Star Fox: Inertia - Ch. 6 of 14 by Tempo (critique requested)

Star Fox: Inertia - Ch. 6 of 14 (critique requested)


5 June 2017 at 11:11:44 MDT

Star Fox: Inertia
Chapter 6
by Tempo

Fox McCloud struggles with the lack of an interplanetary crisis and possibly having a life for once. Krystal is the only other sane person on the team. Everybody learns the benefits of comprehensive insurance.

~ ~ ~

In an Arwing, Fox McCloud felt, if not more relaxed, then at least freer.

The fine-tuned controls obeyed his every command, moving the craft through almost any maneuver he could imagine. For the moment, he flew in escort formation with the Great Fox II. Not because of any particular danger, but because he wanted to think. His life wasn't a total mess, but a few worries still weighed him down. Kilo for kilo, Arwings were the most expensive ships in the Lylat System and he had four of them. Even minor damage required major funds for custom-machined parts. And the hand-me-down carrier he'd bought from the Cornerian military seemed like less of a bargain every day, with an ill-tempered reactor core and every airlock seal and CO2 scrubber well beyond its rated service life. As he flew over the ship, he noticed the silver patches of foam steel, plugging holes in the battered hull.

Life wasn't all bad. His wing mates were reliable, if quirky. His girlfriend was smart and sweet and helped to keep him sane. But for a while now, he'd been meaning to talk to someone outside the team. Seeing the same people every day made a fox go a little stir-crazy.

He flicked through the names in his wrist communicator until he came to an old friend. After setting the auto-pilot to not crash into his carrier, he pressed the call button.

The communicator rang for almost a minute before someone picked up. A triceratops face loomed onto the screen. "Hi Fox!"

A smile materialized on the vulpine's lips. "How's it going, Tricky?"

"Great!" A bounce of excitement shook the camera. Behind him, the throne room of the Walled City gleamed in all its lavish colors and massive glory. "I was just talking to the hatchlings for Everyone Loves Tricky Day. I didn't come up with the name, but I did approve it." He winked conspicuously. "A king has to be a little modest, after all."

The grey metal interior of Fox's Arwing suddenly felt a little drab. "So ruling Sauria is working out?"

"Yeah! You should come by and see the place." Tricky stomped his feet, which dislodged a little dust from the ceiling. "It's a really pretty summer this year. Maybe we could find more of those mushrooms that change the color of my scales. Those were neat! My doctor says I can't have more of those fire-breathing ones for a while, but still! We could start a whole new fashion. It's hot out, so nobody's wearing clothes anyway."

"Sometime." Fox flexed his toes inside his boots. It would be nice to walk on the beach again. And see Krystal in a swimsuit. "We have some cargo to run."

"You run a lot of cargo." Tricky relished saying the exotic verb and noun, then finished the sentence with a wink of pride.

He shrugged within the confines of the cockpit. "We need to make money."

"Right, money. Money always sounded frustrating." He nodded with an earnest attempt at empathy.

Fox reminded himself, not for the first time, to not to bother discussing his finances with dinosaurs. "And I guess I'm just a little paranoid. My enemies have a habit of coming back from the dead."

The triceratops nodded. "Do they always come back as giant floating heads?"

"That's mostly just Andross." McCloud rubbed his nose, which had gone a little cold in the chill of space. "He did do it twice, though, so I see how you could get that impression."

"Well, just let me know if he comes back again and I'll come fight him for you!" He tossed a confident smile to the communicator, honorary Star Fox medal glinting around his neck. "No floating head can stand up to an army of EarthWalkers, no matter how giant!"

The pilot gave a soft chuckle. "I'll keep that in mind."

"You should stay here a while, Fox." A crackle of sadness tinged the dinosaur's voice. "Then maybe I could get everyone to understand I didn't save the planet and defeat General Scales by myself."

"Whatever happened to Scales? Last I saw him, he just passed out from a Krazoa spirit leaving his body." He gestured with his free paw. "Is he still alive?"

Halfway through a reassuring smile, Tricky froze and thought for a moment. His crest shifted to almost white as his mouth dropped open. "Gotta go! Official royal business." He beat a rapid retreat out of the room, thundering out into the court hall.

