[Author's Note: Greetings! After completing the monstrous project that was "One Death Away," I committed the last year and a half or so to my original writing, as well as continuing the western "Gunmen of Venom Hill." While I do plan on continuing that story, I'd like to see what kind of response this story receives, as well as possibly a sequel to ODA. It's a case of too many ideas, not enough time to write them all. This story is the sequel to "Star Fox: The Mercenary War," which is about seven years old right now. It's not a terribly long read and it's held up rather well over time so I do HIGHLY suggest reading it first before taking on this story to gain familiarity with the characters and setting.

Also, I uploaded this prologue and Chapter 1 at the same time, so be sure to continue on. NOTE: Like all of my fics, this story takes place in the Starfox 64 universe without inclusion of any sequels and their plot elements. Any characters from other Starfox games should be considered as a "reimagining" of him/her (those who read Krystal and Fara from "One Death Away" know what I mean =)). Lastly, please be aware that all of my story lines are self-contained; so, this story is a sequel to "The Mercenary War" but is not related in ANY way to "One Death Away" or any of my other stories. Feel free to PM me for any questions, I know it's something that isn't easily expressed fully in this blurb.

Ok, enough from me...thank you for reading and as always, I hope you enjoy! –Foxmerc ]

Mercenary War 2: Dagger Zero

Foxmerc

PROLOGUE

"What the hell's taking so long?

Hunter chuckled from the gunner's seat below and ahead of the annoyed pilot, the sound nearly lost in the bellow of fierce wind whipping ice and snow against the canopy glass. His helmet swayed as he stretched his stiff neck. "Only been two hours, Blue. Believe it or not, some people give tactics a shot before pulling the trigger."

"Pulling the trigger is a tactic." Bluestar brushed his flightsuit sleeve back to check his watch. Two hours and five minutes already. "Christ, if they let me in there we'd be back home in a bar by now."

"Yeah, well, that's why the desk jockeys put me at the guns and you at the stick."

"No, they put me at the stick because I made a joke of TETRA's flight exam. Not bragging, just a fact."

He snorted. Whatever, Blue thought. Hunter knew he was right and was probably just as miserable, sitting in a two-man gunship parked on a rocky snowbank for two hours like forgotten leftovers in the back of the freezer. Blue started to notice a trend working, for a combined arms private military company like TETRA: any time the grunts were involved, it seemed he was on his ass waiting. It always reminded him why he never joined the military. One of the reasons anyway.

Luckily, even with main power off, the gunship's life support unit kept ticking so the two crewmen had heat. But just watching the harsh Fortunian wind swirl snow all around them and pile it around the skids up to the ship's belly…made him shiver just looking at it. The thermal canopy glass kept the windows clear so they had a nice, boring view of the cold planet's frozen wastes to go with the nice, boring mission. When he was absolutely sure another hour or so had gone by, Blue checked his watch.

Two hours and twenty minutes.

"Frickin' hell."

"Quit complaining," Hunter mumbled, scratching one of his lupine ears poking through the helmet's ear slots. "We could be freezing our asses off out there like the ground pounders."

"At least then we'd know what's taking so long."

Simple mission, really, Blue knew. Some local construction company was contracted to tear down and root up the foundation of an old bunker built by Venomian forces during the Lylat War. It sat hunkered way out in the middle of nowhere next to a forgotten comm relay station so it'd been sitting rotting all those years, dilapidated, half-buried, just a giant empty grave for wartime memories. Until the Fortunian government decided to have it cleared; part of their initiative to get rid of old Veomian remnant structures. All politics. Two weeks later, the site went dark. One day later, Fortunian officials contracted an orbiting TETRA cruiser to check it out and Blue get sent down to the winter wonderland with two squads of soldiers.

"TETRA one-seven, this is Homefront. Status report."

The no-nonsense female voice startled the daydreaming pilot and he realized he'd been dozing off. He opened his mouth to give a very colorful description of his thoughts regarding the ground team's progress, but he thought better of it. He knew the stern woman on the other end and she could make the phrase "bust my balls" very literal. He replied into his helmet's comm, "This is callsign Bluestar of gunship one-seven. Nothing happening here, Homefront."

