16 - The Ethos of Being Needed

Wolf gazed at the placid ocean of sky through the glass of the spaceport terminal. Icy wisps of cloud brushed the canvas. He looked down to the city skyline—glass steeples and wild twisting towers of Corneria City across the bay against lush mountains.

The Great Fox II rested on the tarmac. Thousands upon thousands of people cheered in grasslands spreading all the way to the bay—a sea of fur, scales, and feathers. The best estimate the media made was one-hundred thousand. Their cheers rumbled, waves crashing. Dozens of hover-choppers whirred overhead in slow orbits.

"It's beautiful." Chancellor Cardus pressed her palms to the glass and closed her eyes. She leaned in and the feathers of her cheek rubbed against the view.

Wolf watched her. Members of her security team looked on. Corneria was her soul. She hugged it through the glass—not just the people, but the skyscrapers, the bay, the mountains.

Katt, Slippy, Cecilia, and Fox approached. Cecilia clamped a tablet shut and stuck a pen behind her ear. Fox hugged Wolf from behind. He watched the crowds and the city over Wolf's shoulder. A ghostly image of the group reflected in the glass—imposed over the flock of thousands of people, the Great Fox II, the bay, the city. It was time. The red-feathered cardinal leaned back, straightened her black coat, brushed her gold pins, and marched to the catwalk's doors. Wolf and the entourage followed.

The air was cool and refreshing. A light breeze curtained through the group, uniforms and coats fluttering. The Great Fox II was larger than any space-plane resting at terminals, angular, mean-looking. Four massive wings made the shape of an X, spreading from the hull. The red Star Fox team logo emblazoned the tail. The bridge jutted out over two massive laser turrets and came to a bird's beak of violet glass.

The sea of people saw the tiny group in the distance walk the catwalk to the ship—Olivia's tall red figure stood out. The cheering surged to a windstorm. The pathway was half a kilometer long over a field of concrete. The march seemed to take forever. Olivia waved with both hands, black gloves high in the sky. Wolf waved at her side. Fox looked on. He hadn't seen a crowd this large since their liberation from the Tyrant's Grip—the dark four-month period of Androssian takeover of Pepper.

Across the bay, through downtown, in a tall residential condo, Falco sat in his living room and watched the television coverage. He reached for a slice of pizza. It was on every channel, each with a different angle. An aerial shot panned over the ocean of people, to the tarmac, over the ship, and swept over the long pathway stopping at the Chancellor and her entourage. Katt waved to the flying camera. Falco waved back.

Olivia and the entourage reached the ship. She faced the ocean of people and threw her hands up again. The people didn't come just to see them leave for the Unity conference. They came to hear her speak, to hear her calm arresting voice which had gained the reputation of being able to assure masses.

The Chancellor tapped a button on her coat. When she spoke, her voice echoed off the mountains:

"Corneria. We will improve."

Her timber was deep, strong, halting. Powerful.

The sea roared.

Slippy, and Cecilia boarded the ship. Fox, Wolf, and Katt stood behind Olivia, looking on.

"We will improve not just ourselves, but ourselves and Lylat as one."

The sea respectfully calmed to take in every word she spoke.

"Corneria. I stand before you, not as an elected leader of our democracy. No vote was cast for me, and I am deeply humbled by that fact." Flying cameras circled her. Wolf saw two or three cameras trained solely on him and Fox. He rolled his eyes.

"I was appointed in tragedy. But this experience for the past few months has been anything but tragic. Crime is down. The economy is booming. Employment is up. Our sapling of prosperity matures and tilts to Solar."

The sea of people cheered again.

She calmed them. "But I stand here, on the verge of this journey to warn you that there are forces in Lylat—forces that will drag us back to tragic ends. Planetary nationalism. Planationalism. The idea that we, as planets of Lylat, should continue on our journey to prosperity divided from each other. This is an outdated and dangerous philosophy. This philosophy of division weakened Lylat against an immeasurable threat and locked us in a tyrant's grip.

"If we had been unified together, organized into an entity that is beyond just the name Lylat, I believe we could have ended tragedy sooner—maybe even prevented it.

