A short story inspired by the Ace Combat series created by Namco and Project Aces.
| I can still vividly remember the sound of fighter jets roaring through the sky, over the glittering shore of the Baulik Sea while I was stationed at Merlov Airbase. It was during the Solvien War, when I was in the 328th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the Grynavian Air Force, or more famously known as Aegis Squadron. I, Armin Ulricht, was flight officer and fellow wingman of the remarkable individuals who flew in over twenty missions during the war, through many theater of operations, which spanned from Oistoros, Sanövahll, Vreneisa, and Deyitova. We had pushed through the borders and had secured a foothold in the Deigrav Dominion. Merlov had been a captured and converted airbase, which became our new primary base of operations until the end of the war. Our goal was to reach the city of Grisengrad, the capital of Gryczhu-Solvu – the country whose initial transgression had initiated the war.
Our Squadron became both renown and feared, having been directly involved in many successful air operations, supporting Grynavia's advance against the rallied countries of the Dominion. The majority of us were mere blue-collar citizens, who grew up in small unheard towns from neighboring countries, but together we had formed one of the fiercest fighter squadrons to ever take to the skies.
Myron Colton, a man in his late thirties, who sported an absurd thick mustache, was our squadron leader, who rivaled any fresh cadet in enthusiasm and vigor, but masked it well beneath his wise and patient disposition.
Breton Mensk, was the youngest of the group and typically was the cockiest and most rash – or at least was a close second to it compared to the rest of us. He was prone to bravado, which we usually took lightly, sometimes to his irritation. There was one particular rumor going around – which I believe had originated from our fellow pilot, Roderick – that one lady he happened to have spent the night with during one of our shore leaves had turned out to be under the age of consent, an offense he apparently had been ignorant to, having been born from a country with more liberal laws. Regardless of the circumstances, it became a popular subject of ridicule, much to his contempt.
Roderick Ainsley, was the pretty boy of the group; tall, with dark hair, always calm and in good humor, which the ladies found apparently irresistible. Despite the envy he invoked in some of the men, everyone got along with him well, except maybe Mensk, who Roderick teased when his swagger got the better of him.
Maven Weis was our only female pilot, but was nearly indistinguishable with her short hair and tomboyish personality. Some had mistaken her for a man, including myself when I first met her. I don't think it ever bothered her that much though, especially since she usually had some quip to retort with, being outspoken and opinionated as she was. She was maybe a bit too crude, but I don't think she ever intended to be taken seriously, although tempers sometimes flared between her and Roderick, further encouraging the suspicion of their intimate relationship. I guess even a strong woman like her was unable to resist his charm as well.
And then there was Trey Gelsigg, our most exceptional and rightfully most famous pilot in our Squadron. It's difficult to describe someone that even to this day remains mysterious. He was quiet and kept mostly to himself, usually seen writing in his own personal journal in his downtime. No one knew exactly what he was writing about, and if anyone bothered to ask, he replied in a soft spoken voice that it was "just his thoughts." Despite his apparent introverted nature however, he was as fierce as they came. I remember when Breton – one of our newest pilots at the time – thought it was a good idea to take his journal and read it out loud for everyone's amusement, which quickly Trey put a stop to, by punching him straight in the face. The fight, which ensued, was quickly ended by Trey's hand, and since then, no one ever bothered to provoke him again. Few made snide remarks about him, but no one was brave enough to say it to his face.
He had remarkable skill as a pilot, having received numerous citations for his acts in battle, which should have earned him enough promotions to outrank the rest of his fellow pilots, but unfortunately Trey had also been reprimanded for acts of insubordination. He had a problem with authority sometimes, as he had said in his own words: "When it comes down to it, I always trust my gut feeling above everything else."
Initially, I felt indifferent towards him; we barely said much to each other when we started flying together. But that changed, when during one mission he saved my life. We had a pretty deep conversation after I had thanked him, were he unexpectedly asked if it had made us friends. Awkward as that moment was, I did manage to acknowledge him with a smile.
The war dragged on. It had been mid-April in '04, and Grynavia, with support from Vraii-Eurilla attempted to push through on two different fronts: the north, which laid the border of Cyvughnu and Gryczhu-Solvu, and the south – where we were stationed, in Deyitova, off the coast of the Baulik sea. Orders came down from high command, and our Squadron was ordered to be shipped out further east off the coast, to take part in a campaign that was going to finally put an end to the war.
A few days before we shipped out we all spent an evening together at one of the local bars. Myron and Trey played darts that gradually turned into a drinking game, through Roderick's encouragement; while him and Breton played their own unique competitive game, which involved flirting with the local girls – much to Maven's disdain, and I casually drank while I mingled in with the crowd.
Despite the anxiety we all felt with the impending climax of the war, there was a sense of tranquility that I believed we all shared that day, an experience which would turn out to be our last one together.
