WPD FORMAT FOR SWEET REDEMPTION

 *Author’s Foreword and Warning*
 Many thanks to Kay Twilight for her permission for Star McCloud to be used here.  The Crimson Firehawks, Justice Cadets, Bandit Forhawk, and Stella Dornam were created by me and not to be used without permission.
 One more thing.  This story has scenes of cruel and sick violence.  Therefore, this story is rated PG.  For those of you that do not want to see such scenes, turn away now.  Enter at your own risk.

Chapter One

 “The Venom Empire is all powerful.  The Great Andross will never be stopped.”

         --Bandit Forhawk, Venom

 The silence was all too familiar.
 As the tawny-furred dog crept across the dim-lit corridor of the Macbeth Supply Station, her brown eyes scanned left to right and back again, alert for any movement.  Her sweat was showing through her black uniform, and her laser machine gun was getting slippery.  She had a comlink helmet lightly placed on her head, and fastened across her black belt was a dagger that shone in the near darkness.
 She tapped her comlink, turning it on.  “Darwin,” she whispered.  “Darwin, please respond.”
 A male voice, her leader, answered just as quietly.  This was definitely not the time or place to make noise.  “What is it?”
 “The 34th hallway seemed clear.  Am I close?”
 “Keep going.  My tracker says that Dekslan is close by, so watch what you aim.”
 “Okay then.  Lizbel out,” the chinook dog said and tapped her comlink off.  Silence overwhelmed her once again.
 She continued to walk on a crawling pace, swaying her machine gun in front of her.  She was nervous, and the silence did not help her at all.  Can’t those Venomians hire an interior decorator or someone with a similar taste?  Why must all Venom bases have to have that industrial look to it?  A simple banner with the ugly face of Andross would be a nice touch, I think.  What is going with the security around here?  Haven’t anyone spotted us yet and bring their victims for us to shoot?  And this silence.  What is this, deja vu?
 Lizbel found herself on the intersection of 34th and 78th, and the 78th one was supposed to be the one that connects to the room she was looking for.  She turned right into the hallway when she heard a creaking sound.  She twisted her head left, and a dark figure was standing there.  Lizbel halted and her machine gun at it, but this figure didn’t fire.  Could this be Dekslan, or some lizard playing with her?
 Suddenly, the figure aimed a laser pistol at her.  Lizbel was about to fire when a female voice cried out, “Duck!”
 Instinctively, Lizbel lowered herself and the figure’s laser shot right above her, and struck a knife-bearing ape that was stalking Lizbel from behind.  The ape grunted in pain, and toppled to the floor lifeless.
 Breathless, Lizbel stood herself back up, and a borzoi came up to her.  “You alright?”
 Her comrade nodded.  “Yeah.  Thanks, Dekslan.  You saved my life.”
 “No sweat.  Speaking of sweat, you sure are soaking, my friend.”
 “Ah, I’m just nervous.  I may have done this before, but this silence reminds of that...time.”
 Dekslan understood.  Lizbel was speaking about the mission which Bandit had betrayed the team he was in and almost killed Lizbel before she escaped.  That was about a month ago.  “Just watch your back, okay?  You know where the room is?”
 “Darwin says it is in Room #093, over here,” Lizbel answered.  “You got your pawprint scanner?”
 The borzoi smiled and tapped her right pocket.  “Right here.  We have to get going.”
 The pair members of the Crimson Firehawks quicken their steps through hallway 78th, and found the room among the stillness.  A green electronic security device was right next to it.  It has no buttons, but it doesn’t need it.  Since only one person, the base Security Chief, was allowed to enter, this box’s security method was pawprinting identification.  If some intruder touches the green screen, the alarm would go off.
 Still, no matter how smart the device was, it had one major enemy, and Dekslan had it.  She pulled out the pawprint scanner and laid it next to the screen.  It scanned the pawprint already imprinted on the screen, and simply copied it on it’s own.  When Dekslan looked at her device once it finished, she smiled.  “Once again, I should thank Jo’hara for this.”
 Chuckling quietly, she laid the device next to the green screen again, and since it has the Chief’s pawprint, it fooled the box into opening the door to the room.  Dekslan made a short whoop of triumph.  “Isn’t spy technology wonderful?”
 Lizbel couldn’t reply, for she was already inside the room.  The room was quite small, with four cabinets with button password boxes plastered on each drawer.  The furniture stores top-secret stuff, and the owners would go through great pains to protect them.  Undaunted, Lizbel tapped her comlink on.  “I’m in the room, Darwin.”
 “Good.  Dekslan, you hear me?”
 The borzoi nodded.  “Yeah, I’m not deaf.”
 “Guard the door for Lizbel.  This may take a while, and I believe the guards might take notice, if they haven’t already.  Oh and, Dekslan?”
 “Yeah?”
 “Make sure you check your comlink.  Your voice sounds like there was something big in your throat.”
 The borzoi rolled up her eyes.  “Ha, ha, very funny, stupid.  Just tell your lover what to do and leave me alone for once.”
 Darwin chuckled.  “Okay, Liz.  The drawer you should go into is marked 5689.”
 The chinook scanned for the number on the drawers.  She found it on the drawer left to the door.  “Okay, found it.  What’s the password?”
 “Do this right the first time.  If you push the wrong button then the place will get louder than an opera singer in a second.  890567938909.”
 Using her nearly photographic memory to her advantage, she correctly pushed in the password, and the drawer creaked open.  “Okay.  What other challenges await me?”
 “Oh there is one.  Look inside the drawer.”
 Lizbel almost flinched with surprise when she looked inside.  There must be hundreds of small labeled CDs inside.  All of them had the same color, and they were disorganized.  “Good grief.  It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
 “Well find it under ten minutes, please.  Terra had just reported seeing four Invaders heading our way, and the weather out here is freezing.  According to this computer, the CD is labeled ‘Moon Delight’, and it has a black dot under the words.”
 Dekslan fired a shot, and a yell followed.  “Liz, they’re here!  Hurry up!”
 Frantically, Liz fumbled her paws over the pile of CDs and even throwing a couple over her shoulder.  She spotted one with a black dot, and above it were the words ‘Moon Delight’.  “I found it.  Wonder why it’s called Moon Delight.”
 Dekslan killed another guard.  “There’s no time to answer stupid questions.  Let’s get out of here!  There’s guards on both sides of the hallway here!”
 Darwin burst in.  “Terra’s coming inside to rescue you both!”
 “Well tell her to haul that bobcat tail of hers to here now!  I can’t handle this on both sides!”
 Lizbel lend a paw by shooting a barrage of lasers at one side of guards that had lined up and guarding the only way out.  Dekslan fired at the other side, her shots relentless and lethally accurate.  However, despite their kills, more and more were showing up.
 Minutes later, a grenade exploded under one group of guard’s feet, sprawling them upwards and landing a few yards away, smoking and lifeless.  Terra showed up, clearing the way out for her two comrades.
 “How nice of you to show up!”  Dekslan yelled sarcastically.  “You happen to have one more of those?”
 Terra already answered the question by hurling another grenade at the guards on the other side.  The explosion killed all the guards there, and Dekslan rushed out into the hallway, Lizbel on her tail.  The trio hurriedly ran out the way they came in, with lasers hurling pass them from reinforcement guards chasing them.
 A few minutes later, the three burst outside the Base, with Darwin waiting inside his Braun-class jet, ready to go.  The three jumped inside their cockpits, and with lasers splattering harmlessly on their jet’s armor, the four pilots hovered upwards and accelerated into space.

 The cougar Darwin yelled in victory as the Crimson Firehawks touched space, the planet Macbeth behind them.  “Score one for the Firehawks!  Wah-hoo!”
 “Um, fellas, sorry to crash the party here, but remember those Invaders I warned you about?”  The bobcat Terra reminded them with a worried tone.  “Nine-o-clock, nine hundred yards away!”
 Dekslan simply chuckled at the oncoming danger.  “Have we ever fought against those idiots as the Crimson Firehawks before?”
 “No, we never did,” Lizbel answered.
 “Hmm, there’s a first for everything, right?  Let’s show them what we’re made of!!”
 With battle cries, the Crimson Firehawks turned their unique jets toward the Invaders, weapons ready to fire.  With fury, they let loose a barrage of lasers at the Invader-I jets, ending the life of one Venom pilot.
 The three remaining Invaders scattered, firing back.  The red-colored Braun jets passed them and with a U-turn, were soon on their tails.  Flushing with close victory at hand, they fired their lasers at them, and all three explosions followed.  Score two for the Crimson Firehawks, with a dogfight victory that ended just as soon as it started.
 With no obstacles left between them and home in Fortuna, the T-shaped Braun-class jets went in diamond formation and cruised through space.  The victory at the Macbeth base was a moral booster for them, and it was only a month ago when all hope to defeating Venom was drawing to a sudden close.
 Darwin Dracka, Lizbel Crusasa, Dekslan Menesan, and Terra Hartford were once members of Clark’s Militia, a small organization of mercenaries that vowed to follow their ambitious leader’s dream of taking over Venom.  However, Bandit Forhawk, a raccoon that many considered to be a loyal person, had betrayed the militia and exposed their hideout in Fortuna.  Clark McHara, son of Andross and leader of his militia along with Jason Wolfman, was killed in the following Venom ambush.  The survivors were the four pilots, a transporter of workers, and Jason Wolfman.  Without a secondary base to replace the one that had been destroyed, all seemed lost.  The Justice Cadets offered their home as a base of some sorts, but Jason knew that the Militia was dead already.  The workers had left to fend for themselves, and Jason himself called it quits.  He later became a cargo pilot once again, serving only Corneria.  The four pilots, with the unique Braun-class jets at their disposal, formed themselves into a squadron of mercenaries, and the Crimson Firehawks were born.  For now, they have only one goal:  to find Bandit and destroy him.
 
