The old place had been a subway station back when Metropolis hadn't been overpopulated and rebuilt as an industrial nightmare. It had long been abandoned by the time they had found it, but after some work to restore power and set up basic necessities it served as a good base of operations in the city. Certainly superior to their old base.
After acquiring the resources, Chuck had even installed an elaborate computer system to help regulate their various missions and update information for agents in the field. The system helped several other Freedom Fighter groups, not just their own, correlate information and intelligence about potential targets.
Chuck frowned as he looked over the news reports about the hit that went down yesterday, leaning back in the threadbare chair in which he usually sat. He'd expected them to spin it like this, of course, but it was never pleasant to watch. Their strikes were always carefully designed to limit the collateral damage as much as possible, and yet to hear these pundits and talking heads rant on, one would think their group had marched into a busy market with guns blazing. Robotnik owned the media, so of course they were not going to mention the fact that the destroyed tanker had been filled with toxic agents from the Chemical Plant Zone, used for making weapons used in the armed forces. Nor would a word pass their lips that those weapons and chemical toxicants would be used to kill off the Bears and bring their Zones under Dominion rule.
"What did you expect?" Okida asked over the communication hologram when he saw Chuck's discontented expression. "Robotnik has some of the best bullshit artists in the world working for him."
Okida functioned as their liaison link with other Freedom Fighter cells over the resistance network, NICOLE. Being a bat, he had large, black, leathery wings that curved over each shoulder. His ears stood erect from either side of his head, but his face was almost completely hidden behind his head-fur, one flaxen yellow eye staring out between the bangs. Being a nocturnal animal, he was awake only at night and was capable of moving around in complete and total darkness, making him a shadowy figure even amongst the resistance. Nobody knew his actual location at any one time as he only communicated via holographic relay.
Chuck himself was a hedgehog, paler blue then his younger nephew and touched by white hair-like quills that had grown over the edges of his eyes and in a short moustache. A few sprouted from his forehead, giving him a quiff. Dressed in a thick, brown leather jacket and a belt to which were attached several dozen pouches full of devices and tools, he looked more like a mechanic, but functioned as this group's strategist and leader despite his advanced age.
"You never get used to the lies." Chuck said with a grunt, adjusting his belt and making the tools jingle against one another. "The propaganda is so good even I feel like we're making a mistake sometimes."
"Do yourself a favour and stop watching television, Charles." Okida recommended, his visage flickering as the old projector hiccupped. "You took out some of Robotnik's weapons as well as a payload of chemicals he needed. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned." Chuck paused and then nodded once in the affirmative.
"Yes... Yes, you're right." He picked up a remote from the side of the screens and used it to turn them off, silencing a bombastic, red faced pundit in mid-rant. "So just how much of a blow was that to his infrastructure?"
Okida cleared his throat. "The loss of that tanker meant that the chemical weapons needed to suppress the latest Bear uprising will be several weeks late. By then the Bears will have protective shelters against such bombing in secure locations. It's a big win on the strategic front." Chuck turned his head to the second holographic display, depicting all of Mobius with red sections showing where Dominion hold was especially strong. The planet was mostly red.
"Meaning that he'll have to divert more troops to the northern frontier to deal with them." The old hedgehog mused. "Leaving other targets lightly defended." Okida grunted and rolled his one visible eye.
"Of course, he'll realise that and up production of replacement Swat-Bots and other badniks." He said in grim resignation. Chuck grinned back at him.
"That'll be expensive with all those facilities we took out. He'll spend and waste a lot of resources rebuilding them." Okida blinked at this and then chuckled back at him.
"Resources that en route can be hijacked." The bat surmised.
"If you know where and how to hit them it starts a very lucrative domino effect." The old hedgehog replied with an almost evil grin. Okida shifted his wings, adjusting the weight on his back.
"So I suppose I ought to be on the lookout for resource and asset realisation in various places and let you know when they start to move?" Chuck nodded.
"Yes, if we can pillage enough of their supplies and materials, that will really damage their military fighting force."
