Chapter Thirteen: Not Here, Not Now
When one looks at the Vanguard War from a historical perspective, any attempt to try and pin down the starting date quickly shows itself to be a futile endeavor. Many of the factions that made up the two warring alliances were engaged in prior wars against each other. Then, too, there is the matter of the various points in time whence came the members of both the Vanguard and the League of the Dark Hand to consider, making a literal timeline obsolete. It could be argued that the solution is to start at the various temporal vergences that caused the warring factions to come into contact and count backward, assuming that the skirmish to occur farthest back was the outbreak of the war. Most historians, however, will agree that this is not a valid method, since the Vanguard War was not the same war after the Time of the Junction that it was before. Thus arises the question before us today: who drew first blood in the Vanguard War, and when? It is an ambitious question, to be sure. The historians of three worlds across thousands of years failed to answer it. Of the Ancient Ones (for that is what your colloquially named 'Star Spirits' truly are), only one remains who knows the answer, and his answer points farther back than the Historical Society would care to look, but I digress. Though it would seem we are in the best position of all time to answer this riddle, with both the Time of the Junction and the Rise of the Dark Lord having occurred within the lifetimes of many of those assembled here, the answer is still open to a great deal of speculation and interpretation. However, there is one thing on which all credible historians agree, and that is the earliest recorded allied conflict. By this I mean the earliest recorded conflict between the group that would become the Vanguard and the group that would become the League- a fight also notable for being the first to encompass combatants from all three worlds involved in the war, as well as the final Calling Away, if one discounts the summoning of the Triforce Bearers several months into the war- took place on this date in 1990, Earth Reckoning, on the surface of Argonia.
Merlin Ambrosius, speaking at a historical seminar at the University of Easton
October 27, 3155 (Earth Reckoning)
October 27, 1990
Temple of Time; Argo City, Argonia
Zoda stood staring into the oily black sky until the pale orange comet-tail of the Cornerian Lander's engine wash vanished into the cloud-soup, clenching his gauntletted fists in rage as the gunk-rain slicked off of his armored shoulder plates. At another time he could have simply donned another form and ripped the craft out of the sky with a great claw, or blasted it apart with the sheer intensity of that same alterego's bestial stare. But Hirocon's self-sacrificing attack had left him barely able to stand. And psionic combat? That would have been a joke. He was as ready for that as Mike had been after his near-miss with Zoda V. Andross would be of little help either, from the look of it. The Venomian's eyes rolled perilously back into his head, leaving the now-reddened whites exposed. It seemed to Zoda his ability to stagger out of the cave was not a matter of conscious thought but simply his body's unwillingness to tolerate any more of what was happening to his mind. He would recover, surely, but Zoda didn't have tme to wait.
"Come on, you filthy ape," he glowered at Andross, stretching his remaining awareness out toward the scientist. "Collect yourself! We have work to do."
"Work," Andross droned, reminding Zoda of a child attempting to imitate its parents' speech. "Work… to… do…"
Blast it, I need this drooling moron. Zoda reached his hand toward Andross, physically touching his head this time, and channelled as much of his consciousness as he dared into him. This is closer to rewriting him than I'd like, but I'll deal with the consequences of that later. "Andross, there's no time for you to have a psychileptic lapse. I need you in the here, and in the now!"
Slowly, like the melting of pack-ice in the spring thaw, cracks began to form in the duldrums of Andross's psyche. It seemed to Zoda an eternity, but in a matter of minutes he was coherent again, shaking his head as if to clear a hangover. "They've escaped, then." It was not a question, but a resigned admision of seeming fact.
"No," Zoda corrected. "But they're escaping right now. To their ship, to be speciffic. Now we can still carve a victory out of this, if you're up to the task."
Andross gave his head another 'self, snap out of it' shake. "Yes… yes. I'm up to it. And Zoda…"
"The next time the words 'filthy ape' cross your lips in my direction, you will spend your remaining days as a gibbering, vegetative victim of Suarian Cerebral Worms, with Spine Mites and radiation sickness for added measure."
"A pleasure to find you have rejoined the living, Old Friend. Let's go." There was a flicker of light, and the two of them vanished.
Foxfire, Bridge; In Orbit of Argonia
Another explosion rocked the bridge, and Peppy held his footing. "Warning," the ship's computer offered in its mockingly pleasant tone. "Shield strength down to-"
"Just shut the Hell up! I know!" Peppy screamed through the cacophony of sparks and warning alarms fighting to be heard over each other. The computer spoke one more time, it's motherly voice assuring him that it was 'terminating voice warnings,' and Peppy thanked the gods for at least that small favor. Then, of course, there was the little matter of the fighter harrying the ship, and the hideous inability of the ship's anti-aircraft cannons to keep up with it. Might just as well get out there in an EVA suit and throw rocks for all the good they're doing.
"James went like this too, y'know," Pigma told Peppy over the ship-to-ship radio. "Ship explodin' around him, shootin' at nothin'. Only he died in the cockpit of a real man's ship, and not on the bridge of a flyin' cinderblock like some academy-fresh Fleet-boy."
He's as bad as the damn computer, Peppy ground his teeth as he attempted to triangulate another shot with the ship's three cannons. Pigma's ship was moving too quickly though, and whatever idiot designed the ship seemed to labor under the delusion that enemies only attacked from the front, if the fire-arc was any indication. As Peppy expected, the shot missed. Yeah it missed, by about half a parsec. This isn't working.
"Oh, man," Pigma squealed sympathetically. "Losin' your edge, eh Peppy old pal? Don't worry. I'll make this quick, so you don't have to dwell on an embarassing miss like that."
Another barrage of laser fire cut surgically into the Foxfire's dorsal section, and this time Pigma's weapons found their mark.
