his safety. That wasn't the only thing on my mind. Kei had spent most of the ride over away from me and she seemed even more disturbed when she got a letter in the mail today. She tried to isolate herself away from everyone else, but I convinced her to sit on the beach and watch the sunset with me before a nearby storm blew in. I knew something was bothering her and I figured that it had something to do with her mother because she still had that pissed off look on her face ever since we left Pike. I wanted to say something to her about it, but there was no way of easing into the subject.

"Kei, are you alright?" I asked, but she didn't reply. She just continued to look out towards the ocean. "Sweetheart, are you okay?"

"Yeah," she finally whispered.

I sighed because I knew I had to keep probing until I got her to spill it. "You sure don't seem like it," I muttered.

"I'm fine," she said as her voice started to rise.

"Something's bothering you. You can talk to me, you know," I said trying to sound considerate.

"What do you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you that I'm annoyed about something, because I'm fucking getting there," she snapped and she got up to leave.

I didn't hold her back because I knew better than to mess with a pissed off woman. Kei walked away and disappeared into the brush, leaving me all alone to think about her and her mother. I knew how she was feeling because my relationship wasn't that great with my dad when he was still alive. He was the reason I worried about raising kids of my own, but I would never be able to find out what kind of father I'd be. The thoughts about my dad kept running through my mind as laid on the sand, staring up into the sky while the storm clouds slowly rolled in above me. The rain didn't faze me as it began to fall. The winds were strong enough to the point that sand started to pick up, but I still didn't move. A very familiar sense of apathy swept over me the longer I laid sprawled out on the beach. The tide started to come in higher because of the wind and the water began to envelop my body. I wanted to be carried out towards the ocean in the hopes that I would die and tell my dad that he was an asshole to his face once I met him in hell, but part of me thought that I wouldn't have that opportunity.

"What the hell are you doing?"

I didn't move as Kei walked up to my side and looked down on me. We just stared at each other as the storm began to grow in intensity and I didn't think we'd ever move. Kei was the first one to break. She grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet so that way we could head for shelter. We ended up in one of the gazebos that were randomly scattered along the Coast of Sand Island. As soon as we were under the roof, I collapsed onto the ground and landed on my back so that I could look up and aimlessly gaze at the ceiling.

"What's your problem?" Kei asked me, but I didn't answer her. "I see, you won't say anything to me because I won't tell you what's on my mind. Is that it, smartass?!" I still didn't say anything to her as the thought of my dad continued to run through my mind. "My problems are my own business, Castillo, and just because we've been together all this time don't mean that I have to tell you anything, so stop trying to get a rise out of me by mocking me!" she screamed.

"I'm not mocking you," I muttered.

"Then what's with the sudden fit of apathy?"

"My dad," I muttered and I felt myself glare at the ceiling. "Ever since we left Pike, I knew you've been pissed off about your mom for some reason and it got me thinking. You have issues with your mom; I had issues with my dad."

"Don't you think for a second that you know what my problem is with my mother," growled Kei.

"I didn't say that I knew what your problem with her was. I just know that you two aren't on the best of terms. My dad wasn't exactly the best dad in the world, but he's part of the reason I am who I am. If I had a chance to talk to him again, I'd call him an asshole to his face."

"You think this is going to get me to talk about my mother? I don't want your pity for something that's none of your business."

"If I wanted a confession from you, I'd get it out of you by other means. If you don't want to talk about it, fine. I won't bother you about it anymore," I said and I got up off the ground to head back to the barracks alone. The rain didn't bother me as much as people thought it would. It was coming down hard and I was soaked in it by the time I got to the barracks. I was walking by the crew room when I bumped into Michelle.

"Sorry, Rockford," I said and I tried to walk past her.

"Hey, are you alright?" she asked.

"I just got a lot on my mind right now."

"Oh, you want to talk about it after you dry yourself off?" she asked cautiously.

I kind of did want to get my thoughts off of my chest and since she was my RIO, I might as well let her know a little more about me. "I don't really want to bore you with it," I said.

"I'm a good listener, Captain. I might not have some words of comfort, but I'll listen to what you have to say."

I sighed before I gave into Michelle's support. I told her I'd meet her by the main entrance of the barracks once I got changed. It didn't take me long to head towards my quarters and get changed into some casual clothes. Afterwards, I headed out of the room and met up with my RIO outside the building and I was surprised that she was able to get one of the patrol buggies so that we could travel without getting wet. We both got in and headed for the officer's club where we ordered a couple of drinks and started talking. I told her about the argument I had with Kei on the beach, but I didn't mention her issues with her mother because I figured that if Kei didn't want me to know, then she didn't want anyone else to know.

"So what problems did you have with your dad?" asked Michelle.

"My dad used to be a drill instructor for the Marine Corp, and trust me when I tell you that they can make almost anyone cry with words. While I was growing up, he was harder on me than any of my other siblings. Mom always told me that the only reason for it was because I was his first son. If my younger brother was still alive, my dad would've probably treated him better. My dad expected a lot out of me. I was expected to get all A's in school, be the best at sports, and follow directions to a tee. Whenever I tried to rebel against him, I always got beat."

