Starfox: Altered Universe

Chapter 2: Discoveries and Decisions

"F-F-Fox? Are you okay?"

The worried question barely penetrated the fog in his head, yet Fox McCloud managed to groan in response to his friendís voice. A dull throbbing in his forehead kept him awake. Forcing his eyes open, he could just make out two fuzzy outlines hovering above him. Even as he squinted to make out the indistinct features, he knew instinctively who they were.

"F-F-Fox? You o-o-okay?" The figures blurred, focused, and became his two friends. Fox could see Slippyís anxious face twisted into an expression of concern, and even Falco looked upset. He became vaguely aware that he was lying on his bed, the sheets draped loosely over his shoulders. Shrugging them off, Fox attempted to right himself, only to feel a wave of dizziness engulfing him, and he half-slumped back down onto the bunk.

"W-what happened?" he heard himself ask in a quavering voice. His forehead still pounded, and he reached a trembling hand up to his face, fingers lightly brushing the throbbing area. He could feel a bruise forming, and he bit back a cry of pain.

"Falco beaned you with a w-w-wrench," Slippy told him matter-of-factly.

"Well, if youíd just held still, Fox wouldnít have gotten hit!" Falco hissed at the amphibian.

Fox glanced mildly at Slippy. "Falco caught you watching again, huh?"

"Yes. I still have to discuss that little matter with him."

"H-h-hey! I wasnít s-s-spying on Falco!" Slippy protested, face a bright crimson color once more. "I was trying to stop that spy from Andross from hurting her!"

"A likely story," Falco scoffed.

"Whoa whoa whoa. Back up, Slippy," Fox interrupted, staring at the frog. "What spy from Andross?"

"Oh, him," Falco said, pointing behind her in reply. Looking over, Fox could now see an adult rabbit apparently sitting in a chair, unguarded.

"A spy from Andross, and you just leave him sitting in a chair?"

"Not exactly," she replied mildly, and Fox suddenly noticed something about the stranger he hadnít before: he was bound firmly to the chair with several coils of heavy rope.

"Oh." Fox shook his head, trying to clear away the fog. At his shoulder, Slippy was saying something, yet it took the vulpine a second to realize that the amphibian was talking to him. Turning to face him, Fox mumbled, "Sorry, Slip, but could you repeat that?"

"I s-s-said, what should we do with him?"

"I say we get rid of him," Falco replied before Fox could say anything. "Heís been spying on us for who knows how long, we have no way of knowing what heís found so far! Besides," she added more softly, a slight blush tinting her cheeks, "heís some sort of pervert, sneaking up and watching me like that."

"I d-d-donít think heís been able to find out m-m-much," Slippy interjected. "When I saw him, he had just come i-i-into the den. He c-c-canít have had a lot of t-t-time to look a-a-around."

"Thatís good," Fox sighed, but Falco was steaming.

"You mean," she began, a dangerous tone coming into her voice, "that you let that nasty old rabbit sneak up to the lake and spy on me?"

"U-u-uh... u-u-uhhh... t-t-that is..." the amphibian mechanicís face turned pale as he scrambled to come up with some sort of defense for himself. The azure avian glared down at him with a murderous gleam in her violently flashing eyes.

"Donít start, please," Fox begged weakly, not wanting to get caught in another infamous Falco versus Slippy fight. His forehead still throbbed from their last encounter.

***

Peppy Hare watched the trio of youngsters argue over his fate -and nearly everything else- with a growing sense of worry gnawing at the pit of his stomach. When the avian had insisted on making certain he didnít ëtry to escapeí, he had willingly allowed himself to be bound to the chair in the hope that his cooperation would become a point in his favor. Now, however, it was quickly becoming apparent to him that the three were still extremely suspicious of his motives.

~It would be a snap to loosen these ropes,~ his inner voice informed him. ~I could slip out of here, take one of those airbikes, and be halfway back to the base before they realized I was gone. Then I could get backup and come back to find them..