"Four months ago, after we reached the light at the end of this long dark tyrannical tunnel, the leaders of Lylat came together in a Unity conference. As you know, many things were said, alliances were forged, fears allayed, but new challenges emerged. This journey I take to Zoness now, a journey to the Second Unity conference of Lylatian leaders will sow the seeds of a fully unified Lylat, a fully protected Lylat, a fully prosperous Lylat."

The sea of people erupted again.

Peppy stood lost in the crowd. He wasn't sure why he came, but he was here now. He caught the sight of Fox on the catwalk, standing with Wolf behind the Chancellor. He studied the new Great Fox. The nostalgia flooded into his arteries. To be a mercenary again.

He regretted what he told Falco—about his feelings toward Fox and Wolf: not the two separate from each other, but the two together. He regretted quitting the team, if there even was a team left. He regretting thinking Fox and Wolf meant the death of the team. What was the future of Star Fox? Suddenly, he felt compelled to speak to Fox. It had been weeks. The elderly hare felt like a father who abandoned his child.

Now, he was just a face in an ocean of people cheering.

Olivia waved the frenzied city down with two outstretched arms. "In the face of this unified prosperity I warn you of the senators and representatives, the radical conservatives, who wish to stop this—those who hold the ethos of Planationalism close to their hearts. They are the past. And we…"

She put her left arm around Wolf and her right arm around Katt.

"… are the future."

The sea roared.

"Thank you! Rise Corneria! Rise Lylat!" The sea went wild.

She turned around and grinned at Wolf. The ocean of people chanted 'Cardus—Cardus—Cardus.'

Wolf frowned thoughtfully. "Bravissimo."

Falco shook his head skeptically at his TV.

Olivia, Katt, Wolf, Fox, and the security team of eagles boarded the Great Fox. The corridors were sleek, white paneled, unlike the crude metal look of the old ship. When they reached the lift to the bridge, Fox smiled at Wolf. "I see the appeal of politics now."

"Right," Wolf said. "Too bad those 'everybody loves you' moments are few and far between."

"They love you," Katt assured Olivia. "I don't believe for a minute they don't want unity."

Wolf stiffened in the crowded elevator. "The latest poll average gives Olivia a 72 percent approval rating, with 60 percent saying they approve of a unified Lylat confederal government."

Olivia shook her head. "Not good enough."

"It's a clear majority," Wolf chastised. "A healthy majority."

"When we're through," she said. "I want to see that number at 80."

"I never trust polls," Fox said.

When the lift doors opened to the bridge, a lightning storm of flashes greeted them.

Wolf shielded his eye. "No…"

Olivia smiled and waved, parting the crowd of reporters into the bridge. "Yes, I wanted a full media detail on this trip. I want this process to be transparent and accounted for."

Fox groaned. "Your poll numbers are dropping Olivia."

Cecilia jumped up to the group with Slippy. "Guys, isn't this great!"

Slippy gestured to the bridge in the lightning storm. "Welcome to the Great Fox II!"

Fox finally regarded the new bridge in its finished state. It was slick: egg white consoles, everything contoured, round, sleek. Blue lines of light glowed softly from the floor, around the edges of consoles. A multitude of holographic displays flickered. It felt completely different. Alien. ROB stood at his usual station, poking around. The towering robot was a familiar sight and a strange relief to Fox. He wished Falco was here. Wolf provided no comfort. The feeling disturbed Fox. For a brief moment, this felt like an alternate reality, despite being his new home. How he wished, just for that moment that the bridge was empty except for the old team: just him, Falco, Slippy, Peppy, ROB, on the old bridge, together, light hours away.

Fox felt guilty for Wolf's absence in his daydream. He watched Wolf answer a reporter's question about trade deals, honestly interested in his own rambling. The reporter nodded feverishly, holding out a recorder. Fox realized Wolf had his own daydreams, and his own reality.

Fox butted in between Olivia and a reporter and said he needed to speak privately. Fox didn't know where they could go. Slippy led them to the bridge office, Fox's office. The furniture in the room was wrapped in cellophane and plastic—a desk, chair, couch, cabinets—sealed, unopened, smelling of new plastic and carpet. Olivia studied Fox with concern and sat on the desk. Plastic wrap crinkled under her.