"Warning," the ship's computer seemingly forgot its promise to keep quiet. "Reactor coolant tank one has been breached. Matter-antimatter meltdown probability is now forty-five percent."
"Lander one to Foxfire," Fox's voice joined the radio chorus.
Peppy leaped from the weapons console to the radio. "Fox! Be careful. Pigma's all over me."
There was a growling sound from the speaker, and then, "just keep him off the Lander long enough for us to get to the hangar bay. Once we're in Arwings, we'll take him."
"We've got another problem," Peppy said quickly. "He ruptured one of the coolant tanks to the reactor. If he hits the other…"
"Then don't let him," Fox solved Peppy's dillemma. "We're coming in."
Mike's eyes were quick to take in the scene of Peppy and Pigma's battle, and his mind (drawing on movies like Star Wars and The Last Starfighter) immediately arrived at a conclusion: not good. "So… what are we going to do?"
"We?" Fox looked at him over his shoulder. "Well first off, kid, you are going to get the Hell out of the cockpit so I can fly, and we," he inclined his head toward the Cornerians, "are going to get ready to wing up and blast this bastard back to-" The entire party screamed as a geyser of plasma erupted across the window. Had the Lander been a few meters forward, they would have been caught in that blast. "Havoc's Cry is shooting at us then. Lovely. Umm, everybody hang on to something."
"Hang on to something?" Krystal's voice came out in a shrill squeak. "Fox, we're in a landing shuttle, not a fighter. What do you plan to-" Krystal's eyes were suddenly unable to tell if the Lander was spinning, or if it was the entire universe outside. Her stomach, however, seemed to have decided on the former, and threatened to voice its objections by stamping 'return to sender' on her lunch.
"Sorry," Fox lied as he pointed the nose of the Lander back toward the hangar of the Foxfire. He guesstimated the distance in an instant to be less than four kilometers. They were seconds from home. Even though she hasn't quite earned the name 'home' yet. They had a chance of making it, if he could make one of the team's trademark miracles happen.
Then again, I never had to pull off one of those miracles in a thruster-propelled shoebox with Great Fox shooting at me, said a voice in Fox's head. The situation right now though-
That's why it's called a miracle, Fox reminded this voice. Now let's fly.
An intuition that can only be had by those who spent their formative childhood years in battle warned Fox that the Cry was preparing another shot, and Fox rolled the Lander in a cumbersome loop of which it should not have been capable. After that, his mind retreated and his hands and eyes took over. Here, in the cockpit of a ship (even a barely-armed abomination like this Lander), he was truly at home, for the first time since the Aparoid invasion. "If we can just outmaneuver those guns on the Cry we can make it," Fox assured the others. "And since they were made for shooting at enemy capital ships instead of fighters, that shouldn't be too tough."
"Uh huh," Mike nodded and pointed at the fighter skipping happily around the Foxfire, seemingly as mindful of the Lander as an elephant would be of a ferret. "So what about that one?"
"That? Well, that'll be where it gets interesting."
Mike knew right away from the way Fox said 'interesting' that he wasn't going to like this part.
Another volley, another round of explosions, another series of alarms. In a part of Peppy's brain, fear of death was being overshadowed by annoyance at the ever-repeating chorus. That part of his brain, however, was at the rear, allowing the more practical, sensible part (what he believed was his common sense) take over at the front. And the part of his brain at the forefront had arrived at roughly the same conclusion Mike had moments before.
"Too bad James's not here to see this," Pigma taunted, no longer bombarding the Foxfire but gleefully dancing around it in a celebratory show of aerobatics, casually taking pot-shots as they came. It seemed he had already declared himself victorious. "I'll bet he'd love knowing that his wingman and his son are gonna die in the same day, and I'll be the one who does it."
"Go to Hell, Dengar," Peppy screamed back. It was a feeble retort, but with the apparent ineffectuality of the Foxfire's guns, it was all he could manage.
"Aw, come on Peppy. There's no need to be rude." This was followed by peals of the migraine-inducing series of oinks, snorts and squeals that passed for Pigma's laugh. Peppy was preparing another of his meager comebacks when the floor beneath him rolled like the surface of a sea in a hurricane, and the universe went silent and the bridge went red.
The redness of the bridge, Peppy saw a moment later, was from the ship's emergency lights, which kicked in as the main power sputtered and died. But Peppy wondered momentarily at the silence. Every surface was covered in warning lights, and he could see panels shooting sparks into the air, but he could hear nothing. A single, sobering thought came one moment too late to be accepted. Gods, I've gone deaf. The proof to the contrary, which reached Peppy's brain a flash before that thought, was the dull ringing that began to fill his oversensitive ears, making him clutch the sides of his head as though he could squeeze the sound from it. Peppy became dimly aware that the computer had begun to voice another warning, but it was buried beneath the ringing. Then, slowly, the ringing subsided.
"-In six minutes. All personnel, abandon ship. Warning, secondary coolant tank ruptured. Reactor breach in six minutes. All personnel abandon ship. Warning, secondary-"
Of course. Why not? "Fox," Peppy announced over the ship-to-ship, "we have a new problem."
"What is it, Peppy?"
"Fox," Peppy's voice came out in staggering breaths, sure signs of the potentially fatal mix of age and stress. "He took out the other coolant tank. The reactor's going to blow in six minutes. There's nothing I can do but jettison the bridge."
Fox nodded and turned to face the front of the Lander. "Peppy, you said six minutes, right?"
"And you can guarantee us those six minutes?"
A pause. "Nope, but I guarantee there won't be more."
"We'll take our chances," Fox answered cavalierly, "because they're the only chances we have. Peppy, key the startup sequence for the Arwings, and then jet. I want them prepped and ready to go when we jump in them."
There was a note of roguish bravado in the old hare's voice as he replied "you got it, Fox."
