Just a quick forewarning, this chapter earns the story's T rating. It's not too graphic, but some descriptive violence does occur here.
It was nearly noon, and the full force of the sun was just beginning to bear down on those vacationers stretched out all along the shores of Barrados. Seeking an escape from the heat, many of them chose to take shelter in the shade of the numerous store awnings and restaurant balconies, filling the streets with a chorus of generally upbeat conversation and banter. The tunes of a live street band somewhere further inland filtered through the din, like the cool morning breeze that had since given way to a dusty midday oven.
The bright, searing sunlight bleached the island a dry white, reflected in the mirror-like sunglasses worn by most of the patrons of the various shops and eateries. The exotic, metallic earrings of some of the women walking around bounced the light when viewed just right, as did every other shiny surface on the streets.
Amidst the strong presence of the persistent crowd, a clump of beings strode from the shade of a beach-adjacent alley. The group of four made their way amongst the tourists, blending right in even as they crossed the road at an angle perpendicular to the foot traffic, and proceeded into another alley leading between two brick buildings. Were anyone to glance closely at the fox in the middle of the four man formation, they might have noticed that his wrists were connected by a series of metal chain links. However, they proceeded undisturbed, and soon made their way out of sight.
A minute passed. A family of hares walked by, the parents of a child gazing happily down at their young offspring as the little boy led them with beach toys in hand. A subdued group of young adults stumbled wearily down the road, evidently having just recently awoken from a rowdy night. A lynx and a feline loitered near an alleyway, discussing something in hushed tones. The pink cat removed her coverup, leaving only the bikini top beneath, and handed it to her partner, who slunk off somewhere out of sight.
A moment later, another group emerged from the beach-adjacent alley, this time a party six strong. A couple of average looking men led them, followed by what appeared to be a young couple holding hands. Another pair of casually dressed men lagged behind by a few steps, looking unsure of themselves. They proceeded along the same path as the group that had proceeded them, crossing the road and making for the alley opposite the one they had just exited.
As they neared, the pink feline seemed to materialize out of one of the shops nearby, crossing the target alley with a strut and catching the eye of one of the lagging men. She tossed him a wink and posted up against one corner of the alley, her back against the brick. With one finger and a devious smile, the feline beckoned him to stop and join her.
"Janson..." Jacob muttered warningly as he watched his partner's expression brighten.
"Oh c'mon man," Janson replied. "I'm just gonna talk for a bit. I'll catch up with you guys in a second."
"And if they ask where you are?"
"Just...cover for me, man."
"Keelik's gonna kill you, you do realize that," Jacob said. "And then he's gonna kill me." He looked at Janson' face, hoping to see some sort of realization spread across it. But all he saw was an expression a child could have given a restrictive mother in a candy shop. He sighed, lowering his voice even further as they neared the alley and the fetching feline. "Alright, fine; but you take longer than a minute, and it's your funeral."
Janson grinned in response, slapping his buddy on the back and slowing his stride. The group, now reduced to five, continued on between the buildings, the two men in front oblivious that one of them had stopped to chat up the girl standing at the alley entrance.
The feline smiled invitingly, accepting his verbal advances with an enticing giggle. They stood talking there for a minute, her back leaning against the scorched white brick, while he braced a hand on the wall behind her. To anyone passing by, it was an intimate conversation between two beach goers; hardly an unusual occurrence.
It became substantially more unusual, however, when a lynx approached the man from behind.
Without warning, Miyu shoved Katt's balled up coverup into the man's mouth with one hand, a small metallic instrument flashing in the other. Before Janson's brain could even register surprise, she had her holdout pistol pressed against his spine, finger tightening on the trigger.
The pair of small caliber bullets in the pistol's chambers would be easily loud enough to cause a panic in the immediate area, hopefully setting the men who had abducted Fox and his team on edge, where they might start making mistakes. Miyu reasoned that Fox and the others weren't in any actual danger, even if she stirred the proverbial pot; with the bounties for live capture worth far more than the alternative, the bounty hunters would do everything they could to keep them alive. Miyu planned to exploit that fact.
However, even with her plan in place, she found herself hesitating as the metal of her gun pushed into the unfortunate man's shirt. An image of Linka's comatose form suddenly flashed through her mind for reasons she couldn't entirely explain, and suddenly the gun was pointed at the man's leg instead.
Just as his brain registered that someone was apparently trying to choke him, and he managed to grab the pistol hidden in his waistband, a loud pop assaulted his ear drums, followed by a second in rapid succession. An unbelievably sharp pain shot through his nervous system, like someone had jabbed a stake into each of his thighs, and his legs gave out from under him.
The lynx lifted her nose skyward. "He's got a gun!" she shouted at the top of her lungs, dropping her spent pistol to the ground and pointing at some unlucky stranger across the road. As Janson fell against her, the hand she instinctively tried to brace him with instead found the pistol he was trying to pull. She slipped it from his grasp as he hit the ground, holding it hidden behind her.
It only took a moment for someone in the crowd of people in the street to screech in alarm before the entire scene erupted into panic. All anyone ever saw was a man crumpled on the ground, moaning and bleeding from wounds to his legs. If a witness had shouted she had seen a gunman, that was enough. Taking time to investigate was the furthest from anyone's mind. Fear stricken tourists fled in all directions, nobody sure exactly where the shots had come from, but all fairly certain that running at full tilt would be the best option for them.
"You shot him!" Katt said above the panicked cries and shouts, barely able to hear herself. "You actually shot him!"
"That was plan!" Miyu shot back, fairly certain they wouldn't be overheard in the confusion. "I told you!"
"Yeah, but I didn't think you'd actually do it!" Katt replied as they ran down the alley Fox, Falco, Rhena, and their captors had taken a few minutes earlier. She looked shaken, and kept tossing glances back at Janson as he writhed in pain on the ground. "What now?"
"Get back to the starport," Miyu said, shifting her newly acquired firearm to her left hand as she stopped and stooped to grab something from the alley floor with her right.
Blade in one hand, gun in the other, she looked over at her companion, knowing that getting out of what was sure to become a combat zone was of the utmost importance to pink, pacifistic feline. "I'll meet you there."
Moments before, Falco felt Rhena squeeze his hand as they walked into the alley from the street.
He glanced at her, cocking an eyebrow and mindful of the Black Star guards escorting them. Sure, each of them had the hand closest to the other cuffed together, but even so, he found it distinctly odd and a little disturbing that the wolf would try to reassure him.
Rhena didn't look at him though; she didn't even acknowledge that she had done anything. They continued walking, the guards around them breathing a little easier now that they were well into the alley and out of the street. The handcuffs were heavy on their wrists. Just as Falco was about to turn away and chalk it up to the secret crush he was pretty sure every female had on him, her eyes flicked to the side.
The avian followed her line of sight, noticing a small pile of refuse gathered against the alley wall. Out of the top of the small pile of paper and garbage, Falco noticed what looked like a hilt of some sort, colored solid black. Rhena squeezed his hand again.
'Is it her knife?' he thought, resisting the urge to ask the question aloud. 'Why would her knife be...Miyu. It's Miyu.' He couldn't stop a tiny smirk from tugging at the corner of his mouth. 'That crazy broad.'
Falco began keeping tabs on the guard next to him as the group turned down a cross alley, tracking the man's position out of the corner of his eye. As he did, he noticed that besides his stride, he only heard the scratchy footfalls of four others: Rhena's, and those of three Black Star guards. Where was the fourth? Had the lynx struck already? Did that peashooter of Katt's have a silencer on it?
The guard next to him froze as the sound echoed down the brick walls, gripping his silenced pistol.
Falco grabbed the guard's wrist with his free hand, yanking the man towards him. The sudden force caused the guard to trip over his own feet. As he tumbled to the ground, his head found itself interrupted by Falco's knee, snapping it back with an audible crack. The man hit the alley floor a moment later, dazed.
Before Falco could deliver a disabling blow, the handcuff chain tightened. He was torn sideways as Rhena's restrained hand shot out, apparently ignorant of the fact that another being's wrist was fastened to it.
On Rhena's side, her cuffed hand found the wrist of a guard who had drawn his pistol. With a vicious twist she torqued the delicate bones, doubling the man over and locking his fingers in place. The wolf's free hand wrapped around the pistol grip, squeezing the trigger several times.
Thwap thwap thwap.
The third guard crumpled the ground behind them in a mist of red.
Twisting the gun further, Rhena triggered another shot. A small hole appeared in the gun owner's head, and his grip on the pistol finally released.
Now with sole ownership of the pistol, Rhena stood upright, ignoring Falco's yelp of surprise. With cold precision and a single shot, she finished off the guard Falco had stunned. The shell casing tumbled out of the pistol's chamber, silent as it hit the packed dirt of the alley floor.
The mercenaries stood as they were for a moment, Rhena tall and with her gun hand stretched out, Falco bent over as his arm twisted at an unnatural angle thanks to the handcuffs. The sounds of panic in the streets of Barrados drifted into the alley.
"Holy shit," Falco breathed out, straightening up. "Damn near tore my arm off, you know."
Rhena glared at him.
"Sure. Alright," he continued, lifting his cuffed wrist, and by extension hers. He pointed at her gun. "Take care of this and we'll go spring Fox."
Rhena ignored him, looking around the alley, apparently trying to get her barrings.
Falco flicked his eyes. "Er, okay then." He bent down to grab another guard's disused pistol from the ground. Before he could grip it though, the cuffs pulled taut again, and he was yanked towards a side alley by Rhena's powerful tug.