"It sounds like he wanted the best for you. I know it sounds kind of stupid for me to say that, but that's the way I see it. He just wanted you to be a great kid," said Michelle.

"It IS stupid for you to say that. I remember when I was five years old; he woke me up one Saturday morning and told me to meet him in the front yard of our house. As soon as I got there, he told me to get on my sister's bike and learn how to ride it. I thought it would be one of those ideal father-son bonding moments, but he just left me there. I was out there for two hours trying to teach myself how to ride a bike. By the time I figured it out, my hands and knees were covered in my own blood and the only thing my dad could say afterwards was 'go take a shower'."

"Oh, damn…. I don't know what to tell you there."

"There's nothing to say about it and that wasn't the worst thing that he's done. In my opinion, the worst thing he's ever said to me was when he found out that I had to repeat the second grade. He told me that I had no one but to blame, but myself."

"I don't think that was so bad."

"My mom was away on deployment at the time and she came back once the school year had ended. My dad was never around to help me with my homework and when he was, he was usually drinking with his friends on the front porch of our house. He'd always turn me away whenever I came outside."

Michelle didn't say anything after she heard the end of my story. I didn't expect her to say anything and I just continued to think about everything my dad did. I hated him. If I didn't realize it now, I knew it then. I hated my father for being such a selfish prick. He always came up with excuses to get his way and he rarely treated me like a son. I was just another Marine to him. My grip on my glass grew tighter and tighter the more I thought about it and eventually, I felt it shatter in my hand.

"Captain…"

"I don't care about it anymore… I bet if he saw me now, he'd tell me that he's proud of me. And as soon as I heard him say it, I wouldn't hesitate to lay his ass out."

"Captain, if that's the case, why do you want to kill the guy who killed your father?"

"….because, he took away my chance to rub it in my dad's face."

December 19, 2010 0930, Kirwin Islands, OSF Kestrel

"Seriously, dude, you have to stop taking all these risks when you're out there. Your luck's eventually going to run out," said Rico.

I was in the hanger helping him patch up some of the battle damage from my plane. Rico had been working to get the remaining two X-02s operational, but he said that he wouldn't have another finished until tomorrow morning. As long as I had my plane, I was the happiest pilot in the world. The rest of my team was aboard the Kestrel doing who knows what and I guessed they didn't want to hang out in the cold with me. Some of the Kestrel's crew were hanging out in the hangers and they offered help anyway they could. It wasn't until that we got done fixing my plane that we all decided to take a break. I decided to sit in the cockpit of my plane and relax a little. My mind began to wander and I started to remember all the sorties I flew in my X-02. The thing I focused the most on was my rivalry with Yellow 13 and how it affected my flying. If it weren't for him, I never would've met Cipher and learned to fly with him. What stood out most about him was how he acted towards me when I met him in person at the Sky Kid Pub in San Salvacion when I had to meet up with a bunch of the resistance members before ISAF began the liberation of the city. It was right then that I began to hear someone playing the song La Catedral on a harmonica. I remembered it clearly when I was in that pub and I remembered a kid who couldn't have been more than twelve playing the harmonica. I sat up in the cockpit to find the guy who was playing the song and saw him sitting against the hanger wall. I didn't know his name and I saw that he was a kid around the age of nineteen. One glance at his harmonica made me realize that it was that kid from that pub, but he didn't know me.

"That's a pretty sweet sound you got there," I said as I looked over at him. The kid looked up at me and smiled. "La Catedral, right?"

"Yeah, it used to be me and my dad's favorite song. How do you know it?" asked the kid.

"I was a bit of a music enthusiast while I was in high school. Is that the only tune you know?"

"Nah, I know a bunch of other songs, but that one's pretty much the cornerstone of my life.

"How so," I asked.

"It was my dad's favorite song before he died and I played it with Yellow Thirteen all the time while I was living in San Salvacion during the Erusean occupation."

"You knew Yellow Thirteen?"

"Yeah, he was a good man. I bet he would've loved to meet you, Captain," said the kid.

I didn't know what to say to the kid next. I wanted to ask him what kind of person he was on the ground and I really wanted to let this kid know that I knew him as well, but I couldn't say anything. I knew I had to avoid certain topics and be careful with what I said. But before I could say anything, Kei came running into the hanger and told me that we had a mission briefing. I scrambled onto my feet and dashed out of the hanger so that I could follow Kei into the buggy she drove to get here. With the way she drove, we made it to the Kestrel in less than a minute. After we arrived, we jumped out of the buggy and made a mad dash or the Kestrel's briefing room. We had arrived shortly after Grimm and Snow and once we were all here, Pops began to give us our mission brief.

