Chapter One

The panther shook his frazzled head with disbelief.  “Not again,” he thought as he looked at the huge screen at the Command Center in Corneria City.  The screen showed a burning city in Katina, and Venomian bombers seemed to be the culprit.  The console officer sighed and turned on his comlink attacked to his head, the microphone close to his mouth.  “Command to General Pepper.”
A few moments went by like days till a voice answered back.  “Pepper here.”
 “You better come to Command Center here.  Looks like the Venom Forces are at it again.”
 The panther flinched from the general’s loud curses, but listened when his boss began speaking his language again.  “What happened?”
 “We’re not actually sure, but Venom bombers were the only ones who could do such a thing.  The city of Hemra in Katina is destroyed.  We just got the satellite picture a few moments ago.  We weren’t notified of the attack till it was already over.”
 Pepper grumbled.  “How in the world can Andross manage to stall the satellites and control communications that would have warned us before the attack?”
 “Don’t know sir.  There was no messages of the attacks being held, and we still can’t find anyone in that vicinity to hail our calls.  All we got is the picture.”
 “Well keep hailing those calls.  I’ll be with you right away.”

 Natlarn Berola, a private pilot in the Bulldog unit of Katina, read the report with a sober look on his spotted feline face.  A small tear went down his right black tearline that all cheetahs have, and his lips moved along with the words on the report about the situation in Hemra.
 “...all buildings either crumbled or in condition unknown, all transports escaping the city was destroyed.  The death toll, as of 0700 hours, is 190,670 people.  Good Lord!  The accused Venom bombers were last reported to be heading to Star Base V239 close to Sector Z.  All Husky and Bulldog units are to report to the Mission Room at 1500 hours..”
 He looked at his watch.  2:40.  “Oh no!  I’m going to be late if I-”
 He didn’t complete the sentence as he rushed out of his quarters and into the already busy hallway.  He crashed immediately onto a hedgehog, boweling him over into the hard floor of the base.  He apologized quickly, and ran off, leaving a boiling mad animal picking himself up, grumbling as he did so.  Natlarn zig-zaged through the moving crowds, bumping a few here and there.  He reached an elevator and pushed the 5th floor button.  Another pilot and maintenance worker, a female German shepherd named Fran Beshale, was already in the elevator.
 Natlarn was gasping too hard to even smile at his long comrade and once girlfriend.
 “You know, Nat, you have a rather stupid habit of reading reports a few hours after you receive them.”
 “I was taking a shower when the messenger put it on the mission pocket.  You want me to come out in the hallway showing all of my spots just to get my report?  It may be right next to the door, but I can’t control how much the door opens.”
 “Nah, I think you rather didn’t.  After all, some female might faint.”
 “Are you trying to be funny?”
 “It depends on who’s listening.”
 Natlarn smiled at her warmly.  It wasn’t her skills of piloting; one of the best, that attracted him to her a few years ago.  Her beauty may be of some factor, but it was her personality and quick humor that he loved.  They met in the Academy, and both were transferred  to the same base in Katina.  They did have some great moments together, but after a half a year it just didn’t work out all to well.  They couldn’t handle dating and piloting drills at the same busy daily schedule, so they didn’t really have much time for each other.  They grew apart, but still remains great friends.  Once the Andross threat is over, then maybe perhaps we could try again, and hopefully end up in marriage.  Hopefully...
 The bell chirped and the door opened.  The two of them walked out, and Natlarn went to the Mission Room, where all pilots for the Husky and Bulldog units go to hear their missions.  Fran went to the Main Garage, where she works part-time repairing grounded jets and other vehicles.  They forgot to wave goodbye, and for weeks ahead, Natlarn felt guilty for not doing so.  But then again, who ever thinks one would not see the other again?
   The room was partly dark, with an electronic map of the Lylat System at the front.  Facing the screen were the two hundred plus pilots that served the Bulldog and Husky units, two of the most decorated units in the Corneria Air Force.  They were seated together like college students, and they were nervous as on test-day.  Natlarn sat on his reserved seat as always, and by the screen, like a professor, stood Commander Broluck, the proud Leader of the Katina  Defense Force.  The brownish serval cat, now ready to start, pushed a button on a small console, and the screen popped up a close up of Sector Z and the surrounding areas.
 “Just an hour ago, I received news that the bombers who destroyed the city had reached Star Base 239, and there are some reason that they might come back to attack again.  Now, we still haven’t figured out why Andross had managed to invent something to block out satellite pictures and communications, but since we now know he did, we must change our strategy of defenses.  By 0400 tomorrow, half of the Bulldog unit, and three other units will depart this base and head to Herot at the other side of Katina.  That way, if the Venom Forces decides to sneak up on us again, at least there will be less time for us to reach the destination, wherever in Katina it may be.  As for the Husky unit and the Bobcat unit, they shall remain here in case the attack would happen somewhere closer to here.  By 1800 tonight, those of you who will leave will be notified.  The debriefing is adjourned.”
 Back in his quarters, Natlarn finished his supper and decided to take a small nap.  He dreamt about what happened three years ago that changed his solitary life from then on.  As a trainee in the Academy in Corneria, he was not treated very well by the veteran and even rookie pilots that share the building that serves also as a base.  The treatment depressed him, and one night he consoled himself by drinking a redgreen wine during the late hours.  It was all alone at the Academy Bar, with himself and an automated robot barkeeper to keep him company, though he doesn’t talk much, if at all.
 He looked at his reflection at the wine, sighing deeply within himself.
 “Hey fella, isn’t it past your bedtime?”  A female voice chirped from the near entrance.
 Natlarn looked right.  A German shepherd in the gray clothes of a pilot, along with ribbons of graduation honors, was coming to him, her footsteps the only sounds at the bar.
 Oh great, a female pilot wanting to tease a lowly trainee like me to look good.  Well go ahead, I’m used to it.  “Go away.”
 She put her hands at her hips.  “Well, is that your way of greeting people?” she said almost mockingly.  “Like I said, why are you doing up late?  Isn’t there is a curfew for trainees like you?  Well, maybe you’re not a trainee at all, but you wear that orange uniform to create trouble.”
 “Don’t be such a smart-ass, lady.  I’m on a free day.  What are you doing up?”
 “I work the late-shift as a maintenance worker.  When you guys crash and receive medical attention and pity, it’s up to me to make those forgotten ships back into shape so that they could be bent and shot down again.  Now, I ask you again, why are you up so late?”
 “Oh, you won’t understand.”
 “What can’t I understand more?  No story or a mixed up story?”
 Natlarn sighed again.  “I’m just depressed.  I don’t really like this Academy.”
 “Well, you could try the Corneria Army or maybe the Navy, but I’m not sure they’re as good.  The Army stinks so bad I need to have a shovel and a bag, and the Navy, well, let’s just say they ain’t what they used to be, to phrase Old Mary or Pam or whatever.  You’ll get through it.  I know I did.”
 “Ha!  They think of me as a-”
 “Maggot?  Wet behind the ears?  A kit?  I too was treated unfairly.  I was just about to quit, but I realized that I won’t quit my dream only because of what others think of me.  Just get through the torture tests and gauntlets, kit.”
 The cheetah held his head straight, and faced her.  “What is your name?”
 “Beshale.  Fran Beshale.”
 Natlarn chuckled.
 “What’s so funny?”
 “You almost sound like that Jams Don fella.  You know, Double-O-Three?”
 Fran smiled and faced the bartender.  In a different accent, she said, “A glass of wine please, sire.  Stirred, not shaken.”
 Natlarn held his head back, laughing as he did so.