"Wait a sec, would ya?" he hollered, pulling Rhena to a stop. He recognized the building visible at the end of the side alley she chose. "You're going the wrong way anyway, that's back towards the restaurant. Fox is-"
The sight of a silencer pointed between his eyes stopped him dead in his tracks. Rhena's eyes glowed behind it, not with menace, but with a look that clearly stated she had different priorities than the avian. Falco's eyes centered on the end of the barrel.
"You know, I think I preferred it when you could just tell me off."
They all heard the knock.
Gathered in the middle of the Coral Sun, all three Cornerian officers had also heard the distant pair of gunshots a few minutes prior. The sounds and subsequent panic in the street outside had set their captors on edge, the trio of Black Star operatives having become noticeably more twitchy and quick to raise their weapons whenever one of the Cornerians made any movement. Aush, on the other hand, hadn't changed his manor at all; while the Black Star guards tried to chat away their nerves, the husky remained quiet, watching the prisoners with an eerie intensity.
Bishop, Hartford, and Lieutenant Thorne were seated, handcuffed in the open on the wooden floor, the nearby tables and chairs having been moved away since Keelik and the Star Fox team had left. Gamma Crendon's body still lay nearby, unmoved save for his pistol, which had been removed and placed in the pile with the rest of their weapons on the other side of the restaurant. Given their position the idea of making an escape attempt was suicidal, but the Cornerians were growing restless as the minutes ticked by, knowing that Bauker's men were on their way.
The knock at the front door of the Coral Sun made them forget all about that though.
Their captors fell silent, looking at each other and unsure of what to do. If Keelik or one of the other Black Star men was returning to the restaurant, wouldn't they have called on the com? They looked down at the Cornerian officers below them. Had one of the mercenaries escaped somehow?
Without shifting his expression at all, Aush took over for the directionless guards, pulling the slide on his pistol to make sure it was cocked.
"One of you grab a hostage," he ordered, moving towards the front door. "Everyone strap up."
The Black Star men looked at him for a moment, hesitating. Their minds churned, deciding whether or not they should take orders from this informant who wasn't even part of the organization. However, when none of them offered any alternative, they complied. They checked their weapons, two of them moving for cover while a third approached the Cornerians. Keelik paused at the door.
The Black Star guard grabbed Bishop by the collar, hauling the hare to his feet. Bishop's handcuff chain rattled as he stumbled with the man towards the front door with Aush, mindful of the pistol silencer stuck against his neck.
"Alright," the hostage taker said, glancing at his comrades and then at Aush. "We're rea-"
With a loud crack the back door was kicked in, surprising everyone within the restaurant.
A blur of blue and military drab rushed in, a metallic instrument raised with both hands. Aush, the only one facing the back of the restaurant at the moment, saw the silhouette of a pistol, and in the ensuing moments, little else.
Time slowed for Falco, even as his brain buzzed with activity. Target left. Target right. Hartford and Thorne on the floor, with Aush beyond them.
He tracked right and crouched, lining up the tab of his pistol's barrel. The slide of his weapon snapped back twice in rapid succession, ejecting a smoking shell casing with each cycle. They tumbled through the air, flashing in the sunlight pouring through the door behind him before plummeting to the floor.
Without waiting to see if his shots connected, he whipped his weapon to the left mid-stride, centering another target. Two shots tore through the Black Star operative's back, just as he was turning around.
Falco was several steps into the Coral Sun. Casings pinged off the wooden floorboards below, even as they creaked under his weight. His pistol found a third target. He blinked.
The last standing Black Star operative managed to turn around, his arm tight around Bishop's upper chest and neck. His pistol was pressed against the hare's temple. Behind them, Aush stood at the front door, raising his weapon at the avian.
Falco stopped, his mind grinding. The three of them stood in a line. Bishop. The Black Star operative. Aush. Shooting at any one of them would heavily risk tagging Bishop. With his revolver Falco might have taken the shot, but with the unfamiliar weapon in his hands...
Just as Aush took a bead on Falco, the front door leaped out and nearly bowled him over from behind. His gun hand tilted up, and his shot poked a new, tiny skylight in the restaurant ceiling.
Before Aush could question what had spoiled his aim, an instantly familiar scream of fury erupted behind him, and suddenly the wood of the floor rushed up to meet him. His pistol skittered away. Without thinking he rolled, narrowly avoiding the knee of a fire-haired wolf as it splintered the wood board it struck.
Aush scrambled to his knees, throwing his arms up to block a kick. The force of the wolf's boot shoved him backwards and he gained his feet, just as his assailant did hers.
Rhena glared at him, her eyes narrowed in cold rage. Aush had seen that look before, surrounded by padded mats and sparring equipment, back on the Lone Wolf. Back where she could be called off with a word of surrender. He had no time to recollect further. Like a spring coiled, she launched herself at him.
The remaining Black Star operative twisted his head to see what was happening behind him. He immediately regretted his action though, as Bishop twisted the opposite way, trying to break free. His straining gave Falco a better shot, something the avian took advantage of.
Falco's slug soared straight and true, tearing through the guard's shoulder.
The second gunshot, however, wasn't his.
Lieutenant Thorne cried out as Bishop fell limp in the guard's grip, a small, cherry red hole in his temple. A flurry of red mist sprouted from the guard as Falco cursed aloud and unloaded on him, no further reason to take caution.
Above them, Rhena ducked a wild swing and tackled the traitorous husky, driving her shoulder into his stomach. They fell atop each other, a mess of flailing limbs and surgical strikes.
Falco tracked them, knowing that Aush was the only threat left in the room. When Rhena straddled the husky, the avian found a clear shot and pulled the trigger, only to receive a click in return. He cursed again, tossing the empty firearm aside and dashing towards one of the fallen Black Star guards.
Rhena's fist caved Aush's muzzle, spurting blood onto her pilot's suit and eliciting a yelp from the husky. He managed to block her next blow, getting his legs underneath her and pushing her off.
The wolf caught her feet. As she rose, a flash caught her eye. Aush's gun lay by her boot.
Aush tried to rise up, dazed but knowing life lay on his feet, not on the ground. A freight train slammed into him again though, and his back once more became intimate with the wooden floor.
The question lingering in the back of his mind as to where his gun had gotten off to was suddenly answered is its metal grip was repeatedly slammed into his mouth. Again and again it came down, sending jolts of pain through his nervous system with every strike.
Rhena's hand became matted with his blood as she beat him, the hilt of the pistol making a little more progress with every blow. With a final cry of exertion, she struck him once more before lifting the gun to his forehead.
With a quiet thwap, Aush was no more.
Rhena sat there, huffing with the sudden strain she had put on her body as the restaurant settled. Her muzzle hung open, and her eyes briefly glossed over as her breath caught up with her. After a moment, she slowly rose to her feet, wiping her hands on her flight suit. Looking around, she took in the scene of the Coral Sun.
Lieutenant Thorne knelt next Bishop's body, gazing at him as though he would reawaken if she stared long enough. There were no tears in her eyes; only an expression of loss and respect. The Black Star guard who had shot him lay beside the hare.
Hartford had crawled over to the pile of pistols the Black Star operatives had taken from the Cornerians, one of them now in his hand. Now that they weren't necessary, the Cornerian captain awkwardly turned the weapon towards his handcuff chain, breaking the metal with a silenced slug.
Falco stood over a fallen guard, raising a scrounged pistol and watching Rhena with a concerned expression. He slowly lowered the weapon, eyes flicking towards the blood on the wolf's hands and clothes. His eyebrows furrowed in something almost approaching disgust as his eyes met hers again, condemning her emotional take down of the husky. He wasn't the least bit sorry Aush was dead, but the brutality of his death surprised him.
Rhena looked down at Aush's body. His head was tilted back at an unnatural angle, a look of surprise and alarm permanently etched into his features. The reserved solider had finally broken down at the very end, the pain and fear evident in his face. Rhena toed his foot with her boot, watching as it limply tilted. Falco wouldn't understand. None of them would. Beneath the layers of stoicism and disinterest in life's lighter moments, there was one value that held sway in her heart, and it alone was ultimately responsible for what she had done.
There was no greater emotional bonding in existence to the fire-haired wolf; no greater sign of respect. It was something given only when truly deserved, and once given, something that was honored until the very end. It was the guiding principle for how she lived her life. Joining the Cornerian military had given that principle focus, and her loyalty shifted to that for a flag and an ideal. Superiors could be incompetent, and subordinates unruly, but an ideal was pure, and deserving of nothing less than one's devotion.
It was this patriotism that caused her to serve proudly under Bill, someone who backed up competency with an unwavering sense of duty. Fox's loyalties to his crew, and his abilities in and out of the cockpit, garnered him a similar level of respect from the wolf, despite the mercenary life he led. But even after exile from her home nation, Corneria still held the highest spot in her mind.
To that end, Aush was everything she despised. Disloyal to those who depended on him, disloyal to his leaders, and most of all, loyal to those who sought to destroy what she loved. He deserved neither mercy nor pity for what he did. All he deserved was punishment.
"We've got to move," Hartford said, approaching the kneeling Lieutenant Thorne and gently tapping her on the shoulder. She lifted her hands up, still staring with stoic eyes at the fallen hare before her. Hartford grabbed her cuff chain with one hand, breaking it apart with a silenced round from the pistol in his other. "Bauker's agents will be here any minute."
"I'm going after Fox," Falco replied, dropping his gaze from Rhena and sliding the clip from his pistol out. Satisfied with the full magazine, he rammed it back in, looking over at Lieutenant Thorne. When he saw her beside Bishop's body, he paused, letting his words line up before speaking them. "What was Bishop's plan after this meeting?"