~No,~ Peppy quickly pushed the notion from his mind. ~If I left now, Iíd never be able to earn their trust. I have to stay... and pray they realize the truth.~ Leaning back in his chair, he attempted to make himself as comfortable as possible. He knew he might be waiting for a long time...

***

"Well, I think itís totally suspicious!" Falco insisted. "I mean, why would an old guy like that be wandering around out here?"

"We wonít know unless we ask him, will we?" Fox replied. Both of his friends stared at him.

"T-t-talk to that guy?" Slippy stuttered in horror. "But w-w-what if heís a Venomian s-s-spy?"

"You canít expect that guy to tell us the truth," Falco cried. "Heíll make up some crazy story..."

"No, he wonít," Fox insisted suddenly. Falco and Slippy looked at him, surprised by the sudden certainty in his voice. "I know heíll tell us the truth."

"How?" Falco watched the vulpineís face intently.

"I donít know," he faltered, staring past them at the rabbit tied up in the den. "I... just have this feeling about him and I know... I can tell he wonít lie to us."

Falco scoffed, yet caught herself gazing back at the rabbit as well. At the back of her mind, she felt a sort of tugging, a nagging sensation that insisted the guy in the other room was familiar... "Oh, all right," she told Fox, glaring back at the vulpine. "We can talk to him. But if he gets out of line..." She left the threat unfinished, yet both of her friends understood.

"Right," and Fox got slowly to his feet, swaying slightly. Slippy was at his side, wondering if the vulpine was well enough to stand and saying as much. Fox waved off his friendís concern and made his way into the other room. The rabbit looked up as he entered, Falco and Slippy slowly following behind him.

Peppy smiled up at the vulpine slowly. Yes... he could see Jamesís influence in the eyes of this young man. It had been nearly six years since he had seen the cub, yet he knew instinctively who this was. "Hello... Fox McCloud," he greeted the boy.

Fox stepped back slightly, eyes widening in astonishment at hearing his full name being used with such ease by the stranger. Staring at the rabbitís hauntingly familiar face, he asked, "How did you know my name? W-who are you?"

Peppy laughed shortly, cutting off the sound when he realized how he might be misinterpreted. Instead, he gazed up at Fox and said simply, "I know you. I also know who you are, Falco Lombardi and Slippy Toad." The avian and amphibian reacted much as their friend had, and Falco glared at the rabbit.

"Well," she demanded, "since we obviously donít need to introduce ourselves to you, why donít we skip right to your turn? Who are YOU?"

Peppy sighed before replying, "I was hoping you would know..."

"What, do you have amnesia? You came all this way to ask us what your name is?" Falco mocked. "Do you really expect us to believe that?"

"Falco..." Fox signaled the avian to be quiet, then repeated his earlier question once more: "Please, sir, tell us who you are."

"I know who you are," Peppy repeated, then rapidly moved when he saw a warning gleam in Falcoís eyes, "because I knew your father, Fox."

Fox felt his jaw drop. Closing it, he stared at the rabbit, eyes widening into orbs as recognition hit. At his sides, he heard Slippy gasp softly and Falcoís sharp intake of breath, and realized that they had come to the same conclusion. "No way..." he breathed.

Peppy grinned up at the trio. "Iím Peppy Hare, your fatherís wingman, Fox McCloud. Nice to see you again after all these years," he added. The three youngsters just stared at him, and Peppy knew heíd be untied in a matter of moments.

***

Not far away from the cave, another Venomian cruiser glided slowly over the ground, flanked by squadrons of fighters. Its captain gazed out over the horizon, running over recent events in his mind. Earlier that day, he had received a transmission from one of his fellow ships. The captain was bragging that he had managed to intercept a spacecraft carrying Peppy Hare, one of Androssís most wanted enemies, and had taken the rabbit captive. His Excellency had been thrilled to receive the news that the annoying wingman had been captured, and had ordered that he be brought to him at once.

