"Last Shot"

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Why…?

How did everything end up like this?

He prepared for this battle the most he could, fought as hard as he could…

And yet somehow this time it was not enough…

But it was always enough. His strength, courage and strong sense of duty had always gotten him through the toughest situations…

He had accomplished so much. His name was known throughout the entire galaxy…

He had earned his way to the top of the DreadZone rankings. His enemies cowered in fear at his presence. He was respected by all, even those he fought against. The crowds cheered his name endlessly and couldn't get enough of his exploits. He was the number one gladiator to follow throughout the entire season. He was…truly…the greatest of them all…

But this man…this Exterminator…

Had he finally…lost?

It was impossible…

But here…anything was possible…whether it was in his favor or not…and that was something he learned the first time he ever encountered him.

Captain Starshield was always destined for greatness. When he first started out training with the Galactic Rangers it didn't take long for everyone to notice his exceptional skills in marksmanship and on the battlefield. His superior was so impressed by his performance that after he completed his training he introduced him to the Galactic President himself and told of his skills and feats. The President liked what he heard, and told Starshield that he had the stuff heroes were made of, bringing a smirk to his face. He asked the young private if he would like to personally serve and protect him as well as embark on adventures and missions across the galaxy of his own accord. With little consideration, he agreed, and was quickly promoted to his new status and received his new name; Captain Starshield.

With his trademark glowing yellow star on his chest, he sailed across the Solana Galaxy on countless missions, both for the President and other leaders from various planets. With each mission he met many people and crossed paths with other heroes, namely Captain Qwark, who was also in the prime of his heroic youth. To say the least, each encounter with one another brought with it an air of competition and rivalry. They would often butt heads and compare each other's adventures and victories, trying to (unsuccessfully) determine who had the better achievement. Captain Starshield had boasted about single handedly storming a stronghold of Blackwater City gangsters and Captain Qwark bragged about taking down Captain Blackstar and his crew of robotic pirate ghosts. In the end though, Qwark would win in the hero department solely due to having more experience, which would result in a disgruntled Starshield and a tongue flapping Qwark, ending their bickering with, "The President likes me more, so there!"

As his heroism and renown grew, the Galactic President eventually introduced Starshield to his young daughter, Sasha. The President told a lot about her, which made her rather uncomfortable, and insisted that they should get to know each other better. Starshield was a little reluctant at first since he was meeting someone on the President's behalf, let alone his daughter. Although she was pretty and he enjoyed her company, he could somehow tell that she was less than grateful for her father's insistence that they spend time together. When Starshield asked Sasha about it she told him that her father would love nothing more than to see her date a powerful and well-known hero, even if it wasn't what she wanted. He had actually done the same thing to her with Captain Qwark, which Starshield found rather terrible. From then on he never pushed their shallow relationship further, for he respected her wishes and could understand where she was coming from, despite the President's continuous pushing.

But then Supreme Executive Chairman Drek and his army of Blarg warriors and war-bots had surfaced, and the galaxy was in more danger than it ever had been before. Planets were literally being ripped apart for the creation of his own planet and many citizens in the galaxy had lost their homes…or worse, lost their lives. The Galactic Rangers and few lesser-known heroes quickly took action but could only do so much, and Qwark was mysteriously nowhere to be found and hadn't been seen in some time. Captain Starshield then took it upon himself to take the self-proclaimed chairman down. But just as he had pinpointed the location of his heavily guarded fleet, news had reached him that Drek had already been defeated and was gone forever, along with his custom created world. He was baffled at first, and eventually learned that the galaxy had been saved by a duo he had never heard of but wouldn't forget: Ratchet the Lombax and his robotic companion Clank.

He later got to meet the incredible duo after they had several interviews, magazine articles and movie offers. He learned much about them; how they met, their own personal interests and what brought them into the war against Drek. It was them who told him that Qwark had betrayed the galaxy and sided with Drek for his own personal gain after hosting a hoverboard race on Rilgar, which infuriated Starshield. But he was glad to know that heroes can sometimes appear in strange places. But then the new heroes disappeared months after their amazing adventure, leaving everyone to wonder what happened to their recent saviors.

Captain Starshield resumed his heroic duties, but now that Drek was no more, the Solana Galaxy had returned to its peaceful ways. He wandered the galaxy in search of any planets that were in need but to no avail. Although the peace was welcomed, to a hero it was somewhat of a bore. That is…until he met the famous hero known as Ace Hardlight.