"Shame we don't have an army to fight them directly after that." The old hedgehog's grin widened.
"Not yet at least."
"I'll get back to you then." With that, the hologram winked and then disappeared completely.
Chuck turned the machine off and redirected his attention to his computer, looking over the latest spy reports for Swat-Bot deployments in the city. It still saddened him even after all these years to see these machines used to oppress and terrorise. This was not what this technology was meant to be used for.
There was a knock on the door and before Chuck could even look up, another of his Freedom Fighter cell came in. Tall and lean, Hare was one of those rare half-breeds that crop up occasionally. His mother had been a rabbit, but his father was an actual Hare. No one had expected the union to produce anything so his birth had been something of a surprise. Unfortunately, like all hybrids such as a Mule, he was sterile and incapable of fathering offspring himself. Anyone who made an issue of that usually ended up with the young man's fist in their mouth.
At some point in his life he had gotten into a nasty fight over the insult and someone had taken a bite out of his left ear. The large gap in the shape of teeth marks was unmistakable. He kept both long floppy ears tied up out of his eyes by a red bandana he had around his forehead.
In terms of skill assets he was their communications expert, able to jury-rig the systems so that their long-range hologram transmissions were untraceable, as well as being able to divert Dominion signals at critical moments so targets would be longer without reinforcements and to allow agents to flee unhindered once their missions were completed.
"I think the boy's waking up, Chuck." He said, throwing a thumb back over his shoulder. Chuck blinked and then remembered the civilian they had taken into their midst and straightened in his chair. He had best be there to handle the boy should he become distressed.
"Yes, right." He said and, getting up, he followed Hare out of the room. Much of the electrical power for their base was spent on maintaining the computers, so lighting was basic and tended to fail every now and then, leaving patches of shadow in the short corridors. The young fox was laid out on the seat cushions of the old subway waiting room just beside the arrival platform. Sally had already tended to his wounds, bandaging up the cuts and bruises. A large but simple meal of bread, meat, and roasted vegetables lay on a tray nearby at the ready. The boy looked as if he hadn't eaten properly for a couple of months, his ribs showing against his skin. When Chuck arrived he was beginning to flutter his eyes with a low moan.
"He seems alright." Sally remarked, pushing some of his head fur out of his eyes lovingly. She and Sonic were there already, Chuck's younger nephew balancing a simple copper coin on the end of one finger and making a sport of seeing how long he could keep it there. Despite his laid-back posture his eyes were fixed on the young fox with a worried look in them. Hare gave the young lad a sceptical glance.
"And ummm, the two tails are normal?" He asked, bringing everyone's attention to the giant elephant in the room that until now they had been tiptoeing around. The boy did not just have one tail. From the base of his spine sprouted two perfectly identical furry appendages. Chuck came over to inspect the boy.
"For his physiology, certainly... It seems to be a natural mutation." He said for his own conclusion and then looked around at them all. "I think that unless the boy brings it up himself, we act as if it's not important." Sally nodded in agreement.
"But what was he doing inside a Robotnik weapons tanker?" Hare persisted with narrowed eyes, drumming the fingers of one hand against his arm. "We've never found anyone like that in the Chemical Plant Zone transports before." Sonic placed the coin he was playing with on the edge of the table and flicked it forward, watching it roll along the edge.
"Hostage, maybe?" He ventured.
"A hostage for what?"
"I don't know, maybe he's the son of some business tycoon that couldn't get what Robotnik wanted on time and so he held his son hostage until it was delivered."
"That's a little thin, isn't it?"
"Best I could come up with on short notice. But give the kid a break. We can ask him about it when he's awake."
Suddenly the boy's eyes snapped open and he sat up quickly gasping for air and looking around at them all in fear. Chuck held up both hands, placating.
"It's ok, sonny, we won't hurt you." He said in the most reasonable and soothing tone he could possibly manage. The young fox looked around at them, bewilderment and confusion plain on his face.
"W...who are you?" He asked fearfully. Sally took centre stage, stepping forward and gesturing to herself.
