The story so far, as described in "The Crucible"

With the forces of Kronos in control of the system, the people of Lylat were scattered throughout the galaxy. The few Alliance citizens fortunate enough to escape had settled on a verdent world called Tehrah. The people of the Imperium, under the leadership of their leader, Boltzman Gorastar, had fled to a small system called Gamma.

For years, the Kronosians ruled Lylat, despite the resistance from pirate groups and underground Lylatians unfortunate enough to be stuck in the system but clever enough to dodge slavery.

The Kronosians were directed by their masters, the Dark Three. These Three were beings of increadible power, who had once been a single power of almost godlike proportions. Unfortunatly for them, their personas were fracturing, and in a few centuries, very soon for them, they would dissolve completely.

These Three were: Kronos, who was the planner and leader; the Beast, the claws and teeth of the three, and the Spectre, who served as his fellows' eyes and ears.

Kronos, the most powerful of the Three, stayed behind in his own Dark World. The Beast governed Lylat with an iron claw, using his feared police force to carry out the Dark Three's purpose for enslaving Lylat: the search for the illuminatus, the One Soul who could free them.

That soul is Nathan McCloud, who was at Tehrah.

After 15 years, the Imperium stumbled upon Tehrah by accident. The two colonies became homesick once they realized that all the people of Lylat could be united once again. But the Beast had also taken notice, and, realizing the illuminatus had to be with the Tehrahns, launched an attack on the Colony.

Thanks to Imperial assistance, this failed.

The two groups called a Convention to form a single, organized resistence againts the Beast and his police. The Neutral Warlords, now convinced that the new Emperor was sincere, rejoined the Imperium and helped to increase the chances of success.

But the Three were mobilizing as well. Kronos, alarmed by reports that his ancient enemy Ederax Rathii was active, ordered the Beast to remedy the situation at Gamma.

Meanwhile, on Bolse, the one known as Ederax Rathii set his plans to destroy Kronos into mottion. Unbeknownst to everyone Ederax had lived on the wandering satellite, scheming with the

Machine againts the Beast and his police, and working to resuscitate Warlord Fenri. Once the Convention was called, the Machine summoned it's army of Cybers, and Ederax and Makhina went to the conference to make the Imperium whole once again.

The Lylatian forces and the Kronosian armadas fought in a vicious battle, the Battle of Gamma. The conflict ended when Wolf O'Donnel and Fox McCloud, working in a rare cooperative effort, destroyed the key flagship of the armada.

Now, the Kronosians have built a defensive barrier around Lylat. They are prepared for the upcoming counterattack. Five years have passed, and the greatest storm will rage any day now. The

Three are afraid, for the Spectre had been sent to the Outer Dark by Ederax. Though he has since returned, he is still on the homeworld, leaving the Beast to manage the system on his own. And exactly what Ederax plans next is unknown, as well as his wherabouts......

Chapter One

"The future is all that matters now. We must look ahead to the struggle which confronts us, to the new world we will create. We must forget the past when Imperium and Alliance struggled with one another and led the system into ruin. We are no longer each others enemy. WE are Lylat, and WE will reclaim our home!"

-Emperor Boltzman Gorastar, speech commemerating the battle of Gamma.

 

It was winter on planet Oberon, third planet in the Gamma system. Over the city of Nova, capital of the New Imperial Alliance, or simply the Imperium, snow was falling lightly over the cityscape, creating the bright glare that compensated for the cloudy day.

Despite these conditions, Nathan McCloud was out on flight practice, flying a Blade class craft. The Blade was a small scout vessel, fairly fast, moderate maneuverability, and quite lightweight. It was an excellent training vessel, as it was sensitive enough to maneuver safely, and light enough to minimize take-off difficulty.

Despite the relative ease of flying the Blade, Nathan was increasingly bored with the craft. Though he had advanced quite a bit over the course of his training (already he was at the Invader III level), he still had to graduate, which meant that he only flew whatever his instructor's told him to.

His primary instructor, Peppy Hare, decided that given the weather, Nathan would have to fly a Blade for the exercise. Even Falco had agreed, and he was usually the most sympathetic to Nathan's impatience with such simple craft. Besides, Fox had insisted, and nobody argued with him, not even Falco.

Nathan had, after all, been in the acadamy for five years, ever since he was ten. It was a young age for flight school, but Nathan got in when his piloting aptitude test showed an excellent score, one that was on par with his father's and his grandfather's. Naturally, Nathan had been eager to enroll early.

Now, Nathan was fifteen, almost ready to graduate. Now that he had passed being able to fly an Invader III, the minimum course requirement required him to move next either to an Arwing or a Wolfen. A student could spend additional time learning Invader IV's, a Wolfen II, or an Arwing Type II.

Now here he was, flying first year exercises in a second year craft, under fifth year training. Damn it, didn't they believe he was capable yet?

Before Peppy could even begin the instructions, Nathan gunned his thruster and flew though the ring course. He was tempted to close his eyes while doing so, but there would be little point. It's not like he couldn't, after all.

After the rings, Nathan went into turns, performing them with the same bored detachement that had seperated him from other cadets his age.

Then, he went through target practice, with floating boueys outside the city. He took them apart with elegent precision, hoping the point would register to Peppy. He decided to spice

it up a little bit, and reached for the Nova bomb launch button.

"Don't you dare, Nathan McCloud," Peppy's stern voice came over the intercom.

Nathan rolled his eyes. It was easy to forget that Peppy was a telepath. "Ahh, c'mon Peppy," he replied, "it's not like I haven't done this a hundred times before."

"And you'll do it a hundred times again, Nathan, like it or not."

Even if there isn't any point, thought Nathan.

"Of course there is a point," Peppy said, "and yes, I did hear that. The point is, Nathan, to see if you can perform the same tasks under different conditions. Hence the snow."

"Yeah, but I get so tired of flying Blades all day. I'm in the Invader III range, when can I fly them 'till I get bored with them?"

An impatient sigh escaped Peppy. "Just finish the exercise, Nathan," he said, "and believe me, it'll be worth it in the end."

"Whatever you say," Nathan replied, rolling his eyes.

 

* * *

With the routine completed, Nathan and Peppy docked at the acadamy hanger. After Nathan stepped out of the Blade, he made his way over to where Peppy was waiting. "So," Nathan said, "What do we do now?"

"WE aren't doing anything. YOU are going to the simulaters."

"What? Why?"

"You'll find out. The specifications are already programmed in. All you have to do is turn it on and get rolling."

Nathan suppressed a groan. Dutifully, he made his way to the simulator. It was going to be one of those days.

 

* * *

"Kid's gotta hell of an authority problem, Fox."

Fox McCloud turned to his old friend and mentor, Peppy Hare, with a faint smile. "So did I, if you remember."

The two of them were in the observation platform overlooking the simulator. Inside, Nathan was flying the specified program, unaware his progress was being monitered by his father.

Peppy frowned at Fox's remark and replied, "That's what worries me, Fox. Oh, he's a fine pilot, but he's exactly like you were when you were in the acadamy, perhaps even worse."

Fox shrugged and said, "I was training under more lenient behavior requirements. I didn't have as much to complain about."

"You still had a lot," Peppy said curtly. Fox just chuckled.

A moment of silence passed. Peppy shook his head and said, "I'm just not sure if he's ready for the next step."

"Of course he is," Fox replied without looking back at him.

Peppy shrugged. "He's an outstanding pilot, Fox, one of the best there is at this acadamy. All of his instructor's agree. I'm not arguing with THAT. But, I'm worried he'll get to....well, overconfident. He can't afford to be cocky if he's gonna go through this next exercise."

"Then this would be a perfect way to teach him, Peppy. Put in an automatic ejection seat."

Peppy just shook his head. "It's not his safety I'm worried about. I'm worried he'll screw up the exercise."

Fox turned, smiling grimly. "That's not going to happen."

 

* * *

As soon as Nathan stepped out of the simulater, he was surprised to see that not just Peppy was waiting for him, but Falco and Jack Canis. Falco was grinning, and immediatly Nathan had cause for concern. As for Jack, he wasn't an instructor here at the acadamy, even though he WAS licensed to be one, but he never went full time. He showed up on special occaison's, and that meant trouble.

And when Falco and Jack were both at the academy, it meant serious trouble.

"Uhhh, hi Falco. What's up?" he said, not sure what this all meant.

Falco chuckled, and said, "You, in a few hours."

"What?"

Jack and Falco exchanged glances and chuckled. The two of them had become something like older brothers to Nathan, and that included the use of pranks.

Jack locked eyes with Nathan and said, "Come with us, Nathan. You're goin' for a little trip."

This couldn't be good. He looked to Peppy to see if he was serious. Peppy nodded, indicating that he should do as they say.

Reluctantly, Nathan followed Falco and Jack out of the simulater room.

"So, fellas, where are we going?" Nathan asked nervously as they walked down the corridor. No response but a peircing glance from Jack, a glance that said it would be wise for Nathan to shut up.

They stopped at a door. Jack turned and cracked a grin for the first time and he opened the door.

Nathan's jaw fell open. There, in front of his eyes, was a sleek, beautiful silver Arwing, gleaming in the flourescent light of the docking bay. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever saw.

Jack laughed and said, "Shut yer eyes, kid, before they pop out of your head!"

He turned and stared at Jack. "I'm...I'm suppossed to fly it?"

Jack grinned.

He turned to Falco, his eyes asking the same question. Falco chuckled and said, "Your dad thinks you up to it. Even that old coot Peppy agrees."

"He does?"

"Sure," Jack said. He laughed. "Shit, Nathan, the first day of Invader III training, you knocked the socks out of the instructers. I had a good laugh when I saw them go slack jawed like you just did. I kept tellin' them that you were a natural, and until that lesson, your father was the only one who agreed with me."

Nathan blinked. He just stood there, not knowing what to do.

"Well?" Falco asked. "Aren't you going to get in?"

Nathan snaped back to reality and made his way to the Arwing. He had never seen one in real life, not even his dad's, and the arwing in front of him seemed larger then life.

Fox went over to his own Arwing which was docked nearby. Jack had no Arwing; he prefered his own ship, the Hunter's Moon, which was a Wolfen II painted with red and black instead of silver and violet.

Nathan entered the arwing. It looked brand new; perhaps it had yet to be flown.

He fastened his belt and closed the hatch. He switched all the system's on, checked them, made ready to launch, thought a moment, then checked the system's again. Then, satsified that everything was in order, he warmed up the engines.

"Ready, Nathan?" Falco asked over the comm.

"Yeah," he replied, a tad uneasy.

"Well, here we go!"

 

* * *

As the three of them were out in the skies, Fox was at the control tower overlooking the academy airfield. He watched Nathan's progress from the camera's placed on the three aircraft. He grinned with pride with the knowledge that Nathan was handling the Arwing rather nicely. He seemed at home in the craft.

It was a good sign. Nathan had inherited the McClouds' skill for flying.

The instructors had been dubious at first with the idea of Nathan flying such an advanced craft, but it didn't take much to convince them that Nathan was way ahead of his class, even given that he was a year ahead of his grade. Nathan had a promising future ahead of him, even despite his attitude problem. Fox chuckled. Like father, like son.

Already certain Imperial recruiters had taken notice, which made Fox slightly uneasy. The Imperial Alliance was looking forward to war with the Kronosians, and Fox knew that Nathan would indeed see combat.

Well, there wasn't much to do about it now.

"Wow!" Nathan was saying. "This is really awesome!"

"Don't get too exited, Nathan," said Jack. "The Arwing is more sensitive to the ships your used to flying, so when something happens, make damn sure you WANT it to happen."

Nathan did not answer but instead made a double loop into one of the rings of the exercise course. Fox had to laugh.

Peppy emerged at Fox's side and said, "He seems to be getting the hang of it."

Fox nodded. "I've told you a million times, Peppy."

"I know, I know, and I never doubted you for an instant, but you don't just start someone on an Arwing right away."

Fox nodded slowly. He and Peppy watched the exercise for awhile, before Peppy excused himself for lunch.

As Peppy left, another associate of Fox's entered the room. He was a Bat wearing the blue and green Imperial Alliance uniform (An interesting paradox. The Green of the Imperium and the Blue of the Alliance actually complemented each other visually), and he smiled amiably as he noticed Fox.

Fox nodded his greetings and said, "Good to see you, Cody."

Cody Black nodded, and took a look at the moniters showing Nathan's progress. "I see your boy's coming along rather nicely for his age."

Fox knew exactly where this line of conversation was going, and said, "He's still gotta ways to go, though. Another year."

Cody raised an eyebrow. "I don't know, Fox. If he's on an Arwing already he could be ready for a license in due time."

Fox narrowed his eyes at Cody. "Even if he does graduate early, which is unlikely, as he was ADMITTED early, he still has to wait until required age to get a license."

Cody shrugged and said, "I'm not disputing that. I wouldn't be very good at my job if I was."

Fox turned back to the window. "I know where your going with this, Cody, and I'll tell you right now that it won't be my decision. It'll be entirely up to Nathan to decide on a military career."

Cody nodded. "Considering the impractibility of drafts at this point, I have to agree. It wouldn't be legal otherwise. All I'm saying is that Nathan has increadible potential. I don't really need to tell you that. His future is pretty much open to him. If he graduates at the top of his class at such a young age, he'll have all the oppurtunities in life he'll ever need. If he goes in the military, he'll be pretty much set up for life."