"Wait a minute," Dr. J. intoned. "You got what? I missed something."
"Yeah, I think I did too." This was Mike.
"What'd you miss?" Fox asked nonchalantly. "When we bail off the Lander, Mike's going to pilot it out of the ship."
"Out of the ship?" Mike tried to shout, but his voice came out sounding as it had a few years prior, during the first throws of adolescence when a boy's voice alternates between James Earl Jones and Tiny Tim. "That ship?"
Fox simply said, "yes."
"The one that's about to explode?"
"The one you just ordered Peppy to bail off of?"
"I'm glad to see we're on the same wavelength here, Mike. Now if you don't mind, I need to focus on flying."
It was Mica who spoke next. "Fox, this is suicide. The way you're describing this, if we can't get on, get your team to their fighters and leave within six minutes-"
"We'll all be dead," Fox finished. "Which will be no different than what will happen if we try to do what comes next without our Arwings."
Mica and Mike exchanged an even more worried look.
Mica, what does he mean 'what happens next?'
I was about to say 'I wish I knew,' but after further consideration I don't think I wish any such thing.
Havoc's Cry; Bridge
Zoda stood at the center of the bridge, crimson eyes fixed on the scene playing out before him. The Lander sped onward, putting more distance between itself and the Dreadnought's guns each second as it hurried toward the doomed Foxfire. The battle, it seemed, was won. In a matter of moments the ill-fated alliance of Terrans, Cornerians, and the last Argonians, would die aboard a half-century old Cornerian patrol ship. The problem is I need them to die on Dragmire's altar, not have their atomized innards scattered across half the system. "Shoot to disable only," He screamed at the gunner, "and target the Lander. I want them alive."
"Belay that," Andross roared, and Zoda spun around to face him, his cloak cutting a fan-shaped swath through the air around him as he did so.
"What did you say, Magister-of-science?"
Andross approached Zoda until the two were within striking distance of each other. "You're moronic devotion to a dead god has caused us more trouble than I'm willing to repeat. I say Dragmire be damned, and you with him for all I'm concerned. It's time to bring this idiotic episode to a long-overdue close. Gunner, full power to the cannons. Fire at will!"
"Negative, my lord," the gunner hissed. "They have passed out of firing range."
"Then signal Pigma to intercept," Andross commanded, noting the smug look visible even through the facial glass of Zoda's helmet. "Tell him to destroy the Foxfire or the Lander before the two dock. I don't care which, but don't let them get aboard that ship!"
Zoda's smugness was replaced by confusion as he took note of Andross's apparent distress. I'm inclined to echo that order not to let them get to the ship, but he's afraid of something. "Don't tell me you're actually worried that they could salvage the situation, Doctor."
"That's Fox McCloud flying that thing," Andross said by way of a response. "I don't intend to let him get to an Arwing."
Zoda glanced from Andross to the forward window, where the Lander grew smaller and less intimidating still with each moment, and then back to Andross. I don't see what kind of a threat he could pose if he did, but perhaps your paranoia will prove useful. "I agree," he said. "Fully, I agree. But McCloud has outpilotted Pigma before, has he not?" Andross's eyes darted back and forth from the Lander to Pigma's fighter, making it clear to Zoda that the question beneath the question had found its mark. Now, to add a little fuel… "And Pigma's still a bit bitter over that, isn't he? He'll want to try his luck again. But are you willing to gamble on his ability to outfly McCloud, blinded by jealousy?"
Apparently, it was enough. "Order Pigma to focus on the Foxfire," Andross amended his order to the radio yeoman. "I want it destroyed before McCloud gets there. Once he's restricted to that landing shuttle then we'll turn our attention to him."
Almost a minute passed without any further input from Zoda. Then the Foxfire exploded, and Zoda let out a scream of triumph. No one on the bridge joined him, however. Starship combat had never been Zoda's area of expertise, and consequently his knowledge of the situation that ensued then was based largely on Andross' enraged reaction, but as the fireball of the Foxfire's destruction dissipated into the vacuum of space he realized there were more specks in the distance than he should have been able to see through the window, and they were moving quickly. In this direction. What in the seven Hells? "Andross?"
"Arwings," Andross said in a measured, nearly robotic voice. "Four Arwings, one Landing Shuttle, and what appears to be the bridge escape pod. Furthermore, they're moving this direction, with Pigma fleeing before them."
Faced with this incomprehensible situation, Zoda turned his confused countenance upon Andross. There was a look of utter surety on the Venomian dictator's features. "And they're coming this way?" Andross nodded, and Zoda threw back his head and laughed, thinking to pick off the Arwings and draw the Lander in. "Pathetic. So this is some kind of 'final stand,' is it? A way to 'go down shooting?'"
"No. That's not Fox McCloud's way. If he fights, he fights for victory."
"But what sort of victory does he intend to salvage without his mothership?"
Andross finally turned and locked eyes with Zoda. "He intends to secure a new one," he said flatly. Then, turning to address the bridge crew, he yelled, "get two security detachments to the hangar entrance. I'll lead them myself!"
Landing Shuttle 1; Argonian Orbit
"Okay, Mike," Fox said over the radio. "We're going to get exactly one chance at this. Blow that chance, and it'll be a question of whether you crash into the hull before or after getting that Lander blasted to scrap."
"Uh, yeah," Mike responded as he began to settle into the pilot's chair of the Lander. Dr. J was already settled into the co-pilot's seat. "Do I even need to say that this is not making me feel any better about the situation?"
Fox's reply was curt. "No, you don't. Now listen, and I'll tell you how this is going to work. Okay?"
"No, not okay, but go ahead anyway."
"Good man. Now, do you see the Dreadnought's engines?"
Mike did. "You mean the three enormous flaming jets of burning death sticking out the back of the ship? Yeah. How could I miss them?"
