Mother Ocean
(c) Fara Phoenix418

Author's Note and Dedication
        Part One
                Part Two
                        Part Three
                                Part Four

Author's Note and Dedication

Please note that "Mother Ocean" is based loosely upon the story of James McCloud as presented in the original SNES comics released in Nintendo Power, 1992-93.  For reference, it is suggested that these comics be read prior to reading "Mother Ocean", as the fact that he is still alive may confuse some SFX64 gamers.  Thank you, and enjoy the story!

Lovingly dedicated to Foxmerc, whose dedication matches my own, and whose life I wake up every morning just to share.  You are my light, my wind, and my sail.  ~ Fara Phoenix418

 Part One

        It had been five years since James McCloud had come to the planet Caer Ailinne.  Five long years with infinite days that James had long since given up keeping track of.  It was not for lack of hope for rescue; it was simply that there had been so many marks crudely etched into the unforgiving cave walls of his initial shelter that James was no longer certain of the exact anniversary date of the crash.  Even in a journal he had attempted to keep he lost track of how many sunsets faded in the west.  The frightening decent through the atmosphere of this remote and sparsely populated planet ended in a mountainous region covered in dense rain forest.  He found later that the area was an island - one of seven to be exact - and that there had been settlers there once.

        His first several months there began with a frustrating case of amnesia, like a fog shrouding a dock; he knew there was something there, but stepping out onto the dock was near impossible.  He could remember the crash, but not the reason, nor the world that he was then lost to.  Later he would regain the memories, but for those first few months he explored the main island and the rocky shores it possessed.  There were overgrown villages of a society that had apparently only been seafaring.  No flight--let alone space travel.  James had been beyond frustrated by this -- even more so by the fact that the villages were deserted.

        Food was easy enough to find, as there were numerous fruit baring trees, as well as a type of tuber whose sweet yet starchy flavor sparked a dim memory of a food eaten in another life.  When he had built his shelter in a dry cave overlooking the blue-green ocean to the west, he felt the memories tugging at him like a child tugging at a parent's leg--patient yet insistent.  The fact of the matter was, he knew the skills he was applying to ensure his survival were learned in this other life of his--he knew, but he couldn't remember acquiring these skills.  It was as if they were instinct.

        The rain forest could be unforgiving at times; the heat and the damp were more than James could bear, but he diligently explored the whole of his island...his island...many days he mulled over this fact with that longing for something more aching in his heart.  This heart ache became greater than the ache for food.

        His exploration had led him to the shoreline, and to a view of four of the seven islands he now fancied were his.  The ocean had a heavy rolling scent of sand and salt that welcomed him to its shores.  When he first learned to fish with a poorly made net, James found contentment in the rhythm of the tides and waves as he stood up to his waist in the warm sea.  A number of docks dotted the western and southern shore of his island, and James would try his hand at pole fishing from a few of them--but net fishing was the most lucrative of the two.  However it was on one of these docks where he first met the dolphin.

        The dolphin greeted him gladly, though James was sure it was for a bit of the fish he had netted earlier.  Slowly and with much caution he let the rickety wooden dock bare his weight as he offered up one of the red scaled minnow-like fish he had been using as bait.

        The dolphin grinned as always, and when it surged upward to his full height to take the fish, James had actually cried out loud in surprise mixed with a bit of horror for the long rows of cone shaped teeth that filled the dolphin's mouth.  Once he settled himself, the Sergeant....the Sergeant...a flicker of a moment had passed in the dolphin's eyes as they met James'.

        The Sergeant stood straight at the end of the creaky dock, his hands balled into fists and his wary gaze fixed upon the rather petite dolphin as she bobbed in the water.  The knowledge that the dolphin was female came as sudden and as clearly as the fact that James was...or had been a Sergeant before the crash.

        It was as if all the blood had been drained from his body.  The numbness that followed brought James slowly to his knees while he clutched at his forehead in a vain attempt to force another memory to come forth.  Later on as he looked back upon the event, James would swear it was the very eyes of the dolphin that had sparked this fleeting memory.

        At the moment, though, she had tilted to the side in all innocence, exposing her milky white belly and the dusky slate blue and lavender stripes that graced her sides and back.  The markings ran from the corners of her musical eyes, to the tips of her tail.  Everything about her was captivating; when James had doubled over on the dock to fight the torrent of sobs that were coming, she had rose in the water to briefly catch his eye.

        She was only three feet in length, yet it was not just her dwarf size and strange, colorful markings that set her apart from the larger gray dolphins that held a place in James' memory.  The way she gazed at him with much sympathy, and the calculated way she had rose to touch her elongated snout to his hands suggested there was more about her.  She would not harm him--this he knew from her touch, and from the whimsical way she twittered her pretty little fore flippers.

        With a smile underneath his stinging tears, James had nearly fed her the entire can of bait fish he carried; the little girl voiced her delight with crescendo-ing whistles and a series of muttered clicks.  Later, once they had spoken properly, James learned that she had thanked him and welcomed her new friend to the rich waters of her home world.  At that moment, though, her speech was as incomprehensible as the tiny snippets of his past life; each note part of a beautiful melody he did not have all the sheet music to.

"Mother, Mother Ocean
I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters
Since I was three feet tall...
You've seen it all,
You've seen it all..."

         Each day he walked the length of his beach to visit the dolphin; she waited calmly by the dock until he had given her the name Serina.  Once he entered the water for the first time at her side, however, she had proved to be rather jubilant indeed.  Their days were marked with the sweet warm saltiness of the surf and the halting calls of the sea birds that pounded the waters for fish.  James would hold fast to the little dolphin's fluke as she raced through the waves; when she dove with him she somehow knew the limits of his land-walker lungs, bringing him up to the surface just in time for the gulps of air to taste rapturous and full.  He was alive, and she taught him that without really meaning to at all.  He was alive, and for the moment, it was all that mattered.

        After a while though, James began to ache once more.  Each evening, though he slept very nearly on a blanket by the shore, Serina would disappear into the waves, heading west.  Oh, she was back by dawn, or at least by the time James sat down to his breakfast of a candy-like filet of the flat fish Serina was so adept at catching for him, but in his heart he knew that she had gone home.  Home.  The word pierced his heart as badly as the title of Sergeant.

"Watched the men who rode you
Switch from sails to steam..."

        The day that James decided to make a boat was marked by the sweeping winds of an on-coming monsoon season.  The seas outside raged while he took shelter in the cave he had all but abandoned; Serina, he knew, had gone home again.  This time he longed to follow her.  He was alive, but not truly free.

        For three long months James toiled without a visit from his dolphin.  Three long months in which he learned how to make pulleys for the ropes he had salvaged from the villages, as well as how hot a fire had to be in order to smelt nails and rivets.  When at last he was done with the frame, he realized he had not made a boat--it was a ship.  A fine ship, at that.  The season passed, and James took on the task of delivering his ship frame to the shore, so that once she was fully ready to bare his weight he could find her in the water easy enough.

        His next job consisted of covering the boards in the oily pitch and bee's wax that took him on a journey all over his island to obtain.  By this time Serina had returned to the dock, and another summer had begun.  She would wait, true to her name, as he took breaks from their swims to build the masts.  Two long and fairly straight tree trunks from the southern side of his island served to bare the ropes and pulleys he had fashioned and the patch-work sails he spent hours down at the dock mending.

