STARFOX: SUNRISE OVER LYLAT
By Eric "Erico" Lawson
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Mercenaries in the Lylat System- For a long period during the early days of FTL transport and colonization throughout the Lylat System, there were three main groups: The space pirates, the Cornerian Air Force, and those to whom allegiance could be purchased: Mercenaries. The two most famous mercenary fighter crews were Star Wolf and Starfox. Star Wolf allied itself mainly with the space pirates, the Insurgency, and for a time early on, even the self-proclaimed 'Emperor Andross', but was disbanded after a final skirmish with the 21st Growler Arwing Squadron that saw every member but one slain. Starfox suffered just as ignoble a fate: Fox McCloud, killed by Pierce O'Donnell during the earliest days of the Insurgency, signaled the group's end. The two surviving members disbanded shortly afterwards, and Fox's son would later serve in the SDF, which signaled the end to 'approved' mercenary forces in the Lylat System.
A Secondhand account from an Insurgency Fighter Pilot
"Yeah, I know Wolf O'Donnell. Once, when he was really drunk, you know what he said? 'He didn't deserve to die like that.' I thought he was just rambling on the sauce. It wasn't until the next day I realized who he was talking about. Funny, really. He spent most of his life as a rival to Fox McCloud, you think he'd be happy to see the guy gone. But he wasn't. At least his son got his. I hear that he popped out a grandkid with some worthless bitch. Wonder if he'll turn out any better."
Hedge Point, Papetoon
1.5 Years Ago
Brigadier General Arnold Grey was no stranger to Papetoon; as a field officer, he'd been part of the final push that had put down the Insurrection on the planet and signaled the end of the Insurgency. He'd been surprised to find out that another relic of those dark days had remained behind.
Commander Carl "Skip" McCloud, recently released from the 21st Growler Squadron with glowing praise, was along with him for this trip. Dressed in civilian attire, they'd nonetheless garnered attention when they put down at the spaceport. Plenty of Papetoonians still carried a grudge against the SDF, and Grey stuck out like a sore thumb. The grumbling general had been forced to stay in the rented hovercar, puffing angrily on his corncob pipe while Carl pressed the flesh and asked around. They'd come seeking a soldier, and under any other circumstance, they would have let the legend of "The Ghost Ranger" lie. After all, the trooper had done quite a lot to disappear. As soon as he finished his third rotation, the raccoon had failed to sign up again, bought a ticket on a flight to Papetoon…and vanished.
It had taken them four days to get this far, and now they found themselves driving out to one of the most remote provinces on the planet, to a town which, by its appearance, was little more than a pub with a windmill and a well. It wasn't on any map, and the name was just as desolate: Hedge Point.
Grey angrily swatted at a fly pestering him from the passenger seat. "You're sure this time, Commander? I'm getting tired of sleeping with sand and grit in my fur."
"You didn't have to come with me." Carl reminded the old dog with a chuckle. Unlike his superior, the young vulpine seemed completely at ease out in the wastelands. "I told you, I could have handled this myself."
"Oh, like you decided that we needed that convict on the team?"
"You wanted the most capable pilots, didn't you? I don't care what team he flew with before, Rourke stays. I suppose that this guy we're going to get is payback for that, eh?"
"The way I figure it, McCloud, this project now has three hotshots. You're going to need at least one pilot with a little bit more seasoning and common sense."
"But this guy we're going after isn't even a pilot. He was a sniper, for Creator's sake!" Carl argued. Grey puffed on his pipe, smugly satisfied. "And would you put that thing out? You know it bothers me, general."
"Guess that makes us even."
"Hmph." Carl pulled up to the shack that served as the town's singular landmark and set the hovercar to the ground, disengaging the engines. "Well, everyone off then."
"You're sure he's here?" General Grey asked.
"If he isn't, at least we can gargle the dust out of our mouths." Carl said consolingly, heading for the entryway. "But I'm betting he is."
The two headed inside and found the bar almost completely empty. Outdated banjo music was playing from the sound system, and the floor was covered in dust. There was only an old rabbit manning the taps, two farmhands downing a beer at one of the tables, and a drunk passed out at the bench, snoring softly with his hat laying over his head and his poncho draped over his body. The barkeep only bothered to look at Carl and General Grey for half a second. The farmhands stared a little longer.
"I don't think we're welcome here." Grey muttered under his breath.
Carl sighed and made his way up to the counter. "Afternoon."
"Yep, it is. What can I do ya for, stranger?"
"Beer. And information. I'm lookin' for someone." Carl said. The rabbit narrowed his eyes and pulled out a tankard, filling it from the first tap. "I've heard tell he lives around here."
"Lots of people do. Lots of people also don't like others telling stories about 'em." He set the beer in front of Carl. "Four credits."
"How much for some information?" Carl persisted. The rabbit snorted.
"Keep it up, you'll be wearing that drink, son." He looked over to General Grey, who was still standing rigidly over by the door. "And I don't allow gawkers. Order something or leave."
"Fine. Another beer." Grey groused, meandering up to the bar. "Darker the better."
"Stout? Yeah, okay." The barkeep poured another and set it down, and Grey drank it. It was cold, wet, and plenty dark for a beer. Still didn't make the trip worth it.
"You boys had best finish up those beers and move along." The bartender advised them, flicking his long ears. His eyes danced in a certain way that made Carl pause. The McCloud didn't realize the rabbit was indicating trouble until it was almost too late. He ducked just in time for one of the farmhand's wild punches to go flying over his head.
"Damn!" Carl swore, reaching for a sidearm that, unfortunately, was no longer there. Civilian clothing, he reminded himself bitterly.
The farmhand righted himself slowly, looking between Grey and Carl with dark eyes. "You two look like SDF bootlickers to me."
"Ah. I take it…you weren't." Carl wagered cautiously. Grey seemed ready to make a move, but the farmhand yanked a small laser pistol and pointed it at his face. "Woah, woah!" Carl cried out. "No call for that!"
"Your old buddy here moves, I'm drilling him a new nosehole." The farmhand snapped. "As for you…"
He didn't get a chance to speak again before a loud, thundering crack broke through the stale air of the tavern. The armed farmhand cried out in pain and dropped his gun. He fell to his knees cradling his wrist.
Deafened by the report of what seemed like an older ballistics firearm, Carl whirled to the source. There was a small pistol aimed from underneath the drunk's left arm…and under his hat, the pilot could see a single very lucid, eye.
"Son of a bitch, he shot me!" The first farmhand cried out. The second raced to his side, reaching for the dropped laser pistol, and was rewarded with a second shot that dropped him as well, clutching at his knee.
"Yeah, I did." The drunk muttered. "You interrupted my nap. Pauley, you mind?"
"Yeah." The bartender stepped around the bar, yanked the two inebriated farmhands up by the scruff of their shirts, and dragged them towards the door. "I don't allow roughhousing in my establishment. Y'all come back when you learn some manners!" He gave them both a swift kick in the ass for their troubles, and they went flying outside.
The bartender looked back to Carl and the General. "You two boys all right?"
"Good as can be expected." Carl said. He reached down and picked up the laser pistol, handing it to the barkeep. "Pauley, right?"
"Yep, that's m'name." The rabbit nodded, taking the firearm. He glared at the still lounging patron at the bar. "And I don't allow no firearms in my place neither, Grim."
"They were rubber bullets." The presumed drunk argued, yawning. He pulled his right arm back and the gun disappeared inside his poncho. "Just making a point."
"Nice to see your aim hasn't drifted any, Sergeant." General Grey announced, drawing a surprised glance from both Carl and the bartender. The 'drunk' did nothing for a moment, then slowly sat up straight, removing the hat from his head.
Underneath it was the fur and face of a ring-tailed raccoon in his mid to late thirties. His eyes were the only sharp looking thing about him.
"No way. This…this is the guy?" Carl asked dubiously.
"You talking 'bout Grim?" The barkeep demanded, looking at the surly patron with new suspicion.
"Sergeant Milo Granger. Sniper specialist." Grey nodded.
"Retired." Granger said with narrowed eyes. "And I don't appreciate being bothered. I quit, remember?"
"Well, Sergeant, I hate to say this, but your commission's been reactivated." Grey said. The raccoon didn't seem pleased with it at all. He chewed on his lip for a moment, then turned to the barkeep.
"Seeing as this'll probably be the last time you'll see me around here, Pauley, mind if I get some private time with these two SDF clowns?"
"…Sure. Sarge." The barkeep harrumphed. He looked at three of them with something akin to loathing, set down his dishtowel, and walked out the front door.