Fox sat back in his chair. "Provided he doesn't get killed."

Cody sighed. "All too likely. But the war has died down considerably in the past year."

"And that's precisely what bothers me. It's like the eye of a hurricane. A 'false calm'. You know it and I know it."

Cody nodded. "As long as the Barrier is in operation," he said, reffering to the defensive zone surrounding Lylat, "that'll continue to be a fact. We know a storm is coming, that's why we are looking for promising soldiers."

Fox said nothing. He knew full well the necessity of the war. The Beast, the Kronosian overlord of Lylat and leader of the feared police force that enforced the laws of Kronos, wanted to annhiliate Gamma from the face of the universe for a thousand reasons, but there was only one that mattered to Fox, and that concerned Nathan directly.

Ederax Rathii, the mysterious power that had helped the colonists escape the Cataclysm, and who also helped to reunite the disparate forces that opposed the Beast's police and their master, Kronos, had given Fox McCloud a simple warning: "Keep your son in good hands at all possible times."

The reason for this was complex, and Fox knew it would serve no use to explain it to Cody or the others. The Dark Three; the Spectre, the Beast, and Kronos himself were powerful alien beings who had lived for millenia, and possessing deadly and awesome power. But they were dying. They were once a single entity, but they were slowly fracturing into pieces. They were searching the universe for the one soul that could repair the broken shards, and any being in the universe, save for their own kind, could have it.

And Nathan was the one, if Ederax was to be believed. And why not?

It was this reason among many that Fox was disturbed with the idea of Nathan entering the Imperial Star Force. If what Ederax said was any indication, then letting Nathan join the fight was a bad idea.

"Well," Cody said after a moment, "I should go."

"Nice of you to drop by, Cody." Fox said.

Cody smiled and walked out the door, leaving Fox to his own thoughts.

Chapter Two

 

"Governments are oddly like living creatures. They are born, they die, and they pass their legacy on. They act with the sole intention to survive, and, like thinking organisms, they kid themselves into thinking they have even higher purposes. And when they are struck, they strike back HARD."

-Lord Dathi Engredel, in a missive to Emperor Gorastar.

 

The Emperor Boltzman Gorastar, former Imperial Warlord of Sector Z, now leader of the Lylatian Imperial Alliance, sighed wearily as he stood looking out his office window over the winter panarama of Nova city.

20 years. He had been ruling this nation for twenty years.

And that wasn't the only stint in leadership he ever had. Before entering the Imperium, he had been the executive ruler of Sector Z, and one of the Alliance Council members. He had split with the Alliance angrily over quarrals with Fortuna, and as such, Gorastar was one of the few Imperial leaders to have kept his position after joining Andross. Indeed, he and Warlord Hendricks had been the only members of the Alliance to willingly defect to the Imperium.

Now that he was master of that Imperium, Gorastar found himself more exhausted by the task then he had ever been with Sector Z, or even as a Warlord. Now that the former Warlords had returned, the job was made easier, now that he had an effective legislature.

More then effective. All of them were brilliant in their own way, and with their help, Gorastar was more then confident that he could defeat the Kronosians, and the Beast's police.

But for the past five years, Gorastar had no success in trying to drive the Beast and his forces out of Lylat. Although the underground within Lylat was working in tandem with Gamma, the system was still fully under the control of the Kronosians.

Then, about a year ago, the Kronosian offensive suddenly retreated. Around Lylat a series of battle stations and armada patrols emerged, making entrence near impossible and communication difficult. This defense system was dubbed "the Barrier" by the Imperial tacticians, and the description was rather accurate. You couldn't get in or out.

"Boltzman?" a voice inquired from behind him.

He turned and smiled. Empress Makhina Fenri was standing at his office door.

"I thought you were having lunch."

"I was," she said matter-of-factly. "But now I'm here." She smiled.

Gorastar grinned and embraced her affectionatly. During the Androssian years, they were not much more then associates, largely due to the good relations between Bolse and Sector Z that existed before the Imperium. The two of them trusted each other more then they did the other Warlords, but it wasn't much more then a business partnership; they helped each other simply because it would benefit them both.

The Spectre incident changed that. Sure, they had knocked heads before, but never had they worked to break ranks with the Emperor Andross. But the bond of trust had to extend to more then just a proffesional partnership if they were to succeed. Gorastar did not notice this until after Makhina had vanished. When that had happened, he felt a pang of sorrow, a thing that he hadn't felt in a long time.

Until then, he had always thought he had gone cold, but after feeling sad that Makhina was nowhere to be found, other emotians flooded him. Remorse for the victims of the resulting nuclear holocaust, anger at the injustices of Andross; all of these finally pushed him to vow that things would be different.

Now things were different. He had kept his steel prosthetic left-forearm as a reminder of his past mistakes as a cold-hearted Tyrant, and it pained him to this day.

Makhina's return fifteen years after the Cataclysm was cause for great joy in his heart, and it had warmed him that Makhina apparantly felt the same way. Her own cybernetic inhancements had been removed, and with it, the cold detachement that was trademark of her and the Machine she served.She was due to recieve her new transmittor soon, however, so that she could regain the apbility to Compute with the Machine.

The two of them grew quite close in the years following the Battle of Gamma, and a year afterword, Gorastar and Makhina married.

Makhina proved to be a good Empress. If it hadn't been for her, Gorastar knew, he would have lost his mind long ago.

Makhina was studying him now with a thoughtful expression. "You look troubled. What's the matter?"

Gorastar sighed and shook his head. "It's the damned Barrier that the Beast has built. Sooner or later, he'll have his fullstrength, and all our efforts will go to waste."

Makhina nodded thoughtfully. "Every barrier has a weakness. One has to find the right crack. If you look hard enough, you'll find away."

Gorastar sighed wearily. "Maybe," he said, "I know the

underground is looking into it. They can see better then we

can. They've promised me a hundred times that if there is a

weakness, they'll find it."

Makhina grinned victoriously. "All you need is just a little faith in our downtrotten friends. Though they are pirates and guerillas, they are invaluable. Trust in them."

Gorastar chuckled. She always possesed the most common sense.

"What was it Ederax always said?" Gorastar wondered. "'Chess is nothing like real politics. If chess were real life, when the bishop moves to mate the king, the king can lean over and whisper something in the bishop's ear, and the bishop is playing against you and moving as a rook. Then you're screwed.'"

Makhina cocked her head. "Funny how Andross never learned that."

"Oh, I'm sure he did, or he never would have gotten as far as he did. He was just convinced that the rule didn't apply to his pieces, so to speak."

Makhina was silent. Gorastar wished that Ederax was still in Gamma. The mad Hyena was more then a cunning and eccentric Warlord, he was perhaps the wisest figure in the struggle against the Kronosians that Gorastar had the privalige of knowing.

"Perhaps we need a vacation," Gorastar said, mostly to himself.

Makhina grinned. "We? I'm not the one who can't sleep at night. But sure, I'll tag along."

"By all means!"

They were interrupted by someone clearing his throat at the door. Gorastar turned, expecting his chief advisor, Samuel Rodante, but instead found that Lord Engredel was waiting there, his silent Draconian eyes waiting patiently.

"Dathi," Gorastar said, perplexed that one of the Councillors would request his attention on such short notice. "What, uhh, what are you here for?"

Engredel, never the talkative type, said only, "Something's happened."

Chapter Three

 

"I don't mind dying. I mind dying while looking like a complete jackass."

-Falco Lombardi

 

Boltzman Gorastar, Makhina Fenri, and Dathi Engredel were in the "War room," the chamber where most tactical information was stored and recieved. On the overhead screen a 3-D map of the Lylat system was floating lazily. Around it was a red shell that was known to tacticians as "the Barrier." The other lords, Red Firebird, Roko Kitsune, and Reichmann von Hendricks were there, in addition to their right-hand agents.

The chief tactician, a Bolsean Cyber named Connors O'Rourke, outlined the situation. "This is the Barrier as of 1100 hours, standard time. As you can see, it's surrounding Lylat completely. A full baracade."

Connors punched some buttons, and a patch of blue appeared on the Barrier that was closest to Corneria.

"At 1130 hours, we detected a huge plasma surge. At the same time, recon intercepted a flurry of signals, first from the area of the Barrier in question, then from practically every Kronosian installation in the quadrant. The assumption was that of distress; we managed to decode a few transmissions, and we suspect an accident has occured in one of the battlestations that reinforces the Barrier."

Connors paused. "It seems that one of these installations has suffered a total meltdown. Further, for reasons we can't quite understand, the meltdown has triggered some sort of failure in the Kronosian computer database that maintains the Barrier."

There was a mutter of aprehension from the lords and their advisors.

Connors continued. "To put it another way, the Barrier is giving in at that area. Though they are taking measures to repair the installation as quick as they can, the attemps at reconstruction so far have all failed, because of one mother of a Solar Flare coming out from Solar. And I mean a flare for the record books."

Gorastar sat back, taking this all in. He could tell what the other Imperial lords were thinking.

"How long until we can mount an attack?" Gorastar asked.

Reichmann von Hendricks, the top Dog on the totem pole for the Industrial Consortium, cleared his throat and said with a heavy Gherhman accent, "Fairly soon, I would say. Of course, it depends largely on just how large a force you have in mind, ja?"

Gorastar stroked his chin thoughtfully. "What would be reasonable in this case?"

Roko Kitsune was chuckling. All the others turned to him.

"Oh, c'mon, people!" Kitsune smiled. "That's a bullshit question if I ever heard it!"

"Indulge us, then," Firebird snapped.

"Temper, temper," Kitsune said with mock indignation. "It's obvious, my fellow heads-of-state, that we throw at them a fighter force from our Fleet."

"Why not a whole armada?" Makhina asked.

Reichmann shook his head. "Too slow and too large. We won't get all of it through. What Kitsune suggests makes sense."

"I didn't suggest anything, Donald Trump," Kitsune snapped. "I just pointed out a fact. Now, if nothing further needs to be said, I'm off to lunch. I'm not going into direct an invasion on an empty stomach, after all." With that, Kitsune turned and left.

Everyone was relieved that he had left.

 

* * *

Outside, Roko Kitsune chuckled to himself as he walked to his office, reserved for the occaisions when he was in the palace, i.e., 24 hours a day. He always got angry when he was involved in politics, not because he hated politics (he loved politics! It was such a fun and profitable game), but because he was used to getting angry with his fellows. And, of course, it pays to be aggressive. In this trade, one doesn't get what he wants by being timid, after all.

So Kitsune always demonstrated his intelligence to others in one way; with scorn, haughtiness and contempt. Small wonder that he had made so many enemies, and he held the current record

of the survivor of the most assasination attempts. Well, Andross had more, but he was dead. Good riddance. That asshole hadn't done anything for Kitsune worth a damn, and the Spyborg prototype's destruction of the most expensive facillity in Sector X had pushed Roko over the edge, and he had physically struck Andross in a conference a day later. 3 days later, Kitsune was shot in the back.

As it was, Kitsune was indispensable, because of his military and political intelligence. Plus there was his 200 I.Q.

Kitsune kicked open the door to his office, where his attendents were at work, as usual. They jumped up in surprise, but said nothing. They were used to his eccentric behavior.

"Johnson!" He barked, pointing to one of the attendents, a Giraffe.

"I'm Miller, sir. THAT is Johnson." The assistant pointed to another staff worker, a Pigeon.

"I don't care if your name was Rumpelstilskin, I want you to get your ass over to the munitions departement A.S.A.P! And I don't pay you to correct my mistakes, that's his job." Kitsune pointed to Johnson.

"Actually, sir," Miller replied, "You DO pay me to-"

"SHUT UP!" Kitsune roared. "That's what I pay you for. As well as anything else I tell you. Now get going!"

Miller bowed and left without any hesitation. Kitsune caught himself from laughing.

Johnson cleared his throat. "Is there anything required of me?"

"Yeah," Kitsune said imperiously, as if he was about to shout again. Instead, Kitsune paused and said in a perfectly normal, conversational tone. "Do you know any good places to get a decent meal?"

"Why, yes, sir, there is th-"

Kitsune interrupted him. "Good, because that's not what I wanted you to do. What I want you to do is to tell anybody who calls that I am out to lunch. Even if they had an appointment. I couldn't care less."

"Yes, sir."

"In fact, tell anybody who comes in for a meeting that you don't know what the heck he's talking about, there was no appointment schelduled.

"Uhhh,"

By the time Johnson had finished, though, Kitsune was already out of the door.

 

* * *

The timing couldn't have been better. The attack was schelduled just a month after flight acadamy cadets ended their year. That meant a fresh crop of pilots, albeit just out of school. But experiance was apparantly secondary to numbers, and, at least to Kitsune, that was stupid and arrogant on the military's part.

Kitsune spent as much time organizing the whole thing as he could. He didn't care what the others thought. They couldn't afford to screw up this one, and Kitsune wasn't gonna let that happen.

As it was, Kitsune looked for only the most promising of the pilots who had just graduatiing, thinking that it would be safe to include only the top five or six. It really depended on the grade curve.

To this end, Kitsune made frequent visit's to the acadamy, almost on a daily basis. He managed to get the top grades, and he wasn't surprised in the least by the small number of pilots who had scored more then 96%.

