chaos_Leader

Star Fox: Legacy, (Vol. II)

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chaos_Leader

Guess What Everyone?

I reformatted this thread (and vol. 1 too) so the text is right there in your face! No more hyperlinks. No more PDF downloads. All you gotta do now is sit there and read, since I don't have the audio book version yet (kidding: I'm not really going to make an audio book version)

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-スターフォックスã®éºç”£ã€ç•ªç›®ã®æœ¬

-Star Fox: Legacy-

Volume II-

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First Contact

The shuttle sliced through the planet's atmosphere, pulverizing otherwise harmless inert gases into a white-hot blaze outside the craft. At its blinding speed of many kilometers per second, the shuttle's impact shields completely decimated any and all air molecules it collided with, producing nearly pure thermal energy from the friction. Such were the glorious fires of atmospheric reentry common to every spacecraft. It made the entire shuttle rumbled and shook violently as it descended. The view outside the windows was obscured by the blazing sundered air.

It never gets any easier to endure...

Finally, after far too long, the violent tremors ceased as the shuttle took a steady flight path.

"Whooo yeah!" the pilot shouted over his shoulder from his controls, "That oughta wake you all up!"

The pilot was a brash, cocksure khaki furred fox.

The shuttle was small, and only carried three passengers strapped to their seats on this descent from orbit.

"Look at that..."

one of them was a portly, dark faced simian with rusty red hair and beard, gazing in wonder out one of the shuttle's windows.

What he saw outside was a lush, thriving landscape; forests, plains, marshlands and landscapes of all types as they rushed past below. There was one major factor that set the landscape apart: the vegetation was colored primarily in shades of blue, rather than green.

"Ladies and gentlemen, outside these windows is a whole new world." the rusty red ape announced to the rest of the cabin "It is one of the first and nearest readily habitable planets ever to be discovered outside Lylat, not more than a single parsec away, and we shall be the first to set foot on her surface–"

"Don't forget there are signs of civilization here," the second passenger was a slim hound with a long, narrow face, "an active civilization no less."

The ape nodded solemnly, "And for once Harrsion, we are going to get First Contact right."

"The chlorophyll pigment in the vegetation here can very easily be blue instead of green, there are red leafed plans on the worlds of Lylat..."

The last passenger was a small, smooth scaled lizard with mainly green coloration. He fidgeted nervously in his seat as he peeped out the window next to him.

"Blue might even be a little more efficient than green at absorbing the amber-yellow light from the parent star for photosynthesis–"

The vulpine pilot cut him off, "I swear, if I have to hear any more of this guy's bio-babble while I'm trying to fly, I'm chucking him out right now and leaving him here with these blue plants he's so excited about..."

"Hey, give him a break." Harrison shot back at the pilot, "He's been canned up in a spacecraft for well over a month making this journey. We've all got a little cabin fever."

"Eh, whatever..." the pilot shrugged it off, "We're coming up on the LZ anyway."

As the shuttle descended further toward the planet's surface, it passed over a number of small clearings where there appeared to be several stone buildings gathered in a village, or town. Some of the structures were quite impressive. However, the shuttle passed over the settlement before anyone could get a closer look. The details of the planet's sentient inhabitants were still a mystery.

The shuttle finally touched down in a grassy clearing some distance away from the settlement, but some of the taller buildings still stood out. The party of four disembarked with little trouble, greeted a cool breeze of pleasant, even invigorating fresh air of the uncharted world. The sounds of the cooling machinery of the shuttle were met with the distant calls and cries of local fauna. A few scurrying shapes were seen amongst the immediate surrounding vegetation, but most of the animals were likely frightened off by the shuttle's landing.

In the distance however, some shapes advanced toward the landing party from the direction of the native settlement. They were still too distant to make out clearly, but the vulpine pilot had come out equipped with a pair of binoculars, through which he observed the advancing figures.

"My god, they look so much like us–"

"What?" The lizard flinched, "Let me see."

"Is that even possible?"

Astounded, the pilot handed the binoculars to the nervous green reptilian.

The lizard snatched up the binoculars and locked his gaze through them as the group came nearer.

"I... I guess it's not completely impossible, but–"

"I'm sure the new Xenobiology departments of the universities will come up with a reasonable explanation..." the ape assured his jittering colleague, "For now, we must be fair guests to this world, introduce ourselves, and give our hosts the finest first impression we can."

The native group came into clear view near the landing party. In almost every way, the natives did resemble common vulpine canids of Lylat, with one notable exception: their fur tones were restricted almost entirely to shades of blue. They wore mostly simple tunics, some had intricate jewelry, some also had their fur tattooed in artistic patterns, and a few of them carried weapons on their person. All of them chattered and whispered anxiously amongst themselves in a language no one in the party understood.

"I don't know about this, they're acting a little nervous-like."

The vulpine pilot's hand hovered over the handgun holster at his hip.

The blue foxes continued their anxious murmur, occasionally gesturing at the landing party. No one from the shuttle party had any idea what to do next, and neither did the native group apparently.

A few awkward moments later, an older, distinguished female stepped out from the group of natives. Her clothing was of slightly higher quality than the others, and she strode forward with regal confidence. One of the other natives tried to step out in front of her, imploring her? Whatever the case, she brushed him off with a few words and continued forward toward the shuttle party.

"Ah, now this is more like it."

The portly ape stepped forward to meet the elder native, but she stopped short, and held up her hand to the red ape in a gesture that said "halt". She looked over the party of four with a pair of keen, scrutinizing eyes, and stopped when her gaze fell upon Arno Harrison. She held out her hand and beckoned the slim hound to come forward.

The dark faced simian backed off, a little confused.

". . . I suppose she wants to do something with you, Harrison."

"What? Me?"

"Well go on then." he motioned for the hound to go forward, "Stand firm, tread with confidence, and meet this fine lady as an equal. What kind of message do we send these if their first meeting with an outsider is a babbling sheepish simpleton?"

A little flustered, half pushed by the ape, Arno Harrison stepped forward toward the elder native. Where she was calm, confident and inviting, the hound was a nervous uncertain wreck. He took a deep breath to settle himself, tried not to think too hard about what this all meant, and pressed forward to meet the blue furred vixen.

As he closed in, the elder extended her hand toward Harrison, and he did the same. The two met between their respective parties, and grasped one another's hand in a gesture of mutual respect.

She closed her eyes for a second, and upon opening them again, a pair of pale blue lights lit up insider her dark pupils. Arno was struck absolutely speechless by the bizarre sight, but she simply smiled back with calm confidence.

The lights in her eyes flared brightly, and began to flicker on and off like the flashes of a strobe light. The flickering quickly picked up speed, switching from blindingly bright to total darkness quicker and quicker, on and off, on and off, until it was finally impossible to distinguish the darkness from the light–

And then it stopped.

Arno Harrison found himself on his hands and knees staring at the bluish grass, panting hard as his chest heaved in and out, and his head ringing with a crushing headache that stole all other focus.

"What happened?" he wheezed out breathlessly, "What did you do?"

"Rest easy..." the elder vixen helped Harrison to his feet, "You're confused, and rightly so, but you are well."

"How are you even communicating with me?"

"Arno?" the vulpine shuttle pilot rushed to his aid, wide-eyed and utterly flabbergasted, "What the hell are you saying to her?"

"I... what?" the hound asked as he shook his ringing head.

"You were talking in their language!"

/

--------------------------------------------------

/

Dr. Beverly Finch shot bolt upright in her bed, drenched in sweat and pounding with a headache. It was one of those dreams again: a dream built from memories that she never experienced firsthand. Getting a hold of herself, the avian glanced down at the alarm clock: 5:53 am, that's before the alarm clock would've gone off, but too late to go back to sleep. She hoisted herself out of bed with a small groan and turned on the room's lights, then headed to the bathroom close by...

The room layout was simple, but tasteful, with all the amenities of a cozy apartment. Outside the window though was another sight entirely. Dawn was just breaking over the horizon, lighting the landscape outside in a brilliant amber blaze.

Nearer, where the apartment stood, was a small urbanized enclave nestled amidst the lush surrounding forest. The buildings' designers decided to emulate the native architecture, and modernize it; intended to make integration of the native population a more inviting prospect for them. Whether or not it worked was difficult to say, since the complex was still fairly recent, and their presence in this area still fairly new...

This was the first and thus far most successful colony ever established outside the Lylat system, named for what the natives called this world in their own tongue: the Cerinia Institute.

1 First Contact.pdf

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Psygonis

The reading is as seamless and easy as ever. :3

Oh and could by any chance the dark-faced simian be Dr. Andross? ;)

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chaos_Leader

The reading is as seamless and easy as ever. :3

Hey, glad to have another reader aboard. ^_^

Oh and could by any chance the dark-faced simian be Dr. Andross? ;)

No, I hadn't planned on it. My main justification being if he was Andross, he'd be way too old by the time of the Lylat war, like, in his 90s. He's coming though, just not right this instant.

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chaos_Leader

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In the Shadow of a Greater Man

The period of violence localized around the Cornerian nation of Gaedel, –known simply as "The Troubles"– began shortly after the formation of the Lylat Union, when the national governments of Corneria merged to form a unified planetary government: the Cornerian Parliament. In the shuffle of such a major transition, divisive local issues resurfaced, which reignited a series of old and bitter political grudges.

Fueled by scores of zealous egos on all sides, these grudges quickly escalated into violent feuds. When the tension snapped and boiled over, innocent people began to die in the crossfire. The retaliatory attacks that followed only further compounded the issues, fueling further outrage and violence. The newly formed Cornerian Parliament complacently declared itself neutral, content to let the messy, senseless business run its course as opposed to dirtying their hands while establishing new interplanetary relations.

With no higher authority to act as a mediator, the violent actors divided themselves into two broad factions: those who believed they were oppressed, and felt forced to act; and those who believed they were wrongly targeted, and felt forced to retaliate. At times though, especially to those unfamiliar with Gaedelic history, it would become very difficult to differentiate one side from the other. Truthfully, neither side was completely without fault or reason, and the debates would continue long after the bloodshed ended.

/

"Oh! then tell me, Shawn O'Ferrall, Tell me why you hurry so?"

"Hush ma bouchal, hush and listen," And his cheeks were all a-glow.

"I bear orders from the captain, Get you ready quick and soon,

For the pikes must be together At the risin' of the moon..."

/

Two figures were locked in combat, hand-to-hand sparring, in what amounted to little more than a cleared basement. One was a young black furred terrier, still in his teen years, and burning with determination. The other was an older black-and-white collie, probably in his mid to late thirties, focused and in control. Both canids fought wearing simple athletic shorts and close fitting sleeveless t-shirts, along with hand wraps and ankle braces– the bare minimum in safety.

The collie and terrier continued their sparring, a versatile form built on simplicity and instinct, but flexible enough to integrate more advanced and exotic techniques, some of which surfaced in the bout.

"Stop!" the collie said firmly, holding up his hand. He was winded, but coherent enough to remain in control and speak clearly, "Tell me why you're here, Scott."

Scott was absolutely exhausted, soaked at every point with sweat and gasping for breath while he stood hunched forward with his hands on his knees, barely supporting his shaking body.

"The Troubles killed me dad, and turned me mum in'tae a drug suckin' whore." he managed between great heaves for breath, "I've nowhere left tae go Sean, and I have tae do something."

"But do you understand why I selected you, out of the many thousands who call themselves GLA, to become a member of the Banshees?" Sean asked.

"I... I haven't the faintest idea..."

"Two reasons lad..."

Sean led the worn out terrier to a table in one corner of the basement/makeshift dojo, where there were a number of water bottles, and some other pieces of physical training equipment. Scot tore the cap off one on the water bottles and downed the cool refreshing liquid like it was the elixir of life.

"First:" the collie began, "You've got a good head on your shoulders, you're not a daft delusional dolt, which means I'll be able to teach you... do a few stretches, I promise you'll feel better."

Once he had his fill of water and caught some of his breath, Scott began a series of dynamic stretches.

"Second:" Sean continued, "You've got the motivation, the will to do whatever it takes no matter what, which means you'll be willing to learn."

"But I haven't had any combat training or nothing–"

"I don't choose candidates for the Banshees based their skill." the collie cut him off, "Many who join up with the Gaedelic Liberation Army already have some combat training, but it gets in the way more often than not. They have to unlearn many lessons –taught to them by much harsher teachers than I– before they're ready to accept new and unusual concepts; the kind of concepts the GLA will need to implement if we hope to stand a spirit of a chance..."

Sean stepped away, back to the center of the room where he and Scott had fought minutes ago, and did a few stretches of his own.

"I chose you because you don't have any prior practical training; because instead of breaking you down and trying to rebuild on an unstable foundation, you can be built fresh from the ground up, and so build yourself stronger, faster, better..."

The older collie assumed a fighting stance, and beckoned Scott toward him.

"Again!"

/

Oh! then tell me, Shawn O'Ferrall, Where the gatherin' is to be?

In the ould spot by the river, Right well known to you and me.

One word more—for signal token Whistle up the marchin' tune,

With your pike upon your shoulder, By the risin' of the moon"...

/

It was the same basement, but no longer empty. Instead, there were a couple long tables with chairs around, and these chairs were all occupied. Most of them were canids, of which many were terrier types– the usual demographic spread for the Gaedelic region. They were all dressed in a hodgepodge of military surplus, the only unifying factor between them all was a series of sewn-on patches, each depicting a red hooded figure with no face: the banshee.

Nervous whispers drifted through the room. None of them knew exactly why they were there. Some feared the worst, others were filled with nervous anticipation, and a few were hardened by their unrelenting determination.

After a few tense minutes, Sean O'Ferrall stepped out of a back room into the basement, with two masked figures trailing behind him, all wearing similar military style fatigues as "the Banshees", but with a different set of sewn-on patches.

"Good afternoon." the older collie said, addressing the room, "I imagine you're wondering why I gathered you here; I'll show you..."

Sean gestured his two masked followers into the back room, and they went. A few moments later, they returned wheeling a large man-sized object covered by a tarp into the basement, and set it on the floor next to Sean.

"This, is what you will soon be up against..."

The collie tore the tarp off and flung it away, revealing a bulky suit of armor fitted to a mannequin. It was in pristine condition, painted all white with green highlights. The spaces between the plates were covered by a dense woven fabric material, possibly a variety of carbon fiber.

"This is a state-of-the-art SyntoMech T-5 Templar powered combat exoskeleton." Sean announced, and he slowly began to pace around the armor, "It was originally developed for military use and commercial security, but there weren't any takers due to its steep price. However, the Loyalist Resistance Force will be receiving a shipment of these within a month, courtesy of a wealthy anonymous supplier. We only barely managed to smuggle this set here from the manufacturer."

A worried murmur stirred up among the banshees. Sean let them continue, and simply positioned himself roughly three meteres from the armour, observing it with an interested eye.

"The plating is multi-layered high density silicon carbide and titanium alloy composite, built to withstand most contemporary small-arms–"

The black and white collie pulled out the blaster handgun on his hip, and fired several blaring blazing shots into to armour's chestpiece, which only produced a few scorched marks on the paint. Once the ringing in the room cleared away, he holstered his weapon and continued on.

"It is also highly resistant against physical impact and projectile rounds, up to the shells used in large caliber anti-materiel rifles."

He came alongside the armour and knocked his knuckles against the plate a few times.

"The sealed full-body casing provides more than ample protection against explosives and incendiaries, and the self-contained life-support suite makes it virtually impervious to chemical or biological attack."

"Then how the bloody hell are we supposed tae beat the damned thing?" Scott shouted, followed quickly by several interjections from many others in the room, all asking similar nervous questions.

One of the masked men came up to Sean O'Ferrall bearing a long, cloth covered package.

"You will beat it..." the collie reached under the fabric, "with this." and pulled out what looked like an antique broadsword.

"He's joking, right?" Scott asked. The rest of the room's occupants were silent; either out of confusion or curiosity, but likely both.

"Heavy broadswords were used in times of antiquity as a means to combat plate armour." Sean explained, swinging the blade around in expert hands in a series a demonstrative flourishes, "With a good thrust, the blade's heavy mass concentrated at its sharp point could easily punch through the best armor of its time. This weapon utilizes the same concept, but updated for a modern age..."

The older collie twisted a small, near imperceptible dial at the sword's pommel, and quiet, low hum came out over the silence.

"Rragh!"

Sean thrust the humming sword at the bulky armor, and with a thunderous crack and an agonized screech, the sword skewered straight through the armor, peeling it open like it was nothing but a tin can.

/

Out from many a mudwall cabin Eyes were watching thro' that night,

Many a manly chest was throbbing For the blessed warning light.

Murmurs passed along the valleys Like the banshee's lonely croon,

And a thousand blades were flashing At the risin' of the moon...

/

The basement was almost completely empty, save for two people. One was encased in a brilliant white suit of T-5 Templar powered armor, scorched and nicked in a few places from recent combat. He wielded an assault rifle

"Sean O'Ferrall!" the armored figure called out through the speakers of his helmet. "Surrender yourself, and I assure you will be treated fairly and with dignity in our custody."

The older collie stood in the center of the empty basement, clothed in khaki colored military style fatigues, defiantly standing his guard against. The white

"Take your faux chivalry and stuff it up your arse!" O'Ferrall shot back

"So be it."

Armored warrior nodded solemnly, then brought up he assault rifle, aiming it squarely at the black-and-white collie.

"On behalf of the people of Gaedel, and all Corneria, you will answer for the blood shed by you and your band of treasonous terrorists."

"How dare you try to perch up there on the moral high ground, and call me a terrorist!" Sean shouted back, glowering with every word, "You, who just strapped on a few bits of metal and vaingloriously called yourself a 'Knight', and then butcher men and women in their homes– all of it in the name of a people and government that don't even support your fucked-up cause!"

He quickly checked out of the corner of his eye, in the dark shadows–

"Enough!" the other yelled.

"I speak for the people of Gaedel, and you're not about to shut me up!"

The fuming collie shot his arm out in front of him, gesturing the V sign at the armored figure as he gnashed his teeth.

"Shaoráil go deo!"

A blurred blue streak shot out from the shadow in the corner, and–

"Grraaagh!" the armored man's scream was barely heard over over the cracking rattling metallic squeal...

He fell backward, collapsing on the floor with a heavy thud, revealing a black-clad Scott Aberdeen standing over him, holding a blood-smeared sword...

/

There beside the singing river That dark mass of men was seen,

Far above the shining weapons Hung their own beloved green.

Death to ev'ry foe and traitor! Forward! strike the marchin' tune,

And hurrah, my boys, for freedom! T'is the risin' of the moon...

/

The Troubles came to an end with the Aranburgh Agreement, when the Cornerian Parliament could no longer stand by while its citizens slaughtered each other, and finally intervened. In what became typical Cornerian political inventiveness, or conniving opportunism according to some, the Parliament took to neither side of the conflict, and absolved both the GLA and LRF of their crimes. In exchange however, both factions would have to integrate themselves into the Cornerian military.

The decision was not without controversy, as there were a great many who wanted justice dealt– a majority, in fact. The counterargument provided by the Cornerian Parliament claimed that both sides were simply acting out of fierce patriotism, if misguided. To punish either side would only further fuel outrage from the other, intensifying the violent bloodshed. Bringing them under official military control would instead "put a leash and collar" on the two factions, directing their talents and ingenuity toward greater and more productive causes.

Members of the the Gaedelic Liberation Army formed the Gaedelic Dragoon Guard: a light infantry unit that specialized in urban guerrilla warfare, and with astonishing success. Those among the Loyalist Resistance Force formed the Order of the Shield, reviving the old chivalric virtues of Corneria's past, and proving the effectiveness of powered armor as a viable tactical option.

Over time, the anger simmered down, and the Cornerian public came to appreciate the the results of the Aranburgh Agreement. Both factions ultimately benefited from the outcome; Sean O'Ferrall was even elected to the Cornerian Parliament shortly thereafter. Some however were not satisfied, or would rather not continue "shackled" by the government...

/

Well they fought for poor old Ireland, And full bitter was their fate

(Oh! what glorious pride and sorrow fill the name of Ninety-Eight).

Yet, thank God, it still is beating; hearts in manhood's burning noon,

Who would follow in their footsteps, At the risin' of the moon!...

/

Sean O'Ferrall stepped once more into the cleared basement where he and the GLA Banshees used to meet. The black-and-white collie was a little older now with the first few gray flecks beginning to show. Instead of military fatigues, he wore a conservative suit and necktie that he hadn't quite gotten used to wearing yet.

The sounds of several concussive thumps and thuds were heard, as well as the grunts and quick breaths of someone repeatedly striking a heavy punching bag. There was Scott Aberdeen, entirely alone in the empty basement, performing a series of hand-to-hand techniques, dressed again in the sleeveless t shirt and athletic shorts used for training. The dark terrier was in far better form now than when he first trained; his toned body was in far better shape physically, and his technique far more precise an in-control, delivering focused strikes with power and force...

"What are doing here?" Sean asked, stepping alongside the active terrier, "It's all been over for a while now, Scott. Didn't you join up with the Dragoons?"

"No..."

Scott paused in his routine –winded, but far from exhausted, and with a burning uncertainty in mind.

"Tell me it wasn't all for nothing."

"What?"

"The fighting and everything; tell me it wasn't all in vain."

"But it was all for nothing." Sean explained, "The whole bloody thing was a petty, bigotry fueled rampage; but that's exactly why we fought."

The terrier cocked his head to the side in a quizzical look, "I don't understand"

"In a debate where your opponent uses arms and a brutish show of force, the only way we could respond at the time was in-kind..."

The older collier let out a tired sigh, remembering everything he and everyone else had done.

"It's all over and done now, we don't have to use violence anymore."

"But that's all I know." Scott appealed, "What am I supposed tae do now? I'm not any good at anything else."

"That's not something I can tell you, but..."

Sean reached into a pocket, and pulled out a small, finger-sized card.

"What's that?"

"It's the key to an Axiom Tech Havoc class attack fighter, and I want you to have it." He handed the slim key to Scott, still speaking, "A mercenary who can fly will almost always be more successful than one who can't."

The terrier took the key, and looked it over a few times.

"A mercenary?"

"If you'd like." Sean said with a shrug, "Do with it what you will– even sell it for all I care– I don't have any use for it anymore as an honest, upstanding politician."

"That sounds like a paradox already." Scott chided with a chuckle.

"Oh, don't even get me started on that subjuect..." The older collie said with a groan and rolling eyes, then shifted back into a more sober tone, "Listen, whatever you choose to do with my old Havoc, all I ask is that you use it to step out from the shadows of your past, and carve your a path of your own through this crazy life."

"Shaoráil go deo." Scott said with quiet, solemn reverence.

"Exactly." Sean responded.

2 In a Greater Man's Shadow.pdf

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chaos_Leader

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Soldier of Fortune

"Why do you believe you'll be a success in Caius Company tactical solutions?" the interviewer asked. He was a reddish, silky furred feline with scrutinizing eyes, dressed in a dark pinstripe suit. He sat at one side of a table in an ordinary room of an ordinary office building, with only a simple computer tablet on the tabletop that he occasionally made a note in.

James McCloud sat opposite the feline interviewer joins, dressed in the forest green service dress uniform typical of the Cornerian Armed Forces, with flight corp insignia for the rank of Senior Wingman.

It seems like such a simple question at first glance, but job interview process is anything but simple. The employer already knew James was perfectly qualified for the job, as they'd looked over the resume, consulted the references and performed a background check. At this point in the process, the company has a short list of qualified candidates, and is weeding out those who clash with the company culture, picking ot those select few who would fit in cleanly without friction.

To this end, James McCloud carefully sculpted his responses in order to make a better impression on the interviewer here, bluffing his way through the process.

"Because I'll get the job done, no matter what it is." James answered with conviction.

"The same can be said by members of our competitor firms, common guns for hire, and military soldiers..."

The brick red felid scanned McCloud with his piercing eyes, making not of every gesture, twitch and minuscule twitch of body language. It's not just about what the candidate says, but how he says it, and what he does whilst saying it that paint a picture of the fox's underlying psychology. Thus he probed deeper, asking key questions the answers and reactions to which would allow the feline to read the candidate's mind.

"Why have you chosen to pursue a career with Caius Company over other options, such as remaining among the Cornerian Armed Forces?"

This was another dig for a specific response, and James knew exactly what to provide.

"My service in the Cornerian Army and Academy training taught me how to harness my talents and use my skills, but I believe Caius Company is best situated to put them to good use, and stands to gain the most from it. With such promising potential, It'd be a shame to have such assets go to waste grinding away in the ranks of the military, or scrabbling among small-time mercenaries."

It was a highly tailored response, crafted specifically to kiss the company's ass while simultaneously putting James and his skills in the spotlight. Luckily he was backed up with enough solid credentials under his belt to get away with that kind of flaunting without seeming like a total fraud.

"Indeed..."

The interviewer was onto him, but the vulpine pilot was right, and he knew it. That sort of shrewd self-confidence could be useful, so long as it didn't degenerate into arrogance. He made a quick note in his tablet and moved on to another question; something that'd allow the candidate more time to speak for himself.

"In your own words, briefly tell me about your single most stressful experience during the Flight Academy program, and how you dealt with it."

/

-------------------------------------------

/

The steady, comforting rumble of the engines ceased, and most of the lights in the cockpit went dim.

"Shhhit..."

James McCloud was at the controls of a fightercraft trainer. His flight instructor, a small sleek avian with deep indigo plumage, occupied the tandem seat just behind. They were high in the upper atmosphere of Katina, where the blue of sky and the black of space were nearly seamless. The trainer craft was still gaining a little altitude, but only from sheer momentum.

The avian flight instructor stated the obvious, "McCloud, we've lost power–"

"I know!"

The fox quickly ran through an internal checklist, eyes darting across displays and hands racing across instruments.

"The reactor's gone cold... We're down to just the reserve power cells..."

"Can you get the G-diffuser online?"

The craft's ascent crested, and seemed to hang in the air for an instant.

"It wouldn't do any good. There's not enough juice to stop or slow us down, we'd use up the cells almost instantly. Same goes for thrusters."

The trainer-craft began to slide downward through the air.

"Then there's nothing for it. I'm gonna bail us out–"

"If we bail now, it'll kill us! The thin atmosphere outside is gonna knock us unconscious, and we won't be able to pull our parachute ripcords–"

"And if we bail out too late, the impact of ejection at extreme speed will kill us anyway!"

The avian instructor leaned over Jame's pilot seat.

"We are going to take our chances with thin air... and that's an order, McCloud."

The craft picked-up some speed.

"No."

James took a firm hold of the trainer craft's control stick, pushing it forward so the nose pointed down.

"I have an idea–"

"We are dropping like a goddamn brick! We do not have time for mid-fucking-flight repairs!"

The craft began to shake in the turbulence as they gained greater velocity, and the air gradually became more dense.

"You're right, we don't..."

With one hand on the control column and the other inputting commands into the on-board flight computer, the vulpine pilot elaborated further.

"I'm redistributing whatever power is left to the air breaks and maneuvering flaps. It'll be rough, but I should be able to glide this bird into an emergency landing–"

"You are out-of-line, Cadet! This is insubordination!"

For only a moment, James stopped his tinkering, and confronted his superior.

"Frankly Sir, between what few options we have left, which do you think has the least slim of chances?..."

They picked up even more speed, and the buckling became progressively more violent during their stony silence, rattling the trainer craft as it blundered through the air.

The avian looked outside, considered the options, and finally sided with the cadet.

"I'll tell ground-control what's happening, but this had better work..."

He checked his instruments.

"Scratch that, comm's out too."

"I took all those peripherals offline to conserve energy– we'll need every scrap of power we can squeeze from the cells to bring us down in one piece. You can always chat it up with command when we're not in deadly peril..." almost as an afterthought. "Sir."

The trainer-craft continued on a downward dive toward the distant surface, buffeting more and more violently as the air became denser and more tightly packed. Gently, James began to pull the control stick back. The plummeting craft shook even more, protesting the attempted change in direction with every creaking, twisting, clattering squeal of distressed machinery imaginable.

"Eeeasy, McCloud... these simple trainers weren't made for extremes like this, and you really don't want the airflow control surfaces ripping themselves clean-off."

"I know what I'm doing."

The parched, dusty planet surface kept rising, and James kept pulling the trainer-craft's nose up toward the horizon. The instructor watched out of the canopy in horror as the dusty ground rushed past underneath, and getting closer...

"McCloud... air brakes."

Faster...

"They'll get shredded at this speed, and we'll plow straight into the ground."

Closer...

"If you brake now, we can still bail-out!"

Faster...

"No! We're going too fast! I've gotta pull her up!"

The flat landscape just below was nothing but a tan blur at their bulletlike velocity, and the trainer felt like it was trying to shake itself to pieces...

"It's not enough, McCloud. It's not enough!... We are dead!... And it's all thanks to YOU–"

The ground was rising up from below to pulverize them...

"Bullshit, Sir!"

James yanked the control stick back as far as it would go. The nose jerked above the horizon, but they still careened toward the ground at a low angle. The phenomenal g-forces crushed the pilot and flight instructor into their seats, and the trainer-craft nearly came apart at the seams. The vulpine pilot checked how much power was left, and decided to risk it.

He fired a single burst of the craft's maneuvering thrusters. This would be cutting it way too close.

The trainer jerked forward a bit from the thrusters, finally gaining some altitude. The slight ascent slowed them down, and the shaking eased-up as the velocity was reduced below suicidal levels.

There was no way to know just how close they came, maybe it was better not to know...

James still panted heavily, his heart still racing with leftover adrenaline.

"I'm... I'm putting the air-brakes on now..."

The trainer-craft flinched at the shock of the air brakes, but wasn't threatening to go to pieces like before. The fox balanced the brakes along with stabilizers and maneuvering flaps in a battle against the craft's forward momentum. He was going to make this emergency landing as smooth as possible.

"Do you still wanna bail out, Sir?"

The avian flight instructor was similar state of shocked relief, and could care less.

"Just set her down nice and easy and be done with it."

The trainer steadily slowed down and descended over Katina's surface under Jame's control.

"Brace for impact?"

The swallow lazily assumed the proper 'crash' position.

"Sure, whatever."

/

-------------------------------------------

/

That'd be a good one for sure. It showcased all the traits they'd be looking for: decisiveness, quick thinking, ingenuity, and he didn't even have to fake that story...

The feline interviewer listened to McCloud's story from, catching on to all his little tics, habits and mannerisms. From his assessment, this candidate had been coached for the interview, or had ample practice with the job interview process. It was getting time to throw this cocky candidate a curveball to pop his bubble, and he knew just the thing that'd do it...

"It seems you underwent and extraordinary amount of combat training for a pilot, including high marks for marksmanship, close quarters combat, plus a variety of special tactics training. Would you mind explaining why you took on so much?"

"As a combat pilot, I believe it's a good policy to be familiar with all aspects of conflict, to better know my place among it as a dedicated fighter pilot." James answered without a hitch,"That, and it also comes in handy more than you know."

It was a good answer, a practiced answer, but that was never the point of the question in the first place.

"Well..." the brick red feline exhaled a tired sigh and shook his head, "if that's the best answer you can give me..."

The interviewer waited for Jame's reaction. Most would've taken offense to such a response, or shrunken back sheepishly as if they'd done something wrong. McCloud on the other hand simply sat there patiently, waiting to tackle the next question that came his way. It was a good response, one that meant he's not one to get hung-up on trivial issues, and that he'll perform well under awkward situations.

"Okay, I think that's enough of this verbal poker game..."

The feline interviewer stood up from the table and scooped up his computer tablet, and in doing so produced a peculiar, perplexed look on Jame's face; like he hadn't been interview coached for something like this.

"Relax kid, you got the job." the brick red feline said with and amused chuckle, "Welcome aboard the Caius Company crew!" and extended a welcoming hand to James McCloud.

/

-------------------------------------------

/

"Goddammit, Jimmy! Wake up!"

"Mrrph–"

A sharp sensation stung Jame's face, and jostled him from sleep into a vague sate of awareness; someone slapped him hard across the face. Opening his eyes, the fox found his clenched fist to have drifted in the general direction of the loud obnoxious voice. Someone had grabbed hold of the outstretched fist however, and used it to hoist McCloud into an upright position. He was in his bed, in the city apartment he shared with his friend–

"You turned your alarm off in your sleep again, didn't you?..."

The dazed fox shook his head awake, and found Peppy Hare at his bedside, glaring back with that selfsame judgmental-seeming expression he'd come to identify with his friend. He always meant well, but he could also get in your face in the most obscene ways possible.

"Come on Jimmy." the dusty gray hare scolded, "This is the day you ship out with the Amity, and you're supposed to have left for the spaceport almost an hour ago!"

At the mention of the Amity, the half asleep fox snapped into action. The sudden surge of energy came almost as if a switch had been flipped in Jame's body.

Without a word James sprung from the bed and tore open the dresser, throwing on a simple outfit faster than conceivably possible. All the while Peppy continued ranting on the fox's deaf ears as he bolted out his bedroom door into the rest of the apartment, and ultimately to the exit.

Amity. That was the name of a ship; a larger, semi-independent general purpose vessel that ran both cargo and passengers, and has been known to be hired for special contracts. The captain of the Amity had hired Caius Company for additional fighter escort and security detail for a run into less-than-safe territory. Specifically, the Amity was going to make the long run, and sometimes hazardous run to Cerinia. The exact details were still a little foggy, but the ship was to leave today, and fairly soon...

Faster than anyone had any right to expect, James McCloud had scrambled out of his apartment building and onto the busy city street outside. The noise, the rush of moving people, and general life of the city greeted him, but the fox took no time to dwell upon it all. He went straight to the edge of the street and scanned the many vehicles that went past, until he spotted a taxi and flagged down as it came past.

The hovering taxicab pulled alongside James, and he quickly stepped inside and seated himself in the back seat.

"Where to?" asked a suspiciously familiar voice. The cab driver turned to look at her passenger, revealing the smug face of Rachelle Cooney.

"Gha!" the fox flinched hard, nearly jumping out of his seat from surprise, "How did you–"

"Pardon me..."

The rear door near James had flung open again, and Rick Cooney clambered into the cab with James, settling into an empty seat before closing the door behind him.

"Do you mind if we share?" the raccoon asked, then quickly turned to the driver without waiting for a response. "I think we were headed for the spaceport if I remember right."

"Sure thing." Rachelle replied with an easy nod, and pulled the taxicab into the flow of traffic.

It took a few moments for James recover from sudden and bizarre turn of events, and finally get a question in.

"Is this some sort of joke?" he demanded, rightfully irritated.

"Nope." Rachelle answered quickly, "But you should've seen the look your face anyway; priceless."

"We just dropped by to wish you luck on your first big assignment with the Company," the next part of Rick's sentence took on a significantly grimmer tone. "and to warn you..."

The twins never bothered with pranks and theatrics for their own sake, even if they reveled in it. Knowing at least the general gist of their grim cloak-and-dagger careers, they likely had to take the precious few laughs wherever they could find them.

After a few moments of these thoughts, James collected himself, and resumed his usual sober, practically deadpan demeanor.

"Fine, so warn me then."

Rick gave a quick acknowledging nod, "The Amity is going to come under attack while out on this run."

"That's why the captain hired Caius Company." James responded with his solid confidence, "We can fight."

The raccoon shook his head dryly; It was exactly the answer he expected.

"It's not just pirate rabble coming after the ship out there. We've been informed that the Amity has been targeted by Harrow..."

Harrow.

The word was an alias used by a loose collection of bandits and outlaws bound together; a cult united and strengthened by their collective anonymity. Their motives, much like their exact identities, have always been muddled in mystery. Some claim Harrow to be little more than a simple anarchist terrorist group, others consider it a puppet organization with other untold motives, or just an umbrella term for a pool of black market personnel and resources at the disposal of the highest bidder. The only widely known certainty about Harrow is that the attacks and activities attributed to the group have always been fast, efficient, and absolutely ruthless.

"We weren't supposed to tell you anything about this in the first place," Rick continued, "but we've never really been one to stick to–"

James cut him off, "What does Harrow want with the Amity?"

"No idea," Cooney supplied with a shrug, "but I intend to find out."

Simply by his nature, there was no way to know if he was being completely honest or not. If he knew more, he wasn't going to tell; if he didn't, he wasn't going to let on.

"Do the authorities know about this? Or the Amity's captain?" the fox asked, "Does anyone else know?"

"They can't know, Jim." Rick explained, not entirely comfortable with the answers he gave, "This attack is the first opportunity that's come in a very long time to get at Harrow, and we can't blow it by tipping tipping them off to the whole situation. The network of informants they have is nothing short of mind-boggling, penetrating deep into Lylat Interpatrol, and we suspect they have spies planted aboard the Amity to help coordinate the coming attack. I'm already running a risk simply by telling you–"

"Then why tell me at all?"

"Because I am not some heartless, amoral, intelligence spook." Rick insisted, almost seeming offended, "Because I'd rather you know what's coming now than to have you demand 'Why the hell didn't you tell me?' when it's all over. I'm doing you a huge favor by telling you this, Jim."

James McCloud was silent again, gazing out the taxicab's window as the city flowed past outside, gradually thinning as they traveled into the city suburbs. It wasn't clear whether he was giving Rick the cold shoulder, preoccupied with his thoughts, or simply indifferent to the raccoon's impassioned speech.

"You're going to get hit hard out there, harder than you'll be expected to survive from," Rachelle added, filling in the awkward silence from the driver's seat, "but you'll have backup."