Sergeant Granger exhaled, looking at them. "I don't know you two."
"No, I didn't expect you would, being Army. We're with the SDF's air forces division. I'm General Grey, this is Commander McCloud."
"…McCloud." Granger took a second look at the brown-furred fox. "Ah. Yeah. You look a little young, though. Didn't you fly over Venom?"
"No. My father Max did." Carl answered coolly. "I'm Carl McCloud."
"Hm." Milo got up from his chair and went around behind the bar, reaching for a half empty bottle of scotch whiskey. "I'd offer you some, but beer and whiskey…you know how the saying goes." The raccoon shrugged as he poured himself a double. "So. Mind telling me why you're interrupting my sabbatical?"
"Seems to me like more of a vacation. Although why you'd pick to hide out on a planet where you made a career out of killing the locals is beyond me." The General said. Milo said nothing as he slugged back his drink in one large gulp. "…Though I could wager a guess or two."
"I was evaluated by your shrinks at the end of my third tour. I checked out." Milo said, pouring himself another. "Get to the point. You've got until my third drink."
"You remember being hooked up to a machine when they did your psych eval?" Carl asked the former sniper. "Little electrodes stuck under the fur and into the skin around your head? Well, they were monitoring your brain's functions. As it turns out, you've got a really unique brain, Milo."
"Wonderful. I'll donate my corpse to science when I die." Milo slugged back the second and poured his third. "Running out of time, boys. And don't think I won't just off and disappear afterwards, no matter what your 'orders' say. I did it once, I'll do it again."
"I'm involved in a secret project called Seraphim." Carl went on quickly. "We're flight testing the newest prototype Arwings. Leaps and bounds above what the Model K is capable of. And General Grey here, he thinks you belong on the team with us."
Milo laughed at that, sitting his glass down on the counter. "Me? Fly one of those things? Be serious."
"We've got a base set up out in Sector X away from prying eyes where we're running the project." General Grey said. "Ursa Station. Old, abandoned, but functional, and ignored. And the project's not SDF. Not really."
"Which pisses him off some days, as he's the military commander and he's stuck being a liaison." Carl teased the General. The old hound gave him a look, but Carl shrugged it off. "It's Arspace Dynamics. Their planes, their technicians, their baby. They just want some decent people in the seat."
"And you think someone who's only ever been in troop transports and VTOL jumpcraft before is the perfect Arwing pilot?" Milo asked. He started to lift his drink up.
"Sergeant, we have an Arspace test pilot, a convicted felon ripped off of death row, and this guy here signed up for the project already." General Grey said, jerking a thumb in Carl's direction. "What this team needs is someone with a level head. Someone able to keep their distance and focus in on what's really important. In short, Milo…it needs someone like you. And I heard you. If you take off running, we'll just find you again. You don't look like the type that enjoys running, and if I'm right, you're tired of hiding as well. Papetoon was bad news, son. I didn't enjoy it myself much either. But we were just following orders."
"Amazing how people absolve themselves of culpability for the atrocities they've wrought with those words…following orders." Milo pointed out grimly. "You know, people used to look up to the Arwing pilots. To Starfox, especially. Not anymore. Now Arwings're just the most expensive death machines of Corneria and the SDF."
"I know." Carl nodded. "It's something I'm trying to get away from myself. That's why I joined this project. It's not about killing, or following orders. It's just about flying. That's all. So, really, it's up to you. You coming with us, Sergeant? Or are you just going to spend the rest of your life sunk in that bottle?"
Milo looked between the two. "I don't suppose I have a choice in this, do I?"
"You sure don't." The general shook his head.
The raccoon sighed again and pushed the drink away. "Right. Well, then. We'd best be off. My car's out back." He got down from the barstool, smoothed out his poncho, and headed for the back door.
"Eh, our car's parked out front." Carl said hesitantly.
"Really? Think so?" Milo called back. The McCloud froze up when he heard the roar of their rented hovercar's engines starting up. He rushed outside to see the two farmhands whooping up a storm and driving off in a cloud of dust.
"HEY! You little BASTARDS get BACK HERE!" Carl shouted after them. The bartender stood beside him for a moment before clearing his throat.
"Hey, uh, those two hotwired your car and took off."
Carl gave the rabbit a dirty look. "Why, thank you, Pauley." He said, storming back inside.
The sound of Milo's laughter greeted him as he moved back inside the darkness of the Papetoon watering hole. There was a twinkle in the ring-tailed raccoon's eyes as he motioned for Carl and the general to follow. "I'd be careful, McCloud. You don't lighten up, that sphincter of yours is going to kill you some day."
"I'll try to remember that." Carl shook his head and followed, giving General Grey the stink eye. "Nice fourth, general. Love the suggestion."
"He'll be good for you, Commander. You just wait and see." Grey prophesied.
23rd Day of the Primal War
Carl McCloud sat in the darkness of Dana's quarters, staring at the information on the Primal superweapon for the fourteenth time in the last hour and a half. Again, he willed it to give him some sort of a clue to its weakness, but he found none. Again, frustration served as the sole reward for his efforts.
The door chimed, and the vulpine lifted his head out of his hands. "Yes?" The entryway hissed open, and Milo stepped inside the room with a steaming cup of something in his hand. "Ah, Milo. No, I don't have anything yet."
"No, I didn't imagine you would." Milo said. He seemed to have reverted to his role as the team's voice of reason and comfort. "Brought you something to drink." The raccoon came over and set the mug just to the side of Carl's left hand. "You may want to let it cool off a little."
"No, tea. You don't need the full hit, just something to perk you up a little." Milo stepped back and leaned against the wall. "Dana's been in a better mood. I see you didn't bother with the pretense of your own quarters."
"Given how space is at a premium on this ship with all the Ursa Station crewmembers, Arspace techs, and our additional Arwing pilots, I didn't see the point." Carl sighed. "How's everyone holding up out there?"
"Worried, but hopeful. You still have a knack for inspiring people." The raccoon smiled. "Lord only knows how you recruited Rourke."
"Getting Rourke to join up was easy. You were the tough case. What I want to know is, what did you say to convince my sister to join Project Seraphim?"
"What she needed to hear." Milo said distantly. Carl looked to the former sniper apologetically.
"I'm…I'm sorry I brought you in on this. It was just supposed to be flight testing. Now we're in an actual war."
"Do I look sorry?" Milo blinked. "I made peace with the situation weeks ago, sport. Besides, if you hadn't dragged me out of that watering hole, I would've been rounded up and probably executed by the Primals in one of their prison camps. At least this way, I have a chance to fight back. Don't carry the guilt of this war on your shoulders. You've got enough to deal with."
"That's the truth." Carl leaned back in his seat and motioned to the flatscreen at the desk. "I can't see a weakness to this monster. It's…It's just invincible."
"No shield is unbreakable. No weapon is without a flaw." Milo reminded his superior. "Want a second set of eyes, Skip?"
"Never turn down help that's cheerfully offered." Carl waved the raccoon over.
The raccoon set a hand on the desk in Dana's quarters and stared at the monitor as Carl scrolled through the data. "The shielding that the Primals have on this thing is phenomenal. It's segmented, which allows them to raise and drop sections of it as needed…letting them unleash waves of fighters while still minimizing the risk to the ship. The field projects a full 75 meters away from the ship, giving them plenty of space to launch ships of their own before dropping their shields. Our own shielding on the Wild Fox and our Arwings is just a single close-range field generated from the G-Diffuser…erm, Negator systems."
"So, you fire through the hole when it opens."
"Had that thought. So did the 4th Fleet." Carl motioned to recorded sensor logs of a section of the ship's shielding opening up. Two Gryphon class Cornerian frigates had opened fire on the exposed section, but the vessel had quickly raised the shields in that portion, blocking the incoming fire. "Doesn't work. What makes it worse is that in spite of the segmented nature of their shield matrix, if one section gets hit, the others divert power to keep that cell from collapsing. Deadly effective. I don't see a way through those shields."
"Short range subspace jump?"
"No. That was something else weird in the readings. This ship generates an enormous presence. The 4th Fleet had to clear significant distance from it before they could make the jump to FTL. The automated safety systems in the Subspace navicomp would prevent you from trying the stunt, just like it prevents you from flying through a planet or a small moon."
"Damn." Milo muttered. "So much for that idea. All right…their shields show any weakness to ballistic impact?"
