Hey all!

Just a quick note -- For some reason Fanfiction.net isn't converting my HTML tags into what they're actually supposed to look like, and as the site doesn't seem to have a FAQ or troubleshooting guide, or, for that matter, any functional user support whatsoever, I have to keep the story as a bit coded for now. Sorry about that. I'll fix it when I can.

chapter 3

Two years later

James strolled along the main lawn at CDA, breathing in the crisp January air and loosening his scarf a bit. This year's winter was relatively mild; despite the fresh snow that lay on the ground, the sun was shining and the air was warm enough so that some people were actually walking around without coats, content in their sweaters and gloves. It was registration day -- exactly one week after the Solstice, and the beginning of a new school year. James held his completed registration card in his hand and felt giddy with excitement. For the first two years of his college education, he had sat through one general education class after another -- algebra, calculus, physics, astronomy, history, foreign language, etc., etc., etc. Some had been more boring than others. But this year, he thought, looking at the card, is when the fun starts. Printed on the card, between Spoken Katinan 2 and Astronautics 1, was Basic Flight Training.

Life is good, thought James.

He jingled his new room keys and watched others moving luggage and the occasional bookshelf or refrigerator to their new dorms, struggling through the snow. For years there had been talk of changing the beginning of the school year to the fall or spring, but the inertia of hundreds of years of tradition held fast.

"Jim! Yo, what's up?" James turned and saw a good looking tiger jogging up to him.

"Greg! Hey, you're still alive." The two playfully punched each other. "You seen Peppy anywhere?"

"I saw him for a second about half an hour ago. I think he's still in the registration line." Gregory looked down at James's keys. "You all moved in?"

"Well, my stuff is all in the room. I think it's going to be a day or two before I bother to unpack it all, though." James grinned. "My mom got all teary-eyed as usual. I swear, every year she acts like I'm moving to Fortuna or something."

"Parents," Greg said. "I love 'em. Well, listen, I've gotta get all my stuff out of the car and into my room because I'm double parked. Dinner tonight, yeah?"

"Seven o'clock at Mazzy's," James said. "I'll try to find everyone else."

They parted and James walked back towards the auditorium, letting himself in the large front doors. The line snaked all the way out into the lobby and he whistled softly, thankful that he had gotten there early. He made his way alongside the line, looking for Peppy, and eventually spotted him finishing at the student medical insurance table and moving up to class registration.

James ran up and, without warning, pulled the hare's ears. "Missile attack! Duck and cover!"

Peppy's eyes registered surprise, then anger, then friendly excitement as he realized who the voice belonged to. He whipped around and jammed an imaginary sharp object into James's shoulder. "Missile THAT, you punk! What's up!?" They grinned and hugged. "Got here early, I see. iSomeone/i didn't have a redeye flight from Terra River airport this morning."

James grinned. "How'd that go? How was being a camp counselor down where it don't snow? What was the name of the place you were at, again? Camp Twinkletoes? Camp Highnote?"

Peppy rolled his eyes. "Terra River Music Camp," he said. "And it was great, thank you." He smiled enigmatically as he entered his name in the computer terminal. "Met a girl," he said.

"Really?" James leaned against the terminal. "At the camp?"

Peppy nodded. "She was another counselor, plays the piano. Goes to Delantey."

"So she's right in the neighborhood, then."

"Mmm hmm," Peppy said, still smiling.

"So... is it official? Or are you still in the stalking stage?"

Peppy's smile faded a bit. "Still just friends, unfortunately. But maybe... I dunno. You know."

James grinned. "I'll have to meet her."

"Definitely. We should go into the city this weekend, hook up with her."

"Speaking of which," James said. "You up for Mazzy's tonight at seven? I'm trying to get everyone together."

"Can't," Peppy said, and pointed to his violin case, which lay at his feet. "Orchestra's meeting tonight and holding placement auditions. I think I've finally got a shot at first chair this year." The terminal beeped and Peppy began typing in his course numbers.

James peered at the paper on which Peppy had written down the classes he wanted to take -- Spoken Katinan 6, Spoken/Written Tein-shui 1, Interplanetary Political Science, Linguistics 1, and Cultural Psychology. "Wow," James said. "Quite a course load you've got there."