After a few minutes, Fox decided his friend wasn't coming back to turn off the communicator. He ended the call from his side, then sat in silence. The faint rumble of engines and hum of the reactor under his seat provided the only noise against the eternal silence outside. He shifted, the fabric of his spacesuit creaking, and drummed a claw on the control panel, just to make a little noise. Here he sat, piloting the most advanced starfighter ever produced, vaguely jealous of a triceratops.

~ ~ ~

With gentle taps on the controls, the vulpine settled his Arwing into its moorings. The fighter had an auto-dock feature, but he liked doing it manually when he had more than the three seconds the auto-dock took—just to keep in practice for when he had less than three seconds. Heavy latches closed around the nose of the craft.

Just above, a blue vixen in a gold jumpsuit leaned on the handrail to watch him. Her tail swished playfully, jingling matched jewelry. "Hello, Fox."

He popped the canopy. "You have a way of showing up before I even know I want to see you."

She tilted her head for a smile, golden beads in her hair glittering. "It helps that you like seeing me."

He climbed out of the cockpit. "So it has nothing to do with you sensing my emotions?"

A slim blue paw curled around his, helping to hoist him up onto the catwalk. Once their eyes were level, she touched her nose to his space-chilled one. "That only helps with timing." Her body drifted against his as those paws rested on his flight suit belt.

As the hangar bay door hissed closed behind him, he indulged in a sweet moment. The subtle scent of her perfume teased him closer, so novel after the recycled air of a cockpit. Pulling off a glove, he reached to cup her warm, soft cheek ruff.

She leaned into the gesture, silky fur tracing over his paw pads. Her teal eyes dared him to kiss her. Their muzzles drew closer, closer…

At the far end of the walkway, a door screeched slowly open to reveal Falco holding an empty mylar snack bag. "Okay, we are officially outta potato chips." He shook it upside down, allowing crumbs to fall out and quiver in midair beside the catwalk, caught in the anti-grav field. Strains of cock rock rattled from the headphones around his neck, each edgy strain of rooster vocal echoing through the hangar bay.

Krystal rolled her eyes, then offered a shrug of apology. She'd mentioned more than once how strong emotions, especially when coupled with physical contact, jam her empathic radar. Even if that let people walk in now and then, her feelings being that strong was at least flattering.

Thumbing the hem of his flight jacket, Fox switched off the built-in heater. "It's your turn to buy."

"As if!" He tapped a primary feather on his chest. "I'm the best pilot the Lylat System. The team budget oughta cover snacks."

The todd let his wingman's ego fly right by. "Go eat some cereal. We have plenty."

"We're down ta the most boring and healthy breakfast cereals. Slippy ate all the marshmallows outta my Astro Blasters." He jerked a feather toward his open beak with a gag noise. "We're down to Corneri-O's and some bran…things. And we're outta soda too."

"Falco, what're you talking about? We have a ton of soda." He lashed his tail, working out the kinks. Even the most comfortable seat got old after a few hours. "It's down in the galley."

"Yeah right! I'm not drinkin' anything called 'Fox Fuel.'" He made air quotes with his feathers. "Besides, yer face is on every bottle. I don't wanna look up at you while I'm suckin' on one." He turned to Krystal. "No offense."

"None taken." She gave a sweet smile and a spicy look. "More for me."

The bird's pink tongue hung out the side of his beak with a forced gag.

McCloud buried his face in a paw. The soft drink sponsorship had fallen through, but a sympathetic employee had smuggled them the entire test batch. "It's just green apple."

"Better idea." He pointed primary feathers at the team leader. "Let's put it on the black market."

"I don't think there's a black market for soda." Fox caught himself locking onto his wingman with his targeting visor and quietly switched it off.

"We could park on a beach somewhere and pretend the ship's a soda fountain." Krystal flashed a wry smile, pearly whites gleaming against a sea of blue fur. "Falco can be the soda jerk."

"Har har." He clacked his beak mockingly. "Tell me what I'm feelin' right now, psychic."