"They threw cruise missiles and ionic torpedoes at the thing, but the shields took the hits without much of a problem." Carl shook his head. "Supposedly, this ship is ancient…but the defensive systems on it are leaps and bounds above anything the SDF has access to. It's not that it doesn't have weak points…they're just impossible to get to." He motioned to a series of proportionately small towers dotting the surface of the Super-Saucerer. "These seem to be some kind of shield projectors, and there's a lot of them, like freckles. I'm betting each one of these towers correlates to a specific section of the segmented shielding that this ship uses."
"But again…can't get to them." Milo rubbed at his chin. "So you have to fire on them before they even drop out of Subspace."
"Ha!" Carl laughed at that. "Which you can't predict with any amount of accuracy. I mean, something this large, you'll notice a spatial disturbance maybe five seconds before they pop back to realspace, but that's not enough time. The MIDS can tell us they're coming, but not where they'll emerge."
"Really?" Milo questioned, and there was something in his tone which made Carl turn to look at the team's makeshift analyst. "I think we'll have more than enough time." Milo was smiling.
"…What aren't you telling me?" Carl demanded.
Milo patted his commander's shoulder. "There's more to this ship than you know, Skip. Come on. Let's go for a walk. And ROB? Have Hogsmeade and one of the technicians meet us in the forward weapons bay."
"Understood, Sergeant Granger."
Carl reached for his cane and pulled himself up. He frowned at the ceiling. "Is that robot always listening in?"
"In public areas, yes. Here in private quarters, only when his ears are burning." Milo shrugged. "You get used to it. Hell, he's still better than the SDF's watchdogs for discretion."
Carl gave his head a shake, wandering on. "Yeah. There's just no reassurance he isn't abusing his power."
"Certainly there is." ROB chimed in through the room's intercom. "By and large, you and the other biologics aboard are quite boring."
Milo laughed, and was still laughing two corridors later.
Corneria City, Corneria
Corneria City had once held only one military installation, but the rise of the SDF had seen several more come to prominence. Galapagos Base, home to the Armored Cavalry Reserves of the Mobile Army, existed on the northern outskirts of the city. It was ensconced well within the natural caverns, which protected their most valuable assets from direct aerial assault.
Here was where one would find the 14th Reserve Brigade, under better circumstances. Unfortunately, a large portion of the force had been destroyed during the Primal's initial attack on the city, and more had perished during the prolonged fighting on Darussia. Now, only a few Landrunner tanks and the specialized Landmaster on loan from Arspace Dynamics remained in the hangar. By virtue of having been transferred back to Corneria for repairs alone, Major Avery "Ironbeak" Boskins and a handful of his tank crewmen had survived. Now Darussia was nothing but a cinder, and he and his men, it seemed, were grounded and useless.
It was maddening, and what was worse was that Geoffrey, his gunner, was taking it hard. Boskins had commanded those men, but they had all been Geoff's friends and comrades.
"They plop us here without any orders, they tell us to wait, and we wait and do nothing. Except attend funerals." Geoff threw back another swallow of the alcohol he'd been working on.
Boskins looked over to the Landmaster. The Arspace technicians had given it a full workover after its perilous descent to Tanager City and the ensuing carnage. The Model C Landmaster, the last of its kind, sat pristine and perfect.
A rolling force of vengeance left idling.
"Tell me something, Geoff." Boskins said casually, getting the mole's attention. Geoffrey looked up from his beer. "When we were rolling through Tanager City, what were you thinking?"
"Me? I was scared shitless, Major." Geoffrey answered. "That whole mission was just insane from beginning to end. I've never been in a tank that could do half the stunts that one pulled. I did the best I could, but that Landmaster…it was a beast I could barely control."
"Heh. Yeah." Boskins smiled. "They sure are." The bird rubbed at his beak. "If you had a chance to go out and fight the Primals in it again, though…would you?"
Geoff snuffled his starnose for a bit as he thought about it. After a time, he set his drink down and mustered a bit of clarity, looking to his superior and tank commander. "In a heartbeat. But we're grounded. There's been no word from Army Command about us being redeployed…and that was before they lost Darussia."
"Why do you think that is?" Boskins raised an eyebrow. "Go ahead, give me your opinion."
Geoff didn't have to think about it long. "They're turtling up. This Super-Saucerer has them scared shitless. Hell, I'm scared shitless. Maybe they think if they keep us here on Corneria, we can defend it, but…I don't see how we could. That thing nuked Darussia from orbit. Fat lot of good a tank, even a Landmaster, can do down here on the ground."
"My thoughts exactly." Boskins agreed with a rumble of approval. "But I've been thinking about how we can get back into the fight."
"With no Fleet, and basically no ships left?" Geoff snorted. "What are you going to do, join up with Starfox?"
Boskins smiled at him, and Geoffrey felt a sense of dread growing in his heart. "Uh, major, I was kidding. Really."
"You finish your beer off, Geoff." Boskins got up and looked to the offices connected to the storage hangar. "I've got a call to make."
Primal Homeworld (Venom)
Conquered City of Vessek
While the Primal Tribunes, Praetors, and most of their higher ranked officers made their home in the excavated Hall of Antiquity, it was not so large to house every single soldier, or the growing young and their women. Accommodations had to be made, and so the cities that had dotted the surface of the world were adopted. Some residents had found themselves evicted to make room for Primal troopers and their families. Many of their simian cousins had converted to the faith and become worshippers of the Lord of Flames; they had, by and large, been allowed to keep their homes. Even though they were considered second class citizens to the Primals, they were better off than the others; squirrels, canines, felines, ursines, porcines, and especially vulpines had either been killed outright or ripped from their homes and taken to work camps or pleasure dens.
It was a unique circumstance, things here on the Homeworld. Grandflight Gatlus could not remember a time when the Tribunes had been so magnanimous to a conquered world. This new practice existed solely because of their genetic ties to the various simian species of the Lylat System, their distant, descended cousins. Other worlds had not been so fortunate. Indeed, he could only recall one other who had voluntarily accepted the yoke instead of fighting to the end, in spite of their prowess. That world had given them much technology and weaponry which they now used in combat. Like he had told Telemos, the Ildans were an odd bunch. Ildus had been the staging point for the last leg of the multigenerational journey back here to their homeworld, and their most vital conquered world along their journey. Some Primals had even elected to stay behind, a decision which had been painfully fought over. Many still believed that had it not been for the Elite Primal Mazzeran, who had been a Tribune and been the first to publicly speak of the sentiment to remain behind on Ildus and build a new life, it would have never come to pass. Every soldier had been forced to choose whether to remain on Ildus in exile or to continue their perilous journey through the stars towards their long lost homeworld. Gatlus had been young then, in his prime. Full of fire and zeal, like Telemos.
He wondered some days still if he'd made the right choice.
The old air combat pilot made his way down the street with an armed trooper following behind him, vigilantly keeping watch for any possible threat to the leader of the Primal's fighter command. The soldier needn't have worried. The Primals paid the Grandflight little notice, and the converted simians went pale and ducked into their houses as they approached.
And this is the world we have come to reclaim.
They reached their destination, one of the houses on the block occupied by a fighter pilot under the Grandflight's command. Valmoor Gatlus reached a hand to the door and rapped his knuckles against the wood. Imported from Corneria, supposedly.
A few moments later, a Primal female wearing a golden collar around her neck opened it up. A claimed mate, the collar was the mark of belonging. She looked to the Grandflight in surprise, but waited for him to speak. Females, after all, did not speak first.
"Mrs. Orrek." Valmoor gave her a slow nod of deference, something that few other warriors did. "Is Lashal home?"
The woman nodded, opened up the door further, and stepped back to let him inside. Valmoor glanced to the guard behind him. "Wait out here and watch the street."
"As commanded, Grandflight." The trooper bobbed his head. Valmoor went inside, shutting the door behind him.
Mrs. Orrek led him into what served as the common room of the domicile, and the man sitting inside jerked upright, hastily coming to attention. "Grandflight! Sir, what brings you by?"
Valmoor smiled at the pilot. Lashal Orrek, callsign Saber. 2nd in command of Phoenix Squadron. "You're looking well. I was hoping we might have a chance to talk."
"Certainly, sir." Lashal nodded. "But can we keep it a quiet conversation? My son just got put down for his nap, and I don't want to wake him."
"Of course. Budding pilots need their sleep." Valmoor looked around. "This is a nice house."
"It is full of creature comforts, yes." Lashal looked to his mate. "Dear, could you leave us be for a bit? Perhaps you could go and prepare a drink for the Grandflight."