The female hare breathed a quiet, sullen breath before reaching into Bishop's shirt and grasping something hidden beneath it. With a firm tug, she freed the ID tags from their thin necklace, studying them back in the light of the restaurant for a moment before placing them into her pocket. Slowly she stood, unable to take her eyes of her former commander for another few moments. Finally, she turned to Falco.
"The plan was to leave as soon as possible," Thorne answered, her eyes now reflecting only the task ahead of her. She looked at Hartford. "Once we made an arrangement, Bishop and I would take you back to the starport. We have a military shuttle waiting to take us to the Hauberk. From there we fly to whatever rendezvous point I assume you have set up with O'Donnell."
"What about our ships?" Falco asked.
"We can stop at Threshold and drop you off," Thorne replied.
"Great. I'll meet you there then," Falco said before jogging for the door, pistol in hand.
"We can't wait forever," Thorne called after him, accepting a pistol from Hartford.
"Ten minutes," the avian shouted back. "Give us ten minutes."
It had been some time since the island erupted in activity, prompted by two disturbingly close gunshots.
Frightened tourists were still dashing across the streets and through the various shops and establishments, seeking to gain shelter from the unknown danger. On an island utterly unused to firearms and largely populated by spooked civilians, every sharp noise became another gunshot, and subsequently, the panic only spread rather than ebbing away. A taxi door slamming shut sparked a stampede of people, only to be scattered by the snap of a fallen tree branch being trampled under foot. A single isolated incident spread into what appeared to be a criminal uprising, with reports of gunfire clogging the starport security center's com boards.
In the midst of it all, a party of four discretely made their way closer and closer to the club district of the island. They stuck to the alleys when possible, careful to hide their weapons whenever crossing a street or encountering a pack of fleeing civilians.
Fox kept his head down and his feet moving, obeying the gruff commands of Keelik. Even so, he kept the positions of the Black Star operatives around him in mind, sneaking glances when the wolf behind him was busy coordinating with his subordinates. His handcuffs jingled lightly as they walked, making their way down a residential alley.
The wooden buildings on either side of them were practically studded with apartment doors and windows, the wooden balconies overhead nearly spanning the gap between structures. They also formed a ceiling that blocked the direct sunlight, leaving the group a mostly shaded path down the seemingly abandoned side street. The residents were either all hiding or had fled, as they failed to encounter anyone.
"I think Aush may have been wrong about your girl friends," Keelik quipped with a bitter laugh. "Seems they've stirred up the whole damn island-"
Thwap thwap thwap
The slugs slapped the scorched brick, tearing off tiny chunks of mortar. For a split second nobody reacted, such was the subtlety of the weapon trained on them. But then the first tendrils of wonder jumped immediately to a mental red alert and all three Black Star operatives whipped around, pulling their weapons.
Two more slugs tore into the area, but Fox didn't turn around with his captors to see where they were apparently coming from. Even as the rear guard cried out in pain, Fox sprinted forward, throwing his shoulder into the forward guard's gut. The man fell and Fox charged past, eyes locked on a what looked like a branching alley just a few meters away.
Behind him, the forward guard flipped onto his stomach and took aim at the fleeing vulpine, ignoring the new attacker for the moment.
"No!" Keelik shouted from behind a brick apartment staircase. "Take him alive! He won't get far!"
The guard held his fire and pushed himself up, cursing. He stayed low, now fully aware of the slugs zipping past him, and disappeared down the smaller alley his bounty had just taken.
Keelik growled and peaked out of cover, back towards the way they had came.
His rear guard lay almost motionless on the dusty ground, bullet wounds to his back and leg. His breathing was heavy, but he managed to keep enough wits about him to play dead. Further down the alley, Keelik thought he spied the assailant hiding behind a shadowed porch stoop, much like his. The silhouette suddenly popped up and a slug ricocheted off the concrete stairs in front of him, kicking bits of the material into his face.
The wolf cursed and ducked down as more bullets whipped above him.
The chamber of Miyu's pistol snapped back and forth as she fired.
She had seen Fox run off down the alley, but had been unable to stop the man who went after him. With one on the ground and another pinned behind a stoop though, she figured she did all she could.
"Fox'll just have to figure out the last guy himself," she reasoned, squeezing off another shot before ducking return fire. A round pinged off the metal railing of the staircase she was hiding behind, almost causing her to yelp in surprise. Fighting with silenced weapons was tricky, and the sudden sound surprised her.
She waited another moment before poking her head out again. The remaining guard had chosen a poor spot for cover, leaving him exposed in the sunlight whenever he looked up. As he popped up again, Miyu blinked. Almost invisible to the lynx in the glare of the sun's rays, a solid strip of blond fur ran across the wolf's face, linking his eyes like a mask. She felt like she recognized the man from somewhere, but in the midst of the firefight, her brain refused to take precious time to plumb her memories for a name to the familiar face.
Bracing her pistol in both hands, she squared up another shot and pulled the trigger, even as a slug blew past her ears.
The lack of a kickback surprised Miyu. She triggered another shot, only to be given the same response.
"Shit!" Her mind screamed, realizing what the sound meant.
Ducking down behind her cover, Miyu glanced at her pistol before tossing it to the ground. Reaching under her skirt, she pulled Rhena's knife from the hidden band where Katt's holdout pistol used to sit. What she wouldn't have given for the security of those two shots.
Finally heeding the voice bleating in the back of her head since the bullets began flying, Miyu waited for her adversary to stop firing, and ran. Crouching low, she rushed down the grit of the alley on bare feet, her loose sandals having long ago been discarded. Empty stoops and closed doorways rushed past her while the wooden panels of the alley walls seemed to crawl by. She expected a sharp, all-consuming pain at any second, once the wolf took aim. No matter how well she ducked and hugged the outcroppings, an alley was still an alley. There were only two methods to escape: back the painfully straight and visible way she came, or through one of the closed and presumably locked doors.
Then the pain came. As though from a hot knife, a searing slice appeared on her upper leg, and she nearly pitched to the alley floor. Her mind scrambling and her teeth clenched, Miyu immediately turned and charged shoulder first into the closest wooden door.
The lightweight island wood buckled and the door burst inward, revealing a darkened room.
Miyu immediately sized up the single room residence as belonging to one of Barrados' many low-paid serving workers. One corner was occupied by a small cot and dresser, right next to a rudimentary stove and wash basin. A simple table and chairs took up the remaining wall space, finished off by a plain rug underneath them. The only light was the blinding white of the sun, seeping through the cracks in the paneled walls and window shutters, and the open door behind her. The owner was absent, most likely out at his or her job when the shooting started.
Most importantly, however, there was no exit.
Miyu frantically swept her gaze around, realizing the last fact with an icy stomach. Looking behind her at the alley, she quickly sidestepped and huddled against the shadow of the door frame. The lynx gripped her knife tightly, listening intently as the approaching footsteps became the only noise she cared about. A trickle of blood flowed from her wounded thigh, but she did her best to ignore it, aided by the fact that the area surrounding the injury had become strangely numb. She could still stand on it, which was all that mattered at the moment.
With the brief moment of downtime she allowed her mind though, the answer to who was pursuing her shot to the forefront. Her eyes widened and the knife nearly fell from her grip as his face flashed through her head, followed by a stream of triggered memories. It couldn't be.
"You are expendable; you are all expendable."
Richard Keelik stood before a half-dozen pilots, all standing in a run down, rarely cleaned meeting room. Their jumpsuits were a myriad of mismatched colors and fabrics, not one of them showing any of the consistency of a standard uniform. The pilots themselves ran the gambit from young to old and grizzled, though almost all of them were male.
Keelik gazed over them with a disappointed eye, snorting once with derision. While his clothes did nothing to separate him from those gathered before him, his demeanor was one of supreme confidence. It was as though he were doing all of the pilots a favor, merely by gracing them with his presence.
"Don't ever forget that," he continued, a smirk crossing his muzzle. "If you get shot down, nobody will come to collect the pieces. We'll send out a salvage crew for whats left of your ship before we ever come for you."
The gathered pilots took the words without flinching.
"Those words may sound harsh, but take them to heart. A freelancer who gets tagged deserves neither reward nor mercy. If you fail to uphold your contract, there's no reason for us to follow through." Keelik paused, eying each of the six pilots in turn and ending on a young lynx, the only female of the group. He shrugged. "Don't like it? Come back alive, and come back with your objectives met. Then we won't have a problem."
He strode towards the lynx, cocking his head a little. When he reached her, he stopped and simply stared for a few moments. The lynx stared back, her deep blue eyes hardened but her posture swaying with intimidation. The room was quiet around them as they stood still under the peripheral vision of the other pilots.
The cockpit panels and instruments that had been flickering in a vain attempt to regain function were now completely dead, although every couple of seconds the split power cord would still flare up with a shower of sparks. They sprang all over the small space - just large enough for a pilot to twist and move their arms comfortably - and singed flesh and cloth.
The chips and cracks in the canopy had spread and webbed outward, results of the cockpit's losing battle to retain the relatively high-pressure air inside. Outside the veined canopy, she noticed with a cloudy indifference that the asteroid her ship had been buried in had stopped spinning. While still very detached, her mind was sharp enough at this point to realize that in space, the asteroid would've had no gravity to stop its spinning; it must've been done by an outside influence.