        The Annola-Lee, he had dubbed the schooner; one sail for each mast and four directional sails at the bow in the shape of triangles that scooped the wind up like whipped cream.

"And in your belly
You hold the treasures
Few have ever seen;
Most of them dream,
Most of them dream..."

        Late that summer it was as if Serina beckoned him to follow her.  When the Annola-Lee was complete and holding her own in the water, Serina leapt higher in the air than James had ever seen.  He tried his hand at tending the sails, and truth be told, if it were not for the expert navigation of the dolphin, the Annola-Lee would have most certainly run aground a few times.  Finally though, James caught the hang of keeping the sails filled with the heavy salted breeze, and explored his other six islands for the first time.  Serina ran alongside his bow, suspended in the ripple of glassy waves like magic--breaking the surface from time to time with a cool spray of dolphin breath.  The Annola-Lee cut through the water in a rich dream come true.  The waves and the sky were as vibrant as sapphires, and the island he had long been captive to was a shining emerald among them.

        Slowly James circled the islands before turning his bow toward the west; toward Serina's home.  The waters were bright as the sailed on, and when night came he dropped the sails and slept on the deck facing the constellations he had come to recognize.  This was the first night Serina stayed with him rather than go home--she knew her presence kept him calm.

        The lapping waves lulled him to sleep, and when James awoke to the chattering of his dolphin, he found she had thrown a few of those flat fish onto the deck.  It was another few hours before James reached the cresent-shaped atoll that was Serina's home.  The deep green of the mountains stood against the sky, lingering in the wisps of clouds that floated idly by.  The bay of the atoll was deep, and the surf rolling.  Among these break-neck waves were Serina's people; James marveled at the sight of their bodies spinning toward the sun, sometimes in unison, always with an elation he could almost hear.

"All our tears have reached the sea
Part of you will live in me
Way down deep inside my heart.
Days keep coming with our fail
New wind is going to find your sail
That's where your journey starts..."

        Serina herself was greeted as if she had been gone for months on end; the roaring of the surf meeting coral mixed with the chattering whistles and clicks as they came rushing to meet her.  James stood tall, holding on to the rigging as Serina heralded his coming to the bay with joyous leaps at the Annola-Lee's bow.  The wind sweeping over the deck carried their voices, and after a moment of chattering her greetings, Serina swam back to his port side.  Happily, she squawked to him, and with a grin, he moved to drop the sails post haste.

        It took some moments to anchor the ship soundly in the bay, but once her anchor caught bottom firmly, James was able to lower his rope ladder off the stern.  The water was blessedly clear; he could nearly see the bottom.  Serina blew a cool spray of breath over him as she neared him, and when he saw that her kind dotted the waters like stars in the skies, he was taken aback.  They varied in size and coloration--it was a rather strange pod, to say the least.  All possessed the same grace as his own dolphin, though he thought almost shamefully, none owned the same searching eyes.  His own dolphin...but did he really own her, he wondered as she bumped her snout against his free hand.  She was not at all a pet, he decided, as she tilted to look at him from the side.  Not at all a pet...

        It was as if she knew his pains, he thought to himself.  When the chorus of dolphins clicked and whistled their way over to them, Serina turned to face them.  After a moment or two of observing the interaction, James became certain those clicks were a language--he would bet on it.  The medium-sized dusky colored dolphin before Serina clearly spoke for the group, and as she eyed James askance, she became agitated with Serina.

        Appalled when the dusky dolphin snapped her jaws rapidly, he ducked when she slapped the surface of the water with her fluke rather curtly.

        He was not welcome.

        This was clear as Serina floated to back herself against his waist; with a concerned gaze, he listened to her wail in between a jaw snapping display of her own.  When he cautiously slid a hand over Serina's smooth skin to calm her, the dolphins accompanying Dusk, as he now named her, showed their disdain by slapping the water as well, and chattering to Dusk as if in gossip.  James felt suddenly out of place, as a boy meeting the girlfriend's parents for the first time would--only this was no girl, and whether Dusk was Serina's parent remained to be seen.

        However, he was certain his dolphin was crying as she pressed against him for comfort, and he leaned to hold her tiny body with a hushed whisper.

    "It'll be alright..."  he said, and Dusk was not at all pleased by the Land-Walker's speech, as he figured the next piercing whistles were for him.  With a frown, he held Serina close as a mother would a child.  When Dusk rushed them both in a torrent of froth and foam, James was knocked away from his rope ladder.  Serina, he found, was being bullied by some of the older dolphins and roughly herded toward the inner bay.  Fighting the current and the swells, James swam back to the rope ladder and sputtered out the enormous amount of sea water brine he had just swallowed.

        Serina went easily now, with her escort, though presently she spy-hopped to make sure he was alright and to call out to him sadly.  James stepped up a rung when she slipped beneath the waves; a panicked feeling washing over him as he realized that he was alone now in the water.

        His dream of finding a home was shattered the instant Dusk had attacked, and trembling, he lightly patted the surface of the water in a vain attempt to call Serina.  She was too far, now, he knew, and clinging to the roped, James closed his eyes.  The surf rolled on, and the calls of the seabirds were like laughter--laughter because they were free to go, and laughter because they belonged.  His teeth bared, James lightly tapped his forehead to the schooner's hull; it had finally become too much to weather.  The snippets of memories had all but halted in their return since the Annola-Lee's construction had begun.  Now he prayed for them again, shakily taking another rung in his hand.  Looking up at the masts towering above him, he sighed as he remembered the thrill of catching the wind.  Sitting still was beyond him; he remembered he was a sort of traveler in his past life as well.

        His heart fell at the notion that he would not have Serina's company if he left.  How could he find the words to ask her to go?

        "You waste your thought, Land-Walker--she is too young to journey with out pod."  James started at the tempered, flowing voice behind him, slipping from the rungs as he turned quickly.  Treading water easily, he frowned at the appearance of Dusk as she spy-hopped gracefully, something shiny between her teeth.  James blinked in surprise, his jaw hanging open.

         "Frankly," she continued, chittering besides that, "her insistence that she could 'tame' a Land-Walker is as juvenile as her coloring."  Dusk said matter-of-factly, as James tried to work his own voice.

        ", speak?"  he managed, half smiling until Dusk exhaled sharply.

        "Of course I can speak, young one, and with better manners than your own, I'll point out."  she stayed her distance as James slowly treaded in her direction.

        "I,'am?"  he uttered unsurely, eyeing the glittering golden object she held with much interest.

        "'Matriarch' you will refer to me as, in my presence and not.  And you will pull that anchor from the seabed--you are ruining the coral." she informed him.  "At once." came the demand, and James instinctively jumped at the order--until he remembered the ship would drift if he obeyed.

        "But, ah, Matriarch...I would end up far away from the bay in this current," he pointed out, wincing as a wave lapped off the port side and pushed him back away from Dusk, who seemed amused.

        "You catch on quickly, Land-Walker,"  she laughed softly, and James gave her a heartbroken look.

        "You want me to leave?"  he muttered at her mocking laughter, which was strained and high-pitched.

        "As of two tides ago."  she snapped suddenly, and James frowned as he caught hold of the ladder once more.