But something had gone wrong. The cruiser carrying the captive suddenly sent out a distress signal, then was gone before anyone knew what happened. A few hours later, one of the squadrons sent out to investigate brought back word that the ship had been found completely wrecked. Teams sent into the crashed ship confirmed that no survivors had been found, and there was no trace of the rabbit. Andross had gone into a furor, killing both the unfortunate who brought him the message as well as several soldiers standing by before sending out the order to track down the former wingman.

The scaly captain settled back into his seat, a solemn grin twisting his grimy lips. He had no doubts that his cruiser would find the missing rabbit. After all, if they didnít, Andross would personally skin each of them alive for their failure. Not a pleasant thought, but enough to keep him and his crew motivated during the slow, fruitless search.

***

"...And thatís the way it is," Peppy finished, watching his audience closely. He could still see disbelief on the three faces before him, and he sighed inwardly. Well, he couldnít blame them if it sounded a little strange.

"So you came looking for us?" Fox said slowly, making it more of a statement than a question. When the rabbit nodded, he continued, "And you want us to help out?"

"Yes, Fox."

"Excuse me, but just how to you plan to have us help?" Falco asked, looking at the rabbit with a hint of doubt in her eyes. Peppy gazed back at her with a slight smile.

"This from the girl who brought down a Venomian cruiser with a bazooka just a few hours before," he mused under his breath. Aloud, however, he said, "As I explained before, we have a new unit of Arwings now. But we only have a very limited amount of pilots skilled enough to fly the space fighters. We only have about five or so pilots who are able to control the things. One of those pilots is a raw recruit who has only flown in battle a few times, while many of the others serve other duties aside from flying Arwings. One of our best pilots even has command of an entirely separate unit, and is unable to always serve the team."

Peppy Hare raised his head and looked each of the trio in the eyes separately before continuing, "General Pepper is desperate for new recruits for the team. I believe that, if you were to return with me, he would be willing to allow you three to test-fly the Arwings in the hope that you would prove suitable pilots." He let the offer hang in the air, watching the trio intently, hoping to gauge their reactions.

~An Arwing pilot... just like my father...~ Fox thought, scarcely believing the chance. Staring blankly at Peppy, he could see the rabbitís sincerity in making the offer. For a moment, he considered accepting at that instant.

Then he glanced over at his friends, sitting on either side of him. Falcoís expression was unreadable, save for a gleam of... fear? Excitement? Shock? He couldnít tell what exactly the emotion was he saw in those soft, bluish-green eyes. Not so with Slippy. The amphibian mechanicís eyes were wide with surprise, and Fox could clearly see the struggle not to show any doubts or fears.

Fox looked back at Peppy, and noticed something else. The rabbit seemed to be genuinely happy with the notion that the trio might be chosen to fly, yet something else was hidden in that eager expression: an old memory, still tormenting the veteran after nearly six years. ~Hadnít Peppy been there when his father...~ The loss of his best friend still showed in the old eyes, like a shadow drawn forever over the rabbitís mind, never fading with the times. Despite himself, the vulpine wondered if he would ever end up with the same look in his own eyes, if one of his friends...

With that thought, Fox made his decision. "Iím sorry, Peppy," he said, "but I canít take you up on your offer. My friends mean too much to me to risk their lives trying to fly an Arwing against Andross."

Peppy wilted at his words, and Fox kicked himself inwardly. ~Wrong choice of words,~ he berated himself. He tried to apologize with his eyes, begging the old veteran to understand what he meant. Struggling to find a way to clear up what he meant, he heard himself stammer, "Besides, Iím not so certain I want to get tied into the military. I mean, weíve taken care of ourselves for years, and to suddenly be following orders... itíd be too major a change for us. So... I really donít think that..."

"I understand," Peppy interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the vulpine. Avoiding the gaze of the three youngsters, he got to his feet and murmured, "If thatís your decision, then Iíll leave you in peace. Good luck," and he turned to leave.

"Peppy, wait!" Fox called without knowing why. When the veteran turned to look at him, he stammered, "You... youíll never make it on foot. Iíll have Slippy rig up some sort of transportation for you..."