"Who from?" James asked in a monotonous, possibly thoughtful tone.

"Let's just say, some old friends." Rick answered, glancing at James. "You didn't think we were just going to let Harrow's attack happen without a response planned, did you?"

The fox remained quiet, and to most he would've appeared not to react, as if he didn't give a single care about what was happening. In the keen, practiced eyes of Rick Cooney however, he saw James take a long, controlled breath as well as his limbs releasing pent-up tension he relaxed; like a soldier, Rick realized. McCloud was trained as a soldier, had a natural knack for it, and he'd do his duty right through the very worst of it. In his own solemn way, this silent treatment was how his appreciation came out, even if he didn't know it himself...

"Here we are..." Rachelle announced, "Corneria City Spaceport."

A few moments later, the taxicab came to a stop outside a large terminal building, even busier than the thickest streets of the city's downtown. James quickly opened the door nearest to him, letting a great wash of sound flood inside. Somewhere a dry mechanical voice announced something amidst the clamor of vehicles and countless people going about their business.

"Stay sharp out there, Jim." Rick said, holding Jame's attention for only a moment.

The fox just gave Rick a curt nod, and stepped out of the taxi before disappearing into the writhing mass of bustling pedestrians at a brisk walking pace.

3 Soldier of Fortune.pdf

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chaos_Leader

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White Knights and Black Bags

Six figures sat around a table in the Amity's mess deck...

Traversing across the vast empty reaches of deep space between star systems was always at least a several week affair, if not more, depending on the power and precision of the ship's jump drive. This simple fact of interstellar travel gave everyone aboard the ship an extraordinarily ample supply of time, and very little to do with it. Engineers could usually busy themselves babysitting the ship's systems, making sure the engines and jump drive didn't overheat and other such, but everyone else had to have their own pastime to ward off cabin fever.

"Gamma group..."

The speaker was a rough lizard with deep orange scales, and several almost beard-like spines lining his face. It gave him a serious, decisive appearance, complimented completely by his quick yet steady voice.

"One bogey coming straight at you: what's your move?"

"Split up..."

The answering figure was a sturdy, tough-built mostly white furred canid with a distinct arching muzzle, and black patch of fur around one eye. He spoke with the impression of someone who'd been doing this for a while

"Circle around and initiate a weave defense."

"Agreed." James said with a quick nod. He was sitting right next to the relaxed Canid.

"Bogey pursues Malloy," the reptile continued, "dives away from McCloud's counterattack: what's your move?"

"Roll out and pursue." the white canid– Malloy– responded wearily.

"Go high, look for bogey's countermaneuver." the fox finished, "Be ready to jump in if he slips away."

"Bogey neutralized."

The bearded lizard gave Malloy and McCloud a quick nod, and turned to another pair further around the round table.

"Beta group, two bogeys make a sweep for the Amity at 10 o'clock low headed your way: what's your move?"

"Fly at bogeys guns blazing..."

She was a great, powerfully built ursine, looming over everyone else at the table.

"Force a split or take them out."

"Follow Su at two seconds flight distance."

He was the smallest figure at the table; a blue and white plumed avian, who seemed even smaller

"First bogey splits away, second bogey passes Dodge: what's your move?" the reptile supplied.

"Pursue first bogey." the bear– Su– answered without a second thought.

"Open fire on second bogey, pass into a J-trun and pursue if he's not destroyed." the avian– Dodge– continued, making each decision carefully, "Otherwise, continue straight and assist Kodiak."

"Bogeys neutralized."

"Alpha group..."

Malloy spoke now, looking across the table at the orange scaled lizard.

"Three bogeys, first and second in tight formation, third lagging behind, what's your move?"

"Roll away from tight two." the reptile replied, "Pursue lone bogey, firing on approach."

The sixth and final figure, who'd been silent up until now, was a slender -weasel who seemed to be constantly shifting in his seat and glancing around.

"Fly at the tight pair, guns blazing."

"Second bogey splits off pursuing Commander Memo." Su continued, "First bogey passes Rudy."

"Yo-yo to pursue second bogey." the bearded lizard– Memo– replied quickly.

"Third bogey rolls away into pursuing Rudy." James adds in, "First bogey pitches back."

"Lag roll to pursue third bogey." the weasel – Rudy– responds.

"Second and third bogeys neutralized." Dodge fills in, "First bogey pursues Memo."

"Form up and initiate weave defense." The reptile

"Agreed." Rudy nodded.

"First bogey pursues Memo, Rudy counterattacks." Malloy concluded, "Bogey neutralized."

This is more or less what the trip had become for them.

Commander Panos Agamemnon, or "Memo" as he came to be known, ran daily verbal drills with his squad: two hour sessions, three sessions a day. Over the course of a single week's worth of this treatment, the fighter squad from Caius Company became so attuned to one another as to anticipate each member's response several steps ahead. Next to running live flights, or even flight-sim practice, verbal drilling sessions was the best they could do under the circumstances; if not to keep their reflexes sharp, then at least keep their minds prepared.

Sometimes they drilled in the Amity's mess like now, sometimes in the hangar amongst their company fightercraft while performing maintenance, sometimes in the lounge, and if the claims from the Amity's Captain were to be believed, then sometimes they even drilled aloud in their sleep. Wherever it happened, the squad's rapid clockwork recitations would occasionally draw an audience, fascinated by back-and-forth patter of aviation jargon.

"Any fool can jump into a cockpit and pull a trigger," Memo would tell those who asked why they kept drilling, "It's tight, intuitive unit cohesion that separates poor fighter pilots from capable ones, and dead ones from live ones, and your lives subsequently if it comes to it." at which point, the observers usually slink back sheepishly.

Commander Agamemnon paused a while, eyes scanning around his squad's table for a moment.

"That's enough for now." the bearded lizard said in a dry, almost mechanical sounding voice, "We'll meet in the hangar at sixteen-hundred hours for a maintenance check and another session."

With Memo's dismissal, the squad got up from the table, and many of them dispersed to do whatever it was they felt the need to do. Malloy got to James

"Hey McCloud." the cnaid said, getting his attention.

"Yeah?"

"See that pretty thing of a vixen over there?"

Malloy cocked his head in the direction of a nearby table where some others sat.

"She has been seriously checking you out the last few sessions, maybe longer."

"Really?" the fox asked, taking a quick look over at the table. Among them was a younger copper furred vixen sitting at the table, appearing hopelessly bored as she held up her head with elbows on the table.

Among the more regular audiences that the squad sometimes got was a loose gaggle of people that turned out to be a field crew from Lylat Tribune news. They were sent to Cerinia to shoot some footage, do a few interviews, and whatever else they do on location. The crew had a shuttle parked in the Amity's main hangar, but that kind of craft was hopelessly underpowered and understocked to make the long journey to Cerinia. So naturally, they hitched a ride with the Amity on one of its Cerinia Sauria runs.

"She just sits there and stares at you while we drill, ignoring everyone else at her table." Malloy explained further...

The crew from Lylat Tribune news were right there in the mess with the Caius Company squad, occupying a nearby table, numbering roughly a half-dozen. A few were trying desperately to strike up conversation at the table, but by now they'd probably exhausted all topics and were getting bored of each other's company.

"Can't say I blame her," James agreed as he looked over the table, "these long-haul milk runs are boring as–"

Both Jame's and Malloy's comms buzzed in their pockets, signaling an incoming call, which the two of them answered.

"Change in plans, the Captain has just put us on standby. " Commander Memo's cold, dry voice announced over the channel. "Meet up in the hangar immediately."

Just as suddenly as he called on them, the reptilian commander's voice cut out at the end of his communication; typical of him–

"The Amity is going to come under attack..."

The fox's heart skipped a few beats, Rick's warning ringing fresh in his mind's ear. He knew beyond a doubt this is when Harrow would strike.

"Shame." Malloy said with a slightly disappointed sigh as replaced his comm, "She looked looked like such a good prospect too."

The news crew group had all gotten up from their table and made their way to the exit. Among them was the copper furred vixen Malloy had pointed out, going right along with her home group to wherever they were heading next. For a brief moment however, James was certain she looked back through her curious emerald eyes, at him–

"The Amity is going to come under attack..."

The fox caught himself staring, and tore his fixated gaze away from her with a shake of his head.

"Maybe later." he blurted out.

"Hey, you alright McCloud?" Malloy asked, "You look like you've seen a ghost or something."

"Just a little nervous about this." James answered truthfully, "I'll be fine." he added, both to reassure Malloy and himself.

/

----------------------------------

/

Captain Jacob Saru stepped through the sliding door onto the Amity's bridge, forcing his posture to remain in an upright position to preserve at least a bare semblance of presentability. He was a roughly mid-aged silvery haired ape, who in his current drab appearance didn't seem like a commanding type at all. At the moment, the only feature that confirmed his status as Captain instead of a tired passenger was a command headset jammed lopsidedly against his head, which Saru occasionally tapped and spoke into.

"Alright, I've put the flyboys on standby." the simian captain groaned to the bridge crew, "Now will somebody tell me why we've stopped?"

"See for yourself, Captain..."

The crewman who spoke nodded out of the front viewport from behind his station. When the captain stepped forward and saw what was out there, the ape's naturally reddish skin went a few shades more pale...

Some ways in front of the Amity was the darkened, hulking form of another ship, or at least what had once been a ship. There was no sunlight in deep-space, and the hopelessly distant stars only offered the faintest light. Only by the massive floodlights built into the Amity could the shape be discerned. The drifting, off-kilter derelict was pockmarked with several breaches, gaping wounds where the metal hull peeled away from the ship's framework like a fruit skin, exposing the decks and once-functioning compartments inside.

It was silent, cold, and not simply by of the vacuum of space or the absence of a sun. There was no comm signal or any signal transmission, no heat from its lifeless reactor or other backup systems, no light from the darkened windows, and no movement beyond the occasional piece of orbiting debris. On close enough inspection, some of the floating pieces turned out to be bodies; beings killed and forever preserved, frozen in their final moments of terror by the ever pervasive nothingness that is the vacuum of space.

"It must be the Sojourn." the crewman stated in a chilled, icy voice as he gazed over the dead ship. "She never made it back from Cerinia, and now we see why."

"How long will it take to calculate a new jump solution?" Captain Saru asked, his voice choppy, sounding more forced than he first thought.

"For a shot to Cerinia? Could be a few hours–"

"That's too long." the captain interrupted, "Just get us out of here– anywhere– do the jump blind."

"It'll still take about a half hour to reset the jump drive."

"Start on it now, and make the jump as soon as you can..."

Though frightened to his very core, the fearful tension seemed to reignite Captain Saru's long dormant authority. When he looked out, it was with a cold and calculating gleam, but glazed over with an inescapable sense of dread.

"I don't like this."

/

--------------------------------

/

In a mere manner of minutes, the Caius Company squad had changed out of casual clothing into their uniform flight suits. They were all scattered throughout the Amity's main hangar deck, where six identical fightercaft sat lined up in a neat row. Each pilot attended to their own craft, running through a pre-flight checklist and performing any necessary maintenance as it turned up.

The fighters were Fortuna Foundries Tatpara-27, a highly versatile craft with powerful engines and equally powerful armament, designed to hit fast and hit hard; ideal traits for the quick-deploy escort role as was the case aboard the Amity.

James McCloud sat in the cockpit of one Tatpara-27, the control panel in front of him alive and lit-up with the fighter's avionics suite. And the pilot's headset wrapping around his head spoke with the voices of his squadmates.

"The captain is a little spooked by the shipwreck obstructing the route, causing our sudden drop from warp." Commander Agamemnon informed over the comm to his squad, "He wants us out there to cover the Amity while she resets her jump-drive."

"So we're like what, a security blanket for a scared little kid?" Malloy asked, bordering on a tone of mockery.

"More like an insurance policy, Malloy." Memo retorted with his usual cold, even voice, "Pirate activity is known to occur along the Cerinia/Sauria route."

"At least they're paying for this security blanket." another squad member chimed in, without much response.

"All craft ready for launch?" Commander Agamemnon asked with a tone of formality.

The reptilian received his response in a small chorus of affirmatives from the other members of the squad, and all the canopies of the Caius Company fighters sealed shut in anticipation.

"Head out."

The fighters all lifted off the hangar deck, and taxied their way toward the containment barrier that separated the inside of the hangar from the speckled black nothing of space; all but one fighter that is.

Jame's fighter remained airborne for about a second, before a sharp crack from deep within the Tatpara-27 shook the craft to its core, and dropped back to the deck. Thankfully the landing gear was still deployed, and prevented any structural damage...

"McCloud? What's your status?" Memo inquired while the rest of the squad passed outside.

"The reactor regulator just blew-out!" the fox answered as his hands feverishly flew over his control panel, "I don't understand, I checked everything, and–"

"I don't need excuses, McCloud." the reptilian commander interrupted, but his voice didn't have any trace of annoyance, just decisiveness. "I need you to address the issue promptly, and then join us as quickly as you can. You can give me a formal debriefing later."

"Yeah, yeah."

/

------------------------------------------------

/

Commander Agamemnon watched intently as James McCloud closed out of the squad's channel. The young fox was nervous, it showed, and this was his first major assignment as a part of Caius Company. The reptilian commander was not especially annoyed or angered by this snag, though he had every right to be, he simply curious. It was never about whether one fails or not– failure is an eventual inevitability that everyone must face. What truly mattered is how one dealt with failure when they are confronted with it. The actions taken in response to failure will tell infinitely more about an individual than any measure of unimpeded success.

The dead wreck of the came quickly into view as the squad cleared the Amity, the drifting husk of the Sojourn hanging over the scene like a bad omen.

"Anyone else got a sick feeling about all this?" Dodge asked over the squad's comm, clearly nervous.

"Only from the slop they serve up in the galley." Malloy chided back, but even he sounded somewhat uneasy behind his sarcasm.

"Contact!" Su, the ursine announced urgently, "We have a contact!"

Sure enough, a single craft emerged from the drifting wreck. It was a light freighter of simple design, but painted completely in matte black with no identifying markings whatsoever. If it weren't for the fighters' scanning equipment and HUD displays, the craft just might've gone completely unnoticed, disappearing amidst the black void of space. But the freighter instead rode out to meet the squad with confidence, and for all intents and purposes, didn't really pose much of a threat.

Commander Agamemnon opened up a hailing channel.

"Unknown craft, identify yourself immediately."

Silence.

"Identify yourself," Memo repeated firmly, "or we will fire upon you as per Interpatrol protocol–"

He was cut off by a sharp hiss of static, joined quickly by the clamor of alarms, and a squealing clattering cacophony from deep within the belly of his Tatpara-27 fightercraft. The reptilian commander scrambled to begin a diagnostic check; reactor regulator blown out, fuel leak, generator overload–

Cutting through everything else came a voice; a malevolent, vicious voice that came from simultaneously from everywhere at once, and nowhere at all.

I am Harrow

There was a brief, brilliant burst of white light, and then there was nothing.

/

-------------------------------------------------

/

James McCloud stood next to the crippled Tatpara-27 inside the Amity's hangar. There was a tool kit by his feet, an access panel at the rear of the fighter flipped open, and the fox's arms buried elbows deep inside the machine's inner workings, probing the great machine for answers. He found that answer, and stopped frozen in horror before slowing drawing back and away from the craft.

The damage to the fighter's reactor regulation circuits had all the signs of a tiny explosive charge, no larger than a landmine's detonator. The hole in the metal casing box had either flash-melted, or peeled away from the detonation point, and the sensitive monitoring equipment inside reduced to useless slag.

It was sabotage.

"...we suspect they have spies planted aboard the Amity to help coordinate the coming attack."

Jame's heart started to pound faster, and breath seized up altogether. He glanced around the hangar bay, assessing his immediate surroundings: several shuttles and smaller spacecraft, mostly belonging to some of the Amity's passengers. Hangar control booth sat perched where it always was.

The fox reactivated the comm in his headset, and called out his warning.

"Commander Agamemnon..."

The call was answered only by the hiss of static. James expanded the frequency range of his headset to include the full spectrum of comm channels.

"This is James McCloud of Caius Company." he tried again, "Can anyone read me?"

Nothing...

All the frequencies were being jammed, making the headset useless for communication. The fox's anxious hand dropped down to the handgun holster clinging to his thigh for dear life. He looked to hangar control again, there was an intercom system in there he could use to contact the Amity's captain and crew, assess the situation, and make preparations if need-be.

Armed with a plan, James opened a storage compartment in the hull of the crippled Tatpara-27, from which he extracted an assault carbine and a few extra mags. Just as he was about to head toward Hangar control, something streaked past the hangar, outside the containment barrier. It might've been another spacecraft, it might've been the shadows playing an illusion, or it might've been all in his head.

Whatever the case was, he wasn't going to be distracted by it, not now. What was more troubling than something suspicious happening, however, was the list of things not happening. There was no alarm that should've sounded at the first sign of trouble, there was no announcement over the shipwide PA system to update their status, and the hangar manager hadn't emerged from the control booth to ascertain James' situation as would have been normal if wireless comm was rendered unusable.

"...we suspect they have spies planted aboard the Amity to help coordinate the coming attack."

Rick's warning rang all the more clear in the fox's head as he came to the entrance to hangar control, and punched in the access code that would allow him inside.

The door opened on the control booth, and an eerie silence was all there was to greet him on the other side. The consoles were all still active, the gentle whir and hum of the equipment carrying on without a single care, but there was no one to watch over it all, as there was supposed to.

Carbine at the ready, James slowly entered the control booth, located the primary console and activated its intercom function, selecting the bridge. The console obeyed, but a response from the bridge did not arrive. The screen simply read

[stand By]...

[stand By]...

[stand By]...

[stand By]...

Finally, the simian face of the Amity's captain appeared on the console's screen.

"Captain Saru, this is James McCloud of Caius Company–"

"Where is chief Mathis?" the ape asked coldly, far more forced than James knew the captain was normally.

"Hangar control is deserted, and the comm is noised out" the fox answered, "What's the situation, Captain?"

"Under control..."

He was lying for sure, but clearly not by choice.

"The... communications malfunction is nothing to worry about. It's probably just a radiation leak from the wreck interfering with the signal–"

"Another ship just dropped in!" a voice from off-screen shouted.

"What?"

There were a few scrambling figures in the background, but impossible to make out clearly.

"They're powering up weapons!"

"Evasive action, or something! Get this tub moving–"

A massive jolt sent the floor beneath James careening to one side, throwing him clear off his feet like a rag-doll. An agonized metallic scream ripped through the ship's bulkheads and structure, the Amity's cry of pain in response to attack; weapons fire. This was quickly joined by the wail of alarms, and another sound: a grunt of pain and a clack of a weapon hitting the ground, and neither were Jame's.

The fox lay sprawled on the floor of hangar control, his assault carbine knocked a couple meters out of reach. He looked up at the source of the other noises, and found a bleach-white wolf laying on his side, very close, and a handgun on the floor out of reach. The two exchanged a furious glare for a moment, and sprung into action.

James scrambled to his feet, drawing his blaster handgun out of the hip holster and arming it. But by the time he was ready to fire, the would-be lupine assassin had already flipped expertly up onto his feet and was making a run for it. McCloud managed to fire a few shots at the retreating figure, but they all missed, and he made it out the door. James started to pursue, but stopped short, seeing something even more alarming develop–

Outside the control booth window, in the hangar itself, a shuttle was just pulling into the hangar. It was a sturdy, robust model, armed a set of forward-firing heavy laser cannons and a dorsal mounted turret that swiveled around searching for a target. The newcomer craft quickly set down on the deck, next to the crippled Tatpara-27 fighter. A small group soon emerged thereafter, too distant to make out clearly, and headed for the exit.

With only a moment's hesitation, James scooped up the assault carbine and headed for the hangar bay. The blaring alarms and flashing warning lights continued on throughout, flooding the short run to the hangar with a disorienting cascade of sounds and light. He did his best to focus though, ignoring the extra noises, disregarding the flash of warning lights. Otherwise, there was little trouble returning to the hangar deck entrance.

The fox punched the 'open' command into the door's panel, and it slid open obediently–

* Boom! *

James ducked to the side, and a spray of metal pellets from the shotgun blast splattered against the wall opposite the door. By all rights he should've been killed by an ambush like that, which meant–

"The next one's not gonna be a warning shot!" A voice shouted from inside the hangar. It was male, a little higher pitched, but not at all young.

Adrenaline rushing and heart racing, the fox focused in on the tactical choices. He crept out and aimed the assault carbine around the corner–

A hand shot out from the other side of the corner to grab the carbine's barrel, yanking it forward and James with it. The weapon spewed a stream of shots as it was pulled forward, and ultimately out of the fox's hand before skidding away on the hangar deck. In the same instant came an hard impact in Jame's gut that knocked the wind out of him, making him keel forward at the sudden shock.

He didn't even have a chance to recover, as a moment later, another bow hammered down on the fox's back like a pile-driver between the shoulder blades, sending James sprawling onto the floor. Then a weight came down on top of him, pinning him face-down to the ground, while the razor-sharp edge of a blade jammed itself under his neck, sealing the deal.

"Hold it!" the first voice shouted again.

A series of heavy footfalls came closer and closer across the deck, from the direction of the voice. The angle Jame's head was forced into only allowed him to see the metal hangar deck floor. In a few moments though, he could see the edge of a black, ankle-length coat floating mere inches above the ground, and a pair of heavily reinforced boots inside it, which came to a stop just in front of the fox's nose.

"You're the McCloud kid, right?" the voice asked from above.

"What's it matter to you?" James managed to spit out from his helpless position.

"Name's Adrian Crane, and the Cooneys send their regards..." and a plumed avian hand reached down, open to the fox. "Let him go, Chakori."

"You're going to get hit hard out there, harder than you'll be expected to survive from . . . but you'll have backup."

The blade retreated from his throat, and the weight that was pinning him down lifted away. James grabbed the hand held out to him, and hoisted himself onto his feet.

Adrian Crane turned out to be a very slim blue-gray avian with long, white, hair-like plumage running down from his head, gathered in a rough ponytail. He wore a long black ankle-length coat with several pockets and a pair of heavy black boots. Over his left forearm was an advanced wrist-mounted computer attached like a bracer, and on his was a comm headset with partial HUD capabilities. The avian also had a wicked looking combat shotgun slung over one shoulder, and what appeared to be handgun sidearm in a belt-holster inside his coat.

"To be honest, I thought we were gonna bump into you outside, flying around in that sucker." Adrian thumbed over his shoulder at the crippled Tatpara-27.

"The reactor regulator's been slagged by a small explosive charge, just before takeoff..."

The fox looked back at his fighter, and thought he saw someone moving behind it.

"I'm thinking sabotage."

"The rest of your squad is gone; nothing but torn-apart wrecks." a woman's voice filled-in, somewhat affected in an exotic Fortunan accent, "Regulators destroyed mid-flight would have done it..."

The other figure, Chakori as she was called, stepped around in front of James. She was a fierce looking ash-gray leopardess who wore a set of sturdy combat fatigues, including some lightweight body armor. She was just sheathing a heavy, forward deflected knife back into its scabbard, but also carried a modular assault rifle strapped tight across her back, and a handgun in a military-style thigh holster.

"By Karma, it seems you were spared from their fate."

"Karma, or a lousy detonator mechanism..."

Adrian turned over his shoulder toward the shuttle he came in on, and called out to someone behind him.

"Hey! Pigma!"

"Yo!" a young voice responded, ringing trough the hangar bay.

A portly pink-skinned figure then scurried out from the two spacecraft parked side-by-side. He was young, terribly young, too young to be involved in any of this by most standards, but there he was nonetheless. The round-faced swine wore a cargo vest, toting a bursting-full tool kit by a shoulder strap, its many contents rattling and jingling as he ran across the hangar deck.

"Pigma, this is James McCloud. James, Pigma Dengar, and you've already met Chakori Uncia..."

Adrian ran through the names quickly, making a quick sweeping gesture as he did.

"Formal introductions are gonna have to wait; change in plans." The dark-clad avian turned away from James as he gave instructions to Pigma, "See what you can do about McCloud's ride. We'll need it later."

"The T-27? I already got a quick look at it, should be a snap." He turned to James, "Say, where do you guys keep spare parts for those birds around here?"

James eyed the enthused swine with a curious eye –somewhere between bewildered and suspicious– and answered, "They're... in the machine shop at the other end of the hangar..." he pointed the location out, "look for the bins labeled CC, T-27."

"Say no more, man. I'll have your bird flight-savvy before ." And as quickly as he showed up and popped in, Pigma left for the Hangar machine shop.

"Come on, McCloud." Adrian headed for the exit, gesturing for James to follow, "We don't have a whole lot of time, and looks you'll get to help out–"

Something hard nudged against Jame's arm. He turned to see what it was, and found Chakori holding the assault carbine out to him.

"You may want this." she said while James took his weapon back. "May fortune favor you."

"Sure, thanks." He simply gave the ashen leopardess a quick nod of acknowledgement, and continued on his way.

Adrian stood impatiently at the hangar entrance, waiting for the fox to join him. When he did, the avian unslung the combat shotgun, prepared it, and started down the corridor with James in tow.

"The op is simple: we get to ship's computer mainframe, and then I hack into it."

"So what happens after that?"

"Eh..." Adrian replied with a shrug,"It depends, really–"

He cut himself short, and held a couple fingers up to his headset, listening.

"And speaking of: Scott just took out the jamming array outside. Lets get you patched in..."

/

-------------------------------------

/

Captain Saru was bound and gagged, tied to one of the chairs on the Amity's meager bridge. Two others scrambled frantically from station to station. One was an ordinary canid with a dark muzzle and face-fur ranging between shades of black, brown and goldenrod; the other was of a brutish Saurian race, sharpclaw tribe by the look of him. Both were armed with blaster handguns, and wore ordinary civilian clothing, though the Saurian's outfit didn't seem to fit quite right–

The bridge's comm monitor started flashing and chiming, alerting to an incoming hail.

"Answer it..." the canid instructed, arming his weapon and bringing it to bear on Captain Saru.

The larger saurian shuffled over to the comm monitor, and brought up the main screen in the front of the bridge.

"Hello there. How are you?" an older ram greeted, the russet fur of his rugged face seeming to have grayed over some time, "I'm Malcolm Aries, captain of this vessel Cerberus. Would one of you fine gentlemen mind telling me who's in charge here?..."

He looked to the Canid holding the simian captain at gunpoint.

"Is it you?"

"Why the hell did you fire on us?" he snarled back.

"That is a wonderfully simple question, but with an unfortunately complicated answer that I'm not at liberty to tell you anything about."

The canid jammed his handgun against Saru's skull, fuming at the ram's answer.

"I will execute every pitiful soul aboard this ship if you don't–"

"Hey, buddy, why don't you take a good look at me; not on your comm monitor there, out the viewport. That's right..."

The sinister mass of Cerberus gently rose up just outside the main bridge viewport, staring down the Amity with its huge, oversized plasma cannon.

"If you and I are going to start swapping threats, then... you see this little old plasma cannon here? It just tore up your engines like a scrap of tissue paper, and it's more than capable of tearing up the rest of the Amity with just a few extra shots. Go ahead: shoot up the entire population aboard, and I'll shoot up that ship with you and your cronies aboard."

"You don't care about the innocent lives aboard?" the canid asked, suspicious, "You don't care if I kill them?"

"If I cared about the people aboard, I wouldn't have shot you up in the first place." Malcolm answered, "It's just a hell of a lot easier to deal with you all while you're alive and kicking and the ship's in one piece instead of sifting through a busted up husk like you got out here."

"You have no claim to this ship!" the Saurian butted in, "We were here first!"

"And I'm one button-press away from sending you to the afterlife first." Malcolm twirled an index finger in the air before bringing it to a stop, pointing at the canid through the comm monitor, "So I'd recommend a swift reconsideration of your position if you want to make it out of this breathing."

The mottled canid gestured to his reptilian colleague to calm down, then returned his attention to the ram.

"Maybe... we can come to some sort of deal." he postulated over the comm, "We can all walk away from this alive, and richer, if we cooperate."

"That's the spirit!" Malcolm cheered, then switched into a serious, more demanding tone "First off: you can take whatever list of demands you think you have, and stuff them up your tailpipe. You won't need them."

The canid nodded with a reluctant grunt, "Done–"

He was cut off abruptly when the saurian stepped in, and whispered something in his ear. His expression changed from irked and frustrated, to outraged and fuming.

"You sent a party aboard!"

"And what if I did?" the older ram replied with a shrug "What're you gonna do about it?"

The brutish saurian leered back through the comm, gnashing his sharp teeth as he spat out, "When I get my claws on those brats you sent aboard, I will make them, and you, regret ever having the idiotic gall to interfere with Harrow."

Outside the main bridge viewport, a glint of metal swooped around the vast silhouette of Cerberus, until it started growing larger, coming straight at the Amity's bridge. It was a fightercraft, and not a small interceptor either.

The mottled canid tried to deactivate the comm channel, but the instrument panel didn't respond, leaving Malcolm's smug face smiling back at the two hapless mutineers.

"Pleasure doing business with you."

Twin lances of heavy blasterfire tore into the Amity's bridge with a titaninc roar of rent metal, shattered glass, and air being ripped away into the emptiness of space in one last death-cry.

And then there was nothing.

/

---------------------------------------

/

His comm suddenly crackled with the empty white-noise hiss of static. The others on the bridge were gone.

He was a harsh looking wolf-type canid with bleach-white fur and keen violet eyes, dressed in a rugged workman's that identified him as 'Hangar Maintenance Crew'. In one of his hands was a sturdy blaster handgun, while the other held a short range two-way comm handset up to his ear. He deactivated the hissing comm and stashed it in a pocket, then looked back up at his targets.

He'd tracked the two through the Amity to the ship's computer mainframe. One was a thin technically minded avian, while the other was the vulpine fighter pilot who'd escaped death, twice. The avian had gone in alone, leaving his fox companion outside to stand guard.

Kill them a voice in his head ordered.

He'd have to act fast. His cover had been blown for the fox, who would instantly identify the pale furred canid as the one who nearly killed him. With him out of the way, the slim avian would be none the wiser once he approached–

A gruff, unfamiliar voice boomed over the ship-wide PA system.

"Attention crew and passengers of the Amity: this is Captain Malcolm Aries of Cerberus. As I'm sure you're aware, you've had a little run-in with pirate types. The pirate forces outside have been neutralized for the moment, but the Amity has been disabled in their attack, and Captain Saru killed. You have a chance now to evacuate to safety aboard my ship, and I urge you take it. Those of you who want to leave, go to the main hangar bay now. You'll find enough shuttles there to make the transfer over to Cerberus. For those of you who'd rather take your chances aboard a crippled ship, there's really nothing I can do to force you off."

Kill them now the voice ordered, far more urgent now And kill all who attempt to flee

"How many are left?" the wolf asked aloud in a whisper. It was always more comforting to hear his own voice respond, so he knew it was actually him who was speaking, and not the other in his head.

There are enough

"I need a number." he insisted.

The thin, black-clad avian emerged from the mainframe, and started down the corridor back to the hangar bay.

Numbers are meaningless when so few can wreak so much havoc

"Then forget it." he said with an air of finality, "This raid has failed."

Coward

"I'll take coward over idiot any day."

There is nowhere you can run where you can escape

"Try me."

/

-----------------------------------

/

James McCloud and Adrian Crane returned to the Amity's main hangar bay with most of the passengers and crew, which numbered somewhere between thirty and forty. For the most-part, they all seemed to be feeling some combination of frightened, relieved, and a little hesitation as they boarded the shuttles.

Amidst the hubbub of movement as all this happened, James caught someone taking a long look at him. It was the same younger copper furred vixen that had been ogling him earlier. She seemed just as frightened and uncertain as everyone else around her, but upon seeing James, she took a deep breath, and breathed a sigh of relief, then continued on her way with assurance–

Then he saw something else that made his fur stand up and pulse quicken. The white wolf-canid who'd nearly killed him back in hangar control was right there among the crew and passengers.

When he found one of Cerberus's crew –Chakori in this case– and informed her what was going on, she simply responded to the fox's concerns with a confident smirk, "That's good, very good in-fact."

"That's good?" James asked, puzzled.

"It is." the ashen leopardess nodded, "We anticipated some would try to slip onto our ship that way; we can detain him once everyone is aboard and we're underway. We'll question him then, and if there are others, we will root them out as well."

The hangar soon emptied of the Amity's crew and passengers, leaving just James, Chakori and Adrian alone on the deck.

The dark-clad avian approached the other two.

"Alright, that's the last of them." He turned to James, "Dengar's got your ride all set to go. We'll need you and Scott to cover the shuttles while we make the transfer, just in case there are a few more lurkers out there waiting for an easy target."

James nodded quietly, and made his way to the repaired Tatpara-27. In a few more moments, the fully loaded shuttles and Jame's fightercraft lifted off the hangar floor, and proceeded out of the Amity for Cerberus. If there were any lingering pirate forces outside, they'd chosen not to attack, and let everyone board the mercenary cruiser before it finally jumped away from what was gradually becoming a graveyard...

4 White Knight Black Back.pdf

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chaos_Leader

FF.net link: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/7334279/5/

生存者ã®è‹¦åŠ´

A Survivor's Pain

James was strapped in at the controls of the Caius Company sleek Tapatra-27 fightercaft, hurtling though space in pursuit of his prey: a sturdy Katinan built Sokol-7, painted completely in a matte black that would've disappeared in the background if not for the HUD's targeting brackets. Few blazes of cannon-fire saw the shadowy bogey dispatched, tumbling away as an internal explosion rocked the craft off to one side, all eerily silent in the emptiness of space. The only sounds heard by the vulpine pilot were the roaring engine and spatter of cannon-fire that came from inside his own fighter, or the voices over his headset speakers...

"Took one down." he said in a practiced rhythm, "Looking for action."

"I got one on me over here," Malloy called out over the squad's comm channel. "Persistent little bastard."

James checked his scanner readout, and found a hostile trailing behind Malloy's blip while the two scissored back and forth.

"On it!"

The fox maneuvered toward the hostile blip, lining up to cut into the scissors with a cross-weave counterattack. He identified his target by the streaks of laserfire trying to tag Malloy in the scarlet painted Tapatra-27. James opened fire on the bogey's location as the weave crossed, gunning for his target's flank. After a few hits, the black, nearly invisible fighter suddenly burst in a flash of light, illuminating itself for just a brief moment before James and Malloy streaked past side-by-side.

"That's another one I owe–"

Malloy's voice was cut short by the hiss and crackle of static, and a bright flash to Jame's side caught his attention. There were flames inside his wingman's cockpit, quickly filling the tiny space with fiery amber tongues and gray smoke. The canid's figure inside flailed and waived, desperate to stave off the inferno swallowing him whole. In a few seconds, the cockpit canopy was completely obscured with smoke, engulfing the cockpit in a gray, then inky black shroud until all that could be seen inside was Malloy's frantic fist pounding against the outside surface, slowing down, slower, and ever more slowly, and then ceased entirely as the canid's tattered hand slid down into the darkness. Then suddenly all at once, the canopy of Malloy's Tapatra-27 burst from the fighter's hull, shattering under the excess interior pressure, while a black, charred corpse tumbled out into space with the final puff of smoke–

* Crack! *

Something failed inside Jame's fighter, clattering and grinding in an agonized metallic screech, joined quickly by squealing alarms and wailing warning sirens. He tried to eject the cockpit free from the dying fighter, but the release mechanism didn't budge; trapping him inside. And then the flames flared to life, right at his feet, and climbed up around the fox's body, heating up until a torrent of scorching needles jabbed at every single point on his body. He didn't even register the amber veil dancing all around him, or the smoke choking his lungs, or the synthetic fabric of his flightsuit melting onto his skin. He couldn't hold on any longer, and a horrible, guttural scream escaped his boiling lungs as he finally gave up against the complete and utter agony from the inferno of pain–

And then there was nothing at all...

...

Hold that thought.

The first thing he felt was the rapid in-and-out heaving of his lungs– they still worked, good. The next thing he felt was his heart, bouncing in his chest with a rumbling rum-roll that only just began to slow down. Then was the cold, clammy sweat that he was partly doused with, making the covers cling to him– He was sitting bolt upright in a narrow bed, wearing light shorts and an undershirt, in a small, cramped room; ship's quarters. That's right, he was aboard Cerberus. He, along with the Amity's passengers and crew evacuated here about a day ago. How long had he been asleep?...

"D'ye have tae be so loud?"

The voice came from another person in the room, hunched over a desk with his back turned to James as he worked on something. He was a dark-furred terrier named Scott. The two shared his quarters aboard Cerberus for the trip back to Lylat, each sleeping in shifts. The rest of the crew and passengers from the Amity were given sleeping cots and basic living needs aboard Cerberus, prepared by the mercenary crew who knew they'd need it for this mission. James on the other hand was offered to share Scott's quarters, and he'd accepted.

The dark terrier took a look over his shoulder, and saw Jame's haunted, ghastly expression as he sat there catching his wits.

"Sorry– didn't mean nothin' by it if I irked ye." Scott apologized, and turned back to his work.

"It's nothing..." the fox lied, forcing himself to breathe easier, trying to calm back down to reality.

A little more stable, James swung out of the narrow bed, and retrieved his flight suit. It was going to need a wash soon, the smell of stale sweat was wafting from it, but the Caius Company flight suit was the only set of clothes he had during the evacuation; some of the escapees had even less when the call came.

