S Peter Davis
All characters (C) SEGA, Archie and SP Davis 2005.
Used without permission
I don't want to be your little research monkey-boy,
The creature that I am is only going to destroy.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers
"We're going to send help, Yared. Somehow, someday, you will see me again, my friend, and every last mobian on this wretched island is going to be set free."
"But what if the world is as rotten as they say it is, Trevor? Who out there is going to care about us enough to come back for us? It certainly hasn't helped us so far."
"We have to at least try. What could the world possibly do to us that would be worse than this place? No. If there's any good in the world... there has to be somewhere better, there simply has to be. I will come back for you, Yared."
"Trevor! Trevor, we have to go! It won't be long, now!"
"Just a moment, Tyler! Listen, Yared..."
"No, he's right, Trevor. It won't be long, now. You have a chance if you go now. Take your son away from here, give him a real life somewhere. If you come back-"
"I will. I swear it."
"-then you will come back, but your concerns at the moment are for your son, and your son only. You need to think about him. You need to think about little Miles."
"Hurry, Trevor, I won't be able to hold them back next time!"
"Okay. Okay. Let's go."
By all accounts, Sonic the Hedgehog had last been seen two days ago, the day the monsoon season began and the first rain arrived in the Great Forest of Westerica, as predictable as the tides. A single day of absence was not uncommon for the hedgehog who, frequently and easily bored, often made use of his speed to take an unscheduled holiday from his duties as a Freedom Fighter. (Going AWOL, Sally had called it many a time, usually while rolling her eyes). Two or three days without a word, however, was unusual. If Sonic had some urgent business that required several days of his attention, then he hadn't told anybody about it.
Sonic had seemed on edge for about a week prior, which made his absence more suspicious. He had seemed less chirpy, less good-humoured than usual, and had looked as though he hadn't been getting much sleep. And then, the night of the storm, it had seemed as though he had simply walked into the pouring rain and vanished into the night.
It would seem a most unusual time for Sonic to decide he needed a release from the pressures of Freedom Fighter life. His best friend, Tails Prower, was two days away from his fifteenth birthday.
The idea of an annual birthday for Tails was one that Sonic himself had concocted to help the young fox feel more as though he fit in with the normal world. Tails had been orphaned very young, so young that he couldn't remember the date of his real birthday. Living with a gang of underground criminals for most of the life that he could remember, nobody had ever been interested in celebrating his birthday or any other occasion. As part of his integration into a healthier and more normal life in Knothole, Sonic had surprised him by throwing him a birthday party, one year to the day from their first meeting in the city of Station Square. The tradition had repeated every year hence, and Sonic had never once forgotten.
Sonic had done so much for him. More than anybody else ever had. And now Tails sat patiently outside Sonic's hut, like a dog awaits his master's return, sunning himself and reading an adventure book. Every so often he heard movement close by and looked up with a smile, but it was never Sonic.
Bunnie Rabbot wandered past, caught sight of the fox, smiled and moved closer. Tails' head perked up and registered mild disappointment when he saw who it was. Bunnie tried not to feel a little offended.
"Heya Bunnie," the fox said. His good cheer seemed vaguely put-on.
"Well hey there, cutie," Bunnie said, "What'cha doing?"
"Reading." He flashed her the front of the book briefly. It had an aeroplane on the cover, which wasn't surprising.
"Outside Sonic's hut?"
Tails looked up at the hut as though he hadn't known it was there. He shrugged his shoulders. "Waitin' for Sonic to come back. I dunno where he's gone, but it's not like he can be gone too much longer. He's been away two days."
"Are you worried about him?"
Tails laughed. "What, are you kidding? What could have happened?"
"Well, I don't know."
"There's nothing that can get to Sonic. He'll be back."
"Well, all right then," Bunnie winked at him and ruffled his hair with her flesh hand. "I'll see you later, okay?"
"Sure." Tails went back to his book, and Bunnie stood for a moment, looking down at the teenager. How much he had grown since he had arrived here. Such a long way he had come from the arrogant little gangster he had once been. Sonic the Hedgehog had possibly been the best thing that had ever happened in this child's short life. He had been a mentor, a saviour and a hero to Tails, and the young fox had spent a great deal of his time trying to be just like his hedgehog idol. His trust in Sonic was unshakable, his image impeccable. Sonic could do no wrong.
But was Sonic really such an immortal figure? Certainly he had been a hero larger than life among the Freedom Fighters since the fall of Mobitropolis, but nevertheless he was just a hedgehog. A single bullet could still put an end to his adventures. Or a fall in the shower. Or a snake bite. Morbid thoughts though they were, unexplained absences tended to bring them to the surface. Sonic was probably taking a leisurely run and got caught up in something important, but a person couldn't help but worry.
Not Tails, though. The young fox simply sat there, reading his book, waiting patiently for his hero to return. Bunnie had to wonder if they should all learn something from his unwavering optimism.
The leadership of the New Knothole had more important problems with which to concern themselves than the disappearance of Sonic the Hedgehog. Now was possibly the most dire time for the resistance since a dictator named Ivo Robotnik had first taken hold of the south of Westerica.
The Freedom Fighters were originally established to prevent Robotnik from taking control, but after the coup in Mobitropolis, the presence of the Freedom Fighters in the Great Forest became a counterbalance to the dictator's ever increasing power, a resistance against the establishment of an empire. Nobody could have expected that one empire would fall to another, and the Freedom Fighters would be charged with the responsibility of buffering the Arack threat from the east. Now it was the Arack Empire that was pushing for hegemony in the plains of Westerica, and that prospect was really no better than the empire of machines Robotnik had wanted to create.
But there was a heavy concern welling up in Sally Acorn's gut, and one that she hadn't wanted to admit to any of her colleagues. Robotnik was but one adversary, he waged his war from behind the walls of a single city, the collapse of which was inevitable due to the professor's short-term, inward-thinking policies. The Freedom Fighters hadn't needed to destroy him so much as hold him at bay while he drained his resources and his city of Robotropolis collapsed around him. The Arack Empire was a different kettle of fish entirely. The Empire had grown upon the badlands of Kirandul for as many as a thousand years, and their power was immense. They had innumerable resources to draw upon, and an army of millions. Although the gravity of the situation didn't seem to have hit home among the rest of the Freedom Fighters, it was beginning to weigh on Sally's mind and heart. A small band of poorly-armed forest rebels against one of the most powerful nations on Mobius. It had been three weeks since Sally had had a whole night's sleep.
This morning she sat with her head resting limp on her hand, eyes half-closed, sipping on a cup of black, unsweetened coffee while she listened to Rotor conduct business as usual.
"Seems as though they're just going around us," the walrus said, looking down at a series of printed reports, "Bayer in the west has been an Arack city for some time, and two new cities are being constructed along the Gulf of Midway. There's a strong Arack influence growing in the west and northwest, and we've got high spider populations in both Port Knix and Point Adrien, reportedly gaining political leverage by the month. Just by spreading their influence in all directions at once, they're avoiding having to deal with us at all."
"We didn't even realise," Sally said wearily, "We were so preoccupied with Robotnik, we didn't even look at the big picture. They've been taking over the whole region for years, ever since the fall of Mobitropolis, and we didn't see it happening until just now."
"Sally, if this continues at the rate it has been..." Rotor shook his head, "In a couple of years, Knothole and the rest of the Great Forest is going to be inside Arack territory. Never mind them invading our lands, we're going to be unwelcome tenants on theirs. I don't ever like to suggest this, but..."
"We need to retreat?"
Rotor winced. "Not really the word I was looking for."
"But it's essentially what you're thinking, right?"
"The Great Forest is an excellent site for tactical advantage," the walrus replied, "The Aracks are terrible at forest warfare. But... we need more, Sally. We need to gather the strength to make a difference, to make our advantage actually matter. Otherwise, they're just going to walk all over us. Six or seven little mobian settlements aren't going to cut it when it's the Arack Empire we're standing up against."
