Join The Rebellion!Written By Foxmerc - Edited, JPB and JJC

 [Author’s Note: This is the third and final installment of the trilogy, following “Shattered Past, Hero’s Vengeance” and “Blood
Feud”, and many references to them are made in this story. In order to fully understand the plot, it is recommended that you
read them first. Thanks for reading and enjoy!     --Foxmerc]


"Vangaurd" is currently in the works, and will be released in installments by the author.
(last update ~ 12-19-02)

Blood Fued
Chapter One   |   Chapter Two   |   Chapter Three   |   Chapter Four   |   Chapter Five


     The healing and guiding light in Fox McCloud’s life had been violently extinguished before his eyes.
Seeing that his plan to frame McCloud was on the verge of failing, Stefan Chuzie, leader of mercenary
team IceStorm, headed a direct assault on the Great Fox. Through fierce fighting, StarFox’s defense
held against the onslaught as the battle waged from space to the Great Fox’s own corridors. Victory
was at hand when the unthinkable became reality.
     Vicenzia “Vixy” Hohleran, Fox’s fiancé to whom he proposed only hours before, was shot in the
confrontation with Stefan. Fox felt that his life was taken that day along with that of his love, and his
team was doubtful of his recovery. Falco Lombardi saved his friend’s life just as he was about to end it
by his own hand. Yet, even after these grueling struggles, the spirit of Vixy’s love found its way back
into Fox’s life, and he found the strength to bring down IceStorm and clear his name.
     Following the formal public apology to McCloud by the Cornerian government, normal life resumed
for StarFox, but the memories of Vixy and her horrible death haunted Fox’s dreams. It has been over a
year since the entire incident, and StarFox has taken a few small jobs to keep their funds up and get
back into routine.
     However, that routine is about to be broken once again. Venom took advantage of StarFox’s
weakness during McCloud’s false accusation to begin a project, a last-ditch effort to becoming a
formidable force in the Lylat System once again…

Eight months after Vixy’s death
Thirty miles off the coast of Corneria City
0217 hours

     The calm, smooth ocean stretched in every direction, disappearing from sight into the endless
darkness. Small waves lapped against the gray metal side of the cargo ship C.S. Amaya as it lazily cut
through the water, its humming engine the only sound breaking the tranquility. The clear sky revealed
infinite stars and, to the observant viewer, the planets of the Lylat System.

     Private Kynser was one such observant person. The leopard stared into space for only seconds before
he spotted Fortuna, his home. He brought his head back down and leaned on the guardrail surrounding the
deck of the ship, taking another long drag of his cigarette and tossing the butt overboard. The gentle
motion of the ocean held his gaze as he tried to think of a way to keep deck guard duty instead of relieving
the cargo hold guard. He loved the clean air and openness of the ocean, and hated being holed up inside.
The commander had already heard all of his good excuses, and no good ones were coming to him.

     Kynser sighed and turned to head back inside when he noticed something. The humming of the engine
seemed louder, higher. He slowly swiveled his head, trying to hear it better, and thought that it sounded
like two engines. One sounded like it was coming from above him.

     The leopard grabbed for the rifle slung over his shoulder and snapped his head up. The last thing he
saw was a red glow as a laser cut through the night and hit him in the forehead. He fell straight back
without a sound, a pool of blood spreading on the metal deck under his head.

     The dropship hovered above the deck while the shooter scanned the rest of the deck. After
pronouncing it clear, two ropes were dropped from either side of the dropship and eight black-clad figures
silently slid down them, their faces hidden by black hoods. All had identical silenced assault rifles, aimed in
every direction in a defensive perimeter around the dropship.

     The shooter and first down the rope, Captain Gage Birse, saw that his team was down and clear and
radioed to the dropship.

     “Dagger One to Delivery Boy, all elements clear. Provide us air support until reconnaissance is

     “Roger, Dagger One.”

     “Dagger Three and Four, secure stern and port sides, Five and Six stay here in aft and cover starboard.
Seven and Eight head inside and secure the bridge. Me and Two will recon the cargo holds.”

     Birse received affirmatives from his team as they moved to their assigned positions, shadows blending
into the darkness. Dagger Two, gray wolf Lieutenant Forte, jogged up to Birse, recognizable only by his
tail. “Ready boss?”

     “Let’s go, keep an eye on our asses.”

     “Hey, I’m married,” Forte replied, and Birse knew he was grinning under his hood. He rolled his eyes
and moved towards the heavy metal door that lead inside. The brisk night and saltwater smell gave way to
heat and stuffy air, the sparkling stars turned to rusty metal and dim light.

     “This is Dagger Seven, bridge secure.”

     Birse pulled the door shut behind him with a grunt and replied, “Roger that Seven, search the bridge
for the ship’s manifest and destination.”

     “Yes sir.”

     Birse motioned to Forte and they moved slowly in a half crouch down the dimly lit beige corridor,
rifles pointed straight ahead. Just as the blueprints from military intelligence had promised, a staircase
leading down awaited them at the end of the corridor. Birse yanked open the door as he heard a burst of
muffled popping sounds. He spun around and fell to a knee in time to see a figure collapse to the floor, the
barrel of Forte’s gun lightly smoking.

     Birse let out his breath and opened the door the rest of the way, revealing a winding metal staircase
leading down. “This is One. Seven, cut power to all sub-decks.”

     “You got it, sir.”

     Moments later the bottom half of the stairwell disappeared in darkness. Birse and Forte unclipped their
nightvision goggles from their vests and slid them over their heads. Birse signaled to Forte to follow him as
his eyes adjusted to the green haze.

     Halfway down the staircase, Birse heard footsteps rapidly coming up it and put up his fist as a signal to
stop. The figure that came sprinting into Birse’s view was greeted by a burst of lasers that sent him
tumbling back down the stairs to the landing.

     “Venom soldiers,” Forte said with a sigh. “They’re just not a challenge anymore.”

     “Don’t get cocky,” Birse replied, resuming the descent. “One lucky shot is all it takes, one little slip.”

     “I know, I know.”

     The next landing down held a door marked “Cargo Hold”. Birse opened the door and the duo moved
down the short hallway to a large metal door with “Stand Clear” marked on the side.

     “This is it,” Birse said, slinging his rifle. “Cover me.”

 Forte aimed his rifle down the hall behind them as Birse pulled hard on the door with a grunt. It slowly
screeched open and a foul smell, like an open sewer, wafted into the hall.
     “God,” Forte said, swiveling his head around. “What the hell is that smell?”

     Birse shrugged and readied his rifle again, slowly moving into the cargo hold. Through the green haze
he saw a huge room, the size of a few gymnasiums, filled with hundreds of objects…moving objects.
Why were living things in a cargo hold?

     Birse ripped off his goggles and said, “Seven, lights!”

     A few seconds later, the lights flickered on in the cargo hold. Birse stared into the room, speechless at
what he saw.

     “Gage?” Forte said from behind him, joining him at the door.

     “My God…” Birse whispered, removing his hood to reveal his red fur and white muzzle. His eyes met
the wide, fearful eyes of hundreds of people of all species and all  ages, male and female alike. They were
overly stuffed into the room like crates, all of them chained to the walls or floor, some only half clothed.
The smell became stronger as Birse took a step into the room, and his eye caught a small canine, no more
than six years old, clinging to his weary mother, looking at him and crying.

     “Dagger Seven to Dagger One. We found the ship’s paper work. It’s headed for a spaceport on the
coast with a ship bound for Venom. And the cargo…you’re never going to believe this… it’s---“

     “It’s a slave ship,” Birse muttered, finishing his teammate’s sentence. A few moments of silence
ensued, broken only by the creaking and groaning of the ship's hull. Birse had never seen anything like the
scene in front of him, and it started to make him nauseous. The smell of the hundreds of people packed
into an enclosed area with no bathroom didn't help.

     “But why would Venom risk this?” Forte asked, backing out of the room. “What do they need slave
labor for?”

     Birse slowly shook his head. “What the hell is going on…?”

Shadows of the Past
Six months later
Great Fox, Fox’s quarters
0136 hours

     It was the best day of Fox McCloud’s life. The sun shone high in the sky, casting heavenly rays
through the tall windows of the church, the same one his parents had been married at. The high rafters
and stone walls echoed the beautiful sounds of the organ’s procession music while the countless guests
in the pews turned to watch the bride. Fox stood at the end of the red-and-white carpet and glanced at
his parents in the front row, his father smiling at him and his mother wiping a tear from her eye. He
smiled back and looked again at Vixy, escorted down the aisle by her father. Fox’s heart started beating
harder in anticipation and excitement and he tugged at the collar of his tuxedo.

     Edward Hohleran placed a hand on Fox’s shoulder and handed his daughter’s arm to him. Fox took
it and gazed through the thin white veil into Vixy’s wide eyes. She gazed back, and Fox could see a tear
sparkling in her left eye. He was beginning to get choked up himself. Reluctantly, they broke their gaze
and turned to the priest on the altar, an old white tiger, again the same who had married his parents.
They stood hand-in-hand under the shining rays of light, ready to pledge their love for each other.

     The priest cleared his throat and began. “Do you, Fox McCloud, take Vicenzia Hohleran for your
lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for
poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”

     Fox looked again into Vixy’s eyes, swallowing back his tears long enough for him to say, “I do.”

     “Do you, Vicenzia Hohleran, take Fox McCloud for your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to
hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until
death do you part?”

     The gray vixen gazed back into Fox’s eyes and opened her mouth to speak…but stopped. The light in
the church seemed to dim a little as her eyes widened into a look of surprise. She looked down slowly,
hand over her chest. Fox followed her stare and saw blood seeping out of her white wedding dress,
oozing over her hand and dripping to the floor.

     “Fox…” she whispered, and went limp in his arms. Fox was speechless. He had no idea what was
happening and looked around for help, but no one in the pews moved…except his parents. Fox reeled
back as their fur and skin melted off their bones and turned to dust, leaving their skeletons to fall to the

     Fox frantically looked around, sobbing and shouting for help, praying to the God who was letting
Vixy die in his house. She lay motionless on the carpet, her blood soaking it and expanding a pool. Fox
looked up to the priest, the one man who was sure to help, and instead saw a black jaguar in a
black-and-blue uniform, grinning and holding a smoking blaster. He shifted the aim of the gun from
Vixy to Fox’s head and grinned the same humorless grin. But Fox didn’t care. His life, his dreams, his
hopes and future were lying dead on the floor.

     Stefan pulled the trigger…

     Fox’s eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright in his bed, breathing heavily, his body covered in cold
sweat. He looked around the room slowly, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, slowly remembering where
he was. The dream was still burned into his mind, Vixy’s voice still echoing in his ears. It had happened

     Fox sighed and collapsed onto his back again, covering his eyes with his arm just as his door flew
open. Falco stood in his doorway in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, his feathers a mess.

     “What the hell was that?” he said, looking around the room. “Are you ok?”

     Fox sat up again, his heart slowing to a normal pace. “Yeah, I’m fine. Was I shouting again?”

     Falco let out his breath and leaned on the wall. “Loud enough to wake up only half of Corneria from
here. The dream again?”

     Fox nodded. The same dream had played over in his mind countless nights since Vixy’s death, but he
hadn’t actually screamed in most of them. “I haven’t had it in a while, I thought they were finally over.”
He shook his head and lay back down on his damp sheets.

     Falco tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. He was no good at this kind of stuff. Whenever
Fox was like this, Peppy would take care of it, but he and Slippy left for vacation a week before. Falco
and Fox had their turn for a vacation when Peppy and Slippy got back.

     “Well…”Falco started, grabbing for words.

     Fox chuckled lightly. “It’s ok man, don’t strain yourself. I’ll be fine.”

     Falco nodded, relieved and annoyed at the same time. “Just try to get some more sleep, and keep it
down this time.”

     Fox grinned weakly as his friend left the room, closing the door behind him. That was about the best
anyone could get out of Falco.

     The grin faded as Fox was left alone in the dark room to remember the horrible dream. He turned on
his side and closed his eyes, trying to drive it out of his mind. He was close to succeeding when another
thought entered his head. The conversation he had with Peppy right before they left for Katina after Fox
had been framed. Fox had asked Peppy is he was doing the right thing, and wished his father was there.