"Ye talk in your sleep," Scott said over his shoulder while the fox dressed himself, "about the squad you came out with."

"What's it matter to you?" James asked flatly as he fished out a pair of heavy pilot's boots, and clamped them to his feet.

"Well, how long have ye been with them?" the terrier asked quite casually.

The vulpine pilot got up and crossed over behind Scott's shoulder, curious as to what he was working on so intently. On the desk was a sword, with a long thin panel removed from the flat side of the wide blade, revealing the impact claymore's inner workings. It was little more than a pair of parallel rails running the length of the blade, and a small weight nestled in a track between them: a simple linear electric motor. With the right blade, rail and hammer material though, it'd give the sword a staggering amount of power behind its strikes, especially a thrust...

"A few weeks, just for this run mostly." James finally answered, gazing blankly at the disassembled sword below. "I've been with the company a while longer, but this was my first major–"

He choked up a moment, and changed. He saw the faces of his squadmates; Commander Agamemnon's knowing gaze, Malloy's jovial smirk, Dodge's eager ogling, Su's warm smile, and even Rudy's twitching leer. They were his squad, his wingmen, as much apart of him as the organs of a body, or the components of a machine. They were also gone, killed, dead, slain, and without even the simple warrior's dignity of a true fight. They deserved better–

"We could've stopped them..." the fox growled, "We could've stopped the attack, saved the ship and everyone else–"

He choked up again, barely containing his boiling anger, and saw another face. It was a stark white face of a pale wolf, sneering back at James through a pair of vicious violet eyes. He killed them, planted the bombs that took the lives of the squad, poisoning the guardians with nothing more than small packets of high explosives–

James said nothing, but the steely glare in his eyes told all, and the singular purpose in his movements belied the calculated fury that now drove him. He scoped up the handgun on the table, checked that it was usable, and slipped it into his belt before punching the door controls. The cabin door split apart, and allowed McCloud to step through unhindered.

"Wait lad!" Scott called out as the fox left, "Where d'ye think you're goin'?"

But he was already gone...

/

------------------------------------------

/

Cerberus was a strange vessel, stranger than most he'd been aboard...

The crew numbered only five, which was sub-skeletal for a frigate sized vessel like Cerberus. Only a heavily automated vessel could function this way. Because of this, the extra space aboard easily accommodated the Amity's refugees, most of whom were spread about the ship's empty cargo bay. They stood or sat quietly in small groups, the same groups that stuck together when aboard the Amity. Mostly they were shocked, still recovering from the brutal attack less than twenty-four hours behind them. Some were just relieved to be alive, some were still frightened for more to possibly come, and others bore the haunted, thousand-yard stare that comes from trauma the likes of which nobody should ever be forced to endure. James picked his way through them all as he lurked through the bay, searching for one in particular–

He stopped.

At one side of the cluttered cargo bay was a small group James recognized as the Lylat Tribune news crew. She was with them, the younger copper furred vixen who'd supposedly been ogling at him before. She siting mostly alone there, huddled down with her arms wrapped around her knees while she stared blankly off in the distance, trying to muffle the shock still ringing in her system it seemed. for a moment, James considered calling the whole thing off. The entire incident was still too fresh, and the blaster felt so awkward jammed inside his pants–

There he was.

Not to much further down was that same harsh white wolf, leaning up against the wall by himself with arms folded, glaring around the room with a look of contempt. He killed them –the squad– putting everyone in this cargo bay and more at mortal risk from his actions, and he was allowed to roam free at his leisure. On top of everything this bastard was responsible for, seeing him there like this was too much.

The wolf hadn't seen James, so the fox went up to the wall and came toward him along the edge of the cargo bay, at the wolf's left. When he closed in, the fox flipped the handgun out of his belt and armed it, holding it low close to his hip so it stayed hidden. Another instant later, he jammed the weapon into the wolf's lower back.

The other flinched at the sudden pressure, and saw James as he glanced back over his shoulder, but didn't do or say anything.

"Just, walk." the vulpine pilot growled quietly, patting the wolf on his shoulder.

The other turned silently forward, and allowed McCloud to lead him out of Cerberus's cargo bay. A few heads turned on the way out, but not enough for anyone to speak up, or in any way try to stop it. Few others, if any, realized that James had the white wolf at gunpont.

In a few moments, the two had gone to a secluded, narrow corridor in Cerberus's underbelly; a passage used mainly for system access, mainly to the artificial gravity generators for the rear portion of the vessel. The constant, low rumbling electric hum of the graviton generators, permeated everything at the bottom here, where the gravity tugged harder, closest to the source, harder than anywhere else on the ship, making each step feel heavy and every movement sluggish. It even seemed to weigh down Jame's voice when he finally spoke.

"We trusted you." the fox's voice ground, like verbal gravel, "We allowed you into our lives and livelihood, and then you stabbed each and every one of us in the back."

He waited for the wolf's response, but there wasn't much. Possibly he exhaled what might've been a sigh, and there was a movement that could've been a rolling of the eyes. Then he finally spoke; an arrogant voice that could care less about what was going on, about his predicament.

"Blow me–"

"–away? Sure..."

James jammed his handgun against the lupine saboteur's head, keeping him an arm's length away

"Murdering, cowardly filth like you aren't ever missed, so you'd better come up with a really good reason for me not to kill you right here, right now–"

"How's this!" the wolf whirled around, twisting away from the blaster's line-of-fire and knocking Jame's weapon hand to the side at the same time. He continued into a spinning left hook, but the fox ducked below the careening fist, lunging forward under his arms.

The pale wolf acted fast, slipping his right arm down between Jame's neck and shoulder while grabbing hold of the fox's weapon arm with his other hand, and then used his elbow to bring pressure down on the vulpine pilot's neck. This should end the fight–

James reacted by twisting his entire body with the pressure, cranking his weapon arm out of the lock to wrap around the wolf's neck into a laying clinch against the floor. The pale lupine tried to reach behind and grab at Jame's blaster again, but the fox jammed a knee into his sternum, knocking him off his feet and off-balance.

An opening presented itself, and the wolf shot his fingertips forward in a spear-hand strike to Jame's throat. The blow connected, hard, and the fox gasped and wheezed through his badly bruised, while hils lupine opponent swung down to initiate an arm bar on Jame's weapon arm. He got one leg over the fox's neck and chest, but James rolled backward out of it and onto his feet before the wolf could get his other leg to lock him in. However, McCloud's desperate maneuver sacrificed control of his blaster, and the wolf kicked up onto his feet with Jame's handgun in-hand.

He brought the weapon up to bear, and–

* Blam! *

The wolf staggered, and fell face-down to the metal floor, firing off a blaster shot harmlessly into nothing as he collapsed to the ground in a heap.

A few meters down the corridor, behind the incapacitated wolf, was Scott Aberdeen, holding his heavy blaster pistol pointed where the lupine attacker stood just a moment ago. The dark terrier stepped forward, eyes smoldering with a hot glare of irritation, which he brought to full-bear on James as he trudged closer.

"Scott..." the fox scratched out, struggling through his swollen throat, "I–"

* Blam! *

And there was a bright flash, obliterating everything in a wash of pale gray, an infinite misty fog, and a high-pitched ping that rang out, hanging on until there was nothing but cold, dead silence.

Just the silence...

"McCloud!" a harsh, authoritative voice barked from the pale silence, ringing and lingering in the mists.

A figure strode out of the gray nothing toward James, his footfalls pounding like a steady drumbeat. The figure soon came into clear view: Captain Sobak Soyuz, dressed in a Cornerian combat uniform with stiff-brimmed hat secured to his head. As he came closer, the firm husky drilled into James with his electric blue eyes, controlling every movement and sound of his voice.

"Why have you failed here, McCloud?" Soyuz demanded, "Answer me."

"I..." James tried to look back at the uniformed, black-and-white husky, but couldn't, "I don't know."

"No." Soyuz retorted, his voice sharp and jagged like the blade of a saw, "You know precisely why you failed, but you are too ashamed and too proud to admit this legitimate defeat..."

Soyuz slowly paced back and forth in front of the fox, always keeping him locked tight under his unrelenting gaze.

"According to the Art of War, there are five dangerous faults, each and every one of which you have succumbed to here," he counted off on the fingers of one hand, "One: over-solicitude for your comrades, which exposes one to worry and trouble. Two: a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame. Three: a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insult. Four: recklessness, which leads to destruction. Five: cowardice, which leads to–"

"I'm no coward!" James shot back.

"Perhaps not, but you have proven my point nonetheless." Captain Soyuz sneered down with contempt, "Your reckless impulsiveness is driven by a hair-trigger temper, which is in-turn fueled by the broken pieces of shattered honor: a self-pitying shame you bear for those lost. You wish you could have done something to stop it, to alter events so the outcome would not have been what it is."

"He killed them." James asked the husky, rising up to the officer enraged, "He's a goddamn backstabbing saboteur who didn't even have the guts to stand and fight! If it wasn't for him, none of this would've ever happened!"

"But he stood and fought against you, then defeated you when you had every tangible advantage pressed against him. He saw your weak points, your faults, your enraged blundering clumsiness, and exploited it against you. He understood the Art of War, this is why he utilized sabotage, subterfuge, and guile."

"I wasn't just going to stand by while that... murderer roamed free!" the fox fumed, "He deserves to be cut down, and buried in a shallow, unmarked grave!"

"Then dig another grave: your own..."

Captan Sobak Soyuz began circling around James, always close, bearing down on the fox with every ounce of unbridled unapologetic disdain in his stores.

"The dead are dead– gone– there is nothing you can do for them now. To act with stupidity does not honor them, it is disgraceful; you are a disgrace! If you would rather bitch and moan instead of acting with the keen discipline required of you, then you ought to retire from the life of soldiery, because your kind have no place in it."

With one last disgusted huff, the husky canid turned his back to James, and marched off back into the infinite misty grayness, leaving the fox to himself.

And the colorless, stifling silence returned once more...

...

Some immeasurable length of time later, the silence gave way to a low grumbling hum, and the infinite gray fog began to wash away. His vision showed simple metal paneling, a ceiling he realized; he was looking straight up. James was on his back, on a hard and uncomfortable excuse of a mattress, with his head on top of a deflated pillow.

The fox hoisted himself up, head buzzing and ringing with every motion he made. He recognized this pain; it was the kind caused by blaster shot loaded with an EM charge, fired at the head, and this one felt especially brutal. Through this disorientation though, James found himself in a tiny room –smaller even than where he slept before– with only three walls, and the fourth wall replaced by a set of steel bars and metal mesh overlay. A prison cell?

"Rise and shine, McCloud." a gruff voice greeted in a singsong tone. He'd heard it before somewhere...

James found am older ram standing outside, leaning casually against the bars and mesh of the opposite cell. He remembered now; this was Malcolm Aries, the one he heard aboard the Aminty, Cpatain of this ship.

"What the hell am I doing here?" the fox asked, his voice slurred either from tiredness, or the effects of the EM shot, but likely both

"You attacked someone aboard this ship, and there are witnesses to support it."

"but he..." James started to defend himself, then came more to his senses, remembering how stupidly he acted, "I screwed up there, didn't I?"

"You sure did, but I can't say I blame you." the ram answered with a knowing nod. "It's rough what happened back there, I'd plumb near go insane if it was me. Normally I'd cut you some major slack for it, but there are an extra couple dozen or so frightened, scared, easily spooked refugees aboard, and we're trying to keep calm. I need to make sure they're reassured and everything that it's gonna be okay."

"So when do I get out?" the fox asked offhand,

"Hard to say." Malcolm began as he rubbed one of his thick horns, thinking. "Thing is, I can't let you out of here until I decide you're no longer a threat, either to the people aboard this ship and their well-being, or to yourself. Understand?"

"Yeah." James replied, eyes downcast in shame as he sat on the bed's edge.

Malcolm's words made sense. An entire cargo bay full of those refugees just saw James haul off that white wolf, and he he didn't have any authority to do so aboard Cerberus. From their prospective, there was no telling what he was doing. He hated himself for it, and in all honesty, probably wouldn't have shown his to them, even if he was allowed to.

"Alright then." The older ram said quietly, "I'm sorry it has to be this way, I really am..."

Malcolm Aries stepped away, and exited the cramped cell block, revealing the white wolf laying sprawled out in the opposite cell, still unconscious. A flash of rage washed over James when he saw the other, reminding the fox of everything that went wrong over the last few days, including his own foolhardy acts. He wanted nothing more than to hurt that bastard, to make him suffer for the lives he'd taken or ruined. However, James also knew he couldn't let that urge take over; the only reason he was still alive was because Scott was smart enough to realize what was happening, and intervened in the nick of time.

When the wolf awoke a few minutes later, nothing all that exciting happened.

The pale lupine saboteur paid James little attention, and laid back in the cot of his cell, quietly gazing up at the ceiling, displaying little if any discernible emotions. James made no attempt to speak or communicate in any way, as if pretending he wasn't there would somehow cool off his incessant hate, prevent it from boiling over. It was almost as if the two of them had agreed to some unwritten pact to not acknowledge each other's existence, and allow them to simply stew and brood in silence, with only the ever-present mechanical hum and grumble of the ship's systems to keep them company.

The time in Cerberus's tiny brig became governed by a steady routine. Scott and Chakori would come in early and take the white wolf away, for questioning James figured. A few minutes afterward Pigma would come in with a meal, and would always try to strike up some conversation with the silent fox, while most of the time he'd simply tune out the young swine's babble. He meant well, but James just didn't want to talk to anyone, and simply wanted time alone, which he got for several hours at a time each day, until the wolf would be led back into his cell.

Sometime after that is when James ended up sleeping, and it would start again the next day. It all became very dull, very fast, and threatened to remain so indefinitely. Then something different happened.

It was one of the quiet stretches of time after the meal, after Pigma had scurried off and left James to be alone for several hours. The door to the outside corridor slid open, and Chakori's exotically accented voice came wafting into the small space, but it was far more lighthearted than he'd normally heard from her.

"... and this is the brig, where we keep people who–" The leopardess said as she walked in, and there was another set of footsteps following close behind.

It was her again, that same copper furred vixen who'd been ogling James for goodness only knows how long at this point. She came in with Chakori, but ground to a halt the instant she and James saw each other, and realized who the other was. McCloud felt his face suddenly flush red hot, while the rest of his body froze solid, and it seemed like her reaction was similar.

After an unbearably long few seconds, the vixen slunk backward out of Cerberus's brig, leaving James and Chakori alone.

"What the hell were you thinking?" the flustered fox burst out, "That's the girl who was stalking me back aboard the Amity!"

"Ah, so you do know of her." she confirmed, enjoying every moment of Jame's utter embarrassment.

"Did she–"

"No, I arranged it myself." the leopardess interrupted, "She was just as surprised as you, more so I think."

"How did you–"

"I was raised in a very large, tight-knit family, with many brothers and sisters." Chakori explained, "I know the face of a young woman secretly thinking about a young man, it was on her plain as day when she looked at you with those lovely green eyes of hers."

"You can't just arrange these things!"

"Whole marriages are arranged where I come from, this is nothing." she dismissed with a wave of her hand.

"This isn't a game..." James was coming down off his state of shock, and assumed a more frustrated stance with Chakori, "You can't just play matchmaker like this."

"Oh, but you seem so bored in here, and so did she out there all alone." the leopardess implored in a teasing, over-dramatic way, "A game is precisely what you, she, and everyone needs at times like this to ease weary minds. And be honest: what else would you have done with your great surplus of time?"

"I'm in your goddamn brig." he grumbled, not really answering the question.

"It makes you very convenient to keep track of."

"What the hell kind of first-impression is this to give?" James snapped back, throwing his arms up as his irritation burst, "This isn't how I'd want to meet her!"

Chakori just stood there on the other side of the cell door, arms crossed and a knowing, satisfied smirk gracing her normally cold features.

"So, you think about her as well then?"

"I... um... " he trailed off, and that sudden hotness flooded his face again.

The leopardess chuckled quietly at this, and decided to finally ease the fox's awkwardness.

"Her name is Vicenzia Reinard, but she prefers to be referred to simply as 'Vixy'. If after that she still thinks well of you, then she passes the test."

"The test?"

"That is: she cares more about you as you than about your sense of vanity, which means she's a good woman, and worth pursuing..."

She waited, and when she saw that James understood, Chakori bowed her head forward and uttered a greeting.

"Namaste."

Though he didn't understand it, she spoke with an earnest tone of respect, and the fox imitated the head-bow gesture in response. The leopardess smiled back, then turned away and began to leave Just as she came to the doorway though, Jame's voice cut through and held her back.

"Hey, thanks." the fox said, far more calm than he'd been for a very long time, and glad for it. If nothing else, Chakori's antics could keep his mind off everything that'd gone wrong; keep him looking forward and up, instead of back and down.

"Of course." she nodded back solemnly, very aware of Jame's gratitude, and more aware of how badly he needed something– anything to distract him from himself. The girl just happened to be a convenient and happy accident.

The leopardess then left James alone in Cerberus's brig. He had a lot to think about now, and didn't need her in the way.

5 Survivor's Pain.pdf

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chaos_Leader

FF.net link: http://www.fanfictio...egacy_Volume_II

奇跡ã—ãªã„

No Miracles

If Cerberus's capabilities were similar to the Amity, they should be reaching Lylat within a few days by now...

The routine repeated itself normally for another day cycle much as it had since it started. When the pale wolf cam back from his latest exit, he looked different. He still wore his ubiquitous defiant scowl at all times, but it'd become more tired, broken down, his white fur rough and matted, his movements sluggish, and he fell asleep quickly. Still he spurned any contact, keeping stubbornly silent through it all, and continued when he was woken up and taken away once more.

This time however, Pigma didn't come to give James the meal like he normally did. When the white wolf was led out of the brig, Malcolm Aries returned in the swine's place, complete with a food-laden tray, and a grim, concerned look drawing down on the older ram's features.

Malcolm opened up the cell door and stepped slowly inside, the smell of the cheap prepared food wafting through the brig. It looked like some steak dish, with sliced potatoes, mixed vegetables. Not exactly gourmet by any standard, but the fox had grown accustomed to cheap food, and this was probably the best anyone aboard Cerberus would be getting anyway.

"So," James greeted, "am I getting out yet or what?"

"I don't think so." the ram answered as he handed him the steaming tray, "Not yet anyway."

The fox accepted the food tray with a frustrated sigh, and unwrapped the plastic spork provided before sitting down on the cell's bed, tray in lap.

"Are you going to tell me why, at least?"

"There's another reason we've been keeping you in here." Malcolm answered dryly.

"It's him, isn't it?" the fox said, gesturing at the empty cell across from him with the spork.

"Yeah..."

The ram leaned against the cell's open doorway, arms crossed, and not making eye-contact with McCloud. The fox just listened while he ate the bland but necessary meal.

"He's completely stonewalling all of our interrogation efforts. We've had him doped him up with all sorts of drugs, deprived him of sleep– anything to try to loosen him up. So far we don't even have a name or anything to show for it. He's got some of the most brutal resistance skills I've ever come across. "

"What're you doing to him? Torture?" James asked. Some part of him hoped he was actually being tortured, or at least humiliated.

"We may be mercs, but there are some lines we won't cross, and that's one of them." Malcolm answered, shaking his head, "As far as I'm concerned, torture's never all that reliable in the first place, and is only worth it for the sick sadistic creeps. Besides, we've still got a few tricks up our sleeves."

"Such as?"

"You."

"I think I see where this is going."

The graying ram nodded as he continued.

"Captives are usually way more open with their fellow inmates than their captors. You're not a threat to him in here, so he may talk to you. We've been keeping you here in case he said something to you, which he hasn't yet, but you've been keeping awfully quiet too."

"What exactly do you expect me to do about it?" James asked, growing slightly irritated, "Question him?"

"Not 'question' him so to speak," Malcom gave a small shrug, "just talk to him, get him to say something back to you, anything. If you can get the words flowing, something might slip out."

"If he's already stonewalling everything you've got, what makes you think I'll do any better?" the fox asked.

"I never figured it to be a perfect plan, but this is what the circumstances served us up with, and we may as well give it a shot."

James just sat there on the bunk for a few moments, staring blank-faced at the still untouched food on the tray, tapping the plastic spork against the side of it as he thought.

"Okay, fine." James replied with a reluctant sigh, "I'll talk to him, but on two conditions."

"Sure."

He looked up at Malcolm with an alert, steely cunning in his eye that knew better.

"I want in on whatever it is you're doing, what you really came all the way out here chasing the Amity for. It doesn't take a genius to see that there are some major pieces missing from the puzzle; there's got to be a bigger reason than simple heroic valor that you crashed a Harrow pirate raid. So if I'm going to be your ace in the hole, then I deserve to know what exactly I'm being roped into..."

And with that, the fox finally dug into his food and began eating, quietly waiting for Malcolm's response.

"Fair enough." the ram gave a quick nod before beginning, "The outlaw faction Harrow has been stepping up pirate raids, specifically: they've only been targeting vessels that make the Cerinia/Sauria run, like the Amity and Sojourn. Someone in Lylat Central Intelligence wants to know why this is happening, so they've hired us as a part of their investigation."

"You mean Rick and Rachelle Cooney." James mentioned between mouthfuls of the cheap food.

"Yes, but the Cooneys are more what you'd call 'middle-men' of Intelligence, folk who go into the field and get things done on behalf of their higher-up, such as hire people like us in certain cases. We've worked with the Cooneys on a number of occasions, so it was only natural they'd call on us when they got the tip that the Amity was going to be attacked."

"So what was your part in the Amity raid?"

"To gather as much information as possible." Malcolm said in an obvious matter-of-fact tone, then divulged further, "It was a a multi-pronged operation: we sent Adrian, Pigma and Chakori aboard the Amity for primarily two reasons: first, plant the quantum smart-bug; second, hack into the Amity's mainframe and download the complete ship's manifest. We weren't going to leave without the passengers and crew though, and it even landed us that stubborn stone of a prisoner; he's part of Harrow if you didn't guess that already–"

"Quantum smart-bug?" James interrupted, confused and curious.

"Adrian hooked it up to the Amity's mainframe while he was aboard." the ram mused, "It's some nifty, insanely expensive little chunk of hardware that can transmit great gobs of data from anywhere to anywhere else instantly, regardless of distance or any interference, and is impossible to trace or intercept. If you want details, ask Pigma: the kid'll geek out all over the place and talk your ears off about it, if you can stomach it."

"So why tag the ship with a super-bug and leave it?" James asked, "Why not take it back?"

"The guys in LCI want to see what happens to the Amity." Malcolm answered, "They want to know what Harrow does to the ships they capture, and how they'll react if we just leave the ship and all its contents there for them to take. At least, that's what Rick told me when I asked him the same thing, and that's everything I know about this op..."

The ram exhaled a long, relieved sigh before saying anything more.

"So, what's this other condition of yours?"

"Just tell Chakori that..." James paused a moment, trying to find the best way to word it, "that I'd like to have a visitor. She'll know what I mean."

He handed Malcolm the empty tray, not making any eye-contact.

"Okay then..." the ram took it, not pressing to question McCloud's odd request. "We'll have him back in here in about an hour, and you can talk to him then. Thanks again for understanding and putting up with all this. We'll make it up to you when it's over, I swear it."

Malcolm Aries turned and left, closing the door on his way out, and leaving James alone. All the while the fox simply sat hunched on the bunk, staring at a spot somewhere on the floor, wandering through a great many thoughts about a great many things...

"Yeah..." he uttered, not really sure or even concerned whether or not the ram heard it.

/

------------------------------------

/

The shuttle door opened, and Vicenzia Reinard stepped inside from Cerberus's hangar bay. It was a mid-sized shuttle, built to ferry about six passengers from a host ship with extra cargo capacity, but it could make interplanetary runs if properly stocked. The Lylat Tribune shuttle looked just the same as she'd left it several times before: mostly clean, but with a few odds and ends scattered here and there. Of particular interest was a tripod mounted video camera, aimed at one of the shuttle's built-in swivel chairs. The camera stood dormant for now, but that was about to change.

The copper furred vixen approached the camera and powered it up, reigniting a number of indicator lights over the device. Shortly after, she removed a memory chip from one of her pockets, slid it into the corresponding slot in the camera. The camera found the chip's memory storage, and Vixy effortlessly navigated its control scheme in preparation for recording...

The camera was reliable, trustworthy friend who'd always listen, always remembered what it was told without distortion, and never said anything she didn't want to hear. She needed this silent, ever receptive friend now more than ever: the perfect vehicle though which to unload all these heavy burdens on her mind...

Having completed her prep work, the copper vixen, stepped in front of the camera and sat down in the swivel chair, which quietly squeaked with the torque applied to it. Vixy took a moment, and a deep breath to go with it before looking up though the steady eye of her mechanical friend's lens, and the blinking red light next to it that told her it was listening.

"Day five after the attack on the Amity." She began, her voice steady, kept under control by habit and practice, "Everyone aboard is so quiet, or restless. The raid hit some of us harder than others, and the... petrified, ghostly shock from it still lingers around a few of them aboard. The Amity's engineer –Hargreave I think is his name– seems to have the worst of it. He constantly jabbers on and on without stop. Sometimes it's decipherable, sometimes its a whole lot of technical jargon, and other times it's just incoherent mumbling...

"Some of us are starting to come around though, and we try to lift others' spirits. The crew of Cerberus seem too busy to be bothered, distracted by something else, but I can only imagine what by. Even so, one of this ship's sparse crew members has been trying to reach out. Her name is Chakori Uncia, from Fortuna, and she's made something of a friend of me during the past few days; even gave me a tour of the ship..."

She trailed off from there, coming to an abrupt stop as if the brakes were suddenly jammed to her train of thought. Yet the camera's ever-attentive eye and ear stood there, capturing every awkward nuance and moment moment as it waited for what she'd say or do next. Just as her emerald eyes drifted away from the camera, she snapped them back with a quick inward breath and quick words afterward, regaining control, if only for a moment.

"That's all I have for now. This is Vixy Reinard, signing off."

And with that, she reached up and stopped the recording, closing the camera's indifferent apathetic eye that would never truly understand. Another few moments had the memory chip ejected from the camera, and then. She spent a few moments gazing down at the little square resting in the palm of her hand, until she finally let a breath go she hadn't realized was being held–

"Aren't you leaving something out?"

"Good God!" Vixy spluttered out, nearly jumping out of her skin at the sudden voice behind her. When she whipped around, almost tripping over the chair in the process, she found the feline form of Chakori sitting there quite casually, "What are you doing here? How did you get in?"

"I have my ways." the ashen leopardess answered.

"You can't just sneak up on people like that!" the vixen protested.

"Clearly I can."

Vixy caught hold of herself, working down as easily as she could from her sudden hysteria. She knew no amount of argument was going to change Chakori's mind on this, so the vixen stopped herself from careening toward that dead-end, and instead steered down the next path:

"What do you want?" She asked quietly.

"I want to talk, that's all."

"And you couldn't have waited five minutes?"

"I could have, but I also can't help but feel you've neglected to mention something in your little..." Chakori gestured vaguely at the camera, digging up the right words to describe it, "Video confessional; someone, actually."

"I don't have any idea what you're talking about." Vixy stated in a cold, blatant lie.

"You're not fooling anyone." The leopardess retorted with a shake of her head, "Not me, and not yourself in the slightest: you're attracted to him."

"Look, it was nice of you to give me a tour of the ship and all, but I didn't know there was going to be someone in your brig. I was a little shocked that's all..."

She abandoned the flimsy ruse, not really believing it herself, and tried something else.

"What the heck did he do to get himself thrown in there anyway? He's one of the escort pilots for Sol's sake!"

"He knows you've been spying on him." Chakori mentioned, not fazed in the slightest.

"What?" Vixy felt her face flash hot, while her hands became clammy and restless, "That was nothing– I mean– what the hell else was I supposed to do on a long, boring-ass trip? It's not like there was much else on that tub worth admiring. I'm allowed to have my dumb little daydreams, but that doesn't mean I have to act on them, especially now that I know he's dangerous–"

"And you think that's why we locked him away in our brig? Understandable, I suppose..."

The ashen leopardess waited a moment, preparing herself and finding the right words.

"He is... troubled, gravely. He lost many close comrades during the raid: every single one of his squadmates killed, all except for him, and he took the loss very hard. He was pushed to the brink of insanity by the guilt he felt, and it drove him to do something foolish, nearly killing him because of it. We locked him away more as a precaution, to protect him from his own actions until he cools down."

"That's... terrible, but that's his problem." Vixy responded, somewhat confused, "So why are you telling me about it?"

"He's requested to have you come visit him; he's very interested in meeting you."

"I..." she was taken aback, and didn't really know what to say, and so stalled for time, "I have better things to do."

"Like talking to your little friend here?" Chakori mused as she pointed out the camera once again, bordering on sarcastic.

"You're really not going to let this go, are you?"

"Perhaps I haven't made the situation entirely clear..."

Chakori's tone became far more serious, chilling her words to a sharp, clear crystalline point.

"He needs all the support he can get right now, something to take his grief-ridden mind away from these tragedies. He needs someone to talk to, to form a kind, caring, friendly bond he can grab hold of and pull himself up by so he doesn't drown in his own sorrows. You can provide this."

"I'm no shrink, or therapist." Vixy mentioned, trying not to look at the leopardess.

"True, but there isn't a clinical psychologist anywhere who could have prescribed a better treatment" Chakori's words thawed out, and began to warm up again.

"Why does it have to be me?"

"To be perfectly blunt, it has to be you because you set yourself up for it." the leopardess explained, "No one else aboard is readily able to do for him what you can do right here, right now."

"I'm... I'm just not sure."

"Please, do yourself a service and let yourself have this experience, for your own sake as much as his." the ashen leopardess implored, a quiet sense of urgency leaking through her cold, hard visage, "Even if it goes badly, then you can at least move on without the question of 'what if' constantly nagging at you from behind. Because if you don't go to him, you will spend a very, very long time regretting that decision, agonizing over it as you wonder what might've happened if only you'd taken the chance..."

She stepped away and turned to exit the shuttle. The conversation had loosened something within Chakori, and now she was the one struggling to maintain control. The leopardess took a few moments to gather herself, and looked over her shoulder to give Vixy one last piece of information.

"His... his name is–"

"McCloud, James McCloud." the vixen supplied, "I know."

Chakori just nodded slowly, and an understanding glimmer crossed her normally icy gaze.

"Come by the brig tomorrow at fourteen-hundred–" she stopped herself, and translated the military jargon into something more manageable, "Two in the afternoon."

Just as Chakori was about to exit the shuttle for good, something held her back: a question.

"That regret..." Vixy began, getting her attention, "Do you know it from personal experience?"

With her back turned to the vixen, Chakori let her head hang a moment as she batted this sudden resurrection of old, long-buried emotions. When she felt she'd held them off well enough, she glanced over her shoulder at Vixy one last time; the ice in her eyes had all but melted away...

"... I do."

And without another word or moment more, she left.

/

----------------------------------

/

When James opened his eyes, he saw the swirling gray mists he'd grown accustomed to over the past few days. This is how his dreams seemed to go ever since he was locked into Cerberus's brig.

"You are pathetic." a familiar, unforgiving voice scolded through the mists.

"We've been over this already, sir." the fox retorted, rolling his eyes.

"I know what you're trying to do –your schemes, your plans– and it is all in vain..."

The figure of Captain Sobak Soyuz strode through the mists again, his sharp, electric blue eyes drilling into McCloud once again.

"Despite your best collective efforts, he will not tell you a single thing. He is nothing but dead weight to you."

"And what makes you so sure?" James asked without much care.

"It's a shame you didn't kill him when you had the chance. It would've saved so much trouble, for everyone..."

The Husky officer released a disapproving sigh, and gazed off into the surrounding nothingness.

"But no: he lives, and lingers on for much longer than he and his utter uselessness deserve. Pitiful."

There was something different about Captain Soyuz this time. He wasn't putting constant, unrelenting pressure on James like he normally did in these dreams. Instead, he seemed to be referencing other things entirely, things he shouldn't have any knowledge of in the first place.

"Wait, what are you talking about?"

"You haven't the faintest idea what you're up against, do you?" he asked James with a confident sneer, "The forces you and your little band of saviors are to contend with?"

"This can't be real... It's all in my head."

The fox tried closing his eyes, anything to kill the images, but it seemed his eyes were already shut, and the image of Sobak Soyuz wouldn't go away.

"Of course it's all in your head," the officer taunted, "but why should that simple fact make this experience any less real?"

"Who are you?"

The husky officer turned back to James, but something seemed off. It was something about his eyes; they were already a bright, piercing shade of blue, but the seemed almost to shine, glowing with a light of their own from within...

"I broke your silent cell-mate long ago, I broke your squad leader Agamemnon before his end, and I will break you just the same."

"That doesn't answer my question." the fox stated, glaring back just as firmly, holding his ground.

"Who am I?" Captain Soyuz mocked, almost laughing as he said it, "That is a complex question, the answer to which you would fail utterly to understand."

"Try me." James challenged.

"Hmm, very well..." The gray mists of the surrounding backdrop darkened, reminiscent of stormclouds, there even seemed to be a low rumble that rose from the nothing. Then the image of Soyuz began to blur, every movement of his followed by ghostly streaks of its afterimage, like he was being seen through a hazy, drunken stupor. His eyes however remained: two points of harsh, pale blue light that remained unchanged in the gathering darkness. Then it was no longer an image of Sobak Soyuz at all, but someone else entirely; still canid, but with sharper, more pointed features instead of the husky's boxy squared ones, but it was too blurred to make out any further details.

I am Harrow–

"Hey, wake up lad..."

The smoky black clouds cleared away, fading into the real and very familiar blank ceiling of his cell in Cerberus's brig, staring up from that same bunk. Those eyes however seemed to linger on for a while, haunting and glaring at him from within the walls even now...

"Ye had another bad dream, didn't ye?" a familiar voice said, close by.

Standing over the fox was Scott Aberdeen, his dark silhouette off to one side

"It happens a lot lately." James replied, still coming awake as he hoisted himself up.

The memories returned as the dream was swept away by reality. He remembered what he was in here for, what he was supposed to be doing, and recalled that yesterday wasn't nearly as productive as it should've been. All of McCloud's efforts to talk to the white wolf were met with the usual stubborn silence, and went on for a few hours until the lupine prisoner finally grunted "Piss off" at James, and then forced himself into sleep. Those two words was all the fox was able to glean from the other prisoner for now...

Scott was there in the cell with him, right where he thought he'd be, with the open door behind him. James also noticed the cell across from him was empty again, which meant Cerberus's crew was still trying something on their end, but exactly what it was they never told. There was something else though: a couple of folding chairs and a collapsible table were set up outside the cell. The fox soon became aware of a certain food aroma. Sure enough, on closer inspection the table did in fact have a pair of those all too familiar packaged-prepared meal trays resting on it, waiting.

"Ye got yourself a visitor," Scott informed as he stepped outside the cell, past the makeshift dinner table, "a nervous, bonny las by the look of her."

"And all this?..." James said, gesturing at the place-setting as he followed the terrier outside.

"Chax's idea." Scott answered with a small chuckle, "Figured it's the least we could do tae make this a bit less awkward for ye."

"Thanks." the fox replied, sounding perhaps a little more dry and cold-hearted than he meant, and added, "I appreciate it."

"Hm." Scott acknowledged with a quick nod. He then excused himself and headed toward the brig's exit, saying over his shoulder, "I'll just send her in then." and that was it.

James McCloud spent a few moments standing blank-faced in Cerberus's brig while it all started sinking in. This was a date he suddenly realized, a first date no less, and here he was in a beat-up Caius Company fighter pilot's flight-suit, infused with several days' worth of stale sweat. At least he'd been able to get some kind of shower in the cell's minimal facilities, hidden by a simple curtain in the corner.

He felt his heart rate start creeping up, and his breaths were being drawn deeper into his lungs. He was feeling nervous and a little awkward, as many guys often do on their first date, and strangest part is that it felt good. It felt good, at least for a while, to not be consumed by the horrible events of the past, and to be looking forward to something, even if unsure and a little off-balance about it. The fox sucked down a deep breath of air that, trough some sort of placebo affect he could care less about, felt cool and refreshing in his chest, and he relished in the comfortable awkwardness of the moment...

The door to outer corridor opened again, and a young copper furred vixen stepped through. She looked a little uneasy, and rightly so, glancing around Cerberus's bland and boring brig until her emerald eyes landed squarely on James. She allowed a weak smile to have its way with her face and gave McCloud a small wave, making her look just a little goofy in her insecurity.

"Hey." Vixy managed through the awkwardness.

"Hey." James replied in-kind.

For a moment, they just stood there, looking each other over with their unsure stares. Both he and she looked as if they'd seen better days, much like everyone else aboard Cerberus for that matter. The moment soon passed, when James stepped forward toward Vixy, scrambling to put up the facade of the 'hospitable host', such as he could in the brig.

"Why don't you come on in and take a seat?" the fox invited, gesturing at the simple table-and-chairs setup in front of them, "We've uh, got something here for lunch it looks like."

"Sure, alright..."

"Thanks for coming down here." James said as the two took their respective places at the table opposite the other, "I know this weird and everything, and I really appreciate your being open about it."

"You don't have to thank me." Vixy dismissed with a small shake of her head, "Chakori explained your situation; If anyone needs thanks, its her."

"No kidding." the fox agreed, "Can you believe she went ahead and orchestrated this whole thing?"