"Well, you'd better come up with a way to, and quickly, because the target zone is a twelve meter nearly square opening just above those."
From Fox's reply, it was clear he and Mike had differing views of what it meant to 'miss them,' but Mike pushed that thought aside. There would be time for that later… he hoped. "Okay, and how big is this Lander?"
"About ten ten meters wide and eight high."
Suddenly Mike was grateful he'd had nothing to drink in almost a day. After all, he liked the pants he was wearing, and had no desire to stain the front of them, as he felt sure he otherwise would have at that. "Oh. So I've got about a meter on either side, and two meters above and below. 'Zat right?"
"Yeah, about. Now, we're we're going to go ahead of you and draw the fire from the main guns. Then, while she's focused on us, you'll fly past the ship, keeping as close to the hull as you can When you get behind it, pull a U-turn and aim for the entrance. Peppy'll be right behind you. Once you're aboard, we'll fly in. From there, it's all person-to-person. Ready?"
The answer to that was an undeniable 'no.' As Fox waited for a response, Mike removed the radio headset and rose from the pilot's seat. "Uncle Steve, I need you to do this. I can't do it."
There was a collective gasp from the Argonians in the back of the Lander as their hero, the object of countless legends yet to be written, faltered. Dr. J, however, kept his composure as he answered his nephew. "No, Mike," he said with a shake of his head. "It has to be you. You remember the flight sim programs you, Mica and I went through on the trip from Earth, don't you?"
"Yeah, and I sucked at them!"
"You did better than I did," Dr. J reminded him. "And better than Mica did. Now, I can co-pilot just fine, but you have got to fly the ship."
Mike's jaw began to quiver back and forth, up and down, but there was no speech. Only a barely audible moaning whine. When Mike finally did speak it was in short, whispered phrases. "I can't. I just can't."
"Yes you can, Mike," Mica said with undoubting certainty, rising from her seat and approaching Mike's. "I know it."
Mike said nothing in response.
By this time Mica was close enough that she rested her hands on Mike's shoulders. There was no panic in her eyes as they met his. There was no anguish, no 'dammit-you'd-best-grow-a-pair-and-fly-the-ship' speech waiting to be unleashed, no indication that this was the teenage girl who'd just lost her father for the second time. Where Mike expected to see all of those things there was only one simple emotion, made as clear in her eyes as it could have ever been if Mike had Read her then and there. Trust. "Mike," she said softly, but with enough volume that the others could hear. "I know you can do this. You've already saved Argonia… saved me… more times than I can count. And I have no doubt you can do it again now."
Mike looked flabbergasted. "Why? Because I'm the descendant of the Hero of Time? Mica, that doesn't mean-"
Mica cut Mike off with a finger pressed gently against his lips and shook her head slowly. "No. I know it because you're Mike Jones." As she said this, she kissed him. It was a hurried kiss, no more than a flutter of her lips against his, but it said everything that needed to be said. I believe in you, Mike.
The change in Mike was not instant. For a few moments, Dr. J even felt sure Mike was going to go back to insisting that someone else fly the ship. But finally, after a three second interval that seemed to Dr. J to span lifetimes, Mike nodded his head and simply said, "okay." Slowly, with a look on his face that the combat veteran Dr. J recognized all-too-well, Mike returned to the pilot's chair and put the radio headset back on. "Fox, this is Mike," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Mike, good. For a minute I thought you lost your cool. You ready?"
"Yeah, I'm ready. Let's go steal a starship."
"All-RIGHT!" This was Falco.
"Okay, team," Fox's anticipation showed in his voice as it always did before a sortie. "Form up. Let's rock!"
"And roll!" echoed Falco, Krystal and Slippy.
Mike saw the four Arwings assume a diamond formation in front of him. For a moment the team held its distance and bearing from the Lander perfectly, giving an instantaneous illusion that neither the Lander nor the Arwings were moving, but the starfield in front of them. Then, acting on some unspoken signal only they knew, the Star Fox Team streaked away to the right. A moment later there were flares of orange light as the Havoc's Cry's guns struggled in vain to lock onto the fast moving fighters, and green specks as Fox's team returned fire anywhere that looked vulnerable. "Well, you heard him, Unc," Mike said to Dr. J. "think a man your age can still rock and roll?"
"It was my contemporaries who invented rock and roll," Dr. J answered with a grin. "Everything's ready, and your flight path is clear."
"No need to tell me twice." And with that, Mike accelerated the Landing shuttle to its top speed and barreled straight forward, ascending slightly as the Havoc's Cry turned in an attempt to keep her bough-facing cannons toward Fox and company. Once they passed even with the Cry's cockpit, it was another eight seconds before they cleared it's dorsal fin.
"Merciful God, look at the size of that thing!" Dr. J commented as they passed.
"Yeah," Mike agreed. "Bigger than Zoda's ship. A lot bigger." And then, the ship was behind them. The entire team was waiting now for one thing only: for him to turn around and make his run for the hangar. "Well folks, we're about five seconds from our landing zone, whether that's Heaven, Hell, or the hangar. Let's go." And go they did. Mike felt none of the expected nausea as the starfield before him spun like a carousel turned on its side, finally being replaced by a rear view of the rapidly growing Cornerian Dreadnought. In the fractional nano-moment he had, Mike aimed the Lander toward the hangar entrance that had been utilized by Pigma mere moments before, putting aside the knowledge that there would be no second chances. His eyes sent one urgent directive to his brain, and Mike choked back his brain's survival-instinct-driven response, which if vocalized would have sounded like a legion of Vietnam protestors chanting 'Hell no, we won't go!' Forward they went, and Mike didn't have time to be terrified until there was nothing left to be terrified about.
Well, that's not entirely true, he thought a moment later.