 A sharp bell woke him up.  He looked at the clock.  6:00.
 The door opened with a faint hiss and a hyena in the blue uniform of a messenger came in.  Silently, he gave Natlarn the report and wordlessly walked away in duty manner.
 Natlarn was ordered to leave for the Herot Base half the planet away.

Chapter Two

 Fortuna was a legendary planet for it’s coldness.  Katina was close to Fortuna’s exact double, especially during winter.  Thankfully, there were no blizzards during the long trip to Herot, and Natlarn was able to entertain himself by admiring the scenery as he flew along with a few thousand other jets and battleships.  Frozen lakes, snow-capped mountains, and white-covered trees were the sights, and despite the noises of his jet, it was almost silent as he was absorbed by the awe of the visuals.  He did kept an eye on reality, for he was flying.  Katina was a beautiful planet, unlike Venom or Zoness, though before a paradise, which had been infected by Andross’s evil.
 After several hours, the pyramid shaped building of Herot (exact copy of the headquarter base for security reasons) was spotted by Natlarn, and it was a sigh of relief for him.  Despite the scenery, it was tiring sitting on a leather seat wearing a scratchy seat belt for several hours non- stop.  He docked along with the other jets at one of the landing areas, and was reported to rendevous with all pilots of all units to the C-Wing; the base’s very center that serves mainly as some sort of lounge for personnel.
 Once there, Natlarn was standing along with a huge crowd of pilots, all facing the crow’s nest-like tower at the center of the huge room.  On top of the tower was General Frederick, the boss of Herot Base.
 The tiger spoke in a voice crippled with worriment and concern for safety.  He had just received bad news from General Pepper.  “Pilots of Corneria, welcome to Herot Base where you will stay for the next couple days or weeks, depending on the threat that had led you all here.  Just a few minutes ago, I heard news of a Venom bomber unit, even more in number, had been discovered heading towards somewhere in this planet, along with an unidentified number of fleas and even Grangas.  Until I receive more news, I’m afraid that I can’t you more of this.  If it is confirmed that the oncoming attack will be closer to here than Headquarters, then you all must deploy before all is lost.  Thousands of lives were lost during the last attack, and this savagery must not continue.  Now then, I know that waiting for an attack for come is nerve-wrecking, but I urge you to be patient and be on alert at all times.  You will be assigned to your quarters.  Dismissed.”
 At his quarters, Natlarn couldn’t do much except to look out his window.  A blizzard had developed suddenly and the snowflakes collided on the glass.  The bell rang and the door opened behind him.  Natlarn turned to find an elk in a white uniform with a gold triangle of sergeant coming into the room.  He had a black scar on his white uncovered part of his chest just below his chin.  His antlers were cut to a few centimeters; it was cumbersome to fly with two-foot-long antlers.
 “Hello Buck.  How are you?”
 “Fine, Nat.  I just came by to see how you are doing.”
 The cheetah sighed.  “Not good lately.  God, I hate waiting for an attack to happen!”
 Buck shrugged his shoulders.  “Well, that’s all we can do, Nat.”
 “Well, why don’t some of us go on patrol, and find the bombers before they even strike?  We could send out scout ships in space in advance, and warn us where they will go.”
 “That won’t do.  First off, let’s just say that the patrol ships found the invaders.  Well, there may be a high chance of the invaders themselves finding them and would most definitely try to chase them down.  Since the patrol will be outnumbered, it would be suicide to face them, but where would they escape?  The Venom Forces are notorious for bringing their whole squadrons chasing a few scout ships.  The patrol ships will just simply lead the Venom invaders to a city or base.  As for the advance scout ships, the same scenario might happen.  Those were good ideas, but it’s not safe enough.”
 “Nothing is safe nowadays.  In every battle or skirmish, in every strategy or tactic, there’s always someone getting killed.  War is not safe.  Why must we have war and killings without any remorse for the other side?”
 Buck didn’t say anything, but he was not surprised at Natlarn’s viewpoint on war.  Nat told him once that war never solves anything; but only breeds power.  Well then, if you hate war so much, then why did you join in the military?  He asked him once.  Natlarn didn’t answer at all.
 “I don’t know, Nat.  I just don’t know-”
 An alarming bell rang loudly.  The loud speaker blared,  “All pilots to your ships immediately!!”