"I caught on to her little matchmaker scheme pretty much when she lured me in here the first time..."

She picked up the spork provided and started on the food tray in front of her, but quickly trailed off in a quiet giggle she couldn't hide.

"What's so funny?" James asked.

"Nothing." Vixy began, "Just– the look on your face when you saw me, it was like I'd caught you naked or something."

"Excuse me– naked?"

"Uh..." the vixen squinched and blushed, having realized just what she let slip out.

James noticed this, and did his best to put her out of her awkwardness.

"Snarks aside, you gotta give Chakori props for picking up on us like she did..." He held up his forefinger and thumb, mere millimeters apart. "I was this close to asking you out the normal way back on the Amity? This, close right before the attack happened."

"That so?" Vixy asked, somewhat relieved to be out of the hole she dug.

"Yeah, right after my last drilling session with the squad in the Amity's mess, I was so going to ask if you'd like to hang out, or something..."

"Just out of curiosity: would you have said 'yes', you know, without all these crazy things happening?"

"I don't know, probably..." After a moment or two of consideration, Vixy let out something between a sigh and a chuckle, and changed her answer. "Oh who am I kidding? Of course I would've said 'yes'. There wasn't much else to do back on the Amity, I was bored out of my mind, and I guess I was sort of... um... stalking you... just a little."

"You're not one of those psycho obsessive girls, are you?" James quipped.

"Oh for love of– I was freaking bored, okay? Haven't I made this point clear enough already?" she insisted, rolling her eyes, "I'm not one to just go and spy on random guys. I usually do other things given the opportunity."

"Sorry, bad joke." the fox apologized, and moved on, "I can't say I blame you though. These long-haul interstellar runs are about as dull as they come. Heck, I was about to go bonkers back there with all the drilling we were doing."

"Is it hard, you know, not having your squad with you?" Vixy asked, almost without warning.

The fox seemed to freeze a moment, and subsequently became colder in gesture, in posture, and speech also. This wasn't a topic he wanted to talk about here, but he wasn't going to refuse. He needed this off his chest.

"...Yeah." he answered in a gravely voice. James just looked down at the tray in front of him, pushing some the the food around with the spork– anything to avoid eye-contact in this state. "I didn't know them for very long, but when you're part of a squad, a team, you look out for each other. It's kind of a military thing: you and your squads becomes almost like family, very quickly. A lot of the strength of that bond comes from knowing they could all be gone in an instant..."

Vixy leaned in, a concerned look in her emerald eyes, and slid a hand across the table toward one of his.

"Are you okay?"

"Do you think I'd even be here in the first place if I was?" James snapped at her.

"I'm sorry." She flinched back a little, caught off-guard by his outburst.

"I... didn't mean it to come out that way. You deserve better than that from me."

He looked down again, rubbing his hand against his forehead as a sigh escaped.

"I've just been cooped up in here so long, with nothing to do, and with only the worst possible company–"

"Do you want me to leave?" Vixy asked him.

"No, don't go, please..." Jame's head snapped up, his urgent steel eyes imploring her to stay. "It's... all that doom-and-gloom Chakori's been telling you about has done nothing but stew in its own juices ever since the attack, and it's made me a miserable wreck. I'd really like to step away from all that, even if it's only for a little while. What I mean is... it's good to have somebody here I can just kick back and talk with. I haven't felt this loose in... well, a really long time..."

"Okay..." she nodded slowly, and placed her hand on one of his; it felt cold, and clammy, needing to be warmed up. "What do you want to do then?"

"This is a is supposed to be some sort of a date, right?" James gently grasped Vixy's hand that she placed on his. It felt warm, smooth, and supple against his own hand, which he only just realized seemed stiff, and practically freezing. "So let's just talk, like it's a regular old date."

"Okay flyboy, but don't expect any miracles."

"There's no miracles, just whatever happens, and I'm really curious to see where this goes..."

He gave a nonchalant shrug, and continued on quite casually.

"So, what 'other things' do you do given the opportunity? Like, what brought you on a run out to Cerinia, with a news-crew?"

"Okay, first off, the Tribune does more than headline news, much more..."

She tore her hand from his grasp, spouting back at James in a tone that was borderline indignant.

"The Lylat Tribune is one of the main media outlets for scientific, historical, and cultural conservation organizations. The Tribune's main mission is promoting awareness and encouraging education of fascinating, sometimes otherwise obscure subjects. It's not some corporate-sponsored, sensationalism-spewing yellow-journalism monster like some of these other 'media outlets'."

"Fair enough," James conceded with nod, and he started back on the food in front of him."but I don't think that answered my question though."

Vixy likewise returned some attention back to her tray. The packaged-prepared meal had cooled to a lukewarm, but she didn't mind, and neither did James it seemed.

"Well, I'm going to to school, film school, and I've been interning and working with the Tribune for a while now. They put me on one of their field crews, and I just happened to be on the roster when they picked a crew to send out to Cerinia. We were going to work with the Cerinia Institute in order to help document their work, let everyone back in Lylat know what's going on out there..."

/

--------------------------------

/

They were in Cerberus's medical bay, such as it was. It had all the necessary amenities for the purposes of shipboard medicine: a few beds, a storeroom tucked into one corner, a biochem lab station next to that, and other. Three people occupied the space; one was the stubbornly mysterious white lupine prisoner, clamped down on one of the beds with a series of restraining straps. Standing over him was the formidable figure of Malcolm Aries, arms crossed, and a look of weary impatience pulling on his graying, aged features. Lastly was Adrian Crane, who'd forgone his usual ankle-length duster in favor of a far less obstructive plain t-shirt, and a pair of medical gloves.

The gangly avian had just stepped away from the med bay's laboratory station, and was inserting a cartridge into a hypodermic autoinjector as he approached the occupied bed.

"If this doesn't work, I'm all out of options." Adrian stated.

"What's in it?" Malcolm asked, only mildly curious.

The avian remained quiet a few moments as he considered the best response, and prepared the injector tube for use. He finally just said, "...Quite a few things."

Adrian brought the injector tube up to the white wolf's neck, who just scowled back at the avian defiantly, daring him in his silence to do his worst. With a quick pop and hiss, Adrian unloaded the autoinjector's contents into the lupine prisoner's carotid artery.

Almost immediately, the wolf thrashed and twitched wildly, pulling against the restraints with every fiber of his might. His jaws remained clamped shut, but a muffled groan of pain still escaped through his barred, gnashed teeth. The bed creaked and rattled at the forces subjected to it from the prisoner's desperate flailing, and the straps seemed like they may even cut into his skin. When at last the white wolf settled down, he was panting heavily, sucking down whole lungfulls of breath and expelling them in less than a second. He was also sweating profusely, and his fur quickly became damp. Worse still were his eyes; bloodshot and wild, dancing all across the room without stopping even for an instant to focus on anything. Most terrible of all, on top of everything else, he was completely and utterly terrified.

"You... you have to stop." he managed between his deep raspy gasps.

Malcolm leaned over the nameless white wolf, and gazed deep into his twitching, horrified eyes.

"We're not stopping anything until you give us a reason to, you know this."

"The ship!" he spurted back, "You have to stop the ship! Stop it!"

"I will do no such thing my friend, not without a damn good reason." the elder ram paced back and forth above the prisoner's head, a skeptical sneer coming from his eyes, "Do you happen to have a damn good reason for me?"

"He knows... He's waiting..." the wolf answered, growing more and more frantic "He knows and he's waiting!"

"Who?" Malcolm asked.

"Urrggnn! You have to stop! Now! or it'll be too late!"

"Why?" The ram maintained his authoritative composure as best he could, but a few traces of worry started to crop up,

"What's waiting for us?"

"Are we gonna stop the ship, or what?" Adrian asked, unable to stay silent any longer.

"AAAAUUUGGHHHH!" the wolf was screaming at the top of his lungs, so loud and guttural that it sounded as if he might tear his throat apart–

The entire med bay seem to have been thrown to one side, knocking Adrian and Malcolm off their feet entirely before they slammed into whatever they came across first, be it bed or wall. Alarms started blaring and squealing throughout the space.

"God.......dammit!" Malcolm roared, staggering to his feet, "What the fat-flapping fuck just happened!"

I Happened, answered a voice without a voice, I am Harrow.

6 No Miracles.pdf

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FF.net link: http://www.fanfictio...egacy_Volume_II

惨ã„åºç›¤ã®æ‰‹

The Grim Gambit

Bridge duty.

It's never anywhere near as awesome as it sounds, especially during an interstellar jump situation. The view outside was just the whole lot of black nothing that the eyes are able to see outside a ship during a jump, the instruments were all idle as they displayed the fact that –get this– nothing was changing. Sure, time skips happily along as it always does, the distance to the destination grows shorter and shorter, but otherwise: same-old same-old.

Pigma Dengar sat in what would be the 'captain's chair', if for no other reason than it was in the center of the bridge. It didn't really matter; Adrian could run Cerberus from pretty much anywhere given a good connection to the ship's mainframe. The reason they put the young swine in there babysitting the bridge in the first place was, as they claimed, "to get you familiar with the ship." While that may have been true to some extent, it was more likely a case of "here's something to do that'll make you feel like a team-player" or even "we've all got more important things to worry about, and someone has to keep an eye on the ship." Might as well be the new guy, right?

Even doing checks on Cerberus's systems would've been more exciting, crawling through the access channels, checking up on all the bits and pieces to make sure they were all getting along. Okay, so maybe the diagnostic systems could take care of that with a few button presses, but where's the fun in that? Not to mention a computer system is only so reliable; sometimes you just have to see it with your eyeball to be absolutely sure.

But no. Here Pigma was, lounging lazily back in a larger, underused chair from which the order "Engage!" would look and sound awesome, but he wasn't idle though. In front of Pigma, what would normally have been a holographic tactical display for the command crew, was a three-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional puzzle cube. It's really much simpler than it first seems: in a one-dimensional situation, you have two 'sides': forward/backward, in two dimensions, you add left/right, third is up/down. The fourth dimension in this case were the axes 'in' vs. 'out', with an extra two 'sides' added to represent them... Okay, once you cross the threshold of the familiar 3D world into the fourth dimension, you kind-of have to tell the eyes to 'chill out', because it's just a representation of a fourth dimension, not an actual fourth dimension, like when a picture is drawn on a flat piece of paper, but looks like it has depth and dimension. If you can jump that hurdle, and have your eyes hold onto that willing suspension of disbelief, solving a 4D puzzle cube becomes just like any other: figure out the algorithm sequences, snag the shortcuts, and solve away–

Before he knew what was happening, Pigma was thrown forward out of the captain's chair through the hologram image. He landed face-down some few feet ahead on the floor, sirens and alerts ringing throughout the bridge.

"Pigma!" Malcolm's voice roared through the intercom, "Status report! Now!"

"I'm-on-it-I'm-on-it!..."

The swine scrambled to his feet back to the captain's chair, switching the holographic display to the automated diagnostic display. He was caught off his guard, completely blindsided, but there was too much panicked adrenaline going through Pigma to bother feeling the shock.

"The primary reactor failsafe's been triggered, we're running on backup. Somebody's gotta get down there and reset it, see what the damage is–"

"Great! Now what the hell happened to do that?" Malcolm barked, "What's going on out there?"

"Uhhh..." Pigma switched through the readouts to exterior sensors, and reported his findings, "I'm reading some radiation outside, and some scattered debris, like maybe someone's detonated a ship's reactor core in our path."

"Is there anyone out there?" the ram asked.

"I... I can't see anything." the swine answered, double-checking the instruments, "If there is anyone, they're hiding in the debris..."

/

---------------------------------

/

Back inside Cerberus's brig, the same alarms and alerts heard around the ship were here also, ringing in the confined space. The table and chairs, along with all the items that were on them, lay strewn across the floor in a jumbled mess. Among the mess was a vulpine pair: one man, one woman.

James was able to stagger to his feet first out of the shambles, some of the half-eaten food smeared across his flight-suit. He shook himself off in a second, and sprung into action as his trained-in soldiery switch clicked on.

"You okay?" He asked quickly, lending a hand to help Vixy up.

"I'm not hurt," she said as she came to her senses, "not badly..."

It was the first time she'd seen James McCloud in this battle-ready state. Those once empty, briefly happy and carefree blue eyes became keen and sharp as a pair of razor blades. These were the eyes and face of someone who'd killed before, and would dutifully kill again when required of him. It was impressive, frightening, and deeply unsettling all at once. Then again, he was on their side, and that last thought came with a precious scrap of relief.

Before there was any time for anything else, the outer door to the corridor burst open, and Chakori came into the brig bounding with urgency.

"There has been a..." she paused only for a moment, fishing for an appropriate word, "situation."

"Yeah, I figured as much." James replied with just enough sarcasm infused in his voice to also say silently, "No, really? The explosions and alarms aren't obvious enough?"

"I mean a different situation," the ashen leopardess clarified, choosing to ignore his tone, "one that concerns you specifically."

"What do you mean?" the fox asked, now curious and a little worried.

"Come quickly." Chakori said as she turned back the way she came, and beckoned for James and Vixy to follow her out.

/

----------------------------------------------

/

"Ooh, this Harrow fella's a real spookster, ain't he?" Malcolm mocked as he cut the intercom with the bridge.

Adrian scooped his favored coat and pulled it on, then turned to exit the medical bay.

"You keep trying to get something from our guy here." He said to Malcolm as he started out, "I'll head down to engineering and–"

"No!" the prisoner pleaded with a frightened gasp, "Don't do it, don't take the bait."

Adrian was somewhat startled by the wolf's sudden, desperate words, but the slim avian collected himself and continued on his way, "I'm going down there. We're sitting ducks until we reset the reactor failsafe."

"Wait just a minute, Ardy" the ram said, positioning himself next to the frantic lupine. "Now, you'd best explain yourself son."

"He knows, and he's waiting..." the ghostly white wolf said once again, starting to calm down a bit, "He'll pick you all off one by one from the shadows. That's how he works."

"You mean he's already aboard the ship?" Adrian asked, curious, and more than a little worried.

"How did he get aboard?" Malcolm demanded, "Where is he?"

"I don't know, but if you take the bait, he will be there, and he will kill whoever you send." the wolf said with grim certainty.

"That's not a problem." Adrian assured, "I'll bring backup–"

"Then he won't be there!" the wolf snapped, interrupting him, "He's not stupid, he won't spring his trap if you just try to trap him back. He'll slink away and try something else... something worse."

"How in hell is he going to know?" the ram questioned again, growing more irritated with each passing second, "Who are his accomplices?"

"He'll know, he'll just know, and he'll hunt you all down and knock each and every one of you until there's nobody left... and then he'll kill me too."

"Then cooperate with us, help us." Adrian said, trying to calm the frantic prisoner down, "We can protect you."

"No, you can't, not from him..."

He started to... 'chuckle' might've been an appropriate verb, but it was such a morbid, ghastly, almost sob-like laugh. It was the utterances of someone who'd accepted his fate, and didn't mind being the bearer of doom-and-gloom news.

"Shit, you can't even protect yourselves."

"We'll just see about that." the ram replied with outward confidence, but hiding a troubled inward concern

"You have no idea what you chumps are up against, do you?" the wolf said, again in his confident morbid certainty, "Harrow is Cerinian, a damned bluefur, and a freaking powerful one too."

Adrian Crane and Malcolm Aries were struck silent, but for only a moment. Another second had the ram's comm headset buzzing with the irritated voice of one of his teammates, "Mal!" Scott Aberdeen barked over the comm, "We've got a problem down here..."

"What kind of problem?"

/

--------------------------------------------------

/

Scott was in Cerberus's main cargo bay, where the survivors from the attack had made themselves at home. The space itself hadn't changed in the slightest, still the dull gray four walls with bits and pieces around the floor, but the people had changed, and for the worst. No longer were they the quiet, shell-shocked bystanders who were simply relieved to be alive; no, they were restless, agitated, and irritated. The air in the room was filled with their grunting murmurs, their hushed whispers, the telltale signs of a powder-keg crowd on the verge of becoming something ugly...

Scott was standing sentinel, geared up with a tactical armor vest, his high-powered handgun in its holster, and the ever-present sword strapped to his back. The terrier watched over the gathered people, like an uneasy shepherd, bound to guard a frightened flock that could transform into a pack of predators at any time.

Scott turned around at the sound of the opening door, and saw Chakori leading James and Vixy into the cargo bay. He was expecting them, as apart of a plan cobbled together on the spot, but the terrier was only slightly relieved to have them here, "I hope this works, Chaks–"

"There he is!" someone from the crowd shouted.

"That's the Cerinian!" another spouted.

"It's that damned pilot!" someone else yelled out, "He survived when his whole squad perished! The bastard set them up!"

They were all looking at James, each and every one of them with vicious glares, some pointing fingers, or shaking fists. One could almost see the torches and pitchforks they could've been carrying if this were a rural town instead of a space vessel. The fox was taken aback by this sudden antagonization, that the very same people he was bound to risk his life to defend would now turn against him, and accuse him of murder. There was an urge within James that wanted nothing more than to scream back at the crowd, to tell them all how completely and utterly stupid they were being to believe what they were saying. That urge however seemed to have gotten lost in the fox's baffled, speechless astonishment. All he could do was stand there, looking dumb and clueless, while the crowd in front of him branded him a traitor...

Amidst the sudden racket and awkwardness, Vixy Reinard stepped forward in front of James and the two members of Cerberus's crew, confronting the simmering angry mob.

"How can you say something like that?" she scolded, lancing through the gathered crowd with adamant emerald eyes, "Don't you know what he's been through? Shame on you!"

"Vixy, get away from him!"

She recognized the speaker, it was one of the field crew, a normally quiet golden-furred canid named Shane. She considered him a friend, and yet even he had gotten caught up in the mass hysteria.

"I don't know what that... thing did to you, but it has to stop." Shane pleaded, "You can fight this–"

"Pipe down, the lot of ye!" Scott roared, shouting down any other attempts from the crowd, "I've known Jim here since back when he was a wee lad. I tell ye, he's no Cerinian. He's naught but pure Lylatin vulpine."

"How do you know?" someone from the seething crowd asked.

"What're ye playing at?" the terrier responded, trying to pick out the dumb question asker from the group.

"Those bluefurs can screw with your mind." the speaker explained, "They can deceive you: make you think thoughts, or hear sounds, or see visions. Those 'memories' you have of him, they might not even be real."

"And it's easy for him to dye his fur brown." another added.

"I saw him haul off that other guy, the white-furred one!" someone else interjected, "and I haven't seen him since!"

"It's because he knew the secret!" the first accuser conjectured, adding to the mob's boiling pot of fear, "I bet the white furred guy knew he's Cerinian! And the bluefur killed him because of it!"

"Murderer!"

"Traitor!"

"Get him!"

Just as the crowd was mustering to swarm, Scott stepped up to challenge them, drawing both his handgun and sword, brandishing them toward the crowd.

"Stay back! Or so help me, I'll cut down every last bloody one of ye!"

The terrier's burning eyes scorched into the mass of irritated refugees, matching their angry sneers with a fiery grimace.

"Like hell you would!" someone scoffed, unimpressed.

"Oh yeah you little scrapper?" another dared, stepping up to challenge the terrier, "Then put your money where your mouth–"

* Blam! *

Scott fired a blazing blaster shot, right over the head of the speaker, silencing him with the blatant threat, and drawing several near-panicked gasps from the rest.

"So..." the terrier questioned, "anyone else feelin' daft?"

Nobody else dared try to talk back to Scott after that, and just stood at their places in frozen, petrified shock. There was no way to know how long it would last though, and so Chakori took seized the chance to lead James and Vixy out of the cargo hold away from the mob, into the corridor outside.

Both of the vulpines heaved great sighs of relief when the door slid shut behind them, but they were far from comforted by their experience. James was the first to break his long-standing silence, turning to the ashen leopardess, "What, dare I ask, were you hoping to accomplish in there?"

"I was hoping, by having you there in the flesh, we could let us talk some sense into them..." Chakori began her answered, slowly shaking her head, disappointed, "But they seem to be too far-gone, as if something is fueling their fears..."

/

---------------------------------------

/

"Harrow, you magnificent bastard..." Malcolm Aries grumbled as he closed the comm channel. "accusing some other poor fella of being the scumbag you are."

"He's using them as a distraction..." the white-furred wolf explained, "a smokescreen to hide his movements."

Adrian stood there, running his hand along his slender beak while consumed in a flurry of thoughts, until he finally came to a conclusion. "Mal, we've gotta get those people off the ship."

"I think that calls for a might bit of explanation..." the ram prompted, and waited for Adrian's response.

"However this Harrow creep is playing on their fears, whether it's Cerinian hocus-pocus or just plain old stirring up trouble, we can't afford to let him have them as leverage." the slim avian expounded, "We need them all off the ship."

"No good." Malcom said with a shake of his head, "As far as we know, there's hostiles outside, waiting to trash them. Pain-in-the-butt they may be right now, but we are not going to send those folks to their death, not after saving their asses."

"Then you should just kill them all, right here, right now." Adrian retorted grimly, laying out the unpleasant ultimatum before them, "If the situation keeps going on like this, we're liable to have a full-blown mutiny on our hands, and there's no way we can contain everyone if they get violent."

"And that's when he will strike, when you're too busy to fight back." the bound lupine prisoner said, growing more calm and collected as he remained there.

"There's gotta be another way..." Malcolm said, rubbing his forehead, trying to come up with something else.

"He's not after the innocent people, but he'll use them as long as they're available." the wolf recited, his voice still steady in its morbid certainty, "Even if you don't care for their lives, they're nothing but a liability."

"I don't like it any more than you do..." Adrian said, finding himself a little astonished to be agreeing with the prisoner, " but we can either give these people a fighting chance at getting away with their lives, or we'll be forced into gunning them down ourselves."

"Alright..." the ram accepted, letting out "I take it you've got some kind of plan in the works?"

/

------------------------------------

/

Pigma Dengar was once again in his place on Cerberus's bridge, minding his, and everyone else's business all at once. The few minutes since the ship was knocked out of its jump were nothing if not tense; Malcolm and Adrian forming a decision, Scott barely containing an angry mob, and that spooky white furred guy finally talking. In truth, the young swine had little better to do than monitor the ship's communications and sift through the surveillance feeds. The thought had crossed his mind that Harrow might go after him here in the bridge, being all alone, but the bridge was already locked down tighter than a miser's wallet. Still, Pigma had taken the precaution of going into the bridge's weapon locker and helping himself to some firepower. You can't be too careful in uncertain times like these...

"Pigma." Adrian's voice called out over the intercom.

"What's up?" he replied.

"I'm in the mainframe right now, and I'm going to initiate Cerberus's Lethe procedure."

"Yeah, I know..."

The swine cycled the console into one of its security feeds, showing the ship's mianframe, where Adrian, Malcom, and that other prisoner all stood. The wolf looked like he was in handcuffs from the picture–

"So you've been eavesdropping on our comm chatter." Adrian realized, and he looked straight through the security camera at Pigma.

"Sorry."

"Don't you apologize; don't you dare apologize for doing what I taught you..."

It was like Adrian could somehow see straight right through the camera, see Pigma's sheepish squirming, even though there wasn't any way he could.

"I need you to trust me for now, and I need you to do exactly what I say."

"Okay, shoot."

Adrian turned away from the security camera and went to work on the mainframe's interface.

"I'm preparing the Lethe procedure, just in case, and I'm splitting encryption key into two parts. I'll upload one part onto the bridge interface for you to take, and I'll keep the other with me."

"Why's that?"

"Because you're not staying aboard, that's why." the dark clad avian explained, "You, McCloud and Scott are all gonna get those refugees off this ship. They're our best flyers, and we'll need to make sure the people are kept safe on their way out. This is just a precaution."

"Okay then, so where are we heading?" Pigma opened up the navigation interface, searching the immediate area for known ports, "It's not like there's any destination options the shuttles can reach."

"Farbound station." Adrian answered," It's within a short jump's distance from here for Cerberus, and the shuttles should be able to make it."

They'd passed through it on their way out, most ships bound for Cerinia do, but looking over the file on Farbound station, there seemed to be a problem.

"Getting the shuttles to Farbound on their own will be pushing their range, I don't know if they'll–"

"I'm aware, but last I checked you agreed to trust me..." the dark clad avian looked up through the security camera one last time, and added with a tone of finality, "Get everyone onto those shuttles, and get to Farbound Station. We'll meet you there."

Behind Pigma, the entrance to the bridge unlocked and opened itself. That should've been impossible, the bridge was in a state of lockdown, no one could've gotten in, right? In a brief flash of panic, the swine went for the pistol he'd gotten, and swung it toward the bridge entrance, expecting the worst–

"Whoa there lad! Watch the firearms!"

It was Scott, of course; he had the proper clearances to get through the lockdown. He had McCloud there with him too, and both had armed themselves.

"Sorry." His heart still racing, Pigma lowered his weapon, "Just been a little jumpy since, you know..."

"Don't worry about it." Scott reassured, "Come on, we're getting off." and he beckoned for Pigma to follow them out.

"Yeah, just a second..."

Before logging off and leaving, the young swine made sure to download his part of the encryption key onto a memory.

/

-------------------------------------------

/

It was an all too familiar scene.

Not a week earlier, these same people were being led onto the exact same shuttles to disembark from a ship in deep space, much in the same manner as before. The main difference between then and now was the fact that it was Cerberus's hangar bay this time, instead of the Amity's, and the people far more restless and agitated. And just like the last time, Chakori was there to see it, watching over the moving mass of people once again as she made sure everyone made it onto their shuttles safely.

After the earlier fiasco, James had elected to stay back until everyone was ready to go, and went with Scott to get Pigma out of the bridge. No one dared walk the corridors alone, lest they make easy pickings for Harrow, or whoever else may be infesting the ship, if anyone.

Just as the last of the gathered refugees boarded the shuttles, the hangar entrance opened, and three familiar figures entered: Scott, James and Pigma, but there was something else. Trailing several paces behind the arriving party was a fourth figure, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, eyes downcast.

"Hold on," the ashen leopardess told them as they passed, "it looks like there's a straggler..."

She stepped forward to the mysterious newcomer, loosening the handgun at her thigh holster. The other didn't even acknowledge her presence, not until they were a few feet apart in the corridor, and he just stopped; at least this person looked like a 'he'. The ambiguity cleared away almost immediately when he looked up, revealing his sharp, decidedly male vulpine features, and the telltale blue color of his fur. Then a manic toothy grin took over his jaws, and a pair of pale lights flashed from his eyes–

In an instant, the Cerinian leapt into the air with a quick spin, and produced a staff in his hands seemingly from nowhere that he spun in a quick flourish as he came down. He jammed one end of the staff into the floor as he landed, and it felt as if an earthquake had gone off, throwing Chakori back off her feet from the blast.

The leopardess rolled back onto her feet, at the same time drawing and firing several shots from her blaster. The torrent of blasterfire had little effect though, as the Cerinian had enveloped himself in a protective field that harmlessly absorbed the shots, and he advanced toward Chakori unhindered. With her firearm rendered moot, the feline fighter tossed it aside and drew her distinct forward deflected knife instead, diving into furious combat against the Cerinian.

The movements were fast, too fast to easily capture in detail, but in general, Chakori tried to keep as close as possible –inside the arcs of the staff– in order to grapple her opponent and deliver the gouging knife strikes. The Cerinian was proving a slippery one though, twisting his way through and out of the leopardess's every advance, using his staff as a lever to both keep her at bay and pry her off.

In another moment, the blue vulpine broke away completely with a twisting aerial kick, followed quickly mid-air with blast out from the base of his staff that sent him rocketing away a short distance, staggering Chakori back in the process. The Cerinian hit the ground in a sprint down the corridor, but not a moment later Scott had his sword in hand, and already disappeared in a blue streak toward the bluefur.

In his sprint, the Cerinian pointed his staff toward the ground behind him and projected a spray of liquid there, some of which vaporized into a white mist. When the terrier rematerialized with a mighty sword-stroke, he found his feet were not on firm ground, but on a layer of ice. Instead of coming to a controlled stop, Scott was sliding off-balance. Before he could react, a swirling staff swing took him out at his shins, sending the terrier skidding to a halt on his face, while the Cerinian kept right on running...

Malcolm Aries had just appeared around the next corner, assault carbine in hand. The ram was greeted immediately by several blazing shots –almost like blaster bolts– from the charging Cerinian's staff. The ram had only an instant to dive behind cover on the opposite side of the corridor, shots from the staff still raining down at him.

In that same moment, Adrian swung out from behind the corner, shotgun at the ready and–

* Boom! *

The bluefur's head exploded in a pulpy red mess while the rest of his corpse tripped up and skidded to a stop at the avian's feet, or at least it would have, if the Cerinian was actually where he was supposed to be...

There was a momentary lull in this realization, at which point Adrian found his shotgun had been knocked free from his grasp, and his feet had been knocked out from under him, leaving him sprawled face-down on the hard metal floor. He turned his head, and only just saw the Cerinian turn another corner into Cerberus at his sprinting pace...

The avian pulled himself onto his feet, and found James and Pigma standing in awed shock, not doing anything.

"Go on!" Adrian shouted at them, waiving an arm toward the hangar bay, "Get out of here!"

"I'm staying–" the terrier protested as he staggered uo, and found one of his legs uncooperative from the blow it'd taken. "We can take this bastard!"

"We're not gonna sit and debate about this, Scott." Malcom growled, "We stick to the plan–"

"Tae Hell with the bloody plan!" Scott roared, limping toward his compatriots. "I'm gonna gut that filthy wanker–" he stopped short, almost tripping over when the pain in his leg spiked.

"Plan or not, you know what he will do with those people as long as they are still aboard." Chakori reminded him, her voice sharp and icy, "You have to get them away."

Scott stood there and simmered a moment, and at one instant seemed like he'd erupt with argument once again, but he didn't, not this time. The terrier clamped the lid down, and contained the furious fires in his mind.

"Fine." he uttered in a gravely voice, and shoved his sword back into its harness.

With nothing else, Scott turned and headed back toward the hangar bay, gesturing for James and Pigma to follow, and they did.

"Look," James began as they walked, "if you feel that strongly about it–"

"Even if I did feel that strongly about it, damned bluefur put me leg out of business for a while." the terrier spat bitterly, "I won't be any good in a fight, and they'll need us out there if there is an ambush waiting."

"And if there isn't?" Pigma asked.

Scott didn't answer him, not unless a disgusted grunt counted. He just made his way to his fearsome attack fighter and prepared for takeoff. James simply went through the motions laid out for the mission, such as it was, and likewise prepared his Tatpara-27 fighter for flight. Pigma boarded and took control of Cerberus's heavily armed shuttle.

Scott opened a general comm channel between the shuttles as he started taking off, and others soon followed-suit.

"All units, set your jump location to Farbound station, and make the jump as soon as you're able. Stay alert out there."

"Look, dude, I'm well..." someone from one of the shuttles responded to Scott, sheepish and awkward, "Sorry if I ever, you know, maybe said that our pilot guy was a bluefur or–"

"Quiet on the comm." the terrier cut him off, paying him little heed.

The shuttles and their escort soon found themselves outside, in the silent blackness of space. Here at least the light from Lylat's home double-star could actually be seen; a bright light at the end of an infinite tunnel, but still far off. There was suspiciously little in the way of activity, no ambush waiting for them like they feared. The whole thing started to look like an incredible waste of resources, leaving capable personnel out where they weren't needed while–

"Wait, I'm getting something..." Pigma announced over the channel.

Sure enough, several active blips began appearing on the instruments. At first, the computer couldn't resolve the difference between the floating debris and active spacecraft, but it made the adjustments soon enough. The dark painted craft were then marked with brackets on Jame's HUD, which identified a variety of fightercraft models. The more distressing fact of these new contacts however was–

"They're going for the ship!" James realized.

Instead of engaging the escaping shuttles, the shadowy fighters began swarming toward Cerberus, which was still a sitting duck.

"The Hell they are!" Scott roared over the comm.

The large Havoc attack fighter broke off from the formation, thundering toward the silent swarm with guns blazing. A few of the dark craft were shredded almost instantly by the heavy firepower, but the swarm quickly scattered after this, and a chaotic dogfight ensued.

James broke formation also, circling toward the swirling mayhem to support his wingman. A mangled wreck would occasionally drift out from the mess, but nothing that looked like Scott's Havoc. The terrier and his heavy fighter were still in one piece, shooting up the place. All the same, the fox made sure to target and pick off any of the fighters that had a shot at Scott, using the distraction to the greatest advantage he could muster from it.

Without any other warning, the cruiser Cerberus suddenly flared back to life, firing its massive, oversized thruster array and sending the vessel soaring away. In another few moments, the ship winked completely out of existence: Cerberus had made a jump, but to where exactly was a mystery...

The hostile fighters that were still intact decided that sticking around wasn't such a great idea anymore, and used the momentary distraction to break off and make jumps of their own away from the pair of ace pilots.

"What the bloody hell was that for?" Scott asked, to nobody in particular.

"We're supposed to be headed to Farboud." Pigma reminded him, "I bet that's where they went... They're gonna be fine." the final phrase carried a subtle hint of doubt, one that everyone was feeling to some extent.

"Right..." The terrier grumbled through the comm. "Let's get moving then."

With nothing at all left for them here, the shuttles and two fighters jumped away from the debris field toward their destination of Farbound station.

7 Grim Gambit.pdf

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chaos_Leader

The McNerney auditorium of the Corneria City University was packed to capacity people, of all kinds that were to be found in an academic setting. There were plenty of young scruffy student types in their jeans and street clothes, as well as several carefully prepared clean-cut professional types in their suits, and even quite a few older folks who couldn't be bothered to meticulously pamper themselves, and settled for subdued simple and tasteful in their attire. The eclectic collection of people here filled the space with a quiet, yet excited murmur as they waited...

The auditorium itself had a fairly rudimentary design, with hundreds of chairs in a rough arena arrangement, sloping upward from the stage. The space came equipped with a projector screen and corresponding projector in the rear, as well as several inconspicuous speakers for amplification. The most striking feature however was the roof: the entire ceiling of the McNerney auditorium was transparent, allowing natural sunlight from the bright clear day outside to wash into the space, until it changed.

The gigantic window-roof was made of 'smart glass', which could alter its transparency on command. When the window roof-started do fade dark, shutting out the sunlight and dimming the space, the attendees in the McNerney auditorium responded with wash of silent anticipation. Then a set of lights faded up at the front of the auditorium, and the projector screen lit up, showing a simple logo: a circle with a couple flowing swooshes laid over it.

A single figure then stepped onto the stage: vulpine, with fiery red-orange fur, and keen confident eyes. He dressed simply, wearing a pair of slacks and rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt. He looked like he could be mid-aged, but carried himself across the stage with a youthful, almost defiant vigor in spite of it.

When the fox came to a stop at center-stage, the image on the screen behind him was joined by a simple set of words in bold print: Own Phoenix, and Space Dynamics.

"Business is simple..." Owen Phoenix said, with his higher, younger sounding voice boosted through the amplifiers, "People want things, and other people provide them, but it's never that simple, is it?"

He didn't stand still while he spoke, but moved back and forth across the empty stage, filling it up with his presence. The fox often looked out into the quiet entranced audience, engaging with them, as if he were having a simple one-to-one discussion, but with an entire auditorium full of people.

"Often there's many people providing basically the same product, and they want you to buy their product X instead of the other's product Y. How do you entice the needy customer to go for one versus the other? How do you sell your product, and not lose out to your competitors?"

Owen let that hang in the air for a second, then offered up a shrug and a sigh as he moved on.

"Well I'm sorry to say that's a heavily loaded question, and different people will have different answers. None of them are necessarily 'wrong'; you will find plenty of billionaires who put out the lowest quality products in their market, using the most deceptive underhanded tactics at their disposal, and they will tell you that, as long as they're making money, they're doing it right. Likewise, you will also find scores of groundbreaking enterprising people with outstanding products to match their ambitions, and yet they fall flat, and their product never makes it to the customers' hands. They can be considered 'wrong' despite a clearly superior product.

"Here's an example: lets say a company provides body armor for a major army. They've provided that body armor for years, they even have a contract so the army will always buy their body armor, and it has worked well enough for a time. The troops are protected, the company makes healthy profit, and everyone is happy. Years later, firearms technology improves, the army's troops are dying left right and center from it, and the company is asked to develop armor to counter this threat. However, the company has grown complacent over the years; they've used their profits to buy influence, bribing the rule-writers to tweak the rules in order to protect their own well being and secure their place. They are mainly interested in providing product insofar as it serves their own ends, and not the ends of the customer. Sure, they'll give the needy army what they asked for, but they'll claim inflated and exorbitant fees to cover 'research and development'.

"Meanwhile, another company –a younger, fledgling company– claims to have already developed a body armor that counters the new threat. They've even had it rigorously tested to make sure it worked right, but there's something amiss. Another test of this new body armor outside this young company claims that it doesn't work, and the old company makes sure to point out this failed test when the needy army checks it out. Soon after, that young and fresh company fails, smothered by a barrage of attacks on their product seemingly from everywhere, and that newfangled body armor was never worn or used by a single soldier anywhere, ever."

Owen Phoenix's tone had become grim, and foreboding.

