Join The Rebellion!
By, Foxmer
Edited by JPB and JJC

Shattered Past, Hero’s Vengeance

Chapter One    |   Chapter Two    |   Chapter Three    |   Chapter Four    |   Chapter Five
Chapter Six    |   Chapter Seven    |   Chapter Eight    |   Chapter Nine    |   Chapter Ten
Blood Fued


 It’s been five years, but that day still plays in Fox McCloud’s mind as clear as ever. The day his life changed. The day he was forced to grow up faster and take the burden left to him.

 The day he was informed of his father’s death.

 Fox stood, hands clasped behind him, looking down at his parents’ headstones, the rain drowning out all sound but the thoughts in his head. His first thought was the thought that always hit him hard, but he couldn’t help thinking. Under these headstones was nothing. His father’s body never left Venom, and there wasn’t much left of his mother after the car bomb. But this was the only place he felt he could come to think of them.

 Fox glanced over at his mother’s headstone on the left, the events of the day she died flooding back into his mind. It wasn’t long before his father’s death, a matter of months. He was seventeen, and the two of them were going to run some errands. James McCloud had taken Vixy’s car that morning to see the doctor, and told her she could use his car because it had more room. Fox and Vixy walked out to the car, and Vixy saw she forgot her purse and asked Fox to go get it.

 That was the last time Fox ever heard his mother’s voice.

 He grabbed the purse off the kitchen table and walked towards the front door. The rest seemed to move in slow motion in his mind He heard the car’s throttle start up as he took the first step out the door, and looked over at her in the driver’s seat. She looked back and smiled.

 He felt the explosion before he heard it. He was blinded by the fire, and thrown against the side of the house. He must have been knocked unconscious for a while, because when he came around he was looking up at four people in white and orange. They were talking to him, but he could only hear them as if they were shouting from another room. Instead, he looked around, trying to piece together what happened. He was still on his front lawn, and the first thing he saw was the flaming wreckage of what used to be his father’s car.

 He remembered all at once. His mother’s purse, the engine starting…… her smile at him.

 Fox jumped up, ignoring the pain in his back. The EMS people tried to push him back down, but he shoved through them and hobbled towards the car, screaming “NO” over and over. Finally, he dropped to his knees and cried into his hands. The doctors pieced together what happened and kept their distance. Fox stayed in that position until his father showed up. James knelt beside his son and put an arm around his shoulders. Fox turned and hugged his father, crying into his shoulder.

 The bomb was meant for James.

 If Vixy hadn’t forgotten her purse…

 Fox shook his head hard, the rain flying off. He pushed the memories away and looked away from Vixy’s headstone. He had seen his mother’s death, and was thankful he wasn’t there to see his father’s, which wasn’t over so quick according to Peppy Hare.

 That thought made the memories of that day come flooding to him as quickly as the memory of Vixy had.

 Fox was in the academy at the time, eighteen years old. He knew his father had gone away on a job, but there was nothing to get nervous about. He went on away every few months. They lived in the suburbs of Corneria City until the Great Fox was done, then, James said, they could just live on the ship.

 As Fox was walking with his friend Bill Grey to his third class of the day, the intercom announced for him to report to the Headmaster’s office. Bill laughed and asked what he did this time. Fox shrugged and said he’d catch up with him later, then walked off.

 He knocked twice on the Headmaster’s door and walked in. Usually, the Headmaster sounded stern, but this time he said for Fox to come in with a soft tone. Fox walked into the blue-carpeted, brightly lit office and saw the Headmaster sitting behind his large oak desk and Peppy in one of the chairs in front of it. General Pepper, to whom James had introduced Fox a few times, was standing in the other chair. Both Peppy and the General stood as Fox entered.

 The first thing Fox noticed was that Peppy looked horrible, as if he’d been mugged in an alley. He stood unsteadily and looked at General Pepper uncertainly. Pepper sadly nodded at Peppy.

 Fox asked what was going on. Where’s his father? Where’s Pigma? What happened to Peppy?

 Peppy walked over to Fox and put a hand on his shoulder. Fox, he said in a strained voice. Pigma has apparently been working with Andross. He betrayed us and led the team into a trap. Your father and were captured. I managed to make it out, but…they had already killed your father.

 Fox stared wide-eyed at Peppy then looked at the Headmaster and Pepper, both of whom were looking down. He fixed his gaze on Peppy again, who was looking him right in the eye.

 No ,he had said. This can’t be. This is a mistake. No!

 But he knew it was true. It didn’t make it any easier, but he knew it was true. He embraced Peppy and cried into his shoulder, as he had cried into his father’s shoulder in front of his mother’s burning body.

 Fox snapped back to the present and saw the rain had slowed to a drizzle. He looked back at his parents’ graves and said in a low voice choked with tears, “I won’t stop. I won’t stop until every last remnant of Andross’s army is wiped out. I won’t stop.”

The Distress Call

 The rest of the team was already asleep when Fox got back to the Great Fox. He quietly went to his room and changed into dry clothes and made a mental note to do laundry the next day. He then snuck back to the living room to check for messages. A note had been left in what looked like Falco’s handwriting and was taped next to the light switch.


  Urgent message, call the General in the morning. And set your damn alarm, I don’t wanna have to wake you up this time.

 Fox smiled, crumpled the note and threw it in the trash. He walked across the soft carpet of the living room and grabbed a soda out of the refrigerator. A voice from behind startled him, making him almost drop the can.

 “Where the hell have you been? You just took off, we noticed your Arwing gone.”

 Fox spun around and saw Peppy leaning against the far wall in his pajamas, his arms folded in front of him. He had a weary, exasperated look on his face.

 Fox popped the top of the can and sat down in a nearby couch.
 “Sorry, I’ll be sure to leave a full report every time I step out for a bit,” he snapped back. It was late, he had a hard day, and he didn’t feel like talking just then.

 Peppy shook his head and sat down in the other couch.
 “I don’t want to be a pain, I just want to know you’re alright.” There was a brief pause, and Fox took a gulp of the soda. “So where have you been?”

 Fox looked down at the can, running his finger around the rim and didn’t answer right away. Finally he muttered, “Visiting my parents.”

 Peppy stared at him for a second then said “Damn, sorry Fox. I know it’s hard and…”
 Fox shook his head and cut him off. “No, don’t. I’ve been thinking of this all day, I don’t want to anymore.”

 Peppy nodded, stood up, and patted Fox on the shoulder. “Get some sleep, I take it you saw Falco’s note. Pepper obviously has a job for us, and we need the money.”

 Fox nodded, still looking down. Standing in front of the graves, reliving the past, all seemed surreal now, as if it had happened a week ago instead of hours ago. He knew he would go there again, feel that feeling again, and it made him sad and angry.

 Fox looked up and saw Peppy had left. He sighed and finished the soda, crushing the can and tossing it away.
 “Fuck it,” he muttered, and walked to his room.

                               * * *

 “Fox! Wake up!”

 Fox’s eyes flew open after a rough shove and looked up to see Falco Lombardi standing over him.
 “Dammit, I told you set your alarm. Come on, you have to talk to Pepper.”

 Fox groaned and rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”

 “Eight, and Pepper wants to talk to you now.”

 “Ok, ok, I’ll be right there, go away.”

 Falco sighed and walked out. Fox groggily got up and got into his uniform. He was about to tie the red bandana around his neck when he stopped and looked at it, at the “J.M.” embroidered on one corner. He remembered finding it as he was cleaning out the house outside Corneria City, in his parents’ room.

 Fox angrily pounded the top of the dresser and hurriedly tied the bandana. Gotta stop thinking like this. It’s in the past. It’s ok to remember, but not every minute.
 “What happened hotshot, you fall out of bed?” Falco scoffed from outside Fox’s door.
 “I’ll be right out,” Fox shouted back, grabbing his jacket from the closet. He put it on, rolled up the sleeves, and made himself look somewhat normal in the mirror.
 “Come on, you’re beautiful, let’s go,” came Falco’s voice again. Fox opened his door and he and Falco walked to the main comm on the bridge. ROB swiveled around as they walked in and said in his mechanical voice “Good morning, sirs.”
 “What’s good about it,” Fox grumbled.
 “Huh?” Falco said.
 “Nothing,” Fox replied and punched in General Pepper’s number on the pad beside the comm’s screen. After two rings, Pepper’s old canine face appeared on the screen. “It’s about time,” came his deep, rumbling voice.

 “Sorry, got in late last night,” Fox said as Slippy and Peppy walked in together. He didn’t feel like going through the whole story again, so he left it at that.
 Pepper shrugged. “Well, try to be on time, because next time I might give the job to someone else. Well, I see everyone’s here, so I’ll get started.” He cleared his throat and continued.

 “Last night, we received a distress call from a small island town called Emayn in the western hemisphere of Zoness. They are technically neutral, they have their own government, but we the Cornerian government has aided them and other small settlements in the past. Anyway, apparently they’ve been invaded by a Venom army division. They claim to want the island because it has ideal positioning for some kind of base they want to set up. We do not know who is in charge of the Venom forces, but we do know they have a few hundred soldiers there. That may not seem like many, but the population of this town is only around two-thousand, and they have no standing army, only a militia made up of the townsmen.”
 “Your job is to make contact with the monarch of the island and to aid him in driving Venom away. He says he already has a plan made out, but needs a professional soldier to execute it.”

 Fox cut in. “So why doesn’t the Cornerian army send in a Special Forces team or something? Why are you coming to us?”

 General Pepper scowled. “Because it would take me over a week to get approval and organize it. By that time, the island might be overrun. Do you want the job or not?”

 Fox looked down and thought for a minute. “Payment?”

 “Fifty thousand upon completion,” Pepper replied.

 Fox nodded and thought some more. Finally, he said, “This sounds like ground fighting. Our specialty is air combat you know.”

 “You’ve handled plenty of jobs for me that required ground fighting. Remember the hostage situation in Corneria City? You sniped that guy from the highway, was a great shot.”

 Fox looked over his shoulder at his team for approval. Falco and Peppy nodded, and Slippy shrugged. “Up to you, Fox,” he squeaked.

 “Alright, we’ll take it. We need the money anyway.”

 “Great. I’ll send you a map of the island with the hotspots outlined. The name of the ruler is Hohleran; you’ll find him in the mansion shown on the map. One you contact him, help him carry out his plan, which will hopefully work. If not, come up with one of your own.”

 “Also, I’m not sure what condition the island is in right now, so be careful when you get there. They’ve probably expected a distress signal has been sent, and they’ll be on the watch. Once you find out who the commanding officer of the Venom forces is, and what this base is they want to set up, contact me. Ok, any questions? Alright, I’ll be looking forward to your report. Good luck StarFox.”

 The screen went blank, and Fox turned around to face his team. “Well, that’s that. ROB, how long will it take to get to Zoness?”

 “Estimated time of arrival is 21:30 tomorrow.”

 Fox nodded. “Ok guys, we’ll have a meeting at eight-thirty tomorrow night then, and hour before. We’ll make a decision of how to get to the ruler’s mansion when we see how bad it is down there. Try to get some pistol and rifle practice in at the range before then. That’s where I’ll be if anyone needs me. ROB, as soon as that map comes in from Pepper, let me know.”

 ROB gave the affirmative and Fox walked out. Falco turned back to Peppy and Slippy. “What’s up with him? He’s acting weird. He woulda taken that job in a second normally, but he thought for like five minutes. He was acting weird when I woke him up too. Where’d he go yesterday?”

 Peppy was still looking at the door Fox exited through. “He was at his parents’ graves.” There was silence, then Peppy continued slowly. “And I think he finally realized something. I think he sees death for what it is, and that we’re in a very dangerous business that we take too lightly.” He looked Falco in the eye. “That at any time, because of one lucky shot or one bad move, any of us could die. We’re not immortal. I think he sees that and he’s scared. Not only for himself, but because he’s seen both of his parents died horribly, one right in front of him, and he doesn’t want to live through that again with us. But he’s a strong guy, and I don’t doubt his courage.”

 There was silence. Finally, Slippy muttered, “Poor guy. I’m gonna see if I can cheer him up,” and he trotted out, leaving Falco and Peppy to stare awkwardly at the bare metal walls. Falco rubbed the back of his neck.

 “You’re right, kinda, I guess,” he finally said in a low voice. Peppy chuckled.
 “Hope it didn’t hurt too much to say that.”
 Falco grinned, glad the tenseness was broken. “Well, forget cheering him up, I’m gonna go kick his ass with my outstanding marksmanship.”
 Peppy rolled his eyes and followed him out.

    * * *

 As Falco neared the range, he could hear the sharp cracks of Fox’s preferred pistol. Falco personally carried an earlier model of the same pistol. It didn’t have the rate of fire of Fox’s, but it packed a bit more punch.
 As Falco was thinking of sarcastic remarks to criticize Fox’s shooting, Slippy came out the door to the range.
 “Jeez,” he whispered. “He’s really down. Hardly broke a grin at some of my best material.”
 Falco scoffed. “Man, your material sucks. Leave it to me.”
 Slippy rolled his eyes and continued down the hall. Falco walked into the wide, brightly-lit range and saw Fox sending a fresh silhouette target down-range.
 “Hey, how’s it goin?” Falco yelled to him. Fox looked over and nodded at him, his expression remaining grim.
 “Yeesh, froggy was right,” he whispered to himself, grabbing an ear protector and a few energy clips off the rack. He walked over and took the stall next to Fox just as he was slapping in a fresh clip, the pistol humming for a few seconds.
 “Alright, hotshot,” Falco said, slapping a clip into his own blaster. “Whaddya say we have a little contest. Five shots, whoever gets the most in the head wins, target thirty yards out.”
 Fox nodded, his expression still stone.

 “Alright, I’ll go first to show you how it’s done.” Falco took his stance, only one hand holding the gun, and fired off five lasers, one per second. He reeled the target in. there were three holes in the head, two in the white surrounding it.
 “Ha! Beat that, three.”
 Fox took his stance, standing sideways, feet shoulder-length apart, both hands on the gun. He took three deep breaths, held the last one and fired five shots in three seconds. He put the gun on the stand and reeled the target in. As the target came closer, Falco saw three holes in the head, none anywhere else.
 “A tie, not bad. But you completely missed the other two.”
 For the first time, Fox’s expression broke into a small grin, and he shook his head. The target reached him, and he pointed to two of the holes. They seemed larger, and Falco looked closer to see a figure-eight pattern. Four of the lasers formed two holes.
 Falco looked at Fox. “What the hell did you have for breakfast?”

 Fox laughed and walked past Falco, giving him a friendly shove. “Thanks,” he said, then holstered his gun and walked out. Falco watched him go then shrugged and holstered his own gun as Slippy walked in.
 “Yeah, who’s got the good material now,” Falco said.
 “What did you say to him?” Slippy replied.
 Falco shrugged and walked out the door with him. “Nothing much, just had a little shooting contest.”
 “Oh, that explains it,” Slippy laughed hard and walked off. Falco looked after him and scowled.
 “What’s that supposed to mean? Hey, get back here! I can beat YOU in shooting anytime. Hey!”

The Landing

 Fox woke up the next day feeling better, but still nervous about the job that night. He didn’t like ground missions; he felt more in control in the Arwing. He was good with a gun nonetheless, not to mention his recent advancements in martial arts, and they did need the money. No matter, he still had a bad feeling about this one.

 The team drifted around that day, getting in some range practice, resting in the living room, glancing anxiously at the clock. The other three were nervous also, but different than Fox. They were more excited, it had been over a month since their last job and they were ready to get back out there.
 Finally, 8:30 rolled around and Fox announced from the bridge for everyone to meet in the armory. Falco, Slippy, and Peppy hurried there to find Fox leaning on the table in the center of the room, the enlarged map of Emayn laid out. He was looking around at the racks of rifles, pistols, grenades, vests, holsters, knives, and night vision goggles, almost as if for the first time. Peppy looked at the others and shrugged.
 Fox finally saw them and beckoned them in. “Sorry, just thinking. Let’s go, we don’t have much time.” The other joined him in leaning at the table and looking at the map.