Suddenly, a blocky, hodge-podge vessel emerged from the opposite side of the asteroid. About four times the size of the pilot's broken fighter, the ship dragged a pair of dangling, heavy-duty claws beneath its bulk, giving it the appearance of an ancient undersea creature probing for prey. A pair of smaller craft converged above the lumbering machine, more angled and sleeker than their larger counterpart, but no less upsetting to the half-conscious pilot.
The com unit continued to spit static as the clawed monstrosity neared the helpless wreck of a starfighter. One of the arms abruptly activated and twisted, reaching up and towards the remains before it suddenly froze in place. The static briefly cleared, and the pilot's slanted ears twitched as she barely made out the sound of two distinctly different voices as they were warped and bent by the malfunctioning com.
"…think the pilot's alive, cap."
"Nuh-uh; look's dead ta me," a second, deeper voice responded.
"You sure? I'm pretty sure I – there! See that? He moved again!" the first speaker said.
"I'm pretty sure his arm moved that time." The first voice seemed unsure of himself.
"You're seeing things buddy; I didn't see shit."
"It's not like it'd make a difference," a third voice chimed in, "Boss wants his fighter back, with or without the pilot. 'Without' is a whole lot easier."
"…good point," the first two voices said in unison after a short pause.
The com returned to solid static and the frozen claw jerked and continued on its path towards the cockpit. There wasn't a possibility that the massive piece of machinery which was opening up to grip the broken fighter was going to be gentle enough to allow the fragile canopy to stay intact.
Realizing this through her stupor, the bloodied and beaten pilot instinctively grabbed for the ejection handle.
The sound of a footfall on the sun bleached threshold of the door snapped Miyu back to the present, and she lashed out from the shadows.
Miyu's knife arced through the air, ready to catch Keelik square in the chest as he burst through the doorway. The metal of his pistol flashed in the sunlight, and the knife was intercepted by the wolf's reflexive gun arm.
Keelik grunted as his weapon clattered from his stricken limb to the wooden floor. He absorbed the blow though, pulling Miyu's arm in with his offhand and driving his elbow into her temple.
She stumbled backwards, stunned by the blow to the head. In the midst of a mental maelstrom, she registered the fact that her hand was empty.
Before she could react, Keelik pounced, knocking the lynx to the ground. He fell on top of her as she threw her arms up to ward him off. Instead, they caught his hands, stopping her own knife a palm's width from her face.
Crushed by his weight, Miyu could only struggle to fend off the blade's tip. It was all her eyes could focus on, vibrating centimeters from her as she poured every ounce of strength into her upper body. The attack had come too fast; she had had no chance to recover. Already her arms were beginning to burn. Already her grip was beginning to slip.
The floorboards creaked as Keelik shifted, moving more of his weight atop the weapon. Aided by gravity and his mass the knife inched closer.
Miyu grit her teeth as the edge brushed the fur on her cheek. The nerves there triggered as though the tip had broken skin, sending a burning chill through her system. She closed her eyes as her throat choked up. This wasn't how she wanted to go.
Then, suddenly, the strain subsided slightly. Miyu felt a drop of something wet fall onto on her cheek. Blood. The knife refused to budge, but it stopped moving downward.
Miyu's eyes opened, half expecting and desperately hoping to see some sort of spontaneous wound on her attacker. Maybe Fox had circled around?
Instead, all she saw was Keelik's sneer. Another drop of blood dripped onto her muzzle, falling from the gash in Keelik's arm from Miyu's initial strike.
"Miyu Lynx," he said. His facial features were faintly illuminated, though he largely remained in silhouette, eclipsed by the blinding sunlight pouring in the doorway behind him. The blond streak across his muzzle and his hair were washed out by the effect. His eyes, slightly sunken, were black, empty holes. "I thought it was you."
She remained quiet, staring up at him defiantly. It never left her mind that even while she gave everything she had to keep the knife off her, he was now toying with her.
"You don't recognize me?" he asked, pausing a moment to adjust his grip while keeping the pressure. His voice was only subtly tinged with effort. "Of course you do. I should...hope you recognize who used to pay you."
A low, quiet growl escaped Miyu's lips. She managed to push the blade incrementally away, only to have it sink back into the edge of her fur.
"Ah, not so fast," Keelik smirked with a strained chuckle. "You know, at first...at first I thought you died back in Meteos. I thought you bit it with the rest of those..." he paused, spitting the next word. "Incompetent freelancers. But then...then, the salvage crew I sent after your ship goes missing."
Miyu listened without moving, struggling to keep eye contact. He had to keep talking. Her good leg, unhindered by a gunshot wound, had managed to slip free from Keelik's weight. If she could keep him talking for a few more moments...
In a flash, Keelik slammed his elbow into her temple again, shocking her nervous system. Unimpeded for a split second he twisted and reached back, sinking the knife into her free leg.
Miyu's eyes shot open and her shriek pierced the empty room, cutting off abruptly with a sharp inhale as the knife was pulled out. Her hands caught the weapon as it arced back, this time wrapping around Keelik's fingers as the edge of the blade came to a halt at her neck. She felt the cool metal at her throat, her breathing becoming shallow and sharp for fear of pushing her own flesh against the blade. Her own blood stained her fine neck fur.
"Please...," he said, his smile stabbing into her mind. "Don't interrupt me."
The new position of the knife prevented Keelik from using his weight on it, but Miyu gained no benefit. Her hands were wet with sweat, and greasy with blood, both hers and the wolf's. She kept adjusting her grip as she struggled to find purchase.
"And then, I see you on Corneria, running with Fox McCloud." His voice lowered a little. "You know, I heard that Star Fox was flying escort for those transports way back. I heard that they were the ones who shot you down. And now you're taking a credit stub from them."
"Tell me Miyu, how much did it cost Fox to sate your desperation? When your failure couldn't find you work anywhere else, how much did you settle on for their pity?"
Miyu felt her strength ebbing as he spoke, his words bringing the memories of her first weeks with Fox and his team fresh to her mind. She swallowed, feeling the blade scrape up and down her throat. Falco's hostility. Slippy's nervousness. Fox's distrust. Was it because they pitied her? Were they just desperate for another body to fill a cockpit?
"And now you've deluded yourself into sacrificing yourself for them," he said, leaning forward. Miyu felt his weight shift as the silhouette of his face grew larger, totally eclipsing the doorway. The knife pressed into her skin, drawing a thin stream of blood from her neck. Keelik's eyes came into focus, resolving from the black spots to intense, lucid irises. "Do you honestly think he's coming back for you? Do you honestly believe he and any of his crew who may have escaped thanks to your little rescue attempt haven't already forgotten about you, trying to find a way off this island?"
A sense of dread overwhelmed her, bubbling up from where it had been pooling for the past several minutes. She flashed back to when she had been dropped off following Peppy's abduction. How she walked away from their shuttle and never looked back. She could still remember the sense of relief she felt leaving them behind. "At least it's not me," her thoughts echoed. "Those bounties are a death sentence, but at least it's not me." Fox had saved her life, and she walked away from them to save herself without even a shred of remorse. She never thanked him, much less repaid him, but she ran for her own sake nonetheless.
And what had she done for Fox and his team that made her worthy of rescue? Why would any of them come for her? They were the only ones in her freelancer's life who had even taken a remote interest in her well being, but in this situation, she couldn't imagine one amongst them who would dive back into the hurricane that Barrados had become solely for her.
"It was a good run, Miyu," Keelik said, drawing Miyu's attention back to the last thing she would ever see. His voice had lowered in volume, but gained a certain sharpness in its place. "But we'll find our lost charges. The starport will shut down with so much panic. Nobody's leaving this island. Yourself included."
Miyu finally relented mentally; her hands still strained with resistance, but it was only her instinct for survival that drove them. Her mind had already accepted the fact that her end was fast approaching.
"And still you struggle. Listen," Keelik finished, tilting the knife to gain a better vector. He held his breath for a moment. "I don't hear anyone running down the alley. I don't hear any shoes on those stairs."
"That's because I took 'em off."
A pair of hands shot from behind Keelik's head, attached together by a silver chain. The metal whipped down over the wolf's head, slipping through the small space between Keelik's muzzle and Miyu. It hung limp for a split second before drawing taut as the orange hands withdrew, pulling the chain against Keelik's neck.
Keelik reacted immediately, clawing at the chain with both hands. An orange-furred leg came into view as the third party shifted itself to pull harder. Keelik reached behind him with one arm in an effort to loosen his attacker's grip. His breath was severely labored, his windpipe nearly cut off by the chain.
With a growl of effort the attacker yanked upward, forcing Keelik's chin into the air even as the wolf found purchase on the chain.
The shout snapped Miyu to action, and a surge of adrenaline shot through her. She flipped the knife around, gripping it with one blood-stained hand and pressing her other palm against the bottom. With a cry she pushed herself up, driving the tip of knife into the soft tissue under Keelik's jaw.
The blade sank nauseatingly deep. As Miyu's reserves left her, she fell back to the floor, her vice grip on the knife bringing it with her. It clattered to the ground in the sudden still of the room. The silhouetting effects of the light from the door hid the damage she caused to her lupine attacker, but the way he immediately fell limp said all that was necessary.
Keelik was lowered gently to the ground beside Miyu. With a little twisting, the new figure managed to get the handcuff chain free from the face-down wolf's neck. The figure stood up, looming over Miyu with the same eclipsing effect as the Black Star chief moments before. With a tinkling of the chain connecting his cuffs, the figure bent over again, offering a hand to the fallen lynx.