"This is the status quo of the business world, in any given market. Those who are already at the top are naturally content to stay there, consolidating their power and influence, and shouting down any who dare challenge them. Yet as the actual product or service they're supposed to provide becomes obsolete, the company begins to fester, and stagnate, but they remain at the top in spite of it. This is because they have fortified themselves in the mightiest castles their vast wealth can buy, which allows them to withstand even the most stubborn sieges set against them.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat it for you, the deck has already been meticulously stacked against each and every one of you from the start. The world of business dirty, mean, cut-throat, and full of remorseless cloak-and-dagger debauchery. It is not a challenge to be met by the faint-of-heart, and if you have any second thoughts about getting into business at this point, then you should save yourself the trouble and back out now while your good name is still intact."

Owen Phoenix stood there at center-stage, arms at his hips, sharp eyes scanning through the dimmed mass within the McNerney auditorium, daring someone to say or do something. With his unspoken challenge unanswered, the fox continued on, building now on a tone of determination.

"Alright. So you're still with me then? You're wondering perhaps, 'How could someone possibly dive into this harsh, merciless Hell and emerge on top?' The answer is is quite simple, yet surprisingly tricky to understand. It is the very same thing that has brought on all the greatest changes in civilized history: the answer is Innovation.

"It was Innovation that transformed the novelty of black powder into mighty bombard cannons, which crumbled the castles of ancient feudal kings. It was Innovation that finally saw combustible fossil fuels supplanted by fusion power as the dominant means of energy production. And it was Innovation that catapulted the fledgling Space Dynamics company ahead of the pack in aerospace industry, and set the standard followed by other technology companies today.

"I know what you're thinking: 'Well duh, Owen! That's such a dumb and cliché answer!' Well, lets go back to the example of the young company's body armor again. Now, instead of doing what so many other companies before them have done –which is restricted mainly to controlled laboratory testing of their armor– the young company does something odd, outside the box, and controversial according to many. They take their new armor, and give it freely to people best prepared to test it in actual field conditions: independent mercenaries.

"Mercenaries are not bound by the stifling several-billion-credit supplier contracts as armies are, and because of their highly independent and adventurous nature, mercs are often more than willing to take a new piece of equipment or gear and put it through its paces as they do their contracts. Plus, if they don't have to cough up the credits to get their hands on it, all the better for them.

"This is field testing in the truest form there is. If a company is so truly confident in their product that they will bet their reputation and the lives of others on how their product performs in the real world, let them, because the end results truly are worth the risk. There are no dirty underhanded deal-sweetening favors to swing the market, and the final verdict cannot be spun or twisted by outside interpretations. What you see is what you get, and it does exactly what it does: no fine print, no sleazy smear tactics, no nothing.

"This is the key policy of Space Dynamics's R&D and marketing departments, which has shot this company so far ahead so quickly. With our products already out there in capable hands, anyone in the market for a large-scale supplier need only look to the small-scale successes. When they see that our products work with outstanding results, there is little hesitation or anxiety on the buyer's part, because they know they're getting a product that works with proven and honest results.

"As you can imagine, this method drives the stubborn old fat-cats in the industry crazy to no end." this drew a couple of subdued laughs and light chuckles from the auditorium. Owen Phoenix just stood there, and smiled. "It's just like I said: business is simple..."

Someone else entered onstage, heading straight for Owen, disregarding the audience. It was Wallace Hargreave, one of Phoenix's oldest and most trusted assistants, and he held a tablet clenched in one fist as he approached. The aging weasel had a look of confused and uneasy fear about him, but also of solemn purpose.

When he reached Owen, he simply showed him the tablet's screen, which contained a single line of text:

[i have traveled the river into oblivion, and lay anchored in the shadows of the foulest world.]

When the fox saw this, he froze in a moment of hesitation, but only for a moment. Another instant later saw Owen Phoenix silently storming off the stage, much to the confusion of those gathered in the McNerney auditorium.

/

虚無ã«è¡Œã£ã¦

Into Oblivion

/

Farbound Station was the last port of call for vessels making the Sauria/Cerinia run from Lylat. It was still technically in the Lylatin orbital system, but so far flung from the host star that a complete orbit would take several hundred years. This was just about the maximum reasonable range for vessels bound to stay within the Lylat system, but even then, a trip to Farbound from Corneria could last a day or two for the fastest available craft, and up to a week for slower hauling barges. Making the great interstellar jumps, and within acceptable travel times, required careful and meticulous drive calibration, great expenditures of energy and lengthy prep-time: luxuries that most in-system jumps neither needed nor required. This was Farbound's main purpose.

It served mainly as a supply depot, providing fuel, food, water, parts and other consumables to the ships bound for the stars, making it fairly sparse station for its size. As such, the station was dominated first and foremost by gargantuan warehouses and expansive storage facilities to accommodate all these necessities. In a secondary capacity, Farbound also served as much-needed layover point for the crews of these vessels, providing places to rest, relax, and at least a semblance of comfort. It was no resort, not in the slightest, but the station came about as amenity endowed as a run-of-the-mill spaceport terminal. This mainly included lodgings, a meager collection of shops, and a small smattering of eateries.

One of these was a café, probably modeled after Zonessian urban cafés. The tables and chairs were arrayed 'outside', in a small area of the station's wide open and spacious central rotunda, where most of the shops and other amenities were housed. The area wasn't especially populated, some of the refugees from the earlier fiasco were still around though, gradually coming to their senses. James McCloud and Vixy Reinard were at one of these tables, sharing a small meal between them. The Cooneys were there also, sitting quietly, sharing a table with young Pigma, while Scott paced restlessly between the two tables.

"They should've been here by now." the terrier muttered, to himself as much as everyone else, "We've been sittin' here, on our arses, in this dump, for the better part of half a week, and we haven't had so much as a peep from'em! What's takin' them so bloody long out there?"

Scott had been saying such things ever since they arrived at Farbound, and that was about four days ago. Nobody bothered to reply to him; everyone had come to accept that Scott ran his mouth because he was nervous, concerned for his teammates. In honesty, he was articulating what was silently on everyone's minds: it had been too long, and too quiet. While the others grew quieter and more grim in their worry, Scott became more talkative, more restless.

"They'll be here." Rick reminded Scott once again, "They've always pulled through, and they will again."

Rick had lost count of how many times he'd said that phrase, or variations thereof. He barely believed it himself anymore, and just said the words out of reflex.

Time was a strange thing aboard Farbound station: all other ships heading into the station kept track of their time by their own clocks, making whatever time Farbound ran on essentially moot. There was no 'day' or 'night'; it all just blended together into a perpetual now, and in this case, a perpetual sense of anxious anticipation. They may have been out of danger, but there was little comfort to be found.

James ad Vixy were similarly uneasy. In all the time they'd been seeing each other aboard Farbound, they hadn't talked much, or grown any more intimate. It wasn't that they weren't attracted to one-another, they were, but it was that dark and ominous cloud of concern, looming over every interaction that stunted any kind of relationship development between them. As awkward as it was, they in their stubbornness still sought comfort from each other nonetheless, even if it was nothing more than sitting at a café, sharing a simple meal, and listening to Scott babble incessantly.

This time was a little different though.

"The Tribune crew is heading back to Corneria." Vixy said without much warning, "We ship out of here in an hour."

James didn't react, not right away at least. Another moment later saw him look up, and offer her a quick nod.

"So you're leaving then." James figured.

"Yeah, I have to." she responded, but with a subtle hint of disappointment, "The studio is going to want a full report on all this, and then–"

"I understand." James added before she could trail off, reaching out to one of her hands, "It's your duty."

"Yeah, well, it's been..." she stood up from their table, unsure of what exactly to say, "I guess I can't really 'nice', since, you know..."

"We're gonna see each other again, right?" He asked, bypassing the awkwardness, "I'm based right out of Corneria City."

"Sure, we'll keep in touch." Vixy said, and added smiling, "Might even have a proper date someday."

"That'd sure be something different, wouldn't it?" James snarked as he stood up at her level.

The two of them shared a chuckle between them. It wasn't much, but amidst the stagnant tension of indefinite waiting, it was enough.

"There's something... between us." James managed, still tripping over this unfamiliar awkwardness, "I don't know what it is, but I feel... better when you're here and, I really don't want to lose what I've found with–"

Vixy came close and placed her hands on his shoulders, cutting him short, and showed him possibly the sweetest smile he'd seen in weeks, months, maybe longer.

"Don't worry, you won't." she assured him.

Vixy then leaned forward, even closer than she already was, and placed a kiss on his cheek, letting it sink in for a second before she finally released it and backed away. There weren't any words here, none were needed. James was content to stand there dumbfounded in the wash of his own feelings, and Vixy was satisfied to have left him with such a strong yet wordless statement. And with nothing else, she turned and went her separate way out of the rotunda, while James watched, still caught in the capsule of momentary bliss...

"Yo! Jimmy!" a familiar voice called out.

That was Peppy hare, but he shouldn't have been here, he had no business on Farbound, not as far as was known anyway. But there he was nonetheless, jogging his way across the station's main rotunda toward James, passing Vixy on his way over. She gave the hare a curious look as he passed, but couldn't linger, and soon continued on her way.

"Peppy!" James exclaimed, knocked from his stupor, "What the hell are you doing all the way out here?"

"Why don't you tell me who your lady friend there is?" Peppy suggested, gesturing back the way she left, "You gonna be seeing more of her or what?"

James and Peppy became busy reacquainting themselves, Scott and Pigma didn't seem to give the two old friends much heed, and Vixy was already gone, but Rick and Rachelle smelled something amiss almost immediately.

It wasn't apparent, not to those who weren't looking for it, but the two raccoons became far more aware of their surroundings, scrutinizing every detail for abnormalities. There wasn't much to scour in Farbound's rotunda: the odd spacer here and there, a few of the station's employees. Then Rick spotted it.

"See those suits headed this way?" he said to Rachelle, "At your four and your ten?"

She checked those positions, and found two hulking figures in matching black suits, a pair of dark lensed glasses, and minuscule earpiece comms. "Bodyguards." Rachelle discerned.

Rick wasted not another moment, bolting up from his table and went straight for where Peppy and James were, while they still engaged in friendly greeting.

"Peppy, who did you come here with?"

Rachelle want after him though, tried to get his attention, "Rick, wait–"

"He's with me..." a blunt voice replied.

The speaker was none other than Owen Phoenix, bearing an expression of such disgust, such pent-up an focused frustration, all of which he directed squarely at the Rick and Rachelle Cooney.

"What the hell have you done to my crew?" he demanded in bitter, accusing tone.

Everyone gathered was too speechless at the sudden arrival of Owen Phoenix to make an immediate reply. The fox simply stood there, glaring down the two somewhat surprised raccoons, until Rick got a grip and offered a reply.

"Honestly, Owen, I wish I knew."

"Don't give me your spooky spy bullshit, alright?" Phoenix spat back.

"We haven't heard from them in four days, not since we got here. We have no idea where they are or what's happened to them." Rachelle defended, standing up to the angered fox, "We're just as in-the-dark as you are about them, so get off our case."

"Look, I know where they are..." Owen Phoenix set out a sigh and scratched his head, wincing, uncomfortable, "If you'd like to know too, then you'd best tell me exactly what it was they were doing that got them there. It's a simple trade: you tell me what I want, and I'll tell you what you want. "

"Where did you learn this?" Rachelle asked, surprised at the revelation.

"If you know where Cerberus is, then why haven't you gone after them yourself?"

"Because beyond getting a special contract from you two stooges, I don't have foggiest clue clue what they've gotten themselves into, and I'd have no idea what to expect." Owen answered, only growing more irritated as the conversation tangled up, "So I ask again: what sort of insanity did you send them on?"

"We were up against Harrow..." Scott said as he stepped forward, glaring Phoenix square in his eye.

"Scott?" the fox blurted out, not expecting him to be here, "What are you– I thought–"

"Now ye're gonna tell us what ye know, or so help me, I will punt your skinny wee executive arse out the nearest airlock, and all the way back tae Corneria! Out with it!"

The terrier had come right up against Owen, eyes aflame, like he'd actually make good on his threat if it came to that. The bodyguards who'd been keeping their distance seemed to reach that same conclusion, and closed in on the suddenly silent group. The commotion had also caught the attention of some of the bystanders within the rotunda, and their curious eyes were felt by all...

The two brutish bodyguards –a pair of larger felines as it turned out– positioned themselves behind Scott, ready to take action, but Owen waved them off. Before he did anything else, the stressed fox took a few deep breaths to steady himself, and finally turned back to the Cooneys.

"Is there... someplace private we can talk about this?"

"We've rented out one of the station's layover suites..." Rick answered, and began heading away, "This way."

The group made their way out of the central rotunda and into the station's corridors, following the Cooneys' lead. Rick and Rachelle spoke to each other in hushed whispers, occasionally glancing back to the small entourage following them, but didn't share their discussion with them. Scott and Pigma were closest behind, the terrier may have gone silent, but also became more restless and agitated, like a bomb on a hair-trigger fuse, which the young swine elected not to try and tamper with, lest it explode. Peppy was there also, not exactly sure what he should be doing, and just followed alongside Scott and Pigma. This left James McCloud and Owen Phoenix trailing in the rear, with only the two ever-alert bodyguards behind them. James didn't have the words for this interaction: as far as he knew 'Owen Phoenix' was a name at the top of Space Dynamics, and a face sometimes seen on the odd magazine cover, not someone to talk to. The older fox had no such qualms, and started conversation almost instantly.

"You must be the McCloud kid." he said, giving James a quick glance as they walked, "I know about you."

"Yeah?"

"You're fired."

"Excuse me?" James spurted, baffled by Owen's blunt statement.

"You're the sole surviving member of your squad, the rest of whom have been killed in what'll be Caius Company's biggest failure in recent history: the loss of the Amity." the older fox explained, "They're gonna hang that failure around your neck and give you the boot."

"We did our duty, and everyone made it of the Amity alright." McCloud still confused, "They can't fire me for that."

"Yes– Great– Fantastic– That's all well and good but, what of the ship? Its cargo? The management in these companies could care less about what actually happened out there. All they're going to be worried about right now is covering their sorry asses and minimizing their losses. If that means blaming you for something that didn't happen, and then chucking you off the wagon as a sacrificial lamb, so be it..."

Owen Phoenix spoke like he were explaining painfully obvious concepts to a child, which, for all of Jame's lack of business sense, might be valid comparison.

"Trust me, you're fired."

"I could quit, you know." James suggested, after some consideration.

"No... that'd look suspicious and they'll hound you for it..."

Owen glanced over to McCloud, and saw a clueless gape from the younger fox that said 'I still don't get it'.

"Just– let them fire you, walk away from this mess as clean as you can while your bosses scramble to scrape it off their chests. When it's all blown over and settled down, I may have a few job opportunities for you. Goodness knows you're gonna need'em."

Owen felt around for where he kept his business cards, and offered one to James, which he accepted without much thought given to it.

"I'll keep that in mind."

The group soon found themselves inside one of the larger apartments on Farbound. Like the rest of the station, it was built mainly for utilitarian purposes, offering comforts and amenities only just beyond what would normally be stuffed aboard a long-haul vessel. The most welcome of these comforts being space, allowing all ten of the group inside the apartment's main living space without feeling too cramped, even if Phoenix's bodyguards only had room to stand near the entryway.

Owen Phoenix stepped out from the group –above them, almost– and assumed his habitually trained position of 'chairman'.

"Cerberus sent a subspace transmission directly to Château de l'étoiles, and only to Château de l'étoiles as far as we know. In any case, the message was encoded using an encryption key we had at our disposal. It reads: 'I have traveled the river into oblivion, and lay anchored in the shadows of the foulest world.'..."

The fox let that hang for a few moments, scanning the gathered occupants for their reactions.

"Does that phrase mean anything to anyone here?"

"You said you knew where they were..." Rick observed.

That drew a whole host of suspicious eyes from everyone else in the room, scrutinizing Owen...

"Yeah. I bluffed. I don't have a goddamn clue where they are." Owen confessed, "But how the hell else was I supposed to get your attention–" he stopped himself short, before he got himself worked up again, "I was hoping someone in this room might know something."

"I know what it means." Scott piped up almost immediately, still with some of that grim pent-up restlessness, "It's meant to inform us that Cerberus has undergone the Lethe procedure."

"And what exactly is the Lethe procedure?" Owen asked.

"It's a ship-wide lockdown that disables all the ship's systems; computer mainframe, propulsion, avionics, primary power; the whole bloody lot of it, save for minimum emergency life-support." Scott explained, "The only way it can be reversed without damaging the systems is with the proper encryption key."

"Which we got." Pigma added.

Owen nodded, understanding, but at the same time not understanding.

"Okay, so why the hell are you guys sending these cryptic messages to me of all people?" he asked.

"You're here, aren't you?" Rick snarked.

"Hurr hurr, very funny." Owen -ed, rolling his eyes.

"Well, it makes sense if think about it." Rachelle extrapolated, "The crew didn't really have a way to contact us here on the station, not without going through Farbound's transceiver traffic and risking someone eavesdropping."

"We know that little fortified floating penthouse of yours is secure, and we know how tenacious you are." Scott finished.

"Fine– Whatever–" Owen waved the issue away, and moved on to something else, "Do we know where we're going then?"

"Venom, of course." Pigma answered quickly.

"Venom?"

"The message is a sort of riddle, you see..." the young swine explained, "The 'river into oblivion' refers to the river Lethe, which runs through the netherworld of some ancient myth. Anyone who swims in that river is supposed to lose all memory, to forget everything they've ever known, a state of oblivion–"

"Right, I get it, the total lockout." Owen conjectured, "And the 'shadows of the foulest word'? I guess Venom fits into that, nasty place, but how will you know exactly where to find Cerberus? Is there a certain place on the planet or something you're using as a kind of base? A safehouse?"

"Nah, we're not that crazy prepared." Pigma said, shaking his head, "The 'shadow' in the message is literally the shadow cast by the planet Venom, in its second Lagrange point. It's a point where gravity can lock a satellite, like lifeless Cerberus for instance, into a fixed position relative to Venom and the Sun which incidentally keeps it in constant darkness. The ship's not going anywhere anytime soon, and finding it will be easy enough."

Owen Phoenix paced around the room for a few moments as he cycled through his thoughts. He came to a stop somewhere near the center, and turned to face the Cooney twins, "Richard, Rachelle, and gathered company, I think you all might have a certain operation to discuss..." he then headed to the apartment's exit, while everyone else was left more-or-less speechless, "You're welcome, by the way."

With that he gestured for his bodyguards to follow, and exited the apartment of Farbound station.

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mjakob42

Alright, chaos, sorry about the long wait on the review, but here I am with it!

It's still going great! In fact, I'd go so far to say that this might be better than Vol. 1. This being a sequel, you reintroduced the characters very well - you kept their introductions brief and simple, but enough for the reader to remember who they are. The chapters are much better in their consistency; in Vol. 1, your chapters were either pretty short or really long, but in Vol. 2, it's nice to see them all nice and consistent. The action scenes I thought were written much better second time 'round. I'm not saying the ones in Vol. 1 were bad, but I can see more improvement in the more you write.

Something I really admire that I didn't talk about in Vol. 1 is how you write Scott's dialogue. Being of Scottish descent, I get picky about stuff like accent and slang, but I've gotta' hand it to you; you handled his accent and slang extremely well. Thank you for not embarrassing me or my people by having a wide knowledge of foreign slang and such!

My only comment about Vol. 2 in specific is the start of James and Vixy's relationship. Your interpretation as of how they first met is really interesting, but where it's going from here is pretty sketchy. I'm really afraid that Vixy is going to date James out of pity, which would make this story sound really emo and annoying(for lack of better terms). I'm not saying "go back and change how they met", but please proceed with caution when progressing their relationship throughout the story.

Other than all that, I don't really have much else to say; you still maintain a great writer, your word choice is great, and you still use lots of elipses (it's hard for me to avoid using lots of elipses, too). I heartily look forward to Vol. 3!

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chaos_Leader

That's good to know. I was afraid maybe my technique might've decayed and degenerated in the long absence of critical feedback. Your response here let me know that this is not the case, so thanks a bunch for that. I'll be sure to continue the good work moving forward.

The process of crafting Scott was, and still is, a ton of fun. I stuied the Scottish vernacular dictionary, listened to a wide variety of Scotsmen speak, and all around made sure I knew my stuff. Believe it or not, I used the actor David Tennant, speaking in his native Scotish dialect, as my reference when envisioning Scott's dialog in my head (he's got a great angry voice that fits Scott perfectly). It's good to have an actual Scotsman's seal of approval on him ^_^.

My only comment about Vol. 2 in specific is the start of James and Vixy's relationship. Your interpretation as of how they first met is really interesting, but where it's going from here is pretty sketchy. I'm really afraid that Vixy is going to date James out of pity, which would make this story sound really emo and annoying(for lack of better terms). I'm not saying "go back and change how they met", but please proceed with caution when progressing their relationship throughout the story.

If that's your biggest point of caution, then I'd say that's a huge step up from what it was in the old version. Believe me, I have every intention to make their relationship work, and be interesting to boot. It's not going to be an emo pity party, not in the least, of that I can guarantee.

And Vol. II isn't quite done yet, there's still a ways to go. In general, the "Volumes" is mainly a way to sort big chunks of the story that are in the same chronological order. So when I get to Vol. 3, it's going to be another major jump forward in the time scale, which isn't going to happen yet for a while.

Catch you later!

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mjakob42

Glad to hear my feedback is helping out!

Really quickly, if you want more on Scottish slang, check out Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, which actually has a glossary in the back with all the slang definitions. Also, Trainspotting is my all-time favorite book, so there's another reason you should check it!

And speaking of Trainspotting...

Begbie's (the black-haired moustache guy) voice played through my head when I read Scott's dialogue, so here's a little sample of how I interpreted Scott's voice:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WL_3tJ-QAM&feature=related

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chaos_Leader

That guy's got a great voice and accent. Trouble is, he's a little tough for anyone to understand that isn't familiar with Scottish dialects. Tennant here is at least articulate enough to be understood outside his highland homeland:

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Salem

I can't wait until Vol.III is finished this is flat out amazing. :D

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chaos_Leader

Vol. II isn't done yet. Still got quite a ways to go, actually.

I use the system of Volumes mainly as a means to keep major parts sub-arcs of the greater story organized. Each volume of Legacy is meant to take place in certain reasonable length of time.

Thanks again for your support. It means a lot. ^_^

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Salem

ah I see oops :lol:

and you're welcome keep up the great work :)

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chaos_Leader

The agents of Central Intelligence were always peculiar clients.

They paid well, and the most they ask in return, other than the services for which they paid, is discretion. It's very dull most times, when they just need you for redundancy purposes, but on those rare occasions when it wasn't, it was always fascinating, and often frightening as well.

This was one of those times, and Captain Otto Jäeger wasn't entirely sure what to make of it.

The agent, Cooney, had the privateer vessel Schwarzwind layover at Farbound station for some time, prepared to depart at a moment's notice. He wouldn't say what for, just that “If we need you, we'll let you know.†As it came to pass, he let Otto know, and the agent had a curious collection of tag-alongs with him. They were anxious, restless, some may even say 'shellshocked', but not Otto. The odd group was dominated by a relentless driving intent, and a suppressed sense of dread they tried so very hard not to acknowledge. Perhaps they wouldn't say outright what their purposes were, but it doesn't take a genius to conjecture a plausible scenario.

There'd been talk of the escalation of pirate raids, with the Sojourn gone missing, and now the Amity –the surviving refugees were nothing if not vocal. Something out there went wrong with a mission, horribly wrong; that much was evident in these ragtag men. And so the agent called upon privateer Captian Otto Jäeger and Schwarzwind to help set it right, or at least pick up the broken pieces.

Whatever the case, the agent and his restless cohorts gave Jäeger a set of coordinates to take them to: Venom. Specifically, it was an area of gravitationally stability a short ways beyond the orbit of Venom, its outer Lagrange point. When asked what he expected to find there, Cooney simply answered, “I don't know, but be prepared for the worst.â€

So prepared for the worst he did.

Schwarzwind exited the warp jump at complete combat readiness; shields up, weapons primed, crew at battle-stations, Captain on the bridge.

“Situation?†Jäeger prompted to one of his bridge crew. The Captain was a slick-furred otter, dressed in a maritime-style overcoat.

The view outside Schwarzwind's bridge viewport offered little. Venom's outer Lagrange point landed itself at the exact point where the planet eclipsed the sun. There was no sunlight, no other light at all besides the fickle glimmer of distant stars, and the eerie white glow creeping around the darkened planet Venom, courtesy of the location's eternal eclipse.

He didn't like it.

“There's nothing here.†the crewman at the sensory station informed, “I'm not picking up any signal transmissions, heat emissions or...†he stopped, and puzzled over his instruments.

“What is it?†Jäeger questioned.

“Something metallic, with a scan profile of a small to medium sized ship.†the crewman answered, “It's cold, but seems intact enough –no debris or signs of gaseous discharges.â€

It stank of trouble, and it was the sort he'd come to expect from Intelligence. No doubt that's what Cooney was after out here.

“Bring us closer, and see if we can get some light on the damned thing.â€

“Of course–â€

“Keep on alert though.†Jäeger reminded, “I've seen this tactic used before as an ambush.â€

As per the Captain's orders, Schwarzwind made the approach on the drifting object, still at full battle-readiness. Aside from the thrum of thrusters, there was little change outside, nothing visual to suggest a sense of movement. Even when the ship's searchlights were activated, there was no change. With nothing for the light to strike and bounce off, it makes shining even the most brilliant light into the darkness seem hopelessly futile.

Then it happened.

A gray shape emerged in the distance, advancing upon the Schwarzwind while it remained completely still. Captain Jäeger squinted at the expanding shape, then his eyes shot wide open when he realized–

“Gods alive...†he exclaimed on a ghostly breath, “I know that ship.â€

It was the mercenary vessel Cerberus.

/

---------------------

æ怖ã€ä¸ç¢ºå®Ÿæ€§ã€ç–‘

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

---------------------

/

The Cooneys, Scott Aberdeen, Pigma Dengar, James McCloud and Peppy Hare had gathered outside the Schwarzwind's primary airlock, along with Captian Otto Jäeger and a few crewmen. Some of them were openly armed; James, Scott and Peppy most obviously. Pigma and Rachele toted some bulkier equipment with them, including a portable power supply, interface override, and other assorted mechanical and electrical tools. Rick however carried only a cold, stoic demeanor –thinking, calculating, considering, and silently worrying.

Captian Jäeger was off to the side, talking quietly with some of his crew, a few of which were at the airlock terminal. A few moments later, after a brief exchange with the crew, the Captain turned away to the gathered party, “The docking umbilical is secured and pressurized, you may proceed aboard Cerberus.†Jäeger told them, “I can send more in with you if–â€

“That won't be necessary,†Rick interrupted, then saw a small group of Jäeger's crew, armed and prepped for combat, looking a little disappointed now. “But, have them guard this entrance – nobody comes through here that isn't us without our say-so. Keep your medic on standby too, we may need their help.â€

“Certainly.â€

The Captain gestured his eager crewmen toward the airlock entrance, where they took up positions. Once they were there, Jäeger gave a curt nod to the one at the terminal, and the airlock's heavy door split open with a hiss of pneumatic pistons and a metallic grunt of sliding metal. He turned once more to the restless party, and beckoned them into the airlock.

When all six had entered the decompression chamber, the door closed behind them with a solid clank as the locking mechanisms sealed the airlock.

“Give my regards to Captain Aries when you find him.†Jäeger's voice called out over the speakers inside the chamber, “Viel Glück.â€

The airlock's outer door parted open, into the long snaking docking umbilical stretched out between the Schwarzwind and Cerberus, and the party proceeded forward. The passage was narrow, only wide enough for two people to stand side-by-side, and it wasn't a straight shot. It snaked gently up, making a slight turn between its two ends, yet at no point did it feel like they were walking uphill or down. Grav-pads in the floor kept their feet on the ground, but they were inconsistent; at some points it felt light, and others pulled down hard. The fact that the only thing separating the tube from the vacuum of space was a couple airtight layers of laminated fabric didn't help the uneasiness. Yet as unsettling as the crossing was, the docking umbilical was the only practical way to board Cerberus while it remained dormant, with its hangar bay sealed.

The party soon reached Cerberus's main airlock on the other end. Pigma and Rachelle were up front with the equipment needed to activate the airlock's manual override. With no power from inside the ship to work the heavy outer door's mechanisms, the only way to get it open was with an external power source.

In a few minutes' time, Cerberus's outer airlock door grumbled open into its decompression chamber – very similar to the one they exited from on the other end.

Nobody had spoken the entire time. They knew what needed to be done, knew the risks, and need not bother voicing concerns or asking questions. Anything that could've been asked would already have an answer, and anything that didn't would find its answer aboard Cerberus. But now the verbal silence was broken when Scott activated his headset, and uttered a anxious phrase into the microphone.

“This be Scott.â€

There was no response from the headset's speaker – nothing other than the faint hiss and crackle of background noise.

“Are you blokes there?â€

“No good, man.†Pigma said, looking up from his work at the inner airlock door, “The shipboard comm transceiver is gonna

be down. They can't hear a damn thing, and neither can we.â€

Scott shook his head, scolding himself for being stupid, “Aye, right, I knew that.â€

The outer door of the airlock's decompression chamber grumbled shut behind the party, sealing them inside for the moment

“Once we're inside, we go to the mainframe. That's where Adrian's gonna be with his part of the key, and we can bring the ship back online... Yeah.â€

Pigma tried to sound optimistic, but it came out forced.

That's why nobody wanted to speak, nobody wanted to listen. Despite harboring a quiet hope for the best, they fully expected the worst. Talking about it only made everyone feel uncomfortable, made those hopes seem even more futile, and the worst that much more daunting. The awkward silences were wordlessly decided to be the least of the evils, and so they kept to themselves all but what was needed.

After a few more moments of Pigma and Rachelle's tinkering, the airlock's inner door ground open, into Cerberus's corridors.

The first thing that jumped out was the darkness. Emergency lighting was limited only to faintly glowing strips, outlining the edges of the corridor. It was enough to navigate the ship by, but not enough to clearly illuminate anything inside.

The next thing noticed was the air, how everyone's breath emerged from their lips in a quickly fading cloud of condensation. It was cold, so very cold, a stale chill that threatened to smother the life out of anyone who breathed it. Whether this was due to sheer coldness, or subnormal oxygen levels, or some combination – it was probably both.

Rick was the first to step into the darkness, looking up and down the black corridor, and then turned back to the party.

“Jim, Scott, you two take point.†he directed, “Peppy, take the rear, make sure we're not followed.

/

---------------------------

/

Cold.

Wasn't always cold. Became cold, slowing down, cooling down. Now, not even cold anymore, just is.

How long? Easy enough to judge time, days and nights, measurable cycles, but not here, not in the veil, a shadow that never lifted. Barely even remember when it wasn't this, fading distant memory. It happened. Couldn't fight it. Can't fight it now – gone. Can't recall. Can't think. Nothing to think about. Tried. Failed.

One question then, just one.

Was it worth it?

. . .

Wait.

Somewhere here – far, but still here. A noise. A sound. At last.

The frozen icy silence – finally broken.

Someone's there. Someone made it. Someone came. But who?

Threat?

. . .

Yes. Threat.

Have to move, get up, can't stay here anymore.

Legs, arms, slow – tired. Eyes can't see – too dark.

Need weapon.

Get up.

Fight.

Survive.

/

--------------------------

/

It didn't make any sense.

Why the hell did they bolt out? Why did they shut the damn ship down? What could have possibly spooked them so bad that they'd activated the Lethe procedure? It was one bloody bloke, just one, even if he was Cerinian. And also, who was this Peppy chump? And what was he doing with Phoenix?

These were the thoughts that occupied Scott's restless mind as he led the party through Cerberus's darkened corridors, with only flashlight beams to light their way. He knew the way to Cerberus's computer mainframe, and was the most experience fighter in the group, making him the one best prepared to lead them through, no matter what threat waited for them. Rick seemed to think otherwise though, and pinned James McCloud with him.

There was no way Cooney would have trusted Scott to lead the way all my himself, not while he's so 'distressed' by the current situation. Like hell he was distressed! He was bloody angry and ready to act! He didn't need some cocksure greenhorn to babysit him and watch his back. He could handle himself just fine thank you very much. For that matter, this greenhorn was the one who nearly got himself killed doing something stupid, and Scott was the one who saved his arse!

Someone placed a hand on the terrier's shoulder.

“Scott–â€

“What?!†he shot back.

It came out angry, angrier than he meant, and realized his face had pinched into a snarling grimace. That was James by the voice. He couldn't see anything but his faint silhouette in this blasted dark, but it was easy enough to imagine the concerned look on his smug fox mug he must've given Scott at that moment.

He shook his head, grumbling to himself as he tried to loosen up, and looked up again.

“Just, what is it?â€

“Look at this...â€

Jame's flashlight beam, attached to his assault rifle's rail mount, panned along and illuminated the walls in this area. Scott knew this corridor, the mainframe was just a little ways further along. The walls here were never in spectacular shape to begin with, but he did notice several new dents, blaster scorch marks, and some broken fixtures. Given closer inspection, there even appeared to be a few fine drips of red here and there.

There's been fighting here.

Somebody behind Scott sniffed the air, and asked, “Can you smell that?†It was Rick.

Truth was, it was damn near impossible to smell anything in the chilly stale air. However, now that Rick had mentioned it, there did seem to be a subtle hint of foulness, lingering, festering.

“No...â€

Scott had frozen in place. His handgun drooped down in one hand, and the flashlight trembled in his other, shining at something further down. He tarted moving forward, slowly, dragging each sluggish foot forward.

There was Malcolm Aries, slumped down with his back against the wall, eyes wide open and fuming with rage, but motionless. His throat had a ragged hole pierced through it, and from there a series rough dark streaks ran down his broad chest, all the way down to pool spread out on the metal floor panels: blood.

“Malcolm ye stupid, stubborn, daft old bastard!†Scott spat at the corpse's face, “What were ye doing?! What were ye thinking?! What forsaken madness drove ye out here?!â€

“Scott–â€

“And what have ye got tae show for it now, eh?†Scott demanded from the dead ram, “What have ye bloody got?!â€

“Scott!â€

“Piss off!â€

* Crack! *

He whipped around and smashed the flashlight across Rick's face, making him reel away from the sudden blow clutching his battered muzzle. Scott stood there, panting, his breath heaving in and out, but irregular, either from enraged sobs or shivering from the cold. He didn't seem to care one way or the other, so lost in his fit of raging grief.

“Stay with us, Scott.†Rachelle stepped forward, easing past her injured brother to confront Scott, “I know you're angry –we all are– but you have to keep you head, focus. There's nothing you can do for him anymore, and we–â€

* Blam! *

“Augh– God– Dammit!!â€

A blaster shot ripped out from the darkness and struck Pigma, who staggered off clutching his side.

“Everybody down!†James ordered, taking control as he snapped into action mode.

He shoved up against the nearest wall, taking as much cover as he could, and sent his flashlight beam down the corridor to try and get a glimpse to who fired. There was a person-like shape, with an arm stretched straight out toward James–

* Blam! *

He barely ducked away before the shot was fired.

“Peppy!†James called out across the call, where the hare's silhouette took up a similar combat stance, “Load up with an EM charge and give us some covering fire!â€

“You got it Jimmy!†he replied, and carried out the instructions.

“No, Scott! Wait!†Rachelle called out.

“Rraaaagh!!â€

Scott charged forward, faced contorted in a burning vengeful snarl, and he leapt spinning into the air. In another moment he flashed forward into darkness in a streak of pale blue, leaving the rest of the party behind.

* Blam! *

The hostile blaster shot didn't make it to the rest of the party, only a brief red glow down the corridor indicated where the shot landed. The ringing blaster shot was followed almost instantly by a solid thunk, the clatter of a weapon falling against the floor, and a flop of a body falling limp to the ground. There were more thumps after that, weaker ones, but one after another, again and again, each strike ringing and echoing through the cold metal corridors.

James and Peppy advanced forward toward the scene ahead, weary, and not sure what they'd see. In a few moments they found Scott hunched over the fallen figure, hammering his clenched fist into the other, again and again. There seemed to be a slick liquid glazed over Scott's knuckles, hard to see on his black fur, blood maybe? Then a limp arm fell to one side and into Jame's view: one with ghostly white fur, and spattered with dark red flecks.

James knew who this was; he didn't need to see his face, but he looked over Scott's shoulder anyway. The nameless wolf's face was a bloody, battered mess. Streaks of blood ran out his nose, and mouth, and a few wicked cuts at other places. One of his eyes was almost completely obscured by a puffed up bruise, showing nearly black under his pale fur.

James McCloud didn't do anything to stop it. The murdering coward deserved this treatment as far as he was concerned, and if it got some of that pent-up rage out of Scott's system in the process, all the better. Let the heartless bastard suffer a bit.

Peppy however had other ideas, and grabbed hold of Scott's blood-smeared fist before he could swing another blow.

“Hey. Easy there, he's had enough.â€

Scott glared back with burning eyes, wordlessly warning him that if he didn't let go, the next blow just might land in his face instead. Peppy didn't even flinch at it, gifted with a certain calmness that everybody else at the moment was desperately lacking. It might've been because he hadn't endured the recent hardships, or he simply was that cool under pressure, or both, it didn't matter that much.

In any case, that moment saw Scott ease down from boiling rage to simmering contempt, and that was enough to stay his bloodied hand. He stood up without a word, and stepped away from the scene, wringing his sore hand.