 The map showed an oblong island split in half, the right side a greenish tint, the right reddish. Most of the green side was covered in black squares that were obviously the town, while the red side had only few random squares.
 “Alright, here’s what’s going on,” Fox said and pointed to the green side. “This is the entire population of Emayn in this town on the east half of the island. As the general said, about two thousand civilians, no standing army. They’ve been trying t o negotiate with the forces of Venom, but it’s doing no good. They want the people to leave the island immediately, or they’ll all be killed. Needless to say, they’re not going to give up their homes without a fight.” He pointed to a larger square on the far right of the town. “This is the ruler’s mansion. I have no idea what his real position is, governor, king, president, whatever, we’ll find out when we get there. We’ll just fly straight there until someone stops us.”
 He shifted his finger over to the red area. “The red area is the hostile area, the area occupied by Venom. They’ve set up a bunch of temporary outposts, and have occupied a small village that was going to be an add-on to the main town. That village itself is about half the size of the town.”
 Fox took his hand away and replaced it on the edge of the table.” We’ll be coming in from the south, so the good guys will be on the right, in case we get into trouble.”
 “Now, the island should be in view any min…” Fox was cut off by ROB’s voice blaring from the loudspeaker.
 “Informing all aboard that Emayn is in view, as requested.”

 Fox started for the door. “There you go. Come on, let’s take a look from the bridge.”
 Minutes later, the whole team was looking at a dark, oblong shape in an open field of blue water against the setting sun. No one in the team thought of this as a peaceful site because of what they were seeing on the surface of the island. Flashes of orange and red specked the right side of the island…. the town.
 “Shit, looks like we’re just in time.” Fox muttered. “ROB, quick, patch us through to Hohleran’s mansion with a secure line.”
 After three rings, an old, exhausted looking gray fox in his late fifties, early sixties, appeared on the comm screen. “What!” He gasped in a nervous, panicky voice. “Who is this? What do you want? I’m busy!”
 “Sir, please calm down,” Fox said in a soothing tone. “My name is Fox McCloud, leader of the StarFox team. We’re the answer to your distress call. We have the island in site and can see a lot of fighting. What do you want us to do?”
 “Oh, thank God, you arrived just in time. I don’t know what to have you do now; I’m not a military tactician. We…they…I think they’re coming here to my house. They’ve broken through our militia, I ordered my people to fall back, and they’re just about to my door!”
 Fox looked up and saw the flashes have stopped. He got a crazy thought of a calm before the storm. “Ok, listen. I want you to stall them when they get there. Go out and talk to them, just keep them focused on the house. Tell your people to get in their houses and stay there. We’ll take care of the rest. When the shooting starts, get back inside quick and take cover. You understand sir?
 Hohleran looked dazed, but nodded. “Yes. Thank you, thank you so much.”
 Fox cut the line and turned to his team, taking the original smaller copy of the map out of his pocket.
 “Ok guys, here’s what we’re gonna do. Slippy and I will take the two-seater down to this building.” He pointed to a square a couple hundred yards from the mansion. “He’ll drop me on the roof, and I’ll take a sniper rifle with a load of ammo. At the same time, Peppy and Falco get your Arwings in position off the coast behind the mansion, out of site.” He pointed to the main street leading up to the mansion. “When I give the signal, rush like hell in here and strafe the hell out of the main street. Keep pounding them till they fall back. Don’t use bombs, only lasers. Any questions? Ok, let’s move.”
 They ran to the door, and Fox stopped short. “Be careful,” he said in a low voice without turning around.

    * * *

 Fox was alone in the armory while Slippy prepared the ship and Falco and Peppy were already gone, in position. He looked around at the assorted weaponry, thinking of what he might need.
 The first thing he did was take off his jacket and put on a laser-proof vest. He then replaced his white flight gloves with black fingerless ones. He checked his pistol and put three new energy clips in the mag pouch on the thigh holster.
 Fox folded his arms and looked at the assortment of scoped rifles. He was about to grab the usual, but stopped and went for the ancient model that fired bullets. He didn’t want the enemy to know where the shots were coming from, and lasers would make it obvious. That reason was the only reason bullet models still existed. He checked the breach and slung it over his shoulder, grabbing four extra mags.
 He looked around to see if anything else would help and grabbed 3 grenades and shoved them in the ammo bag. He was finally satisfied with what he had and ran to the hangar where Slippy was waiting in the cockpit of the unarmed two-seater they used for getting around. “Ready Slip?” he said and climbed into the back seat, stowing the gear best he could.
 “Yeah, you look ready to start some havoc,” he replied and started up the ship. Fox leaned back, that pit of worry in his stomach creeping back.
 Please let this turn out alright.

 Within minutes they were flying low over Emayn. It was getting darker, but Fox could still see the trees and beaches. It looked beautiful down there, nice place to take a vacation. If you didn’t mind the gunfire and explosions, Fox thought grimly.
 “We’re here, Fox.”
 Fox looked out. Sure enough, they were hovering above a flat-roofed building about 5 stories high, one of the tallest buildings in the town. Fox could see the mansion in the distance, at the end of the main street in the square.
 “Ok,” Fox said. “Get low, I’m gonna hop out. Get clear as soon as I’m down. Keep close in case things get rough though.”
 Slippy nodded and Fox opened the canopy. When they were five feet from the roof, Fox grabbed the gear and jumped out, hitting the tarred roof with a grunt. He twirled his finger in a horizontal circle, the signal that he was ok, get clear. Slippy closed the canopy and flew off to the south.
 Fox stayed prone and crawled to the edge of the roof, facing the front door of Hohleran’s mansion. He set up the bipod, slapped in a mag, and looked through the scope.
 Just as Hohleran had said, there were at least fifty troops in Venom uniforms at the front door of the mansion and along the main street. Fox moved the scope to see that Hohleran himself was half in, half out of his front door, yelling something to what appeared to be the guy in charge of the Venom soldiers. Fox grinned. At least the guy had a little guts.
 Time to go to work.

 Fox pulled back the slide, loading the first bullet. He put the scope’s crosshairs on the soldier Hohleran was talking to. “Two and Three, this is One,” he said into his headset. “Go now, I repeat, go now.” Fox received the affirmative back from both of them.

 He pulled the trigger.

 The rifle kicked in his shoulder, and he heard the ping of the casing hitting the ground, nothing else. The silencer did its job. More importantly, he saw a spray of red come from the head of his target. Hohleran took that as more than enough of a cue and dove back into the mansion.
 The other soldiers behind the first, unfortunate one seemed shocked. Fox quickly took a bead on the next in line and shot him in the neck. The soldiers were now looking around wildly, some running for cover. Fox capped two more the saw one looking in his direction, pointing. He quickly shot him in the chest and took aim at the one next to him, who was looking also.
 He fired on an empty mag.

 “Shit!” he yelped, and quickly replaced the empty mag with a fresh one. By this time, the soldier had told enough comrades, and some were moving in his direction. “Where are you guys?!” Fox yelled into his comm.

 “Incoming now,” came back Peppy’s calm voice. Sure enough, two Arwings came swooping down from over the mansion, lasers tearing up the street and any soldiers on it. Fox sighed in relief. “Good, keep it up.”
 He took aim once again and fired at the soldiers who were now taking cover from the Arwings, who were coming back for a second strafing run. Venom was in full retreat now, trying to get away in ground vehicles. Peppy and Falco went after them, turning them into smoldering wreckage.

 Soon the street was clear except for burning cars and dead bodies. Fox, who had gone through every bullet he had for the rifle, stood up and wiped the sweat from his forehead, the smell of cordite heavy in the air. “This is One, great job everyone. Land and meet on the square in front of the mansion.” He suddenly felt sick and realized the first shot had more of an effect on him than he thought. There was a major difference between killing someone in a ship and killing them with a gun. Fox actually saw a man’s face before he turned it into a hole. It was easy to just think of shooting down a hunk of metal in space, but this was worse.
 Fox slung the rifle over his shoulder and climbed down the fire escape on the side of the building. He walked down the center of the street, pistol in hand in case of any stragglers. Some of the townspeople started poking their heads out, staring at him. Fox smiled and nodded at them. This is probably the most action they’ve ever seen in their whole lives, Fox thought. They’re lucky.

 He finally reached the square, where two Arwings and one leisure ship were landed, the engines cooling off. Fox could feel the heat radiating from the guns as he walked past them. His teammates were looking at the first soldier Fox capped.
 “Not too bad, Fox,” Falco said, nodding his head. “Not bad at all.”
 “You did alright yourself,” Fox replied, looking at his handiwork and feeling nauseous again. “Sure spooked them good. I bet if we…”
 He was cut off by the sound of the mansion door opening. The team turned and walked up the ten or so steps to the front landing. Hohleran poked his head out, and when he saw it was all clear he stepped out and stood up straight. Fox grinned slightly at this.
 He was about Fox’s height, a middle-aged gray fox in a regular clack suit. “I am Edward Hohleran, governor of Emayn. I can’t thank you enough for your help. They would have surely taken the town tonight had it not been for your…efforts.”
 Fox stepped forward and offered his hand. “Fox McCloud, leader of StarFox. Nice to meet you, sir.”
 Hohleran took his hand gently, as if he were touching a poisonous snake. “Are you alright?” he asked, looking at his face. Fox wiped his hand along his right cheek. A greasy black soot rubbed off.
 “Oh, heh, just an emission from the gun. It’s the old bullet kind. This is my team, Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad.”
 Hohleran nodded. “Well, I’m sure you’d like to get cleaned up and rest a bit. I have to handle some pressing business, namely settling the town down. You can stay here in the mansion, make yourselves at home. My daughter will show you to your rooms. Vicenzia!”
 Fox was stunned by the beautiful gray vixen that appeared behind Hohleran. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, and was in a long dress that seemed to be customized for her body. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, a stern expression on her face. Fox noticed she kept glancing at the body of the soldier Fox popped in the head.
 “This is my daughter, Vicenzia Hohleran. Everyone calls her Vixy. Vixy, this is Fox McCloud and…”
 Vixy… my mother’s name…
 “I know who they are,” she cut in with a stern tone. Fox offered his hand, but Vixy’s arms remained folded. Fox dropped his hand folded his arms as well, feeling slightly embarrassed.
 “Follow me,” she said curtly, and walked into the house.
 Hohleran caught Fox’s arm and whispered to the team. “Please excuse Vixy; she has strong feelings against mercenaries. She thinks you to be cold-blooded killers.”
 “That’s ok, we get that a lot,” Fox replied, and they continued into the house, catching up with Vixy. They went upstairs and down a red carpeted hall to the left. Vixy finally stopped between two doors on either side of the hall and turned to face her guests.
 “These are the guest rooms, two to a room.” Then, after a moment of silence, “I’d appreciate if you did your job as quickly as possible and left this island. I know my father probably owes you his life, but I also know you just do it for the money. My father probably already told you I don’t take well to your kind, even ones with your reputation, so don’t cross my path and I won’t cross yours.”
 Fox chuckled and nodded. “Well your highness, if it wasn’t for ‘our kind’, your father definitely would not be here, and neither would half the town. Our contract says we have to repel the Venom soldiers, it didn’t say anything about keeping you or your father alive. We could’ve easily waited until we had a better position, AFTER your father was dead, then attacked. If I were you, I would do a little more thinking, have a bit more of an open mind. Because one day, you might insult the wrong person, and they might not take it as well as I am.” With that, Fox walked into the room on the left and slammed the wooden door shut. Vixy looked speechless.
 Peppy chuckled and said, “He gets just a tiny bit touchy on the whole cold-blooded killer thing.” He started for the same door, then stopped and added, “he’s right though,” then continued into the room. Falco and Slippy walked into the other room, Falco shaking his head in wonder. “He HAD to have been rehearsing that speech,” he said, then closed the door.

The Stage is Set

 The next morning, Fox walked out into the hall a little unsure of what to do. Fortunately, an orderly came by and said, “Master Hohleran requests the company of you and your companions in the dining hall,” then walked off.
 Fox got the team together and they walked downstairs, asking another orderly where the dining hall was. She told him, and they got there to find Hohleran at the head of a long table, Vixy to his right. They both rose as the four of them entered, then sat back down. Fox wasn’t too familiar with formalities, and the team awkwardly took seats next to each other.
 “I trust the accommodations are adequate,” Hohleran said in a questioning tone. Fox nodded, stealing a quick glance at Vixy, who was looking down at the table.
 Breakfast came, an exotic substance Fox didn’t recognize, but found to be pretty good. They ate in silence, but Fox kept noticing Vixy glancing at him. When he was done, he leaned back and tried to break the ice by asking Hohleran what this plan was General Pepper was talking about.
 Hohleran nodded and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “The goal of this plan is to take out the commander of Venom’s forces here. I see how he is around the troops, and they rely on him for decisions and just about everything. I figure if we take him out, the rest will either lose the will to fight, or will be too disorganized to do much harm.”
 Fox nodded. “What’s the plan?”
 Hohleran stood, as did Vixy. Fox and his team took the cue and stood also. “It would be most clear if I walked you through it, literally. I have to organize some things today, and the town needs to recover from last night’s little jaunt. Tonight, I will send for you and we will go over it. If you will excuse me.” He walked off towards the back of the house.
 Vixy looked back at Fox. “I don’t know what the plan is, so don’t look at me.”
 Fox nodded and said, “Would you excuse me for a moment?” He turned to his team and whispered. “Why don’t you guys go refuel the ships and charge the guns and all while I, uh, get to know the island a bit more.”
 Falco grinned. “The island or her? After last night, you’d think she’d be all over you. That speech was smooth, remind me to go to you fir dating tips.”
 Fox scowled. “Will you knock it off? This is purely professional.” The team walked off, muffling laughter.
 Fox turned back to Vixy, who was now grinning slightly. “I was hoping you could give me a tour of the island, so I know my way around in case things get rough.”
 She looked skeptical, but said after a moment, “Ok. I’ve been here my whole life, know this place like the back of my hand.”
 As they walked out the door into the blinding tropical sun, Fox noticed how different the main street looked in the sun. It looked more cheery, more like the resort town Fox had envisioned. He noticed most of the bodies had been moved; a crew of townsmen was doing the dirty work of burial and cleaning the wreckage.
 Vixy grimaced. “It was pretty grisly out here last night. I was watching from my window, I’d never seen anything like it. I thought that soldier was going to shoot my father, but then his head….it….” She trailed off.
 Fox quickly cut in. “I know, I didn’t like doing it any more than you liked seeing it. But sometimes it’s necessary.”
 Vixy looked up sideways at Fox, then back at the road. “Well, I guess we should start with the main street. Just about everything in town runs from the main street.”
 She led him down the street, pointing out various stores and landmarks. The conversation lightened, and soon they were walking along the edge of a residential block, the beach to their left.
 “So tell me about yourself,” Vixy said, looking out at the ocean. “I mean, I see the news and all, I know what you do. But I think I may have misjudged you.”
 Fox grinned. “Well, the press likes to exaggerate a lot. We get jobs from a contact in the Cornerian Army. Like you said, we do most of it for the money, but we also do free stuff if it’s needed. UNLIKE what you and some media say, we are not just cold-blooded killers. We only take jobs that are for, well… the good guys. Venom’s our sworn enemy, as our quite a few other mercenary groups, the top being StarWolf.”
 Vixy nodded. “I read you lost your parents to Venom, right?”
 I just can’t get rid of this damn subject.
 “Yeah, my mother in a car bomb meant for my father, and my father was betrayed by a teammate, who is currently in StarWolf.”
 Vixy was silent for a moment, then said, “When my father said people called me Vixy, you looked shocked. Why?”
 Fox looked out at the ocean and said, “That was my mother’s name.”
 Vixy put an arm around Fox and rested her head on hi shoulder. “Oh, Fox, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I know I seemed harsh last night, but this town has had trouble with freelancers and mercenaries before. I see you’re one of the good guys.”
 Fox grinned. “Sorry? How could you know, it’s ok. It was a long time ago.” They stared out at the ocean for a while, then continued the walk back to the mansion.
 “So tell me about some of the jobs you’ve had,” Vixy said in a lighter tone.
 “Classified ma’am,” Fox said with a grin. He figured a try at humor was best now. Vixy gave him a playful shove.
 “Come on, I won’t tell anyone.”
 “Well, this one time, an old lady asked us to help her cross the street. We thought it would be too dangerous, not to mention she didn’t have enough cash for our price, but…”
 Vixy shoved him again. “Oh, you’re so mean!” she said and walked off. Fox laughed and ran after her.

    * * *

 By time that night rolled around, Vixy actually seemed to take kindly to Fox and his team. Falco noticed and asked Fox what they did while team was gone? Fox just shrugged and said he was being himself.
 “Huh, maybe I really will come to you for dating tips.”