Chapter Three

 The monitor on Natlarn’s cockpit showed the tiger general as Natlarn took off from the base.  His face was not of joy or happiness.  It was of stricken terror.
 “Pilots, proceed northwest to Vitra, the nova-bomb plant forty minutes away at your top speed.  Thankfully, Andross’s communication block device didn’t work as much, and we managed to find the invader’s positions about the same distance away from where you are.  When you reach the plant, you must never let the bombers ruin the plant, or the results will be disastrous!!”
 The monitor went blank, but Natlarn and the other pilots knew what to do.  At full speed, they whizzed through the chilly air to the plant at a desperate race against time and the Invaders.
 When they spotted the plant, Natlarn spotted several black blips in the sky at the far distance.  Venom Forces.  “Attack Pattern Velcon!”  He heard Buck said through his comlink.  The jets at the front, forty of them, went into a V-shaped position and flew towards the fleas and bombers.  A few miles away, Natlarn could see the invaders up close.  There were perhaps eighty fleas, with twenty bombers behind them, and four transports that might be carrying Grangas, the huge robots capable of picking up whole buildings with their iron claws.  Once they were within range, the red-colored fleas fired first.
 A fury of lasers cut the air, some finding their marks.  Natlarn swooped left-downward and shot down two fleas flying low on the ground, trying to pass their defenses by going under them.  Natlarn made sure that they didn’t.  He went back up and missed an oncoming bomber that went too far forward into the frays.  Usually, the thick-armored but weak-firing bombers would be laid back in position.
 Swerving right and left, he fired and dodged lasers at the same time.  He was hit several times but his shields thankfully held.  He spotted three bombers trying to run for it to reach the base.  He turned to chase them, but they seemed too far away.  Still, he fired his lasers, but it was too inaccurate to hit them.  The bombers were suddenly almost above the plant.  He imagined them dropping their bombs, making the sky suddenly aflare with the bluish deadly explosion.
 Four blue-lighted balls dropped from the bomber’s bellies, and to his horror, Natlarn knew his time with death had come.  Being this close to the plant, the loud explosion would destroy him as well as all of the other pilots on both sides.  While he knew it was hopeless, he instantly closed his eyes.
 He did hear something other than lasers and flea/jet explosions, but it wasn’t the sonic-boom he expected.  He opened his eyes to find only several fires on the plant where the bombs had landed upon.  What the hell?  The plant was a dupe!
 Too mad to bless himself for being alive, the cheetah screamed and pounded on the monitor, almost breaking it.  The Venom Forces, realizing the plant’s illusion, had suddenly fled.  By his comlink, he heard the cries of victory and happiness, but he himself felt nothing.  Wait, he did felt something.  A feeling of being used.
 “Buck!  Come in!”
 “What is it, Nat?”
 “That wasn’t a real nova-bomb plant, wasn’t it?”
 “No, it’s not.  The real one is many miles away.  We sure fooled them!”
 “You knew about this?”
 “Yes I did.  Nat, you’ll have to understand this.  If we didn’t deploy to here soon, then the Venom Forces would just simply move to another target, and this next one might be real.”
 Natlarn nodded.  He wanted no more of this conversation.  Now that it was quiet, he circled around the battlefield, looking down with depressing eyes.  He counted forty fleas and several bombers lying down on the snowy ground, melting it through their smoke and fires.  Two transports with their Grangas were also spewing fires, and Natlarn thought he spotted a red-uniformed lizard lifeless on the ground next to his flea.  He also counted twenty broken jets on the ground.  Twenty pilots had given their lives for the safety of a decoy.  And I’m on the “morally good side”.  Twenty pilots,..and Lord knows how many serving the Venom side.
 Buck cut in.  Natlarn was falling behind.  “Nat, are you okay?”
 “Um, yeah, I’m fine.  I’ll catch up to you.”
 “I expect a pilot’s debriefing at 1700 hours.  Be there, and don’t be late.  Alright?”
 “Yeah, okay.  See ya later, Buck.”
 Natlarn continued to circle around the burning field, then mournfully left for the base.  He turned off his comlink, which wasn’t exactly standard procedure, though legal.  “Damnit, why is this battle necessary?  Sure, the Venom invaders might move on to another “real” target, but at least there, pilots can fight and die for reasons that are not illusions.  Those twenty pilots died for an illusion, and I don’t think they will be given a proper burial.  ‘Too far away and lack of money’ those officials might say.  Someone will have to explain for this.  Someone will.”

