[Author's Note: First of all, thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy. To those who have read my other stories, this is in no way related to those. The characters and the world are stand-alone, like the relation to the SNES StarFox and the N64 StarFox. Things that happened in my other stories did not happen here. However, for those who want more of Gage Birse, he can be found also in Vangaurd. Enjoy!]
UPDATE 2011: This site has erased certain usages of the dash symbol for some reason. I can't remember how many times I used them as scene change breakers in this story, but be warned that there may be a couple sudden scene changes without any symbol. The story should still be perfectly readable until I can devote the time to a full edit to fix this
Star Fox: The Mercenary War
An asteroid belt might not make it into a travel agency's top ten vacation spots, but for me, there was no other place in black Lylat space that would have rather been. Ships steered clear of it, the rocks were hardly a threat in the outskirts, and it gave me something to look at during those long days by myself. Communication signals had a hard time with all the interference, so the solitude was complete and comforting. Only one channel was strong enough to get in and override my "answering machine" which I kept on as my constant "leave me alone" to the universe. And it chose a weary morning to ring. Gut instinct told me not to answer. I have to learn to listen to my gut more often, and not just around dinnertime.
"Fox, we have a little problem."
Nothing was ever little with Pepper. It wasn't what I wanted to hear first thing in the morning, and the little voice that warned me not to answer stuck its mental tongue out at me. I cleared my throat, realizing I hadn't actually spoken to anyone besides ROB for almost a week, and said, "We're not open for business. We stagger vacation time, and I got stuck with the Great Fox until this weekend."
The old dog's head shook on the viewscreen. "I don't need you for anything, don't worry. There was a robbery last night at a bank in outside Corneria City. It was the third one this month in this city alone. The police think they were linked, given the methods. Very professional, too."
"So let them handle it," I said, wishing an asteroid would crash into the Great Fox's comm array. "I'm not a detective. Why's the army involved?"
"Because of this." Pepper held up a charred circle about the size of his thumb. "Recognize it?"
I squinted closer and my breath caught in my throat. The little emblem was like a double espresso, pulling me fully awake. "Venom?"
"It was the seal on the explosives used to blow the safe...the seal of the Venomian Army." He lowered it. "It's been six years since the war ended with Andross' death. The last cells of resistance disappeared a long time ago. We don't know what it means, but I figured I'd give you a heads-up. Keep alert out there. It's probably just a few bitter soldiers looking to annoy Corneria. We have the Dagger team checking it out, so I'll keep you updated."
I couldn't suppress a little grin as I sat back. "Dagger, eh? How's the esteemed Captain Gage Birse doing these days?"
Pepper chuckled. "He was more grateful for the news than you are. The team's been idle, and nothing is more detrimental to the special forces than idleness."
"Boredom is a luxury."
I was never a superstitious guy, but I'd be willing to bet that I hexed the hell out of myself with that comment.
Three days later
Next I heard of the General was in a state that I really hate seeing him in: panicked. A few days later, I spent the morning in the hangar checking my Arwing and changing out the cells from a lengthy jaunt I treated myself to the day before. To rest after the mundane work, I spent an hour or so "testing" the weapons in our armory. Nothing like blowing silhouettes to pieces to iron out the nerves. When many had died gruesome deaths, I gave in to my gut (the hungry part this time) and headed to the galley. That was when I heard the rapid beeps and stopped in my tracks. Two private-line calls in under a week spelled nothing but trouble.
I figured it was just an update on the little investigation, so I ignored it. News could wait. But it rang again. And again. The fifth time, I knew something was wrong. Fearing something had happened to one of the team, I jogged to the bridge and slapped the receiver. All at once, I knew it was going to be a bad day. Vacation was over.
"Fox!" Pepper gasped, relieved. His wide eyes bore into me, their fear making my nerves itch. "You've heard? Listen, I'm doing everything in my power to track that signal, but nothing's come of it. The generals are convening to take an official stance for the press, but—"
"Whoa, whoa." I held my hands up. "What are you talking about? What signal?"
Pepper swallowed and hesitated. "Turn on your screen. The news. I have to meet with the generals. I'll contact you later. Please, be careful."
Before I could ask anything else, the screen went blank. I bit my lower lip thoughtfully and headed to the recreation room. My finger hovered by the on button as if it had a mind of its own. A very nervous one. Finally, I pushed it and flipped to the Corneria City news channel just in time to see a female raccoon speaking rapidly, looking almost as frazzled as Pepper.