"Well, I don't want her going to a great deal of trouble, but if she's making one for herself and you as well, I'll take you up on the offer." Valmoor added. The female gave her head a shake and walked out of the room, heading for the kitchen. Valmoor glanced around the common room, noticing that a communications screen was turned on, and there seemed to be some kind of broadcast on.
"What's this?" He asked, gesturing to the device.
"It's something that the Cornerians call 'entertainment television', sir. This is supposedly a 'comedy' about a typical Cornerian family."
"Entertainment? Comedy?" Valmoor was curious. "I don't follow."
"Neither did I at first." Lashal shrugged. "Apparently our enemies have enough free time in their lives that they seek distraction in imaginary stories. I'm told that this show is a 'rerun', and quite popular with the converted. Well, whatever serves as a distraction. Anything to prevent unrest."
"So your son…how old is he now?"
"Two cycles and a quarter." Lashal smiled, paternal pride shining through at last. It was uncommon for younger pilots to take a mate so early in life, but not entirely unheard of. Most simply preferred to partake of the common females, and mated later in life. "He's a blazing little hellion. But I don't think you came by to ask about my spawn."
"You would be right." Gatlus rumbled. "How is Telemos doing?"
"You mean Telemos Fendhausen of the Sixth Noble House of Radiance?" Lashal replied, sarcastically correcting the Grandflight with his CO's full title. Anyone else would have shown more deference, but Lashal and Valmoor had come to an understanding and mutual concern for the brazen pilot. "I fear he's not getting better. In fact, if anything, he's only getting worse. He remained obsessed with the Pale Demon even after her capture. Now that she's gone…" Lashal waved a hand helplessly. "I don't know what I can do to pull him out of this funk he's in. He's started drinking. Heavily. And you know as well as I do that we've been assigned to planetary defense, but he has not had us fly out for training sorties since the encounter. I've had to take the men up myself just to keep their wits sharp."
Gatlus bowed his head. "I am sorry to hear it. I thought that, if he had the chance to fight with her one last time, it would be enough to help him move on."
"Perhaps if the Armada had not intervened, it might have been." Lashal consoled him. "But now, I need your advice more than ever, Grandflight."
"Call me Valmoor, Lashal. In this matter, we are on a first name basis."
"That…will take me some getting used to, Valmoor. There's even rumors that he's been under investigation by the Geasbreakers…I've been trying to quash them, but Telemos is not helping the situation."
The elder Primal fighter pilot pressed his hands together. "It may be that Telemos is gone from us forever. Or at least, the Telemos we knew. Perhaps the Pale Demon was deadlier than we gave her credit for. I had thought that she was showing mercy by sparing his life when you were all still called Tinder Squadron…But it seems she was more devilish than any of us ever guessed. Her unusual act has turned one of the bravest, most confident pilots in the corps into a wreck of his former self."
The communicator strapped to Valmoor's waist went off. He blinked and unclipped it, thumbing the switch. "Gatlus here."
"Grandflight, there has been an altercation in Vessek. One of your pilots has begun a brawl in a local drinking establishment. He injured several troopers and a handful of converted before he was subdued. Given the pilot's reputation, the responding soldiers wish to keep the situation quiet and not press charges…We were hoping that since you were in the area already, you might go and deal with the matter."
"Of course." Valmoor said reactively. "Who exactly went off on a bender?"
The voice on the other end of the line hesitated. "Captain Fendhausen of Phoenix Squadron." He finally said, giving Gatlus the address before hanging up.
A leaden mask covered Valmoor's face as he stood up. "A wreck." He repeated to himself. Lashal stood as well.
"Grandflight, may I please come along with you? He's my superior."
"If you hadn't volunteered, I was going to tell you to come along anyways." Valmoor grunted. "I have made a mess of his life and yours by sending him out to fight the Pale Demon a second time. It will take the both of us to knock some sense into him this time."
While Carl and Milo pursued their own agenda, Rourke was in the gym, working up a sweat as he tore through his routine. Throwing a complicated series of punches and kicks at a practice dummy, he flipped away as if to avoid a counterattack and then tore his laser pistol from his belt, firing three hastily aimed, but accurate shots at a second dummy positioned behind him. The impacts left scorch marks and rattled the figure, and the third burned through the stalk holding up the thing's head, decapitating it before continuing on to strike at the wall with further vandalism.
You're weak, Rourke. Of course, what should I have expected? Your father was a useless fool. You've turned out just like him. His grandfather's voice taunted him. Wolf O'Donnell had forever been taunting him, beating him not with fists, but words.
You fell in love with that McCloud bitch. I warned you, didn't I? Love is a weakness. She took all the fight out of you. Now what are you?
"Shut up." Rourke growled into the empty air, turning about and aiming at the first practice dummy.
You couldn't save her. You can't save anyone. You're USELESS!
"SHUT UP!" Rourke screamed, pulling the trigger. Lost to the red fog of war, he kept on firing at the dummy, peppering it with laserbolt after laserbolt until the thing caught fire. By the time his energy clip ran dry, the thing was a heap of ashes at the foot of a wire metal frame. And still he kept pulling the trigger, nothing but empty clicks rewarding him.
There came clapping from behind him. The red drained out of Rourke's eyes, and he turned around to see Dana standing in the doorway of the rec room, slapping her hands together slowly.
"I think you killed it."
"Go away, Dana." Rourke muttered, stowing his powerless laser pistol back in its holster. "Nothing to see here."
"Bullshit." Dana walked towards him. "You're in trouble, Lieutenant."
"I'm always in trouble, what else is new?" The wolf said woodenly.
"Because this time, you're not alone in facing it. Or did you forget that when I was falling to pieces, you pulled me back together again?"
"You think you need to do the same for me?"
"I know I do." Dana snapped. The anger in her voice burned a searing hole through the fog of his mind. He looked at her carefully. "I spiraled into depression. You, you're stuck on rage. It's not healthy. You can't do it. This team still needs you."
"The team still has me." Rourke told her, folding his arms. "Or did that fact escape your notice when your boyfriend told me I was stuck with commanding you two lunatics while he finished rehab and recovery?"
"It has Lieutenant O'Donnell." Dana said, unimpressed. "It needs Rourke. And you know there's a difference."
Of course he did. He hated the rank, he hated being addressed by his last name. It was formal, it was military, and it was everything he'd always been raised to fight against. Lieutenant O'Donnell was a farce, a hollow presence. Rourke…Rourke was an avenging terror.
"When Carl brought you in, I thought he was nuts." Dana told the gray wolf quietly. "You had nothing but piss and vinegar in you. He stuck his neck, his reputation, his career out on the line to bring a pirate in on the project. You argued constantly with him those first few weeks. Remember that?"
"Yeah. Like I could forget." Rourke stared at the wall. More than once, they'd reported to the sickbay of Ursa Station to have Dr. Bushtail patch up their lacerations. The last time they'd come to blows and meant it, the simian had done the stitching without anesthetic just to teach them a lesson.
"But nobody could deny you had talent. Especially once we mothballed KIT and the first prototype and built new ones with the ODAIs. You loosened up, and then you changed. You became a leader, and I finally began to see what Carl had seen in you. It's what kept us going when he went missing out on the Rim. You didn't learn to be a leader in the same way that he had. He'd gone through formal training. He was a product of the SDF, rigid and by the book. You, you nutter, your leadership was different. Easygoing. Laid back. It got even better the more time you spent around us, got comfortable with us. Somehow, Carl knew you were the only person who could be his second in command…because you were the only one who could make us fly when he wasn't around. So don't start trying to be Carl. Just stay who you were."
"And the Primals? Terrany?" Rourke asked, finally looking at her.
"You take that blind rage of yours and you channel it. Put it where it belongs." Dana snapped at him. She nudged the toe of her boot through the pile of melted slag that was the first practice dummy. "Stop wrecking equipment. You want to wreck something, you blast the ever-loving shit out of that Super-Saucerer when it gets here." She stepped up to him and poked him hard in the chest. "And you do it for her."
His face softened. "And afterwards? When it's quiet and I'm all alone, and she's not here? What do I do then? What did you do without Carl?"
Dana bit her lip, for the memory of what she'd done during those times still burned after Carl McCloud's return.
"You're stronger than me." She finally said. The tigress patted his chest twice and turned around. "Don't do what I did."