By the time the Argonian children, accompanied by Dr. J, thought to scream, they were already across the oxygen containment field of the hangar, their speed diminishing as the hangar's inertia-buster auomatically seized the craft and guided it to a nigh-instantaneous halt. In response, the G-Diffuser system kicked in inside the craft to prevent this instant change in speed from leaving the craft's occupants as stains on the forward window.
"Alright," Mike sighed his relief. "We're inside." Then, realization of the depth of this situation fully hit home, and the relief in his voice was short lived. In a few moments, once the hull was cooled and the sensors had time to equalize the air pressure inside and outside of the ship, the landing ramp would auto-lower itself, and they would be up against the crew of the Havoc's Cry, nine against God-only-knew-how-many. "Holy shit, we're inside the ship!"
Dr. J. reached into his backpack and drew the pistol he'd tried to use on Zoda V, a German Ruger left to him by Colonel Marcus Jones. Mike drew the Super Nova from where it had been hastily stuffed in his own backpack during their flight from the Temple at the same moment, and Mica turned toward the landing ramp, preparing to Shockwave anything that attempted to enter and harm the last of her subjects. Her subjects, Dr. J. reflected. I wonder if that's even fully sunk in for her yet. Mica, leaving Dr. J. with little to wonder on that subject, was in front of the huddling children in an instant, and by the time another second passed she was accompanied by Daru, Naberra and Impek. As Mike and Dr. J. took posts on opposite ends of the growing line, Dr. J. cracked a grin.The last time Dr. Jones had let anyone see that grin, he'd been First Lieutenant Jones. It was, he recalled, a soldier's grin, a warrior's grin. A killer's grin, when he's about to do what killers do best. Seems I can't get away from this, God help me.
Mike, meanwhile, was vaguely aware that the other three Argonians had taken positions behind and between them, their own energies prepared to unleash a glimpse of whatever Hell the Argonians believed in upon whoever or whatever came up that landing ramp first. His ears, attuned by his three-month indoctrination in what it meant to fight for his life, began to pick up shuffling sounds from outside the Lander. Lot's of them. Distant, but getting closer. Footfalls. We're about to have loads of company.
Before the things with the feet got any closer though, there was a 'Fwoosh' Mike would later come to recognize as the sound of a ship passing through the air forcefield of the hangar, and a great rush of air. This was followed by an instant in which the shuffling came faster, and now growing more distant, before the deck beneath the Lander rolled. The ten people aboard the Lander covered their ears as the screech of metal-on-metal ripped through the air, drowning out the shuffling. Or silencing it, Dr. J realized as the screeching died away, the inertia-buster having finally compensated for the great size of the bridge escape pod Peppy flew.
"That would be Peppy, I think," Dr. J said hopefully. The others gave no response. Looking around, the scientist glimpsed something in their faces that was as far from hope as it could be. Not terror, not really, but the resolve that replaces terror when one has come to accept the possibility of death. All of them clearly knew something he didn't. And since he was the only non-psionic in the group, he had a fair idea what that could mean. "He's out there, isn't he? Zoda's right out there in the hangar."
"And Andross too," Mike said with a nod.
Dr. J gripped the pistol a little more tightly, his thumb moving to the safety. "Then they're coming."
"No," Mica answered. "They're waiting."
"Waiting?" Dr. J's brow furrowed as he spoke. "For wha… ah. I see."
Mike nodded. "Yeah. They're waiting for the gang to all be here."
Before Dr. J said anything in response, the rear door that served as the landing ramp began to open on its floor-mounted hinges. They all tensed, preparing to fight off a legion of Andross's crewmen, even though they all felt certain there would be no such aggression until Zoda and Andross were ready. Mike was actually surprised when a small squad of what he felt had to be the Lylatian answer to salamanders charged the door, firing frantically (and with dismally poor aim) from laser rifles Mike recognized all too well. These were the same rifles the Dragmirian 'robots' on board Zoda W's ship had used. There hardly seemed to be enough of them to account for all the shuffling of feet he'd heard earlier, but a single glance at the rapidly expanding pinkish-red blob underneath Peppy's escape pod told Mike the rest of the story. "Well, that takes care of the Stormtroopers," he said with what was probably too much cheer for the situation. "Let's go take down Vader and the Emperor."
"Which one is which?" Dr. J asked off-handedly.
Mike seemed to casually consider this as the nine moved down the landing ramp and into full view of anyone and everyone in the hangar. "Well, Zoda wears a cloak and a helmet, and Andross is old and hunched over."
By this time, Dr. J was looking around at the hangar. It continued to maintain most of its width for a goodly portion of the ship's length before finally, at a distance Dr. J could only guess at, ending in a sheer wall. Even from this end of the hangar, Dr. J could see that the floor at the foot of that wall looked different from the rest of the floor. Probably a craft elevator to the lanch bay on the bottom… I mean, the ventral side, he thought, cataloging this information for later, if indeed there was to be a later. On the sides of this vast runway, the walls were lined with doors which he guessed led to the rest of the ship. Near the rear, not far from where they had just disembarked, one of these great doors stood open. Standing in it, making no effort either to hide or to fire, stood Zoda, Andross and a creature Dr. J decided simply had to be Pigma Dengar, flanked by nearly two-dozen more of the rifle-wielding salamanders. As he saw them, Dr. J froze, then elbowed Mike and motioned with his head toward them. Mike froze, following Dr. J's gaze. He was followed in turn by each of the Argonians, until the ten of them stood staring at their soon-to-be attackers in what Mike found to be an almost laughable face-off.
"Why aren't they firing?" Dr. J. whispered to Mike.
"Because I need your pointy-eared companions alive, Doctor," Zoda called out across the nearly thirty meters between them. "And you needn't whisper. After all, we're all old friends here, right?"
