Chapter 5: Testing, 1, 2, 3...

Fox McCloud shifted uncomfortably in his seat, glancing around the massive room with a growing feeling of anxiety. He stared at a massive, blank video screen that dominated the wall before him, trying to figure out its purpose. He wondered why Bill had insisted on bringing him to this place; the canine had completely ignored his questions as they had walked to the room, saying only, "You’ll understand soon enough."

A few minutes after they had arrived, Sable had come barging into the room, all but dragging Slippy behind her. The ferret had smiled at Bill, asking if she was late, and Bill had told her not to worry, that they still had to wait on Katt and the others. Satisfied, the girl had flopped into the seat next to Fox, and was currently playing with what appeared to be some sort of handheld game. Even as Fox glanced over at her, Sable paid him no mind, mashing the small plastic buttons furiously, staring at the small screen.

"Come on, jump!" she urged a tiny sprite on the screen --her character, Fox guessed. "Move it! Almost there... ooh... ooh... Oh no!" She cried out in disbelief as something flashed out and hit the sprite, causing it to collapse and the words "Game Over" to appear on the screen. "Where’d THAT come from?" she fumed. Selecting the ‘continue’ option displayed on the screen, she took a deep breath and began her monologue again: "Okay, THIS time I’ll make it. Come on... come on... move it, stupid! Can’t you run any faster?"

Fox sighed and looked over at Bill, who seemed to be completely ignoring the scene his adopted sister was making. The canine’s attention was focused on the door as it suddenly opened. Fox turned to see Katt Monroe rush into the room. Falco walked more sedately into the room, and the vulpine noticed that she was wearing a new outfit. Katt must have taken her shopping, he decided.

"That’s a good color on you, Falco," Bill said, staring at the avian with wide eyes. Fox groaned silently and wondered why he hadn’t said that the moment she had walked into the room. Not that she appeared to be paying any attention to the canine.

"Sorry we’re late," Katt was apologizing to Bill and Sable, "but I wanted to show Falco that new clothing store... and then I just had to get her a few new things..."

"It’s okay, Katt," Sable assured the feline, glancing briefly up from her game.

"We’re not all here, anyway," Bill added, and Fox glanced over at him.

Who are we waiting for? he wanted to demand. But he thought better of it, and instead watched the door, waiting.

They didn’t have to wait long. After a few more moments, the door opened once more, and Peppy Hare came into the room. A few strides behind him walked Fara Phoenix and another rabbit, and Fox stared at the latter in surprise. The female rabbit barely glanced at him, cold pink eyes narrowed calculatingly, as she strode past, and Fox drew back in his seat, suddenly wishing he was anywhere but there. He didn’t like what he thought he had seen in that icy glance.

The tan rabbit strode to the far end of the room, standing beside another, larger metal door. Turning on her heels, she stood at rigid attention, shoulders straightened, her gaze resting on the door she had entered through, steadily ignoring the presence of anyone else. It seemed to Fox that Sable was glaring at the female hare, but when he looked sharply at the ferret, she was absorbed in her game. A sadness seemed to have come over Peppy, as well: he stood at the other side of the door, occasionally throwing furtive glances at the other rabbit.

Fox’s attention was drawn back to the entrance as he heard the door slide open once more. This time, a pretty female cheetah dressed in an officer’s uniform entered, and behind her...

Fox tensed, hearing himself inhale sharply. Walking in behind the cheetah was a tall, almost looming canine who walked with a certain, almost regal air. His head was held high, but not in a snobbish way, merely the way somebody who knew their importance and chose not to flaunt it did. Jutting out from his mouth was what appeared to be at first glance a cigarette; however, Fox looked closer and realized that it was the stick from a lollipop. The canine surveyed the group gathered before him, his solemn eyes resting briefly on Fox, and the vulpine quickly looked down at the floor.

"General Pepper," he heard Peppy say simply, "welcome. As you can see, we have gathered the three new cadets here."

Cadets?