The Andromeda has been doing nothing but intercept all of the Belkan radio transmissions and they came across one that was rather peculiar. The radio team found that this message was encrypted differently, but they did manage to decipher it and not a moment too soon. The message read 'N attack by A-Sat on Okchabursk to commence at 1400 hours'. The thing that struck me as unusual about the message was that 'N attack' was old GI Jargon (military slang) used by the military to say 'nuclear attack' and 'A-Sat' was a shorter way of saying 'Attack Satellite'. Another the other thing that bothered me was that I didn't know that there were any attack satellites in existence other than the Arkbird….. Shit! The brass at the IOSS HQ knew that the Arkbird was going to be used as the tool of the city's destruction and I could sense Kei's shock when she heard this. I wanted to find another solution to this problem, but we didn't have a choice. The President gave us the order to destroy the Arkbird.

"You need to get in the air and fast. You only have an hour to do your preflight checks and get to the AO. If you chase that thing for too long, you'll more than likely be picked up by Yuktobanian radar and be seen as a threat. You'll have the entire Yuktobanian Air Force on you if that happens. Not only that, you all know the consequences if you fail," said Pops.

We all headed towards the hangers to wait for the order to launch and we just waited around until then. There was nothing much to talk about, but we all knew what each other was thinking. Kei had separated herself from the rest of us and the others wanted me to talk to her. I knew this mission was going to bother her, but to what extent?

"You should talk to her, Captain," said Grimm.

"I know I should, but this is a rather sensitive thing to discuss with her," I replied.

"Is she that attached to the Arkbird?" asked Snow.

"It goes beyond just her attachment to the bird. There's more to it, but I love her too much to tell other people her business."

"Will she be alright, Sir?" asked Grimm.

"I honestly don't know. I just hope she can figure this out on her own," I said softly.

We waited in the hanger until it was 1223hrs when we were ordered to scramble. Rico had just announced that he finished up another X-02 and Grimm immediately called dibs. That was fast!

"Are you sure you want to take that plane away from me, 1st Lieutenant?" said Snow as he cracked his knuckles.

"I'll deal with the consequences later, but right now, we've got a city to save," said Grimm.

"Snow, just take my plane, I'll go up in a Raptor," I said and I went next door to the other hanger to get my plane ready.

I told the ground crew to hook me up with as many sidewinders and AMRAAMs as they could, but it only turned out to be just as much as my X-02 could carry. I was stuck with a 20mm gun and I preferred to use a larger caliber, but what could I do? I skipped all the preflight checks and scrambled to take off. I wasn't going to let the Belkans unleash their evil onto the rest of the world. As soon as I felt my wheels leave the ground, I applied full throttle and headed for the coordinates the CIC gave us to intercept the Arkbird, but my team was still taking off when I started to head for the AO.

1309hrs, Ceres Ocean

I was tired of all of this. I was tired of all this fighting, all of this revenge, and always being one step behind the enemy. I wanted to tell the others that I wanted out of this mess, but I had to keep going for their sake. Using the Bird of Peace for war was too much for me to handle. It almost made me want to cry.

"We were so close… I feel like the Belkans are always one step ahead. Don't you think so, Captain?" asked Grimm.

Of course they are! They've been planning this shit for years! "We're still able to fight, aren't we?" I said somewhat annoyed.

"I know, Captain. I haven't given up either," said Grimm. We continued to fly full speed towards our AO when a large blip appeared on our radar. When I looked up, I could see the Arkbird slowly descending into the atmosphere. Its altitude was somewhere around seventy-five thousand feet and my Raptor only had a service ceiling just a little over sixty-five thousand. If we were going to destroy this thing, I had to leave it to the others until they were able to bring it down even further. "I can see it now, Nagase."

"Yeah…" she replied solemnly.

"It'll be tough reaching that altitude… Hey, is everything okay?"

"What do you mean? Wait, the Arkbird…" she exclaimed and I looked over towards the target to see the vapor trail of something falling from the bottom of the Arkbird. "It just jettisoned something."

"Was it the nuke?" I asked.

"It's an escape capsule," said Snow.

Why would it launch an escape capsule? I switched over to the wideband radio channel to see if the Belkans planned for this to happen. As it turns out, they were working with a ground control team to make sure this whole shit storm went smoothly.

"Adler to Schenze, he got away."

"The Osean astronaut," asked Schenze.

"Yeah, it's alright, we don't need him anymore… Oh dammit, he must've done something to the control system before he got away….. Turn off that switch! Damn, we're slowing down! We're going to dive deep into the atmosphere!"

I would see the Arkbird's control surfaces starting to shift upward and it suddenly nosed over into a dive towards the ground. Its speed had dropped dramatically and it wouldn't be able to hold its altitude if they didn't correct the thing's flight path.

"Captain, this is Archer. Doesn't the Arkbird's approach path seem too deep?"

"It's slowing down," I replied and I gunned my engines. "Now's our chance, move in!"

We didn't say anything as we flew towards the Arkbird at top speed. However, we could all feel the elephant in the room the longer we stayed silent and I wanted to ignore it until this was all over, but Grimm didn't think that was such a good idea.

"That white bird was a symbol of hope for Captain Nagase," he said.

"And now, she must try to shoot it down," added Snow.

"Kei… I'm…"

"I'm in attack position, awaiting orders," said Kei, cutting me off.

So be it. "Let's blow this thing to hell," I uttered.