Son-of-a-bitch read my thoughts, Dr. J realized.
"Yes, I did," Zoda replied. "And that was not polite, by the way."
That was when Mica did something Dr. J. didn't quite understand, at least at the moment. She slowly stepped behind him, reached into his backpack, and pulled something out of it. Illogical as it seemed, Dr. J. somehow knew the 'something' in question was the Oxford Wonder World. From somewhere else, seemingly much farther away than it could possibly have been, Dr. J heard four quieter versions of the sound he'd heard when Peppy's escape pod entered the hangar. The Star Fox Team had arrived.
"Ah," Andross said in a nostalgic tone, "the son of James McCloud." As he said this he laughed, and Zoda joined briefly in the laughter.
"I told you I need your pointy-eared friends alive," Zoda repeated. "But them?" He waved a disgusted hand toward the Arwings. "They've brought you to me, and have thus outlived their usefulness. Andross, have your men do as you like."
Andross shot Zoda a look of utter revulsion, which Zoda noticed not in the slightest.
"Getting ordered around on his own ship, is he?" Dr. J asked of Mike. "Well, I guess you were wrong about which one's the emperor and which one's the apprentice."
"The emperor and the apprentice?" Zoda called out mockingly as the salamanders took up positions around the Arwings from which they could rain laser fire on anything that emerged. "Fool! Just like your Argonian friends, you're constantly worried with who rules who, failing to realize that everyone has a time to serve and a time to be served. Power is meaningless, you poor microbe. All things serve the designs of the Dark Lord, and the only way to survive his rise is to realize that."
As Zoda uttered the words 'all things serve the designs of the Dark Lord,' without any reason why, each of the ten recalled the last meeting in the Chief's hut at Coralcola, and Merlin's words 'if the enemy were revealed to them now, he would be more than they could comprehend.'
Zoda, however, took no notice and went on. "And now, my friends, we come to the end of House Jones' part in this tale."
"I doubt that," Mica said with a calm that chilled even her allies.
This time, Zoda took notice. Fixing Mica with his most incredulous stare, the Dragmirian Priest held his hands out as if directing her to look around. "Princess, princess, princess. You're outnumbered, exhausted, outgunned, and your beloved father isn't here to waste his life giving you an escape chance this time. Even in all your youthful naiveté, you can't possibly think you can win the day."
When Mica responded, it was difficult to tell who was more surprised at her response: Zoda, or her allies. They all expected some defiant speech in the name of Argonia, or Link, or perhaps even the Alliance. Instead, she just shook her head calmly and answered, "no." As Zoda joined the Argonians and the Jones' in a gasp of shock, Mica continued, her voice higher and more forceful this time. "No, no, no. Not here, not now. Or in Hylian..." There was a collective cry of 'no' from Mike, Dr. J, and Zoda as Mica threw the Oxford Wonder World open to the ninth and final chapter and screamed the incantation. "Paa, paa, paa, oompa, pa mow-mow."
Mike had used the book before, And Dr. J had seen it used, but this time it did not behave the way either of them was accustomed to. There was no rapid fluttering sound as an invisible hand thumbed through the pages at lightning speed. There was no flickering blue iridescence, as Mike had expected, and Mica and the book did not both take on a blinding glow and vanish, as Dr. J had expected. Instead, everything in the entire group's field of vision took on a silver-ish sheen, and they all found themselves unable to move. There was a series of animalian shrieks from the salamanders as they vanished into thin air. (In actuality, it was not the salamanders who vanished, but the ship around them, with Andross, Zoda, and the Alliance remnant on board, leaving the salamanders to live out a few utterly confused milliseconds in the vacuum of space, but none of them could have known that.) The only thing familiar to Mike was the ear-piercing whistling sound. Only this time, everyone heard it, seeming to come simultaneously from everywhere and nowhere. To Mica, it was much the same as hearing the ocarina minutes before had been.
Then the silver glow vanished, and they all found themselves able to move once more. And move they did, through the air as some massive impact made the entire ship shudder. Mike caught a glimpse of a massive section of the ship above him being torn away, revealing a pale blue cloudless sky above him. A moment later, as he felt himself collide with one of the sections of the ceiling that remained, he realized this had not been the sky he was looking at, but the sea. Wherever they were, they were upside-down. In the confusion, he saw Zoda and Andross tumble out through the hole in the ceiling/floor and fall toward two reddish shapes nearby them, which he guessed were ships of some kind. After later consideration, he would come to assume that a collision with one of those red-hulled ship had been the impact that tore the roof, and the dorsal fin, off of the hangar. The odds of their fall being at the exact moment it would have to be for them to fall onto one of the ships instead of into the sea below seemed insane, but Mike had come to accept impossible coincidences as the rule of the day. We'll be seeing those two again, he assured himself bitterly as he struggled to maintain his grip on whatever it was he'd fallen onto. Another impact rocked the ship, and the blue of the sea became a blur of brown and green, miles closer than the sea had been. Mike's brain didn't allow itself the luxury of puzzling over the paradox implied by this until some time later. For now, he was more concerned with making sure he didn't fall into either one. Around him he heard a scream that sounded like Mica, followed by a grunt of pain from Dr. J as the ship impacted with something a third time, this time spraying the hangar with dirt and rocks. Mike happened to turn his head at the right time to see one such small rock coming directly for him, too fast to dodge. "Lights out I guess," he muttered, and it was so.
At exactly what point did this entire situation go straight to Hell? Andross wanted to shriek as he gazed up from where he'd fallen at the Havoc's Cry, now growing smaller and smaller in the sky above him. Forcing himself to ignore the pain that short through his back from his fall, he sat up to behold Zoda. Somehow, it seemed, the Priest had managed to land, uninjured, on his feet. And seeing him gives me a good idea of the answer to my question, Andross thought as he climbed to his feet.