He was actually pleased with the results, a rare occaison that fortunatly no one had witnessed. He managed to find that most of these top graduates were willing to enlist, and Kitsune wanted to spare no expense.

Still, Kitsune wanted veterans over anything else, and his fellow Council members disliked his decision to draft so few acadamy grads. Kitsune had snarled that a dozen veterans would have more success then a hundred rookies. Intelligence wasn't cumalitive, after all.

Fortunatly, Gorastar had some sense in his head and ruled in Kitsune's favor.

Unfortunatly, Kitsune's office was responsible for only so many drafts, and this had vexed Kitsune to know end.

There was one graduate from the acadamy in particular that had caught Kitsune's attention. Nathan McCloud, youngest cadet to graduate in the entire history of the acadamy, unless you count James McCloud, who was in the old Alliance Flight School. The fact that Nathan's father and grandfather were two of the most famous pilots in Lylat was not lost on Kitsune. Of course talent wasn't entirely genetic, but the distinction was enough to catch Kitsune's interest.

Nathan was, apparantly, awfully young for military service, having reached legal age for enlistement only a week after graduatting.

So drafting was out of the question; the entire thing had to be done through volunteers. Kitsune couldn't do much but send an offer of application to Nathan's address, and wait to see what would happen.

Not long afterword, Kitsune was hardly surprised to see Fox McCloud at his office requesting an appointment. Kitsune let him in, even though there wasn't a schedule. Screw the schedules. Schedules were for people who lacked nerve and lacked resolve.

Fox wasn't that far below Kitsune in status, although Fox rarely exercised it. In the years since the battle of Gamma, Fox was the de facto spokesperson for the Tehrans. As such, he had little trouble gaining an audiance with an Imperial official, even one in the Councill.

Fox sat down, exchanged greetings, and went straight to the point. Kitsune knew about half of what he was going to say already, thanks to the wonders of telepathy.

"Listen, Lord Kitsune," Fox said, "Simply put, I won't allow my son to enter the military."

Kitsune just spread out his hands and asked, "That's all?"

Fox shook his head. "No, but that's all you need to know."

Kitsune decided to play his ace. "That maybe true, but there is certainly little either of us can do about it. I listen with more then just my ears, ya know." He grinned and pointed to his head.

Fox glared. "I shouldn't be surprised."

"Oh, I can't pick up everything that goes inside people's heads," Kitsune said, shrugging. "If I could, I'd be living the good life on some vacation world. But I can pick up a lot of feedback if it's particularly strong. It's bothersome, really. Sometimes I get headaches that last all day."

Fox sighed and just shook his head. "So what kind of 'feedback' did you recieve?"

Kitsune saw no point in being ill-natured. He simply said, "You don't want Nathan to join, but judging from your frustration, I'm guessing that Nathan does want to enlist."

Fox said nothing.

"Well," Kitsune continued, assuming his proffesional manner, "I have little juristiction over that. It's purely a volunteer basis, so I have no authority to deny Nathan a military entrence if he wants it. But we are both aware of the customs of our Fox breed, and those are the few rules that I don't intend to break. So I won't interfere with your decision of how to manage your family."

"Thank you, Kitsune, but let me make it clear that I won't tolerate the possibility of Nathan getting captured, or God knows what."

Kitsune sighed. "It's up to Nathan, really. I cannot offer you anything more. Personally, I have few worries for your son. As high as his scores are, we wouldn't rotate him to frontline combat immediatly. That said, the star force could use someone like Nathan. That's the best remark you can get, believe me."

The door open. Miller poked his head past the door and said, "Forgive me, sir, but there is a call for you."

"Tell him to hold," Kitsune said impatiently.

"Sir, it's from tactical. They say it's an emergency."

"What? Did somebody steal my lunch?"

The Giraffe blinked, apparantly caught off guard. "Uhhh, no, sir, it's right were you left it."

"Then there is no emergency that I should be bothered with. You know that when I am in a meeting, no matter what the circumstances are, even if Armageddon is at my front door and threatens to drag my soul screaming to Hell, I am still not to be interrupted. I'm in no hurry to arrive to hell when I'll be there soon enough. You tell tactical everything I told you."

Miller threw up his hands in frustration. "Sir, this is IMPORTANT."

Kitsune sighed and picked up the phone. "This had better be an increadibly beautiful Vixen on the phone, or I am going hang up."

Fox got up. "I should be leaving now."

Kitsune paid no attention. His eyes had widened, and his concentration went elsewhere. Then, without warning, he shouted in a blur of profanity at the top of his lungs into the phone.

Fox backed away, thanking God he was out of the room.

Chapter Four

 

"It never fails. Just when you think you have it all covered, something shows up to bite you in the ass, and you realize you got it all wrong."

-Roko Kitsune, alledgedly after yet another attempt at his life.

 

Lord Dathi Engredel was, in fact, thinking the exact same thing as he and Emperor Gorastar walked down the corridor to the tactical operations room. Engredel said nothing, knowing that nothing could be said that would do any good, unless he wanted to increase Gorastar's anxiety. But that would wait until they arrived to the tactical room. Let the intelligence officers deliver the rest of the bad news; Engredel did not see the point in doing their job for them.

Engredel felt tired. His joints ached slightly, a sign that he was aging. He had already been past his prime during the Androssian war, and Engredel regretted having accepted Andross' offer of stewardship of Zoness.

As a Draconian, he still had a way to go yet until he had to retire. But it was clear he wasn't as young as he used to be. His scales, once silver, was now a dark but nonetheless regal grey. His wings no longer had the strength they once had, but he was still capable of a leisurely flight. His mane, which resembled more a Horse mane then a Lion's, had changed from blue to almost solid white.

Still, it made little difference to other Lylatian races. Draconians were, simply stated, a rarity in Lylat, and they weren't ordinarly Lylatians in that they were the only race that had wings (Avians had wings, true, but they were apart of their arms, as opposed to the gargoyle style wings of Draconians). Draconians had their own language, customs, and were the only Lylatians to have a true homeworld, which was Zoness.

The desecration of Zoness angered the Draconian natives greatly. They appealed to Engredel, who had been put in power by Andross, to do something about it. Engredel pleaded his case with Andross, something he rarely did, since he prefered a quiet nap in the sun by the beach to politics. But it was necessary. Andross, in any case, ignored Engredel's plights.

Naturally, Engredel was quite angered, but he said nothing. Instead, when the StarFox campaign was launched, Engredel had his secret service forces lend aid to the Alliance. Engredel's agents saw to it that the Imperial base on Zoness was discovered by Allied intelligence.

When Warlord Firebird declared neutrality, Engredel followed him, taking Andross' largest store of supplies and commodities with him. Then, Engredel wept for his once beautiful home, now a waste pit. He cursed himself for trusting Andross' lies, and many feared that he had became manic deppressive.

But that wasn't an option. He spent much money and energy trying to clean up Zoness, and the cursed Cataclysm had thrown the whole thing off. Zoness had surrendered immediatly, and they had been spared the brunt of the destruction. Indeed, the Beast, who made his base on Zoness, seemed interested in repairing the enviroment, but for profit reasons only. The working class of the planet became terribly exploited, and the Beast was determined to make the process as slow as possible so that more income could be collected.

He shook his head. He couldn't allow him to fall into a state of melodrama now that a problem had arose.

Engredel, Gorastar, and Makhina entered the "War Room." Simon Karo was there, waiting to make his report.

"What is the problem, general?" Gorastar asked.

The Meerkat gestured to a tactical screen. "Pirates," he replied. "We just got word from the Cybers that a band of pirates have just stormed Bolse a few hours ago."

"WHAT??" both Gorastar and Makhina exclaimed.

What indeed, Engredel thought.

Karo nodded soberly. "That's right. They came in through one of the regular freighters in the area. Nobody knew they were on bored. Immediatly they attached jammer to their communications dish."

"What's the current condition of the satellite?" Makhina asked.

Karo pointed to a tactical screen displaying intelligence reports. "The Cyber's went into the Machine Room and sealed the door. The Machine overrided all the control system's once the pirate made it to the control room, then barracaded the window with emergency shudders. The pirates have been working on ways to get in."

"Good. We'll have to send help. Are we in communications with the sattlite?" asked Gorastar.

"No, but the Machine has been sending us updates, but we can't seem to reply. The pirates must have a jammer attached to their reciever. Anyhow, the Machine has shut down all function's except

life support, and I guess they are just waiting for someone to bail them out."

"Then send someone over there to take care of the problem, NOW."

Karo needed no prodding. He bowed and immediatly made his way to the comm.

Engredel frowned. There were a few things Gorastar had failed to notice, and he greatly disliked calling attention to himself. It wasn't that he was lazy; on the contrary, Engredel was too stubborn to put things off to the last second. If something had to be done, better it be done now and not have it come back to bite you in the ass.

Engredel cleared his throat. Sure enough, Gorastar turned.

"Yes, Dathi?"

"The pirates," he said. "You don't know who they are."

"Should I?"

Engredel frowned again. Conversation always made him uncomfortable. "Yes," he answered flatly. "It won't do us any good if we stumble into something that we don't know about."

Gorastar considered this. He barked some instructions to Simon calling for any kind of information on the pirate bands identification.

A few minutes later, Simon punched up a dossier on the tactical screen. "That was fast," Makhina remarked.

Not quite, Engredel thought. The only surprise would be if the file was already in the database.

The image on the screen was that of a young, handsome, white Wolf.

"His name is Rostov," Karo was saying. "Operates out of Fortuna. We've had trouble from him before. After the Cataclysm he followed in the Kronosians' wake and began his black market dealings in Lylat. He's had buyers from just about everybody; underground, the Kronosians, other pirates; hell, we might have even dealt with him, if he sold anything to the Consortium."

That would be useful, Engredel thought.

"Where does he get his goods?" Gorastar asked.

Karo shrugged. "You might as well ask me where Hoffa is buried."

Dumb question, dumb answer, Engredel thought sourly.

Gorastar thought a moment. "I need to speak with Reichmann. I'll be back." He turned and left.

Engredel turned and glanced inquiringly at Makhina. She glanced back, then turned and followed Gorastar out of the room.

No point waiting around here, Engredel thought.

One of the tacticians, a Draconian named Rahnis Magdarin stepped alongside of Engredel. Rahnis was to Engredel as Samuel Rodante was to Gorastar. Rahnis often managed the tasks that did not require Engredel's personal attention. Engredel was glad for it. He detested publicity, it had given him nothing but problems. When people pay attention to you, Engredel had learned long ago, that means they want something.

Rahnis glanced around and said in Draco-Zonessian, "He could have handled that better."

Engredel glanced at his henchman and said, "Messy, very messy."

"So, what should be done?"

"We wait, of course. This Rostov fellow hasn't a prayer of success. His money, although he doesn't know it, is tainted by the Consortium, thanks to Grey Bracken. Reichmann can freeze Rostov's account with a simple phone call."

"Somebody should go over there. But who?"

Engredel did not immediatly reply. He simply becokoned Rahnis to follow him into his office.

Once inside, Engredel said, "There is a pilot wing called Stormfront that catches my interest. Fresh out of the acadamy, but they aren't quite a military group."

Rahnis blinked. "My Lord, what is it about them that catches your interest?"

"The fact that all five of them are graduates magna cum lauda, very excellent pilot material. Especially their leader, Nathan McCloud."

Engredel handed Rahnis a dossier. Rahnis flipped through it, then looked up. "But why this team in particular?"

"Two reasons. One: the star force is already distracted by the upcoming assault on the Barrier, and they can't spare any time or pilots."

"And the second reason?"

Engredel glanced around. "Understand that you repeat none of what I am about to tell you is not to leave this room under any circumstances unless I tell you otherwise."

Rahnis nodded. "I understand, my lord."

Engredel smiled. "Of course. Why wouldn't I trust you? But back to the subject." His features turned serious. "Warlord Rathii's promised instructions have finally arrived."

Rahnis' eyes widened. "Forgive me, my lord, but how?"

"Never mind that, Rahnis. You'd be much more helpful to me if you didn't know. Let me just say that I was much surprised to here from him. He wasn't very clear, but he was most insistent. He mentioned Nathan by name and told me that he was of the utmost importance. Rathii made it clear that he had plans for the youngster, and so I promised him I would do what I could. Thankfully, Kitsune's telepathy has detected Nathan's importance, but Kitsune is not consciously aware of it. Now, just after Bolse was attacked, I got a second communicique from Rathii, saying that now was the time to implement the instructions he left my office with."

Rahnis listened with much interest. "What should I do?"

"I am going to Gorastar to pursuade him to send Stormfront. That won't be a problem, so don't ask. You will go to Kitsune and see to it that his office carries out my 'recomondation.'"

Rahnis bowed. "Yes, my lord."

Chapter Five

 

"Rebels learn the rules better then the rule-makers do. Rebels learn where the holes are, where the rules can best be breached. Become an expert at the rules. Then break them with creativity and style."

-Kristine Kathryn Rusch, "The Rules"

 

"Don't worry, Fox," Jack Canis was saying. "I'll make sure he doesn't get into trouble."

Fox McCloud nodded, and sighed wearily. "He's growing up faster then I can think," he muttered.