 It was not surprising to go home at the middle of some blizzard.  Fortuna was the most desolate planet in the Lylat System other than Zoness and Venom, but it does have it’s own advantages.  The Justice Cadets live there for isolation reasons.  They were bounty hunters, and the criminals they catch may have certain “friends” that would try to hunt them down for revenge.  The Crimson Firehawks live there for one good reason: they have nowhere else to go.  Until they could find a home of their own, they now reside in the abode of the Justice Cadets.  While the bounty hunters have money to help them, Darwin refused, and decided to have his team go on “preparation” missions to earn money.  The attack on the Macbeth Supply Station was one of those missions.  General Pepper needed the CD “Moon Delight”, and offered some big credit dollars for it.
 The Firehawks landed by a hangar and a small building that leads to the underground home of the Justice Cadets.  Braving the snow brushing against their faces, they stored their jets in the hangar along with the Cadets’ arwings, and went underground.
 Jo’hara Prather, the computer specialist of his team, was nursing a cup of coffee in the living room.  The black puma’s eyes of coal were drooped sleepily, barely noticing the Firehawks as they came in.
 “Hey Jo, got something for you,” Darwin said.
 The puma flashed a grin and laid his coffee on an end table next to him.  As always, he wore a black flight suit, which was even darker than the uniforms of the Firehawks.  During the nighttime, it would be hard to see him, but Jo’hara wasn’t one to sneak and mug someone.  “You got the CD?  How come you didn’t get any bruises?”
 Darwin gave him the CD with a nervous chuckle.  “Uh, I was outside, with the computer.  Dekslan and Lizbel were the ones that got inside, and Terra came inside to rescue them at the end.”
 Jo’hara shook his head and stood up from his chair.  “Well, let’s upload this to General Pepper.  I have a direct line to him.”
 Terra yawned.  “I’m going to bed.  It’s 12:30, isn’t it?”
 Jo’hara nodded.  “Yeah, but I’m a late-nighter.  The others are asleep as well.”
 Lizbel walked over to a cupboard and pulled out a bag of chips.  “You fellas hungry?”
 “I don’t eat an hour before sleeping,” Darwin replied.  “You don’t want to know what will happen when I wake up.  C’mon Jo, let’s go to your room and give Pepper a reason to wake up in the middle of the night.  It is night in Cornerian City, right?”
 “Yep.  It’s 3:30 at night there.  Good night, Liz.”
 The chinook nodded and waved, her mouth full of chips.

Chapter Two
 

 “The Venom Empire is not evil.  We do ‘sinful’ things to let those stupid Cornerians know that we will not back down without a fight.”

         --Bandit Forhawk, Venom

 The space station Heartbreak was under siege.
 Forty Invader-II jets circled around the spider-shaped space station, firing their lasers at the thick hull of the station, rocking the four hundred inhabitants inside.  Fifteen troop transporters were heading toward the station as well, carrying about three hundred Venom soldiers.
 Captain Tara Vernan of the Heartbreak grimaced as she heard yet another report one of her defending jets being sent into annihilation.  The Green-class jets were just too inferior to fight back, and they were already outnumbered.  Pacing across the Command Center and back, the serval were running out of options.  Thirty minutes ago, she hailed a call to Katina, which was the closest planet, but it was two hours away and help would be too far away to be of any use.  She could evacuate everyone out, but the transporters would be too slow to outrun the Invaders.  Besides, how can she tell four hundred panicked people to calm down and go to the docks in an orderly fashion?
 That would be the day, she thought.  What other options are there?  Fighting back would be almost fruitless.  This place holds storage, not troops.  Most of the people here are workers with families and have little fighting experience.  Literally, this place would be easy pickings.
 Still, she had her determination.  If it was her destiny to go down, then she would do so fighting.  She stepped behind a console officer, her brown eyes focusing on the screen showing the dogfight just outside.
 “How many Greenies left, Private?”
 The mouse officer with overflowing brown hair shook her head in despair.  “Only fifteen left, Captain.  This station will be overtaken within minutes!”
 Tara tapped her on the shoulder, trying to calm her.  “This is not the time to panic.  Keep those jets firing.  We have four hundred people in this station and I’m not at all willing to sacrifice them all without a fight to the death.  At the meantime, keep an eye on those troop transporters.  I want all the guards available to be waiting for them once they dock.  We will not back down, you understand me?”
 The Private only muttered a response and continued on her duty.  Tara rubbed her chin and sighed with frustration.  Another explosion flashed across the screen, another Greenie pilot dead.
 “Damn it,” she muttered.  “Where’s my pistol?”
 She ran to a connecting room which was her office, and picked up a pistol that was in her desk drawer.  Just then, the same mouse Private yelled out, “Captain!  Troops in Docks 12 to 27!!”
 Tara ran back to the Command Center.  “Send security over there, now!!  Everyone arm themselves!  And be alert!”
 As the five officers in the room bustled around to a storage room for their weapons, Tara checked her pistol nervously.  She had fired this thing before, but that was a long time ago, during boot camp.  She never liked to do it, but she doesn’t like giving up either.  “Everyone choose a barrier between you and the entrance, and stay there!  Fire when they come in!  Keep those Venomian creeps at bay!!”
 As Tara lowered herself behind her Captain’s chair, the mouse officer ducked behind a free-standing computer at the right, as three other officers got behind their own dashboards, their eyes filled with fright.  The fifth one, the only one armed with a laser machine gun, held his place behind a crate at the back of the room, just below the huge screen.  Their eyes were focused on the sliding door that leads to the hallway, waiting impatiently for troops to burst inside.
 When she heard the sounds of boots stomping on metal, she tightened her grip on the pistol, and set the weapon on eye level.  She could hear gun fire at the distance, and screams followed, blending in with the stink of terror and tension in the air.  Her brain raced with grief and frustration.  Her people were dying, and all she could do was wait behind her chair.
 The first trooper to come into the room was a cheetah, his Venom uniform caked with fresh blood.  The mouse immediately fired the first shot, and it shot pass the soldier’s right arm.  The trooper yelled with pain and surprise, and another shot ran through his chest.  The first of many toppled forward, exposing three more of his comrades behind him.
 Lasers flew back and forth between the desperate officers and the relentless troopers.  Their sounds buzzed in Tara’s ears, and sparks were flying from damaged computers.  The one carrying the machine gun jumped out of hiding and let loose a barrage of lasers, screaming his battle cry for all that was worth.  He was out in the open for too long, for three lasers struck him dead.
 The mouse officer repeatedly would poke herself out, fire a few shots, then went back behind her shield harmlessly.  Tara did the same technique, with equal effectiveness.  One of the three officers was shot down, struck on the head.
 Six troopers laid on the bloody ground, then seven and eight followed.  The ninth trooper managed to fire a few lasers after he was shot, but those lasers struck the ceiling as he fell backwards.  Tara suddenly had a dash of hope.  Maybe she could have the chance at victory after all.  Almost grinning, she stepped out again and picked off yet another trooper, but this time a laser struck her on the leg.  Screaming with agony, she fell down to the floor, and managed to crawl back behind the chair before she could be hit again.  As the lasers continued to make swiss-cheese out of her chair, Tara held the wound, grimacing.
 Ten troopers down, then the eleventh breathed his last.  Burnt marks were all over the room, and a fire was erupting on one of the broken computers.  Smoke was filling the room with it’s soot.  Trying to ignore the pain, Tara picked up her gun again and continued the cycle of onslaught.  Two of the officers had died already, leaving only the mouse console officer and Tara defending the Command Center.
 All too soon, it was only Tara left.  The mouse stepped out at the wrong time, and a laser struck her on the head, killing her instantly.  With only Tara firing the shots, the troopers were beginning spread out inside, harassing her from several different positions.  Tara knew that her time for death had come.  She made her death wish, and almost stood up, still hidden behind the chair.  For good luck, she kissed her pistol, and with anger rising, she made a suicide dive out, firing her gun in mid-air.  The move managed to kill one of the troopers before she was struck several times.  She died soon after.

 Twenty minutes after storming the station, the Heartbreak became the property of Venom.  On Dock 14, a raccoon stood on the connecting hallway, grinning as he watched his soldiers moving about.  Finally, he thought, the Heartbreak was his, but why does he need it for?
 He spotted his First Officer and snapped to his attention.  “Oliver, is every sector in this graveyard taken care of?”
 “Yes, Second Admiral.  What shall we do with the hostages?  The ones we haven’t killed already?”
 Bandit Forhawk hummed as he thought up a command.  “I want to have all the surviving hostages to be separated by age group.  All the adults in the lounge, and all children and adolescents in an empty cargo room.  I have a plan.  I need someone with a video camera.”
 “Video camera, sir?” the fox replied with a confused look.
 “Yes, a camera.  Do you want me to draw you a picture?”
 The fox muttered some sounds, saluted smartly, and ran off.  Bandit chuckled as his new plan had come to form.  He has a message for the Cornerian people, and a dastardly one at that.