The helpless wolf moaned, or grunted, or coughed; something like that. Even after the onslaught, he was still conscious, but in a sluggish glazed-over stupor. Peppy bent down and checked his vitals; there's no way James would've done it, and Peppy was more on top of these practical things for the time being.

“He feels cold, his heat rate is way down, and irregular.†he said with growing concern, “Forget the face-mash, this guy's about to kick it just from being to damn cold.â€

Peppy removed the jacket he'd been wearing, and draped it over the wolf to try and give him at least a little warmth.

Rick, Rachelle and Pigma joined the rest of the party there a few moments later. Dengar had a blaster burn on his shoulder, which he still clung, but otherwise seemed alright. Rick bore a ragged cut on the side of his muzzle where Scott's flashlight struck him, but didn't allow it to stop him, and opened a channel on his comm after looking over the situation.

“Otto, send in your medic,†Rick said into his earpiece, “we have wounded down here in need of immediate attention.â€

“Right away.†Captain Jäeger's static-cracked voice replied, and cut out as he issued orders on his end.

“So, what do we do now?†Pigma asked, his words blank and vacant.

“Exactly what we were doing before: go to the mainframe, and reactivate the ship's systems.†Rick answered, then knelt down next to the barely conscious wolf. “You all go on ahead. I'll stay here and see this poor bastard off.â€

“Hold on, we agreed that nobody walks the ship alone.†Rachelle objected, “At least, not until we've done a full search or have the security feeds online.â€

“I'll be fine. I'm not walking the ship, nor am I alone.†Rick assured her, “I'm just going to stay right here until the Schwarzwind's medical detail arrives.â€

“Alright.†Rachelle said with a small sigh, knowing the argument wasn't worth it, “Just don't do anything stupid.â€

She and the rest of the party started back toward Cerberus's mainframe, leaving Rick alone with the catatonic wolf.

As they left, Rick scooped up the handgun from the floor nearby, the weapon that only a few minutes ago was spouting deadly fire, if erratic, and it was still warm to the touch. It was a wonder the battered wolf could shoot straight at all, or even walk, given his nearly frozen condition. Hypothermia could induce confusion and delirium in the victim, which might explain how he was driven to fight against impossible odds, but it didn't explain why. Already Rick was preparing questions to ask for when the nameless wolf was in a better condition to answer. Why, when the first chance of rescue arrived, was his first instinct to fight? What could he have seen or endured that spooked him to such ends?

“What the hell happened here?†Rick then asked quietly to himself.

The wolf muttered something – a response? It was too garbbled and muddled to know for sure.

“What?†Rick questioned, looking over to him.

The wolf looked back at Cooney with a ghostly blank, thousand-yard stare, and worked with what effort he could to form the words, “H... Hell... Happened.â€

/

------------------

/

The door to Cerberus's mainframe cracked open, forced apart by the effort of manual override.

Flashlight beams danced through the room, scanning through the banks of silent machines for any sign of trouble. The same chilled foulness that was outside was present again in the mainframe. Nobody wanted to believe, but had every reason to expect, that Adrian or, someone at least, had suffered a similar fate as Malcom.

Finding no immediate trouble, Rachelle Scott and Pigma entered the mianframe and began their search, while James and Peppy remained outside to cover the entrance. They carried on silent once again, laser-focused on the task at hand, all except for one anyway.

“Adrian!†Pigma called out as he combed through the mainframe's server towers, trying to hold on to what little shred of optimism was left, “You in here, man?â€

No response; nothing but the others' footsteps and occasional rustling or clatter they made. Occasionally some members of the party stepped on the tiny pellets of shotgun shot, or found a spent shell or two. Some of the towers had chucks blown out by a likely a shotgun blast, while others still were scorched, warped, or melted. The mainframe wasn't a very large space, and a complete search wouldn't last long. Sure enough, Pigma soon turned around one last tower, and that's where he found him.

Adrian's thin wiry frame lay sprawled face-down between two rows of server towers, and his weapon of choice shotgun was down at his side. Dead. There wasn't any shock, or outrage, or despair; not this time, but that didn't make it easy.

After a few moments of speechlessness, Pigma mustered the will to call out, “I found him...â€

While the others made their way there, Pigma went down to Adrian's body and went to work. His face was damn near unrecognizable: just a mess of burnt skin, charred tissue and crumbling bone with a beak sticking out from it, preserved in these near-freezing conditions. Pigma tried not to look at him, and just focused on removing Adrian's miniature wrist-computer, which didn't look to be in much better condition. It was scorched and warped in some places, the display screen cracked, but only a closer examination would confirm if there was anything to salvage from it.

“I'm sorry.†Rachelle said quietly from over his shoulder.

“After Malcom, I kinda expected this...†Pigma stated in a bleak monotone, “Even if we found Adrian... like he is... I was hoping maybe we could extract the Lethe encryption key from this.†he held out Adrian's mangled wrist-computer to Rachelle.

She took the device and gave it a quick look-over. One of the worst damaged sections of the wrist-computer was right where its solid-state drives were housed.

“This doesn't look,†she mentioned, showing the damage to Pigma.

“So, ye've gotten tae Ardy too didn'tye?†Scott growled hoarsely as he looked over the scene, his blazing anger honed to a sharp, jagged edge, “I don't know where ye'are, Harrow, but ye'd best hope not tae find yer'self within striking distance of me.â€

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The first thing he felt was the all too familiar tug of those restraining straps around his wrists and ankles. He was here again, in the merc ships' medical bay, where they were no doubt going to prepare yet another procedure to try and make him talk. Go on, pump this mind and body full of yet more brain-scrambling chemicals. It's endured far worse than anything you could possibly inject. Try it, I dare you.

Coward.

I'll take coward over idiot any day.

Wait, something wasn't lining up.

He knew by the feel of it where he was, but vision was still a little blurry, and the ears were still ringing-out all other sounds. There was light, bit it was darker than he remembered it was supposed to be; colder too, come to think of it.

Something happened, something freaking nuts–

There is nowhere you can run where you can escape

Try me.

He remembered, but he couldn't. That damned headache!

“Good, you're awake.â€

He heard that voice before, not long before. The hearing must've been clearing up; that guy sounded real enough. The vision was coming back too, and he wasn't entirely imagining things. This was the med bay, and he was laying on one of the beds, but there weren't any restraints. Even so, the arms and legs still couldn't move, and still felt like they were being held down–

“The sedatives are still working their way out of your system, and the feeling should come back to your arms and legs in a few minutes.†the voice said again. “Until then, try not to move. You'll only hurt yourself.â€

That's when he saw the IV tubes sticking into him; one in the arm, and another that probably went in the side of the neck, all connected up with fluid filled bags and some bleeping piece of medical machinery. None of the equipment in the room was connected to the ship's power sources, but to a portable power supply instead.

That's when the voice's owner came alongside him; a raccoon. He remembered seeing this guy, before he passed out. The raccoon asked something, and he replied with something else. Some of the memories were coming back too, and that scrappy little terrier.

“Who are you?†the pale wolf asked. He felt his bruised and battered face strain and ache as he spoke.

“I'd ask you the same...â€

The raccoon sat down on a neighboring bed, and waited, just waited. After a few dull moments of nothing, he shrugged and gave a sigh, “Look, if you don't give me a name, I'm gonna have to make one up for you.â€

Rick just sat there, swapping silence in the med bay with the wolf for a while, but there was something... off about him. Rick had seen his fair share of mercenaries, assassins, pirates, smugglers, black-market enforcers, desperate lowlifes and other such. This guy though, whoever he was, and had a story to tell, yet was reluctant to tell it–

“Hey.â€

The sudden blast of Rachelle's voice in his earpiece comm startled Rick, and he flinched a bit from it before giving his reply a few moments later.

“Yeah?†he asked, walking away from the wolf for now.

“We just finished searching the ship. There's no sign of Harrow or Chakori aboard, no bodies or–â€

“Our shuttle's gone!†Scott butted in, his tone bordering on frantic, “I'm sure beyond all doubt that's where they went, jumping the ship. It's not over– not yet, we can track the shuttle's location using its tracking beacon.â€

“But not until we reactivate the ship.†Pigma's blank voice reminded Scott, “The beacon only transmits here, to the ship, which has the necessary decoders stored away. We could track the shuttle from other locations, but still we'd need the beacon's decryption codes, which are stored in Cerberus's mainframe–â€

“We get it! We need tae reactivate the ship.â€

“Which we can't do without–â€

“More bloody codes!†Scott snapped back, “I know, Pigma! I've been workin' this rusty tub longer than–â€

“Cool your jets, Scott. He's only trying to help.†Rick said, trying to calm him down, “Can Cerberus's mainframe be hacked?â€

“With several months of free time and near infinite patience? Maybe.†Rachelle answered with a healthy dose of snark, “Adrian got the ship's systems locked tighter than a miser's wallet, but I'm guessing we're going for a more immediate solution, am I right?â€

“Well, I could try to reconstruct the codes from Adrian's wrist-piece,†Pigma suggested, not sounding too stellar about the prospects, “but the memory on it is, uh... kinda crispy. We'd be lucky enough to even get the OS loaded up on the thing, let alone extracting vital data.â€

“This just gets better and better.†Rick grumbled.

Everything about this crap-sack mess of an op depended on getting the damned ship's mainframe back online. The decryption codes for the missing shuttle's tracking beacon, the feeds for the smart-bug planted aboard the Amity, anything recorded by Cerberus's crew before the shutdown– it was scrambled inside dozens of onion-layer encryptions. The whole thing was a tightly corked digital bottle, not worth breaking to get open, and without a single corkscrew in sight.

Fuck.

Rick had wandered around the med bay, pacing, furrowing his brow, and found himself next to the pale wolf once again.

“So...†he sounded more coherent now when he spoke; not slurred or jumbled as it was before, “You were gonna make up for me?â€

He still regarded Cooney with that same look of arrogant contempt, even if it was through a bruised and battered face. Like it or not though, he was the only source of information available, and that made him an invaluable asset that couldn't afford to be alienated.

“I'll go with 'Wiley'.†Rick finally decided, “Hell only knows you had to be wily to survive whatever happened here.â€

“Hm, good as any other.†the wolf said, not really caring.

His fingers were flexing some, and his arms started to twitch. His sedatives were wearing off, and it wouldn't be long until he was up and about.

“So that's it then?†Peppy asked over the comm channel, “We're went through all this creepy crap for nothing?â€

“Wait, I...†Scott said, arriving at an uncomfortable conclusion, “I know where we can get another set of the ship's codes.â€

Some hope at last, fleeting as it was.

/

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/

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.

-John Steinbeck-

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Author Note:

Apparently, Star Fox: Legacy has made the short list of tvtrope's recommended Star Fox fanfics. Um... wow... Thanks tropers!

Anyways. This chapter is a little longer than some of the others, but it's full-to-bursting with intrigue, drama, a bit of snark, and a whole bunch of other good stuff we all love, so maybe that'll make up for the slightly longer length. Hope you enjoy it!

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-Some years earlier-

Adrian Crane was alone in Cerberus's computer mainframe, sitting hunched over the main terminal, with a small table pulled up alongside it. A brand new wrist-computer was there on the table. He was busy, coding and programing a comprehensive wireless interface between Cerberus –with all its automated features– and the wrist computer. Essentially, he was making a remote control, which could come in very handy for a ship like this.

Without any warning, the lights went dark, and all the little noises of machinery and equipment ceased, plunging the mainframe into black silence.

Once he'd gotten over the initial shock, Adrian scrambled into troubleshooting the systems, producing a small flashlight from one of his many pockets as he went to work. There was no response from the mainframe's interfaces, not even the power switches were doing anything –could've been a blown failsafe. No. even if there was ship-wide a power failure, the mainframe had a built-in backup power supply which should've allowed some functions to continue, if only for a limited period.

This was different. Something happened, something far beyond a simple failure.

"I'm not here to kill you." a calm voice said from the darkness. "I just want to talk."

Adrian snapped the beam of his flashlight at the speaker, and found Serge Noire, standing right there in his favored knee-length coat, calm and casual as his flinty cold ways would let him be.

There was a flash of combat instincts at that moment that screamed to Adrian, "Get a weapon! Fight back! Take control!" but the analytical part thought better of it, and the curious part wanted to know what this was all about. And besides, Serge wasn't the blathering gloating type. If he wanted him dead, he was well within is ability to have done so already.

"This; it was you, wasn't it?" Adrian mused, giving a sweeping gesture all around him, "What did you do?"

"I activated the Lethe procedure."

"Which is..."

Serge paused a few moments, giving no visual indications other than looking slightly away from Adrian for a bit. Then he looked back when he began, "In the ancient myths, Lethe was the name of a river, one of five that flow though the underworld where the spirits of the dead go. The other four rivers are: Styx, the river of hate, Acheron, the river of pain, Cocytus, the river of anguish, and Phlegethon, the river of fire. These other four are unstable concepts, unpredictable, uncontrollable. No, I prefer Lethe. In its original language, Lethe means 'oblivion', 'forgetfulness' or 'concealment'. Those who drank from this river would experience a state of utter forgetfulness, a complete amnesia."

"That's uh... cute and poetic and all, but it doesn't tell me anything." Adrian said, still confused, "What exactly did this Lethe thing do to the ship?"

"Cerberus has 'forgotten' how to function." Serge explained, "Main power is offline, propulsion and weapon systems are inoperable, the computer is locked out, communications smothered, and all of the automated features have been shut down. The ship has been rendered useless."

"So what's the point of all this? What do you want?"

"This is Cerberus's final line of defense." Serge said, cutting into Adrian with a cold flinty glare.

Serge waited, looking for Adrian's reaction. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, but kept his composure, waiting in-turn for Serge's next move. The avian technician's cool-headed response satisfied Serge, and he gave him a curt nod.

"If you are ever overrun, and the ship is about to fall into the hands of your enemy, give Cerberus a drink from the river Lethe: deprive your captors of her use, and turn the tables on them. They will not be able to track your movements, relocate the ship to someplace safe, nor send a message to call for help, not while the ship is a lifeless drifting husk. Then, in this cold dark of oblivion; with the hearts your enemies full of fear, uncertainty, and doubt; strike from the shadows, and pick them off one by one until you emerge the victor.

"That, is the true power of Lethe: to forget, to conceal, and in doing so: obliterate..." Serge reached inside his coat, under his left shoulder, where a handgun would be concealed. When his hand reemerged, there was no weapon; just a memory card, which he presented to Adrian. "This is the encryption key that will reverse the Lethe procedure. It decodes the computer's multi-layered lockout encryptions, and activates Cerberus's flash startup protocols, putting the ship back at full operating status in under a minute. Use it: plug it into the mainframe."

"Why are you doing this?" Adrian asked as he accepted the memory card, still very much curious or confused.

He did as Serge instructed, and inserted the small, plain-seeming card into the corresponding slot on the mainframe terminal. All at once, the ship began to awaken from its sudden slumber. The whir and hum of the computer mainframe components were accompanied by the much lower and more pervasive groan of the reactor core as it started up once again. A wash of light also flooded the room, both from the overhead fixtures and the consoles' readout displays.

"I too would like to 'forget'." Serge finally answered.

With the ship returning to life all around them, Serge turned and headed out of the mainframe.

"Take care of the ship, Adrian."

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-Many years after that-

In short, it was a typical enough fine dining restaurant.

The design was fairly straightforward. All the furniture, artwork, and fixtures in the dining area followed a theme of 'elegant semi-modern', where everything followed clean lines and a subdued color schemes, with only tasteful deviations, and nothing that would be rightly considered outrageous or garish. The guests attending mostly followed this trend in the way they dressed, with the ladies in a wide variety of their evening best, and the gentlemen in variations of the classic suit-and-tie combo. The wait staff cycled through the dining area, carrying out their duties with the same iron discipline as soldiers on patrol.

The myriad of succulent scents from the food, and the crisp tartness of the drinks mingled in the air with perfumes and colognes from the guests. Their quiet conversations accompanied by a backdrop of gentle music, and only a hint of the busy kitchen clamor.

Then something changed.

"Everybody be cool!" an angry voice bellowed, "This is a robbery!"

One of the guests – a bright red hook-beaked avian – leapt onto the table he was sitting at, and brandished a handgun down toward the surrounding guests. A similarly colored lady avian in a cocktail dress who was sharing his table produced a handgun from her purse, and likewise held it at the ready as she hollered at nearby guests and wait-staff.

"Anybody moves so much as a muscle without our say-so, and we'll execute every last one of you!"

The gun-toting couple swept across the dining area, shouting and intimidating everyone as they went, sending a sudden wave of panic into the guests which spread through the entire restaurant like wildfire. Anyone who attempted to act were immediately beset by one of the couple, shocked into submission by the muzzle of a blaster handgun and the yelled threat of its imminent discharge.

"YOU!" The scarlet lady avian had pounced on one of the guests who'd tried to move, and bore down on her target with a relentless fury, holding the weapon steady at the victim's face. "Get down on the ground, on the floor! Stay there–!"

* Shk! *

She dropped her blaster.

The lady avian just stood there, speechless, quivering, eyes wide, and breath coming in rapid shallow gasps. The only people who seemed any more shocked than she did at the moment: the guests she had only moments ago threatened.

"Something wrong, honey?" her companion asked, as he came toward her, glancing around with an uneasy combination of concern and suspicion, "You got any problems here?"

When he arrived, he laid a hand on her trembling bare shoulder. She cringed at the touch, and turned herself around. The lady avian's expression was one of pain, and shock, and she clutched her hand.

Her empty hand had been skewered by a serrated steak-knife, the red-smeared blade sprouting from her palm, leaking a thin trickle of blood.

Upon seeing this, he went into a rage down and yanked up one of the cowering guests by the shirt. "You!" he snapped, "Tell me who threw the knife, now!"

"I– I– I don't know!" the other stammered, "I didn't see!"

"Well who the hell did!" he demanded as he threw the guest back down, "Do any of you fat, ritzy, gluttons have working eyeballs in your thick heads!"

The scarlet avian scanned through the nearby guests. They were all terrified, or confused, or both, but none of them answered. More disconcerting still was when some of the wait-staff leered back at him, angry, confident, scoffing? Mocking?

"Okay hero, so that's the way you're gonna play..."

He brought his handgun up, and mustered another wave of

"If you don't come out at the count of three, I start plugging the diners!"

A few fearful gasps sprung up among the guests, but only a few. More of the guests glanced around in anxiety, aware that something had gone wrong. The staff continued to stare down the would-be robber, silently menacing him with their confidence.

"One..."

He picked out one of the guests to be his hostage, and brought his weapon to bear. He tried so very hard to keep his hand from trembling, to stay intimidating, to save face.

"Two..."

The others could sense his fear, he knew it. He felt his heart bumping, and fought to keep his breath under control. He didn't want to kill, not if he didn't need to, but it looked to be a situation where it's him or them.

"Where are you?" he whispered, but not to anybody in particular.

"Right behind you." answered a cold flinty voice.

The scarlet avian whipped around to face the voice.

His gun arm was swiftly knocked up and away as he spun, forcing the weapon to discharge into the ceiling. Then a strike speared into his throat in the same instant. He staggered from the blow, gasping through his swelling windpipe, and a firm hand pried his handgun away. Before there was a chance to get a good look at his attacker, much less act, the avian found his feet had been swept out from under him, and he landed on his back with a dull thud.

Only then did he get a clear look at his attacker: a sharply dressed, slick-furred canid, holding the blaster handgun squarely toward the hapless avian's face. He didn't even look down at the would-be robber, he just looked over to somewhere else, with a gaze that could freeze fire.

"Get this filth out of my restaurant." Serge Noire ordered.

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軽ã„誇りã®äº‹é …

A Small Matter of Pride

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Scoff if you like, but I promise there are few places more rigorous, more demanding, more meticulous or unrelentingly merciless than a restaurant devoted to elegant fine-dining. There are near-endless lists of standards kept for every possible situation and scenario, protocols to be followed to the letter. The staff must be always in complete awareness of their surroundings and everyone who occupies it, ready to move in the instant their presence is necessitated, and even anticipate when they will be needed beforehand. Everything from table setting, meet-and-greet, seating, taking orders, serving food and drink. It all requires precision, discretion, discipline, and the ease of control to work in plain sight of countless onlookers.

Military training sometimes comes close, but lacks attention-to-detail and discretion; too loud and boisterous. Technical engineering often comes closer, but lacks refinement, or keen awareness of the subtle nuances of people; too oblivious to circumstances outside the objective.

Perhaps this point is becoming clear to you – that the myriad of skills required to succeed in fine dining also lend themselves to other, less-than-innocent professions. Not only that, but a restaurant makes excellent cover: the employees bind together like a fiercely loyal clan, able to keep secrets, act as one, and support each other in times of need. This is why they come to me to learn my ways, and why I acted as I did when she came.

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Serge Noire was making his rounds through the restaurant's dining area, just as the evening dinner rush was picking up. Many of the tables now were occupied by expectant guests, the wait-staff were busy ferrying themselves from table to table, and a muffled, not-quite-frantic din of activity poured from the kitchen.

In short: a normal enough weekend evening. That's when Noire's assistant –a well-built white tiger by name of Chandra– came to Serge bearing the look of someone with news. He didn't speak until the two were side-by-side, and could converse without risk of being overheard.

"Someone just tried to break in." he was Fortunan by his name and slight accent, which eased its way through his trained voice, "We have her secured in the back."

"And you haven't discharged the poor wretch according to our procedures. Curious." Serge mused.

"She is... different."

Chandra handed Noire a fresh photograph, still warm from the printer, which showed a somewhat scruffy lady raccoon. She wore a hooded sweater and cargo pants, all in dull colors of gray and brown. He most striking feature however was her eyes: not the color –a grayish hazel– but how they were alert, scanning, alive with that constant state of awareness that Serge had grown to know well, and easily recognize in others.

"Hm." Serge had to concede that point: she certainly appeared different.

"She's clean." Chandra continued to fill in, "No weapons on her, but she was toting a bag full of tech-goodies, and she also asked for you by name."

The two closed in toward a door marked 'Employees Only', near the kitchen, where the sounds and smells intensified as they neared.

"What do we have on her?" Serge asked.

He and Chandra passed through the door, leaving behind the dull cacophony of the restaurant's dining area. The busy clamor of the kitchens however was far more evident here. The two passed a door on their right, through which the kitchen staff could be seen, and heard,

"The first round of contacts haven't turned up anything, and she doesn't match anyone in our databases. She won't spill a peep about anything unless its to you, so she claims." Chandra's tone altered, becoming colder, more sinister, "Do you want the boys and I to run the gauntlet on her?"

They came to a stop outside a door with no label, no identifying marks of any kind; just a lock.

"No." Serge answered over his shoulder as he approached the door, "Not before I've spoken with her, at least."

He disengaged the lock and passed through, leaving Chandra outside.

The room was small, nondescript, probably intended to be a storeroom by the original architect, but not now. The room was completely empty, devoid of any furniture of any kind, with only a single lonely fixture overhead providing light.

There, leaning against the wall with arms crossed like she hadn't a care in the world, was the lady raccoon from the photograph. She regarded Serge with little more than a passing glance, but that was enough. She looked away, still with that bored expression, and waited.

Noire stepped into the center of the room, moving slow, and assessed her in silence.

"What is your name?" Serge asked. It didn't matter to him what she answered, but rather: how.

"Rachelle Cooney." she answered quickly.

"How did you get in?"

"I came through your back door."

"It's locked–"

"Bypassed–"

"Guarded–"

"Distracted–"

"Watched by cameras–"

"Blinded–"

"Sensitive audio monitors–"

"Flooded with noise–"

"and thermal sensors–"

"Easily nullified when you stick a pane of glass in front of them."

She was concise, controlled, and confident; marks of a practiced professional. Rachelle was examining Serge just as he examined her, each drawing certain conjectures about the other, inserting tentative placeholders at certain conclusions, forming hypotheses that demanded testing. So test each other they did, in the best way they knew how under the circumstances: speak, and gauge the other's reaction.

"Do you know what happened to the last idiot thieves who tried to rob this place?" Serge finally asked.

"It was all over the news the next day: Restaurant Owner Ruins Robbers."

"Then it is fortunate you are not an idiot thief."

"If I was, I doubt we'd be speaking."

"Hm."

"The thing about that little incident though;" Rachelle mused as she stepped away from the wall, "I would've expected someone in your... unique position... to show a little more restraint, instead of mangling malcontents. Why'd you do it, if you don't mind me asking?"

If Cooney knew about the black-market 'intensive training program' Noire ran out of this restaurant, then there was no need to deny the fact. He'd embraced those so-called 'demons' long ago, and she wasn't going to hold that fact against him.

"A small matter of pride," Serge answered with ease, "the very same reason you made contact with me in this show-offish way, no?"

"What makes you think that?" Rachelle asked, intrigued.

"Simple." Noire explained, "No one with the skills to do as you've done would be stupid or clumsy enough to be so easily caught after overcoming the other obstacles, not unless it was planned that way. Ergo, you expected to meet me face to face this way, on my terms, without any feasible means to harm me. The sensible reason to plan such a scenario is if your intention is merely to speak with me."

"Maybe that's true." she said with a shrug,

"Still, there is this question: what made you so certain I would speak with you personally?"

"The same reason you lost Cerberus years ago, confronted and maimed the robbers yourself, and the same reason you're going to seriously consider the proposition I have for you."

"Hm..."

"You see, Serge, I'd like to talk a litte about Lethe."

A small matter of pride.

And that's when Serge raised an eyebrow, and presented Rachelle with the slightest hint of a smile. She was good.

"Touché, Mademoiselle."

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Cerberus was just a little bit different now.

The ship itself was still more-or-less a lifeless hulk, with her power and primary systems still offline. Though the bodies of Adrian Crane and Malcolm Aries had long since been transferred aboard the Schwarzwind and transferred elsewhere, the stench of death lingered still where they were found, refusing to leave the ship behind. Yet despite these circumstances, there were signs of life stirring in Cerberus nonetheless.

The ship's medical bay was set up as the impromptu 'base of operations', complete with portable light sources, heating units, and necessary supplies that were transferred aboard before the Schwarzwind departed. It was a lot like camping out, but on a 'ghost ship', in space.

James, Scott, Pigma and Peppy had somewhat unpleasant but necessary business to attend to in the wake of recent events. Rachelle Cooney had gone on her own to follow the only solid lead they had: a shadowy figure by name of Serge Noire.

Normal LCI protocol would've had the nameless wolf 'Wiley' taken into custody and sweated for information. 'Normal' however was something encountered rarely, if ever, in field operations, and this jumble was anything but normal. And besides, Wiley had been utterly stonewalling the attempts by Cerberus's crew, so Rick instead opted to remain aboard Cerberus, with 'Wiley', and try something outside the box.

It was a gamble, to stay alone with someone known to be dangerous, and leaving him unrestrained, but Rick was confident willing to take this chance. With the Mercutio 2 shuttle docked at one of Cerberus's airlocks, locked out so only he could use it, Rick had the only means off the ship. 'Wiley' wouldn't be able to sneak off, and if he tried something, Cooney would be ready to react. If Scott's , was to be believed, Wiley had –at least for a moment– been compliant, and Rick hoped to be able to capitalize on that.

Of course, 'hope' was the key term here. Wiley had been anything but cooperative in the short time he and Rick had been stuck together, but at least they were talking.

"So, who the hell are you, Rick?" The pale wolf asked offhand while he rummaged through the food supplies, "A cop? An agent? Some kind of Investigator?"

"I'm just trying to figure out what happened here, that's all." Cooney answered, checking on the power supply and heating unit.

"What's there to say?" 'Wiley' began as he tore open a food package, and continued speaking between mouthfuls, "Some cavalier mercs show up out of nowhere... they blow the raid, and I sneak aboard this ship... Then the damned bluefur came out of nowhere and crashes the mercs' party in turn."

"But that's not the whole story now is it?" Rick figured, "Harrow and Chakori got off the ship, but you? You were left here to die: what happened?"

"And why should I tell you?"

"Why shouldn't you?"

"For starters, I don't know a damned thing about you," Wiley tossed the empty food package away, and circled around Rick, weaving between empty beds, medical equipment, and the 'camping' gear, "not who you are, who you're working for– what happens to me if I talk? What do I get for trusting you? And even then: how do I know you'll stick to your word? I need to know who I'm dealing with here."

"So do I." Cooney responded.

"Oh please, you already know plenty about me." Wiley guffawed, rolling his eyes, "I'm sure your little friends filled you in on everything they knew. So yeah, I'm a bratok, a 'brother', for Harrow. It's just some fancy Katini word they use for 'guy who does things'. Yeah, I sabotaged the Caius Company fighters and no, I don't regret doing it, not a bit, so don't try to make me feel bad about it or anything. If they were too stupid to check their hardware before liftoff, or properly screen their maintenance crew, then they didn't deserve to live and fight in the first place."

"Pity then, that you weren't as thorough as you're supposed to have been, and then clumsy after that."

"Shit happens." the wolf grumbled back.

"And it doesn't un-happen, ever." Rick retorted with a healthy dose of snark, "You're in this mess right now, 'Wiley', and it's your choice how this plays out. Play it right, and you'll walk out on top."

"On top of what, exactly?" Wiley demanded, "Give me a reason to trust you."

"I can help you."

"What kind of chump are you to think you can help me?"

"Lylat Central Intelligence." Rick supplied in an instant, "I'm an agent."

There was a momentary stall from Wiley at this. He had to pause to think, to reconsider, to figure the odds again. "So, you're a government spook," he said with a slow, knowing nod, "the kind of creep who'll just use me and dispose of me when you get what you want."

"Now that's an awfully broad assumption to make my good man." Rick challenged, speaking in lofty tones, "You don't see me treating you like dirt just because you've killed, maimed, and committed other acts of atrocity. You were doing your job, I shouldn't hold that against you."

"It's all an act." the wolf called him out, shaking his head "This is that 'good cop/bad cop' crap, isn't it?"

"You're afraid." Cooney observed.

"I'm suspicious." Wiley corrected.

"What did Harrow do to make you so afraid?"

"I told you: I'm not afraid–"

"But what is suspicion if not the fear to trust?"

"It's pragmatism." the pale wolf growled back, "The people you trust are the ones best prepared to screw you."

"Is that how you wound up in this mess? Did you trust Harrow just an inch too far?" Rick made a broad sweeping gesture all around Cerberus's medical bay, "After a disaster like that, why should you trust anyone?"

"I don't." Wiley affirmed, leering at the raccoon with his piercing violet eyes.

Cooney returned the wolf's relentless gaze with a calm composure, so meticulously maintained, like a house of cards. "I'm not asking you to trust me, but if you want to get through this, you'll have to put up with me whether you like it or not."

"Is that a threat?" His body tensed ever so slightly and his fur stood up on end, more out of a ground-in instinct than a decision to prepare to fight.

"That depends: do you feel threatened?" Rick asked.

Wiley stood his ground in silence, making little to no movement aside from a few twitches of his eyes.

"Heh, good one." he said at last, then turned away shaking his head.

From what Rick could tell, 'Wiley' was paranoid, and perhaps rightly so. Everything he said and did traced back to an underlying, deep-seated fear, despite his blatant denial. He was afraid first and foremost of one thing: Intelligence. Rick suspected he had images of dark rooms, bright lights, inescapable prisons, faceless cold-hearted machine-like people with no regard for life, and the remorseless tortures they'd inflict. The wolf was also restless, anxious, like a wild animal trapped too long in a cage. Even then, Cooney couldn't help but think there was something deeper even than these things, fueling his fears even further.

The only way to get him to open up was to get him to trust. The most apparent way to earn his trust for now was to contradict his fears, to be 'honest'. If this meant feeding him information, so be it.

In this time, Wiley had once again gone into the supplies, and emerged with a bottle of water.

"Just out of curiosity, do you got anyone special in your life?" Wiley asked offhand over his shoulder.

"Intelligence work isn't exactly great for relationships." Rick answered, which was true enough.

Where was he going with this?

"No kidding, don't want to give your enemies leverage they can use against you or anything." he cracked open the bottle and took a swig of the refreshing liquid, "Still, that doesn't mean you can't have a fling or two, right?"

"It happens." Rick conceded with a shrug.

"What about that coon chick you're hanging around with?"

"We're partners." Rick stated flatly, "She and I work together."

"Oh come on, there's gotta be more to it than that." the wolf insisted, "I've seen the way you two are."

"Sometimes, we play the part of lovers or spouses for a cover." Cooney gave him that much, but he was dangerously close to crossing a line. "It's not real when we do, it's all an act."

"Just like this buddy-buddy thing you're pulling with me." Wiley pointed out.

"What makes you so sure this isn't real?"

"What makes you so sure you and she aren't?"

That was the line, and Rick steered the conversation away from it,"We're here to talk about you, remember?"

"What? Mr. spooky spy-man doesn't want to talk about his feelings? " Wiley prodded again, sensing a soft spot.

"That's a conversation you and I just aren't going to have." Cooney asserted, in case he hadn't made his point clear enough.

"A shame, and just when you were starting to get interesting too."

"So what happened?" Rick asked, reeling the conversation back to its original purpose, "Here on this ship, before we found you."

"You do have feelings, don't you?" the wolf pulled at, ignoring the question. He'd caught a hold of something in Cooney, and he wasn't about to let it go so easily, "Seriously, who doesn't?"

Rick was having none of it, and stayed stubbornly away from the subject, "Why did Harrow leave you here, instead of taking you with him, or just outright killing you?"

"You said yourself that I shouldn't make sweeping generalities about you, which means you aren't a stoic, emotionless machine."

"Why?"

"Did you and she ever–"

"Answer!"

"You know..." Wiley clapped hands together, with such an innocent, slightly smug gleam in his eyes.

There was nothing for it. The pale wolf wasn't going to talk, and would rather spend his efforts playing head games with Cooney instead of cooperating. He'd have to try again some other time, when he could better focus.

"I've have enough of this." disgusted, Rick turned his back and started to leave, "When you're ready to talk–"

Wait...

Back turned.

Guard down.

Instinct took over.

Rick twisted into a fighting stance, and wound Wiley already coming down with an elbow meant for his head. Rick sidestepped the blow and grabbed the wolf's arm, slipping under the center of gravity for a throw. Wiley interrupted the move as he drove a knee into Cooney's ribs, then shoved him out into the ship's central corridor.

"You..." Wiley advanced, snarling in a fit of rage "are one pain in the ass!"

"The feeling is mut–"

"Shut up!" he roared as he kicked the downed raccoon, "Just– Shut! Up!"

When he'd cooled off, a little, Wiley yanked Rick up by his coat and brought him to within an inch of his seething face.

"Where's your shuttle docked?"

"P– portside airlock." Cooney sputtered.

Wiley twisted Rick up and around with his arm behind his back, half dragging half carrying the smaller and more slightly built raccoon through Cerberus's corridors. The way was lit only by a sparse string of tripod-mounted lights, making a slow pulse between darkness and light as Wiley charged through toward the portside airlock.

Rick chose not to resist, for now. Wiley was the better fighter, and he'd need Rick's authorization if his intent was to jump ship. Thise gave him time to recover from the shock of the attack, and possibly salvage the situation before it was too late.

Even now, when Rick glanced up at the wolf from his 'helpless' position, there was still fear in Wiley. It was a twisted, tortured, denied fear, but fear nonetheless. "You're running away." Cooney observed.

"No shit." Wiley drawled in full sarcasm.

"Whatever it is, you won't be able to escape it this way." Rick warned, "You have to stand your ground and face–"

"I don't want to hear it!" the wolf barked, "You have no idea the shit I've been through."

"Because you won't tell me." Rick pointed out, "You won't let me help you."

"Helping the lowlife likes of me is the last thing on your mind."

"You don't know that!"

"Bullshit!" Wiley snapped back, "I have been shot at, locked up, starved, frozen, pumped full of drugs and mind-raped; all by people who said they could 'help me'..."

They'd just arrived at Cerberus's portside airlock. The area here was cold, without the heating units placed in more used portions of the ship, and their breath came out in misty puffs. The only light here was provided solely by one of the harsh, tripod-mounted work lights, which cast long and stark shadows through the corridor before fading into obscurity.

"You want to help me so bad? Here:" Wiley planted Rick in front of the airlock control terminal, which was powered by an external supply spliced into the works, "Open the door and get me off this fucking ship."

Rick did as demanded, and in a few moments the airlock's inner door groaned and screeched its way open. The wolf grabbed Cooney by the back of his coat and shirt collar in a tight fist, his left fist, and began to lead him into the open airlock. Thankfully, Wiley had made a few key errors leading up to this moment – something he seemed prone to.

Time to act.

In an instant, Rick twisted around counterclockwise, using his left elbow to break Wiley's grip as he ducked and slipped past the wolf; exchanging places. Wiley came at him in an instant, face sharpened with disdain bordering on rage, and hands barred like talons–

* Blam! *

A blaster shot tore straight into the pale wolf's hand, leaving a sizzling, slightly charred burnt hole in the palm. Wiley hadn't patted Rick down for weapons –his biggest mistake– and allowed Cooney the opportunity to pull his concealed handgun and make the shot.

"Augh!" the wolf reeled back, clutching his crippled hand by the wrist.

Rick followed up at this crucial moment with a firm front-kick, moving Wiley completely into the open airlock. Then Cooney closed the door, sealing him inside.

"What the hell is this?" he demanded. His voice crackling with static through the airlock's intercom system.

"You wanted off..." Rick had changed. His voice was filled with a malice and cruelty that he'd, up until then, kept bottled away. "You're getting off."

