Dark Salamander **Acknowledgements: The only real one for this story is to Nintendo of America, for their great game. This is their universe and their copyright so please don't sue. Thanks.**
Dark Salamander
Setting: It is now one and one half years after the defeat of Andross. The Venomian forces have been routed, leaving them only a small corner of the galaxy to rule. Fox McCloud and the Starfox team are doing well, helping to take back world after world in the memory of Fox's father. Fox and Fara Phoenix, a member of the royal family from one of the Lylat System's planets, are together and happy. In the past month, though, a new leader has taken command of the Venomian forces. From his ship the Dark Salamander, Admiral Eriaz commands the Venomian fleet with renewed vigor. Especially dangerous are his seductive aide Nira and what he calls his "Royal Fleet", a group of advanced fightercraft with well trained pilots that no one can find. Will this new threat spell the destruction of the Lylat System or can Starfox and the Cornerian Army stop him?

Chapter 1

The Majestic soared into Aquas gracefully, much as a ship of the Royal Family should. Flanking it were four fightercraft, Arwing class. The white ships glided through the atmosphere without a hitch, and at the capital ship's helm, Fara Phoenix opened a channel to the Aquas Ruling Council. "Attention Qal Menor of the Aquas Ruling Council, this is Fara Phoenix of the Ambassadorial ship Majestic. I have come to negotiate the sale of your planet's rare and unique Crithallia crystals to the Cornerian government. Please respond."

"Ambassador Phoenix, this is Qal Menor. We are delighted you could make it. As we told you, we are very interested in selling our Crithallia crystals to your government. If you'll please instruct your ship to set a course for the coordinates being fed to your nav computer now, I'll be there to meet you personally."

"Understood, Ambassador. My escort will want to come along."

For a moment there was comm silence. "You will find no danger here."

"I'm sure I won't, sir, but they were paid to protect me until I was in Corneria's atmosphere. I would appreciate it if you would let them do their duty."

Menor sighed. "Very well. They may land. I believe there will be room on the pad for all of you. If not--," He hesitated. "If not, I can make alternate arrangements."

Menor's face lit up when he saw who her "paid escort" actually was. "Well, well, if I'd known I'd be meeting Fox McCloud face to face, I would never have been so rude. Welcome to Aquas, Mr. McCloud. I'm delighted to finally meet you in person," He told Fox, and offered Fox his hand. Fox took the hand, shook it, and released. They walked to the edge of the pad together, where Menor gestured for them to stop.

"Now what?" Fox asked.

"Now we wait for an elevator," Menor smiled at him. "You see, our subsonic pressure system is the great technological evolution of our world. I simply press this button here," He held up a remote and showed them the button, "And it emits a sonic pressure signal from one of the sonic emitters underground, which shoots an elevator straight up towards us. After that, getting it back down is done by lever and pulley. There are other remotes for other elevators, as well as other things on this world. I believe the Zoness restoration project uses a similar system."

The mention of Zoness and his friend Katt Monroe brought a smile to Falco's face. "Yes," Falco put in. "A good friend of mine is leading that project."

Menor looked back at him and gave him a brief smile, then looked forward, and Falco snorted inwardly at the almost-snobbery committed there. Meanwhile, Fox and Fara were looking down at the ocean, and could begin to see a black box rising up from it. When they pointed it out Menor replied, "Yes. That's our elevator."

A second later they were under fire.