"Itís quite alright," Peppy replied, turning to leave again. But the young vulpine was on his feet and at his side in an instant, holding onto his paw.

"Please..." the young McCloud insisted, staring into the veteranís face. "Itís the most I can do..."

Unable to think up a good enough excuse to refuse him, Peppy simply nodded in silence. Fox smiled up at him, a little sadly.

"Stay here for the night," he offered, gesturing to another room. "Iíll make some sort of bed for you to use. If you want, you might be able to leave in the morning..."

Slippy sighed and trudged toward his workshop as Fox continued talking. Looked like heíd be pulling another all-nighter.

***

Peppy Hare lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. The makeshift bed Fox had hastily rigged up for him was comfortable enough, yet the veteran knew he wouldnít be getting much sleep that night. His mind was too full of worries, doubts, and self-incriminations to relax. Images from the past whirled through his mind, each carrying a different set of emotions with it. His team, the Starfox team, standing at attention for a military photograph, James standing before his two wingman, yet not trying to hog the shot at all. A photo of James with his wife, the beautiful Vixy, with an infant Fox snuggled in her slender arms. Another family shot, this one of himself standing with his own wife: Abby...

And standing in front of them in this picture was a young rabbit in a pink sundress, a band-aid covering a scrape on her tan elbow. A rose-colored ribbon hung half untied in the soft fur on her tiny head. The image of the small bunny smiling up at the couple behind her brought a lump to Peppyís throat, and he attempted to force it out of his mind. Groaning, he rolled over and covered his face with his arm, wiping away the tears that sprang to his eyes.

***

In his room, Fox sat on the edge of his bed, gazing longingly at the picture of James McCloud clutched in his paws. He wondered how his father would have reacted to his decision earlier. A faint knock on the plank that served as a substitute door for his room caused him to snap up his head, surprised. His expression softened as he recognized the figure standing silhouetted in the entrance.

"Hi, Falco," he greeted the avian softly. She walked into the room and slumped into a chair nearby, her eyes never leaving the vulpineís. Fox returned her gaze, noticing that she had changed into a simple, handsown white robe made from some bedsheets. The avian watched his face for a moment longer, then started to speak.

"So, Fox, why didnít you want to go with Peppy?" she asked, not beating around the bush. Fox found himself lowering his eyes.

"I... didnít want to drag you guys into something dangerous," he admitted. "I thought that, if we went off to fight... Iíd be putting you and Slippy in danger."

"Foxy, weíre always in danger out here," Falco retorted. "I want to know the real reason."

"I..." Fox paused, trying to grope for something to say that would satisfy the blue falcon. He knew that once sheíd set her mind on doing something, whether it was bringing down an enemy fighter or throttling Slippy for some new transgression, she never quit until sheíd finished. And right now, she was intent upon finding out what had made Fox reject Peppyís offer. The avian knew the vulpine very well, and understood better than others --sometimes even better than he did himself-- why he acted a certain way or said a certain thing.

"Donít bother," she sighed as he continued to think of an excuse. "I already know why. Youíre scared youíll let your father down."

Fox snapped to attention and stared at her in total shock. She shrugged off his gaze, saying, "Donít deny it. I can read you like a book, Foxy. You want to fly an Arwing, just like your dad, but youíre scared out of your mind that youíll turn out to be a crappy pilot and let everybody down. You think youíll be a big failure, and get Slippy and I seriously hurt or even killed. You donít want to lose to Andross, and make everybody lose faith in the dream of somebody wasting that guy."

"... ... ..." Fox lowered his eyes, suddenly finding something very interesting in the ground below him. Mainly the fact that, if he watched the floor, he wouldnít have to meet Falcoís gaze.

"Fox. Listen to me." Falco stood and walked over to his side. Seizing his chin, she gently forced the vulpine to look her straight in the eyes. The avian spoke slowly and deliberately, as if speaking to a child. "You canít keep telling yourself that you wouldnít be able to do something before you even try. If you do, youíll never be able to accomplish anything. Thereís nothing I hate more than somebody who just gives up like that."