        "I'm not leaving without Serina--unless she tells me that she doesn't want to go--but I want to hear it from her.  I'm not leaving."  he informed the Matriarch gruffly, though his hands shook on the ropes as he glanced back at her.  With a toss of her head, Dusk moved closer to the ship, eyeing it in disdain.

        "If I free your memories, will you go?"  she asked simply, drawing James' unsure gaze away from his ship and to her once more.

        "Free my what?"  he raised an eyebrow, and Dusk seemed to grin slyly, tilting her head to watch James idly.

        "Your memories of a life led not so long ago."  she exhaled in a shimmering breath. "I see where they end...and where this life begins.  My kind has always been able to see such things.  It is how we speak now--the translator is for your benefit, Land-Walker."  she informed him, and James narrowed his eyes carefully.

        "How do I know you speak the truth?  And why would you dare think I would trade my memories for Serina?"  he growled, watching as she tossed her head once more in laughter.  "What in the hell is so damned funny?"  James tightened his grip on the ladder, and Dusk calmed her self.

        "Why, nothing, Sergeant.  Nothing at all."  came her reply, and when his eyes widened, Dusk closed her mouth over the translator before she slipped beneath the waves.  After a moment she resurfaced some fifteen feet away.  "Think on it, Land-Walker.  I give you the night to think on our trade."  she called before she left James hanging from the side of the Annola-Lee, feeling as if he had been pierced through the middle with an arrow.

 Part Two


        That night saw James huddled on the deck of the Annola-Lee alone; his only company became the deep rolling of the tidal surf--one of two of Caer Ailinne's moons was completely full and the other partially, so the tide waters were particularly harsh.  He had barely gulped down his dinner of flat-fish stew when the squall hit.

        Without warning, a storm with winds that rivaled those that heralded the coming of monsoon season slammed the atoll, and as thunderheads blacker than night shrouded the bay in darkness, sweeping torrents of thick rain pelted the Annola-Lee.

        Attempting to stand as he gathered the last bit of stew, James tumbled as gigantic swells lifted the aft.  Suddenly the wave disappeared when called back into the sea, and the stern slammed down hard.  As the deck dropped away from his feet, James pitched forward, and his head spun when he hit the pine boards.

        Sea water gushed over to the starboard side, washing away the scarlet stains on the deck from Jim's bloodied nose and lip; the salt stung unmercifully and the tepid water blasted him sideways.

        This was not something he had planned on, he growled to himself, and hastily he scrambled to go below.  The once picturesque atoll now looked like something out of a nightmare, and the waters he and Serina had gloried in were trying to kill him.  Gritting his teeth, James reached for the rigging when the stern lifted once more; bracing himself he prayed to what ever god would have mercy...he remembered God, but beyond that, there was nothing....

        The ocean James had fancied he was a part of now firmly reminded him that he was not--he would never belong here...not truly...oh, how he pleaded for the anchor to hold!

        "Oh God! My God no!!" he trembled as the deck surged up to meet him.  Black specs danced in his vision as he hit, his hands burning from the ropes.  Nausea swept over him as fiercely as if it were a wave as well, and he lifted himself from the wet dock as the contents of his stomach betrayed him.  His vision was still blackened, and he coughed as he heaved.  God, his head hurt, and he thought perhaps a rib or two was broken.  Sputtering in misery, he held on as the ocean pounded again--the sharp twang of rope snapping caused him to struggle to his feet just in time to see the boom swinging to meet him.

        With unyielding force, the base of the main sail swung in a wide arch--it was the last thing James saw before he was flung out into the sea.  He was allowed a few desperate sputtering breaths before a wall of water converged on his exhausted body; he faintly knew he was to die, and consciousness left him as he was rolled under.

        In years to come, he would look back on the storm as if it were an answer to his prayers; for now, though, all that followed were nightmares...


        It had been five years since James had come to live on the RCSV Delphi; the class five "Royal Cetacean Science Vessel" was without doubt the strangest place James had ever called "home".  Although he had been in exile on Caer Ailinne, James always found it more peaceful than the deep space vessel; visits there always brought him back to the atoll where his memories finally began to surface at the very moment of his near-death.

        When he was plunged into the unforgiving waters of the bay, and his body tossed about like a rag doll, his consciousness had left him.  Blackness darker than any night met him; he struggled to awake, but it was like screaming in a nightmare.  Blinding blue flashes ripped and crackled through James' vision at last, and a slurred voice mumbled in his head.


        "Hey Jim, you see that?"  came a largely familiar voice--though with a grumble, James realized he couldn't see... "Hey...Jim, you see that?" the voice echoed painfully as bright flashes suddenly erupted.

        "....Jim...?" slowly the flashes formed shapes; groggily he blinked as he realized he was restrained in some manner.  Sitting up straight with a start, he realized the restraints consisted of a cross-belt that held him firmly to a plush bucket seat.  His vision snapped into place, as crisp and as vivid as he could ever ask for.

        Before him stood a half-moon shaped console, with brilliantly lit panels set amongst the silvery metal.  Glancing up past the buttons and digital displays he didn't understand, James marveled at a panoramic view of open space.  To his left lay a field of wispy blue and red clouds--pockets of elemental gases that hinted at planetary formation.

        With a dropped jaw, James took in the horizon with eagerness...until it occurred to him that an orange holographic heads-up-display system bordered the window with numbers and tracking symbols.  His hands were closed over the grip of a flight stick.  With a frown, he turned to the sound of the voice that called his name.

        " see that?"

        James squinted at a flat twelve by fourteen inch LCD screen to his right, and the visage of a brown and cream prick-eared rabbit about his own age met him.

        "...Jim?  There's something on the radar..."  the rabbit spoke, worry flooding his voice as he prompted James to take a look at his own radar screen.  Without hesitation or confusion, James glanced to the smaller back-lit radar screen, noting two blips to his left and right--his wingman, he knew...a "p"...starting with a "p"...and "there?"  No..."Hare..."

        The 3rd blip of immediate concern lay to the squad's two o'clock.  The com-screen alternated to show the anticipated face of a stern collie.

        "Cole?"  James uttered softly, and the collie cocked a floppy ear at him, followed by a cocked eyebrow.

        "Sergeant...looks like another fighter should hail them...hail them...hail them..."  James let go of the stick to press his hands to his head as Cole O'Donnell's words rung like a discordant bell.

"Cold as the Northern winds
In December mornings,
Cold is the cry that rings
From this far distant shore.
Winter has come too late,
Too close beside me.
How can I chase away
All these fears deep inside?"

        The roar of the surf which now seemed so familiar, sounded as if it were miles away.  His head rang, and when he tried to move, James couldn't feel his body--just that dull, aching ring.

        The shrill calls of the gulls above the shore cut through the ringing, and slowly the pounding of the waves on the beach came closer.  His vision focused as well, and with a tired blink, James found himself draped over a barnacle-encrusted rock, face down.  Staring for a moment at the barnacles as they hid in their shells, he started when a cool rush of salt water announced the coming of the morning tide.

        Suddenly James was very aware of his body, and he moved to sit up.  This, he found, was a mistake.  He felt as if he had been broken into a thousand pieces, and the fire that ran down his spine nearly proved that theory.  Flopping back down, James got another mouthful of sea brine, which he spat out with a grimace.

        Slower, this time, he sat up, watching the tiny barnacles reach out frantically into the cool water with their graceful fans in attempt to catch particles of food.