Wiley checked the outer door; there was no shuttle docked here, just the black emptiness. In a momentary flash of panic, he went for the failsafe inside the airlock that was supposed to get him out, but it wasn't working. No matter how he pounded the switch, the door remained closed.

He looked over to Rick, stood just on the other side, shaking his head slowly at Wiley's frantic attempts. Cooney's face had lost any sense of friendliness that was there before, replaced now by a stony, sharp-chiseled glare that showed no hint of mercy.

"You wouldn't–" the wolf babbled, eyes bouncing between the two airlock doors, "You– you're bluffing–"

A sharp hiss and whistle pierced through his words. The chamber was decompressing.

"Oh god no!"

He lunged for the inner door, desperate. This was true panic now, an immediate fear for his life, of suffocating, of being swept out into the infinite black nothing.

"I'll talk!" he found he was gasping. The air in the chamber was getting thin, fast, and he wouldn't be able to breathe in a few more moments, "Goddammit I'll talk!"

But the only thing that responded through the inner door's window was the stone-cold, remorseless face of that raccoon, perfectly content to let him die.

"Open the door!" he shouted, pounding on that inner door.

Rick turned to the side, and entered a command? He was going to let him out. Sure enough, there was a clank and groan of an opening door, muffled by the depleted atmosphere, but the door didn't open.

The already diluted air within the chamber rushed away, and he felt the breath being sucked out of his lungs. The weak grip of his oxygen-starved hands couldn't hold on any longer, and he was swept away into the silent black void of space outside.

The last thing he saw was that look of unbridled, merciless cruelty in the raccoon, growing further and further away. After that, the silent black of space and the silent black of oblivion became one and the same.

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/

Rachelle and Serge had reconvened in one of the restaurant's decadent private dining booths; Serge insisted on it. Cooney had proven to be a most fascinating guest, and the least he could do for her trouble was to be a gracious host while she discussed her proposition.

The booth was isolated off from the main dining area, just as well since Rachelle had nothing to wear, and looked out-of-place as it was in her dull street clothes. The table between them was clear of any place-setting, and held only a small holographic projector, showing an image of an all too familiar ship: Cerberus.

Rachelle had spent the bulk of their time in this booth filling Serge in on all the details he needed to know, including the untimely demise of most of the mercenary crew, and the awkward situation with the locked out mainframe, but left out many things that weren't important to the proposition. Noire knew exactly what she wanted: Cerberus's Lethe encryption codes.

"I can be persuaded to aid you, on certain... conditions."

"Name them."

"First: I will go with you personally to Cerberus, and restart the ship myself."

"Done." she agreed with a curt nod.

"Second: when you have what you need, I keep the ship."

"Why?" Rachelle asked, perplexed by Noire's odd request, "What use do you have for it?"

"That is no concern of yours." Serge waived the question away, "You want my help: those are my terms."

It was a tough choice. Cerberus meant a lot to Scott and the other deceased mercenaries, and it didn't seem right not to include them in this. Time was wasting though, and Serge was the one and only lead they had which could help them out of this situation. They needed his help now, but perhaps the terms could be negotiated later, when time wasn't an ever-looming menace to the situation.

"Done." she finally accepted.

"Hm."

The two reached across the table and exchanged a professional handshake, sealing the deal.

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/

...

There is nowhere you can run where you can escape

...

"Ghaaa!" Wiley awoke with a scream, followed by a series of gasping breaths.

He found himself in an increasingly frustrating and familiar circumstance. He as unable to move, it felt like sedatives again. His blurred vision soon came into focus, and found that clouded gray face staring right back at him again, like a vision from a nightmare.

"You!" he snapped, as much in rage as astonishment. "What– how– did you– but I–"

Maybe it was a nightmare. Maybe he'd died and gone to Hell. Maybe the whole thing was another one of those damned hallucinations. Any of those would be as good an explanation as any.

"You'd be surprised how robust the body can be." Rick mentioned coolly, "Done right, it can even withstand exposure to a complete vacuum, but only for a short while."

Nope. Real. The crazy coon had planned it out, tricked him. He'd been too desperate and too distracted to follow through on the escape plan like it was supposed to go, or catch on to the little hints. There were so many things he should've done differently, and this is what he got for those mistakes...

Those damned headaches–

"If I recall, you said you'd talk..." Rick reminded him, looming over Wiley like a charged storm-cloud, ready to strike at a moment's notice, "So talk."

There was nothing for it. Even if he could try for another escape, the coon was onto him, and he'd only make more of those stupid mistakes he'd never made before. This was the only option now that made any sense to try.

"He's in my head." Wiley admitted at long last, "That goddamn bluefur is in my head."

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/

To Be Continued...

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FoxMotoX

No wonder it took so long to get it up :) jk. Its ok though I like the longer chapters.

The dialogue in your story just flows so well with the rest of the text, I never have to try and figure out whats going on after I read a scene. I also like how you use big complicated words to desribe scenes, it makes it look very professional. IMO you can get a better appreciation of great fanfics like this by writing your own stuff. Then you'll realize 'wow this guy is so much better than me'. Anyways I'm hooked, keep up the good work!

Just one question though. When Rick threw Wiley out of the airlock, did that actually happen or did Wiley just dream it?

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chaos_Leader

Hey, thanks for reading and responding!

IMO you can get a better appreciation of great fanfics like this by writing your own stuff. Then you'll realize 'wow this guy is so much better than me'. Anyways I'm hooked, keep up the good work!

Very true. First time I started writing way back in 08, I was looking up the likes of Foxmerc and One Death Away , and my writing back then was crap, completely, and utterly. If you stick with it, and are dedicated to it, you will improve.

Just one question though. When Rick threw Wiley out of the airlock, did that actually happen or did Wiley just dream it?

The airlock thing did actually happened.

Catch you later!

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chaos_Leader

Thanks to everyone that's stuck through and read through it to get this far. I hope I'm not boring you or anything!

Little forewarning: this is a really, really intense chapter content-wise. You have been warned.

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ç°è‰²ã®æš—ã„暈ã—

A Darker Shade of Gray

-Many years earlier-

The term 'dichotomous' might have been a good word to describe the room, though the distinctions between where one side started and the other ended weren't exactly obvious.

One side of the room was organized neatly enough, making at least an effort to efficiently use of the abbreviated space. It was an ambitious endeavor, since the available areas were being contested between technology, cosmetic products, reference materials and manuals, highly stylized and cute caricatures, small hand-tools, and other items that further blended the girl/geek mixture. The scene was completed by Rachelle Cooney, sitting on her bed with a notebook computer on her lap, trying to distract herself with it by any and all means available.

The other side of the room was very, very cluttered. It wasn't especially dirty though, even if the wastebasket desperately needed emptying, and the laundry hamper needed just as desperately to be run through the wash. What stood out more was the scattered, unfocused, eclectic collection of odds, ends, and knickknacks, which were as widely varied as could be imagined, ranging from a lonely concert poster, to a half-finished puzzle cube, to a few neglected paper-bound novels among several other items. Completing the ensemble was a dead-asleep Richard Cooney, who lay sprawled out on his bed, still fully dressed in the typical street clothes of a Corneria City teenager.

Rachelle was worried for him. He barely got any sleep these days, and when he did, it was something like he was now, just randomly collapsed onto the nearest softish surface for hours and hours. He'd been on and off for the better part of two weeks, after the breakup–

No.

To call what that slut did to Rick a "breakup" would've legitimized it. It wasn't a relationship, it never was, it was nothing but a sham. The damned whore had toyed with Rick from the start, preying on his loneliness, his gullibility, his need for someone. Rachelle had tried to show him the mistake he was making by falling for her, by letting that tart tug on him like a marionette puppet, but he wouldn't have any of it, so enamored he was by her phony charms.

And just when Rick thought he'd found "the one," she pulled the rug right out from under him.

It destroyed him, completely and utterly, crushing him into a dull and depressed emotionless lump. She missed the old Rick: the one who could come up with all the funny jokes, and bring a precision punch-line just when and where it was needed. He could lighten even the darkest moods, not just with comedy. With all the things going on in this family now, Rachelle could've used some of that... whatever it was he did.

The door to the apartment opened, and someone staggered inside.

That was probably Dad, finally back from wherever he had gone this evening. He had been spending so much time away from home since he was laid-off from the shop, it was rare when everyone was together and coherent enough to speak to each other.

Part of Rachelle wanted to go out and meet him, but Mom was already there, and she could hear the conversation through the walls as clear as a bell.

"Any luck?" she heard Mom ask.

There was no answer.

"Tom..."

"No." Dad finally grunted back.

"Well, maybe you'll do better next time–"

"Don't you get it, Angie?" Dad cut her off, "We're finished, done, screwed. We will have nothing!"

"No. You can't think like that, Tom." mom said, trying to calm him down, "We need to be strong, we need to pull through this, for the kids."

"Do we? Do we?" Though Rachelle wasn't able to see what was going on, in her head she could see dad: so desperate, so hopeless, so jaded. "Am I supposed to be their shining example, so I can coddle them, tell them it's going to be okay? Well, take a look: it's nothing but lies and wishful thinking to make them think there's something worthwhile in the end. I'm not going to lie for them, not anymore. There's nothing waiting for them, nothing!"

This wasn't him. This wasn't dad. This wasn't the plucky tinker she'd always remembered him as. This was someone that had never existed before: someone angry, frustrated. It was like the engine of Life had been stalled, undermined by a faulty component, broken, and he didn't have the tools needed to fix it.

"You wouldn't be talking like this without the drink." Mom protested. She could tell her husband was keeping something. That prying, prodding voice of hers –subtle as a sledgehammer– couldn't lie.

"No, Angie, I wouldn't. I can think clearer like this, better in-fact, and I'm not afraid to lay it out like it is." Thomas Cooney, "We're born, we live in a craped out world we can't do anything about, and we die: end of story!"

The pictures Rachelle developed in her head, the image of a man who could say things like that, were nothing short of frighting. She wanted nothing more than to not hear any of this, to just sink away into nothingness for a while.

"Tom, you need to stop this." Mom commanded, "It's not helping anyone."

"And no one's been helping us... no one." Dad said through a ghostly sigh. Rachelle could barely hear his words now, so hushed, so defeated. "I'm going out."

"You're going out drinking: not tonight, not anymore." Mom must've had her arms crossed, foot tapping, eyes piercing Dad with that unmistakable 'you're not getting off the hook' gaze that Rick and Rachelle had been subject to far too often before.

"Dammit, I'm already perfectly buzzed as it is!" Dad snapped back, "Why would I need to get any drunker, huh? Any more and I wouldn't think or walk straight."

"But you're not thinking straight!" Mom pointed out, and let out a long sigh before asking, "Why did you bother coming back at all?"

"I..."

Say you wanted to see the kids today. Say you missed them, and Mom too. Say how much you care, that you didn't mean those horrible things you said. Rachelle could hear that wavering, uncertain longing in his voice, he couldn't hide it, but Thomas Cooney couldn't find it in him to say those words.

"I gotta go meet someone."

"This late?" Mom asked, confused, quietly startled, "Who exactly are you meeting, Tom?"

"I can fix us, I can make it all work again, good as new." Dad assured, trying to convince himself as much as Mom, "But I need you to trust me. I need you not to worry."

"Just, promise you'll come back." she implored, holding Dad back just a while longer, "Can you do that?"

There was a pause; nobody said anything, and it didn't sound like they were doing anything either. They were probably looking at each other; Mom with that sad but stern, concerned look to match her words, and Dad replying with a little nod, accepting the burden.

"Where else do I got left to go?"

The door opened, followed by diminishing footsteps, and when the door closed, he was gone.

Mom broke down into a quiet convulsion of little sobs, barely heard by Rachelle. These too went away, as Mom carried herself off to the room she and Dad used.

Where was he going? What was he up to? Was he doing something dangerous? Would they see him again? What would that mean for the rest of us?

No. He'll be back. He's got to come back.

Rachelle shook those thoughts out of her head, and only just realized that she was trembling, that her breath was coming in and out as quiet shuddering gasps, that a cold liquid had spilled from her eyes.

This wasn't her; she wasn't one to vent, or to emote, or to need someone to cling to. She'd gotten this far in life as "that weird girl" with no more trouble than she couldn't handle. The Cooneys were never a large family, but they were strong, independent, and stuck together like glue. But she couldn't do this all by herself, not this time, not while Dad wasn't Dad, Mom wasn't Mom, Rick wasn't Rick, and she wasn't Rachelle. She found herself desperately wishing for someone to be there for her, someone who could remind her that the world wasn't as crapped out a place as it seemed.

But, there was someone there, reminding Rachelle of his presence with a little snore.

Rick was still laying there on his back, legs and striped tail spilling off the bed, and his feet landing squarely on the floor. Rachelle so envied him at that moment, he who'd slept so blissfully ignorant to the bitter exchange between the parents, happily oblivious in the realm of his dreams. It almost made her jealous.

She got up, and moved across the small bedroom to him, watching him: the rise and fall of his slow steady breathing, the little twitches from his dreams. That wasn't enough, she needed more just to see him and hear him, she'd always seen him and heard him, she needed to feel him.

Rachelle knelt down right in front of her brother, careful not to wake him, and very gently laid her head on Rick's stomach, where his t-shirt had pulled up a little and exposed a couple inches of his bare fur. Then she simply listened: to his breathing, to his pulse, to the odd little gurgly noises his body made; all the components and inner mechanisms of life itself. Somehow, it calmed her to hear all that, like listening to the constant, reassuring thrum of an engine. The rhythm of life will go on, and keep right on functioning–

Then, as she lay there with her brother, she felt something press against her chest. She drew back away from Rick, and saw the unmistakable lust-lump in his pants. He must've been having one of those dreams. But actually, it looked more than a little uncomfortable for him, having it all jammed in there. Did it feel as awkward for him as it looked?

The solution seemed simple enough, and he looked like he needed it anyway– wait– time out. What the hell was she thinking? It's not her business to think about her brother's hardware, her own flesh-and-blood. That's for him: him alone and his...

His bitch-poor excuse of a girlfriend? No. He didn't have anyone.

Rachelle Cooney was sick and tired of the world sucking.

She was tired of the job and money troubles that plagued Dad, the endless worrying and stress Mom endured for it, and the manipulative bitch who destroyed Rick for no other reason than because she could. If only she could make the world not suck, even it was only for a moment or two, even if it was only the illusion of not sucking–

Rachelle found herself still staring at the sleeping form of her brother, and suddenly the thought of his masculine hardware didn't seem all that immoral by comparison. Who else was going to give half a damn for him if not her? Who else would've been there when the infatuation collapsed around him? Who else is going to guide him out of the hell he found himself in? You know what: screw society! If she could make Rick feel some tiny shred of good in this crapsack of a world, than why the hell shouldn't she? The body's nerves could care less what triggers them, and the brain could always sort it out later.

With this invigorated determination, Rachelle reached down to her sleeping brother's pants and undid the font fly of the jeans he was wearing, opening him up one layer at a time. Once the front of his pants were open, there was no ignoring the very clear outline formed by his rod, pressing against and stretching the fabric of his boxer-brief shorts.

One more layer to go.

She reached into the elastic strap of his boxer-briefs, and–

"Mrrph..."

Rick stirred from his sleep. His weary eyes crept open, wandered around in that aimless, listless way they often do when one is disturbed from their sleep. He might've even had a chance at slipping back into sleep had he not discovered the scene occurring at his lower reaches.

Everything stopped.

Rick found his fly busted wide open, and a familiar hand reaching down into his trunks. There was his sister, Rachelle, down between his legs, looking back with eyes open so wide they were threatening to burst out of their sockets. The expression 'caught with a hand in the cookie jar' did not even come close to comparing the to the wide-eyed, frozen, petrified shock that had taken her.

In this immobile state, Rachelle waited for the reaction: a screamed 'what the hell!,' flinching away, a string of questions, a cluster of F-bombs, storming out of the room, all of the above, something... anything... but no. All Rick did was sit there with a totally blank, dropped-jaw stare of complete and utter confusion.

Things remained thusly for some time. Neither Rick or Rachelle seemed to blink or breathe or anything while it lasted. It could've been a few seconds that felt like a few minutes, or a few minutes that felt like a few hours; time does funny things like that in these situations.

However long it was, Rick finally inhaled a long breath, sat up, and rested his scrambled head in his hands with an equally slow exhalation. That's when Rachelle removed her hand from his boxer-briefs as he moved, and sat down next to him.

She wanted to start from the beginning and explain how she reached the point where she was groping him. She wanted to answer any of the seven-thousand plus questions he must've had. She wanted to just say nothing at all. She wanted to leave him alone to deal with on his own. She wanted to stay right there and work it out with him. She wanted to apologize profusely for what she did. She wanted to say that she didn't regret it one bit and would do it again. More than anything, she wanted some kind of actual response from him that she could work with, anything at all besides the blank, emotionless silence.

"Rick, I... I–"

Her stammering was cut off when another set of lips locked against her own, when Rick pulled her into him. Though surprised, she didn't fight it, nor that which came after.

\

/

Rick needed time to think, to be alone for a bit after everything that'd happened. So he walked through the ship, through the dim corridors of Cerberus. It was quiet, and cold, with only the sounds of his own echoing footsteps and the quiet hum of some piece of equipment here and there to fill the silence. It was just him and his thoughts out here.

He was soon reminded though why being alone with his thoughts wasn't always the best option.

Did you and she ever– ?

"That dumb punk sure cut you deep, didn't he?"

Right next to Rick was another Rick, an exact copy of himself. While Rick was calm, controlled, and precise as he walked, the other Rick was free, uninhibited, shameless, and just wouldn't leave him alone.

Rick's thoughts had strong opinions of their own, which would manifest themselves as a fake duplicate of himself –a doppelgänger was what these hallucinations were called– and furthermore, his thoughts had a tendency for snarky backtalk.

"And what exactly is so 'fake' about me?" his duplicate asked, indignant, "I'm just as real as all those other thoughts swirling around in your head up there. And besides, you never talk to anyone else about your issues, ever, so you may as well bounce them off me. I won't judge." after a second, he added, "Not too harshly, anyway."

In his entire career in Intelligence, no one had ever pushed him as close to the edge as Wiley had, not even Osprey Caldwell. They were two completely different situations–

"But were they all that different? It was more like an inversion, only you were the one in power this time."

He had the situation under control. Wiley was only taunting him, trying to get a rise out of him, to distract him. Rick was just going to leave and give him time to cool off, nothing more, but he should've expected he'd try something desperate. He could respect being played for a fool, it certainly wasn't the first time someone had tried to manipulate him, nor would it likely be the last, but that wasn't what troubled him.

"Then what did trouble you?"

He... became someone else when he fought back, when he deceived him, when he sealed off that airlock, and when he literally sucked the life out of Wiley. There was a moment then when he was perfectly content to let him die, to dispose of him for good, to make him suffer.

"It felt good, didn't it? Having the power over someone's life and death at your fingertips?"

"That wasn't me." Rick reiterated, finally giving a verbal answer.

"Are you kidding? That was absolutely you; you just never had the balls to let it out that way before."

"I overreacted."

"To what? The implication that you might've done the sex thing?" the doppelgänger scoffed, "Come on, people screw each other all the time, why should it be so special when you do it?"

"She's my sister!" Rick snapped back.

"... and?" the doppelgänger wasn't fazed in the slightest, "You don't regret having done it, do you?"

"It's in the past; long past." Rick moved forward, eyes front, trying to focus on where he was going instead of that incessant voice that wouldn't leave him well enough alone.

"That may be true, but past or no it seems to be cropping up here and now, so much so that even a dumb punk can get a rise out of you from it. That's not good form, you know."

"That wasn't the point!" Rick insisted, "He's a captive asset: someone who doesn't have the right to ask those kind of questions about me and get a straight answer. I'm the one who needed information, he's the one who had it. Critical information is supposed to go from the asset to the agent, from him to me, not the other way around. I tried the nice guy approach, and he treated it like a joke, like... like..."

"Like a game, my good man. Like a game." Rick's duplicate filled in with a knowing smirk, "You were bluffing, and he called you on your bluff. But you turned out to have an incredible ace up your sleeve, even if you didn't know it at the time."

The doppelgänger stepped in front of Rick, walking backward as Cooney continued forward. It didn't matter where he went, he'd only run into his thoughts again, and he was certain what they'd say next.

"When the dumb punk struck that precious little nerve of yours, it pushed you into a very dark place: into that unforgivable realm where serial killers, and psychopaths, and other complete monsters live and thrive. Down there, you can cast off your morals, your rules, and your other self-imposed limitations, letting you zero in and focus on your goal like a laser, and you let nothing stand in your way. Better yet, you can come back from that dark place when your work there is done: you can control it."

As a part of this agency, if you have to lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise disregard the established laws and morals for an operation, you're expected to do so. If you have to liaise and cooperate with individuals or institutions known to be corrupt, malevolent or otherwise twisted, you're expected to do so. If you have to completely destroy another person's life in order to keep a vital operation active, you are expected to do exactly that.

"You didn't go into Intelligence to play nice, Rick. You joined up because you know how to play dirty, because this is you, and you wouldn't want it any other way."

"I joined because I chose to." Rick said bluntly.

"Exactly!"

The duplicate waited cheerfully for Rick to say something else, but he didn't. As uncomfortable as it was to admit, even to his hallucinated doppelgänger, there was truth in what his manifested thoughts were telling him.

"Would you have killed him?" the duplicate asked out of nowhere.

"I needed information."

"Yeah, but if you didn't–"

"Then I wouldn't need to speak with him, and I wouldn't have been in that position in the first place."

"Now you're just dodging the question."

"I don't deal in hypothetical situations, only viable scenarios."

"Okay, that's a blatant lie and you know it."

"It's what I do." Rick answered with a smirk of his own, to which the doppelgänger rolled his eyes.

"Very funny." he drawled with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

"What can I say? I have my moments." he said with a shrug.

Rick soon made his way back to Cerberus's med-bay, where Wiley lay fast asleep on one of the beds. He specifically asked to be administered tranquilizers after the interview so he'd be able to sleep when it was over. The interview was... rough on him, rougher than there was any right to expect. Apparently the psychic shenanigans of Cerinian voodoo, real or imagined, were far more potent than they'd been given credit for. This alone easily made it the most bizarre case Rick had ever worked on, and likely one of the most bizarre cases LCI has ever worked on.

The hallucinated duplicate walked over and looked the pale slumbering wolf up and down, asking, "So, what do you plan to do with him when this is all over?"

"I don't know." Rick answered, focused on other things, "I'll figure that out when it is over."

With little else to do, he booted up a notebook computer that'd been left here, opened a word-processor, and started work on the standard LCI operations report.

[Operation: "Plowshare"]

[Report#: 6]

[Agent: Cooney, Richard, T.]

There are some things that simply did not go into these reports. The little stints with his chronic hallucinated duplicate was one such thing, and so were the emotions he felt during the whole thing: the anger, the outrage, the little hints of shame. The op reports are strictly information and procedure: what happened, and what did you find out? Administration wasn't interested in the nebulous, wishy-washy realm of feelings and subjective experiences, at least not in the raw paperwork. If they wanted to know about these things, they'd ask personally, and almost always in a face-to-face situation.

[This is an account of the sequence of events occurring aboard the privateer vessel Cerberus following the evacuation of refugees and some crew, and prior to the arrival of the vessel Schwarzwind. This account is transcribed according to the testimony of an eyewitness...]

-To Be Continued-

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FoxMotoX

Sry this is kinda late, I havent loged on in a while.

Somwhat of an awkward situation for Rick eh? As weird as it was reading it though I liked it, adds depth to the story.

Anyways I hope you keep posting, I enjoy reading the legacy above all fanfics :)

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chaos_Leader

Thanks for the kind words and support! It helps, it really does. Lucky for y'all I got another chapter to chew on.

-------------------------------

"He's in my head... That goddamn bluefur is in my head."

"Easy there–"

"How much do you know about Cerinians?"

"They're... different."

"Well no shit, genius, but how much do you really know? How much do you actually understand?"

"Why? Is it important?"

"When I start telling you strange things, when I start telling you about things that shouldn't be possible, I need you to promise that you won't think I'm insane, or just making up random crap. I need you to believe I'm not lying."

"All I want is the truth; your truth."

"Don't say I didn't warn you..."

/

-------------------------------------------------------

低置ã«å‘³æ–¹

Friends in Low Places

-------------------------------------------------------

/

It hurt.

It was worse than any torture he'd been subjected to, any pain resistance conditioning he had to undergo, but this was a different kind of pain. It went deeper, cut harder, flooded every nook and cranny of his mind, shredded any sense of awareness. For a few moments at least, he didn't know where he was, what he was doing, or how that pain got there. Then it came back to him.

He was strapped to an uncomfortable examination bed, in a spartan medical bay, aboard Cerberus. There were two people standing over him: a skinny avian and an older ram, Adrian and Malcolm were their names.

There is nothing you can do.

No! No more! He couldn't listen to that voice anymore. Nothing was worth what he put everyone through. Fuck him! Fuck his revenge! Fuck his blood-money!

"You... you have to stop." he managed to say. His voice came out gasping, ravaged by what the drugs had done to him...

Holy Hell, what have the drugs done to him?

He could feel some of the deliriant effects of Substance D, some kind of amphetamines, a few others. There were some neurostimulators in there also, probably to keep him 'grounded' in reality, such as it was. He could still hear the others speak, see the room around him, and his memories were more or less intact. This made sense, the Cerberus crew wanted to question him, not send him on a drug-trip for the ages.

"We're not stopping anything until you give us a reason to, you know this." the ram reminded him.

"The ship!" you goddamn idiot! He wanted to add that on, but didn't, "You have to stop the ship! Stop it!"

Whatever other effects the psychoactive cocktail had, it did at least break free of that 'rut' the bluefur had on him. He just didn't care at this point anymore.

"I will do no such thing my friend, not without a damn good reason." that stubborn old ram said in his dull, patronizing tone, "Do you happen to have a damn good reason for me?"

Oh for the love of–

They won't believe you.

Fuck you!

"He knows... He's waiting..." gotta make the words work, gotta make them come out right. Those drugs certainly didn't help with the speaking. "He knows and he's waiting!"

"Who?" Malcolm asked.

You are nothing– no, worse than nothing, you are a worthless coward ...

"Urrggnn! You have to stop! Now! or it'll be too late!"

This wasn't the drugs, not this time. The bluefur was in his head now, doing hell only knew what. He could handle drugs and torture and such, but he was never conditioned for this–

The two others were saying something, but he couldn't make out anything they said, not over the domineering voice in his head.

And now, you will suffer for it.

And another spike drove into him, hitting him harder than even those crazy drugs they injected in him before. 'icy daggers in the head' would've been a picnic compared to this. There simply weren't words, to describe this. He didn't even hear his own voice scream, so smothered by whatever the hell was happening in his head.

He didn't remember blacking out. It was sort of like slipping into sleep, drifting into a dream without knowing realizing you've dozed off, but not really. For one, it hurt, like hell, probably worse so. After some time, it happened the other way, and he phased back into that slightly delirious state of consciousness.

Mercifully, that damned bluefur had finally shut up, and his mental fingers finally left him alone. Good, but also bad, because this meant he was focusing his attention on something else.

The effects of the drugs were still dancing in his head, sure, but this swirling delirium was a welcome step down from whatever it was the bluefur did to him. Were those alarms in the background? Maybe a conversation? Yes, it was a conversation.

"Ooh, this Harrow fella's a real spookster, ain't he?" the ram said. He sounded frustrated, agitated.

"You keep trying to get something from our guy here." He heard the bird said, "I'll head down to engineering and–"

Wait–

"No!" He remembered now, this was how Harrow picked them off. This was where his attention was focused. Come on. Form words. Spit them out... fucking drugs, "don't do it, don't take the bait."

"I'm going down there." Adrian said, not really caring. What will it take to get these assholes to listen? "We're sitting ducks until we reset the reactor failsafe."

That's gonna be the least of your problems in a minute. He began forming words to speak, but–

"Wait just a minute, Ardy" the ram stopped Adrian, "Now, you'd best explain yourself son."

Finally, you stuck-up old coot, you took the hint! Congratulations!

"He knows, and he's waiting..." Oh come on, they know this already. Complete the thought, use words, spit it out. "He'll pick you all off one by one from the shadows. That's how he works."

"You mean he's already aboard the ship?" Adrian asked. Um, no shit. Of course he's already aboard.

"How did he get aboard?" Malcolm demanded, "Where is he?"

Hell if I know. Broadly speaking, he's aboard your damned ship, but whatever, "I don't know, but if you take the bait, he will be there, and he will kill whoever you send."

"That's not a problem." Adrian assured, "I'll bring backup–"

"Then he won't be there!" Yeah right, sure, take this creep for a fool, "He's not stupid, he won't spring his trap if you just try to trap him back. He'll slink away and try something else... something worse."

"How in hell is he going to know?" the ram questioned again, growing more irritated with each passing second, "Who are his accomplices?"

Really? You guys are still thinking in conventional terms? How in hell to explain what he does so they'll believe? He knew what Harrow does, he's seen the patterns, just not the details of how. Move! Time is a factor! Words! Speak!

"He'll know, he'll just know, and he'll hunt you all down and knock each and every one of you until there's nobody left... and then he'll kill me too." may as well go for the sympathy card, for what it's worth.

"Then cooperate with us, help us." the bird said, catching on to this, "We can protect you."

Well great job so far guys! Here I am, whacked out on hell only knows what you injected into my system, getting mind-screwed by some Cerinian dickwad with a chip on his shoulder–

"No, you can't, not from him..." If they'd experienced what he did firsthand, if they'd known, they'd change their tune, "Shit, you can't even protect yourselves."

Wait, did they know he's Cerinian?

"We'll just see about that." the ram replied with his stubborn confidence. See how far that'll get you.

"You have no idea what you chumps are up against, do you?" How dull are these guys? Did they not know what it meant to go up against this creep? "Harrow is Cerinian, a damned bluefur, and a freaking powerful one too."

/

"I know what happened here, skip ahead. Tell me how you figured into the crew's plans."

"Hmph, I didn't."

/

"Alright..." the ram accepted, letting out a gruff sigh, "I take it you've got some kind of plan in the works?"

Adrian turned to the white wolf, suspicion glaring from those eyes, "First: we sedate him."

"What? Hell no!" he protested.

"You're a liability, just like you said." the skinny avian said in a dry voice while he prepared another autoinjector tube, "If Harrow is in your head like you say, then I'm not going to take any chances with what that means. I'm putting you out." and he emptied yet another dose into his system.

"You're making a mistake! Detox me! Let me on my feet you... you..."

He grew tired, very tired, and everything began to fade into a dull blackness.

/

"They knocked me out like a light, put me out of the way. I don't know for how long, but I didn't stay that way though."

/

The first thing he remembered was a voice, that voice, and the one word it said without saying anything.

Awaken.

With that word, he gradually returned to reality, growing aware, grounding himself in the world he found himself in. He wasn't strapped to the examination bed his time, not anymore, but was instead laying face-down on the med-bay floor. The bruises and sore spots he felt let him know it wasn't a gentle fall getting there. His head cleared up too, with the effects of those drugs waning away, but there was something else.

His slowly returning sight soon found a pair of feet in front of him. They were canid, strapped into a pair of athletic sandals, and the fur on them was blue.

"Stand up." Harrow ordered, and the pale wolf pulled himself onto his feet.

The Cerinian didn't stand quite as high him, but the shorter stature did nothing to diminish his presence. Harrow stood there, feet firmly rooted to the floor and arms folded across his chest. The hood of his sweatshirt dangled off his shoulders, displaying the razor sharp vulpine features of his face, and the laser glare of his eyes that bore straight through the wolf in front of him.

"I'll admit I'm disappointed." Harrow told him, his voice dripping with disgust, "You were stronger than the others; smarter, cunning, fearless, unscrupulous. You were ready–"

/

"'You were ready'? What did he mean by that?"

"I'm... not sure. There were rumors, but there always are with Cerinians–"

"What rumors?"

"Ghost stories, more like... The best of us who did work for Harrow –the smartest, most skilled– sometimes they would just... disappear. They'd go out on a job one day, and never come back. most of us didn't think much of it, it's a tough life we scratch out, and people die or get caught all the time. Somehow though, I couldn't shake the feeling that something just wasn't right about it. I mean, the best got to be 'the best' because they kept coming back, they always did, even when it seemed like they wouldn't. For them to just drop off the map like that, without leaving a trace... It just wasn't right."

"In my experience, if something doesn't seem right, it usually isn't."

"I know, that's why I was done, that's why I wasn't going to do this anymore. I knew I was getting to that point, that 'elite' position, and I didn't want that to happen to me. After this last raid, I was just going to walk away from it all. The Cerberus kink just gave me an excuse."

"These raider gangs just don't let their members walk away like that. They keep track of you, hunt you down, especially the bigger ones."

"And that's a chance I was willing to take."

"If you'd have gotten free, if you'd made it out, what would you have done?"

"Anything else, anything at all."

"You were truly that desperate to get away?"

"If it's so hard to believe, then let me finish, and you can judge me then."

"Right. So Harrow caught up with you, but he didn't kill you."

"No. I fought back..."

/

Before the Cerinian could finish the sentence, the wolf shot his hand forward in for a knuckle-strike to the throat.

His blow didn't connect.

Somehow Harrow simply wasn't 'there' when the fist arrived. Instead, the blue furred fox had already advanced forward, catching and twisting his wrist in an arm lock. The Cerinian pushed back, using the wrist-lock to force him off balance, following with a sweep kick at the back of his knee, sending the wolf down on his back.

Harrow was already on top before he hit the ground, with one foot smashing down on his tail, the other pinned on his chest. That exotic staff weapon of his appeared again, with the pronged, red-glowing end pointed straight at him, mere inched from his face.

The Cerinian didn't even miss a beat, "But look at you now: pathetic."

"Just shut the hell up and kill me, you sick bastard." he spat back at Harrow, "That's why you're here, so get on with it already."

The Cerinian paused a moment, considering the possibility it seemed, when–

"Come on! He went this way!" a muffled voice shouted. It sounded like one of the Cerberus crew, likely Malcolm by the gruff voice.

After hearing this, a sly little smirk developed on Harrow's face, "No." he said, almost whispered, and gave a small shake of his head, "I don't think I will."

When the Cerinian looked at him again, his eyes gleamed with that eerie pale light, flickering, flashing, like hundreds of little lightning flashes snapping on and off, one after the other. The headache started coming back again too, building, squeezing, crushing bringing out a an agony all its own. There might've even been a sound with it, a noise, something that like a staticky, writhing screech.

It became nearly impossible to sense what was real amidst the scrambled senses. There were images, flashes of a corridor, glimpses of the Cerberus crew, an occasional snippet of someone saying something, but it didn't make sense. Nothing seemed real or fake, true or false. Everything got chopped, blended, and smashed together in one great confused cacophony of the senses.

Then one voice, one phrase boomed out over the splattered everything.

Let me show you just how weak your 'saviors' truly are.

His vision cleared up, as well as other senses, and thoughts too.

He found himself in the familiar central corridor of Cerberus, running at a pace just fast enough to not be too winded. His body felt strong, robust, but stiffened by the years. The carbine in his hands felt comfortable, but restless, itchy.

There were others with him. When he glanced back over his shoulder, he found a thin, long-beaked avian in a long coat toting a truly wicked shotgun. Next to him was a fierce eyed ashen furred leopardess, sporting a set of utilitarian, military style fatigues, and grasping a sturdy assault rifle in her battle-hardened hands.

Where are you, you little bluefur twink? There's only so many places you can hide, and we know every single one of them...

He was thinking thoughts that weren't his, saying words he didn't speak, in a voice that wasn't his own, all while looking through eyes that didn't belong to him. It felt, for lack of a better explanation, strange...

The lights went out, plunging the central corridor in a sudden darkness.

This wasn't right. Nobody had hit the switch. This wasn't supposed to be happening.

"Ardy!" he barked at the avian's silhouette behind him, almost lost in the blackness, "What the hell is this?"

"I don't know." Adrian replied, his face eerily highlighted by the light from his wrist-computer's display, "It's almost like something hacked the system, but that shouldn't be possible– "

"Then figure it out!" Malcolm cut in, "It's bad enough we got a psychic psycho rampaging aboard, we do not need this crap on top of it."

"I'll check out the mainframe." Adrian said in a placating sigh.

"Chaks, go with and cover him." the ram instructed, "I need a word or two with our 'friend'."

With a pair of acknowledging nods, Chakori Adrian departed further down the central corridor, toward the ship's mainframe, leaving Malcolm alone.

No! Don't split up the team! That's where he'll get you! Listen dammit!

Ease up there, I'm not doing this alone. I'm going into the med bay, jolting him awake with a shot of adrenaline, and getting him on his feet. He knows the most about this Harrow creep, and if he's even halfway decent in a fight, he'll be helpful here. Holy Lyla, why the did I even let Ardy dope the guy out in the first place?

He arrived outside the med-bay with little trouble, even with the sudden darkness. Old Mal could walk the entirety of Cerberus blindfolded, a little darkness wasn't going to slow him down or get in the way.

The door to the med bay slid open, but the lights still weren't on. Someone walked out, canid by the look of his dim silhouette. It had to be the wolf, and so it was.

Wait. Something just ain't right...

"How'd you bust out of your restraints?"

It isn't right! That's not him! Look closer!