 Chapter Four

 Back at Herot, Natlarn decided not to attend the debriefing.  Buck may be mad about it, but Natlarn didn’t care.  He took a nap instead, but failed to sleep well.  He tried to eat dinner, but didn’t have an appetite.  The sight of the downed vehicles sickened him greatly.  Around six-o-clock, Buck came in, storming mad.
 Nat beat him to the punch.  “Let me guess, you’re mad because I didn’t go to the debriefing.”
 Buck shook his head.  “Yeah, why didn’t you?  Because we have already have more than we seem to need, Commander Bill Grey had officially ordered the entire half of the Bulldog unit to return to Headquarters.  We’re expected to leave 1200 tomorrow.”
 “I didn’t feel like going to the debriefing...”
 “Didn’t feel like it?  You was given an order, and you must obey, whether you feel like it or not!”  Buck’s brown eyes were blazing now.  “You do this one more time and you will be grounded and suspended without pay!”
 Natlarn held his palms up in an appeasing manner.  “Alright, I won’t do it again.”
 “You still mad about the decoy thing?”
 “You guessed right.  Twenty-three pilots was the final confirmation.  Twenty-three!”
 “We had to do it, okay!?  It was either a decoy being destroyed or a real plant being exploded that would bring the deaths of all of us in that battle!  You are alive because of that decoy.  That battle is more important than you think, Nat.”
 “Try telling that a certain number of pilots.  Maybe you’ll going to need a gypsy because they’re dead.”
 “Now don’t you pull that sarcastic tone on me, Nat!  It wasn’t my decision to intercept the invaders to defend a decoy, and I have to do it because it’s my duty!”
 Natlarn thought for a couple of moments.  “Why was the decoy exists in the first place?  It’s probably in the Air Force Constitution, but I must have skipped it.”
 “To fool the invaders.  It was chance for the invaders to attack it in the first place, and we must stop them even there because if they succeed, we won’t lose very much, but they will disregard the place and won’t attack it again.  Otherwise, if we succeed, then the Venom Forces would attempt at it again, thus wasting their precious ships and fleas.”
 “Or wasting ours in this case, and lives too.”
 “I know you don’t like this at all, but this is the way this war goes, and there is nothing you can do about it.  Well, you better pack up and get some sleep.  We haven’t heard from the invaders yet, but they might attack again somewhere.”  The elk then left the room.  In a burst of uncontrolled anger, Natlarn picked up a shirt and threw it at the door.

 “Isn’t this beautiful, Nat?”  Fran asked her new flame as they sat out in the warmth of a Katina summer night.
 Natlarn looked up at the stars.  “Yeah, they sure do.  You see that star up on the right?  The one that seems to shine brighter than the others?”
 “Yeah.  You know what it is?”
 “It’s officially called The Afternoon Star, but I call it The Lucky Star.”
 “Why you call it that?”
 “It was many years ago, when I was three years old.  My mother was flying the small transport on the way to Titania to see my dad, and there was a malfunction on the engine at the middle of space.  It was minor, but it scared me half to death.  Then, I spotted this star, shining brighter than the others.  Just as soon as I did that, the engine suddenly went back to normal.  That’s why I called it the Lucky Star.  From that point on, whenever I wanted luck, I look up at the star and wish for it.”
 “Does it ever worked?”
 “Not always, but at least it does sometimes.”
 Fran huddled closer to Natlarn and put her soft head on his shoulder.  “Is it okay for me to make a wish on that star?”
 “Go ahead, but don’t share it with anyone, including me.  It’s like a birthday candle wish.”
 Fran paused, looking up at the star as if in awe and thinking at the same time.  She then faced Natlarn just centimeters away and kissed him on the lips.  It felt warm.
 “There,” she said finally.  “My wish had come true.”
 That kiss was the first one in their six-month relationship.

 He ignored the scenery on the way back to Headquarter Base.  He was too occupied with the turbulent thoughts he had been thinking the last couple of hours.  At least when he sees his old friends, especially Fran, at the base, they’ll cheer him up as always.  He docked at one of the landing strips and went straight to his quarters.  Once there, he opened up a channel to the room of his former flame, but there was no answer.  Puzzled but not suspicious, he typed in the computer: Information, where is Fran Beshale?
 The computer replied:  Fran Beshale was declared dead at 1300 hours yesterday.
 Instantly, Natlarn’s world had made a turn upside down.
Chapter Five