I watched Trey during the game and noticed his usually inexpressive face lit up with a smile. His eyes were fierce and focused, his body relaxed, and his movements deliberately subtle. He was in his element. He enjoyed competition, or more precisely he loved to be challenged. I believe he only had to drink once out of the few games they played, while Myron ended up leaving right after they finished, perhaps to save himself the embarrassment of anyone seeing him drunk.
Later on, Trey sat by himself at a table in the corner and had a smoke, while the rest of us tried to call him over at the bar. Breton managed to win the attention of an attractive blonde girl, who he later left with, which I'm sure slightly dented Roderick's ego, and probably relieved Maven. A short time later, when I noticed Trey leaving, I too, took the opportunity, right as tension seemed to rise between Maven and Roderick.
“Let him go to his boyfriend.” Maven joked to Roderick's objections as I chugged the rest of my drink to leave.
“People probably think we're boyfriends,” Roderick retorted. “Why don't you do me a favour and sit somewhere else so you're not cramping up my style.” There was a touch of bitterness in his tone.
Maven punched him hard in the arm in retaliation. Roderick flinched, but remained silent, depriving her the satisfaction of hearing him react to the pain.
“Asshole.” She spat, then buried her face in her drink.
“I'll catch you two lovebirds later,” I said in amusement, before I turned away and caught up to Trey.
He hadn't gone far, having been just a few buildings down the street, walking at a leisure pace as he puffed on another cigarette, with one of his hands tucked in his bomber jacket.
“You leave without even as much as a goodbye,” I said to him when I was at his side. “What's up with you?”
He didn't answer. Instead he gazed ahead in a thoughtful expression while he took another drag of his cigarette, then let out a loud exhale of smoke.
We turned on the next street corner, a wide inclined street, overlooking the edge of the town and the coast as we made our way back to base. The town was peacefully quiet. If one stopped and listened carefully, they would have been able to make out the sound of the low tide off the nearby shore.
“You remember what I said to you a while ago?” He asked me in his soft spoken voice.
“When you asked if we were friends?” I guessed.
He revealed a faint smile. “After that,” he reminded me.
“Yeah... You believed you were never going to survive to the end of the war, but here you are after everything we've been through. The end of the war is coming. We can finally believe that one day it will be finally over, and we can go home.”
“It isn't over yet,” Trey assured me. I noticed there was genuine concern in his words.
“We've all been through a lot.” I remarked, then paused, remembering the last pilot we had lost had been Hans Wagner, a pilot who I had befriended since I was just a cadet. Naturally, the day of his death was one I tried to forget.
“They fear us up there,” I added, as I struggled to keep the conversation optimistic. “And you are the best pilot out of us all.”
“You think we'll ever face them again?” Trey suddenly asked in a hopeful expression.
He had been referring to Yellow Squadron, Gryczhu-Solvu's own formidable Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Yellow Devils, who we had faced only once before, during the battle of Chernburg. It had been that very battle when Trey had saved my life, having been forced to forfeit a one on one fight with a skilled pilot who he was only able to identify by the number marked on his plane. Yellow Nine, as he called him, became an obsession of his ever since.
“It's probably likely,” I answered.
Trey stopped and gazed up at the dark blue sky. The sparse clouds illuminated in bright white light from the near-full moon.
“What a poetic end it would be.” He said with sentiment, the moonlight reflected in his eyes. “To face him again one more time...”
We continued to head back, but was soon stopped by Roderick and Maven who pulled up beside us in a jeep.
“What you fine ladies doing walking home so late? You do realize there is a curfew, ya know?” Roderick said with his trademark smile.
“Is that Myron's jeep?” I asked.
“Ya,” he acknowledged with enthusiasm. “He entrusted me with it. I guess all those drinks really took a toll on him,” he explained as he shot a glance at Trey.
I noticed Trey smirked in response.
“How did he get back then?”
Roderick shrugged. “Got another Ride? Walked maybe? I'm sure he's fine.”
“Where's Breton?” I asked for the sake of conversation, having already known the answer.
“He's got other important business,” Roderick answered in a mischievous tone. “She's quite the looker too,” he continued as he shook his head.
“I'm sure we'll hear about it tomorrow,” I assured.
“We won't hear the end of it,” Maven groaned.
“Hopefully she's not like that other one.” Roderick remarked, looking like he was about to break out into laughter. “You two need a ride back?” He then asked us.
“Yeah, alright,” I said with a shrug.
I looked over to Trey who was hesitantly still. “I'm alright. I can walk back,” he answered.
“Ah, come on! I actually drive much better with a few drinks in me!” He assured Trey with his smile.
“You should try drinking before you fly then,” Trey teased, as he climbed in.