"Copy, Bluestar. Be advised, ground elements have breached the construction site perimeter and are securing the area. Initial reports suggest transport ships and terrain vehicles belonging to a military contractor not on the Fortunian payroll. Possibly the 'Claws. Stay sharp."

Blue scowled at the name. "Roger, Homefront. Just say the word and I'll put these expensive guns to use. Wouldn't want all those pre-flight checks and tests to be for nothing."

"Can the chatter and stay put until ordered otherwise, one-seven. Homefront out."

The comm went dead and Hunter wasted no time laughing. "Damn, man, and I thought this planet was cold. You sure she's not an operations android?"

"You know how it is," Blue said, booting up the soft systems; half for something to do, half to be ready in case any 'Claws required a delivery of high-velocity energy discharge. "The ones who want it the most put up the most fight."

"Maybe they put up a fight because it's you."

"And what, your strong-sensitive angle's bringing 'em home?" The gunship's console lit up and started running diagnostic checks, everything from the thrusters to the guns, which Blue hated not being in control of. If he had his way, he'd never leave the comforts of a single-man fighter. But despite his exemplary operational record, TETRA didn't always let him have his way. Another little issue that kept him out of the military proper.

"I don't play any angle," Hunter scoffed back. He cleared his throat and started talking with a subdued, somber voice. "I really am strong and sensitive. Maybe more strong than sensitive, but…sometimes I think I'm that way because I'm afraid to express my true feelings. Maybe someday I'll find the right woman, one I can truly be honest with."

Blue chuckled at the act. His respect for Hunter went up a couple notches; he had a method and he worked it well. "Not bad. How 'bout you put the tissues away and run your weapons diagnostics?"

"Feel free to borrow from me. No shame in it."

"You have your method, I have mine, and mine's just fine." The pilot's console blipped to alert him that his gunner was checking his own systems. Blue frowned; if he had any real jealousy, it was from watching the wolf check all the firepower he had to play with.

"Yeah? Tell you what. I'll give you half a month's hazard bonus if you get the ice queen to say just one thing that's not mission-related. It won't happen, not with all the charm you pretend to—"

"Wait, wait…do you see that?" Hunter had Blue's attention once money came into play, but something peeked up over the ridge ahead of them a few miles on the horizon, something that easily clashed with the surrounding whiteness. "Is that smoke?"

The pillar of black grew as Hunter gazed ahead. "Definitely ain't snow."

Good enough for Blue. "Homefront, this is one-seven. We have what looks like—"

"One-seven, you're cleared for power-up and AO insertion." She spoke quicker, one step ahead of them, as good a sign as any that something was going on. "Ground elements have encountered resistance; converge on the construction site and be ready to provide close air support and rapid extraction. Use caution."

"Roger, Homefront," Blue replied as his hands flew across the startup controls, glad she couldn't see his devilish grin. The gunship hummed to life, thrusters undoing the hours of burial with an angry roar that blew the surrounding snow away in a great billow. "Any word on the hostiles yet?"

"Ground team is reporting 'Claw uniforms, one-seven. Weapons free on any targets hostile to you or TETRA ground forces. Homefront out."

"Looks like we might get some excitement on this snowball after all," Hunter said. "Ready when you are, Blue."

Blue fired the thrusters to full and punched the throttle up, leaving their makeshift landing pad in a cloud of vaporized snow, the familiar comforting whine and rumble of the ship filling his ears and veins like a buzz without the hangover. Though glad to be at home in the air once more, he wished again for a fighter rather than the bulky gunship. He'd been too used to every flick of the wrist and slightest gesture returning an equally graceful response, controls and guns all under the same fingers. In comparison, flying the gunship felt like slogging through a waist-deep swamp with a five-day survival pack. And no gun.

"HUD weapon navigation online," the wolf reported as they skimmed the frozen wastes at five hundred feet. "Primary repeater showing green, Hornets ready."

"Roger." Blue glanced down at his scanner, multiple red unidentified energy blips showing within two miles. Through the snowfall ahead, the tall, heavy machinery of the construction zone came into clear view, looming over the topside of the old bunker like predators over the kill. His own helmet HUD immediately picked out TETRA forces on the east side and displayed them before his eyes in blue luminescent outlines. The remaining energy readings earned yellow outlines. The pilot reported what he saw, more for the benefit of the ship's automatic mission log. "Visual on two TETRA G48 Landshark transports at the operation area's eastern border. Seven, repeat, seven ground transports of unknown origin in loose formation at the western border. Dimensions of several are consistent with 'Claw ATT Rex assault personnel carriers. Small arms fire is being exchanged."