 Vixy was giving the team a tour of the large house when an orderly came up and said that Master Hohleran wished to speak with the guests at the front door. Vixy nodded and turned to Fox. “Well, time to go to work. I wish you the best of luck.” She then gave Fox a light kiss on the cheek and walked off.
 Fox looked after her then immediately said, “The first one who says ANYTHING will get my fist in his mouth,” then left, leaving the sound of muffled laughter once again.
 As said, Hohleran was waiting for them at the front door, still in a plain black suit. He cleared his throat then said, “I only need one man for the first part of this, the other three will be briefed by my guard.” He raised his eyebrows to question who it was going to be. Fox stepped forward.
 “Alright,” Hohleran continued. “You three wait here, my guard will be along shortly. Mr. McCloud, come with me.” Hohleran opened the front door and Fox followed him out.
 When the door was closed, Hohleran turned to Fox and said, “I’ll walk you through the plan, which will take place tomorrow at noon, right here on the square.” He went down the steps, Fox right behind.
 “Tomorrow,” he continued, walking slowly to the right of the square, “the commander is scheduled to come to the square and talk to the town, presumably to give them one last chance at surrender. The contact who is sending us this information also says that as a ‘sign of goodwill’, he will come only with his two personal bodyguards, no army. However, the main force will be on standby and will proceed to destroy the town should anything be suspicious, or should anything happen to him.”
 Hohleran stopped and turned to point at the main road. “He will come down that road, and the square will be full with my townspeople. He will proceed to my front porch and talk from there. Ordinarily, I’d say to pull the same sniping job you did last night, but they have reconnaissance flights, and will be scanning for snipers. Therefore, here is my plan.” They began walking back to the Hohleran’s front steps.
 “I want you down here in the crows, posing as a civilian. Then, whenever you’re ready, you simply pop out and shoot them. I hear from your teammate Falco that you’re a good shot with a pistol, so this shouldn’t be too bad with the element of surprise. I don’t know what the commander looks like, he’s never made a public appearance, so just go with whoever’s the one talking.”
 “Now you’re probably wondering about the army waiting to burn the town down. Well, your three teammates will be waiting offshore in their fighters. When the signal is given, they will fly in to the main enemy base where the army is camped and destroy it. The remaining soldiers will either flee the island or be easy targets for the Arwings. That’s the plan.” Hohleran looked at Fox and raised his eyebrows in the questioning look again.
 Fox tapped his foot on the pavement. “I don’t know…” he began, then was interrupted by a gentle tugging on his tail. He looked down to see a small raccoon, no more than eight years old, looking up at him with wide eyes. He pointed at the holster on Fox’s right thigh.
 “Is that a real gun, mister?” he squeaked.
 Fox grinned and crouched down to come face to face with him. “Yes it is. But I don’t like using it, and when I have to, it’s only against the bad guys. You don’t want to get mixed up in violence and guns and all, ok?” The little raccoon smiled and nodded, then ran off back down the street. That’s when Fox noticed he only had one arm.
 “That’s little Pasquale,” Hohleran said from behind. “He lost his arm when a bomb hit his house in the first attack.”
 Fox, still crouching and looking after the running boy, first felt sorry for the kid, then angry. “Alright,” he said sternly, standing up. “We’ll do it, we’ll go with the plan. We’ll get these bastards off this island.”

Fatal Decision

 The next morning was pretty uneventful. Fox’s team was in the Great Fox prepping the ships and going over their plan while Fox spent most of the morning talking with Vixy and going over the finer points of the plan with the governor. Around 11:00, the square started to get crowded and Hohleran called for Fox. “Show time,” was all he said.
 Fox nodded and checked his pistol, which would be hidden under his jacket. New clip, fully charged, safety off. He walked out the back door of the mansion and went around to the front, trying to discreetly blend in with the crowd. Hohleran was standing on the porch, well off to the right, and kept scanning the crowd, presumably for Fox. He finally saw him, which put his mind at ease a little.
 Fox looked around. It looked like all two thousand people had shown up for this. Of course, Fox thought. It decides their fate and the fate of their homes.
 I decide it. It’s all up to me.
 Fox closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to settle his pounding heart. Just three shots, no problem, I’ve done harder.
 He opened his eyes when he heard the crowd quiet down, and everyone looked towards the center of the street. A military transport had parked down the street a ways, and three figures in Venom uniforms, two of them carrying assault rifles and flanking the third, entered the crowd. The townspeople separated to allow them through, and Fox couldn’t see them from his position. Finally, the three mounted the steps to Holleran’s porch and turned around.
 Fox froze and stared.
 In the middle of the two canine guards was a tall gray wolf with an eye patch over his left eye, a slight grin on his face. Fox recognized him immediately.
 Wolf  O’Donnell.

  Fox couldn’t believe it. He’s had run-ins with StarWolf since the war, but he hadn’t seen any of them in over a year. Now he’s here.
 If he sees me out here…

 Fox urgently looked at Hohleran, who was looking at him with a worried expression, probably from him looking so shocked.
 “We have to abort!” Fox mouthed to him. Hohleran looked back with a questioning look.
 “Abort! Abort!” Fox tried again, but Hohleran wasn’t getting it. Fox looked back at Wolf, who had begun talking, looking around the crowd. There was no way Fox could get close enough without Wolf seeing him. They’d have to do this another way. Fox turned and started shoving his way towards the side of the square.
 “Hey, you there. Where are you rushing off to?” came a voice that Fox knew all to well. He froze, his heart skipping a beat. His mind raced, trying to think of what to do. You’ve been trying to end this for years. Now’s your chance. Besides, if he’s here, maybe Pigma is also.
 “Turn around, face me!” came Wolf’s voice again. The crowd had become completely silent, and Fox could feel they’re eyes on him. Here goes nothing.
 Fox began to slowly turn around, his hand creeping for the cold metal of the gun under his jacket. When he felt it, he whirled around, dropping onto one knee, the gun aimed squarely at Wolf’s head. But he didn’t pull the trigger.
 He had lost the element of surprise. Both guards had their rifles trained on Fox. Wolf was staring at him with the same expression Fox guessed he had on a minute ago. The people around Fox shoved out of the way, leaving him in his own circle. The tenseness in the air heightened.
 “I’ll be damned,” Wolf said, eyes wide. “Fox McCloud. I should have known. It didn’t even click when I heard the soldiers had been attacked by Arwings. You’re a slippery son of a bitch, I’ve been trying to hunt you down for a while now.”
 “Nice to see you as always, Wolf,” Fox replied, keeping the sights of his gun on Wolf. “Killing innocent people, disturbing a peaceful town, dealing with Venom, it has you written all over it. Surprised I didn’t click either.”
 Wolf had gotten over his surprise and had his evil grin back on again. “Well Fox, this is an awkward situation. Not a lot of options. I don’t see the rest of your pitiful little crew here, which means you probably have a backup plan. Even if I did order my guards here to shoot you right now, you still might get a shot off.”
 “Alright then, let’s make a deal,” Fox said in a shaky voice. Things were getting desperate. “You leave this island permanently and we we’ll let you go, we won’t completely decimate your army. We still have three Arwings, not to mention the Great Fox with one huge gun on it.”
 Wolf laughed and shook his head. “You’re hardly in the position to make anyone do anything.” He then turned to Hohleran. “You’ve been a naughty boy, hiring mercenaries and all, but I guess I can’t blame you. Instead of destroying this town, for now anyway, I will give McCloud a choice.” Fox tensed.
 Wolf whispered something into his earpiece, and the transport on the main street lumbered through the square to the mansion. “What are you talking about?” Fox shouted.
 Instead of answering, Wolf nodded to his guards, who immediately jumped down to the back of the transport, opening back doors. Fox then heard screams from the crowd.
 “What are you doing?!” he yelled, standing up. Wolf just kept grinning.
 “No, let go! Help!” came a sharp voice from the crowd. Fox recognized it after a second. It was Pasquale, the kid who talked to him the day before.
 Fox finally saw that the guards had grabbed people from the crowd and had shoved them in the truck. The doors slammed shut, and were locked. Cries from the crowd continued, but stopped when Wolf spoke again.
 “Fox McCloud now has a choice!” he yelled so everyone could hear. “These people will be taken to our base and shot!” More screams from the crowd. “Unless! Unless McCloud puts down his gun and takes their place as my prisoner.”
 Oh no… Oh, please, no…

 It seemed to Fox that the entire crowd turned to look at him. Fox was shaking, his heart pounding, sweating. “Wolf,” he said in a low, shaky voice. “Please, don’t put me in this position. Don’t.”
 “You put yourself in this position! Always going around, playing the hero. Well, this is what happens. What’s it gonna be, Fox?”
 Fox’s eyes darted to the eager, pained faces of the crowd, then to Hohleran. To Fox’s horror, Vixy had joined him and was looking at him with a scared expression. Fox quickly looked back at Fox, who was looking at him with the same damn evil grin.
 What do I do? WHAT DO I DO?
 I’m not ready to die. But neither are they.
 There’s gotta be a way out of this.
 Just think. THINK.

 “Time’s up, Fox. Who’s it gonna be? Them or you?”
 Fox was almost panting now. His heart racing, he looked around for help. There was none, it was all up to him. ”I…..I…..” he couldn’t speak.
 Wolf shrugged and said, “Alright then, I guess you’re saving your own hide. After all, what more should this town expect from our kind, eh?” He then leaned over and said so only Fox could hear, “Let’s see you get out of this one, hero.”
 After a moment, Fox realized what he meant. He was now hated by the town. The bringer of violence, the one who let innocent civilians die rather than face it himself. As the transport rumbled away, amidst the cry of the crowd, faces began to look back at him. As the rumble died in the distance, the entire crowd again had all eyes on him. This time they were full of hatred. All was silent except for those crying for a loved one recently taken away.
 Fox realized he still had his gun up, and slowly brought it down to his side. He looked up at Hohleran. He had the same look as the other townspeople, but Fox saw more the expression Vixy had. Not anger, but disappointment. Like she had been right all along.
 The crowd began to trickle away back down the main street, but some of the men remained staring at Fox, maybe wondering if they would get help if they attacked him and hung him from a tree, or beat him to death.
 That thought got fox moving slowly in the direction of the mansion door. He slowly climbed the stair, head down, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone. Hohleran was waiting for him by the door, Vixy nowhere to be seen.
 “You’re trained for this type of thing. There was something you could have done. You stood a better chance going with him then a civilian, not to mention TEN of them. Ten civilians. But I’m afraid my daughter was right about mercenaries.” Hohleran paused and took a deep breath. “I want you and your companions off this island within twenty-four hours. You’ve done enough damage.” He then turned and walked into the house.
 Fox stood there, in a daze. He couldn’t believe this had happened. How could things take a complete 180 degree turn so quick? I’m now the most hated person on this island.
 Fox went into the mansion and ran to the guest room, locking the door behind him.


 An orderly unlocked the guest room, and Peppy slowly opened the door and crept in. It was dark, the only light coming from the window on the far end. Fox was sitting on the side of his bed, looking out the window, his back to Peppy. He slowly took a few stops forward.
 “Fox?” he said in a gentle tone. “Are you ok?”
 No answer. Peppy gently went over and sat next to him, giving him space. “We heard what happened. Fox, that was probably the worst situation anyone could ever be put in. You didn’t do anything wrong, you only had seconds to think.”
 They were silent for a few minutes, then Fox picked his headset up off the bed and put it on. “ROB,” he said in a low voice. “Bring the ship down, we’re leaving.” He took it off again and replaced it on the bed, then continued his vigil out the window.
 “Tell me what you know. What did the governor tell you about the hostages,” he said in the same low voice.
 Peppy looked at him and sighed. Peppy knew Fox could handle it, and decided to tell him.
 “Apparently, they’re going to execute them tomorrow at noon in the central square of the abandoned expansion you showed us. Worst of all, it’s going to be televised, as a demonstration to the town.”
 Fox nodded. “How do you know all this?”
 “Wolf sent a message to the governor.”
 Fox sighed and continued to stare out the window. “We’re leaving as soon as the Great Fox gets here. Pack your stuff and tell Falco and Slippy.”
 Peppy nodded and stood up. He gave Fox a gentle pat on the shoulder and left. Falco and Slippy were waiting just outside the door. Peppy shook his head.
 “He looks bad, he’s taking it hard.”
 Slippy sighed, “Of course he is, he’s a good person, and that was a bad situation.”
 Peppy nodded. “Well, we’re leaving when the ship gets here, so get packed.
 An hour later, 6:30 PM, Peppy stuck his head into Fox’s room and said, “Ship’s here, Fox.” Fox nodded, and Peppy closed the door.
 Fox sighed and stood up. He put on his jacket, rolling the sleeves up, and his headset. He walked to the door, grabbing his duffel bag on the way and slinging it over his shoulder. With one last glance out the window, he opened the door and stepped out into the hall.
 He turned to walk down the hall and came face to face with Vixy. Fox just glanced at here and walked past, muttering, “I know, I don’t need you to go tell me ‘I told you so, I told you mercenaries are heartless’. I’m leaving, that’s what you wanted isn’t it?”
 “Fox, wait!”
 Fox stopped reluctantly and listened, not turning around. Vixy walked up to him and said in a low voice, “I wanted to say goodbye.”
 Fox stood for a few moments, unsure of what to do or say, then continued his walk down the hall. Vixy did not follow.
 Hohleran was standing by the front door. Fox didn’t feel like hearing him at that moment, and fortunately didn’t. He just walked right past him.
 Outside, Slippy was waiting in the front seat of the cruiser, Peppy and Falco already gone. Fox climbed in the back seat just as a small rock struck the side of the ship, inched from Fox. He looked to see an old female badger with an angry expression spit in his direction and walk away.
 Fox sighed and closed the canopy. “Let’s get the hell outta here,” he muttered. As they took off and cruised over the island, Fox saw the square Peppy was talking about, full of Venom military.
 I’m not cold-blooded. I’m not heartless. I’m nothing special, I still get scared just like everyone else. But I still have time to fix this.
 The square, noon tomorrow.
 It’s a date.

   * * *

 Falco threw open the door to Hohleran’s mansion at 11:15 the next morning, followed by Peppy and Slippy. An orderly rushed up to him. “What are you doing here?” she asked in a frightened tone.
 “Where’s Hohleran?” Falco demanded. Before the orderly could answer, the governor stepped into the main hall, Vixy right behind him.
 “What’s going on here? What are you doing here?”
 Falco stepped over to Hohleran and grabbed his lapel. “Where’s Fox?! Where is he?”
 Hohleran wriggled in Falco’s grip. “I don’t know, what are you talking about? You all left yesterday. Let me go!”
 Falco released him. “He wasn’t in the ship this morning, and his Arwing is gone. I went to his room and found this on his bed.” He handed a slip of paper to Hohleran, and he and his daughter read it.

 If I don’t make it back, tell Vixy she was wrong and I died proving it.