Roderick grunted in amusement, taking it good humor. “And here, I was beginning to think you hated us,” he had joked back to him.
We faced fierce resistance as we sailed out along the coast, led by the fleet's flagship vessel Harbinger, the carrier that housed our Squadron while at sea. Fortune continued to favor us as we managed to drive back the enemy and almost seize the entire coast. The next phase in our campaign was to move back inland, to the north, to capture a key strategic stronghold that would lead us directly to Grisengrad: the fortress of Inngohod.
It had been on one late evening – some time before we flew out in our most crucial operation – Trey, Myron and myself stood out on the deck of the Harbinger, attempting to make the best of our downtime with leisure conversation while Trey endlessly smoked.
Tension was high then, almost to the point of boiling over. Everyone felt exhausted but at the same time restless, as we anxiously waited to be sent back into combat. The longer the period of downtime dragged on, the more it tended to compound our unease and fatigue.
Even Myron seem tired and dispirited, while Trey vented by sharing his cynical views on the war.
“The Solviens are much too ambitious and chauvinistic for Vraii-Eurilla to ally themselves with, because they're no better,” said Trey, between the long drags of his cigarette. “They're the bigger threat. Even united, we are nothing but a fledgling power in comparison to the Solviens.
'It puts things into perspective doesn't it?” He continued. “Despite how they advertise it's all for the sake of standing against oppression and prevailing against tyranny. It's really all about them looking out for their own interests.”
“I suppose heroes can only exist in fiction,” I added.
“Believe it or not, we're the closest damn thing to it, and I dare anyone to argue otherwise!” Myron interjected with pride.
Amusingly, as if on cue, Breton interrupted Myron's dignified moment with his high-pitched obnoxious laughter. We saw him hunched over, giggling like a school girl, while Maven turned her back to Roderick and stomped off, their faces scrunched in anger and frustration.
“All they've been doing lately is fighting,” I had thought out-loud.
“Dangerous thing to be in love in a time like this,” Trey continued to preach.
“Not much different than any other close relationship,” I argued.
“That's true,” he conceded.
“It is our nature to seek companionship, and form strong bonds with each other,” Myron mused. “For some, it's what helps them carry on.”
There was a faint smile on his face as he paused, but just as quickly as it appeared, it faded away.
“But fate can be cruel," he added. "No matter how much hope or determination we can have, it can still effortlessly take away everything that is precious to us."
“Hope and fate are reserved only for the superstitious Myron,” Trey interjected.
“Got to believe in something,” Myron dismissed with a shrug, then walked away before Trey was able to say anything more.
It was uncertain whether Myron had been genuinely offended by the remark, but at the time Trey perhaps had thought so, as we sat in awkward silence for some time afterwards.
Then he said something to me I'll probably never forget.
“Promise me Armin,” he said solemnly. “If I don't make it... I want you to have my journal. There is no one waiting for me back home, so it's yours to have if something happens.”
He stared at me with a look I had never seen from him before.
0549 hrs. 5 May 2004
It had been sunrise as Armin and his squadron flew in high altitude into enemy territory, over its cragged landmass comprised of lush shrublands. They flew in a Vic formation, with Myron on his right leading, and Trey on his left, in F-19E Talgese fighter jets – identifiable by their narrow fuselage, trapezoidal wings, twin engines, horizontal and slanted vertical stabilizers. Another squadron of Talgese fighters flew alongside them, in the same formation as they continued to head north to their objective, hundreds of miles ahead.
“Good luck Aegis One,” Armin heard through his radio. It had been the other squadron leader, Evan Ergle. “We're counting on you to protect our wing,” he added encouragingly.
“Ya, it's all going to be me baby!” Breton chirped in with his usual over-enthusiastic tone.
“Is that a challenge Reaver?” Trey quipped.
“Ya... I was just kidding man,” Breton answered in a deflated expression.
“Don't be sad Breton,” Roderick assured him. “You're still unsurpassed when it comes to the little gir–”
“How about you shut your mouth?” Breton interrupted, sudden anger in his voice.
Roderick chuckled; Armin too, was unable to keep himself from smiling underneath his oxygen mask and flight helmet.
“Wilco Riker One,” Myron, Aegis One, finally responded. “Don't worry, we got you covered!”
The sky was a light blue, tinted by the increasing intensity of the sunrise, as it projected vibrant yellow light, outlining the silhouetted cluster of clouds that loomed in front. It was quite the serene view, easing Armin's anxiety for the impending mission they were about to partake in.
“And the sky shall rain fire, as we soar over the bed of chaos,” Trey recited softly. “Heads held defiant and proud, as we breach into the maelstrom of death. To ascend the unfathomable reaches, dared by only the most valiant hearted...”
“Deep as always Trey,” Roderick remarked with admiration. “You write that?”