"This year I can finally begin focusing on my major," Peppy said. "No more astronomy for me. Lord, I hated that class. Nothing but radio waves and equations." He finished typing and stood back as the computer chirped out his choices in a perky imitation of a woman's voice.

"Thank you, cadet. Hare. You have entered. Spoken. Katinan. Six. Spoken. Written. Tein-shui. One. Basic Flight Training."

"What!?" Peppy cried.

"Linguistics. One. And. Cultural Psychology. Thank you and please proceed to the next station."

"That's not what I entered," he cried. "Not basic flight training. That was supposed to be Poli Sci!"

The students standing behind them in line grumbled and James picked up the course catalogue. "Interplanetary Political Science is number 6220," he said. "You entered 6230. Hey, cool. We'll be in the same class."

"No, we won't. Excuse me," Peppy said to the woman manning the station. "I made a mistake in my registration. How do I fix it?"

"You can't fix it here," the woman said dully, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. "You have to wait until the add-drop period and fill out the forms in the registrar's office."

"What?" Peppy scowled. "But what if the class I want is full?"

"Honey, I'm not paid to be an advisor," the woman said. "You're holding up the line."
**
* * *

"Honey, I'm not paid to be an advisor," Peppy sneered in a falsetto later that day as they carried groceries home from the supermarket in town. The Corneria City skyline glinted in the distance as they walked through the streets of the suburbs that surrounded the academy and nearby Starforce base. Around them, Corneria's high class citizens mingled with other students and the occasional Starforce officer. Peppy stopped to shift his grip on a bag of carrots, bread, and soda and continued on, shaking his head. "What do I do now? I just know that course is going to be filled up by the time classes start on Wednesday. That's a required course! I need that to graduate!"

"Peppy, calm down," James said. "It'll turn out okay. Worst comes to worst, you have to give up one of your electives sometime. We've got three more years here."

Peppy shook his head. "Foreign Relations is more involved than Aviation. It's interdisciplinary so there are more classes we need to take."

"Well... I don't know what to tell you," James said. "Maybe you can just take an extra class next semester."

"Maybe," Peppy sighed, pausing to look in the window of a bookstore. Beside him a middle aged Chameleon also stopped, dragging a ten-year-old alongside her. She was puffed up in the pomp and finery of the filthy rich of Jennland Province. The boy wore a child-sized suit. James looked down at him and waved cheerfully, but the boy simply stared at him expressionlessly, apparently sizing him up. While one eye remained fixed on James, the other drifted to Peppy. James grew uncomfortable. There was something not quite right about this kid.

A smile grew on the boy's face, and he slowly raised his hand and formed it into the shape of a gun. "Bang," he said. "You're dead."

The woman began to walk again, but stopped as the boy refused to budge, still staring at the two cadets. "Leon!" she said. "Jena sui le vetat nuwei das capitet!" Still the boy did not move, and she tugged at his arm. "Das capitet!" she repeated, and looked up at James and Peppy. "I so sorry," she gushed, and dragged him away.

"Well, you're the linguist," James said. "What'd she say?"

"I don't speak Jennish," Peppy said. "But judging from the way she was treating him I'd say it was something along the lines of 'keep walking, you little brat, or I'll spank you so hard you'll need a pillow just to ithink/i about sitting.'" James shook his head sadly and the two continued on home. As they neared the academy, they passed an electronics store where a small crowd had gathered, watching the television displays in the window. On the many screens, a newscaster solemnly got her papers in order and began to speak.

"In just a few moments we'll be going live to the senate meeting in the capitol building of Corneria City, where our Prime Minister will discuss the issue of Katina's plea for independence with Governer Elisa Santiago, Katina's current Governer. For years now the leaders of Katina have been increasingly militaristic in their demands to become an autonomous state, and after a long series of failed negotiations the senate is finally seriously considering their demands."

* * *

"Order, order!" The Assistant to the Prime Minister banged his gavel desperately, staring out at the multitudes of representatives, speakers, and diplomats amassed in the capitol building's huge Hall of Congress. He gritted his teeth over the din of voices. He hadn't been chosen for this job because of his outspokenness, a quality generally agreed to be crucial for the Assistant, whose duties included organizing and executing meetings like this one. Prime Minister Vessic had chosen this Assistant for, pretty much, the opposite reasons. He didn't like to get in the way.