        It wasn't until he began to shiver that he looked up to find the dolphin staring at him from a few feet away.  Apparently, she had been there for a while.

        "...Serina...?"  he whispered uncertainly--the last thing he recalled was being swept out to sea.  He looked up for a moment to find the Annola-Lee still anchored--though how soundly, he could not say.  The dolphin followed his gaze, then turned back to watch him with her infinite eyes, coming closer.  Suddenly, the recollection of the events in what had seemed like a dream, hit him with some force, and he shook his head tenderly.

        He sat perched atop one of the highest rocks in what was a collection of granite boulders near shore.  The lower parts of the chain were already well underneath water; the inlet he was in was fairly calm.  The water was pristine and soothing on his weary muscles, and the salt water went to work healing the various cuts and bruises over his body.

"I'll wait the signs to come,
I'll find a way.
I will wait the time to come,
I'll find a way home."

        In a silvery plume, Serina exhaled, and the sound brought James' attention back to her once more.  Reaching his hand out to touch Serina's cool skin, James frowned at the memories that had surfaced.  He watched her carefully as he tilted her chin up to meet his gaze, and she inched as close to the sharp rocks as she dared.

        "It was you..." he breathed, "...It was you who saved me last night," he concluded, though the dolphin did not reply.  Her expression was as placid as her name, and with a deep breath, James recalled Dusk's words from what seemed like an eternity ago.  'Of course I can speak, young one...though the translator is for your benefit...I can see your memories...'

         Trembling, James watched Serina carefully for any sign that she might understand him.

        "I spoke...with the Matriarch," he spoke in a haulting manner, unsure of how crazy speaking to dolphins made him.  "...and she...she said that she could give me back my memories if I only left without you --" he paused as she gave muttered clicks, sharp and staccato, upon hearing this--or more appropriately, he realized, she understood the thoughts and feelings behind the words.  "...if you could..." he paused again, unsure of how to ask her to do anything, or even if she could help if he did ask.  "Can you do what she claimed she could do?  Give me back my memories, I mean?"

        He suddenly felt extremely foolish, as if he were speaking to the wind.  After she had remained silent for quite some time, James glanced up to the sky, his gaze following the lazy flight of a narrow-winged sea bird on the hunt for its breakfast.  As his attention wandered, he sighed.

        He wasn't sure when Serina began to utter a low, nearly inaudible ticking sound.  What he was sure of was that the uninterrupted hum was louder now, and it sounded strangely like the hunting song she would sing to coax the flat-fish from their hiding place on the sandy seabed.  The pulse crackled as she accented certain notes, and the hum became almost deafening.

        It was a slow, rolling pulsation, in time with the shift of the tidal waves and the morning breeze which lapped at his body.  Time seemed of no importance as the scent of the ocean became heavier.  It no longer only smelled of salt, but now of kelp and flotsam.  The long tendrils of kelp swayed with the rushing tidal flow, driven by the wind and the moons which hung in the sky amongst the stars.

        The light of the morning sun filtered down through the bands of clouds moving over the atoll; the seabird from earlier found his catch.  Everything was in motion, and everything was teaming with life.

        Just as James' senses became more acute, his bruised body relaxed muscle by muscle, and his breath slowed along with his heartbeat.  James was not aware of the physical changes half so much as the mental ones.  He lived only for this moment could not recall a more magnificent sunrise in his life...

        His life...he could not recall his life...his breath slowed...and the sun fell warm upon his face...

"My light shall be the moon
And my path the ocean.
My guide, the Morning Star
As I sail home to you."

 Part Three

        Yawning lazily, Sergeant James Fox McCloud dozed briefly on the nose of his XP-Gazer, his back against the front of the canopy.  His blue eyes fluttered under the warmth of the Lylatian sun as he woke, and he glanced to his right for the source of the sound which stirred him.

        "Hey, Dad--" called a young kit, about seventeen, holding his hand up to shield his hazel eyes from the sun as he gazed up to James in earnest.  The kit's markings were nearly identical to his own, though his eyes were his mother's.  "Peppy and the guys are looking for you," the kit appeared uncertain whether he was safe conversing loosely with the senior McCloud.  James felt a swell of pride at seeing his son in the royal blue and yellow-tipped uniform of the Cornerian Armed Forces.

        Sitting up, he waved at his son to relax.

        "As you were, Kid." He chuckled, yawning once more as he climbed down the hull of the Gazer.  "Did they say what they wanted?" he asked as he dropped to the ground, fastening the top two brass buttons high upon his neck, and his son shrugged--the  boy's gaze shifting from James to the Gazer.

        "No, they didn't say much except that the Professor wanted to see all of you.  He must need the team for something..." he trailed off, turning to walk with his father back into the nearby hangar.  His forlorn backwards glance at the Gazer was painfully obvious, and with an amused sigh, James raised an eyebrow.

        "Fox--" he called, and the kit snapped his attention back to James, pricking his ears forward.  Folding his arms over one another, James bushed his tail briefly.  "Gordon told me you aced your mid-terms," he tried to contain the smile that crept across his face as his son beamed back at him.

        "The written part was a bitch, but the Canyon was a cake walk, even with those clunky one-seaters they issued us," Fox said, lowering his head as he realized he had just cursed in front of his father.  Following in his father's larger foot steps was not easy--it required a great deal of self-discipline, and Fox continually seemed to beat himself up for the smallest of errors.

        Clapping his kit on the back, James held him gently by the back of the neck, dipping his head to catch the boy's eye.

        "Son--relax.  You forget I helped compile the written test for the course; it's defiantly a bitch." he agreed, and Fox smiled slowly.  "And besides, we're both men here, correct?"  James asked, and Fox blinked as he tried to contain the involuntary 'sir, yes sir' which he knew his father disliked.  Silently Fox nodded, and James paused, turning fully to face his son.  The two uniformed foxes lingered in the giant garage entrance to the team's hangar, and James watched Fox carefully.

        "You push yourself too hard at times, I think.  You are the best--it comes naturally.  Relax, Fox." But the beginnings of a frown twitched at Fox's lips.

        "I'm not the best, Dad."  he said softly, "Everyone knows who I am; it's hard sometimes, to be you." Fox glanced away, and his father frowned, reaching to put a hand on his shoulder.

        "Then you should be yourself--by comparing yourself to someone else, you stop being you...and this world would loose a great treasure if you stopped being who you are." .

        "It's nice of you to say that, Dad..." Fox furrowed his brow, but James chuckled, shaking his head.

        "I didn't--my father did.  But I figured that if he were here now, he would have said it all the same...because it's true," James laughed, and Fox slowly smiled with him.

        "Thanks, Dad; you'd better go see what the Professor wants," he reminded James, and sure enough, a brown and cream prick-eared rabbit entered through the front of the hangar.  He peered into James' office prior to continuing into the main bay, and the rabbit held his arms wide as he spied the two foxes.

        "Where'd ya find him--Fortuna, for heaven's sake?" Peppy muttered with a smile, and Fox grinned at the sight of his father's right-hand wingman, and best friend.

        "I caught him sleeping on the job again, actually," the boy teased, and James shot a vengeful look down to his son.

        "You be nice, Cadet, or no extra skymiles for you--" he grinned evilly, when Fox held his hands up, pricking his ears forward smartly.