"Thank you, Peppy," General Pepper was saying. Turning to face Fox, Falco and Slippy, he said, "I trust you have found your stay here to be enjoyable so far?" Fox nodded numbly, not certain how to respond, and the canine grinned a moment before his expression turned solemn once more.

"Well then, I’ll explain why we gathered you here," Pepper said. "As Peppy has no doubt already explained to you, we are currently in need of talented young pilots to fly the advanced Arwing fighters against the vile Andross and his forces. Peppy has expressed to me his desire to see if you three have what it takes to become those sort of pilots. He has already given me a full report on how well you used your airbikes to combat enemy fighters, and has recommended that you be given a trial run. However..."

Fox tensed, feeling his heart increase its furious speed a fraction more.

"However," Pepper repeated, "due to the seriousness of our situation, we cannot afford to give you the normal years of training and studying we normally have our pilots complete. I know from your records that each of you were enrolled in the Academy before the attack..." He left the sentence unfinished, pausing a few beats before continuing, "I have consulted with my colleagues, and they have agreed that it would be much faster and more effective to simply give each of you the test and see where your skills currently lie."

"Test?" Fox heard himself ask before he could contain himself. Flushing a sudden red, he wondered if he would be scolded for insubordination. However, General Pepper merely smiled gently down at him.

"A test we give to all cadets who wish to become Arwing pilots," he explained. "You use a computer simulator of a Arwing to see how well you can handle the system. We test your skills against another, randomly selected member of the Arwing squadron. The test checks your abilities in several areas, such as speed, accuracy, and combat.

"The first test deals primarily with speed. You will guide your Arwing through a series of randomly generated rings, trying to go as fast as possible without missing any rings. Any rings you miss will count against you. At the same time, one of the Arwing pilots will fly through the same course, racing against you. You may try to outfly them, if you wish, but don’t sacrifice hitting the rings just to catch up!

"The second part of the test focuses on accuracy. You will try to hit as many enemy targets as possible in a limited amount of time. Your experienced partner from the race will also be shooting the targets, trying to keep you from scoring. Any enemies they shoot down will not be counted in your final score. However, you cannot shoot your fellow pilot!

"The final section deals with combat. Your partner throughout the first two sections will turn on you and attempt to shoot you down. You must avoid their fire and shoot them down instead. Don’t worry," he quickly amended, "this is merely a simulator. No one will be injured or harmed in any way. And don’t be too upset if you do get shot down: this is the hardest part of the test."

General Pepper finished speaking and looked at each of the three in turn. He could see that the young McCloud was defiantly nervous about the whole idea of being tested, but was struggling to keep his composure. The amphibian --Slippy Toad, Beltino’s not-so-lost son, he recalled-- seemed just as nervous as the vulpine, but hid his fear more poorly. Only the blue-feathered avian seemed unconcerned, watching the canine commander calmly, no hint of apprehension in her intense blue-green eyes.

"Well then," General Pepper said at length, "shall we begin?" Turning to look at Amber, he stepped back as the cheetah stepped forward and looked at a clipboard she was carrying.

"The first test scheduled is for Miss Falco," she announced. "You will be tested against Miss Rabbi Hare." She looked at the avian. "If you are ready..."

Falco got demurely to her feet and strode toward the far door, where the tan rabbit stood waiting. As the two entered, Fox shot a surprised look at Peppy. Rabbi Hare?

The veteran’s face showed no reaction, save for a sudden sadness that flickered briefly in his soft reddish eyes. Fox stared at the rabbit for a few moments, then his attention was caught by the massive screen’s flickering to life before him.

"You will be permitted to watch your friend’s tests," Amber explained in that smooth tone of hers. "It may help you to understand better what will be expected of you. Also, you may want to know what has happened to your friend so you will be able to discuss the tests easier later. That seems to help some cadets relax afterwards."

Fox said nothing, his eyes glued to the screen. Beside him, Sable flicked off her game and stuffed the small console into her back pocket. Seeing the worried looks on both Fox’s and Slippy’s faces, she gently nudged the two and flashed them a grin when they glanced over at her.