"Tactical advantage won't count for anything if they just get frustrated and drop a bomb on the forest," Sally mumbled, "Goodbye, Freedom Fighters."
"You're still the best tactician this side of Mobius, Sally. If there's anyone in the world who can lead a resistance of this size against the Arack Empire, it's you. I know this is going to turn around in our favour. We just need to find the silver lining around this cloud."
Sally took a few moments to think. "If we really are in the best position, here," she said, "Then we need to start putting our position to some use, stop trying to face this alone. Stop pretending we're the only pieces on the board. The Arack Empire relies on stealth to spread their influence quietly. In some ways, the War of Chaos actually may have worked in our favour, in that the Empire was forced to fight in order to gain a foothold, and that might have served to get the rest of the world's attention as to what's happening down here. The south end of Westerica may have fallen to the Aracks, but we still have friendly forces in the north who are going to be mighty unhappy about the prospect of Westerica becoming a province of the Empire."
"The Aracks were allies in the war," Rotor said, "The GUN still has a political alliance with the Empire, that's a big part of the reason that the Aracks are able to spread in here so quickly."
"There's an old theory in warfare," Sally replied, "It says the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The GUN and the Aracks both wanted Robotnik out. The alliance was formed to achieve that, and it's served its purpose. Beyond that, there isn't much reason for it, besides the fact that it makes it easier for the Aracks to expand into this territory without friction. The GUN will discard their friendship without a second thought if they realise that the Aracks pose a genuine threat to their way of life. That's the way it works. Without a common enemy, there's no basis for co-operation."
"So we need to work with the GUN?" Rotor asked, "Convince them to start putting the pressure on the Empire?"
Sally sighed and raised her eyebrows. "The job of the Freedom Fighters just got a lot more political."
"That begs the question, though, as to whether the GUN are the kind of people we want to be helping. You know that they're anti-monarchist. Because of our affiliations with Mobitropolis, and your lineage, they've consistantly refused to associate with us or even acknowledge our cause."
The princess shook her head, in sadness or plain exhaustion, if not both. "The enemy of our enemy," she said, "If the GUN can help to keep the Empire at bay, then it's worth at least getting their attention. At this point I'd rather risk GUN hegemony than live in an Arack cesspit."
"I almost forgot," Rotor said, "We got a communication from one of our outposts last night, there's a bunch of mobians wandering the forest who don't belong to any known group. No spiders. They identify themselves as war refugees, they're heading our way. We've been keeping an eye on them and they don't look to be armed in any capacity."
Sally frowned. "They're coming here? You heard this last night, why didn't you alert me?"
Rotor looked at her, full of pity for the weary princess, bags under her slow-blinking and shadowed eyes. She looked as though she had aged ten years in as many days.
"Bunnie and I have been keeping an eye on it," the walrus said, "You need your rest, Sally. Forgive me for saying so, but you look like the world just crashed on your shoulders."
"I appreciate the sympathy," she said firmly, "But I need to know what is going on in this village. If there are people coming here, then we need to arrange things, security-"
"It's all done. We're on top of it."
"Well, good. I'm going to get another one of these," she said, motioning to her empty coffee cup, "And then I'm going to see about this."
The moon was out alongside the sun on this morning, and the refugee fox glanced up at it as he and his companions trudged toward the salvation of New Knothole. His expression was stony as he gazed upon the silver-white disc, mostly full but waning.
"It's not like they're gonna shoot us or anything, right?" asked one of the travellers, "I mean, we are on their side. They're the Freedom Fighters for petesakes. I don't care what they say, I say we go in there and demand some kind of help, they have to at least feed us."
"Calm down," the fox said, "Don't cause trouble, they're probably frustrated enough with their enemies without getting flak from their allies."
"If they can't help us, then what are they there for?" the other demanded. "No, really. What are they there for? What good are they? Might as well just have the Aracks running the entire world for all the good-"
"Shoosh. We're here."
Seven mobians, travel-worn and weary, walked in a tight group through the untamed wilderness of the Great Forest, and it was clear that none of them were experienced hikers. All were filthy and visibly exhausted, and none wanted anything more than a bath, a meal and a night's rest. After being told in no uncertain terms by patrolling guards that they wouldn't be finding these things in New Knothole, morale in the group had taken a nosedive. Each could remember clearly when the world used to be a relatively safe place.
The forest led now to a clearing, and heavily camoflaged huts were visible within. Several guards stood waiting (each armed to a degree that it was obvious they weren't fooling around) along with a pudgy walrus and a tall and stately, however simply dressed, lady squirrel.
The fox held up his hands to show he was unarmed, and urged his companions to do the same.
"Hello," he called, "We're friends."
"Where are you from?" the squirrel asked. The guards motioned for the refugees to stay where they were, and they appeared especially protective of the squirrel in particular. The fox wondered whether she might even be the fabled Princess Sally Acorn, but quickly discounted the thought. Despite the legends, there was very little in the way of real evidence to suggest that Princess Sally was still alive, living in the forest with a bunch of rebel soldiers.
"We're from the city," he told her, "We got out of Terantulopolis. We don't have a place to go, please, we're very tired and we're starving..."
"I'm sorry," the squirrel said, and although she feigned indifference, she was visibly perturbed by what she was saying, "We're a military group, we don't have the resources to take in refugees. I know you're tired-"
"Oh, cut the crap!" One of the refugees, a rat, came forward despite the threat of the guards. "You can't just send us back! Not after what we've been through!"
"There are places for you to go," the squirrel continued, "There are refugee settlements nearby, set up specifically for people such as yourselves to find sanctuary. We can provide you with food, and with a detailed map of-"
"They're hunting us!" the rat shrieked, "Don't you get that? They've taken three of us already! They're out there!"
"Who's out there?" This time it was the walrus who spoke. The rat looked back and forth between him and the squirrel, trying to figure out which one would be more beneficial to address.
"Who do you think?"
"I apologise for my friend," the fox interjected, "We're all very tired, and I fear we don't have much time left. Recently we came to realise that the Aracks have been hunting us down. There were ten of us when we set out. They've been taking us, one by one, every night."
"Taking you?" the squirrel asked, and she appeared suddenly very distressed, looking out into the depths of the forest.
The fox trailed off, his face falling blank as he looked into the village. He frowned a little, as though something caught his eye that troubled him. "We, uh-"
"We just don't have the resources to take you in," the squirrel reiterated, "It won't be possible for you to stay here indefinitely, but if you're in immediate danger, then we can arrange something for you. You have to understand that there are limits to our hospitality, but only because of the extreme secrecy associated with what we do here."
The fox didn't reply, nor did he give any indication that he even heard her. The expression drained from his face as he stared into New Knothole.
The squirrel turned her head to see what it was that had taken his interest so completely. Following his line of sight, however, she saw very little amiss. Just a stone well and a storage house, as well as a village hut, outside which a young orange fox was sitting contently, reading a book. She turned back to the refugee.
"Do you understand me? Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"It's him," the fox choked under his breath.
"Hey!" the rat exclaimed, "Trevor! Wake up!"
"It's him." The fox suddenly took off running into the village. The guards, taken by surprise, shouted and ran after him, but none were willing to fire their weapons, none prepared to murder a tortured and travel-worn refugee at the end of his journey. Instead they chased him, trying to knock him down, tackle him, but he ran too fast. He ran as though all the passion of his entire life fuelled him. He seemed to be crying, his arms out in front of him as he bolted toward the child who continued to read unaware. The young fox finally raised his head when the elder fox, the crazed refugee, began to shout.
"My boy! Alive! Alive!"