       --- Fox

 Vixy brought her hand to her mouth, eyes going wide. Hohleran also looked surprised. Falco continued.
 “Also, there’s enough hardware missing from the armory to start a war. A black stealth jumpsuit, full body armor, two pistols, an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, 6 grenades, some plastic explosive, and countless units of ammo are just some of the things missing. His uniform was on the floor, so we’re assuming he’s wearing the suit and armor.”
 Hohleran shook his head in disbelief.
 “He’s going for the hostages. This damn town, and its governor, made him feel so guilty that he’s put himself into an impossible situation.” Falco looked at Vixy. “And he knows it too. He knows he’s probably not going to make it out, but he’d rather have that than live with the guilt.”
 Vixy bowed her head, avoiding Falco’s eyes. Hohleran handed the paper back and said, “Well, what do you want me to do about it.”
 Slippy stepped forward. “Luckily, Fox’s comm. headset was also missing. A few years ago, I installed a small video transmitter in the front part that goes over the head. If you have a monitor with a program box installed, I can put in the frequency of the headset and we can see where he is, then take it from there.”
 Hohleran thought, then said, “I think there’s something like that in the security headquarters. Follow me.”
 He led them off the main hallway to the right, to a heavy metal door with a keypad next to it. He quickly punched in a sequence of numbers and the door slid open. A single guard was inside, watching the monitors. Hohleran muttered something to him, and he stood and left.
 Slippy looked around until he saw a large monitor on the table with a black box under it. He crawled under the table and looked up at the box. “Yeah, this is it! Gimme a second.”
 After a few minutes of fiddling with the box, a dim picture appeared on the screen. Slippy slid out from under the table and began fiddling with the screen itself. Soon, a picture popped up.
 The picture showed two black glove-clad hands slamming a clip into a pistol. The camera tilted down to show a figure on one knee, in a black jumpsuit and body armor. The hand shoved the pistol into a thigh holster on the right leg, then took a pistol from a left thigh holster, checked its clip, and replaced it as well. The figure then picked up an assault rifle and tilted it to see the round meter on the side, which said in red digits ‘200’, then put it back down. The camera shifted again to show the figure check his watch, which said ’11:27’. The screen shook as the figure leaned back and sat against the wall, legs straight out. The room the camera was in was all brown stone, and looked unfinished. Falco also noticed something. The sleeves of the black suit were rolled up to the elbow.
 “It’s him, it’s Fox! Can he hear us?”
 Slippy looked around and grabbed the microphone from the main console, plugging it into the black box. “He can now.”
 Peppy grabbed the microphone and spoke. “Fox, this is Peppy. Can you hear me?”
 Fox’s voice traveled back through the speakers on the monitor. “Good morning, this is Fox McCloud. I’m just a teeny bit busy right now, so please leave your name and number, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you and have a nice day.”
 Falco muffled laughter from behind him as Peppy rolled his eyes. Vixy stepped forward and grabbed the microphone. “Fox! You can’t do this! I know you feel guilty, but you won’t do those people any good dying in a suicidal rescue attempt. Please, get out of there.”
 There was silence for a moment, the camera on Fox’s head remaining still. “How did you get this frequency?”
 “I found the old visual chip frequency, we’re watching you from Hohleran’s security room.”
 “Is he there?”
 “Yes,” Hohleran said.
 The monitor showed a hand raise up with three fingers out. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
 “Three,” everyone in the room said together.
 “Shit. Turn this off, I don’t want you to see this.”
 “Forget it, hotshot,” Falco said evenly. “Either you stop this and come back, or you make us watch you die.”
 Fox sighed, and the camera shook and rose as Fox stood up. “I’m too close to go back now. The only way these people are going to die is if they have to step over my body to do it.” His hand went up to his ear and they heard a click.
 “Fox? Fox!” Vixy was yelling into the microphone.
 “No good, he turned audio off,” Slippy said gently. “He can’t turn off visual though, I never installed a switch. We can still hear him though.”
 Vixy put down the microphone and backed up, watery eyes glued to the monitor. Fox looked at his watch again. 11:37. He stood up, slinging the assault rifle over his shoulder and picking up the sniper rifle. It was the same one Fox has used in his first ten minutes on Emayn. And the last ten minutes of my life.
 He shook his head and started up the staircase of the unfinished building, towards the roof.
 “Show time.”

    * * *

 Fox’s perch had a perfect view of the square in the unfinished section of town. He could see a transport vehicle enter from the main street, and, to Fox’s dismay, about 100 troops followed. Most of them went to the sides of the square, mingling, waiting for the execution to start.
 The truck pulled up to the center and two guards pulled the sad, exhausted people from the back of the truck and forming them into a rough line facing the main road, Fox to their right.
 Fox stole another quick glance at his watch. 11:57. He could see the television camera set up on the far side of the square. Fox couldn’t believe they were going to televise it, but, then again, it IS Wolf.
 A line of ten soldiers with rifles lined up in front of the civilians, with one to the side whom Fox guessed was going to call the commands. Wolf was nowhere to be seen, but another old friend was talking to the camera. Andrew Oikonney, Andross’ whiny nephew, a member of StarWolf. He won’t be too much of a problem, Fox thought. Just a whiny little coward. I should take him out if I have the chance.
 Fox looked at his watch once more.


 No turning back. Here’s your chance to redeem yourself. Let’s do it.

 The soldier in command called “Ready!” and the firing squad brought their rifles to the port-arms position. “Aim” was called, and the soldiers aimed at the scared, shivering civilians. “Fire” was never called, because two grenades were lobbed off a building to the right of the civilians and landed just behind the firing line, seconds later exploding and decimating it.
 Fox popped his head up and began firing at the stunned troops. He was using the same tactic as last time, take down as many as you can before they notice you.
 Only this time, no Arwing would swoop in and save him.
 Fox fired off two of the mags before he was noticed. Some fired at him from the ground, the lasers taking chunks out of the brown stone, but over twenty of the troops rushed into the building. Fox could hear them pounding up the stairs… and grinned. This was exactly what he wanted them to do.
 Fox dropped the rifle, took a deep breath, and hopped off the roof onto the top of a transport truck twenty feet down. He landed with a roll, then jumped to the ground, readying the assault rifle. He fired some bursts at the soldiers, then sprinted for the confused civilians, yelling for them to get down. Most of them did, and Fox reached into his breast pocket and pushed a little red button, then hit the dirt himself.
 The shockwave of the explosion knocked down the civilians that decided not to of their own power. The building Fox recently occupied went up in a deafening fireball, then collapsed into itself. When the dust cleared, Fox could see that his plastic explosive turned the building into a pile of rubble, spotted by numerous enemy corpses.
 Two soldiers rushed at him from behind the rubble and Fox fired from his prone position, dropping them both. Most of the remaining troops, he was glad to see, had bugged out down the street, probably to get reinforcements. He had to move fast.
 Fox rushed over to the dazed civilians, and went over to a male dog who appeared to seem somewhat all there upstairs. “Listen to me,” he said in a clear, loud voice. “I scared them off for now, but they’ll be back with reinforcements. I need you to take that transport over there and get these people back to the main town. Can you do this?”
 The man nodded, still looking dazed. Fox picked up a rifle from one of the dead soldiers and handed it to him. “Do you know how to use this?”
 The man’s face cleared up somewhat and he nodded with more conviction. “But how will you get out?”
 “My ship is a little ways away, don’t worry about me, just get out of here. Go, now!” Fox stood up and ran to the west exit of the square, the road opposite to the main road. It led to the Venom forces’ base, and, unfortunately, Fox’s ship. He looked back and was relieved to see the man was talking to the civilians, pointing at the truck. They would be ok.

 Now, to get my own ass out of here.

 Fox hadn’t thought through this part of the plan too thoroughly. He could’ve just left with the truck, but he couldn’t leave his Arwing. Also, he had to give finding Andrew a shot.
 His ship was parked on the south beach, just outside of the tree line. He had to follow the road a ways, then take a left to go in the direction of the beach.
 As Fox was thinking, two soldiers had run down the road and fired. Fox ducked behind the building as the lasers hit the wall. He peeked out to see that two more had joined them and were firing at him.
 “Shit,” Fox muttered. This is it, Foxy. This is what you get for being the hero. This is where you die.
 “Not yet,” he mumbled to himself. He flicked the switcher on the rifle to full auto, took a deep breath and dove out from behind the building, landing in a prone position. He pulled the trigger and kept it back until the rifle clicked on empty and the counter window read ‘000’. He dropped the gun, and shook his burning hands in the air. Smoke rose from the barrel.
 The result was three dead soldiers and one very scared one who had run away. Fox picked up the rifle and replaced the mag. He’d have to wait a bit to use it again, so he slung it and took his two pistols out of their holsters, one in each hand, and continued down the street.
 He made it to the first intersection with only one troop encountered, easily taken down. Further down the street he saw about 20 troops jogging his way. One of them pointed at him, and they ran faster, some firing. Fortunately, the beach was to the left, so Fox turned left and hauled ass until the unfinished road melded in with the dense trees. He ran, darting in between the trees, hoping to lose the mob behind him.
 Fox’s father once told him that there was a difference between moving fast and moving quickly. Fox took some deep breaths and tried quickly to think of the route he went to get here, then flip it the other way. He went west a bit, so as not to expose himself in on the beach, then, when he was pretty sure the Arwing was out there, dove out of the forest.
 And nearly bumped his head on a pistol, pointed at him. Fox saw the owner of the gun was Andrew, standing not three feet from the tree line, right next to his Arwing.
 Andrew grinned. “Well, look who dropped by,” he said in his whiny voice. “Looks like you’re not go---“
 He was cut off as Fox dropped his pistols, grabbed and twisted Andrew’s wrist and drove his foot into his stomach. The whole move took less than a second, and the result was Fox holding Andrew’s gun, Andrew on his knees holding his wrist, saying, “No, please, Fox don’t! I’m sorry, please don’t kill me!”
 Fox shook his head. “You are SO pitiful, Andrew. Give me one reason not to kill you. I’ve been looking to destroy StarWolf for years, not to mention what you’ve done here.”
 “Well, I—“ But he stopped as a soldier yelled out from the forest. They had found him. Fox looked back to see a glint of metal in Andrew’s hand, coming right at his face. Fox almost dodged the knife. He blocked it into a downwards arc, and it sliced deep into his side. Fox grunted in pain and kicked it out of Andrew’s hand. He put the gun to Andrew’s head, and froze at the look of terror in his eyes.
 End it! You have the chance, end it!
 Fox’s expression hardened. Andrew saw this and pleaded, “No, Fox, plea---“
 Fox pulled the trigger. The laser went through Andrew’s head, leaving a smoldering mark and bloodstain on the Arwing’s hull. Fox looked down and dropped the gun. “That one was for you Slippy,” he said aloud so Slippy could hear him.
 One down, three to go.
 Fox didn’t like shooting unarmed people, but he had to end it. It would’ve happened eventually. Fox shook his head and got his mind back in gear. He looked back and saw the trees rustling only thirty feet away. He hopped into the Arwing and started up the engine just as the first soldiers broke cover.
 “Eat this, you bastards,” Fox muttered. He put the Arwing to hover and fired the twin blue lasers into the advancing soldiers, panning from side to side. Before long, the soldiers were gone along with half the trees in front of the Arwing. Fox sighed with relief, then began to feel dizzy. He looked down and saw he was sitting in a pool of blood. The cut was worse than he thought, adrenaline just made him ignore the pain.
 “Guys, if you can still hear me,” he grunted out in a strained voice. “Better have a doctor or something standing by. I’ll land in the square.”
 He concentrated on staying conscious for most of the five minute flight back to friendly ground. When he finally made it, he saw some of the townspeople were outside, watching him. His team and Hohleran and Vixy were standing on the mansion’s front porch. When he was down, he opened the canopy and slowly climbed out.
 Fox only had time to blurrily see them running towards him. I made it. I actually made it, he thought, then collapsed into unconsciousness.

The Discovery

 The next afternoon, Fox was lying in a bleach-white room in Emayn’s small hospital. He had only recently been allowed visitors, and Peppy rushed in as soon as he could.
 “Damn Fox, are you ok? You had us scared to hell, collapsing like that.”
 Fox laughed lightly. “I’m sorry, next time I’m dying of blood loss I promise to stay awake and chat with you.”
 Peppy grinned and sat down next to Fox’s bed. “Everyone else is on their way. It just happened to be my shift to wait.”
 “How are the civilians, did they make it back?”
 Peppy nodded. “They were shook up, but still in one piece each. I’d say your respect among the townspeople has been restored. Don’t forget, this thing was broadcasted. Most of the town saw the whole thing. That little stunt with the plastic explosive scared the hell out of us. Some people were telling me they could hear and see it all the way from here.”
 Fox nodded. Peppy paused, then said, “About Andrew…”
 Fox put up his hand to stop him. “Forget it, it’s done. I have no problem at all shooting a Starwolf member unarmed. If I have to, I’ll do the other three like that.”
 Peppy nodded. “The security room we watched this whole thing from was completely silent the whole time. Vixy cares about you I think.”
 Fox nodded. “She’s a, uh … nice girl.” Peppy laughed and started to say something when the door opened and the rest of the team came in, followed by Hohleran and Vixy. Vixy ran over and hugged Fox.
 “Fox, are you ok? Are you ok?”
 Fox, a little embarrassed, said, “Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.” Vixy stood back up, a look of mild anger on her face, and punched him in the shoulder. “How could you do that to us? You just left, not telling anyone where you were, making everyone worried.”
 Fox shrugged. “I was afraid you might stop me, I---“
 “Of course we would’ve stopped you! That was insane, you don’t know how lucky you are to have made it out of that!” Fox could see her eyes were wet. Hohleran put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Vixy, please, we’re in a hospital. He’s ok, it’s over.” She turned away, her hand over here face.
 Hohleran sighed and turned to Fox. “It appears I was wrong about you, McCloud. That was perhaps the single most courageous act I’ve ever seen. I’d like to apologize on behalf of Emayn.”
 Fox felt awkward, not knowing how to respond. Falco did it for him.
 “Damn straight you were wrong about him,” he muttered.

 They talked for fifteen more minutes about various things, mostly what was too hard to see through Fox’s headset. Finally, Peppy suggested they let Fox get some rest, so they said their goodbyes and headed out. Slippy hung back and whispered to Fox, “Thanks for killing Andrew,” then left. Only Vixy remained. She walked over next to Fox’s bed and sat in the chair.
 She put her hand on Fox’s and said, “I’m sorry for snapping at you. Those were some of the tensest minutes of my life, watching you on that screen, not knowing if the next second some laser would come right at the camera and strike right beneath it, and I’d never see you again. I guess I was just venting. I know we haven’t known each other for too long, but I…really like you, Fox. The time we’ve had together, walking on the beach, talking, has been special. I’ve…never felt this way before about anyone.”
 Fox swallowed and cleared his throat. “I feel the same way,” he said, almost in a whisper. And he really meant it. “I loved the times when we were together. I’ve never felt this way either, I’m kinda awkward about it. I mean, what do we do now?” They both let out a short, nervous laugh. Vixy leaned over and kissed him.
 “We’ll figure something out. For now, get some rest.” She stood up and left, gently closing the door behind her.

    * * *

 Fox was fully recovered and released from the hospital two days later. Within those two days he had many visitors, including all ten of the former hostages and their families. The first one to visit was the dog that Fox had given the gun to and informally put in charge. His wife came with him and it gave Fox a pit in his stomach to see she was carrying a pup no more than six months old. He would’ve never known his father.
 The man introduced himself as Jay Ecklin, and his wife Ahmiya and son Jay junior. He was much more composed now, with no gunshots and buildings exploding fifty feet away. They talked for a bit about what he did in the town, which was construction. He had actually been working in the new square until it was taken over.
 After a bit, he stood up and shook Fox’s hand, thanking him again for saving his life, and headed for the door with his family. Fox shook his head and said, “It was my fault you were there in the first place.”
 Jay stopped and turned around. “It wasn’t your fault we were there. It’s Venom’s fault we were there. I never felt a moment of bitterness towards you, I knew you did what you could. This town was ignorant to have been so mad at you. I’d like to see anyone in this town do half as well as you did in that standoff with Wolf. Take care, hope you feel better soon.”
 Fox watched as they left the room, then leaned back and thought about what he said. He didn’t get too far, because ten minutes later he had another surprise visitor.
 “Pasquale! Hey, kid, how you doing.” Fox was glad to see the kid hadn’t lost any other limbs.
 The little raccoon ran over and jumped up and down beside Fox’s bed. His mother, a slim, attractive woman with tired eyes and a subtle smile followed him in. She brushed her tail to the side and sat down in the chair next to Fox’s bed.
 “I’m Pasquale’s mother. I just wanted to come by and thank you personally for what you did. I was watching the…execution, mainly because I felt I HAD to know what would happen, hard as it may be. I was crying, looking at my baby standing there. Then, the firing squad was gone, and you flew in, like…like his guardian angel. I don’t know if I could have been able to bear losing him, I already lost my husband to Venom.”
 Fox never knew what to say in these situations, so he patted Pasquale on shoulder and said, “Just glad he’s alright.
 Pasquale looked up at him with eager eyes and said, “That big fire-thingy was LOOOUUUDDDD. It hurt my ears.”
 Fox smiled and said, “Hopefully you won’t have to hear that again.” He leaned over and said quietly. “You’re the man of the house. You take good care of your mother ok?” Pasquale nodded vigorously and hopped onto his mother’s lap.