 As their parents and adult relatives and friends were forced to stay in the lounge, forty three children were herded by armed troops into a chilly, empty cargo room.  The place was as gloomy as the children themselves.  Thick slabs of steel cluttered up the wall like a one-colored chessboard.  Only one crate, pushed into the far corner, was the only evidence of this being a cargo room.  When Bandit came in, the children were lined up in two columns of random number, their eyes fearful.
 The forty three children were very diverse.  Some are seventeen years old, others are only three.  They range from mammals to marsupials to cold-blooded creatures, all of different sizes and shapes, but they all shared one thing: fear.  Some of them tried to face the troopers with a false, angry look, while others had broke down and whimpered.
 Six troopers, all of them with laser machine guns, faced the children.  Not even they knew what Bandit was going to do with these hostages.  The raccoon walked behind them, and a lion carrying a video camera followed him.
 The camera person was ordered to face Bandit with the camera on, and to keep it on till Bandit told him to.
 As the camera rolled, Bandit cleared his throat.  “People of Corneria and it’s pitiful allies, please heed to what I will say.  My name is Second Admiral Bandit Forhawk, and I will be someone that you all will fear.  I’m in the Cornerian station Heartbreak, which will soon be destroyed for it serves little use for us.  This is a warning.  Surrender now, and prevent further bloodshed.  Under Venom, you will all prosper and thrive under the Great Andross.  I was once on your side.  I had to swallow all the propaganda that you all had shoved down my throat.  You all say that Venom is evil.  If that is the case then why are you so willing to kill a lizard or anyone that wears a Venom uniform with extreme hatred?  You say that Andross started this war.  The truth is, the Cornerian Ruling Council failed to see his potential to be an excellent scientist.  Therefore, he was banished.  He used those bio-technology weapons on the people to see that in war, his weapons are the future.  The fact of the matter is, it is Corneria that had started the chain of events that leads me against you.
 “Sure, we may do ‘evil’ things.  We torture people.  We massacre them.  We develop weapons of mass destruction.  We do those things because we must do so to survive.  We must conquer to allow the Venom Empire to live.  If you don’t surrender, then we will have no choice but to continue our winning ways, and Andross will sacrifice millions of soldiers, pilots, and sailors to take over the Lylat System.  Is that what you wanted?  Millions of people, on both sides, dead?  Is it worth it?”
 Bandit paused.  The whimpering from the children were getting to him.  Angry, the raccoon turned and raised his fist at them.  “Shut up!  On your knees!!”
 The children immediately dropped down and became silent.  Calming himself, Bandit faced the camera again.  “Now, the children behind me are gathered here to show you what will happen if Andross’s terms are not accepted soon.  Once this video is finished, think about this.  This war should have ended a long time ago, and this wouldn’t have happened.  However, it is your fruitless determination to fight back that has made this necessary.”
 He turned again toward the children.  His eyes stared at them motionless.  He felt no remorse, no sympathy.  He didn’t care about them, or their families in the station.  He let out a deep breath.  His eyes studied the troops.  They knew what they were about to do.
 Bandit almost made a short chuckle.  “Ready.......aim.........fire........”

Chapter Three

 “What this Bandit character had done to those poor children was inexcusable.  For that alone, I wished to see him dead, along with the rest of the Venomian scum.”

         --General Pepper, Corneria

 Darwin banged the breakfast table with his fists hard.  Natlarn had just given him the terrible news.  “The Gods damn him!  Only a creep like him would do such a thing!!”
 Tera covered his face with his huge paws.  The badger’s meal in front of him was untouched.  He lost his appetite.  “Forty three......”
 “If only if we got him sooner!  If only if we got him sooner...”
 Tigress shook her striped head.  Despite her tough appearance, she was no cold-hearted person.  “Darwin, we had no way of knowing...”
 “So what?  We still could have killed him before he could do any real damage, but now we’re too late!!  The Gods damn them all!”  He ranted and stood up.  With volcano-like fury, he kicked his chair, sliding it across the kitchen.  He was clearly breaking down.  “We could’ve..killed him....sooner.”
 Natlarn sighed deeply.  It wasn’t the Firehawks fault that Bandit was alive long enough to do this.  Until they heard the tragedy, they had no idea where Bandit was, and they had no clue on where or what to start.
 Darwin paced in quick circles.  “What a fool I was.  My team could have just gone over to Bandit and give him a nice laser through his black heart as a present.  We could have started immediately on finding where he was, and hunt him down.”
 Natlarn rested his cheetah paw on his shoulder.  “Darwin, look.  ‘What if’ and ‘could have’ questions will not help you.  Not at all.  I asked myself questions like those when Fran was killed.  It’s time to stop thinking about what you could have done, because you can’t change it.  You did what you thought you did was right.  You had no way of knowing Bandit would even be capable of doing such a sick thing, and even if you did, how can you find him?”
 Darwin didn’t speak, but he did pull away from him.  With his eyes wet with anguish, he threw up his arms and left for his bedroom.  The Justice Cadets remained quiet.  Breakfast was over without a single bite.
 
 Bandit inhaled the smoke from his cigar and breathed it out cooly.  The rec-center in the Venmonta Attack Base in Macbeth was filled with smoke, but the raccoon and his only companion, a dingo with red braids climbing down her slim back, didn’t seem to mind.  A stack of disorganized cards laid on the center of their poker table, along with about a hundred chips.  In front of Bandit was a small pile of chips that he had won, but the dingo had four times as much.
 Bandit, with his best poker-face, flicked a couple chips to the center.  “I’ll accept your 20 and add 10 with it.”
 The dingo reorganized the five cards she was holding, almost grinning.  “I heard Andross applauded your invasion of the Heartbreak two days ago.”
 Bandit laughed.  “That’s true, Stella.  I’ll bet I will get promoted soon.  I have been a Venom soldier for only under a month, and already I’m a famous figure around here.”
 “Lady luck must have been standing with you all this while.”
 Bandit exhaled another puff of smoke.  “Luck have nothing to do with it.  All I had to do is to think up something even Leon won’t do, and do it.  Those children could have just eat up our rations and slow us down.  I had the troopers and their guns, so, why not give those troopers one more reason to fire?”
 “What about the adults that you had in another room?”
 Bandit shrugged.  “If they haven’t committed suicide once after the troopers left, then the four nova bombs must have destroyed them, along with the rest of the station.”
 Stella threw back her tan-furred head and laughed.  Her long braids swung behind her.  “Ah, Bandit, you are the most sickest person I have ever met.”
 She then watched him with lustful eyes, and laid her elbows on the table, still not exposing her playing cards.  “And I love you for it.”
 Bandit grunted amusingly.  He laid down his cards.  “Full House.”
 Smiling, Stella laid down hers.  “Straight Flush.”
 Bandit muttered a curse jokingly.  “Not again.  You have beaten me again.”
 Stella grabbed the pile on the center and shoved it to her growing pile of winnings.  “Yep.  Wanna try again?”
 Bandit shook his head and stood up, yawning.  “No, I think I’m going to hit the sack.  Got a big day tomorrow.”
 “Really?  What’s going to happen?”
 “I’m flying over to Katina with a bunch of Invader-II jets.  Destroy a town, kill everyone, blah, blah, blah.  Same old story.  There’s an Air Force Base nearby, so I’m going to meet some resistance.  Pitiful resistance it will be.  Good night, Stella.”
 “Do you want me to come with you to bed?”
 “I knew you was going to say that.  Nah, not tonight.  I need my sleep.”
 Stella pouted mockingly.  “Well shoot.  You don’t know what you’re missing.  Good night, Bandit.”
 Bandit nodded a farewell and came inside his quarters a few rooms through the connecting hallway.  His living quarters was not glamorous, but fitting for his taste.  He had no lights on the ceiling, but four lamps on each corner gave the room the proper illumination.  A computer was stationed on the right side of the room, with a king-sized bed on the opposite side.
 “Uh, it’s not rich and fancy, but it’s home,” he said to himself.  He dressed himself into his sleeping clothes, and laid himself on the bed to sleep.  He did not know that his base was being trespassed by an intruder.