"I see you are well," Zoda greeted.
"I'm alive," Andross corrected, and with this statement, realized that it should not have been true. "What happened?"
"It would seem the Ancestor has a purpose yet for us," Zoda answered, his voice dripping with the dogmatic self-assuredness of a religious zealot. "This vessel broke our fall."
Andross glanced at his feet and, seeing the wooden plating of a deck, accepted the priest's statement, if not the justification for it. Judging by the air pressure, they were quite a distance from the ground, and he estimated their fall to have been no more than twenty or thirty meters. There was a collision, I think. We're probably standing on what caused the collision. Accepting this, Andross raised his eyes to have a look around at the vessel that had saved them. In a space of seconds he came to a mind-bending conclusion, and gaped.
Zoda took a few cautious steps toward him. "You have some idea where we are, it would seem?"
Andross stood, looking in every direction as if seeking some proof that his eyes deceived him. When he finally spoke, it was in the voice of an awestruck child, rather than the Tyrant of Venom. "I know this ship, Zoda. I've stood here before. But how…"
After a pause, Zoda prodded him. "'How' what?"
"How can this ship be here? And flying? It's been dormant since before the Alliance Charter."
Zoda shook his head slowly to show that this meant nothing to him. "What ship is this, Andross?" His voice betrayed a modicum of lost patience, subtly hinting that there was a limit to his tolerance for Andross's apparent wonder. This is a time for facts.
Andross did not look at Zoda when he spoke. Instead, his eyes were focused on the back of the ship. Following Andross's gaze, Zoda noticed an elevated section with forward-facing windows. Flames flickered within the windows, and shadowy figures wearing dark metal armor moved about to suppress them. "You've read about Corneria's global war five centuries ago, correct?"
Zoda's answer was terse. "Some. It didn't peak my interest. Make your point."
"This vessel is in the war museum, Zoda. I've stood on its deck there many times before. But I don't understand how it can be here!"
Zoda emitted a close-mouthed sigh, barely maintaining his composure. "And?"
Andross finally turned to Zoda. "This is the Techno-Empire's flagship, Zoda! We're standing on the deck of the E.G.G. Carrier!"
When Mike regained consciousness (he briefly allowed himself to wonder if he might be dead, but as he took stock of his surroundings he decided neither Heaven nor Hell would look this much like the hangar), he was lying on his back on the floor. The hole in the ceiling had shrunk, there were ships (including four Arwings and one Cornerian Lander) hung on one of the walls with magnetic constrictors, and the hangar entrance was wider than it had been. No, that can't be right, he told himself as he sat up and looked around. As he looked more closely, he began to understand that it was not the hangar entrance he saw in front of him, but the ceiling. The hangar entrance was above him, the gape where the ceiling should have been was in front of him, and he was lying on what had recently been the hangar's front wall. The 'wall' where the ships hung in a manner that now seemed infinitely perilous to Mike was actually the floor. The ship, it seemed, was lodged nose-down somewhere, and judging by the size of the crater he could now see outside, it must have been a good distance into the turf. Of course, that stood to reason, given the size of the ship. It seemed to him nothing short of a miracle that they'd all survived the crash.
Then another thought came to him. Did we all survive? "Mica?" He shouted, rising to his feet too quickly to bother making sure he was able to stand. "Uncle Steve? Saera? Fox? Anyone?"
"Right here, Mike," Mica answered from behind him, and Mike spun around to face her. She was sitting with her back propped up against the floor/wall, and it looked to Mike like she had been asleep until moments ago. "And yes, they're all okay, except for some cuts and bruises." She pointed a finger at Mike in a way that would have seemed accusing were it not for the sleepy half-smile that accompanied it. "As usual, it's you we were worried about, hero."
"Guess I'm just a pain in the ass like that," Mike said, matching Mica's smile with his own lop-sided Han-Solo grin as he walked toward her to help her to her feet. "So where is everyone?"
Mica pointed toward the rip in the ceiling that now served as a door. "Out there, trying to figure out where we are. I stayed behind to keep an eye on you."
Mike grinned, and was about to whisper something flirtacious in her ear about the opportunities presented by the two of them being alone like this when Fox entered. "Mike! You pulled through! Great!"
"Yeah," Mike agreed, grinning a little awkwardly as he felt the opportunity he'd started to mention to Mica slipping away, at least for the moment. "It takes more than that to keep me down." The last was said with a weariness that was obvious even to the one who said it, and Mike briefly wondered just what could be 'more than that.'
Fox chuckled. "If that's true, you must be just about invincible. Anyway," his face changed from gladly surprised to the look of one who was forcing himself to believe he had not gone mad. "You're up just in time. You two should come see where we are."
"Oh? You know where we are?" Mica asked.
Fox scratched the back of his head. "Well, that's the thing. We're on some island, but… well, come check this out."
He led them at a run to a beach, barely half a mile from the crash site, where the rest of the Argonians, along with the Cornerians and Dr. J. were all assembled. A few greeted Mike with relieved hugs, but Fox pushed him through these pleasantries to the sight he'd brought them here to see. "Like I said," he said as Mike and Mica's eyes widened in shock. "We're on an island, but…"
"What the Hell? What is this? Gulliver's Travels?" Was all Mike managed to say as he took a few steps down the beach toward the line where the surf should have been, and that was when Mike decided reality had called in sick and left Dr. Seuss to cover his shift. From this beach, one could indeed look out over the horizon and see where sea met sky, but that was where the apparent similarities between this island and any other Mike could ever imagine ceased, for where the high tide line should have been, there was nothing but a sheer drop off. Without approaching that drop off any more closely, Mike was unable to determine how far down it was, but it was clear that this was no ordinary beach, and this island should not have been able to exist.
This was, it seemed, a flying island.