"Just relax and enjoy the show," she teased. Slippy started to reply, but the ferret quickly hushed him and directed his gaze back to the screen.

* * *

Rabbi led Falco to her simulated cockpit without a sound, silently pointing the avian to her seat. As Falco settled into the simulator, the rabbit looked over the younger woman with a growing amount of disdain. So this is the type of child my fa... Peppy risked his life to find. A cynical smile flickered for an instant over her face: even in her mind, she wasn’t quite able to refer to that old fool as her parent.

At any rate, it didn’t appear to her that this silly little bird could ever make a decent Arwing pilot. She looked more like one of those brainless, ditzy girls who did themselves up in makeup and tacky, gaudy clothes and tried to drape themselves off of one of those fighter jocks that they deemed ‘handsome’ for reasons unknown to the straight-laced rabbit. The only major difference that Rabbi could see was that this girl didn’t wear any makeup whatsoever and lacked the horrendous stench of tacky perfume that invariably clung to those silly dreamers. Not that it mattered to Rabbi: in her mind, the avian would simply never become a pilot of any worth.

Falco finished her preparations and waited quietly as Rabbi took her own seat in another ‘cockpit’ beside her own. A computer display popped up before the avian’s calm eyes, prompting her to choose a color trim for her Arwing. She almost laughed at the question: as if that would matter! Still, the choice was there, so she quickly scanned the options and selected a lovely shade of scarlet that caught her eye.

Rabbi grimaced to herself as she noticed the bird’s choice. So much for choosing her own favorite color. The colors were meant to help those watching the test quickly pick out which Arwing represented which pilot, so her preferred rose shade was out of the question. A minor problem, inconsequential really, but enough to further sour the rabbit’s attitude toward Falco. Scanning the other shades, she finally settled on a deep navy blue, like the trim on her uniform.

The two Arwings materialized on the massive wall screen in the other room at the same moment that the simulator kicked into full gear. Falco and Rabbi were instantly plunged into the computer generated illusion that Beltino Toad and his colleagues had worked so hard to create. It was as if the two truly were strapped into actual Arwings, with the enormous amount of mimicked sensory data that assaulted their senses. The surrounding room faded into temporary oblivion as the two allowed themselves to be caught up into the illusion.

Rabbi risked a quick glance over at Falco, believing that she would see a look of complete bewilderment, perhaps even fear, on the avian’s face. But if the blue falcon was frightened, she hid it well, for she failed to look even the slighted bit unnerved. In fact, she looked the exact opposite, for Rabbi thought she could see the tiniest bit of excitement gleaming in her aquamarine eyes.

No matter, Rabbi told herself. She’ll learn soon enough not to take this so lightly.

The first course finished materializing before the two, and Rabbi instantly zoomed toward the first ring. Intent as a hawk diving for its prey, she swept through the exact center of the hoop, pulled herself around, and dived into next. She smiled as she glanced at the small meter that kept track of her speed: 536 skt/second. Not the fastest that an Arwing could go, but certainly an impressive rate to build up to and still keep her accuracy flawless.

Suddenly something blurred past her field of vision, cutting past her and swooping through the ring before her. Despite herself, Rabbi felt her jaw go slightly slack, and her eye began to twitch just barely.

How’d she pass me already? How could she pass me at all?!

"Look at that!" Sable blurted. Everyone else in the room was too stunned to make any sort of reply: all eyes were glued to the monitor before them. On the screen, an Arwing so realistic that Fox could barely believe it was merely a digital copy weaved and swooped through the shining silver rings that appeared in its path. Its bright red trim was a streak along its side as it steadily increased its speed.

M 1 and rising!

"I think," Amber whispered to General Pepper, "that this young Lombardi may be flying rings around Miss Hare."

Fox overheard the comment without meaning to: his attention was all for the image of his friend’s test onscreen. The vulpine had unconsciously leaned forward in his seat, eyes never leaving the red-trimmed Arwing as it swooped and swirled in an almost graceful manner. Falco was obviously in her element in the air, and Fox caught himself wondering forlornly if he would be able to perform as well when his turn came...

