By Eric "Erico" Lawson


The McCloud Curse- The stigma surrounding the pilots of the McCloud line, the so-called "Curse" states that every pilot of their line will perish in the skies. While not technically true in James McCloud's case, due to his death by torture, the curse became established in rumor after both Fox and his only son Maximillian were killed: Fox, by the son of Wolf O'Donnell, and Max McCloud over the skies of Venom, shot down by superior numbers.

From the Journal of Commander Carl "Skip" McCloud

"I don't know how much truck I put in with the notion that we're all doomed. Every pilot takes a risk when they step into the cockpit of their plane: It's like sealing the lid on your own coffin. Why should our family be the only ones predestined to die? No, it's rubbish. I'm the lead pilot in charge of a test program, I'm not even assigned to patrol missions anymore. And I've got a girl in my life now. I'd say that the curse can roll over and die, because nothing's going to happen to me."

Beyond the Rim of Lylat

45 Days Ago

It was a test flight, meant to prove the durability of the thrusters at maximum power and to determine the top speed of the Seraph. After eight minutes of running hard, ODAI finally killed the power on the boosters right as the engine warnings became too annoying to ignore.

"We're clocked out at 69,644 kph. Of course, that's because of a lack of friction."

"In space, there's almost nothing to slow you down." Carl McCloud told his ODAI good-naturedly. "How's the thrusters?"

"Reserves are drained, engines are on cooldown. We're on minimal thrust right now. I'd give it another minute before powering them up again."

"Well, it's just us out here, right?" Carl joked. He glanced at his radar on reflex, a habit he'd picked up during his time in Growler Flight. Captain Hound had always said to be mindful of his surroundings.

That impulse earned its keep, because a ship-sized blip appeared on the edge of his scope right as he looked down. It was heading straight for them.

"Odd." Carl frowned and tapped the monitor, thinking to reset it if it were a glitch. "Odai, I've got a ship on radar. Can you confirm?"

"Yeah." His onboard AI quickly said. "It's a ship, all right. The contours are all wrong for space debris."

"That's what I thought, too." The brown-furred McCloud hit his radio toggle. "Angel 5 to Alpha Flight. I have an unknown ship closing in on my position. Was there some deep space traffic on my flight path we didn't account for?"

"Control here. Commander, you should be all alone out there." Came the surprised crackling reply over his subspace transceiver.

"Which means that this ship is flying without a flight plan." Carl said to himself. "Probably pirates. Odai, power up our weapons and put up our shield status."

"Charging the smart bomb capacitors. Hyper lasers never got turned off, thanks to me." The shield gauge took up corner position on his canopy's HUD, and a message flashed in the center of the cover's electrolattice mesh to confirm the weapons status.

"They have to pick now, when we've burned through all our synthesized fuel reserve." Skip grumbled.

"Since when have space pirates ever fought fair?" ODAI countered. A warning alarm followed, and the AI let out a very biological squawk of protest. "Boss, their attack radar just came on. We're being painted for lock-on!"

"What do we have left in the boosters?!"

"Nothing!" What Commander McCloud took from that was they only had the forces of inertia and bad luck on their side. Not a particularly promising combination.

He set his radio to headset activation and took hold of the controls. Now, all he'd have to do was talk and it would transmit. "Alpha Flight, Angel 5 is declaring an emergency. I am under attack, repeat, under attack. Enemy ship has achieved radar lock. High probability that they're pirates!"

"Acknowledged, commander. Should we send reinforcements?"

"Hell, this mess'll be done with by the time you got anybody else out…"

"Incoming missiles! Shit, there's three of them!" His ODAI screeched at him.

"Motherf…do we have maneuvering thrusters?"

"Just barely."

"Then turn us toward those missiles!" Carl ordered. Complying, ODAI slowly nudged the Seraph Arwing around, and gave his pilot visual on three bright flares of light coming towards him with darkened centers: The missiles, and the coronas of their exhaust.

"Bombs are back online!"

"Skip" McCloud depressed his gun trigger, building up a charge shot. By the time his targeting reticule turned red, it was lined up on the lead missile. He flicked the cover off of the bomb release trigger at the top of his control stick and jammed it down. The Arwing shuddered slightly as a brilliant red dot of light separated from under its nose and streaked towards the marked missile. It homed in and detonated in a wash of angry nuclear fire, annihilating the projectile. The wash of high energy from the Cornite explosive set off the other two as well, clearing the immediate threat.

"Great shot, boss!"

"What kind of missiles are those, Odai?"

"No idea, boss. Configuration doesn't match anything in my munitions record."

"At all? You telling me that this is something new?"

"I'm wondering if this ship isn't something new." The AI answered. That made Carl lean forward against the straps of his harness.

"Is it close enough for a visual yet?"

"Hang on…yeah, at maximum magnification on the forward camera. I'll put it on the diagnostics screen."

McCloud craned his head slightly as the grainy image of a ship, brightened by the false illumination of a visual filter appeared. A few seconds later, the picture cleared up, and Carl got his first good look at it.

He'd never seen a ship like it before. "Odai…this thing's trajectory, where's it coming from?"

"Deep space. Real deep space."

"I was afraid you'd say that." Carl said, feeling his throat dry up on him. He tapped the side of his headset and brought his microphone online. "Alpha Flight, Angel 5. Bogey is unknown, and not space pirate. I repeat, the enemy vessel is not from Lylat…"

All he got in response was the hiss of scrambled static, and Carl turned the volume down with a wince. "Shit! Are they jamming us?"

"Affirmative. They're firing more missiles, too."

"Can't call for help, going up against an unknown enemy…not exactly what I signed up for. Just how many of those things are they packing?!" Carl snapped, not expecting an answer. "Do we have thrusters yet?"

"I can give you standard thrust in ten seconds, but we'll have squat for reserves. No boosters."

"I'll take it! At least then we'll be a moving target."

The missiles kept tracking in, and Carl took aim, locking on to the lead projectile. Opting for a charged laserburst, he let it fly. This time, the missiles spaced themselves apart as his shot closed the gap. One missile was destroyed, but the other two kept coming.

"Thrusters online! Go, GO!"

Carl needed no further encouragement. After drifting at the mercy of their attacks for far too long, his fingers pushed the touch-sensitive throttle slider bar up to standard thrust. A flick of his thumb at the wing controls put him from launch position to interceptor mode. The Seraph's thrusters came to life, and the ship began to respond to his commands. He turned on the missile to his right and went head to head with it, lobbing another charge shot. The missile jinked wildly and escaped target lock, but having expected the maneuver, Carl had led it with the Arwing's nose. A staccato blast of his hyper lasers stitched across the missile, destabilizing the warhead and shattering the housing.

"The last one's on our tail! It's turning in on us!" ODAI warned him. The brown-furred McCloud didn't seem bothered by that fact in the least. He glanced back over his shoulder almost casually, sighted the missile, and pulled back on the stick.

"Give me control of the maneuvering thrusters in three seconds." He ordered the onboard AI.

"What? Why do…"

Carl reached for the throttle, pressing his fingers down on the surface. Ignoring ODAI, he counted down. "Two…one…" At zero, he killed the main thrusters. With his Arwing coasting along, he used the maneuvering thrusters to spin his nose around. It gave the eerie impression that his ship was flying backwards.

The missile was closing fast on him, but Carl filled the space between them with laserfire, catching the missile, or whoever was controlling it, completely by surprise. It was torn apart, and Carl turned the Arwing forward again, then reactivated the main thrusters.

"What the hell kind of stunt was that?!" His ODAI demanded. In spite of the dire circumstances, Carl smiled.

"THAT was a trick my sister came up with. And I thought I'd never have a reason to use it."

"Hey, I'm just glad it worked. But don't get too cocky, boss. That ship is closing in."

"Got tired of lobbing dud missiles, probably." Carl swung the Arwing around until the enemy vessel was dead in his sights. "Got any stats on this thing yet?"

"It's about twice the size of a Rondo, and it's going about as fast as you right now."

"Big and slow." Carl's fingers tightened on the control stick. "Which means either it's got a hard shell, or loads of firepower."

"Or both." ODAI said, full of good news.

"Or both." Carl admitted. The pilot grimaced. "Rules of Engagement say to try to hail the aggressor and get them to stand down before opening fire."

"Are you serious? He's trying to kill us!" ODAI protested. "And he's jamming us. We couldn't talk to him if we wanted to!"

"Then I'd say it's safe to slag these out-of-state assholes, wouldn't you?"

"Now you're speaking my language." The AI chirped cheerfully. Carl depressed the gun trigger and started to build up another charge.

"If you get your personality from me, Odai, why is it you never seem to take things seriously?"

"I guess I must have gotten my subroutines from your repressed, fun-loving side."

"And you choose now to put it on display?"

"Hey, you have your ways of coping with a stressful situation. I have mine."

The enemy vessel was close enough now that Carl could view its outline without the magnification his ship's cameras offered. It resembled a cylinder with a blunted nose, and had two large tail sections jutting out of the back at an angle, forming a crude V. There were no wings to speak of.

"Ugly son of a bitch, wherever it's from." In a slow, deliberate fashion, the dull gray ship suddenly seemed to sprout holes across its nose and back. With a looming sense of dread, Skip recognized the pattern of pinpricks for what they were…gunports being revealed as the ship's paneling recessed.

"Oh, hell." He spun his ship into a tight aileron roll, just as the first volley of laserfire came streaking towards him. The maneuver put up a deflective barrier of electromagnetism, sparing his shields from the potent volley. The Arwing righted itself on the other side of the firestorm, and Carl swore. "That could have killed us!"

"Yeah, I noticed." ODAI snarked at him. "I think I've got something. Their gun emplacements suggest a preference for head-on passes. I'd bet that…"

"…That they've got a weak point of defense on their ass. Sounds like we're going for their engines." Carl piloted the Arwing around the port side of the enemy ship, jinking wildly to throw off their aim. Just as ODAI had predicted, the laserfire from the ship slackened off the closer they came to its stern.

As they finished their circle and turned on the ship's tail, Rourke got his first look at its engine configuration: Three engines, one stacked on top of the other two to form a pyramid. The edges of the exhaust nozzles moved slightly, redirecting their thrust.

"Thrust vectoring. Nice touch."

"At least until we came along." His homing laserburst charged, Carl targeted the bottom right engine and let the shot fly. He followed it in, peppering the thruster with hyper laserfire to weaken it for the blow. The metal glowed under his strafing run, and when his laserburst exploded, the entire engine mount destabilized. It blew apart, bits of shrapnel slashing outwards, and even sent a wave of debris into the remaining two engines. Rocket fuel, or whatever was powering the ship leaked from the wound in a fiery geyser.

"That got him!" Carl cheered the visible damage, pulling clear and falling back for another pass. His ebullience was snuffed out when the wounded ship reacted to its damage. As he glanced over his shoulder, the two bulging tail sections detached from the ship and began to unfold, opening up to form two smaller ships of their own.

"Goddamn, where are these clowns getting their toys?" ODAI marveled.

"Boosters?" Carl asked tersely, starting on his next attack run.

"Still charging. No dice."

"Not the answer I want to hear, Odai."

"How about, I cannae give ye anymore, captain?" The AI retorted. Skip didn't have time to match the jibe, for the two podships suddenly were lashed by blinding whips of electricity to power nodes their mounts had kept covered. Tethered to their home ship, and feeding from its power supply, the podships leapt forward, belching angry balls of plasma from their turrets.

Unlike lasers and particle rays, plasma was not so easily deflected by an aileron roll. For a short time during the Resistance's heyday against the SDF, Insurrectionists had used plasma weaponry on their ships as an effective counter to the march of the Arwing fleet. Later finding them to be cost-prohibitive, the SDF had outlawed plasma weapons technology in the Darussian accords. For that reason, Carl was surprised, and caught off guard halfway through his first spin. Two-well placed bursts of ball plasma refused to be swept aside by the defensive maneuver, and impacted along the belly of the Arwing. The shields flared in protest, rocking his ship as they compensated.

"Damn these bastards!" Carl grit his teeth and turned on the tail of one podship, locking on with another charge shot. He kept one eye open for its companion, and noted that it was turning about to get on his six as well. "So we're playing this game." He said to himself.

One ship allowed him to pursue, which let the other ship follow and gain a bead on him. It was a simple trapping play in air combat maneuvering, but one that was no less effective. Carl could either keep on his track and hope he could destroy the lead podship in time to escape the wrath of its comrade, or he could break off and start the clock again.

His thruster status determined his reaction. Carl pulled back on his stick and broke off, and the pursuing podship struggled to follow him after the surprise maneuver. The lead ship flew along on its leash unmolested, and started to turn around. Adding to the pressure, the mothership the podships were tied to eagerly opened up with its own laser turrets when the Arwing strayed into its forward airspace.

"Damn! I'm beginning to think this ship of theirs is pretty damn scary." ODAI grumbled.

"They've got us on the defensive here. Give me some ideas, Odai, that's what you're here for."

"All right, fine. I wasn't getting any power reading from those two modules before they separated. I'm guessing that if you could sever their connection to mommy, they'd be scrapping useless."

"Well, all right. We've got a plan, then. We'll starve the little buggers."

"Yeah, it's kind of like cutting the umbilical!"

Carl swung around and zoomed his scope in on the ventral section of one podship, marking the power antenna. "There you are."

"There it is." ODAI said, just as the podship started to move again. "And there it goes. Boss, I'm not sure you can line up a clean enough shot there."

"Hey, I'm a McCloud." Carl said confidently. "Just watch me." He veered the Arwing around, strafing empty space in front of the podships. One veered away to avoid taking damage, and Carl aimed at its tail, intently focused on the power antenna that swerved into view. His first shots were close, but not pinpoint accurate: They lashed against the shielding of the smaller craft, failing to penetrate it entirely. The other drone dove in front of the other and unleashed a stream of plasmifre. Carl broke off to foil its aim, but the tiny craft pursued, and scorched the Arwing's tail. The aft shielding shrank to keep from buckling, which exposed enough of his port thruster that the attack broke through and warped the exhaust nozzle.

The thruster shut down automatically, causing the Arwing to lurch to the side. Carl gripped the stick with both hands and tried to force it back under control.

"Damnit! Sorry boss, they fragged an engine!"

"Makes us sitting ducks." Carl gnashed his teeth, watching as one wild ball of plasma after another screamed through the space around him. Only one jink after another kept it from landing another blow. His mind raced desperately for a solution, and when one came, he wondered if it wouldn't have been better to let ODAI complain for a few more seconds.

No. The focus was survival. The rest was details. "Odai, prepare for Merge Mode."

"Say what?! Skip, you know that we're not supposed to use that function yet, we're testing it next week!"

A plasma ball ignited just over the canopy, and Carl flinched. "Mister, if we don't survive this, there won't be a next week. We're outflanked, outgunned, and one engine down. You have a better idea?"

"Not really, but let me just say in advance that I hate this one!"