Fox took off his white flight jacket and tried to sit in a plastic covered chair. "No one got to talk last night. We all spiraled apart."

Olivia suddenly looked away. "We don't need to talk about last night."

Fox caught her gaze. "Yeah we do. You're having a child. You can't pretend that doesn't exist."

"I'm not pretending anything."

"Why didn't you tell us about it? We're your friends. We're here to help."

Olivia fidgeted. Plastic crinkled. "I told Falco and Katt. That's why Falco isn't here. He's watching it."

Fox tilted his head back knowingly. "And what about Max?"

Olivia shook her head. "Obviously not coming. He told me he's leading a fleet exercise today. He did the polite thing. I didn't have to tell him not to come."

"And the egg?"

Her voice shrank. "It's supposed to hatch in—" She looked at the floor sadly. "Actually, I lost track of when it's going to hatch. I don't know. Any day now I guess." She shook off the despondence before Fox could catch it. "This Unity conference is too important to be distracted from." She looked at him gravely. "You said it yourself: the stakes are too high."

"That's a reversal from your response last night."

She stared blankly.

"Last night," Fox helped. "You said all this political crap distracted you from who you really are."

"I was upset. Max had been cheating on me. He cheated on me because I wasn't there for him. Because I'm the leader of this planet."

"That's not really fair to you."

"I calmed myself," she said, ignoring him. "I realized Corneria is my first love."

"What about your child? What rank will that take? Second? Third?"

Olivia grew irritated. "Fox, why did you bring me in here? If I recall, last night you said that we can't deal with this right now."

"Yeah, you're right, but when I said that, it hadn't really sunk in that you're having a baby."

"I've got six million things on my mind: How I'm going against all political precedent. How I'm going to parse out these new trade policies. How I'm going to handle negotiations between Xavier Zan, a terrorist, and Chancellor Leto. Hell, how I'm going to handle them being in the same room—"

"Your child has to be more important than this."

"It will be!" she said hotly.

Before Fox could respond, the door chimed. "Come in," Fox said.

Slippy waltzed in with Cecilia. "Wolf's ready to take this baby off the ground," he said.

Cecilia bounced. "Let's get the show started!"

Olivia slid off the table and straightened her coat. "We'll talk about this later."

They entered the slick white bridge, crowded with reporters and security. Cameras trained on the two. Wolf was sitting at the helm, poking around the vast array of the console. "Okay. Not as simple as I thought."

Slippy sighed and leaned over him. "Just do as the training showed you and pretend you're a monkey."

Cecilia and Katt laughed. Olivia smiled and shielded impatience. "Are we ready to depart?"

The lift doors opened and two tall security eagles entered, leading in an old hare. One of the security eagles said, "Chancellor Cardus, Peppy Hare requested to board. He cleared security. I took the liberty of escorting him. I assume this is all right."

Olivia looked at Fox with shock. Fox looked at Peppy, absolutely stunned. Peppy inspected the bridge skeptically with crossed arms, then he looked at Fox and felt the corners of his mouth smile.

Olivia broke the silence, "Of course it's okay! Peppy, come in please."

Wolf rose from the helm. Fox tried to find his words. "Peppy. I'm sorry we haven't talked in so long," he said politely.

"Now you're being a fool," Peppy said. "I was the one who quit." He looked at Wolf, who moved to stand at Fox's side. Peppy gazed between the two, then locked on Fox. "I'm sorry about that, kid."

Fox shook his head. "No, it's okay. Everything has changed." He put his hand on Wolf's back. "Everything is different now. Change isn't easy to deal with. I'm not going to blame you for trying to resist change."

"You're a poet now too." Peppy smiled.

Fox chuckled, then sobered. "Falco told me about the talk you had when you quit."

Peppy frowned. "Probably said I turned into an old bigot, huh."

Fox shook his head. "Even if you don't accept a part of me, I still consider you a friend, a mentor—a part of the team. You're the original Star Fox."

Peppy nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, you're right. But I made a mistake—a bitter old man's mistake." He sighed. "Look at you two." He smiled at Wolf. "You kids are so googly-eyed in love… if only you realized it ten years ago. Could have spared us some unnecessary dog-fights."