"W-w-what’s happening?" Slippy asked suddenly, snapping the vulpine out of his musings. Fox stared at the monitor in confusion as the scene seemed to shimmer out of existence, leaving Falco and Rabbi’s Arwing suspended in mid-flight.

"The first test phase has ended," Amber explained, hiding a laugh at their confusion. "Your friend did exceptionally well," she added as the image onscreen changed again. A series of discs began to materialize, starting to move slowly as they appeared. Their speed rapidly increased, until the small targets darted around like flies, in a mimicry of scrambling enemy fighters.

Falco immediately blasted the disc closest to her, and suddenly her Arwing was swooping and swerving across the digital skies in pursuit of the ‘enemy’. Her hyper lasers lashed out constantly, the majority of her shots connecting, and several of the targets de-rezzed into oblivion.

Fox and Slippy watched the monitor in silent, open-mouthed awe, completely floored by the knowledge that one of their best friends was the one causing all this carnage onscreen. Fox could almost picture how Falco looked as she blasted the enemies: her intense eyes narrowed, a triumphant smile on her beak, completely focused on her targets.

You brat, Falco! he thought to himself, a shaky grin coming to his face. You never said anything about being such a great flyer! You never thought to tell us!

Suddenly Slippy jerked beside him and yelled, "H-h-hey, that’s not fair!"

Fox snapped back to reality and stared at the screen, instantly seeing what his friend meant. All through the second test so far, Rabbi had been racking up an impressive score of her own by shooting down discs in another area. But now the rabbit had brought her Arwing around and was actively trying to shoot down whatever Falco had currently targeted. Her dark blue lasers shot away the discs mere microseconds before Falco’s red lasers cut through the same spot. It was painfully obvious what the rabbit had in mind: by destroying whatever Falco was presently aiming for, she was preventing the avian from scoring any more hits.

"That isn’t fair!" Fox heard himself protest, and he swung to face General Pepper and Amber. The two officials looked obviously troubled, so Fox pressed his point. "It isn’t right for her to do that to Falco! Make her stop!"

Amber gazed at the vulpine with worried eyes and replied, "I’m afraid that Miss Hare is allowed to do that, McCloud. Technically, the targets aren’t considered to be Lombardi’s unless she destroys them. It’s perfectly fine for Miss Hare to target and shoot whatever she wishes to."

"But..." Realizing he would get no help from this approach, Fox looked back at the screen. Rabbi had slowly increased her attacks, and more often than not destroyed what Falco was aiming at before the avian could fire. Fox could sense Falco’s growing frustration, and he clenched his paws into helpless fists as he watched her struggle to squeeze a few kills in.

"Come on, Lombardi, you can take this! Show that thieving brat what REAL pilots can do! Go!"

Confused, Fox turned to see who was shouting, wondering how they knew what he was thinking. Sable Lightfoot was standing directly behind him, wickedly flashing blue eyes locked on the monitor. Her paws were balled into tight fists, and she screamed at the screen, her angry shouts loud enough to probably be heard in the testing room.

"I know you can do this, Falco!" she encouraged at what had to be the top of her lungs. "Just because that thief doesn’t play fair doesn’t mean you can’t win! Show her how skilled you REALLY are! Come ON!"

In the simulator room, Falco grimaced in frustration as Rabbi blew away another target she had just locked onto. This rabbit is definitely proving herself to be very annoying, she thought. Better stop playing around.

She focused her laser sights on another disc, and waited until she was certain that Rabbi had locked onto it. Just as the rabbit was about to fire, Falco suddenly swung around, locked onto another target, and vaporized it before the other could react.

"What?" Rabbi exclaimed. While she stared at the de-rezzing remains of the target in surprise, Falco whirled back around and shot down the disc she had targeted before the rabbit could think to claim it herself.