The blue fox leaned back against the railing, watching the crumbs spread along the anti-grav shear plane. Her tail swept graceful arcs, its jewelry jingling. "We arrive at Zoness tomorrow. You can shop there."

"Ugh!" Wings flung to the sides, his head tilted back in a caw of persecution. "You know they never have anythin' good. Can't we just have it shipped to us while we're in transit?"

"When we start pulling in serious money again, maybe that can happen." McCloud smoothed his scruff, which had been ruffled by the collar of his flight jacket.

The bird tossed the empty chip bag aside and crossed his wings. "Then we need better gigs."

The leader nodded. "Affirmative, Star Fox Two."

The tall avian swept a wing toward the far side of the bay. "Corneria should just give us money every month so we can ensure nothing bad happens."

The leader sighed. "Falco, if they did that, we'd either have joined their military or become some sort of mafia."

He hooked his thumbs into his pockets. "I call dibs on the name 'Don Falconi'."

McCloud cocked an ear at the bird. "Star Fox is not a crime family. Stop suggesting that."

"Shoulda thought of that before ya crossed Don Falconi, bub." He made machine gun gestures at the red fox.

The vulpine rolled his eyes. "You have a point, though: maybe we should sign on with the military. Bill would be an understanding CO, and with Peppy in charge of the fleet, we could negotiate some good terms." He pondered the idea for a moment. "We'd probably have to wear their uniforms."

The vixen sighed. "Those seem so baggy. Perhaps I could get mine fitted."

Fox's thoughts veered off course. An image of Krystal in a well-fitted dress uniform marched into his mind to give a sassy salute. He felt his sheath start to raise the colors in response.

The corners of his beak stretched up in a smirk. "Personally, I'd prefer they wear our uniforms." Blue wingtips rose in a little flourish before his chest. "But we can negotiate."

The vixen's paw came in for a soft landing on her lover's shoulder. She tossed him a wink. "I think what Fox means is we'd have to play by their rules."

McCloud crossed his arms. "Are you ready for that, Falco?"

The bird turned and kicked the crumpled chip bag off the edge of the walkway. "I'm gonna go check the snack inventory again." He walked out the door and back into the corridor. His shadow stretched behind him, not slowing, but turning to grumble: "Dunno how we're supposed to save the day without money or snacks…" The music of his headphones faded away with him.

Fox closed his eyes with a long exhale. Once he was sure the avian was out of earshot, he groaned. "Sometimes, I just wish Falco would grow up. Did you hear that stuff about the soda?"

"Yes, and I agree with him." She nuzzled directly into his ear, her breathy whisper teasing delicate fur there. "If anyone's going to gulp down your sweet nectar, it's going to be me."

He straightened in an instant, ears popping up and face flushing with heat.

Chuckling, Krystal leaned back against the handrail with a playful lash of her tail. "So a lady in uniform is what does it for you?"

The flustered fox straightened his flight suit and tried to regain his composure. "Hm?"

"Nothing, nothing." An amused and especially vulpine smile de-cloaked on her muzzle. "That's just the most arousal I've felt from you in a couple weeks."

Eyes flicking to her, he grimaced with chagrin. "Aw jeez, I'm sorry. It's just been one thing after another and—"

"Fox, love." She turned him by the shoulder to face her. Her smile radiated comfort and understanding. "If you aren't having sex because you're worried, and you start worrying about not having sex..." She shrugged, leaving him to finish the train of thought on his own. "Just know that I enjoyed feeling my boyfriend's attraction to me. It's alright. No pressure."

"No, no, it's not alright." His eyes closed in frustration. "I saved the Lylat System and now I'm broke. I have a personal squad of fighter craft I can't afford to maintain, but don't dare sell, even if I could find a buyer. I don't know how many times I have to save General Pepper's life before he stops calling me 'junior'—and he's the only flag officer who could find his exhaust port with both hands and targeting computer. The rest are too scared of admitting they rely on mercs to keep everyone safe that they won't pay the mercs enough to get by—which would be a catastrophic policy if we weren't so scrupulous. Also, I'm not sure, but I think my dad might be alive as a space whale. And I've been putting all my energy into keeping this carrier limping along for another cargo run." A snarl escaped his lips before he could bite it back into a whine of frustration. His gaze met hers, insecurity welling up in his stomach. "And, at the end of the day, I can't even relax enough to get with my incredibly attractive girlfriend."