"My name is Sally." He said to him kindly and then turned to the others. "That's Hare and Charles." Chuck gave him an amused, disarming sort of look.
"Just call me Chuck. You're amongst friends." The boy looked at him, then back at Sally, fear still clear in his eyes.
"But... I was..." He started.
"Rescued, by yours truly." Sonic put in with a wide, almost goofy grin. "How you feeling, kid?" The young fox turned sharply to look at him. He stared for a moment and then his blue eyes widened in stunned recognition.
"A...are you...w...who I think you are?" He asked in a small voice. Sally rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling as Sonic stood up erect at that, adopting what she liked to call his 'heroic pose #5' and grinning from ear to ear.
"What? The only true blue, handsome hedgehog with the need for extreme speed? Accept no substitutes?" He asked rhetorically and so full of himself that he seemed lost in his own self-congratulatory world.
"Oh, brother..." Sally groaned. The kid's eyes seemed like they were about to bug out.
"You're Sonic the Hedgehog?" He asked breathlessly. The heroic poses went through numbers five to ten. If there was one thing Sonic enjoyed doing more than anything else, it was showing off for his supposed fanbase.
"Wow... You can actually see his ego grow." Hare said, giving the blue hedgehog a bemused sideways glance. The young fox looked around at them all, having come to a conclusion.
"Then...you must be Freedom Fighters?" Chuck nodded.
"Yes. Our group is small but we do what we can." He said.
"You're not one of those people who think that Robotnik is on the up-and-up, I take it?" Hare asked.
The kid grimaced and huddled in on himself, eyes downcast. His entire being seemed to radiate repressed and frustrated anger.
"No." He said with a catch in his voice. "I know just how much of a monster he really is." Sonic came over and affectionately patted the young fox on the head.
"See, I told you, the kid's on the level." The blue hedgehog said with an irrepressible smile.
"I still want to know what he was doing locked inside the transport." Hare remarked flatly, staring at the kid with narrowed eyes. The boy flushed and looked down again.
"I... I don't remember..." He stammered in confused reply. "I was hit on the head." Sally cocked her head to one side thoughtfully.
"Possibly Robotnik thinks that by strapping civilians to his transports he can use them as hostages against attacks." She mused out loud and everyone suddenly wore a grim expression at the possibility. Chuck straightened and twiddled with the ends of his moustache.
"I don't think so." He remarked. "Robotnik is ruthless, but he's not stupid." He made a dismissive cutting gesture with one hand. "Not even his best propaganda pushers can spin civilian shields as a good thing." Sonic just shrugged.
"Let's worry about it later, Unc." He said and looked at the young fox directly again. "So kid, what's your name?" The young fox actually blushed and looked away hesitantly as if he didn't want to answer.
"...Miles." He eventually said as if admitting to a crime. "Miles Prower." He quickly looked up. "But...everyone just calls me Tails." Sonic hissed through his teeth and shook his head.
"Wow, that's a bit rough." The blue hedgehog remarked, assuming that the nickname was derogatory, but Tails shook his head, dissuading them of that.
"Well...I actually prefer that name." He said with some eagerness. "Miles sounds...dorky." Sonic blinked, and then laughed.
"Tails it is, then." He chuckled.
"Apt name, at least." Hare remarked dryly. Sally smiled kindly down at the boy.
"Tell us about yourself, Tails." She said in the most inviting and friendly tone she could possibly manage. "Where are you from?" Tails hesitated, looking around at them all as if still not sure of their intentions towards him.
"I...I used to live in a small village outside the Chemical Plant Zone." He began after a moment to gather his courage. "The refineries used to hire people from our place to work the machines. My dad...h...he was very good at repairing the robots used for maintenance on the pipes. It earned us some good money and we could eat well." His shoulders then slumped. "But my dad started getting sick... Guess it was working around all those chemicals without protection all day. We were short on money to pay for the medical bills so I decided to work in my dad's place. I went to the refinery and then I was hit on the head from behind as I came in." He spoke as if he were reciting common knowledge, surprised they didn't already know. His face contorted into an angry little scowl. "They took my mom and dad!" He declared. "I'm sure of it!"