Carl ignored the complaint, preparing himself for what was coming. Merge Mode was the blending of a living mind with the ship's computer. The ODAIs were crude imitations of an AI program called KIT, with which Carl, alongside every other pilot in Seraph Flight, had failed to synchronize with. Crude imitations as they were, they were easier to get along with, being mirrors of their pilots' psyches. Merge Mode testing hadn't fully begun, and Carl had only one successful Merge to date, which had lasted all of twelve seconds before they'd dropped out due to loss of synch.

One thought drove the both of them now, though: Survival. That unity of purpose was all they needed for Merge Mode to take hold. Carl felt a brief stinging along the ridge of his helmet as the metallic studs that allowed synaptic interlink fulfilled their purpose. He blinked, and when they opened again, he saw the universe through that surreal combination of sensory inputs that Merge Mode provided.

Outside, his wounded Arwing began to morph into something that only a handful of souls at Ursa Station had seen before. The ridges along the wings spread apart, granting the ship a six-winged configuration. The blue G-Negator pods split apart twice into a menacing pair of open diamonds, exposing a powerful cannon that had been hiding inside each device.

The unidentified enemy craft had leapt into a fight with a clear advantage, and now that assured victory had become anything but. Reacting to the new threat, the two podships converged on the transformed Arwing, firing a constant stream of plasmafire. Though powerful, the shots came slower than lasers would have. The Arwing hovered motionlessly for a few moments as the shots flew in, then performed an impossible acrobatic twist, leaping up and spinning away with no regard for momentum.

As it did, it raked one podship with blinding, white-hot lasers from the exposed gunports inside the folded out G-Negators on its wing struts. The violent attack caught the enemy off guard, and the shielding protecting the craft buckled. The last part of the salvo bored three smoking holes clean through the small craft and knocked the power antenna clean off of its mount. Severed from its power supply, the wounded podship drifted off helplessly. There was a final spark of power from the home ship's linking antenna, and then it fell silent. Only one podship remained.

As though the blow had roused it to anger, the enemy ship opened up with what seemed to be every missile they had kept in reserve. A full fourteen missiles in all streaked towards the Arwing, intent on wiping it out. Unfazed, the transformed Seraph launched a single glowing projectile in response.

It closed in on the missiles and the pursuing ship, then when it had closed the gap and achieved proximity lock, the supercharged smart bomb detonated. A wave of light came first, bright enough to have blinded anyone unlucky enough to be watching too closely, and then paradoxically the explosion imploded on itself. Powerful gravitational eddies suddenly tore and ripped at the missiles and the ship that had launched them, drawing shorn off slivers of matter towards a dark point at the heart of the nimbus…an artificially created, unstable depression in spacetime with tremendous density and pull. A microsingularity. A black hole.

Every missile was dismantled and lost to spaghettification, and the full front quarter of the alien ship was annihilated in the same manner. The microsingularity began to quaver, destabilizing after its hearty meal. Unable to absorb any more, the microsingularity collapsed and blew apart in a high energy burst, releasing all the matter it had collected as raw and unfiltered energy. The scoutship's shielding, already buckled, was stripped away completely. The hull warped and discolored under the assault, showing the effect of the wash that had killed anyone still alive. In one last gasp, it tried to recall the final podship, tugging on it by the powerful tether.

That tether, only a half second before it collapsed, scraped across the port wings of the Seraph Arwing. The shielding flared brightly, sparing the wings from being sheared off, but not protecting them completely. The delicate instrumentation aboard the secondary wings shorted out in a shower of sparks, and the resulting reaction carried back through the Arwing, setting off another explosion inside the cockpit.

Silence overtook space once more. The wreck of the alien ship drifted away harmlessly, and its podship tumbled end over end in the opposite direction. The wounded Arwing transformed back, its left wings sluggish to change, and unable to fold back in completely. A thin cloud of smoke inside the cockpit cut down on visibility.

Carl McCloud he had only two seconds to consider his fate. After Merge Mode was interrupted, and ODAI was safely tucked back away inside the Arwing's databanks, his own sensory perceptions told him a very grim story. His lungs screamed for breathable air and could find none in a cockpit full of smoke and acrid ozone. The scrubbers couldn't keep up. His instrumentation panels had shorted out after the critical systems damage caused by that wild arc of lightning, and several of them had blown out, embedding shards of glass into his body with horrific aim. Sparks had singed his fur and seared his flesh. His head had whipped back hard against the seat from the force of the blows, causing intracranial hemorrhage. It was all too much for the pilot to take in, too much for anyone to endure. He slipped into unconsciousness, no orders given, no last words offered. His battle had ended, and the cost of victory had been an eye for an eye. A ship for a ship.

"Boss? Boss!" ODAI feverishly cried out. Though the diagnostics panel was shot, somehow the speakers were still working. The voice of the ship's AI came through garbled. "Aw, jeez, we got hit bad. That energy whip fried our systems. We've got no thrusters or FTL, fusion reactor's shutting down to prevent loss of containment, subspace communications are shot…" ODAI paused, realizing he was receiving no stimuli from his pilot. "Boss? Skip?" No answer. Only an unsteady heartbeat and an EEG that bordered on flatline. "Carl? Wake up, buddy. Wake up. Please?"

As the seconds ticked by and the atmospheric scrubbers of the Arwing cleared out the air, ODAI began to realize that Carl McCloud was gravely wounded, unconscious, likely comatose.

There would be no calling for help. There would be no return flight to Ursa Station for repairs and medical treatment. Their ship was dead in the water. ODAI had never been programmed to handle a situation like this. A recurrent logic loop nearly overheated his undamaged circuits, until he snapped out of it with a plan.

"I don't know if you can hear me, boss, but this is real bad. You're out like a light, and the way things are going, you're not going to live long enough for them to find us. If they find us. With our subspace communications down after that attack…they'd have to be almost on top of us for the emergency beacon to be picked up."

Of course, Carl didn't answer. "I'm shutting everything down. This ship is bleeding to death. I'll keep power to the beacon, but…life support's not going to do you any good now. I know you'd hate this, but I don't have a choice. I can't fly this ship myself, even if I wanted to. Even if we could."

As the last of the smoke vanished from the cockpit, a strong hiss and an overwhelming chemical smell made itself known. Frothy turquoise blue smoke aerated up from the floor of the cockpit, replacing the atmosphere. As it thickened, it took on a syrupy, liquid quality, soaking into everything.

Just before the blue substance reached the speakers, ODAI spoke one last time. "I'm dumping thruster coolant into the cockpit. It should cryofreeze you, especially once the heater dies. I'm sorry, Skip. I'll have to shut myself off. Just stay alive, all right? When they find us…if they find us, you've gotta stay…"

And then the speakers crackled and fizzled as the coolant shorted them out. The cockpit finished filling with the blue coolant, filling every crevice and cranny. It drowned Carl's body, and instantly froze his tissues, preventing the so-called "Freezer burn" so many cryogenic processes had. Of course, none had been tried in space.

Its comatose pilot frozen, its AI gone into shutdown to conserve precious power for the distress beacon, the Seraph Arwing drifted helplessly in the deep space beyond the Rim of Lylat.


Present Day

Subspace, FTL Corridor

With the Wild Fox still grounded, the options left for them were few. On top of lacking the support their homeship could provide, it also made retrieval a much dicier proposition. They had Rondo transports that could carry the ship if it were folded up into launch position, but that was unlikely. So that had meant requisitioning an Albatross from the SDF's motor pool on Katina, and then loading it up with Project Seraphim staff…all at an hour when most people were asleep.

The pace at which all of that had been forced into action was due to a reluctant, unanimous vote. Both Dana and Terrany had insisted that they had to mount a rescue, and when Rourke had tried to voice caution, they had turned on their flight lead, saying that they would go alone if they had to. Once they had strong-armed Rourke, Captain Hound and the 21st Squadron had elected to go as well, if only to keep tabs on the more exhausted, and member-depleted, Starfox Squadron. General Grey had tried to tell them to sleep and set out in the morning. Terrany had replied, bluntly, they would sleep on the way.

That, of course, was a baldfaced lie. The pilots may have had their eyes closed as the luminescent wash of blue and white light from the subspace corridor shimmered around them, but nobody was sleeping. Each was lost in their own mind, still reeling at what the possibility of Skip McCloud's survival meant. For Terrany, it meant that she had been right all along about refusing to give in to the "Killed In Action" belief that the others had accepted as fact. It meant she wasn't the last McCloud. It meant the so-called family curse really was a load of hogwash.

It meant that she would finally get to fly with her brother, just like she'd always wanted. They just had to find him, and hope they could patch him up first.

"You should really try to get some sleep." KIT chimed in. Terrany opened one eye.

"How do you know I wasn't?"

"These cockpits aren't exactly built for comfort, kid. Plus, the ship is recording your biorhythms. If you were sleeping, I'd know."

"Yeah?" Terrany strained against her harness, stretching her legs in the tight space. "Damn. I'm cramping up here."

"Hey, I don't need to know about your time of the month."

"It's the other kind of cramp, you idiot." Terrany muttered. "My body's just telling me it doesn't like all this abuse."

"No, I don't imagine it does."

Terrany looked up through her canopy, sizing up the ships clustered around the Albatross transport. Besides her, there were three Seraph Arwings and two Model K Arwings, the latter flown by Captain Hound and Damer Ostwind. With Milo out of the picture, Damer was the only battle analyst they had on hand. None of their Arwings were in top form for this jaunt: The technicians, busily working to finish the repairs on the Wild Fox, had only assigned a token crew for maintenance when they had put down. And they'd only had a few hours to work, which hadn't been enough time to run realignment of the G-Diffuser field matrix, or even to replenish the bomb supply. Terrany and Rourke were both loaded up with Godsight Pods, Rourke having elected to carry the ones Milo had lugged over on Darussia. Everyone else had smart bombs, and of those, only a depleted supply of the Cornite-powered munitions.

Their job was to secure the area, patrol for threats, and engage any unfriendlies to keep the Albatross safe for salvage and rescue operation. Terrany hoped, more than believed, that it would be uneventful.

"So what's bothering you now?"

"Aside from the fact I just found out I'm partly psychic, and that's why you and I Merge so well?" Terrany clarified.

KIT chuckled. "You'll be fine. Krystal handled her telepathy well enough, you should too. Yes, aside from that…and please stop thinking about Rourke. It's disturbing."

Terrany drew a hand over her face. "So now you're seeing my thoughts. Great. I'm more tired than I thought."

"Clearly." KIT was nonplussed. "What is it?"

Terrany mulled it over before speaking. "Did you ever have to do anything like this? A rescue mission?"

"Actually, yes." KIT grunted. "After Fox soloed Andross and we put up with that awkward award ceremony…"


"Yeah. General Pepper tried to recruit us as military pilots in the same breath he congratulated us. Can I finish?"


"Like I was saying, after all of that, we were tasked with cleaning up a few points of interest our first pass through the System had missed. One of them was a suspected base Andross had tucked away in Sector X. When we got to it, the whole damn thing had been torn apart by a giant robot. We took it down, but not before Slippy got too close to it trying to be a hero. It knocked him off course and sent him towards a dustball called Titania."

"Titania. I read about that. It's a giant desert planet, isn't it?"

"And nothing but desert. Let me tell you, that was not a nice mission. Your granddad at least had a bit of fun with it. He took the Landmaster out for a spin again."

Terrany smiled. "Family legends say he once blew up an entire munitions factory with it."

"That's partly true. He actually switched a train to the factory's track. The train blew up the factory."

"Train fu?"

"Hey, it made a nice, big explosion." KIT joked. "But yeah, I've done rescue missions. Just keep your head on a swivel and you should be fine. It'd help if you could get some sleep, though."

"How do you expect me to sleep?"

"I could play a little Finny G, if you like."

"Pass." Terrany shut her eyes. "I'd just feel better if I knew exactly how bad off he was."

"He's a McCloud, Terrany." KIT replied. "Trust me, he'll make it."

"You don't believe in the curse either, do you?"

"Fox died because of a cheap, backstabbing blow. Your father was outnumbered 50 to 1. I don't think Carl would die to a single Primal scoutship."

Terrany didn't want to believe that either, and so finally claiming a measure of peace, she let the universe slip away.

For Dana, the news of the distress beacon from Carl's ship had been the hammerblow that finally drove a spike of emotion into her heart. When Carl had first gone missing, she had simply shut down. All of her grief, her rage, had been kept bottled up inside of her and never released. When they decided to bring Terrany onto Project Seraphim, Dana had been more of an automaton than Milo's ODAI. Refusing to hold to an opinion, struggling between the hope he had survived and the pain of his demise, Dana had crumbled from the inside out. It had come to a head on their counterstrike on Venom.

Had she wanted to die then? Dana hadn't known then. Still didn't know. All she had left after Carl, after the start of the war, was the team. Rourke, Milo, and Terrany, who she had grown fond of. She had loved and she had lost, and the truth was, she'd never committed to either path.

In the silence of her cockpit, the tigress slept fitfully. Visions of a ghostly Carl McCloud, bleeding and disapproving, assaulted her. His spirit didn't attack her: It did not need to. Instead, it asked her two questions, and two questions only.

Why did you give up on me?

Why didn't you let me go?

As confused as she was, that hollow specter brought torment, for Dana had allowed herself little else. In the silence of subspace, her fluttering eyes overflowed with finally released tears.

Being the flight lead of Seraph Flight, to say nothing of Starfox, had never entered into Rourke's mind when Carl McCloud had first spoken to him. The O'Donnell had always assumed he would be the second banana to Skip. He was comfortable with it. He had made his peace with it.

And all that had been ripped out from under him in a flash. When they had lost Carl's signal, when everything went dark, the responsibilities that Skip McCloud had shouldered so effortlessly had collapsed onto Rourke's shoulders. He had spent weeks trying to get used to it. He was still getting used to it. In the process of leading this team, he had been thrown into a war, fallen for Carl's little sister, and nearly lost his mind once or twice. But through his successes, through his mistakes, the one absolute had been his command. When they flew into the Meteo asteroid belt and retrieved the Wild Fox, he was in charge. When they rescued Corneria City, he was in charge. When they struck a retributive blow at Venom and freed Papetoon, he had been in charge.

But now, Skip was alive. Unable to sleep, Rourke unlatched his harness, leaning the side of his head against the canopy, letting it leech the heat from his fevered brain.

"Boss, you shouldn't detach your harness."The ship's AI spoke up.

"Are you expecting any evasive maneuvers here in subspace?"

"Well, no, but…"

"Buts are for pooping." Rourke snapped back, silently adding and squeezing at the end. "Give me a five minute warning before we drop clear. I'll suit up then."

"You should really try to get some sleep."

"What do you think I'm doing, genius?" His ODAI got the hint and went quiet. Rourke sighed and tapped on the canopy.

Carl was alive. So what did that mean for him? Was he still in command? Was this still his team? Or would Skip replace him, assume control of the Starfox Squadron? In a way, it made sense. Skip was a McCloud. It should be a McCloud leading the team. An O'Donnell in control of Starfox? That was a cosmic joke. Somehow, Rourke didn't care for the punchline. So what was he feeling?