The hallway door scraped open to admit a squat and happy frog waving a tablet of schematics. "Hey Fox! I think I finally figured out how to fit a smart bomb launcher on the— Oh." He glanced at the foxes in turn. "Mammal stuff, huh? I'll come back later. It can wait." The amphibian spun an about-face, lashed his tongue out into the floating cloud of snack crumbs, and stumped right back into the hallway. The door closed behind him.

Krystal's eyes followed him down the hall, through the bulkheads, no doubt tracking him by his emotions. "Your performance in bed is nothing to be ashamed of." A naughty glimmer sparked in her eye, visible even before she glanced back to him. "I'll have you know I rather enjoy your performances. I seem to remember calling for an encore last time."

Disconcerted and flustered, Fox turned to her with a flush in his ears.

She took him by the paw. Her ears rose and angled to him. "What was this about a space whale?"

The todd groaned. "Just something I saw—thought I saw in Sector Y." He pressed paw pads to his eyelids. "I wouldn't put too much stock in it. I also swore I saw a giant slot machine in the Bolse prototype wreckage one time."

She gave a slow nod of concern, then patted gently him on the back. "Alright, darling, I think you could do with some sleep."

A heavy sigh left him. "You're probably right." Before any other quirky crew mates could ambush him with their problems, he let her lead him back to their quarters.

~ ~ ~

Fox dreamed.

The Great Fox II smoldered before him, but that wasn't the problem.

What mattered were the ruins around it: restaurants, hotels, homes. The sky choked with soot, the air crackling with residual energy, he stood in the wreckage. Corneria's skyscrapers stood pockmarked by explosions and scarred by laser fire, when they stood at all. A fleet sailed overhead, raining down further destruction.

As most talented pilots in the Lylat System, Star Fox was honor-bound to defend it. And as its leader, McCloud was obligated to keep the team running. If alien incursions and merciless armies couldn't stop them, something as mundane as lack of cash shouldn't either. The first Great Fox had been built to last—and his father had intended it as a lasting force for good. Even before Fox had sacrificed that inheritance to thwart an invasion, he'd already been scrambling to make payments, let alone keep it at peak performance. Could he really ask his friends to keep risking their lives when exposed to that kind of needless risk?

Part of him knew it wasn't real, banged on the edges of the dream. But that rational part of him had little power in the world of irrational worry. Part of him was ignored.

Pressure tightened his chest. His mind entered a spiral of guilt he couldn't pull out of. If only he'd been just a little faster, a little better at shooting down the Aparoids, maybe he'd still have the Great Fox. This brought to mind all the other times he could've saved the day for just a few more citizens of Lylat, if only he'd picked the right jump point or hadn't hesitated for a surer shot. Even in the dream, he knew it wasn't fair, wasn't rational, but now, standing in the twisted and smoldering ruins of the capitol, it didn't seem to matter.

He wasn't the flawless statue they'd erected to him on the Academy lawn. He wasn't the perfect dogfighter attentive pups studied in Space Combat 101. He was flying by the seat of his pants out here, where resources got stretched and death seared past his canopy with every aileron roll. He'd slapped the name Great Fox II on the battered old assault carrier. It'd kept team morale and public faith up, but he knew better. The original had been built to last centuries, the replacement a disposable asset that happened to survive enough deployments to be sold as surplus.

Now, cities burned. Planets fell. And all because he couldn't do his job.

~ ~ ~

Fox woke.

The Great Fox II thrummed around him, but that wasn't the problem.

What mattered were the thousand or so things wrong with it. Any one of those could prove the difference between victory and defeat, life and death. If rag-tag pirates could punch a hole in it, what good would it be in a real fight?

Loving paws slipped around him. A slender muzzle brushed the back of his ear. "Bad dream?"

A deep inhale bought him to search for a summary that wouldn't worry her. Both the breath and the explanation escaped him. He worked the tension from his jaw. "It's just stress."