Tails Prower was shocked and a little frightened by the sight before him. The stranger had been running toward him, right toward him, arms thrust out and crying, when the village guards finally brought him down. These were dangerous days in which to live, but it was rare for Tails to feel personally targeted. The look in that stranger's eyes, though, left no doubt that it was he who the crazed fox had wanted to snatch away. The stranger continued to reach out to him even after he had been tackled and held down, his arm thrust out before him, fingers splayed out, as though with enough effort he might be able to actually stretch out and reach Tails from where he sat several feet away.
Before he really knew what he was doing, Tails was running. He dropped his book in the grass and bolted inside Sonic's empty hut, slammed the door behind him and looked out the window at the ongoing commotion. Whoever this stranger was, he had clearly lost his mind completely. He was crying while all of the Knothole guards, Sally, Rotor, and several other villagers stood over him. He couldn't believe what had just happened! What possible reason could that lunatic have to run after him like that? And where was Sonic to protect him from such dangerous characters? If Sonic was here, these things wouldn't happen. He wouldn't let them happen.
Tails turned and looked around. Sonic's hut was messy and unkempt, just as it always was. His bed was unmade, his belongings strewn about the floor in a random fashion. Sonic always maintained that he had a highly organised filing system, and that those who doubted it simply didn't understand, which was all part of his plan. Tails sat down and picked up a few of these trinkets, and realised that he knew exactly what most of them were and where they had come from. Souvenirs from his many adventures, odd trinkets of high personal value. A sno-globe bauble with a vertebra bone inside; a greasy and burned shard of debris from the Death Egg; A tiny power crystal from the caves in the Chaos Isle; the discarded shell of some alien creature from the planet Kha, where the Black Arms had reigned. A lot of junk, some would say, but for Tails it was nothing less than the sum of a life that had amounted to so much more importance than his own, or that of anybody he knew. Tails had been by Sonic's side from the days before either of them were much more than a couple of street thieves. Those days were now long behind them, and for Tails, they were all but forgotten. It had been almost five years since they had left that life to become Freedom Fighters, and they had never looked back.
Sometimes, though, in his dreams, Tails returned to those days. Some nights it was as though he'd never left, the flashing neon lights of Station Square and the dagger-teeth of Nails the Bat staying with him until morning and reality returned.
He looked out the window again to see the stranger being hauled away like the criminal he undoubtably was, and Tails became suddenly very afraid. Why had the stranger charged at him like that? What had been wrong with him? Who was he?
And, most importantly, why did he look so familiar?
New Knothole had one prison cell, and Sally couldn't remember the last time it had been used. Now, though, she gladly had the crazed refugee thrown inside, while the six others were closely monitored by the guards outside.
I'm too tired for this crap, she thought, while she looked in at the stranger with a glare that she hoped was stony enough to cut him down a notch.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, "What is this, prison?"
"This is until you calm down," Sally replied, "You kicked and scratched some of my guards pretty badly, out there. What did you want, for them to shoot you? If you're looking for our aid, you're going the wrong way about it."
"You have to let me see him," the fox said, grabbing the prison bars, "I have to see him."
"You're not seeing anybody, you're staying here until you start acting civil and stop being a threat to my people. You're not in a position to be making demands, here. You have three choices, we can go somewhere and have a proper discussion, you can stay here all night, or you can go back to the Great Forest and brave whatever it is that you're scared of out there. Now, make a decision."
The fox winced when she gave the third option, and she wasn't sure whether the reaction was out of fear or something else entirely. At the moment she wasn't too concerned with it.
"Okay," he said, "I'm sorry, I-" He took a deep breath and let it out. "I need to explain myself. Please."
Sally stood at the bars for a moment, simply glowering at him. Then the threw her hands up. "Get him out of there."
A guard unlocked the prison door and escorted the fox from the premises. This time, he went willingly.
They relocated to the more comfortable setting of an adjoining office, and the fox stood despite the availability of chairs, staring out a window that offered a view of the village. Rotor the Walrus joined them, and he and Sally sat at the large silky-oak desk on the far wall. Two guards stood sentry at the door, their hands held close to their weapons, in case the fox decided to cause more trouble.
"Right," Sally said, "Now. What is the matter with you? Why did you launch yourself at that boy?"
Sally fell silent, shocked and confused. She was fairly sure she had never mentioned Tails by name.
"Who are you?" Rotor asked, a trace of bewilderment in his voice.
The fox sighed. Neither Sally nor Rotor could see his face as he gazed out the window, but they could see his shoulders slump at the question. After a few moments of silence, he responded.
"My name is Trevor Rex Prower. For a decade I've been scouring this continent, the cities, the villages, looking for that very boy. Looking for Tails." Finally, he turned away from the window and looked Sally in the eyes. "I am his father."
If one had been so inclined, one could have cut the tension with a knife, spread it on toast, and served it for breakfast.
"That just doesn't add up," Rotor said, slowly, after the few moments it took for this to sink in. "For one thing, how did you find out he was here? How did you even know where to find us?"
"I didn't," Trevor Prower replied. "Tails and I lost each other in Station Square. I searched every inch of that city when I returned. When I found he'd left, I travelled south, searching every town, every settlement I could find. Eventually I wound up in Terantulopolis, and I even searched there. Only after I was convinced he wasn't there did I try to escape, and now I'm here. And I've found him, thank God, after all these years."
"Tails always told us his father was dead," Sally said.
The fox shrugged. "What can I say? I'm standing here, aren't I?"
"You sure are," Rotor replied, " Of course, without any identification of any kind, it's very difficult for us to substantiate your claims."
Trevor appeared angered by this. He gritted his teeth and scowled at the walrus. "Why don't you just let me see him? He'll tell you. It's been over ten years, why won't you let me see my son?"
"If you've waited for ten years, then you can wait a little while longer," Sally snapped. "Tails is very well looked after, here. Until we can get some kind of proof that you are who you say you are, you won't be disturbing him. I'll make sure of that."
Trevor shook his head, bitter. "Just who do you think you are? Who died and made you queen?"
Sally rose to her feet and stared cold daggers into the fox's eyes. "My father did. I am Princess Sally Acorn, crown monarch to the throne of Mobitropolis. I say what happens around here and how."
"Yeah? Well, we're not in Mobitropolis now, Princess. Not you or anybody is going to keep me from my son."
"We'll see," Sally replied, and stormed out of the office.
Trevor Prower was put under guard in an empty shelter while Sally took some time to think in the command headquarters. When Rotor and Bunnie went to find her, she was sitting alone at her desk, paperwork piled around her elbows, her index fingers rubbing small circles around her temples, as though she had been stricken with a bad headache.
"Sally-girl, y'all okay?" Bunnie asked.
The princess gave a half-hearted smile. "Fine," she replied, "Has he filled you in about this garbage?"
"You think this guy really is Tails' dad?"
Sally snorted. "He's a jerk, that's what he is."
"I've gotta say," Rotor replied, "He's awfully convincing, knowing all that stuff about the kid. He knew his name before he could have heard it anywhere else. And you have to admit, there is a resemblance."
"I admit it's possible, I'm not discounting that. I just don't have a clue how to handle this right now. How do you tell an orphan teenager that his dead father has popped out of nowhere? It'd be even worse if we were wrong and he turned out to be a fraud. Can you imagine that? Oh, happy birthday, Tails, now you have to lose your father a second time." She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Where the heck is Sonic? He'd know better than any of us how to talk to Tails. Why does he always disappear at the worst possible time?"
"What about the guys he's travelling with?" Bunnie asked, "We should talk to them, they might be able to shed a little insight about his character."
"That's another thing that bothers me." Sally sighed again. "They seem to believe the Aracks have been tracking them through the forest. If that's true, then we have deeper problems than we know. The idiots could have brought the Empire right to our doorstep, which is the worst thing that could happen right now."
"What are we going to do with them?" Rotor asked.