 “Sweet dreams,” the fox said as she stood by the guard unconsciously lying down in one of the hallways of the same base.  Her blue eyes scanned for more guards, and seeing none, continued on her trek through the silent hallway.  She wore a bluish suit that showed her slim figure, and on her belt was a pistol on it’s holster.  Her black boots clamped quietly as she cautiously crept, her right paw close to the holster.  A safety guard was fastened to her right wrist, a constant reminder of her years-old injury.
 The air inside the base was chilly due to the air conditioner, and everything was silent.  Good, she thought.  The last thing I need is fifteen guards chasing me.  She found a keyboard and monitor on the wall, and went up to it, thanking her lucky stars.
 “Hmmm, where are you, Bandit?  I’ll bet you can still sleep after hearing the screams of those children,” she said to herself.  She spoke that a little too loud.
 “He laughed when they died, fool,” a female voice from behind startled her.  Star McCloud, sister and twin of Fox, twirled her head to face the culprit.  It was a dingo with red hair tied in braids.
 Star almost grabbed her pistol when she noticed that the dingo already had her pistol aimed at her.
 “Tsk, tsk, tsk....you shouldn’t have gotten in here with your gun still in your holster.  You looking for Bandit Forhawk?”
 Star didn’t respond.  She simply stood still, a plan forming in her mind.
 “Well he’s...unreachable at the moment.  He’s here, but lets just say it won’t be easy getting him.”
 “Why would it be hard to get him?”
 The dingo grinned.  “Because you’ll have to pass me.”
 “That’s it?  Are there any better challenges?”
 “You’re not in position to say such bold words.  I tire of this.  Goodbye.”
 Quicker than the eyes could see, Star kicked the dingo’s paw, flying her pistol across the hallway.  Before the dingo could react, Star gave her two punches to the ribs and a kick to the right knee.  The Venomian sprawled back, growling.
 “You’re a fighter, eh?  You have picked the wrong dingo to fight!!”  She screamed and threw a hurling punch toward Star’s face.  The force of the blow would have knocked a meerkat into submission, but Star took the blow without flinching and struck right back with a punch to the chest.  Back and forth, they exchanged blows, banging against the walls, creating all kinds of sounds.  Finally, they ended up in a room that was empty in the middle and wooden crates along the walls.
 Gasping for breath, Star and the dingo circled in the center of the room, their eyes making contact.  The dingo noticed the wrist guard her opponent had.  “Got a broken wrist?”
 “Ha, maybe or maybe not.  Maybe I have this to fool you.  What’s your name?  I need to know so I can sketch it on your tombstone.”
 “Stella.  Stella Dornam.”
 “Okay, Stella Stella Dornam, let’s see if you have some breath left.”  She made a quick roundhouse kick to Stella’s face, forcing the dingo to fall back, and smashed against a crate.  With a grunt of pain, Stella rushed toward the fox, fists raised.  Star expected to see her running at her, but Stella made a quick roll and smashed a boot at Star’s stomach.  The move was so unexpected that Star grunted out in pain, holding her sore spot.  She was struck from behind, stumbling her forward.  She almost crashed against a crate, and slowly turned around.
 “Good move, Stella Stella.  Is that your real first name, or your first and middle name are both the same?”
 Furious, Stella jumped, flying out a foot in the air.  Star reacted by grabbing hold of the foot that could have struck her face.  She landed and hopped on her single foot, eyes full of shock.  Star grinned.
 “Didn’t see that coming, did you?”
 Stella lifted her other foot in an arch motion, striking Star at the back of the neck.  They both landed on the concrete floor hard, but it was Stella who got up first.  “Nope.  I really didn’t see that coming.”
 Star lifted herself on all fours only to be struck by a boot to the head.  She rolled away from Stella, trying to stand up and even the balance.  She was struck again in the face, cutting a slash through her right cheek.
 Stella attempted to make another kick to her face when Star made a leg sweep, toppling the dingo down to her level.  She then dived on top of her, biting the dingo’s right shoulder.  Stella pushed her off, and both stood quickly.
 Stella grabbed hold of her shoulder, feeling blood.  “That was a cheap shot!  You want to play dirty, eh?”  With a battle cry, she tackled her, lifting the smaller fox up.  Holding her with a bear hug, Stella ran toward one of the crates, intend on having Star to be the shield.  Wood splintered apart when Star’s back collided the crate, adding more bruises to Star’s brand new collection.
  Stella pummeled at Star’s face relentlessly, but a knee to the groin backed her off.  Star almost limped off the splintered crate.  “You know, Stella Stella, you are really getting on my nerves.”
 Star threw yet another bleeding fist, the one with the weak wrist, but to her horror, Stella caught it cleanly.  With the dingo’s paw on her arm and the other paw grabbing her still clinched fist, Stella did the move that she wanted to do.  She twisted the wrist quickly.
 Snap.
 Star flinched.  “Aaaaahhh!!  Damn it!”  With a desperate kick, she threw back Stella across the room.  Holding her wrist in great pain, she retreated toward another crate, and toppled to the floor, her back leaning at the crate.
 Stella shook her head.  “Aawww, did I break your teeny-wheeny wrist?  That must have hurt.  Want me to snap it back in place?”
 Despite pain shooting at her brain, Star looked up at her with freezing cold eyes.  She let go of her wrist and her good paw flowed close to her right boot.  “You wanna snap it back in place?  Go ahead and try.”
 Sniggering, Stella casually walked over to her downed opponent, not alert.  When she was close enough, Star suddenly grabbed hold of a knife that was hidden in her boot and slashed it outwards.  The blade cut through the flesh of Stella’s arm, gashing it.  With a startled yelp, Stella stumbled back, screaming as new shoots of pain drilled into her mind.
 With a dash of revived hope, Star climbed herself back up.  Without warning, the alarms went off.  Stella was on the floor, obviously helpless.  However, whenever alarms are sounded, guards are sure to come.
 Aw, the hell with Bandit.
 “It’s been nice fighting you, but I gotta go.  When shall we meet again?”
 Stella could’ve spoke back, but she couldn’t for Star had already left the room, almost limping.  She staggered up, holding her bleeding arm, breathing heavily.  Oh we’re going to meet again soon.  I will find you, whoever you are.

Chapter Four

 “If they call me a freak, then they are freaks themselves because I’m an animal just like any other.  I just look different.”

        --Jo’hara Prather, The Justice Cadets

 Star McCloud was a bandaged mess when she dropped by the home of the Justice Cadets for a short visit.  The cut on her face, after two hours of treatment, was closed and almost unnoticeable.  A heavily wrapped cast covered her re-injured wrist, and her stomach was also wrapped with cloth bandages.  Her limp was still in effect, and she confirmed her friend Natlarn that she would walk normally soon.  Star has been a friend of Natlarn and Jo’hara when the cheetah was a Bulldog pilot and the panther was a student.  She met Tigress and Tera some time later when the two were members of the Justice Cadets.  Star was the one who provided the team their new arwings, and she also led an attack to Venom Headquarters with them some time ago.  About a month ago, Star rescued Bill’s cousin Roverans Naroman from the jail dungeons of Venom Headquarters.  However, despite their friendship, the younger sister of Fox refused to expose the location of her home.
 When she met Darwin for the first time, the cougar was still hitting himself with the situation on the massacre in Heartbreak, and his sullen facial expression was the result of that.
 “So, you are the leader of this Crimson Firehawks team I know so little about.”
 Jo’hara widened his eyes.  “You?  Know little about something?”
 “Hey, I never bothered to bug this place and the profiles of the Crimson Firehawks were rarely in some computer.  Besides, I had other things to do.”
 “You knew where Bandit was all this time?”  Darwin spoke softly.
 Star shook her head apologetically.  “Yeah, I didn’t know that you were desperate in finding him.  I was so close in achieving your goal in killing him, but this Stella had intruded into my affairs.”
 “The Firehawks will finish the job.  I know we will.  How’s your brother by the way?”
 Star made a disgusted face and shrugged.  “I haven’t checked on him lately.  I’m not his babysitter, and I never wanted to be one.  I’m a bit hungry.  Got any food around here in this frozen desert?”
 Tera replied by reaching in a fridge and pulled out a pitcher of lemonade.  “Want some of this?  Natlarn’s cooking today.”
 “Really?  On a second thought, I’ll just have one glass of lemonade and have dinner at my place.”
 Natlarn nudged her softly on her healthy shoulder.  “Ha, ha, very funny.”
 Lizbel studied her bandages.  “You went to a hospital?”
 Star shook her head, and shuttered.  “No way.  I don’t like prisons.  I can take care of wounds myself, thank you very much,” she answered, grabbing her cup of lemonade.  “I hate hospitals.”
 “How long will your wrist heal back?”  Terra asked.
 “In a few weeks, maybe more, maybe less,” she replied, sipping her drink.  “Look, when you fellas are ready to hunt down Bandit, I want to go with you.  When it comes to breaking Venom codes, I’m a bit more efficient than Jo’hara here.  Despite my injury, I can still fight.”
 Darwin nodded.  “Alright then.  We will need your help, anyway.”