“Nah, I did!” Breton obnoxiously cut in.
“Friggin' hell Breton!” Maven spoke up in agitation.
“This is Command,” Captain Bernard, of the GNS Harbinger, announced with his gravel voice. “The ground assault has commenced, maintain current course and keep radio chatter minimum. Over and out!”
They continued to fly close to each other's wing as they maintained the same altitude and speed. The earth – thousands of feet below them – appeared as a planar surface that gradually shifted from the horizon line like a conveyor, which deceptively gave the impression they moved slowly, when in reality they were moving nearly a thousand miles per hour through the air. The intensity of the sunrise receded, but they sky cleared and brightened as it progressed later into morning.
“Bogeys incoming,” Captain Bernard relayed on the radio. “Bearing zero-five-zero!”
Armin saw the corresponding blips on his radar.
“Tally-ho!” Myron replied a few moments later. “Should we engage?”
“Affirmative Aegis One,” Bernard answered. “All squadrons clear to engage. Confirmed, bandits are on intercept course. Eliminate the enemy then proceed onto the objective.”
“Awe yeah baby!” Breton shouted excitedly.
“Aegis One-Zero, maintain radio discipline. You've been warned!” Bernard said harshly.
“Wilco!” Breton curtsied in his usual sarcastic manner.
They diverted off their original course and drifted east. Armin took a deep breath and shrugged his body loose.
“The sun shines favourably behind our backs today...” Myron said warmly. “Alright... Aegis Three to One-Zero, disperse and engage!”
“Reaver engaging baby!” Exclaimed Breton.
“Riggs engaging,” Roderick casually acknowledged.
“Whistler engaging,” Maven declared firmly.
“Wedge engaging,” Armin followed up neutrally
“Fangs out, Nihlis engaging,” Trey spoke coolly.
Both squadrons of aircraft scattered as they clashed with the enemy; Armin picked up a target and took pursuit, it had been a MiG-26 Kaulbalt – a sleek, round-edged looking aircraft that almost look like a missile with wings and twin engines. He rotated his plane sideways and sharply turned left immediately after it passed him. He engaged the throttle and instantly felt the exhilarating sensation of gravity shifting around him as the afterburner kicked in and his aircraft rapidly accelerated forward.
He struggled to keep the enemy centered in his computerized head-up display as he closed within weapon range – indicated by the distance counter hovering above the target reticle, which rapidly counted down.
“Check your six Wedge!” Trey warned him, and as if on cue, his systems warned of an impending enemy radar-lock. “Bank hard right, then drive.” He then advised him.
“Alright!” Armin complied as he banked his aircraft.
When he had glanced up at the roof of his canopy as he dived, he saw Trey's plane swoop over him, firing its Gatling cannon at the enemy that had been behind him, roaring like thunder as it passed, in tandem with the rhythmic thud-like noise of gunfire.
“Damn... only wounded him. I'll leave it to you Aegis Three!”
“Acknowledged, thanks Nihlis!” Armin responded gratefully.
He swooped around and spotted the enemy plane Trey had fired on, it had been trailing smoke but still managed to stay in the air. He was about to lock onto the aircraft to finish it off but had picked up another one heading straight towards him – likely the one he had been tailing just moments ago. Faced against an aggressive enemy in a disadvantageous position, he preemptively veered off in an upward angle for a few moments to force his enemy to reorient their path of attack, then in one fluid maneuver did a lateral 180 spin and jerked his aircraft into a dive while upside down. He successfully shook off his enemy, having even avoided a radar track warning.
“Reaver, fox two!” Breton had suddenly shouted.
Armin heard a resonating boom somewhere off in the distance.
“Missile hit! Ha-ha first kill is mine!”
“Splash one! Nice kill Aegis One-Zero!” Confirmed Bernard.
Trey grunted in amusement. Unsurprisingly, he had scored the next kill shortly after.
Armin however, still had been engaged with his initial opponent. It seemed as if he had been guarding his fellow wounded wingman, as he aggressively maneuvered around Armin whenever he got close, almost like a bird protecting one of their flock. He wasn't going to get a clear shot without having to take him out first, which he was more than willing to oblige.
His opponent however, proved to be quite matched in skill, as neither of them were able to gain the upper hand in their prolonged fight. In the end, it ironically had been Trey who had swooped back and ended up finishing off the damaged aircraft.
“I let you have that one too,” he had teased.
After having suffered a few losses, the enemy unexpectedly broke off and began to withdraw, including Armin's target, who managed to effectively slip away from him, prematurely ending their fight in a stalemate.
“Oh, you're not getting away that easily!” Myron said fiercely as he pursued his enemy. “Salem, fox two!”
Armin heard a distant, thunderous rumble above, then witnessed a spectacular fireball plummet ahead, violently bursting with flames and leaving a thick trail of black smoke as it descended.