 Tera Crista, a badger pilot that was a friend of Natlarn, explained the tragic news to him a few minutes later.  “She died instantly, Nat.  She was working on a broken ship when the engine suddenly exploded, killing her.  It was horrible, I know.  We never realized that the engine was still active after being declared long dead.  It was an accident, and a bad one at that.  I’m sorry.”
 Natlarn managed to hold a couple of sniffles.  “I’m sorry too.  Was she buried in the cemetery?”
 “Actually she was cremated and her ashes were now being kept in an urn in the Morgue.”
 “Cremated?  But in her will, it was said that she is to be buried at any cost due to her religion!”
 “I know.  It’s shocking to me too, but when I complained to Commander Broluck, he didn’t even say anything.  Something’s amiss, Nat, and I don’t like it one bit.”
 “A conspiracy?  Oh I don’t know about that.  It seems farfetched.”
 “Well what other explanation is there?  Oh, there was something else I heard.  That ship Fran was working on?  Every bit of debris was cleaned off from the Garage after a mere couple of minutes.  There were janitors everywhere, and despite them doing such a good job on it, some of Fran’s blood was still there.”
 Natlarn groaned.
 “Oh, sorry, Nat.  It’s all so strange to me, but I’m sure there is a good reason for all this.  I heard what happen at that battle you went to yesterday.”
 “Don’t remind me, please.  That plant was a decoy, a phony.”
 “So I’ve heard.  Buck had told me you was upset about it.”
 “Oh yeah, very.  I may be mad at him now, but I don’t think our friendship is over.”
 “Good.  Friends are hard to come by.  Well, I got to get to work.  I’ll see you later.”
 “Bye Tera,” he said, seeing him walking off.  He then went back to his quarters, and laid down on the bed.  When he awoke the next morning, his pillow was soaked with tears.

 At least the report at that morning had a tint of good news on it.  The Venom Invaders never did attempted to attack Katina, at least for now, thus giving the pilots a little breathing room.  The engine that killed Fran was now “being investigated” by inspectors from Corneria itself, and hopefully they would reach a conclusion soon.  Natlarn requested to see Fran’s urn, but to his great disappointment, his request was denied.  The Morgue was not exactly a place for everyone, and while there was nothing to steal there, the place was heavily guarded because there was once a spy from Venom that shot himself a sleeping potion, and was declared dead.  He woke up in the Morgue, and killed several pilots before he was arrested.
 He spent most of the day at his quarters, not knowing what to do and not willing to do anything.  A pilot’s life at base was boring except for drills and warm-ups, but today, with the combination of the shocking death, the mystery that surrounds it, and the cold makes today especially depressing.  He tried to take a nap, but suffered insomnia.  Too many thoughts in his head.  Too many questions unanswered and too many facts unexplainable.  How can a declared dead engine all of a sudden explode?  Was it simply dormant and Fran bumped into something that activated it?  No, that sounded too thin.  The inspectors that declare it dead in the first place should have found out about the dormancy, and Fran was too much of an expert to make such a mistake, perhaps.  And what about the cremation?  According to Fran’s religion, cremation was a vile course of action to do with a corpse.  No matter what, the members of her religion must be buried, wether it would be ceremonial or on the spot in a battlefield.  The high officials, with their profiles on every one of the pilots that serve them, must have known this, so why did they allowed Fran to be burned to ashes and kept inside an urn?  How come, so far, no one protested?  What about those janitors just after the explosion?  Natlarn recalled a few years ago, there was a much smaller explosion at a smaller garage, and several days later, some of the debris were still there.  If what Tera said was true, why the many numbers of janitors?  Why not three, or two?
 Natlarn almost screamed internally with all of those puzzling questions bombarding him, and his feelings with the plant decoy didn’t help one bit.  At noon, he went to the cafeteria and sat down with Buck at one of the tables.  At sighting him, Buck went nervous all of a sudden, as if he didn’t want his best friend to sit next to him.
 “Buck, about last night,..”
 “Don’t worry about it.  You was angry, and I was simply mad because you missed a simple debriefing.  I’m sorry about Fran.”
 Natlarn spotted his friend’s uneasiness.  “Something wrong?”
 “Uh, nothing Nat.  Why you ask?”
 “You looked nervous.  Did you hear anything more about the engine?”
 “Huh yeah, I did.  Just a couple hours ago I received the report from the investigators.  Apparently the engine was somehow dormant, and the inspectors must have missed that and declared it dead.”
 Natlarn took a bite off his freen lobster, then paused.  “Buck, something just occurred to me.  When did the inspectors declare it dead?”
 “Two months ago.”
 Natlarn looked at him, greatly confused.  “Well, if the engine was declared dead, then after two months, why is it still in the main garage and being repaired and not in the junkyard?”
 Immediately, Buck wanted to get out of here.  “Well, it’s all the delays, you know?  Fran was ordered to take the engine off the jet..”
 “She’s not experienced with that job, Buck.  She repairs rather than replaces.  Are you not telling me the whole story?”
 “Nat!  What are you accusing me of?  I’m your best friend, and I’m telling you what I know.”
 “It’s not enough.  Where can I find anyone who got more information?  Where are any of the investigators?  Who’s in charge of that?”
 “I don’t know, Nat.”
 “You really don’t know or you can’t tell me?”
 Buck’s eyes flared like last time.  “Nat, you’re getting your nose where it doesn’t belong.  Fran’s death was an accident-”
 “Then what’s with all the mystery?  Huh?  Tell me!”
 The high voices were attracting attention in the crowded mess hall.
 Without saying a word, Buck stood up and left the room, leaving his unfinished plate on the table.  Natlarn was left alone, even more confused and angry.  He played around with his food till he finally left for his quarters.  This was promised to be a bad day for him.