    * * *

 When Fox was released from the hospital, he and his team stayed at the mansion for a few days to make sure there was no counter attack from the Venom soldiers. The peace held, and Fox spent most of the time with Vixy, talking or just walking down the beach holding hands. Finally some good news came into Hohleran’s hands.
 “We just got a message from our contact in the army!” he said excitedly while they were all at the dining room table. “He says the army is abandoning the island due to excessive losses. We’ve won! And we owe it all to you four.” He raised his glass of red wine and said, “A toast, to StarFox, and especially its leader, whose acts of bravery have made this possible.” They all raised their glasses, Fox blushing slightly.
 “Also,” Hohleran continued. “Jay, whom I believe you met, asked me to give this to you.” He took a small computer disk out of his coat pocket and handed it to Fox. “He ran it on his computer and it gives the coordinates of a location on Venom. You might find out why they invaded Emayn, what they were trying to build.”
 Fox nodded. “Well then, it looks like we’re done here.” He looked over at Vixy who was looking down at the table. “I really hate to leave, but we have to follow this lead. I, uh… I guess we’ll leave in the morning.
 Hohleran nodded and they all finished in silence.

 Later that night, Fox and Vixy took their last walk on the beach together. They sat on a large piece of driftwood and stared out at the ocean, listening to the waves crash on shore then recede back. Vixy put her hand on Fox’s and spoke the only words of the evening.
 “Please be careful, Fox.”
 Later that night, Fox walked Vixy back to her room. Fox was about to turn and walk back to his room when Vixy said, “Would you like to come in?” Fox turned back around and Vixy slipped into the room with a little grin on her face. Looks like I’m not getting much sleep tonight, Fox thought, and followed her in.
The following morning, they both lay awake in Vixy’s bed, the morning sun streaming through the large window. It was the best Fox had felt in a long time, lying next to her in the soft bed. Vixy snuggled up against Fox and put her hand on his chest. Fox hooked his arm around her shoulder and squeezed gently.
 “Promise you’ll take care of yourself on this job. Promise you’ll come back to me.”
 Fox kissed her on the head. “I promise.”

Wolf’s Victory

 “Alright, here it is,” Slippy said, pointing to a blurry brown shape amidst a sea of lighter brown.
 They were all gathered once again around the armory table, a week after their mission on Emayn ended, looking at a recon picture of the Venom coordinates they received from Hohleran. There wasn’t much in the picture, just a brown square in the middle of a desert.
 “So what is it?” Fox asked, stretching his back. “The picture isn’t too clear, it could just be a large rock.”
 “Well, that’s what I thought,” Slippy replied. “But I figured they wouldn’t give us coordinates to a rock, so I checked the satellite’s distance and zoom level, and this thing is very, very big.”
 Fox didn’t like the sound of that. “How big?”
 Slippy hesitated. It was clear he didn’t like this either. “A little over a mile in each direction.”
 There was a stunned silence, then Falco muttered, “Holy shit.” Fox was still looking at the picture.
 “Do you have any idea what it is? Just a really big facility?”
 Slippy shrugged. “Could be anything, it’s too blurry to see any distinguishing features. I think the bigger question is what this thing has to do with Emayn, a small island half a galaxy away.”
 Fox nodded. “Well, that’s what we’re being paid to do. I’ll go report the situation so far to Pepper, then we’ll do a flyby recon of this thing. Get the Arwings prepped, I’ll meet you all in the hanger in, say, an hour.”
 The team gave the affirmative and left. Fox lingered back and looked at the picture. He didn’t like the look of it at all. There was something deeper going on. Something wasn’t right. Wolf hasn’t been seen since his little speech on Emayn. Did he go here?
 Fox shook his head. Guess we’ll find out today, he thought, and went to give his report.

         * * *

 Fox grimaced as he looked at Venom looming in the distance. He always hated seeing the brown ball of wasteland, and that day was no exception. No matter, this was just going to be a quick reconnaissance of this big square, then get the hell outta there.
 The four Arwings flew in formation silently until twenty minutes later, after entering the atmosphere of Venom. “Here’s the coordinates. We’ll have to fly at a minimum of 500 feet to get a clear identification, ok Fox?”
 Fox looked at the flashing waypoint on his electronic map and said, “Yeah, just follow me.”
 No more than five minutes later, Fox squinted into the distance and said, “I think I have a visual. Holy sh…”
 “Look at the size of that thing!” Peppy cut in.
 It was just as it looked in the picture. A gigantic brown square, at least a mile long in each direction, as Slippy had estimated. There were no visibly protrusions or weapons systems, but the surface was covered in grooves. Fox suddenly felt extremely nervous.
 “Ok guys, hurry up and get any readings you can, and let’s get outta here.”
 After a few seconds of flying over the massive structure, Fox’s scan came back. There was power and life forms in the structure, as well as large weapons. Fox confirmed his readings with is team, and got the affirmative.
 “Hey, something’s opening on the roof!” Falco suddenly yelled.
 Fox snapped his head to the right and saw that a door was opening along on of the rectangular grooves. “Uh, guys, I think we should---“
 Fox was cut off as three small missiles shot out of the blackness in the door and sped right for them. “Evade, evade!” Fox shouted and jerked his Arwing to the left. Two of the missiles screamed over the canopy. His heart skipped a beat as he frantically looked around for the third one. It found him.
 The missile hit the Arwing just behind the cockpit, blowing out the G-Diffuser and propulsion system. Fox’s heart raced as he frantically tried to control the ship. It was no use, he began spinning towards the ground.
 He managed to keep the Arwing level with the ground and hit the ground face-up. The sand cushioned his crash somewhat, and Fox prayed the whole way down that the ship wouldn’t explode on impact. Luck was with him, and he slid a few hundred yards before grinding to a halt. He sat in the cockpit, stunned and panting, looking out the cracked canopy. He suddenly became aware of voices in his ear. It was his team.
 “Fox! Fox answer me! Shit, shit, Fox! Are you alright?” Fox recognized the voice as Peppy’s.
 “Yeah,” Fox choked out, coughing in the smoke. “Yeah, I’m ok. The ship’s totaled.” He suddenly remembered that he was not far from a base on Venom that just shot him down and knew it. “Guys, I need an evac NOW. Get over here, hurry!”
 “Fox, almost all the grooves have opened up. There are more weapons on that thing than anything I’ve ever seen before. We can’t get close. Hang tight, we’ll find a way.”
 Fox hit the side of the cockpit in frustration. He then realized he was sitting inside a ship that could explode at any moment and pushed hard on the canopy, finally getting it open and feeling the dry air of Venom. He hopped out and looked at the damage.
 Most of the back of the Arwing was gone. There didn’t seem to be a fire, but it was smoking from inside. It would never fly again. Fox leaned on the hull and took his comm. off, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He glanced over and saw the structure in the distance, flashes of orange sparking over it. And something else…
 Fox stood straight up and squinted. A small dust cloud rose out of the ground in the distance, and it was getting larger. He frantically put his comm. back on said, “Something’s coming! Guys, do you read me? Something is heading towards me!”
 Peppy’s voice came back, equally as frantic. “God, oh God. Fox, I don’t know what to do. We can’t get within a mile of the structure, there’s too much firepower!”
 Fox shook his head and sighed. You knew this was gonna happen eventually. It finally happened. It’s over for you, Fox.
 “Peppy, get clear. Get the team back to the Great Fox. There’s nothing you can do.”
 “No way! We can’t just leave you alone on Venom. There’s gotta be a way.”
 “I won’t be alone soon,” Fox muttered, glancing over at the approaching dust cloud. “Just get clear. You’ll hear a report soon, one way or the other.” He took off the comm. and threw it on the ground before Peppy could argue. He then took out his blaster, flicked the safety off, and sat down on the sand, his back against the Arwing.
 Minutes later he heard the rumbling of a heavy truck. His heart started beating faster as the sound approached. He got on one knee, the gun pointed up in a ready position, still concealed by the Arwing. Soon the rumbling sounded like it was right on top of him, then it was cut off. He heard the sound of shuffling footsteps in the sand, and faint voices.
 Fox took a deep breath, popped up, and fired off three rounds at the general direction of the sound. He hit the dirt as his three lasers were answered by a hail of rifle fire that flew over his head and bounced off the hull. There were at least twenty soldiers in a semi-circle formation, all aiming at the Arwing.
 Fox got back into his crouch, careful to keep his head well below the Arwing’s hull. He was contemplating what to do when a voice from the soldiers yelled out, “McCloud!”
 Fox shook his head and scoffed. “Wolf!” he yelled back. “Why am I not surprised? I knew you didn’t have the balls to stick around in Emayn and fight me fairly.”
 He was answered by a scornful laugh. “I was very disappointed to hear you not only won back your reputation, but managed to inflict such damage. That little stunt set our operation back considerably. But this time Fox, there’s no escape. No fancy little speeches, no decisions. There’s two ways out of this Fox. Either throw your gun away and come out, or we blow that ship and you to pieces.”
 Gee, let me think about that one for a sec.
 But then Fox remembered something. His father was shot down over Venom, then tortured and killed. What will Wolf do once he has Fox?
 There were no other alternatives. Fox wanted SOME chance of coming out of this alive, and it was clear he couldn’t shoot his way out of this or stall any longer. With a hard swallow, he threw his gun over the Arwing, raised his hands and stood up.

    * * *

 Falco, Slippy, and Peppy hopped out of their ships the second they touched the deck of the Great Fox’s hangar. They all sprinted together to the bridge and called up the coordinates of the structure again.
 “Ok,” Peppy said anxiously. “Now Fox went down west of that thing.”
 Slippy controlled the satellite’s angle and panned the camera left. Soon they saw a long groove in the sand and finally a silver object. Slippy zoomed in. They saw the broken remains of Fox’s Arwing and numerous footprints that were already being masked in the shifting sand. Fox was nowhere to be seen.
 “Oh, God,” Peppy whispered, collapsing into one of the swivel chairs. He had frantic thoughts of his last mission with James. It’s happening again…“We’re too late, they got him. What do we do now? What do we do?!”
 “We go back and get him,” Falco replied. “We never leave a teammate behind. He’s saved each of our asses countless times.”
 “Yeah,” Slippy said. “He came and got me when I was shot down on Titania. I want to return the favor.”
 “And how do you propose we do that?” Peppy said in a low voice, looking at the floor. “I want to get him back as much as you do, but we can’t get anywhere near that thing, let alone inside. Besides, you saw the readings, there are countless troops in there.”
 There was silence for a moment, followed by Falco kicking the wall. Peppy continued. “I think we should report this to Pepper, maybe the army can help us out.”
 Falco and Slippy nodded and Peppy punched in Pepper’s number. After one ring, Pepper’s face flashed on the screen and greeted them. He looked again and asked, “Where’s Fox?”
 Peppy gave him the entire account of that day, finishing with, “We called you to ask for the army’s help in getting him back. We can’t do it on our own.”
 Pepper leaned back bowed his head. “This is terrible. Men, you know the army’s policy on aid to independent organizations. We can’t get involved. Fox is a personal friend, I wish I could help. I’m sorry.”
 Peppy nodded and looked at the floor again. “Yeah, we understand,” he muttered and cut the connection. Then, to Falco and Slippy’s surprise, he hopped up and kicked the chair across the bridge. “Bullshit they can’t help! They’re the one’s who sent us on this Goddamn job in the first place!”
 Falco put a hand on his shoulder. “Peppy, we all knew the policy and what we get ourselves into every time we take a job. Fox knew it too. The only thing we can do now is wait. Maybe Fox will settle this on his own.”
 Peppy calmed down and they all did just that. Wait.

    * * *

 The trip back to the huge brown square took no more than ten minutes. Fox sat on the floor of the flatbed, wrists handcuffed behind him, and every second of the trip at least half the soldiers kept a steel look in his direction. He also didn’t like how most rifles still had their safeties off, so he sat still and barely breathed the whole way back.
 When they got inside the facility, which was considerably cooler, one of the soldiers pushed him out, making him almost fall. He recovered and stayed upright, probably much to Wolf’s disappointment, who was watching from the side. Wolf stepped forward and pointed to two of the guards. “You two, escort him to the cell block with me, the rest of you get back to your posts.”
 All but the assigned two slung their weapons and walked off, probably thankful their time in the desert was over. Wolf turned to Fox and said, “Follow me, McCloud, and don’t try anything funny. You’re lucky to be alive as it is.” He turned, then stopped and turned back, an evil grin on his face. “But you won’t think so when I’m done with you.”
 Fox felt the first pangs of panic, and he suddenly realized the seriousness of is situation. He’s a prisoner in the largest base he’s ever seen in the middle of a desert on Venom. He would probably not leave this place alive, Wolf would see to that. He’ll die being tortured, just like his father…
 Fox was snapped out of this by a rough push from behind. He saw Wolf walking away and followed, the two guards behind him.
 He was silently led through a maze of metallic corridors. The place was high tech, security stations, armories, and high clearance areas, most with biohazard symbols plastered on the doors. Wolf stopped at a “Security Level 3” door and swiped a card in a reader. The large door beeped and slid open. Wolf led them into the large square room housing an open freight elevator, which they boarded. Wolf slid the card in the control panel and pushed a button Fox saw marked as “Cell Block”. With a rumble, the platform moved in a downwards diagonal direction.
 After a two minute trip in which no words were exchanged, the elevator stopped in what seemed a whole other building. The floors were gritty stone, the lighting dim, and it obviously wasn’t air conditioned. Wolf turned to Fox, the same evil grin on his face, and said, “Welcome to your home for the rest of your short life.” He turned and walked down the dirty, narrow corridor. Fox swallowed hard and followed.
 There wasn’t much to the cell block. It was a long hallway made of brown stone with old-fashioned metal-barred cells on both sides. Fox noticed all were empty. “I don’t get any buddies?”
 “Not many people are stupid enough to come near here,” Wolf answered without turning around. “Not many people know of it either. Besides, we usually dispose of prisoners before long.”
 Wolf opened the door of one of the middle cells with a clanging sound that Fox would come to fear. The cell was bare brown stone on three sides with a stone bench sticking out of the wall and a metal toilet that Fox didn’t want to even think about. He felt the handcuffs being unlocked and taken off, and he was shoved in before he could even think of reacting. This time he did fall, and hard, knocking the wind out of him. He slowly got up, trying not to look too hurt.
 The door clanged shut and Wolf looked in with a triumphant expression on his face. “I’ll be back soon for a little chat. For now make yourself at home.” He and the guards turned and walked down the hall, leaving Fox alone in the dead quiet and emptiness.

Wish for Death

 It was only about an hour later when Fox heard the distant rumble of the elevator, then echoing footsteps. Fox was sitting on the bench when Wolf and the same two guards appeared on the other side of the bars. “Let’s go, Fox,” Wolf said, motioning to the two guards. One of them opened the door and kept his rifle trained on Fox while the other one applied the handcuffs and pushed him out of the cell.
 Fox was led down the hall away from the elevator to a door at the far end. Fox’s heart sank at what he saw inside.
 The room was a sadist’s dream come true. Racks and tables of torture instruments lined the left wall. There was a table with straps on it in the center and the right wall held four shackles, two above head level and two near the floor. Fox noticed rust-colored stains allover the wall and floor beneath them. Bloodstains.
 Wolf leaned on the table and grinned while Fox took in the sight. “You know, torture rooms all have the same kind of design in the Venom army bases.” He pointed to the shackles on the wall. “I remember Pigma told me your father was shackled to the wall when they finished him. He said you could hear the screams all the way down the cell block.”
 Fox lunged at Wolf, wanting to bash his head into the wall, but the guards held him back. Wolf just laughed and motioned the guards to the wall. They brought Fox over, undid the cuffs and shackled him to the wall. Fox didn’t like the feeling at all, he could barely move his arms or legs.
 “Leave us,” Wolf said to the guards, who then walked out the door and closed it. He then turned to the wall opposite Fox and started fidgeting with something on it. Fox craned his neck best he could and saw it was a comm. screen.
 Who the hell would he be calling now?

   * * *

 Peppy, Falco, and Slippy were sitting silently in the recreation room of the Great Fox when the comm. beeped. “Good, maybe Pepper finally thought to help,” Peppy said and ran over to the screen, the other two following. He hit the receive button and instead got Wolf O’Donnell standing with his arms folded, a gloating grin on his muzzle.
 Peppy sighed and said, “Wolf, we’re really not in the mood for your crap right now. Go crawl back under your rock.” He was about to disconnect when Wolf cut in.
 “Aw, is that any way to treat someone calling to do you a favor?”
 Peppy’s hand froze. “What are you talking about?”
 Wolf’s grin grew wider. “Well, I just thought I’d let you say your final goodbyes to your leader.” He stepped aside, revealing Fox shackled to the back wall. The team gasped, and Falco shouted, “Fox! Are you ok?” Fox nodded.
 “This seem a little familiar, Peppy? Wolf said. “This is the last position you saw another McCloud in before a long, painful death, which is exactly what Fox is going to get.”
 “Wolf, you bastard,” Peppy muttered. “What do you want? What’s a fair trade?”
 Wolf laughed. “Trade? I’ve already got exactly what I want. Well, I’ve got to get back to work, so say your last farewells.” His hand moved towards the screen.
 The three of them looked at Fox, not knowing what to say. Fox looked back with an expression of desperation that wrenched Peppy’s heart and said in a near whisper, “It’s ok.” The screen went black.