 “Get inside, quickly!”  The panicked badger ordered his wife and son as he ran into his small home.  The wife and five-year old were hot on his heels, equally frightened.  Fourteen Invader-II jets were screeching through the Katina atmosphere, followed by two trooper transporters and four Velcon bombers.  The badgers knew that their beloved town was being invaded, and their lives are in danger.  However, the best they could do was to stay in their home.
 The badgers went downstairs to the one-room basement, and as the wife and her son huddled in one corner, the father pushed cardboard boxes around them like a wall, and turned off the lights before he himself joined his family.  It was very dark, but they could hear what was going on outside.  Explosions startled them, and faint laser fire filled the air with it’s relentless noise.
 The badger son, wearing blue slacks and a red cap, looked at his whimpering mother with a puzzled expression.  “Momma, what’s happening?”
 The mother took off his cap and stroked his head.  “Don’t you worry a thing dear.  We’re safe here.  Just keep quiet, okay?”
 “Okay, Momma.”
 Ten minutes had passed like eons filled with explosions and bombs bursting.  Then, quite alarmingly, everything was quiet.  The father stood up, peering through the wall of cardboard boxes with a sense of hope.  “Is it all over?”
 Footsteps from above shattered that hope.  Troopers were in their house.  The darkness quickly shone as the basement door opened.
 Alarmed, the father sat back down, and huddled with his family.  “Everyone quiet!” he whispered.  “Quiet till they go away!”
 They could hear the troopers from across the cardboard wall.  “Looks like no one’s here.”
 The second voice answered, “Search some more, fool.  Even idiots hide.”
 The father badger was surprised.  That voice!  Where did he hear that before?
 A sneeze was heard.  It came from his son.  His mother tried to hush him, but it was already too late.  Soon, the wall of cardboard boxes rumbled in front of them, and were taken down box by box.  The father bowed his head.  Death to him and his family would soon follow.  He looked up to find a raccoon peering over the bottom set of boxes, his brown eyes staring at him with a certain hunger for blood.
 “Ha, ha, ha, what a idiotic attempt of hiding.  Get out of there!”  The raccoon barked.  The family stood up and got out of their hiding place.  Receiving repeated blows from the butts of the four troopers’ rifles, they were forced to kneel on the center of the room.  The raccoon stood close in front of them, his pistol aimed at the wife.
 “Remember me?”  The raccoon asked in a cool voice.
 The father shook his head.  “You!  Slaughterer of Children!”
 Bandit laughed.  “So, that’s what you stupid Katina people call me, eh?  Slaughter of Children....well, thank you for the compliment.”
 The wife looked up with teary eyes.  “What do you want, you bastard?”
 “Well, I have enjoyed hearing the screams of those young souls, but once again I’m bored.  Guess who’s the entertainment now?”
 The five-year-old, not knowing death or this raccoon that loves to kill people his age, could only stare up at him with a perplex look on his face.  “Why are you hurting Momma?”
 Bandit laughed loudly, the hideous noise echoing around the room.  “What’s your name, stripe-dog?”
 Once again, the mother interfered.  “You leave him alone!”
 Annoyed, Bandit swung his pistol at her, hitting her on the side of her long, thick muzzle.  “Shut up, scum-stripe!”  He pointed at the father.  “You, crawl a few feet over there!”
 Not wanting to be separated from his wife and son, the badger was reluctant to move, but he did so, after suffering a blow from a trooper behind him.  Once he was five feet away from his original spot, Bandit pressed the barrel of his pistol to his forehead.
 Bandit snatched a look at the child.  “You ever seen death before, kid?  Probably not,” he said and turned his head toward the father.  The victim was shaking vigorously, scared out of his wits.  Bandit chuckled.  “Well, here it is, kid.”
 He pulled the trigger.  As his wife screamed, the male badger toppled forward like a tree being cut down, and landed on the bloody ground with a splat.  A burning hole was smoking out from the back of his head.  Bandit was amused at that sight.
 He laughed again, dancing a few steps, waving his pistol joyfully.  “Man, that was neat!  I didn’t know badgers could fall down like that!”  He stopped his dancing and waved his pistol at the wife.  Her tears were all over her face.  “Hey lady, how did you like that?  The way he fell down like a tree?  Ha, ha, ha, ha, that was a sight to see.  Boy, I needed to see that once in a great while!!  Okay, who’s next?”
   The wife closed her tearful eyes.  She hugged her son closer, trying to cover his eyes from the corpse that was his father.  “Leave....us alone.  You’re a disease.”
 Bandit brushed off some of red mist on his suit, staining his paws with blood.  “Oh am I?”  He replied, and looked at the troopers.  “Hey fellas, did I cough once on the way here?  Did I look sick?”
 The troopers all shook their heads “no”.  Bandit laughed again and pointed his pistol at the wife’s head.  “How can I be a disease if I’m healthy?”
 “You’re not healthy.  Your mind is sick!”  The wife yelled, more bolder.
 Bandit scoffed, and slapped her with the gun again.  “You’re the one with the sick mind if you say one more word.”
 The son, more angry and confused then scared, almost stood up.  Like a bold rebel looking up at a tyrant king, he growled, “Don’t hurt Momma!”
 Annoyed, Bandit kicked him on the stomach.  Screaming, the badger fell back into his mother’s arms, quick tears running down his face.  Not one to let this go, his mother snarled at Bandit.  “You creep!  Only you would hurt-”
 She never finished her sentence, for Bandit shot a laser through her head.  Red mist was flown in the air, some of it splashing on her screaming son, and slumped backwards.  The five-year old leaped on top of her, grasping her clothes tight, sobbing like all the world had vanished around him.  Bandit retreated a few steps, smiling.  He always loved the smell and look of blood, but he loved the screams of people in mourning more.  Much, much, more.
 Bandit snickered, putting his pistol on it’s holster.  “C’mon boys, let’s leave this wimp to grieve.  Once we get out, burn this place down.”
 A lion trooper flickered his eyes surprisingly.  “With this boy still inside?”
 Bandit stared at him with cold eyes.  “Yes.  With this boy still inside.  I want all the rooms to have gasoline all over the walls, including this basement and the roof.”
 The troopers saluted and ran upstairs.  Bandit made one last look at the badger still sobbing over his mother.  “Well boy, I’ll be leaving soon.  You’ll be joining your parents pretty quickly now.”
 The five-year-old ignored the murderer behind him.  Bandit shook his head and climbed up the stairs.  Just as soon as he did so, a trooper carrying a gallon of the flammable liquid was going down.  Bandit grabbed his free arm, getting his attention.
 “Make sure the boy gets wet a little,” Bandit said, and let go of him.  He climbed up the stairs and closed the door shut behind him.  Ignoring the trooper’s cries to get out, Bandit locked the basement door with a skeleton key he found earlier.  As the other troopers splashed gasoline on the walls, Bandit cooly got outside and was struck with the smell of smoke from the ruined buildings of the town.  Bandit considered this town and it’s Air Force Base dead.  Scratch one more town off the list of existence.
 He waited a safe distance away from the house till all the troopers except the one trapped in the basement joined him with empty canisters.  “Is everything ready to be burned, gentlemen?”
 “Yes,” they all said in unison, showing their glee.  One of them gave Bandit a glass bottle with a towel soaked with flammable liquid.
 Bandit accepted the bottle anxiously.  “Match, please.  Make sure you strike it first.”
 A mongoose struck a flaming match and gave it to Bandit carefully.  Bandit set the bottle aflame, and prepared to throw it into the house.  “Well kiddo, it’s been nice knowing you.”
 With an accurate throw, the bottle was lifted in the air, and shattered just before the house.  Quickly and ruthlessly, the house was under fire.  The warmth pleased Bandit’s black heart, and his ears caught the sound of beams breaking down.  He even heard the trapped trooper’s screams.
 “Let’s go home,” Bandit said cooly.  “There’s no need for us to be in this dump any longer.”

Chapter Five

 “I kill for the honor of Venom.”

