Author's note: And after so, so long, we come to the end of Mercenary Wars! Because of the length of time, I invite readers to look back over certain areas to become familiar again with Dagger, Peppy's coma, Arthur Torqinski's plan, things like that, if need be. Let me say that it's been a genuine pleasure to write this and I certainly hope you all enjoyed it as well. As always, thank you for your past and present feedback and for reading. -Foxmerc


CHAPTER 18

The Fires of Venom
Black Scythe missile facility, Venom
1402 hours

The buggy bounced over the uneven desert road as we sped towards the missile facility. Almost the moment we left urban cover, long-range laser fire rained down on us and I was immediately thankful I decided to commandeer the buggy. Thanks to my drunken-style driving, they couldn't get a good bead on us. My comrades looked less pleased and probably would have braved the bombardment rather than drive another meter with me, had I given them the choice. I got us within a couple hundred yards intact. The facility loomed over us, half a dozen sky-high silos and a fortress-like base around them. For the first time that day, something worked in my favor. The large metal door I thought to be the entrance to the hangar turned out to be the entrance to the vehicle bay, much less thick than the rest of the base wall. I ran my hand over the dashboard to make sure the little explosive present Sergeant Tien left there was still secure. With 150 yards to go, I gunned the engine.

"Bail!" I shouted. My teammates hopped and rolled on the scorching sand. With 100 to go, I was the last one out, detonator clutched in my hand. I could practically see the defending soldiers' blank looks of surprise as the empty buggy sped towards them. I rolled and skidded to a stop, sand blurring my vision and stinging my nose. All I needed was my hearing. When the smash of metal on metal roared through the desert, I hit the red button. The explosion dwarfed the crash and disintegrated the little buggy, taking a chunk of the bay door with it.

"I don't think they appreciated my gift, sir," Tien said through coughs. The tiger cleared his throat of sand.

I wiped my eyes and looked around to make sure my team was all present. "Let's move before they mass again."

We hoofed it the rest of the way, carefully stepping through the abstract painting of fire, metal, and assorted dismembered parts. A couple soldiers thought they'd be clever and try to ambush us as we ducked through the busted bay door, but we wouldn't be much of a special forces team if boot camp tactics like that worked. We entered as one, swept the room, and dropped them before they could even get off a shot. Red lights swirled on the ceiling and an alarm blared over a generic announcement for all personnel to report to stations. If our timing was as planned, we would encounter a skeleton crew – most of Arthur's renegade soldiers were either in the city or below prepping the missiles. Even Arthur wouldn't have expected an attack like this.

One thing was for sure: Arthur would be here.

"Three minutes to the east wing where Control is," Ley reported. "From there, we can access the missiles."

"Got it," I replied. "Hart, behind me. Braddock, cover rear. Ley, Tien, sides."

I took point and moved the formation at a good pace down the corridors, checking each corner, my finger massaging the trigger, ready for a twitch reaction. But nothing came. After two minutes of nothing but alarms, flashing red lights, and emptiness, I almost wished someone would start shooting at me. My stomach tightened as I realized Arthur Torqinski had something up his sleeve. I should have known. Arthur was former Black Scythe and no enemy knew Dagger better than them.

"I don't like it, sir," Braddock grunted.

"Me either, Sergeant. Just stay cool."

No one behind me was fooled. No one for an instance thought, "Oh, good, easy mission." We all knew something was lurking out there.

I peeked around another corner and spotted the gleaming steel door labeled "Command and Control." Only problem was that it was a good job away through a large room packed with computer consoles and a huge viewscreen on one wall. Undoubtedly, missile command. Empty, of course. I inched forward until the corridor gave way to the room and poked my head in. The room was larger than I thought; two stories tall with a wide balcony loft up against the wall opposite the viewscreen. I didn't like it.

"Is there another way to Command?" I asked Ley.

She shook her head. "Not unless you want to go back outside and blow another hole somewhere."

I shook my head. "Stack up. Keep your eyes on that balcony."

I took it nice and easy along the viewscreen wall, keeping my footsteps quiet. When I was halfway through the room, I allowed myself a breath and dared to think that my fears might have been for nothing.

Then the lights went out. As if a rising storm, footsteps thundered across the metal floor from all sides.

