I: A Day in the Life

Meteos.

A chaotic and inconsistent assemblage of rock and natural metals, tumbling through space in a semi-organized belt that runs through the Lylat System like a river. Massive clumps of raw material populate this tremendous expanse, joining their smaller cousins in a gravitational entrapment around Solar, doomed to forever encircle the star. On rare occasions, an errant meteor may apparently spontaneously break free of the snare, hurtling one way or another to a fate unknown, but for the most part, it is a fairly tame system anomaly.

Intense, century long mining and assimilation has left portions of the field strangely barren and empty, with depleted asteroids floating lazily through the small gaps in the belt, unused fragments left behind by the miners. These 'dead zones' are often uncharted and usually avoided by the vast majority of Lylat's population; some say it's due the navigational hazards that always seem to pervade these areas, while others sidestep them due to supposed pirate activity. Some even claim that the abandoned mining machinery that was left when the miners moved on gives off an eerie, almost subliminal uneasiness.

Whatever the reason, these isolated holes, deep within Meteos, are largely left alone by both civilian and law enforcement traffic alike. This lack of supervision makes the openings in the belt all the more attractive to those whose trades are often looked down upon by the rest of the civilized world. Such unsavory types flock to these regions in droves, seeking shelter within their empty expanses, building colonies for themselves within the very asteroids that make up the belt. The colossal honeycombed rocks are inhabited with every possible kind of criminal and fugitive a government could ever hope to put a warrant out for; running the gambit from petty thieves to mass-murderers; hitmen for hire to corrupt business owners.

And of course; mercenaries.


The soft, azure glow of cockpit instruments bathed Fox McCloud's rusty orange and white visage in an unearthly luminosity, one that broke the otherwise dark shade created by a mammoth of a boulder off in the distance, completely blocking Solar's rays and throwing those in its wide wake into shadow. Sighing, the vulpine released the joystick he had been lazily gripping and reached once more for his fighter's sensory controls, tapping a series of digital keys and getting the same result as the last five times he checked the radar out of tedium: empty.

'…Who knew babysittin' a convoy could be so boring,' he thought, watching as a trio of long, cylindrical transports idled along at a leisurely rate ahead of him, their engine blocks giving off a trail of orange and red particles as they propelled the freighters at their top speed, appearing though as if they were barely moving at all to the Arwing pilot. At the front of the single-file vessels was another, smaller propulsion trail, one he easily recognized to belong to his wingmate. His partner's impatience was plainly visible to Fox, even from the opposite end of the convoy; his identical blue and white, swept-wing fighter was drifting back and forth above the lead transport like a level pendulum.

A gentle pulsing sound abruptly filled the cockpit, coupling with a blinking indicator on his control panel in signaling the reception of a communications request, something that Fox welcomed as a respite from the monotony. He instantly recognized the sender on the text alert that also popped up on his display and cleared the long-distance call, straightening himself in his padded seat as he did so; the mercenary knew the sender of the request had a penchant for being slightly overbearing about such trivial things.

Folding from nothing in the bottom left portion of the vulpine's Heads Up Display, a moving picture appeared; filled with static at first, but quickly clearing to merely slightly disrupted. The speech of a middle-aged hare, easily a couple decades the fox's senior, filled the pilot's compartment; the gold outline surrounding his portrait on the HUD identifying the com channel as private.

"Fox, can y…hear me?" Peppy asked, a burst of interference interrupting him for a moment midway through the transmission. Past the hare's face, the fox could see the background of the bridge of their mercenary team's home and carrier, the Great Fox.

"Yeah Peppy," Fox replied, glancing out again at the glimmering transport engine castoff, "But you're breakin' up a bit."

"Ah; it must…the asteroid field," the response came, continuing to flicker in quality, "Anyway; if things…still going according to the brief…, you should be entering…Briar Pocket soon."

"Affirmative Pep; the radar's sayin' the rocks are starting to thin out up ahead."

"Alright, pay attention then Fox," the elder continued, catching a stretch of unfettered com time before the static reappeared, "According to…contractor, their rivals are planning…small-scale raid on one…their convoys. They said…most of their activity….at the site of…former Briar Mining Station; …on your toes."

"Roger that," the vulpine answered, nodding, "I'll relay that to Falco too; thanks Peppy."

"Not a problem Fox; just…careful though, okay? I've got the Great…out on…Cornerian edge of the field. Our respon…time if something…wrong will be close to…hour."