     ‘It never goes away, does it?’

     Fox remembered his own voice asking that questions to which he already knew the answer. The pain
of losing a loved one, their memory.

     It never goes away.

     * * *

Great Fox, bridge
1026 hours

     Fox snapped his head up and groaned as he began dozing off for the tenth time in as many minutes.
He hadn’t fallen asleep again after the dream, and he had no desire to try again. It was still too fresh in his
mind. Instead he had spent the whole morning in the commander’s chair on the bridge, staring idly out
into space and watching ROB do whatever Slippy programmed him to do.

     ‘It’s this damn chair, it’s too comfortable.’

     With that decided, Fox stood up and stretched as he heard the low hydraulic whistle of the bridge door
sliding open. He turned and saw Falco walk in, smoothing the feathers on his head.

     “You just wake up?” Fox asked, rubbing his eyes.

     “Yeah, for some reason I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night,” Falco replied, the sarcasm nearly
tangible. “What about you, you look like hell.”

     “I didn’t go back to sleep.”

     “Damn man. You’ve been up here with that bucket all morning?” He gestured towards ROB. Fox
nodded. “Well, that’s not going to help anything. Come on, let’s go to the range, I’ll show you how to

     Fox rolled his eyes. “Can you even remember the last time you beat me in a shooting competition.”

     “Sure,” Falco replied, heading for the door. “I’ll tell you later.”

     Fox grinned and started to follow when ROB’s monotonous voice sounded in his ear. “Incoming call,
request location instructions.”

      “We’re right here, ROB. Put it on hologram.”

     The bridge was the only room in the ship that had a hologram receiver, all the others had screens.
Slippy promised that once they had the money, he could put holograms in the other rooms, but Fox was
doubtful. They were barely bringing in enough money to maintain the ship. As much as he didn’t want to,
Fox knew they would have to start taking the bigger jobs soon. He would have to put the past behind him.

     Fox sat back in the commander’s chair, hoping he wouldn’t doze off while talking to whoever was
calling, while Falco slumped into a swivel chair and faced the hologram receiver. After a few beeps, a blue
light sparkled over the receiver, followed by General Pepper’s head. Fox was a bit surprised at how old he
looked, but he thought it could’ve been the hologram playing tricks on his perception.

     “Good morning Fox, Falco.” Pepper squinted towards Fox. “Are you ok Fox?”

     Fox realized he was resting his head on his hand, his eyes only half open, and straightened up. “Yeah,
sorry. Rough night.”

     “For both of us,” he heard Falco mutter, and gave a menacing glance in his direction. Pepper just
shrugged and continued. He was used to their bickering.
     “Fox, we might have a bad situation. We’ve had staff working around the clock down here on some
information that we’ve put together. I guess I’ll start from the beginning.”

     ‘That always works,’ Fox thought, not in the mood for a long talk.

     “Six months ago, an army outpost on the coast outside Corneria City began noticing some strange
activity at the docks. Unscheduled boat arrivals and departures, large shipments with unusually edgy
personnel, and some shooting was once heard from inside a cargo storage area. The outpost sent a soldier
disguised as a dock worker to investigate, and he reported that a large cargo ship had left the dock with
armed passengers aboard. The undercover soldier detained a worker and managed to get some
information out of him, namely that the ship was Venom’s.”

     “A Special Forces team was scrambled and took over the ship hours later. They also made a disturbing
discovery. The cargo holds were full of people, mostly civilians, some soldiers. The ship’s destination was
a spaceport on the far coast where they were to be shipped to Venom as slave labor.”

     Fox furrowed his brow in thought. “To work on what? Doesn’t seem normal for Venom to risk doing
this in plain view of an army outpost.”

     “I’m getting there. We’ve intercepted other such shipments, some in space, some on land, mostly on
Corneria but also on MacBeth and Fortuna. We finally received some useful information a few weeks ago
from paperwork found on a raid. Read this.” Pepper’s eyes averted as he typed on his computer.
Moments later a slip of paper slid out from the front of the hologram, which Fox picked up and read.

 Captain Rohmer,

   I know that you need not be told the importance of the cargo you carry. Keep your security at the
highest level at all times and neutralize anyone and anything that

seems the least bit suspicious. The Cornerians are beginning to catch on to our activities, but it is too
late. There is nothing they can do to stop it now. With your

shipment and a few others, we will be at full strength and our goal will be completed on schedule.

Overlord will rise again.

     Fox’s eyes hung on the last sentence, feeling a pit form in his stomach. Overlord, the curse that started
this whole nightmare. His torture by Wolf, returning to rescue Vixy, his framing by IceStorm… even
Vixy’s death. All were products of that damn weapon. Seeing the name again hit Fox like a right hook to
the face.


     “Huh?” Fox snapped his head up. “Sorry, brought back some memories.” He handed the paper to
Falco and leaned back in the chair as Pepper continued.

     “Needless to say, that note concerns us. It’s not signed, which leads us to believe it’s directly from the
commander of the Venom Army. We don’t know his name, his face, nothing, and any extremely
important documents we’ve come across have so signature.”

     “So not having a signature is kind of his signature,” Falco muttered absently as he read the note.

     “Something like that. In any case, we’ve dispatched scouts all over the galaxy to find out anything they
can about this. If they really are trying to rebuild Overlord, this is a serious issue. We’ve investigated the
ruins of the destroyed Overlord, and there appears to be no activity there.”

     “So what is it you want us to do?” Fox asked.

     “Well, you’re probably the most knowledgeable person in the galaxy when it comes to Overlord.
You’re the only person who’s seen it from the inside and knows the security systems. I want you to join
the search. I want you to investigate any suspicious locations that our scouts come up with and give me
what you find.”

     “Well, I told you a week ago that Peppy and Slippy would be gone on vacation, and we don’t know
exactly where they are, so we’re a little understaffed.”

     Pepper looked away from Fox again, followed by another slip of paper sliding out from the receiver. “I
know that, which is why I took the liberty of giving you a temporary replacement.”

     “Replacement?” Falco asked, scowling. It took him long enough to function well with the team, and he
didn’t like working with people he didn’t know.

     “Does the name Birse mean anything to you, Fox?” Pepper asked.

     Fox thought back, over a year back when Overlord was still a threat. Ike Birse, the commander of the
Special Forces team that was going to accompany him inside the facility to open the doors for the fighters.
Fox had gone in before them to rescue Vixy, and the plan was to meet on the roof. Just as he was
climbing the ladder to meet them, the ship exploded, shot down, wiping out the entire team.

     “The team that was going to come with me into Overlord, he was the commander. Why?”

     Pepper nodded downwards. “Read the paper, it’s the physical profile and psychologist’s evaluation of
your new partner. Don’t worry, he’s not crazy, every soldier has an evaluation.”

     Falco scoffed as Fox picked up the paper and read.

Name: Gage Birse

Position: Captain, Dagger Strike Team, Cornerian Army Special Forces

Species: Red Fox

Gender: Male

Marital Status: Single

Home Planet: Corneria

Age: 23

Height: 6’0’’

Weight: 163 Lbs

Eyes: Hazel

Hair: Light rust-colored fur, white muzzle/neck/inner ear

Distinguishing Features: Scar behind left ear

Family: Father alienated, Mother deceased, Brother deceased

Special Achievements: Cornerian Medal of Honor, pistol and rifle marksman

Interests/Hobbies: Marksmanship, martial arts, racing, learning to fly

History: It is my opinion as a psychologist that Gage and his brother Ike, who was four years older than him, grew up as normal
kids until their mother was killed during the first attack on Corneria during the Lylat War. They hated living with their abusive
and constantly drunk father, so they ran off and joined the Cornerian Army, seeking vengeance for their mother. Both exhibited
great skill and leadership qualities and quickly rose through the ranks, taking part in many battles during the war. Ike was soon
given command of Dagger, an army Special Forces group, while Gage kept up his training, looking up to his brother and hoping
to one day be a part of Dagger alongside him. He received his chance, though not in the way he expected, when his brother’s
entire unit was wiped out during the attack on Overlord five years after the war. Gage was given the responsibility of re-forming
and commanding Dagger.

Personality: According to accounts from fellow soldiers, Gage was a vigorous and courageous soldier, more than earning his
place as an officer in the Cornerian Army through his efforts during the war. During a battle on MacBeth towards the end of the
war, he and his platoon were captured after a vigilant attempt to hold a city from the forces of Venom. He organized and
executed a successful escape, freeing his comrades, who even now thank him for saving their lives, and earning the Cornerian
Medal of Honor. This harsh and unimaginably painful experience in the Venom prison made him slightly detached, often seen
brooding or just staring into space, a common trait in post-torture victims. This experience also, however, made him more
determined then ever to bringing Venom down.
        Gage also has a deep resentment for Fox McCloud. He blames McCloud for his brother’s death, claiming that his
brother’s unit would not have had to wait for him above Overlord for so long if he had not gone in ahead to rescue Vicenzia

     Fox shook his head and laughed as he finished reading. “General, did you actually try to find the worst
possible person for me to work with? He hates me, it’ll never work.”

     “Lemme see,” Falco said, reaching for the paper. He scanned over it and laughed, seeing what Fox
was talking about. “I’m on Fox’s side with this one.”

     Pepper gave them an annoyed look, his drooping eyes falling further. “Don’t you think I thought of
that? Listen, if you’re the most knowledgeable on Overlord, then Gage is the second most knowledgeable.
After the incident, he researched extensively into Overlord, going over blueprints, talking to the pilots,
digging in our security files. Guess he felt he owed it to his brother or something. In any case, you’re both
professionals and I’m not going to let a personal squabble endanger the galaxy. If Overlord is really being
built again, we need all the strength we can get. Now do you want the job or not?”

     Fox recognized Pepper’s annoyed tone and backed off. He was right; it would be stupid to let a
personal issue endanger lives. He was also right about Fox being the only person alive who had ever seen
inside Overlord and its securities. And he had been thinking about accepting a big job…

     Fox looked over at Falco, who shrugged and said, “Your call. Was getting boring around here anyway
without Slippy to beat up.” Fox grinned and looked back at Pepper.

     “Ok, we’ll take it. When do I meet this guy?”

     “Tomorrow morning, come down to my office. We can discuss payment there too.”

     Fox sighed, hoping he would get some sleep that night. Meeting the brother of someone who blamed
him for a family death would be quite an experience. “I’ll bring some flowers. See you tomorrow,

     Pepper rolled his eyes and his face disappeared from above the receiver. The light clicking and beeping
of the countless consoles and instruments in the room echoed in Fox’s ears as he contemplated what had
been discussed. Maybe it was all for nothing, maybe there was no new Overlord.

     ‘Or maybe I’m getting myself into an even deeper pile of shit. Do I really want to get involved in
Overlord again?’

     Fox shook his head hard, trying not to think about what Overlord had already done to him. Maybe this
was an opportunity to set some things right.

     “Come on,” Fox said, walking towards the door. “Let’s do some shooting.”