Chapter 2

The ships came streaking in from out of nowhere, fleas with modified exhausts, looking like they were coming from the other side of the planet. They opened fire on the area around them, but did not hit them. Fox would have suspected they were deliberately avoiding it, but the platform was so large, and they so small in comparison, that it was entirely possible that they would miss. They did hit the Majestic three times, causing serious damage, and scored a direct hit on Falco's arwing. There were four of them-- four fighters, and they razed the area, shooting the water, the pad, anything in sight. The Starfox team took out blasters-- Menor didn't have one-- and began firing on the ships. The pilots were good, however-- obviously members of the Royal Fleet which served as Admiral Eriaz's main protection, and the bane of the Cornerian Defense Forces's existence. They were good enough that only one hit was scored on the hull of the foremost fighter. Then they flew over the pad, stopping their firing, and Fox saw what was behind them. It was a larger craft, like a shuttle only rectangular in shape. It flew fast over the open seas-- for sea was virtually all Aquas had-- and came to a skidding halt beside the platform, so that the Starfox team, Fara, Menor showed it their profiles. Fox and Falco managed a hit each, but the thing was fast. It hovered over the water, its hatch opened-- and out came a volley of laserfire. The Starfox team led Fara and Menor to cover, and they opened fire. Fara would have joined them, but she was in diplomatic attire and had no blaster. Lizards, four of them, stormed out of the hatch, followed by a fox. She was tall and beautiful, long black hair flowing down her back all the way to her waist. Her eyes were so brown they were almost black, and she wore silver combat armor and a black belt. She carried in her hand a wicked looking and decidedly lethal blaster, with which she opened fire.

Using Fox's arwing for cover, the team played tag with their obviously Venomian attackers. The lizards continued useless fire, most of it going over their heads. Fox took one down and they appeared to be winning, when suddenly, all six of them were stunned from behind. Somehow, the female fox had managed to get around behind them without any of them knowing it. Fox dropped into blackness.

Admiral Eriaz sat in his command room, pondering. His campaign to restore Andross's Empire seemed to be going well. His ships struck at various Cornerian supply fleet, seemingly at random but always with a clear objective in mind. Also, he was at random times striking the Retriever ships which went out in Aquas's ocean to retrieve Crithallia crystals, a key component in his plan. Very soon now they would be ready to raid the planet's main headquarters for Crithallia storage, at which point they would have all the crystals they needed. All went well-- with one exception. Recently, the Cornerians had become aware of the value Crithallia crystals had in energy, beauty, and hardness, and sought to set up a contract with the Aquasians whereby the bulk of the Crithallia crystals would be sold to the Cornerian government. If his plan was to succeed this could not be allowed. He might be able to hit a shipment or two, but they would catch on, and send ships to protect the shipments and, eventually, the housing plants themselves. If this happened he would never get the amount of Crithallia crystals he needed, and if that happened his dream of restoring Andross's Empire under his rule would be crushed. If all went well, however, he would not have to worry about that for much longer.

Just as that thought ran through his brain, the comm light on his chair pinged. He was receiving a transmission on his primary frequency. He toggled it to his viewscreen, and the nearly invisible thing came to life in a blaze of colors.

On the screen appeared the face of a fox, slender and beautiful, with eyes as brown as dark coffee and flowing voluminous black hair. Nira, his primary lieutenant. She had first come to him claiming the Lylat government had mistreated her, beat her for a crime she did not commit, and she sought refuge. He had put her through his most difficult test-- to infiltrate one of the heavily guarded Cornerian military space stations and retrieve a vital computer card about planetary defenses. This was how he chose his top men. Most did not make it back out alive. Not only had she made it alive, she had made it uninjured and, from what his intelligence had gathered in the aftermath, completely undetected. One of these days, he vowed, he would figure out how she did that-- or most of the other things about her, for that matter, including her last name. For now they simply called her Nira. However, that would wait. "Yes, Nira?" He asked.

"We've completed our mission," Nira's melodious voice answered.

Eriaz smiled, and his smile was wolfish. "Excellent. Were you successful in-- retrieving the Ambassador?"

"I was. She is onboard my ship at this moment, still unconscious."

"Excellent. Our subsequent attack on their Number Three storage house should convince them that it is not safe to send any more ambassadors for the moment."

"Yes, sir," Nira responded, and shut off the comm. Eriaz smiled. Now he had nothing to worry about.

Chapter 3

Fox McCloud awoke feeling like he'd just had cymbals clapped to either side of his head. He looked around, checking his little group, and noticed the absence immediately. "Falco," he shook his comrade, "Wake up! They took Fara!"

Falco came awake, blinking his eyes blearily before the news hit him. "They what?"

"You heard me!"

They woke the rest of the group, and Ambassador Menor. "I don't know where they could have taken her, Mr. McCloud," he told him. "There's this new commander in charge-- or so I hear-- and he's been conducting raids on our Crithillia transports, but we've never had a kidnapping. The workers inside the transports are always either found stuffed into an escape pod-- or not found, because they're dead."

