Alrighty. First things first, this is my first Ace Combat fanfic. I've had this idea for...oh, goodness, a few years (like, when I first played the game in '07), but I never had the skills to actually write something like this. Hopefully it's not too much of a fail.

Also, you'll obviously see that Cipher is now female. We'll see how this goes.

Additionally, I'm not a military expert. So, forgive me for any inaccurate depictions and whatnot. And the life behind the scenes on base is probably horribly inaccurate, but bear with me. It's fiction, anyway.

Lastly, yes, this is more or less a novelization of the game, but I'll try to throw in a lot more than just combat dialogue. You all have probably played the game twenty times over, so you know what happens during the battles! It'd be just plain boring if that's all I did.

"It's pretty ironic, Buddy. Couple of dogs like us fightin' the last battle."

Chapter One: Collision

The reception for the new crew of mercenaries at Valais Air Base was decent. In most occasions, the new coming mercenaries would receive a craft and a hot meal, and there was minimal fuss created over them. "Actual" pilots wouldn't pass them second glances, and took little time to socialize with the different breed. Staff hardly considered them, minus when they sent them up into the skies. They were oddballs. Thrown into the skies because Ustio's air force couldn't support a large enough quantum of full-fledged pilots yet.

For Valais, the place was running amuck with mercenaries. Only two squadrons consisted of kids who had actually graduated from the air force academy in Directus, the rest were green-horn mercenaries that took a wad of cash and a room as their invitation. Government officials called it the "Dog Pound" after the nickname mercenaries (dubbed "dogs" or "hounds") had taken on during the time.

Here, in the wasteland of the Tyrann Mountains, was where I found myself.

From word of mouth, the rumors of tensions between Belka and the neighboring countries were being passed. No one knew the liability of these rumors, but they came as no surprise as the economically-crippled Belka wavered on the edge. There was an open invitation to all pilots with more than two years experience to join Ustio's "Unofficial Assets." In real terms, if we could fly a jet, they'd pay us. We wouldn't receive benefits of a full-fledged Air Force pilot, but we'd get a craft, a home and money in our pockets. We would be mercenaries.

I had only completed three years of schooling at the Directus Air Force Academy. Mounting tensions and personal questions drove me to accept the offer, and I received a message three days later telling me I'd be shipped out to Valais by the end of the week.

From the time I stepped off the plane onto the runway, with about a dozen other guys fresh out of Directus, I knew I didn't belong. Who was I trying to fool? A kid didn't belong here, much less a girl.

Keep your chin up, I growled to myself.

I shivered, hugging my jacket close to my body. It was bitterly cold, and a frigid wind gusted against us as we all scrambled to grab our belongings and file towards the base. The sky was overcast, and it looked like it was ready to snow. There mountains were a frozen hell.

The staff hustled our group through the motions. Tomorrow would be full of regulations and rules, and more information would be shoved down our throats in twenty-four hours than in three years of school. Right now, though, they just wanted to get us fed and situated.

The women's wing was slightly neglected. I was led from the tarmac to the bunkhouse by a tall, slender woman named Amelia Brindle. She had a toothy smile, and her hands felt cold when I shook them, but there was a fire of life in her brown eyes. The way she said "Welcome to Valais Air Base" made me think she was a trained tour guide, used to carting the band of fresh-faced mercenaries around for their first few days.

"This is where you'll live," Brindle said, leading me down a corridor. "This used to be the men's wing until about ten years ago, when they expanded. The girls got the leftovers, as usual."

I frowned. "Tell me the facilities aren't ten years old..."

Brindle laughed, shaking her head. "No, they've updated things here. You'll come to appreciate the humble lifestyle of this place."

"I guess it's the only thing to appreciate out here, huh?" I mumbled. The weather sure as hell wasn't the highlight of the trip.

Brindle halted at a door and grabbed the key dangling from the bracelet around her wrist. She fussed with the lock, before pushing the door open and revealing my room. It was bland, to say the least. Off-white walls and blue carpet greeted me, and the only pieces of furniture were two beds and a dresser.

"Usually, you'd be sharing a room, but there aren't too many other females on base. You'll meet Sunstrike sometime later; she's a friend of mine..." Brindle was explaining, but I had already zoned out. I dumped my luggage on one of the beds, sitting down on the mattress in deep thought. Brindle kept talking, placing a key on the dresser and some other papers.

My eyes wandered to the window in the back of the room, overlooking the vast expanse of the Tyrann Mountains. Big ashen clouds had settled in, and diminutive snowflakes were cascading from the heavens. I nearly shivered at the thought of being outside in the bitter cold, and silently accepted that I would have to get used to it. Early January meant that winter was far from over here at Valais Air Base. And I was here for God-knows-how-long.