        "I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" his eyes suddenly went wide, and he tried to duck the inevitable noogie his father mercilessly bestowed upon him--until Peppy cleared his throat.  Pausing, James looked up, still holding his son in a playful headlock.

        "It's that serious, is it?" he asked, and Peppy nodded, raising a furry eyebrow as Fox tried his damnedest to back out of the headlock.  His ears betrayed him, though, and James held him easily, idly glancing down to him.  "Are you trying to go somewhere?"  he mused, and the boy frowned proudly.

        "No--I'm doing just fine," he asserted, when James let out a hearty laugh, warm and fond.

        "Always like your mother--she stayed when you said 'go', and shot off quick as a wink if you told her 'heel'.  A rebel to the last, that vixen.  I'll tell you what; after I'm done with the Professor, you and I'll go for a fly and a milkshake." James let his son out of the headlock, and Peppy ushered him to walk along with him.  "--and keep your hands off the Gazers--" James intoned, glancing back to find Fox grinning sheepishly, his fingers inches from the hull of Peppy's ship.  Drawing his hand back, Fox sighed.

        "I promise," he rolled his eyes at his father, waiting for the two officers to leave.  Chuckling, James headed out with Peppy, and once they were out of earshot, Peppy smiled.

        "He's already drooling on the cockpit by now...if your son gets slobber on my comm screen, I want you to know I'll hold you fully accountable!" The two had a good laugh until they rounded the corner to find Cole O'Donnell grinning his head off.  The rough-coated collie met up with his teammates with his son, Wolf, trailing him sullenly; heavy music pouring from the earphones attached to his head.  Wolf's grumpiness was in sharp contrast to his father's exuberance, and he grimaced as Cole clapped him on the back.

        "Why don't you go find Junior to play with while Jim, Pep and I find Pigma?" he suggested, but Wolf stared blankly at him until Cole popped the bud out of Wolf's left ear by the wire.  Leaning to him, the elder O'Donnell lowered his voice.  "Don't embarrass me, Boy."  he muttered, and then louder as he straightened: "Go hang with Fox while we meet with the Professor, would ya?"

        Wolf lifted his lip slightly in a pout as he snatched his earphones back.  Gruffly, he started to shuffle toward the hangar, his pants dragging behind him. His father rolled his eyes at the picture of a grotesque dog with glowing eyes on the back of his son's black t-shirt.  After he disappeared into the hanger, Cole muttered to his colleagues about the pains of raising a teenager.

        "He acts like he doesn't even hear me sometimes." He stuck his hands in his pockets, walking briskly with his teammates toward the main science labs, and James frowned.

        "I heard he got good marks on his written exams, though C.  He's not exactly a goof-off.  He's damned grumpy," he chuckled for lack of a better word, and Cole nodded with an eye roll.

        "Tell me about it.  Tiamba has just about had it, and I swear the next time that boy gives me lip--" Cole bawled a fist absent-mindedly, and Peppy gave a quick glance to James as the collie between them shook his head.  "And yeah, his scores were ok on the written, but God, his run through Brandel's was second class, honestly."  Cole muttered in disappointment with his son, but James grumbled at him.

        "Cut the kid some slack, C -- I've seen him go through the Canyon with Fox, and he matches him nearly move for move." James reminded his wing man, but the collie frowned sternly.

        "His total was 43 points below Tiamba's, 54 below mine--hell, Jim, 67 below Junior's!"  he said, and James shook his head.

        "You're being too hard on him--"

        "Not hard enough!  He needs to pay attention to his studies and give up that stupid surfing crap and get his mind back on his priorities and back in the air.  What the hell does he think he is, a damned sea lion?  Hell..." Cole growled the bitter words of a father hurt by the fact his only son chose not to follow his footsteps to the print.  The boy lacked the dedication and the focus which Cole deemed necessary to become an ace pilot, and nothing that he or his wife could say otherwise could motivate him.  The only thing that ever seemed to spur Wolf's drive to succeed was the seemingly effortless and innocent way which Fox beat out his scores time and again.  Cole had seen the hate in his son's eyes when the classes' scores for the exam run of Brandel's Canyon were displayed during mess.  The hate was drive, and the drive would certainly bring out the ability which Cole knew his son had in him.  Or rather...this was his theory.  The boys had 2 more years of the academy remaining, and Cole would do anything to see his son walk with the highest honors...and so it was with this in mind that he always pushed Wolf to "go make nice" with the McCloud boy.  Like mixing oil and water, Cole knew--yet it was this he knew that would further the drive.

        Stiffly, Cole threw up his hand to catch Pigma Denger's attention as they neared the science labs to find the pig already waiting at the doors.

    Turning his music up, Wolf O'Donnell shuffled drolly into the hangar, bobbing his head in time as he glanced about.  Prep-boy was no where to be seen, he noted.  Sneering, Wolf realized he would have called Fox a momma's boy....if he'd had one.

        "What's so funny?" came Fox's muffled voice from Wolf's right, and turning his music down, Wolf shot the kit a taunting gaze.

        "Nothin'.  Just a funny song," he shuffled futher into the hangar.

        "Did your dad find my dad?"  Fox piped up again, and Wolf scowled, turning his music off altogether.

        "Yeah, yeah--they all went to go find that fat fuck, Pigma.  I'm stuck here until my pop finishes the meeting."  he glanced back to find that Fox wasn't any happier about it.

        "What about your mom?" he suggested hopefully, but Wolf rolled his eyes.

    "What--my mum actually give up a chance to torture innocent cadets?  Hell no--she's got another class of newbies to fuck over," he laughed, sarcasm dripping from his teeth like venom.  Wolf's mother, Tiamba O'Donnell, held the lofty position of Master Sergeant--which meant not only did she teach Flight Theory, Advanced Warpcore Dianetics, and help with the recruitment of unsuspecting civilian boys and girls, it also meant that she had the pleasure of failing any and all from Brandel's Canyon Run.

        Brandel's was a state of the art training course that tested the skills of even the older members and flight teams--thus it was quite a challenge for the young cadets.  Tiamba would stand sternly with her clipboard and tisk at nearly every cadet who ran the course--doubly so for her son, as he was 'double the disappointment' she often told him.  She tisked at every cadet, with the exception of young Fox McCloud.  When ever he ran the course in the rickety single-seater they all had to use, Master Sergeant O'Donnell wrote furiously on her clipboard reports.  She had even been known to smile--once or twice.

        Upon hearing that she would not be free to pick Wolf up, Fox sighed, kicking the back left landing strut of his father's Gazer lightly in frustration.

        "So where's your girlfriend, Lombardi?"  Wolf climbed up upon the wing of Cole's ship.  His fighter was to the left of James' ship in the formation; Peppy's to his right.  Pigma's was directly behind them all.  It was how they flew, landed...associated.  Pigma always knew he was only part of the team by pity.

        Crossing his arms with a sneer, Fox muttered to Wolf in return for his earlier comment.

        "He's probably making the most of his tour duty with your mother,"  came his off-color reply, and strangely enough Wolf burst into laugher rather than beating Fox senseless.

        "Good f'ing luck to him in loosening that bitch up!"  He tapped the hollow metal wing twice with his palm, and Fox lifted himself up to the wing of his father's Gazer easily.  "Unfortunately for Lombardi, my mum's not in charge of tours today--it's that dick, Bernhardt."  Wolf pointed out, and Fox winced.