"This is the third time this week your dream's woken me. Neither of us are going to get much sleep until you can stop worrying so much." Her fingers traced through his bare chest fur. "Anything you'd like to talk about?"

He groaned. This is what he got for dating an empath. "The same things as always: missions, money, my place in the galaxy."

She smiled against his ear. "Makes a vulpine long for the days when we were saving the system every year or so."

A long moment passed. Out the window, he watched a slowly-scrolling starscape. "Must be tough, feeling everyone's emotions all the time." He didn't say, but he felt guilty about disturbing her sleep. It occurred to him she could feel the guilt too, which made hiding it a little silly.

"It can be invigorating, if I'm somewhere upbeat. The ambient attitude seeps in." She kissed his neck. "And you've been giving me a new appreciation for it."

He nodded and stroked her paws. His body snuggled back against hers, enjoying her warmth against the ever-present chill of space. Outer space might have an unlimited appetite for body heat, but they could always keep each other warm.

"Look, it's morning anyway." She glanced to the ambient light projector she called a clock. It was currently blue-awash-with-amber o'clock. "We should get up and get some breakfast. I stashed a few fresh melons in the unused crew quarters we don't pipe heat to. Let's have those with breakfast and see where the day takes us from there."

With a deep breath and a creaky stretch, he consented to her plan. His body still felt tight and his mind still swirled with worry, but she was right. Besides, they were due at Zoness in a few hours. Clothes would be required for any business transactions there. It wasn't Sauria, after all.

~ ~ ~

An hour later, Fox sat in his office. Being in uniform made him feel disciplined, reminded him to sit up straight. Not wanting to feel too disciplined, he kicked his boots up on the desk. Breakfast had helped a little, even if it left his whiskers sticky and smelling like fruit.

Meanwhile, Krystal had slipped into a silver silk sarong and bikini top. She draped herself over his battered sofa, a vision of beauty against the utilitarian bulkheads and exposed wiring.

Footsteps down the hall drew the vulpine's attention. Falco had demanded more secure quarters after the repeated destruction of his porn collection, and had only been satisfied by getting the old captain's quarters, which had previously only been used for meetings. This had the unexpected result of Falco showing up to meetings. After stepping through the stuck-open office door, the avian himself dumped a gulp of coffee into his beak while glancing at the foxes.

The blue fox crossed her arms. "Well, look who's the early birdie."

He made a face more bitter than the coffee merited. "Ya wanna know what I think?" With a wide yawn, he scratched his tail feathers.

Setting down his mug of cheap coffee, the todd propped a tablet on his knee. "Falco, what could I possibly want first thing in the morning besides knowing what you think?"

"Lemme put it to ya like this." Setting his mug on some papers, he popped the collar of his flight jacket, then snapped his feathers toward Fox. "I got another business proposal for ya."

Bracers gleaming, the vixen scratched her chin with an amused look. "It's bound to be a good one, statistically speaking."

The avian ace paused to speak directly to her cleavage. "You forget to put a shirt on again?"

"No, I thought I'd leave my breasts on display for a bird with a mammal kink." She stretched with a yawn. "Just for a change of pace."

Fox interrupted before they could continue sparring. "If this is a real proposal, let me call Slip." He clicked a button on his gauntlet.

The next second, a holographic feed of the frog popped into existence. He waved. "What's up, guys?"

"Okay, so we form...a band." He paused for adulation, wings spread to each side. When it wasn't forthcoming, he barreled on. "Falco and the Star Foxes. I mean, we've already got the name recognition."

McCloud raised a digit. "We don't play any instruments."

"So we fake it. Big deal." He played a little air guitar. "I'd play electric guitar and lead vocals."

The red fox nodded, then stared back into his coffee cup and swirled the dark liquid around. "Of course."

"Fox, you'd play bass. We'll bring Peppy outta retirement to cover drums, put those twitchy rabbit instincts to work for us." He glanced back to the female fox. "Krystal, we'll find ya a tambourine or somethin'."

"I'll be sure to dance quietly, off to one side…" The vixen examined her claws. "…so as not to divert any attention from you."