"Tomorrow will be a much more interesting day," Brindle was saying, though I hardly caught her words. She mentioned something about getting a plane assignment this week, and hopefully starting work. She even mentioned the things she knew about me from Directus. I guess my flight instructor had put in good words about me.

I thought about Directus, and wistfully missed it. The place had become my home when I started attending the academy three and a half years ago. Even on my weeks of leave, I remained solely in Directus, with the exception of a few road trips here and there. The Ustian capital was where I belonged, and the academy was all I had. I had nearly cut myself off from my family. Even when I signed up to become a mercenary, I hadn't told them. I sent them a letter the day before I shipped to Valais, explaining myself and giving them a new address.

There was a pit in my stomach when I thought of them. Mom and dad, and my little brother, Mark, and my sister, Melanie. They were thousands of miles away, unsure where their eldest daughter and sister was. Joni hardly wrote home. Joni had only come to visit once in the last three years. Joni was a horrible family member. And now Joni had essentially quit the academy and joined the bloody lot of mercenaries.

Some kid.

Expressing a sigh, I noticed Brindle's words were slowing as she observed my lack of focus. When I gazed at her, she smiled, delighted to have reclaimed my focus.

"There's about an hour before chow time. Want to walk around base and get to know the surroundings?" Brindle quizzed.

I smiled. "As long as that means we don't spend too much time outside..."

Brindle stifled a laugh. "Oh, trust me, I hate the weather here too."

She walked me around the facilities. Outside, she pointed out the hangars and storage garages, but we mainly kept inside. We passed by my fellow Directus friends, whom I offered soft smiles and a nod before continuing on our tour. They, too, were receiving the grand tour of the base. I felt as though I hardly knew them, even though many of them I had spent the last three and a half years flying with. Today, it seemed like we were strangers.

We were rounding a corner after visiting the briefing room, when I found myself colliding with another pilot. Completely shocked, I stumbled backwards and had to use the wall to support my balance. Eyes wide, I propped myself up with the wall.

"I'm so sorry!" I apologized immediately.

The man I had collided with had stepped back, eyebrows furrowed and brown eyes blazing. For a swift second, he looked angered. But then he mumbled something before striding off.

I stood there, my jaw dropping slightly. His muffled words had hardly accounted for an apology, and he hardly even looked me in the eye. Was that the likes of pilots here at Valais? Who forgot to teach the manners?

"That was Larry Foulke...he's one of the veteran mercenaries here," Brindle muttered to me, her eyes following the man down the corridor. There was a tone of annoyance, but at the same time respect, for the man who had nearly plowed me over.

Grunting, I cast a glance over my shoulder as the man disappeared behind a door. "He's just the epitome of manners, huh?"

"Foulke is...bitter..." Brindle explained with a frown. "There's been a lot of unanswered questions since Booth was shot down last month, and I don't think he forgives himself for losing Booth."

"So the rumors are true?" I breathed.

Brindle nodded. "James Booth and Foulke were on a routine border patrol. God knows why they had to go so far west, but they encountered an unidentified aircraft and flew to intercept. The bastard fired on them and took Booth out."

My jaw tightened.

"God knows what's going on. The government has been hush-hush about it, and officials here will give us mumbles as answers," Brindle grumbled. "And when we lose a pilot to some unidentified aircraft, we get 'it might have been a rogue plane' shit. Rogue plane my ass. No one just buys a million-dollar aircraft and shoots down Ustio planes for fun."

Brindle sighed heavily, scratching her head.

"Anyway," she transitioned, "the mess hall is open. Let's get you some food."

Following Brindle down the labyrinth of halls, we finally came upon the centralized room of the base. The mess hall. The place was a hub of activity, with pilots grabbing meals and plopping down at the tables. It buzzed like a beehive, and the signs of tension did not exist within these walls.

Getting into line, Brindle suddenly waved at an approaching pilot. He was a tall man, with blue eyes and brown hair. A broad smile was plastered to his face as he neared, and he clasped Brindle on the back.

"Good evening," he greeted, his eyes turning upon me.

Brindle was quick to introduce. "Joni, this is Ian McLellan. Ian, meet one of the newbies, Joni Burghardt."

"Hello," I greeted shyly.

"How was your day, McLellan?" Brindle prompted.

"Nothing like a day of border patrol," McLellan responded with a laugh. "Things have been swarming since Booth's death last month. But we haven't seen a damn thing since the incident..."

Brindle frowned softly. "One can only hope it was a freak squirmish..."

"I'd rather not launch into war," McLellan agreed.

Walking through the line, I listlessly filled my tray with food while McLellan and Brindle exchanged a few words. I could see McLellan flashing me a few glances, but I brushed off the incident and chalked it up as natural curiosity from him. I was a new kid, and everyone wanted to know who and what I was.