"—reports that the signal was in fact from a private source. Authorities have been alerted and the military has yet to respond to reporters' questions about their stance. Mercenary pilot Fox McCloud of StarFox is also unavailable for questioning. For those just joining us, only an hour ago, all television and communication signals in the Lylat system were hijacked at once and displayed a message from an unknown individual from an unknown source. Again, we have the recording."
The image cut to a nearly black screen with a figure standing in darkness. Identification was impossible. The one thing perfectly visible was the number displayed at the bottom of the screen. I had never seen so many zeroes. Before I could even count them, the male voice spoke.
"To the good citizens of the Lylat system, I thank you for your attention. I am here with an offer unlike any in history. This number you see before you is the worth of one man to me: five hundred billion credits. It is the product of years of collection, and it has no use to me. I do not want it. Therefore, I will hand it all over to the person or persons that bring me the one thing I do want: Fox McCloud."
I stared with a dropped jaw as my own mug appeared on the screen. As if anyone needed a picture to know who I was. It was soon replaced by another light in the dark room that illuminated a pile of cash and gold the size of the Landmaster.
"Let there be no doubts that I have this money. As a bonus, should you bring me McCloud alive, I will let you keep his Arwing as a trophy. The triumphant need not worry about contacting me. I will come to you. This offer only comes once, and it is open to anyone. Anyone." With the inflection of the repeated word, I could almost see a little smirk on the blackened face. I knew who he was talking to there. Peppy. Slippy. Falco. Bill. Pepper. Hell, even ROB.
"Thank you for your time, Lylat. I look forward to rewarding the victor."
The screen flashed off and the raccoon again spoke. "We have received reports from our stations on every planet with the same result: this message was aired to every viewscreen and radio without discrimination. The police and military have issued a warning against response to the message, but they have been vague in their position on protecting McCloud. We have yet to—"
I shut the screen off and stared at the blackness for a good minute. It made no sense. A good amount of people hated me, but they were either dead, in jail, or rotting in a cave on Venom. It had been so long since a real problem, it took my motor skills some time to chug up. When I finally suppressed the fire of confusion, shock, and fear in my mind, I became aware of the comm ringing like mad. With a few deep breaths and reminding myself that I had handled worse and to get it together, dammit, I strode to the phone and answered. It was good to see a friendly face, even if it was contorted in fear.
"Fox?" Peppy's face filled the screen. I could hear the faint voices of Slippy and Falco behind him, and he turned to shush them before continuing. "We just saw. Are you alright?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Just surprised."
"Keep security at full. We all met up and we're heading back today. It shouldn't take us too—"
"No!" I said almost involuntarily. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why I said it. "Stay there. The video said he just wanted me."
Peppy looked back at me as if I'd grown a second head. I knew he would object, but I held my ground. "Fox, are you crazy? That video was shown on every screen in the galaxy. Every mercenary...forget that, every person who even knows how to fire a gun will be after you."
"I know. That's why you have to stay there. I'll head to Corneria and see Pepper. No mercenary would be crazy enough to attack a military base."
He didn't seem happy with the answer, and the angered voiced behind him told me Falco and Slippy wanted to put their two cents in also. Peppy looked at me with those droopy eyes the way he always did during the tough decisions but, like every other time, he finally nodded. "You have this number. Call when you get there."
I nodded and cut the connection before my flushed face could show through my fur. There was another reason I blurted out the "no." That damn message spooked me worse than I thought. I knew in my heart that none of the team would ever turn me in, but at that moment, I could only think of being alone. I even hesitated calling ROB. Only god and Slippy know how he thinks.
"Yes, sir?" he answered in a thankful monotone.
"I'm going to Corneria. Keep security at full shoot anything that gets within a mile of the Great Fox if it doesn't have proper clearance."
I strapped on my pistol belt, but still felt a bit naked as I headed to the hangar. Snatching an SXR82 assault rifle and a few energy mags from the armory made me feel a bit better. I would rather have just driven the Landmaster up to the base's door, but I figured that might piss the city off a little. I don't usually carry the big guns around, but an old rule I learned to follow: If you don't know what to expect, bring enough to kill anything.