         --Bandit Forhawk, Venom

 The next day, Darwin and Lizbel were in the gym, killing time as they await Star to come back with needed equipment and a plan.  Darwin held the punching bag as Lizbel expertly swung high kicks at it, treating it like Bandit.
 The last blow almost stunned Darwin.  “Geez, Lizbel, don’t break this thing.”
 The chinook sighed.  “I’m sorry.  I’m just taking out my frustrations on this thing.  Oh when is Star coming back?”
 “Soon, Liz.  Soon.  Impatience is not a desired trait.  At least it’s not to me, and it shouldn’t to you.”
 Lizbel struck another high kick at the bag.  A small crack was beginning to show.  “I know, I know.  It’s just that I want to nail this creep so bad that I’m willing to sink as low as him if that’s what it takes to kill him!”
 “I hope you wouldn’t do that.  If you do that then I’m leaving you for good.”
 Lizbel paused, looking at the cougar with shocked eyes.
 “Hey, I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”
 “No, no, you wouldn’t deserve to have a creep as your lover.  Hey, I see a crack on this thing.”
 Darwin inspected the small crack on the punching bag.  “Eh, it’s not too bad.  Keep practicing.”
 Terra came in, wearing an oversized sweatshirt and pants.  “Oh hi, fellas.  I just want to use the treadmill.”
 Darwin nodded.  “Lizbel is practicing on the kicks.  We’re getting anxious to get going and kill you-know-who.”
 Terra nodded.  “Me too.  Might as well stay healthy for the job,” the bobcat said, almost jokingly.  She stepped on the treadmill, facing the love-struck couple on the other side of the gym, and set the level on medium speed.  As she briskly walked on the treadmill, her eyes focused on the cougar holding the punching bag.
 Her crush on Darwin had intensified, but she was still nervous to speak out.  While she wanted to have a romantic relationship with him, Darwin was just too devoted to Lizbel to even accept her having a crush on him, or at least it seemed.  So far, no one had suspected her true feelings toward him, but all the temptations inside her was bottling up.  When will the lid finally break off?  How would Darwin take it?  How would Lizbel take it?  How would she herself would take it if Darwin dismissed her?  What if she would speak up and later destroy Darwin’s relationship with Lizbel?  Would they forgive her for that?  Of course not.
 She turned off the treadmill and simply stood on the black belt below her feet.  Her eyes were on a trance, and her ears caught no sounds.  She watched the cougar holding that punching bag with a desire that she has been blocking for a long time.  However, the desire to speak would soon be too much for her, and sooner or later she must speak out and reap the benefits or suffer the consequences.  His fur was glistening with sweat from an earlier workout, and he was grasping the punching bag so tightly that his biceps showed their true size.  The sight of him alone like this was almost too much for her.  Her heart cried out to just say the words that she dreaded so much, so that she would have him know that it was she who deserved him, not Lizbel.  She wanted to be with him, to love him, to hold him, to kiss him, to be one with him.  The temptation was so much that she walked off the treadmill and hurriedly got out of the gym without saying a word.  Fear was her enemy, and a great one at that.
 Lizbel stopped her kicks.  “Huh, wonder what’s up with her?”
 Darwin shrugged.  “I dunno.  Why don’t you ask her?  You can’t know anything unless you ask.”
 “Say again?”
 “Look, when we were just born, we were helpless.  We have only instinct to cling on in order for us to go on with our lives.  When we cry, we ask the parents, doctors, and friends around us to tend to our needs.  When we go to school, we ask the teacher to teach us just by being in class.  You may forget about it the next day, but forgetfulness is almost impossible.  Every memory you store rarely gets lost.  It’s just harder to remember it than others.  Seemly lost memories might come back to you at unexpected times.  When we wake up, we are asking to interact with the world around us, and while most days are boring, something interesting might come up once in a while.  When we grow old, and tell others of our knowledge, we are asking them to listen.  Some people might disagree with me, but this is my belief.”
 “Growing old......you think we can grow old together?”
 Darwin let go of the punching bag.  “You talking about marriage?  Well I’m not sure I can handle the new responsibilities.”
 Lizbel shook her head rather disappointedly.  If only if he has the courage to accept it.  I’m ready to grow old with him.  Why can’t he be ready to do so with me?
 Darwin grasped the punching bag again.  If only if she knew what I will do once this situation with Bandit blows over.  “C’mon.  A few more kicks and we’ll quit.”
 Lizbel struck another blow to the bag, but this time, the crack had opened, spilling out sand.  The floor below it became a mess instantly.  The chinook chuckled guiltily.  “Uh, oops.”
 Darwin sighed and walked close to the doorway.  “Tera!  We need the vacuum!”
 “Why me?!!”  The badger cried back from a distance in the house.
 “You know why!!”
 “Why can’t someone else besides me know where that stupid vacuum is?!!”
 
 Star McCloud came back from her secret abode two hours later, and she came well prepared.  She had a knapsack with her, holding devices that the Firehawks had never seen before.  She gathered the two squadrons in the living room, and she faced them all, ready to tell her plan.
 “Okay fellas, from the last time I checked, Bandit is still residing in Venmonta Base in Macbeth, and I have it’s blueprints,” she said as she reached in the knapsack.  She pulled out the blueprints and laid them on the circular table on the center of the room.  The Crimson Firehawks and Justice Cadets crept closer for a better look.  “This base has lower security levels than most bases, so I will have little trouble shutting them down.  Two hundred soldiers reside in this base, with ninety Invader-I and II jets at their disposal.  Firehawks, since you all are more experienced in base storming, it will be up to you to get inside the base and reach the base’s Command Central.  To distract most of the guards, the Justice Cadets will fly around, shooting down every Invader they can.  Since the security will be down, the people in Command won’t be able to find any hint of intruders, and they will be distracted with the Justice Cadets.”
 The fox reached in her sack again and pulled out a curious device.  “This is a voice pattern modifier.  The objective of this mission is to enable the base to self-destruct.  In order to do so, one of you Firehawks must find Bandit and force him to talk.  This modifier would record his voice pattern and store it.  Then, since the self-destruct sequence required voice identification, this device will fool the computer by using Bandit’s recorded voice.  Neat, huh?”
 “How much do we have once the self-destruct sequence begins?”  Dekslan asked.
 “Two minutes flat.  Once it counts down, it won’t be stopped.  Not even Bandit could stop it.  The alarms will go off, and there will be a whole lot of panicked people inside.  You four had better get your tails out of there.  The explosion could destroy anyone on the ground in a one-mile radius.”
 “So once it explodes, we’ll have to be on the air?”
 “Exactly.  Hopefully Bandit and that Stella would be killed in the blast.  Any questions?”
 “What about you?” Natlarn asked.
 “I’m joining the Firehawks.  I may have a broken wrist, but I still have a grudge against that dingo Stella.  Well now, everyone understand their goals?”
 The two anxious squadrons nodded in agreement.  Star clasped her paws and gave the voice modifier to Darwin.  “It is up to you on what your team will do once we get inside.  We can go in groups, or split.  I however have my own goal to achieve.  I want Lizbel to go with me.  With this wrist injury, I won’t be able to fight as good as I could before.  I might be able to handle Stella alone, but not against a bunch of guards.”
 Darwin accepted the device and grinned.  “Let’s do this.”
 Lizbel stood up from her chair, determination in her eyes.  “Right!  Let’s go!”
 

Chapter Six

 “For thousands of years, the Lylatians have been searching for the meaning of life.  Those fools.  The meaning of life is to die.”

         --Bandit Forhawk, Venom

 When it comes to tortured screams, Bandit was addicted to it like Mr. Wolfman was to pretzels.  Therefore, it wasn’t surprising for Stella to hear a tape recording of several screaming prisoners when she came in Bandit’s quarters.  The raccoon was laying down on his bed, the sound recorder close to his ear.  The screams would churn anyone’s stomach, but Bandit was soothed by the screams, and he appeared to be grinning.
 “What is it now, a couple of hares getting whipped?”
 Bandit opened his eyes and turned off the tape recorder.  He sat up on his bed, grinning.  “Nope.  Five lynxes and one hare actually.  It was recorded yesterday.”
 “Can you really tell the species just by their screams?”
 “Yes, though it took me five years of experience to get all of them right.  Every species have their own screams.  A lynx screams differently than a hare, and I can pick that up.  Every single person has a different voice pattern, and that’s how I can tell that there are five of them screaming.  My ears are quite sensitive.”
 Stella sat down with him and rubbed his right ear.  “Yes, I know.”
 “You know what is my goal about this?  I want a recording of the screams of someone from every species in the Lylat System, all at once.  That would be an orchestra, now would it?”
 An alarm startled them.  The overhead speaker blared, “Nine unidentified jets heading to this base in attack formation!”
 Bandit stood up, eyes frantically alert.  He ran over to a com monitor and connected a line to an officer in Command Central.  “Who are they?”
 The mixed-breed black dog shook his head.  “I don’t know, Second Admiral!  They’re not Venom-registered!”
 “Send all of our jets and attack them!”
 “Yes sir!”  The dog replied and saluted before the line was disconnected.  Bandit whirled his head around and faced Stella.  “If four of those intruders are those moronic Firehawks, then expect them to storm inside here.  I don’t care what you do, but when they come inside, kill them!”
 “Yes, Bandit.  What about you?”
 “I’m going to Command Central.  Now move it!”

 “Here they come!”  Natlarn reported as he flew in his arwing in the Macbeth sky.  His three co-pilots, in attack formation with him, geared up their hyper-lasers.  Star’s jet Arctic, flying a bit off formation, swerved right and the Braun-class jets of the Crimson Firehawks followed her.  The entire air defense, ninety strong, were hurling toward the Justice Cadets like a screaming squadron of eagles straight from Hell.
 “Cadets, once you engage, I will land and prepare to crack the codes.  Firehawks, help them until I give you the confirmation.  Then storm the base.  I’ll catch up with you later!  Whatever you do, keep them distracted away from me!”
 Natlarn yelled a battle cry.  “We can and we will!  Justice Cadets, Crimson Firehawks, attack!”
 Lasers flown from their jets screaming through the air like illuminated bullets, some of them finding their marks.  The Invader-I and II jets scrambled, trying to spread out and fire at their enemies from wider positions.  They fired back, and the dogfight was on.
 Another explosion flashed in Darwin’s eyes as the Invader in front of him was blasted from behind.  He swerved left and barrel-rolled to deflect two lasers, and cut another Venom pilot’s life short.  The eight jets of the Cadets and the Firehawks were doing so well that Darwin actually believed that they could fight off every jet without being shot down themselves.
 He heard Star through the head comlink.  “Firehawks, the defense systems are down!  Now’s the time to do your jobs!”
 The Firehawks responded by breaking off from the dogfight and swooped down to land on the airstrip by the base.  There were no guards posted outside, so the Firehawks had no trouble reaching a door connecting to one of the side hallways in the base.
 “Those guards may not know we’re here, but they know we’re intruders when they see us,” Darwin explained, pulling out his pistol.  “Therefore, shoot them before they see you, and be on constant alert.  I will go with Dekslan and Terra.  Liz, you wait for Star.  Keep her alive because she’s the only one that knows the self-destruct codes.”
 The chinook nodded, and watched as Dekslan hooked a password decoder on the security box, and the door soon opened.  The trio rushed inside, pistols on their paws.