Fox sighed. "All right. How soon can you have Falco's arwing repaired?"

"Depending on the damage-- probably inside a week," Menor ventured. "We'll have to get it aboard one of our cruisers and take it to one of our underwater repair facilities. They're good enough, but they mostly service sea ships," Menor winced.

Fox sighed. He supposed that would have to do.

The retreiver seashuttle blasted away from the Number Three storage base amid vast explosions, and from the cockpit of his attack sub, Ooraj Kollin smiled. They now had in their posession a good number of the most valuable crystal on the planet. What Eriaz intended to do with them he hadn't the foggiest-- the Admiral was very secretive about his plans-- but whether he would use them for energy or hull enhancement or funding or merely to harass the Cornerians and their allies, Kollin had no doubt the Admiral would make it good. Yes, things were definitely starting to look up.

Fara Phoenix came awake slowly, as if she had slept for many hours pleasantly and was now reluctant to get up. She was lying on a hard, uncomfortable bench in a small, nondescript white room. She could move her arms and legs, and after a moment stood up. Looking around, hearing the rumble that suggested she was on a ship, she reached the inescapable conclusion that she was a prisoner aboard a Venomian ship. That conclusion was corrobrated when the door opened and the tall female fox from the attack stepped into the room, exuding an aura of utter confidence.

"Yes," Fara answered her.

"Admiral Eriaz wants to see you. He instructed me to-- escort you to the bridge," she said, pulling a pair of wrist cuffs from their place inside her belt. Fara did not recall having seen them there before, and guessed they were specifically for ensuring her cooperation.

"And if I don't come?" she asked.

"I can always just kill you," the woman answered with that same aura of utter self confidence, an complete lack of belief that anyone would dare to defy her. Realizing she was unarmed and that she was also in a voluminous gown, not the best attire for a fight, she turned around and allowed the woman to place the cuffs on her. She was then led in a direction that she would not normally associate with the bridge on a Venomian ship. She soon realized that the reason she would not associate that direction with the bridge was because she was not being led to the bridge. They stopped in front of a forest green doorway, and the female fox swiped a card through a reader. The door swished open, the releasing gases sounding like a serpent. The woman gestured for Fara to enter.

She stepped into a large room, the walls again painted green. It was sparsely decorated. The first thing Fara saw was a tall sheet of not-quite-transparent material that reached from the room's floor to its ceiling. There were two narrow ways around it, and Fara noted lizards dressed in Venomian military uniforms making use of both of them. Behind the screen there were control panels on either of the side walls, and squarely in the center of them was an enormous black leather chair. Its sole occupant rose upon seeing Fara come around the left side of the screen. He wore a gray uniform, and the insignia was that of a Venomian Admiral.

"Greetings, Fara Phoenix," he greeted her, his voice deep and rich. "I am Admiral Eriaz, and I trust you've met my associate Nira," he gestured to the fox behind her. Fara turned to look, and she gave a brief bow, still holding her blaster to discourage her from trying anything.

"Mind telling me what this is about?" She asked.

"I'll do better than that. I'll show you, eventually, but for now I'll tell you some of it. The original purpose behind your-- what should I call it? Abduction? No, that's such a nasty word. Appropriation! Yes, that's it. The original purpose behind your appropriation was to ensure that the Cornerian government could not close a deal with any of the various crystal mining firms of Aquas to obtain their Crithallia crystals. However, when I think about it, there are actually more immediate and equally useful purposes you could serve. For instance, a key figure in the defeat of Andross was the involvement of a certain pirate team known as Starfox. I am familiar with their history, and I know that their leader, Fox McCloud, rose to that role after his father, James McCloud, was murdered by Andross. I am also aware that he holds you, Ms. Phoenix, in a very high regard. I am certain there are ways I could use that to my advantage, I just have to think of exactly how."

Fara scoffed. "Fox wouldn't fall for your trap. He's too smart."

"I doubt that," Eriaz responded, sinking back into his chair and studying his nails.

"Where am I?" Fara demanded.