"Night vision!" I shouted when the room plunged into pitch black darkness. I ducked behind the computer console I remembered being right next to me. Before I could get my set over my eyes, the light came back on with a quick hum and my breath caught in my throat. The room was slightly more crowded than it had been before. The balcony was lined with soldiers, all with their rifles pointed at us. Soldiers clogged the door we just came through. I counted at least three dozen probably with more standing by. My eyes settled over the balcony. Right in the middle stood Arthur, a pistol in his hand, his arms folded over a Black Scythe uniform. Just seeing it sure brought back some memories. The bastard looked right at me with a smug little smile.

"Gage," he said. "I thought you'd give me a challenge. Dagger's really grown lazy since the war."

I didn't let myself get drawn into his little game. I glanced around and saw that my team had taken cover behind the consoles during the darkness like me. Their weapons were shouldered and they aimed at the opposing army, but their chests rose and fell with admirably-repressed fear. I kept my iron sights right on Arthur.

"It's over, Arthur," I said. "The galaxy knows about your plan. Your mercenary army is being wiped out as we speak. This launch will accomplish nothing."

"Corneria is the hub of the galactic alliance, but it's always been weak. Without StarFox, it would have fallen during the war. My mercenaries will take care of Fox and this launch will do the rest. With half of their planets smoldering under mushroom clouds and their dear hero deceased, I won't even need an army to finish what Andross started. And now you've given me Dagger as well."

"We'll stop that launch, Torqinski, if we have to go through every grunt you can throw at us."

Arthur chuckled. "Come, Gage. I respect you as a talented adversary, you and your team. Put your weapons down and I'll let you leave this room as prisoners rather than corpses."

"Do I look like I would ever surrender to you, no matter how much of an advantage you think you have?

His smug look fell a little and he actually took a moment to look. "No…no, you don't. But don't mistake the situation. I don't just think I have the advantage. I do. You're a brave, stupid man, Gage, but if you care at all for the lives of your team members, you'll shove the candor aside and see reality."

I hesitated, the mission crumbling apart before me, turning into a massacre and galactic failure. I glanced to my team and caught Braddock's eye. Under the cover of the console, he patted his launcher and gripped the firing handle. I met his eyes again in agreement and looked back at Arthur. If my team was willing to stand with me to the death then I could do no less.

"Before you condemn your team," Arthur continued, "let me see if I guessed the situation right. Dagger always did love big bangs. So I'm guessing you plan on launching the missiles with the silo doors closed, thus destroying them and the base in one fell swoop. You'd give yourselves plenty of time to escape of course and your lovely infiltrator there would block all forms of override. Am I close?"

The smug look was back. I wanted to wipe it off his face permanently with my rifle. I said nothing, mostly because that exactly was our plan. He held up a black pad that looked like an explosives detonator.

"Even if you somehow manage to start the countdown and close the silo doors, I still have complete control. I can open and close the doors like flipping a kitchen light. You've lost, Captain Birse. This is your last chance to surrender."

I signaled Braddock behind the console. He didn't even hesitate; he raised the launcher to his shoulder as easily as a normal man raises a pistol and let fly with a blue energy burst. The left side of the balcony exploded, sending metal, soldiers, smoke, and lots of noise flying around the room. Dozens of guns fired at once, drowning out all other sounds. Lasers fell like rain, answered by the valiant returning fire of my team. I let looses towards the balcony, hoping to tag Arthur in the confusion, but I had to duck every couple seconds from the fire. More soldiers poured in to replace those we dropped. If we stayed any longer, we'd be killed. We had to brave the hail.

"Move to the command room!" I shouted into my comm, barely able to even hear myself.

Hart was closest to the door. The raccoon sprinted forward, lasers burning the air around him, opened the door and dove in. I shimmied to the console he used as cover and looked back.

"Braddock, move up!"

"Braddock's down, sir! I…I think he's dead."

I squinted through the smoke. Braddock lay on his back, launcher beside him, a pool of blood forming around his head. I gritted my teeth.

"Ley, move it!"

The lithe leopardess had no trouble moving from console to console, returning fire when she could. She took a deep breath and made the final run to the console I was behind when the odds caught up with her. I laser pelted her in the shoulder and she went down with a yelp, stumbling right into my arms. I pulled her behind cover and checked the wound; it didn't hit anything vital but probably hurt like a bitch. She sucked air through her teeth and muttered, "Damn, damn…I'm sorry."

"Stay calm. Don't move. Tien! Give us covering fire."