He... changed. It wasn't him anymore. The actual outline of the figure had altered from the wolf, to the smaller, sharper figure that belonged to the little Cerinian creep.

Without any hesitation, Malcolm fired a slew of shots from his carbine at Harrow, but nothing happened. Harrow just... disappeared.

It's an illusion! He's getting in your mind, making you see things that aren't there! Don't fall for it.

"You're screwing with my head here, aren't you." the ram observed aloud in a bitter voice.

"And it's so easy to do to a washed up old goat like you." the Cerinian's voice responded. It felt more real this time, not just a voice from nowhere, but from an actual somewhere, somewhere close.

"Really?" Mal scoffed in faux fascination, "And what led you to that conclusion, if you don't mind me asking?"

"You're jaded, temperamental, stubborn, set in your ways." the Cerinian explained,"Your mind is about as predictable and inflexible as a stone."

He's nearby. He's trying to provoke you into doing something stupid.

No shit. Now shut up, you're creeping me out, and you're not really helping... whoever you are.

"Clearly you haven't been around me much–"

"Because your 'grumpy old captain' routine is all an act?" Harrow cut him off.

Alright, fine. You want to help, you mysterious little voice, tell me where the hell this little bluefur twink is hiding.

I don't know–

Not helping–

I... Provoke him, force him to make the first move. He's bold, he's sure of himself, and not afraid to show it. Make him show himself to you, because he will, and use that boldness against him.

Worth a shot...

"Well it's complicated." Malcolm replied with a shrug, "But I'm sure a fastidious brain-picker like yourself would've easily caught onto such paradoxical mental anomalies, right? That, or you're just trying to insult me, provoke me into a predictable response that you'd easily exploit."

"Who says I need to trick the likes of you?"

Harrow's voice definitely came in real, with direction, and a place. It was still dark in the corridor, but a new shape came into being from the dimness from where the Cerinian's voice spoke. That was him alright: strutting down the middle of the corridor like he owned the place, this time toting his precious weird fighting stick thing.

Blasters weren't gonna work on this creep, not the normal way, not with that cute little force-field thing his stick makes. There were other ways to deal with that though, one of which Malcolm was lifting off of his belt, and pulling the safety pin from.

"And furthermore, nobody, and I mean nobody, gets to call me a call me 'goat'."

* Click *

He released the arming lever. The grenade was active now, and would detonate in a matter of seconds, no turning back.

"Ever."

Malcolm pitched the grenade straight at the Cerinian, who was more than ready to simply swat it away with a flourishing swing from his staff–

* Bang! *

The blackened central corridor flashed for a moment with white light brighter than any star. The heavy snap noise it made kept echoing through the ship, and kept on ringing in the ears several seconds after that.

Just as the light winked out, with the shock of the flashbang still lingering, the older ram charged straight toward where Harrow was, letting his carbine hang from his shoulder by its sling. Judging by the last fading light, the Cerinian had staggered back a little, hunched down, with a hand shielding his eyes.

No mercy.

Thundering down the corridor, Malcolm passed just to the left of Harrow, shooting his hand into him, clutching the Cerinian by the throat with enough force and momentum behind the ram's running bulk to lift him off the ground. Not a moment later Malcolm pitched Harrow down, slamming him to the deck on his back with a thud that rang and reverberated through the corridor long afterward.

"Gotta hand it to you, pain in the rear as you are, you sure come up with some hammy lines 'I am Harrow!'" Malcolm said half panting, half laughing as he ripped the staff weapon from the Cerinian's weakened grip and tossed it aside, "You know what else you are: done."

Malcom brought the carbine to bear on Harrow, and fired a spray of shots into his hapless opponent–

Nothing happened. The weapon didn't fire. The trigger clicked, but the carbine didn't respond with its torrent of blasterfire, only silence.

The Cerinian started laughing when he looked up at Malcom's baffled face, which quickly turned to rage as the ram went for another approach: using the useless firearm as a bludgeon. He jammed the carbine's buttstock down at Harrow's face, who grabbed the stock and diverted the blow past his head where it struck the deck with a clang. In quick response, the Cerinian twisted up and shot a thrusting kick into Malcolm's armpit, forcing him to release the carbine with a grunt as he backed away.

Harrow kicked up to his feet easy, a manic grin in his teeth, and a pair of ghostly lights igniting in his eyes.

"What the hell is this?" Malcolm demanded, "You can't be on your feet, not after the beatdown I gave you!"

The Cerinian took in a deep breath and flexed a few muscles, and let out an easy laugh, "But yet..."

The ram blinked his eyes, not believing them, and Harrow was gone.

"You fell for it, as I knew you would." the Cerinian's voice came from another place now, the other side of the corridor, where the staff weapon lay discarded. But when Malcolm turned to look, the staff was in Harrow's hands again, spinning gently in his grip as he smiled back with that carefree grin of his.

He had just about enough of this, and it was time for it to end.

"Get your filthy voodoo fingers out of my head!" and Mal charged at the Cerinian, fueled at that moment by one singular

hatred.

With Malcolm Aries bearing down on him, Harrow fired several blazing red shots from the staff, lighting both of them in blood-red flashes of fire. But when the shots found their mark, the rampaging ram ignored every single one of them, and kept right on coming. The shots stung and burned against his skin, but wasn't enough to hold him back, so focused he was on the one singular goal of destroying the little Cerinian who'd molded his mind like putty.

And for a moment, if only just a moment, there was a flash of true fear in Harrow's eyes as Malcolm came on top of him.

But it was only for a moment.

Just as Malcolm swatted at the staff to knock it away, the Cerinian twisted back and away, spinning and then thrusting the sharp end of the staff at the ram's neck.

The speed of the run combined with the quick thrust, concentrated at the small point of the staff was more than enough to pierce through his throat.

There wasn't any pain, not then, but everything seemed to stop, to freeze in place at that turning moment when realization began to sink in.

After stopping in his tracks, the first thing Malcolm noticed was how awkward the first breath he took felt. Then when he couched up a mouthful of blood, not all of it came out of his mouth or nose. Some of the hot fluid ran straight from his neck, and down the gold-colored shaft that had skewered it.

He was going to die, and very soon with the amount of blood it felt like he was losing. Anything that wasn't running out or coughed up would just go down and fill the lungs, and he'd drown in his own blood, provided he didn't black out before then.

Shouldn't have sent Scott away. He'd have been handy in a fight–

No, gotta contact the others, gotta let them know–

Malcolm tried to activate the comm on his headset, but his hand was trembling, felt weak. It wouldn't go up. He tried to take a deeper breath, but was only racked by a fit of wet, sickly coughs, and more of the blood came out. My god, how much was there? It just kept coming out, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't take even one little breath without spitting up even more blood–

The Cerinian tore his staff from Malcolm's ravaged throat, and the ram's buckling, otherwise strong legs gave out underneath him. He collapsed to his knees under his own weight and quickly failing strength, forcing him to look up at Harrow like some sort of...

Well... Damn... Kinda figured it was gonna end like this some day. If only it wasn't this freaking twink that finally did it.

With one last effort, Malcolm Aries worked up a mouthful of blood and whatever else, and spit it down onto the Cerinian's exposed feet, miring that blue fur of his with the fruit of his exploits: the blood of honest folk.

And he was gone

To think you actually believed you could help this wretch.

He gasped down a breath so great and so fast it felt like his chest would burst open, and he continued heaving more lungfuls in and out one after another. His heart beat so fast that it almost felt like a drum-roll. His fur was standing up straight on end, damp with cold sweat. He found his hands clutching at his throat, fully expecting them to be soaked in his own blood, and shocked to find them clean.

/

He made me feel them die. He hooked my mind up with theirs; put every thought they had in my head, made me feel every scratch of pain they felt, every bit of anger, fear, frustration, and regret. Sometimes, I didn't even know who I was.

/

He was dead, he'd just had that staff stuck in there and–

These were canid hands, not his–

No, the hands were his. This was his body, not the other's.

His eyes were working again. He was back in the med bay, sprawled on the ground

"What are you doing this for?"

Figure it out.

Gotta figure it out.

No one should be able to hack into Cerberus, no one, and certainly not the Cerinian.

Adrian stood at the mainframe's main interface terminal with Chakori at his back while he did everything in his power to solve this puzzle. The self-diagnostics programs were already slogging through the computer systems, but he suspected that they wouldn't find anything. There didn't seem to be any immediate telltale signs of a worm or virus in the system, no tweaked coding –none that he didn't do himself at least– no traces of phantom programing, and all the interface points looked clean; no signs of a forced entry.

It didn't make any sense. It was almost as if–

His thoughts were jostled by a noise from outside, a dull thud carried through the bulkheads.

Chakori brought her weapon up, scanning her surroundings for any sign of trouble, while Adrian went to bring up a series of internal surveillance feeds into the mainframe terminal. It didn't respond though, not like it should have. It just displayed the "processing" icon, thinking, waiting.

This wasn't right.

"Mal?" the avian asked over the comm, "Mal what's going on out there?"

No answer, just silent nothing.

"I'll go check on him." Chakori told him in the cold, calculated, hauntingly level voice she used when she meant business. Without another word, the leopardess slunk silently out of the mainframe and into the corridor, assault rifle raised and ready.

Adrian considered protesting, keeping everyone together, but ultimately decided against it. If Harrow was going to set traps, pick them off one by one, Then let him think he has that advantage. Let him believe he's got the upper hand, only to blunder into a counter trap.

The avian turned on and attached a flashlight under the barrel of his shotgun, then reached into one of the many pockets of his coat and pulled out a small handful of specialty hand-packed shotgun shells, which he began to load into his combat shotgun. They were flechette cartridges, bundles of little razor blades packed into standard shotgun casing. The things they did when that kind of shot hit, when the swarm of biting, piercing, slicing blades met flesh, were among the most gruesome things that could come out of a firearm: like filleting a face with a dozen deep-cutting knife slashes in an instant. Adrian had been waiting for an especially sick bastard who deserved that ind of fate, and this Harrow character certainly earned it.

He took his mind off the computers, off the technology. That's where he'd want him to be thinking, to distract him, to sneak up on him unawares. That's not going to happen. There's only one way in or out of the mainframe, and if the Cerinian creep wanted in, he'd have to pull something better than parlor tricks to get past.

"I'll admit I'm impressed." Adrian said aloud, knowing full well that Harrow would be able to hear him, wherever he was, "What did you do?"

"It's simple, really." The Cerinian's voice came through on his comm headset of all places. Whether he was actually connected or just screwing with Adrian's mind wasn't clear though, "These machines –these computer systems– they communicate only in the simplest absolutes. There is no nuance to them the way mind is, no subtleties to puzzle over. Once you learn the language they speak, the codes, the patterns of such tiny pulses, the machines will obey orders without question. They do not ask why, or who; they simply do."

"Any hacker worth their bits knows that." the avian retorted while he kept his eyes looking for any movement, scanning the entrance with the light he shone into the dark, "What makes you so special?"

"Why don't you tell me?" Harrow mocked back, "You've already seen it, you already know: I can control this vessel now just as easily as you can."

That's when it hit him.

"You don't mean–"

/

"Wait, are you saying he hacked into Cerberus's systems?"

"Sort of, but it's not like that. He has a way to use his... 'psychic mojo' to interact with technology directly."

"How does he do it?"

"I don't know, he doesn't tell anyone his secrets. All I know is that he's figured out a way to... interfere with tech, to use his Cerinian hocus pocus to screw with electronics, manipulate them, give false positives, that sort of thing. That's how he was able to sneak aboard and remain undetected, even with security feeds."

/

Without wasting a second, Adrian scrambled in the command to activate the Lethe procedure, to put the ship to sleep, and Cerberus obliged. The whir and hum of computer machinery that normally dominated the mainframe went quiet. The thrum and gentle vibrations of the engines and power plant died out. The ship became so quiet, so suddenly, like no other sound would be heard again.

"What did you do?" Harrow's voice was real now, not some detached bystander inside the headset speaker, "The patterns, they've changed, gone silent."

"I took away the one advantage you had." Adrian answered, "You don't have control anymore, do you?"

"And you believe that's my only advantage?" The Cerinian stepped through the entrance into the light, staff in-hand.

"It's the only one that matters."

* Boom! *

He fired a shell full of flechette where Harrow stood, but he'd already moved aside. He didn't vanish and 'reappear' like last time, just moved quicker, or seemed like it.

The Cerinian had already fired back a volley of fire-like shots from his staff, and Adrian had only just barely enough time to duck around one of the server towers, into the tight guts of the mainframe.

This was the most ideal situation under the circumstances: force Harrow into the tight places, into a shooting gallery with nowhere to hide. Every corner he turned, he pointed back, ready to blast the Cerinian full of flechettes when he made his move. The two of them exchanged fire at almost every opportunity, but both were out of the way before either hit their mark...

The deadly game of cat/mouse was expending more shells than it should be. At some point, he'd have to find an opportunity to reload, or find another option–

Time's up. This last avenue was a corner, and the magazine had just emptied. Adrian fished another fistful of shells from his pocket to replenish the weapon, but it was too late. The Cerinian had already turned the last corner, staff at the ready.

"Stop!" Adrian commanded.

He had one last ace up his sleeve, and now was the time to use it.

"You're not going kill me." the avian tech stated this as fact, "I've got the only means to reverse what I did; to wake up the ship. You kill me, and it's gone. This ship will be nothing but a drifting hulk, and you'll be trapped aboard with no means to communicate, or escape."

He still had the pistol on his belt, hiding inside the coat. He'd just need a moment of distraction...

"What makes you think I care?" and a blizzard of blazing blood-red shots screamed from the staff into Adrian.

The first one struck, and burned in such a scorching pain, as if he'd been jabbed in the face with a hot soldering iron. The next one blinded him, winking his sight out in a burning blaze of red and white. The shots kept right on coming, like a torrent of jagged, white-hot daggers, each one hotter and more painful than the last. It kept building on top of itself, and it felt as if his head had burst into flame.

There was nothing left now but the pain. Adrian Crane had lost all awareness of everything, of where he was, who he was, what was happening. His entire existence was defined by the agony tearing him apart, and punctuated by the guttural, bone-wracking cry the reflexes of his collapsing mind demanded he scream.

But then his lungs ran out of air, and those very same reflexes demanded that he take a breath.

His sight returned with his breath. He'd covered his face with his hands, trembling hands, canid hands.

That wasn't him, he was here, but the pain stayed, lingering like an echo, a ringing bell that wouldn't go away. No matter how distant it seemed, it still stung, still cut at him, still burned at him.

/

"Are you okay? You're shaking."

"The telling makes me... 'remember', sometimes more vividly than I'd like to. I still have flashes sometimes, of their last thoughts, their dying agonies. They may be dead, but can still feel them dying."

"We can take a break if you need–"

"No. You wanted to hear my story and goddammit, I'm going to tell it."

"Tell me what happened next. Tell me about Chakori."

"She's a fighter, but she's so much more too..."

/

She ran.

Only moments after she discovered Malcolm's still warm body did the muffled shotgun blast ring out, answered quickly by the blazing screeches of Harrow's weapon. And so she ran through Cerberus's corridors, with only her breath, her thundering heartbeat, and the ever-nearing clamor of combat to beak Lethe's silence. It wasn't an especially large ship, only a frigate, but the distance between the med bay and mainframe couldn't have felt longer, and the time to travel between them couldn't have felt more rushed.

She ran, but she wasn't fast enough.

Adrian's dying screams, his wail of pain, stopped her dead in her tracks, and she was only a few feet from the mainframe.

Harrow had killed him. That arrogant, bloodthirsty showoff had snuffed out another one of the closest, longest running friends Chakori ever had.

Focus.

She could have broken down. She could have given up. She could have succumbed to the despair, the rage, the grief that her instincts implored. By all rights she'd earned the chance to; and in some ways, she did.

Balance.

It was something of a paradox as these things often are: to immerse yourself in the emotions, but to maintain control of them, to allow the emotions to fuel your actions, your resolve, but to never lose sight of the goal, to keep all that pain and anguish harnessed and contained.

Control.

Chakori edged to the wall of the corridor, to the edge of the jammed-open door of the mainframe, drew her heavy, forward deflected knife from its scabbard. It rested there easily, as if it were a natural extension of her hand.

There was a set of quiet footsteps, emerging from the mainframe. The Cerinian probably already knew she was there, was aware of her state of mind, and was just as ready for the encounter. Momnets later, Harrow stepped out into the corridor, reeking of death. It was dark, and he was little more than a silhouette, but she didn't need to see him to know where he was, or predict his actions.

A jagged spike of rage flared up within her upon seeing the Cerinian. It wasn't ordinary rage though, it was rage fueled by need: the need to avenge Malcolm and Adrian, to make their needless sacrifices not be in-vain, for her to make up for recent shortfalls. It all boiled down to a need to destroy the one called 'Harrow', and it threatened to consumer her, to overwhelm all the discipline that she'd made her norm...

Focus. Balance. Control.

Rage and Discipline can work together, as one. Just as fire powers the engine, so too does rage give power to martial expertise, to reflexes, and refine discipline. Focused on her task, and balanced in a tranquil fury, Chakori took control and assumed a fighting stance...

"I do not fear you."

The Cerinian didn't even turn to look at her. He just gave a satisfied nod as he responded, "Good."

It wasn't clear who struck the first blow between them, but the battle started fast, and didn't let up.

Every move, every strike, every maneuver flowed straight into the next. There were no more lines between offense and defense, between thought and action. The action simply happened in direct response the other's action...

In the heat and intensity of single combat, Chakori's rage refined and crystallized into a refusal. She refused to be defeated, refused to die, refused to let Harrow get away with it...

/

"I... can't remember anything after that, not before I blacked out. He... cut me out of the loop."

/

It was quiet when he came to, so hauntingly quiet, and dark. There was a scent of death lingering, a mingling of raw and burnt.

He had to survive.

So he stood himself up on weary feet, and started through...

/

"I spent the next few hours, days, working to survive, refusing to die... Those where the last thoughts in my head before I blacked out: Chakori's determination, her resolve to not be defeated, to not die. Fast forward a little later, when it cooled off and I was almost freezing to death, and that's how you found me."

"You know, I'm just throwing out speculation here, but it almost seems like, in some weird perverted way, Harrow may have saved your life. He made you feel Chakori's thoughts just like everyone else, with the intent to make you feel her die, but she didn't play along, and her determination leeched into you. He accidentally 'imprinted' that unyielding determination to survive, and so you have."

"Now dope me."

"What?"

"Knock me out. You're stocked with tranquilizers and such. Use them on me."

"Why?"

"Do you know what it's like to constantly relive someone else's dying moments in your dreams? Do you know what it's like to take someone else's thoughts into you as your own? You start thinking you're them, you lose track of who you really are for a moment... I want them out of my head, all of them... I... I want it to end. Can you do that?"

"..."

"Can you?"

"... I can't promise a cure, but I will see what can be done to help."

/

------------------------------

See a person's methods. Observe his motives. Examine that in which he rests. How can a person conceal his character?

-Confucius-

------------------------------

/

Serge Noire arrived aboard Cerberus with Rachelle Cooney shortly after. For the most part it was a fairly dull event, and most things went precisely as expected. Serge didn't say much, but did briefly reminisce with a short, "it has been some time." He walked Cerberus's dimmed corridors as if walking down a forgotten alley of memory lane. It was a subtle shift, but for Serge, even subtle shifts were as different as night and day.

He gained access to Cerberus's mainframe with no trouble, reactivated the systems, arousing the ship from its deep and troubled slumber, making it ready to ride proud once more. Rachelle plugged in, downloaded everything she needed –namely: the missing shuttles tracking beacon parameters, data collected from the smart bug, as well as any records that might be of use. When it was all done, she wiped the ship's storage files as clean as she could make it, just in case.

All the while, Serge simply watched, or listened, or muttered something under his breath while he surveyed the damage caused by the battle: the shattered server units, warped casings, frayed electronics and other such. It was of little consequence, given the automated redundancy built into these kinds of units: if you break one part, the suite automatically reroutes the data stream through to an undamaged sector. In essence, one would have to disrupt the entire system to cripple it beyond repair.

With the tracking beacon parameters, it should be easy enough to locate the missing shuttle, and hopefully provide a much needed lead on a trail that was running close to cold.

But, only most things went as expected.

Rick Cooney stopped by the mainframe with Wiley, just before they were about to depart Cerberus for good.

The Cooneys hadn't mentioned Wiley or Harrow to Serge, only that Cerberus was useless while Lethe was engaged. Even so, the twins had their suspicions that Noire knew more than he let on, or was at least curious enough to investigate for himself. It was the game of secrets in its truest form: how much does he know? How much does he know we know? How much is he choosing to let on? Questions, but too few answers.

One way Rick had decided to probe for answers was to bring the wolf who let himself be known as 'Wiley' into Serge's sight, to let the shadowy patriarch become aware of the troubled renegade, and observe his reaction.

The hunch: Serge was a teacher– a trainer of assassins, hitmen, spies, and black market dirty-work doers of the highest caliber. The thing about teachers though is that they have patterns, traces of their methods that pass through to their students. Serge's kind were few: enough so that picking up on patterns and sorting them according to known instructor's methods was reasonably easy. Wiley's tactics, his strategic choices, his careful concealment, his ruthless decisiveness and merciless execution, while a little unrefined, pulled itself toward this hunch.

And so Rick Cooney entered Cerberus's mainframe with Wiley in tow, just as Rachelle was wrapping up her part of the operation.

When Serge and Wiley met, there was a reaction.

Wiley flinched, puzzled. He recognized Serge, that much was certain as he eyed the older, dark-furred canid with a certain familiarity. It was a mixture of surprise, puzzlement, a trace of fear, and strong underpinnings of reverence. 'What is he doing here?' he was no doubt thinking. 'What was this all about? What ind of crap did Rick pull?'

Serge however had a markedly different response. He paused, eyebrow raised in curiosity, sharp eyes scrutinizing every inch of the pale wolf in a series of glances, and finger stroking his chin in thought, complete with his trademark, "Hm..."

A long, awkward silence permeated the mainframe chamber then, with both Rick and Rachelle Cooney looking on, waiting for the next action.

After careful mental calculations amidst the awkwardness, almost reveling in it as he considered the stakes and the play-field of that ubiquitous deadly game of secrets, Serge made his play.

He spoke to Wiley, walking right up to him, but made absolutely sure that the Cooneys could hear, "There is an older vulpine woman: she lives in Port Seyid, Zoness, north district, Sol Nascente apartments, unit number 513."

"Excuse me?" the wolf replied, even more puzzled than before, and sparking closer interest from the Cooneys.

"Her name is Cassandra Alexi," Serge explained, "and she might be able to help with your... troublesome Cerinian friend."

Rachelle stepped in at hearing this, drawn in by Serge's revelation, "I never said anything about a Cerinian–"

"Hm." He cocked his head to the side, returning Rachelle's prying gaze with a tiny knowing smirk, "I'd say more, but she will tell you more than I."

It was difficult to tell exactly how much he'd kept to himself, being the sort that habitually plays close to the chest, but there was enough sincerity in there. He knew about Harrow and what he could do, likely knew about the Amity attack, and obviously knew the fate of the Cerberus crew. There was one inflection that seeped through his flinty voice, one imperfection: a small twinge of anger, of disdain, the need for revenge.

In Rick's mind, the scenario revealed itself: Harrow wronged Serge Noire, betrayed him somehow– and then it clicked into place. Skilled and talented as he was, Harrow didn't learn how to do most of those things on his own, he was taught by someone. The methods of Harrow described: they were somewhat exotic simply by his nature, but infused with a set of method-patterns that Rick recognized in both Wiley, and in Serge himself–

Serge must have seen traces of these thoughts happening in Rick, to whom he nodded and said, "You know what you need to do."

"I'll see that it's done." Rick responded with a cool head, giving Serge the same knowing nod.

-To be Continued-

Author Notes:

Whew... This was, for me, the most painful and most difficult chapter I have written in recent memory.

I hope you can understand: I killed –brutally murdered– OCs that I very easily could have created their own entire spin-off arc for. I have invested that much effort into each of their characters, to give them depth, to give them life. Killing them off, and in the visceral way that happens here, takes a lot out of me; more than I expected it would. It's almost like I'm killing my own kids.

Just needed to unload that, thanks for bearing with me.

I know these later chapters have been brutal, but I promise the next chapter will be an easier, breather chapter. Believe me, I'll need it at least as much as you.

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chaos_Leader

魂魄を追ã„ã‹ã‘ã¦

Chasing Shadows

\

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/

The days that followed the return to Cerberus, to the ghost ship of the damned... to call it "awkward" would be putting it far too lightly.

Phoenix was right about one thing: he was fired. Caius Company had terminated James McCloud's contract faster than a witty remark comes out of a deadpan snarker. There wasn't a whole lot of fuss about it; no two weeks notice, no messy negotiations, no needlessly verbose discharge letter, just a simple impersonal message that told McCloud that he no longer worked for Caius Company, and was no longer entitled to any benefits or obligations that entailed. That was it, nothing more, an otherwise promising career in private sector soldiery cut off from the company like an infected limb. In hindsight though, a career in Caius Company might not have been that promising in the first place if this was how they treat their people.

In any case, it was over now. James McCloud was out of work, and that was the least of his problems.

Mercenaries die: it's a simple fact of mercenary work. People who fight, shoot, kill for others to make their livelihood will inevitably, sooner or later, end up looking down the business end of someone else's gun barrel. That's not what made the situation awkward though. This was different. This was bigger than a simple escort job gone awry, and it didn't take a great leap of logic to hazard a guess why: the Cerinian.

It was a tough job to begin with, but everything –save for the loss of the squad– had been working out fairly smoothly. By all accounts, it was a success, even if only barely. Then 'Harrow' worked his damned Cerinian shenanigans. No one James knew of had gone up against any of those strange things, those... mind-screws. There was no known counter-strategy, and no time to think up one on the spot in he moment. War certainly could be hell, but the stuff of nightmares that 'Harrow' could pull off was never supposed to be as real as it was.

Speaking of nightmares, James still had some of them: burned alive in the cockpit of the Tapatra-27 fighter, belittled by Captain Sobak Soyuz, taunted by a staff-swirling Cerinian maniac; the usual. He was beginning not necessarily to get used to them, but more like become familiar with them. There were other dreams too now though, some of them involved a raging black terrier out for blood who hacked the world to pieces, or a white wolf who could care less about anything. But on top of all this was one dream, not a nightmare, that he was alright with having. It was a beautiful vixen, bright copper fur and dazzling green eyes, whose calm, compassionate gaze and sweet voice was the only thing in his head that wasn't crap. Or rather, it was the only thing in his head not crap with enough power to stand up against everything else. She wouldn't leave; her face, her voice, her name kept bouncing back into his thoughts, trying so very hard to distract him from all of those other worries that dragged him down: Vixy.

This great uneasiness defined Jame's days for a time, constantly obsessing over people he barely knew, and the ones he did know well had dropped from his thoughts entirely. He didn't want to feel this way, he'd already beat himself up over the failures, already cursed fate, but he still felt miserable nonetheless. The worst part was the inaction, the doing of nothing, it felt like treading water; kicking to stay afloat, but going nowhere. Part of him wondered how just long he could keep this up before he drowned...

Lucky for him that Peppy Hare was there for the worst of it, helping him through, keeping an eye on him. Peppy might not have been there aboard the Amity, or Cerberus when it still functioned; didn't see everything fall apart around him while he watched helpless, didn't feel the pain for himself, but maybe that was for the best. Someone under the same roof as James ought to be the sane one, and it was a good fit for Peppy. It was that stubborn hare's belief that by going through the motions of life –by getting out of bed in the morning, eating the breakfast, doing the smalltalk, taking care of the little things– one can stay alive. It was the thought that if you condition your body to reflexively keep on living, than like any conditioned response, the mind will follow suit accordingly.

Well, that's a pleasant thought at least.

When he and Peppy finally got the call to go back out there, to go do some work, he was most of all relieved. It meant he had something new to focus on, something to get up and get ready for, something he could put his skills to work for. He was beginning to realize, for himself at least, that doing anything at all was better than sitting and doing nothing.

\

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/

James McCloud and Peppy Hare stepped into Ewan's pub amidst the hubbub of the evening rush. The main space was alive with the conversations between the patrons, most of them enjoying good food, good drink and good company. The warm air was thick with the aromas of several appetizing meals mingling with a slight tinge of alcohol, among others.

They weren't there to enjoy the pleasantries though, not as their first priority at least. This was where they were supposed to meet Rachelle, Pigma and Scott for the job.

"Any idea where to find them?" James asked. His voice was more lively now at least, and not quite the cold monotone it had been for a while; good sign.

"Ah, well, Rachelle wasn't any more specific than 'meet at Ewan's', at this time. But don't you worry Jimmy, they'll be here..." Peppy looked around the busy pub, second thoughts slipping through, "somewhere–"

"Oi, you two there!" the host, an older brown terrier canid, approached them through the busy pub, dodging between patrons as he asked, "McCloud, Hare?"

"Yep, that's us." Peppy answered with a nod.

"Your friends are waiting on you; back room, mates. Right this way."

The host led them through the thick of the pub's activity, past the bar where a few were getting a little tipsy. Soon they were in a small, quiet back room, modestly furnished, and with three familiar occupants sitting around a table waiting for them: Rachelle, Pigma, and Scott.

If James thought he was a little worse for wear, Scott was... something else. There's the thousand yard stare which shell-shocked veterans sometimes adopt that everyone's heard about: that blank, ghostly stare written about in novels, shown in the movies. That was not Scott. The dark terrier's face instead seemed to be locked in a permanent, razor sharp scowl, glaring straight forward as if to drill a hole through the wall opposite him.

As soon as the host left them, James had to ask, "Scott? You doing okay?"

He didn't answer. He just gave the fox a quick glance, and went right back to glaring.

"He hasn't been drinking, has he?" Peppy asked to the others offhand.

At this, Scott rolled his eyes and let out a grumbling sigh.

"Uh, no, actually." Pigma supplied, looking at Peppy with something like a sneer. It wasn't clear if he was just being defensive, or sarcastic, or both. "He hasn't touched a drop of anything stronger than ice-water since he started coming here–"

"Stow it." Scott cut him off with a growl.

"He's fine, and we have more important things on the table anyway." Rachelle insisted, shooting stern looks between Peppy and Pigma, "So why don't you take a seat and we'll get started."

Once Peppy and James were seated, Rachelle wasted no time getting down to business.

"The job is simple:" she began, "We've tracked the shuttle Charon from Cerberus to the Setarea desert, on Titania. It's still there right now, and its beacon transmitting as we speak. The shuttle's blackbox recorder should be in there, and still functioning as far as we know. If Harrow made any calls for a lift, it'll be logged there. Whatever occurred during the trip there will be recorded there. If there's any trace of what might've happened to Chakori, it'll be there. So we go there, and find out anything we can."

"I've got a feeling it ain't as simple as that. There's a lot here that ain't adding up." Peppy figured, "Like: why set it down in the middle of the desert, and not a settlement or something?"

"Quietly ditch it for a new ride, of course." Pigma answered easily.

"Yeah okay, so why the hell is the tracking signal still transmitting?" Peppy questioned, still very skeptical, "If this guy wanted to cover his tracks, he should've blown the shuttle to teeny tiny pieces after ditching it for his new ride."

"I don't think your friend Harrow is trying to cover his tracks at all. He's deliberately leaving a trail of bread crumbs, of bait. And that's why I'm not going out there all by myself." Rachelle explained, looking around the table, dropping the obvious hint.

"Right, great, so we're springing a goddamn booby trap." the hare reiterated, sounding a little uncomfortable.

"Hell, we're not springing it." Pigma corrected, giving Peppy a little punch on the shoulder, "We're busting it up!"

"So what's his angle?" James asked Rachelle, much more interested, "Why would he lead us on a chase?"

"It's only a guess for now, but I'm pretty sure he wants to know who's tracking him, wants to know exactly what he's up against, and doesn't want to draw any unwanted attention finding out." Rachelle answered, and continued explaining, "Combing through a whole mess of unreliable contacts trying to find out who's tailing you attracts unnecessary attention, tips off nosy opportunists, and can make you look desperate. So this Harrow guy saves himself the trouble and lures his pursuers close enough for a good look. And if he's the arrogant, fight-happy bastard I've heard so much about, then he just might try to snuff his tracks out there, along with whoever's on his trail."

"Hmph, let him try." the dark terrier scoffed, but with a grim timbre to his voice, and a smoldering fire in his eyes, "I'm in."

"I'm in if Scott's in." Pigma chimed.

"So what are we waiting for?" James asked, much more lively now, determined, "Let's do this."

"Yeah, sure, what the hell." Peppy agreed, reluctantly, while he fidgeted looking down at his hands, "Let's go tag-and-bag us a crazy homicidal psychic psychopath, huh?"

James placed a hand on the hare's shoulder, "Hey, Peppy."

"What?"

"Relax." James suggested, much more relaxed than he'd been, "You're making me nervous."

"Well now, I see you've made it back to your usual cocky self–"

"Couldn't have made it here without you Peppy, you stubborn bastard–"

"Complete with your infamous cocktail of fake ass-kissing and sarcasm..." he chuckled, and added, "He does this, you know, all the time."

"Now that is just not true."James exclaimed as he threw up his arms in a fit of faux-outrage, "You're exaggerating."

"Maybe, but not by much." Peppy mumbled, just loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Alright boys, break it up." Rachelle butted in, "As entertaining as the comedy act is, I'm going to have to suggest that you cut it short. The sooner we start the prep-work, the sooner we can get out there."

\

---------------------------------------------

/

"You sure about this?" Wiley asked.

Rick Cooney and he made it to the busy city of Port Seyid on Zoness easily enough, found the fairly ordinary Sol Nascente apartment building in the northern district, and got to the entrance of unit 513 with no trouble– well, no trouble beyond the usual nuisances that is.

"Well, are you sure about this?" an all too familiar voice asked.

Rick looked to his side, where his habitually hallucinated doppelgänger had just materialized right next to the white wolf 'Wiley', giving a gleeful smirk to his corporeal counterpart.

"It's a lead, and I'm following it." the raccoon answered as he reached up and activated the apartment's door-chime.

"No, of course you're not sure, but you're doing it anyway." Rick's double sassed back, his every word dripping with sarcasm, "It's one of those funny hunch things, not that you'd tell him about that anyway."

Of all the times to butt in and taunt, it just had to be when meeting up with a possible contact, with Wiley tagging along. Rick wanted nothing more than to tell that part of himself off, but that'd mean trying to explain to Wiley why he was talking to the air.

The apartment door soon slid open, and thank goodness for that. It meant something else to focus on, something to distract Rick from himself.

On the other side of the door was, just as Serge had informed, an older or mid-aged vulpine woman. She looked like she'd be in the 50 to 60 year range, aged gracefully, with a fur pattern of uneven dark gray. She wore a long-sleeved wrap dress than hung over her knees, the fabric of which was a deep blue, but with highlighted at the edges with intricate, exotic patterns.

"Cassandra Alexi?" Rick asked, putting on his best polite visitor act.

"Yes?" the vixen confirmed and questioned in a single word.

She seemed awfully calm to have new arrivals, not concerned, or worried, or suspicious as she had every right to be, but intrigued, interested, almost as if she were expecting them. It crossed Rick's mind that Serge might have informed her of their coming, but that probably wouldn't matter too much.

"I am Richard Cooney, and this is Wiley." he pointed out the Wolf next to him.

"I see..." Cassandra said with a thoughtful nod. She definitely seemed far more clever than she was letting on, and her next action all but confirmed it, "And what about your other friend over there?" she inquired, looking straight at Rick's suddenly baffled doppelgänger.

"Who?" Rick blurted as a shocked, bewildered expression struck his face.

"Me?" the double said in exactly the same tone, with the exact same expression.

"What are you talking about, lady?" Wiley asked, looking where she indicated, but not seeing anything but the wall, "There's nobody there."

"Hmm..." Cassandra stepped into the hallway, scrutinizing the confused wolf with intense, thinking eyes before instructing him, "Close your eyes."

"I don't see what this has–"

"Close them, and you will see." she insisted.

Uneasy, Wiley looked over to Rick, looking for some kind of support in the awkward situation. After a moment, Rick gave him a slow nod, silently telling Wiley to let the lady do whatever it is she's going to do.

Once he complied, reluctantly, Cassandra reached a hand up and lightly tapped the wolf on his forehead, and instructed, "Now open your eyes, and look again."

He did, and he saw the doppelgänger that Rick used to think only he could see, "Rick?"

"Uh... Hi?" the double responded with an awkward wave.

Wiley flinched back, bumping into the actual Rick Cooney in the process, "Holy... Rick, who the hell is this?"

"That, Makita, is his shadow," Cassandra answered, giving the so-called 'shadow' a disapproving look, "and a rather impolite shadow I might add."

"How do you know my name?" Wiley demanded, or Makita as he'd been named.

"It's because you're Cerinian." Rick deduced, working very hard to cover his discomfort.

Cassandra showed them her arm, and ran her fingers through the fur. On close inspection, they could see the hairs were all blue at the roots. She'd dyed her fur gray.

"No, hell no, we can't be here..." the wolf who's identity was in question muttered, shaking his head, then snapped back at Cassandra, "I won't let your kind screw with my head anymore, ever."

"And that can be made true, with my help. That is why you are here, yes?" she replied, and calmly added, "Please, come inside. It seems we have much to discuss."

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