Gage Birse
The next morning
Cornerian Army Headquarters
1142 hours

     Fox leaned back in the chair in front of Pepper’s desk and rubbed his eyes. The long meeting was
taking its toll and he was glad he had slept the whole night for a change. “Alright, one more time,” he said,
hoping that it actually would be the last time. “Our job is simply to investigate any locations given to us by
scouts and relay the information to you. Birse will live on the Great Fox until this whole thing is taken care
of. Payment is fifty-thousand up front and an additional ten for each site we look at.” His eyes snapped
open. “Birse doesn’t get a cut, does he?”
     Pepper looked confused then laughed. “Of course not, he still gets paid by the military. This is just
considered a transfer.”
      “Good,” Fox mumbled. He was getting more irritable from the uncertainty of working with someone
who openly hated him, but over fifty-thousand was too good an opportunity to pass up for something that
might turn out to be nothing. “So can I meet him and get it over with?”
     Pepper looked at the clock on his wall and stood. “Sure. The army officers and Special Forces guys
have a separate cafeteria, closer to their wing of the base. And of course, somehow my office ended up all
the way over here.” He scoffed and led the way into the hall, his two guards following a few steps behind.
“He’ll probably be there, his team always eats together. They do everything together.”
     Fox walked silently next to him, fiddling with the crease of his rolled-up sleeves and thinking of what to
say to Birse. He decided it would probably be best to wait for him to say the first word and to go from
there. If there was one thing Fox had learned from experience, it was how to talk to people who didn’t
think too highly of him. Even Vixy had hated mercenaries the first time they met, and they ended up being
     The bright metallic corridor finally ended at a swinging door marked “Cafeteria B, security clearance
required for service”. Pepper pushed it open and stepped through, Fox hesitantly following. He heard a
voice shout out, “General on deck!” and the thirty or so soldiers in the room snapped to attention.
     “At ease,” Pepper said, and the soldiers relaxed back into their seats at the long tables lining the room.
He was looking around for Birse when a string of static emitted from one of the guards’ headsets. The
guard looked down for a second, listening intently, then said, “Sir, General Penick needs to see you
immediately, he says it’s urgent.”
     Pepper sighed and turned to Fox. “I’ll be back in a minute, just stay here. They’re a little rough around
the edges, so don’t get provoked into anything.”
     “What?! Wait, you can’t leave me here alone!”
     Pepper rolled his eyes. “Fox, they’re not going to kill you. Just stay there, don’t even talk to anyone
until I get back. Most of them know Birse, and most of them only know his side of the story.” He turned
and left the cafeteria.
     “Wait!” Fox said in a loud whisper, but the general was already gone. He slowly turned around and
faced the small cafeteria, only big enough for six long tables and a food line. It was much cleaner and
homely than a normal cafeteria though, Fox noticed as he leaned on the wall, trying not to make eye
contact as he looked around.
     One of the tables had six soldiers in army fatigues with identical patches on their breast pockets. Fox
had seen the patch before, over a year ago, Dagger’s insignia. He nervously scanned the soldiers at the
table and let out his breath in relief when none of them turned out to be a red fox. At least the meeting
would hold off until the general came back.
     Just as Fox thought this, a young looking raccoon at the table looked up and saw him. He looked at
Fox suspiciously and called out, “Hey, cap! Look who it is!”
     Confused, Fox looked around the room and saw two more soldiers with the patch, dumping their trays
at the garbage disposal, a gray wolf and a red fox. They both turned, and Fox could see captain’s ranks on
the fox’s collar and the nametape above his left breast pocket, “Birse”. The wolf had lieutenant’s ranks
and the nametape “Forte”.
     “Oh, shit,” Fox muttered as they both glared at him. He glanced around and noticed that conversation
in the room had stopped and just about everybody was looking back and forth between Fox and Gage,
like a tennis match. The Dagger soldiers slowly stood up, keeping their eyes on Fox as if he was going to
pull out a gun at any time and start shooting.
     Gage definitely had resemblance to his brother, from what Fox could remember. He stood up straight,
arms folded, glaring at Fox as if daring him to make the first move. The tenseness hung in the air as Fox
thought about what to do, his heart racing. No matter how good Fox was, he knew there was no way he
could take on more than one Special Forces soldier in a fight. The other soldiers occupying the table
watched on eagerly, like the best part of the movie was coming up.
     After another minute of the tense stare-down, Fox decided that Gage wasn’t going to make the first
move, so he better do something. Slowly he walked forward, as if not wanting to wake a sleeping
monster, and stopped two feet from Birse and his team. His mouth felt like sandpaper, so he worked up
some wetness and managed to say in a near whisper, “Captain Birse?”
     Fox didn’t expect a response, and he didn’t receive one except the piercing glare, so he continued.
“I’m, uh…well, you obviously know who I am…listen…”
      Fox didn’t even see the fist coming. He felt an explosion of pain on the left side of his muzzle and the
next thing he knew he was on his hands and knees almost kissing the floor, shocked gasps echoing around
the cafeteria. His mouth throbbed and his head was spinning as he heard Birse speak.
     “No, you listen, McCloud. I’ve been waiting to do that for a long time. I know about my little
assignment to work with you, but let’s get one thing straight. I don’t want to do this, and I bet you don’t
either, but orders are orders. So we just stay out of each others’ way until it’s over. I’m not giving you the
opportunity to get me killed over some whore, like you did to my brother.”
     The pain in Fox’s head was forgotten as it was replaced with a surge of anger. He whipped his foot
around, kicking Birse’s legs out from under him. The room was again filled with shocked gasps as Fox
kneeled over the prone captain, grabbing his lapels and shrugging off his teammates.
     “Now you listen to me,” Fox growled at him, his comrades backing off. “That ‘whore’ died in my
arms of a laser wound an hour after I proposed to her. Her blood was all over me while I held her,
helpless to do anything. Hate me all you want, but the next time you say anything against her, I won’t be
this nice.”
     “Now, I’m sorry about your brother, I know what it’s like to lose a family member. But there was
nothing I could do about it. How was I supposed to know? You think I planned for it to happen like that?
These things just happen, so let it go. Nothing you can do about it now.” Fox couldn’t think of anything to
say, so the cafeteria hung in dead silence for a few moments.
     “Get the fuck off me,” Gage said, his expression changing from shocked back to the cold glare. Fox
returned the glare for a few seconds then released his grip. As his anger faded, he noticed that everyone
else in the cafeteria was standing at attention and he heard someone loudly clear his throat.
     The two foxes stood up and faced General Pepper, Birse snapping to attention and Fox looking down
at the floor like a child that got caught stealing candy. Pepper slowly began sauntering across the cafeteria
as if he had all the time in the galaxy. Everyone was completely still as he finished his jaunt and stood in
front of Fox and Gage. He stared for a few seconds at the captain, who looked straight ahead, then at Fox,
who was trying to avoid his eyes.
     Pepper took a napkin off a nearby table and held it up. Fox was confused for a second until he realized
his muzzle was bleeding, so he took the napkin and dabbed at the cut.
     “Come with me,” Pepper said sternly, turning to face the door. Fox and Gage followed, and as soon as
the door closed behind them, Pepper let them have it.
     “What the hell was that?!” he shouted, turning to face Gage. “I knew there would be a little hostility,
but a fist fight in front of half the officers in this base?! They just saw the vanguard of our operation
against Overlord at each other’s throats! I expected better conduct from you, Captain Birse. We’ll discuss
this more later, and I don’t want any more physical incidents with you two, is that clear?”
     “Yes sir.”
     Pepper shifted his eyes to Fox. “And I told you to wait until I got back to do anything.”
     “General, they were staring at me, I had to say something. I tried to be nice, but this crazy asshole
snapped on me.”
     “I’m crazy?” Gage cut in, facing Fox. “You’re the one who snapped after I was done talking!”
     Fox didn’t back down. “You called my dead fiancé a whore, what the hell did you expect?!”
     Gage didn’t answer immediately. There was silence as Fox and Pepper, who was about to step in and
stop the argument, waited for an answer. Gage’s hard expression began to soften slightly as he searched
for an answer. Finally he managed, “I didn’t know.”
     Fox cocked an eyebrow. “What?”
     “I didn’t know she was your fiancé, and I didn’t know she died like that.”
     An awkward silence ensued as the two foxes stared at each other. Soldiers and workers passed them in
the hall, glancing over curiously at the duo.
     “But that doesn’t mean I like you any better,” Gage added. “Hangar, fifteen minutes.” He then turned
and stormed off down the hall, the other workers stepping quickly out of his way.
     Fox shook his head. “Who needs enemies when you have allies like that?”

     * * *

Cornerian orbit
1413 hours

     Not a word had been exchanged during the long flight back to the Great Fox in StarFox’s two-seater
leisure ship. Fox would glance behind him every once in a while and find Gage staring out the canopy with
a distant look in his eyes. He was somewhat thankful for the silence; at least it couldn’t start another fight.
But as the silhouette of the Great Fox appeared in the distance, Fox felt the need to try conversation again.
He had initially met Falco under similar circumstances, and look how they turned out.
     “So…” he started, grasping for any topic that would do. “Pepper tells me you know a lot about
     There was silence for a few seconds, then Gage replied in an even voice, “I guess you could say that.
Not just about Overlord, about you too.”
     Fox didn’t quite know how to take that. “Me? How so?”
     “People always used to compare me with you. They said that I was on the ground what you are in the
air, ‘the Fox McCloud of ground combat’, as they put it.” There was a brief silence, as if Gage expected
Fox to pull a one-liner or something, then he continued. “We’ve actually met before, McCloud, a few
times. I watched like everyone else the day Corneria City was attacked as you fought in the sky. I was
fascinated, and, believe it or not, you were kind of my inspiration to join the army. I figured I could
avenge my mother by doing what you were doing.”
     Fox nodded, again not sure how to respond. This was more of a response than he had first expected
and he didn’t know where it was going.
     “Of course, that all ended over a year ago. After my brother’s death, I did all the research I could on
Overlord and on you. I know your whole history. The next time we met was a few months after Overlord,
just outside Pepper’s office at the base. Of course, you wouldn’t remember me, you were too engaged
with your little outburst at Pepper. You wouldn’t believe how much self control it took not to shoot you
right there.”
     “Wait, when?” Fox asked, a little taken back by part about shooting him. He then remembered, Gage
must’ve been talking about his standoff with Pepper when he had infiltrated the base during his framing.
Gage was one of the soldiers. “Oh, ok, I see. So you were there? Well, thanks for holding off on shooting
     Gage gave him a mean glance then continued in a somewhat annoyed tone. “To make it worse, it
happened again days later, when you attacked that IceStorm-controlled hotel. I was thinking I’d finally get
my chance, but there you were, standing over Stefan with that recorder, innocence proven. Of course, I
was disappointed as hell.”
     So Gage had also been with the team that came in behind Fox at the Corneria Grand hotel. Twice,
Fox’s worst enemy on the allied side had a gun pointed at him. The whole conversation made him uneasy.
“We’re on the same side, Birse.”
     “Calm down, I’m not going to kill you. Just don’t expect us to be best friends.”
     “Good enough,” Fox replied. There was something that had been nagging him since his fight with
Birse, something he had wanted to say, and it finally came to him as they neared the Great Fox’s hangar.
“You know, they’re right to compare us. We both lost everything to Venom. But the difference is that I
actually blame Venom. I don’t blame Peppy for my father’s death just because he was there and didn’t
get killed also. He didn’t kill my father, Andross did… and I didn’t kill your brother, a Venom pilot did.”
     Fox braced himself for an outburst or comeback, but the humming of the engine was the only sound
heard. He glanced back quickly and saw Gage staring out into space again. Maybe he had finally broken

     Five minutes later, the ship touched down in the hangar. Gage hopped out after Fox and scanned the
length of the hangar, as if analyzing it, then picked up his bags. Still trying to salvage some form of
camaraderie, Fox made a move to help, but was waved away.
     “Few ground rules for the Great Fox,” Fox said, leading his guest through the corridor towards the rec
room. “First of all, consider this your home until the mission is over. Feel free to use any facilities, the
target range and all that, and help yourself to anything in the kitchen. Make a mess, clean it, you break it,
you bought it. Ok?”
     “Fair enough,” Gage replied in a neutral tone.
     The door to the rec room slid open, revealing Falco leaning on a couch, apparently waiting for them.
He gave his trademark untrusting look at Gage, which made Fox grin slightly, then walked over. Gage was
giving the same analytical scan to the rec room that he gave to the hangar. His gaze stopped on Falco and
he returned the untrusting stare.
     Fox cleared his throat. “Gage Birse, this is---“
     “Falco Lombardi, I know,” he cut in, eyes still locked on Falco’s. Neither made a move to offer a
handshake or any other form of civilized greeting, which was pretty much what Fox had expected. He was
pretty sure that they would stand there until one dropped dead from hunger unless he stepped in, which
was what he did.
     “Peppy and Slippy are on vacation for another week or two, so you might meet them if this drags out
that long. Come on, I’ll show you to your room.”
     He made a move towards the door and Gage finally tore his stare away and followed him. When the
door slid shut behind them, Fox said, “He’s not the most trusting guy in the galaxy, but he’s great when
you get him on your good side.”
     After a twenty second trip down the corridor, Fox stopped and held is hand out in front of the guest
room. Gage slowly walked in and looked around the room, which was identical to the other rooms in the
living quarters.
     Fox absently rubbed his aching muzzle and said, “Make yourself at home, then come to the rec room
when your ready and we’ll see what we’re supposed to do next. Any questions?”
     He turned to leave when he heard Gage’s voice again. “McCloud.”
     Fox stopped and glanced over his shoulder to see Gage’s back to him as he unpacked his bag. After a
few seconds, he said in a low voice, “Sorry I hit you.”
     Fox stared at his back for a few moments, wondering if he had heard right. He had used that speech he
had given in the ship before. It always made perfect sense to him, but Gage didn't seem like a guy who
listened to reason. Maybe he was. Maybe it would all work out after all.
    "Forget about it."
Return to Emayn
The next morning
Great Fox, recreation room
0756 hours