"Well, don't worry, kid, we'll help you find them." Sonic said without a moment's hesitation, thumping the boy hard on the shoulder companionably. Tails looked up at him dumbstruck.
"Y...you will?" He asked with wide eyes. "Just like that?"
"Of course, why not? We're Freedom Fighters; we're here to help people like you against Robotnik and his goons." Sonic said and gave the others a look around as if daring any of them to argue with his impulsive declaration.
Nobody had the heart to tell him that even if they agreed, finding the boy's parents would be near impossible.
Flesh and blood soldiers were a thing of the past with the 'Cyber' revolution that brought about the rise of the Dominion regime. It had been Robotnik, then Dr. Julian Kintobor who invented the first badniks. They had been robots primarily designed to be construction workers but then refitted into military weaponry to help repel the alien menace of the Metarex during the invasion ten years ago. Ranging from the fast and flexible Moto-Bugs, the strong and sturdy Swat-Bots, the specialised tunnelling Caterkillers, and the aerial capabilities of the Seekers and Buzzbomber units, the badniks had been essential in turning the tide against the Metarex Drones.
After the war, when Kintobor had inverted his name and proclaimed himself dictator, much of the Metarex weaponry left behind had been salvaged to augment the badniks' own armaments. Mass production of badniks was the Dominion's major industry and most research labs were directed towards improving their designs and viability. The media, economically owned and run by high-ranking Dominion members, framed badniks as tools of just law enforcement used to protect the people from deadly enemies and state outsiders. Few amongst the general population had seen what these machines were truly capable of, the evils to which they were put.
Sally had seen enough of them, though. In her sixteen year life, spent mostly in the service of the resistance, she had seen more than she thought she would eventually be able to live with of these mechanical monstrosities. She had no family that she knew of, an orphan of the streets that Chuck took in to raise alongside his nephew. Where her family was, who they were, and why they had abandoned her; these were all secondary things in her mind. She owed so much to the resistance that had become her family that discovering her old one was something to be speculated about momentarily before more important matters took her attention.
Tonight, she was too busy cataloguing all the data she had acquired about the badnik's upgrades into her terminal to worry about such things. Robotnik had certainly enhanced his Swat-Bots for improved handling of Metarex weapons. Those devices were finite in quantity. Robotnik could only salvage them, he couldn't make any more. But given time Sally knew he might be able to learn enough about them to reverse engineer his own prototypes. Sonic was good, he was very good, but Robotnik could adapt his machines to suit almost any scenario. How long, she wondered, until he adapted them enough to beat the blue hedgehog?
"Moto-Bugs, increased armour rating by five percent." She said, speaking to her recording device her observations from the mission yesterday. "Swat-Bot physical strength doubled to cope with recoil of heavy weaponry. T.M.A.T units seemingly still equipped with standard machine gun ordinance."
It was late at night. Everyone else had long since gone to bed. This was the best time to concentrate on her cataloguing, when there wasn't anyone around to distract her… Especially Sonic. She paused to sip from her still warm cup of coffee before continuing.
"Seekers displayed improved air-to-ground arsenal, estimated increased plasma incendiary payload by thirty percent. Recommend training for Sonic to anticipate such firepower."
"Can he really do all that?" A voice from behind her asked. Sally blinked, set down her cup and turned around in her seat. Standing there in the doorway was the young boy Miles, or Tails, she corrected herself.
"I didn't hear you come in." She said. Tails shrugged.
"I've got soft feet." He replied with a nervous smile. "Sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, it's just... I couldn't sleep. It's a bit overwhelming to be here. I've heard so much about you Freedom Fighters." Sally smiled tolerantly, shifting in her chair so that her legs crossed.
"Nothing good, I'd wager." She said dryly.
"Oh, I know what the news says about you all, but I don't pay attention to that. Everyone in my village could see you're only trying to help." His tone was so earnest that Sally reaffirmed her decision to like him.