Fox, Wolf and the rest laughed.

"We fought together," Wolf said to Peppy. "We saved this planet as one team. I have nothing but respect for you. I know you've had a hard time trusting me. I can't fault you. My past is real. I have spent so much time trying to figure out how to remedy that, until I realized, I can't. I'm Wolf O'Donnell. I lost five years of my life to Andross. All I can tell you now is—I love Fox."

Fox looked at him.

Wolf kept his eye sternly on Peppy. "I wouldn't do anything to impede his happiness. I'm not keeping him from the Star Fox team. I have no agenda other than loving him."

Peppy smirked. "You're a sly dog Wolf. But you're a damn good pilot, a damn good politician, and—from what I can see—a damn good boyfriend."

Olivia pointed, "Today, he'll prove the politician part."

Fox grabbed Wolf by the ears and was about to kiss him, when he noticed the group of reporters aiming cameras, recorders, scribbling on data tablets. He looked around at the red lights on the cameras. "… Are we live?"

Falco laughed at his TV. "Yes. Yes you are."

Wolf didn't care. He pulled Fox into him and hugged him tightly, with all his body. Fox held Wolf back, kneading his shoulders. He looked down into his eye. "Can I say, I love you too. No agendas."

"Kiss!" Katt chirped. They laughed. Fox and Wolf looked around at the cameras trained on them, unsure.

"Kiss!" Falco barked at his TV while gnashing on a slice of pizza.

Fox pulled Wolf against him, holding him. He leaned in and gently kissed him and it quickly turned deep—the image of two planetary heroes in love. Wolf clutched at Fox's neck and dug his gloves into orange fur. When Fox pulled back, Wolf hid his face sheepishly from the rest. He brushed his blue uniform and tried to appear stoic, but his tail wagged furiously. "Now, let's get to business… for once."

Peppy leaned in place, just as humored and delighted by the show as everyone else. "So—does this love boat need a science officer? Or has Slippy found a way to automate that too?"

"Yes!" Fox said, letting go of Wolf's arms. "Not to the automated part, but yes, we need you. Come with us to Zoness."

Slippy parted a path for Peppy. "The science station is over here. Things might be a little different now. Sorry I never consulted you on changes."

Peppy stepped behind the console and sat in the cushioned seat. He ran his paws over the glass and poked through blue-lit controls and menus. He frowned. "You've changed the whole damn thing." He looked up and smiled. "But I can figure it out. Besides we still have Arwings right?"

Olivia chuckled. "There won't be any dog-fighting on this trip I'm afraid."

Peppy swiveled in his seat amused. "Really? Don't be so sure Chancellor Cardus. Lylat can be a rough place."

Wolf cracked his knuckles. "Ready to start the show, if everyone else is."

They headed for their seats. The reporters were escorted to the briefing room to idle their equipment and take a seat during launch.

Wolf pressed a button at the helm. The bridge window de-tinted until the terrain ahead was as clear as crystal. It was still a beautiful day. A scatter of seatbelts clicked and everyone got comfortable.

"Clearance is a go," Slippy said into a headset. He put his arm around Cecilia in their seats beside Peppy.

Fox and Olivia stopped in front of the captain's seat. She looked at him and stepped aside.

Fox laughed, "Are you kidding? You're the Chancellor. I wouldn't let you sit anywhere else."

She took the adjacent seat and buckled in. "Well you're gonna have to, because this is the Star Fox team's ship."

Fox sat in the captain's chair, buckled, sighed, and looked around the foreign bridge that was much too clean and stylish. "The real chair is in the cockpit of my Arwing."

Wolf frowned as he poked around the controls. "We'll be taking Arwings if I can't figure this out."

Slippy groaned.

Take off was a breeze despite Wolf's uncertainties. Outside in the fields, the sea of people cheered as the ship levitated off the ground. The lumbering vessel drifted away from the tarmac, heading over the bay's choppy waters. The ship inclined upward, powering up, until it rocketed off with a deafening roar and sonic boomed past the mountains, leaving behind a contrail deep into the blue.