     “What the hell are you doing up already?”
     Fox groggily shambled into the rec room, shielding his sleepy eyes from the bright light and slinging his jacket over his shoulder. Gage, seated at the table, glanced up from his mug of coffee and shrugged disinterestedly. He wore army-issue combat boots and camouflage pants topped off by a plain black t-shirt. “Force of habit, I guess. I’ve been up for an hour already.”
     “Doing what?”
     “Getting to know the ship.”
     Fox nodded and moved towards the coffee maker to get himself a mug. Gage’s tone was still on the unfriendly side, but it was a step up from the malice he had received the previous day. For the few seconds that Gage had looked at him, Fox could see that it was not like the usual look of hate. It was more like the distrusting stare he and Falco had exchanged the day before.
     After he had poured himself some of the steaming wake-up call, Fox took a seat on the opposite end of the table and sipped a bit. “It takes me a while to get functioning completely in the morning, and Falco’s lazy ass won’t be up for another hour at least.”
     Gage nodded slowly, like he couldn’t care less, then said, “He seemed real friendly yesterday.”
     Fox chuckled and took another sip. “It’s funny, our fight yesterday reminded me of how he and I met. It was back in the Academy, just after an examination flight run. The results were displayed on this big screen that everyone crowded around, and I got the top score. I didn’t know who he was then, but Falco got second place by a really thin margin. So, of course, he was pissed as hell at me.”
     “There’s one thing we have in common,” Gage muttered under his breath.
     Fox took another sip from his mug and continued. “Anyway, I was walking back to my room with Bill, a friend, and suddenly I hear this voice from behind me shout out, ‘Hey, McCloud!’ I turned around and there he was, glaring at me with a few punks he always hung around with. A few people stopped and a small crowd started forming around us. He said something like ‘Let’s see who’s really the best right now’, and Bill told me who he was and that I should just ignore him. So I turn and start walking, but a few seconds later he grabs my shoulder, spins me around, and slams me in the face.”
     “It was the first time I had really been hit, and it took me a second to recover. I stood up and saw the huge crowd that had formed, all of them staring at me, seeing what I would do. Falco was still standing there, smirking at me, so I said, ‘Back off, I don’t want to fight you,’ and he said ‘I don’t care if you want it or not,’ and came at me again. Well, I paid attention at my martial arts classes, and it paid off. I blocked his blow and countered with a punch that put him on his back. After a bit, the crowd started breaking up and Falco was just lying there, obviously embarrassed, so I went over and offered my hand to help him up. Then we started talking and the rest is history.”
     “And I would’ve laid him on his ass again if we kept at it,”
     The two foxes turned to see Falco leaning on the doorframe, looking more asleep than awake. Without so much as a glance at Birse, he got his own serving of coffee and plopped down next to Fox.
     “I don’t think so,” his friend replied with a grin. “What are you doing up anyway?”
     Falco managed a puzzled look through his sleepiness. “What… oh, shit, I forgot to tell you. Pepper called last night while you were tucking in our buddy over there. He said he needed to talk to us around eight-thirty.”
     Fox shook his head. Falco was always forgetting to tell him things, and one day it was going to catch up with him. He looked at his watch and said, “Well, we still have ten minutes, but we’re all here.”
     As Fox stood up to call Pepper on the viewscreen, he noticed that Gage was still staring down at the cold remnants of his coffee, as if he hadn’t heard a thing. ‘I know these special forces types, though,’ Fox thought as he punched in Pepper’s office number. ‘Sleep with their eyes open and a gun under their pillow, memorize a conversation they barely heard and say it a week later, can kill someone a billion different ways with a toothpick…’
     His thoughts were interrupted as Pepper’s old, creased face appeared on the screen. Gage was ready and stood with a salute, which Pepper returned. “Good to see no one’s dead yet. How are thing’s going?”
     Fox glanced over at Gage as he sat and resumed his vigil over the coffee. “Fine so far. Falco said you needed to see us?”
     “Yes.” Pepper squirmed a bit in his seat and cleared his throat. “We got our first lead. Well, it’s not really a lead, it’s definitely Venom activity. We probably should’ve seen it coming from our last situation with Overlord.” He stopped and looked at Fox for a few seconds.
     “Well? What is it?”
     Pepper sighed and said, “First of all, promise me you’ll stay right there and hear me out. We have a squad mobilizing as we speak to head out there and help. They should be at Zoness in six hours, at the most.”
     “Zoness?” Falco asked. “What---“
     “Emayn,” Fox said, a pit forming in his stomach. “It’s Emayn, isn’t it?”
     “Yes, but listen---“
     It was too late. Before Pepper could finish, Fox was out the door. The general sighed and shook his head. “Captain Birse, your mission is to hold off the Venom forces en route to Emayn until reinforcements arrive and find any information regarding Overlord. And keep an eye on Fox, you know his history with Emayn. Don’t let him do anything reckless.”
     Gage sighed and downed the rest of the coffee. “Knew I should’ve joined the Navy.”

     * * *

Great Fox, bridge
1124 hours, 1624 Emayn local time

      The small green and brown island of Emayn appeared on the far below against the bright sun, which was beginning its slow descent into the horizon. Fox McCloud gazed at the island, where it had all begun over a year ago. What began as a usual job from Pepper sparked a time in his life that was the most painful, and yet the most beautiful. His struggles on the island itself lead to his captivity and torture at the hands of Wolf O’Donnell. After his miraculous escape, the Cornerian government asked him to go back.
     Despite these situations, there was still that one source of energy that had made Fox risk impossible odds to rescue the ten hostages in Emayn. That same source lifted his spirits in the dark, blood-soaked cells and halls of Overlord’s prison, giving him the energy to escape. It appeared again shortly after, giving him the courage to face his worst nightmares and return to Overlord alone. It was always there to comfort him and tell him that everything would be alright.
     That source was Vixy Hohleran.
     ‘Vixy Hohleran... not Vixy McCloud… so close.’
     New sorrow rose in Fox’s chest as he continued staring at the island. He felt an obligation to that bit of land and its inhabitants, a responsibility. Emayn was Vixy’s home, and no goddamn Venom soldier was going to desecrate it with his presence.
     Fox faintly heard the door to the bridge slide open and footsteps as someone walked in and stopped. “So what now?” Gage asked.
     “We’re almost in contact range,” Fox replied, tearing his eyes from the island and turning around. “We contact the governor and see--- whoa.”
     Fox stopped short as he saw Gage’s outfit. The standard Special Forces black jumpsuit (with the Cornerian flag on the right sleeve), boots, and gloves complete with two empty thigh holsters, body armor, elbow and knee pads, and a knife on his left calf. “Someone came prepared.”
     Gage shrugged in his usual ‘whatever’ way and said, “I know you have guns, but I wanted to bring my own gear.”
     “Whatever floats your boat,” Fox said, turning back to the nearing island. He had too many things going on in his head to worry about Birse’s attitude, and it was starting to get annoying. After a few seconds, he heard the footsteps continue and Gage stood next to him, arms folded, looking at the oblong land.
     “Looks like we’re a little late, they’ve already been invaded. Look.”
     Fox followed Gage’s pointing finger to the left side of the island. Black shapes materialized from the clouds, at least three visible ones. Smaller shapes shot forth from their larger counterparts, heading down onto the island.
     “Dropships,” Fox said. “They’re attacking almost the exact same way they did last time, from the left side. Hope the militia learned from it.”
     “Emayn is now in contact range,” ROB’s monotonous voice said from across the bridge.
     “Good,” Fox replied, turning to face the hologram comm. “ROB, call the governor’s house.”
     Fox felt the strongest déjà vu of his life as the comm. beeped, trying to connect. After a few seconds, a white canine face, early thirties at the most, flickered into sight above the projector…a familiar face.
     “Yes, this is Governor Ecklin,” the beagle said in a hurried voice. He was surprisingly well composed considering what was happening. “Who is this?”
     “Ecklin?” Fox replied, eyes wide. “Jay Ecklin?”
     The memories all came back to him from his last visit to Emayn, when he and Wolf first saw each other during Wolf’s speech. The confrontation, Wolf’s abduction of the ten civilians. When Fox went after the hostages and busted up the execution, he put the most calm-looking person in charge of his fellow civilians, a person who would later visit him in the hospital with his family and thank him personally…Jay Ecklin.”
     Jay’s eyes widened also. “Fox! Oh God, it’s been so long. How are you?”
     “I should be asking you. We got here as soon as we heard, but it looks like they’ve started. What’s going on?”
     “Yeah, we can catch up later. So far, we’re doing alright. They seem to be hitting us with a similar size invasion force as last time, but they underestimated us. Since the last invasion, we’ve built a more serious militia. But I don’t know if it’ll hold.”
     Fox nodded. “Ok, we can do some strafing runs from the Arwings to soften them up a bit, then—“
     “No good,” Jay cut in, shaking his head. “It looks like they also learned from last time. Almost every rooftop on the west side of the island has an anti-aircraft weapon on it. A fly couldn’t get through.”
     “Shit,” Fox muttered. “The west side? Construction finally got done?”
     “Yeah, after we cleaned up the new square from the last battle when you saved me and the others, we continued construction and finished a couple months ago. The town’s really grown since you were last here. Two squares now.”
     Fox sighed and shook his head. This was going to be harder than he thought. Even if they did somehow get onto the island, they had a larger area to cover, and with less of a force. “Alright, we’ll find a way in, don’t worry. We’ll try and land near the west side so we can attack from the back, sandwich them in. Tell the militia to look out for two red foxes.”
     “Two? Who’s the other?”
     Fox hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Gage. “Him. Long story, I’ll tell you later.”
     “Ok. Thank you so much Fox.”
     “Thank me after we win. Oh, and we’ll be listening in to the militia’s radio chatter so we know where to go to help. Does this new square have a name?”
     “Yeah,” Jay replied, a weary grin creeping onto his muzzle. “McCloud Square.”