        "Man, that does rot."  he agreed, but Wolf rolled his eyes, his fingers working over the release buttons to the canopy.

        "It sucks, McCloud.  It bites."  He corrected Fox's modest vocabulary, who twitched his ears forward then back a bit in embarrassment.  "How the hell does Lombardi even stand you, anyway?  Hell, he's as evil as me,"  the cub chuckled as he raised the tinted reinforced glass canopy, dragging a few wires out of his pockets.

        "What're you doing?"  Fox pricked his ears forward in concern, but Wolf cocked a furry eyebrow at him, plugging something in somewhere are hs leaned down into the cockpit.  Straining to see what he was doing, Fox jumped as heavy metal music suddenly blared out from the comm.  Grinning proudly, Wolf bobbed his head, laughing at the pious sight of the appalled young McCloud.  "Your dad's going to kill you..." he muttered, frowning at the boy across from him.

        "I'm gonna kill you if you don't lighten the fuck up, Junior."  Wolf was pleased to elicit the response he received from Fox, who laid his ears back flat, baring his teeth.

        "I told you never to call me that!"  he hissed, "I'm so sick and tired of this entire base going on about how great my old man is!  Half the people call me that to remind me I'll never be able to live up to him, and the other half think I'm him reincarnated--and when I don't live up to him, they give me shit about scores higher than any in my class!" the kit seethed, when Wolf laughed at Fox's clenched fists.

        "Easy, Junior--my mum thinks you're good,"  he reminded his classmate, but Fox rolled his eyes, leaning up against the canopy of James' fighter.

        "My life's goal to impress your mother is complete, Wolf, thank you."  he replied haughtily, when the wolf cub growled briefly.

        "You may be good--but I'm better; even if my mum doesn't see it." he snarled, infuriated by Fox's sly grin.

        "Not likely." he chuckled.


        The Professor's office had changed over the years--the numerous experiments and vials had given way to bookcases and drawing boards.  No longer the boy enslaved for his work, Andross Pigskowski invented as he pleased.  There were those who called him mad, but his funding kept rolling in, and his job was secure as the Head of the Academy.

        The chimp's advance in the area was accidental, really--one day he began suggesting advanced new ways to train the cadets, and the next day he found himself rearanging his office .  Brandel's was not the only thing to receive a make over; a state-of-the-art training center was bestowed upon the young cadets.  It was complete with the most advanced simulators and training devices.

        But though the fruits of the Professor's labor had given rise to the most elite Planetary Defense Force in history, what he truly wanted was an Armada.  15,000 ships outfitted with the latest technology and the finest crews.  The Defense Council called him overbearing and mad...the Admiral Borgan called him a visionary.

        He would have his Armada someday...and then he would take the respect he deserved.

        Sitting leisurely in his high-backed leather chair, the Professor nodded to admit the four test pilots who stood anxiously by his door.  Confidently, the vulpine in the group took the lead, ushering his teammates to stand next to him.  With a cool glance, Andross took in the team: Peppy, who held the Professor's gaze stoically, stood quietly by James' side.  James smiled slightly in anticipation of their next test run--the egotistical bastard wasn't even at attention.  O'Donnell stood to his captain's left, hands clasped behind his back, staring at the ceiling with a blatant lack of interest.  These meetings did not suit the collie, whose only interest seemed to be chasing after James in the sky.  It was O'Donnel that the Professor had first thought of going to, but on closer observation he had decided against it.  Although the lieutenant thought of nothing but proving to the world that he was as good as James, his jealousy was more a form of flattery.  James may have been the one in the spot light, but O'Donnell never truly hated him for it--he was yet another of the mindless idiots who worshiped the famed test pilot.

        And then there was Pigma.  The captain's star pupil may have been head of his class and willing to tag along on the dangerous test runs James flew, but his piloting skills were second-class in comparison.  The chubby swine's envy was deep-rooted and justified.  As always, he stood at the back of the room--the tag-along whom James encouraged to be just like him.  As if the system-wide famous James McCloud needed any more followers.

        The Professor kept the sneer forming at his lips at bay, resting his chin on folded hands.  Yes, it was Pigma he had gone to, and his suspicions had been correct.

        "Well I must say, you are all incredibly prompt today--eager to win the crowd again?"

        "No...just eager to be back in the sky,"  James spoke freely, and Cole murmured in agreement.

        "Well then, I have a job for you boys.  A cargo run."  Andross leaned back in his chair, and raised an eyebrow at the snuff that betrayed O'Donnell.  "Don't worry, you're not delivering pizza."  He quipped, and the collie grinned to James.

        "He's funny, this guy.  I think too many years heading an Academy full of sarcastic teenagers has finally gotten to him.  Please tell him we don't do cargo runs, Chief, pizza or not."  Cole rolled his eyes, and James frowned openly.

        "Cole, shut it--he needs help with the cargo, or else the Admiral would have assigned him another team."

        With a sigh, Cole nodded, glancing back to the Professor, who was mastering himself quite well.  The blank piercing stare he gave the team was warm and friendly compared to the glare he held inside.  He held no military rank, and O'Donnell never failed to remind him of this.  As always, James fed the collie more of his self-righteous bullshit about "helping" the Professor out when "no one else was qualified."

        "So what is it?  What're we transporting?"  Cole folded his arms.

        "A bomb."

        "A what?"

        "You heard me, O'Donnell.  I need you to transport a bomb to Yawetag in Aidea, MacBeth.  You leave tonight, and will rendezvous with Captain Guiliam in the Y Sector.  You'll receive further briefing once you meet with him as to how the delivery will go in Yawetag."  The Professor explained loosely, and Cole sighed.

        "Just one bomb, eh?"

        "Just the one, yes."  Andross nodded, resting his chin on one hand.

        "Nothing too strenuous, now.  So why all the pomp and circumstance over one little bitty bomb?  Why d'you need all four of us?"  He motioned to his team mates, and Peppy broke his silence at last.

        "Isn't it obvious?  We're not just the transports--we're the protection."  He nodded to the Professor, who let a tiny smile escape him.  The rabbit always was the more intelligent of the rabble.

        "Quite right--it must reach its destination, and I need the best fighter pilots in the system to ensure that it gets there.  Naturally, that means you four get to take a little vacation.  Tour MacBeth a bit.  Relax at a health spa.  Whatever--I just need that bomb to reach Yawetag.  Do you accept?"  His attempt at flattery won them over, as he expected.  With a coy grin, Cole glanced to James, who took a quick pole of the crew.

        "Looks like we get to have a fur scrub and a facial at Letni Mineral Springs, ladies.  But I'm curious--what exactly is this bomb for, Professor?"  James asked good-naturedly, and the ape smiled fully at last.

        "Glad you asked--it's not just a bomb.  It's the bomb.  The one all of MacBeth will thank you and your team for delivering.  It's a gravity bomb, and as it's name implies, when detonated it'll restore the proper flux of density to the core of the planet.  I'm trying to save this planet, gentleman, and if you do a bang up job you'll go down in history yet again.  I'll meet you down at runway 104 at 7 o'clock sharp to go over some last minute pointers.  But for now, if you'll excuse me, I have some pressing business..."  The ape nodded as James returned his gaze and his smile.  All too easy.

        "It'll be an honor, Professor--Vixxy would have loved to have reported this..."  James watched as Andross' smile fell slowly.