Forward Weapons Bay
Of all the places one could be in aboard the majestic Wild Fox, none was more imposing than the Forward Weapons Bay. The ship carried only two guns, the paired JT-300 turbolasers, but they were massive, taking up nearly all of the forward space along the hull. The rear was taken up by missile launch tubes and storage racks that were loaded down with Lylus class cruise missiles, and there was a separate section set up for the rockets that the Wild Fox had used in the past to launch arrays of Godsight Pods.
Carl limped along on his cane, grateful that Milo had slowed down enough to keep pace with him. "I'm beginning to see why they outlawed those things." He remarked, staring at the turbolasers.
"They've saved our bacon more than once. Thanks to them and the cruise missiles, we've managed to hold our own in three to one odds. That was at Venom…A close getaway, that time."
Someone behind them cleared his throat. When Carl turned, he saw an enormous black bear in blue coveralls. "Of course, we pack more in here than just the artillery. This also houses the jamming beam, the MIDS array and radome, and all the other goodies. With most of the space in the forward compartments required for ship operations and maintenance, we've had to squeeze as much in here as we can. It made the repairs after Sector Y dicey, to say the least."
Carl smiled. "Ulie Darkpaw. Good to see you." Ulie clasped Carl's smaller paw in his enormous one and shook it firmly, rattling the pilot. "I see you and Wyatt have been busy."
"The pilots have been busy. We've been swamped." Ulie snorted. He glanced sidewards to Milo. "I didn't exactly appreciate that heap you brought back from the ground sortie at Darussia. You know how expensive it is to fix your damn ship?"
"Vaguely." Milo said, looking a little sheepish. "I'll try not to get shot down next time."
"Good." The bear grunted gruffly. "So, I'm here. And you're here. Why are we here again?"
"Carl's working on a plan to take down the Worldbreaker when it shows up here, and we wanted a closer look at the MIDS system. Hogsmeade is supposed to meet us here."
"What, the radar guy?" Ulie blinked. "The guy stares at computer screens all day. He'll probably be running late."
Behind them, the turbolift doors opened up to reveal the systems officer himself, hastily straightening his uniform.
"Or he could be right on time." Milo added in, unable to resist the jibe. Ulie grunted and folded his enormous arms in disapproval, but said nothing else as Hogsmeade closed the gap.
The porcine systems officer gave them all a breathless nod of his head as he jogged up to them. "I'm…here." He panted. "What can I do for you, sirs?"
"Buford, what would it take to refine the MIDS array?" Carl asked the radar systems officer. Hogsmeade gaped at him in reply.
"I was wondering if it might be possible to narrow the search filter down, to detect mass imprints on a finer, more smaller…"
"No, no, I got that part." Hogsmeade rubbed at one of his eyes. "Have you been talking to the XO?" Carl gave him a quizzical shake of his head. "Because he just talked to me about that yesterday."
"He did, huh?" Milo mused aloud. "Interesting."
"So, is it possible?"
"Well, from a hardware perspective, redesigning the MIDS in any reasonable amount of time is out of the question." Ulie grumbled, at last understanding why he'd been invited to the meeting of minds. "The thing's a fragging prototype, like almost everything and everyone else on this fragging ship. We're writing the manual on the thing as we use it."
"That was the answer I gave Dander as well." Hogsmeade nodded approvingly to Ulie. "The MIDS is solid technology, and even for a prototype, fiddling with the hardware wouldn't improve its performance, only worsen it. So I've been approaching the problem from a software perspective instead. Hang on a second." He started to fiddle with his pockets.
"What are you doing, Buford?" Carl questioned the fidgeting pig.
"I said hang on a second, I forgot which pocket I put this in!" Hogsmeade griped back at him. After several more awkward seconds of rifling through his shirt and pants, he produced a datapad. He punched it to life and handed it over to Carl, who saw nothing but illegible computer code. "Always the last place you look…yeah, I've been working on the problem since yesterday. I've been trying to refine the program code so it's a little less cluttered. If I do it right, it'll suck up less processing power for normal mode…and maybe give this old ship just enough space in the RAM cache to pull off a high frequency gravimetric scan without crashing all the other systems. Feasibly, you could use it to scope out those stealth superfighters the Primals used to jump your rescue, Commander McCloud."
"Hm. How accurate are we talking?"
"Tens of meters. You'd know they were coming, and there'd be no ambush."
"And what if I wanted it accurate to the meter?" Carl inquired innocently.
Buford Hogsmeade's eyes bulged out. "You…you're…Oh, geez, you are serious."
"Usually." Milo said, unflappable as ever. "So, could you do it?"
Hogsmeade scratched at his head and sighed. "…Maybe. I'm going to have to come up with a new algorithm, though. You're talking about fine-tuning the…Ah, you don't care, do you? You just want the thing to work, and you expect that I'll be able to pull a miracle out of my ass."
"Oh, no. That's not the miracle." Carl said. "That's just phase 1. Do you think you could find a way to transmit that precise data to other ship systems?"
"What, like the turbolasers?"
Carl hesitated. "Yes."
Hogsmeade sighed. "I'm gonna need some help on this then. It'll take me another two days, though."
"You have hours." Milo informed the pig gently. "In two days, it'll be too late to do us any good."
Hogsmeade sighed again. "Ulie, think you could give me a hand?"
"Sure, why not." The black bear rolled his eyes. He looked at Milo and Carl with a glare. "All right, go ahead and clear off. You've given us a problem, now let us work on it."
"Yeah. Thanks, guys." Carl waved and turned around, hobbling back to the lift. He and Milo could hear the grumbling of the radar operator and the second engineer all the way there.
"You think they'll be able to make it happen?" Carl asked the former sniper quietly.
"With Ulie helping out, yes." The raccoon nodded. "That bear always gets what he sets his mind to. The big question is, will it be ready in time?"
"Let's hope so." Carl pushed the button to open the turbolift and stepped on.
Cornerian Space Command
Corneria City, Corneria
It was a very bad time to be in charge the military. Public morale was at an all time low, and while the loss of the 4th Fleet was, for the moment, hidden under the guise of 'missing in action', there was no disguising the total and utter destruction of Darussia. Communications from the planet had been slowly reactivating after the SDF victory there, but they had all suddenly been cut off yesterday, and the Primals had wasted no time broadcasting the news of their victory, and of the impending doom of the surviving Cornerian held worlds. There were protests and even a few riots around Corneria. Local law enforcement had broken out the shields and body armor, even.
Sitting in his office, Kagan felt utterly helpless. He'd gotten the final report from Admiral Markinson only five minutes after General Grey had received it from Captain Korman. That same information that the 4th Fleet had collected on the instrument of their destruction was quite literally the only thing that Starfox, Growler, Typhoon, and Raptor Squadron had to save themselves, the Wild Fox, and the planet Katina from the same fate.
His analysts were hard at work sifting through the sensor and combat data with a fine toothed comb. Thanks to the quick thinking of Commander Pellerton, the day shift had been called in early, the night shift had been pulling overtime, and nobody, himself included, was getting any sleep. Thank the Creator for coffee, and every derivation thereof.
General Grey had his own people sifting through the data, he knew that. Right now, those Arwing pilots were probably brainstorming like mad trying to come up with a solution. They had to be, and the pressure was even more intense on them.
It would have been far too easy to succumb to the desire to just slump into a puddle and lose all heart, but Kagan knew that he had to wear a brave face. The rest of the Joint Forces Chiefs had been silent since their acerbic, and interrupted debate, the day before. Admiral Weyland, according to the CSC aides, had stumbled out to his car like a dead dog walking and gone straight home, claiming sudden illness. He had lost everything.
They had all almost lost everything.
The intercom on his desk chimed. Kagan punched the line open. "Yes?"
"General, it's Pellerton."
"You find something out about this Super-Saucerer?"
"No, we're still looking. It's just…Sir. About Katina. Have they been told to evacuate?"
Kagan shut his eyes to hide the pain in them, as if his subordinate could see him over the vox only connection. "It's been taken care of, Commander. You get back to your teams. Call in pizza, fried noodles, hero sandwiches, vegetable platters. Hell, whatever it takes to keep them energized. Nobody leaves until we find an answer."
"Yes, sir, general." Kagan killed the connection and stared up at the ceiling.
No evacuation call had been made. Only Deckmore AFB might have had any clue what was happening up in orbit, but Kagan had sent them a gag order on the last line-of-sight narrowband from the Lunar Base. There wouldn't be enough time to evacuate everyone off of Katina before the Super Saucerer showed up, it was just impossible. One argument would be that saving anyone was worth it. But worth what? Panic? Rioting? A total breakdown in the government on Katina, and martial law?