"But...how is he able to do all that?" The young fox asked, gesturing to the computer where on the screen it showed amateur news footage of Sonic using his own quills to slice a badnik in half. It was one of his more impressive tricks. "I always thought all those stories about him were...just that, stories. I couldn't believe it when I saw the footage of him."
"It's certainly impressive." Sally agreed, looking back towards the computer screen with a bemused expression. "And to be honest nobody really knows how he does it. Even when we were kids, he was stronger and faster than any of us. As he got older he only got faster and faster." She paused. "I suppose it's hardly normal. Maybe he's a mutant..." Tails pursed his lips.
"Like me..." He muttered, but it was loud enough for Sally to hear. She paused, sighed and then turned in her seat.
"I suppose you had a hard time about it?" She asked directly. Tails met her eye and in his expression she could see a deep hurt. It was something she had come to recognise the signs for in people, having seen it often enough in the downtrodden of Robotnik's system.
"Everyone used to say I was a freak caused by the toxins leaking out of the Chemical Plant Zone." He said bitterly.
"Some small mutations, maybe, but certainly not the growth of a second tail." Sally told him confidently and with as much compassion as she could muster. "Sometimes there are people who are drastically different from everyone around them. Sometimes they have longer tongues, or they're vastly taller. Sometimes people can even be born with an extra finger on each hand. Whatever is different about you is perfectly natural."
Tails cast his gaze down at the floor sheepishly and then after a moment looked up at her.
"My Ma and Pa were the only ones in the village to say that. I didn't think anyone else would see it that way."
"All of the Freedom Fighters are abnormal in some way." She said and she smiled roguishly. "We're all social outcasts, non-conformists and renegades. We take in the downtrodden and the exiled. We're a family of the discarded." Tails was quiet for a moment and she could tell he was building up to something.
"I, err...want to ask something." He began, letting his twin tails swing out behind him.
"Sure, what is it?"
He stood there on the spot, swallowed and then blurted out;
"I want to be a Freedom Fighter!"
"Robotnik did something to my dad and...I know it might not be practical for you guys, but...Sonic promised he'd help and I believe him. I wanna help you guys out as much as I can so you can help me back." It was the speech of an impassioned young man who thought with his gut rather than his head.
Sally considered what to say to that. He was a bit young for their line of work, but on the other hand they needed new recruits. But did she have the right to conscript a child, robbing him of an ordinary life? Conversely, with Robotnik was calling the shots on Mobius, what real chance for an ordinary, peaceful life did anyone really have?
"I think it's a great idea." Another new voice said. Turning, Sally saw that coming out of the dormitories was Sonic, his quills disarranged in their usual early morning manner. Tails looked over at him, startled to not be the only one up.
"Of course." Sonic told him, coming over. "Anyone who has the guts to stand up to Robotnik has my vote."
"Sonic, he's only about ten years old." Sally remarked, happy to have someone other than herself to argue pros and cons with.
"So?" Sonic asked, tapping Tails on the head companionably. "It's the perfect time to begin the training for the job. If the kid wants in why not take him?"
"We only met him yesterday?" The blue hedgehog shrugged.
"How old were we when we did our first mission?" He asked.
Sally grimaced, remembering that first mission all too well. She'd been on more dangerous missions afterwards, of course, but since it had been her first, it still gave her nightmares. The pounding thrill and adrenaline high, mixed with almost debilitating levels of anxiety. Sonic had been totally cool, of course. Hardly anything got under that hedgehog's skin.
"Anyway," He added. "It's his decision." Sally gave Sonic a glare and then turned back to Tails.
"Do you understand what being part of the Freedom Fighters means, Tails?" She asked him. "It means that even when your folks are safe again, you won't be able to go back to them. You'll be one of us. It's not something you can just decide to do lightly." Tails leaned back on his feet, a determined expression on his face.
"I know." He said. "And I still want to be a part of it." Seeing that he was sincere and determined, Sally sighed in defeat.
"Well, it's not my decision." She said. "And he'll have to be shown how things work and made to understand, which won't be easy... But I'll see what Chuck has to say about it."