"I'm aware of that," he replied, smiling, "But don't sweat it; me 'n Falco can handle a squad of whatever these guy'll throw at us blindfolded. They'd just be some mid-sizedsmuggler company's enforcers anyway, right?"

"Ye…, in a rather precise manner of speak...," Peppy laughed, his portrait continuing to bend and distort randomly on occasion as he gradually became serious again, "One m… thing though; remember to check with me for confirmation…payment before leaving the destination Freeport. They may've hired us…protection from criminals, but they're still smugglers themselves."

"Got it Peppy," Fox said in a finishing manner, placing a hand back on the joystick as he visually noticed the space between asteroids becoming larger and larger, "We're just now entering Briar Pocket; the Freeport should be on the other side."

"Understood; good lu… then. We'll expect you back in a f… hours. Pep… out." The portrait of the hare folded into itself and disappeared after he signed off, and the vulpine's cockpit fell silent once more.

Looming up ahead of the column of transports, the orange furred fox noticed a particularly large mass of metal and rock, clumped together in a very rough vertical oblong shape and sitting directly in their flight path. Several pieces of errant and forgotten mining equipment jutted out from the enormous asteroid, as well as many of its neighbors, letting the vulpine know that they had reached the extreme edge of the Pocket. Beyond the massive obstruction that the lead freighter of the convoy had just reached and was working its way around, Fox observed a significant expanse of emptiness; several tiny fragments of meteor material and old machinery floated through the hole in the asteroid field, but none were on the same scale of what he, his partner, and his charges had been flying past for the last hour or so.

Pulling back on the throttle, and feeling the slight force as small retro-boosters slowed his Arwing down accordingly, he still maintained enough velocity to gain ground on the slow and awkwardly proceeding transports as they attempted to guide their long hulls around the offending asteroid. He approached and soared past the rear freighter, watching it retreat beneath his cockpit as he skimmed its smooth dorsal surface, the hull plating and panels rushing past him before he ascended a little to avoid surprising the pilot of the cargo vessel in the bridge up front.

By the time he could repeat a similar maneuver with the second transport in line, the lead ship had already completed the semi-circular navigation of the asteroid, and was pausing on the other side of it to wait for its companions to follow a similar path around. Floating patiently above the first freighter, and turned to face out across the expanse they were about to enter, was Fox's wingman, and the reason for the vulpine's moving up in the convoy.

He keyed in a com request to his friend, intending to inform him that they were to switch roles again; his wingmate would take the fox's old position in the back, and he would take his wingman's place up front. On the longer escort contracts, such as their current assignment, keeping a pilot in the same place for the entire time only results in unintentional boredom and laziness, leaving the potential for missing something important higher with every passing minute. So, in order to allay these dangers, the escorts usually didn't stay in the same spot along the convoy for too long, and traded formation positions to mix things up a bit.

However, for Fox, the seconds stretched into minutes after he sent the communications notice, and still his wingmate didn't answer. Finally, just as the last freighter was completing its journey around the obstacle, and they were regrouping to continue their journey, the familiar message window appeared in the bottom left of his HUD, and the sound came soon after.

"Hey, sorry 'bout that Fox," the blue-hued avian said, the blare of heavy metal playing alongside his voice and filling the leader's cockpit with the trademark percussion and guitar riffs, "What's up?"

"We're switchin' again, Falco," he replied, easing up parallel to the second Arwing and glancing at his buddy though the durable canopies, "Take up position behind the last transport."

"Gotcha, McCloud," the second pilot answered, boosting his fighter from a stand-still and making his way across Fox's vision as he turned in a wide curve to head to the rear of the convoy. As he did though, his gales of laughter could be heard over the com, along with the sight of his mirthful face. "Hey Fox, check it out," he chuckled, prompting the merc leader to quickly switch the com frequency to private; his friend had a way of making the most inappropriate comments at times, "These guys can't even pilot a friggin' freighter right; it's takin' 'em an hour to get the past that boulder. No wonder they need protection."

Fox grinned and took a sideways glance at the time on a digital display; it had only been a few minutes, "Yeah...but listen up Falc; we're about to enter the Briar Pocket. According to the gunrunners we're escortin', this is where their harassers are most likely gonna make an appearance; the leftover com interference from the old mining stuff'll screw a bit with communications and sensors, so stay sharp."