     * * *

Minutes later
Great Fox, armory

     A soft blue glow filled the armory as Fox searched the viewscreen’s records for a certain map sent to them over a year ago. Falco leaned back in one of the chairs while Gage propped one foot up on another one and unsheathed his knife, running his gloved fingers slowly over the blade. His tail slowly swung from side to side, like a metronome keeping time.
     “Alright, here it is,” Fox said as the glowing map of Emayn occupied the screen. “It’s a little out of date. This whole area over here on the west side isn’t under construction anymore, so pretend that there’s a bunch of buildings there.”
     Falco chuckled sarcastically. “And McCloud square, right?”
     Fox rolled his eyes and continued. “Anyway, according to Jay, we can’t go in by air, so here’s what I was thinking. Falco, you take to the air and shake up the ships. Three carriers and a bunch of dropships. Take out as many dropships as you can and keep the big boys busy. Think you can handle that?”
     Falco scoffed and rolled his eyes, which was all the response Fox needed.
     “Gage, you and I land here,” Fox tapped the shoreline on the far western side of the island. “And attack them from behind. That work for you?”
     Gage’s eyes widened and he stood straight up, the knife gleaming in the blue glow. “No, no way! There’s no way in hell I’m going down there with you.”
     Fox sighed. He was afraid he would get a response like that. “Gage, we—“
     “McCloud,” Birse cut in. “Even if I did trust you in the least, which I don’t, you would only slow me down. You’re a pilot, stick to the damn air. You do what you’re good at and I’ll do what I’m good at, ok?”
     “Hey,” Falco said, sitting up and half-turning to Gage. “Maybe it slipped your attention, but the invasion is happening on land. I can handle a few dropships, but I don’t know what kind of one-man army you think you are.”
     Gage slit his eyes and opened his mouth to retort when Fox cut in. “You claim to know everything about me, Birse. So you have to know that I liberated this island once already and single-handedly rescued ten civilians in the middle of enemy territory. Not to mention that I escaped, infiltrated, then re-escaped Overlord all by helpless little self. Hey, I can go into the ground fights with IceStorm if you want, or did I make my point clear enough?” It was a rhetorical question, so he continued. “I may not be Special Forces, but you know damn well I’m qualified for ground combat. Emayn means a lot to me, so put aside our little quarrel for now and work with me, ok?”
     Falco smirked and leaned back in his seat as Gage put his foot back on the chair and settled down. After a few moments with a look that expressed more annoyance than anger, he said, “Fine, just don’t get in my way. Have you even thought about the little detail of actually getting on the island?”
     “Well, if we can’t go in from above, we’ll go in from below. The Bluemarine.”
     “The what?” Gage asked with a confused look.
     “The Bluemarine, our submarine craft. It’s made for one, but two can fit in if they get chummy. They won’t be expecting that, so we might be able to get on the island unnoticed.”
     Gage seemed satisfied with that and went back to his knife.
     “Alright then,” Fox said, flicking the screen off. “Let’s go.”
     Falco left for the hangar while Gage began a slow round of the armory, looking at each rack of weapons closely, as if looking for one in particular. His eyes stopped on one and he muttered, “I’ll be damned.”
     “What?” Fox asked as he took off his jacket and strapped body armor over his black shirt.
     “The SLX-109 assault rifle. These things just came out a month ago, I’ve been using it a lot.”
     Fox nodded, securing the final strap. “Spent some time in the range with it, great gun. Help yourself to anything in here.”
     Gage grabbed one of the rifles off the rack and took it apart on a nearby bench before Fox could even say anything. He checked over each part and put it back together with the sureness of someone who’s done it hundreds of times. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he moved down the rack and repeated the process with two pistols, which he placed in either thigh holster.
     The whole show took no more than two minutes, and Gage looked at Fox expectantly. “What are you waiting for?”
     “Uh…nothing.” Fox was amazed at the speed in which Gage took apart and repaired the guns, and he realized he was staring. Feeling like a kid who had just been outdone in the school talent show, Fox prepared his own pistol and grabbed the same model rifle.
     “Uh, McCloud?” Gage said as Fox headed out the door. “Unless you want a really fancy club, that rifle’s not much use without ammo.”
 Fox stopped and mentally kicked himself. The comment Gage made about slowing him down had made him a little angry. He was trying too hard to look good, even somewhat competent, in front of him.
     ‘He’s a frickin’ specops captain,' Fox told himself as he backtracked into the armory. ‘Stop comparing yourself to him. He may be able to kick your ass on the ground, but he can barely pilot.’
     With that established, Fox grabbed a few energy mags from the bin and shoved them in his pockets. Gage may have fancier clothes and better aim with a gun, but Fox knew that he would fight just as hard on the ground. What was that old quote he always heard at the Academy?
     ‘It’s not the size of the man in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the man.’
     “Damn straight,” Fox muttered under his breath as he turned to give leaving another shot.
     “Nothing. Let’s go.”

     * * *

Off the west coast of Emayn
1736 hours, Emayn local time

     “Seventy-five knots,” Fox said, glancing at the display panel in the Bluemarine’s cockpit. The craft vibrated harder as the digital counter continued steadily upwards past ‘75’, pushing the maximum speed to its limits. It hadn’t been used in a while, and Fox prayed it would hold together until they reached the shore.
     Gage, who was crammed behind the pilot’s chair with their gear, had a bit more pessimistic view. “This hunk of crap’s not going to make it.”
     “She’ll hold,” Fox shouted back over the creaks and groans of the ship’s hull, hoping he was right. “It’s really not supposed to be going this fast for so long, but we’re in a hurry.”
     Gage sighed and nearly fell over as a hard rumble shook the ship. “How much further ‘till shore?”
     Fox looked at the laser distance-finder, surprised to find that they were already almost there. “Another mile or so, thirty or forty seconds. How do you want to work this? Pop the hatch and swim?”
     “We could, but we’d be exposed for a long time, not to mention the gear would get wet.”
     Fox thought for a few seconds, watching the distance-finder rapidly count down. Finally, he decided that there was really one option. “Hang onto something!”
     “What?” Gage called back. He saw that Fox wasn’t slowing down at all as the counter dropped below one-thousand feet. “Are you crazy?!”
     “She’ll hold!” Fox shouted, less sure of himself this time. Gage grabbed hold of the hatch handle as Fox inclined the ship slightly upwards, poking slightly over the waterline. Through the canopy he could see the three large ships high above…and one island approaching very quickly.
     The craft violently jolted and rumbled as it hit the beach, an earsplitting groan of bending metal filling the air. The Bluemarine slid and spun over the sand, tossing its occupants around the cockpit like socks in a washing machine. After a few more seconds of creaking and sliding, the ship halted on its side, dead silence returning to the beach.
     Gage groaned and sat up, rubbing his head from where it hit the side of the ship as it did its acrobatics act. He looked around and saw that Fox already had the hatch opened and was looking outside.
     “Fun, eh?” he said, ducking back into the cockpit. “Wanna go again?”
     “Fun for you,” Gage mumbled, gathering their gear and passing it to Fox. “You had a seatbelt.”
     Fox grinned and shoved the weapons and pouches out onto the sand, then followed. With a sigh, Gage hopped out after him, greeted by a burst of warm tropical air. Without more than a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed one of the rifles from the sand and carefully scanned the border of the long line of trees further up the beach.
     Satisfied that they were alone, he turned back to Fox, who was looking over his handiwork. A long groove lay behind the ship, at least a hundred yards from the ocean. Fox folded his arms and looked at the craft itself.
     “Well, she held together…” A chunk of the hull broke away and clattered to the sand as he finished his sentence. “…sort of. Slippy’s gonna be pissed.”
     “Hey,” Gage hissed. “We need to get off the beach, a patrol could come by to see what happened.”
     Fox nodded, grabbing his rifle and ammo and following Gage towards the trees. “Don’t forget, we’re parked in the west beach.”
     He thought he could see a grin pull slightly at the corners of Gage’s muzzle as he slipped into the shadows of the dense trees, then it was down to business. The captain moved slowly, his rifle up to his shoulder and pointed straight ahead. Fox followed in the same manner, his humor turning to anxiousness. He knew of the dangers they were about to face. Luck had been a hundred percent on his side last time he was here, and he hoped those odds were still with him.
     As the trees began to thin out, faint gunfire and shouting could be heard. The backs of the buildings surrounding the west square came into view through the trees, only fifty or so yards from the tree line. The only thing between them and the town was a pair of feline Venom soldiers, their backs to the trees.
     Fox raised his rifle to fire, but Gage put his hand up in a ‘stop’ gesture and shook his head. He lowered his rifle as Birse slung his over his back and quietly unsheathed his knife. He looked at Fox and gave a series of hand signals: two fingers pointed at his eyes, then pointing at the soldiers, then a fist in a downwards motion. Fox wasn’t too familiar with hand signals, but he figured it meant, “Cover me, and if they see me, drop them before they drop me.”
     Gage moved forward, hunched over in a nearly full crouch, taking each step as if navigating a mine field, so silent that even Fox could barely hear him. The soldiers continued chatting, neither aware of the shadow that was creeping up just behind the one on the right. With swiftness, even grace, Gage grabbed the right guard in a choke hold and swung the knife in a short arc at the left. He went down with a string of choking noises, the whole front of his throat sliced open.
     The other guard struggled and gasped in Gage’s firm hole. “P-Please! Don’t kill me! D-D-Don’t!”
     Fox jogged up them as Gage spoke in a low, rough voice. “I won’t hurt you if you tell me what I need to know. How many soldiers have landed?”
     “I-I don’t know. A hundred maybe.”
     “What’s the attack plan?”
     “Uh…” Gage pulled tighter and the feline’s eyes bulged. “Ok, ok! It’s nothing special, just squads moving up through each street towards the east square.”
     “Thanks, you’ve been helpful,” Gage said. Relief showed in the soldier’s face, but only for a second. With one quick move, Gage jolted his arm to the left, breaking the guard’s neck with a wet snap. He let the body crumple to the ground and sheathed his knife. “Told him I wouldn’t hurt him. He didn’t feel a thing.”
     Grabbing his rifle, Gage looked back at Fox and met a surprised stare. “Hey, if you don’t have the stomach for this, then wait here. I don’t need you puking at every drop of blood.”
     Fox’s surprised look turned to anger. “Hey, I already told you, I’m fine with this. Break all the necks and slice all the throats you want. I was just surprised because…well…”
     Gage nodded as if he completely understood and stared at the corpses. “Because you’re used to firing at a shape, not grabbing one and talking to him. I know the feeling, we’ve all had it.” He crouched and started rummaging through the pockets of the soldier he had knifed. “You see that they’re people too. You can see the color of their eyes, whether they’re married or not from a ring on their hands, all that stuff.” He finished searching the body and tossed Fox a small black object; the soldier’s wallet. Fox opened it and found a few transparent slots with pictures in them. The first showed a young feline with the same color fur, presumably the soldier years earlier. The next one showed him older in a Venom Army dress uniform, two middle-aged felines standing on either side; his parents. Fox knew he would’ve felt remorse if it weren’t for one thing in the picture; the Venom flag hanging in the background.
     “What you have to remember,” Gage continued, as if reading his thoughts. “Is that they’re not just any people. They’re Venom soldiers, and they would kill you if they had the chance. Hell, look at what they’re doing here, killing civilians. Remember who they are and what they stand for and the fact that they’re people too doesn’t matter.”
     Fox nodded, but shuddered as he flipped to the soldier’s military identification card. He was nineteen years old.
     ‘Yeah,’ he thought, tossing the wallet back onto the body. ‘And Vixy was only twenty-two. I’d trade a million of these bastards for her.’
     Gage looked at him with an expression that actually wasn’t anger or annoyance for the first time since they met. “You know, it’s good that you felt that. It means you still have half a heart left. You have to put it behind you now, remember what I said. They’re Venom.” He stood up and readied his rifle again. “Maybe you’re not as much of an asshole as I thought.”
     “Gee, thanks.”
     “But that still doesn’t mean I trust you.” With that, Gage turned and jogged silently towards the town. After a minute of reflecting on what Gage had said, Fox shouldered his own rifle and followed.
     ‘I’ve killed plenty of soldiers on the ground, and I’ll rack up more today. Birse is right. They’re Venom, they’re the ones who kill civilians, the ones who killed my parents.’ The pit in Fox’s stomach vanished at this thought, and he knew he would have no more qualms about killing anyone related to Venom.
     The sun sank lower in the horizon, setting the sky ablaze in red and orange light, providing the shadows that would hide the duo in their battle through the streets of Emayn. They reached an alley between the first two buildings they encountered, and Gage nodded to Fox. With a deep breath, Fox pointed his rifle ahead and entered the alley, Gage following.
     Not a single soldier would be allowed to enter the east square where the governor’s mansion was located, where Fox had met Vixy for the first time at the front door. He would see to it...
Guardian Angel
Emayn, McCloud Square
1803 hours