Was he relieved that his superior, his friend was still around? Was he jealous of what that would do to his own standing? And what did all of his petty concerns mean, when Terrany wanted to get her brother back, and Dana her lost love? They meant nothing.

They meant everything.

There, as always, the raspy and abusive laugh of his grandfather came unbidden.

"Not so easy hiding who you really are, is it, boy?"

Rourke clenched his teeth and rode out the noise. There would be no sleep for him.

Beyond the Rim of Lylat

600 km from the Signal Source

Captain Telemos and the rest of Phoenix Squadron were also managing the thin balancing act between sleep and total lucidity. On the orders of Telemos, they had taken up position on the farthest rim of visual range to the wounded Arwing. Their Phoenix spacefighters, untested in real combat, sat quiet in the void with just enough momentum left to keep pace with the drifting enemy fighter. Every system that could be shut off was: Only the radar-cancelling equipment, the environmental systems, and their radios, kept safely in passive "Intercept" mode, were on. This gave them the infrared signatures of distant stars, along with the minimal radar cross-section their ship's systems gave them. When combined with the revised deep black paint scheme, interrupted only by red running lines, the effect was immediate.

They simply did not exist.

Lashal, Nomen, Vodari. Phoenix 2, 3, and 4, and his squadmates through many years and many conquests. It had been Lashal Orrek who had brought him the information…how his trusted second had discovered it, he did not know…but Saber had done so not with an emotion of joy or eagerness. Instead, the Primal Telemos trusted as his right hand had been hesitant and unsteady.

He had never been like that before. So what did that say about this mission? About Telemos himself?

The Primal captain raised his hands up and rubbed slowly at his face. Radio silence, by his order, prevented him from conversing with Lashal about the rift between them. But surely it was not that great. Surely Lashal understood how important this all was. Surely he realized by now that the Pale Demon was not just an obstacle to Telemos, but to all of them. She had deprived Tinder Squadron of their honor, had killed one of their own and left the other four to survive in dishonor.

This was the path to triumph. For all of them. Telemos drew power from that belief, and pushed his doubts aside. The Pale Demon was everything. The problem. The solution. His focus. His target.

His obsession.

Her death would signal the turning point of the war. Without their McCloud, the Cornerians would crumble. He was sure of it.

Telemos lifted his hand up, touching the tinted black canopy that protected him from hard vacuum. It chilled his fingertips, and he pulled his hand back.

"Soon." He told himself. His shame and dishonor would be over soon.


Very Early Morning

As work crews offloaded the hoversled carrying the remains of his Seraph Arwing, Sergeant Milo Granger trudged off the end of the Rondo transport alongside the pilot, Corph the Venomian lizard.

"You sure you're good to go, Sergeant?" Corph asked him.

Milo gave him a smile and a firm handshake. "Yeah. Thanks for the ride."

"Hey, for a member of Starfox, anytime."

Milo nodded at him again and walked towards the Wild Fox. He wasn't surprised to see General Grey waiting for him 60 meters from the ship's launch bay. The raccoon offered a cursory salute, noticing that Grey's return seemed sluggish. "Rough night, general?"

"Rough day. Never got to sleep. Everybody else has already sortied again."

Milo frowned at the news and stepped around Grey. "I see that I missed an important briefing. Care to fill me in?"

The two moved at a quick march towards the launch bay. "I've got Wyatt and all of his boys on final repairs of the ship. It was supposed to be ready tomo…" Grey paused, and glanced at his wristwatch, "…this afternoon. Wyatt tells me that we'll have it airborne in five hours."

"What's the rush? Are the Primals going after Corneria again?"

General Grey shoved his unlit corncob pipe between his teeth. "No. the rest of the team and Growler Squadron are headed out beyond the Rim. With the Portal Generator, we should be able to catch up with them before any Primals do. I hope you got some sleep on the trip over, because I need you on weapons realignment on the bridge."

"But what are they…" Milo started to ask. He caught himself and did a double take, staring at his superior. "You don't mean we…"

"We found him, Milo." Grey confirmed. "With any luck, we'll be bringing him home alive."

Grey moved ahead of him, and it took Milo a few seconds to realize he'd stopped walking. He ran to catch up.

Beyond the Rim of Lylat

16th Day of the Primal War

6:40 A.M. (Cornerian Standard Time)

The stars distorted as a rift between subspace and normal space shivered open. The two brightest, Lylat and Solar, glowed behind the wake as six gleaming blue and silvery-white spacefighters exploded out of the nearby indiscernible breach. There was a larger spasm as a lumbering, pot-bellied transport came out behind them. One Arwing shot ahead, two more split off forward left and forward right, and the remaining three doubled back and began to circle around the transport.

This was the strategy that Captain Hound and Rourke had agreed on: Starfox would scout the operations area, and the 21st would protect the Albatross. Rourke's Arwing launched four small pods from its belly, which began to rotate around the vessel, hugging its shields. The Godsight Pods did their work, and the optical interlink came online.

"This is Starfox lead. Are you reading, transport?"

"Fat Duck here. Your optical signal is coming in clear."

"I have the emergency beacon's signal on my screen. Can you confirm?"

"Confirmed. Signal is originating from Heading 024, Mark 076. Distance is 3000 kilometers."

Rourke checked his readouts. "That looks right. Growler Squadron, follow Fat Duck in. Girls, any bogies?"

"Dana here. Nothing."

"Terrany. Skies are clear on my vector." The McCloud seemed less sure of her diagnosis than her radar. "But something feels off."

"We'll keep our eyes peeled, Terrany. Form on my wing, we'll track the signal."

The three forward Arwings regrouped and shot on ahead, closing the gap on the emergency beacon's signal in record time. When they hit the inner operations area, Terrany launched her own Godsight Pods, and Rourke set them to disperse. The eight camera and communications devices formed a loose web around them, increasing the range of their secure optical transmissions.

Terrany was the first to locate the source. As she closed in on it, she eased off the thrusters and coasted in closer, firing the retros to slow down. She let out a held breath and shook her head. "It's an Arwing." One badly damaged, though. The starboard wing was in interceptor mode, but the port wing was unfolded in Merge configuration, and by the scorch marks on it, had been critically damaged. "It has to be Carl's. It's a Seraph. It took a hell of a beating. I'm getting almost no power readings from it. Everything is shut down." She inverted her Arwing above the damaged one and stared down at the cockpit, surprised to see nothing but a thick blue foam inside of it. "What the…the entire cockpit's filled with some kind of blue junk!"

"Say again? Blue junk?" Fat Duck called back.

"Yeah. Is that some kind of a safety feature on the Seraph?"

"No. No, we just have the standard ejection cockpit pod." Dana said. "I know these Seraphs almost as well as Wyatt does, and there's no 'blue junk' anywhere in the ship's systems."

"I hate to hack the frequency here, but you're wrong, Dana." KIT cut into the chatter, using Terrany's transceiver. "There is blue junk in these Seraphs. It's not a safety feature, though. What got pumped into the cockpit is most likely Diketrous Anhydrazine…the coolant used by our thrusters. It has a particular blue sheen. In its compressed state, it's a supercondensed gas. Expose it to air, though…"

"Wait a second." Rourke said. "Why would there be thruster coolant inside Carl's cockpit? How would it get there, even?"

"I know the answer to that." Dana said quietly. "In early development, Diketrous was proposed for use in cryonics. Its properties showed a high probability of minimalizing tissue damage, but it never went to animal trials. I think that his ODAI froze him up."

"Something it wouldn't have done unless there was no other choice." Terrany realized. She tapped a finger on the side of her control stick. "Fat Duck, you have a medical crew on board?"

"That's affirmative. We'll be standing by for recovery procedures, but if Captain McCloud is in cryo-stasis, we'll have to keep him on ice until we return to base. Our doctor is telling us if we unfreeze him the wrong way, he won't wake up at all."

"Roger that." Rourke and Dana reached the recovery zone and began to circle above Terrany and her brother's crippled Arwing. The flight lead of Starfox maintained a professional tone, in spite of the circumstances. "Captain Hound, we have Skip protected. Bring Fat Duck in."

"That's what we're doing already, lieutenant."

Terrany used her maneuvering thrusters to turn her Seraph right-side up again, and started to look around again. That feeling she'd had when they first arrived hadn't gone away.

It was getting stronger.

Phoenix Squadron

The first sign of company came from a series of radar sweeps that crossed over their spacefighters. The alert software reported the high-energy microwave bombardment with a chirp, stirring the pilots from their tedium. Saber, or Phoenix 2, slapped the monitor on reflex to check the source. He released his panic when the ship reported that the Phoenix's unique electronics suite had read the radar beams and sent back a neutralizing return that made them look like small bits of asteroidal debris.

"Thank the Lord of Flames." He uttered, a remark only he heard with their transmitters turned off. He brought up the damaged bait Arwing on his scope and put the cameras on maximum magnification. One Arwing was holding position nearby, perhaps to get a visual inspection of the ship up-close. The others, as he panned about, were closing in…a group of three more Arwings were clustered around a larger ship, some kind of transport perhaps. So that meant they had brought a ship to salvage their crippled comrade's vessel.

Something was off about this, though. Lashal frowned and checked his radio. He confirmed it was set to intercept enemy transmissions, and their fighters carried the latest encryptions used by the Cornerians, the same ones used at the Battle of Darussia. Had they been talking to each other, he would have been able to hear them as clear as day. And they should have been talking. Their movements were too coordinated, too precise for them to be flying without a minimum of discussion. So that meant that somehow, they were speaking through a method that was unknown to Command.

It had been like that at Darussia as well, Lashal remembered. Initial after-action data had indicated a tremendous level of coordination from Starfox and its assisting Arwings, with no evidence of chatter to explain it.

"What kind of trick are you all using?" Lashal asked the enemy Arwings. He glanced outside of his cockpit, looking over to where Telemos, his captain and his friend, was watching from his own fighter.

The running lights of the Phoenix, rows of light-emitting diodes underneath the red stripes along the spacefighter's skin, lit up, dimmed, and lit up for a longer period before going dark again. That double flash of the dim, blood-red running lights was a pre-arranged signal.

Lashal reached down and switched his radio to ACTIVE, then slowly brought his main systems online. As another predecided measure, he kept his attack radar off and engaged the reserve capacitors to his six secondary lasers; four original to the ship's design, and two more installed at Telemos' urging on the underside of their noses. The main laser cannon strapped underneath the fuselage, with its firing port looming out menacingly between the forward forks of the ship's nose, remained silent. Saber had to admit he enjoyed the elegance of design and functionality that the Phoenix spacefighter provided. It could be stealthy beyond compare, and Telemos was opting for stealth and surprise over raw power and presence.

For now.

"Three, four, large target. Two, with me." Telemos' voice crackled over the radio softly. In the silence they had endured, it thundered regardless.

Their attack orders assigned, the four members of Phoenix Squadron engaged their thrusters at half-power and slid through the void…towards a battle that they had waited two weeks to finish.

There had been no sign of unfriendly forces in the vicinity. Radar sweeps had been negative, infrared scanning had shown only the starfield. There was no reason, no evidence to support Terrany's discomfort.

She listened to it regardless.

The Albatross and the 21st Squadron were quickly closing in on her brother's lifeless Arwing. They were all on edge, but there was no hint of panic or paranoia in their flight pattern. Similarly, Rourke and Dana circled their crippled Arwing in almost casual loops. Only Terrany, listening to some lingering doubt, refused to relax. She brought her thrusters out of idle and broke away from her brother's ship. She flew towards the gap between the closing Albatross and the recovery zone, and charged up a homing laserburst.

"Hey kid, what's up?" KIT asked her. "You're really jumpy."

"Something's wrong." Terrany answered, scanning the darkness of space for a flicker of something she couldn't put words to. "This doesn't feel right."

"We didn't pick up any hostiles. No one is out here."

"Falco, you trust your instincts, right?"

"Yeah. That old rabbit drilled it into our heads enough."

"I'm asking you to trust mine." She angled her nose up. "Use the ambient light from this shot to check out surroundings.

"Roger." KIT responded. Terrany blind-fired a laserburst overhead, and it detonated in a brilliant wash of heat and green light.

The momentary brilliance lit up the empty space around them, and KIT wordlessly cycled through every angle and feed the linked Godsight Pods provided. The AI let out an audible gasp as he pulled one image up on the canopy's HUD: Four void-black silhouettes, in formation, descending down on them. The laserburst had caused light to barely reflect off their leading edges.

Terrany clenched her teeth and hit the boosters, soaring to meet them head-on. "Incoming! Four bogeys not on radar! Bogeys are black and stealthed. Repeat, stealth!"

It would have been impossible for the enemy ships to hear her warning, but they seemed to react as the light died off and Terrany rushed them. They had been discovered.

The four ships became almost invisible again, and Terrany lost sight of them as the darkness of space closed in.

"Where are they?!" Wallaby Preen cried out over their channel. "I can't see anything!"

"Shut up and circle Fat Duck!" Captain Hound ordered. "We have to protect it!"

"Hang on, Terrany, we're coming!" Rourke called out to her, and his Seraph turned to follow her.

"You stay with my brother, Rourke! Follow the mission!" Terrany snapped back at him. She barely got the sentence out when two shimmers of movement in the darkness of space blasted by either side of her, diving for the Albatross transport.

She reacted to the move by spiraling into an aileron roll to give her time enough to think. That was two of them. Which meant there were still two more out here someplace…

A sudden barrage of six independent streams of laserbolts screamed from her left side, catching her just as she pulled out of the roll. Her shields flared in protest, and Terrany swore, spinning up and punching her thrusters to get clear of the line of fire. "Damn! Where'd he come from?!"

"I can't get a fix!" KIT frantically said. "I had one, but soon as he stopped firing, I lost track of him! Damn, who are these guys?!"

"You think I know?" Terrany demanded. "Keep on it! If we can't find them by radar, use the thermals! They've got to be leaving a trail of thruster wash you can follow!"

A second strafing run caught her from below; the second of the unaccounted for pair, most likely. The Arwing shuddered as the shields flared up around it.

Terrany let out another very unladylike word. "Frigging Lylus, who the hell packs six laser cannons?!"

"Whoever these punks are, that's for sure. Shields are at 90 percent. Try not to get hit again!"

Terrany growled angrily and threw the Seraph into a high loop, using the maneuver to look back behind her tail. She thought she caught sight of a bit of movement, a hint of thrusters, but then whatever it was spun at a new angle, and the skies went dark again. She pulled down out of the loop, and a twitch of instinct caused her to spin into an aileron roll just as she leveled out. The move spared her another battering, and a stream of red laserbolts from port were deflected away harmlessly. Terrany banked hard left and started firing blue hyperlasers along the same attack angle. She only grazed the ship responsible before it dove away, vanishing again.

"I'm getting sick of these clowns." Terrany snapped, activating her microphone. "All ships, these guys are playing too damn well in the dark. Fat Duck, you carrying any area flares?"

"Bet your ass we are."

"Fire all of them! We need to even the field!"