“Aegis One shot down a bandit!” Bernard announced.
“Heh, pilot managed to punch out... Terrain is rough down there, hopefully for his sake he doesn't slam into a mountain.” Myron mused. “Aegis Three to One-Zero regroup!” He then commanded.
Armin, Roderick, and Maven quickly rejoined on Myron's wing; Breton, then lastly Trey followed.
“Riker One, everyone alright on your end?” Myron asked Evan as their squadrons regrouped back together.
“Riker Six got grazed a bit, but otherwise we're fine.” He answered. “Strange they retreated... especially when there is no where to retreat to...”
“More Bandits incoming!” Bernard had suddenly warned. “Bear... zero...” His voice broke up into static.
“It... jam...ft!” Static drowned out Evan's voice as well.
Armin and everyone else knew what it was without even needing to understand what Evan had exactly said, it had been a nearby enemy jammer aircraft. Trey immediately broke out of formation and took off – a typical rash move of him in such situations – and quickly climbed up to a higher altitude. Armin, compelled by a strong feeling of intuition, followed, and tailed him as they passed by dense clusters of clouds until they ascended over fifteen thousand feet higher in the sky. Myron shouted after them on the radio, but his words were, of course, incomprehensible, but they both fairly assumed he had been threatening them to return to formation.
It took them some time to spot it, as their instruments had been affected by the jamming signal, forcing them to spot it visually. Armin kept an eye open, but prioritized to keep up with Trey, who wouldn't stop to let him catch up if he fell behind. Eventually they saw the large, lumbering craft emerge from one of the clusters, heading east, about seven thousand feet above them. They both engaged without hesitation, noticing the aircraft had been seemingly unescorted. When they oriented their aircraft to make an attack run however, they spotted two distant shapes oncoming from below; there was no doubt they were enemy fighters sent to intercept them.
Without needing to communicate with each other, they split off in a synchronized maneuver, Armin headed straight for the jammer while Trey swooped around to set up an approach vector to boldly engage the two fighters.
Armin sped up as fast as his aircraft was capable; its engine roared and its whole fuselage shook like it was about to fall apart as it went supersonic. The pressure of the acceleration had been intense as it pinned him into the seat of the cockpit; it felt as if his body was about to be crushed. He delicately adjusted his rudder to precisely line himself up to fire on the aircraft as he climbed towards it at an upward angle, but unfortunately ghost targets had confused his targeting systems, which prevented him from using his standard air-to-air missiles. So he resorted to firing his guns as he passed, striking the side of its enormous frame to lacklustre effect; it hardly had been worth the risk, having just narrowly missed clipping the aircraft as he steered stiffly beneath it. He was going to have to make another pass.
He widely turned left, and began to set up another approach. When he glanced out his canopy, he saw Trey's plane being pursued by one of the enemy fighters in the distance; Armin knew he was going to have to make the next attack count.
The jammer craft had been dead ahead as he lined up his second – and last shot. He switched to his secondary missiles, which were capable of detecting and locking on to nearby jamming signals. His finger hovered over the weapon release button of his control stick as he rapidly came up behind the aircraft, his sight fixated on the target as it came closer into view. He was unaware at that moment, but his face became drenched in sweat.
When he came within two thousand feet – which was roughly a few seconds away at his aircraft's speed – he fired.
“Wedge, fox three!” He shouted right as he pressed hard on the button.
The missile blazed through the sky, traveling over three-thousand miles per hour, on a straight trajectory above the target as if it was about to fly over, but eventually veered into the large dome on top of the aircraft. Armin's plane screeched as he passed, right as the resulting impact erupted into a vibrant explosion. The large plane dipped and descended as it spewed fire and black smoke.
Armin's instruments were restored. His radar warning receiver shrieked in a high pitched trill, indicating an oncoming enemy missile. He sharply dived in a downward angle, and again went full throttle.
“Come on, come on, miss!” Armin pleaded, as the missile warning greatly increased in rhythm.
He first heard the shriek of the missile, then saw the trail of white smoke streak past him on his right side. Relieved, he exhaled, not realizing he had been holding his breath.
The moment of reprieve had been short lived however, as he was then caught within a hailstorm of gunfire, from the enemy fighter who had been tailing him the entire time. He continued to maneuver his aircraft as his radar warning receiver came back on, indicating an enemy radar-lock. The enemy fired another barrage of gunfire; Armin heard a few bullets strike the fuselage of his aircraft.
“Sonofa-bitch!” He cursed.
“Dammit you two, get the hell back here!” Myron barked. “Was that you who made that kill Nihlis?”
“Negative, that was Wedge!” Trey corrected.
“I don't know whether to recommend you for a reprimand or a citation...”