Once out of the atmosphere, the Great Fox II passed through swarms of cargo and passenger ships traveling to and from spaceports and docking stations. Traffic parted for Star Fox's iconic ship. Dozens of green and white Cornerian fighters sided up to the cruiser in flanking chevron formations.

"Incoming message," ROB declared, "Cornerian Husky Unit."

Bill appeared on screen, helmet on, green visor over his eyes—stern, all business. His eyebrows furrowed. "Husky Unit will escort the Great Fox to Zonessian space."

Fox nodded. "Acknowledged. How's the weather Bill?"

"Sunshine from here on out." The transmission cut back to a view of space traffic ahead.

"What's eating him?" Peppy asked.

Olivia rubbed her face. "It's a long story."

Cecilia looked at Peppy wide-eyed. "His girlfriend, Elena Scurio, cheated on him with Max Deveron—"

"Thank you Cecilia," Olivia said.

"—who was therefore cheating on Olivia."

"I said thank you Cecilia."

Peppy shrugged. "Story seems short enough."

"The aftermath will be longer," Wolf said, watching space ahead.

A security eagle approached Olivia. "Chancellor Cardus, the reporters are wondering if they can return to the bridge."

"No!" everyone said in unison.

The journey for the next three hours was smooth. Bill lead the escorts for the Great Fox II and fought off boredom by changing formations periodically. Slippy gave a tour of the ship for the reporters and Olivia, her security team, Cecilia, Peppy, ROB, and Katt. They were wowed by the advancements: an improved engine core with quadruple the energy output and speed; the new Arwings in the launch bay; larger living quarters, etc.

Fox and Wolf were left alone on the bridge—and entertained themselves accordingly. Within the hour, the ship reached Zonessian space. Bill's escort broke off, sending them onward unaccompanied.

Wolf twisted around in Fox's lap to press a button behind him, opening an audio-only channel. "Acknowledged Bill. I hope things work out for you. If not with Elena, there's always other women I'm sure… or men."

"Why are you panting?" Bill asked.

Fox grinned and kept trying to pull Wolf back down by the collar of his uniform.

"Just nerves about this mission. A lot is…" he looked at Fox, straddling him, "…riding on it."

"Right." Bill relaxed. "Hey, when you guys get back to Corneria, let's get drinks or something. I don't want to drink alone."

"Certainly. We'll be celebrating."

"Good luck guys, Grey out."

Wolf let himself be pulled down. He kissed Fox and held his face, then his ears.

Fox receded. "How much time before we get there?"

"We have forty-five minutes or so."

"And where's everyone else?"

Wolf turned his head and hugged against Fox's heartbeat while looking at the console. "All still on D deck."

"Good." Fox kissed his ear and the back of his neck and traced his claws down his back. Wolf turned upward to meet his lips again.

Several minutes later, a series of beeps emanated from the console—unfamiliar and threatening.

Fox let go. Wolf tilted to the console.

"What is it?" Fox asked, trying to look.

"Twenty ships approaching." Wolf's brow furrowed. He twisted around and sat up in Fox's lap facing the console.


"These configurations… I don't recognize them at all. They're not Zonessian. They're all random."

Fox made a move to get up. Wolf stood. Fox went to the captain's chair and pressed his console. "I need everyone back on the bridge. We have a potential situation."

Olivia answered, "Potential situation?" She sounded irritated.

"Fox." Wolf glared at the bridge window, at space ahead. A swarm of red fighters spread out in front of the stars. "They're powering up." He grabbed the console with both hands.

A flash—the ship shook violently. Fox clutched his chair. Klaxons blared. Blue lights changed to yellow flashing, rinsing the bridge in a sickening glow.

The comm. beeped again. "What was that?!" Olivia squawked.

"We're under attack," Fox said flatly. "Slippy, Peppy, I need you here now."

"We're getting there," Peppy said.

"Wolf. Shields."

Wolf glared all over the complicated console. "I can take off. I can land." The ship shook again. He buckled in. "Slippy never showed me shields."

Fox growled. "Right. Why would he. We're only carrying the leader of the most powerful planet in Lylat… Get a hold of Bill. Get Husky Unit back here."

Wolf shook his head, tapping around menus quickly. "I just tried that. No response. I think we're being jammed."