"You know me, El Cap-i-tan," he replied, using the proper title for the fox in his usual casual tone, "The day I go dull is the day I die."

"Good to hear buddy," Fox responded, still grinning despite the semi-serious nature of the information he was relaying, "The Riley Freeport is just beyond the pocket; once we make it there, the port's security will take over."

"Then all we have to do is get paid, right?"

"Right, although that's easier said then done with these kinds of guys," he answered, taking up his new position just above the lead transport.

"True," Falco replied, assuming his new role at the rear of the convoy, and accelerating in unison with the transports as they finally began to make their way across the Pocket, "So why didn't we ask for payment in advance, again?"

"Eh, Peppy tried; but nobody would trust us with that. Keep in mind man; we're not exactly infamous mercenaries. Heh, not yet anyways."

"Huh," the avian grunted, inspecting the nails of his free hand while the other was slack on the stick, "You'd think people would at least say 'thank you' or somethin'when we go and single-handedly save the entire system from a mad scientist, ya know?"

"Well that's just kinda the cost of our business Falco; you didn't think General Pepper was really going to publicly acknowledge the fact that four mercs showed up the entire Cornerian Army last year, did you?"

"Yeah…," he nodded in agreement reluctantly, staring at the now speeding transports ahead of him as he accelerated to maintain formation. The shear openness of the Briar Pocket permitted the normally lumbering cargo vessels to fully utilize the powerful industrial engines they were equipped with, allowing them to move along at a surprising clip.

"Anyway, our contract's almost done; just try n' stay awake 'till we get to Riley, okay?"

"I'll do my best, sir," he retorted with a wide grin, again using the vulpine's official title in a sarcastic manner and adding to the running joke with a snap of a salute.

Fox laughed and cut the transmission, shaking his head a bit with a smile still plastered to his face as he turned his gaze to the immediate region of the Pocket they were traversing. He could see the larger asteroids and chunks of leftover mining equipment far off in the distance, forming the border of the abandoned sector with a ring of alike landmarks. Tiny particles and clusters of dust and minerals bumped and buffeted his fighter's shields as the quintet of spacecraft cruised along, causing no measurable effect other than the occasional 'thump' as a mini meteor impacted the energy protection.

Tapping a touch-key on a panel to the side of him, he brought up a map of the Lylat System in the bottom right corner of his HUD, and a few keystrokes later, the navigational chart was zoomed in on the Meteos asteroid belt. A couple seconds of signal searching later, a blinking yellow arrow appeared in the middle of the field, indicating his present location and coordinates. Fox decreased the displayed contents further until he was left with a relatively limited map of his direct surroundings, one that indicated his position as just crossing the quarter-way point of the recently charted Briar Pocket. 'So far, so good,' he couldn't stop himself from thinking as the golden icon continued to move at a snail's pace across the mini-map.

Then, as if someone had been reading his mind, a com window abruptly appeared adjacent to the map on the left side of his display, unfolding to reveal a brownish cougar, his clothes bearing the rough and unkempt look that if nothing else, firmly identified him as a smuggler.

"Alright ya mercs," he began gruffly, the wording of his announcement making it clear to the vulpine that he was addressing both himself and Falco over the com, "I'm gettin' several signals on scope up ahead between us and the Freeport; looks mostly like smaller fighters, bombers maybe. We're already late for the shipment though, so we're just gonna go ahead an' plow right through 'em. Make sure you keep 'em off us if you wanna earn your pay."

"Roger that Lead," Fox replied to the head freighter pilot, "See what you n' your boys can do about getting' into a defensive position though; I wouldn't recommend charging bombers in single file like that. If they take the first one of you out, the others behind ya will-"

"Hey; did I ask for yur opinion, rodent?" the smuggler pilot angrily cut him off, "I'm payin' you two fer security, not for advice on how to do my job."

"Er, right," he stuttered, a level of surprise at the rude rebuttal evident in the slightly folded ears and raised eyebrows of the vulpine, "My apologies, sir."

The smuggler huffed once in annoyance and cut the connection. As he did though, Fox got a bit of satisfaction in the fact that according to the radar and what he could see of the repositioning first transport out his cockpit, the three cargo vessels were indeed heeding his advice and forming themselves into an upside-down triangle, with the trailing freighters pulling even with the lead.