Kei was the first one to speed ahead of me and engage the Arkbird and the others soon followed. I didn't know if Kei was putting her duty over her own personal feelings, or if this was an outlet for some of her aggression towards something in particular. Either way, I was still worried about her. She was the first one to fire an AMRAAM at the Arkbird and it impacted the center of the ship's underbelly. No sooner did the crew feel the impact of the missile did the radio erupt with chatter.

"Adler to Schenze, we're under attack!"

"What, the Osean army is supposed to be wrapped around our finger. Who the hell…?"

"Black bodies, that emblem… it's them! The "Ghost of Razgriz"! The survivors of the Ofnir squadron told me about 'em"

"Launch the Vogels! Get rid of them!"

Vogels, what the hell are they talking about? My question was soon answered as a saw multiple UCAVs launch from the bottom of the Arkbird and zoom past us. Where did these things come from?

"Multiple unmanned fighters, they're coming this way," exclaimed Grimm.

"That launch port wasn't in the original design!" said Kei.

"The Belkans modified it?!"

"Those unmanned craft have inhuman maneuverability!" said Snow.

"These guys are like Ofnir…"

"They flew like machines too, but these are even worse!"

"Shit… Archer, Swordsman, engage those hostiles. Edge, you're with me. Do you have any idea on how we can bring this thing down?" I asked.

"I know all about the Arkbird. I was in love with it... I used to stare at the blueprints all the time. That big engine in the middle is a booster designed to give it enough speed to escape the atmosphere. If we destroy that, it'll never make it into space again," said Kei.

"We're going to destroy the Arkbird. Are you sure about this?" asked Grimm.

"When we're at peace again, the President will build another one for us."

Kei still didn't seem too sure about it, but she was still going to destroy this thing, one way or another. The launch ports were still sending out the UCAVs and I knew that we'd become overwhelmed soon if we didn't stop them from sending out even more. I dove under the Arkbird and acquired a radar lock on the launch ports. I sent a couple of sidewinders into them, but it didn't have much of an effect. I tried to line up another shot on the launcher, but a glint of light coming from a reflective dome on the Arkbird's underside caught my attention. The light continued to grow and suddenly a beam of light began to shoot towards me. Oh shit! I broke hard to the right and watched at the Arkbird's laser beam cut off the tip of my left wing. I had completely forgotten about that damn weapon and I started cursing myself for not remembering it.

"Razgriz, be careful going to lower altitudes than the Arkbird. It still has its laser," I said. I climbed back above the Arkbird and tried to think of another way for me to attack this thing without exposing us to too much danger. Who am I kidding? Everything we've been doing is dangerous. I wasn't given any more time to think because I suddenly heard my missile warning go off and I looked over my left shoulder to see a UCAV launch a missile at me with Grimm tight on the thing's tail. The UCAV was closing in on me too fast for it to slowdown in time. Even if it was a machine, it was still predictable. These things were programmed the same way as the UCAVs of the Hrimfaxi. They had no sense of self preservation. I performed a high G barrel roll over the UCAV and quickly fired my gun into its central fuselage. What I didn't realize was that I had dove back under the Arkbird and I saw its laser warm up.

"Grimm, take out that thing's laser," I ordered. "Snow, cover him. Edge, focus on taking out those launch bays."

They all acknowledged and got to work. I was drawing the fire of the Arkbird's laser while they all attacked their targets. The laser had good maneuverability and it was a son of a bitch to try to avoid. I had to stay close to the actual weapon to avoid it better, but I had to keep peeling away to avoid the UCAV's incoming missiles. I broke hard left to avoid another missile and I had to dive away so that Snow had an opening to bag the drone. However, the laser had begun to fire again and I didn't have many options. Before the laser fired, I pulled my Raptor into a climb and acquired a lock on the laser and launchers. Once I had tone, I fired all of my AMRAAMs at my targets and began to execute a climbing spiral to avoid the laser. I didn't know if the beam was controlled by a gunner or a computer, but it was getting rather close. When my AMRAAMs had finally reloaded, I fired them again and knocked out both of the launch bays, but the laser was still firing.

"5, 4, 3, 2, 1… ignition," I heard Adler say over the radio.

I looked at the Arkbird and saw its engines ignite and saw that it was gaining altitude at an extremely slow rate. We were wasting too much time trying to disable the damn thing's weapons. I fired two more sidewinders at the laser before I shot past the ship and reversed into a dive on the Arkbird.

"The Arkbird's ascending again!" shouted Kei.

"Fire on that thing's engines when you see an opportunity," I shouted. "We can't let it get away."

"Blaze, these little shits are all over us and that laser isn't making things any easier. We have to take these things out first before we can focus on the Arkbird," said Snow.

"Captain, taking out the Arkbird should be our priority. We have to stop it ASAP or else Okchabursk will be destroyed," said Grimm.

There were a total of seven UCAVs buzzing around us and the others weren't able to keep up with them. It was up to me to deal with the fighters while the others took care of the Arkbird. I pulled into a high G Immelmann turn so that I could shoot down a UCAV that latched onto Grimm's tail. Grimm went into a shallow dive as he pulled into staggering left bank. As expected, the UCAV didn't try to evade my attack as I fired my gun into its engine. No sooner did I shoot that drone down did I see a trio of them heard for the rest of my team from the Arkbird's three o' clock. I tried to lock onto them with my AMRAAMs, but their angle of deflection was too much for my missiles to track their targets properly. My only choice was to go after them with my gun, but I knew I wouldn't be able to down all of them on the first pass.