"Well, I'd like to get them out of my hair as soon as possible. Get them some food and whatever else they want, and have them escorted to Nutwood. We can assess the Arack threat and act accordingly... with a bit of luck, it's just wild animals that have been picking those guys off in the night. If not, then we might have a fight on our hands."
"And what about Daddy Prower?" Bunnie asked, "What if he really is who he says?"
"What about it?"
"Well, we can't just palm him off. We decided that our families should be allowed to stay with us, didn't we? We can't just split them up, not after they've been apart for so long."
"Why can't things be simple?" Sally asked. "All right. I want to figure out as much as I can about this guy before we start making decisions. And try to find a way to break it to Tails. The poor kid, this will either be the best birthday of his life, or the worst."
They probably didn't realise that he could see Tails from where he was, holed up like a detained prisoner under the guise of comfort, gazing through a hole in the grass wall of the village hut. The young fox with the two unmistakable tails wagging behind him and that wry, intelligent gleam in his eyes that had always been so characteristic of his nature. It had been over ten years, but there was no mistaking it. Even if not for the definitive twin tails, he would know that face as soon as look upon it.
Trevor's attention shifted to the moon on the horizon. It was rising again as the sun set, and it was definitely thinner now than it had been the night before. He was happy to see it.
"Maybe he won't come tonight," he said softly, "He's waning, he'll be too weak."
You know that isn't true, replied a gutteral voice from the depths of his mind.
"You shut up. I don't want to hear from you."
He watched Tails as he wandered about the village, filling in the hours of the day any way that he knew how. He had found the boy, after all these years, and now he had catharsis. A decade of searching, never knowing if Tails was alive or dead. Finally he could begin again where he had left off. Finally he could begin to redeem himself.
The stocky rat who had come to New Knothole along with six other refugees was undoubtedly the most outspoken of the group, and became something of a leader by default during Trevor's absence. Travelling with him was an introverted armadillo who wouldn't say a word to anyone, two wolves, one of whom looked like he might have been the son of the other, a rotund hawk who laughed a lot, a rabbit no older than his late teens, and a dingo whose facial scars showed he wasn't anyone to mess with. They were all provided a hot lunch and a place to sit down, while Bunnie and Rotor tried to engage the rat in conversation.
"The name's Delsey DeBono," he said, "You look like you've been through the wars, honey. Or is that just some kind of new punk fashion trend you're showing off?"
Bunnie tried to wear a poker face, but she was instantly put off-side by the stranger's remarks. If partial robotization ever became a fashion trend, then there was little hope for mobiankind.
"Your companion has caused a bit of a stir, here," Rotor said, sensing her discomfort.
"Trevor?" Delsey asked, "Yeah, I dunno what that was about. Trev, he's a little crazy. I mean, not crazy crazy, I don't mean that, but just a little different, you know? A little odd. Says some strange things, sometimes. Talks to himself. Never seen him take off running the way he did, but it doesn't shock me that much to see it. You get used to him, after a while. You just get used to him."
"He's grown attached to someone who lives here. Says he's the boy's father."
"No kidding?" Delsey appeared genuinely surprised. "Well, dang. He finally found the kid? Well, good for him. Just when I thought we were close to hearing the last of it, too."
"He's talked about this?" Bunnie asked.
"What, you kidding? He never shuts up about it. All he ever talks about. Tails this and Tails that and Tails the other thing. That's the kid's name, right? Tails? Funny name for a kid."
Rotor and Bunnie looked at each other. Sally may have been skeptical of the validity of the refugee's claims, but the evidence seemed to support it.
"It's a wonderful thing, having family," Delsey continued, talking through a mouthful of bread. "Knowing that you've got someone to go back to, I mean. A lot of the guys, we're starting to really appreciate that thought. Especially when we're being hunted down like vermin. We're all thinking it could be any one of us who goes next. Any one of us could be the one who never gets to see his family again."
"You said the Aracks are hunting you down?" Rotor asked, "In the forest?"
Delsey spat and had a swig of lukewarm water. "Yes."
"We've never heard of that happening before."
"Ha!" The rat laughed. "I'm sure there's a lot of things about the Empire you haven't heard. A lot of things that you don't know about unless you're a filthy spider." He leaned in close. "I've seen these things, with my own eyes. They have these machines, these things like robots that have parts that move with muscles and flesh like they're alive."
"Mandiblax," Rotor said, "We know."
"You don't know!" Delsey countered, "Not like we know. We were all naive enough to get tangled up with the Arack Empire after Station Square fell, we've been right in the belly of the beast and seen what happens inside the spider cities. We had to work thirteen-hour shifts and go home to nothing, and when we tried to leave they called it treason. After we escaped, they sent their... things after us. These machine-monsters are waiting for us in the forest, they're all around. If you wander off alone, in the night, you will never be seen again. Of that you can be sure." He shook his head sadly. "The Great Forest is not the peaceful haven it once was. They already own this place and you don't even know it yet. We wouldn't stay here for long even if you told us we could. We're just going to rest up, fill our bellies, and move on to the north. And if you people have any sense, you'll pack up this freedom fighting business and do the same. There's one thing about the Empire you can count on above everything else - if you are a thorn in their side, they will rip you out. Any estimation is an underestimation when it comes to these people. This isn't Robotnik we're talking about. The Aracks are going to come here and eat you people for breakfast, and they're going to do it soon. Take that advice from someone who knows."
Tails stared into the depths of the Great Forest, its welcoming foliage seeming to reach out and call to him to enter and search for his missing friend. His twin tails idly swept the ground behind him as he stood and stared. Birds sang in the canopy and flitted about in their simple, trouble-free lives. Did they know where Sonic was now? Had they seen?
Sonic had been seen here two days ago. Those who knew him had said that he had been deeply troubled about something he hadn't been willing to share. The hedgehog had merely stood here, just as Tails now did, looking into the forest for a great while. He had stood while clouds had gathered in the sky, the first storm of the monsoon season, and when the rain finally began to fall, he simply wandered in. Without paying any mind to the wet, he walked into the forest until the darkness consumed him, and it was the last anyone had ever seen of him. Without a word, he had vanished from the face of Mobius.
And now, as Tails looked up and saw the clouds gathering again and the moon rising, he realised that two whole days were about to turn to three, with no sign of Sonic, no clues as to where he might have gone or what might have happened to him. And that was an awfully long time.
Tails had harboured no doubt that Sonic had been called away to some emergency, gone for a walk to clear his head and been sidetracked, or simply gotten distracted and lost the time, but for the first time he felt something heavy roll about in his gut. If Sonic had known he would be away for so long, then he would have told somebody. If he had been sidetracked, he would have contacted them afterward. So many would-haves that didn't quite add up to reality. What if something really was wrong? What if Sonic had finally met with the one obstacle he couldn't overcome? What if he was in trouble and he was just waiting for someone to realise it and come to his aid?
Or what if it was too late for that?
No. He couldn't think like that, it did nobody any good. His birthday was two days away, almost one, and before it arrived, Sonic would return to him. Perhaps that was the plan all along, perhaps Sonic was planning the biggest birthday surprise ever, and he would be the happiest fox in the world when he woke up that morning surrounded by his best friends, his family, and the one hedgehog who had given everything to him, smiling and joking like old times.
He felt the first droplets of rain on his muzzle, and rushed away to find shelter, rejuvinated in his certainty that every minute longer that Sonic had been away was one minute closer to his return.
Princess Sally watched as the rain began to fall on the village, sending people back to the safety of their homes. There was enough spare room in New Knothole to shelter the seven refugees for the night, but it was a tight fit. They had to share a narrow space. The village wasn't equipped to handle a sudden population expansion.
"Is that supposed to be some kind of threat?" she asked.
Bunnie shrugged. "I'm really not altogether sure why he said it. He says if we're smart we'll get outta the Great Forest, that the Empire already owns it and they're looking to exterminate us as soon as possible. It sounded to me like he was pulling a tall tale, exaggerating a bit, but boy did it spook me."