I hate my life, he thought, banging the gavel again. Finally the chaos began to subside as people took their seats and looked at him expectantly. There must be about three thousand people in this room, he thought. He put the gavel down and licked his lips nervously.

"This meeting shall come to order on this day of January the seventeenth, in the year five thousand one hundred and twenty two, at the hour of three o'clock," he said into the microphone, rushing through the standard opening statement, which had been uttered by Assistants for the past seven hundred years. "All rise for his honor, the distinguished Prime Minister of Corneria and all outer territories, Harris Vessic." Vessic, a tall monitor lizard, entered through the side door to the sounds of rustling fabric and polite applause. He walked with his head held high, his blue and gray robes of office fluttering about him, and a small smirk across his snout, approaching his seat.

"You may be seated," he said lightly, lowering himself down and arranging the robes around him. "Now," he said, dropping the formalities. "Let's get down to business. Miss Santiago, you have the floor."

All the heads in the room shifted to look at a slender panther with long curly black fur flowing from her scalp as she strode up to the podium. She was dressed in a costume few had seen before - the new robes of office of the self proclaimed Republic of Katina. Vessic narrowed his eyes a bit at the sight. Santiago shuffled some papers and began to speak.

"Prime Minister Vessic and People of Corneria," she said in an exotic Katinan accent. "I do not care to waste our time repeating our demands and the history of our planet. You have heard it from us for the past three years. Yet, your insolent attitude and reluctance to consider the welfare of our people force me to detail it again and again. Before I begin I must stress that this is absolutely the last time I will present our case - if our demands are not met at the end of this meeting, we will be forced to take military action. This is your last chance, Corneria." She cleared her throat and a few hushed whispers drifted through the room. The cameramen in the back kept their cameras focused on her face, broadcasting her image throughout the Lylat System.

"As you know," she continued, "The first colonies on Katina were created and governed by the leaders of Las Estrellas Province, one of the first Provinces to achieve space flight, over three hundred years ago. When Las Estrellas joined Central Province's Federation and was assimilated into the unified planet-wide government one hundred and fifty three years ago, the government of our colonies fell under your jurisdiction. It was then that problems began to arise. As you know," she continued, stressing the words with the faintest hint of accusation, "after the shift in governments, Katina continued to produce and export the copper and iron ore, along with various other commodities, that the colonies had been established for. However, Las Estrellas had granted us free trade and subsidies in exchange for our effort. Corneria's unified government stopped this practice and began to charge unwarranted tariffs and taxes, completely ignoring the trade agreement that we had previously operated under. You, people of Corneria, have treated us like an autonomous state ever since, without the luxury and freedom of autonomy.

"Surely you cannot refute our right to become an autonomous state, for the sake of the welfare of our people. Therefore, our demands are simple. They are as follows:

"Effective immediately, all Cornerian military forces shall be removed from the surface of our planet and the surrounding one thousand five hundred miles of space.

"Effective immediately, our declaration of independence and constitution shall be accepted and added to all government libraries and archives.

"Effective immediately, we shall be granted a seat in the Lylatian House of Representatives.

"Effective immediately, we shall be granted the right to open embassies and consulates in all major provinces, space stations, and colonies.

"Effective immediately, negotiations shall be opened with our government for trade, commerce, and civilian transport charters and guidelines.

"Effective immediately -" Her voice raised a bit in emphasis - "We shall be recognized as a unified autonomous state, the Republic of the planet of Katina!" As she finished, every Katinan civilian and diplomat in the room burst into fervent cheers and applause, along with many of the Cornerians, Titanians, Fortunans, Zonessites, Papetooners, and Edenians. Those who didn't applaud gazed about the room, sizing it up.

Vessic adjusted the hem of his robe while he waited for the applause to die down. When it had subsided to a dull roar he leaned towards the microphone and said, "Very moving, Representative Santiago." She gazed at him defiantly. "Now, may I say my piece?"

"But of course," she said.