They were in the docking bay where Nathan's team of young pilots, Stormfront, were currently storing their crafts. Nathan had made up his mind; he was going to try this job that he was asked to do, and see if he like military service. The Imperial recruitors had assured Fox and Fara that this was a simple, low risk mission; a textbook example of a rookie pilot's first mission. It had annoyed Fox greatly that they were right. The pirates were at a disadvantage; their money was frozen, their resources cut off, and they could not acquire their target. Success probability was calculated at 94%.

Jack had offered to keep an eye on things for Fox, and Nathan agreed to let Jack tag along; the entire Stormfront team were anxious for recognition, and if Jack Canis had a good word to put for them, so be it.

Presently, Jack shrugged and said, "I don't have anything else to offer. I'm not a father. But take my word for it, he'd probably do fine without me."

"So why are you going?"

Jack chuckled. "A friend of mine has a business score to settle with Rostov. Indeed, I've gotten the vote of confidence from Reichmann von Hendricks himself."

"Ok. Just as long as my son comes back in one piece."

Jack laughed in the barking shrill of a Jackal. "You really need to put more confidence in Nathan." He grinned. "Why, he's got quite a heritage! He's got your blood and your father's blood in his veins, and if that's any indication, I see big things instore for Nathan. Big things."

Fox grinned. "You maybe right."

"Then relax! Let me do the worrying. I'm better at it then you are." Jack chuckled and went off to his Wolfen II.

Stormfront was listening to their fearless leader, Nathan McCloud, summarizing the mission and what the overall plan was. They were all youngsters, Nathan being the youngest of them all, but it was clear that they respected him greatly.

Stormfront consisted of four of Nathan's best acadamy friends, and they all had quite a bit of skill. There was Brandon Gilmour, a Jaguar with a mean temper and an even meaner laser aim. He had been Nathan's enforcer during the acadamy days when they trained as a unit. He was one of Nathan's best compadres, no doubt about that. Gilmour came from what Jack guessed to be a military family. He certainly looked like he was just picked out of the marine corps. While Gilmour was the loyal henchman to Nathan in public, Jack had heard from other cadets that a fierce state of rivalry existed between the two of them. Hardly surprising. Gilmour was the type who would be glad to leap down the Beast's throat just to rip out his tongue.

Next on the totem pole as far as Jack could guess was Ivan Crovax, a Raven (of course). Ivan was the oldest in the group and perhaps the most clever. In fact, he had gotten comendations on original thinking, some of them noted by acadamy records. Ivan was a quiet, somewhat shy fellow, never very talkative with the other members but on excellent terms with Nathan. Ivan was also the resident mechanic of the group, having majored in vehicular repair.

The third pilot was definatly the bruisor of the bunch, an energetic Vixen named Alexia. Of the five of them, Alex was the one Jack was least acquainted with, but he had heard Nathan mention her more then enough to get the idea that he liked her, although Jack kept his mouth shut. Evidently she was a tomboy, eager to prove that anything the boys could do, she could do. A good attitude, when female pilots tended to be minorities.

Finally, the fourth pilot (not including Nathan) was an iconoclastic, clever, and opinionated young Coyote named Jake Richardson, although everybody called him by his middle name, Drew. Unlike the other team members, who were drawn to Nathan's strong charisma, Drew seemed to be in it for the ride. He and Nathan had been acquatinces for a long time, but Drew didn't follow Nathan with the same kind of reverance the others did. Drew was an individualist who respected Nathan but did not have any illusions. He trusted his judgement better then anyone else's. Although his cynical attitude irritated his teammates, he was remarkably likeable and possesed a keen sense of humor.

"You guys ready to go?" Jack asked as he approached them.

Nathan smiled. "Sure," he said. "I'm just reminding my teammates what our objectives are."

"And what we are being paid for," Drew remarked dryly.

Nathan rolled his eyes.

Jack grinned. "Well, sattle up, cuz you weren't hired to wait around."

"Ok, people," Nathan said to the others. "Let's go teach those pirates some respect!"

"Or at least blow em' to hell," Alexia said cheerfully.

* * *

An hour later, Stormfront plus Jack Canis were in the black vacuum of space, on their way to retake Bolse.

They had been fully briefed, of course, on the satellite and it's value. The pirates probably wanted to sell parts of the Machine for the black market, including software. Or it was possible Rostov wanted access to the Machine's "computations," the mathematical deduction of virtually any fact with only small bits of information.

Either way, he had to be stopped.

According to the Imperial guys who were hiring Stormfront, Rostov's account was frozen, meaning that his huge sums of money were unuseable. Thus, he had to rely what he had with him at the satellite, and it wasn't much.

To put it another way, Rostov was effectively toast.

Nathan grinned to himself, excited that he was finally on a combat mission, like his father and grandfather before him. He disliked the idea of Jack keeping an eye on them, but if the team performed well, Nathan knew, Jack's testamony on the matter would guarantee approval from his father.

The other teammates were anxious as well. They were all good friends, drawn to Nathan's natural charisma, making it easy to form the team. He had known them all either from the acadamy days or the days on Tehrah.

Ivan's voice came over the comm. "We're coming up on Bolse now."

"Are we in hailing range?" he asked.

Ivan nodded, his face expressionless. "Yes."

"Good. I'm going to give them an ultimatum before we blow them to bits."

"Don't get to cocky, Nathan," Jack warned. "It'll reflect poorly on your record if you act like your trying to start a fight with them."

"Oh yes," Drew cut in, "After all, they only tried to steal a military installation."

"Can it, Drew," Alexia said.

Nathan opened the hailing frequecy, and waited for their leader to respond.

The features of a muscular white Wolf appeared on the screen.

Nicolai Rostov.

"So," Rostov said with an infuriorating sneer. "The high-and-mighty Imperium is here to teach me a lesson." Obviously he was trying to intimidate Nathan by virtue of his age. Nathan suppressed a growl. He wasn't going to let that happen!

"I'll just get to the point, Rostov," Nathan snarled, knowing that the situation was past diplomacy. "You have 2 minutes to surrender your crew and your weapons, or we'll have to do things the hard way. Given the circumstances, I'd think both of us would prefer the former."

Rostov grinned maliciously. "You talk big, but one has to wonder if you really have the balls, kid. And I'm not gonna let some kit decide what I'm gonna do."

Nathan just grinned. "Suit yourself," he said as cheerfully as he could. "I tried to be reasonable, but I guess we'll have to things dirty." He cut the connection.

"Ok, Ivan," Nathan said, "you know what to do?"

"Right. The Cybers know we are here and they are already standing by."

"Ok, tell them to mobilize once we have landed."

"Really," Drew remarked. "We can just waltz right in to their front door, and invite ourselves to dinner. Hope they got beer, it would be a real shame to bust in and find there isn't enough alcohol to par-"

"Drew," Nathan said, grinning. "I think you made your point."

The Coyote grinned like a total maniac.

"They can't cover every docking bay in the satellite," Gilmour said.

They ran a scan on the locations of the pirates within the satellite. After a few minutes of decision they landed at the docking bay Nathan felt was most strategic.

Once everybody was out of their arwings, Ivan ran over to the nearest computer terminal and began typing. Almost immediately the doors shut, preventing any access that Rostov or his people had.

"Ok," said Ivan. "They're on their way, but they shouldn't be able to override the security, not as long as the Machine has control."

"And the Cybers?" Jack asked.

Ivan gave a rare smile. "They are on their way. Coming in through the air ducts."

Nathan smiled. "Good."

There was some noise coming from one of the shafts. Drew looked up. "Ahh, here come our friends now," he said.

Sure enough, out popped a handful of Bolseans wearing the silver and black uniforms of the Cybers.

They were all armed and ready, and they shook hands briefly with the Stormfront team. "They are right outside the door. We should take to our wings," Ivan cautioned.

"I'm staying," Jack said.

Nobody had a problem with that. The Stormfront team took to their wings and flew out, ready for the upcoming action.

Nathan watched the security camera's transmissions showing on one side of the door, a handful of Cybers armed to the teeth, plus Jack Canis, while on the other side, a group of pirates were trying to cut through the door's lock.

At a signal from one of the Cybers, the door was opened, and the Cybers began their attack on the surprised pirates.

There was a short burst of laser fire, and in a few quick seconds there were 7 dead pirates.

The Cybers spread out, systematically raiding the portions of the Labyrinth where the pirates were operating; eventually they got the idea that they were facing defeat, and they all went ot where their own fighter crafts were stored, and made ready to escape for space.

Where Stormfront would be waiting for them.

Of course the Machine had jammed all sensors, so the presence of Stormfront was intended to be a nasty surprise.

And a surprise it was. As soon as the fighters left the docking bays, the five members of Stormfront took combat positions. Nathan went after the fighters that appeared to be the leaders. Gilmour at his left, Alexia at his right. Ivan and Drew were out dogfighting somewhere else.

The combat was fast, furious, and decisive. Stormfront pulvarized the pirate band with ease. Drew and Alexia were taunting them with every creative insult their minds could think of, and Ivan was demonstrating his patented "thruster slide", whearupon he would fire his booster full force at an enemy, turn just enough to avoid collision, shut off boosters, then, still in acceleration, turn sharply and end up right at the enemy's rear. A neat trick. Ivan had gotten awards for it at the acadamy.

Nathan, meanwhile, had the fighter that he was convinced was Rostov in his sight, when something happened. One second Nathan had Rostov locked on target, the next....all he could remember from that point was hearing Alexia shout over the comm, then a bright flash filled his vision. Then all sank to darkness.

Chapter Six

 

"Kronosians play for keeps; it's what they are good out and what the enjoy the most."

-Ederax Rathii

 

Once he had heard, Jack Canis did not think. He just rushed straight to the Hunter's Moon and cursed his stupidity. He never should have stayed in the satellite. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He took off, and immediatly his comm was flooded with Alexia spewing in rage and fright, "THEY GOT NATHAN! THOSE KRONOSIAN BASRARD'S GOT NATHAN!"

"ALEXIA, SHUT UP!" roared Drew, "Unless you WANT Nathan to be a prisoner for the rest of his life."

"Calm down, people," Jack said, trying to remain calm. All the pirates had either been destroyed or had fled, but a reading was still on the radar. Doubtless it was where Nathan was being kept.

"Ok, now what happened?" Jack asked.

Each teammate had his or her own take on what happened, but the general idea was not lost on Jack. A Kronosian craft, which nobody had noticed until too late, had emerged into the fray and fired a beam of some kind at Nathan's Arwing. Tractor beam, by the sound of it, and an increadibly fast one. Then it must have made a jump to the next sector.

Jack's mind raced. The ship was probably a small shuttle; about the size of a Dreadnought, or even smaller. Jack had to conclude that the vessel was cloaked, and would have to be in a definate hurry; it couldn't sustain itself for long without a source of plasma energy, and for that reason Jack was convinced they were running on auxillory power.

That meant an ion trail, or rather, exhaust.

"Ok," Jack said, "Listen up. As far as it goes, I'm leader until we get Nathan back; which is precisely what we are going to do. I'm serious, we are NOT coming back home without Nathan. I have no intention of breaking my word to Fox."

"Brilliant plan," Drew said. "But, uhh, exactly how are we going to get past the Barrier, oh wise one?"

"Watch your mouth, Drew, lest I cut off your tongue." It was a Titanian disciplinary saying, and it had hit home because Drew was, evidently, a Titanian by ancestry.

"Now, in answer to your question," Jack continued, "Leave the thinking to me. I was slipping past security systems and defense barriars while your parants were still in college; and I wouldn't be worthy of my race as a Jackal if I couldn't slip past the Barrier, recover a prisoner, and get out in time for breakfast. Now sit tight while I arrainge for us something with a ship for us to make repairs."

Their was no response from them, except for a curt "Yessir," from Gilmour.

Jack hailed Bolse. Connors O'Rourke, the de facto overseer of Bolse with Makhina on Oberon, appeared on the screen, his Cyber features betraying just a hint of curiosity.

"Connors," Jack asked. "I need you to do me a favor. A BIG favor."

Connors blinked. "Of course," he said. "We owe you a great debt. What is it that you need? The Machine is willing to grant a reasonable request."

"Tell that overrated box I said thanks. Can you provide me with a shuttle or small carrier, just enough for six craft?"

"Of course. Anything in particular?"

"Yeah, a cloaking device and a jump drive that WORKS."

Connors hesitated. "Yes...." he said tentatively. "But cloaking devices are quite scarce, and we would like to know what use you would have for it."

Jack rolled his eyes. "I think your Machine could figure that part out."

"The Machine knows that anything, including itself, can make errors. It wishes to be sure."

"Fine. We want to get past the the Barrier and get our man back."

Connors paused, his face perfectly neutral. In fact, it looked like he wasn't seeing anything at all. Doubtless he was in a conversation with the Machine.

"Look," Jack said. "I don't know what you're discussing with that intelligent washing machine, but I have a job to do, and I don't have the luxury of time."

The Meerkat's eyes seemed to return to reality. "Very well," Connors said in a precise, logical tone. "We will grant your request, under the condition that you do not report your activities to the Imperial military. We will provide the cover."

"What? Why?"

"You will be given a captured shuttle, Cyclone class craft. We must stress the importance of keeping this a secret for the moment. We believe there are spies within Imperial intelligence.

We don't need to explain any further."

Jack blinked. What was the Machine up to?

"Machine Unit, or whatever the hell you're called," Jack said. "Why do this much for us? I mean, what good does it do you?"

"It does us much good. All of us."