"You are on board my ship, the Dark Salamander, which is hidden in a very interesting location. Since it also houses my most elite fightercraft and pilots, I feel it best that that location remain a secret. As such, I have installed many anti-intruder devices. If you attempt escape--," he left the implication hanging in the air between them. After a moment's pause, he spoke again. "Escort her back to her quarters. I have no more need of her for now."

Chapter 4

As it turned out, it took two days to get Falco's Arwing fixed, and then three more to get back to Corneria. Once there, he informed General Pepper of the situation.

"Blast it, Fox!" Pepper replied. "You were supposed to protect Ambassador Phoenix. Who knows what secrets they'll pluck from her mind!"

"I appologize, General, but right now I'm interested in getting her back. What can we do about that?"

"Not much at this point, I'm afraid." Pepper led them to a tactical console and called up a display, a wire frame of a standard Venomian battlecruiser. "This is the Dark Salamander. Andross awarded it to Admiral Phogon at the height of his power. His second in command was Vice Admiral Eriaz. During a battle at Zoness-- when Cornerian forces attempted to retake the planet, Phogon was mysteriously killed. None of the other bridge officers were, and only a few of the other officers on the ship at all were killed, purportedly by a Cornerian turbolaser blast that iimpacted directly over the center of the ship and jolted certain wires, causing an explosion. Eriaz was promoted to Admiral. Two months later there was an attempted coup on Venom, a coup in which the Dark Salamander was a part. It was deflected after two weeks, when most of the fleet initiating the coup was destroyed by Andross's fleet and secret protection agency. The coup's leader was killed by Andross personally, but three of the ships escaped, including the Dark Salamander. Two weeks later Cornerian forces invaded Venom and Andross was too busy to hunt them down. In the choas of battle, Eriaz was somehow able to erase all records of the Dark Salamander's ever having been part of the coup attempt. Since most people were not even aware the coup had taken place, following the death of Andross Eriaz was able to come back and take control of a significant portion of Andross's rim fleets, the ones farthest from Venom. He has since acquired from sources unknown an elite group of pilots and modified their fighters, and also modified heavily the Dark Salamander, which has in the intervening year and a half completely disappeared. We have no idea of its whereabouts, and in all likelihood Ambassador Phoenix-- Fara-- is being held there."

"So in other words, we find the Dark Salamander, we find Fara."

"Basically, but don't get excited. I have other things I need for you to do. Several of our convoys have been attacked recently--"

"Forget it, Pepper. I told you when Andross was defeated I work my own way. It's fine to make a living serving you and protecting Corneria but when something personal comes up, that takes priority. I'm going after her, Pepper, and don't you try to stop me," Fox asserted.

Pepper looked up at him, surprise in his eye. "Very well then, my boy. Good luck to you."

Chapter 5

Fox tossed his satchel into the Arwing, behind the pilot's seat, anger and determination to find Fara struggling for domination in his mind. She was gone, the Lylat System was about to be taken over by a murderous and power hungry ex-Admiral, Crithallia crystals were disappearing from Aquas like bits of cheese from a mice infested house, and the source of it all was hidden away so well he didn't even have th slightest idea of where to start in looking for it. What he would do he didn't know, but he did know that he had to do something. Falco came out to him, tapped him on the shoulder.

"Yes?" Fox asked.

"You're making a mistake, you know," Falco held up his hand to forestall a reply. "I know what she means to you, but think for a second, Fox. If you have a brain, use it! You've gotta get some context here! Some background! The reason we have no clues about Eriaz's fleet is because aside from a few shipping raids, it hasn't attacked us! Now use that collection of peas you've got inside your skull and stay here. Help Pepper. When they attack I promise you we'll go after them full force, but until then--", His face lightened, his usual mask of rudeness fading. "Please. I don't want to see my friend get killed."

"Gotta find her. Gotta find that ship. If I don't, it'll be more than just one life that's lost."

"Now don't pretend you don't have any ulterior motives. I know you too well, Fox. Please."

Fox resented somehow being spoken to this way by his hotheaded friend, perhaps because he was every bit as arrogant and stubborn. Yet part of him saw the logic in what Falco said, and listened to it. "All right," He conceded. "I'll stay. For now."