They crossed paths when the President had a meeting in Metropolis on planet Kerwan. Starshield was there as a bodyguard for the President and Sasha, who was now captain of the Starship Phoenix, but he paid little attention to what the meeting was about. Among the crowds of people that had gathered around the podium stood a tall and strong figure that Starshield recognized at once; Ace. At first he couldn't believe it, but a second glance at his golden lock of hair, orange outfit and glowing blue chest plate told him that he wasn't imagining things. Then he began to wonder what a hero of his stature was doing here after such a long absence from the galaxy's eyes. After the President's abnormally long meeting, Starshield confronted Ace, expressing his disbelief and amazement, at which Ace merely smiled.

They engaged in deep conversation about various subjects, from their individual acts of heroism to Drek to other recent events, though Ace offered no explanation as to his sudden reappearance. The President eventually jumped in and strangely showed little surprise by Ace's presence. After an hour or so they parted ways, but Starshield and Ace kept in contact with each other, and over time, they became good friends.

The two heroes soon set out together across the galaxy, fighting evildoers, crime bosses and helping various worlds with their individual problems. Starshield watched Ace's back in the thick of battle, just as he watched his. With the two of them fighting side by side, no creature, no villain, no army could withstand their bravery and strength and they felt that they could achieve the impossible. They were an unstoppable force and were inseparable from each other, and with each mission and battle, their friendship seemed to grow more and more. One day they decided to take their friendship further and made an oath of brotherhood, shaking hands and promising to always be there for each other through the thick and thin.

Several months later however, they decided to part ways for a while, returning to their respective home planets. After a month or so of relaxation, Starshield's desire to jump back into his heroic schedule started to rise again. He tried to call Ace to see if he wanted to go on another journey, but didn't receive any type of reply. He tried repeatedly for days and never got the call or message he wanted and he started to become a little worried. He then asked the people he knew and various media if they knew anything about his whereabouts and always came up short. He then finally got an answer when he asked the President, who told Starshield that the last time he heard anything about Ace was that he was traveling to the far edges of the galaxy and beyond. Even though it was an answer, he still felt rather uneasy and saddened that his friend had left him behind, despite what they had done not too long ago.

His questions of when and why needed to be put on hold however, as the Solana Galaxy had been besieged by new threat that caught everyone off guard; the Tyhrrannoids. They ripped through planet after planet, taking out every living creature they came across, though oddly enough all robot citizens of the galaxy seemed to remain untouched by their carnage. The President immediately issued a call to arms, with Captain Sasha leading the fight. Captain Starshield quickly jumped to the front lines, but it soon became apparent to everyone that they were fighting a losing battle as the Tyhrrannoids continued to push forward, conquering base after base on numerous planets. The Galactic Rangers suffered numerous losses and began to despair, along with the others who fought in the battle. Starshield refused to give up, but even he felt that they needed a miracle in order to win this war.

The word then spread that Dr. Nefarious was the leader of the Tyhrrannoids, a name that Captain Starshield knew rather well from his younger days. But then he also heard from the President that Ratchet and Clank had returned and had joined the fight. His spirits lifted considerably, but then the President told him that he had sent the duo on a mission of utmost importance, to find the one man that had once defeated Dr. Nefarious: Captain Qwark. Starshield felt that he had sent them on a fool's errand since the ex-hero/traitor hadn't been seen in forever, hoping instead that he would send them to the front lines along with him so they could fight their powerful enemy together.

Naturally, Ratchet and Clank succeeded in finding him and his memory, and as a result the President put Qwark in charge of the fight against Nefarious. Captain Starshield called the President crazy, but he knew there was nothing he could say to change his mind. He did what he could, leading missions and defending Galactic Ranger bases on several planets while Qwark…tended to the cafeteria. He eventually received word that the Momma Tyhrrannoid had been defeated and they were winning battles on other planets, finally gaining the upper hand in the war. Starshield knew that it was due to the efforts of Ratchet and Clank and not Qwark like everybody seemed to imply. Then they heard news from the President that Qwark had been killed on Dr. Nefarious' exploding star cruiser. The Rangers mourned his loss, but somehow Starshield was unconvinced, knowing that he was capable of anything judging by his other recent endeavors. His hunch would later prove true when news got out that Dr. Nefarious and his Biobliterator were defeated by Ratchet and Clank, with Captain Qwark later joining that fight.