Sonic beamed in triumph and grabbed Tails under his armpit to give him an enthusiastic and friendly noogie.
"No way Unc wouldn't see how great you'd be!" He said, beaming from ear to ear. "So welcome to the Freedom Fighters!"
There were several high-level agitators that the Dominion had placed on the 'most wanted' list, declared outlaws or threats to national security. All methods at the government's disposal were used to try and track these elusive fugitives. There was speculation amongst the Dominion council of updating the D.S.N, the Deep Space Network – a grid of telescopic satellites in orbit used to monitor deep space for approaching external dangers such as Metarex – to allow it to scan the planet for terrestrial treats. Robotnik had yet to give his approval and release resources necessary for such an update.
Each fugitive on the most wanted list had a bounty attached their heads which was thought would encourage the populace to do their civic duty and turn in these outlaws, or at the very least deny them aid. Due to his continued and persistent sabotage of property and vital military industries in the Metropolis Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog's bounty had been dramatically increased. This put him at the very top of the list, the most wanted being on Mobius.
His likeness was put up in law enforcement offices across the city, displayed on the television news and public screens in busy intersections. Even old fashioned 'wanted' posters were spread out across the city, each one promising that the one who caught the blue hedgehog and turned him in would receive 800,000 Mobiums.
The posters were even up across the walls in the run down sections of the city, in the slums and the collapsed ruins which had not been rebuilt even ten years after the Metarex invasion. The subway system of Metropolis City had been the worst affected by the attack on the city, targeted by the invaders as the Mobian army had been using it to move their troops around without risk of ambush. Quite a lot of the tunnels had collapsed and were beyond repair.
There were a few private companies that still ran the trains in various sections of the city, but for the most part the tunnels were derelict and now part of the lower slums. These days the citizens of Metropolis City got around by car or airship.
Those who had been ostracized from society; the lower classes, the destitute, and the homeless came here to get out of the smog and rain. The air was cleaner below ground. Shanty towns had been built up through the derelict tunnels and relay stations to provide some more adequate shelter, fires kept going at regular intervals to ensure there was enough heat to go around. Those most in need, the sick and the elderly, huddled close to the warmth. Whatever clothes they wore to protect them from the cold were old, worn, and patched. Medicine was hard to come by down here as well. The Dominion was not charitable to its lesser citizens and most soup kitchens were kept going by volunteers, all of whom sacrificed time from their under-paid jobs to be there in the first place.
The tunnel suddenly trembled slightly, a distinct booming noise echoing through the darkness rattling the old subway rails against one another. Everyone stopped what they were doing to look up. The sound was familiar to them all. The tunnel kept shaking and rattling until, out of the darkness, came a large metallic cart on wheels. It was one of the old transport compartments that the subway trains had outfitted during the war to transport Mobian troops around the tunnel system quickly.
The cart came to a stop at the edge of the shanty town, its metal wheels spraying up sparks where it ran on the rails. Everyone began to gather to watch as a blue shape darted out from behind the cart, a super fast blur that nobody could follow with their eyes. Then before them stood the figure that was displayed on all the wanted posters, a young hedgehog with streamlined fused quills and a royal blue colouration.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls!" Sonic began theatrically, spreading both arms out wide as if he was a circus ringmaster. "The Freedom Fighters are proud to once again bring you all those necessities that make living worthwhile! Step right up! Don't crowd! Don't push! There's plenty here for everyone!" With that he stepped to the side of the cart and pulled open the door.
Inside were boxes stacked all the way up to the ceiling, each one full of food and drink, medicines, clothes, and building materials like wood and cloth to make improvements to their shelters.
There was a moment of silence and then the small crowd of the homeless began cheering and clapping, applauding as Sonic bowed to them floridly.
"Oh, it was nothing really; it's all compliments of Doctor Robotnik's supply depots." He said and then winked with a goofy grin. "But let's not tell him that, alright?"