"Smooth move," Amber commented under her breath, arching an eyebrow as she glanced over at General Pepper meaningfully. Sable, meanwhile, was praising the maneuver much more openly, cheering and waving her arms in the air, ignoring the fact that the others were all staring at her display.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! That’ll show her! Shoot ‘em all down!" the ferret yelled, her eyes gleaming with excitement. Fox gave the girl a look of pure disbelief; he had thought that only Slippy had that kind of energy. The amphibian seemed just as shocked by this display as Fox was, while the others in the room were apparently much more used to Sable’s outbursts. Stealing a quick glance over at Bill, Fox noticed that the canine was shaking his head and muttering something that the vulpine couldn’t quite make out.

Finally the screen faded out again, ending the second phase of the test. Fox stole a nervous glance over at Amber and the general, who were looking at something the cheetah was writing on her clipboard. Sable tugged roughly on his arm, alerting him to the fact that the final section was starting.

"Here we go," she told him as a new arena formed around the two digital Arwings. The blue-trimmed one made the first move, zooming toward Falco with her lasers blazing. The avian rolled away, and the two became near blurs of red and blue as they swooped in and around one another, lasers flashing occasionally. Those gathered in the room watched in near silence as the two fought, weaving in and out of light beams while trying to shoot the other down, neither appearing to have a clear advantage over the other. Even Sable was quiet, although her eyes shone with a strange energy as she watched the onscreen battle.

Finally crimson lasers tore into navy-striped metal, and Sable let out a whoop of excitement as Rabbi’s Arwing dropped to the ground. Fox and Slippy stared up at the monitor in complete shock for a moment, and then suddenly the amphibian joined the ferret in cheering Falco’s name.

Back inside the testing room, Rabbi’s reaction was considerably different. She stared out into space even as the digital illusion faded away, allowing the room to come back into view. The side of her face twitched slightly, and her mind shrieked out a thousand protests.

This is impossible! How could I have lost to that b-BIRD!

She got out of her mock cockpit in a sort of dazed stupor, one she snapped out of the moment her gaze happened to rest on the avian. Her pink eyes narrowed into slits, and she glared over at Falco as the avian strode by her and back out of the room. Falco ignored the look completely, and rejoined her friends in the other room.

"That was great, Falco!" Sable cheered, beaming at the falcon as she entered. "You really showed Rabbi!" As she said this, the ferret glanced over at the rabbit and grinned at her, although this smile was not as friendly as the one she directed toward the avian. Rabbi ignored the look and stalked past them, leaving the room. Peppy watched her leave with a regretful expression on his face.

"Very well done, Miss Falco," Amber commented, making a few notes on her clipboard. She flipped the page and read, "The next test will be for Mister Slippy Toad. Your test will be with Miss Katt Monroe."

Throwing a furtive look back at his friends, Slippy got to his feet and followed Katt into the testing room. Sable grinned back at him, calling out reassuringly, "Don’t worry, even if you do get shot down. Katt’s a really good pilot."

* * *

Was that supposed to be reassuring? Slippy couldn’t help but wonder as he settled into the mock cockpit and picked an interesting teal color for his Arwing’s trim. Katt, not surprisingly, chose a bright pink trim, and the scene shifted at once to the speed test that they had watched Falco take earlier.

Fox and the others watched as the two swooped through ring after ring, and the vulpine winced as Slippy narrowly missed crashing into the edge of one. In some respects, the amphibian was doing quite well, actually keeping a little bit ahead of Katt’s Arwing, but her attempts to get past him were nearly forcing the frog to miss or crash into the rings as they darted through them.

Slippy groaned as the left wing of his ship clipped into one of the rings, and the mock cockpit shook in mimicry of what it would feel like in real life. Inwardly he wondered if he was doing as bad as he thought he was.