"Well, don't let it spook you, because we're staying here until they come here and move us, and even then they've got one heck of a fight on their hands. We just have to stay as invisible as we can, and stop taking in these refugees. Though it does serve to reinforce the fact that we need to begin changing the way we deal with the Arack Empire. I'm going to try to open communications with the GUN in Catilina as soon as I can. If they'll even talk to me, considering how offended they are by me." This drew an aggrivated sigh from the princess, who quickly began to look like a goldfish who has been thrown into a pond with a bunch of sharks.
"Let us know if there's anything we can do," Rotor insisted.
Sally looked out into the rain again, as the wind picked up and began to blow against the branches. A crackle of thunder was heard in the distance.
"You can help by sorting out this Tails situation for me," she said, "I don't even have the first clue about how to deal with this. If Sonic was here, he'd know how to talk to the little guy, they're so close... but of course he isn't, so we've got to handle it on our own."
Bunnie figured that there was more on Sally's mind than the obvious problems, judging from the way she kept bringing up the subject of Sonic. The hedgehog and the princess had gone through some notorious disagreements during their time as Freedom Fighters. Sonic had always been a sight more headstrong than she liked him to be, always too willing to do things his own way rather than listen to an authority figure, and by Sally's own admission she was haunted by the prospect that he would go off and get himself killed some day. He had turned out so similar in essence to Kethriel Rosethorne, his mentor and Sally's closest friend, and although she had never shared the same kind of relationship with Sonic as she had with Kethriel, she still saw his spirit in the younger hedgehog. He was all that was left of him, and she had let him die the first time. She didn't want that to ever happen again. That, and Sonic was without a doubt the least expendable resource the Freedom Fighters had. It always put the fear of loss into her heart when Sonic went away without a word, and already he had been away for a much longer stretch of time than was usual.
"You can count on us, Sal," Bunnie told her, "And remember we're here to help with anything, anything at all. We're the soul of this here operation, you've never been in this alone. I can see that what you need above anything else right now is to get a decent night's rest and clear your head about this."
Sally nodded, running her palm across her forehead. "Thank you, Bunnie. Things have been very daunting recently. All I need is to get my head straight."
There was another clap of thunder, much closer this time, and the wind picked up.
"We should keep an eye on this storm," Rotor said, "Sounds like it might be a big one."
Trevor Prower sauntered back and forth around his hut with increasing urgency as the rain picked up and the horizon swallowed the sunlight, forcing it down under a blanket of cloud. Night fell and brought with it a fierce monsoon, and each monsterous growl of thunder seemed to bite down into his soul, make him cry out in alarm, thinking he had arrived once again.
"He's not coming, not tonight," he said aloud, and glanced at the door, behind which he knew they had posted guards. They thought he was some kind of criminal just because he told them about Tails, and it wasn't fair. They wanted to keep him in here and so he had been locked up like a dangerous villain with guards posted outside, but the guards were good because maybe they would stop him if he came here.
But they won't, they won't be able to stop him, for he is the one before whom the heavens tremble and the underworld falls upon its knees-
"He's not coming!" he shrieked, "He is too weak, he has waned too far, there is time before his return!"
The room seemed suddenly far too small. He couldn't stay here, he was a sitting duck, like a stuffed fowl atop a silver platter, he would come and he would find him here and there would be no way out because the walls were too close, they were closing in on him, closing in to swallow him. And when he came, what would then become of Tails? Poor Tails, unaware and unknowing, he would not stand a chance. Had he really redeemed himself by finding the boy, or had he merely set his fate by bringing him here to where he lived, so he could see the boy with his unholy, silver eye?
Trevor's hands trembled out of control and he held them against his head, both to cease their movement and to attempt to drive his gutteral voice out of his head. But it was no use, he still had power left, just enough.
The thunder clapped as the rain poured down.
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder-
"No!" he shouted, "No, go away!"
-the beast stood before me and beckoned my gaze, come and see he asked me, and I saw, and behold, a pale horse-
"You can't come here! Not tonight, not here!"
-his power spreads over measured hundred weight and penny pound. His name is Nightmare, and Death follows with him.
Trevor opened his eyes and looked out the window, and his jaw dropped at the sight of it. The clouds smothered every inch of the night sky save for one small opening, through which the silvery moon shone through.
His eye. And it could see him, could see into his very soul. He was coming down soon to claim it.
He had to get out of this tiny room. He crawled on hands and knees to the crack through which he had watched Tails playing only this afternoon, and he clawed at the grass walls, tore the soft material away until his hands came away wet and the rain came through to soak his fur. The sound of it was almost unbearable as he pulled himself through to steal into the night. This was an intrusion he could not permit, not tonight. Not here.
But what he sadly knew was that, in the end, he would have his way.
He always did.
The moon's face shimmered through the raindrops, turning each into a shining silver bullet. The village of New Knothole battened down to protect against the ferocity of the monsoon; it would succeed mostly, as it always did, as the foundations were secure and the construction sound, but there would be work to do in the morning. The village was constructed mainly from the materials found naturally in the forest, and nature had a way of succumbing to its own whims. Nature blew, and nature would blow away. It was part of the daily grind in New Knothole, every morning a part of it had to recycle itself anew.
But this was no ordinary monsoon. There was a kind of looming grimness in the air, a tension that bred unease. Perhaps it was that moon, waning however powerful, shining upon the village like a prison searchlight, illuminating it for all the malevolent spirits in the universe to funnel through and wreak havoc upon its entrenched inhabitants. It was difficult to pinpoint any precise source for the malaise, suffice to say that the Devil had mind to play some tricks tonight.
The moon was quite visible through the window of the hut where Delsey DeBono rested for tonight, simply lying with his hands behind his head, staring at the silver disc in the sky and listening to the fury of the monsoon from his safe, dry vantage point. Hardly a high-class hotel or even a low class apartment, but nevertheless, at this moment, he was in the most comfortable place in the world. How magnificent it was, just to spend one night dry! The refugees had not had the luxury of picking the best possible time of the year to make their escape, and having to trudge through the open forest during the storm season had turned out to be a far from pleasant experience, notwithstanding having being persued and hunted all the way.
The moon went behind a cloud, and the hut fell into darkness, Delsey still gazing at the faint silver blur where the heavenly body still shone. He began to doze, his mind wandering away from him and his eyelids fluttering closed, but he was woken suddenly by a powerful flash of lightning that brought illumination to the world for a split second as though it was daylight. Through the square window where he had been staring, he caught a glimpse of something that he couldn't quite identify, something standing in the village that hadn't been there before. In that moment it looked almost like a large animal had wandered into New Knothole, which wasn't altogether surprising. A bear, perhaps, from the look and size of it.
About two seconds after the first flash, there was a second, and now the shape was gone. This generated more concern in Delsey's mind than the presence of the thing itself, for surely more terrifying than seeing it was not seeing it. The rain continued to fall upon the roof of the hut with a steady roar, and in two places it began to leak a little, droplets of cool water slowly dripping onto the canvas floor. Delsey rose from his makeshift bed and walked over to the window, looking out into the night. Mist from the rain cooled his face and dampened his fur as he squinted into the darkness, but he couldn't make out anything but a few black trees contrasted against the marginally lighter sky.
A sudden and powerful clap of thunder followed on the heels of the lightning strikes, and Delsey almost leaped out of his skin. He was more nervous than he thought he was, and willed himself into a more stable frame of mind. There was no logic in being fearful. He was with the Freedom Fighters, he was safe tonight, if only for one night.