"I think it's a neat idea!" A grin widened on Slippy's image. "What about me, Falco?"

"You're our roadie." The bird shrugged. "You handle the gear."

The amphibian gave a little hop. "Woohoo! Acoustics are actually a really interesting field. Designing a speaker setup for species both with and without external ears poses several technical challenges, such as eq—"

The avian ace reached over and clicked off the comm button on his leader's gauntlet. Relative silence fell upon the cabin. He gave a winning smirk.

Pulling back his paw, Fox suppressed a growl. After not sleeping well, he was in no mood for the pheasant's games. "Falco, do you have any actual ideas? Or are you just molting or something?"

"Ugh. Ya always were a wet blanket, Foxy." He leaned against a bulkhead, knocking loose a panel, which clattered to the deck. "Jeez laweez. We should see if we can get our money back; this thing'll never hold together." He kicked the fallen panel under his commander's desk. "Why don't we just, I dunno..." He swept his primary feathers wide for emphasis. " another Great Fox?"

Fox didn't look up from his tablet. "It was very expensive."

"Yeah, and so are we." He crossed his wings and leaned back against a bulkhead. "We're the best mercs in the system."

With a quiet groan, McCloud glanced to his wingman. "Yes, but our operating costs are crazy. Those replacement wing tips alone—"

"Yeah yeah." He scoffed with a caw. "What I'm hearin' is we need to charge more."

The vulpine's paw swept toward his old friend, reaching for common understanding. "If we charge more than customers can pay, they'll just hire the second most expensive mercs in the system."

Krystal raised her ears at the discussion. "That's probably Katt. She has expensive tastes..." She cast him a sidelong look. "...if charitable ones when it comes to men."

Falco struggled to keep his beak shut until he could reclaim his cool after the burn. His shrug swooped in, carefully casual. "The girl likes to dress nice." He tilted his head to the side, eyes closed as he smiled. Then he jerked a thumb at Krystal's less-than-regulation outfit. "Not all of us can get away with wearin' napkins."

A shrug rolled her supple, bare shoulders. "I'm actually considered rather modest back on Cerinia."

His crest rose as the thought sunk in, eyes wide. He turned back to his boss. "Fox, I changed my mind. We needa retire on Cerinia—pronto."

With a serene nod, she brushed a lock of hair from her face. "You do realize you'd be broadcasting your sexual urges to everyone around you?"

Rubbing his bleary eyes, the leader yawned. "I don't see how that's any different from what happens now."

"I got nothin' to apologize for." He clacked his beak into a smirk, looking over his shoulder at the seated vulpine. "Ladies love sexual confidence."

With a groan, the red fox leaned back in the chair and rubbed his eyes. "So unless you have a big inheritance you haven't told me about..."

She cast the bird an amused glance. "Been sitting on a nest egg, Falco?"

He threw his wings toward the ceiling. "How much could it possibly cost?"

The leader took a deep breath. "More money than you could spend in a lifetime."

"Ha!" He crowed smugly. "Don't underestimate me."

Motion out the plasma-scored window caught his attention—the sides of freighters already docked at the station rolled into view. A distant clank rattled through the ship, shifting the deck under their feet. The distinctive hiss of a pressure door connecting echoed down the hallways.

Slippy's voice croaked over a partly-blown intercom speaker: "Endothermic ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the Zoness Orbital Terraformer."

"Come on, Falco." McCloud tipped his ears at the door. "We have some binding agent to unload."

"You gotta be kidding me." His sharp eyes peered down at the planet below. Though perhaps a few shades bluer than before, it still had massive algae blooms and dead brown patches. An odd sadness touched his tone. "The place's still total dump."

With a glance back, Fox paused at the door. "Which is why we're shipping them toxic waste binder."

Krystal rested a blue paw on the bird's shoulder. "It always takes longer to fix something than to break it."

Just as fast as it had appeared, the flicker of vulnerability vanished behind a cocky smirk. "Whatever. Let's get this over with." He turned, smoothed his crest feathers, and strutted to the hallway. "I'm gettin' hungry."

The leader patted him on the back. "I think I know just the place."