Katt arched an eyebrow, swerving to get past the amphibian’s ship and failing to find an opening. "Well…he may not be as good as Falco was, but he certainly has some potential. Not everyone is able to keep me behind them like this…"

The first test ended, and the display before them wavered and changed, transforming into the second area. Katt immediately picked one area and started shooting down discs there; she was not about to copy what Rabbi had attempted earlier. Slippy tried to follow her example, and blue hyper lasers tore into spinning targets as he fired again and again.

I’m still not doing as well as Falco did, an inner voice whined. Maybe I’m not cut out to be an Arwing pilot…

"He’s doing quite well, really," Amber whispered over to General Pepper. The canine nodded slightly, eyes never leaving the screen. In front of them, Sable was amusing herself by counting off each target that either one hit, chanting, "One little, two little, three little Venmies, four little, five little, six little Venmies…"

"Does she know how incredibly annoying she’s being?" Fara whispered in Bill’s ear. The ashen-furred canine shook his head, his expression half-exasperated, half-amused.

Finally the second test ended, and Slippy gulped as the scene faded into blackness for a moment. He had no idea that, outside, Fox had done the exact same thing, with his eyes nervously locked on the monitor.

Then the world came back, and all hell broke loose onscreen. Katt unleashed the full force of her lasers, and Slippy cried out as he attempted to weave a path through the relentless firing. Fox clenched his paws into helpless fists, his eyes wavering with fear as he watched his friend struggle. Beside him, Falco was watching the scene with her arms crossed, while Sable had fallen silent as she stared up at the scene.

"Well…he’s really good at dodging, at any rate," she quipped, grinning nervously at the others. That was about the time when one of Katt’s lasers connected, and the ferret grinned nervously as Fox and the others glanced over at her. "I’ll shut up now," she whispered weakly.

To his credit, Slippy did manage to squeeze off a few shots that tore into Katt’s wings even as he crashed to the ground. Still, the amphibian came out of the testing room with his head bowed, shuffling back to Fox and the others. Katt walked alongside him, draping one arm around his slumped shoulders for a moment as she whispered into his ear, "Don’t worry. I got shot down during my test too. You did really well, kid."

Her words of encouragement seemed to have little effect on the frog, however, and he slumped into his seat next to Fox while Katt shrugged and went over to where Bill and Fara were standing. Sable grinned at Slippy, obviously trying to raise his spirits, and complimented him on his work during the speed test.

"The last test will be for Mister Fox McCloud," she announced, flipping to the proper sheet. As the vulpine got to his feet, she added, "Your co-pilot for this will be Mister Bill Grey. If you would please go into the testing room…?"

"Break a leg, Fox!" Sable cheered, waving at the vulpine as he and the canine headed into the other room. "You too, big bro! Don’t go easy on him just ‘cause he’s your friend!"

Oh, great, Fox thought, glancing over at Bill nervously. Behind him, he could see that everyone else in the room was watching him. Falco’s expression was unreadable, hers wings crossed over her chest, while Slippy was wishing the vulpine luck. Fara and Katt were watching Fox’s every move and talking to one another in excited whispers. Peppy smiled reassuringly, as did Amber and the general, but that did little to calm the vulpine’s nerves as he walked into the testing room.

* * *

I guess I’ll use yellow for my Arwing, Fox decided, selecting a shade. His favorite color was actually green, but he was certain that Bill would prefer that himself, so he didn’t want to take that option away from him.

…Akk! That’s not yellow! The vulpine sweated as he noticed that the shade he thought had been a nice dark yellow had turned out to be a bright gold instead. Fox groaned, rubbing his forehead. Probably the others would assume that he had deliberately chosen that color to stand out more.

Well, it was too late to do anything about it now. Sighing, Fox tensed as the display around him shimmered, then shifted into the setting for the first course. Instantly, he started his Arwing forward, catching a glimpse of a verdant-trimmed Arwing out of the corner of his eye. An image of the gray-furred canine appeared on his com-link, grinning from ear to ear.

"Nice choice, Foxy," he commented, a friendly smile on his muzzle. The green-trimmed Arwing darted forward through the center of the first ring, and he called, "Think you can keep up with me?"