The thought was shattered when another lightning strike lit up the village as he was staring into that black expanse, and very clearly he saw something that definitely was not a bear, standing less than twenty metres from him and staring directly back at him. The thunder came almost instantly this time, the storm was right on top of them, and for a moment it might have seemed like the beast-thing had roared so loud that all the forest could hear it. Not a bear, no, definitely not, and not any animal that Delsey could name. It was too large, too fierce. Was this what the Arack beast-machines looked like? Were these the mobian-made atrocities unleashed upon the wild to hunt down and destroy fugitive escapees? Were they really breeding monsters in Terantulopolis?
Delsey fell to the floor the moment he had seen the thing in the village, but he knew that the beast had seen him in the same instant as he had seen it, and probably just as clearly. Why did he have to move to the window like that? Couldn't he have curbed his curiosity, just for one night, in light of the situation? Slowly, he crawled back into bed and pulled the covers over him, resorting to the childhood tactic of anti-monster espionage that dictated that they can't see you if you can't see them. A flawed theory, but the only one he had to work with at the moment.
The storm still raged outside, and for a time the only sound was the rush of water from the heavens onto the roof of the shelter. The force of the monsoon was beginning to eat away at the integrity of the hut, more leaks forming, and he figured that before morning he might find himself soaked after all. He focused his imagination on the morning - waking up to the monster-devouring sunshine, eating breakfast and being among mobiankind again, hoping these images would somehow manifest themselves, speed time and actually bring the sun and the morning closer. Or maybe a clear mind would encourage sleep, and he would simply hibernate through the storm. Another rule of monsters is that they cannot touch you while you are asleep.
These tactics did not work as well as it was hoped. Delsey could barely hear his own thoughts over the sound of his thudding heart. And then there was another thudding - this time, though, it came from outside. Something was thudding softly against the wall of his hut.
Delsey's heart launched out of his breast like a pinball, shot up his esophagus and struck the back of his teeth before he swallowed it again. He pulled the covers back a little to allow for a small crack through which to see. The world was still in near total darkness, and the only sounds were those of the storm, the beast outside, and his own breathing. There was another flash of lightning and thunder, and after the sound faded, the thudding had stopped.
Maybe it's gone away, Delsey thought, Maybe it's not smart, it can't figure out how to get in here, and it's found something better to do. Maybe my imagination was playing tricks on me and it really was a bear, or a wolf, or even a brumby. A harmless deer, maybe, scavenging for food or shelter.
Time went on. It might have been ten minutes since he had heard any sound besides the rain and the sound of his own breathing. The monster must have been in his head after all. Now it had gone away back to the land of nightmares, where it belonged, and left him to his fear and his own rasping breath. He was relieved until he realised that he was holding his breath. He had been for some time. The raspy breathing that he could hear was not his own.
There was a wall right behind his head, constructed of little more than sticks, grass and mud, and the source of this loud breathing was right behind it. The beast was less than fifteen centimetres from his head.
This was what broke him. He shrieked and shot out of bed, practically throwing himself across to the other side of the hut. This only confirmed the fact of his existence to the thing outside, which immediately attacked the wall of the hut in a fury of claws and gnashing teeth. Thunder roared again, light pouring through the new hole that had been ripped into the side of the hut, gleaming off inch-long teeth and crazed animal eyes. The entire building shook, groaned, and began to collapse on itself, bringing a torrent of water down onto Delsey and the bed as the roof fractured.
Before he knew it, Delsey was running through the village. The beast and the collapsed hut somewhere behind him, though the sound of both was drowned out by the roaring storm. Soaked, he ran almost blindly, screaming as loud as he could. "They're here! They're here, the Arack, they've found me!" But the village was deaf to his cries, it slept through the storm despite him, and he couldn't be sure they could even hear him.
Lightning flashed, and as he happened to look back he saw the monster shambling after him, bounding like an excited wolf, though three times bigger than any wolf he had ever seen. Those eyes burned into his mind as he ran aimless and alone through the rain, searching desperately for some kind of salvation.
It wasn't supposed to end like this, was all he could bring to mind, and he threw himself against one of the village huts, banging on the door until his fist ached, pounding with all his might and screaming. No rescue was forthcoming, and so he ran to the next hut, pounding and pounding, well aware that death was closing the distance, just about breathing down his neck.
Sally Acorn awoke to the sound of a powerful banging on her door, so loud that she feared it might bring the whole hut down. She was first startled, then angry when she realised that it was still the middle of the night, and she had been awoken from what was the only decent sleep she had had in weeks.
As she groaned in her half-asleep stupor and dragged herself toward the door, she heard a single scream over the sound of the storm, a scream of utter desperation that chilled her to the core, two words:
She reached the door and pulled it open.
Nobody stood on the other side. The rain fell upon the ground in a torrent, the dull roar of thunder still grumbling in the clouds above, and nothing more.
Sally poked her head outside, drenching her hair, and squinted into the darkness, looking left and then right, but there was no evidence of anyone. None at all.
She began to wonder whether she had imagined it all. It wasn't unknown for her mind, in its exhaustion, to create dreams so lucid in the depths of the night that they felt like reality even after awakening. She had almost written it off as such, when she finally looked down.
The steady rain had already washed it almost all away, but its outline was still clearly visible. A single footprint in the mud, almost mobian except for its massive size.
Tails slept in the next morning, not having been woken early like most other villagers. This was the benefit and the price of being one of the youngest in the village; he wasn't usually alerted to Freedom Fighter alerts unless they affected him. Though he got to sleep longer, he was always disappointed not to know of exciting happenings until later in the day than everyone else.
Confused as to why the village was so empty at ten o'clock in the morning, the young fox searched the wind for the sound of people. He found it, and wandered off in that direction, his twin tails wagging and spinning behind him, almost of their own accord.
The Freedom Fighters were almost all gathered around a particular site, circling a scene of some clear catastrophe. Tails pushed through the crowd for a closer look, and found a hut demolished, parts of its construct strewn about the place like a crash site. He was interested, but not surprised, after the storm the night before. What surprised him was the expressions of the other villagers. They seemed to express an unwarranted level of shock and stress, almost fear. It worried Tails in turn - had somebody been hurt? He could see Sally, Bunnie and Rotor on the outskirts of the site, similarly distressed. Sally most of all, she was clearly livid, absolutely fuming, and the other two were trying to calm her down.
It was then that the oddness of the situation finally caught up to Tails. The damage to this hut was thorough, it had been flattened and torn to shreds. However, it was the only hut in the village that had been considerably damaged. If the storm had been powerful enough to make a hut look like a plane had crashed into it, then it would have wrought havoc across the entire village to a comparable degree, surely. The implication was clear - the storm had not done this. Something else had.
Tails didn't want to bother Sally in her obvious state of fury, so he asked a group of villagers who were standing nearby what had happened.
They looked about each other and then down at him, and Tails knew exactly what was wrong with them, for he had brought it forth from countless villagers many times. Something bad had happened and they didn't want to scare him by telling him what it was, and they were busy formulating some condescending lie.
"Don't treat me like a kid!" he exclaimed, frowning. "Just tell me what happened, I'm as much as Freedom Fighter as you are. I deserve to know."
One of the villagers shook his head, visibly embarrassed. "I dunno, kid," he said, "None of us do. Princess Sally's told us that something real bad might be happening, but beyond that..."
Tails looked up again at the scene of destruction and considered approaching Sally anyway. Maybe he could help to cheer her up enough to be forthcoming about what was happening. He was, after all, coming of age. And without Sonic around, it was kind of his duty to absorb information like this so that he was well versed in it by the time his best friend and mentor returned to set it right again. But as the fox began to approach the enraged leader, he looked beyond her and saw somebody else approaching. He froze when he recognised the fox stranger who had attacked him the previous day, the insanity still in his eyes.
Sally just about flipped her lid when she saw Trevor Prower shambling toward her, and she was so furious that at first she didn't notice the state of him, that his fur was soggy and matted down with leaves and mud, like he had slept last night in the woods beneath the pouring rain. Such details didn't matter much to her at the moment, and she locked eyes with him.