Perhaps there was a bit of hero left in that idiot after all…

With Dr. Nefarious and his Tyhranniod army gone, the Solana Galaxy once again was safe thanks to the efforts of its true heroes. Captain Sasha went on to become the new mayor of Metropolis on Kerwan, leaving a space open for a captain of the Starship Phoenix. The President struggled to find a worthy replacement for his daughter, but Captain Starshield suggested that Ratchet should be the new captain. The President was quite hesitant at first, knowing the relationship he had with Sasha, but after a bit of convincing by showing the positive side of things, he finally agreed.

But then something unusual began to occur. Heroes and other citizens from across the galaxy were being reported as missing. Search and rescue operations were conducted but they could never find the missing people, though they did report some suspicious activity near the Shadow Sector, a region of space that was known very well among most heroes. Captain Starshield immediately suspected that something was going on and he tried to find out everything he could about the Shadow Sector, discovering that an underground media empire had flourished there, though little else was known about it at the time. Starshield then began to prepare for a voyage into the unknown, realizing that the longer he waited the greater the chance that others could follow the same fate. He and three other willing heroes that he knew then ventured off into the dark side of the galaxy, not entirely sure what they would behold. They knew that this would put them in the greatest of risk, but it was one they were willing to take.

And within minutes of entering the lawless region, their ship was suddenly impounded by a powerful red beam and boarded by large armed robots. Captain Starshield and the others fought their hardest and nearly managed to drive them out, but they were quickly outnumbered and out-gunned, with Starshield being the last of his comrades to fall into their grasp.

With his head pounding painfully, Captain Starshield awoke to find himself in a confined room, though that wasn't the first thing that surprised him. The helmet he wore fit tightly around his head and every breath felt more like it was trying to suffocate him. His body was fully covered in stylish, but incredibly uncomfortable armor and his neck felt irritated to every move of his head. He lifted himself up, staggering slightly from the sheer weight of the armor. The voice of one of his allies then rang in his helmet, instructing him on his new body and weapons and guiding him through the room. He did so until he reached the next room where he was greeted by a screen with a man who he instantly loathed: Gleeman Vox.

He then understood what had been happening for the past several months. People weren't just disappearing; they were being abducted and brought here to play this twisted and deadly game for the sake of entertainment.

But after viewing a demonstration of the deadlock collar, even he knew that there was no easy way out of this situation. He would have to fight his way through the challenges thrown at him and find out more about this place if he and his friends were going to free themselves and the other captives held in DreadZone. He would have to fight the hardest he could and use every trick and ounce of intellect he possessed in order to achieve this seemingly impossible task. And he and his friends were more than up for it.

He charged into each campaign and challenge head-first, learning quickly how the way things work in DreadZone. He wasn't surprised in the slightest when his audience knew exactly who he was and somehow it fed the fiery spirit within him that normally only came with battle. He made full use of the DreadZone weaponry, but he missed his old blaster that had been taken from him upon capture. With each victory and defeated enemy, he slowly climbed the DreadZone rankings and achieved greater popularity within the Shadow Sector, especially after defeating the Exterminators Shellshock and Reactor. Despite the desperate situation he and his friends were in, he couldn't help but enjoy the challenges he faced and the exciting feeling that came with it. Fighting alongside a pair of combat bots was always uplifting as well as it was a relief to know that someone watched your back and supported you, something he hadn't felt in some time…

Captain Starshield soon had made his way into to the top ten of DreadZone's highest ranked contestants. With his high ranking and popularity he was allowed to wear his own outfit instead of his armor and use his own weapon if he wished and did so, furthering his familiarity among his fans. At first it was exciting to him, but his teammates, news reports and announcements over the Containment Suite intercom frequently reminded him why he was here in the first place. Every week that went by meant more lives had been lost from battle or by the restraints of DreadZone's strict criteria. He needed to find a way to free all of DreadZone's prisoners, but the deadlock collars didn't make it easy. His tech-head friend constantly worked on finding a way to safely remove the collars, but was soon caught by a spy camera and terminated by her own collar, striking a personal blow against Starshield and his team.

And then one day he checked his ranking with the Rank-O-Meter and his morale further dropped…

There at the top of the list was Ace Hardlight, with the word "Exterminator" written in dark letters next to his name.

From that moment he fought fiercely, plowing through every challenge with ease and driven by something other than his heroic duty. He would not stop until he was allowed to face Ace. He would find a way to free his old friend even if it cost him his life, but the only way to meet him was to do so in an Exterminator battle and he wasn't happy with the thought in the slightest. Unfortunately there wasn't any other option.