Jack blinked again. Something was up, that was for sure.

 

* * *

The Cybers weren't kidding. It was an honest-to-God Kronosian craft, the equivalent to a Dreadnought.

Stormfront docked their ships and set straight to work. Ivan went to work on the computers, which apparantly had been reconfigured to meet Imperial commands, but all the Kronosian files where still there. It was much to their keen delight that the ship had Kronosian pass codes, at least for getting by the Barrier.

Of course, they were all aprehensive. The risks were enourmous, and technically they were violating direct Imperial orders. Going near the Barrier without explicit orders was a serious thing in the military.

But they were working under the auspices of Bolse. Besides, Jack knew Gorastar too well to get in serious trouble. And if Stormfront got busted, Connors had said, the Cybers would make an official complaint, and that meant Makhina would be on their side, and Gorastar wouldn't be able to argue with that.

Besides, Jack had given his word to Fox, and to hell with anyone who said he had to break it. Jack wasn't about to break his code of honor now that he had cleaned up his act, and the other pilots weren't about to let their teamate go to prison.

They followed the exhaust trail left behind by the Nathan's captors, a path that, sure enough, led straight to Titania. They had gritted their teeth anxiously for the Barrier to approve of their access codes; and all five of them breathed a loud sigh of relief when approval was granted. They were now in the Lylat system.

A few hours later, they were at Titania. Somewhere, on Jack's homeworld, the Kronosians were keeiping Nathan captive.

The other teammate were reluctant to proceed any further when they learned that Nathan was located in the most infamous prison complex in the entirety of the Kronosian regime. Even Jack had his misgivings, but he managed to pursuade the others in proceeding further.

After some discussion the five of them decided on contacting the Titanian Underground. Ivan and Jack pondered on how to avoid drawing attention, and eventually they decided on the Net. The Net was an Imperial database that the underground used to talk with the Imperium and it's own members on other worlds. The Imperium shielded all calls from detection, but the Imperium itself traced the source of the call, and recorded it for safety reasons.

However, the Net was managed by the Machine.

Jack used old Titanian codes, hoping that they would be the thing to get the Titanian Underground's attention. Sure enough, the reply came back, and Jack and the rebel on the other line made arraigements. A tense hour later, the Stormfront team landed on Titania's empty southern hemisphere, in the nighttime zone.

They were greeted by armed figures wearing standard desert cloaks. They recognized Jack as an Imperial agent and led the team inside the hidden base.

The rebel's leader, a Hyena, stepped forward and shook Jack's hands, grinning broadly. "Name's Rolant, Rolant Aneyh. AN-a, as in the letter 'a'."

"Got it," Jack grinned. "I'm Jack Canis."

Rolant nodded. "I don't see how you could be on official Imperial business, so would you be so kind as to tell me what your purpose is here?"

The Stormfront pilots exchanged uneasy glances. "Well," Jack said. "One of our people has been captured, and the Cybers are helping us break protocol and freeing him."

Rolant smiled faintly with triumph. "Gorastar will have a fit when he hears this, I imagine. Well, that's all I need to know. We'll help you get your friend out. In fact, you can have Ederax's assurance on it."

"Thank you, I-- DID YOU SAY EDERAX?"

Rolant nodded. "Ederax gave us instructions; told us that the Kronosians have captured somebody important."

"Then he isn't here?"

"No. I don't know where he is. He never was here, but he showed up on the Net a few hours before you called us, and he said that it was important that this pilot, Nathan McCloud?-be freed."

Jack just stared at Rolant, slack jawed. It made more sense now; the Machine knew where Ederax was, Ederax was instructing the Machine to cover Stormfront, but what did Ederax have to gain?

Rolant frowned. "You're baffled, no doubt. So am I. But that has always been Ederax's way, as long as I had been working for him in the Androssian War. Come along, we have work to do."

Chapter Seven

 

"I know your life is empty and your hatred face is full of love

So your searching for an angel, someone who can make you whole

I cannot save you. I can't even save myself.

So just save yourself.

I know that you've been damaged, your soul is sucking up abuse

Well, I am not your savior, I am just as f***ed as you

You cannot save me. You can't even save yourself.

Save yourself."

-Stabbing Westward, "Save yourself."

 

The prison facillity known as the Wall was a thing that couldn't have been concieved even by the worst nightmares of Andross. It was surrounded not by the cliched iron chain linked fence; that wasn't necessary. In fact, it didn't appear to be very secure at all. Just a front gate for registry and a series of buildings and workfields. Interior security wasn't particularly vigilent; the heat took care of any who managed to break out. The only thing that the Kronosians bothered to do to prevent escape was to institute a large scale scanner, cabable of detecting nearly any vehicle, and a wide range proton cannon to blow any potential getaway craft sky-high.

It was the inside that was most frightening. When a prisoner arrives, he is drugged so that he never is conscious when he enters his cell. When one does wake up, he sees very little; the Kronosians kept no interior lighting in the place, save for their interrogation rooms, and the offices. Otherwise, the interior's had no windows, and very few lights.

In the darkness your mind starts to fill in the dark space that your eyes fail to register, and the mind has a tendency to select unsettling images; a product of instinct, but still very frightening. Despite the lack of light, sleep is near impossible; the rodents' scurrying around the cells and halls make enough noise to make you jumpy.

And then there were the other prisoners. One learns quickly that it isn't safe to fall asleep when there were half-mad captives lurking around. In general, one can only sleep safely if he has a fellow captive guarding him. Protection is never free, of course, and the price for protection was often dangerous.

Such as it was, Nathan was, like anybody else in his position, utterly miserable and scared to death.

He could see just enough to realize that he was in a cell, sure enough, but he still had trouble understanding exactly just what happened; one minute he was in combat, the next, nothing. Now he was here.

He had heard stories, of course, of what Kronosian camps where suppossed to be like; rumors and such, but there was one instructor who once had been taken prisoner. After she was liberated from the camp, she was transfered to the acadamy as she was so traumatized by the experience that she could not serve in the military. And her tales where frightening indeed....

Nathan became aware of a dim wheezing coming from the neighboring cell...or was it his?

"W-who's there?" Nathan asked tentatively.

There was a rasping chuckle. Nathan's fur nearly turned white as he could tell that this stranger was indeed IN the cell.

Nathan took a nervous step back.

"Don't go to close to the wall, kid," the raspy voice said. "Somebody just might reach past the bars 'n slit your throat."

Nathan stopped impulsively. "W-why would somebody try to kill me?" He found himself asking.

"Lesson number one, kid. Here, everybody is afraid of everybody else; those who aren't are psychopaths who are bored." The shadowy figure chuckled. "Welcome to the Wall."

Nathan gulped. He was accutely aware of how much danger he was in.

"Don't worry, kid. I'm one of the sane ones. 'Course, that's what they all say, but if I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so while you were still out cold when they dumped you in here."

"I don't know that." Nathan blurted, then he covered his mouth.

Another chuckle. "Clever lad," the stranger said. "Keep your wits and maybe you'll survive, one way or another. Or maybe you won't, but if your smart, you'll at least have a chance."

"Who..who are you?"

A shadow arouse. Then there was a burst of light; the stranger had a small flashlight. He was a tall, unkempt Hyena with broadshoulders, and a psychotic gleam in his eye, as almost all Hyena's had. The Hyena grinned, showing all of his teeth.

Nathan gulped again.

"You're smart to be afraid. You'd also be smart not to trust me in the least. Never mind the fact that you don't have a choice."

"I don't?"

The Hyena's grin became broader. "At night, when the guards are all asleep, the prisoners roam the cell blocks, and the jailor's don't lock the cells. So, anytime you get any sleep, who knows what kind of man will pay a visit?"

"If we're all prisoners aren't we all on the same side?"

The Hyena chuckled again. "When the food is so bad, that don't matter. Can't blame them for what they do, really. The food's awful shit, and you can go mad eating it day after day after day. You'll start craving anything else but THAT. ANYTHING else. And that isn't the worst of it. They can do worse things then that, my friend. Especialy to a newcomer who hasn't been roughed up yet by the Wall."

Again, Nathan gulped.

The Hyena continued. "Some prisoners, like me, have memory though, and we'll help each other out...for favors, usually. That's precisely what I'm willing to do."

"For a favor?"

The Hyena grinned.

"So what do you want from me? I have nothing."

"Yes you do. A will to survive. You're pretty healthy, of course, since yer a newcomer, so during the day you'll get the work program. Meaning that you'll be made to mine, clean, and whatever job they come up with. Sometimes they'll take you outside the work; consider that a special occasion."

"I still don't see-"

The Hyena cut him off. "I can't work," he said, "I may be strong, but I'm not fit for the mines; if I inhaled all that dust, I'd keel over dead immediately. They keep me in the cell block here to perform maitenence. So here's what I want from you; I can see that yer in good health, I can see that yer smart, and I can see that you're desperate, so here's what yer gonna do. They've assigned you to work near the refectory, where that filth they feed us is made. But they also get their food from that place too. What I want you to do is get some food: Any food, anything at all, as long as it ain't that shit they always feed us. When they take you back to yer cell, give it to me. In return, I'll make sure you can sleep soundly and the prisoners don't try anything stupid. And as a bonus, I'll let you have a little of the stuff that you steal for me. Deal?"

Nathan nodded, relaxing just slightly. "Ok," he said. "My name's Nathan."

The Hyena grinned again and said, "I'm Dexear."

"Um....have you been here long?"

Dexear turned off his light. "Long enough. Get some shut eye; you'll need it."

Chapter Eight

 

"I never put up with error. It was never practical to shrug it off. When an assassin screwed up, he did his damndest to correct his mistake. A single mistep could have slammed me into cold storage. Facts of life, pal."

-Jack Canis, on his days as an Imperial assasin.

 

The rebels had a tactical room from which plans could be made. It was small, cramped, and simply jammed with equipment. A three-dimensional map could be found in the center of the room.

Currently, the rebels, along with Jack Canis and Stormfront, were huddled around the map-screen detailing a prison establishment. Jack studied the image with as much proffessional scrutiny as he could muster. It vaguely resembled the old Imperial work fortresses set up on Macbeth and Venom, where anybody with Alliance sympathies would be made to work as slaves.

Rolant pointed to the image. "There she is," he said, "The Wall itself. The ultimate prison."

The rebels muttered with a note of dread at the mention of the Wall.

"Must be a hell of a complex," Jack noted.

Rolant looked up with a piercing stare. "It's perhaps the regime's finest penitentery. Top of the line security, and quite cheap, too. We call it the Wall because you can't get in or out. We call it Hell's Wall, too, because the living conditions inside our straight out of your worst nightmare."

"I guessed. But I don't see any 'Wall'. I don't see any fence, no barricades, nothing. Just the facility."

Rolant smiled grimly and said, "They don't need any. The Wall

is placed in the equator. 100 degrees is a cold day in that area. Somebody gets out, and he'll die of heat stroke in an hour or two. Hell, sometimes it takes just 30 minutes. Nobody can stay out there without much help. His ass is fried if he stays out there too long.

"I take it they have some way of dealing with that."

Rolant nodded and sighed. "They were most clever," he said, sounding tired. "They have guns; big artillery that could shoot down anything in the air that they don't like. Rovers are useless because of the terrain. Land masters could work, but they'll detect one in a pinch, and they'll deliver retaliation with a highly dense Neutron laser, leaving an impressive crater."

"What about raiding the place?" Jack asked, knowing what the answer would be.

"They got enough ordinance to stop D-day, for Christ's sake. They have an emergency stash of weaponry underground. First sign of trouble and they'll have a small group of soldiers armed to the teeth ready to defend the prison."

"What kind of weapons?" Ivan asked.

Rolant sighed. "Krag grenades, a whole lot of them. Rifles, chain guns, maybe a few Shrieker rocket launchers. Not to mention Howler missiles should somebody try an arial assault. I don't

need to tell you that they would have Hunterchoppers that patrol the region."

Jack blinked. That was indeed an impressive array of weapons. One had to wonder why they were so protective of their prisons.

Rolant made a sweeping gesture over the 3-d image of the Wall. "They just love these installations," he said. "They are a great source of cheap and efficient labor. That's the number one watchword of Kronosian operations, and that is cost efficiency. Minimum cost, maximum strength and efficiency."

The others nodded in assent. Alexia was getting impatient. She cried, "There has to be away to get Nathan out!"

Rolant turned to her. "There is, my dear. There just isn't anyway that will be easy."

Drew looked thoughtful and said, "Infiltration?"

Jack raised his eyebrows, indicating he had the same thought.

Rolant sighed again. "Theoretically, that's possible, but that's always a risky course. But you do have that Cyclone with you, but they are on the look out for such occurances. They have all sorts of proceedure attached to prisoner transportation, check-in regulations, etc." He made another futile gesture. "Like I said, we don't call it the Wall for nothing."

Jack finally couldn't stand it. He grabbed Rolant by his coat and thrust him against the wall. The other rebels pulled out their weapons, but Rolant signalled for them to back off.

"Listen to me," Jack growled. "In my life I've heard more then my share of hopelessness and pessismism. I just risked my ass to get here, both in the face of death and an Imperial court marshall. But I promised Nathan's father that he would get back home, alive, in one piece, and on time. Since I can't do anything about the last part, I'll be damned if I'm going to show up empty handed, and nobody's going to tell me otherwise. You got that?"