"You!" she shrieked, pointing, "You've brought this on our heads! You knew that this is a secret outpost, that we don't take in refugees. You knew that the Empire was tailing you. And you came here anyway! Do you realise how hard we have worked to keep this place hidden from the Aracks? You ignored all our warnings, and now you've brought them to our doorstep! You've put all these people's lives in immediate danger, not to mention the future of the resistance."
"Sally-" Bunnie put a hand on the princess' shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
Trevor looked disoriented, following her rant only in part, and looked around like an amnesiac who has woken up to an unknown world.
"What... happened...?" he stammered.
"Look!" Sally commanded, pointing to the destroyed hut, and he did, with an expression of terror growing on his face.
"Your friend was staying there," the princess continued, "Delsey DeBono. He is now missing. The hut where he was sleeping last night has been shredded, churned apart by something that sure isn't a mobian, and I very much doubt it's an animal, either. Think about it, Trevor. He was scared of something out in that forest. He was terrified. He said that the Arack Empire had some kind of machine army hunting you out of Terantulopolis, isn't that right? It's true, isn't it. They did this, didn't they. They came out of the forest and took him, just as he was afraid they would. And now they know where we are, this village, they know our exact co-ordinates."
"He came," Trevor choked, "I mean, they came. Yes, yes, the Aracks... I'm very sorry..."
He looked up toward the sky, searching madly for something, but Sally grabbed him and yanked him back to her level. Her face were stony and cold, and those who knew her well were sure that they hadn't seen such strong emotion on her face since she first discovered her entire family had been murdered by Dr Robotnik. This was a leader on the edge.
"What are we going to do?" she demanded, "Just what are we going to do?"
"There's nothing you can do," Trevor replied, finding his lucidity and staring her straight in the eyes, "Did you think that you could hide here forever? They would have found you soon enough, whether we came here or not. That's what they do, it's how they've dominated this corner of the world for centuries. They're coming, probably as we speak, and there's nothing you can do about it. Unless you all want to die or live the rest of your lives in slavery, I suggest that you pack up this operation and come with us to Catilina."
"No." Sally met his glare, unblinking and inches from his face. "We are going to stay here and we are going to fight, just as we always vowed to do. If you're not going to help, then you can turn around right now and leave my village."
"That's fine," Trevor replied, "But I'll be taking Tails with me when I go."
"You won't be taking anybody anywhere."
"Oh yes I will. He's still just a kid, and I won't allow him to be killed or enslaved for your cause. I don't care if you're a princess or if you're the Queen of Mobius. Tails is my son, and I am his father, and I am not leaving here without him."
Sally drew breath to reply when she happened to glance around and see Tails standing there, eyes wide and jaw hanging open. With their eyes locked on each other, neither Sally nor Trevor had noticed the young fox approaching, and it was clear from his expression that he had heard everything.
With an anguished cry, he backed up, then turned and ran.
Tails had very limited memory of his parents. His memory thinned out the further back he tried to recall, and his earliest recollections were of his days on the street in Station Square, under the employ of Nails the Bat. His father had been one of Nails' cronies, although his reasons had more to do with self-preservation than anything. Tails remembered clearly that what his father had wanted more than anything else was to be sure that his son would grow up to have a decent life.
But then his father had died.
Tails ran into the forest for a long time, not even realising how far he was venturing away from the village. Eventually his strength gave out and he fell down, rolled into a ball and cried. The face that had faded from his mind so long ago, the face of his father, had finally been filled in. Now it was the face of this stranger who appeared in all of his memories, he remembered it so clearly that it seemed impossible for him to have forgotten. But how could this be? How could his dead father have crawled out of his grave to find him here?
He struggled through his anguish to grapple with coherent thought. He was a boy of uncanny intelligence for his age, and his inability to harness that only distressed him further. This wave of emotion had dragged him back down to the level of a five year-old, curled into a fetal position and bawling his eyes out. He fought it and willed himself to think.
How did he know his father was dead?
He hadn't seen it happen with his own eyes. Nails had told him, of course. It was one of his clearest memories, despite the fact he would only have been about six at the time. He had entered the old church where Nails had conducted his business, and the gangster had been sitting alone in the dark chewing on a cigar, a red point of light seemingly hovering in the air in front of the silhouette of his face.
"Where's my Dad?" Tails had asked, always nervous to speak with the bat on his own, without his father's protection.
Nails hadn't replied for a while. He sucked deep on his cigar, the red point of light growing fierce for a few moments and then dimming away while the bat held its warm smoke inside his lungs and then let it flow out through his nose.
"Forget it, kid," he said at last, "Got a bit of bad news for you, I'm afraid. He's gone. They both are. Had an argument with a bullet, and the bullet won."
Tails had been too young and had known Nails too well to be offended by insensitivity. He had, however, been quite thoroughly shellshocked by the suddenness of it all. It was his first real experience with death, although it had soon become a significant part of his life. He had soon learned a morbid lesson about the nature of death - it didn't wait around. There were no departing words, no final farewells and empassioned salutations. Death was sudden and final. It did not concern itself with dreams, loved ones and promises. The grim reality was that death could claim anyone at any time. It could cut you down mid-sentence on an otherwise uneventful day. You could wake up one morning to find the person you love more than anybody else in the world is in their grave. It was the day Tails had lost his will to aspire to anything.
"Hate to be the bearer of bad news," Nails had said, "But hey, your Dad had it coming. If you're going to blame anybody, you should blame him, all right kid? He didn't understand the world. He trusted people, your Dad. That's what got him killed. He was naive, and as a result of that he's let you down in the worst way."
He dragged on his cigar again, and leaned out of the shadows far enough for Tails to see his face.
"We're your family now, kid," he said, "I'll raise you proper. Bring you up as if you was my own. Teach you all the ways your Dad went wrong so that you don't have to share his fate some day. I tell you what, it's really kind of better this way. Whaddaya say, Prower?"
And that was all Tails had known about the death of his father. Was it possible that Nails had lied? He lied more often than he told the truth, so it went without saying. But if so, what had really happened? Why had his father left him alone to be raised by that gangster, and more importantly, why hadn't he returned until now?
He had always loved his father, but Nails had taught that he was a bad person, and for a while he had believed it. But he had a new life, now, and he was in conflict with his beliefs of old. During the most important period of his psychological development, Nails the Bat had been his primary role model, and it took more than Freedom Fighters and heroes and even Sonic to completely counter that influence. Now, burdened with the prospect of facing his father once again, he slipped back a little into that mindset. Nails may have been heartless and murderous, but he had always been there. He had taken on the parental role and protected him from harm, even if his motives for doing so had been less than righteous. Where had his father been?
And where was Sonic, now that his life had hit the fan? Out there, doing his own thing without so much as a word to his friends about his intentions. Hero or not, there wasn't a lot of integrity in that.
Tails figured he would stay right where he was, in the wet and muddy wild of the Great Forest, until such time as he was ready to do otherwise. He couldn't think of anybody who he wanted to talk to, right now. His father had abandoned him, Sally and the others had hidden his return from him, and Sonic had left him to mop up the mess on his own. This time, everyone had let him down. And he was beginning to realise that people had a nasty habit of letting him down.
"Wait!" Sally yelled, running after Trevor as he bolted into the forest, and after the third or fourth yell, the fox actually slowed and turned his head.
"I have to go after my son!" he exclaimed, irritably.
"We will go after him," Sally snapped, "You will go back to the village and wait. I'm not finished with you yet."
"You have to be kidding. My son is out there, with them. I am not waiting for the Aracks to just snatch him up."
"It's your fault he ran! This boy isn't ready to find out he has a father after all these years! He needs his friends around him right now, not somebody who, let's face it, is essentially a stranger to him."