"Umm," Mike stammered. "Does anyone have any ideas about this?"
"Well," Impek spoke up, "I'm not sure if this relates to the oddities of our new surroundings, but it may interest some of you to know that the ninth chapter of the Oxford Wonder World has about four more pages than it had when the Prin… the Regess opened it."
For a few moments, Mike and Mica stood, rooted to where they stood by the sight. Once they felt sure their eyes had seen all their brains could take without rebelling, they turned and looked at Impek. "Well," Mica prompted. "What does it say about this?"
Elsewhere in Reality, Apart from Time
Merlin Ambrosius watched the words appear on the pages of the Oxford Wonder World with an anxious fascination. To be sure, he already knew what they said. After all, he wrote the book. Even so, reailty had a way of changing what he'd written, so it was always best to be mindful when a chapter unfolded like this. Besides, I've got precious little else to do until he shows up. That's the trouble with Ancient Ones. Time doesn't have nearly the same importance to them that it does to the rest of us.
"I'm sorry I'm late," came a voice so sing-song that Merlin wondered briefly if the one to whom it belonged had not intended the timing as a prank. Age, he knew, had not taken the mischief out of this one.
"It's perfectly alright, elder," Merlin said with an air of reverence as he turned and faced the one who had spoken. To anyone not aware of the awesome power at that being's disposal, his/her/it's appearance (No, that's 'his' appearance, Merlin reminded himself) would have seemed absurd. It was, to the eye, a glowing gold five-pointed star, about four feet in diameter at the points, with an approximation of a human face on it. To add to the absurdity, this face had a white mustache. Of course, he likes to have a look people can laugh at. It keeps mortals from being terrified by him, when it's what he's trying to destroy that they should be afraid of. He was called 'Eldstar' to the people who knew of him. Merlin Ambrosius, however, preferred to call him as he had once been called, back when this being had been a friend to his father, Link. "I would not presume to rush Merlin Prower."
Eldstar turned slightly back and forth, a gesture Merlin had come to associate with a dismissive wave. "No need to be so servile, Merlin. We're old friends."
Merlin smiled. "True enough, since few are closer friends than us, and fewer still are older than us." The two Merlins laughed, and then it was back to business.
"So," Eldstar spoke urgently. "They have been Called Away?"
Merlin nodded. "I still don't fully understand why the Cornerians needed to become entangled in this, but I did as you instructed."
"I've never instructed you in anything," Eldstar insisted. "But I thank you for following my advice. And as for the Cornerians," his voice took on a more melancholy tone as he continued, "the Dark Lord himself used Andross, did he not? Just as he used Zoda, and Dragmire before him? He is, for certain, one of the five, and I'd be hesitant to allow the scales to be tipped with no champions there for counterweight."
Merlin nodded, conceding this point. "Perhaps you're right. You do have an irritating habit of being so."
Eldstar chuckled, but it was a chuckle of irony rather than humor. "And cursed I am, for not developing that habit sooner."
"I've told you countless times, Elder, you can't blame yourself. Even if you had known, the Ancient Ones might not have listened, and-"
"Yes," Eldstar interrupted, his tone indicating agreement in spite of a desire to disagree. "You're likely the one who is right this time."
Merlin said nothing.
"But regardless," Eldstar returned to the matter at hand, "let us turn our attention to other things."
"Indeed," Merlin said amiably. "As stated, the ones carrying the book have gone through. The crew of that ship was likely lost, I fear, since the book will not transport those who are not found within its pages." Eldstar frowned at this, as Merlin knew he would. "I apologize, Elder. I know you don't like for mortal lives to be lost."
"I'm as mortal as you, Merlin," Eldstar insisted. "But I take your meaning. And it's true, I don't like it, but this is a war, whether I would have it be so or not."
Merlin nodded, and went on. "Now, there is the matter of the others."
"Yes," Eldstar agreed. "As for my nephew's friends, they were successfully Called Away five hundred of your world's years ago. Isaac saw to that." There was a flicker of guilt in Eldstar's eyes, but it soon passed.
"And a Link and a Zelda were brought through with the Ocarina ages before my father even came to Earth, so that leaves only the other two."
"And they're likely the most important," Eldstar reminded him. "After all, if I recall your tale correctly, they're the ones who've actually contended with the Dark Lord, or at least an avatar of him."
"They were born into the time of the Vanguard War," Merlin replied. "And they returned there four of Earth's years ago." With a grin, he added, "Steven Jones had a part in making sure of that, in fact."
"Really?" Eldstar asked, barely surprised. "I suppose that's to be expected. Well, it seems the Vanguard is assembled, in a manner of speaking."
"And you're sure you engineered the book to take them to the exact Time of the Junctioning?"
Again, Merlin nodded. "November of 3133, by Earth's calendar. One year from the rise of the Dark Lord."
Eldstar sighed wearily. "Hard to believe, after all this time it will come to a head in barely more than a thousand of that tiny planet's paths around its sun."
"The Dark Lord is cutting it as close as we are, Elder," Merlin said reassuringly.
"Yes, I suppose he is," came the reply. "Well then, I suppose our work is nearly complete then."
"Save for one thing," Merlin finished. "And as to that, I suppose I'll see you in 3133. I pray it goes well for us."
"I'll be waiting, young one," Eldstar answered, and Merlin disappeared in a blaze of orange light. Once he was gone, Eldstar, who had once been Merlin Prower, said to the empty space where he had been, "but who does one pray to when the masses pray to him?" Merlin Prower dismissed that thought almost immediately. Such was undoubtedly the way the Dark Lord, Bao'zar, thought before his… would you call that his rise, or his fall? "Oh well, old friend. I'll see you in 3133." And then Eldstar was gone, to wait, as all the Ancient ones had learned to do. For good or ill, the Vanguard War had begun.