Forty-five light minutes away Bill and Husky Unit sped to Corneria. Elena had finally opened a private channel to Bill and they were well into a heated argument. "Look," Elena said. "It's complicated. I wish I could have said something sooner."

"It's cool," he said, not quite cool enough to match his words. "—I don't get what you see in Max. I mean really, Max? Max Deveron? You've known him for what? Two weeks?"

"You know it's been longer than that. And I'm not in the mood to justify things… you're receiving a transmission from the Great Fox."

"No, don't interrupt this. Let's hash this out Elena. Tell me what you like about Max."

"I don't know if I like Max anymore either… this is complicated. I don't know how to explain this, but you can't make someone need you. You can't make someone fall back in love with you."

"Back… so you loved me before?"

Back at the Great Fox, the ship bore another volley of attacks. Wolf ran a paw through the frazzled fur on his head, trying his hardest to maneuver. The lift doors slid open and the crowded elevator unpacked into the bridge. Olivia was being dragged by her security team. They surrounded her protectively. She shook them off. "I can handle myself!"

Slippy and Peppy dashed to their stations. ROB jacked in. Cecilia and Katt found seats and buckled in. The reporters filmed everything.

"Where's Bill," Olivia said calmly, not taking a seat.

"We're already in Zonessian space," Fox said.

"Raising shields," Slippy said.

The ship took three rapid hits. Olivia's feet flew out from under her. ROB's console blew out. Lights and displays flickered. Reporters and cameras went flying. The Chancellor's security team rushed to her and helped her up.

Slippy looked at ROB, "I'll reroute power to you. Guys, those last hits decoupled the shield grid. I need a minute to reset." Two more hits.

Peppy twisted his hand through a holographic targeting grid. "They're outmaneuvering our weapon arcs. Might be time to break in the Arwings."

Olivia pulled herself off the floor and pushed aside her security. "No. Open a comm." she demanded.

Wolf veered the ship evasively as fighters flew past the bridge. "I tried that too. No response."

"They're pirates," Peppy said. "Straight from Sargasso. They won't respond."

"Where the hell are the Zonessians?" Katt asked.

One of the fighters, darted around the ship and aimed straight for the bridge. Everyone seized at the sight. A blue beam struck the fighter, blowing it apart. Fragments rushed past the nose of the ship. More blue beams rained from above and four fighters blew apart. The remaining flock scattered and sped away from the Great Fox.

"That would be them," Fox said.

"Incorrect," ROB said. "These readings are not Zonessian either."

A visual comm. channel opened on the bridge window. "They're Tigrinian," said a fierce tiger. He smirked at Olivia, who stood at the center of the bridge.

She recognized the orange striped face. "Xavier Zan?" He was a rather handsome tiger, strong looking. His face was mostly orange fur with symmetrical black stripes. Clouds of white brushed his cheeks and his brow. He wore a green uniform, contrasting harshly with his fiery fur.

"Welcome to Zonessian Space. Apologies for the pirates. The Zonessian Navy can't even protect their own borders these days."

Olivia nodded skeptically. "Thank you. We appreciate your help."

"Can I escort you to the Unity conference?" he asked politely.

Everyone stared at Olivia as she stared back at the known terrorist. She maintained composure. "Certainly. I wasn't aware the Tigrinian Federation had their own fleet."

"Chancellor Cardus," the tiger said regrettably. "We are civilized. The Zonessian government might oppress us, but they can't stop us from going to space."

Olivia stepped forward. "I'm hoping today we can solve some of those problems, for the benefit of everyone on Zoness and Lylat as a whole."

Zan nodded. "We'll see." He smiled slightly. "Though, sometimes, it takes more than a speech." The comm. channel closed to an image of eight black and orange cruisers turning toward Zoness—now a bright bluish-green dot in the starfield. Olivia exhaled.

"Well he seemed nice," Cecilia said.

Slippy grunted. "Yeah, tell that to the Cornerians who lost their lives because of him."

Olivia marched to the toad's console, put her hands on it, and peered closely at him. "There won't be any more lives lost because of him."