"Wh...why," she panted. Miyu took his hand, hauling herself into a sitting position. She looked up at the figure, blinking in the light. She was already starting to feel the affects of blood loss. "Why did you come ba-"
"Like I said," Fox smiled, kneeling down in front of her. "I'm not going anywhere." The vulpine looked down at the blood pooling under her legs, bleached by the sunlight streaming in behind him. One leg looked to have been merely grazed by a bullet, while the other was practically torn open. He flinched. "But um, it doesn't looking like you are, either. Hold on."
Fox looked around for a moment before reaching over to Keelik's body, grasping the back of the wolf's shirt. With a strong pull the fabric teared at the seams, leaving Fox with a ragged sheet of the lightweight material. Gripping one corner of it between his teeth, he tore the surprisingly resilient fabric further into strips. He worked fast, though if he were worried about Miyu's timeline or his own, the lynx couldn't tell.
"Can you move your leg at all?" he asked, grabbing Miyu's lower leg and lifting it slightly so he could slip a strip of fabric under it.
Miyu grimaced and strained, managing to put some effort into her wounded limb. "A little," she whispered. Her voice gained a little strength and a lot of edge as she felt Fox's hands, however. "Wait, what the hell are you-"
The vulpine ignored her. Fox got the strip of fabric up to her thigh and wrapped it around the knife wound, tightening it as much as he could after folding another piece of cloth and stuffing it over the source of the bleeding. The tinkling of his handcuff chain was the only sound in the room save for its occupants' heavy breathing. Despite being winded from his dash for freedom, however, Fox worked quickly and methodically, only slowed down by the inconvenience of his cuffs. It was clear that the material he was applying wouldn't stop the bleeding entirely, but it would at least put pressure on the wound.
Miyu screwed her eyes shut, biting her lip and trying desperately not to cry out in pain. Her eyes became wet from the burning heat scorching her nerves as Fox worked. It almost felt like the knife was still there.
"Okay, we've gotta get you out of here," he said, tying the fabric in a knot and drawing her skirt back over it. He tried to smile as he stood and walked behind her, bending down and lifting her arm over his shoulder. "You can yell at me for trying to push up your skirt after we get you back to Sophie and-"
They froze. Standing in the doorway at the bottom of the small staircase was the Black Star operative who had gone after Fox when he ran. He was panting heavily, his pistol raised before him in both hands and trained on the pair in the small abode. Whether due to the lack of light in the house or his distracted eyes, he never seemed to notice Keelik's body lying a meter or so away from them.
Fox swallowed. He slowly lowered Miyu back the small distance to the floor, lifting his chained hands up in a show of submission. His eyes flicked to Keelik's discarded handgun, lying near the doorway, tantalizingly out of reach.
Miyu stayed upright, bracing an arm behind her. With her body blocking the hand's actions from the operative's view, she gripped the handle of the recently bloodied knife, glancing at Fox. She knew she wasn't valuable at all to Keelik's henchmen; it was Fox they wanted alive. As soon as the operative figured it out, she knew she was forfeit.
The handle was slippery to the touch. Miyu had never thrown a knife before, but with the imagined clock rapidly winding down, she tensed her muscles, ready to bet her life on it.
A sudden pounding from above and a wild cry brought her eyes back towards the doorway, just in time to catch the shocked expression on the Black Star operative's face as he looked at the balconies above him.
A blue and olive drab blur streaked into him knee first like a meteor, toppling him to the ground out of Fox and Miyu's line of sight.
Without hesitation, Fox dashed to the doorway, scooping up Keelik's pistol in one fluid motion. Just as he was taking aim though, the sounds of struggling from outside came to an abrupt halt with a solid, meaty thud. Fox's weapon lowered, a smile spreading across his face as another figure approached the doorway.
"Hope I'm not late," Falco said between breaths, ascending the stairs to the abode. He was walking with a slight limp gained from his leap, though nothing that suggested injury. He stopped at the top, glimpsing Miyu sitting inside. "So which one of you screamed a few minutes ago? Heard it halfway across the island." The avian cast a sidelong glance at Fox. "I'm gonna guess you."
He stopped when he saw Fox's expression drift into a serious line. Upon closer inspection of the room, Falco dropped his jolly demeanor, seeing the pool of blood lying beneath the wounded lynx. His smile faded, and he glanced at Fox again, eyebrows raised a little.
"I'm fine," Miyu growled, grasping her upper leg. She had dropped the knife next to her upon realizing the interloper was Falco, and was gingerly probing her wound, flinching every time her fingertips made contact. The lines etched on her face spoke only of a constant, driving pain.
"We've got to get back to the Coral Sun," Fox said, looking at Falco. "Once we free Hartford and them we can start looking for a way off this island."
"Way ahead of ya, Foxie," Falco replied, shaking his head. "Hartford and Thorne are waiting for us at the starport; Thorne's got a military transport there that can't be locked down by starport control. Rhena's with 'em."
Fox nodded, about to return to Miyu to help her up before he stopped, looking back at Falco.
"Wait; what about Bishop?"
Falco breathed out. "Dead," he said, shaking his head. "One of those Black Star goons shot him during the firefight."
"So the deal..."
"We're still good," Falco replied, grabbing the chain connecting Fox's handcuffs. With a carefully placed round from his pistol, the chain snapped, freeing the vulpine's hands. "Thorne's going to pick up for Bishop and honor the deal we would've made."
"Got it," Fox nodded, crossing off the necessary checkboxes in his mind. With their exit strategy in place and the entire reason they came to Barrados in the first place still intact, he was able to run down the other strings pulling his mind in so many directions.
A barely audible whimper escaped Miyu's lips in that moment of silence, despite her best efforts to suppress it. The pain was starting to mount, and while her bullet graze had completely left her nervous system's radar, the gash from Keelik's stabbing was burning brighter than a star. Her face was twisted in agony by her ego, desperately trying not to express the waves of fire assaulting her brain in front of the two mercenaries.
Without a word Fox moved towards her, bending down on one knee next to her and grabbing her arm. Draping it around his neck, he repositioned his feet, ready to support her weight as he stood.
"Falco," he said, beckoning his friend over. As the avian stuff his pistol into his waistband, Fox turned towards Miyu, gauging the expression on her face. "You okay to stand?"
Miyu nodded, slowly at first, but speeding up as her breathing became heavier. It was going to hurt her even more, she had no doubt, but there was no alternative. She had survived Keelik; there was no way she was going to let herself be left behind now.
And yet, even as Falco knelt down opposite Fox and took her other arm around his neck, Miyu felt the briefest chill of pleasure in the inferno of pain. Something deep down told her that even if she were utterly unable to move, the two mercenaries helping her to her feet wouldn't have left the lynx on her own. It told the lynx that the same bond that drove Falco to literally leap buildings to track down Fox was beginning to form between the team and her. Sure, it might be a tentative link at best; a connection in its infancy, but it was one that was building where none had ever existed before.
She looked over at Fox, feeling his arm tighten around her. His body centered itself over his crouched feet, ready to stretch upward. He caught her eye and offered a lopsided smirk.
"Yeah," she nodded again, breathing out once more and bracing for the pain.
And it came like a tidal wave.
A prolonged cry escaped her mouth as she rose before she could bite her lip, braced by the mercenaries on both sides. Her feet were drawn under her by the motion, leaving streaks of red on the wooden floorboards as they slipped through the deep red pools left by her wounds. Miyu could feel the sickening wetness between her toes, a sensation the presence of which she struggled to remember was in fact a good sign amidst the onslaught of pain.
Finally though she was upright. Her left leg found its way to solid footing, allowing her to take a small portion of her own weight. She gingerly tested her right leg, but it quickly faltered under the slightest pressure. For a brief moment she was falling before her arms drew tight around the mercenaries' necks.
"So a speedy getaway's out then?" Falco quipped, easily shouldering his half of Miyu's weight.
Fox glanced over at the avian, over the lynx's bowed head. He readjusted Miyu's grip over his shoulders.
"It's been fifteen minutes," Lieutenant Thorne said, reaching the bottom of the transport's gangway.
The elongated, angled body of the military shuttle sat alone in the private docking bay, almost stretching the entire diameter of the circular, open air structure. Colored a deep, forest green, its hull bore the emblems of both the Cornerian planetary insignia and the Cornerian Seventh Fleet. From afar, the transport looked in pristine condition, its powerful engines and turret domes projecting a presence not often found in personnel carriers. However, when viewed up close, its paint bore the scars and burns gathered from a lifetime of operation and constant trans-atmospheric flight.
The hare's boots crunched gravel and dirt as she came to a stop a few steps from the dull metal of the shuttle's ramp. The sounds of frantic crowds seeped in from the surrounding island, evidence of the escalating panic sparked by Miyu's rescue attempt.
Rhena stood nearby with her arms crossed, starring at the personnel tunnel leading into the hanger. A small cut had appeared midway up her muzzle, gained from her brawl with Aush earlier. She glanced at the Lieutenant for a moment, letting the time hang in the air before resuming her watch of the tunnel.
"Besides my pilot here, I have a few utility drivers defecting with me," Thorne offered. "If you're worried about having enough pilots to get your ships out of Threshold, they're at your disposal. But we can't wait here any longer. We're the only transport on the ground that can leave and my guards at the tunnel entrance are reporting civvies trying to push through."
When Rhena didn't respond, Thorne took another step towards the wolf.
"Look, I'm sure they were great soldiers, but between my men and Wolf O'Donnell we've got more than enough to replace a few-"
Thorne stopped cold under Rhena's withering glare. The fire-haired wolf's eyes bored into the Cornerian Lieutenant's like twin stars, burning with a cold, calculating anger at her words.