Finally, Vox News announced that a fight to the death between the now number one ranked gladiator Captain Starshield and the record breaking Exterminator Ace Hardlight was the most desired match from DreadZone's viewers. Starshield physically and mentally prepared himself for the coming battle, mostly mentally. Large armed robots then arrived in his Containment Suite to "escort" him to Catacom Four, where the battle was voted by the masses to take place. As he sat in the transporter his body trembled slightly, but whether it was from worry, fear or anticipation he didn't know. He triple-checked his trademark blaster and other weapons and his combat bots, insuring that he wouldn't encounter any hardware problems. When the transporter arrived at the planet, his heart pounded like it never had before. Without hesitation, he stepped onto the teleport pad, taking several deep breaths to calm the sick feeling in his stomach, before his body was engulfed by green light with his combat bots following.

And now…here he was, down on all fours and weakened in more ways than one.

His legs were a mess, having sustained repeated gunshot wounds and no longer able to move. His hand clutched the deep wound on the side of his torso, dark blood seeping through his fingers. He coughed, spitting out a few more drops of blood onto the sharp, dead blades of grass. He looked over to his right, his blaster lying useless several feet away and out of reach. His combat bots also lay on the ground, pieces of their bodies scattered among the remains of the exterminator bots, DZ strikers and other enemies he had recently defeated.

Throughout the entire fight across the battlefield he tried to repeatedly call to Ace whenever he showed his face. He tried talking, reasoning, and persuading in order to snap him out of Gleeman Vox's grasp, but his words always fell on deaf ears. After defeating several enemies Ace would jump down to fight Starshield personally, greeting him with multiple different shots with his gun. Starshield defended himself, but he always held back. He knew there was a way to convince him to stop fighting, there was a way to release him from Vox, and there was a way to save him…

He heard soft footsteps in front of him and he lifted his head up. Ace Hardlight stood before him, staring down at him with cold eyes behind his cracked visor and covered with multiple injuries of his own. Starshield looked into the Exterminator's expressionless face. He was not the same man he had once known. The light in his eyes was replaced with an icy, bloodthirsty glare of hatred. Ace wiped the warm red blood from his mouth and then smiled, a wicked and heartless smile, showing off one of his sharp fangs. He lifted his gun and aimed it at Starshield's face.

"Gotcha…" He hissed.

Starshield clenched his fists tightly and lowered his head. He couldn't believe what Ace had become, but he did believe that there was one small ounce of his old friend still in there somewhere, hidden by that cold smile. He had one last shot to make Ace see the light, show him that he didn't have to do this, one last shot to save his life…and Ace's.

He raised his head and looked firmly into Ace's eyes and then lifted his bloody hand toward him, reaching out for him. Ace's smile quickly faded and his eyes narrowed. Starshield's hand trembled, trying to ignore the incredible pain he was in. He needed an answer…he needed to know if Ace was who he thought…no, believed he was…

"…Ace…" Starshield said softly.

For the longest time they stared at one another without a word. The battlefield was silent and the floating cameras hovered from a distance, taking it all in. Time itself was standing still, but Starshield could see something flicker in Ace's eyes. Starshield's eyes widened and his heart felt lighter, feeling that he had finally gotten through to him. He would forgive him for all he had done during this battle, just as long as they could walk away from this terrible place together.

And then, after what felt like a millennia, he got his answer. Ace pulled the trigger, his last shot blowing Starshield's body backward and onto his back, joining the rest of the fallen of the graveyard.

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Ace stepped back, smoke rising up from his gun. Floating cameras hovered down to his level from out of nowhere and surrounded him, not letting a single inch of him go unrecorded. Ace started to throw out a few poses for the cameras, the smile returning to his face. Dallas the announcer then floated down in his booth to ground level from the blimp above, holding his favorite microphone.

"A dramatic conclusion to one of the most exciting episodes of DreadZone I have ever seen!" He exclaimed. "Captain Starshield, the #1 ranked gladiator, has been terminated by Ace Hardlight! Ace has now eliminated a record thirteen contestants in the regular season!"

Ace threw a fist of triumph in the air, smiling and winking at each camera surrounding him in turn. He then started laughing, knowing that he had taken down the strongest contestant to ever fight in DreadZone. With this victory, there was now absolutely no one in the Shadow Sector who could take him on. He was an unstoppable killing machine, and he loved it.

But somewhere deep inside beneath his fearsome poise, there was a cry; a cry of sadness, of regret, of anger. Something screamed within, begging for release, but the screams were muffled by the roar of a monster. They quickly drowned in the dark void of the heart, never to be heard again.

The legendary hero was now gone forever.