He retracted from her, then distracted himself with his console. "I'm assessing the damage we took." The bridge lights reverted to blue. Wolf resumed a course to follow the Tigrinian ships. Everyone gathered and composed themselves. Several reporters complained about broken cameras and equipment. Fox and Katt showed pity while helping them clean up, but smiled at each other behind their backs.

Zoness slowly grew into view, a big blue orb, dotted with island chains peeking through swirling clouds. They approached a massive ringed space-station in orbit. Dozens of ships scattered around the station, shuttles going to and from. Olivia recognized the Katinian and Macbethian ships.

Wolf, Olivia, and Katt stood together, facing the window. Olivia brushed her pins. Katt smoothed her skirt suit. Wolf adjusted his eye patch. This was it. Show time.

The Great Fox II docked through the swarm of ships. Everyone on the bridge, except ROB, piled into the lift.

When the doors of the station's airlock opened, the Zonessian security teams—a dozen tall squid—came forward to scrutinize everyone. The reporters cameras flashed. The world slowed to a crawl. They marched down the corridor to the grand staircase of the space hotel.

They reached the grand hall: hundreds of people filled the round tables that each seated eight people. The hall was the size of a hoverball field. Blue and yellow tapestries circled the trimmings of balconies, the ceiling, and triangular windows. A massive bay window facing Zoness circled half the room from the floor, halfway up the domed ceiling. There was a second balcony level where more delegations were seated. Flags hung from the railings.

Flags covered the tables too, with microphones and placards identifying delegations. Olivia saw dozens of senators from Corneria, already arrived; dozens of Katinian senators on the balcony, Macbethian moles below—all in flourishing uniforms, dresses, ritzy coats and suits. The moles had lots of tawdry gold and jewelry. The Tigrinian delegation took up a corner of the hall—about twenty tigers, mostly male sitting with crossed arms in green uniforms.

A uniformed bejeweled mole on stage, the Viceroy of Macbeth, gestured with his hand to the Cornerians arriving down the stairs. "Ladies and Gentlemen: Chancellor Olivia Cardus, Chairman Wolf O'Donnell, and Ambassador Katterina Monroe—

—of the planet Corneria."

Applause echoed off the high dome ceiling. Chancellor Leto of Zoness and the Katinian president, a commanding giraffe, rose from their seats. Olivia marched to shake hands with them. She thought to complain to Leto about their pirate scuffle, but thought that'd be a bad start to the night. The rest of the group made their way to the empty table in the center of the hall.

When they sat, Fox leaned to Wolf as the applause continued, "This is like a big dinner party."

"Yes, kind of like a date with 200 politicians."

"How long will it last?" Fox asked.

Wolf waved to the delegations and said through his grin: "Long enough."

Olivia made her way up the steps to the stage to shake hands with the Viceroy of Macbeth and to make her opening statements that would begin the conference. The Viceroy walked off while clapping and Olivia took her position behind the podium.

The hall calmed to silence. The room darkened except for stage lights. Holographic teleprompters flickered on. The blue ghostly words began to scroll.

She took a deep breath and said nothing. The words stopped.

She thought of the past.

Peace. War. Chaos. Andross. General Pepper. Max. His lips. His smile. His eyes. Her egg. The yearning. The regret. Fox and Wolf…

She stood guarding the door of the small cell holding her laser rifle, wearing a crimson Cornerian uniform—a new issue in Pepper's fascist military. Wolf stood to face her. Fox leaned against a wall behind him, studying her skeptically. Patches of Wolf's fur were missing, his body scarred, clothes torn. He looked like a homeless beaten man. "Then you'll understand," he said tiredly. "Why we're trying to stop Pepper and restore Lylat to the way it was before this nightmare ever happened."

She looked out at the politicians. At the tigers. She looked at the moles of Macbeth. The calamari and marines of Zoness. The diverse animals of Katina. They all had interests. They all had their own alliances. They all had the propensity to fall to fascism at the behest of their own political tunnel vision. Division is fascism.

This was the night to stop all future nightmares.

"Good evening—"

I never thought I'd do a flashback. That's for those who can remember Tyrant's Grip. If I get this all done in the next chapter, it could be a long one. The excitement is just beginning.