"Let me just say," Vessic said, a smirk slowly coloring his face, "That I don't believe you have considered the whole picture regarding our trade agreements. Have you given any thought to the support we give you that isn't immediately noticeable? If we remove our forces from Katina, your planet will be open to raiders, pirates, terrorist groups, and thieves that, quite frankly, I don't believe your small military would be able to handle. If you become an autonomous planet, you will be left completely unprotected." He shook his head. "No, Miss Santiago. I don't believe it's in Katina's best interest to remove itself from Corneria's helping hand."

Everyone in the room stared tensely at Santiago, waiting for her response. She stared at Vessic for a moment, put her papers down and said, evenly, "Your Honor. I believe this meeting will be much more productive if you stop lying through your teeth." There were audible gasps, bursts of whispering, and even a shout or two. The Assistant banged his gavel again and Santiago continued. "We have both monitored the space surrounding each planet in Lylat and studied the records of interplanetary transit in the Lylat system, and incidences of pirates, raiders and the like have gone down by sixty seven percent in the past fifteen years. Our military is more than capable of defending the planet, and you know it." She smiled. "No, Mr. Prime Minister, I believe you have different motives for holding on to Katina."

"Oh really," Vessic said, his smirk remaining firm.

"Yes," she said. "Really. I believe that your motivation is simple greed." Vessic's smile tightened. "I believe that you want to hold on to Katina in order to gain access to our natural resources without having to pay a fair price for them. I believe the taxes placed on our imports were designed in order to squeeze even more out of us, without even the pretense of justification. This is a despicable practice and we are disgusted that it has been allowed to continue for over a century."

"Miss Santiago," Vessic said. "Surely you don't hold Ime/I personally responsible for taxes that were put in place years before I was even -"

"I feel I should point out," Santiago said, "that it was you who raised those taxes only a year ago. Where has that money gone, Prime Minister? Towards the good of the people, as you are so fond of saying, or into the wallets of you and your gang?"

"This is an outrage!" All heads turned as the representative of Carlone Province stood up. "The Hall of Congress is Ino place/I to begin mudslinging!"

"Order! ORDER!" The Assistant banged his gavel until he feared it would shatter. "Order! Please! Order!"

"I must have your answer now," Santiago said, her chin high. "Will you grant us independence and accept our demands? Or will you refuse and force us to take military action?"

"I think you know the answer," Vessic said, his smirk firmly affixed to his face. "I suggest you give it up, my dear Miss Santiago."

Santiago stared at him. "Very well," she said. "I suggest you prepare then, your honor. Because you've left us with no choice." With that, she turned smartly and walked down the aisle, past the crowds, and out of the back exit, reporters immediately swarming around her.

* * *

Vessic rubbed his forehead and slammed his hand on the intercom as it buzzed. "Your five o'clock is here, sir," his secretary said.

Vessic sighed and forced himself to relax. "Thanks. Send him on in."

The door to his office opened and a tall ape with the beginnings of a beard walked in. Vessic smiled. "Edmund. So glad you could make it. Please, have a seat."

Edmund Andross nodded and sat down in, taking off his coat. Everything about him was large and imposing. He was not large in Jack McCloud's gentle way, but rather in a way that gave one the impression that he could take control of you with just one hand. Although he was not yet in his forties, his face was weathered enough so that he looked ageless. "That was quite a show earlier this afternoon. I was very amused."

"Cut the crap, Edmund," Vessic said. "You know what this means. The Katinans have themselves a formidable army. I'd venture to say that the fighting'll start any time now. Maybe within the next week or so." He shook his head. "I thought they'd get scared again. Guess I miscalculated that one."

"How dreadful," Andross said, smiling. "And what does this have to do with me?"

Vessic leaned forward. "We need your weapons, Andross. We've been following your progress at the CDA Science Institute and we feel the technology you've developed will be crucial to insuring a swift victory over this rebellion."

Andross raised an eyebrow. "I don't know if you've heard, but the Institute cut the funding for my biotech research almost a year ago. Due to 'unjustifiable danger to the public,' they said."

"Forget them," Vessic said easily. "I'm authorizing full funding for your research, starting immediately. We'll give you however much you need."

Andross smiled a bit. "I was not aware that you were authorized to make that decision," he said.

Vessic smiled back. "We're in a war, now, Edmund. I can do whatever I want, now, can't I?"

"You understand, of course, that I will need some time to develop my weaponry and get it battle ready."

"Take all the time you need," Vessic said. "As long as you're quick about it."