"Heads up guys, you got multiple bandits coming in from three o' clock," I hailed over the radio.

Kei and Snow began to dump flares and scatter as the UCAVs launched their missiles. One of the drones went up in flames as I pumped it full of lead and I swung in behind the other two and fired my gun into another drone before I broke off and headed back towards the Arkbird. It was still gaining altitude and the others weren't doing enough damage to the thing's engines. I need to help them out! I was nowhere close to helping out my team before my master caution began to blare. Snow called out four of the remaining UCAVs on my tail and I began my evasive maneuvering. I was jinking hard left and right as I made my way back towards the Arkbird again and was still trying to avoid the laser. I couldn't get a good enough lock onto it and I felt like I was being boxed in.

"Rocket boosters, destroyed," hailed Kei over the radio.

"Stay on that thing, we have to confirm that that thing has been destroyed," I said.

"Grimm, get over there and lend the Captain a hand. Nagase and I will handle this thing," said Snow.

I looked back and saw Grimm speeding towards me as he launched a quartet of AMRAAMs at my attackers. In order to give his missiles the best chance to hit their marks, I flew straight for a couple of seconds, but I had to break away and dodge another barrage of enemy missiles by pulling into a hard climbing right turn. Only one of Grimm's missiles found its mark and I rolled over further to the right so that I could reverse and bank to the left. The two remaining UCAVs drew closer as I pulled into a rolling scissors and I continued to slow down to the point where I was at the edge of stalling. The thing that I noticed about these drones was that they weren't exactly designed to dogfight. Their sort wings, lack of control surfaces and a self-preservation instinct made these things only good for cannon fodder. As I was about to stall, I saw the UCAVs nose over into uncontrollable spirals as they tried to reverse their direction on me.

"Now, Grimm, do it," I ordered and Grimm fired a pair of sidewinders into the UCAVs.

Once they were dealt with we headed back to towards the Arkbird while we executed a Thatch Weave so that the Arkbird's laser couldn't get a steady bead on us. I was starting to get annoyed with this damn thing, but I really couldn't do anything about it. Nor was there really any need to. As long as we stayed above the Arkbird, we were pretty much out of danger. However, when I looked back at the ship, I saw it pull an extremely sharp left bank and head south. Where the hell is it going?

"It changed bearings. It's headed south now," said Grimm.

"What are they thinking?" asked Snow

"Where are they…? Are they headed for Osean territory?!" exclaimed Kei.

"If it penetrates Osean airspace and self-destructs, it'll be a catastrophe," muttered Grimm

Dammit! We all applied full throttle and swung in behind the Arkbird, but we all scattered again when we noticed that we were being engaged. I couldn't see where the attack was coming from until I saw missile trails streak up from the top of the Arkbird. Not only that, I also saw two ports open up on the thing's back to reveal two more engines that ignited. With defenses on the top and bottom of the Arkbird, this thing was almost like a flying fortress and we couldn't get close to it.

"Snow, take Grimm and draw the fire of those missile launchers. Edge, focus on shooting that thing down. I'm going to try and take out those defenses," I ordered.

Snow's element sped off to draw the fire of the Arkbird's defenses while I moved in to pound the AAM sites with my gun. I was amazed to the modifications that were made to the ship, but I couldn't help but feel a sense melancholy as I realized what this thing was turned into. I didn't have much time to think about it because I felt something shoot up through the floor of my cockpit and go through the canopy. Whatever it was made a clean hole that didn't send any debris or shrapnel flying. I didn't waste any time wondering what it was and I began to bank and roll unpredictably. While I was in the middle of a barrel roll, I saw a flash of light shoot up from another reflective dome on top of the Arkbird. It has another laser?!

"Shit, everyone, focus your fire on the top defenses," I ordered and my team and I sent a barrage of missiles towards the Arkbird.

The explosions ripped massive holes all over the Arkbird's white body and we also managed to knock out its secondary engines. The bird was bellowing black smoke as it began to lose altitude at a more rapid rate.

"Combined cycle engines, destroyed," announced Kei.

"I think they've made the worst decision possible," said Snow. "It's hard to fathom their desire to spread war this far… Can you believe it, Blaze?"

"This isn't the first time I've seen revenge taken this far…What drives people to do things like this," I asked solemnly.

"The fruit of their deep-rooted hatred, I suppose. But it's still hard to swallow."

"Be careful. It's still got some tricks up its sleeve," warned Kei.