Chapter Six
 For a seemly long time, he paced back and forth in his room, pondering but not answering the questions.  A new, more serious and evil thought came in.  It was somewhat stupid, but possible.  What if the Council in Katina wants Fran dead?  Did she found something she wasn’t supposed to, and this was her punishment?  But this doesn’t describe the old engine still in the garage.  Or was it old?  Could it be that the engine was sabotaged, by a spy or one of our own?  No, Corneria won’t sink to that level.  Only Venom would do something like that.  But Natlarn remembered the plant incident.  Maybe, just maybe, there may be someone or a group in the Corneria or Katina Military that might be evil.  Or maybe, it’s just an accident.  No!  It isn’t possible!  Fran was murdered!  Murdered!
 The next morning, Natlarn didn’t bother with breakfast or even the daily morning shower.  Once he dressed himself in uniform, he went to the elevator and pushed the sixth floor button, where all the high officials have their offices and meetings.  He been there once, to meet Commander Bill Grey (now with Pepper in Corneria), but that was all.  He knew the floor was not for pilots like him, but he won’t be stopped.
 Some guard tried to, as soon as the elevator door opened.  The robin ran towards him, his palms forward to reach him.  “Hey, this is forbidden for all-”
 Unwilling to cooperate, Natlarn pushed the guard toppling on the floor, and the room of cubicles suddenly went in uproar of screams of panic and protest.  Natlarn pushed another cat guard, banging him on one of the free standing walls and it crashed down with him, surprising a secretary at the cubicle at the other side of the wall.  Natlarn marched straight to Broluck’s office at the far side of the floor, and burst through the huge doors, catching the serval commander at a phone call.
 Two other guards rushed in and grabbed Natlarn.
 The serval hung up the phone and stood up from his easy chair.  “What’s the meaning of this?”
 “I demand the truth about Fran Beshale’s murder!”
 The two guards tried to drag him away, but Broluck held up his palms.  “Leave him alone, guards.”
 Puzzled but obedient, the guards let go of Natlarn and slowly left the room, closing the doors behind them.  Broluck sat down and Natlarn stood at the other side of the desk between them.
 “Murder?  What do you mean?”
 “The explosion several days ago, the one with the old engine.  Fran was killed not by an accident, but by sabotage.  She was murdered sir, and I was told lies.”
 “Are you saying that we were part of this?  What proof you have?”
 “From the way I look at it, I don’t really need proof.  If it was an accident, then you and Sergeant Buck won’t have anything to hide.  That story that you guys been bringing have too many holes on it.  I want the truth, and I want it now!”
 Broluck didn’t show his anger, but his face of disbelief cued Natlarn that he was right.  Fran was indeed murdered.  “Well sir, are you going to tell me, or will I bring my own conclusions to the rest of the pilots around here and cause trouble?”
 “Alright, I confess.  The story about the old engine was a lie.  It was actually just as new as the other ones.  However, it was an accident, so to speak.”
 “So,..to speak?”
 “Fran Beshale wasn’t supposed to work on that engine.  She wasn’t ordered to do so and one of the supervisors told her not to.  I really have no idea why she decided to work on it anyway.  The reason the engine exploded because there was a bomb there.”
 Natlarn, horrified, drew back a couple steps.  Broluck shook his head to reassure him.  “No, no it’s not what you think.  A few hours before the accident, an abandoned Venom transport was found only two miles from this base.  Andross must have been fiddling with our radar like what he did recently, for we didn’t know about till a patrol guard discovered it.  Inside, we found fresh traces of a single person inside, and we knew that a spy is among us.  However, we failed to make a check on every visitor on the base to find the spy, for it was a peak hour in at the time and there were too many cargo pilots around.  Finally, one of the captains suggested a plan that wasn’t good but it was the best we could do.
 “He suggested that a bomb would be planted on one of our jets, and then we will guard all the other planes and leave the doomed one out in the open.  We were hoping that the spy would think we made a mistake and fall for it, and would try to make his or her escape on the right jet.”
 “But Fran got to it first.”
 “We never intended to harm her or any of our pilots or anyone that supports or serve the Cornerian Forces.  That bomb was intended to harm Venom even further, and to benefit us.  Sadly, this wasn’t the case.  It was a mistake on our part.  I’m sorry.”
 Natlarn snapped.  It was all too much for him.  “Sorry?  You’re sorry?”  He went around the desk and grabbed the Commander’s collar.  “Why I oughta punch you so hard your muzzle will be smelling your brain!”
 “Guards!  Guards!”
 The same two guards rushed in and grabbed Natlarn roughly.  Natlarn let go off his boss and wrestled with the guards.  He punched one of them, and managed to break free of them.  Four more guards came in, and held him to the ground.  Natlarn was soon handcuffed.
 Before he was roughly escorted away, Natlarn yelled at Broluck with a streak of hatred.  “You murdered Fran Beshale, and you will suffer the consequences for your crime!  You getting with this is a great injustice!  I will not rest until I see you in the electric chair!!”
 Broluck shook his head.  “Get that fool out of here!”
Chapter Seven