No. So it had been absolutely silent. Either they would stop the Super Saucerer, or Katina would fall. And if Katina fell along with Starfox…
Well, it wouldn't matter where anyone evacuated to.
Primal Homeworld (Venom)
City of Vessek
The drinking establishment in question had been previously owned by a terrier dog, small and full of fire. It was now operated by a pair of Simians who had been working there previously, and cars with flashing lights of local authority were parked outside. Several off-duty soldiers were being seen by medical personnel, most of them with scrapes, broken noses, and bruises. One seemed to have suffered a concussion and a broken arm. A security cordon had been created, marking off the bar from additional patrons.
A pair of troopers came up to Grandflight Gatlus and the civilian-dressed Lashal Orrek, quickly saluting the most senior fighter pilot of the Armada.
"Grandflight Gatlus. It is an honor to meet you."
"Were that it were under better circumstances." Gatlus gave them a curt nod. "Where is he?"
"We've kept him inside the tavern, away from prying eyes."
"Good. Let no one follow us inside." Gatlus ordered.
Alone, Valmoor and Lashal made their way into the bar. The owners were trying their best to clean up the place. Broken glass bottles were strewn about overturned tables and broken chairs, and the pungent smell of alcohol of varying strengths and variety made the entire place smell. It would smell worse tomorrow in the heat of the day if they didn't mop it all up tonight.
Off in the corner, hurt and smeared with blood and drunk out of his mind, was Telemos Fendhausen of the Sixth Noble House of Radiance. A large bag of ice was pressed to the side of his head, and he seemed stuck somewhere between a sitting stupor and catatonia.
"Oh, Lord." Lashal said quietly. Gatlus glanced over to the two bar owners.
"Would you mind giving us a minute with this soldier alone?"
Hardly about to go against the wishes or orders of a Primal soldier, the two pale Simians set their brooms off to the side and went into the manager's office, closing the door behind them. Alone with Telemos, the two pilots maneuvered over to the recovering leader of Phoenix Squadron and stared down at him. He stirred, finally noticing their presence, and looked up slowly.
"Telemos, what am I going to do with you?" Gatlus asked him, sadness in his old eyes.
Telemos looked back down to the floor. "It doesn't matter. She's dead now."
Gatlus looked over to Lashal. Both shared a knowing glance…their worst fears realized.
"You took an oath to Armada and our Lord." Lashal growled at Telemos. "You took an oath to your wingmen when we formed Tinder Squadron! Blast it all, Telemos, you're throwing everything away, and for what? Some stupid bitch that isn't even alive any longer?"
Telemos let out a humorless laugh at that. It enraged Lashal enough that he reached down and grabbed hold of his commander's shirt. Yanking the Primal up, he slapped Telemos hard across the face. Phoenix 1's head recoiled to the side from the blow, but he showed no other response other than dropping the ice pack. "Damn you, do something!" Lashal snarled at him.
"Lashal, that's enough!" Gatlus barked. The voice of the Grandflight seemed to break through Orrek's rage, and Phoenix 2 let go of Telemos. His commanding officer slumped back against the wall, but managed to stay partly standing. "Telemos, please…you can't keep doing this to yourself. This obsession...it has to stop. If you keep this up, your reputation, your standing, it will be ruined all over again! Not even I can keep something like this completely quiet. I may even have to formally reprimand you."
"Doesn't matter." Telemos repeated.
"Why? Because she's dead?" Lashal said bitterly.
Telemos let out that unnerving laugh of his again, and shook his head slowly. Even that small motion caused him to sway enough that his second in command had to reach out and steady him.
"Telemos. Tell us what's happened."
"A Geasbreaker." Telemos finally said. The words fell from his mouth like heavy lead weights. "The one who…interrogated her. He's threatened me. Revived title or not, approval from the Lord of Flames or not…I'm still lost." He brought a hand up to his forehead. "She's dead, and she's still ruining my life."
"He threatened you with what?" Gatlus asked quizzically.
"Personal shame." Telemos said, offering the only explanation on the matter. "I was denied my vengeance, Valmoor. You risked everything to give me the chance, and it didn't matter. I had trained my mind, my body, for my second fight with the Pale Demon, and it still…it wasn't enough. And now it can never be enough. It's eating me apart, and nothing I do is stopping it!"
"We had trained." Lashal cut in, daggers in his eyes. Telemos looked blankly at his subordinate. "WE. You used to care about this squadron, Telemos. It defined you, and you defined us. Now, I don't know who you are anymore. You're so wrapped up in yourself that you're letting everything else, everything that used to matter to you, drift away! And now I find you in your cups, busted up in a bar brawl? What the hell were you thinking?!"
Telemos didn't answer the question Lashal posed to him. He seemed to mumble something, though, and Lashal leaned in a little closer, listening.
"What?" Lashal blinked, not quite sure he had heard correctly. Telemos whispered it again, not for his wingman's benefit, but because of the demons in his own drunken mind. The lucidity vanished, and Telemos was lost to the world between his ears.
Gatlus touched Lashal's shoulder. "Come on." He urged the younger man. "Let's get him home."
They dragged the stupefied Telemos back out to their car and dumped him into the backseat. Lashal sighed and started up the engine, driving them away from the ruined bar.
"We'll let him dry out at my place. Tomorrow I'll beat the shit out of him."
"You may not get the chance." Gatlus mused. "Remember what he said about that Geasbreaker…if he's truly done something to attract the interest of those conniving censors already, his fate may be beyond us."
Lashal shook his head. "It scares me that he doesn't care. I feel like my friend has died, and I'm just living with his corpse."
Gatlus rubbed at his chin. "What did he say?" Lashal looked across the front seat to him, and Gatlus elaborated. "In the bar, he whispered something. What was it?"
Lashal winced at the memory. "He said why…why did she spare me?"
Gatlus leaned back in the car seat and exhaled.
He didn't have an answer to that question either.
Praetor Goulfax sat in the command chair of the ancient ship of destruction, waiting impatiently as his second in command collected the status reports from the various sections of the Worldbreaker. After a period that almost seemed too long, his colleague turned and nodded.
"All stations have reported in, Praetor. The Shatterbeam is re-aligned and ready for its firing cycle, but we will be unable to charge it until we exit subspace."
Goulfax nodded; that was nothing unexpected. It had been the same when they destroyed the world they now hovered over. "And?" He asked, waiting for his officer to finish his report.
The Primal nodded. "The shield generators have been serviced, the power core is nominal, and all troopers are on station. Eclipse and Sunder Squadron are currently on standby, and we have reformed our Splinter drones into full divisions. We stand ready to assault Katina on your orders, sir."
Goulfax nodded, and stood up. He reached above his head to a wired microphone linked to the ceiling and pulled it down. "Shipwide broadcast." He ordered the communications officer.
A squawk echoed across the enormous Worldbreaker, bringing all conversation and activity to a standstill. Each and every soldier aboard paused to see what announcement was being made.
"My fellow Primals." Praetor Goulfax said, hearing the delayed echo of his voice run along the corridors of the vessel. "Yesterday, we struck a tremendous blow against our Cornerian enemy. Thanks to your brave efforts, we incinerated their precious world and sent their forces into retreat. As a part of my plan, Praetor Kroff met them in ambush and annihilated the survivors of the fleet that had been plaguing us. For far too long, we have been in a tenuous stalemate because of the Cornerian's stubbornness and their Arwing fighters. With the loss of their fleet, they stand at the edge of the cliff, and we shall push them over to their extinction!"
A roar of approval rumbled back to him, and Goulfax couldn't help but smile. His bridge officers in turn nodded, sharing in the sentiment. Goulfax was a premiere tactician among the Armada's line officers, but he also had a rare gift for theatricality that served him well.
"Before we can fly on their pathetic homeworld and fumigate it, though, we shall finish what Kroff started. Eight of the hated Arwings escaped his trap and fled, having been given time to do so by the sacrifice of their fellows. They have flown to a world the Primals haven't yet sent troops to…a colony that the Cornerians call Katina. They thought themselves safe…we shall show them otherwise. For the glory of the Armada and our Lord, we shall fly to this Katina and annihilate it. And when the Arwings come up to fight uselessly to defend another world, our ace pilots of Sunder and Eclipse Squadron will crush them!"
A chant of war and victory rose up in the bridge, and overheard through his microphone, it then carried to the rest of the ship. Goulfax kept the line open, smiling broadly, and resumed his seat.