We continued to trail the Arkbird as it lost altitude and Kei called out that she was being spiked by an enemy missile. When I looked towards her six o' clock, I saw a single UCAV coming in at full speed and fire a missile at her. Kei deployed a set of flares, but the missile still managed to pelt her with some shrapnel. No… I quickly pulled in behind the enemy plane and began to chase after it without hesitation. My reflexes and killer instinct took over my body as I latched onto the UCAV. It led me under the Arkbird and got me in a cross fire with the laser. Get the hell out of my way! I broke off from the UCAV and pulled into a steep climb so that I was headed right for the Arkbird's laser and unleashed all six of my missiles onto the beam's point of origin. My AMRAAMs tore through the armor and detonated inside of the ship while my sidewinders rendered the laser useless. After that was taken care of, I pulled into another dive to chase after the UCAV for the last time.

This thing was a wily little bastard as I kept up with its every twist and turn. Its acceleration was superior to that of my Raptor and it almost got away a number of times. I had to be careful with my rate of closure or else I would overshoot my target. As I continued to follow the UCAV, I noticed something very strange about the whole chase. I knew when and where this thing was going to go and what it was going to do next. It was like I actually became a machine the more I followed it. No… that's not it. On a hunch, I closed the gap on the UCAV and got within two hundred meters of it. I was about to saw the thing in half with my cannon, but I held back. It was at the point that I usually opened fire that the UCAV had pulled a high G barrel roll to maneuver behind me. I knew it! I hadn't become like a machine while I was following the drone, its flying style was based off of mine. I'm not going to allow myself to exist after I'm dead!

The UCAV was still in the process of coming out of its barrel roll when I finally made my move. I cut back on the throttle and pulled into a climb where I proceeded to perform a wide barrel roll and rolled into position behind the enemy drone. I knew what the UCAV would do to try and gain the advantage. It pulled up into another wide barrel roll while it cut back on the throttle to try and get behind me with a rolling scissors. This drone flew like me, but it didn't have a self-awareness of its own capabilities. It wasn't until I barrel rolled behind the UCAV for the fourth time that the thing stalled out and began to tumble towards the ground. I normally would've let the thing crash on its own, but I wanted to make sure that thing's flight data was gone forever and I sent four sidewinders into the UCAV as it continued to plummet out of the sky. There can only be one of me.

I peeled away from the drone and formed back up with the others as they continued to trail the Arkbird as it fell out of the sky. Kei's plane had suffered some damage to one of its engines, but it was still airworthy. I was beating myself up over the fact that I had forgotten about that last drone and for not being able to protect her. However, she didn't seem all that concerned about her plane. From what I could see, she was more focused on the status of the Arkbird as it continued to lose altitude. The thing was still at a pretty high altitude.

"It's still flying… are we going to make it in time?" asked Grimm.

"It's falling at a good rate. Unless they decide to fire up that last engine, it's not going to reach Osea," I said.

"What a pitiful sight," muttered Snow.

"Yes, and humans are responsible for it," said Grimm.

"Look at that smoke. It's in its death throes."

The White Bird of Peace was dying in front of us and I could feel the sorrow in the air. What once started out as a way to expand humanity's reach into space was now being used to send us back to the stone-age. All of the rips and tears in the Arkbird's hull were belching out more smoke than before and some of its electrical systems were shorting out. Some of the panels were starting to fly off and we gave the Arkbird a wide berth so we didn't get pelted by the debris. It's easy to hope for peace, but trying to keep it is something totally different. The longer I looked at this thing, the more I thought that the idea that peace would never become a reality for Strangereal. The Arkbird was supposed to unite the world, not destroy it. You'll never know peace, Antonio! I've been fighting my whole life and I was getting tired of it. I knew I was born to fight, but I didn't want to anymore. As much as I didn't want to live in this war torn world any longer, I had to keep fighting for what was right.

"We're seeing this through to the end. Switch to auxiliary engines," shouted Adler over the wideband radio.

I was snapped out of my train of thought at his words and saw the Arkbird pitch its nose up at a seventy degree angle. The large exhaust port between the Arkbird's other engines suddenly erupted into a huge blue flame that shot up water while it was only fifteen hundred feet above the water. Our planes were trembling from the thing's jet wash and I nearly lost control. I was amazed at the power of that single engine and I didn't know how much time the thing had before it ran out of fuel.

"The Arkbird's fired up its last engine," said Kei.

"Fighting for its last breath, huh? That thing will not quit!" said Grimm

"You're not getting away! I won't let you kill innocent people!" I shouted.

"Your mission was distorted by human treachery. Your days in the air are over!"

I still didn't know how Kei felt about shooting down the one thing that gave her hope for the future. "Razgriz, bring that son of a bitch down!"

My team and I armed all of our weapons and fired everything we had to stop the Arkbird from gaining altitude. We weren't going to let it get away and we sure as hell weren't going to stand by and watch Belka get away with any of this. One by one, our missiles detonated inside the Arkbird's last engine, but the thing was still gaining altitude. I fired all of my remaining missiles into the Arkbird, but it didn't quit. I only had my gun left and I didn't think that it'd do much good, but I fired it until it fell silent.

"Captain, I'm out of missiles," said Grimm.

"Yeah, so am I," said Snow.

"Shit, Edge, what about you?" I asked.

"I still got a few missiles left," she said glumly.