        "Yes, well..."  He dropped his eyes and continued with what ever paperwork he had been attending to before their arrival.  James nodded at this clear dismissal, gathering his crew.

        It was not until the heavy oak door closed behind Pigma that Andross put down his pen and looked back up.  He was not sure what burned in him clearest--the ache of fumbling his first attempt to kill James, or the elation at having another chance.  Either way, he knew it would not bring back Vixxy...but he would be one step closer to ridding his life of the every day reminder that it was never him she had loved.

         "So you're leaving tonight?"

        "Yeah,"  James watched as his kit sipped at his chocolate milkshake, sitting across from him in their usual booth at the Daybreak Diner.

        "What time?"

        "I gotta be at the runway about an hour before take off."  James replied.  "Nineteen hundred.  You ok to stay on your own or did you wanna go to Rosa's?"

        Fox wrinkled his nose up in insult, cutting up his omelet.

        "Dad, I'm not four.  I'm ok at the house by myself.  You're only gonna be gone for the week, right?  Besides...Grandma always freaks out when I stay with her when you're gone.  She feeds me too well.  Tries to dress me.  And she's always giving me this look, you know the one that she and Aunt Ruby always give you when we go over for the holidays?"

        "She just loves you, kid."  James mumbled out from his mouthful of patty melt, and Fox dropped his gaze to his plate.

        "She wonders why you haven't found me a mother yet,"  he said softly, receiving a gruff mutter from his father.

        "You already have a mother."

        "I know, I know, Dad--I didn't say it...Grandma Rosa did.  She doesn't understand that we're ok...the two of us."

        James paused, holding his son's gaze, trying to read through the motherless mask his kit always wore.  Every time Rosa or his sister tried to present James with a young lady whom they thought would be a perfect match, he had always respectfully declined.  It was a very rare moment when he pondered over the notion that he might have made a mistake...and now, watching the teenage boy before him, James entertained this notion once more.  He had never cried in front of his son, nor had he ever told wistful stories of Vixxy and their past.  Photo albums were unbearable to him, and so was the scent of the freshly baked cookies and peppermint candies his wife had always given to their first and only son.  Every time he looked into his son's eyes, he saw his wife.

        But he had never cried in front of his son, and he had never told him how much he missed the woman who had touched both their lives.  Perhaps he had been the kit moved to stare blankly at this plate once more, James wondered how much of his son's mother he had taken away by not speaking of her.  Fox had been young when she died, and all he remembered was the peppermints...the peppermints that broke James' heart.

        "So we're gonna miss our flight through Brandel's tonight, hmm?"

        "This time, yes."  James nodded.  "We'll go when I get back."

        Fox nodded in return, picking through his hash browns with the same blank stare.  Slowly taking a draught of his soda, James closed his eyes briefly before gazing back to Fox.

        "Do you remember what she looked like?"  He asked softly, knowing he had caught Fox off guard when the boy snapped his head up, blinking.

        "She?" Fox frowned.

        "Your mother."

        "Yeah, I've seen the pictures."  Fox quietly returned to his meal, and James could not help but smile very softly in admiration for how strong his son was trying to be.  He had never cried in front of Fox for his wife...and it was just now that he realized that since he was five, Fox hadn't either.

        "No, I mean do you remember what she looked like?  Her face?"

        "I've tried, but I can't.  Just her eyes..."

        "And the peppermints?"  James prompted, remembering shamefully when he had refused to buy a bag of the candies when Fox was but five years old.  The kit had held his temper and his tears when they were in the supermarket, but once they were home, he had disappeared into his room for days.  Even the tin James came home with on the third day of their silence had never truly made up for his gruffness with his son that week.  He had encouraged Fox to put his mother out of mind and out of sight...what you couldn't remember couldn't hurt you...could it?

        As Fox looked up, the tears just at bay, James knew he had been wrong.

        "The peppermints, yes.  I remember those."  Fox said.  "But I can't remember what she looked like; what she sounded like...what she sang to me at bed time, or any of that.  I remember when she rocked me in the rocking chair on the back porch, and I remember that she smelled like vanilla..."

        James chuckled, nodding.

        "The perfume she always wore, yeah, that was it."  He grinned, scratching his chin before sighing.  "The song she sang went something like 'Little one of mine, sleep gently on your go the hands of time, for this little one of mine.'"  Fox looked up in fleeting recognition as his father sang very softly, his hands trembling as he reached for his milkshake.  "And she sounded like honey when she spoke to me, and like sugar when she rocked you to sleep.  But when she stood in front of a camera, she sounded like fire." James chuckled, smoothing his ears back.

        "That girl could report the news, let me tell you.  She always believed in reporting stories that mattered, and stories that were true.  Remind me one day to tell you about the time she took over the first station she worked at, just to get this one interview she wanted to do on the air."

        "She did what?"  Fox laughed briefly, and James grinned in return.

        "Your mother was a spitfire; she stood up for what she believed in.  She could be a devil one moment and an angel the next..." Here, he drug his wallet out to place a small picture of Vixxy holding Fox when he was newly born.  "...this was one of those angel moments.  I want you to keep this.  I don't want you to forget what she looked like..."

        Fox held his breath as his father slid the picture across the table at him, taking in beauty that was his mother.  His fingers touched the photograph hesitantly, and as he picked it up, James rested his chin on his hands silently.  He watched as his son's eyes swept over the tiny portrait as if he never wanted to look away, and the tears came at last.

        "So we'll go through Brandel's when you get home?"  Came the deft change in subject, and James blinked, nodding quickly.

        "Yeah, kid...we'll go."

"Little one of mine, sleep gently on your cloud.
 Rest tonight and dream, of when you'll make me proud.
Dust the sky with stars, and heaven's light will shine.
 Love tonight and know, you're always on my mind.
Little one of mine, stand surely on the ground.
 Life can be so cruel, until your purpose found.
Catch the light and breath, hold fast to all you know.
 Weather every storm, and in your heart you'll grow.
Little one of mine, I rock thee now to sleep.
 Count the blades of grass, and swim in rivers deep.
Worry not for now, I pray for love devine.
 Softly go the hands of time, for this little one of mine."

 Part Four

        The poetic beauty of open space never failed to make James pause in wonder.  Though he had been making test runs all across the Lylatian Star System for close to 20 years now, he never tired of it.  It was here he felt at home, and here he longed to be.

        As he and his crew approached the brilliant blue and red phosphorescent gases that marked the entrance to the Y Sector, James brought his Gazer off auto-pilot.  Flanking him on his right was Peppy; on the left was Cole, whose ship was laden with the multi-million dollar gravity bomb.  Insistent that James was the team's best defense against the Sector's infamous pirates, Cole had declared before take off that the team's captain would only be weighed down by the bomb if things got rough.  While Peppy and Pigma had stared at the collie as if he had grown a third eye, James had nodded silently before helping him mount the explosive on the underbelly of Cole's ship.

        Several generations of O'Donnell's hailed from the lava ravaged planet of MacBeth, whose core continued to collapse beneath it's exhausted and self defeated population.  James agreed that the honor of delivering the life-giving gravity bomb should go to his left wingman, who had loaded it with solemn relish.  He had changed his sarcastic tune the moment the Professor had explained its purpose, and Cole was hardly ever not sarcastic.