"Solid copy," Hunter replied, his professional face slipping on as well for the mission duration. "Standing by to engage any confirmed hostiles."

With the combat zone close enough that individual rifle muzzle flashes blinked through the snow like deadly holiday lights, Blue pulled into a hover and activated the infrared zoom and scanner on his HUD. He knew damn well that the vehicle outline he saw earlier belonged to a 'Claw APC but the high-ups always needed confirmation to cover their asses. Sure enough, the 'Claw logo of a stylized sharp-edged red triangle was plastered on the sides of the APCs.

"We have confirmation of 'Claw personnel and vehicles," Blue said, backing out of the zoom. "Gunship one-seven is engaging."

"Fuckin' A!"

Hunter wasted no time. As the gunship swooped low and rolled into a circling pattern over the construction site, the wolf let loose with the heavy repeater, thick amber lasers pounding the 'Claw position until smoke and vaporized snow billowed high over the tallest cranes. One of the APCs went up in an explosive pillar of flame, bits of shrapnel flicking the gunship's hull. The remaining APCs got wise and diverted their roof turrets to the air, spitting bursts of laser fire up at the new threat. Blue expertly dodged and weaved, the attacks only accomplishing a slight change in the gunship's strafing course. Only when shoulder-mounted energy cannons were added to the fire was Blue forced to work for his pay.

"The boys came prepared, huh?" Blue uttered, jamming the stick to the left, barely avoiding a locked-on energy blast as it singed the starboard wing in passing.

The gunner grumbled in response, "God, man, keep it steady so I can nail 'em."

"You wanna get your ass back here and try this?"

"Sure, pull over by the assholes with the big guns."

Blue anticipated the next volley and, again cursing the ship's sluggishness, shot a burst of thrust to the right, giving Hunter a few precious seconds to launch a string of Hornet mini-missiles. A carpet of small explosions ripped across the 'Claw line, dimming the return fire but not silencing it completely. Pulling away to update his perspective, Blue saw the TETRA forces moving in to try and overtake the position. He kept a healthy distance but left a sharp eye watching to make sure the grunts wouldn't need more death from above.

"Homefront, this is Bluestar. Enemy positions softened considerably. TETRA ground elements moving to secure. Standing by as needed."

"Acknowledged, gunship one-seven."

Hunter leaned back and rolled his head around his neck to stretch it with a groan of exertion. "Guess we got 'em with their pants down. Probably not expecting a little company out here in the tundra."

"I dunno." The pilot watched the blue outlines proceed into the fire and ash near the bunker. "The 'Claws never have their pants down. I doubt they're out here just to poke around an old Venomian hole in the ground."

"Shut up and be happy for an easy assignment for once. Still, though, may want to get on the horn to Homefront and ask them to – Fuck!"

The explosion drowned out his curse.

Gunship one-seven's canopy was filled with the fireball that erupted from the bunker, the shockwave tossing it about, heavy shards of concrete and metal slamming against it and causing the proximity alert to whine in the crew's ears. Blue fought to regain control, his head ringing, and finally silenced the alerts once the ship was steady in his hands again. Through the cracked canopy glass, he and Hunter stared at the charred devastation of the construction site. The bunker was no more, replaced by a crater and a ring of twisted construction machinery and vehicles. Smoke billowed for nearly a mile in all directions, whipped around by Fortuna's winds, all that remained in the utter silence that had fallen over the area of operation. Blue's blood chilled at the absence of any blue outlines on his HUD.

"Holy hell," Hunter breathed, slapping the side of his helmet with the butt of his palm over and over. "My HUD's fried, getting nothing but fuzz. What the hell happened?"

"Homefront, this is gunship one-seven! What the f—"

"One-seven, stand by for mission redirect."

"Redirect?" Blue hacked in disbelief. "The entire bunker just blew into the damn stratosphere! I'm reading zero TETRA presence. We got to get down there and—"

"We read the explosion, one-seven. The enemy is covering their tracks and exiting the area with an item of extreme priority. Medevac for ground forces is being dispatched; you're needed elsewhere."