I didn't know what to say to her. I knew that she knew what had to be done, but I could sense the hesitation in her voice again. There was nothing I could really say to make her feel better about this whole situation, but I didn't have a choice. "Do it," I growled.

Kei grunted as she launched the rest of her missiles into the auxiliary engine. They all detonated inside the holes that were created by our other missiles, but the engine was still roaring. I didn't know how the thought first came into my head, but I actually considered taking my plane and crashing into the damn thing. If I was able to bail out before hand, at least Kei wouldn't be upset with herself if I died. However, before I could push my throttle forward, the Arkbird's engine began to flicker and the flame that shot out of its exhaust began to shrink until it was completely gone. We did it…

"…Damn you, Razgriz…"

The Arkbird had reached five thousand feet when we finally took out its last engine and now it was blowing up from the inside as it fell, tail first, towards the ocean. We gave all the power we could to our engines to get out of the blast radius in case the nuke did decide to go off. Instead, after the Arkbird crashed into the drink, it exploded under the waves, never to be seen or recovered again. There was still this sense of tension among the group that couldn't be eased with any combination of words. We all knew that the destruction of the Arkbird was more than just a personal loss, but it made us feel like there was no end to what the Belkans would do to get their revenge. I wanted to become angry at them, but I knew that if I did then I wouldn't stop until they were all dead. I wanted to bring peace, but how far would I go in order to achieve it? Doing something like this was just unforgivable. Would killing all of them make all of this go away?

"No… but it's a start…"

1649hrs, Kirwin Island, OSF Kestrel

Everyone was wrapped up in their own thoughts by the time we got back to base and we all went our separate ways. I ended up in the Kestrel's control tower for some reason and I was looking over the entire flight deck. There were a few of the fleet's crew strolling around, and then there was Kei. She was looking out towards the runway while she stood on the bow of the flight deck and I could tell that she was thinking about something that bothered her. I knew this because of the way she cradled her arms and placed one of her hands on her mouth. I had to say something to her and I decided to head to where she was. There were a number of things that were going through my mind when it came to what I was going to do or say to her. I could try to put her in a little bit of a better mood, but it could back fire and put her into a deeper state of depression or some other womanly, estrogen driven state of mind that I've yet to encounter from her. The other thing I could try is to approach her directly, but that would make it seem like I was trying to forcibly stick my nose in her business. Maybe the sensitive approach would work. I sighed to myself as I walked onto the flight deck and I decided to try and cheer her up, even though I doubted that it would do any good.

I walked up behind Kei and tapped her on the left shoulder while I stood on her right side. She turned her head back to try and find me and I waited for her to look over her other shoulder. When she did, I quickly ducked and walked around her back so that I ended up in front of her. Kei had turned completely around and I could tell that I confused the crap out of her with what I did. I stood up in front of Kei when she turned to face forward and I startled her to the point that she jumped back a little.

"Jeez, you scared the crap out of me," she sighed.

"Sorry," I smiled. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine… I just got a lot on my mind right now."

I knew Kei didn't want to talk about it and I didn't want to push my luck like I did last time I tried to get her to talk. "I understand," I replied softly. "Listen, I probably can't imagine how you feel right now, but I'm sorry."

"It's alright. I just need some time alone."

"Alright, I'll be here if you need to talk to someone," I said and I headed for the mess hall.

I didn't know what else to say to Kei and I kind of understood how she felt, but not entirely. Kei was on my mind from when I started eating dinner, up until I decided to go star gazing again. I was lying at the rear of the flight deck, looking up towards the night sky and remembered the night I spent with everyone on Sand Island when Chopper was still alive. Kei tried to find the Arkbird's position as we laid on the beach together. From where I was right now, I could point out exactly where it was that night. The skies that I thought I found peace in were a lot emptier now.

"Antonio…" I sat up and looked behind me to see Kei standing there with her arms cradled again. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Be my guest, I could use the company anyways," I replied softly.

Kei laid herself down close to me and looked up towards the clear night sky together. Even if there was nothing to say, I was glad that I could be with her like this, partially because she almost got shot down because of me. She knew how sorry I was that I let it happen. Anyways, we continued to lie on the flight deck until I felt her hand slowly reach over and grasp mine.

"I know you've been worried about me ever since we had our briefing this morning, but I want you to know that I'm over everything," said Kei.

"I believe you," I said softly. "Can I ask you something? I understand if you don't want to talk about it, but it's something I've wanted to know for a while." Kei looked at me like she knew what I was going to ask and I was ready to drop the subject if she didn't want to say anything. "Why don't you talk with your mother?" I could feel her shooting an intense glare at me as I continued to gaze at the stars. She let go of my hand as well and I knew for sure that I had pissed her off. "I'm sorry," I muttered. "I won't bring it up again."

"Why do you want to know?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well… I know how much your father meant to you, but why doesn't it seem like you feel the same way towards your mother?"

Kei let out a sigh before she placed her right forearm on her forehead. She was deep in thought and I didn't know if she was trying to find the right words to tell why or if she was contemplating telling me at all. "She's always been selfish about her own happiness. She needed her family more than anything and she didn't want anyone or anything to interfere with that."

"Was the rest of her family still back on Earth?"