"Set course for Katina. Engage the subspace drivers." He told his second in command. The order was relayed with precision and repeated back, and the ship hummed as it broke orbit and moved as commanded.
The massive Worldbreaker, the ship the SDF called the "Super Saucerer", accelerated away from the burning husk of Darussia and then slipped into subspace in a burst of light.
ROB sat at the ship's SWACS console, monitoring uplinks from the surface of Katina, intership conditions, and other factors besides. He had been there vigilantly since the start of the war, and even when the robot wasn't on the bridge, he remained telepresent. Most disconcerting to the bridge crew was that he could hold a conversation over voxlink with others while attending to his duties as the ship's hardwired, roaming AI. Once, he'd even held one conversation over the phone and another in person.
A call from the forward weapons bay came in. ROB accessed it, already aware of who was calling.
"Bridge." The robot said in his customary monotone.
"ROB, it's Ulie. Hogsmeade and I think we have the program code ready for the MIDS modifications, but to integrate them, we'll need you to take the Array offline. Full cold."
ROB's red visor flickered as the strobing light behind them looked left and right in what was the closest thing to concern he could show. "That is inadvisable given our current state of military readiness."
"Yeah, I know. I don't like it either, but I don't want to blow a fuse either and mess up the MIDS. The software checks out, but installing it is going to take time, and I need the system offline to prevent microfragmentation."
"How long will you require the system to be offline?" ROB asked.
"Given the age of the ship's hardware…I'd estimate an hour." Ulie said.
XO Dander came over, frowning as ROB went on with his conversation. "What's going on, ROB?"
"Mechanic Darkpaw and Officer Hogsmeade are requesting that we deactivate the MIDS Array for a software upgrade."
The tomcat scowled. "Hogsmeade, the MIDS is our early warning system. If we take it down, we won't know if the Primals are coming or not."
"All due respect, XO, we know the Primals are coming. We just don't know when." Hogsmeade replied over the line. "Look, the MIDS has enough range to let us see inbounds two hours out at subspace velocity, right? We need an hour to get this software patch online. It's for Skip, he says he's got a plan. So look at the long-range gravitic sensors and tell me if you've got a large, Super-Saucerer sized blip coming at us. If we don't, then we've got time."
Dander looked to ROB, and the robot shook his head. "I am currently tracking no large inbound displacement on a vector from Darussia. The last SDF Intelligence report placed the ship still in orbit around that world."
Dander still made a face. "I don't like it…but all right. McCloud better have one hell of a plan, though."
"He's a McCloud. They live and breathe crazy and come out on top." Ulie chuckled, killing the communication.
"Or die trying." Tom Dander said softly, realizing after the fact that ROB likely had heard him. The robot showed no reaction to the statement. "Go ahead and take it offline, ROB."
The robot's red visor glowed brightly for a moment, then receded to normal. "It is done."
Dander patted ROB's shoulder and turned back for the command chair. "Heaven help us."
The gravity of the 4th Fleet's destruction wasn't lost on the crew of the Wild Fox, even when they sat down for their meals. The presence of eight new fighter pilots drew attention, but one look at their Squadron insignias, that of a howling tornado and an outstretched lizard talon, told the story well enough. Combined with the sober look that the eight Arwing pilots carried, everyone decided it would be better to give them all a wide berth. Even Pugs Femmick, typically noted for being a boisterous presence in his domain of the galley, didn't linger long at the table where Typhoon and Raptor Squadron were sitting. He came by, refilled their coffee, and left them alone.
Sensing the mood, Dana Tiger and Growler Squadron sat at the table beside them, but refrained from saying anything. When the others wanted to talk, they would. Some animals functioned better by blocking stuff like that out and focusing on the mission alone. Truth be told, none of them had much of an appetite, but the pilots all knew that they had to stay energized for an attack that might happen with very little warning.
"So, kid." Dana asked Wallaby. The youngest member of Growler Squadron, and the only Seraph-capable Arwing pilot sat up straighter in his seat at her voice. "The ride still treating you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, it sure is." Wallaby stammered back. "I mean, I'm not as good as you or the others are, but…"
"You're rambling, Preen." Captain Hound rumbled. The marsupial winced and nodded, pushing his macaroni and cheese around with his fork. "The kid's gotten better, but he's got a long way to go yet. Damer and I are doing our best to train him up right."
Dana nodded. "Skip…Carl flew with you, right?"
"He sure did. He was as green and wet behind the ears as Wallaby when I first got him." Lars smirked. He carved off a piece of his flank steak and chewed on it thoughtfully before swallowing it. "But he turned out just fine. Still finds ways to surprise me. I always knew he had leadership potential…but the way he's trying to rally us, even I didn't see that coming."
"Yeah." Dana smiled to hide her sheepishness. "I wonder what he'll come up with."
"Knowing him, something just a little off the usual by the book." Rourke announced, appearing beside the table, lunch tray in hand. The lone O'Donnell of the Starfox team looked haggard, but calmer. Dana's face brightened up and gestured for him to sit down. Apparently, her talk with him had gotten through his thick skull.
"Got hungry finally, lieutenant?" Captain Hound asked him.
"Pugs said he was making steaks today. Who am I to turn him down?" Rourke mustered a not-really-joke and took a seat. "Any word from Skip yet?"
"No, and his deadline's about to hit." Dana said. "Milo went to check in on him, and I haven't heard from either of them since."
"Ah, great." Rourke rolled his eyes. "That's encouraging."
"Well, for the time being, son, I suggest you stop worrying and eat your meal." Captain Hound advised the former space pirate. "Worrying won't do a blessed thing for us now."
"Live it up while you can?" Rourke asked, lifting an eyebrow.
"Sort of. Don't go collecting wrinkles you don't need." Hound said, smiling. "You remember how wrinkly General Pepper always looked in the historical archives? You don't need his problem."
"The way things are going, General Kagan's going to end up just as worn out." Captain Korman called over from the nearby table. He looked to Hound. "Tell me something, Captain. You were among the handful of survivors from the 7th Fleet. How did you make it?"
Hound deflated a little, as the memory of the first battle over Aquas brought up painful memories of his second in command, Argen Quail, and the avian's death after he'd ejected from his destroyed fighter. "Rage, I think. Just…rage. And luck. In the end, we were so badly damaged we had to make a crash landing on the ocean surface. The Primals left us for dead, since they had other places to be." He mustered an uneasy chuckle and a hollow smile. "Don't think we'll be that lucky this time around. No, all we've got going for us is the element of surprise…and whatever plan my former student has come up with."
Nobody bothered to ask if that would be enough, because nobody wanted to think about the alternative.
Victory or death was all they had to pick between.
Forward Weapons Bay
"How's it coming, Buford?" Ulie asked the radar systems officer anxiously. Buford was staring down at a datapad, tracking the progress of the software patch. The data had been installed, and the MIDS system was slowly integrating the changes. Slowly being the key word. It was now fifty-eight minutes into the hour that they had promised the bridge crew they needed to make the upgrade happen, and the progress bar hung on with irritating insistence.
"Almost there." Buford said."
"You said that five minutes ago." Wyatt's first wrench turner reminded the pig sourly.
Finally, the screen went green. Buford smiled in relief. "The software patch…is good." He exhaled, feeling the stress of the rush job flow out of him. Even with Ulie's help, he'd pushed himself beyond his normal limits of programming talent, and the effort had drained him. "I think we licked it."
Ulie punched the intercom. "ROB, you there?"
"As always." The robot replied steadily over the ship's speakers.
"I think we've got the MIDS Array patched up. Go ahead and bring it back online, and dial in a narrow band focus. Tell me what you see."
"Accessing the MIDS. One moment…" There was silence for thirty seconds as the MIDS whirred back to life and began feeding data back into the ship's datacore, and then ROB spoke again. "I am reading several ship-sized objects in orbit around Katina…Visual sensors…confirm that they are communications satellites."
"And how accurate of a measurement are you getting on their position?"
"If we wished to deprive the surface population of the Cornerian News Network, we could bullseye their satellite from our current position. It is at a range of 2,436 and one third kilometers. And eight meters besides."
Ulie chuckled at that. "Well…I think we licked it then. Carl wanted close up accuracy."
"He's got it now." Hogsmeade agreed, nodding faintly. He spoke up louder so ROB could hear him. "All right, dial the MIDS back up to long range scan. We want to keep it there for the bosses, after all."
Seconds later, the ship's alarms started wailing. Clapping their paws over their ears to muffle the sound, Hogsmeade and Ulie shared a look of recognition and fear.