The large transport, still on its way to intercept the crippled Seraph Arwing, released one brilliant strobe flare after another. Unlike chemical flares which required an oxygen supply, the strobe flare used small battery cells to power brilliant luminescent bulbs which made up the bulk of the small items. Though they didn't match the heat signatures of ships, most Lylatian spaceborne weapons systems relied on visual sensors, due to the wild fluctuation of temperature that space around their binary star system had. Whether or not Primal weapons used visual sensors as well, the benefit that Terrany was counting on was that a ship the size of an Albatross was required to carry substantial numbers of weapons-defeating systems, in both flares and the more effective chaff packs.

Rear access panels on Fat Duck slid open to reveal large, double-door sized compartments recessed in the hull. The top sections of both were filled with red packets, spread in a hexagonal honeycomb alignment; the bottom sections held grayish packs of the same shape.

Dozens of red strobe flare packets were fired out behind the ship, their pressurized nitrogen and oxygen thrusters sending them behind and away from the Albatross at all angles. As soon as they cleared the wake of the ship's engines, they activated, thrumming to life with a combined candlepower in the millions. As the ship flew on and fired off more, the cloud of lights grew even larger and wider in shape. They shattered the darkness of deep space, and allowed the visual sensors of the Arwings to finally register movement. Just as Terrany had predicted, the ships they were flying against were sleek, streamlined, and built for stealth. Even with the lights, their dark black paint schemes made them blend into the vastness of space.

Two of the ships were making a pass at the Albatross transport. The Arwings on station around it reacted, turning up and around and filling the sky with blue hyper laserfire. The sudden strafing forced the enemy ships to break off their attack run, and the obsidian ships jinked out of harm's way, retreating. The Arwings and the black diamondlike craft settled into position after the failed surprise attack.

Finally, the radios on the Arwings crackled to life as an unencrypted signal broke the silence.

"This time, Starfox, you lose."

Those dark and angry words, thick with the promise of pain and retribution, chilled the heart of every pilot. Only one recognized the voice with some trace of errant familiarity. A willowing trailer of dust out of the past flowed by her nose, and Terrany went rigid. She knew this voice. She knew this Primal. But that was ridiculous. She had fought hundreds of Primals. Killed hundreds of them, heard their death screams over the radio, seen them disintegrate along with their ships. To remember one single Primal, even with only the dark recesses of her mind, was ridiculous.

But it was him.

A stuttering breath found its way into her lungs, and Terrany watched her finger reach to the control panel on her ship, accessing the communications. A single button press disconnected her from the optical interlinks and brought her subspace radio transceiver back online. Her lips parted, and hollow words left her lips.


All at once, Captain Telemos found himself wanting to scream in exultation. She remembered him. And well she should, the bitch. She had taken everything from him that had ever mattered and left him raw. All he had now was half a name, command of his fellow disgraced pilots, and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.

Three ships hovered around the transport set to recover their forgotten Arwing. Two more around the crippled fighter. Only one ship hovered separate from the two points of defense, and thanks to her call, he knew who was flying it.

Terrany Anne McCloud. The Pale Demon.

"You remember me, Pale Demon. I am honored." He replied, his voice thick with sarcasm.

"I remember I spared your life the last time we met, Telemos Fendhausen."

"NO!" He snarled, instantly silencing her. "No, not Fendhausen! You took that from me when you let me live in dishonor. Now I am simply Telemos, your retribution, your fate."

"Others have tried, believe me. So what are you and your friends supposed to be? Another elite squadron of Primal fighter pilots sent to tussle it up with us?"

"Heh!" Telemos found himself grinning now. Oh, she was possessed of a fiery spirit. Had she only been born a Primal instead of a Cornerian. "I did not come here to mince words, Demon. I came here to fight."

"You want a fight, Telemos?" Terrany's voice responded, fast and angry. He paused, for a chance began to overtake her Arwing. The wings of that silvery blue ship unfolded, splitting apart into a six-winged configuration. The blue struts that attached the wings to the fuselage drew and quartered themselves into a separated diamond shape.

When Terrany spoke again, her voice echoed with new power.

"You've got one."

Telemos felt a shiver run through him. Reports had mentioned that the Arwings gained remarkable powers when they unfolded their wings. There would be no holding back. The Pale Demon meant to face him with everything she had.

Far be it from him to disappoint her.

"Phoenix 2, link up with 3 and 4 and focus on the Arwings protecting the cripple." Telemos ordered.

Saber was surprised at the command. "But sir, we do not break off from our wingmen!"

"You do as I command, 2." Telemos growled. "Break off. I will face this McCloud alone. Without her, you will stand a chance against the others. She is their wild card, and I'm taking it off the table!"

"And what if you lose?"

Telemos started to build a charge in the Phoenix's main cannon, watching it grow between the forks of his ship's nose. "I won't."

Cornerian Space Command

Corneria City, Corneria

With the new spy satellite network up and running, General Kagan's staff of information specialists had a wealth of resources at their disposal that they had lacked so far in the war. More than one satellite was permanently turned with its optics and radio intercept antennae towards Venom, the Primal's stronghold in Lylat. Of all the things they paid attention to, one was the massive spaceship being slowly unearthed. Swarms of Primal personnel and equipment had been dancing across its surface since they got their first glimpse of it from the Godsight Pod feeds during Starfox's raid on Venom's secondary command center.

The technician assigned to that sector of Venom rubbed at his eyes, then looked again. The image was different than before, and it took him a moment to realize why.

The saucer-shaped supership wasn't on the ground anymore. He took a screenshot of the image, then lifted his head up. "Maurice?"

Maurice, a solid gray raccoon that acted as the shift supervisor, came over. "What do you have, Petey?"

The technician enlarged the image for Maurice. "The Primal saucer they've been digging out of the ground? It's airborne now."

Maurice stared for a few moments, forcing himself to remember to breathe. "We'd better get the general."

Beyond the Rim of Lylat

Phoenix 2, 3, and 4 linked up above the Albatross and its defenders, with Saber taking point at the formation.

"Our captain is facing the Pale Demon. This is our chance to put an end to their rescue efforts." Lashal told his wingmates.

Nome, or Phoenix 3, was dubious. "We aren't targeting the Arwings?"

"The Arwings seem to be playing a defensive strategy at the moment." Saber muttered. "If we aim for their charges, they'll have no choice but to intercept us. Bring all your weapons online, and lock onto that transport. I want a volley launch."

The main cannons of their ships began to glow as they built up a devastating charge shot, but the more immediate threat came from their radar systems. The Albatross transport made for an easy target, and the hatches covering the missile bays inside their ships slid open.

Lashal pulled the trigger, and pulled, and pulled again, releasing eight NIFT-29 Corona missiles in total. It was a ludicrous number, but they had plenty of missiles to spare, thanks to the Phoenix's spacefolding technology. Phoenix 3 and 4 mirrored his attack, and a total salvo of twenty-four ship-destroying projectiles screamed into the void, burning hotly on their rocket motors.

Phoenix Squadron slipped in behind their opening attack, their noses aglow with angry laserlight.

"Missile launch! God-damn, how many shots are these bastards packing?!" Damer chittered.

Captain Hound wasn't about to waste time thinking that over. "Damer, Wally, bomb suppression!"

The two Model K Arwings and the Seraph of the 21st Squadron nosed up towards the inbounds and launched a trio of Cornite smart bombs. On proximity fuse, the glowing projectiles drew within range of the swarm of missiles and detonated. The resulting spherical bursts of red light engulfed the Primal attack and incinerated the warshots, cancelling the missile warning alarm aboard the transport.

Any relief that they might have felt vanished when three blistering beams of laserlight broke through the fading cloud of radiation. Captain Hound and Damer barely pulled clear of the sudden attack, realizing too late that the beams, not meant for them at all, were peeling away the deflector shields of the Albatross transport. Wallaby, capable but not quite as instinctive as his squadmates, took the half-second blast of the third beam full-on.

"Gah!" Wallaby bounced around wildly inside of his Seraph as it shuddered. His monitor bleated angrily, and the shield gauge dropped a full 25 percent. "Son of a…what the heck was that?!"

"Trouble!" Captain Hound clicked his mike. "Rourke, Dana, a little help here?!"

For Rourke, it was all spinning out of control. Terrany had wanted him and Dana to stay with her brother, to make sure that the Primals didn't target him. But that wasn't their objective, and he realized it later than he should have. The cryogenically frozen form of Commander Carl McCloud was just bait: Their squadron was the real target. They had moved on Fat Duck with a missile screen, and then used the resulting wash of light and radiation from the detonation of the smart bombs to land a devastating sneak attack from charged laserbeams. Not bursts. Beams.

"We walked right into a trap." Rourke said to Dana over Starfox's personal channel. "I can't believe I didn't see it coming."

"Terrany did. Or she sensed it. I dunno." Dana added. "So what's the plan?"

Rourke clenched his teeth together and flexed his claws on the control stick. "We fight, what else? And if they really want a fight, we'll give it to them."

"You mean…"

"Yeah." Rourke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and felt the momentary crackle of power along his head.

His Seraph Arwing unfolded as he entered into Merge Mode, and shot ahead, ignorant of inertia and the laws of physics. When gravity was at your command, few of them still applied.

Phoenix 2 swept in on the wounded transport, peppering the ship with laserfire from his six linked blasters. The three Arwings that had been protecting it swooped in to cut the attack off, but Phoenix 3 and 4 were on them in an instant, firing a steady burst to cut off their advance. The Arwings swung clear of the immediate danger and tried to angle back in: Staying close together, Nome and Flint stuck doggedly to a single target instead of splitting apart. The Arwing pilots, for all their so-called prowess, had a reputation for being loose cannons. At least, that was the judgment of Captain Telemos. In a pinch, they would try to face every threat on their own. Moving as a team meant a higher chance of success.

Strange that Phoenix 1 would ignore his own warnings to go solo with the Pale Demon. Or not so strange, Saber reminded himself. He, more than anyone else, knew how far gone his mentor was.

His alert software suddenly blared at him, warning of target lock. He swiveled his head around, trying to determine the source; a pair of silvery aircraft, their wings unfolded, were pursuing him. Beads of angry light glowed from their noses and across the central wingspan, five on each. The ships fired, and ten glowing spheres of white laserlight screamed towards him.

"Blasted Arwings!" Saber snarled, throwing his Phoenix into an evasive retreat away from the inbounds. The darts pursued him through the turn, and followed his course through every jink and swivel. Conserving their momentum, the blasts made minor adjustments, refusing to take the bait of swinging wildly to pursue and losing target lock. Growing desperate, he reached for a crazy idea, and threw himself towards the three defending Arwings his squadmates were chasing after.

"Three, four, I'm coming your way with company on my heels. Get ready for a staredown!"

Saber intended to swing about so the blasts following his thruster wake would strike at the Arwings being pushed by Nome and Flint. The transformed Arwings following him realized the intent of his maneuver as the Phoenix spacefighters lined up towards one another; the salvo of homing laserbursts detonated prematurely, rattling his ship slightly.

Chuckling, Saber sent out a hard salvo of strafing shots towards the normal looking Arwings ahead of him, forcing them to pull evasive and into the waiting gunsights of his two wingmen. That was all he had time for before his own pursuers were breathing down his neck again. He pulled hard left, intending to swing about them.

Instead, they defied all physics by veering into his path, not once altering their orientation. It was as though the ships themselves had learned to sidestep. In a panic, Saber reached for the one button by his thruster controls he had hoped never to implement. The Arwings fired at him. It became a race to see which was faster…their lasers or his finger.

Phoenix 3 and 4 had their own targets; even had they known that Saber was in trouble, they couldn't have reacted fast enough to do anything about it. The quick maneuver by Phoenix 2 had put their target Arwings on the defensive and forced them right into their gunsights. Foregoing missile lock, they opened up with their lasers and started to charge their main cannon for the killstroke. The Arwing pilots maneuvered their spacefighters wildly, trying to throw them off. The nimble Phoenix spacefighter easily kept pace with them, especially with its wings unfolded forwards and out like prying jaws. Even without the effect of atmospheric dissipation, the dampening fields performed better in the maneuvering position.

"Let's make short work of these regular Arwings." Phoenix 3 advised his wingman.

"Lead the way then, Nome." Phoenix 4 readily agreed. The two Primals kept doggedly on their targets, and remained together even when two of them broke off. They stayed on one Arwing, and Phoenix 4 used small bursts of his own secondary lasers to box the Arwing in. All the while, Phoenix 3 charged up his main cannon, keeping pace with his prey.

Dogfighting was an art, no matter what the mobile infantry sarcastically thought of it. By watching an opponent's nose and fuselage, by refusing to focus solely on the glow of their thrusters, a pursuing pilot could gain an unmistakable advantage over his foes. It was a skill that the rookie pilots of the Armada called "pilot prescience" as it seemed to have an almost psychic connotation. Nomen Friedrich knew better, though. It was a skill like any other. Those who learned it stood a better chance of survival. Those who didn't were irrelevant.

The Arwing he was chasing down jinked high and right. Nome followed it, waiting for his main cannon to finish charging. Vodari, his wingman, fired off a staccato burst, forcing the defensive Arwing to jerk hard down and right.

Directly in line with Nome's gunsights. The Primal heard the whine of his main cannon and felt it vibrate through the hull of the Phoenix. He released the firing trigger, unleashing the beam, and it struck true against the rear of the Arwing's fuselage. The shields flared in protest, but the proximity of the shot, how well aimed it had been, and the effect of the silver blue ship's own thrusters against its rear screens all took their toll. The beam burned a hole through the ship's shielding and caused the metal on the Arwing's stern to warp and discolor. One of its thrusters sputtered and gave out from the blow, then started to leak a fluid that crystallized in the vacuum of space.

Nome allowed himself a small chuckle. "Got you." On instinct, he broke off from his target, and Flint followed him.

Two pairs of blue hyper laser streams seared by them a quarter second later.

"They thought to come around and defend their friend." Flint observed coldly.

"Congratulate our speed of operations later. We've partially disabled one ship, but we still have two others to deal with." Nome grumped in reply. "Take the lead, four."

"Phoenix 4 has the lead." Flint replied, hitting his boosters and starting his turn in on the two pursuing Arwings.

"Damn! Damn, damn, DAMN!" Damer Ostwind pounded a fist into his leg angrily, trying not to breathe in the acrid smoke and burning ozone that had flooded his cockpit. The atmospheric scrubbers were already hard at work clearing the air, but the damage was done. Those two Primal pilots had played him like a piano. Wallaby and the Captain had tried to disengage and swing around to knock them both off his ass, but they'd arrived too late. The lead ship had managed to land a solid blow on his ass with that massive cannon suspended underneath its fuselage. It had fried his rear shields and baked one of his four thrusters into slag. The thing would need a complete overhaul back at base before it could fire safely again. It was an ominous note in this messed up dogfight. With one of his port thrusters down, his maneuverability was significantly curtailed in right turns. Had it happened to one of the Seraph Arwings, like the one Wallaby was piloting, they could have just dropped into Merge Mode and used the G-Negator Drive to fly without the use of thrusters.