"No, her side of the family died when she was only a child. She grew up in an orphanage where she developed monophobia. When she met my dad, she never wanted to leave him. That was until my sister and I were born."

"What do you mean? What happened?" I asked.

"My mother was very distant from my dad when I was born. She'd spend most of her time with me and Reiko and my dad knew it. It wasn't until the beginning of the summer of when everything happened that my mom filed for divorce. She didn't need my dad anymore now that she had me and my sister. My dad took us to the airshow that summer to try and save their marriage. Instead, he ended up dying and I was the subject of a sick science experiment. What's worse was that she didn't even bother to try and see if I was still alive. She just took my sister and fled the country," said Kei.

"Sounds like both of us had a selfish parent," I said and Kei just looked at me. "I'm not trying to undermine what you're saying. It's just that I know what it's like. But now that your mother thinks that you're dead, do you have any regrets?"

Kei didn't say anything for a long while and I thought about the last conversation I heard her have with her mother. I remembered that the last thing Kei said was 'I guess that's too bad you left the first time'. I knew now that Kei blamed her mother for not taking the time to see if Kei was still alive after the attack. I guessed that was what she wasn't able to forgive.

"No, I'm not sorry for anything. I made my peace and I've buried everything that I have left of my mother. As much as I didn't want to destroy the Arkbird, I actually felt better knowing that my mother's legacy is gone. She knew that it had the capability to become a weapon and she left room for those weapon modifications in there. I just wish I would've said something sooner," said Kei.

"Well, when Vincent builds the next one, it won't ever be used as a weapon," I said.

"I was just kidding when I said that he would."

"Kei…" I said and I looked into her eyes. "I know how much you don't like your own mother, but the Arkbird was something that you fell in love with. I know that you want nothing to do with her now, but it was the one good thing your mother ever did. If the president builds another one, it won't be for your mother. It'll be for everyone on Strangereal."

Kei smiled at me and gripped my hand a little tighter. "Okay, now it's my turn to ask you something," said Kei.

"Shoot."

"What was your issue with your dad?"

I kind of figured this was coming. It didn't bother me that Kei asked, but the subject was still kind of hard for me to talk about. My hatred for my dad was still burning inside my heart as I told Kei about it. It was the same exact story I told Rockford on Sand Island and Kei just listen to what I had to say without saying anything in return. She could sense the resentment in my voice the more I went on about my dad and she'd move closer to me to try and calm me down. When I finally got done talking about it, my mind was full of rage and I wanted to take it out on something.

"I don't mean to sound pissed off at you or anything, but I just can't stand the thought of that guy anymore," I said.

"I know," said Kei as she moved in to hug me. "I know this might not seem like the best thing for me to say, but it's true for me. If it weren't for your dad, I think you'd probably be a different person."

I knew what Kei meant and I crack a slight smile before it quickly vanished. I swore to myself that I would never be anything like my dad, but some things don't really turn out the way you'd like them to. My dad's sarcasm and irritability were just a few of traits that I inherited from him, but I was kind of glad that I did have his sarcasm.

"I'm never going to be like him if I ever have kids," I said.

"You plan on becoming a parent someday?" asked Kei, trying to change the subject.

"Maybe someday," I said. "I told myself that I wanted to get my life in order before I decided to get married and adopt a couple of kids, but part of me feels like I won't do a good job as a parent."

I felt myself blushing at the thought of marriage because I was still in a relationship with Kei. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this woman, but it's only been two and a half months. Not only that, but we haven't really lived together in an actual house or apartment. Is it wrong that I would like to propose to her after the war is over? I knew couples were usually together for a couple of years before they got engaged, but I felt like I was rushing into it.

"Kei," I began, but I kind of froze at what I wanted to say to her. "When all this is over… I was wondering…I was hoping to ask you…if…"

Kei looked at me and her eyes just seemed to light up like she knew what I was going to ask. I tried to say it, but I was still nervous about it because I knew I was pushing my luck. But before I could spit it out, Kei moved in and placed her lips on mine. I was caught off guard and I felt myself slowly leaning back onto the flight deck until Kei was right on top of me. When she finally pulled her head back, I could see her blushing and I knew that this had to mean 'yes'.

"You know I love you, but don't you think that you're rushing this?" she asked.

Dammit… "I didn't think you'd think that," I whispered in disappointment.

"We've been dating since October and I want to take things slow. I don't want to get married just yet," said Kei and I looked at her, befuddled.

"Who said anything about marriage," I said and Kei began to blush even harder.

"You weren't going to propose to me?" she asked.

"No. Well, at least not now," I replied and Kei just looked at me kind of confused. I wanted to smile now that I knew that she saw me as her husband one day, but until then I knew what I had to do. "I was going to ask if you'd like to move in with me when all of this is over."

"Oh," said Kei and she nervously smiled back at me. "I will, but only if Nina gets to come too."

"As long as she's okay with my dog," I said and Kei looked at me surprised. I meant to tell her about my dog, Buster, before we were interrupted inside Sea Goblin's helicopter. I had forgotten to tell her about him and I spent the rest of the night explaining all about him.