When it became clear she would not simply be sitting in her cell, bored to death, Fara decided to stay a couple of weeks to see what she could learn about the enemy that had been giving Corneria so much trouble lately. Attired in the blue uniform of a Venomian prisoner, she was forced into daily interrogation sessions and sometimes visited by the mysterious woman Nar. However, as it turned out she didn't learn much, and at the end of the second week she decided it was time to get out of here. Being led back, in handcuffs, from a long and torturous interrogation session, she collapsed to the floor, feigning nausea and acute stress syndrome. The trooper leading her from behind, in his ignorant and actually rather kind way, knelt to help her, and she brought herself up straight into his face, then kicked him and rammed him into a wall. She grabbed his blaster from its holster with her manacled hands and ran as fast as she could down the corridor. In a safe place, she spread her hands as far apart as they could get and away from herself, then pointed the blaster at where she hoped the chain was and fired. It worked, and she was free.

She dashed for a hangar bay, and found one. Inside were twelve fighters of the design used by Royal Squadron. She opened the door so that she-- and her blaster-- faced the entrance to the hangar bay and was about to climb in when Nira showed up, blaster pointed at her. "Freeze it!" Nira shouted.

Fara shot, then rolled to the side so Nira's shot missed. She looked up, expecting to see a smoking hole in the other's chest-- and found only a tiny burn mark on her clothing. The other still stood, apparently in perfect health. Realizing it was due to her armor, she fired again, and this time she rolled in the other direction so that the shot again missed her. It hit Nira straight in the face-- but it did not singe her at all. She still stood, in perfect health. Then, right before her eyes, the other fox melted. She melted right away into a gelatinous ooze that crept around Fara's body, lumped up again, and reformed into a fox behind her. Using the element of surprise, she grabbed Fara with both hands, encircling both her arms in a tight grip. She was about to use what little freedom her hands had left to give the other a giant pinch that would allow her to escape, but the grip was quickly released and she held Fara's wrists instead. She then brought her leg around in front of Fara's body to block her movements in a way that showed she was clearly not dealing with an amateur. Fortunately, Fara was not an amateur either, and brought her elbows in together so that they stabbed the other woman's ribs. This shocked her, and she released her grip on Fara's hands. Using this leverage, she turned as best she could and punched Nira in the face. The assassin woman fell to the floor. Fara knelt warily, keeping her eye on Nira the whole time, and picked up her blaster. She pointed it at the other woman and asked "What are you?"

"I'm not sure," Nira answered. "I just-- woke up one day, and changed shape purely by accident. Since then I just-- adopted this identity. It helps me fit in."

"Yeah, well, there's nothing I'd like better than to see you 'fit in' at a Cornerian prison camp, but unfortunately, I don't have time for that. I'd guess your friends are going to be coming after me any second, so I've got to get away from here. Later!" She shouted, and jumped into the fighter. She closed the door, and pressed the remote on its control board that opened the hangar bay doors. What she saw through the windowport astounded her, and at last she knew why the Dark Salamander had managed to stay hidden for so long.

Chapter 6

Eriaz leaned back in his comfortable command chair and thought. He much preferred his private thoughts to the loud prattle of outsiders. Now he could ponder his conquest of the Lylat System, and of that fool Andross's empire, in perfect peace and solitude. He had tried once before to take power from that insane monkey, had been the Third In Command of a coup on Venom, but the former scientist from Corneria had outsmarted him. He had foiled the coup with a brilliant battle strategy, and had its leader-- the greatest, smartest, and bravest man Eriaz had ever known-- hung. It was intolerable. Now, though, Andross was dead, and there was no one in the universe smarter than he was. No one who could stop his conquest.

That thought brought a smile to his face, and he thought about the progress reports Nira and his other agents had given him. At last report, they had hit and destroyed every one of Aquas's Crithallia crystal storage bases. Corneria had yet to send another ambassador to try and buy rights to them, and thanks to his Royal Squadron and their excellent raiding work, Eriaz had all the parts he needed for a new fleet. Only this wouldn't be just any fleet. This fleet would have hulls made of Crithallia crystal, which was so strong that Corneria's best laser blast would only make a slight scorch mark on its surface. Even that accursed Starfox team General Pepper was so proud of could do nothing against him.