On the Model K, that wasn't an option. He had one choice, and the squirrel hated it. Letting out an angry grunt, he punched his helmet squawk button.

"All planes, this is Damer. I've taken significant engine damage, and maneuverability is shot to oblivion. I'm going to have to bug out."

"I was afraid you'd say something like that." Captain Hound said bitterly. "Retreat to the edge of the operational area. Don't give these bastards an easy target!"

"Roger." Damer clicked his mike off and swung his ship into a hard left turn. He hit the boosters on his remaining engines and made hard to escape the furball. The ship rattled as his one lone port engine struggled to match the output of his starboard thrusters. Swearing, he cut power to the dead engine's opposite, and the Arwing settled back down again. "Don't you fall apart on me now, you sorry bitch." He warned his ship.

Saber punched the Ghost Drive trigger and felt everything go fuzzy. A sweeping wave of disorientation and nausea passed over him as the entire world seemed to fold up around him, crumple into a ball, and then uncrumple again, dumping him and his ship in a completely different spot. Fighting off the urge to vomit, he swept his eyes around in search of where the space-folding technology had dumped him. He found himself two kilometers away from his point of departure, watching the transformed Arwings firing at the spot he had been before.

"Flames, I hate this thing." He grimaced. The Arwings swiveled about, searching for their target. He likely had very little time at all before they found him. Lashal wasted no time at all. He locked on to the both of them and punched his missile trigger as fast as he could, pumping out one NIFT-29 Corona after another. The projectiles belched out of his ship's extradimensional storage bays and screamed off at the Arwings.

The Arwings reacted quickly, spinning around as though a divine hand had them in their grip. The power of these Arwings…it made Lashal dry swallow. What manner of madness guided these pilots? Their reaction times were obscene. It was like they were in a completely different temporal phase. He punched off more missiles and kept his distance. He had seen their maneuverability once already. He had no desire to repeat that act, especially since he had scraped out of it by fractions of a second.

His missiles closed in on them. The two Arwings fired precise volleys from their lasers. Not the blue lasers, though…the ones that fired were hidden within the blue pods that acted as their wing struts, revealed now that the pods had opened up just like their wings.

An idea came to him, and Lashal clicked his radio. "Phoenix 2 to all planes. These transformed Arwings…those blue pods on their wings seem to be a critical system. Try to aim for them!"

He received several clicks in response, all the answer he would get with his three squadmates embroiled in their own duels.

To Saber's dismay, the two Arwings downed every last one of his Corona missiles. That sealed it for him. No pilot could be so precise with their guns. Absolutely not. They had to be using help. Augmentations, perhaps? The Primals had fought against foes who used cybernetic implants before in the long journey across the cosmos to their homeworld. Maybe these Cornerians were doing something similar.

But that didn't seem likely, either. In the after-action report of Tinder Squadron's defeat on Venom, Telemos had given a very thorough description of the Pale Demon, as they had been canopy to canopy for a time. There had been no wires sticking into her head, no artificial eye or eyepiece; just an ornate helmet that let her headfur and ears stick out comfortably.

Were their planes equipped with tracking systems so advanced that they could fire down missiles? Was it some kind of an automatic defense measure, and the Arwing handled its defense automatically? Saber had to remind himself that these transformed Arwings were different than the "Regular" ones other Primal units had flown against. The Cornerians called these ones Seraphs. If they could only take one down and capture the plane relatively intact, then the Armada would be able to learn everything they needed to put down the Cornerian resistance like the mongrels they all were.

The distance between their planes and his gave him a moment longer to contemplate the odds, even as they started to coast towards him without the use of any thrust mechanism whatsoever.

In maneuverability, they had him beat. In firepower, it was likely a draw. His stealth, while potent, was now partially negated because of all those damned light strobes floating around the transport ship. Their brilliant luminescence cut through the darkness of space that the Phoenix spacefighter was designed to sink into. The lack of a radar signature meant little to them: The Arwing pilots seemed perfectly capable of fighting in the absence of it, relying on visuals alone. In that respect, his missile barrage was likely an error. Had he not fired and triggered their alert systems with his inbounds, he might have had enough time to make a run on them.

And there lay his answer. He was fighting these Arwings on their terms, in their kind of a battle. Their transformed ships were near unbeatable in a dogfight. Perhaps one on one, he might stand a chance. Two to one odds? He was digging his own grave. The Phoenix, while a supremely capable dogfighter, was built for stealth and sneak attacks.

The words of Captain Telemos, back when they had both still been members of Tinder Squadron, came to him. Fly your ship the way it was meant to be flown. Use your strengths, and avoid theirs.

He looked down to his controls. The switch for the Ghost Drive stared up at him, tantalizingly promising victory. He set his jaw. It was his one wild card. The Arwings couldn't track the wild jump. Telemos had the most control over it, having used it while Lashal and the others had refrained. But he'd given his wingmen some hint of how to best utilize it. In standard configuration, the Ghost Drive charted the optimum position for re-entry. Telemos had since diverted his own to manual, trusting his own targeting above the computer's.

Lashal hated the Ghost Drive. He hated watching Telemos use the still untested technology. He hated how it felt when he used it.

None of that mattered. His systems warned that the Arwings had painted him with their targeting arrays.

"To Hell with you both." He spat out, and punched the switch. The world went crumpled again, and a moment later, he was staring at the rear ends of his foes instead of their noses. Lashal fired again, linking his six secondary lasers to his main cannon. The manually aimed shots raked across their engines. One of them turned hard, nearly pivoting on an invisible gyroscopic axis to bring their own guns to bear. That exposed their port blue wing pylon to his weapons fire, right when the full force of it was focused in on one spot. It shrank the shielding around the ship and exposed a chip of the unfolded blue pod to Lashal's laserfire. One lucky blow tore the piece clean off its mount in a shower of sparks.

The wounded Arwing careened wildly away from him, and its wings quickly folded back in. In spite of his nausea, Lashal allowed himself a smile. It wasn't a kill, yet, but he had proven something to himself, and to the others. He triggered his microphone again.

"Phoenix 2. Confirmed on those blue wing struts, they're a high value target. These Starfox pilots aren't invincible."

The clicks came more enthusiastically this time.

The Primal ship's unique ability to disappear and reappear seemingly at random had been a wild card that they hadn't expected. Dana felt she should have expected it anyhow. They had fought Primal vessels with wildly unique weapons systems before: The orbital defense platform on Darussia, that massive Armada mothership that fired off enormous wave-attuned energy beams, that attack carrier on Corneria…the Primals had made a tradition of employing ridiculously powerful tricks.

But Dana was tired, as tired as any of them. The war hadn't been going for long, but every day was a new mission, a new trial. The last break had happened, briefly, when the Wild Fox had been grounded on Katina. That seemed so long ago. Even in Merge Mode, her response times were sluggish. When the Primal she and Rourke had been following suddenly vanished out of their gunsights, Dana had taken a moment of congress to get her bearing, glancing around through her own eyes, the cameras on the Seraph, and finally the Godsight Pods after remembering they were providing their own visual feeds.

She still only noticed the Phoenix when it ripple-fired a pack of shield-punching missiles at her and Rourke. They dispatched the inbounds and made for the ship responsible, only to have it shimmer and disappear a second time.

It had started firing one millisecond after Dana had noticed it was right behind her. She had swiveled the Seraph around, intent on meeting it guns to guns, but the sheer volume of firepower it laid down cut through her shields even as she tried to go evasive. Bit by bit, her protective barrier thinned out, allowing just enough room around her port G-Negator for one lucky shot to hit home.

One lucky shot. The damage to the G-Negator was direct, abrupt, and catastrophic. She found herself being forcibly kicked out of Merge Mode, dropped back into her body so suddenly that she strained against her harness from the shock of it. Her damaged Arwing spun out of control, and her ODAI rattled off the obvious.

"Port G-Negator Unit severely damaged. Merge Mode offline. Nova lasers offline. G-Diffuser field at 54 percent effectiveness. Standard thrust engaged."

"Yeah, tell me something I don't know!" Dana snapped back at her machine. She fought the dizzying spin and pulled the Arwing out of the death spiral, instantly feeling how much more sluggish the ship was. "Damn."

"Dana? You all right?" The voice of Rourke came over the radio, his worry muted by the monotone aura that Merge Mode seemed to inflict on its pilots.

"I've got to fall back, Rourke." The tigress told him testily. "This ship can't keep up with these new Primal fighters as wrecked as it is."

"Hit your boosters and go, I'll cover you." Rourke ordered. "Damer's out of the fight, too. Link up with him and keep each other covered."

"Roger." Dana aimed the nose of her craft away from the combat and punched the throttle. "You'd better save him, Rourke."

"We have to save ourselves first."

That was a painful truth, Dana thought to herself. They were two planes down in a fight where they had to keep two separate targets covered from fighters that were arguably on par with the Seraph Arwing. It was a four on four fight.

They were losing.

Albatross Transport "Fat Duck"

Though it was mainly Project Seraphim staff on board the Fat Duck, the doctor on board the cumbersome transport was not. With Dr. Bushtail even more exhausted than the pilots, General Grey had opted to bother the base CO for some of his medical personnel. The response had been for the temporary reassignment of Dr. Simon Billburn and three corpsmen to the task force.

Dr. Billburn had never hated flying in space so much as he did now. The mallard clung to his seat harness for dear life, silently cursing his superior for putting him on this suicide run. What made it worse was the callsign they'd given the transport for this mission. Though it was coincidence, and more likely due to the fact it was an Albatross class transport, Dr. Billburn couldn't shake the feeling the name "Fat Duck" was a dig against him.

It had started out smooth enough, and then suddenly they were thrust into a combat situation, with enemy fighters raining down lasery death. The Albatross had shuddered and bucked wildly from the hits. It still did from time to time: The pilots had gotten very tense very quickly, offering no words to the doctor, the corpsmen, and the Project Seraphim recovery team aside from a barking order to keep strapped in and to shut up.

"We're all going to die out here." Dr. Billburn honked, wondering if his green feathers were losing their color from the shock of everything.

"Nah, don't worry, doc." One of the engineers along for the ride said with a relaxed smile. "These Albatross transports may be big, slow, and a bitch to maneuver, but they can take one hell of a pounding."

Another wild strafing barrage struck the transport along its dorsal deflector shielding, and Dr. Billburn swore he heard dents being pounded into the metal of the ship's hull.

"How much of a pounding?" He shakily asked.

A little chastened after the most recent enemy attack, the engineer squinted his face up. "I guess we're gonna find out."

"All right, boys, get your shit together and get ready!" The co-pilot called back over his shoulder to the passenger compartment through the cockpit entryway. "We're coming up on the target ship right now, and this is going to be one messy recovery!"

With Damer out of the fight, Captain Hound and Wallaby Preen were locked in a 2 on 2 engagement with the Primal fighters that were still fixated on the transport. And now over the radio, they'd heard that Dana Tiger had been put out of commission as well, and was limping away from the furball as fast as she could go.

"Kid, if you were planning on pulling any fancy moves outta your ass, this would be the time to do it!" Hound gruffly barked to his companion.

"Cap'n, I'm…I can't Merge like this!" Wallaby called back in a panicky voice. He was trying to circle in on his own Primal starfighter, but in normal flight mode, their maneuverability was about on par, and the enemy fighter was throwing off his chase by sticking to one tight turn, only to reverse it and then spin in a different direction along a different axis. "I can't think straight, and if I can't think straight, I can't Merge!"

"Bullshit, rookie!" Hound snarled over the line. "What do I tell you? You overthink, you die. Don't think about Merging, or not Merging. Just fragging do it!"

That much was true: Hound trained his pilots relentlessly. In many ways, he was a better teacher than he was a fighter jock, a rare trait among Arwing pilots especially. He taught them the mechanics and ACM thoroughly, and then drilled them on it until they stopped thinking about it and just performed on instinct. Wallaby recalled that, and then a flash of insight hit him.

He was tackling Merging like it was something different, and that was choking him up. Maybe he needed to fall back on his old perspective. Wallaby let go of his fears, he stopped worrying about Merging, and he let instinct take over.

It wasn't that he wanted to Merge, or that he needed to Merge: He just let it happen. The world exploded inside his mind again, and he felt the Seraph respond.

His ship's wings unfolded, the diamond-shaped G-Negator pods opened and quartered themselves to reveal the Nova laser gunports within. Most importantly, he felt the neutral buoyancy of gravity's absence swallow him and his ship.

Cocooned within that bubble of null gravity, Wallaby felt the world slow down. Suddenly the movements of the Primal fighter in front of him weren't wild and erratic: They were eerily predictable and easy to follow. He could tell by the dip and sway of its nose, the flex of its three vector-thrust engines, which way it was turning. His Seraph tracked the movement and aimed ahead of its path, and he fired a blistering salvo of white-hot laserbolts.

They stippled along the sleek spacecraft's shields and caught its pilot by complete surprise. The Primal spacefighter shuddered, then veered off and began to shimmer. Wallaby fired on it again, but to his surprise, the Primal craft went translucent, and his shots passed harmlessly through it. The ship seemed to dissipate into nothingness and vanished from his scopes.

He accessed the Godsight Pod relays; the other ships had done this stunt, too, he learned. If this one running away from him acted like the others, it would reappear somewhere else and try to fly in on him again, using its stealth and speed to catch him by surprise. So the question he and his still adapting ODAI counterpart puzzled over in the span of a few long milliseconds was, where would it reappear?

His ODAI plotted several possible vectors the Primal ship might use to ambush them: A quick looping scan of the GSP array around their battlefield augmented the Seraph's own more limited cameras, and Wallaby's face twitched with the beginnings of a frown that wouldn't take shape until he was already on his fourteenth computation.

The Primal ships' unique cross-section, its dark black hull, and its radar-eluding capabilities made it near impossible to detect beyond close visual range. It was like looking for a distortion in space, rather than the vessel itself, and that was a tall order even under less trying circumstances. But then, Wallaby suddenly had the time to puzzle it out. As he was learning, while you were Merged, the Arwing still had a limitation on the speed of its movements…

Thought, and the processing of commands, was much less confining.

Keeping his Seraph in a lazy tumbling spin that would allow him to turn to whatever direction the Primal flew on him from, Wallaby scoured the darkness of space for a telltale flicker; not of light, not of a thermal reading, not even of electromagnetic emissions…like a fighter surrounded in a dark alley who relied on his peripheral vision, he didn't look for the ship. He looked for the tiny flickers of movement, the subtle distortion of the universe around him.

In what was an agonizingly long span of time in Merge Mode, a full fifteen seconds without putting his Arwing through a new maneuver, Wallaby watched and waited, and his patience paid off. Eight o'clock low. The Primal was coming behind and beneath him. No target lock, no scanning radars to alert him: Just the deadly silence of a strafing pass.

The airman waited, letting the Primal come closer, letting his enemy become overconfident. It was just a matter of waiting for the right moment, and…

There. The Primal fired, his six-gun laser array belching out a wash of fire while his main cannon gushed a more condensed blast of particles. Wallaby spun his ship out of the way, turned his nose about as part of the flip, and fired even as he pirouetted to safety.