 Captain Restaa paced across Command Central, frustrated completely.  The baby-faced coyote with a certain fear for Bandit had just heard news about the security codes crashing down.  Bandit let out a curse loudly, and pounded his fist on the keyboard of a small computer.
 Restaa scratched his tan-gray ears.  “I don’t understand it!  These computers were updated just two weeks ago!”
 “It can’t be the work of Jo’hara.  He can’t even hack through Venom codes.  Oh it doesn’t matter who did this!  I have a feeling that the Crimson Firehawks might already be inside.”
 “Are they dangerous, sir?”
 “Hmmm, Terra and Dekslan are extremely accurate shooters, and Darwin can be dangerous if he has a knife.  However, tell your guards to watch out for a certain chinook.  She can fight like a flashing ninja,” he said.  He rubbed his chin in remembrance of that time when he fought her in the Macbeth Secondary Base about a month ago.  He was unconscious for five hours after she gave him a boot to his chin.
 “Uh, yes sir.  Um, what does a chinook looks like?”
 Bandit stared at him with shocked eyes.  “What?  You don’t know what a chinook looks like?”
 “Well, I have heard of them, but those dogs are so rare that I never seen one before.”
 Bandit spurted out a sigh.  “Um, uh, tawny-furred golden retrievers!  I don’t know!  I don’t have time to draw one for you!”
 The coyote nodded fiercely and ran out the room.  Bandit watched the large screen in front of the room.  The red dots that represented the Invaders were disappearing one by one.  “Stupid idiots,” he berated.  “The Justice Cadets are good but they can’t be that good!”
 
 “One down, a hundred or so more to go,” Star replied as she gave a deadly present to a fox guard with her pistol.  Lizbel could have chuckled at that remark, but she was too alert to do so.  The corridor was brightly lit, and the walls shone with sleek white plastic and steel.  Star wore a tightly fit blue uniform with a laser-proof vest beneath it.  Fastened on her belt was an empty holster and a small computer the size of a door security box.  A small knife was hidden in her right black leather boot.  Her wrist cast had a guard for extra protection.
 Lizbel wore the black uniform (the only one she has) with a black belt coming over her left shoulder and across her chest.  It was studded with three daggers.  For more offensive power, her black boots has a metal plate where the toes would be.
 They reached an intersection and turned right.  Star shot another guard instantly, and the pair of intruders gotten themselves into a large empty cargo room.  Star spotted a door on the other end.
 “If I remember it right, that door leads to a hallway that connects to the Command Central.  C’mon, let’s go.”
 “Can’t let you do that, fools!”  A female voice cried out from above.  Standing on a catwalk fifty feet above the steel floor was the dingo Stella.  The evil lover of Bandit looked down confidently.  Her red braids shone under the flourescent lights.  She wore a green and red uniform that showed her slim yet muscular body, and while she was unarmed, Star knew that her fists would be enough to make her dangerous.
 “Well, looks like you have healed considerably, Stella Stella,” Star responded at her, looking up with taunting eyes.  She and Lizbel walked to the center of the large room, which was big enough to hold tons of cargo.
 “How’s your wrist?  Does it still need to be snapped back in place?”
 “It’s doing okay.  How about your shoulder?  I still have that same knife in my boot.”
 “That was a sneaky move, fox.  You really shouldn’t have done that.  Well now, it seems that you have a buddy to tag along.”
 Star snatched a look to Lizbel.  “Oh her.  This is Lizbel, and she can fight better than you.”
 Stella laughed.  “I have not met anyone I have lost against.”
 “Until you met me, of course.  Why don’t you come down and see if your skills are not rusty yet?”
 “I have a much better idea,” the dingo replied and clapped loudly, echoing throughout the room.  The two doors of the room opened, and five guards from each door marched in.  The doors closed behind them.  “These are the best paw-to-paw combat fighters this base has to offer,” Stella explained.  “These guys will tear you from limb to limb.”
 The ten guards surrounded Star and Lizbel, their faces determined to see some blood.  The fighters were unarmed like Stella, but one of them, a tiger, had on brass knuckles like Tigress.  In fact, Star thought, this moron might be her long-lost brother, but she doubted it.  This tiger lacked the brains that was common place in the Mondale family.  She could see that in his eyes.
 “Is this all?”  Lizbel asked.  “Puh-leeze!!”
 The first guard, a gray fox with a sneering look on his face, charged at Lizbel head on.  Before he realized his mistake, a metal-plated boot struck him on the stomach, and then another kick connected to the side of his face.  He stumbled back, the wind knocked out of him.  The other nine charged at once.
 Star cooly punched a leopard and threw him over her shoulder, his body hitting a lizard, and both were knocked down.  She elbowed a hyena and side-kicked a cheetah that dared to come close to her, then swirled around and made a three punch combo at the leopard she threw moments ago.
 “Oof!”  The husky grunted as Lizbel pounded a fist to his ribs, and then was struck by a boot to the right leg, breaking the bone.  The unlucky husky screamed as he fell, unable to get up.  The first casualty of the fight.
 The fight went on rather quickly.  The gray fox went down into la-la land after suffering one last hit to the face, and the hyena, with four cracked ribs, staggered back and fell, not wanting to fight anymore.  The guards managed to strike home a few kicks, but Star and Lizbel took the blows without flinching and made quick counter-moves.  In a sense, the guards were routed.  Only the tiger stayed behind, waiting for the right moment to strike.
 When Lizbel turned her back on him, the tiger, grinning with confidence, sneaked in, his brass knuckles preparing to make a fatal punch.  With a flying fist, he struck her at the back of the head, stumbling her forward.  Lizbel collapsed to the floor, her head a little woozy.
 Lizbel crawled back, eyes staring up at the laughing tiger.  Thinking up a charade plan, she appeared to be frightened by this over towering beast.  Growling, the tiger walked slowly to her, not know what trick she has up her sleeve.  When he was close enough to her feet, Lizbel threw up a boot, and it struck his groin.
 Experiencing the pain of his life, the tiger moaned loudly, and then fell backwards, his paws covering the sore spot below his waist.  Lizbel stood up, a smirk on her canine face.  “Oops.  Sorry about that.”
 Minutes later, the last guard was knocked down into kingdom come by a finishing touch by Star’s ever powerful kicks.  As all the guards laid on the ground, either unconscious or moaning in pain, Star looked up at the catwalk, expecting to see Stella shaking her head, but no one was there.
 “Where did she go?”
 Lizbel spotted the door which they should go into left ajar.  “She might have escaped through that door.”
 “What a coward.  Let’s follow her.”
 They ran out of the room, leaving behind ten soundly defeated losers.

 The first thing Captain Restaa noticed was a console officer being shot in the head in Command Central.  He whirled his head to the entrance to find a cougar firing his laser pistol at the officers.  Grabbing his weapon, the coyote dived behind a dashboard, firing back.  A borzoi and a bobcat followed the cougar, and their lasers were destroying computers and console officers.  The attack was so sudden that some of the officers didn’t have a chance to fire back.  Bandit was already behind a large chair, firing back at the intruders.
 So, you are the Crimson Firehawks.  Welcome to our Base, the rather insane words crossed the coyote’s mind.  Sparks were flying all over the place, and the last console officer became a stain on the floor.  The ambush was quick, and Restaa soon found himself being the only Venomian alive in the room other than Bandit.  Gathering up courage, he stepped out with his weapon firing, but he was soon struck on the chest, the laser drilling a hole through his heart.
 With Bandit the only one left, Darwin ordered his two comrades a cease-fire.  He peered out from behind a dashboard, and spotted a raccoon hiding behind a chair that was good enough to be an effective barrier.  “Bandit!  Surrender yourself!  This is the end!”
 Darwin pulled out the voice modifier and turned it on.  Hopefully, it would catch Bandit’s voice clearly.  Say something, you bastard, and you will sign your death warrant doing so.
 “Darwin, you fool!  Don’t you morons realize that your pitiful lives will soon be sealed?  I will never surrender to the likes of you!  If I am to die here and now, then so be it, but I will take you down with me!”  With that, he jumped out from behind the chair, firing his laser pistol relentlessly, trying to make his escape.  Terra and Dekslan fired a few shots, but the computers were on the way.  Shattered glass and sparks were the result, and Bandit escaped through a back door.
 Realizing that, Darwin yelled out in disappointment.  “Damn it!  He got away!”
 “You got his voice recorded?”  Dekslan asked.
 Darwin’s scowled quickly turned into a smirk.  “Yes, by golly, I do.”
 The borzoi nodded and tapped her comlink on her head.  “Star, come in.”
 “You’re in the Command Central?”  A female voice answered.
 “Yep.  Bandit escaped.  Tell us the codes.”
 “Righto!  First speak into the voice recorder the words, ‘Computer, start self-destruct sequence’.  Then, the recorder will repeat those words with Bandit’s voice.  Fools any computer.”
 Dekslan grabbed the device from Darwin and found a working computer.  She turned on a microphone and spoke the command on the device.  When she replayed the device, her words came out in Bandit’s voice pattern.  Dekslan shuttered as it did so.  Her words in the tone of Bandit was spooky.
 The computer’s female voice blared overhead.  “IDENTIFICATION REQUIRED.”
 Dekslan spoke the words and the device said, “Bandit Forhawk, Second Admiral of the Macbeth Defense.”
 “IDENTIFICATION CONFIRMED.  ENTER SELF-DESTRUCT CODE.”
 Star told the borzoi the password, and the password was relayed to the device.  “Congan, Devisea, Teroan.  3459094568.”
 “PASSWORD CONFIRMED.  SELF-DESTRUCT SEQUENCE ENABLED.  THIS BASE WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN TWO MINUTES.”
 “Okay fellas,” Star replied.  “Get your furry butts out of here!”
 “You too Star and Lizbel!”  Terra replied back.
 The trio rushed out of the exit door, frantically trying to find the right direction to their jets outside.  With their pulses running fast, they ran across the hallways, bumping against guards that had other things to worry about than to fight back.  The lights on the ceiling were a blur like their feet, ears catching the sounds of alarms blaring.