“You act so surprised flight lead, as if you weren't expecting it.” Trey pointed out teasingly.
“Just get back here!” Myron growled back.
“This is command, Aegis One; do you copy?” Bernard called.
“I read you!” Myron responded.
“Sitrep!” Bernard demanded.
Armin was unable to pay attention to the rest of the chatter as he attempted to shake off his pursuer, it seemed no matter what maneuver he did, the enemy relentlessly managed to stay on his tail. Finally however, when he noticed on his radar the enemy had been almost directly behind him, he turned sharply then braked hard, which flung his pursuer past him.
It was then when he saw the enemy aircraft, it had been a Vu-23 Faulkner – an intimidating aircraft that looked like a giant jagged arrow, with swept back wings; horizontal and vertical stabilizers; a tailed rear, which separated its twin engines, and a stinger-like nose. Armin recognized it from the squadron which piloted them, Gryczhu-Solvu's 17th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Yellow Squadron.
“Remember flight lead, your priority is to escort and protect Riker Squadron as they make their bombing run on Inngohod Fortress!” Bernard iterated.
“Copy that command!” replied Myron anxiously.
“Those planes...” Maven spoke out. “And that colour...”
“It's them.” Armin answered with certainty.
“Heh, not since Chernburg... I guess we should have expected this,” Myron thought aloud, somewhat amused. “Squadrons be advised, enemy reinforcements are pilots from Yellow Squardon! These are veteran aces, if you are forced to engage, do whatever it takes to bring them down!”
“How I've long awaited for this moment...” Trey stated in a satisfied tone.
Armin and Trey continued their engagement with the enemy. Armin felt like he was in a one-sided fight, one which he was gradually losing, as it seemed he was just barely managing to avoid getting shot down, let alone seizing an opportunity to make an attack of his own. Time was running against them. It was undeniable these were the fiercest pilots they had ever faced; it felt like Chernburg all over again. However, when he glanced at his radar and noticed both Trey and his target aircraft had been close to his position, an idea came to him.
“Nihlis, I'm going to make a pass and fire on your target, force 'em into your kill zone!”
“Acknowledged...” Trey eventually responded. “Just don't get yourself killed Wedge!”
He diverted his dogfight closer to Trey's position, weaving his aircraft in erratic patterns while rolling and tilting, to continuously throw off his pursuer and remain off-centre in their sights.
Any average person would have suffered from nausea or even had fainted long ago from the disorientation, but it did not faze him. At that moment, his only concern was living long enough to make the shot. All he needed was a little more than a second to lock onto the target and fire.
“Nihlis, I'm setting up my run!” Armin warned.
His aircraft corkscrewed through the sky, managing to centre the enemy craft in his head-up display as he spun, then instantly fired the moment he heard the lock-on indicator.
“Wedge, fox two, fox two!” He shouted.
“Nihlis, fox two!” Trey followed.
He then immediately swooped in an upwards arc, just as his enemy behind him had fired another missile; it had been perfectly timed as it just barely missed the rear of his aircraft. When he had been parallel to his initial position before the manoeuver he oriented himself upright, which completed the immelmann turn.
“Got 'em!” Trey announced satisfyingly.
To Armin's relief, his enemy – having realized his wingman had been shot down – broke his pursuit and withdrew.
““Nihlis shot down a Yellow!” Armin cheered triumphantly. “Was it him?” He then curiously asked a few moments later.
“No.” Trey answered
They joined the fight that had been taking place beneath them. It had been utter chaos, as the sky lit up with gunfire. Fighter jets weaved in pairs, as they played a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
“Riker Six is down!” Evan Ergle had abruptly shouted. “We're getting beat-up out here!”
“This is command!” Bernard urgently spoke. “Ground forces are requesting immediate air support, they are getting pummelled by those enemy installations. Riker Squadron, make your attack run!”
“Roger that command!” Evan replied, his tone a bit uneasy.
“We'll cover you!” Myron stated. “Nihlis and Whistler, with me! Reaver, Riggs and Wedge will provide escort!”
“I'm afraid you're going to have to count me out sir...” Roderick said gravely.
“What's your situation Aegis Four?” Myron inquired.
“I'm in pretty rough shape, can barely stay airborne.”
“I'm on my way Riggs!” Maven interjected.
“Heh, always the sweetheart trying to look after me...” Roderick complimented.
“Shut-up!” Maven weakly retorted.
“Damn this guy is good, flies just like Trey...”
“Hold on!” Maven almost shouted.
“Forget it,” Roderick said flatly. “This goose is cooked. I'm punching out!”
“Get out of there man!” Breton yelled after him.
Roderick's radio cut out, Armin hadn't been present to witness what exactly had occurred in the following few moments, but he disturbingly became aware when Maven abruptly screamed.