The usual people who organised distribution of goods came forward to take charge of the delivery, the boxes removed and then organised so those who needed them the most would receive them first before the rest were portioned out to the larger underground community. Tails, who had been riding in the cart itself, stepped out once some room had been made for him to do so. The young fox looked a little nonplussed at the whole affair.
Chuck had agreed to enlist him as a Freedom Fighter, but had insisted that before being taken on any missions the young fox be shown around and educated in the nature of the duties and responsibilities that came with joining the organisation.
A Mobian badger in a shabby white robe belted around the middle with a wrap of cloth stepped forward past the crowd waiting to get their goods. The white robe immediately identified him as a priest of the Elemental Tribunal, the ancient Mobian church that venerated the four Gods of nature. There were a few churches and temples left in Metropolis City but most of them had been knocked down, either due to the damage the Metarex had inflicted, or by Robotnik's expansion of his technological powerhouse.
"May the winds of Solaris bring you the blessings of the Gods, my son." He said, raising his hand in benediction over the blue hedgehog.
"Oh, well...you're welcome, Reverend." Sonic replied with a lopsided grin. "Can't let you guys down with the winter so close, now can I?" The badger smiled back and shook his head with an amused expression.
"I only hope getting these supplies didn't cost you too dearly." He said, rubbing his fuzzy chin. "We'd all suffer if you were so busy getting us food you didn't have the time necessary to fight the good fight."
"The Freedom Fighters don't exist to just fight Robotnik." Sonic remarked, tilting his head to one side and looking up at the ceiling. "We're there for the people who he keeps downtrodden in places like this. So any time we take to get the goods is time well spent."
"And I can see that you've been recruiting, too." The reverend said, glancing past Sonic to Tails who was trying to look inconspicuous.
"This here is Tails, joined us last week. I've been showing the kid the ropes before his first official mission." The blue hedgehog grinned as Tails' ears twitched in his surprise. The reverend blinked, glanced at the double tails on the young fox, and gave Sonic a surprised and even disappointed sidelong look. The hedgehog raised his hands defensively. "Don't look at me. I didn't give him the nickname. It was the kid's own idea."
"Then you are welcome here, Tails, as are all the Freedom Fighters." The reverend said in greeting, offering a hand for the young fox to shake. Tails took it, still looking perplexed.
"Thank you, sir." He said. The badger smiled at him.
"I sense you are puzzled?" He asked, raising an eyebrow at the boy. Tails paused to look a little embarrassed for being seen through so quickly.
"Well...a little." He admitted. "It's just..." He looked up at Sonic. "Isn't this dangerous?"
The blue hedgehog cocked his head at him with his own puzzled look.
"What do you mean?" He asked.
"Delivering stuff like this, out here in the open." Tails explained, gesturing out to the volunteers who were passing out the loaves of bread and cans of preserved fruits and vegetables. "Any one of those people could rat us out, especially for that huge bounty Robotnik put out on just you alone. And they'd all be the most desperate for the money."
"Oh." Sonic replied as if the thought had never occurred to him. He scratched the side of one ear, staring off into space as if deep in thought. "Maybe... Not very likely, though." He concluded.
"The people down here in the tunnels might be in desperate circumstances, young man, but we are hardly fools." The Reverend answered instead, laying a compassionate hand on Tails' shoulder, his expression one of patient understanding. "No one here really believes they'd receive that bounty if they turned him in." Tails still looked a little confused.
"If the last ten years of misrule have taught us anything, it's that Robotnik is a liar and a cheat. If we turned Sonic in, all we'd get in return is a chance to find out where he keeps his political prisoners locked up." The reverend told him quite seriously. "The Dominion security forces would take the credit for the capture and the good Doctor wouldn't be out a single penny."
He turned and gestured to the small crowd as the food was passed out. This particular community was only taking what it needed for the immediate future while the rest of the supplies were being taken for transport to other shanty town shelters further on down the tunnel system.
"If it wasn't for the Freedom Fighters bringing us the supplies they take from Dominion barracks and storehouses, a lot of the elderly and sick down here would have died years ago. Now THAT is something the people down here can trust and depend on."