     Gage peeked around the corner of the brown stone building, careful to stay in the shadows of the alley. McCloud Square stretched before him. It was large for a town square, at least a hundred yards long and wide, and bordered by shops and offices in the similar quaint brown stone design. The road leading into the residence area of the town was at the far end of the square and guarded by a mounted heavy machine gun and a line of soldiers. At least fifty other soldiers spotted the rest of the square, along with supply crates, trucks and one light fighter.
     He ducked back into the alley and gave Fox the report. When he was done, he added, “I wonder why they’re not using the fighter. An air attack would probably be more effective than a straight ground fight.”
     Fox shrugged. “That’s what I’d do. There’s probably a good reason for it, we’ll ask Jay when we get there.”
     Gage nodded as a low hum filled the air. The duo looked back into the square and saw a dropship slowly descend and open the back ramp. After ten soldiers hopped off, it closed back up and flew away over the rooftops. When it was clear, another dropship appeared high overhead and began its descent.
     Gage pushed Fox back into the alley. “Ok, time to get to work. You ready?”
     Fox nodded. ‘Just like old times. Another overwhelming-odds fight in the west square. Hope this one goes as well.’
     “Ok,” Gage said, grabbing a grenade from his vest. “Just follow my lead and shoot anything that looks in our direction.” He pointed to the fighter halfway across the square on their side. “When I say so, break for the ship and use the main guns.”
     “No problem.”
     “Just watch your fire. I’m going for the machine gun when I see the chance.”
     Fox nodded again as Gage looked back into the square. The second dropship slowed as it hovered a few feet above the ground, closer to the alley as Gage had hoped for, and opened its rear door.
     One soldier was able to hope out before he saw a small black object fly through the air and into the gaping mouth of the ship. Before anyone could react, the grenade exploded, tearing off the right side of the ship and sending it crashing to the ground in a ball of flame.
     Gage shouldered his rifle, aimed for no more than two seconds, and fired a single laser that traversed the square and killed the soldier manning the machine gun at the road. The remaining soldiers looked around in frantic confusion, trying to piece together what happened. The smoke from the destroyed ship partially blocked the view of the alley.
     “Go! Now, before they get the machine gun up!”
     With a quick prayer and a deep breath, Fox sprinted from the shadows into the setting sun, Gage’s rifle rattling behind him. Before long there was more rattling as soldiers saw him and fired, lasers whizzing by his head and pounding the buildings to his right. He fired off a few blind bursts towards the center of the square, hoping to get their heads down.
     After a few seconds, which seemed like hours, Fox reached the fighter and climbed the ladder to the cockpit, a few lasers pinging off the hull. He slammed the canopy shut, finally letting out his breath, and looked over the controls. He’d seen them before.
     “Today’s just one big happy trip down memory lane,” Fox grumbled as he powered up the engine. It was the same class fighter he had stolen in his escape from Overlord, so he already knew the controls. For a moment, he again saw the bright hangar outside the canopy, the thick smoke from the oil barrels he had shot…the blood from his shoulder wound covering the seat and control panel. Then it was gone.
     “Fox!” Gage’s voice sounded in his headset. “What are you waiting for?!”
     Fox shook his head hard and worked the buttons on the control panel. The ship’s landing gear retracted, and it hovered a few feet off the ground. He saw the guns were fully charged and grabbed the stick as more lasers bounced off the fighter, slowly but steadily bringing the shields down.
     The sound of the rifles was drowned out by the roar of the fighter's twin laser cannons. The red beams tore across the square, cutting down the soldiers and ripping chunks of stone from the far buildings. Fox rotated the hovering ship, shooting up the line of trucks and supplies. One of the supply crates must’ve contained ammo, because it went up in a large explosion when a laser hit it, taking at least four soldiers with it. The rest of the disoriented army ran for cover, firing random shots in Fox’s direction.
     “Ok, I’m going, check your fire.”
     “Ok,” Fox replied, looking over and seeing Gage sprint across the square. Every few seconds he would drop to one knee and fire a perfectly-aimed burst at a soldier daring enough to step out of cover. When he ducked to reload, Fox loosed a volley of lasers across the square to keep them at bay.
     Gage finally reached the machine gun and kicked the gunner’s corpse out of the way like it was a child’s toy blocking the staircase. He swung the huge gun away from the road on its mount and fired a rapid stream of searing red destruction towards the Venom soldiers. Between him and Fox’s fighter, soon the square lay in smoking desolation, dead soldiers and twisted metal strewn all over.
     Gage ceased fire and carefully scanned the square, breathing heavily. Nothing moved except the flames and billows of smoke from the ruined trucks and dropship. After a few more minutes of dead silence, he raised his hand towards the fighter in a beckoning gesture. The canopy opened with an echoing creak and Fox hopped out, taking a look around at his work.
     He walked over to Gage’s position, keeping his eyes and rifle pointed towards the other end of the square the whole way. “Think we got ‘em all?”
     Gage shrugged and wiped the sweat from his forehead in the tropical heat of the setting sun. “Either that or the rest ran off. We don’t have time for a body count, we need to get outta here before more dropships come.”
     “Shouldn’t be a problem if Falco’s doing his job,” Fox replied, hand going to his ear. “Falco, you there?”
     “Yeah, how’s it going down there?”
     “Good, but we can’t hold out against more dropships. Are you on it?”
     Falco scoffed over the comm. “Come on, I’m getting bored up here. The dropships are like targets in a shooting gallery and the gunners on the big boys must be blind. Don’t worry, none will get through, just hurry up before I fall asleep. Looks like they’re giving up on sending more out anyway.”
     “Good, I’ll get back to you soon,” Fox replied with a sigh of relief. He switched back to the local frequency and turned to Gage. “Looks like we’re clear from the rear.”
     “Good,” Gage said, turning towards the road into town. “Between us and the militia, we should be able to sandwich them in. Shall we?”
     “After you,” Fox replied with a grin, glad that things were going well so far. The grin was quickly wiped off his muzzle as he followed Gage a short distance down the road. Lying in the middle of the street was a trio of canine bodies, a male, a female, and a kit t hat looked no more than ten years old. Their corpses were riddled with blackened holes, apparently from the machine gun placement guarding the road. None were armed.
     Fox felt a pull on his arm as he stared at the wide, lifeless eyes of the female, who had a permanent look of shock on her face.
     “Fox!” Gage yelled, pulling his arm harder. Fox finally snapped out his gaze and looked at Gage. “Come on, we have work to do. We’ll have time for sympathy later.”
     Fox nodded and the duo continued their jog down the street. After a block of nothing but the sound of muffled gunfire and explosions in the distance, Fox’s headset began to buzz and receive static-filled voices. “You hear that?” he asked Gage.
     Gage held up his hand to silence Fox and listened intently to the random voices.
     “—square! I repeat, we sighted explosions and gunfire at McCloud Square!”
     “What? That’s where the enemy is based, do we have any men up that way?”
     “Negative, that’s why I’m reporting it. Does anyone know--?”
     Jay’s voice cut in. “I’ll be damned, looks like he found a way down. Attention all soldiers of the militia! Be on the lookout for two red foxes, one of them Fox McCloud himself. It looks like they’ll be working their way towards you, so check your fire. With their help, we should be able to repel these bastards.”
     There were scattered whoops across the frequency at the news, which gave Fox even more optimism. The militia was far from beaten, and Venom had nowhere to fall back to. The sun finally sank below the rooftops, shrouding the streets in darkness as Fox and Gage continued down the street to end the invasion.

    * * *

Emayn, Main Street
1854 hours

     The sound of gunfire intensified and was now mixed with shouting as the two foxes moved cautiously down the right side of the dark stone street, small shops and houses lining it. A good portion of the streetlights were broken, for which Gage was thankful for. They had no idea what was up ahead, and the shadows were their only cover unless they felt like stacking up some of the bodies that littered the street…which they didn’t.
     Gage put up his fist in a “stop” command as they neared a sharp right turn. He flattened his back against the corner building and peeked around the corner. After a few seconds, he ducked back and said, “Looks like we found the fight. Bunch of militia guarding the entrance to the square, using an overturned truck as cover. Not very effective.”
     “How many Venom soldiers?”
     Gage peeked again and said, “Twenty, twenty-five. All with their backs to us.”
     Fox nodded and shrugged. “Well, you’re the specops guy, how do we do this?”
     Gunfire continued as Gage furrowed his brow in thought. He looked around the corner again and stayed out longer, thinking of possible approaches. After a minute or so, he ducked back and put his hand to his ear, trying to muffle the noise, and spoke into his comm.
     “This is Captain Gage Birse of the Cornerian Army. If anyone in the Emayn militia can hear me, acknowledge this transmission.” He gave it a few seconds, then tried again. “I repeat, this is—“
     “Yes!” a deep, rough male voice sounded over the channel. “Yes, this is Harlan Donlan.”
     “Say that five times fast,” Fox muttered from behind Birse.
     “Mr. Donlan, I need to speak to whoever’s in charge,” Gage continued.
     “I would if I could, son, but a laser got to him first. I’ve assumed command of the militia.”
     “Alright, listen to me, sir. You see the corner past the Venom soldiers?
     “I’m right there, with Fox McCloud.” Gage waved his arm in a wide arc around the corner.
     “Ah, you boys couldn’t have come at a better time. We’re in trouble here, and if they send reinforcements—“
     “There are no reinforcements, McCloud and I took care of their base and we have a man in the air guarding against dropships.”
     Donlan’s relieved sigh could be heard over the comm. “Then we have hope. Do you have any ideas of how to deal with these last ones?”
     “Yes, but it will be a little risky.”
     “Bah, that’s ok. My men are used to a little—“
     “Not for you, for us.”
     There was an awkward silence from the other end, as if he was wondering whether to accept or not. A small grin formed on Gage’s muzzle, as if he had seen this a million times. “Don’t worry sir, I’m use to a little danger too.”
     “Well, if you say so. What do you have in mind?”
     “Pretty simple. McCloud will be watching me. Whenever he gives you the word, have your men fire for about two seconds. It doesn’t matter if they hit anything, I just need the noise. Ok?”
     There were a few seconds of silence from the other end, then, “I have no idea what you’re up to, but ok. We’ll be standing by.”
     Gage beckoned Fox to the corner and they both looked around it. “You heard that, so you know what to do. As soon as I get within a foot of a soldier, give the word.”
     Fox looked over the scattered soldiers, none clumped together, and his eyes widened as he saw what Gage was thinking of doing. “Whoa, are you crazy? If you make one noise, you’ll have twenty soldiers on top of you.”
     “Yep,” he replied, almost nonchalantly, slinging his rifle and securing it tight so it didn’t make any shifting noises. “So hope I don’t slip up. Same deal as before, if one turns around, drop him and I’ll try to make it back here.”
     “Does this mean you finally trust me?”
     Gage glanced at Fox and grinned slightly, the shadows hiding most of his expression. “Well, I don’t see anyone else around here to cover my ass, so I guess I have no choice.”
     Fox grinned also and replied, “I can live with that.”
     “I hope I don’t die with that. You ready?”
     Fox lowered himself into a prone position around the corner, rifle pointing towards the oblivious soldiers. “Ready. Good luck.”
     Gage nodded, took a deep breath, and stepped out into the road. All the streetlights were on, so there were no shadows for him to duck into in case one decided to just glance over his shoulder. He slowly moved towards the rear-most soldier in the same hunched over silent walk he had done after their graceful arrival on the beach. He kept his right hand over his pistol holster, ready to pull it out in case, and his left hand slightly out, palm down, for balance.
     When he was a step away from the soldier, Fox whispered loudly into his comm., “Now!” The end of the road lit up in a deafening explosion of gunfire, giving Gage all the time he needed to grab the soldier in a choke hold, snap his neck, and let the body crumple to the ground. Some of the soldiers returned fire, but none of the militia had actually shown themselves. Fox hoped they wouldn’t wise up.
     It went exactly according to plan for the next thirteen soldiers. Gage made it look effortless, child’s play, but Fox knew better. The sneaking and snapping of a neck that quickly took extreme precision, not to mention the tension that came with the knowledge that a single wrong step could end your life. It was what Gage was trained for, and he did it until the fourteenth soldier. By then, however, it was already over. There were only six soldiers left, hardly enough to put up a decent fight against the militia.
     Gage approached him like the previous ones, waited for the burst of fire, and grabbed for him. But the soldier was ready. Gage had accidentally brushed against his tail, alerting him and making him spin around. He managed to yell out for help before Gage spun him back around and grabbed him in the choke hold. Birse knew the shit was about to hit the fan and didn’t break the soldier’s neck. Instead he grabbed his pistol and pointed it at the remaining six soldiers as they too turned around to see what their comrade was yelling about.
     “Take a look!” Gage shouted at the soldiers, but he didn’t have to. The soldiers were gaping at their dead men, contemplating what it meant and how it could happen, unsure of what to do next. Gage spelled it out for them. “It’s over. You have two choices. Surrender, or we have the militia and my buddy back there come out shooting.”
     Some of them stole a glance back at the west end of the island, at their former base, so Gage added, “Oh, and you can forget about reinforcements, in case you were wondering. Your dropships ran into a little trouble.”
     Their faces sunk a bit at this, and some of them whispered to the others. Gage’s hostage squirmed in his grip; it was pretty clear which choice he wanted. “What’s it gonna be?”
     A canine sergeant, highest rank in the remaining six, turned to Gage with an icy glare and hesitantly threw down his rifle. The rest followed his example in a more frightened way.
     “Good choice,” Gage said. He released his shield, who fell to his knees, breathing heavily. An elderly brown badger with large, droopy eyes peeked around the front of the truck blocking the square, then walked out and over to Birse, steering clear of the disgruntled soldiers.
     “Captain Birse?” Gage recognized the voice as Donlan’s. He looked over the road at the thirteen corpses and McCloud walking up towards them. “Outstanding work, I didn’t hear a thing.”
     “That was the point,” Gage replied, holstering his pistol as Fox came up and stood next to him.
     “Mr. McCloud,” Donlan said, shifting his eyes to Fox and extending his hand, which Fox shook. “It’s an honor. Thank you both so much, I’m not sure how much longer we could’ve held.”
     “Glad to help,” Fox replied. “Is Jay around?”
     “The governor? He should be somewhere in the square.”
     “Thanks.” Fox walked past the soldiers without even a glance and disappeared into the square.
     Donlan turned back to Gage and said, “What should we do with them?”
     “Put them in your jail for now, always have a few guards watching them. When the Cornerian reinforcements get here, they’ll take over.”
     “Alright.” Donlan wiped sweat off his forehead and shook his head wearily. “I’m so glad that’s over.”
     Gage looked back at the thirteen corpses and thought about the events of that evening. He had managed to cheat death again, to rid the galaxy of more Venom soldiers. If it were up to him, the six remaining soldiers would be lifeless on the stone road, but they needed to interrogate them. Overlord was the priority, not his kill count. He was done for the night, and he was glad.
     “Me too.”