The alarms went off everywhere in the ship, especially in the cafeteria. The pilots all shot to their feet, instantly on edge.
"Are they here?!" Captain Korman demanded over the racket.
Dana quickly shook her head, flattening her ears down. "No, but they're coming!"
"All crew to stations. Arwing pilots, report to the conference room."
Dana nodded. "See? If they were here, we'd be running for our Arwings."
"I hope Skip's got his plan figured out…" Rourke muttered, abandoning his tray and making for the doors.
The others followed.
5 Minutes Later
Assembled as they had been earlier in the morning, the assembly of Arwing pilots, along with Wyatt Toad, Ulie Darkpaw, General Grey, and XO Dander restlessly waited for the meeting to begin. Grey had told them it would start when Carl McCloud walked through the doors. He'd been putting the finishing touches on his plan, it seemed. Dana shot an inquisitive look at Milo, but the ring-tailed raccoon that acted as the Starfox Team's center of mental clarity had merely offered a small smirking smile and said nothing.
At last, the doors hissed open, and "Skip" McCloud wandered in with his cane.
"All right. Let's try to keep this briefing brief." He told them all. "I know you're about as high strung as I am, and hate waiting around. So here's the scoop. ROB, bring up the holo-projectors."
He hobbled over to the conference table and stayed standing as the room lights dimmed and ROB, using his unique telepresence within the Wild Fox, brought the three-dimensional display online. A duplicate of the MIDS readout appeared in the suspended photons.
"MIDS caught a large object on a direct course from Darussia headed our way a few minutes ago. It'll be here in eighty minutes via subspace, and military intelligence believes it to be the Super-Saucerer. We're assuming as much, based on its spatial displacement. That's what you all were expecting to hear. Now for the good news…there's a plan."
Carl wirelessly linked his datapad to the holoprojector and brought up what he'd been working on.
"Oh, Carl, come on. That's a horrible name." Dana criticized him.
"Yeah, well. I figured the plan was more important than the name. Rourke would say it wouldn't need a name."
"It doesn't." The O'Donnell folded his arms. "So. What do we do?"
Carl nodded. "The Wild Fox is probably the most unique ship I've ever had the distinction of serving on. It's got a boatload of surprises, and the newest one is our MIDS Array, which is what's allowed us to see the Primals coming. It wasn't originally designed for small scale use, however. Luckily, it seems that our radar expert Hogsmeade and XO Dander were thinking of that problem already. It took some desperate software coding on his part and the efforts of Mechanic Darkpaw here, but it's paid off. The MIDS Array is now able to provide precise ranges to objects the size of a spacefighter by the minute fluctuations of their mass imprint…Allowing us the sort of precision that we're going to need to take this thing on."
He brought up a schematic of the Super-Saucerer painstakingly earned by the sacrifice of the 4th Fleet. He highlighted a series of strange looking protrusions from the dorsal and ventral surface of the disc-shaped craft.
"From what we've been able to figure, these are projection towers for the shield array that the ship uses. Each one can operate independently, allowing the Primals to disengage a particular section of the shields at will. They used this ability to launch their fighters safely while minimizing their exposure to the weapons fire of the 4th Fleet at Darussia. What we don't know is if the shield array can function fully with one or two towers knocked down, or the loss of a tower eliminates that section of shielding entirely. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that they have some sort of redundancy built into it, since they've shown that they can feed power from one section of energy shielding to another to prevent collapse. I'm erring on the side of the worst case scenario, of course. What we do know, however, is that when the Super-Saucerer emerged from subspace to attack Darussia, there was a period of about seven seconds before they raised shields…soon enough to react to enemy fire pointed their direction after they appeared."
Carl raised a finger up to emphasize that detail. "That's where the MIDS comes in. Thanks to the precise measurements we can get now, we'll be able to anticipate where they'll 'pop out' back into normal space, and have weapons on the site immediately after they drop from FTL."
"Are you serious?" Captain Korman blinked in surprise. "That's…well, how exactly?"
"Data collected from previous MIDS readings indicates that craft emerging from subspace create an above average depression on their spacetime surroundings at the region where they will phase back in, and that this depression event precedes the arriving ship by an average of 3.5 seconds…less for smaller ships, more for ships of larger size." ROB answered, picking that particular moment to chime in. Carl nodded gratefully to the ceiling, as the robot was saving him having to make the explanation himself. "More precise figures cannot be obtained, as we are now operating the MIDS at a scale of sensitivity it was not originally designed to function at. The arrival of the Primal superweapon will be our first test of the theory with more specific measurements."
"In other words, we're writing the book on this as we go along." Carl said, taking hold of the briefing again. "Thank you, ROB. As a matter of fact, everyone, ROB's the key to this opening gambit. With his high processing ability, he'll be able to fire a full salvo of Lylus cruise missiles at the damn thing before they even realize we're here…and laserfire besides. With any luck, he'll damage the Super-Saucerer enough to disable a few chunks of their shielding. At the least, he'll shake them up and put them off their game. Once he does that, though, it falls on all of you to finish the job. Each Squadron will have a particular assignment, so listen up carefully."
Carl looked over to Typhoon Squadron, now commanded by the golden retriever, Charlie West. "Captain West, you and Typhoon Squadron are going to be in charge of screwing up those shield projection towers. Whatever ROB's initial salvo doesn't hit, you have to finish off so the Wild Fox can start laying into the bastard."
The dog tightened his hands into fists. "We're ready for some payback, McCloud."
Carl nodded sadly. "I figured you would be." He then turned to Raptor Squadron. "Captain Korman, you and your squadron are going to be in charge of knocking out those fighters and keeping the fight around that ship. I understand that they like to use drones, but they're not afraid to throw manned squadrons at us, either."
"Doesn't matter if it's a Primal or a machine flying the thing, Commander." Korman said sagely. "They all blow up the same. We'll get it done."
McCloud turned to Growler Squadron. "Captain Hound, since I once served under you, this may be a little awkward, but I'm putting you in charge of close air support for the Wild Fox. If any Primal fighters break through the lines and make a run on our ship, you'll have to swat them down. Same goes for any missiles they decide they want to fire. You can't exactly deflect incoming large-bore laserfire, though."
"No defense is perfect, son. I taught you that." Hound reminded Carl. "But Wallaby, Damer and I will do our damndest to make sure we have a ship to come back home to."
"Good. And that just leaves the Starfox Team." McCloud looked on Rourke O'Donnell, Milo Granger, and Dana Tiger. His face softened. "Lieutenant, Sergeant…Dana…I'm giving you an interesting assignment, because I figure you can deliver on it. You'll approach the Super-Saucerer with Typhoon Squadron and Raptor Squadron, but after that, you'll break off from them. It'll be your job to neutralize their weapons systems. Any laser emplacements you can knock out, terrific. If you can figure out a way to mess with their launch bays and keep their fighters bottled up inside the ship, do that. And for Creator's sake, shut down that superbeam. The Starfox Team did it once 75 years ago, I'm betting you can all deliver on it again. Along with that, if Typhoon and Raptor Squadron get caught up and need assistance, provide it. We're all that's left of the Arwing fighter corps, and I don't want the Primals bragging about taking anyone else down. The bleeding stops here."
Rourke leaned back in his seat and inhaled slowly, considering his words. "On the surface, it seems like a decent plan. Hit the Primals with a surprise attack and then hammer them to pieces. But no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. What do we do if they manage to raise their shields up before we get close to them, in spite of ROB's opening salvo? We'll be stuck outside the shielding on that thing, and no better off than the 4th Fleet was."
Around the table, other heads nodded in sober agreement. Carl could see that they had little faith in the plan to work.
But then, he'd not gotten to the trump card.
"Even if they do, it won't do them any good." Carl McCloud said, a little louder than he'd been before. "Like I said, this is a very special ship we're sitting in. And as Captain Hound said…no defense is perfect. Their hexagonal shield array extends up 75 meters above the outer hull of the Super-Saucerer. Plenty of space to maneuver in."
"So, what, you're telling us there's some way for us to pass through those shields without ending up as grease spots?" Rourke asked. "Like how those Primal superfighters that ambushed us while we were rescuing you were teleporting all around us?"
Carl chuckled. "No, nothing that fancy."
Typhoon, Raptor, and Growler Squadron were all clueless as to his meaning. It even took Rourke, Milo, and Dana a few seconds to catch on. But when they did, they all started grinning. It was dangerous, sure, but it would work.
Once they explained what their returned commander meant…
Everyone else was grinning as well.