"Ah! And that reminds me!" Sonic started. He swung his leather backpack around and onto the floor at his feet. He unzipped it and reached inside, rummaging around. "Ah, here it is." He pulled out a corked bottle full of a bright golden liquid and tossed it to the reverend, who caught it with his free hand. Tails could see the label on the bottle. It was a bright red symbol of a Bear's paw with Rune-like writing underneath it. The reverend's eyes lit up at the sight of it and a wide smile spread from ear to ear across his black and white face.
"Had to keep it refrigerated for a while. Last month we raided a depot and it was on the desk in the control office, completely untouched." Sonic told him with a grin. The reverend uncorked the bottle and sniffed. He shuddered and let out a long sigh of delight.
"Actual Bear-Paw Mead; brewed in the Glacier halls of the Diamond Dust Zone." He declared in rapt pleasure.
"Try not to drink it all at once, 'kay preacher? Wouldn't do at all for a holy man to be drunk during evening prayers." Sonic told him in a mocking tone, wagging a finger at him. The reverend chuckled and put the bottle inside his robe.
"I shall be guided by thee in this." He said. Sonic just laughed and started off into the shanty town. Tails followed him, not knowing what else to do.
"Get it now, kid?" The hedgehog asked as the fox walked beside him. "Being a Freedom Fighter means a lot more than just the missions and guerrilla warfare." He gestured at the people around them as they passed. "The reason we exist is because the people need us... Even if some of them don't know it." Tails looked down at the ground as they walked along together, a strange expression on his young face.
"It seems too good to be true." He finally said, looking up. When Sonic gave him a puzzled look, he continued. "You guys... Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, expecting nothing in return... It's like something out of a fairytale."
Sonic was silent for a moment as they made their way through the crude shelters. His cavalier, happy-go-lucky charm seemed to melt away and his face and posture showed a grim underside.
Then the hedgehog stopped walking and looked directly up at the dark ceiling above. Tails stopped as well and looked at him.
"I wasn't always with my Uncle Chuck's group, you know." Sonic said eventually. "He tried to get me involved in all this back before I was younger than you. Guess he really needed my speed even back then. He got me to do a few missions, but I was a street urchin at heart. I lived with these guys down here and I saw how bad things were for them. I used to steal what food and stuff I could for the people who needed it. I figured I was doing enough good on my own that I didn't need to sign up with some well-meaning vigilantes that were likely to get themselves killed." He shrugged. "But I was wrong. By joining them I could do far more good than I ever could alone.
"And you still get nothing in return?" The young fox asked back.
"Nothing except a bloated sense of self-righteousness." Sonic nodded and then, after a guilty pause, cleared his throat. "Well...there are some other perks too."
Tails raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"
"You'll see." The hedgehog approached an open door in the side of the tunnel. As they came near Tails could quite clearly smell the unmistakable scent of roasting meat. The utility room within had been adapted for use as a makeshift kitchen with a crude gas grill steaming away. Sausages were already sizzling, watched over by a bright orange orangutan holding a spatula.
"Well, if it ain't the blue hedgehog, the most wanted 'criminal' in the land." The ape greeted them ironically as they came in, his accent clearly denoting his eastern origins. "Tell me, how much stress have you caused our beloved head of state this month?"
"No idea, Lou." Sonic admitted. "Maybe if I keep at it I'll cause him so much grief he'll retire someplace far away."
"You want the hero's usual?" The orangutan asked, flipping over the sausages to make sure they were cooked on both sides.
"If you don't mind." The blue hedgehog replied eagerly. The ape laughed and began taking buns out of a box to make hot dogs, pausing only long enough to slather them with a pungent brown sauce with bits of onion and garlic sticking in it.
"What's that?" Tails asked, wrinkling his nose at the smell.
"This?" Sonic started as a plate was passed his way. "The ultimate perk of being a hero of the people, of course. The only thing I can be a little selfish for." He picked up one of the sauce covered hotdogs and licked his lips with relish. "A delicious chilli dog."