I tossed the rifle behind the seat of my Arwing and patted the shined metal, reminded of its offering as a "trophy." I scoffed and climbed in. I vowed to give a little piece of the Arwing to whoever made the message; a smart bomb up the ass.
Cornerian Army HQ, Corneria City
I knew it had to be a dream at that point. Only in a dream could a mysterious figure offer an entire galaxy billions of dollars for my death or capture. Only in a dream could I be fighting against every mercenary and gun for hire in the universe. And only in a goddamn dream could I meet with the very people I saved and be denied protection from the aforementioned assholes.
"Fox, please." Pepper raised his hands over his desk and gently motioned for me to sit down. I'd have none of it. "I tried—"
"You shouldn't even have to try!" I shouted back. I pounded my fists on his desk, making the items on it rattle. "Where was I when this very damn base was under attack? Where was I when your fleets were stuck? You think the first thing I thought of after hearing distress calls was the money?"
"Now I'm in trouble, and you bastards are throwing me out there! Do you have any idea how many mercenary groups there are out there who were itching to get me even before this? Now you selfish piece of sh—"
"I tried, dammit!" Pepper rumbled, rising to his feet. His face fell into a look saved for angry drill sergeants to give to new recruits. "I'm only one voice in a counsel of a dozen generals. Four voted to keep you here, but the others put the safety of the city first. You took a great risk even coming here. I don't want to alarm you further, but you should be wary where you go. Already we caught a guard right here in this base trying to get other soldiers to join him in...well, getting you when you came in."
I stared, shocked. Call it naivety, but before that, I actually thought my only enemies were those I already had, or at the most, those neutral in their allegiance. It could be anyone, even the guards stationed outside that very room. Even those I considered friends, and those who fought beside me in the war. That much money is hard to resist, I suppose.
"Don't you ever question my friendship again, Fox," Pepper said, sitting again. "I do not run this base on my own. The counsel declared that you must leave within the hour, and I'm bound by that, however much I disagree." He sighed. "It's painful discovering who your true friends are, and how your great deeds fade in people's minds as time goes on. Lie low and be careful. And stop by the cafeteria on your way out."
I noticed a small wink before he lowered his head to the paperwork on his desk. With a nod, I turned and walked out of his office, eyeing the two guards. They stared straight ahead.
Things seemed to stop as I walked to the cafeteria. Conversations halted as people glanced up at me, their eyes lingering. Even the hum of mingled voices seemed to die down when I entered the cafeteria. I took a seat alone at one of the tables, and no more than a minute passed before someone plunked down across from me. I looked up to see a fellow red fox clad in green camo, the black patch of the special forces on his sleeve with the emblem of a dagger below it. He stared at me from narrowed eyes, the familiar scar to the side of the left, and sipped loudly from an apple juice box. The nametape across his pocket read "Birse" though I'd know him just from the way he strummed his fingers on the table.
Old times came flooding back to memory when I saw him. We met in that same mess hall, only under different opinions of each other. It ended with his fist sending me to the floor. Being forced to work together sort of forced us to get to know each other, and eventually we started fighting the enemy instead of each other. Now, I don't know if I had a better friend outside the team and Pepper.
"Aren't you a little old for juice boxes?" I asked with a grin.
"It's healthy," Gage responded, taking another long sip. "Not my fault they come in little boxes. Want one?"
"No thanks. I shop in the adult sections now."
"Suit yourself." He finished off the box and crushed it in his fist. "Times like this remind me why I never got married. You too, probably."
I nodded. "Find a woman who could live under this kind of danger, and I'll take her."
He grinned and slapped me on the arm. "Good to see you again. Bad time though. I'm really sorry to hear about this. Bastard generals are nuts."
"Yeah. I have to be out of here, so this is going to be sort of a quick reunion."
He shook his head and nonchalantly brushed off his uniform. "Not necessary. I'm coming with you."
I blinked. "What?"
"Officially, Pepper saw that I had unused leave time stockpiled up and granted it all to me. Unofficially, I'm coming to bail your ass out."
I shook my head. "I can't ask you to get involved. This is too big, and too many thing are—"I stopped at the expression he had given me a few times before, the way a bored child watches an opera. Telling Gage Birse about danger was like telling a fish about water.
"If you're done, we can go now." He stood. "Let me just stop by the armory. The quartermaster owes me a few favors. I just hope your ship can carry all I want to bring."
Good ol' Gage.