 Calming himself in a prison cell somewhere in the basement of the Base, Natlarn’s mind burned with new hatred and revenge.  He wanted Commander Broluck punished to death, but hatred had the tendency to branch out.  He started hating all those who thought up of a phony decoy and the idea to defend those worthless things.  He started hating all those who approved the captain’s plan of planting the bomb.  He realized that Venom was not the only evil organization in the Lylat System...
 The lasers that kept him inside fizzled out, and a guard came in.  “This is your lucky day, Natlarn.  Get out of here and start packing.  Commander Broluck had decided not to let you rot in jail, but you will be sent to court tomorrow.”
 Natlarn didn’t say anything.  He simply sat at his bench, looking down, thinking hatred thoughts.  The guard shrugged his shoulders and turned the lasers back on.  He may never knew him, but he realized that he would see more of him in the future, for better or for worse.
 By nightfall, Natlarn refused to eat his supper and instead laid down on his bed, staring at the gray ceiling.  His questions may be answered for the most part, but that doesn’t clear his conscious.  The cremation was held as a cover-up.  With total disregard for her religion, she was burnt to ashes so that the doctors won’t be able to find evidence of a bomb in the autopsy.  So, Broluck and the rest of his pompous fiends would rather kill their own souls than to erase their reputation they try so hard to keep.  Does Commander Bill Grey know about this?  Does General Pepper even?  They might kill me soon after court, for I’m the only one besides them that know the truth.  If they don’t then they might use one of those memory-erasers I heard about.  The anxiousness of his fate was so much that he couldn’t sleep.
 Early next morning, Buck came with a gift; a small vial of green liquid.
 “What is that?”  Natlarn asked, rubbing his tired eyes.
 “It’s a memory-eraser.  It doesn’t hurt, but this can erase your memory as far back as four days.  If you take this, then we can forget about the whole thing, and you will think Fran died in an accident.  I know you won’t like it, but it’s better than death.”
 Natlarn calmly took the vial, and Buck thought he had already decided to take it.  To his shock, Natlarn threw the vial to the floor.  The glass vial shattered, spilling out the green liquid on the cold floor.  Natlarn looked at his friend with his own blazing eyes.
 “You really think I would accept this, Buck?  I’m no fool.”
 “This is your only chance for life, Nat!  Please accept my offer.  Since you know the truth, Broluck will kill you.  Please, take a sacrifice so that you will live!”
 Natlarn shook his head.  “The sacrifice will not be worthy of a second chance of life.  A great injustice had been done, and all that deserves to be punished must not get away with it.  I refuse to have my memory erased so that Broluck, the others responsible, and you, would keep their filthy jobs.”
 Buck stood up, and walked out of the cell.  After the lasers turned back on, he turned to face Natlarn.  “Then prepare to die, friend.”
 As a last word, Natlarn said, “Buck, consider our friendship off.  As of now you are my enemy.”

 The trial was held at a medium sized room somewhere in the base, and it only consisted of the accused; Natlarn, and the four “judges” at one end of the room: Commander Broluck, Sergeant Buck, General Yarseea the Hare, and Captain Grenmen the Weasel.  At the middle of the room was Natlarn handcuffed to the chair that was bolted to the floor.  There was no guard or anyone else.  The walls were of depressing grey, and there were no windows.  A dull lighted ceiling didn’t made much of an illumination to make this room the least bit cheerful.
 Commander Broluck spoke first.  “Private Natlarn Berola, you are charged with unlawful intrusion to personal affairs, attacking a superior officer, and to accuse us of murder.  How do you plea?”
 “Guilty.  How do you plea?”
 Broluck ignored that.  “The four of us here are the only ones who made the decision that caused the accident.  The one who planted it shall remain a secret.  You are the only one who knows the truth, and it is right that it must be kept that way.  The real main purpose of this trial is for us to find some answers.  Why did you storm into my office?”
 “Because unlike the others, I knew it wasn’t an accident.  Fran Beshale was murdered, wether you like it or not.  I just demanded the truth, and frankly I don’t like it.”
 “So do we, Mr. Berola,” said Yarseea.  “It was a tough decision to make in the first place, and we tried all of our power to prevent any accidents of any kind.  We kept the planted jet on watch, but according to the personnel that was doing that at the time, he was distracted and unfortunately Miss Beshale stepped into the trap at the same time.”
 “There shouldn’t be a trap at the first place.”
 Buck stood up, angry.  “We had no choice at the time, Nat!  Please understand that!  The spy was among our personnel, and there was no possible way for us to catch the intruder.  Desperate times calls for desperate measures!  Yes, we did make a mistake, but that’s it, a mistake!”
 Natlarn’s skull was too thick to penetrate.  “No.  I refuse to believe it.”
 With a deep sigh, Buck sat down.  Natlarn continued.  “It was murder because a life was taken.”
 The weasel Grenmen shook his pointed white head.  “No, no, that won’t do.  If that was a crime then we’re all murderers.  Me, you, every pilot in this Base, and every single soldier or pilot serving Corneria or Venom.  In battle, we are all guilty, regardless of what banner you’re under and what you did.”
 “Why did Fran’s death shock you so much?”
 “I loved her.  She and I may be separated, but that was because of stress from our schedules.  Does that answer your question?”
 “I think we better get this over with,” Broluck said finally.  “Natlarn Berola, you will be sentenced to lethal injection at noon tomorrow.  May the Gods have mercy on your soul.”
 The guards came in the room, unlocked Natlarn from the chair, and began to escort him away.  Just before the judges could leave themselves, Natlarn spoke his final words to them.  “And may the Devil choose wether or not it was murder, or a ‘mistake’.”