"This is bullshit," Hunter grumbled, shaking his head hard. "You hear how she's talking? This mission stinks, Blue. Command knows something we don't. This wasn't no recon gig."

"Two convoys of fast-movers are exiting the area , one heading southeast toward Arctura Flat Spaceport, about a hundred fifty miles away. The other's going north to…an unknown destination. Topography reads nothing but wasteland for a thousand miles."

"It's a decoy." Blue ramped up the throttle and blew through the smoke, turning to a southeast heading. "We're going after the first convoy. What exactly is this 'extreme priority' item we're looking for?"

"Just stop the vehicles by any means necessary. Deadly force will not damage it. TETRA technicians will be sent once you've succeeded."

"Big surprise," the wolf uttered, still banging his helmet to try and get his HUD's heart beating again. "The thing could be a nuke with fifteen seconds on the clock and they wouldn't tell us."

"We're on it, Homefront."

"You must stop that convoy before it reaches Arctura Flat airspace, one-seven. Our contract does not authorize us to operate in that vicinity."

"We'll stop it. Out." Blue cut the connection and rolled his eyes at Hunter as he skimmed low over the snow. "Can you please quit your bitching and do your job? Please?"

"Did you see how many guys we lost back there? And the ice queen didn't even flinch. Don't you get tired of not being told what the hell we're doing here?"

"As long as the paychecks clear, I don't care what they tell me. If you want to get paid for knowing shit, go back to HQ and be a washed-up instructor. Otherwise get on the guns. We'll worry about the dead when we're sure we won't be joining them."

Hunter gave up on his HUD and fiddled with his control panel, punching in command after command to a stubbornly defiant holoscreen. "Auto-targeting is out. HUD is out. Guns are operational. Looks like I'll be doing this the old fashioned way."

"A hundred twenty miles to Arctura." A string of tiny blips appeared at the edge of the scanner. "Got'em, five miles out. 'Claw Raptor speeders, three of them. Fast buggers, but they're not going top speed. Looks like the one in the middle is a C-class, light cargo transport. That's our objective. You ready?"

"Let's get us some payback."

With the convoy in visual range, Blue flew by sight and slowly edged up to the side of the speeder column. Clouds of snow swelling in their wake, the agile craft, constructed more like aerodynamic aircraft than land-bound vehicles, paid no heed and continued on their beeline to escape.

At least, not until Hunter opened fire.

His first generous burst of seven discharges stitched the snow in front of the lead vehicle, causing it to swerve in surprise, but it quickly recovered. His next three bursts were enough to startle them but not one hit metal. In response, the convoy took an erratic course, weaving about the tundra and somehow managing to stay in formation. Blue was begrudgingly impressed as he struggled to keep his bulky gunship on top of them.

"Aim for the snow, maybe you'll hit an enemy."

"You ever try to manually align this sucker?" Hunter snapped back.

As if to flick the pilot off, the next burst peppered the lead vehicle and penetrated its energy block, blowing the entire front off and sending it rolling end over end to a violent halt. The other speeders jerked about to avoid their wrecked comrade and continued on their way, hugging close to each other. Blue checked his area scanner and grimaced as he raised his gaze and discerned the gleaming towers of Arctura Flat Spaceport on the horizon.

"Eighty miles, Hunter. Make something happen."

The gunner laid on the trigger and fired a long, deadly string of shots that tore up the tundra and eventually punched through the second escort, blowing the fuel tanks and sending the flaming wreckage to a cold grave. All that remained was the lonely transport, still speeding like hell and trying to get to safety. With Hunter's unpredictable gun sighting, Blue realized it was a very real possibility.

"Sixty miles."

"Give me a second." Hunter fired off a few single shots, each successive laser nearing contact with the transport.

"We're trying to destroy it, not goose it! Come on!"

"Screw what she said, I'm not putting any holes anywhere near the cargo hold. Anything could be in there."

As frustrated as he was becoming watching the miles tick down, he secretly didn't want to argue. Whatever was removed from the bunker, he doubted the Venomians were storing cotton candy and rainbows. Chances were that whatever was in that cargo hold was built to obliterate, gas, burn, or just in general murder as many people as possible. Things like that usually didn't mix with high-powered energy weaponry.