“Roderick!” She had screeched.
“Did he make it out?” Myron asked anxiously. “Aegis Five... Weis! Do you copy?!”
“They got him...” Maven whimpered.
“Dammit! This ain't right, this can't be happening man!” Breton panicked.
“Stay focused Breton!” Armin – at the moment numb to the shock, spoke up. “Flight lead, Reaver and I will continue as ordered to provide escort!” He iterated firmly.
“Acknowledged...” Myron replied dryly. “I'm counting on you Wedge...”
They broke off. Armin followed after Riker Squadron as they dived down to a lower altitude and regrouped, Breton soon joined his wing as they tailed them in their own formation.
“All aircraft descend down to twenty-five hundred feet! We'll use the terrain to cover our approach!” Evan commanded.
“What!?” Breton shouted appallingly. “At that height we're bound to crash into it!”
“It's either that or get shot down.” Evan retorted. “Time to show off some flat-hatting boys!” He then said encouragingly.
“N.F.O.D.!” One of his fellow wingmen said fiercely.
They breached through the veil of clouds towards the earth's surface, comprised of various green mountains, which accentuated in depth as they drew closer to ground level.
“Here they come!” Armin warned as he glanced at his radar. “Right at our six o'clock!”
“Embraced by the scorched earth and the incandescent shores above...” Trey began to recite, as if in a trance. “Our wings unbridled, as we soar united, ever unwavering, into awaiting oblivion.”
Armin persistently kept up as they flew towards a ravine which must have been over two thousand feet wide, at the mouth of it had been an elaborately constructed beam bridge that had been recently destroyed. They glided under it after arranging into a single line formation, into the massive landform.
“Follow my lead Reaver,” Armin advised Breton right before they entered.
The ravine shifted in width, narrowing as if its sides were closing-in on them. Things became considerably more cramped to manoeuver as Armin found himself having to bank his aircraft to remain centred within it, but managed to steady his flying, as did everyone else, even Breton, despite his hysterical moans and grunts.
“Die you bastards!” Armin heard Maven yell, as she, along with Myron and Trey engaged with the pilots from Yellow Squadron.
He wished he was able to be there, briefly remembering his fellow pilot Hans, who was shot down long ago under similar circumstances, but he had to have faith. Despite what had happened to Roderick, he believed everyone else was going to pull through; he had to believe, incapable of thinking otherwise, or he wouldn't have the strength continue on.
For some time they flew through the rugged terrain while managing to keep distance away from the enemy who relentlessly pursued them, until they finally swooped over a large mountainous wall, which revealed a massive, castle-like structure ahead, with thick branching walls which extended for hundreds of miles, linked with bunker-like towers. It was Inngohod Fortress.
Explosions erupted outside and at the base of its forty foot walls, as Grynavian ground forces comprised of numerous armoured vehicles attempted to breach the enemy complex; heavy weapons fired on them from the towers, as well as artillery weapons from the inside, which had been Riker Squadron's designated targets.
Armin and Breton broke off and swooped back around towards the mountain wall and ambushed the enemy fighters as they came over. Armin managed to score a quick kill with the last payload of his secondary missiles; Breton diverted one with a barrage of gunfire, which tactically lead the aircraft into his kill zone, trapping it against the mountain slope as he fired a missile.
Two more fighters flew over them and recklessly headed towards Riker Squadron at full speed. Armin and Breton again, took pursuit.
“I got only one shot of my missiles left,” Breton stated as they sped towards them.
“Make it count,” Armin advised.
They flew over the hilled terrain as the battle raged on the ground. Tanks mobilized in formation over the hills, as they attacked enemy units and emplacements around the fortress. If Armin wasn't too focused on the fighters ahead of him, he probably would have noticed the resonating ambiance of the fighting below.
“Targets are within range, commence bombing run!” Announced Evan.
“Open up and say 'awe' you Solvien bastards!” One of the pilots taunted.
The squadron reduced speed as they flew high above the area of the fortress as they attempted their run, Armin and Breton managed to catch up to the enemy aircraft as they got within attack range of their formation. Armin managed to quickly eliminate his target with liberal use of his remaining munitions, Breton however hadn't been so lucky, as the enemy selflessly kept pursuit and held out long enough to release their payload on the allied aircraft before it was hit, ensuring their mutual destruction.
“Merceles!” One fellow pilot screamed as the plane was reduced to fire and debris.
“Riker Nine is down!” Evan shouted.
“I was too late...” Breton croaked. “Was too late...” He repeated.
“Keep it together Reaver!” Armin ordered him.
“Hold Fast boys, watch out for the AA fire and no else has to die!” Evan directed his wingmen as they began to drop their ordinance. “Let's end this war!” He was practically shouting.