    * * *

 Wolf turned back to Fox and said, “Well, now that that’s out of the way, we can have some fun. Well, I can anyway.” He walked over to one of the tables and looked down at the various instruments. “You know, Leon is actually our torture expert. Hell, half of these were designed by him. But I asked him to teach me about the art of torture for just this moment.” He picked up a sharp metal rod that circled in a corkscrew shape. “I wanted to do you personally.” He walked back towards Fox.
 It was too much for Fox to take. He had never been in this situation, not had he any training for it. He started shaking, his hear beating faster and faster, and broke out in a cold sweat. “Wolf, no, please! Please don’t do this! Wolf, NO!” But Wolf didn’t even hesitate.

 The elevator guard would later tell Wolf that those were the worst screams he had heard in his entire life.

 An hour later, Fox was dragged back to his cell. He lay on his back where he was thrown, breathing in short rasps. His clothes were torn and blood soaked his clothes and matted down his fur. One of the guards turned to Wolf, who was wiping the blood off his hands on a rag, and asked if Fox would even live through the night. Wolf laughed and said he hoped so, because he had more planned for tomorrow. Fox heard this and uttered something between a whimper and a groan.
 “See you tomorrow Fox, same time, same place,” Wolf said then walked off with the guard.
 Fox didn’t move from his position on the floor for hours. Every muscle felt like it had been gone through a blender. He finally found enough strength to make it to the bench and lie on it. Didn’t have to worry about the toilet, he had taken care of that in the torture room. He drifted into an uncomfortable and restless sleep.

   * * *

 So went the routine for the next seventeen days. Every single day, Fox’s team begged different officers in the Cornerian Army for help. All came back with the same answer, that policy did not allow it. The team wasn’t taking it well. They were all like brothers, and it was agonizing to be so helpless in the situation.
 There was a routine in the dark cell block as well. Every afternoon Fox was led to the torture room, where he lived his personal hell for one or two hours. He was then dragged back to his cell where he would lay for hours, not being able to move. The torture got worse and worse, and Fox got weaker and weaker. On the eleventh day of his imprisonment, he wished for death. He wished that Wolf would slip and slit his throat or wrist. He would lie in the darkness and pray for death to come to him in his sleep. He stopped eating the sparse meals that were brought to him, hoping to soon die of starvation.
 But on the fifteenth day, he tried to think clearer and had a different view. He thought about Vixy. He wanted to see her again so badly. He wanted to see his team again. He wanted to kill Wolf and Leon and Pigma. And he did NOT want to die like his father. And he discovered that these wants overpowered the want to die. He started eating again to build his strength up and looked more sharply for any chance, no matter how slim, to escape. He would escape or die trying.
 He finally saw his chance on the eighteenth day.

 Fox was lying on the bench as usual when he heard the dreaded echoing footsteps. Only this time there were three sets instead of two. Fox sat up and looked through the bars to see Leon Powalski and Pigma Dengar, along with the usual guard. “Hello, Fox,” Leon said in his aloof tone. “Wolf’s taking a day off to handle another situation, but asked if I would render my services in his place.” He grinned. “Of course, I was overjoyed to accept.”
 Fox shrugged. Torture was torture. “What’s that fat shit doing here then?” he rasped, nodding towards Pigma, who scowled.
 “I’m here just to watch. I was there for your father’s; I want to be there for yours.”
 This time, Fox didn’t have enough strength to get pissed. He just stood up and assumed the normal position as the guard entered. His plan was forming on the way to the torture room. Fox noticed earlier that the right wrist shackle was extremely loose. He had just been waiting for the right opportunity to break it. He just had to count on Pigma’s cowardice, which was pretty reliable.
 Fox was shackled to the wall, grimacing at the pain of his muscles working. Pigma leaned against the back wall, grinning that annoying grin while Leon prepared his tools. Fox carefully tested the shackle. It was definitely loose. Leon walked back with the same corkscrew-like instrument Wolf had first used, his eyes gleaming.
 He’s really enjoying this. Sick bastard.
 But he never got the chance to use it. With a grunt, Fox pulled as hard as he could on the right shackle. It came snapped out of the wall with a spray of dust, and Fox continues the swing right into Leon’s face. Fox quickly undid the other shackles and looked to see that Pigma had run off, as Fox had hoped. Leon had got up shakily and faced Fox. Fox saw the sharp instrument on the ground and grabbed for it as Leon followed. Fox got his hand on it first and pulled away. Leon delivered a punch that had more of an effect in Fox’s state. He reeled back against the wall, steadying himself. Leon came after him. Fox ducked the next punch and came back with a kick to the stomach. Then, with a yell venting all the pain of the past two and a half weeks, spun around and shoved the instrument as hard as he could into Leon’s neck.
 It was a hard blow, and Fox could see the tip poking out of the other side of Leon’s neck. He went down slowly, gurgling, blood gushing out of his neck. Fox stood and stared down at Leon. He wanted to make damn sure the Leon knew he was going to die at the hands of Fox McCloud. Leon fell to his knees, then the gurgling stopped and he fell face forward and lay still, a pool of blood spreading on the stone floor.
 Two down, two to go.
 Fox didn’t have long to celebrate the victory. Apparently Pigma had sent a guard to see who won, because he was too chicken to do it himself. There was a pounding on the door, and a shot of, “Hey is everything alright in there? Open up!” Fox ran over to the instrument table and picked up a knife just as the guard rushed through the door. Praying that the practice would now pay off, Fox took half a second to aim, then threw the knife. It was a perfect throw, surprising in his condition, and the knife went straight through the guard’s right eye. He collapsed soundlessly to the floor.
 Reviewing his handiwork in the room, Fox fought back his urge to throw up, and instead searched Leon’s corpse. He found a security card, like Wolf had, his wallet, and a lighter. He took the card and moved on to the guard’s body, his eyes avoiding the head. He took the guard’s armor vest and put it over his torn black shirt (he had long ago lost his jacket). He took the thigh holster with a standard-issue pistol in it and put it on, turning the safety off first. Finally, he picked up the assault rifle, saw the safety was already off, and flicked the switch to “FA”, full auto.
 Fox sat down on the floor, his back against the wall, and rested. Some of the adrenaline had worn off, and he remembered he wasn’t in prime shape. His right arm was screaming from the effort of pulling the shackle and stabbing Leon. Fox took a deep breath and decided that this was it. Either he made it our or he died. If he was pinned down and told to surrender, he would rush out and just try to take some of them with him. But he was never coming back to this dungeon again.
 With his mind set, Fox stood up and walked out the door.

Test of Courage

 Fox made it to the freight elevator platform with no encounter, and had a quiet ride all the way up, trying to remember the way back to the hangar. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, and saw that his hand came back red. He looked down and saw his bloodstained and torn clothes, and knew the white fur on his muzzle and head was probably all discolored by now. There probably wasn’t a single place on his body that didn’t have a cut or burn or something. I hope the team still recognizes me. This thought for some reason made him laugh uncontrollably for well over half a minute. He finally got a grip on himself, praying he wasn’t going crazy.
 The elevator ground to a halt on the first floor, and all thoughts of laughing fortunately ceased. Fox crept over to the door and carefully opened it. No one was in the hall, and he moved quietly to the left, he hoped the direction of the hangar.
 He made it around a few curves before he turned and ran into two guards. Fox backtracked, firing off a burst and ducking back around the corner as they returned fire. One of them told the other to go for help, while he continued firing down the corridor. Fox saw a door across the hall from where he was. It was labeled “Control D” and had a card reader by the door. Fox fired down the hall, making the guard duck back, and ran to the door, hoping Leon’s card was high enough level. He fired again as he swiped the card and heard it beep, the door then sliding open. He sighed with relief, shot the card reader, and then hopped in as the door slid shut.
 The room was filled with computer monitors and control panels. Fox quickly checked each one, trying to find the blueprint for the facility. He found it on the fourth console and saw he was on the right track. A few corridors down was the hangar.
 He was about to turn away when something caught his eye. On the startup menu was a “Facility Division” option, with a list of names under it. Fox saw that one of them was “Emayn”, and selected it. It brought up a long list of tech-talk and a blueprint of a circular building. Fox brought up the message service and typed in Pepper’s address. He highlighted the entire topic and sent it. Maybe that answers why Venom invaded Emayn.
 Fox’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud alarm that suddenly went off, followed by a message from the intercom system.
 “Attention, all personnel. Attention all personnel. There is a prisoner loose in the left wing, section D. Red fox, male, assumed to be armed. By orders of the commandant, kill on sight, repeat kill on sight.” The message repeated, then clicked off.
 I gotta get outta here soon.
 Fox ran to the other door across the room and checked outside. All clear. He sprinted towards the hanger, trying to remember the blueprint. He turned a corner and saw a guard walking towards him. Fox continued and his sprint and punched the guard on the way past him. The guard went down without Fox even slowing.
 Fox finally saw a door marked “Hangar B” with a sign under it that said “No Smoking”. Fox slid the card just as he heard a voice from behind him. “Fox!”
 Fox turned and saw Wolf, with about ten guards behind him. His heart skipped a beat, and he turned and sprinted into the hanger. Some scattered laser followed him, one just nipping his tail.
 Ahead of him was a huge room that stretched on for hundreds of yards, lined with Venom fighters. The bay doors were all closed, but hat didn’t worry Fox, he could make his own door with the lasers. He was more worried about his visitors behind him.
 Fox ran and ducked behind the nearest fighter just as Wolf and his buddies entered the hangar. He heard the rifles fire, and felt an explosion of pain in his left shoulder. He fell with a yell of pain to the metal floor behind the fighter and looked at his shoulder. There was a smoking wound, a laser had gone through. Fox could barely move his left arm, and blood was running down it, dripping off his fingers onto the floor.
 “Fox, we’ve seen this situation before,” Wolf yelled. “You didn’t get out of it last time, and you won’t this time. Come out.” He then told a guard to go find Leon and tell him to go to the hangar.
 “He’s taking a little nap in the torture room.” Fox called out, trying to keep a steady voice through the pain in his shoulder. “Probably has a stiff neck.”
 There was silence. Fox knew that Leon was a close friend of Wolf’s. He hoped he hadn’t made Wolf angry enough to do something stupid, like blowing them all to hell by shooting wildly. The hangar was littered with oil and fuel barrels.
 The oil barrels!
 Fox looked around and saw one to the left of the door a ways. The explosion wouldn’t kill all the guards, but that’s alright. He wanted the smoke. Hopefully it wouldn’t cause a chain reaction explosion with the other barrels, but he was out of options.
 “Ok, Fox,” Wolf said in an even tone. “This time you die. No surrender, this time we shoot you down right where you stand. Move in!”
 Fox heard rustling footsteps as the guards moved forward. It was now or never. Fox dropped the rifle, and took out the pistol, which he was more accurate with. He took a deep breath, popped out, and fired one round at the barrel.
 The explosion made him stagger backwards and killed one or two of the guards. The oil that was splattered on the ground caught fire and created a thick black smoke that soon enveloped the ship. Fox held his breath and mounted climbed into the ship as Wolf yelled, “Fire! Just fire!”
 Fox closed the canopy and let out his breath. He couldn’t see out the glass, but he could hear lasers pinging off the hull of the fighter. He started up the engine and charged the weapons system. While Fox had never flown a Venom fighter, the cockpit was similar to an Arwing, and he quickly found the firing system.
 The lasers did nothing against the bay door, but two bombs made a hole that let in bright sunlight that temporarily blinded Fox, who hadn’t seen the sun for two and a half weeks. The shields started taking a beating from the soldiers, which motivated Fox to quickly find the throttle. He did and pushed it all the way up.
 The ship shot out of the hole in the door, barely fitting, and up away from the facility. Fox let out a sigh of relief, then shook his head. He started feeling a little dizzy. He looked and saw that his left arm was completely covered in blood, his hand leaving a red print on the stick. He needed to get back soon, or his escape will have been for nothing.

                 * * *

 “Vixy called last night,” Peppy said to Falco and Slippy as they walked to the rec room. “She asked to speak to Fox.”
 Falco shook his head and sighed. “You didn’t tell her, did you?”
 “What else could I do? She’d find out eventually. Someone in the army leaked it, it was all over the news in Corneria a few days ago, only a matter of time before it spread to Emayn.”
 “Jeez,” Slippy muttered. “How’d she take it?”
 “Bad. She cried of course, asked what was being done, what she could do. I told her all we could do was wait, and that we wouldn’t give up. She asked us to keep her posted on everything. I said I would.”
 Falco nodded. “We could ask Bill Grey for help, he’s good friends with Fox, he might be able to---“
 He was cut off by a message over the intercom from ROB. “Unidentified ship of Venom class approaching. Request instructions.”
 Peppy shrugged and they walked to the bridge. Peppy hit the immediate-area radio frequency transmitter and said, “Unidentified craft, this is Peppy Hare of the StarFox team. We have you on our radar, please identify yourself. Failure to comply will tag you as hostile.”
 Peppy waited a moment and was about to say the message again when a faint, strained voice came over the radio. “…my God, I’m so glad…to hear your voice.”
 The three of them froze and stared at the radio. Falco stepped forward and hit the send button. “…Fox?”
 “Falco…guys…..listen…” Fox rasped, between deep breaths. “I…I need to get…to a hospital. Meet me…at the hangar.”
 Falco sprinted towards the elevator shouting back for Peppy and Slippy to hurry up. They got to the hangar to see a Venom fighter landing awkwardly. The canopy opened and a familiar figure stood up. Peppy broke into tears right there, simultaneously overjoyed to see Fox, yet horrified at his condition. Fox slowly climbed down, leaving a smear of blood on the ship’s hull. The entire left side of his torso was covered in blood from the shoulder wound, and it dripped onto the metal floor. Peppy ran forward and threw his arms around Fox. “You made it! Oh, God, Fox, I’m so sorry.”
 Fox managed a weak smile, then collapsed into Peppy’s arms, unconscious.

    * * *

 For the second time that month, three members Starfox waited anxiously in hospital waiting room to see if their leader would make it. Only this time it was in Corneria City instead of Emayn. The team rushed Fox there as fast as they could, and the doctors in the emergency room were shocked to see he was still alive, considering the damage done to him. Peppy was asked more than once if he was injured, because so much of Fox’s blood was on him.
 They took Fox away and told the three of them to stay in the waiting room and a doctor would be with them soon. That was two hours ago. They had been silent the whole time, and Falco finally spoke up. “So he made it out. Looks like a hell of a fight too from that wound on his shoulder.” After a moment, he continued. “You know… I feel like we let him down. We should have done something, anything. We know that if one of us was in that situation, he wouldn’t sleep until we were out.”
 Peppy shook his head. “I feel that way too, but we all know that there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t get anywhere near that thing, let alone inside. Fox knew that too. All we can do now is help him recuperate…if he makes it. I’ve known Fox since we was a baby, he’s like a son to me, and if something could’ve been done, we would have done it.”
 They were silent for another few minutes. Falco was about to go look for a doctor when one came into the waiting room, a middle-aged tiger in a white coat. “Good evening, I’m Doctor Masadu. You are the ones who came in with Mr. McCloud?”
 They all hopped up. “Yeah, how is he?” Slippy shouted from the back.
 Masadu took off his glasses and sighed. “I’ll be straight with you. He’s in critical condition and may not make it through the night. He fell unconscious due to blood loss and exhaustion, and has not recovered from that yet. Furthermore, with all the wounds he sustained over time, and their exposure, it’s amazing he lived this long. All we can do now is wait.”
 Peppy nodded. That was the kind of answer he expected. “Can we see him?”
 Masadu hesitated, then said, “Well, usually only immediate family can visit with critical patients, but I know his story. You can see him one at a time.”
 Peppy turned to his teammates. “I want one of with him at all times, for when he wakes up. You two find a hotel near here and get some sleep, come back in the morning, ok?” They nodded. Peppy turned and followed the doctor through the white halls.
 “Will he have any permanent scars?” Peppy asked as they walked.
 “Yes, many, but they should all be covered when his fur grows back. Won’t take long, maybe a week or two, and he’ll look like normal.” The doctor stopped in front of a wooden door marked “226” and said, “This is it. Feel free to stay as long as you want, but only one of you at a time.” Peppy nodded and the doctor walked off.
 The room was dark, the only light coming from the streetlamps and moon. Peppy fumbled his way to the side of the bed and turned on the desk lamp, brightening the white room.
 They had cleaned Fox up well, and Peppy tried to forget how he saw him in the Great Fox’s hangar. The fur on his muzzle and on top of head was white again, and the wounds had been stitched up. He could see the ends of a large bandage that was wound around his left shoulder under the hospital gown, and a white sheet was pulled up to his chest. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully.
 Peppy pulled a chair up close to the side of the bed and sat, resting his elbows on his knees. He stayed in that chair all night, watching Fox’s chest rise and fall, listening to the beeping of the heart monitor, and praying that it would keep beeping. Every half four or so, a nurse would come in to check on Fox and asked if Peppy needed anything, which he always declined to.
 Around 7:00 the following morning, Falco entered and walked up to Peppy. He looked at Fox for a moment then said, “Go get some sleep, man. I’ll stay with him.” Peppy reached out, squeezed Fox’s hand gently, then left. Falco took Peppy’s place in the chair and looked at Fox. He had always tried to surpass Fox in flight and marksmanship and all, but he always admired him as well. Now he got that same feeling of admiration. Fox had taken two and a half weeks of extreme torture, then, even with his wounds, managed to break out of a high-security facility and fly back to them with a hole in his shoulder.
 Falco shook his head in wonder. “You got some balls, man. Usually see that kinda shit in the movies.”