"On it, boss." The tiger dove and rolled behind Braddock's console and retrieved the launcher. Somehow I knew he'd go for the most explosive weapon. He loosed another round, blowing the balcony clear of its moorings and sending it crashing down in a cacophony of metal on metal. Our troubles weren't over; more troops entered from the doorway. I pulled Ley into the command room, where Hart fired through the doorway.

"Tien, come on!" Hart shouted.

The tiger didn't move immediately. He busied himself setting a charge on the console nearest him, a little surprise for pursuing enemies. He used the tactic all the time. When he was set, he prepared to run…but never got the chance. A stray laser pierced his ear, shaking him up and making him stand a bit too high. The barrage from the door cut him down, at least five lasers pounding his chest. My heart sank as I watched it, helpless. He fell to the ground, eyes swimming. With his last breath, he gathered his strength and slid the detonator across the floor to me. I picked it up and when I looked back at him, he lay lifeless. I hit the panel to close the door, sealing us off from the noise.

"Fuck!" I growled, pounding my fist against the door. That was all I allowed myself. I stowed the anger and turned to business at hand.

Ley was already back on her feet, tapping away at the large bank of computers. I could tell by her face that she was upset by the losses but was keeping at the job. Hart stayed calm as well. Good soldiers.

"Torqinski knew our plan," Hart said. "Fuckin' Black Scythe. He knew our playbook."

"Is what he said true?" I asked Ley. "Can he manually open the doors again?"

She nodded. "If he uploaded the codes to a separate device, it's possible. He prepared for it. He could bypass my override locks."

I let out a breath and thought for a moment. The firing had ceased but it wouldn't be long before they pursued. Luckily, there were two more doors exiting the command room. I checked my rifle and patted my vest. Plenty of ammo left.

"I'm going after Torqinski. He'll head for the hangar."

"How do you know?" Ley asked.

"He wants to live as ruler of the galaxy, not be a martyr. He won't hang around if there's danger; I know his type. He'll keep tabs on the silo doors from the sky. Close the doors, start the launch sequence, and make your way to LZ two. I'll meet you there."

Hart glanced at me. "What if you don't get to him in time?"

"I will." I handed him the detonator. "Use that if they start knocking. I'll see you at the LZ."

"Good luck, sir."

I was greeted by a blast of scorching hot wind as I passed through the hangar door. The hangar sprawled before me, large enough to accommodate half a dozen freighter ships. The enormous bay door was open, allowing in the desert wind. Shipping crates were stacked all around transports of varying classes. Only one ship caught my eye, a Vulture-class transport ship, roughly double the size of a dropship, with two large thruster engines and a back-end loading ramp. Footsteps descended the lowered ramp at the sound of the door. Torqinski appeared along with a couple soldiers. I stood in the open.

"Gage," he said, looking at me with an annoyed glare rather than his smug smirk. "How did you get here?"

"You don't know Dagger well enough if you think your grunts could stop me from getting to you."

He opened his mouth to speak again but was interrupted with two loud alarms followed by a monotone voice on the speakers.

Launch Sequence activated. Missile preparations complete. Targets locked. Silo status not optimal; silo doors must be open. Fifteen minutes to launch.

"Thank you, Gage, you saved me the trouble of launching them myself." He removed the pad from his jacket and pushed the button.

Silo status optimal; silo doors opening.

Torqinski grinned. "Kill him."

Like playing a video game on easy mode; I outdrew the two soldiers and dropped them with a quick burst to each chest. Arthur didn't think it would work, but it gave him time to get behind a container and fire at me with his pistol. I dove behind my own crate, dropped my rifle, and retrieved two grenades from my vest.

"You've lost, Gage!"

I broke cover and ran. Lasers licked my heels as I leapt off the top of a small crate and shoved and primed grenade into the ship's starboard thruster. The cylindrical engine exploded, showering the area with sparks and metal.

"What are you doing!"

"Making sure you stay and fight, you piece of shit!"

I used my free hand to fire back with my own pistol, but he was no easy target. I expected nothing less from a Black Scythe. He dove, rolled, and his shots came to close for comfort. I counted his shots and when he was ready to reload, I unsheathed my knife and charged him. He looked surprised and a well-placed slash at his arm sent the pad flying through the air and clattering to the hangar deck. I quickly primed my other grenade and tossed it into the port thruster. The explosion sent us both to the floor. With his ship in flames, heating me up even more than the desert, Arthur faced me with a stare of demonic hatred. I ignored him. I dove, grabbed the pad, and hit the button again.