The Primal spacefighter was caught unawares by the riposte, and a small explosion rocked it as a lucky shot pierced its weakening shields and slammed into the cannon harnessed to its belly. By itself, even a Nova laserblast didn't cause the blast: It was the destabilization of something within the vessel's main gun itself that crippled it.

Now trailing a cloud of rapidly cooling plasma, the Primal ship made another wild interdimensional leap away from Wallaby. It reappeared three kilometers away, fleeing in the opposite direction. Even if Wallaby hadn't been able to mark it from its plasma trail, eerily reminiscent of a path of blood from a dying beast, the blaze of heat and light from its three thrusters would have been enough. The fighter pilot had clearly had enough, and Wallaby let it go. He wasn't there to score stenciled kill marks on the nose of his ship. He was there on escort duty.

The tense moment over, Wallaby let out a sigh. That was enough of a disruption to cause his Seraph to shift back into normal flight mode, and to his relief, the sting of de-Merging and being placed fully back inside his body again was decreased this time.

"That's one less Primal to deal with." The rookie marsupial radioed to Captain Hound.

"Terrific." Came the grunting reply of his distracted superior. Wallaby checked his surroundings and found the leader of the 21st Squadron still caught in a weaving dance with his own mark. "Now get over here and help me with mine, Preen!"

Wallaby found himself smiling as he hit his boosters and moved to re-engage. The victory over his own target was nice, but it was merely the means to a greater prize in his mind.

Captain Lars Hound hadn't called him rookie that time.

Terrany was by far the most skilled among the Seraph pilots when it came to Merging, and whether this was due to any innate talent or the fact that she Merged with a digitized personality instead of an AI construct was something that that Wyatt and Dr. Bushtail had yet to fully hash out. What that meant in practical terms was quite extraordinary; she was able to not only fight her own battle, but also keep a watchful eye on the progress of everyone else as well.

Dana and Damer Ostwind were out of the fight, and retreating away. One of the Primals had taken a beating from a rather surprising burst of marvelous flying from Wallaby Preen, and was also limping clear of the furball. That put their numbers at 4 to 3, with herself and Rourke each taking one pilot, and Wallaby and Captain Hound pairing up on the last of the Primals. Most importantly, this meant that they had tied up Captain Telemos and his men, and the Fat Duck could proceed with the recovery. That was what mattered: Her brother. Carl had been MIA and presumed KIA for way too damn long. She was going to bring him home, and that was that.

Telemos. Lylus, how long had it been since she last heard that name? She had fought him back on Venom, screaming through the skies of the Primal stronghold. Back then, Telemos had flown an atmospheric fighter, capable in maneuverability to a Model K, and very nearly won out. After she had shot down all of his wingmen, Terrany had turned her attention on the smug bastard and finally triumphed in a duel that had tested her abilities to their limit, but left her glowing in triumph.

Apparently that duel had made more of an impact on her rival. Telemos flew like a demon possessed, darting and weaving through space, his thrusters flaring brightly in the empty void. Every time Terrany drew a bead on him, he would up and vanish, reappearing moments later somewhere else and pouncing on her again. The Seraph's unique mobility allowed her to bob and weave around the strikes, and the entire fight seemed more like a match between pugilists than a duel for aerial supremacy. He would punch, she would dodge. She would punch, and he would scatter in the equivalent of a puff of smoke.

The strange technology that allowed the Primal spacefighter to "Jump" from one point in space to another so effortlessly was unnerving, especially for KIT. Inside the shared white landscape of their Merged minds, the digitized Falco stared at the monitors used to represent all their various modes of visual awareness with a lingering dread.

"I've seen this before." Falco murmured. Terrany glanced over at him, surprised. The veteran pilot met her stare. "No, I'm serious. This is like…the way he disappears and reappears, Andross tried this once."

"You're kidding. When?"

"The Lylat Wars. Area 6." Falco said, using the name that the original Cornerian Air Force had assigned to the region of space directly above Andross's command hub on Venom 75 years ago. Terrany tried to recall why that particular region and battle was so important, and a moment later, she could feel Falco's musings taking root inside of her mind.

She could see it, almost as though she had been there. An entire fleet of ships, multiple lines of defense, and her grandfather had led a wild and daring charge right through its center, with the Great Fox providing support fire. They had annihilated Andross's last line of defense, the pride of his space corps, and almost reached the outer edge of Venom's atmosphere when a craft unlike anything ever built had shimmered into existence in front of them, blocking their path.

"Creator above." Terrany whispered. "Falco, you just…"

"Stop reading my mind, would you?" The blue avian cut her off tersely. "It's not as much fun for me if I can't tell old war stories. But yeah, this is the same goddamn trick."

"So he was using Primal technology?"

"Or something. This frigging star system has too many secrets." Falco nodded. "The question is, what are we going to do about it?" He glanced meaningfully to a chronometer placed above their mindscape's monitors, which was silently counting down from the five minute mark. It was now at 2 minutes, 19 seconds, and decreasing. When it hit zero, they would drop out of Merge…and neither held any doubt that Telemos would love to rip them to pieces as soon as they lost their edge.

Terrany tightened her hands on the controls, which was more of a metaphorical device than anything. The ship moved as she willed it: Terrany just preferred the feeling of having the controls in her hands, even inside the Merged mindscape.

"We may have to break a few rules this time."

Albatross Transport "Fat Duck"

The Albatross's unpressurized cargo bay swallowed the crippled Seraph Arwing up slowly: The pilot used the large transport's maneuvering thrusters to creep in reverse, while the co-pilot manned the bay's cargo arms and reached out to grab hold of the ship as soon as it was in range. It would have to be a very delicate grab: The Arwing was a right mess. All he had to guide his partner's course was the viewscreen from the cargo arm array's camera, which gave an angled and imperfect view of the open hatch and its relation to their target.

"Okay, nudge it a little to port…" The co-pilot coaxed his comrade. "Easy, now."

"Say when."

"Okay, straighten 'er out again. You've got about another five meters yet, and I don't wanna punch that canopy with one of my grapplers." The fear was real: Though the prongs of the arms were lined with heavy rubber of the sort that had once been used for fork truck tires, they were still reinforced titanium at their cores, and they could easily punch a hole through anything less than armor plate.

"Yeah, I got it, I got it." The main pilot was sweating. With only his co-pilot's guidance, was flying blind, trying to feel out the movements of his ship.

Further behind the Albatross flight crew, the recovery team assigned to the mission watched anxiously by the first of the two airlock doors that separated the flight deck of the transport from its cargo bay. They jostled for a look through the small plexiglass viewing windows at head height, eager for a glimpse of the ship and the pilot they had traveled to the edge of Lylat to retrieve.

"God, look at it." One of the Katina corpsmen muttered in horror. "That thing is mangled. Look, that wing's split into three pieces!"

"Actually, those are three separate wings." One of the tired technicians from the Wild Fox corrected him.

"Say what?" The corpsman went goggle-eyed. "Oh, geez. That's one of those newfangled Arwings, isn't it? The Rareaff?"

"Seraph." Dr. Billburn breathed out. "I just pray they get it aboard in one piece. We'll have a devil of a time if they crack that cockpit."

"Hey, at least nobody's shooting at us anymore." Another corpsman piped up cheerfully.

"Yeah, but you don't hear the pilots relaxing, do you?" The same worn-out engineer from before cut in. He had one hand pressed to an earphone which was tapped into the Albatross's communications, and looking rather dismal about what he was overhearing. "All that means is they're too busy shooting at our escorts to bother with us. And right now, things could go either way."

"Okay, back a little more…half a meter, slow it up…slow it up…" The co-pilot kept speaking out his instructions in as calm a voice as he could muster. His hands gripped the cargo arm controls tightly, and he brought one to bear, reaching for the Arwing's battered nose. One wrong slip here and the arm would skid up the fighter's sleek nose, puncturing the canopy and exposing the cryofrozen pilot inside to hard vacuum: A death sentence regardless of his state.

With a gasp, he clamped the rubberized pincers together and grabbed hold of the Arwing's nose only one and a third meters from the canopy's leading edge. "Capture." He breathed out, then repeated the statement. "I have capture!"

"All stop." The lead pilot cut the maneuvering thrusters out and let his co-pilot take control of the recovery. He sagged into his seat with visible relief.

Gently, the co-pilot pulled the damaged ship further back into the expansive cargo bay from his grip on its nose. When it was far enough in, he brought the other cargo arm to station by its unfurled wing and clamped onto the main wingstrut, using his second handhold to turn the vessel about and bring it down to the floor of the ship.

"It's in."

"Closing outer doors." The main pilot flicked a series of switches. "Engaging grav-plating." The Arwing, already settled on the floor of the cargo bay, flopped to a more sturdy position as the ship's artificial gravity kicked in and grabbed hold of it. Had it not been lying there, the fall from its point of entry would have been catastrophic. Finally, the cumbersome cargo doors were closed, and the pilot hit one final switch. "Reintroducing atmosphere."

A loud hiss of compressed nitrogen and oxygen rang through the ship's hull as the vacuum of space was banished away. A full minute later, the air inside the cargo bay was thin, but breathable, and the medical and engineering teams piled into the airlock, shut the hatch, and emerged on the other side with a puff of pressure instability that forced them to pop their sinuses.

They descended down the uncomfortable military ladder and scrambled over the surface of the long-frozen Arwing.

"Damnit, don't release the canopy locks!" Dr. Billburn commanded them all sharply. "We don't have the equipment here to thaw him out and revive him, and we need him iced over until we do."

"Relax, doc." One of the technicians called back calmly. "We wouldn't do a damn thing to hurt the Commander. But it's not like you're going to be able to drag the entire ship into sickbay with you either. We have to use the manual release on the pod."

"The what?"

The technicians shared a look that could have meant a hundred different things, and then one looked back to the doctor. "These ships are designed to jettison the entire cockpit in the event of a complete foul-up. This ship lost power a long time ago, so we have to pop the clamps manually, one at a time to be able to disengage the escape pod from the hull. And yes, don't worry. It won't ruin the integrity of the canopy seal."

Dr. Billburn pressed his lips together and nodded. Even had he wanted to argue, it would do him no good. While the technicians busied themselves, he prepared his equipment. One of the corpsmen went over to the wall of the cargo bay and punched the intercom. "Okay, the package is secure. Let's get the hell out of here!"

"Starfox Team, this is Fat Duck. Target is aboard and we are green for evac."

Rourke's hand didn't come up to his headset radio, but the communicator squawked regardless because of his control in Merge Mode. "Roger, Fat Duck. Make for our retreated fighters, we've got these Primals wrapped up."

"Music to our ears, Starfox. Good hunting." Kilometers away from where Rourke and his Primal opponent were dueling, the Albatross transport's engines throttled up to full brightness and it began to move away from the furball. It would take a great deal of time for the large vessel to break far enough away from the fight, and though Rourke knew that the three remaining Primals were well covered, he also knew that his own time in Merge Mode was ticking down far too fast for his liking. Terrany was even closer to the De-Merging mark, and if they didn't neutralize their targets, the Primals would pick the Albatross and them apart with ease.

He swung around his target, lobbing a loose and leisurely salvo of white lasershots at the Primal. The ship shimmered and shifted away again, and Rourke was forced to search wildly about for it one more time. He was growing desperate, and perhaps the other pilot sensed it: The fellow's jump had landed him a good ten seconds away from Rourke, allowing him to close in at a painfully casual pace. The Seraph's expanded radar footprint made it an easy target for the Primal's attack radar, and another salvo of missiles burst out at him, a full dozen…and unlike before, the Primal fighter spaced them out into six pairs, giving each of them a slightly different approach vector with subtle twitches of his nose as he released his payload.

Rourke had gone with the G-Negator pods in his Modular Weapons Bay, a sound tactical maneuver under most circumstances. But in this particular case, he sorely missed having the capacity of the Seraph's G-Bombs. Even an uncharged Smart Bomb would have helped to cut off the attack.

His ODAI fed him the information of their trajectories and their counteroffensive options. They could easily dance away from the missiles, but that would prevent them from coming up close on their target, and they needed to get close. Every shot they fired that was more than 300 meters away was neutralized, either by the pilot's own maneuvering or the unique ability which allowed it to teleport away. Maybe it was the wrong word for it, but Rourke had more important things to worry about than what to call the stunt.

Of all the options he had in front of him, only one made any sense if he hoped to end the fight: He'd have to fly his way through the storm of missiles, close in on the Primal, and make for a head-on pass. With any luck, the Primal would take the worst of the blows.

His ODAI didn't like the plan, but he was too much like Rourke in his desire to end the fight quickly.

They soared headlong into the fray, downing the missiles with quick and precise shots that Milo would have approved of. They cleared the first four, then the next three, and the three after that, leaving the final pair on approach towards them. There was no time to spin the nose of the Arwing and its guns around; Rourke made a subtle shift down and away from the missiles, inverting the ship and angling upwards to bring his Nova lasers towards the inbound Primal fighter. It railed against him with its six linked lasers, and Rourke responded by launching three charged Nova laserblasts right back at him.

The final two missiles tried to veer after him, and just as Rourke had hoped, even after they detonated and fired their slug core, the resulting projectiles failed to do anything more than lightly graze his shields. The volley of laserfire was a punishing blow, but his counterattack was more so. A normal charged laserburst, green in color, was potent enough. The charged version of the Nova lasers taxed his capacitors to the breaking point, but would be strong enough to annihilate the foolhardy Primal craft.

The three globes of white light detonated and blinded both his eyes and the Seraph's visual sensors. The attack seemed to swallow the Primal fighter whole, but his natural sense of danger came to Rourke's aid. He spun his ship around and lined his guns behind him. Sure enough, as the cameras adjusted from the dying glare of the charged blasts, he could make out the Primal fighter blazing at him from another angle. It hadn't gotten clear of the blast entirely, and its shields were glowing hotly. There was even evidence of discoloration along his hull, with gray spots marring the sleek blackness of the design. The ship's main cannon was burning bright, a ball of raw power dancing between the forks of its nose.

Rourke and the Primal fired at the same time, screaming by at point blank range. Damaged, they spun around and faced each other again. The Primal had taken significant damage, and Rourke's own shields were baked. Another pass like that might leave both of them dead, or only one. Rourke switched his communications from the optical interlink of the Godsight Pods and reactivated his radio transceiver, letting out a clear-channel transmission.

"So, is this how it's going to be? We just keep making passes at each other until somebody flinches?"

The Primal didn't respond for a moment, but neither did he attack. Instead, they hung there, guns pointed at one another in a standoff, waiting for the other to make the first move.

Rourke's radio crackled. "I have gotten the measure of you, and you of me. This fight is a stalemate, Cornerian." The Primal ship angled up and away from Rourke, then shot by overhead. Had Rourke wanted to, he could have stitched the Primal's underside with laserfire, landed a few blows before the pilot reacted and poofed away in that shimmer again.