A gunshot caught both their attention, however, and they turned towards the entrance tunnel where it emanated from. Thorne snatched her com set from her belt and raised it to her mouth.
"Report," she barked as Rhena reached for her pistol, tucked behind her back.
"Someone shot a weapon into the air," a voice crackled back over the device. The screams of a stampeding crowd were clear in the background of the transmission. "Sounded like a handgun, something low calibur."
"Hostile?" Thorne asked, reaching for her own weapon with her free hand.
"Stand by," the voice replied, followed by a short silence. Rhena was drifting towards the tunnel entrance by the time the guard came back. "Negative on hostile. It's the mercs. Ms. Monroe has a positive ID on all three of them."
Both women visibly eased at the report. As they watched, a small group of figures appeared in the docking bay's entrance tunnel, silhouetted until they emerged into the bright light of Barrados' noon sun.
Katt and Fox led the group, the latter holding a pistol in his hands. The weapon's silencer had been removed, evidence of the vulpine's somewhat crude manner of dispersing the crowd that blocked him and his crew. The feline was in frantic conversation with him, though Fox replied only in short, concise answers. His face looked like he was still expecting a Black Star operative to be waiting around the corner.
Behind them came Falco, breathing heavily and moving with determination. On his back was Miyu, arms wrapped tightly around the avian's neck. Her face was empty of expression or feeling, looking as if she were about to fall asleep. Both of her legs, poking forward through Falco's arms, were discolored a dark red, though one leg was far worse than her other.
Bringing up the rear were a pair of Cornerian marines, lacking armor but carrying their standard issue rifles. They cast glances behind them every few steps, as if checking on the distance of pursuers.
"That crowd's probably not far behind them," Thorne muttered, leaving Rhena and dashing back up the ramp to the shuttle. She lifted her com unit again, this time speaking to the transport's pilot. "They're back. Get those skids up, and try not to catch any civilians who might rush in here in the blow back."
"Cornerian transport, this is Barrados control. Return to your berth immediately. All transport operations are grounded until-"
"Negative control. This is Lieutenant Thorne of the Cornerian Seventh Fleet; this transport is operating under Cornerian Naval jurisdiction."
"Transport, return to ground immediately or planetary fighters will be scrambled to escort you down. By order of Aquas planetary code, all transports are to be grounded until a culprit is found for the murders of-"
"I will remind you, control, that any action interfering with this transport's flight plan will be viewed as hostile to Cornerian military interests. I will also remind you that this transport is armed and armored, and that the CNS Hauberk is currently orbiting Aquas in low orbit."
"...What is your destination, transport?"
"Threshold Station. I'd appreciate a list of open docking bays."
Threshold Station was abuzz with news of the shootings on Barrados; every data screen and public broadcast viewer aboard the installation was playing the news feeds. There was still plenty of uncertainty regarding the actual series of events the followed the initial gunshots, with subsequent reports of small arms fire numbering in the dozens. Small groups of vacationers gathered around the news kiosks in the concourse, watching the incoming signals from airborne news reporters down on the surface. Images of giant, milling crowds surrounding Barrados' starport flooded the feeds, masses of tiny dots in a near state of panic.
Fox only caught a glimpse of the scene as he led his crew from one private hanger to the adjacent, disembarking from the Cornerian transport and heading towards their own ships. Katt followed him, jogging to catch up with the vulpine, while Rhena and Falco brought up the rear, supporting Miyu between them. The lynx had come around enough, with some help from a Cornerian medic, to hop a bit of her own volition. They all moved at a hurried pace, wanting to spend as little time as possible aboard the station.
"Wait, Fox, hold up!" Katt panted, pulling even with him. She was still wearing her styled sandals, hindering her movement. "Where's Hartford going? And where's that Crendon fella?"
"Hartford's going to the Hauberk with Lieutenant Thorne," Fox replied, his careful eyes scanning those they passed for any ill intent. Since Falco dropped in on him and Miyu, Fox hadn't seen any Black Star operatives, but he couldn't shake the idea that more of them were lurking somewhere nearby. "He'll guide them to the rendezvous point with Wolf's frigate."
They passed through the doorway into their private hanger, greeted by the familiar sight of their shuttles and CDF fighters. Out of the corner of his eye, Fox caught one of Wolf's marines flat against the wall, a pistol drawn and ready to get the drop if necessary. The two men nodded at each other as the rest of Fox's crew filtered in.
"And Crendon-" Fox began to answer Katt's second question before he was interrupted by a new voice.
"Where's the Gamma?" another of Wolf's marines spoke up from the open doorway of Katt's shuttle. An automatic rifle was held loosely in his hands.
"He's..." Fox hesitated before answering, noticing a sudden onset of tension in the pair of soldiers. With a sudden rush of intuition, he realized the implications of what he was about to say. "...dead."
"Dead?" the marine in the shuttle repeated incredulously. He backed up a step, glancing at what Fox presumed to be another of Wolf's soldiers hidden from view within the shuttle. As he did, the insignia of a Delta rank could be clearly seen on his shoulder. The marine in command turned back to Fox. "And Aush?"
"Bastard turned on us," Falco said as he and Rhena came to a stop in the hanger, letting Miyu rest on her own leg for a moment. "He's gone, too."
Almost simultaneous with the doorman locking the hanger door behind them came the ominous sound of weapons priming. The Delta's rifle was suddenly at his shoulder as he sidestepped, hiding half his body behind the shuttle's doorway. Another similarly armed soldier materialized next to him, decked out in full combat armor with a medic's patch on his arm. Behind the mercenaries, the marine by the door had his pistol raised in both hands.
In response Falco and Rhena both instinctively pulled their pistols, leaving Miyu to the mercy of Threshold's artificial gravity. The lynx caught herself just before falling flat on the deck plating below, bracing her weight on her elbow and arm. Katt immediately stood upright, hands reaching for the overhead lights of the docking bay.
"The hell is this?" Fox shouted, hand resting on the pistol strapped to the small of his back. He would have sought cover, but from where he stood out in the open, it would have been a fruitless effort.
"Hold your fire," the Delta commanded his men, his voice echoing within the high ceiling of the room. The sights of his weapon never left Fox's face, only a stone's throw away. "Tell me what happened down there, McCloud."
Fox met the Delta's gaze evenly. He tried to pick his words carefully, knowing full well that at the moment, there was nothing he could say to convince Wolf's marines that the mercenaries themselves didn't kill off Crendon and Aush. The mistrust was certainly there with Wolf's forces, and had been since the Star Fox team arrived on the Lone Wolf. Crendon had been the team's only real ally within the lower ranks of Wolf's battalion, and now his death had itself sparked further animosity.
"Aush betrayed us and turned us over to the Black Star smuggling syndicate," the vulpine said slowly but with confidence. "They were planning on turning us and the Cornerian contacts over to Bauker."
"How did the Gamma die?"
"He...wasn't considered worthwhile," Fox replied. "Aush shot him right after the Black Star thugs ambushed us."
"I don't buy it, Delt," the doorman said loudly, pistol still trained on Falco and Rhena. "Gamma wouldn't get caught off guard like that."
The Delta tightened his grip on his weapon and shifted a little further out of view behind the shuttle's hull. His eyes narrowed.
The room began to simmer, the tension tightening to an almost claustrophobic level. Fox felt his gun hand begin to sweat as his eyes darted back and forth between the Delta and the marine next to him. As the seconds ticked on, scenarios began running through his head, each and every one of them resulting in his own likely death in the first moments of the firefight. His team was outgunned and caught in the wide open. Between the pair of marines in the shuttle and the third soldier behind them at the hanger door, the word 'crossfire' was burning itself straight into his mind.
"If we pin down the guys in the shuttle we could probably get to the CDF fighters; that's at least some cover. Falco and Rhena will have to take down the door guy pretty quickly though..."
He didn't even know where the fourth guard was.
"He said to tell you 'Leon's misunderstood'," Fox spat out, the last moments of Crendon's life suddenly replaying through his mind. "It was the last thing he said."
Almost immediately the Delta lowered his weapon. He stared at Fox for another few moments, as if trying to determine if he misheard the vulpine, before proceeding out of the shuttle and down its ramp. At the same time, the other marines lowered their weapons, taking on less threatening stances. Taking the invitation, Falco and Rhena both lowered their pistols as well.
The Delta's boots hit the deck. He proceeded to Fox, stopping in front of the mercenary captain. His eyes burned with curious skepticism as they peered into Fox's, searching for some sort of indication of falsehood. His military-grade hardware was still sitting heavy in his hands, lowered but certainly not forgotten by either of them.
Finally, the Delta took a hand off his weapon and extended it to the vulpine. Fox, for his part, slowly released his hold on his pistol and took the offered hand, shaking it firmly.
"He died as you said then," the Delta said, acknowledging the coded distress phrase. "What's the status of the mission?"
"Success," Fox said, finally visibly relaxing. He had not been expecting a standoff in what he took to be the only safe place left near Aquas. "Captain Hartford is going to guide the Cornerian cruiser to the meet up point."
"Alright then; let's not be late." The Delta lifted a finger in the air and whirled his hand in a small circle, whistling a sharp signal. Immediately the doorman began jogging towards the shuttles, where the armored marine was already waiting.
A commotion by the far CDF fighter caught Fox's attention. Emerging from beneath the shadow cast by the fuselage of the craft was the fourth and final of Wolf's marines. He quickly and methodically disassembled a floor brace and slung a long barreled sniper rifle over his shoulder as he stood and began making his way to the shuttles.