        "Alright, I have an ion storm on sensors, baring 2538 by 1263 by 3276."  James said calmly.  "Looks pretty stationary, but let's keep the horse play to a minimum...the last thing we want is to get caught out here if this decides to spread.  Peppy, what've we got on the Ossaia Pass?"

        "It looks clear, only a bit of debris...fairly quiet."  Came the rabbit's reply, and James nodded in approval.

        "Let's hope it stays that way.  Pigma, I need a scout--it's been my experience that the Pass is never clear."

        "So I'm bait, now, am I?"  The pig's grumble made James raise an furred eyebrow, and before he could reply, Cole chuckled back.

        "No, you're the entree.  Just get your ass out there, Piggy, so I don't get caught in that Pass with my pants down--"

        "Yeah, hi--this is your captain speaking..."  James shot back informally, watching Cole cringe slightly on his comm screen.

        "Point taken.  No hard feelings, eh, Pigma?"  Cole grinned sheepishly, and James sighed.

        "Pigma, I need that scout--"

        "Fine, fine.  What ever."

        As Pigma's ship pulled ahead of the formation, James muttered to Cole.

        "You know, one of these days I'm gonna actually be the asshole commanding office I'm supposed to be, and write you up."  He led the remainder of the group into a loose holding pattern not far away from the Yranoi Nebula.  The dense pocket of blue gas held three miniature stars; like twinkling sapphires in the folds of a satin elemental curtain.  It was one of Lylat's most beautiful spacescapes, and with a smile James recalled each of their names from a high school science class:  Ecaleon, Tilyon, and their sister, Lamenae.

        "Hey, see that?"  Peppy's interruption brought James' attention back to his navigation screen, and with a frown, the fox tapped the display with a claw to be sure.  "Jim...there's something on radar..."

        "Yeah, yeah--I see it."  James snapped his gaze back up to the nebula, the source of the reading.  "What the hell?  Who would be hanging out in that mess?"

        "Sergeant...looks like another fighter should hail them."  Cole held formation tightly, very aware that the others would not break from him unless absolutely necessary.  He just prayed it wouldn't be necessary.

        James put out a general hail as the blip closed in, his brow furrowed as the ship did not return the greeting.

        "--I say again, this is Sergeant James McCloud of the StarFox team.  In accordance with the Lylatian Act of Free Space Travel, all ships must identify themselves upon being hailed.  Please repsond..."

        The trio held their breath as the ship approached, and Cole fidgeted at its silence.

        "--Please be aware we are authorized to engage any ship not in compliance with this Act--"  James continued, and Cole bared his teeth as they circled.

        "What the Cap here means is that you'd better be aware we are authorized to kick your ass if you--"

        "Cole!  I swear to God I'm gonna forget the fact we went through kindergarten together if you don't shut the fuck up!"  James shot back after he closed the circuit again.  "Peppy--where the hell is Pigma?  Get him on the comm while I try to hail this guy again."

        "I've been trying to, Jim.  He's not responding either."

        "What the fuck is going on here?!"  Cole panted, and James switched frequencies to call the report into Reyes.  Rapidly the pirate vessel rocketed toward them, and finally James gave the order for Cole and Peppy to break toward the opening of the Pass.  If they could reach Pigma, then Peppy could turn back to assist him in keeping the ship off Cole.

        "If you don't receive some sort of contact from Dengar, head for the ion storm--you'll be hell to track.  Peppy, stay with him!"  James came about to face the anonymous ship, charging his laser cannons in a menacing green glow.  Not to much surprise, he found the other vessel already fully charged.

        With astonishing speed the two skirted each other like knights in a joust, lasers pelting the sides of their ships before they turned to close in on one another again.  The phantom ship was well equipped, and twice his size.  Too well equipped for a nebula pirate, James thought as he rounded on his foe with another spray of laser.  As he caught another ship coming out of the nebula, James knew at once they were mercenaries.  They had known where to be, and when.

        "O'Donnell!  Come in!"  James slipped in between the slightly slower fighter ships, heading for the Pass with break neck speed.  When he received the team's reply, they were still missing Pigma.

        "Shit, maybe they've already gotten to him?"  Cole suggested as the three met up once more, but Peppy shook his head.

        "I've got him on radar--700 yards out, just past that nitrogen cloud--"

         "Make for it!"  James ordered, "Those two are hot on our asses, and we're gonna need all the fire power we've got to take 'em."
        For once he received no back talk from Cole as what was left of his crew broke through the thick blue cloud to find Pigma's ship facing them with lasers charged fully.  For a moment James' heart leapt at the hope that their team was now complete and ready to ward off the mercenaries--until that hope was dashed with the rapid laser burst that erupted from Pigma's cannons.  Slicing through his left wing and piercing the hull, the burst lowered his shields to 67%.  The second round ricocheted off the thick capsule of the gravity bomb, and Cole cursed wildly.

        "You fucking moron, shoot them, not us!"

        "God damn it, Cole, get out of here!"  James boomed, transferring power to the aft shields in anticipation of the mercenaries' attack.

        "Oh, he won't be goin' no where, Jimmy, and neither will you--"  Pigma grinned as the mercenary ships bore down on the group, targeting Cole and the bomb.  Pigma's grin was replaced with a look of shock as his Gazer shook violently, and his hull alarm blared as Peppy engaged his team mate with everything in his arsenal.  Pigma snarled hatefully as he realized that Cole was escaping toward the ion storm, and James was facing the two fighters.

        "What was it, Pigma?  Money?!"  Peppy hissed.  "You'll screw over an entire planet and you're team mates for what?"  

        "You're fools!  You think that bomb was for MacBeth?!  Oh, McCloud--I have a message for you from our dear friend the Professor!  He wanted me to remind you of a certain night 15 years ago.  He wanted me to tell you that this time, he doesn't plan to miss!"

        With Pigma's words, James felt as if he had been plunged into a sweeping ice-cold river.  The torrent of rage that arose in him was blinding, and the man who was responsible was half a light year away.  It took a moment for James to realize that the piercing howl of despair that rang through out the cockpit was his own, mixed with Pigma's mocking laughter.  Vainly he struck the comm screen, but the traitor's visage still haunted him from the display panel.  The pain was accute, and yet he felt numb at once; the nearly tangible feeling of hatred was only interrupted by the Gazer's proximity alarms.  They were surrounded.

        "The ion storm!" Cole's voice was thin yet steady as he broke for the field of rust colored gas clouds several hundred football stadiums wide and half again as high.  Shards of what appeared to be lightning glittered from one cloud to another every few seconds, and Cole made for them with all the speed he had.  Both mercenary ships veared to track him, and as they began to overtake the smaller Gazer, it was apparent to James his wingman was not going to make it out of this alive without help.  But for all his taunting, Pigma would have to wait.

        "Peppy!!"  James called, and the rabbit responded, heading Pigma off.

        "Go get Cole, Jim--this one's mine!"  Peppy hissed in an unusual display of agression.  But he had loved Vixxy too, and she and James had been like family.  Both he and James had known that night in the driveway that the bomb in the car had been meant for James, not his wife...but to hear the traitorous swine before him give voice to that and 




    "A Pirate Looks At Fifty" - (c) Jimmy Buffet
    "Remember Me" - (c) Tim McGraw
    "Exile" - (c) Enya

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