     * * *

 Fox was back in the dungeon, and the cell seemed smaller, the lighting dimmer. No he thought. I can’t be back here, I escaped! But he was, and he could hear footsteps approaching from the elevator. No! No more of this! I escaped! I’m not here!
 Wolf appeared in front of his cell, grinning his menacing grin. Leon stood beside him, the corkscrew still in his neck, blood gushing from the wound. A guard with a knife sticking out of his eye flanked Wolf on the right.
 “It’s time, Fox. You’re with us forever, there is no escape. You’ll never get away from us,” they all said at once.
 “No!” Fox shouted back. “I’m not here! I escaped. Leon’s dead!”
 “No I’m not Fox, and I’m here to give Wolf a lesson on torture. Guess who my subject will be?”
 The guard opened the door and walked in. Fox backed up, flattening himself against the wall. “Stay away! This isn’t happening! It can’t be! No!”

            * * *

 Fox’s eyes snapped open, and he was looking at a white tile ceiling. He didn’t know where he was, and the images of the dream were still etched in his eyes. He sat bolt upright, feeling a throbbing in his left shoulder, and scaring the hell out of someone sitting next to him, who fell backwards out of his chair. His eyes darted around the room, looking for Wolf or Leon or a guard with a slight eye irritation.
 The person who fell stood up and stared at him. “Fox!”
 Fox stared back, trying to comprehend what was going on. What the hell was Falco doing on Venom? Had he been captured too? But this didn’t look like the dungeon…
 Fox backed up in his bed. “What’s going on? Where am I?” he asked hysterically. Falco ran over to him and grabbed his shoulders, careful to avoid the wound. “Fox, Fox, calm down. Focus on me! Ok, listen, you’re in a Corneria City hospital. You flew back to us on the Great Fox, remember? It’s over, Fox. It’s over!”
 Fox stared back, and it all rushed back into memory. The torture, the escape, landing on the Great Fox, then darkness. Sitting there, staring at one of his closest friends, he reflected on what had happened, and it was overwhelming. Too overwhelming.
 It’s over. It’s all over
 “Oh my God…” he whispered, and he and Falco embraced. Fox tried to hold it back, but it was no use. He silently cried into Falco’ shoulder, while his friend patted him on the back, saying, “It’s ok man, it’s ok. You’re home.”

     * * *

 Falco had to leave while the doctors ran tests on Fox, so he ran to a payphone and called his hotel room to tell Peppy and Slippy the news. By the time they arrived, the doctors had finished, and the same one who initially treated Fox, Dr. Masadu, told them that he was in stable condition and would fully recover. He could also have any visitors now.
 They thanked the doctor and went in to see Fox. The bed was inclined now, so he was sitting up, and he was staring straight ahead at the white wall across the room. He looked over as they entered and smiled weakly.
 “Hey, guys.”
 “Fox, thank God you’re alright,” Peppy said as they walked over to the side of his bed. “You feel alright?”
 “Yeah, just a load of muscle aches, and I can’t move my left arm too well.”
 Peppy nodded, then looked at the floor. “Fox, I’m sorry we didn’t do anything. We felt terrible, but we couldn’t think of a way…”
 Fox shook his head. “There was nothing you could do. Don’t worry, I know you did all you could.”
 Peppy nodded then looked up again. “Listen, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but would you mind telling us what happened? Especially how the hell you got out of there?”
 Fox took a deep breath and resumed his stare of the white wall. He didn’t want to relive it, but he didn’t want to keep it pent up inside him either. He also didn’t know how he would handle talking about it. He decided he would stop the second he thought he was going to lose it.
 So he told the story, from his encounter with Wolf when his ship went down, all the way to flying the Venom fighter out of the smoking hangar. He only had to stop once to regain himself, when he first told of the torture.
 “…so then I just flew up and out of there, hoping you didn’t take the Great Fox too far. Next thing I know, I woke up here. That’s it.”
 The rest of the team had been leaning forward in their seats, and now sat back. “So Leon’s dead, eh?” Falco said. “Nice.”
 They spent the rest of the afternoon talking of lighter matters. When Fox heard that Vixy found out what happened to him, he told Peppy to call her immediately and say he was alright. A few minutes after he went to do that, Fox got another visitor. General Pepper knocked on the door and walked in, his two aides standing outside the door. He greeted the team, who gave him a mildly angry glance, and asked if he could talk to Fox alone. They hesitantly stood up and left.
 Pepper tossed his hat on the end table and sat next to Fox. “They’re angry with me, and they have every right to be. They asked, they begged, for my help to get you back.”
 “I know the army’s policy. I didn’t expect help,” Fox replied evenly.
 “Oh, screw the policy. I should have done something. You and Peppy are close personal friends, and so was your father. I’m just glad to see you’re ok.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Listen, Fox. I also came by to tell you I received those files you sent me from the base. You’re going to have to tell me how you did that sometime. Anyway, this whole thing is bigger than I thought. As soon as you’re back on your feet, the army’s war council wants to have a meeting with you. We need your help.”
 Fox nodded slowly, not knowing what Pepper was talking about.
 “I’m sorry to put this on you so quickly, but it’s urgent. For now, get some rest. I’ll be in touch.” He picked up his hat and walked to the door. “Oh,” he said, turning around. “I know it must seem trivial now, but I added a little hazard bonus on your payment. I transferred into your account this morning. Bye Fox.”
 He walked out and Fox chuckled. Money. The last thing on my mind.

    * * *

 He sure cared about money when he saw the hospital bill a week later and was glad they got the extra bonus. Fox was fully recovered, and all but the worst scars were barely noticeable. The team came by to pick him up, and as they walked out, Dr. Masadu asked to speak to Peppy in private.
 When they were alone in a side hall, Masadu turned to him and said, “I just wanted to let you know that, as is standard with torture victims since the war, we had Fox talk to the hospital psychiatrist.”
 Peppy seemed alarmed. “What, you think he’s crazy?”
 “No, no, it’s just that torture has been known to drive people insane. It’s just common practice. The report gives back a usual diagnosis. According to the report, Fox passionately wants revenge on his captors, understandably. However, he also has a severe fear of them. That means that if he sees Wolf O’Donnell, hears him, or sometimes even just hear his name, it would be as if his worst fear was just realized. You must be careful with this, try not to push him about the subject for a month or so. Also, he will most likely have nightmares for a while; I know he had them here the past week. All you and your team can do now is comfort him when it happens. Fox is a strong man, he’ll get over this.”
 Peppy nodded. “Thanks, doctor. Thanks for everything.”
 Masadu smiled back and Peppy turned to catch up with his team.

    * * *

 Fox got a call the next day in his hotel room from General Pepper, asking if he was free to meet that day with the board. He still didn’t know what was going on, but said yes, so he could get this whole thing out of the way and move on. He got into his brand-new uniform, told the team where he was going and headed out.
 The army’s base was just outside the city, only a few miles from the hotel, so Fox took a cab. To his surprise, Pepper met him out front.
 “Hi, Fox. Thanks for coming on such short notice, I’m afraid things are hectic around here.”
 Pepper hesitated. “You’ll find out soon. Come on, the council’s waiting.”
 Pepper led Fox through the halls, past at least five doors flanked by guards and requiring retina scans, going deeper than Fox had ever been in the base. They finally came to a door marked “Secure Conference Room” with another set of guards. Pepper showed his ID and entered the room, Fox following.
 The inside looked like any office conference room. A huge ovular table dominated the center, with a screen against the right wall. The chairs lining the table were taken by men of all species in army uniforms, except for two, one at the head, and the other right next to it on the right. Pepper took the head and motioned for Fox to take the other.
 “Gentlemen, this is Fox McCloud of the StarFox team. He has been good enough to come on short notice to give us the required intelligence.” The officers nodded, and Pepper turned to Fox. “Fox, something has come up, and the facility you were recently imprisoned in is the key element to it. We need to know everything you know about this place.”
 Fox was still confused, and he knew better then to get involved in things you didn’t understand. He leaned back and said evenly, “I’ll gladly tell you what I know, but this vagueness has gone far enough. I want to know exactly what’s going on here.”
 Pepper looked to an elderly badger at the other head of the table, also a general, and nodded curtly. “General Monagi will give you the details.”
 Fox recognized the name as one of the people Peppy told him they asked for help from. The badger leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, and began. “Your job in Emayn was not a new thing. We had been getting reports from at least seven other towns across the galaxy that Venom troops had suddenly invaded with what seemed like no reason. They even hired mercenary teams, some of which you know; IceStorm, headed by Stefan Chuzie from Fortuna for one. Some of the incursions have not yet been repelled, and we couldn’t figure out why Venom would randomly attack towns or villages on different planets. They didn’t server any military advantage, or so we thought.”
 “We also had no idea of that base on Venom. It wasn’t on any of our charts. It is extremely fortunate you sent us those files, or this could have been a major disaster.” He passed a map of the Lylat system around the table to Fox. There were red dots in numerous places, spread out over the planets. Monagi continued. “The Venom troops began constructing large towers in the towns they invaded. From the files you sent us, we discovered that each town was invaded because they were the perfect location for these relay towers.”
 Fox looked up. “What exactly do they relay?”
 “Well, you know that a missile’s maximum range is only about a quarter of the galaxy. These towers would remotely control missiles, “passing” them off to the next tower. This would make it so Venom could launch missiles across the galaxy.”
 “That’s not all. That base, which we found out is named Overlord, is the relay source. That base is a giant nuclear missile silo, and Venom will be ready to launch in three days. They managed to build enough towers that they can strike up to Corneria. THAT is why everything is so hectic; we’re trying to plan for this. Is that a sufficient enough summary?” He looked at Fox sideways.
 Fox stared in disbelief then muttered, “Holy shit.”
 After a moment, Pepper said in a near whisper, “Fox, there’s more. Apparently, the combination of your escape and the death of Leon made Wolf a bit more angry than normal. He retaliated on Emayn. He broke into Hohleran’s mansion a few nights ago, killed him and kidnapped Vicenzia. She’s being held in Overlord.”
 Fox’s eyes grew wide. “What?!”
 “I’m sorry Fox, but you need to know the facts, because I’m about to ask you a very important question. I know of your connections with Vixy, but we have no choice. We have to destroy that facility.”
 “I know,” Fox said in a whisper.
 “There’s more,” Pepper said, avoiding Fox’s eyes. “The only way to destroy the facility is by destroying the two reactor cores inside. They’re only accessible by flying in, but the bay doors are shut and can only be opened from the inside. The Cornerian Air Force will handle flying in and destroying the cores and the army is sending in a Special Forces squad to infiltrate the base and open the doors.”
 “Will they rescue Vixy?”
 “I’m afraid that’s a touch-and-go situation. If they have time, they will go for it, but the destruction of the base is priority. Fox…the question I have to ask is…I know this is going to be hard, but we want you to go in with the strike team.”
 Fox’s head snapped towards Pepper and he stared, wide-eyed. “What?! You want me to go BACK there? Are you crazy? Forget it, no way in hell.”
 Monagi spoke up. “Mr. McCloud, you’re the only one who knows the inside of that base. There was nothing in the files that could help us, not even the blueprint. You’ll be going in with the army’s best, only to give directions. They’ll ensure your safety.”
 Fox bowed his head. “If you had any idea what happened to me in there, you’d understand. I’m not doing it.”
 There was silence, then Pepper spoke up. “We’ll take a break and meet back here in three hours. Fox, please give it some thought.”
 Fox spent the whole time in the restaurant on the ground floor. At the bar, to be more precise. He sat on the stool, head on one hand, being careful not to get drunk, though he sure felt like doing it. He thought the whole time about what he was proposed, and if he could even do it.
 I can’t go back there. Even if I did go there, we might encounter Wolf. Could I even handle that? I don’t know. This is important though, millions of people could die from this thing. Oh, why does this shit always happen to me?! Why can’t I get a fucking break?!
 But what about Vixy? Kidnapping here was obviously Wolf’s revenge, maybe a ploy to get me to go back. Even if I do go in with the team, there’s no guarantee we’ll get her back. Hell, I might be helping to kill her. I can’t do that. What the hell do I do? It’s my fear against my courage and love. I love her…
 Fox thought for an hour or so more, and an idea began forming in his head. He couldn’t believe he was actually even thinking of doing it, but he had to rescue Vixy. The thought of what happened to him happening to her was unbearable. It all looks good on paper, I just hope my will stands up in the field.

    * * *

 When the council met again at the table, they all sat down and looked immediately at Fox. Fox leaned forward and spoke.
 “Ok, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I’ve decided I’m not going in with the team.”
 General Monagi sighed, as did many others at the table, but Fox continued.
 “I’m going in alone.”
 There were looks of shock around the table, and Pepper replied, “What do you mean?”
 “Ok, here’s my idea. I go in alone an hour or so before you guys attack and the strike team lands. There’s no way I’m doing this if we can’t get Vixy back. I head there, rescue her, and meet the strike team at their drop point. Vixy waits in the dropship while I lead the strike team to the control room. Then we go back to the dropship, and we all leave and watch the fireworks. Vixy’s safe, and the base is destroyed.”
 Pepper leaned back and thought about it. “Are you sure you want to do this? You may run into Wolf, not to mention you’ll be going back to the cell block.”
 Fox felt a chill go down his back and shuddered, as many of the officers noticed. “I’m sure. My only condition is that you give me full access to anything I need from the army.”
 Pepper looked down the table. “Any objections?” There were none. “Alright then. Fox, we’ll go plan this in my office. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.”
 On the way out, Monagi clapped Fox on the back and said, “That’s brave of you, son. Good luck to you.”
 Fox nodded. I’ll need it.