~ ~ ~

The illustrious Star Fox team perched on the stools of a back-alley noodle shop. Neon flickered, casting artificial hues over the scruffy characters shuffling by: nimble delivery runners, off-duty environmental engineers, furtive freighter pilots. Fried oil wafted heavy in the air, coating the second-hand counter and battered barstools in a thin film. Not the most glamorous place for the saviors of the Lylat System, but the food was good. And cheap.

Falco slurped at a big bowl of fresh ramen noodles. Krystal nibbled at a skewer of roasted meat and vegetables, her keen teal eyes casting about the passing crowd as she soaked up their emotions. Sitting behind a heaped plate of wontons, Slippy happily snatched one dumpling after another with his sticky tongue.

On the other side of the counter, the shop owner, a woodchuck, wove twin spatulas in a magical pattern to imbue the food with extra tastiness. The grilled hissed with steam whenever he squeezed a shot of water onto it, unleashing a gout of steam. Pots of soup bubbled and burbled. Racks of fresh rice and buckwheat noodles shook to the faint rumble of the space station's power core.

A more insistent vibration distracted Fox from his noodle bowl. He glanced at his glove readout. The Great Fox II had been refueled. Good. They could wrap up here and head back wherever the heck their next mission was. He'd have to check the shipping boards again. Maybe he could get another escort mission. Sure, following a cruise ship around was boring, but the pay was steady. Even if it meant weeks of Falco making jokes about other sorts of escort services he'd like to provide.

The street outside buzzed with commerce. Unfamiliar music danced by on cheap speakers. A snowy TV in the corner implored him to "shoot all three energy balls," complete with a cartoon character shoving them toward the screen before downing the small canister of orbs. The toon then bounced around the screen and accomplished various life objectives. Fox wasn't sure how many stimulants you could fit in a chocolate malted milk ball, but he was pretty taking three of them butted up against some legal limit.

Krystal looked content, gazing out at the crowd. Maybe she got tired of only sensing the emotions of three weirdos crammed in a rundown ship. Upon consideration, Fox found himself feeling a little better too. He'd made a difference here. Nobody would be fixing the biosphere of this planet if he hadn't stopped Andross. Sure, nobody was actively praising him, but he never knew what to do with hero worship anyway. People living their lives, working toward their unique happiness, thanks in part to him, was something to smile about. Granted, he'd smile even more if he could find a replacement reactor for the Great Fox II, but every person in that crowd outside probably had a similarly mundane goal in the back of their minds. If that wasn't the good life, it was within a hyper-jump of it.

Shifting light announced someone else coming in from the alley. Pattering in the noodle shop door, a weasel in a fitted business suit zipped inside, trotted over, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Mr. McCloud?"

The vulpine hesitated only a second. "Yes?"

"Today's your lucky day." The mustelid flashed a sharp-toothed grin. "I'm Ernie Erminson with Astrosurance, Inc. You smash 'em; we cash 'em!" He chuckled to himself. "Now, if you'll just sign here, we have a nice little moon we're prepared to give you."

"A moon, huh?" The red fox tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He deposited another bite of noodles into his muzzle.

Falco scoffed, turned up a wing. "This's what happens when you're the good guys—people give ya moons."

"I actually have the details here." The agent set his tablet on the counter. "It orbits Titania." The mustelid conjured a stylus from his sleeve, which he offered to Fox. "If you'll just sign at the bottom of the screen…"

Still nibbling a rainbow of peppers, Krystal's ears rose. "Isn't travel there restricted? I seem to remember something about giant sand monsters."

Conspicuously silent, Slippy comforted himself with another wonton.

Fox, watching, slurped down more of his noodles. Whatever this guy wanted, probably best to let him give the details before committing. Eating provided some excellent cover when someone tried to read your expression, so long as you weren't concerned with looking overly interested. He, meanwhile, was mostly interested in finished the second half of his soup.

The weasel waved a quick paw at the holograms rising from the tablet's glass surface. "Actually, this moon's out beyond the planet's rings—so it's not explicitly forbidden by any treaty or law!"

The avian ace chuckled as he pulled an especially thick noodle from his soup like an earthworm from the ground.