Chapter Eight

 Back at his cell at around dusk, Natlarn began forming a plan.  Being dead won’t help the guilty ones to justice, so he must escape and soon.  However, with Buck gone off his friend list, who would he trust to help him out of this Base?  Someone who would risk his or her life to help him?
 Just before nightfall, Natlarn decided to put the plan in action.  Hopefully, the one who he would trust upon would agree to help him.  At an another room with a monitor phone, Natlarn punched in the number of his friend’s room number.  Several dial tones later, the badger head of Tera Christa appeared, shocked at finding him at the other side of the line.
 “Nat!  I haven’t seen you in two days!  What happened?”
 “I’m in jail.”
 “Prison?  But why?”
 “Remember what we talked about after Fran’s murder?  Well, I went over to Commander Broluck to try to get some answers from him, and, well...”
 “How exactly did you do it, Nat?”
 “I punched a guard or two on the way, and I grabbed Broluck’s collar.”
 The badger shook his striped head.  “Good grief, Nat.  You can be so reckless.”
 “But I did got the truth.  We were right, something terrible was wrong.  The engine had a bomb in it.  Broluck and even Buck and two others were involved in it.  They claimed it was an accident, but it was murder, I know it.  However, since I know the truth, they will kill me by injection tomorrow.  I ask you a favor.”
 “Yes, what is it?”
 “I want to escape, and I want you to help me.”
 Tera backed off a few steps.  “Whoa now, you can’t be serious!  The guards will kill us!”
 “I know the risk, but think about it.  If I die then so does the truth in the minds of everyone here.  They won’t even believe you if you tried it.  Please, Tera, do this for me.”
 The badger sighed, but it only took him a few moments to make his decision.  “Alright, Nat.  I’ll do it.  What do you want me to do?”
 The cheetah smiled.  Now, he might have a chance at a second chance at life, and the chance for real justice.

 Midnight.  Natlarn lay restless, anxiously awaiting his rescue.  He wanted to be alert, but he needs his rest.  Slowly, he aroused himself to sleep.
 “Hey spot-butt!  Wake up!”  A female voice awoke him.  It was the ghost of Fran, lying down next to him at the cell.  “I heard that you’re about to escape.”
 Natlarn thought he was in a dream, so he wasn’t all that surprised.  “Yeah, I’m going to escape out of here.  You think they murdered you?”
 “Yes, they really did.  It wasn’t an accident, nor the spy ever existed.  They wanted me dead.”
 “But why?”
 “Stop interrupting me and I’ll tell you.  The day before the murder, I was in Commander Broluck’s office because he wanted to see me, but when I got there, he was gone off somewhere, so I was left alone.  I was curious and found a piece of paper lying down on the desk.  It was a document saying that Broluck, Buck, Grenmen, and Yarseea wanted to take over the Katina Base and use it as a capital to rule Katina themselves with the help of Andross.  Apparently they don’t know Andross’s ability to betray others.  Broluck found me reading that paper, and that was why I signed my death warrant.  Nat, I want you to escape safely, and bring justice to those evil fiends.  I have to go now, your friend is here.”
 “I love you.”
 “Love you too,” she said, then slowly vanished into thin air.  Natlarn then woke up to find Tera inside the cell with him, the lasers shut off.
 Wordlessly, Tera gave him a phaser and a code card.  “There’s two jets waiting for us in the East Garage.  Use this card to make the doors open so that we can fly out of here.  Follow me.”
 They quickly got out of the cells, passing the sleeping guards that suffered the gas thrown by Tera, wearing a gas mask but now had discarded.  They went up the stairs into the first floor.  So far, so good.  Since it was the middle of the night, the floor was almost deserted, so they both had open room to maneuver.  However, two guards, knowing Natlarn to be a prisoner, gave chase and called out an alarm.
 Natlarn turned and shot them both as the red lights and bells swarmed throughout the Base.  They proceeded to the East Garage with no trouble, and next to the door, Natlarn used the card on the console.  He then rushed to his jet, Tera already inside.
 “Let’s get out of here!”  Natlarn yelled through his comlink he put on inside the jet.  The jet floated several inches in mid-air, then as the huge garage doors open, accelerated forward, Tera at his tail.  Moments later, the Katina Base was a small pyramid on the ground.
 At space, Natlarn knew it was time to celebrate.  “Yaa-hoo!  We did it, Tera!  We did it!  Thank you so much!”
 “You’re welcome, Nat.  That’s one you owe me, ha, ha, ha!”
 “Well now, where shall we go?”
 “I have a cousin who lives in a remote area in Titania.  Since that planet is ruled by Venom, we have to be careful, but Corneria won’t find us there.”
 “Sounds good.  Are you with me on finding justice for those murderers?”
 “Looks like it, friend.  You cover my back, I’ll cover yours.”
 “Right.  Well, let’s go!”

 So begins Natlarn’s quest for justice.  Will he succeed?  Or will the foursome get away with their crimes?  To be continued.....