Rourke held his fire. "I don't like draws." He called after the Primal sullenly. Strangely enough, that emotion didn't get blurred out by Merge Mode.

"You likely hate dying worse. Until next time, Starfox."

Rourke watched the damaged fighter begin to retreat away, and with a sense of mixed relief and tension, he let his weary Arwing drop back out of Merge Mode. The wings and G-Negators folded back up, and he fought off the mental fatigue of his most challenging duel yet.

There had been an absence of the blind and frenzied hatred most Primals they had gone up against possessed. It gave Rourke something to think about as he aimed himself towards the retreating transport.

Captain Telemos was taut as a string. The duel between himself and the Pale Demon had been something he had dreamed of every night. It had been the only thing he'd been able to motivate himself with, the only thing that made any sense. All the long days, all the scorn and shame he and his squadmates had been subjected to, they had led to this. He would defeat the female McCloud, regain his honor, and be himself once more. He would be baptized anew in a fountain of her blood and the Lord of Flames would forgive him for his previous weakness.

And yet, as they dueled, all of that faded away. There was nothing but the roar of his engines, the crumpling of the Ghost Drive's transdimensional leaps, and the flash of crossing laserfire. His entire body strained as they dueled on, and he knew that she was giving it her all as well. Knowing that fact made him feel all the more alive, and had she not been trying to kill him, he might have shouted in exultation.

This was what he lived for, a glorious battle between heated rivals! This was what had been missing from his life! How right he had been to boldly claim that nobody else could stand a chance of defeating her.

"You are good, Pale Demon. Your skills have improved since we last met." He grunted over an open radio frequency, smiling through the intense G-Forces. Not even his ship's dampeners could fully neutralize the wild swings and sharp turns he was putting the Phoenix through.

"Funny, I beat you the last time we crossed swords." Came her reply. "Is this your way of saying you're going to lose again?"

"The last time we met, I piloted an inferior craft to your precious advanced Arwing, girl." Telemos snarled back. She swung around on him, arcing overhead and tracking him to fire a continuous rain of shots down. Telemos punched the Ghost Drive and let himself be swept away, appearing on her flanks. He punched out another salvo of missiles which she evaded and landed a few well-placed shots. She returned the favor shot for shot, refusing to give in. "Now our spacefighters are equally matched…and no matter how good you think you are, I have had years of combat experience. You cannot hope to win."

"Buddy, something you've got to know about us McClouds." Terrany answered. "If you don't put us down hard the first time, we get back up and bury you. We always get back up."

Telemos punched the Ghost Drive again, this time guiding his ship not farther away from her, but closer, only 75 meters away from her position and pointed up at her belly. The wooziness that Ghost Drive caused was slackening off; he supposed he was more conditioned to it now than when he first used it in trials.

He fired his main cannon and hurled another pair of Corona missiles up at her. She quickly swerved clear of the beam, but their proximity allowed it to shear off along the side of her shields. She quickly popped off two more rounds and knocked out the missiles, but the damage had been done.

"Then I shall drop you like the animal you are, Cornerian." Telemos swore. "Today is the day I end you."

"Captain!" His radio crackled from the Primal secure frequency, and his comm automatically switched over to the source of the transmission: Phoenix 2, his second in command. "Phoenix 4 is down and retreating. Phoenix 3 is under attack and I'm moving to support! Request assistance!"

"Negative, I have the Pale Demon in my gunsights." Telemos growled back to his wingman. That wasn't entirely true: She'd danced out of range and they were flying around one another again. "Deal with it yourself."

"Phoenix Lead, forget the Demon! Your men come first!"

"I will not be denied my vengeance!" Telemos screamed into his microphone, punching the Ghost Drive into action once more. His system sent him a warning about overheating from the continued and rapid use of the device, but he ignored the advisory notice. He ignored everything. There was only the Pale Demon. Nothing else mattered.

Phoenix 2's comm line was silent for several precious seconds. When his wingman spoke, it was with bitter acrimony. "Damn you, Telemos." Telemos heard the sound of his subordinate's engines reaching full throttle before the channel closed again.

Telemos turned all his senses towards the transformed Arwing of the Pale Demon once more. He'd barely noticed the rest of the skirmish around him, and had ignored his own rules of combat.

Nothing else mattered.

Wallaby was flying like a new marsupial. His victory over the Primal who he'd been paired with had done more good for his senses and his confidence than anything else could have. While he was still fatigued, his adrenaline kept pumping , forcing him on edge as he teamed up with Captain Hound. The last of the Primal spacefighters who had accosted them and the Fat Duck was now running for survival. A Model K and a Seraph breathing down his neck made for a rough ride for any pilot, and clearly, the Primal they were teamed up on was one of the weaker members of the squadron. Doubtless that that Captain Telemos, who had boldly called out Terrany for a duel, was the best.

"Come on, kid, nail this sucker!" Hound urged his wingman. His Model K doggedly kept a medium pursuit, preventing the pilot from taking any extreme evasive maneuvers or jinking wildly to throw him off, as he might have been able to if the leader of the 21st Squadron had tried to close in. That boxing tactic allowed Wallaby, and his more maneuverable spacefighter to close the gap for quick, darting strikes. Like a knifefighter, the rookie marsupial was able to land one glancing blow after another, steadily wearing the Primal's shields down.

He swerved by in another pass, coming from below and smashing a manually aimed laserburst into the vessel's belly. The shields flared in protest and finally began to crack.

"That got him!" Wallaby whooped, and proving the point, the Primal spacefighter they were targeting wobbled woozily, then began to shimmer.

"He's jumping!" Hound warned his young teammate.

"I got him, I got him…" Wallaby grunted as he concentrated, and his Seraph unfolded its wings with another rapid transformation into Merge Mode. The Merged Seraph hung still for a moment, then spun around and fired wildly in a direction that Hound hadn't sensed any danger from. The shots impacted against what seemed like empty space, and then a trail of reddish exhaust from vented plasma marked the wounded target. "Got him." Wallaby concluded, de-Merging.

"Damn fine shooting. Okay, I'll finish him off here…" Hound brought the damaged fighter into his gunsights and charged up a shot. The targeting reticule turned red and then flashed over, locking onto the damaged Primal. He didn't get the chance to pop off the shot, however: A searing beam of raw power smashed out of nowhere and caught him full-on from above, causing his canopy to react and darken to full opacity to spare his eyes from the blinding strike. Hound yelped and tried to pull clear of it, but whoever was controlling the attack followed him, keeping his Model K solidly in the killzone. When the attack ended, his cockpit was filling with smoke, and alarms were blaring from every system, most noticeably his deflector shield emitters.

His radio crackled, and a transmission from his attacker came over his headset. It could be no other. "Your ship is damaged. If you want to live, you'll retreat. Last. Warning."

His alert system was chirping rapidly, warning of missile lock.

"Boss!" Wallaby screamed.

"Damnit." Hound grunted and winced, jerking his leg away from the side of the cockpit where a panel had blown. If the pain and the charred fabric from his pants were any indicator, he'd suffered a serious burn himself. He managed to turn his radio to an open-channel, switching from the optical interlink. "You bastard, you'll shoot me as soon as I turn."

"I could shoot you now, and not even your Seraph-equipped wingman could stop me from turning you into space dust." Came the wrathful retort. "Last chance. You leave my wingman alone, I leave you alone."

Hound gave it a half second's worth of critical thought, then veered his Model K away from the wounded Primal and made a fast retreat towards the fleeing transport. "I didn't think that you Primals had any honor."

"Honor is the only thing we have!" The sharp rebuke came back. "Run while you still have a little of your own left." The channel dropped out, and Wallaby closed in behind his damaged leader.

"Boss, you okay?"

"My ship's baked, and I wouldn't want to risk another engagement." Hound grumbled. "I guess we can thank the Creator that this Primal's more interested in cutting and running than fighting on."

"Why?" Wallaby prodded.

Hound tightened his paw around the control stick and stayed mute. He could hardly give an answer to a question he didn't understand himself.

Phoenix 3, still venting engine plasma, was relieved when the Arwings turned away. He was moreso when Phoenix 2 fell in formation beside him.

"You saved my life there, Saber."

"You would do the same for me, Nome." Phoenix Squadron's second in command dismissed the praise. "We all should."

"Wait, where's the captain?" Nome worriedly glanced around their surroundings, searching for another Phoenix spacefighter.

Saber exhaled slowly. "He's still fighting."


"With her." Phoenix 2 confirmed hatefully.

Rourke was dutifully flying a roundabout course as he made ready to bug out with the rest of the squadron and the transport they had feverishly escorted. Dana and Damer were already stationed around it, Wallaby and Captain Hound were making a direct course at best speed, albeit a little slower than usual: Hound wasn't risking blowing out his engines after the beating he'd taken. As Rourke busily started scooping up his Godsight Pods with the Draw Effect created by his deflector shields, he checked his radar and frowned; Terrany McCloud wasn't on his scope. "Terrany, where are you?"

"Busy. Telemos is like a dog with a bone: He won't stop trying to shoot my face off here." Came her reply. "You scooping up your GSPs?"

"Yeah, I am."

"I noticed: Some of the feeds went down."

"We've got your brother. Fall back, get your Pods scooped up. We have to get the Hell out of here."

"I don't think that Telemos plans on giving us the chance if I stop messing around with him." Terrany refused the order. "We can't lose the Godsight Pods. If the Primals get their hands on one, it could ruin everything. You're going to have to grab them."

"Terrany, you won't stand a chance against him if you drop out of Merge Mode!"

"I'm not." Came her far too calm reply.

Rourke's claws twitched instinctively. Something in her muted voice made him far too uneasy. She'd jumped into Merge Mode even before he had, and she was still…

"Terrany…What's your Merge timer at?" He heard himself ask.

"Six minutes."

"It's supposed to kick you off after five!" Rourke jerked back on the stick, flying for Terrany. "Your systems are malfunctioning! Hang on, I'm coming to back you up…"

"No!" Came her forceful rebuke. "It's not malfunctioning, Rourke. I deleted the limiters."

"You don't know what that'll do to you! Terrany, you might…you might not…"

"We know the risks, Rourke. We just don't have a choice."


"Me. Me and him. Us."

"No. Damn you, no, you're not doing this." Rourke jammed his thrusters to life. He tagged his radio, reaching out to the retreating fighters. "Who else is still flight-worthy?"

"Just me." Came Wallaby's nervous response. "You need backup?"

"Head for Terrany's Godsight Pods and grab them for pickup. Everyone else, we'll be back on unsecure channels, so watch what you say." Rourke kept his Arwing aimed for the titanic battle between Terrany and Telemos, well aware that retrieving the Pods would be a loss of short-term tactical advantage. She was right on that count, though: They couldn't risk losing the Pods to the Primals, or having the secret of them exposed. His own Godsight Pods spun closer around his shields, and were drawn back up into the storage of his Modular Weapons Bay, locking into place.

"I'm on it, Rourke. You get Terrany back alive now, will you?"

Rourke was about to respond when his radar alert went crazy. Ahead of him, in the same airspace where the damaged Primal fighters had retreated, the coldness of space was suddenly blasted by light. A massive rip in spacetime had torn itself open, and out of the wound poured an entire fleet of ships dropping out of subspace. The size of the subspace rift was evidence enough of how much trouble had just arrived at their doorstep, but his sensors quickly confirmed what his eyes could make out by silhouette alone.

"Heaven help us." He breathed. The Primal Armada had come.

At the rear of the fight, the unmistakable glow of a tremendous subspace rift instantly sent both the transport and their wounded escorts on high alert. In the cockpit of Fat Duck, the co-pilot paled.

"Frigging Lylus." He shared a look with his partner, then reached for the FTL controls. "Plotting a course. We'll need another minute before the Drive can go again."

"I was afraid you'd say that." The lead pilot activated his headset mike. "Escorts, this is Fat Duck. We're going to need…" He froze, realizing that the secure optical interlink wasn't online anymore. Even supposedly secure transmissions could be intercepted by the Primals: He'd gotten the warnings during his briefings, same as everyone else in the SDF transport corps. "…a little more time."

"I'm not sure if we can give it to you, Fat Duck, but we'll try." Captain Hound rasped. He and the others weren't in any great shape of their own, but they still stood more of a chance than a weaponless transport…especially one carrying the comatose Carl McCloud. "Rourke, we're bugging out of here as soon as we can. Fall back, and limit your engagements!"

"Like I need you telling me to not get suckered into this trap any more than we already have?" Rourke gruffly remarked. "Terrany! You've got to disengage! The entire Primal Armada's just jumped out on top of us!"

Strangely, she didn't answer. Rourke was already flying towards her, but it took him a moment to realize the reason for her silence.

Telemos was no longer the only Primal spacefighter attacking her.

The Primal Armada, or at least the detachment sent by the Homeworld, numbered twelve ships in all. Of those, two were attack carriers, each boasting a full complement of thirty-two Helion class spacefighters. All sixty-four of them launched as soon as their carriers cleared subspace, and following the guidance of their controllers, the sixty-four Primal pilots rushed towards the fleeing Cornerians. The battle between the singular transformed Arwing and Phoenix 1 was a footnote to them, and a less practical target; Five Arwings and a transport made for the greater prize, after all.

Nobody had anticipated that the lone Arwing would break free of its engagement and hurl itself straight at them.

Inside the cockpit of her Seraph Arwing, Terrany McCloud's body was as rigidly still as it had been throughout her entire dogfight with Telemos. It had been a battle of attrition between them, and were the circumstances different, she would have expected victory to come at a steep, but manageable price. The sudden arrival of Primal reinforcements had shot every projection and probability that KIT had set up right out the window.

The carriers launched ships, and they hit their engines and screamed away. KIT tracked their course, and the destination was obvious: They were headed for the transport her brother's crippled fighter was on.

Her mouth opened, and though no noise rattled past her lips, inside the shared mindscape of Merge Mode, the albino vixen screamed. There was no real choice, and despite KIT's feeble protests, she knew that the AI agreed with her.

They flew towards the heart of the Primal fighter contingent and scattered the formation apart, blowing a hole clean through its center by destroying eight fighters in a single whirling pass. The rest, reacting like angry hornets, swung about and curved in towards them, eager for the kill.

For Telemos, the arrival of the Primal force was a bucket of cold water thrown over a raging fire. His opponent turned away from him, ignored him, and flew towards the thick pack of lesser spacefighters.

"No!" He shouted angrily, trying to follow her. Though his Ghost Drive allowed for rapid transit between two points, the distance that the Pale Demon blazed was too insurmountable. He had missile lock on her, but by then, she was mixed up among all the other planes. Faster than she'd moved against him, she annihilated eight of them in a single pass, and all the others folded around her.

"No! Damn you all, no!" Telemos screamed over the radio. "She's mine! MINE! Don't you dare interfere!"

They didn't listen. Only one voice bothered to answer him; Phoenix 2, his right hand man.

"Sir, it's over." Lashal Orrek told him coldly.

Telemost knew otherwise. It wasn't over. He flew into the maelstrom of fighters.