At the same time on the radar, Fox also noticed a smaller blip making its way up to his own Arwing from the rear of the convoy, followed closely by the pilot of that fighter opening a private line of communications with him.

"What an ass, man," Falco remarked as he pulled even with the fox, "I swear, if we weren't getting' paid for this-"

"Then we wouldn't even be here in the first place," Fox interrupted, on a much friendlier level than the smuggler had him, "But don't worry 'bout it for now. Say what you want about a gunrunner's piloting or social skills, their intel always seems to be spot on. Let's go welcome our would-be assailants."

"Ah, you're probably right," the avian sighed contently, as if savoring something, "At least we finally get to do something exciting on this run." The background blare of rock music became a blast as he turned it up before temporarily terminating the com connection, boosting out ahead of the convoy with the vulpine in close pursuit, heading towards the radar signals that had just appeared on their Arwings' shorter sensor range.

As the pair of mercenaries approached the incoming and slightly distorted signals, a result of the residual electronic interference inherent within Meteos, they finally gained a small sliver of a visual on the targets, their reflective gray fighters catching Solar's rays and making their exact position clearly obvious to them. Adjusting to a slight correction in flight path, Fox and Falco were now charging directly at the offending group of ships as the latter thrusted eagerly towards the head-on confrontation.

The distance between the two sides melted as the mercs soared closer, reaching a point where the HUD sensors could identify the attackers as such with a series of crimson ID boxes; digital images that bracketed and followed the ships around the cockpit as they maneuvered in their formation, sprouting tiny lines of information as they did so. Using the information gained from this influx of data, and staring with a watchful eye at the rapidly decreasing distance gauge of the lead aggressor, Fox re-opened the channel with his wingman for a quick comment.

"Falco," he said, expecting and likewise able to ignore the vicious ambient soundtrack of the avian's cockpit, "Follow my lead."

Answering without word, opting only for a thumbs-up as his head nodded to the thumping beat of his music, Falco cut his velocity to assume position behind the vulpine and a bit to the side, giving them both a clear shot at the nearing fighters. The gap continued to drop at a frighteningly fast rate, drawing ever closer to the magic threshold of a number in which the space around them would explode in fire and munitions; a maelstrom of deadly weapons. And then, without further warning, they were there.

Fox tapped the afterburners even as his finger clenched around the stick trigger, his Arwing spouting fire from both sides as his thrusters flared up and his weapons sprang to life. His wingman mirrored his actions exactly, and soon two twin green laser streams were pouring into the approaching smuggler formation, while the more numerous fighters attempted to return fire. Under the withering onslaught of the vulpine and his cohort though, they couldn't maintain their positions and split up, just as the Arwings tore through the center of their former configuration at alarming speed.

Their objective of temporarily disrupting the assailant's charge to the vulnerable transports accomplished, Fox released the booster and yanked back on the joystick, pulling his highly maneuverable fighter into a U-turn. As he did so, he spoke over the constant com channel he had established with Falco, comparing what he saw on the first pass with the avian to form an impromptu attack plan.

"I got six of 'em," he called out, completing the turn and watching as the enemies attempted to readjust themselves from the apparently suicidal charge of the escorting Arwings.

"Two fighters and four bombers," Falco countered, following the vulpine out of the half-loop and targeting one of the slower, more heavily armed aggressors he had spied on the initial run by.

"Bombers are priority; take 'em out first if you can help it."

"Gotcha Fox."

The quartet of heavier assault craft had been able to reform since being thrown apart, and were bearing down upon the transports with all the thrust their engines could produce, nearing the range where their devastating armament could be unleashed. Ignoring the accompanying interceptors for the moment, the Arwings gave chase, using their superior speed to quickly catch up with the bombers.

Immediately as Fox's targeting crosshairs flashed red, he opened fire on a trailing heavy fighter, the laser bolts splashing against its shields as they absorbed the energy. The pilot of the bomber bobbed and juked back and forth, desperately trying to shake the vulpine's fire while still maintaining his attack course on the freighters. After another series of blasts though, the slower, bi-winged craft's shields buckled and fell, and he broke off again, pulling out and to the left as he abandoned his three companions in search of safety from the torrent of damage.

As the pilot did though, the lead mercenary peeled off the other three and tailed it closely, commanding his wingmate to stay on the remaining bombers as they closed in on the cargo vessels. With the shields down, the rogue heavy fighter was completely open to the carnage of Fox's blaster cannons, and it was all just a matter of leading the shots to the rapidly climbing ship. The vulpine tensed as his crosshairs sought the errant craft; the joystick pressed back as far as it would go as the Arwing gained ground in the diagonal loop the bomber was trying to perform.

In an instant, his dormant trigger finger released the pent up rigidity and squeezed the firing stud, triggering the release of dual streams of laser fire from beneath the nose of his fighter, leaping forth and tagging the unshielded chassis of his target. The scorching energy burrowed deep into the rear of the unfortunate bomber, one shot piercing the reactor and sending the craft up in an abrupt but impressive fireball.

"Scratch one!" Fox called over the com as he terminated the loop and re-entered the fray, only to get assaulted by a burst of gunfire from one of the interceptors, who had since caught up with the Arwings.

"Double that," Falco replied shortly thereafter, his message preceded by the flash and burst of another bomber being destroyed in the vulpine's peripheral. Just as he was saying it though, his portrait suddenly distorted and fizzled, an indicator that he had just been hit by something. "What the hell?" he exclaimed, reeling from the physical shock of the blasts and sending his fighter into an evasive roll, "Hey Fox! Need a little help here!"

"I'm a little busy right now," the fox replied, wincing both his eyes and ears as his own Arwing was hit again by another attack from the second enemy fighter, who was firmly attached to his tail, "Head for the freighters; we'll find a way to shake 'em."

On cue, the trio of transports stampeded into the fray, adding their multiple turrets to the already hectic battle of criss-crossing lasers and munitions as they strove to reach the relatively far safety of the destination Freeport. While their presence certainly helped the mercenaries, they themselves were also extremely vulnerable to the pair of remaining bombers, and the speed in which they charged only brought them into range sooner. And with their paid escorts occupied, they were open to attack.

As Fox boosted towards the freighters, hoping to lose his assailant with some maneuvering around the larger ships, he saw the bright flame of the thrust of several heavy missiles as the bombers launched their initial salvo and peeled off. He watched the warheads home in on their unlucky target, forgetting for a moment the blasts rocking his shields from behind, transfixed on what he sure would be a massive explosion from the unprotected cargo vessel. He wasn't disappointed.

The torpedoes impacted the right freighter in the formation almost exactly mid-way down the ship's 'spine', detonating in a series of flare-bangs as they unleashed their destructive fury. Then, in a stunning and startling outburst, the transport literally erupted from within as the munitions cargo it was hauling blasted a hole clean through the long, thin ship, splitting the vessel in two as the weapons onboard continued to bake and ignite, further consuming the disabled freighter until only debris remained. The surviving two transports were able to drive the bombers off from another run, but the damage had been done.

"Damnit!" Falco cried over the com, watching the burnt and twisted wreckage continue to drift apart as he soared by, his pursuer following closely, "There goes our paycheck, man!"

"Keep fightin' Falco," Fox replied frantically, swerving to avoid more gunfire, "We're still good for two-thirds of the contract at least."

His wingmate grunted in reply, and the vulpine got back to more pressing issues in the form of trying to lose the interceptor on his back while at the same time angling towards the bombers to prevent a second attack from occurring. In the time since their first run, the heavier assault fighters had been able to loop around in preparation for another bombardment of the transports from the rear, something Fox was intending to interrupt.

Kicking his Arwing up on its port wing, the vulpine faked in the same direction for a moment, leading his trailer to begin to turn left with him, before completing the trick and gunning his thruster straight ahead, using the few extra seconds while the pursuer recovered to increase the gap between them. He darted past the freighters as they continued to spew long, slow moving plasma bolts from their turrets in a desperate attempt to hit one of the attackers, missing much more often than not as even the more sluggish bombers could evade the fire fairly easily.

Returning his fighter to a level position as he approached the remaining, charging heavy fighters, Fox flicked a tab on his joystick, and a mechanical whirr let him know that the onboard missiles were prepped for launch. His targeting crosshairs turned into a box, and it began to glow orange as the computer attempted to lock onto one of the closing bombers; however, his boosters didn't allow the vulpine enough time to get a full lock, forcing him to deploy the lightweight, maneuverable missiles without a stable target.

His blue and white vessel's incredible speed at the moment carried him to skim just over the assault ships as one of his anti-fighter warheads detonated, noticing a split-second before the blast that the bomber had just begun to launch its payload. The resulting compound explosion of the torpedo blowing up midway out its magazine and consuming the fighter from within surprised even the battle-tested merc, the flare flashing on his face for a moment before it died down.

'That leaves three,' he though to himself as he pulled a quick U-turn to attempt to take out the last remaining bomber. However, when he completed the half-loop and set his sights on where he assumed the target to be, attacking the freighters, it was nowhere to be seen. A glance at his radar revealed that there was a blip retreating from his immediate area, a signal that, when put together with a visual by turning towards it, was revealed to be the bomber making a run for it, retreating the way it had come.

"Hey Fox!" Falco called over the com, "I think I lost my guy; he's not firin' any more."

A quick check of the area around the transports where the avian was weaving in and out, previously attempting to evade his pursuer, revealed the same instance with the bomber; the interceptor was withdrawing from the battlefield, following its heavier companion into the asteroid field and out of the openness of the Briar Pocket.

"Not quite Falco," he replied with a grin, knowing that what he was about to say would take some of the wind from his sails, "It seems like they're just pulling back."

"Eh, same difference," came the response, the raptor breathing deep in relief while at the same time trying to hid it from the camera that was capturing his image for the com portrait.

Fox opened his muzzle to continue, but a series of direct hits from the last interceptor's cannons stopped him dead in his verbal tracks in shock; he had completely forgotten about the fighter that had been harassing and taking potshots at him for the entire engagement. Now, despite the fact that his companions were leaving, the pilot of the stubborn craft was charging straight on, rocking Fox's Arwing with strike after strike until his speed shot him past vulpine, who was too stunned to immediately respond.

The vulpine quickly regained his senses though, growling in annoyance as he slammed his right foot-yoke, rotating his fighter vertical on the corresponding wing and turning to face the solo interceptor, watching as it mirrored his action to return for another headstrong rush. This time, Fox was ready for the pilot as he leveled out; as far as he was concerned at the moment, the assailant's light fighter was the only other ship in the pocket.

Florescent laserfire pierced the space between the two craft as they rapidly closed distance with each other, the Arwing laying waste to the jet-shaped fighter's shields and vice versa. Seeing the stalemate the charge would probably end up in, and hoping to take the enemy down on the current pass, Fox keyed a switch to double up his energy protection in front, leaving his engines and rear completely vulnerable, and flipped the tab on top of his joystick to its second setting, again arming the missiles he carried.

Bright red bolts of ultra-compressed energy continued to splash against the vulpine's reinforced shields as he once more forfeited the lock-on feature of the warheads for lack of time and launched them straight down the nose of the oncoming interceptor. Then, cringing slightly and inhaling a shallow breath, he jammed the afterburners at the same time his rockets tore down the attacker's shields, his Arwing lurching abruptly to breakneck speeds as he hurtled for an intentional head-on collision. He was gambling his life on his split-second plan; at the last possible second, he again kicked his ship up on its wing and angled down slightly, bracing for the incredible impact that would determine the victor of the virtual joust.

The smuggler fighter's pilot was caught completely off-guard by the fox's sudden increase in velocity, and had no time to react as their ships collided. Unshielded as the interceptor was, it stood little chance of winning the competition of kinetics as the Arwing literally plowed through it; Fox's now vertical wing, still protected by the form-hugging layer of absorbing energy, sliced clean through the assailant's vessel, severing its own right extension from the rest of the fighter and tearing out the thruster block behind the cockpit. Completely disabled and without any means of propulsion or power, the force of its own exploding engine shot what remained of the aggressor's fighter off away from the scene of battle, hurtling through the empty pocket and towards the opposite end as the pilot's retreating friends.

Gasping and suffering from tunnel vision and ears ringing so loud it felt as though he had been smacked in them, Fox slowed his Arwing and turned back around, glancing at the ruined fighter he had just rammed as it drifted away. A voice drifted in and out of existence, muffled to the point of mere grunts and sounds as the vulpine struggled to recover from his zoned out state of mind. Gradually, his clouded eyesight cleared and his hearing returned, leading him to finally realize the frenzy of sirens and flashing lights in his cockpit, the bold move having disrupted several systems. Besides the blaring warning sounds, there was also another noise that pervaded the small space; one that was accompanied by a picture surrounded in gold on his HUD.

"Fox!" the picture of Falco yelled again, further torturing his smarting eardrums, "Fox, answer me man! You alright!"