Rolant glared. "If you would be so kind as to put me down?" he asked coldly.

Jack released his grip. He didn't feel embarrassed for losinghis temper. Saving face in front of peers always struck Jack as foolish.

Rolant brushed off, and stared at Jack, not saying anything. Then after a tense silence, he said, "Jack Canis, you are the most stubborn son of a bitch that I have ever met. I have to admit, I admire one who is dedicated to his word, despite the apparant disregard for cold reality. I will help you, since all attempts to persuade you to turn back has failed." He shook his head. "But I still think you are a fool."

Jack nodded curtly. "Good. But there's something else, isn't there?"

One of the rebels whispered into Rolant's ear. He nodded and said, "You are most perceptive, Jack. Yes, we do have a card in our hand that may just get your friend back home."

"I thought so," said Jack, putting his hands on his hips, "because the Machine seemed to have this all planned out, and I find it irregular that you seem to know about the kind of weapons that the Wall has stashed."

Rolant nodded. "You are quite correct. You see, we have somebody on the inside, there, in the Wall. We don't know who he is; his name doesn't show up on the Net. He may be a resourceful prisoner. Or he could be a Kronosian official who for whatever reason has turned traitor."

Jack blinked. "A Kronosian official?"

Rolant raised his hand. "Don't leap to conclusions. It is entirely feasible that he could be a prisoner who has the means to contact us. We think that he maybe a Kronosian official, because the information he's given us is just too sensitive to make anything else likely. The working theory I have is that he is trying to advance his status by means of 'disposing' his superiors, and thinks that the underground is his ticket of removing his rivals. That's very possible, since the only sure way to get ahead in rank is through such plotting, but if that is the case, then the chances of all of this being a trap only increase."

"What's his name?"

"He's calling himself Dexear. He claims he can fix us up with all sorts of access codes and procedures. Maybe, just maybe, if he is genuine, he could help us get Nathan out."

Jack didn't need to think twice. "Talk to him, and make arraingements. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get home, and the less Hell Nathan'll have to go through."

"Or the sooner we can arrive to the morgue," Drew said with mock optimism.

Nobody laughed.

Chapter Nine

 

"Welcome to my nightmare...."

-Alice Cooper

 

Nathan awoke with a start. He had a very fitful and disturbed sleep, and now he awoke because he could hear odd scraping noises in his cell.

"Dexear?" he called softly. He could not see if his benefactor was there in the cell or not.

He was. "That's just the rodents, kid," Nathan heard him say. "Harmless, but annoying as hell."

"I can't get any sleep," Nathan muttered, exhausted.

"Get used to it, for now," Dexear rasped. "Once the put you to work, though, you'll sleep like a baby."

"Don't you sleep?"

"When I need to."

Nathan pulled his ragged cover over him and tried to fall back to sleep. He tried, but he couldn't. It was driving him insane.

"Lesson number two, Nathan," Dexear said quietly. "Fear is not a bad thing. It sharpens the senses, it makes you aware of your own mortality. It teaches you how vulnerable, how frail you

really are. Fear is what makes us mortals; it is a humbling force that keeps us from destroying ourselves and each other. Fear only becomes a hinderence when one uses it as a drug, addicting himself to his own self-preservation, and blinding him to higher truths."

"Thanks, loads," Nathan muttered.

Dexear let out his unnerving chuckle. "Just remember to trust your instincts. We have them for a reason."

Nathan grumbled and roled over. "Some good it did YOU, or you wouldn't be in this hellhole."

Dexear chuckled again. "You got nerve, but you lack experience. You should learn your limits. Same as all of us."

"Yeah, I'll remember that when I'm still in here after three years."

Dexear said nothing. He just chuckled softly.

 

* * *

Morning came, or rather, Nathan assumed morning came. After another bout of sleep, the prison guards came in with flashlights and hearded prisoners out of the cell block and on to the refectory.

Dexear hadn't been kidding when he was describing the food. It was awful, a blackish green sludge that tasted like curdled milk, except maybe a hundred times worse. Nathan retched at the smell of it, and actually eating it nearly made him vomit.

Still, Nathan guessed that showing weakness in front of the other prisoners would be a bad idea, and thus he fought the violent urge to regurgitate.

The refectory was lit slightly brighter then the cell block, although it was still dim. He managed to stay close to Dexear, knowing that he would be the only person to watch his back,

if he chose to do so. Dexear didn't say anything for the entire breakfast shift, merely watching Nathan in an almost laboratory style manner. It made Nathan nervous, but he chose to say nothing. Nathan knew just how insignificant he was here, and didn't want to draw attention to himself.

After the 'mealtime' was over, the prisoners were herded out to different work tasks. Nathan and a few others stayed behind to clean up the place.

None of the "custodians" said a word. They were all being watched, Nathan could tell, and it was clear to Nathan by now that the Kronosians expected nothing less then total servitude.

Nathan was assigned to the kitchen, and it was the time to uphold his end of the bargain with Dexear. He did the utmost to appear as if he was working at all times, so it took him some effort to find what he was looking for. He located what must have been a backup storage drawer. In it were some sealed bread and cheese packages.

Nathan took one and tucked it into his prison uniform, givin to him this morning. The guards rarely scanned the prisoners; the Kronosians figured that none of the captives could steal enough to survive the desert.

Or so Dexear had said earlier.

Nathan cleaned for sometime, thankful that he could take his mind off of the utter hell of the cell block, before a guard stopped him. "Cell block," the guard, a Bear, said. "Now."

Nathan nodded and made his way out the door and to the cell block, trying to keep himself calm. Just cooperate, he thought, and they won't think you are a trouble maker.

The cell block was dead silent. Most of them were underground, in the mines. Anybody in the cell block was either there for maintenence or asleep for their night shift. Anybody unfit for work of any kind was usually shot.

A hand placed itself on Nathan's shoulder. He jumped in surprise just as another hand placed itself over Nathan's mouth. He was being dragged to an empty cell. He fought violently, totally given over to panic. At least two prisoners were attacking him, but he couldn't see them very well.

He was pressed up against the wall. "Fork over the food," demanded a gruff voice.

Nathan continued to struggle. He felt a hand grab his throat. It hurt like pure hell, and he felt his oxygen become cut off from his lungs.

"Come, now," said another voice. "Give us the grub, or Carl here will snap your neck like a wishbone." The voice was lighter, more refined then the first one, almost dignified in a psychotic sort of way.

"Lay off."

Nathan felt a surge of relief as he recognized Dexear's voice. He saw his other attacker, the Psycho, turn to a black figure near the entrence of the cell. "Go to hell, man, if you know what's good for you."

"Sorry, I'm already there."

Dexear's shadowed form was on the Psycho with blinding swiftness. A loud slam followed as the psycho, who Nathan could see was a Bat, was thrown againts the wall by Dexear's weight. Carl, an Ox or a Bull as far as Nathan could see released his grip and charged toward Dexear. At the last second, Dexear lurched to the side and threw the Bat right at Carl. The Bull pushed the Bat out of the way and charged again. This time, Dexear rolled out of the way, and once Carl had passed him, Dexear got up and pulled out a five-foot long steel bar. Dexear slammed his pole into Carl's back like hitting a baseball with a bat. Carl howled and collapsed in pain.

The Bat pulled out a dagger and lept toward the Hyena. Before Nathan could cry out in warning, however, Dexear pivoted with the steel bar landing right at the Bat's face.

The Bat fell to the ground, landing on his front. Dexear stepped up to him and said, "I told you once, Grex, and I hate repeating myself. So let me make myself clear one more time." Dexear pressed his boot on the Bat's shoulder.

"You will never, never, EVER screw with me or my friends again. EVER. I don't want to see you within 10 feet of him. Hell, you look at him wrong and I'll grind you into red paste. You understand?"

Grex made a feeble cry of compliance. "Good," Dexear growled. "Now to prove I am serious, I'm gonna do you a little favor." Dexear raised the bar and sent in smashing into Grex's shoulder. The Bat howled again in pain. Nathan heard a sickening crack as the bar made contact with Grex. Dexear had broken at least one of the Bat's shoulders.

Dexear took his foot off of Grex. "There," he said impassively. "I've just taken you off of the work shift for the week. Next time you piss me off, it's gonna be your neck instead of your shoulders."

Dexear turned. "As for you Carl, I'll let this slide. You're too stupid and too gullible to know anybetter, so I won't be as harsh. In the future, however, don't you dare lay a finger on Nathan or do anything that would piss me off, ever."

Dexear turned toward Nathan, all of the cruelty and harshness washing off of his face like an empty sink. "Are you ok, kid?" he asked, his voice genuinely concerned.

Nathan nodded and coughed.

"Good. C'mon, let's get over to your cell." Dexear helped him up and took him out of the cell. As they went down the hall, Dexear said, "Don't worry about them. Grex is a cruel, miserable, perverted, conceited bastard, but he should have been born a Chicken. After a beating like that I doubt you'll ever see his face again. As for Carl, he actually has a good heart, but a very inept brain. He's easily influenced by scum like Grex, and he won't harm you now that he knows better."

Nathan nodded. "Thanks," he said.

Dexear shook his head. "No, no, no. Don't you ever thank me for anything, kid. Lesson number three: people don't do anything that they don't want to. You don't show gratitude unless it's a friend, a family member, or in polite company. But otherwise, don't be fooled. It's a mark of complacence, and weakness, and that'll kill you in this prison if I'm not around to watch your back."

Nathan nodded. "I, uh, I have the food."

"Good. Here," Dexear opened a cell door and stepped in, Nathan following. Nathan pulled out the sealed package of bread and cheese. "It's all I could get," Nathan admitted.

Dexear ignored him and divided the ration in half and gave some to Nathan. Nathan began to eat. The bread was stale, and the cheese was stale also, but it was 20 times better then the Sludge at mealtime.

Dexear finished quickly. "It's not gourmet, but I don't expect anything better then this. Fine by me. Anything is better then that sludge they feed us."

Nathan nodded in agreement.

Dexear looked up as a shaft of light penetrated the darkness of the hallway. "Nathan McCloud!" a voice shouted. "Front and center!"

Nathan looked to Dexear enquiringly. Dexear hissed, "Don't ask questions, just comply. Don't even think. Do what they tell you."

Nathan nodded, and got up.

Chapter Ten

 

"I never ever can remember what things go bump in the night.

The quietness is building, betrayal now hovers

and my comfort level's not quite right.

Well, I'd love to stay and evaluate but my torture can't wait.

Well, it seems that I am losing ground.

Welcome all, to my disciplined breakdown."

-Collective Soul, "Disciplined Breakdown"

 

The Beast looked down at the skylight showing a strong room with a single bunk. On the bunk rested Nathan McCloud, quetily asleep and ignorant of the fact that he was being watched.

This was the illuminatus. The one that he, Kronos, and the Spectre had been searching for centuries. The Beast felt a tingle of excitement that his worries were almost completely behind him.

The Beast had arrived to prison facility number 23/1/12/12, a.k.a. the Wall. The Beast liked the last term much better; it suited the prison most perfectly. Numbers always failed to describe. Although their infinate amounts made labelling so much easier, it was words that added fear into the heart of a mortal.

The Wall...

The Beast had felt the illuminati's presence all the way from Venom, where he was currently running the military. He had notified Kronos at once, and the newly returned Spectre, who was at the homeworld following his unfortunate sojourn in the Void Beyond.

The two of them were on their way. Meanwhile the Beast wished to get a look at the illuminatus, and make sure that he would be in one piece once Kronos and the Spectre arrive.

The Beast turned to the head of prison security, Deslian Komodan, once an Imperial Warlord and lackey to Andross. The Beast chuckled at the thought of Andross. That Ape had no comprehension of what it was to have true power, to know the ultimate force of rulership. He was a child compared to Kronos, the Beast, and the Spectre, contrary to how much the mortals had feared Andross during the early days.

Andross had been the Kronosian's key to the system. All they had to do was help feed Andross' madness with weapons of war, and the result was total perfection in the Cataclysm.

Now Deslian was one of the Kronosian agents. He had been totally loyal to Andross in those days, to the point of suicidal. Deslian was also the most ingenious military commanders to enter Andross's service, and the irony almost made the Beast sick. Deslian had no confidence after the so-called "Star Fox" campaign nearly layed Area 6 to waste, and afterwords, Deslian never did anything without Andross' approval. Hell, he would have cut his own throat out if Andross had wished it.

Once Andross was overthrown, Deslian was arrested and taken to a prison awaiting execution. Once the Cataclysm began, the Beast thought it would be useful to liberate Deslian. It didn't take much to pursuade Deslian that the Imperium was now his enemy, since they had executed his master.

Unfortunatly, the Beast had learned that hiring Deslian was a serious error in judgement. He was no longer as competent as he once was, he had a violent hate for the Imperium and the underground, and made stupid decisions as a result. The Spectre could recite a hundred instances of Deslian's incompetence from memory, and would often point out with great delight that it had been the Beast's idea to recruit him. Indeed, Kronos himself asked that the Beast correct the situation in due course.

Presently, the Beast spoke to Deslian. "Why," he asked, "wasss the illuminatusss placssed in the cssell block with the othersss inssstead of sssolitary confinement, like I assked?"

"Sir," Deslian said stiffly (a fatal mistkake), "I did not know that this was the illuminatus. I had know way of knowing."