Silo status not optimal; silo doors closing.

A hard kick knocked the wind out of me and a painful kick to my hand sent the knife sliding along the floor. I hopped up to face him but was quickly knocked back down by a punch followed by a spinning kick.

"Didn't I teach you this lesson before, Gage? You can't win against me."

He picked up the pad.

Operation aborted; silo doors opening.

I whipped my leg around, tripped him, and grabbed the pad myself.

Operation aborted; silo doors closing.

By this time, anyone listening must have been confused as hell. Torq grabbed me by the neck, pulled me to my feet and landed a punch to my face. I lay on my back, disoriented and blinded by the pain of the immense punch. I blinked and saw that my blurry vision came from the burning thruster right above me. It crackled and sparked, groaning and teetering.

Operation aborted; silo doors opening.

When my vision cleared, Torqinski stood over me, pad in one hand and knife in the other, apparently oblivious to the engine.

"You destroyed my ship," he growled. "I'm going to make your death slow and painful. I'll make you realize that Dagger could never stand up to Black Scythe."

Quick as lightning, I sat up, grabbed him by the jacket, and pulled him down to the ground right on top of me. Our eyes were inches apart and I glared fiercely as the engine creaked above us.

"Black Scythe never learned the first rule of combat," I seethed. "Always mind the battlefield."

Another cable snapped. I rolled out from under his weight as the engine broke loose of the ship and crashed down, crushing Torq under the metal and flame. I let out a breath and groaned in aching pain as I stood up. The bastard knew how to fight. Too bad he never sparred against hunks of flaming metal. I retrieved the pad from his protruding hand and hit the button one last time.

Silo status not optimal; status doors closing.

With that, I tossed the pad into the fire. Then I relaxed my muscles for the first time all day. The empty, hot hangar seemed comforting. I allowed myself a moment of reflection, honoring those men who fell and what we had all accomplished here. I looked out the bay door into the sky and wondered if Fox had succeeded. If he had, then we both could live the rest of our lives proud of what we had done. Perhaps he found some satisfaction in living up to his father or proving the galaxy wrong.

Me…there would be no parades for me. And I didn't want any. I was just happy to join the hallowed ranks of the first Dagger team. As Fox carried on a legacy, so did I, and we proved that not even a mercenary army and threat of war could tear that apart.

With that thought, I turned to one of the other ships. I and my team would not be there when the base went up, taking the remnants of a terrible war with it.

Prologue

Peppy,

If you're reading this then you finally woke up. You old guys, always sleeping late. Just kidding.

I'm sorry I couldn't be there when you came around but I had to leave. The press, public demand, everything was getting to be too much and if I hung around any longer I'd never be able to disappear. To give you the quick rundown: there's nothing to worry about. Falco and Slippy can fill you in on the details. Most of the blacklist mercenary teams in the galaxy have been wiped out or disbanded.

I know you may find it hard to trust Falco again…God knows I did. I wanted to kill him. But he's truly earned his way back in through his own blood. He can tell you all about it…just don't let him embellish the truth. You have good judgment, you can see for yourself.

Gage may be stopping by to check up on you. I asked him to every now and then. Remember him, that crazy Dagger guy? He helped us out a lot and ultimately saved tons of lived, including mine. He may have a woman with him: Andrea. She's a friend and, as I'm sure she'll tell everyone, now a full member of Dagger. You'd never tell from the way he acts, but I think she and Gage like each other. Gage getting married…ha! I might just have to come back to see that.

And about that…

I've gone away for awhile. I don't know for how long or even to where, so no one can find me. I had to get away. Surely you had a feeling like that at sometime. This whole mercenary war made me think and realize a lot of things and I need some time away to think about it all. Most of all, I'm feeling a little pissed at the galaxy right now. You know me, I never wanted big rewards and lots of recognition for my acts, but I sure as hell wanted trust and loyalty. I'm not going to rant, but I need some time away. Until then, you have command of StarFox. Call on Gage or Andrea if you ever need help and Falco and Slippy will still be there. As you helped my father once, I know I can trust in you now as well.

If Gage stops by, tell him I said to take care and don't do anything too crazy.

Until we meet again,
Fox McCloud

- The End -