A cool breeze washed down Fox's spine. All the luck and planning in the world wouldn't have saved him from that sniper's bullet. He wouldn't have even seen it coming.
Fox said a few silent words of thanks to Gamma Crendon for his foresight and did his best to wash the whole incident from his mind as he jogged towards his borrowed CDF fighter.
The yellow vapors of Sector Y swirled and danced enticingly close by, beckoning the Cornerian cruiser and its escorts into its folds.
The bulky warship had powered down its engines close to an hour ago, drifting to coordinates just outside the the Sector's gases before bringing itself to a halt. It's dull gray and deep green colors faded to a uniform darkness against the yellow hues of the cloud; it's angular lines and smooth curves lost their definition. The solid hull of the ship was in no danger of loosing its weight and presence, but the rest of it had turned a little hazy, as though seen through fog.
At least that's what it felt like to Miyu as she watched the massive cruiser through the front viewport of Katt's light freighter. The lynx was propped up on the floor against the back bulkhead, where she could feel the reverberations of the small craft's idling engines. Past Katt's head and the back of her pilot's chair, Miyu saw Fox and Rhena's CDF Fighters go soaring past, flying patrol while the group waited for Wolf's frigate to make contact. They soon disappeared into the mist of the clouds, only the glowing particle trails of the snubfighters' engines visible in the all consuming yellow. Somewhere nearby, the team's assault shuttle drifted with Falco at the helm.
The fog outside reflected the fogging nerves within the lynx. The sharp, knifing pain in her leg had faded to a dull, persistent throb, aided by some additional painkillers administered by the Delta's designated medic. The man was standing a few steps away, still dressed in his combat armor and discussing some trivial matter or another with the Delta himself, but Miyu had tuned them out.
She looked down at her wounds. The bullet graze on her left leg hardly seemed like a scratch in comparison, and the dressing on her right took all of her attention. A Cornerian medic had applied a legitimate bandage to the site as soon as they had left Barrados' starport, though he had made mention of the importance of Fox's impromptu wrap. Strapped atop the sterile white bandage was a pressurized pack full of vital fluids, slowly dripping into her bloodstream via a small, clear tube. She still could only barely move her toes, though it was far, far better than nothing. At least that's what both the Cornerian and the Delta's medics had said. Miyu was having trouble counting her blessings while the image of Rhena's knife pushing against her throat, greasy with her own blood, still danced before her.
At the same time, the feeling of her arms around Fox and Falco as they lifted her up remained with her. As did the sight of Fox's back as he ran in front of her and Falco, pistol at the read, the lynx barely conscious on the avian's back as they dashed through the street of Barrados.
Fox disappearing into a crowd before firing a shot into the air and yelling at the top of his lungs, parting the mob and allowing Falco and her through.
Fox kneeling wordlessly next to her as the Cornerian medic worked on her leg on the shuttle ride up to Threshold.
Given her state at the time, she couldn't know for sure if she had just imagined the images, but they seemed so lifelike to her. Like waking up after a particularly vivid dream, she was positive they were real.
"How's she holding up?"
Fox's voice was slightly sterilized by the com system, but it caused Miyu's ears to prick up. She couldn't see it on Katt's HUD, but his portrait was bordered in gold, indicating a private channel.
"She's doing fine, Foxie, don't you worry," Katt replied with a smile, casting a glance over her shoulder at Miyu. The Delta's medic took the opportunity to walk over to the lynx, kneeling next to her and pulling a diagnostic instrument from his belt. "The medic's checking over her again. She's been in and out since we left Threshold, but-"
"My man's the best in Lord O'Donnell's corps, McCloud." The Delta approached Katt's chair, standing behind it and crossing his arms as he spoke up. "You've got nothing to be concerned about."
"Yeah, sorry; nothing against your medic, Delta." Fox replied. He spoke up a little, smirking just as much. "Nothing against you back there."
The medic in question lifted a hand in acknowledgment without turning away from his instrument, strapping a small, wired pad to Miyu's wrist.
"I'm just gonna wait until Sophie takes a look at 'er before I settle down," Fox finished. He sighed. "I just never lost someone on a mission, you know? And that was way closer than I've ever been to breaking that streak."
Katt smiled, her eyes wide and playful, suggesting that she knew something that Fox himself might not have realized about his level of concern. "Well, she's alive thanks to you, ya big hero; let the professionals take it from here."
Fox cocked his head to the side a little, catching Katt's look but unable to decipher it. Shrugging it off, he glanced out his cockpit canopy for a moment before returning his eyes to Katt.
"Yeah, well, it's the least I could do; none of us would have gotten off that island without her-"
Before he could finish, a new voice broke through over the general com system.
"Fox, we've got a pair of contacts coming through the cloud," Hartford's disembodied voice said. Coming from somewhere on the Hauberk's bridge, there was no portrait to go with it. "We're transmitting the code phrase. Stand by."
"Got it," Fox responded, his portrait losing its gold outline. The compassion and softness in his facial features evaporated, replaced by a deliberate, serious demeanor. He reached across his body, flipping some switches on the dashboard. "Give us a vector and we'll fly picket. Shields up, Rhena." A single click came from the wolf's fighter.
He wore the uniform of a decorated Venomian officer, and while those he had passed in the corridors of the Endeavor took a momentary interest in his rank, they payed little attention to his face. There was little remarkable about him to notice; just another officer come to pledge his allegiance to Bauker's navy.
Since Warlord Bauker officially declared hostilities against Corneria earlier that day, those upper echelons of Venom's former military who hadn't already joined with the various Warlords had been coming forward in droves. Independent warship captains, fighter wings gone pirate, and any number of other cast offs from Andross' former glory following the Lylat War sent envoys or messages confirming their loyalty. Aboard Bauker's flagship, they had become akin to tourists, sweeping through a beach town just as the storm season was retiring.
Had anyone realized who the man actually was, they may have treated his presence with a bit more gravity.
The man stood in a secured observation room deep in the bowels of the Endeavor. It was small, dark and almost entirely without furnishings, save for a small bank of computers in the corner, a plain metal chair hooked up with a number of medical instruments, and a pair of spot lights. The only door was closed, isolating those within from the busy corridors of the rest of the ship. The eternal, sterile smell of science and sanitizer permeated the room, seeping into its occupants' nostrils.
Both spotlights were on and directed at a being sitting in the metal chair: one shining at him head on, the other illuminating him from the ceiling above. The hare looked old and haggard, aged well beyond his years by months of interrogating and medical torture. His closed eyes were sunken and surrounded by darkened skin. His face was sullen and wrinkled with pain. His breathing was long but shallow, reflecting a being broken and bleeding, both physically and mentally.
Warlord Bauker stood by the computer bank in the corner, alternating his attention between the man in the Venomian uniform, and casually observing the operator manning the workstation. Various signals and vital signs were displayed on the many monitors, gathered from the various instruments attached to the hare sitting under the spotlights. The operator typed in a series of commands, bringing up another screen on one of the monitors. A number on the monitor began climbing and flashing.
With the slow, curious gait of a biologist observing an animal in a zoo, the feline warlord made his way over to the man in the Venomian uniform, who was standing behind the horizontal spotlight.
The intensity of the spotlight combined with the otherwise blackened room rendered the man standing outside its cone of illumination a silhouette. Bauker had seen the man before, and knew his face well, but whether by accident or intention the man always seemed to find shadows to hide in.
Bauker flashed back to the various briefings and conferences he had had with his allies and subordinates. In each of them, the man attended remotely and in privacy, his com portrait always shrouded in darkness. Bauker was sure the name the man went by was a pseudonym of some sort. Normally, the sort of identity evasion the man displayed would've utterly discounted him as a reliable partner of any sort, but his enormous monetary contributions, as well as his deep insight into Venom's more clandestine projects and operations, made him invaluable.
If the man wanted to keep a level of privacy in exchange for his assets, Bauker reasoned, it was his right to do so.
"Mr. Gallant, he's coming around."
The man turned his head towards Bauker, acknowledging the warlord with a genial nod before returning his attention to the subject of the spotlight directly next to his head.
"How goes your marshaling, Joseph?" the man asked, his voice pleasant and conversational. "I must have seen patches from every one of Venom's stray squadrons and battle groups on my way down here."
"You've only seen the rabble, I'm afraid," Bauker answered him, coming a stop beside the silhouetted man. The cougar glanced at the subject in the chair. "My major players were deployed a week ago. Gage's fleet in the north, Norwood in the south, Raymund in the east-"
"And Corneria in the west. Quite a castle on the hill you've got for yourself, my friend."
"Nothing worth having is ever an easy fight, Mr. Gallant. But the Cornerians are unsuspecting. And without their leadership, the planetary militias will crumble."
"You're sure about that?"
"I am," Bauker replied, raising an eyebrow at Mr. Gallant's skepticism and crossing his arms. "Within a week, Corneria will stand alone once again, their fleets scattered. Within a month we'll have united all of Lylat's free citizens against them." He lifted a hand, counting off Lylat's inhabited planets on his fingers. "Macbeth, Fortuna, Zoness, Aquas, Katina..." His words trailed off as he considered the last world he named. "...Perhaps not Katina."
It was hard to make out facial features on the silhouetted man; it was difficult even to make out his species. But Bauker could've sworn he saw Mr. Gallant smile when the cougar mentioned the last planet.
"Katina was always a thorn," the man agreed. "Even during the Lylat War, they held out with Corneria when nobody else would. They won't be taken easily."
"Sir," the computer operator said after a slight pause. The figure on his console had begun to blink in a red font. "He's conscious."