    * * *

Emayn, Main Square
1932 hours

     Main Square was in the shape Fox had feared. As he walked past the truck, the brightly-lit square, slightly smaller than McCloud Square, sprawled in front of him. People on their backs vastly outnumbered the people on two feet, and even the standing people looked weary and half dead. Bodies lined the square, most wounded and shouting for help, and others silenced forever.
     There were some familiar faces among the crowd from the last time Fox was there, and they nodded to him or shouted their thanks. Another familiar face, that of Jay Ecklin, was coming towards him from a group of wounded people on the right side of the square. His clothes and white fur were streaked with blood, but not his. He had apparently been helping with the wounded, and it showed in his grave expression.
     Fox held out his hand, and Jay took it then embraced him. “It’s so good to see you again. Thanks you so much, you’re like this island’s…guardian angel.”
     “I’m just glad we got here in time. This is terrible. Do you have any casualty count?”
     Jay pulled away and shook his head. “No, and I don’t want to know right know. This was far worse than last time. They didn’t even give us a chance to surrender, just an all-out attack.”
     Fox nodded. “We’ll find out what this is all about. What about you? How did you get governor?”
     Jay grinned wearily and said, “Funny, really. After the last invasion, when Hohleran was killed, no one had any idea who to nominate. Somehow my name came up because I was big in the militia and led the hostages back from the square after your intervention. They said we should have a governor with combat experience, and there weren’t too many of us. So here I am. What about you, how have you been?”
     Fox hesitated, then said, “I’ve been getting along.”
     “We all followed that whole ordeal when you were falsely accused. Of course, no one here believed it for a second. Was no surprise when IceStorm came up as the real terrorists. And Fox…” He put his hand on Fox’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about Vixy. I know you two were close. She meant a lot to this town also.”
     Fox nodded, wanting the subject to change. He felt somewhat guilty, like he had taken something from this island, robbed it, then broke it. Thankfully, Gage walked around the truck and into the square at that moment, giving Fox an excuse to turn away. He waved to the captain, who had a surprised look on his face as he walked over to them. Fox guessed he didn’t expect mayhem like that either.
     “Jay, this is Captain Gage Birse of the Cornerian Army Special Forces.”
     Jay extended his hand and said, “Captain, thank you very much for your help.”
     Gage returned the handshake and replied with a cliché line that made Fox grin. “It’s my job, sir.”
     “Peppy and Slippy are away,” Fox said. “So Gage was assigned to help with the investigation.”
     Jay cocked an eyebrow. “What investigation?”
     Fox opened his mouth to reply, but Gage beat him to it. “We think this may have something to do with a new version of Overlord being built. When the Cornerian reinforcements arrive, they’ll take a look at things and interrogate the prisoners.”
     Jay nodded, a worried expression replacing his weariness. “You really think there’s another Overlord?”
     The two foxes shrugged in sync, and Fox said, “Maybe, we don’t know enough yet.”
     Jay nodded and looked up at the night sky with a deep breath. “Well, good luck with it. You two are welcome to stay in my house for as long as you need. Oh, and you said Slippy and Peppy were away. What about Falco?”
     Fox’s eyes widened and he laughed. “Oh crap, I forgot about him, he’s still up there!” He turned away from Jay and spoke for a few seconds into his comm., then turned back. “He’s pissed. Oh well, nothing new.”
     Jay grinned as a tall black wolf came up behind him and whispered something in his ear. Jay nodded and said, “I need to go. Things are still pretty hectic around town. Fox, you know where the guest rooms are, please make yourselves at home. And thank you again.”
     Jay walked off, leaving Fox and Gage in the middle of the chaotic square. Things were starting to calm down, and Falco’s Arwing soon appeared overhead and descended into the middle of the square, earning an amazed stare from most people. It was a small island town, and the last time they saw a fighter was probably the last time StarFox was there.
     The stars became clear overhead as full dark descended on the island, bringing a close to the day and to the invasion. The events of the battle would never be forgotten by the survivors, but it was over for the citizens of Emayn. Fox and Gage were also glad the battle had ended, but the preservation of Emayn was only the beginning for them.

Undying History
Later that night
Emayn, Governor’s mansion, guest quarters
2348 hours

     “Gage? Are you awake?”
     Fox slowly opened the old-fashioned wooden door to Gage’s room, darkness and silence his only responses. The small lamp on the bedside table lent the only light in the room, enough to show a dark figure sitting on the side of the bed, looking out the window, his back to the door. Gage’s dirty, sweat-soaked uniform lay sprawled on the bed, the patterns of dust, blood, and fur streaked on it a testament to the day’s work.
     Silently, Fox entered the room and closed the door behind him. Gage didn’t seem to notice as Fox walked around the front of the bed and looked at him, hunched over, his head in his hands. In the dim light, Fox could see his body trembling slightly, as if he was cold. His breath came out in quivering rasps.
     “Gage?” Fox tried again, a little louder.
     Gage’s head snapped up and he looked at Fox for a full minute at least, as if seeing him for the first time and analyzing whether he was a threat. He had a scared look in his eyes, about the last thing Fox had ever expected to see from him.
     “God, McCloud,” he said in a near whisper. “Dammit, not again…”
    He stood up and leaned on the windowsill, gazing out to the dark, calm ocean. Fox could see he was clothed only in a t-shirt and shorts, probably the same ones he has worn under his uniform. God knows how long he had been sitting there.
     “Are you ok?” Fox asked, taking another step towards him. “You were shaking and—“
     “I’m fine,” Gage replied in an annoyed tone. He took a series of deep breaths and slowly shook his head. “I…I just do that sometimes.”
     “Do what? What were you doing?”
     There was a hesitation from the darkness around the window, then Gage slowly said, “Remembering…Macbeth.”
     Fox was confused for a few seconds until he remembered something. Gage’s Army profile that was sent to him from General Pepper, the psychiatrist’s evaluation at the bottom.
     ‘This harsh and unimaginably painful experience in the Venom prison made him slightly detached, often seen brooding or just staring into space.’
     Before Fox could say anything, Gage angrily turned from the window and sat back down on the bed. “Oh, why the hell am I telling you any of this? Just get out of here, leave me alone. I don’t feel like reliving the past, not now, not ever.”
     Fox sighed and sat on the bed next to him. He couldn’t help seeing almost a mirror image of himself, his past, the demons he’s had to fight. “Gage, you know my history. I’m probably the only person in the galaxy that knows exactly how you feel. We both lost loved ones to Venom, we both went through hell in a Venom prison.”
     “You don’t know,” Gage whispered to the floor. “It’s not about them; the prison on MacBeth is only half of it.”
     Fox didn’t know what he was talking about, but he knew this was the close to finding out. He felt sympathy for what Gage had gone through, and he wanted to help.
    “Gage, the worst thing to do is to keep it inside. It’ll eat at you and you’ll have these little brooding things for the rest of your life. I didn’t want to talk about my parents’ deaths either, but it finally got so bad that I had to tell someone. After that, I felt better…like I wasn’t carrying the burden myself.”
     Gage continued staring at the ground, the silence of the night accenting his deep breathing. Finally, he stood up and opened the window, allowing a rush of cool air to break the stale atmosphere of the room. He leaned on the windowsill, gazing again into the night. After a few minutes, he began speaking in a low, distant voice.
     “It was the battle for Macbeth City, right before it fell, one of the largest ground battles of the war…and my first real combat. The fighting today and seeing the square filled with dead and wounded…it must’ve triggered it again.” He took a deep quivering breath and continued in a near-whisper. “God, I can still hear it…I can still hear the screams of pain, the shouted orders, gunfire, explosions, the rain. I can still smell the smoke, and…and burning flesh and fur. You never forget that smell. I can still see the buildings, the soldiers…the piles of dead soldiers, some of them friends that I had talked to only an hour before.”
     He shifted his gaze towards the bright stars in the clear sky and continued. “I can still see it…”