"You surely must have had some reason to suspect," an upper crust, Brytish voice said, "else you wouldn't have sent out the capture force to recover him."

The Beast squinted. Deslian turned to the speaker growling with rage and fear. The speaker was none other then Leon Powalski, long time Kronosian agent. He had been one of the few Kronosian's sent to infiltrate the Lylat system before the Cataclysm. The Spectre himself had trained Leon, and Leon acted always on the instruction of the Spectre. Once Gorastar became Emperor, the Kronosian's recovered their spy and kept his wherabouts unknown to the Lylatians, His work was done.

"Dessslian, Dessslian," the Beast said almost regrettfully. "What am I going to do with you? You thought you were ssso clever, holding Nathan hossstage to advancsse your power. Am I wrong?"

Deslian made no reply. Sweat began to pour down his face.

"There, there, Dessslian," the Beast said, putting a hand in his shoulder. "I promisss you, you'll be dead before you know it." With that, the Beast slit Deslian's throat with the blade hidden in his other hand. The action was so swift that Deslian didn't even have time to change facial expression. He was dead instantly from the fast acting poison on the blade, a poison so potent that a drop of it could kill immediatly upon contact with blood.

With equal swiftness, the Beast pivoted and sent the blade toward Leon's on throat....and stopped just short, leaving the tip touching the Chameleon's adam's apple.

Leon didn't flinch. He just stood there waiting for the Beast to make his next move.

The Beast gave a hideous smile. "You are afraid," he hissed, relishing in Leon's suppressed fear. "You know that I am in control of your future. You know that a sssimple thrussst will end your life inssstantly. You know I have no qualmsss about killing you. Good. Asss long asss you fear me, your life will be ssspared. But remember Leon, there are far worssse thingsss then death. I did Dessslian a favor by giving him a quick, painlesss end."

Leon nodded, the faintest trace of sweat trickling down the side of his head.

The Beast lowered his weapon and turned to the skylight overlooking Nathan McCloud. "Congratulationsss, Leon," the Beast said. "You are the new head of sssecurity for the Wall. Now I have a job for you."

He turned to Leon and said, "I want you to ensssure that Nathan McCloud isss kept in the bessst of health and living conditionsss untill Kronosss and the Ssspectre arrive. You underssstand?"

Leon nodded in affirmation.

"Good. They will be here in five daysss. I exsspect the illuminatusss to be in exsscssellent condition when it isss time for the Procssedure. He isss no good to usss in poor health."

Leon bowed. "Understood, my Lord. I shall see to it that Nathan McCloud is in prime condition when the other Masters arrive."

The Beast nodded curtly, a thoughtful scowl on his face. "Good." He turned and left. The War was almost over now. Here, in the Wall, he, the Spectre, and Kronos will no longer be three seperate beings but one powerful entity. Although they could unify without the illuminatus, they couldn't maintain singularity for more then a few hours, and it was taxing on their energies. It was saved for purely emergency purposes.

The Beast smiled to himself. Five days. Then he will be one again.

Chapter Eleven

 

"Wolf O'Donnell always had a side that he never revealed to others, I think. It had always been my impression that there was actually an honorable man inside of him crying to be free. But I am not a psychologist; my guess could be dead wrong. But Makhina seems to agree with me, and she has always been a good judge of character."

-Emperor Boltzman Gorastar, journal entry.

 

Empress Makhina Fenri Gorastar sighed with mild apprehension as she waited for Wolf O'Donnell to arrive to the throne room. She had requested a private audiance with the former leader of the Star Wolf team regarding a matter that not even her husband, the Emperor should know about, at least for the time being.

She had become suspicious when Bolse issued a report claiming a minor radiation leak, and that the inhabitents, including Stormfront, were safe in the shelter rooms.

Makhina knew that such a leak couldn't occur easily. The Cybers were up to something.

Makhina had made a trip to the satellite, and they didn't have much choice but to let her in, confirming her suspicions that the report was false. After all, how could they lie to Makhina, who had always been their mistress, the highest ranking link to the Machine itself?

Once she had arrived to the satellite, she marched straight into the Labyrinth and into the Machine room. There the Machine had filled her in on the details.

Makhina had been both irritated and curious. She was annoyed that Jack Canis would commit such a blatant break of protocal, not to mention putting the lives of four young pilots in jeopardy to save their teamate. If she were still a Cyber she would have been extremely puzzled by this illogical behavior, but now that she was no longer mechanical, she had more comprehension of emotian and had to admit that she would have done the same thing.

What made her intrigued was the Cybers' covering up of the whole thing. They had planned for this, and after some coaxing Makhina learned, to her delight, that Ederax had instructed the Machine to cover this "operation" up from the knowledge of Gorastar. The Machine however, had refused to explain just how in the hell Ederax had contacted it in the first place, but one thing was for certain. If Ederax wanted this to be done, it was important.

After that little conference with the Machine, Makhina went to the Palace and, for no other reason then simple instinct, had arrainged for a meeting with her ex-boyfriend (she shuddered at the thought of it now), to handle the matter.

It was foolish, but Makhina did not think that even Jack Canis could rescue Nathan, not while he was acting without the auspices of the Emperor. He would need direct aid for this. The only one Makhina could count on to keep his mouth shut was Wolf.

The door opened. Wolf O'Donnell entered the throne room. His face was blank, expressionless.

Makhina stood and nodded to the guards at the doorway. "Leave us," she told them.

The guards bowed and left the room.

Wolf put his hands behind his back, a faint grin on his face. "Why the secrecy, Emperess? Does it have anything to do with the upcoming Invasion?"

Makhina regarded her former lover. Wolf O'Donnell had spent his first year or so of Imperial Service at Bolse, and had been introduced to Makhina by Andross during a formal party celebrating the alliance with the Macbeth Industrial Consortium. Wolf had played a key role in silencing protests within the Macbeth Work Force.

Makhina had been drawn at first to his gruff charm. He had a methodical coldness that she had found meritous, given her own admiration of the pure, cold, logic of the Machine. His lack of emotion also pleased Makhina, and it seemed to her that Wolf would make an excellent Cyber.

The Machine wasn't very receptive to the idea, however. Not surprising; the Machine never acted illogically, but it was impossible for lower intelligences to comprehend the Machine's thinking completely. Actions that appeared unreasonable were simply operating under a logic that just couldn't be understood.

Wolf hadn't liked it, however. He became rather critical of the Machine, which annoyed Makhina endlessly. Eventually, as her computing ability evolved, she became suspicious that Wolf was just seeing her to increase his own prestige. Although it was logical, Makhina found herself angry despite herself.

When Bolse was destroyed during the Star Fox campaign, Makhina found Wolf to blame. Their relationship disintegrated completely, and the two hadn't spoken informally ever since.

Now that she was no longer a Cyber, she liked Wolf even less. But she had sensed something... different in Wolf, something that could be characterized as noble. It was odd, and more then once she had gone to the Machine for answers. The Machine wasn't very responsive; possibly it did not wish Makhina to know.

Or maybe it just did not care.

"Wolf," she said presently. "I have a job of the utmost secrecy for you."

"Oh, really," Wolf said, raising an eyebrow.

Makhina glared at her fellow Lupine. "A pilot has been captured. His team, along with Jack Canis, have gone after him, without the permission of the Emperor. For reasons that are not of your concern, Bolse is covering for them. I am as well."

Wolf blinked. "What do I have to do with this?"

Makhina shook her head. "Jack can't do this himself, not even with the help of the team with him. They are only rookie pilots, talented but fresh out of the acadmay regardless. The Underground on Titania is helping out, but they don't have that many resources."

"So you want me to help them?"

Makhina nodded.

Wolf paused, considering it. "Who is the pilot that was captured?"

"Nathan McCloud."

Wolf blinked again. "Wait a minute... McCloud?"

Makhina nodded. "Fox's son."

Wolf's features twisted in discomfort. "You put me in a difficult situation, my lady. I swore oaths long ago to destroy Fox however neccessary."

Makhina growled, and Wolf promptly shut up. "Wolf," she said, "You are an idiot to pursue your hateful agenda. Fox saved your life; you, who was his hated enemy. He helped you deliver the crushing blow to the Kronosian Fleet at the battle of Gamma. Furthermore, you had dissapointed me when Bolse fell during the Androssian War, and despite your failures, the new Emperor Gorastar let you live. You owe the Imperium, and you owe Fox McCloud. But most of all, you owe ME."

Wolf listened to this keeping perfectly still. "What if I refuse?" he asked. Makhina bristled. The nerve!

With a blinding flash, a dagger traveled just past Wolf's shoulder and landed against the wall where Makhina had thrown it. Wolf had a look of utter surprise on his face, and his eye widened even more when he saw a single slit form on the uniform covering his shoulder.

Makhina grinned. "Refusal is not an option, Wolf."

 

* * *

Hours later, in a Wolfen II outfitted to resemble a Kronosian Fang class fighter, Wolf rubbed his shoulder uncomfortably. He reminded himself that no one crossed Makhina without paying for it, especially now that she was the Emperor's wife.

He wasn't jealous that Makhina had married Gorastar. No, he was just angry at her for her complete loyalty to that damnable Machine. He had never trusted that bucket of junk, and he privately believed that the Machine was responsible for the deterioration of his relationship with Makhina.

Now he was angrier still, angry that he was ordered to actually do Fox McCloud a favor. And helping Jack Canis, the traitor, the one who had stolen Wolf's previous Wolfen II. He wondered why Makhina had chosen him for this when she knew full well what his vendettas were.

He was forced to put such matters aside once he had reached the Barrier. He slipped past the security thanks to some codes provided by the Cybers, and made a stealthy landing on Titania. After a frustrating search on the Net, he found the branch of the Titanian Underground that Stormfron and Jack Canis were apparantly working with.

He was greeted rather coldly by the rebels. Apparantly they were once apart of the innumerable F.O.R.C.E. groups based on the planet, and they remembered all to well the damage that

Star Wolf team had done to F.O.R.C.E. bases. But, being allies to the Imperium, they had let him inside the base, but they continued to moniter Wolf with suspicion.

Jack hadn't been pleased to see him. He was even more displeased to learn that he was here to help. Jack and Wolf hadn't known each other real well in the Androssian Wars, although Wolf had asked Jack if he would be interested in joining Star Wolf once, and Jack had flatly refused. Then there was the matter of the stolen Wolfen....

But Wolf held firm. He didn't go this far for nothing.

Reluctantly, Jack agreed to let him tag along, despite protests from the young Stormfront pilots.

The plan was to sneak into the prison, which, it turned out, was the prison most infamous among the underground and the Imperium known as the Wall. Wolf had heard stories about it that turned even his fur white.

Apparantly there was an insider, and he was helping them get into the facillity. After a few hours of planning and debating, Wolf, Jack, and two Stormfront pilots, Drew Richard and Alexia Meer where in a stolen Kronosian rover, posing as officers arrainging a transfer out of the Wall.

They stopped at a gate and gave registration codes provided by their informant. Apparantly they were genuine. The gatekeeper nodded and opened the entry doors. Jack, driving, slowly eased the rover inside the loading bay.

They were inside the Wall.

Chapter Twelve

 

"I have become a direct

I have become a current

I have become a direct

I have become insurgent.

I will be the power surge

Shock to the system

Electrified, amplified

Shock to the system."

-Fear Factory, "Shock"

Stormfront wasn't the only one to pass the Wall. At the same time Stormfront was beginning it's covert mission, a Kronosian Thunderhead shuttle arrived, bearing two individuals who had a mission of their own to carry out.

Leon Powalski stood at attention in front of the exit ramp of the shuttle. Behind him a line of Kronosian guards formed a corridor to the prison entrence.

The door hissed open. Leon bent over to kneel as the two passengers stepped out of the shuttle and on to the exit ramp.

Kronos and the Spectre, here at last.

The Spectre didn't bother with changing to his true form; he appeared as a younger version of his Sean Dire persona. He dressed himself in a red cape and a black military uniform.

Kronos was the scary one. He appeared as a 6 foot tall humanoid in a black cloak and hood. His hands were folded and couldn'tbe seen past the sleeves of his robe. His feet were likewise hidden. He was dressed like a warlock in that sense, and nothing could be scene past his cowl except for two glowing yellow eyes.

Eyes that turned bright crimson when he was displeased.

He did not dare look up while he was kneeling. He kept still while Kronos and the Spectre regarded him.

"Stand," the Spectre said.

Leon obeyed and stood at full attention. He felt utterly transparant, vulnerable, in front of the two Great Lords. Kronos, in particular, seemed to be gazing straight into the bedrock of his own soul.

"Where is he?" the Spectre asked impassively.

Leon wasn't sure if the Spectre meant the Beast or the illuminatus. "Inside, my Lords, in the private chambers."

The Spectre gave a faint smile. "Good. A cautious one, you are. Show us."

Leon turned around and walked just slightly behind and to the side of the two Lords. Wordlessly, they made their way to the viewing room overlooking the cell where Nathan McCloud was being held. Who would have thought that the illuminatus would be the son of Fox McCloud, leader of the enemies of Leon's team that he had joined as part of his espionage?

The Beast was there, standing at the skylight looking down over the captive. His hands were behind his back giving him an aura of quiet patience.

The Beast did not so much as flinch when the door hissed open. Without a word, Kronos and the Spectre walked forward and came alongside of the Beast. Kronos and the Spectre joined the Beast in his observation of the illuminatus.