"... Falco..." Fox started, not sure what he was about to say. Falco silenced him by pressing her wing gently against his lips.

"Shh. Hear me out. Iím just saying that maybe you should reconsider what you told Peppy earlier. I think he could tell that your heart wasnít in what you said, anyway. Not all of it." She rose to leave, pausing at the doorway to turn and glance back at Fox. A slight smile appeared on her beak as she added, "Although I think you should keep in mind what you said about not wanting to be connected to the army. He looks like heís desperate enough to bargain with us."

She swept out of the room, leaving Fox alone to collect his thoughts.

***

Slippy rolled out from under his new creation, wiping a greasy hand across his forehead with a sigh. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he couldnít help but feel a flush of pride. Heíd really outdone himself this time, he told himself. Still, he had more work to do if he was planning to have it done by morning. For the moment, however, he was more interesting in relaxing a bit before slaving away again.

"She looks okay, Slip," a female voice chimed behind him. Despite himself, Slippy felt his heart begin to pound in his chest, and he whirled to face his visitor with a short yelp.

"F-F-Falco!" he squeaked, his voice cracking. The azure avian smiled at him, then strode over to his latest work and ran one wing along its smooth edge.

"Relax, Slips, I just came in to see your new cruiser," she assured him. "Looks okay so far. Youíre making it fairly big, huh?"

"Y-y-yeah, I guess so," Slippy stammered.

"Well, thatís good. After all, it may end up carrying all four of us."

The amphibian stared at her. "Y-y-you mean Fox might..."

"Itís not certain yet, but if I know that fox..." Falco smiled again, turned and sauntered out of the room. Slippy watched her leave, then picked up his wrench and turned back to his work.

"Oh, and Slippy?" The amphibian spun to see Falco peeking back into the room. Grinning, she told him, "Donít think Iíve forgotten. Youíd better watch yourself, little man." Humming brightly to herself, she disappeared out into the hall, leaving a visibly troubled Slippy to his work.

***

Peppy Hare groaned as his eyelids fluttered open. Somehow he had managed to force himself to sleep, yet he still felt as if heíd been up the entire night. Yawning, the rabbit swung his feet over the edge of his ëbedí and stretched out his arms, gritting his teeth suddenly as he heard his back crack. Getting to his feet, he wandered into the main den. Fox was waiting for him outside, sitting at the metal canister that served as a counter for him and his friends.

"íMorning, sir," the vulpine said softly. Peppy groggily returned his greeting, and an awkward silence fell between the two. The old veteran found himself gazing longingly at the young vulpine: he looked so much like his father. The only visible difference was the slightly lighter shade in the younger McCloudís fur, and the absence of the shades James had always seemed to wear, even in the coldest weather...

Peppy quickly shook off the feeling. Nothing he felt or did could force things to be any different than they were now. A lesson he had learned the hard way years ago, and had no desire of being taught again. Instead, he nodded simply to the vulpine and said, "I suppose I had better get going. The others probably think Iím still in the hands of the enemy, and I donít need them worrying about me." ~And I know one of those guys is probably trying to force everyone else to organize a search,~ he admitted privately.

"Okay..." and Fox got to his feet to show the rabbit the way. As they walked down the corridor, the young vulpine took a deep breath and began, "Sir?"

"Call me Peppy, Fox," the veteran scolded.

"Um... Peppy... I thought about what I said earlier... and..."

"And?" Peppy prompted, wincing as he heard how eager his voice suddenly sounded.

"And... I still believe that I shouldnít join up with the military. You understand, right? I donít think Falco and Slippy would like to join the military just because of me."

"Oh." Peppy couldnít hide the disappointment in his voice. "Well, then..."