Following Brindle, we made our way across the mess hall towards a table in the corner. One lone man sat at the table, already picking at his meal. He was an average looking fellow, blond hair and a sturdy stature. Upon hearing the drum of feet against the floor, the man looked up and nodded curtly in greeting to Brindle and McLellan.

I immediately recognized the man from earlier, who hadn't apologized for running into me.

This wasn't going to be good.

"Foulke, this is Joni Burghardt. She's one of the mercenary babies from Directus," Brindle introduced, setting down her food on the table and plopping down next to the man. "They called her 'Bloodbath' back there, because every time she flew, she turned things into chaos in her favor."

I felt a creep of red come to my face as I fumbled to sit down across the table from Brindle and Foulke. Swallowing, my tongue felt swollen in my mouth as Brindle continued to tell Foulke every last bit of information to the man. My eyes fell down to the food on my tray, trying to avoid the level, stony gaze Foulke was giving me. I could tell he was analyzing me, trying to size up who I was.

"I bet you were something back in Directus," Foulke commented suddenly, interrupting Brindle.

My eyes snapped up, and I gazed back at the pilot in front of me. My stomach churned on the inside as I discovered that his words were mocking, although masked behind cool genuineness. But his eyes deceived him. I saw the fire there. I saw that he was toying with my emotions, trying to uncover and exploit against my weakness.

I wasn't going to get swept off my feet like that. I hadn't hauled my ass out to Valais in the middle of winter to be buried alive by people like Foulke.

I gritted my teeth, offering the man a shrug. "It doesn't take a genius to fly a plane," I remarked coolly.

But that was the set-up he wanted.

"You're telling me," he replied tartly, giving me a nod.

This was the game he wanted to play. There were pilots like him back in Directus; the ones that wanted to build you up and get you talking, only so they could tear you down and mock you. I wasn't a fool. The game was nothing new to me. Instead of letting Foulke have the possession of the ball, I simply threw in the towel. You can't beat me if I didn't participate.

Usually, if you didn't play along, the guys would leave you be and move on to another target. But, for some reason, Foulke didn't. Maybe it was because he was a bit older than the academy boys, and a bit more charismatic. Maybe it was because he had something pitted against me, and he wasn't backing away from his prey.

"So why did you leave your comfortable Directus, Burghardt? If you were such a stellar student, why not complete your schooling?" Foulke assaulted with a smirk on his face.

I saw Brindle flash me a glance. Her face had paled slightly, and she looked like she wanted to rush in to my rescue, but refrained from doing so.

"Besides, the officials like their 'actual' pilots better. Those kids get better pay and a more gold stars for their duties," Foulke continued to prod.

He kept going, too.

"Graduating from there, you could bring a whole lot home to your family. But, a few months away from completing, and you throw in the towel and sign-up to become a mercenary. Who the hell are you trying to impress here?"

I had crossed my arms over my chest, and kept my gaze collided with Foulke's. There was a fire ignited in me, boiling my blood and leaving my body rigid. I refrained from lashing out, trying to keep my cool against Foulke. I needed to let go of my anger.

Breathing deeply, I mustered all of the strength to respond in a cool manner, "What are you trying to get at here?"

"Mercenaries are misfits. We don't belong in the skies with those aces, but we still haul our asses up there and make a place, whether anyone likes it or not. And before you think you'll become anything special out here, you be reconsider yourself," Foulke explained, a smart-ass smirk tearing across his face. The man was made rigid with his pride, bursting at the seams despite the cruel words he tagged to the duty. It was a labor of love, as some called it. Something you hated to love, but it defined you. It possessed you. "It's kids like you, coming in with the ideals implanted in them at the academy, who expect a stamp of affirmation and honor."

There was a cloud of tension in the air as I gazed evenly back at Larry Foulke, my jaw clenched, gaze unwavering. Inside, there was a plethora of things I wanted to say back at the man, mostly along the lines of "Shut up" and "No one gives a fuck." But, I kept my mouth shut.

Brindle and McLellan both shifted uneasily around us. I saw Brindle open her mouth, as though she wanted to hop to a different subject to save us. But Larry cast her a glance, brown eyes narrowed and jaw taut. She quickly ducked away, playing with the food on the tray.

"What does the title 'mercenary' mean to you?" Foulke asked, his voice nothing more than a hiss across the table.

I gazed back at him, my eyes flickering with a wave of hunger and rage. "It means that I'm no more a dog than you. And we're both going to hell."

Shoving my tray at him, I got up and strode off.

And there we have it. Chapter one. A bit long, and I felt it was a little tedious...but you have to shovel the introductions out of the way. There's a lot of things that will be explained later on, so hold on tight! And it will get more interesting! Feel free to review, just be nice on me, I'm a bit new to this fanfiction stuff! :)