Even with the helmet on, she could tell the place was rank. It was a dive bar in the outer reaches past the asteroid belt near RX 338, on some dustball planet that most interstellar maps didn’t bother to ping on a quick scan. Even her ship’s computer had a heck of a time locating it for autoflight, which was a rarity. Usually, when a client requested a meeting this far out of the way it either meant an ambush or the need for absolute secrecy. Her gut said ambush, but then, she was feeling negative. The table in front of her was covered in little rings from old drinks, circle after circle overlapping the other like bubbles in a dirty bath. The armor made it awkward to sit in the booth and some of the patrons were casting sideways glances in her direction. She couldn’t help but smile; it wasn’t every day she got to sit in a room where everyone was scared of her.
The voice came from the left, as a short humanoid being walked slowly towards her. He was clearly old, though it wasn’t always easy to identify age with certain races. Paunchy and covered in gray fur with a head like a giant rabbit, his steps were slow, but deliberate, as though he was analyzing her every movement. That was fine; she was analyzing his.
“Yes,” she replied. “What’s the code word?”
“Metroid,” he shot back. “Yours? I have mine, you have yours, right?”
“That’s right. Thank you for coming.”
“Were you followed?”
“Not that I reckon.”
A lie; Samus had been busy watching the room as the old timer made his way to her seat, and there were two people at the bar who were subtly watching their meeting with more interest than was normal. Considering everyone else was scared to make eye contact with her, they stood out like sore thumbs. Samus noted the rabbit’s deception to herself but said nothing. If this was a setup, he was doing an awfully bad job of it. The rabbit wasn’t looking all that clever, but she decided to let the conversation continue.
“That’s good. Is this a transport or protection contract?”
The old rabbit ignored the question and took his seat across from Samus. Even in her armor, Samus had been able to slip into the booth well enough, but the rabbit was having some trouble stuffing himself in. After he finished wriggling, a beverage was quickly brought to the table by a thin, fox-like female. The fox gave Samus an extremely fleeting look before quickly making her way back to the bar. Samus was starting to feel uneasy as the rabbit drank deeply from his stein.
“Care for a drink?” he asked between gulps.
“Not particularly. Is this a social call?”
“Oh, not at all, just thought I’d offer. I don’t often drink with strangers, is all. Though, I guess there’s not that many folks who don’t know your name, these days. The Galactic Federation ever give you a medal for that Phazon business a couple years back?”
Samus blinked beneath her visor. Maybe this rabbit wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
“That’s… classified. How do you know about it?” she asked.
“Friends in high places, friends in high places, you know how it is. In our line of work, the more you know, the longer you stay alive. Isn’t that right, missy?”
Behind the old rabbit, one of the people she had noticed at the bar rocked viciously on the stool it was sitting on, its drink sloshing in tandem. Another humanoid, though this one seemed to be a frog. It was hard to determine gender from this distance. The frog quickly adjusted itself and became still once more. The rabbit cleared his throat.
“Yes. For example, the more I know about why I’m here, the longer you get to survive. You are trying my patience,” Samus said, coolly.
The other person at the bar opposite the frog bristled. Silhouetted by the smoke hovering overhead, a bird humanoid distinctly swiveled its stool in their direction and drew a hand a fraction of an inch towards its hip. The frog seemed to be trembling. Across from her, the rabbit smiled.
“Now, now, no need for that! I’d be a sight nervous if I was called here, too, myself, yes I would. Relax, I asked you here to talk business and that’s exactly what I aim to do. Like I said, miss, I just like to know who I’m making company with.”
“Likewise. You seem to know enough about me; who are you, exactly?”
“You don’t know? That’s good, actually. Discretion is the order of the day, and until I’m sure we can reach an understanding, you’ll just have to bear with me a bit. I know your services aren’t cheap Samus. I also know you don’t normally deal with folks like me. I take it my man made a decent case for me, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
“He did. I’ve known General Dane for quite a few years now. The general informed me that you and he share a mutual friend in General Pepper, who in turn had requested Dane arrange for us to meet. I normally require far more intel about a client, but I trust the general, so I’m inclined to trust you– to a point. I pressed as far as I could with General Dane, but he either knew or offered little; you are on the run, as I understand it?”
“As fast and far as I can get, yes indeed. But the time for that is past. My crew was scattered and we’ve been fighting to link back up for a little over a month now. It took some doing, but we’re ready to make our move.”
“And what is it you are running from?”
“Now THAT would be telling,” the rabbit said, resting his head against the wall of the booth and looking up at the ceiling. “The reason I’m running is the reason I’m calling on the hunter herself, miss. Fleets of Space Pirates wiped out single-handedly, the Phazon incident, and a hundred more legends besides. I need the best, Samus, and aside from my friends and me, you’re it. That ship of yours is custom, right?”
“Designed her myself. Three times the baseline power of a GF Stiletto-Class Fighter, with double the speed.”
“Perfect. We’ve got a small fleet, but each fighter is clocking in just a might under your specs, so we should be even enough. Heh, we might end up having to follow you, all things considered. OK. So. The mission…”
The rabbit trailed off. Samus was getting sick of the run around, but she was noticing something else. A third mystery person she hadn’t seen until now. A fox, further away in the opposite corner of the bar, talking with the she-fox waitress. It was clear that this was the rabbit’s crew here in the bar, but what was becoming evident was that the rabbit wasn’t the main one in charge. The fox… how had she not noticed him before? He was fierce, like the bird, but more controlled. He hadn’t moved an inch in all the time she’d been there, but it was clear he was watching every movement she made. She’d had enough.
“Alright, out with it. It is clear you’re not here alone. The frog, the bird, the she-fox, and the fox, are all here with you, but it is obvious that you are not the one in charge. The fox, he’s your leader, isn’t he?” Samus asked, an edge in her voice to let the rabbit know she wasn’t fooling around. The rabbit looked down into his stein as the frog really did fall off its stool, this time.
“Well, you’re no fun at all, are you?” said the rabbit, smiling again. “OK. To the nitty gritty. What do you know about Fichina?”
Samus’s eyes narrowed behind her visor.
“Enough to know that a group of five mercenaries destroyed a hidden weapons development facility on the planet and are currently wanted by every civilized star system in the galaxy. You and your friends, I take it?”
“Yeah, that’s us. Here’s what you don’t know; we didn’t do it. Well, we were there, but it wasn’t us that pulled the trigger, so to speak. It was an oddball mission to begin with. Our crew normally handles military contracts, but a private firm sought us out to help deal with a distress call from one of its freighters. The call led us to an out of the way spot on Fichina when, bang, the place goes nova on us the second we hit the facility’s airspace,” the rabbit sighed heavily, drank, and continued, “We didn’t even know it was a military site until a week ago. Anyway, we dig a little deeper, and it turns out the firm that hired us was a shell company for someone you might have heard of: Andross.”
“Andross is dead,” Samus said.
“Yeah? That’d be the second or third time I’ve heard that, myself. You know Dane, Samus; he wouldn’t have guided you to me if I was known for telling tall tales. Well, outside of a good hunting trip here or there, heh. Sorry, just nervous, is all. Our leader, he didn’t want to involve you, but I told him, I said, ‘Look, if we’re going to clear our name, if we’re going to take down Andross for good this time, we’re going to need someone like her to help us out.’ A fresh perspective will help, too, I figure. Plus… this time Andross has a friend.”
“Who?” Samus asked.
“Someone that really makes you the one to be our sixth wingman. A lunatic by the name of Ridley.”
Samus glued her eyes to the rabbit’s through her helmet. “Ridley. Impossible. I killed him by my own hand, but it would not be the first time he has… returned. You’ve got my attention. Now, who are all of you?”
The rabbit’s crew had slowly made their way to the booth and were standing in a ring at the table’s edge. The rabbit emptied his stein and said, “Samus Aran, meet Slippy, Crystal, Falco, and Fox McCloud. My name is Peppy and I have just one, last question for you; can you do a barrel roll?”