Bauker glanced over at the hare under the spotlight's blinding illumination, just in time to catch his eyelids flicking open. The subject's eyes were bloodshot with fatigue, but they burned with intensity, staring at nothing and everything at once. His breathing became more intense.
"Mr. Gallant, he's ready for questioning." As the man stepped towards the seated hare, Bauker continued, drifting forward in the man's wake with his arms still crossed. "As you asked we haven't spoken to him since he broke this morning."
"Good," Mr. Gallant replied, maintaining his genial tone as he came into the light. He stepped in front of the chair the hare was seated in, positioning himself in front of the horizontal spotlight, while standing just outside the ceiling spotlight's circle of light. The result was an eclipsing silhouette from the hare's point of view as he stood before the prisoner. "If Andross' research notes on Project Lithium are to be trusted, you may not even have to worry about taking Corneria."
"I hope you're right," Bauker replied after a short pause of considering what the man said, sounding a little hesitant to challenge Mr. Gallant. "We've spent a lot of resources on this hare."
The hare slowly but smoothly lifted his head at the shadow in front of him, his mouth silent and his eyes stoic, but his mind clouded with unspoken questions. His increased breathing reverberated through his body, and his muscles seemed to expand and contract with every breath. For from lending him any any visual sense of strength, however, the peculiar motion only spoke of the torture and exhaustion his body had endured.
"Now, Peppy Hare," the man said, staring down at the seated subject. "Tell me about what lies beyond the Lithium gate." He bent down a little, bringing his face closer to Peppy's.
"What lies beneath Cerinia's surface?"
"It's good to see you again, Fox McCloud," Beta Rhade's portrait said as the pair of Wolfen fighters emerged from the fog of Sector Y. "I only wish I had better news for you."
Fox gently guided his joystick to the side, bringing his CDF fighter on a wide, sweeping loop around Wolf O'Donnell's snubfighters, now marked friendly on his HUD. He smiled at the sight of the lupine pilot, evidently fully recovered from the incident on the Broadsword's wreck. However, the Beta's words caused him to furrow his brow a little. The fact that they were delivered with an underlying sense of urgency didn't help at all, either.
"You too, Rhade," Fox replied, glancing out his cockpit canopy as the Wolfens floated by. "But what happened? Don't tell me Wolf canceled our contract."
Rhade smirked, a rare showing of humorous emotion. "Don't worry mercenary, your contract remains. As soon as a deal is made with the your Cornerian captain, you'll get your payment."
"Glad to hear it," Fox said. He chopped back the throttle, bringing his fighter up on Rhade's wing, even with the Beta's cockpit. "Then what's going on? And where's the Osgard?"
"The Osgard's currently engaged with your Great Fox and a flight of our fighters against a Venomian combat patrol at one of Siona's bases nearby." Rhade reported solemnly. He glanced at his dashboard, checking an information readout. "Ideally, we'll wrap up formal negotiations with the...Hauberk quickly and move to assist."
"Venomian?" Fox questioned, tilting his head a little. "Which warlord?"
"You misunderstand, McCloud," Rhade answered. "Bauker's Alliance has declared war on Corneria."
"He's right, Mr. McCloud," Lieutenant Thorne's voice interjected. A new portrait unfolded on Fox's HUD depicting the Cornerian officer, the camera zoomed and focused on her head and shoulders. The Hauberk's bridge was arrayed behind her. It was an unspoken statement that she had been monitoring the pilots' conversation. "We've been monitoring the Cornerian coded channels. Admiral Gage is openly attacking Cornerian military assets around Aquas and Zoness; there have been a half dozen distress beacons lit in the last hour."
"Looks like we got out just in time," Fox said, eyes wide at the sudden news. He bit back some words as to why the Cornerian officer had neglected to tell him and his team sooner.
"Indeed," Thorne replied, shifting her attention to Rhade. "Mr. Rhade. I take it you're Wolf O'Donnell's emissary in place of the frigate he promised?"
"Correct," Rhade nodded.
"I'm Lieutenant Thorne, acting commander of the CNS Hauberk," Thorne said formally. "Given the circumstances, I'd be willing to put off our negotiations until our potential employer is out of the fire, so to speak. We've got a skeleton crew, but I'm sure a cruiser would give Bauker's ships something else to think about."
"Very well," Rhade replied. "I'm uploading coordinates now. McCloud, if you and your wingman would be so kind as to form up on me and mine."
With a silent snap and a brilliant flash, the Hauberk's massive thrusters ignited, settling to a cold, even burn as the warship began to maneuver. It centered its trajectory on the quartet of snubfighters, moving in slow motion as though through water. Soon the cruiser was consumed by the vapors of Sector Y, disappearing into the abyss of yellow. Like the soldiers of long ago, she was riding off to war once more.
"Here we go again, eh?" Falco quipped, his gold bordered portrait on Fox's HUD depicting a being trying to keep his casual lightheartedness afloat in a sea of uncertainty. However, his listless eyes gave him away. "I'm not gonna lie, buddy," he said, scratching his forehead. "I'm starting to miss not having so much work."
"Yeah," Fox answered, exhaling the tension and pressure of the mission on Barrados. There was only so much room where the vulpine could store his stress, and something told him he was going to need the extra space soon enough.
"You think Lylat's gonna need us like it did back...you know."
"I don't know, Falco," Fox replied, shaking his head. "I don't know."
"But I really hope not."
Got a few things to say, but first let's get to the reviews.
Jack Falconer: Thanks for all of the reviews Jack! There's a bit too much there for me to comment on every point, but I'll bring up a few things you mentioned. First, in regards to Wolf's odd behavior in comparison to the Star Fox Assault Wolf, my intention was to use the Star Fox 64 version of him. He's a bit more reserved and less brash in 64, and maybe I'm reading too far into the characterization, but he seemed more charismatic, too. That's where I got the idea that other pilots and soldier might turn to him as Venom crumbled at the end of the game. Second, I really liked your analysis of each of the team's "visions" after the Sector Y jump. I won't say what I was intending for each of them, but your descriptions are remarkable.
Third...yes, zombies. I introduced them into the story with two goals: add something odd and a little eerie into the narrative, and make them scientifically logical (or at least close to it). I don't like the supernatural "don't worry about logic, it's magic" feel a lot of adventure stories have, but I do enjoy the novelty of a lot of their set pieces and characters. So to resolve the two, I added zombie-like creatures that have a reason to exist and do so logically (or again, close to it). And finally, I really appreciated your analysis of each of the characters and where they might end up at the end of this.
LilGstryker: Thanks for the kind words! And I'm glad to hear you're enjoying Miyu's character.
AndrossKenobi: Thanks for the review AK! We'll have to see how your prediction turns out :)
chaos Leader: No worries cL; considering my update schedule, I could never blame anyone for missing a chapter. And while I love reading your reviews, please don't feel like you HAVE to leave one every time. But it's funny you mention Skyrim. I did play through the game (excellent game, by the way), and while your mention was the first time I drew that comparison, I can see what you're saying. It comes down to the old cliche of bad guys wanting to be bad guys because...they're bad guys. That doesn't make for interesting storytelling. Nobody views themselves as "bad"; everybody's the hero of their own stories, so I wanted to give the "bad guys" some actual, human motivations. That's what I liked a lot about the Skyrim story. You could totally see the motivations behind both sides, and while you might agree with one side more than the other, you could still sympathize with the "enemy." Hopefully something approaching that comes through in my writing *fingers crossed*
RedBay: Thanks for the reviews RedBay! Addressing a few points you brought up...Katt. I purposely designed her to be overly dense here because too often, I see characters in stories acting way out of line with their established characterizations, and its frankly no fun. Katt has no military background, isn't fond of weapons, and isn't all that knowledgeable about society's underbelly; she'd have no idea what to do against a smuggling organization. And besides, character flaws make characters more grounded and less super-soldiery. Anyway, that was the goal; whether I pulled it off is another matter entirely. Miyu getting under the taxis without being noticed however, is pretty much dumb luck. I try not to depend on that too much as it begins to remove any sense of tension, but here I kinda wrote myself into a corner. My mistake.
The Frustrated: Thanks TF! I'm glad to hear that roller coaster feeling manifested for you; one of things I've been working on improving is my pacing in these chapters. As for Katt, refer to my respond to RedBay's review above.
Guest: Thanks nameless person! Glad to hear you're enjoying the story. I made most of the characters mammalian because that's how most of the characters are in the Star Fox games. True, there are exceptions (Slippy, Leon, Falco), but mammals also tend to be easier to relate to, given that most pets and "cute" animals are mammalian. But now we're getting into the psychological components of anthropomorphizing animals, which is a WHOLE 'nother discussion entirely :P Anyway, thanks again for the review!
Alright, this concludes part 2 (of 3) of the story. However, unlike last time, I'm positive that I'm going to finish this story. It might take me another few years (I really, really hope it doesn't though), but it WILL get finished. I'd say we're looking at the story topping out at 50-60 chapters total, and I've already got a rough outline in place as to where I want it to go.
I'd like to reiterate here how sorry I am that these updates tend to be a month or two apart. A lot of things have happened since I began writing this story, and it seems like every single one of them has steadily taken more and more away from my pool of free time. It's a lousy excuse, I know. But hopefully you've gotten some enjoyment out of the story so far, and continue to enjoy the future chapters. If not, please let me know why so I can work to improve my writing. If you've noticed any difference in the quality at all from Chapter 1 to Chapter 39, it's because of reviewers spotting my issues and telling me how to correct them. I owe you guys everything for improving my writing. Thank you.