     * * *

Six years earlier
Macbeth City, Macbeth
0213 hours

     Private Gage Birse threw himself to the ground as a rocket blew a huge chunk of rock from the building next to him, acrid smoke swirling around him. He frantically grabbed his helmet from the debris-filled street and put it back on, looking wildly around for the rest of his platoon. Through the heavy rain and smoke he saw that they were already retreating, red lasers whizzing over the street from both directions. Gage stood up on rubbery legs and followed them down the street, every prayer he had ever learned running through his head.
     That night and early morning had been a non-stop barrage of pure hell. Venom was advancing in an unstoppable wave through the streets of Macbeth City, and the scattered remnants of the Cornerian and Macbethian Army detachments had come together for a last stand. Reinforcements were promised by sunrise, but it didn’t look good. They couldn’t hold until then…
     Gage jumped behind a wall of rubble his platoon had retreated to and cautiously looked through the rain back down the long street, breathing heavily. The sight was breathtaking. It looked like the apocalypse had reached the planet of Macbeth. The large, majestic buildings that lined the streets were husks of their former glory, only portions of the stone and metal walls still standing. Fires and destroyed vehicles dotted the rubble-filled streets. It was impossible to distinguish the thunder from distant explosions, but the whistles of rockets were easily enough heard. And the bodies… Gage had tried his hardest to keep from vomiting, but falling and having his hand land in a fellow soldier’s shot-open head had done it for him.
     Gage ducked back behind the rubble as another enfilade of lasers and rockets shook the ground. He became aware of shouting from the officers of his platoon, trying to be heard over the pounding of the rain and explosions. He could barely see any of them through the sheets of water and the gloom of the night.
     “You tell them we need that goddamn air support NOW!”
     “I did already, sir! They say they can’t spare the aircraft!”
     “What the fuck are we supposed to do?! We’re getting slaughtered! We can’t keep this up forever!”
     “Sir, they’re coming!”
     Gage felt panic rise in his chest as he stole another glance over the rubble. At least a hundred Venom soldiers and three tanks were moving up the street, directly towards them. The young fox ducked back down, almost sobbing, wishing he were anywhere else in the universe but there.
     “Get ready!” shouted a voice Gage thought to be his squad’s sergeant. “We hold them here!”
     The seventy or so soldiers left from the three-hundred they started with leaned on the rubble, their rifles pointing at the enemy column approaching them. Gage took a deep breath, his heart racing, and stood up to join his comrades. Rifle fire filled the air as lasers darted into the crowd of Venom soldiers. Gage fired also, not sure if he was hitting anything, but desperate to do something.
     The sparse volley from the Cornerians was answered with a roar from the enemy. Lasers filled the air thicker than Gage had ever seen, and explosions ripped apart the ground, the buildings, and the soldiers. Gage again hit the ground as more of his friends were cut down, dropping the Cornerian count to fifty soldiers. Blood trickled down his face and he panicked, fearing he had been hit. He felt his head and realized a laser had gone through his helmet, just grazing behind his left ear. So close…
     “Listen to me!” Gage recognized the voice of their captain, a battle-hardened leopard named Owen. “You get on that fucking radio and tell HQ that the city will fall unless we get reinforcements within the next half-hour! Do you fucking hear me?!”
     Owen, lying prone next to the radioman, grabbed him and found out that he couldn’t hear him; most of the right side of his torso had been blown off in an explosion. That meant the radio was dead too.
     A sergeant from another platoon that had joined Gage’s shouted to the Owen. “What the hell do we do now, sir?!”
     Owen looked up, a stony look on his dirt-streaked face. Screams echoed in the air from the men wounded from the onslaught. There was hardly anything the medic could do; he had few supplies left, and many had lost limbs. Even if there was a place to get them to, the platoon literally had its back to the wall. There was nowhere to retreat.
     Finally, he shouted back, “We need to counter-attack!”
     Dead silence ensued from the soldiers, the pounding of the rain the only sound heard. They all stared back at the captain in unbelieving terror. Gage slowly looked down at the body next to him. He couldn’t even tell what species he had been, the damage completely burning his head away. He didn’t want to end up like that. He was just a kid…most of these soldiers were. They should be at home, preparing and planning for their futures, looking forward to beginning their adult lives. Not here, in the middle of a dark wasteland, about to end it.
     The captain’s voice broke Gage’s thoughts. “Our only chance is to drive them back so we can hold out for reinforcements! You all have fought valiantly, but we need just one last effort! Prepare to charge!”
     Gage finally broke down and cried, his tears mingling with the rain. He didn’t want to die here in the rain on the war-torn streets of Macbeth. The only thought running through his head was ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die.’ Pictures soon filled his head as the remaining troops silently crept up to the wall of rubble. He saw himself and Ike when they were kits, wrestling around in the backyard. Ike always let him win, as most big brothers won’t do. He saw the park a mile from his house where his mother would take them, and the huge pond there. Gage used to think it was the most peaceful and beautiful place in the galaxy.
     He would never see it again…
     Those pictures faded back to the dark, rainy, hell of Macbeth City. There was dead silence once again as the soldiers leaned forward, waiting for the word from their captain. They stared into the mouth of death, the Venom soldiers waiting for them. Knowing that he was going to be charging at that was nearly all Gage could take.
 Before he had time for anymore thoughts, the captain’s voice bellowed, “Charge!”
     The air was filled with shouts and roars as the soldiers charged over the rubble and towards the enemy. Gage mustered his remaining strength and charged with them, the adrenaline he had been feeling all night again flowing through him. Lasers lanced through the air, forming a sheer wall, dropping both Cornerian and Venom soldiers alike. The war cries and roars were soon replaced with shrieks of death and pain. The ranks of soldiers grew thinner and thinner, and Gage was still alive. He heard voices over the screams and gunfire.
     “We can’t make it!”
     “We have to! Keep going!”
     “The captain…the captain’s down!”
     “Owen’s down!”
     The news shredded any morale left in the troops once and for all. The remaining few soldiers hit the ground behind any cover they could find. Gage fell behind a destroyed truck and looked around wildly, his tears still flowing. He spotted a friend of his, Wayne, a tiger he had gone through basic training with, and waved to him.
     “Wayne! Over here! Get down!”
     Wayne saw him and sprinted over. He was almost behind the car when…
     “Gage—“ he began, but was cut short. A laser flew from the Venom side and blew the left side of his head off, splattering blood and brain matter on the ground and on Gage. The fox stared wide-eyed at the near-headless body of his friend for a long time. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes as he tore his gaze away. Wayne was only eighteen, a close friend of his. He had told Gage numerous times about his plans after the war. He wanted to finish medical school and become a doctor like his father.
     But his entire life, eighteen years of experience and seventy more that would never happen, had just been erased in an instant. Gage hugged his knees and cried for a long time until he realized there were more voices over a loudspeaker.
     “—harmed! I say again, any Cornerian military, come out and surrender now and you will not be harmed!”
     Surrender. Gage had no idea what would happen in the Venom prison, but he did know one thing: If he didn’t surrender, he would end up like Wayne. Giving one last glance to his friend, Gage took off his helmet and slowly stood up, hands raised.

     * * *

Six years later
Emayn, governor’s mansion, guest quarters
0013 hours

     Gage abruptly stopped his story and stared out into the night, absently scratching the scar behind his left ear. It was the first time he had told the story in full to anyone, and he felt drained…but also somewhat relieved, like a huge weight had been taken from his back. The images he had so descriptively portrayed slowly faded from his sight, mingling with the gentle sway of the trees outside his window then disappearing completely. But something else was bothering him…
     Fox stared wide-eyed at Gage’s back, visualizing the scene in his head. He had never been in a huge ground battle, only either huge air battles or small ground skirmishes. In space, you don’t see the body of the pilot you just blew up. You’re also spared the sight of seeing your comrades’ corpses. He knew Gage had been in the war, but he had never seen a battle depicted that clearly or horrifically.
     “You see,” Gage continued after a few seconds. “It never changes. Killing now is the same as killing was back then. I’ve just gotten so used to it. The bastard who shot Wayne didn’t know what he was doing, how he affected people. Every time we kill someone, we’re killing someone’s son, someone’s brother, father, husband. Fucking Venom…” Gage lowered his face into his hands and said in a near whisper. “My God…look at us, Fox…what the hell are we doing.”
     Fox knew his thoughts; he had them before, and they were tough to deal with. But the last thing he needed now was Gage cracking on him. He stood up and slowly walked over to Gage, another gentle wind whirling through the room.
     “Gage, you’re thinking about this all wrong. You’re talking about this like we just walked into a supermarket and shot everyone inside. Think about what you did today. Yes, you killed a lot of people. But so did they. Think of how many innocent lives you saved today. You said it the best yourself, down on the beach. They’re not just anyone, they’re Venom soldiers. With every one of them you kill, you’re doing Lylat some good.”
     Gage raised his head and looked Fox square in the eye, a piercing gaze, as if he was trying to look past Fox’s eyes into his mind to see if he meant what he was saying. The stare slowly built itself back into the stony expression that Gage always wore before that night. “You’re right.”
     “Listen, you’re just a little shaken up from this whole thing. Get some sleep and forget about it. We’re the good guys, Gage, remember that. Feel better?”
     Gage slowly nodded. “Yeah, a little…thanks, McCloud.”
     “No problem.” Fox stood up and walked towards the door when he heard his partner’s voice again, this time sounding like the old Gage.
     “Hey, McCloud.”
     Fox stopped and turned around. “Yeah?”
     “You did good today,” Gage said without turning around.
     “Thanks,” Fox replied, grinning wearily. He then continued out the door and clicked it shut behind him. Minutes later, Gage’s light clicked off, sleep overcoming him almost immediately.

    * * *

The next morning
Rogara Outpost, Venom
0721 hours

     It was still dark in the commander’s office, despite the rising sun peeking over the sandy horizon. Its largeness and sheer gray metal walls made it so that it was nearly impossible to make a move without an echo accompanying it. The office was devoid of any furniture save the large metal desk towards the back, a huge window behind it overlooking the entire outpost. A dark figure stood at that window, clothed in a Venom officer’s uniform with a black robe, hands clasped behind his back.
     The door to the office slid open and a tall cheetah slowly walked in, his slow footsteps echoing in the emptiness. His red eyes seemed to glow in the darkness as he stopped a few feet from the commander’s desk, looking intently at the dark figure at the window.
     “Charon,” the commander said in a somewhat amused voice, not turning around. “You’re the only person who would come that far without a word.”
     Charon Bond still said nothing, his stony gaze fixed on the commander.
     “Look at it, Charon,” the commander continued, gazing past the walls of the outpost at the incomprehensibly huge construction site beyond. Thousands of figures, mostly civilians ‘persuaded’ into working for him, toiled at the building. “Overlord will soon breathe once again. Both of our desires will be fulfilled.”
     “How much longer?” Charon said in a low voice, slitting his red eyes. “It has already been two months past when you said it would be done.”
     “I can’t help complications. They happen.” The commander turned and faced Charon, his face still shrouded in darkness. He looked over his black civilian clothes and said, “You still won’t wear the uniform?”
     “I’ll never wear the uniform of Venom,” Charon replied in a near whisper. “Nor that of Corneria. I owe allegiance to no one.”
     The commander turned back to the window and raised his hand in a dismissive wave. “Yes, yes, I’ve heard the speech before, spare me.”
     Charon scowled and continued. He wanted to give his report and leave the commander’s presence before his emotions got the better of him. “We received the report back from Emayn.”
     “Oh?” The commander’s tail slowly swung back and forth in an almost lazy manner, as was characteristic of him when he was in deep thought.
     “The landing failed. Nearly all forces were wiped out, but we were able to get two positive IDs on the help that arrived.”
     “One must be Fox McCloud.”
     “Yes. The other was a Captain Gage Birse of the Cornerian Special Forces.”
     The commander’s tail stopped dead in mid-swing and the room fell silent once again. After a few seconds, he said in a near whisper, “Gage Birse…of course, the captain of Dagger. He could be trouble. Especially if working with McCloud.”
     Charon said nothing. He couldn’t care less about the commander, but it was his job to see Overlord through to its finish. He had to. If these two were going to be trouble for Overlord, then they were trouble for him. “Should we mobilize another force for Emayn?”
     The commander chuckled, the sound echoing through the room and making it sound as if there was an audience. “No, Charon. Emayn was just bait.”
     “I knew McCloud would come running the second Emayn was in trouble. We now know that he is involved in this, and he has a partner, and the Cornerian government now thinks that Overlord is still dependant on relay stations. The objective of our attack on Emayn was accomplished.”
     Charon knew he shouldn’t be surprised at what he was hearing, but he still was. His demeanor never changed, however. He could never afford to let his emotions be seen. “You sent all those men to die just to check for McCloud?”
     “Charon, I am the commander of the Venom Army because I can make these kinds of decisions. You are where you are because of your recklessness. Simply do what you’re told and leave the rest to me.” Charon thought he could see a humorless grin spread on the commander’s muzzle in the darkness. “Besides, who are you to talk? You’re helping me in the development of a superweapon. What do you think we’re going to do with it, leave it there for decoration?”
     ‘I said I’d help you build it,’ the cheetah thought. ‘I never said I’d let you use it.’
    Charon stood his ground and stared at the dark figure. He could feel anger rising, the same anger he had felt since the day the commander forced him to work for him. “I want to see my father.”
     “You’ve already seen him.”
     “That was months ago.”
     “And you will never see him again unless you do what I say!” the commander shouted, whirling back around to face the cheetah. “Once Overlord is completed, you will be free to go with him. Until then, you and your skills are mine, is that clear?”
     It was all Charon could do to keep his anger under control. He had no choice; he knew it and it frustrated him. He hated Venom, he hated the commander, he hated everyone around him on this desolate planet. Everyone except his father, who was the only family he had left. Greold Bond meant everything to Charon, and he would do anything to see him again…including work for the commander.
     “Like fucking crystal,” Charon uttered angrily. He turned and stormed out of the room, leaving the commander to gaze out his window at the near-finished terror being built before him.

  [Further installments are being composed, and will be posted to this page shortly.]

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