Swallowing, Fox studied the ghostly celestial body. "It doesn't even come with an atmosphere." He turned back to the weasel. "Is there anything valuable on the moon? Minerals? Ruins?"

"Maybe!" The slim businessman threw his paws in the air. "The real treasure is having your own moon."

Recovering, Slip bounced a bit with interest. "Under Cornerian finders-keepers law, we own a bunch of asteroids because we landed on them first."

Falco glanced up around a beakful of noodles. "Does crashing count as landing?"

The weasel twirled the stylus between nervous digits. "Our legal department has combined all the paperwork into this revised claim form. I just need one signature from you, Mr. McCloud, and we can get the ball rolling." He emphasized the statement with a smooth roll of his long backbone, which ended with him offering the pen again with a flourish.

Krystal brushed a lock of beaded hair from her face and subtly tapped her temple, then glanced to the weasel.

Pretending to wipe his muzzle, Fox mouthed a silent reply: "Con job." He turned back to the supposed insurance rep with a toothy smile. "Go on?"

The weasel's paws danced over the screen and pulled up some large figures. "We're also willing to consider a cash payout. We're prepared to offer you a lump sum of 2 million credits. Of course, if you'd take a structured payment, it would be much more over time."

On the far side of the weasel, Falco snatched the stylus and scribbled "Fox MacCloud" at the bottom of the contract. The tablet flashed red and beeped its rejection of the signature. The ace cawed in dismay. "Aw, seriously?"

Fox ignored the blatant forgery. "Why are you even offering this deal?" He sipped his soup, which had rings of green onion floating in it. Probably grown hydroponically on the station.

Hind paws shifting in a nervous dance, the mustelid chittered a chuckle. "It's not uncommon for us to seek a mutually-agreeable compromise with our most valued clients."

Trying not to tip his paw, Fox took another bite of noodles. As he chewed, he tried to think of any property he might have a claim to. Maybe something on the Reinard side of the family? "Why'd you agree to insure something if you didn't have the capital to back it up?"

The mustelid gave a sinuous shrug. "It was very unlikely to be destroyed in any scenario other than the total destruction of our civilization. Win or lose, we never anticipated paying out for a 91% rebuild."

Fishing a final mushroom from the bottom of his bowl, the vulpine munched on it with weary regard. "A rebuild of what, exactly?"

With a flick of his digits, the weasel pulled up a listing on his tablet. "A musty, old Dreadnought-class heavy cruiser. Decades outdated."

Muzzle hanging open, McCloud dropped his chopsticks. A chain reaction of conclusions ended in extreme relief. His paw somehow managed to set his emptied bowl on the counter, then helped prop him up, feeling lightheaded and distant. Reaching into his pocket without looking, he slapped some credit chips beside it. He rounded on the agent. "Where?"

The mustelid blinked. "Oh! The Space Dynamics shipyards, but—"

"Right where we left it..." He grabbed Krystal by the paw, muzzle beaming with delight. "C'mon!"

The blue vixen, looking as if she didn't quite follow, followed him nonetheless. Her eyes reflected his hope, which she had no doubt sensed by now. He'd explain later. In his head, he started running the numbers for how fast they could get to Corneria at full burn.

Slamming his noodle bowl down onto the counter, Falco dashed after them.

Sensing a reprieve from table manners, Slippy dumped all remaining dumplings into his wide mouth. He washed them down with Falco's noodles before hopping along too.

"Wait!" The weasel did a war dance of shock, fumbling his tablet. "Where are you going?!"

A grin spread across the fox's face as he pushed through the crowd. "We're going home."

~ ~ ~

You didn't really think I was done, did you? ; )

New chapters will be coming out every Sunday and will double the length of the existing fic. Thanks to the generosity of the artists of the fandom, I got permission to use about a dozen really cool pieces of art, which I've written the chapters around.

Editors: Kohaku Nightfang, Slate, Pharrox, Eljot001, SillyNeko345, StarFox94, CarlMinez, T-Kay
Art: :iconKaji: (Used with permission.)

Also, yes, Fox Fuel soda is a real thing. It's from Jones Soda, of course. X)

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Visual / Digital