"Iím not finished." Peppy looked at the vulpine in surprise. Fox swallowed to relieve the dry feeling in his mouth, then continued, "That is... I discussed it with Falco for a bit, and she hinted that she might be more willing to come if you could promise that we wouldnít have to join up directly. So I was wondering if... we might be able to head out with you... just to check it out, understand..."

"Yes..." Peppy replied, slowly. "But what about your other friend. Sli... Slippy, right?"

"Oh, him?" Fox laughed, nervously. "Heíll follow me wherever I go."

"Oh." Peppy tried to sound disinterested, but his mind was secretly screaming in celebration. Struggling to sound detached, he replied, "Well, if youíre really certain that you want to come along, then you can."

"T-thank you," Fox stammered, unable to think of anything else to say. A few moments later, the two walked into an open area, where Slippyís newest vehicle stood with the engine already running. The amphibian mechanic was already loading the airbikes into the back of the long, thin cruiser, and Fox watched him with mild surprise.

"H-h-heya, Foxy!" Slippy greeted his friend brightly, jumping down from the deck. "A-a-as you can see, Iím already finished w-w-with her!" Seeing the startled expression on the vulpineís face, he added with sudden uncertainty, "We are heading out with Mister Hare, right?"

"Um, yes..."

"Donít call me mister, Slippy," Peppy told the amphibian. "And yes, you will be coming along, all of you. In fact, I have something important to show you when we get there."

"R-r-really? W-w-what is it?"

"Youíll see." Peppy strolled up to the gleaming cruiser and ran his fingers along the side, admiring. "This is a fine piece of work. And you built this from spare parts?"

"Y-y-yes," Slippy said, face flushing slightly with a sudden shyness. "A-a-although most of them came from the wreck y-y-yesterday."

"Really..." Peppy turned back to examining the ship for a moment, then swung himself over the edge and leaped onto the deck. "No roof," he commented.

"I did that on purpose," Slippy told him as he climbed into the driverís seat. "I built this to be more like a boat than a ship. Not as heavy that way. Youíll want to buckle up, though, itíll be a fast ride."

"Hey, whereís Falco?" Fox asked, clambering into his seat. There was no sign of the azure avian anywhere.

"Sheís coming," Slippy replied simply. A few moments later, the falcon came into the room, loaded down with what looked like several suitcases. She swung them unceremoniously over the side of the ship, and one landed on Peppyís foot. Biting back a scream, the veteran stared at the bags and began, "What on Corneria..."

"My clothes," Falco explained, settling daintily into her own seat. "I wouldnít want to be caught without the proper thing to wear."

"Ah," Peppy said simply. Part of the wisdom of age includes the ability of knowing when to keep your thoughts to yourself.

"Everybody ready?" Slippy asked. "Then here we go!" The amphibian pressed a button, and the thin cruiser launched itself into the air, racing out of the cavern. Fox took one last glance at his home of nearly six years as it faded into the distance behind them, then turned back to watch the skies ahead.

"A ship this fast built from spare parts in only one night!" he called up to Slippy, admiring. "Youíre quite a guy!"

"Itís nothing!" Slippy replied, his face turning red again at the compliment. The ship cut a sharp path toward Corneria City, leaving a trail of stirred-up dust in its wake.

***

The Venomian commander stared at the display screens idly, not really expecting to notice anything. His units had been scouring the area all night with no luck. The only possible clue they had gotten to the rabbitís whereabouts had been a discarded Venomian fighter they had discovered abandoned in the wilds. All that told them was that he was probably on foot, unless someone had picked him up...

A flashing light accompanied by a blaring signal informed him of an incoming transmission. Flicking on his communicator, he glared at the lowly soldier who appeared on the monitor. The lizard gave his superior a hasty salute, then informed him of a small ship he had spotted zooming along below his hip. Should he investigate it?

"Of course, idiot!" the commander bellowed, glaring at the image. The grunt shuddered and nodded a hasty reply, then signed off. Sighing, the captain issued an order to his crew to bring their ship to those coordinates. It was highly unlikely that a little sand-cruiser held their intended target, but one could never be too sure...

To be continued...