After another minute of failed shots, most missing but some smacking the enemy's hull without enough penetration to make a difference, Blue shot another glance to the ever-looming spaceport and barked, "Come on! Now or never!"

With a frustrated roar of his own, Hunter fired a full burst that sliced across the transport's roof, totaling the engine block. The vehicle lost power and careened into a series of spins, whipping up a cyclone of snow that blinded the gunship from it for a few seconds. Blue held his breath, praying the cargo didn't mind a bumpy ride, and released in relief when the air cleared and the transport was still right side up, albeit off-kilter and half buried in snow.

The pilot lowered the skids and put the gunship on the ground as quickly as possible, popping the canopy in the process. He and Hunter snatched the compact submachine guns from the braces beside their seats and hopped over the side to the snow below. Frigid Fortunian air smacked Blue in the face like a vengeful ex-girlfriend, stealing his breath for a few seconds while his lungs acclimated. He and his friend plodded through the knee-deep snow in an awkward jog the couple-hundred feet to the smoking Raptor.

"No mushroom cloud yet," Hunter wheezed over the bone-chilling wind. "Told you I could take it down."

"You want a medal?" Blue panted. "Next time you can fly that heavy bastard and I'll sit up front in the fun seat."

As they approached, the transport's driver, a lizard in the black and red uniform of the 'Claws, struggled through the broken windshield and stumbled onto the snow, no weapon anywhere in sight. He raised his hands above his head just in time to get a submachine gun burst to the chest that killed him before he hit the powder. Hunter didn't even break stride as he fired, as if it had been as mindless as swatting a fly. Though he knew he should've said something, Blue found it hard to care about the execution after witnessing all his TETRA brothers get blown away.

Letting his partner root through the cargo cab, Blue put his hand to his ear to muffle the whistling wind. "Homefront, this is one-seven. Convoy has been successfully halted. Cargo secure. Our ship has suffered structural damage and is possibly unfit for space travel. Request pickup for—"

"Hey, Blue! You better come see what all the trouble was for!"

"Wait one, Homefront."

Blue trudged past the dead driver, his blood turning the snow a color that morbidly reminded him of cherry snowcones. Very syrupy cherry snowcones. Shaking the image from his head, he joined Hunter at the rear of the cab where the wolf had retrieved a footlocker-sized metal reinforced container. It lay open before him.

Empty.

"Well, man," Hunter chuckled, grinning to hide the intense anger that was making him shiver more than the cold. "Looks like this was the decoy."

Blue kicked the side of the wreckage and unleashed a string of his own curses. "Homefront! It's a goddamn empty case! Get someone down to that north-bound convoy and—"

"Negative, one-seven." The usually commanding voice had lost some of its assurance. "A cloaked dropship was waiting for them. They're gone. They knew we'd go after your convoy."

Gritting his teeth, Blue clenched his fists and closed his eyes. Nothing boiled his blood more than being played, especially by the 'Claws. Not the cold, not the boredom, not TETRA's cloak and dagger games, not even Hunter's complaining. After a minute of feeling like his gut was going to explode, he felt the same deflated defeat wash over him that he'd heard in their operation handler's voice. Opening his eyes again, he saw Hunter sitting on the end of the cab with his legs hanging over the side, rubbing his temple, also looking like he got kicked in the stomach.

All the lives lost, all the effort, all for something they never would've been told about even if they hadn't been given the run-around by the 'Claws.

"I need a drink, Homefront," Blue mumbled. "When can we get the hell out of here?"

"Maintain your current position, one-seven. Two-five is on en-route. If your ship is unsafe, observe proper cold-weather survivability until then."

"Just thinking about the body that goes along with this voice should keep me hot enough, Homefront."

Hunter shot a cockeyed look at him and only the wind could be heard in the dead radio silence that followed for nearly half a minute.

"Go to hell, Bluestar."

The two pilots burst out laughing, the sound rolling over the flat expanse of frozen plains. It was just what they needed.

"God, Blue." Hunter wiped tears from his eyes when he'd calmed down. "She's gonna shiv you in your sleep."

"At least then I'd get her in bed before I died. And hey, you owe me half a month's hazard pay."

"How do you figure?"

Blue grinned and rested his submachine gun on his shoulder as he began to plod back toward the warmth of the gunship. "I got her to say something unrelated to the mission."