Gritting his teeth, Fox darted after him. Within the space of a few moments, he managed to squeeze past Bill’s ship, and an excited grin broke out over his face despite his nervousness. This was much better than he had ever dreamed. Real or not, he was actually piloting an Arwing! He swooped through ring after ring, then suddenly…

"Hey!" Fox cried out in protest as the green-trimmed Arwing zipped past him, cutting him off. A grinning Bill reappeared on the com-link, taunting him.

"Come on Fox, you can do better than that!"

"I’ll show you," Fox muttered, smiling despite the dangerous tone of his voice. His G-Diffusers whined as he sped up, flashing past Bill’s Arwing after a moment. The two friends began jockeying for position, with one gaining the lead, then the other. Outside, the others watched the two trade spots several times, surprised. Sable cheered for one, then the other as they moved back and forth.

"YEAH! Go Fox…oops, I mean Big Brother! You can beat ‘em, B…Fox! YEAH!"

"D-d-does she always act like this?" Slippy asked, looking over at Katt and Fara. The two girls nodded in unison.

The first phase ended, and Fox tensed up again as he waited for the next section to begin. As soon as the screen changed, he raced forward, his lasers flashing as he picked off one disc, then another, then three more, in rapid succession. Not far away, Bill was also racking up an impressive score.

"His father’s aim," Amber commented, glancing over at General Pepper and Peppy as she said it. The two were watching the screen, and barely seemed to hear her remark. Sable, meanwhile, had picked up her little chant again, much to Fara’s apparent displeasure.

The second part finally ended after a while, and Fara had to keep herself from applauding when Sable immediately shut up. As the screen changed again, she unconsciously leaned forward, eager to see how well Fox would do.

The two Arwings began to weave and swoop, each squeezing off shots at the other as they attempted to dodge at the same time. Gold and green lasers flashed through digital skies, most narrowly missing their target, but some managing to connect occasionally. Sable jerked and gasped each time a beam found its way home, while the others watched more quietly, but with just as much interest in what was happening.

Suddenly Slippy and Sable cried out in unison as verdant lasers tore into gold-striped metal, and a wing plummeted to the ground. Fox screamed as he felt his ship start to lose control, and as the Arwing started to follow the same path that the wing had taken, he brought the nose of the ship around and fired one last shot off at the green Arwing.

"What the he-" Bill started to exclaim, then his words were abruptly cut off as golden lasers tore into his gas tank, and the green-trimmed Arwing exploded. Fox stared up at the de-rezzing ship in shock as it rose above him, Bill’s shout ringing in his ears. This was only a test, he knew that; it wasn’t like Bill was really dead.

But that didn’t make the screaming all that less terrible. Fox almost welcomed the sudden release as his own Arwing exploded, and the scene faded into darkness. For a moment, the vulpine sat in the mock cockpit, breathing hard, his eyes wavering as he struggled to put the vision of Bill’s Arwing going up in flames out of his mind.

Then Bill was opening up the side of the cockpit and helping him climb out, smiling happily. As if Fox had not just blown him to bits in the simulator.

"Hey, Foxy, nice shot," he complimented the vulpine, like it had been a regular Venomian ship that he had just sent into oblivion instead of the canine. Uncertain of how he should act, Fox managed a shaky smile in return, and Bill cuffed him lightly on the back as they walked out of the simulation room together.

"Thank you for your time," Amber said, bowing politely to the vulpine. "We’ll be analyzing your test scores and will inform you of the results soon. Please continue to show them around the base," she told Bill, Katt, Fara, and Sable.

"Sure thing!" Sable said, and she latched onto Slippy’s arm again and tugged him out the door. Katt led Falco out in a less forceful, but just as insistent manner, and Bill smiled over at Fox and offered him his hand.

"Wait, Bill," Fara said, stopping the canine by grabbing his arm gently. Bill glanced over at her, but she smiled at Fox as she said, "Why don’t I take over showing him around for a while?"

Somehow, Fox wasn’t sure that he liked the sound of that.

To be continued…