"…Yeah," he replied shakily, holding a tipless-gloved hand to the side of his muzzle as a sudden pain made itself known, "Yeah…I think so." He removed the paw from his cheek and stared at the three middle fingers of it, the rusty orange fur there matted and soaked with a thick crimson fluid. At the same time, he tasted the same metallic, coppery substance in his mouth; the pressure of his fingertips against his white but blood-stained muzzle forcing more of the liquid from the internal gash.

"You sure Foxie?" Falco asked, peering closer at his wingmates picture on the HUD, as if he could see better by doing so, "You're not lookin' so hot."

"No, it's…it's okay," he answered, manually checking his jawbone and wincing as his probing paw touched a bruised spot, "I-I'm okay."

"Well that was a hell of a stunt you pulled there, captain," the avian continued, grinning wide and splashing his voice with mirth, "Don't remember that move in the academy."

Fox laughed as much as his muzzle-wounds would allow, which wasn't more than a few soft chuckles, and began to converse again, but was cut off by a second com picture appearing above Falco's on his cockpit display. The alarms and strobing warning lights of his cockpit had faded away as they switched off, but he was about to be assaulted by another form of sensory attack; the lead gunrunner was back, and he didn't look too happy.

"Damnit mercs; you sellships are worthless!" the cougar spat, raging in his fury at the loss of one of his vessels, "That freighter contained something of extreme value to some very important people!"

"My apologies Lead," Fox replied, quickly losing his smile and assuming a deadly serious, if slightly exhausted, expression, "I'm sure that the pilot-"

"Screw the pilot!" the vulpine was cut off again, surprising and freezing his expression, "I can always hire a replacement. But the munitions onboard were more valuable than your pathetic lives will ever be worth!"

"Maybe you should've told us you were haulin' explosives then, smartass!" Falco cut in angrily, receiving the same messages as Fox was, as the cougar's broadcast was open to both of them, "Seriously; who charges a flight of bombers when they're shippin' weapons! You shoulda hung back and gave us some room to work before bustin' in on us and givin' those guys a clear shot!"

The gunrunner fumed silently for a moment after the interruption, stewing in his rage before answering, his voice growing louder and shriller with each sentence, "What we carry is not for you to know, merc. What our tactics are is not for you to care, merc! What we decide is not for you to question, merc! You understand that? We pay you, and you obey; that's how it works. I'll tell you right now; you'll be lucky to get your lives as payment, much less any cash."

"You're absolutely right Lead," Fox said quickly, hoping to appear apologetic and subservient, "And I apologize again for my wingman's remarks; they were out of line and he will be reprimanded for them."

"Hmph," the cougar grunted, his anger beginning to subside but still clearly visible in his face, "You'd best see to it that he is; now form up and let's get this over with."

His visage, contorted in barely suppressed resentment, disappeared with his com window as he cut the transmission, leaving only the members of the Star Fox team with their private channel. Falco turned his focus to his friend and superior in minor disgust, scorning him with his species' well-developed eyes.

"'Reprimanded'?" he asked as he and the physically battered vulpine took up their old positions at the front and rear of the shortened convoy, respectively, "What's with that?"

"Ah, sorry Falc," Fox replied with eyes shut, his mind still a little clouded from the collision with the smuggler's interceptor, "…But you gotta learn to be more…diplomatic with our employers, buddy."

"C'mon; you heard what he said," Falco argued, "He called us-"

"I know what he said, but it really doesn't matter," the merc captain continued, cutting off the avian, "He was right when he said that 'he pays us'; doesn't matter how disrespectful he is, he's the one who reports to the guy who signs the checks."

Falco sighed long and deep, his exhale easily picked up by the com mike, as he thought over what he was just told, "You're right man…like always." He smirked through his com portrait, noticing that Fox returned the expression before the raptor bowed his sight down for a moment and mellowed his mood, "I just hope whoever it was we're getting' paid by doesn't hold a grudge like this guy says he will."

"Yeah…me too."

Now trimmed down to four vessels, the convoy and its escorts continued their journey across the Briar Pocket without further interruption, re-entering the asteroid belt proper within a few minutes of the skirmish. Their velocity was cut severely by the inclusion of countless asteroids to maneuver around and avoid, but after exiting the 'dead zone', they made relatively good progress to their ultimate goal: Riley Freeport.