There was a rumbling roar as the bombs hit their mark with destructive results, clouds of smoke erupted around the complex of the fortress, structure crumbled, and the Grynavian ground forces took the initiative as the tide of battle turned.
“Well done Riker One!” Bernard praised. “Ground forces are successfully making their advance on the fortress!”
Armin felt slightly relieved to hear the praise, assured that their objective had been achieved, but it was all quickly forgotten when he heard Maven's voice moments later.
“Salem is down!” She shouted frantically.
He didn't even hesitate, he sharply turned around and throttled hard as he made his way back to assist his fellow wingmen. It was uncertain where exactly Breton had been at the time, but he was too caught up in the moment to think about it. His only concern was making his way back before it was too late.
“Cocky bastard thinks he can take me down using just his guns...” Trey remarked bitterly at one point.
“I'm sorry Trey,” Maven told him grimly. “But I can't keep this thing up for much longer...”
“Just get out of here,” Trey ordered her. “One of us has to survive this.”
Armin was silent as he helplessly overheard, attempting to concentrate on his flying as if it would have somehow made his aircraft go faster.
“This is between him and me,” declared Trey.
“Nihlis, this is Wedge!” Armin called to him when he was close by. “I'm on my way. Nihlis, Trey, do you copy?”
“Heh, I'm shaking...” he said in a very unusual distorted tone.
When Armin had finally spotted him through his canopy, he was diving up towards his rival plane, marked with the number nine next to its squadron's emblem on its vertical stabilizer. They flew head on as Trey screamed triumphantly, his aircraft then launched a missile, which was easily outmaneuvered as the enemy fired one in return. What happened next Armin would vividly remember for the rest of his days as Trey's plane was hit, but proceeded on a trajectory course that precisely collided into the enemy. His scream forever silenced as his plane was rapidly consumed by fire, while the enemy plane – still partially intact – plummeted to the earth. Neither of them had ejected from their aircraft in the ensuing aftermath. All that remained were pieces of wreckage; traces of the spectacular duel that had taken place that day.
Things were never the same since then; it had been a tumultuous time as the rest of us tried to cope with the loss of our fellow comrades. Myron Colton, Roderick Ainsley, and Trey Gelsigg were among those that gave their lives during the battle of Inngohod Fortress, Operation: Hell's Gate, and each were posthumously awarded a two rank promotion. We flew again a few more times in small operations or sorties, but the days came and went, until that period of time became nothing more than a blur. The pleasant moments we shared when we all had been together quickly felt like a time long ago.
The success of the large scale campaign, including the capture of Inngohod fortress, soon lead to the anticipated end of the war, as Gryzchu-Solvu – faced with the reality of the war's inevitable outcome – gave their unconditional surrender. Few of the neighbouring nations who had allied themselves with Grynavia during the war, accepted a proposal for permanent confederation, and became an extension of its nation – while guaranteed to retain the majority of their independence. This unification was intended to hopefully thwart any potential transgressions in the future.
Peace gradually returned. The world celebrated as each nation finally laid down their arms, and it seemed we were supposed to share the joy and relief alongside everyone else, except we didn't; victory had felt bittersweet.
It was back at Merlov Airbase – shortly after our return from the coast – when I finally read Trey's journal, having honoured his wish to look after it. Admittedly I wasn't exactly sure what to expect within it, having held off from looking inside for quite some time. Perhaps it was hard for me to accept that he was gone.
To my initial surprise, Trey's journal contained exactly what he had claimed: composed entries of a man humbly reflecting on his thoughts and feelings, whether it was in relation to events of the war, or for his passion for flying.
Trey had been captivated by flying, as he had explained how he enjoyed the sense of freedom it gave him, to be so far above the world at great speed, as if he could go anywhere he wanted. An experience he proclaimed when he felt truly alive.
Among the entries had also been the poem he had recited that day, titled: Angelic Wings, which perplexed me, as he had admitted of his atheistic views, but maybe the poem's significance to him was something other than religious.
One particular entry lingered in my mind long after I read it, which he wrote:
“For everything in life there must be an end. One day my time will come, and I too will cease to exist, and then be forgotten.”
After pondering it for a short time, I eventually realized why Trey had wanted me to have his journal, having believed it was going to be the only thing left of him when he was gone.
I honestly don't know what to believe what awaits us in the afterlife – if there is one, but I do know I'll always remember Trey. And I believe he will continue to exist on, through my memories, along with my other fellow wingmen, who I flew so proudly alongside in the skies...
And the sky shall rain fire, as we soar over the bed of chaos.
Heads held defiant and proud, as we breach through the maelstrom of death.
To ascend the unfathomable reaches, dared by only the most valiant hearted.
Embraced between the scorched earth, and the incandescent shores above.
Our wings unbridled, as we soar united, ever unwavering, into awaiting oblivion.