 The rest of the team didn’t take it too well. They thought it was suicide, and begged Fox not to go. Fox did his best to explain, and finally got through. Peppy came to visit Fox in the base’s armory a few hours before he was scheduled to leave. Fox was sitting on a bench in Special Forces issue jumpsuit, which Peppy looked over. It was all black, black boots, knee pads, black body armor, black gloves, the whole nine yards. He was sitting hunched over, looking at his blaster with a sad, thoughtful look.
 “Fox?” Peppy said. “You alright?”
 Fox didn’t look up, but spoke in a near whisper. “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the death, the fighting, the pain. As long as I do this, I’ll always be in danger and so will the people I get close to. I’m tired of it.”
 Peppy sat down next to Fox and hunched over to be at his level. “You know, I thought the exact same way after serving for a while with your father. And I’m going to tell you exactly what he told me. We’re made, Fox. The fact that you stop and think like that makes you one of the good guys. If it were up to us, there would be no violence. But we are made, we are products of war. The good people need defense from those who start wars and those with enough courage and strength bear that burden. People like you and me, and Slippy and Falco. We don’t wish for violence, but we use it to defend from those who do. If we didn’t, there would be even more death and pain.”
 They were silent, then Fox said, “You’re right.”
 Peppy patted him on the back and stood up. “Trust me, you’re doing the right thing. Good luck, Fox. We’ll be waiting for you.” He left.
 Fox felt better. He stood up and holstered the pistol, looking around to see what else he should bring. He settled on his usual assault rifle and packed plenty of ammo and grenades.
 Pepper met him at the bases hangar an hour later, as planned. He had someone else with him, another red fox, slightly older than Fox and a lighter shade of red. He was also in one of the Special Forces suits.
 “Fox McCloud,” Pepper said. “This is Lieutenant Ike Birse, the commanding officer of the team you will be working with. I’m going to see if the ship is ready, you two make sure you understand the plan.” He walked off, leaving the two foxes to talk.
 “Alright,” Birse began, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know to meet us on the roof just outside of the access hatch on the lower-right section, right? Radio us when you have the girl, and we’ll land. There’s gonna be a lot fighting going on outside, probably one of the largest aerial battles since the war, so we need to move quick. We’ll have a few fighters guarding the dropship, so we should be alright.” Fox nodded and Birse continued. “Also, I know your reputation, but I have to say this. I’ve only worked with a mercenary once before, and he betrayed us and killed two of my men before we got him. If you start acting suspicious or lead my men into a trap, we will not hesitate to put you down. I’m sorry, but I’m not too trusting of mercenaries.”
 Seems to be a lot of that going around.
 Fox just nodded. He had too many things on his mind to be angry.
 “Alright then,” Birse continued. “Good luck and we’ll see you on the roof.” They shook hands and Birse walked off. Pepper came back and told Fox the ship and decoys were ready. “Your dropship will fly below their radar while the decoy fighters distract them on the other end. You should be able to get in completely unnoticed.”
 Fox nodded. “Well, guess it’s time.”
 Pepper nodded. “Best of luck to you, Fox.” They solemnly shook hand, and Fox boarded the ship.

    * * *

 It was almost dawn at Overlord when the ships arrived, and Fox was thankful he couldn’t see the base through the darkness of the desert. Fox heard “thirty seconds!” through his earpiece and moved towards the door, his heart beat quickening. He snapped on is night vision goggles and waited. When the pilot shouted “go!”, Fox heaved the door open and hopped out onto the roof, his heart racing. He looked around in the green haze through the goggles at the familiar stone and grooves.
 I can’t believe I’m back here. Good God, help me.
 Fox looked around as the dropship lifted off and flew away. He finally spotted the access hatch and opened it, seeing a ladder leading down. It was lit, so Fox took off the goggles and threw them aside.
 Through the door beside the bottom of the ladder was the usual metallic corridor. It was the perfect drop point, as Fox had suspected. He was only a few doors from the elevator to the cells. With this place’s size at this early, he should be able to get there without encountering anyone.
 Fox moved slowly, taking silent steps, his rifle up to his shoulder, aimed straight ahead. After ten minutes, he saw the familiar door marked “Security Level 3”. He took out the hacking tool he asked Slippy for and stuck it onto the card reader. After a few seconds of random beeping, the door slid open. Fox packed the tool and moved in.
 Inside was the freight elevator platform, which made Fox shudder. He mustered his strength and moved to the control panel. He put the hacking tool on the reader and waited for it to do its thing.
 Before it finished, Fox heard a door slide open. He spun around and saw a bewildered soldier looking at him. They both raised their weapons at the dame time, but Fox got his burst off quicker. The three lasers hit the guard squarely in the chest, and he fell backwards.
 “Shit,” Fox muttered, praying he hadn’t alerted anyone. He ran over and dragged the body into a corner of the room. He listened at the door for a few minutes then went back to the control panel. The hacker was done, and the buttons were lit up. Fox hit “Cell Block” and the elevator moved.
 I’m going back down to the dungeon. What the hell am I thinking?
 The two minute ride down was torture in itself. Fox didn’t know how he’d react to seeing the cells again, and he wasn’t in a hurry to find out. He did know that there was one guard posted just inside the cell block door from the elevator room, so he got ready.
 The platform ground to a halt, and Fox didn’t see the guard. He must be on the inside. Fox walked silently over to the hinged metal door and put his ear to it. He could hear light shuffling from the other side, close to the door. Fox grinned and backed up. He took a running leap and kicked the door in, slamming the guard face forward onto the ground. Fox put a laser into the back of his head just to be sure.
 He rounded the corner, entering the hall of cells with the torture room at the end. Being this close to it made Fox recoil. He backed against the wall, catching his breath. After a few minutes, with fierce determination, he got up and slowly walked down the hall, his eyes adjusting to the dim light.
 Vixy was just where Fox thought she’d be: in his old cell. Fox walked up to it and peeked inside. Vixy, dressed only in jeans and a t-shirt, was sitting on the bench, looking at the floor. Fox was extremely relieved to see that she didn’t have any cuts or rips in her clothes. The only mark was a cut down the side of her face.
 “Vixy?” Fox whispered. Vixy’s head snapped up and she looked wide-eyed at Fox.
 “Fox!” she said in such a relieved tone that Fox would never forget. “Oh my God, Fox!” She ran to the bars and they hugged through them. Vixy stayed like that, weeping, for nearly five minutes. Fox gently stepped away.
 “I have to get you out of here. The Cornerian Air Force is on their way, and as soon as we leave they’re blowing this place to hell. Stand back.”
 Vixy nodded and turned against the back wall. Fox brought the rifle to the rusty lock on the bars and fired, blowing it off. He swung the door open, and Vixy ran and hugged him again, and they kissed. “Thank you, Fox, thank you so much. I know what happened here, I know this wasn’t easy.”
 “I couldn’t leave you,” Fox said, holding her tighter. “I know about your father, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose a father.” Vixy nodded.
 “Alright,” Fox said, grabbing his rifle off the ground. “Let’s get outta here.” He flicked his comm. on and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Dagger Seven to Dagger One, do you read me?”
 Birse’s voice came back. “This is One, I read you Seven.”
 “Friendly is secured, preparing to move to rendezvous point. Give the signal to start the attack.”
 “Roger that, Seven, good job.”
 “Follow me, and stay close,” Fox said, starting back down the hall. Vixy followed closely. At the end of the hall, Fox crouched and peeked around the corner. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain from behind and fell with a yelp into the corridor. Luckily, there were no guards. Fox looked up at Vixy, who had a sheepish look on her face. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I stepped on your tail.”
 Fox laughed and got up. “Ok, don’t stay that close.”
 They continued to the elevator and rode it up, Fox eyeing both front and behind warily. He was now responsible for two lives. They again made it the short distance to the access ladder and climbed to the roof, the hot air blasting them. They stood on the roof and stared out towards the morning sun. Hundreds of ships were visible in the distance, moving towards them. Fox could also hear and see ships take off from Overlord’s hangar to meet them.
 “Ok, now we sit tight and wait for the cavalry,” Fox said, putting his rifle on the ground. Before long, they could see distant explosions as the forces met. The battle raged closer and closer, getting more and more frantic.
Fox’s comm. buzzed in his ear and Birse’s voice came through, sounding nervous. “Seven, this is One, we’re taking a bit more heat than I thought. I want you and the girl to wait in the access shaft so you’re not seen. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
 “Roger.” Vixy climbed back down the ladder. Fox told her to wait at the bottom, he’d stay near the top. He hung onto the ladder for about five minutes when he heard the roar of a ship and saw a Cornerian class dropship hovering a hundred or so feet over the shaft. With a sigh of relief, Fox waved to the ship. Again he heard Birse’s voice.
 “We see you Seven. Alright, we’re going to land, come up and---“
 He never finished. In accordance with Fox’s luck that month, the unthinkable happened. A Venom fighter swooped out from behind the ship, it’s lasers piercing the hull, and the ship exploded and fell onto the hatch. The shockwave flung Fox off the ladder down fifteen feet where he sprawled beside Vixy, looking up at the burning wreckage blocking the hole. His hearing came back slowly and he could hear frantic radio chatter from the fighters.
 “Dagger is down! Oh, God, Dagger is down!”
 “What now?! We can’t open the doors! We can’t reach the cores!”
 “We have to abort!”
 “We can’t! They’ll launch and kill all those people!”
 “We have no choice!”
 “What about McCloud? Is he still alive?”
 “McCloud, are you there” Do you copy?”
 Why me? What did I do to deserve this? He also then realized he left his rifle on the roof.
 “I’m here, I’m with the hostage, and I’m only armed with a pistol.”
 There was silence, then a voice Fox recognized as Monagi’s said, “Can you do it, Fox? Can you get the doors open?”
 Fox sighed and said, “I’ll do my best. Get another dropship ready, we still need a ride outta here. Tell it to meet us at the west hatch when we need it.”
 “Roger that. Good luck, Fox.” There were other scattered wished of good luck, then Fox turned to Vixy. “I’m sorry, looks like things just got more complicated. Stay close.” Vixy nodded, a combined expression of fear and determination on her face.
 Fox unholstered the pistol and moved into the hall. Two guards coming to check out the noise turned the corner as Fox moved into the hall. He dropped to one knee and put two lasers in them both. He ran over and picked up one’s rifle, taking the magazine from the other. He handed the pistol to Vixy and said, “You know how to use this?”
 Vixy shrugged. “How hard can it be?”
 “Just aim that part at the enemy and pull the trigger.”
 Vixy looked at him with an irritated expression. “Gee, thank you. I’m not little schoolgirl, I know how to shoot a gun.”
 “Ok, ok.” Fox turned and continued down the hall, praying she wouldn’t accidentally shoot him in the back. They continued past the door to the elevator towards the hangar, where they would find the control room Fox had seen during his escape. They manages to get there with only a few minor encounter in which neither the enemy nor Vixy even got a shot off.
 Fox walked up to the central console and leaned his rifle against the wall. “Cover me. If anyone walks through that door, shoot him.” Vixy nodded and aimed the pistol at the door with an unsure grip. Fox started working on the console.
 He managed to navigate his way to the control options and found one for the core maintenance shafts. He was about to select it when the door slid open and a familiar voice shouted out, “Can’t let you do that, Fox!” It was Pigma.
 Fox grabbed his rifle and fell to the floor, shouldering the gun, as three troops rushed in. Fox fired on full auto and dropped them. He looked up at Vixy, who had a scared, blank look on her face. “Vixy! Get down! Down!” She shook her head and hit the deck next to Fox. Two more troops rushed in and met Fox’s lasers. But he was then clicking on empty.
 “Vixy! Cover me!” Fox frantically reached for another mag, ejecting the used one. Another troop ran in, firing wildly. “Shoot him! Shoot him, Goddammit.” Looking like she was going to throw up, Vixy aimed and fired off two shots that hit the soldier in the stomach and chest, and he went down. Fox finished reloading and looked at her. She looked horrified, as if she had been shot instead of him. He sympathized; killing for the first time isn’t easy for anyone.
 The troops finally wised up and began firing from the cover of the doorway’s side. Fox took two grenades from his vest, telling Vixy to cover her ears, and threw them both. They bounced off the wall opposite the open doorway and exploded,
 Fox stood up and moved cautiously out the door, Vixy following him. They peeked out and say the remains of the troops through the smoke. Fox was about to turn and go back when he heard a groan from down the hall. He looked, and at the end of the hall was Pigma, lying on the ground, one leg bleeding severely.
 The traitor. The man who killed my father. The man who wanted to watch my torture for the hell of it.  The man who ruined my life.
 Fox became overwhelmed with rage at the sight of Pigma. He picked up the pistol that Vixy had dropped and walked in a quick, steady pace over to Pigma, a look of fierce anger on his face. Vixy called after him, but Fox ignored it.
 As he got nearer, Pigma saw him coming and raised his hands as if to defend himself. “Fox, no please! I’m unarmed! Please, don’t!”
 Fox walked right up to him, and, without hesitating a second, raised the pistol and fired the entire clip into his chest. He then lowered the smoking gun and said, “That was for my father, you son of a bitch.” He dropped the pistol, spit on Pigma’s corpse, and walked back to the control console, past a frightened Vixy.
 He leaned on the console, steadying himself and catching his breath. He had done it. He had avenged his father. Fox became filled with a sense of completion, of joy. Finally, after all these years, the bastard had died at his hands.
 Vixy came up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “That was Pigma, wasn’t it? Are you alright?”
 Fox put his hand over hers and grinned. “Better than ever. Let’s finish this.” He began typing on the console.
 Three down, just one more.

       * * *

 Fox finally found the command to open the doors and hit it. There were shouts of relief from the fighters, and Fox was told he had ten minutes to get to the west hatch to meet the dropship. He gave the affirmative and moved there with Vixy.
 Encounters were sparse, as most troops were heading to the hangar to evacuate. Fox could hear the distant sounds of the battle as he and Vixy neared the roof. They finally reached the hatch and climbed up, where the dropship was circling above amidst the battle. He waved to it, but then heard the pilot’s voice in his ear. “McCloud, behind you!”
 Fox knew from experience not to stop and look, just trust the guy who tells you to get the hell down. He hit the deck, pushing Vixy down, as a laser flew by the space his head was just occupying. He was back on his feet in a second, a pistol he picked off a guard aimed at the shooter, who had his aimed at Fox. Wolf O’Donnell.
 “Stay down,” Fox whispered to Vixy, who nodded.
 Wolf had no grin on this time, no triumphant look. “This is the end, McCloud. We settle this damn thing right here. One of us will not leave this facility alive.”
 Fox took deep breaths, trying not to freak out. It wasn’t as bad as the psychiatrist had said, but he still wasn’t overjoyed to see Wolf. He nodded slowly. “Fine with me. How?”
 “The only fair way. An old-fashioned duel. You and me, back to back. Take ten paces, turn, and fire until one of us is left standing. Good enough?”
 Fox nodded again and stood his ground. He’d be damned if he turned his back first. They moved together towards each other, neither dropping his gun until they were practically barrel to barrel. They dropped them together and went back to back.
 “I can feel your heart beating from here, Fox. I’m honored you’re so scared of me.”
 Fox stayed silent, concentrating on breathing and relaxing. After a few moments, Wolf said, “Go.”
 They both stepped forward and moved away from each other. After four paces, Fox thought he heard a shuffling from behind him, as if Wolf had pivoted instead of stepping….
 Fox snapped his head back and saw Wolf facing him, bringing his gun up. This time, the triumphant grin was there. Fox ducked just as the laser passed over his head, singing his fur. From his duck, Fox jumped sideways left, and brought up his gun as Wolf’s grin melted away. He fired off five lasers before landing on his side.
 Wolf took three of the laser in his torso and fell backwards like a cut-down tree. Fox stood up, keeping the gun trained on Wolf, and slowly walked over to him. He was still breathing lightly, and his one eye looked directly at Fox. He had the sudden urge to shoot out Wolf’s kneecaps, and perhaps then empty the clip into his groin.
 But I won’t sink to that level. I’m better than that.
 Instead, fox raised his gun and, as Wolf began to speak, fired his last round through Wolf’s good eye.
 Fox looked down at the spreading pool of blood under Wolf’s head. It was his turn to be triumphant. “And that was for me.” He felt a gentle pull on his arm and faced Vixy. She was the most beautiful sight Fox could have hoped for at that moment.
 “Come on, Fox. Let’s go home.”


 For the first time, Fox was smiling while visiting his parents’ graves. It was a beautiful afternoon two days after the Overlord mission, and Fox felt good. He felt a sense of finality.
 “…so then we left in the dropship. The explosion was huge, and we got out of there just in time. They want to give me some kind of award, like the one we got after the war. I’m just glad it’s over with StarWolf. I got Pigma, Dad. He’s dead, and I’ve been dreaming of that for a long time.”
 “I remember the promise I made here a while ago. It’s done. It’s over. I think I can finally rest. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving StarFox, but I’ll have no more nightmares, no more ghosts from my past. I’m so glad that’s over.”
 “And I think I found the perfect person to settle with.” Fox looked over his shoulder at Vixy, standing back a ways, and she smiled back at him. “I don’t know what love feels like, but this must be it, because it can’t get any better. She’s going to stay with us on the ship now, there’ nothing left for her in Emayn.”
 He kneeled down and touched the stoned. “I miss you guys. I love you.”
 He stood up and walked over to Vixy. They put their arms over the other’s shoulders and walked out of the cemetery to start their new lives.

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