His smile was reaching unequaled proportions when the red alert lights began flashing and the alarm warbled. He got up to investigate, called for a status report. His monitoring officer stepped in the door and gave his report. "I track one fighter, Royal Squadron description, leaving the ship, bearing zero one four mark one four eight."

"I authorized no missions! Who is the pilot?"

The monitoring officer looked flustered and shrugged. Eriaz was about to start in on him when Nira entered the room, shoving him aside. "She's escaped!" Nira breathed. "Fara Phoenix has escaped!

Eriaz's eyes widened, then shrunk again. "She'll no doubt go back to Corneria and tell them everything she knows-- which is nothing. Still, best not to take chances. How many of my new fleet are ready?" Eriaz asked.

"You're not going after her?" Nira asked.

"No, Fara Phoenix is inconsequential. We would not get her back, and even if we did, what purpose would she serve? No, I think it better to utterly humiliate her by showing her that even her vain attempts to mount a resistance against us are useless. Now then, how many of my ships are ready?" Eriaz asked.

"Six, sir," the communications officer told him. "Nine more should be ready within two more weeks."

"I'm not going to wait two more weeks. Instead, we launch now. Are all six ships fully crewed?" Eriaz asked.

"Five of them are. The other one can be battle ready within the hour."

"Within the hour, then. We begin with a strike on Katina, as planned. It is the most heavily fortified of the Corneria government's defense bases, and so taking it out will be the greatest blow to their morale. Instruct my command staff to be ready immediately. My Royal Squadron will, of course, accompany them on this mission."

"And you yourself, sir?" The monitoring officer asked.

"Hmmm... I'm reluctant to take the Dark Salamander into combat. It has remained hidden for so long, and is vulnerable to destruction. It's extremely powerful, mind you, but still vulnerable to destruction."

"But Fara Phoenix now knows its location," Nira reminded him. "She and the others will no doubt send a fleet of subs here, or perhaps that special one the Starfox team has, to destroy this ship."

"Actually, I think they'll be rather preoccupied with my new fleet, but perhaps you're right. Yes, it would be a likely target for espionage or saboteur squads, and it's less vulnerable on the move than sitting here. Very well, we'll go ourselves. Monitoring officer!" He called.

"Yes, Admiral Eriaz?"

"Instruct Helm to prepare us a course out of the Aquas Ocean. After we're away from this planet, our course is to be directly for Katina Air Base. Set speed to arrive around the same time as the fleet."

"Yes, sir," the monitoring officer replied dutifully.

"Oh, and monitoring officer," he stopped. The officer turned around, and he continued when he was sure he had the other's attention. "Make sure you indicate to them that success on this mission--" He paused for effect, then continued. "Equals conquest of the Lylat System."

Chapter 7

"Fox!" Fara called out. He ran to her, and they embraced quickly. She had been permitted to land after they had confirmed she was not a Royal Squadron fighter come to take over or otherwise attack Corneria. Inside, she told them everything she knew.

"Their ship's under the Aquas ocean, Fox. It's been hiding there the whole time, probably. And they have this woman called Nira, who can change shape whenever she wants--"

Fox reached out a hand to calm his anxious friend. He did not want to sound patronizing, but at the same time he was unsure just how much of a threat there was here. Aside from minor shipping raids and a lot of recent destruction on Aquas, not much had happened. He smiled. "Well, at least that explains how they were able to attack those storage bays so effectively, and why those Royal Squad fighters are retrofitted all special. I'm not sure you know this, but while you were gone-- they destroyed every last one. There's not a one left."

Fara's pouting at being patronized turned to grief stricken anxiety at this news. Then a cheetah comm officer ran into the room where Fox and Fara and Pepper talked, his face pale. "Katina's under attack! Ship registers as the Dark Salamander!"

Fara shot Fox an I-told-you-so look, and as Fox dashed to the Great Fox, he suddenly realized with the force of a bullet that there might be more at stake here than he'd previously imagined.