Leon moved to the side, and stood at attention. It was utterly chilling to see the three of them looking down with the cold indifference of gods.

"You may go now," the Beast said. Leon bowed and walked out of the room, thankful that he had survived the encounter.

 

* * *

"How long has he been here?" the Spectre asked.

"5 daysss," the Beast replied.

Kronos made a heavy breathing sound. "Kronos asks why we weren't notified sooner," the Spectre said.

The Beast didn't look up. "A foolish attempt at blackmail," the Beast said. "I took care of the problem."

"A waste," the Spectre said. He glanced over to Kronos. "Our esteemed colleague agrees."

The Beast replied coolly, "I do not tolerate interferencssesss."

"Bravo," the Spectre said wryly.

Kronos pointed to the illuminatus. The Beast turned to the Spectre and said, "Kronosss sssuggessstsss that we begin the Procssedure."

The Spectre nodded in assent. "No time to waste."

 

* * *

Nathan McCloud awoke as he heard the door to his cell open. In stepped three figures that he knew only from stories, rumors, and hersay. He knew them by the whispers that he had heard in the acadamy, and untill now Nathan wasn't sure if he had believed in them.

The three of them gazed at Nathan hungrily, like predators stalking their prey. Nathan froze, his body perfectly still.

The Spectre spoke. "We've been looking for a long time for you. A long time."

The words were like an electric jolt through his body. He just continued to remain motionless.

"You don't know it, but you're an incredible rarity. I see you do not comprehend. That doesn't matter."

Kronos, the cloaked and hooded one, unfolded his arms to reveal a gnarled, leathery, mishapen hand with long claws. Kronos pointed to Nathan, and all sank into darkness.

 

* * *

When he awoke, he was strapped to a table, arms spread, legs akimbo, and aching all over. There was a cold light from very far above. All else was darkness. The entire table was illuminated by the distant light.

The three Dark Ones were standing in front of him. "Ahh, Nathan," said the Spectre. "You are undergoing a powerful education. This, my boy, is your final lesson. The final step of an education that began once you entered the Wall."

The Spectre raised a finger. "Lesson number four, Nathan. Anyone can be a traitor. Anyone can lie. Anyone can be a fake."

He heard footsteps. He looked up, and all the blood in his body ran cold.

It was Dexear, dressed in Kronosian uniform, his face lined with sorrow.

"Dexear, what..." he whispered feebly.

Dexear leaned closer. "I lied to you, Nathan. For that I am sorry, but I had no choice. It had to be done. My young student, you now know the full meaning of mortality. You feel your weakness most accutely when you taste betrayel for the first time."

Nathan felt sick. He knew now he would never see his friends or family again.

"Begin the procssedure," the Beast hissed.

"What are you going to do?" Nathan whispered, his eyes pleading.

Dexear's eyes filled with pity. He pulled out a small capsule of some kind. "They want you to swallow this," he said, "It's the ultimate awareness enhancer; it will loosen the chains that bind your soul to your body, so that they can take it, and use it's energy to make them into a single being once again."

Nathan looked at the capsule. Dexear lowered until he was only inches away from his face. "But," he whispered ever so softly as he took out another capsule and forced it down Nathan's throat, "I....have....different....plans."

Then Nathan slipped into darkness, yet there was no darkness, for he could see everything.

 

* * *

Meanwhile, four figures dressed in stolen Kronosian uniforms, Jack, Wolf, Alexia, and an agitated Drew walked down the corridors to where Nathan was being held.

They had learned from the prison files that Nathan was to undergo a "Procedure." None of them had any clue in hell what that was, but it was agreed that it wouldn't be good for Nathan. The four located on the prison map where this "Procedure" would take place, and where on their way when a prison officer passed by. This officer didn't strike Alexia or Drew as strange, but to Wolf and Jack, who were familier with the crowd that had been on Andross' payroll, were startled to realize that Leon Powalski, who vanished when Gorastar became Emperor, was here at the Wall and working for the Kronosians.

Leon was equally startled, it seemed, to recognize his old teammate Wolf O'Donnell. Immediatly Leon lurched for an alarm panel, but Wolf, thinking fast, was too quick for him. He pinned Leon against the wall.

"Well, well," Wolf said. "So that's where you went. You turned traitor."

"I was a traitor long before I joined your team, Wolf," Leon replied dryly. He gave a powerful kick that sent Wolf tumbling, and he pulled out his weapon. He was outnumbered, but, Wolf knew, Leon would see this one to the death.

Leon was just inches away from the alarm panel. Without a second thought Wolf fired his laser. Leon fell dead to the ground.

Jack, Drew, and Alexia blinked in surprise. The whole encounter must have taken less then two minutes.

Wolf grew impatient with them. "Well," he asked as he brushed himself off. "Are we going or not?"

 

* * *

A few minute later they were in a large chamber. It was darkly lit, but Wolf could see a large shaft of light shining from at least 30 meters above. Strapped to the table was Nathan.

From their vantage point they could see little else. They were on a balcony of some kind overlooking the chamber.

Wolf realized with a start that at the foot of the table the Dark Three: the Beast, the Spectre, and Kronos were there. At the other end stood a Kronosian Hyena guard. Neither the guard nor the Three seemed to notice the intruders.

Wolf looked around. There were no stairs, no lifts. Furthermore, the door sealed shut behind them, and Wolf couldn't open it. It was locked shut.

Jack, Drew, Wolf, and Alexia were powerless to do anything but watch.

* * *

"What have you done to him?" the Beast demanded, his voice edgy. "Anssswer me!"

The Hyena officer replied calmly, "I gave him the awareness drug. A stronger dose then what you wanted."

"Damn you man, you could have ruined everything!" the Spectre cried.

The Hyena's eyes turned solid red. "That," he rasped, his voice changing, "was precisely the idea." The Hyena grew taller, his shoulders became broader, his features older, and his presence more menacing. His uniform changed from the blue of the Kronosians to the orange of Titania.

All three Dark Ones widened their eyes with shock.

"Hear me!" the Hyena cried, his voice ringing with power. "I AM EDERAX! And behold! My student has indeed finished his education; now he will do what I cannot do, and that is to cast you you out of the Universe!"

Nathan's eyes snapped open. A look of determination came upon his face, and the straps that were holding him snapped open. Nathan eased himself off of the table and he glared at the Three with a chilling scowl. He looked infinatly older then his fifteen years.

All three Dark Ones shouted in unison, "We may be three, but we can unite long enough to defeat you!" With that, the three of them spread out, and then ran toward a single area, and they all collided. Once that happened, a blinding flash lit the chamber briefly. When the smoke cleared, out rose the true Kronos in all of his terror.

It was beyond the description of even the most advanced and descriptive language. All that could be said was that it was huge, black, and nightmarish.

The thing roared in all of it's fury. Nathan stood his ground. He raised his hands, and they began to glow a bright white.

Kronos charged. Immediatly, a blinding beam of energy poured out of Nathan 's fingertips, and Kronos flew backward and slammed into the wall.

Thus the battle began, a battle that shook the earth and, piece by piece, laid waste to the Wall. Everytime, Kronos would charge, and Nathan would respond somehow; a burst of energy, a dodge,

or some other counter, and the destruction continued to bring down the Wall. Ederax stood, watching the whole thing, heedless of the quaking, and the falling stones and metal beams all around him. Wolf, Jack, and Drew were dodging and huddling to avoid injury, terrified for their lives, fearing almost that armageddon had arrived.

Elsewhere in the Wall, the cells and the doors swang open. The prisoners saw their freedom and surged forward, beginning the first riot ever to come to the Wall. The guards tried to head for the emergency weapons chamber, but those that went died in the explosian that followed.

Finally, with the Wall in ruins all around him, Nathan raised his hand a final time....and Kronos howled and lifted up in the air as if it was being carried by the wind, and it discorporated into a shadow being scattered by the rising sun.

Nathan fell to the ground, immediatly unconscious.

It was said by Lylatians to this day that the instant Kronos vanished, the Invasion of Lylat began in the space near Corneria.

Jack, Wolf, Drew, and Alexia got up, looking around in wide amazement. Alexia gave a cry and rushed over to Nathan. The other three followed quickly.

"Is he.....?" Alexia asked, unable to finish.

"No," Ederax said quietly. "He's perfectly alive. He'll just be out of it for a few days."

Jack looked at Ederax and opened his mouh to speak, but he was helpless to find words.

"You have a lot of questions," Ederax said.

"A lot? Hell, I'd say so," Drew snapped.

"What are you doing here, Ederax?" Wolf asked.

Ederax's gaze went over to Nathan's still form. Nathan looked peaceful. Indeed, it seemed that he was sleeping.

"What you four just saw was the final chapter of the tale that began when the Emperor Andross purchased a weapon from the Kronosians to rid himself of his enemies. A tale that spans twenty years."

"What happened? What was that crazy shit that Nathan was doing?" Drew asked.

Ederax sighed. "I gave him something no mortal was ever meant to have. Total, complete Truth, full awarness of this Universe and his place in it. Mortals, you see, are blessed with a fitful sleep that frees them from the curse of Truth. For when a mortal can no longer learn, no longer ask questions, can no longer pursue the Truth because all truths are none to him, he would feel so empty that he would destroy himself. That is why mortals are mortals, and they are fortunate. What I gave Nathan was a taste of this Truth. Now, he sleeps so that he may forget."

Jack took a deep breath. "What about you?" he asked. "What is your real story?"

Ederax looked very tired. "Once, there was a race of beings that lived in the very fringes of the Universe, so many thousands and thousands of years ago. We had a curse, and that was our own selves. We were so many things at once we clashed with one another, and yearned for answers to questions that could not be answered. Questions concerning the nature of the Universe itself. We strived to fulfil a gaping hole in our souls by trying to uncover the nature behind the Universe.

"Then we trancended this Universe in our quest to evolve. We became a semi-collective intelligence; able to group together in a single mind or break apart into several different beings.

For we learned that no object, great or small, is a separate piece of the Universe. We thought every thing was a separate whole of it's own. We learned that the Universe, and everything in it, was One.

"Some of us don't feel as if this existences is enough. Despite our raw power, we have to fade away sometime. Kronos is one of the oldest of our race; he was there, in fact, when we first Evolved into what we are now. He was nearing his final days; he started to fracture apart and would continue to do so until nothing was left."

Ederax sighed. "For reasons to abstract to be translated into any languages, I was sent to stop him from attempting to prolong his existence. He began conquering and enslaving other civilizations, looking for the one soul that would remind him what it was to be whole again, so that he actually could BE whole."

"And where is he now?" Jack asked.

"Reborn as another of our kind. Part of my job was to send him back into the cycle of creation and destruction so that he could relearn the lessons that he had forgotten."

All was silent, A light rain began to fall. All present except for Ederax went slack jawed. Rain on Titania!

"Well," Ederax sighed. "My work here is over. Lylat is yours now, and it will always belong to it's people. Now I must go elsewhere, and give my fairwells to my friends here."

"Will you ever be back?" Jack asked.

Ederax turned. "Of course. But I will never be recognized. You will never know that I am visiting, never know that the stranger you just passed or the fellow sitting alone at the next table is me. But it would be pointless to try and find out, because you won't succeed."

"So this is good-bye."

"For you, yes. But do not worry. You have your home back. The Wall has now fallen."

 

* * *

All that you touch

And all that you see

All that you taste

All you feel

And all that you love

And all that you hate

All you disturst

All you save

And all that you give

And all that you deal

All that you buy

Beg, borrow, or steal

And all you create

And all you destroy

All that you do

All you say

And all that you eat

And everyone you meet

All that you spite

And everyone you fight

And all that is now

And all that is gone

And all that's to come

And everything under the sun is in tune,

but the sun eclipsed by the moon.

-Pink Floyd, "Eclipse."

THE END

 

 

Here ends the Wall, part three of the Kronos Trilogy, which began with the Spectre and continued with the Crucible.

 

I love my characters dearly, and I would be quite flattered if you wished to use them in a story of your own, but all the same, please ask. It's common courtesy. The characters in question are (deep breath): Jack Canis, Boltzman Gorastar, Makhina Fenri, Dathi Engredel, Roko Kitsune, Red Firebird, Baat Duran, Sean Dire, the Spectre, the Beast, Kronos, Deslian Komodon, Ederax Rathii, Reichmann von Hendricks, Connors O'Rourke, Simon Karo, Rashid Kahn, Morgan Dolphus, the Machine, Grex Dakor, Rahnis Magdaren, Cody Black, Rolant Aneyh, Jinx Carr, Samuel Rodante, Avi Runner, Drew Richardson (as you guessed, it's a varient of my name: Jake Andrew Richard), Alexia Meer, Ivan Crovax, Brandon Gilmour, and a partridge in a pear tree.

 

 

Thanks to all of those who enjoyed reading the previous stories, and to Jason Wolfman for taking a chance on a miserable, twisted, deranged psycho named Jake Richard.

A special thanks to my brother Nick for letitng me use his character, Grey Bracken, in my previous stories, and to Scott Morris, for giving me his opinion when I needed it.

A very special thanks to the band Pink Floyd, the fuel for the Machine that drove me to write this story. Thanks, Floyd, for providing the music I love and cherish, especially the album, "the Wall," the namesake of the final story in this trilogy.