 Bandit finally bumped into Stella in one of the back hallways.  The raccoon’s eyes feared for his life, and he was mumbling curses.  He was lost, but Stella had a plan.
 “There’s an elevator nearby.  Let’s go to the basement!”
 Bandit sputtered out in surprise.  “Have your dingo brain gone out of wack?  It’s not safe there!”
 “There’s a vault in there!”  The frantic dingo replied, grabbing her lover’s arm.  “No time to explain!”
 They rushed into an elevator and gotten down to the basement.  When they got out, it was low-lit, but Stella knew where to go.  The air was cold enough to put a chill up Bandit’s spine.  He followed her to a large vault that was ten feet tall and nine feet wide.  Stella opened the door, and got inside, tempting her lover to come inside as well.
 “But what if we got locked in?”
 “I have the keys!”  Stella replied impatiently.  “Get inside or I’ll leave you out!”
 Trusting her, Bandit got inside, and closed the door shut.  Hopefully, he thought, the thick walls of the vault would withstand the blast.

 Dekslan, the canopy window of her jet closing in above her, spotted the cougar just getting out of the base.  One minute to go.  “C’mon, butt-head, move!”  Her engines roared hurriedly, and the borzoi’s jet was lifted from the air.  Terra, always faster than the others, was already in the sky, circling around with the Justice Cadets.  Lizbel and Star were already in the air as well.
 Darwin, huffing and puffing the dry Macbeth air with frantic eyes, finally reached his jet.  He snatched one last look at the base that would soon be obliterated, hoping Bandit would still be inside.  With a blast of engines, he accelerated into the sky.
 “Everyone alright?” Tigress asked.  The Justice Cadets had managed to destroy every single one Invader that had attacked them, but the victory didn’t came without a price.  Each one of the arwings were suffering badly.
 “Fine.  I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to fight against Stella.  She was too chicken to fight me,” replied Star.
 Seconds later, they heard a loud explosion from behind.  The blast splattered out steel beams from the walls, sending them flying for miles away.  A bluish shockwave roared across the ground, spreading in all sides like a circle.  Fire and smoke filled the air quickly.  The Justice Cadets, Crimson Firehawks, and Star McCloud cheered in triumph, believing their antagonist to be killed.  Finally, it seemed that the “Slaughter Of Children” was dead, along with the chances of any victim to suffer under his grimly paws from now on.

Chapter Seven

 “While the damage had already been done, at least I will rest easier.”

       --Terra Hartford, the Crimson Firehawks

 When it was time for Star McCloud to head back home, the Justice Cadets and Crimson Firehawks braved the cold of the Fortuna weather, shaking paws with their friend.  The air was freezing and snow flakes splattered on their backs, but their hearts only felt warmth.
 “Help us again when you can,” Darwin said as his paws pressed the palm of Star’s paw.  “I don’t know how to thank you.”
 “Just say it, Darwin.”
 Dekslan chuckled, remembering an old, frequently used joke.  “Yeah, Darwin.  Just say it.”
 “Don’t you start, Dekslan.”
 Star’s eyes were perplexed.  “What are you two talking about?”
 Darwin shook his head.  “It’s a long story.  Thank you.”
 Star climbed up her jet Arctic and gave them all one last look.  “Stay out of trouble, you hear?  That way I won’t have to come and rescue you guys out, okay?”
 The two teams agreed, and they said their farewells.
 “Check up your brother once in a while,” Natlarn said.  “I haven’t even met Starfox before.  Maybe you can convince them to invite us to Great Fox.
 “Well, if you heard about their reputations, then you won’t find anything new if you do meet them.  Farewell, fellas!”
 “I’m glad we got to meet, Star!”  Terra said, waving.
 “I’m glad too.  You Firehawks are alright.  Maybe I can give you fellas a chance to storm Venom like what I did with the Cadets earlier.”
 “Alright then!  Just call us and we’ll be ready!”
 Star did one final wave before the canopy window closed, shutting her in the cockpit.  The Arctic blasted it’s engines, and with a roar, hovered upwards and sped off into space.

 All that was left of the base were charred pillars, ashes on the floor, debris cluttered everywhere, smoky, a few fires, and the unidentifiable burnt bodies of ninety-eight Venomian soldiers and officers.  Surrounding the base were ninety downed jets, all of them broken up, serving only as graveyards for the pilots that flown them just hours before.
 Scanning the remains was the only two survivors, Bandit Forhawk and Stella Dornam.  They stood amid the ashes, shaking their heads, feeling relief, disappointment, but no sorrow.
 “Overconfidence.  I was overconfident,” Bandit sighed.  “I have never thought that those Crimson Firehawks would even try to storm the base before it was too late.  I was cocky, and I paid the price.  Now, I have no base, and I don’t think Andross is going to like this.”
 Stella rested her paws on his back shoulders.  “You still have me.  We will fight back.”
 “Of course we will fight back.  You know, that vault really did withstood the blast quite well.”
 “Actually, it was an emergency shelter.  I just said vault because it’s easier to say it.  Besides, the clock was ticking down, wasn’t it?”
 Bandit chuckled.  “Stella, we will fight back, and we will do so with a vengeance.  You know why I kill people?  Because dead people can’t come back to annoy me any further.  The Firehawks had failed in killing me, so I will annoy them the first thing I have the chance.”  He looked up at the smoky sky, eyes full of determination.  “Now, it is personal......”

 Four days had passed.  With a heavy load off their backs, the Firehawks had finally began looking for a suitable home for themselves.  So far, no luck.  Still, the Justice Cadets had tolerated them staying in their home longer.  In fact, they welcomed the thought.  While the four days were uninteresting, it was only so on the surface.
 Darwin paced across his room and back, reminding himself the right words to say.  On his right paw was a small, rectangular box, covered with red velvet.  Lizbel came in, not knowing what her lover was going to do.
 “You called for me, Darwin?”
 “Yeah, I did.  Sit down with me on this bed.  I want to give you something.”
 Lizbel raised an eyebrow and sat on the bed, Darwin at her side.  She noticed the box.  “What is inside that box?”
 “It’s a gift.  Open it.”
 Grinning giddily, Lizbel accepted the gift and opened the box.  Inside was a ruby-studded jewel, crafted into the shape of a heart.  It was the size of a very large marble, and connected to it was a necklace chain of 24 carat gold.  Under the ceiling lights, it shone brightly and majestically.  Lizbel gasped with surprise.  “Ahhh, it’s so beautiful.  How did you get this?”
 “I saved money over the years, and the Cadets lend some help.  The cost of it doesn’t matter.  Put it on.”
 With Darwin’s help, the necklace was donned around her tawny-furred neck, and the ruby touched the bottom side of her neck.  It was heavy, but Lizbel paid no attention to it’s weight.  It would be lighter than air for all she felt.
 “Um, Lizbel.  I didn’t buy this simply because it looked beautiful.  There’s a tradition behind this.  An ancient Katina tradition to be exact.”
 “Really?  What is it?”
 Darwin grinned.  “Well, let me interpret this into modern tradition, shall we?  Stand up.”
 Puzzled, Lizbel did so, and Darwin calmly held her right paw delicately.  In front of her, he knelt on one knee, and looked up.
 “Lizbel, will you marry me?”
 A flush of joy went through the chinook’s mind.  He had finally decided to take their love to a whole new level.  She smiled, her eyes bright.  “Yes!  I will!”
 Darwin stood up and hugged her tight.  Cheering and laughing, they spun about the room, still hugging each other.  Their joy had reached new heights, as well as their devotion to each other.

The End

 *Author’s Note*
 The next story, “Downfall”, WILL be the final confrontation battle between Bandit and the Crimson Firehawks.  It will be in two parts.  Now, you may be wondering, why does Bandit loves to kill so much?  How did he lost his sympathy?  Why does he do such sickening things?  How can anyone love a creep like Bandit?  It’s going to be a challenge for me, but I will try to answer those questions in “Downfall”.  Look for it when it comes up!