Bill Grey cursed his awful luck. Always, always when he thought things were finally starting to settle down, he was under attack again. First it was that giant circular prototype ship that had come and attacked Katina Base (the engineers had taken to naming the day that ship was destroyed Independence Day, though why Bill couldn't imagine), then it was being held hostage by that cursed Leon Powalski and tortured in his lair, and now it was this. He had heard of the Dark Salamander, of course, since he had always wanted to take a vacation on Aquas and most of the damage the ship had done had been on that world, but he'd never imagined it would attack here. He'd always thought it was just more harrassment, more putting off the inevitable event that was the Venomian Army's death. He supposed in retrospect it made sense. His were the best and brightest fighter pilots in Lylat, and they did have the largest number of small ships of any of the Cornerian government's bases. It only made sense that any thinking enemy would attack here.

He toggled his comm to Bulldog Squadron's frequency. "Bulldog Squadron, formation Zeta II. Prepare to engage!"

As Royal Squadron shot down like meteors of death through the atmosphere, already in their own strategic position and firing like mad, Bill grimced, wondering if he would ever get to rest.

A large Cornerian fleet, led by the Great Fox, shot out of hyperspace and began pounding on the Dark Salamander. The ship was modified, its front covered with a black rubber that changed its shape slightly, and several additional laser emplacements had been added. It sustained heavy damage, but shot back with its missiles, taking out three Cornerian ships. The Venomian ship called back its pilots from below Katina's atmosphere to respond to the attack, at the same time launching swarms of new ones to intercept and distract the Cornerians. Even so, they thought it was going to be an easy victory when the Crystal Fleet emerged from hyperspace. Six ships, of the color and with the gleam of glass only not at all transparent, they fought like mad bulldogs, intent on a single purpose. They launched huge complements of fighters, but the Cornerians ignored them in favor of the crystal ships. They scored heavy hits, but the Venomians did not seem to take any damage at all. The radar confirmed it. The Cornerians had lost seven ships, and the Venomians, for all intents and purposes, had taken no damage at all.

"Well," Fox spat, "I guess we know what they wanted those Crithallia crystals for."

Chapter 8

Five arwings shot from the Great Fox. Peppy, Slippy, Fox, Falco, and Fara scanned space with their radar, instantly picking up multiple enemy fighter marks. "Ignore them," Fox said. "Our target is the crystal cruisers. Lock nova bombs!"

He got acknowledgements and they headed in, a wing of Cornerian fighters appearing to cover them. All five of them dropped a nova bomb, and swerved, Slippy taking a hit anyway. They exploded on the front of the lead crystal ship. When the smoke cleared, though, any cheering the Starfoxes may have done was killed by the sight of the ship floating there, unharmed. When it continued to fire they knew the operation was a complete failure. Probably even the weakest Venomian tech had survived that. Fox was incredulous.

"Fara, is there any way to penetrate those crystals?" Falco called. Though she was in her heart a member of Starfox, and did indeed have an Arwing on board the Great Fox, her status as royalty meant that she also acted as an Ambassador. Fox had squared this with Pepper, and she was given even cut of all the squadron's earnings. Even so, since she was also partly a legitimate Cornerian officer, she was the only one who might even have done research enough on these crystals to know how to stop them.

"The only way I know of is with the drills they use back on Aquas. They can cut through them. Unfortunately, we don't have any."

Fox thought for a moment. "What are those drills made of?" he asked.

"Durotitanium. It's really strong."

Fox despaired. It looked as if the Venomians had finally won. They would certainly take this base, there was no doubt of that. Unless-- "Peppy, you know the magnum torpedoes the Blue Marine uses?"

"Yeah. What about it, Fox?" He asked, showing he was in no mood for games.

They're themselves made of superheated gases, but their cores-- what I think technicians call their 'lighters'-- what are they made of?"

Then Peppy got it. "Durotitanium. Unfortunately, only a very small amount of it. You'd need thousands to drill through even one ship."

"But the blue marine has an almost unlimited supply of the stuff, melted. We use James McCloud's connections to the legitimate government-- and Pepper's indebtedness to us after missions-- to keep it refueled. Now, I guess it would take too long to form it up into a drill, but what if we could put it in the Great Fox's ejector hatch?"