It was Rourke's worst nightmare. He was too far out from Terrany to render assistance, his ship was still cooling down from Merge Mode and wouldn't let him risk another shift, and the Primal capital ships, sensing that the lone Arwing was the more deadly and valuable target after Terrany's blistering attack, were positioning themselves around the fight. Two of them, not needed for the encircling maneuver, were coming straight for his damaged wingmen and the helpless transport. Wallaby Preen was still carrying out his orders, and was a kilometer away from picking up the final Godsight Pod; he was well clear of the immediate danger.

It was a trap. It had always been a trap, and any control he had over the situation, any hope of guiding the situation, was blown.

"Terrany!" He pleaded over the not-quite-so-secure encrypted channel. "Get out of there! Fall back, damn you!"

"Can't." Came a clipped, and stuttering reply. She must have been burning her brain out, trying to cope with tracking so many targets around her and no Godsight Pod camera feeds to rely on. "No…way out of this…"

"I'm coming for you! Just hang on!"

"NO!" She vehemently rebuked him. "Ships…heading for Carl. You have…stop them!"

Rourke bit down hard, tasting blood as one of his canines bored a puncture wound through his lip. "Terrany…" He found that his hand was shaking on the control stick. It was fear, but not a fear for himself.

"Save Carl!" She begged him. "All that matters…the real McCloud!"

He stifled the urge to scream obscenities at her. There was nothing he could do for her, and any further communication would only distract her. He veered towards the two inbound capital ships, and his sensors scanned the odds laid against him. With no smart bombs and no Merge Mode, taking on only one would have been near suicidal.

And yet, was Terrany taking on any less of a risk?

Rourke charged up his lasers and aimed his nose towards the lead ship. They weren't quite in target lock range yet. He wondered if this was the day that he would finally die. He wondered if Terrany was doing this out of panic, or because she had suddenly bought into the McCloud curse, or she was doing such a suicidal thing to deny it. Whatever the reason, he accepted the outcome with a calm fatalism. He was going to die here, trying to stop these two ships twenty times his size.

Another burst of light behind him rattled his focus. "Damn, are there more Primals?!" He snapped.

"Negative, that's not a subspace rift, that's a portal!" Dana Tiger responded.

Rourke risked a glance over his shoulder and confirmed Dana's assessment. It was indeed an inbound Gate portal, and the ship coming through it…

"The Wild Fox." Rourke spoke aloud, as the nose cleared the event horizon.

The Wild Fox wasted no time either; As soon as it registered the threat, it fired a blast from its Turbolaser cannons and drilled the first of the ships, cracking its shields. A pair of cruise missiles shot out from the weapons bay and blew the undefended vessel apart, and the mothership of the Starfox squadron turned its attention on the second ship, which had recovered enough to start firing back.

"All pilots, this is General Grey! Jump to subspace and get out of here, we'll cover your retreat!"

Wild Fox


Wyatt Toad and his engineering crews had worked themselves half to death finishing up the final repairs of the Wild Fox. General Grey had made it clear they would be jumping to the scene of the retrieval to offer additional support as soon as they were ready. Even before they'd fired up the engines, they had been charging the warp gate capacitors. By the time they lifted off of Katina's soil and achieved orbit, it was fully powered. As soon as they broke orbit, they activated it, not knowing what to expect on the other side. They found themselves flying into an active warzone, and when the team's signals came in, it became clear that the Arwings of Starfox and the 21st Squadron had had the crap beaten out of them. ROB and Milo had reacted as quickly as they could.

The Wild Fox shuddered slightly as the second Primal ship's forward batteries scattered laserfire along their shields. Milo grit his teeth. "ROB, take that second ship down already!"

The robot, hardlinked to the ship, made a noncommittal beep and continued his deadly work. General Grey was already barking out orders to the Arwings, and they clicked in affirmatives.

"Wild Fox, this is Fat Duck. We'll need another thirty seconds before we can activate FTL. Can you hold them off that long?"

"We'll sure as hell try." Milo grumbled, keeping the nose of the majestic four-winged ship pointed at the inbound Primal cruiser. "Can we get everyone back?"

Over at the radar, Hogsmeade flicked the spherical image of the space around them, zooming out to encompass every ship that provided a return. He frowned, noticing that a few of them offered minimal radar reflection, and he switched over to the MIDS Array. Instantly, the scope cleared, providing an image of every ship and its gravitational mass imprint. The ship put an overlay of the IF/F tags on the MIDS display, and the systems operation officer let out a squeal of dismay.

"General, I've got three Arwings by the transport, one out making a run back towards us, one more squaring off with that last ship, and…"

General Grey gnawed on the end of his pipe and looked back over his shoulder to the radar officer. "And what?"

"We've got one Arwing surrounded by…a lot of Primal fighters, and the rest of the capital ships." Hogsmeade swallowed and looked down at the old hound. "It's Terrany."

Grey shut his eyes. "Of course it is."

Telemos had thought Terrany had given everything she had in the fight with him. In a sense, he had been right; one on one, she had flown as his equal once again. But now, surrounded on all sides and horribly outmatched, a part of her he had never seen before suddenly came alive. It made his voice catch in his throat, and he found that instead of diving in to attack her anew, he had lost the will to do anything besides coast in the outer circle of the dogfight and watch.

Sixty-four had become fifty-six in a few seconds. Then they had closed in, and beyond even supernatural ability, Terrany's style of fighting altered. She gave up on fighting defensively completely; her twists and turns, her spins and impossible cartwheels were all made for the sole purpose of destroying as many Primals as she possibly could.

Telemos looked around the battlefield, checking his radar as well. She was now surrounded by not only the fighters, but ten ships of the line, a precious resource after the failed attack in the region of space the Cornerians called Sector Y. There was no escape for her. No way out. The precious mothership of Starfox had arrived on the scene, but it was too far out, too busy with the pursuing force going after that transport to alter the situation. Under such odds, most pilots would have folded, crumpled completely, tried to make a desperate break for freedom and survival.

Terrany McCloud, The Pale Demon, did not. Suffering hit after hit, taking blows to deliver worse ones upon the steadily dwindling number of Helion fighters that had ganged up on her, she fought like a cornered animal, lashing out and drawing blood for every wound.

She was not a warrior who fought for honor, or prestige. She did not even fight for survival. In that mad rush of combat, there was nothing that indicated preservation. She fought, perhaps, for the joy of fighting itself, or in a blind fury. Terrany had known she was flying to her doom, and she had jumped into the jaws regardless.

"Why?" Telemos whispered, his eyes burning fiercely as he stared down at her struggling Arwing. Another laserblast snapped into her shields, sending her skidding off a few meters before the ship righted itself. Why had she never fought with this much fire against him? If this was her true power, her true potential as a pilot and a warrior…By the Lord of Flames, could he have even stood a chance against her?

The Arwing moved slower now. Either she was losing focus and reaction time, or the ship itself was turning sluggish after too many punches. It was all going to end here, Telemos deduced, and that made him suddenly, violently, enraged. The tense and strained thread of his sanity, which had been quivering for days, finally snapped, and he screamed into his radio with a howling curdling cry.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to end like this! She was to perish at his hands, not picked apart by these…these vultures!

"You deny me everything!" He shrieked, and no reply came over the Primal battlenet. It was hard for the others to determine who he was speaking to: The Pale Demon, his own squadron, or the reinforcements.

Not even Telemos knew anymore.

As the fight worsened outside, the mindscape shared by Terrany and Falco shuddered. Shards of ceiling tile collapsed around them, the blinding white lights flickered haphazardly, and after the last of the Godsight Pods had gone offline, almost every viewscreen to the world around them went dark. Left with only the ship's own cameras and sensors, and Terrany's own senses, besieged on all sides, they both knew they were caught in a battle they would not, could not, win.

"There's no way around this, kid." Falco told her through a clenched beak. "We're good and screwed."

"You and grandpa used to do the impossible all the time." She countered. "Like attacking Area 6, blasting through the enemy's main defensive line?"

"We were only able to do that because we caught his fleet with its pants down, and we had the Great Fox backing us up. We're all alone out here, Terrany, and flying nearly blind." Falco gave her a bitter stare. "Why did you do it? Were you trying to kill yourself?"

Terrainy strained at the controls. She was shivering in time with each laserbolt that smashed into the Seraph's dwindling shields. The wild fires of her heart blazed, and there was still defiance in her eyes.

"How could I let them take my brother away from me again? Falco, I had no choice!"

The last wisp of Falco Lombardi crumbled under that question. He sighed and leaned forward against his console, tracking the damage to their ship. Terrany was giving it everything, throwing one wild punch after another. She had whittled the enemy force down to thirty-eight ships.

No, thirty-five; a wild Nova laserblast took off another Helion fighter's wing and sent it careening into two more who had strayed too close. It didn't matter. The ship was hurting, Terrany was hurting, and the strain of staying in Merge Mode beyond the 5 minute limit was finally catching up to them. Her vitals were spiking; neurokinetics were going wild, the EEG was going erratic, and her heart was racing a mile a minute. She was, quite literally, flying herself to death.

"You're going to tell me…we have to stop this?" Terrany affixed a sidewards glance on Falco, and now even the representation of her inside her mindscape began to breathe hard, sweat matting her headfur. "But you know as well as…I do…We can't stop."

Falco swallowed. "What did you mean there, when you were talking to Rourke? About your brother being the real McCloud?"

Terrany laughed weakly, doubling over as another Primal fighter closed in and landed a lucky pair of bolts into the Seraph. With a grunt, she turned the Seraph around and blasted his ship to dust. "Damn gnats." She gulped for air, and Falco raced to her side, catching her as she started to fall away from the controls.

"My grandfather…my father…my brother. They're the ones that Corneria…looked to. It was supposed to be him here. I was, I was a…a mistake." She wheezed, and Falco held her up so she could still fly the ship. "They need him. Now that he's safe…they stand a chance."

"You're just as important as he is!" Falco insisted, shaking her. "Nobody else could Merge with me! Nobody Merges as well as you do! You've flown like an angel of vengeance since this whole damn mess started, accomplished the impossible, and now you're going to tell me that you're okay with dying just because your brother can take your place?!"

"Yes." Terrany shuddered and suddenly coughed, and blood flew out of her mouth. Not in her Mindscape. In the real world.

"What kind of sick, freakish attitude is that?" Falco screamed straight into her ear. "If you wanna die so bad, why are you still fighting? They'd kill you in a heartbeat if you let them, so why are you fighting?!"

"I don't…I don't kn…"

"Yes you DO!" Falco cut her off. "You're fighting because you want to live! You're fighting because you want to get out of this alive and fly to safety and be with Rourke! You can't deny it, your mind's screaming about all the frenzied sex you want to have with him, and I can't shut it off!" She let out a tearful, choking laugh at that, and Falco shook her. "I want to get out of this alive, because I didn't let cancer eat me, and I'm not gonna let a bunch of damn space apes do me in either, but tell me now! Say it, Goddamn you. Tell me the truth! Do you wanna die or do you wanna live?!"

"I want to live!" Terrany wailed, and the image of her in the mindscape suddenly blazed a brilliant white, engulfing everything. "I want to live!"

And right as she spent a precious millisecond coming to grips with her own mortality, with wanting to deny the family curse, and with shouting it to the heavens, the stacked odds fell into place, and the dice came to rest outside her favor.

A single NIFT-29 Corona Missile, fired half-blindly by a Helion fighter on the outside ring of her attackers, had maneuvered through the swarm of hornets, somehow hiding itself as it passed behind the frames and thruster wakes of the inner circle. By some twist of fate, it managed to bore into the underside of her Seraph. The kinetic warhead fired and blasted clean through the fuselage, severing power lines, communication lines…and puncturing the containment field of her fusion generator as well, just before the powerful nuclear reaction that drove the Arwing absorbed the metal with violent hunger. The loss of containment had an immediate and catastrophic effect.

The entire ship flatlined. Everything went dark.

The Fat Duck finally finished its preparations for FTL, and sounding the message, blasted into full retreat. The massive Albatross transport slipped into subspace and fled for Sector Y, and the wounded Arwings followed, leaving only Wallaby, Rourke, and the beleaguered Terrany for the Wild Fox to attend to.

Heedless of the danger, Rourke had flown past the surviving capital ship sent after them when the Wild Fox had opened fire on it. He'd sent his Seraph Arwing towards the furball and the ring of Primal capital ships, his heart thundering in his chest with only one thought: Save Terrany.

He didn't see the missile hit which sounded the death knell of her Seraph. He heard no final words from her. He saw the Helion fighters scatter as an explosion rocked her Arwing, and he felt his heart become hard as stone when the explosion widened, and engulfed the entire airframe in a perfect, spherical fireball. The fusion generator had finally given out, it was the only thing which could destroy an Arwing so completely.

"Terrany! TERRANY!" Rourke screamed into the radio.

"Rourke, snap out of it!" The frantic voice of General Grey thundered into his earpiece. "You have to get out of there! Retreat, damn you!"

"Wallaby here, I'm making vapor trails!" The only other Arwing left on the field called out, and then his plane vanished from the radar as well, shooting off into subspace and beyond enemy action. Rourke stared at the fireball, too dumbstruck to respond to either of them.

And then he saw it. Just like that, his heart started beating again. Something emerged from the fireball, scarred, scuffed, trailing smoke and melted metal. The Seraph's canopy-enclosed escape pod.

"She ejected!" Rourke cried out. He turned towards her. "I've gotta save her!"

As if finally awakening from the pleasant haze of their victory, the remaining Primal fighters and three of the capital ships turned towards him, firing everything. Another Primal cruiser closed in on the drifting escape pod of Terrany McCloud, and a soft blue beam of light from its underbelly fired, catching the lifeboat in a tractor beam.

Rourke was repulsed quickly, and entirely. Forced to fly back and spin like a madman to deflect their incoming rounds, he was left facing a wall of the Primal's best ships, with his own ship weakened and his nerves frayed beyond hope.

"Starfox Lead, Retreat NOW. That is a direct fucking order!" General Grey shouted over the line. He didn't normally take to swearing; the dog was good and pissed.

"We can't leave Terrany!" Rourke pleaded frantically.

"Terrany is lost, damnit! We can't afford to lose you too! Get the hell out of there!"

It tore him apart to do it, but Rourke jerked his Arwing away from the fight and fled with the Primal ships in hot pursuit. The Wild Fox scorched the vacuum of space with a hail of turbolaserfire and another salvo of cruise missiles to cover his retreat. His hand shook on the stick as his ODAI finished the quick calculations for the jump. The Wild Fox started its own slow turn, and in perfect synch, the last standing Arwing and its mothership activated their FTL drives. The mess and noise of a rescue operation that had cost them more than they'd gained faded away for the dim purple and blue aura of subspace.

In the silence, Rourke felt the last of his energy leave him. Exhausted, he felt tears run down his face. His hand hadn't been shaking with rage. The last image of Terrany's escape pod, just before it was drawn up inside the Primal ship, had seared his retinas. He wanted to scream a hundred things, but his fatigued body allowed him only a single painful word before it succumbed to darkness.


To be Continued in Chapter Twenty Six: