Fox’s team galloped behind Samus, weaving in and out of dank alleyways on their route back to the hangar. Samus sensed weariness from them, as they had begun to trail behind, their breathing becoming more audible and labored. She rarely worked with allies, partly because most simply couldn’t keep up with her, physically. Between the extensive training of her youth and the stamina augmentation that the Varia Suit afforded, Samus had few equals on a battlefield. Team Star Fox was holding her back, but their survival was paramount if she was going to stop Ridley and Andross in time.
Samus sighed silently to herself, trotted to a stop, and raised her hand to halt the rest of the team.
“Rest. I’ll scan the local radio signals for any chatter about our escape,” Samus said, quietly. The alley they were in had come to a four-way split, leading out to several different streets. It was cramped and extremely dark, save for the lights on Samus’s armor. She quickly dimmed them, sending their assemblage into pitch-blackness. They’d been on the run for an hour straight, traveling across what felt like the whole city to try and shake the soldiers on their trail. With all the quick cuts and turns they’d made, it was highly unlikely any pursuers were nearby. The group, however, remained silent, leaning against the sullied walls of the alley and gulping in great breaths of air.
“Don’t you, d-don’t you *pant* ever get tired?” Fox asked after a moment, still breathing ragged. Samus had switched her visor into night vision mode, and could see him leaning back, hands resting on his knees.
“Yes,” Samus replied, plainly.
Her response was automatic, but in truth, it was something that she rarely thought about. Samus’s own needs rarely crossed her mind, outside of food and sleep. On the field, though, in the middle of a mission, even her body’s cries for rest and sustenance melted into nothingness. Part of it was the Varia Suit, which could sustain her for days on end, but it was more a credit to her own strength of will than anything else. Samus was single-minded of purpose when there was a job to be done.
And there was always a job that needed to be done.
“Yeah, well, it sure doesn’t look like it, sister. I’m dyin’ here,” Falco retorted, rubbing his chest. There was just a hint of envy in his voice.
“If you’re dying, then I’m worm food. Oooh, my feet…” Peppy trailed off, flat on his back in the middle of the alley.
“No, don’t say food. I’d kill for food,” Slippy moaned. He, too, was on the ground, but face down.
“You and me both, Slip,” Krystal sighed, her head pressed backwards against the wall and looking skyward.
Samus flipped through the different frequencies, doing her best to block out the group’s chatter. Everyone was at least keeping their voice down in case any soldiers or stragglers might overhear them, though Samus would have preferred absolute silence. It was mainly commercial lines she was intercepting, along with a couple of personal feeds. Nothing from the military or the local authorities, which was more worrisome than comforting. There was no way the troops who had come to seize her and Fox’s team had come alone, which meant whoever was after them was actively cloaking their communications. The enemy was being cautious.
“Are you getting anything? I’m just picking up a bunch of useless freighter talk and someone screaming about his food being late. Hate to be that restaurant…” said Fox, his voice just audible enough to be heard. His right hand was pressed to his headset, and she could see the call numbers for the different radio signals scrolling down Fox’s HUD lens.
“The same. I am changing tactics and communicating with my Gunship, now. I believe the enemy is masking their transmissions, so I will have my ship’s AI utilize its suite of decryption tools to break into their signal,” Samus replied.
“I figured they were blocking us, too. I just buzzed our AI to do his own decrypting. ROB 64 is pretty good, but I don’t know how long he’ll take. Let’s keep each other posted on our progress, yeah?” asked Fox.
“Agreed. Are your people ready? We can’t stay here long,” Samus asked.
“We’re good,” cut in Falco. The others were close behind him, looking worn, but slightly rejuvenated.
“Good. Let’s–” Samus broke off and pointed quickly toward the southern quadrant of the alley. Two troops had just entered, inching slowly forward into the darkness where Samus and Fox’s allies were gathered. She and the others began silently making their way toward the mouth of the alley heading in the opposite direction of the troops, careful to avoid knocking over any debris littering the ground. Some of the ventilation system equipment jutting out of the walls overhead was emitting loud mechanical whirs and groans– enough to mask footsteps, but not clinking and breaking glass. Samus noticed Fox’s team kept paying special attention to Slippy as they hurriedly tiptoed along.
The alley made a sharp right and became wider and curved, now big enough for three people to walk abreast comfortably, though it remained ensconced in blackness. Fox, Krystal, Slippy, and Peppy seemed undeterred by the lack of light, but Falco looked entirely out of his element, grabbing the back of Peppy’s jacket and running his hand across the wall for guidance. The troops were a good hundred feet back, but Samus and the others would have to make a break for it once the alley eventually opened into the street again. Samus and Fox’s team could finally see the pinprick of light that was the end of the alley, when suddenly a delivery vehicle backed in and shut off their exit.
Samus could hear Falco curse under his breath, and it was clear a bit of panic was starting to set in amongst Fox’s team. Fox himself was composed, however, and before Samus could begin directing them, he had made a circular motion with his hand, signaling them to cling to the walls. They obeyed, Samus included, but she wasn’t comfortable with Fox’s gambit. If she was right, Fox was intending to have the troops walk past them in the darkness, and then retreat back the way they’d come. There was at least another two hundred feet from their position to the opening of the alleyway, meaning once the troops had advanced past them all, they’d have more than enough space to double back without being detected– theoretically. It was also entirely possible one of the troops might bump into them and start firing.
Thankfully, Samus’s night vision allowed her to take a closer look at the soldiers inching forward. They had clearly been in the bar during the assault. Their armor was pocked with divots and dings, and great patches of black ash splayed across both of them– the mark of Samus’s Power Bombs. Their seeming obliviousness to the team’s presence and the damage to their armor confirmed Samus’s suspicion that any tracking gear the troops might have had wasn’t functioning. Cornerian soldiers were always equipped with at least a motion sensor, but watching these two, stone silent, groping in the dark with their energy rifles drawn, it was obvious that they were operating at less than full capacity.
Samus and Fox’s team began making their way back. Though the alley was more spacious on the end they were in, it was still far too close for comfort with eight people in such close proximity. The troops would sometimes lay their hand against a wall in order to keep themselves oriented, meaning it would be a dangerous game of cat and mouse until they’d all safely passed. For the members of Fox’s group who could see well enough in the dark, it was manageable, but Falco still appeared far from reassured at being led by the nose. Slippy, despite being able to make his own way, looked like a writhing mass of sweat and fear, practically clinging to Krystal and slowing their progress.
It happened quickly. As the second of the two troops moved past Slippy and Krystal, Peppy began to lose his footing and fall toward the ground. Samus acted instantaneously. With uncanny speed, she shot between the two soldiers at a diagonal, summersaulted through the air, and landed silently right beside Peppy, catching him by the arm and stopping him from hitting the alley floor. He was trembling as sweat matted the fur about his temples, but didn’t utter a sound as the two troops paused, looking uneasy. The air seemed to pressurize around all of them. The soldier closest to them began reaching out, inches from Falco’s shoulder. A cacophony of white noise flooded their ears.
There was a great crash up at the head of the alley, a loud crunching noise mixed with the sound of shattering glass. Workers had started unloading goods from the delivery truck, but in their haste dropped a crate filled with drinking glasses. The soldiers again froze, but something about the people had unnerved them. The trooper nearest the mouth of the alley angled his head slightly, apparently speaking to a superior or the soldier next to him with his helmet’s comm system. As long as that slog through the alley had been, the troops ran back the way they had come and disappeared almost instantly. The pressure in the air fizzled, and Fox’s team all slumped into the alley walls once more and slid to the ground.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened, I’m sorry, guys,” Peppy stammered, his face in his hands.
“Don’t be sorry, Pep, I can’t see a freakin’ thing, we’re all just lucky it wasn’t me piggybacking onto one of those goons,” Falco chimed in, feeling in the dark for his shaken friend and roughly wrapping an arm around him. Peppy gave a small chuckle and went quiet. It was a closer call than any of them would have cared to admit.
Samus activated her comm and beamed her voice directly into Fox’s earpiece:
“Fox, we have wasted too much time. The soldiers will be getting reinforcements any moment now. If we are going to make it to the hangar, we can afford no further delays. I do not know if your team can make it in this state. Should we separate?”
Fox straightened and looked directly into Samus’s visor. Fox knew she could see him clear as day, so he made a point of slowly looking at each of his teammates, all in various states of disarray, and whispered seriously into his mic, “No. We’re exhausted, we’ve been on the run for weeks now, but no one is stronger than my team. We spent too long tracking you down to split up right away like that. We’re ready. Let’s go.”
Fox spoke so resolutely and confidently, that Samus didn’t object. Samus didn’t know them beyond the snippets of information she’d gleaned in military reports and heard secondhand from other bounty hunters. Team Star Fox was respected, certainly, but nothing could trump firsthand experience. She’d had her doubts from the second they met in that dive, but as Fox ordered his comrades to pull themselves together and get ready to move, she could see the determination in their eyes. They would die for each other, every one of them, and even now, winded, starved, and hurting, they were ready to follow their leader. Samus might not know Fox’s team, but she was beginning to. There was more to them than met the eye.
“Forgive my doubts, McCloud,” Samus said, speaking once more into Fox’s comm.
“We’re in this together, Samus. No harm, no foul,” Fox responded. He gave her a fleeting glance over his shoulder and a thumbs up. It would have to be enough, for now.