"And pour it all over the fleet? Fox, you're a genius. I'll get back and get ROB started on it right now!"

"You do that. Cornerian fleet," he opened a channel to the remaining ships, "This is Fox McCloud. We think we've found a way to beat those guys. Until we're sure, all capital ships, engage only the fighters and the Dark Salamander. Repeat. Do not fire a shot at those ships. Engage only the fighters and the Salamander!

"Roger, Mr. McCloud. Fighters and Salamander only."

Fox heard in his voice none of the bitterness that occasionally came from 'actual' Cornerian officers at the thought of one of the greatest Cornerian heroes being a pirate. He only heard intent to obey. He was just settling in to think about how much this pleased him-- while at the same time keeping a close eye on his flying, of course-- when he saw the Great Fox begin to lurch into motion. Hatches on the ship opened, and out poured a glowing silver liquid. The Fox accelerated so that it was directly over the enemy ships and dropped the stuff. It poured out onto them, there was a great sizzling noise, and just as the Fox lurched away-- with heavy damage, of course-- all six ships exploded. Fox's cruiser' barely got away in time to avoid being completely destroyed, and was further damaged as it was.

The Venomian fighters, distraught at the loss of their glorious fleet and their even more glorious plan, went numb and were that much easier to take out. Now all that remained was the Dark Salamander.

Nira watched in horror from the windowport as the scene unfolded. They were winning-- the Cornerians were down to seven capital ships, and six of them were so severely damaged it was only a matter of seconds before they were destroyed. The Great Fox soars in, dumps its liquid metal-- and the entire fleet explodes in a puff of sparks and smoke. A large puff, spelling the end of an even larger dream. After years of being an outcast because of her inherent differences-- even her fox disguise could not save her from the differences of her soul-- she thought she had finally found a home with Eriaz's group. Not with the Venomian army, but with Eriaz's group and the Dark Salamander. She hadn't let herself grow too attached, of course, since the time could always come when Eriaz could betray her, but here everyone focused on their work and Eriaz was nice to her and trusted her. Besides that, the Dark Salamander was a powerful ship that had seemed destined for greatness. She had always wanted power, ever since her earliest awareness, and this had seemed to be her chance. Now, however, it was clear that he would lose. He would lose, and his fleet would be hunted down and destroyed ship by ship. Sighing, she rushed to the docking bay. Exactly as Fara Phoenix had done not even a day before, she climbed into a Royal Squadron fighter and escaped. Just before she blasted into hyperspace she saw the Salamander explode.

Chapter 9

Fox stood by Fara as they watched the news reports from Katina Base of the battle. After their tiring ordeal, they had decided to put down with the Great Fox, at least until it was repaired, and get some rest and relaxation. They held each other as they listened to the news of the Dark Salamander's defeat and destruction. The Royal Squadron, the news said, had been largely destroyed, its surviving members arrested. Bill Grey was given the Cornerian Medal of Valor for his efforts, and the entire squad had been give an accolade for their excellent performance under trying circumstances. The rebuilding efforts on Aquas, it said, were already underway. They were going to completely repair the Crithallia storage bases, as well as minor parts of one of Aquas's dome cities that had been destroyed by the tidal wave caused by the emergence of the Dark Salamander. The Cornerian fleet was already beginning to hunt down the remnants of Eriaz's forces, and three of his major bases had been destroyed already. In addition, they had completely retaken the Corneria System's asteroid field from the Venomian forces, since it was the remnants of Eriaz's gang that appeared to hold sway over that part of space. All in all, the report concluded, things seemed to be looking up.

"I wonder if Nira survived," Fara murmured almost silently, but Fox heard her anway.

"I doubt it," he turned to her. "She was probably just a pirate who wanted some actual fame. Those types rarely survive."

She giggled. Fox asked her what it was, but she was reluctant to tell him. "Come on," he pleaded.

"You'll laugh," she answered.

"Try me."

"Well, it's just that something--" She paused momentarily. "Something in her eyes tells me she wasn't beaten that easily." She shook off the feeling and kissed Fox. Arm in arm, the two of them walked out into the white-yellow glow of Katina's afternoon.