"Oh yes, his friends," he spat, "The people who have forced him into a suicide pact for the sake of some unwinnable war. Excuse me if I disagree with you and state the bleeding obvious - that what he needs right now is his father, and more than ever. Now get the heck out of my way."
Sally groaned and clenched her teeth and fists as Trevor ran out of sight.
"No," she said to herself, "What he needs is Sonic. If you're out there, hedgehog, get your butt back here now."
She stared into the overgrown abyss of the Great Forest, and her tense muscles relaxed. Was she being watched, right now? Were the war machines of the Arack Empire conducting their horrid espionage on New Knothole at this very moment? She suddenly felt extremely vulnerable standing here. Trevor's friend Delsey DeBono had known too much about them, and they had taken him out. What were the chances that she was next on the list? Very high, if the Empire knew anything of war tactics, and the facts suggested that they knew very much. She was not only the leader of New Knothole, but the single most influential figure in the entire Freedom Fighter movement. She was a legendary figure, the only surviving mobian with a genuine claim on the throne of Mobitropolis. Much as she hated to admit it, her death would cripple the Freedom Fighters, quite possibly into disrepair. Robotnik had at least suspected this, and had made attempts to assassinate her, but the bulk of his wrath had belonged to Sonic. The Arack Empire, a much more political force than Robotropolis, would have a much more efficient and better planned system of dealing with the Freedom Fighter threat. They would strike at the heart, and that meant a swift and clean disposal of the most important Freedom Fighters right away. The Aracks were here already, hiding just beyond the trees, and when they moved in, she would be the first to die, along with...
Sally gasped, and her eyes bulged. It was a horrible thought, an unbearable thought, but she had just developed a terrible and likely suspicion about what had happened to Sonic the Hedgehog.
Tails cried until he fell asleep, a light doze in the thawing sun, and didn't know for how long. He was awoken, however, by the sound of approaching footsteps, and leaped to his feet, embarrassed about having fallen asleep when he was supposed to have been wide awake with angst. He had mixed feelings about the fact that the one to have found him was the stranger who purported to be his father.
Trevor Prower scaled a small hill and followed a short natural path to find Tails asleep in the open. He tread carefully and quietly, but his foot snapped a twig and Tails leaped up from his doze, stony-faced and defiant, wiping the sticky drying tears out of his eyes to hide that he had been crying, although it was obvious.
They stood that way for quite a while, facing each other off. Trevor was afraid that Tails was going to turn and run when at last the young fox spoke.
"Is it true?"
Trevor nodded. "Yes... yes, son, it's true. It's true."
Tails frowned, as though he was about to give a piece of his mind, but the frown broke. His face trembled and fresh tears welled up in his eyes. He sobbed once, twice, and then began to cry.
Trevor jogged toward him upon hearing the word, and Tails sprinted to his father, almost knocking him over with the force of his impact when Trevor snatched him up and held the boy in his arms.
As his lost father held him tight, Tails bawled away ten years of sorrow.
Sally could tell even before she spoke that there was something terribly wrong with Bunnie. There was a glazed look in her eyes, and she was pale and sullen. As the rabbit approached, Sally could almost have groaned and run the other way. She didn't need any more on her plate, not today. There were enough things on her plate that already warranted that expression.
"Before you say it," Sally warned, "Is this really something that I have to know right now?"
Bunnie looked like she was a short road away from throwing up. "Ahyeah," she replied in her soft, accented voice, "Sorry Sally-girl, but what we've found over yonder... I really think you need to take a look at this."
This was quickly looking like the worst day in Sally's life, though it had tough competition with the day that Mobitropolis fell. With a heavy feeling, she followed Bunnie to whatever it was that she had found.
They entered the Great Forest a little ways, and Sally quickly noted the smell. Rotor was already standing in a small grove of trees, holding a hand over his snout, looking as grave as Bunnie. Sally held her own nose and approached. At first she thought nothing of it, that something had died here, but she quickly discovered the horrible truth.
"Oh my God..." she rasped.
"We thought it best not to tell anyone," Rotor said, "Until you saw, at least. I gotta say... I don't know what to make of this. I don't even know where to begin."
Sally kneeled, grimacing, and reached for a long stick with which to prod what she didn't want to touch with her hands.
"It's him, isn't it," Bunnie said grimly.
"This doesn't make any sense," Sally whispered, "I just... just a moment ago..."
"It's just skin," Rotor said, and he looked away from it. "Skin and fur. He's been skinned."
"I don't know what to make of this," Sally said, "I don't know what this means."
"Did the Aracks do this?" Bunnie asked.
"I think so," Sally replied, "And I'm going to get to the bottom of it. Right now."
She gazed into the deeper forest, suddenly very fearful for the small fox who had become such an inseperable part of the Freedom Fighters... for the sight before her was unmistakable evidence that Tails had become a major target.
Tails and his father sat together against a fallen log in a forest copse, far from anybody apart from the animals and the trees. They were alone, for the first time that Tails could remember, and they had been talking for over an hour. Just the two of them, as though the rest of the world didn't even exist.
For all that Tails cared right now, it didn't.
He had a million questions, more than he could even count, more than he could even bring to mind. He asked them as they came to him, caring not about chronology or sense.
"Dad," the young fox pressed, "Were you there when I was born?"
"I sure was," Trevor replied, and a wide, reminiscent grin spread over his face. "Happiest day of my life."
"What was your... reaction?"
"What do you mean?"
Tails cleared his throat and looked a little timid. "When you saw me, I mean. What I look like?"
"Are you talking about your tails?"
The child nodded. "It isn't exactly normal."
Trevor put an arm around his son and held him close. "Kid, you could have a hundred and ten tails sticking out of your butt and it wouldn't make a lick of difference to me. You're still my boy, and you're beautiful."
"Don't say beautiful," Tails snapped, "Handsome."
Trevor chuckled and a tear formed in his eye, which he wiped away. "Handsome."
"But why did this happen to me?"
His father sighed. "It's a long story."
"I have to know."
"Well..." He seemed unsure of how to begin, and fell silent for a while. "Where you were born... where I grew up, and where I met your mother... it was a very bad place to live. There was a very corrupt group of people running the show, and they made life very hard for people like us. It was no good."
"What do you mean? Where was I born?"
Trevor appeared saddened by these memories, but Tails had to know. There was too much mystery in his past for him not to learn the answers, given the opportunity.
"You were born on an island," his father said, "A place called Kitsune Atole, it's pretty far to the north, over the Black Sea, it's pretty isolated. There's a very tight-knit group of people running the show, and they treat everyone else... almost like they're animals in a zoo."
"No kidding?" Tails asked, his eyes wide with shock. He had no memory of such a place, no memory beyond his life in Westerica and Station Square.
"No kidding," Trevor assured him. "On Kitsune Atole, it's not exactly strange for somebody to be born with... unusual traits. The people in charge like to fiddle with the way people look."
"Biological engineering, you mean?"
Trevor looked a little shocked, then overjoyed. "Man, I almost forgot how smart you were."
"They made me this way? On purpose?"
"A lot of people got it much worse, believe me. But it was after you were born that I knew without a doubt I had to take you away from there. Whatever it took. I refused to have you grow up on that horrible island, tortured and prodded all your life. So we escaped, I took you in a boat one night and we came here together."
"What about my mother? What was she like? Where is she now?"
His father shook his head sadly. "She couldn't come. I wanted her to, but... it was impossible. I did everything I could. She made me promise... she made me promise that I would take care of you... whatever it took."
The tears came to Tails again, and he didn't fight them. He sniffled and let the pain wash over him, wash over and be gone.
"Where did you go?" he asked, "Dad, why didn't you stay with me? Take care of me? Did I do something-"
"No, Tails," Trevor said, and clenched his fists, "It was that wretch, that slime Nails the Bat who took you from me. After we settled in Station Square... we had no money, no food... Nails gave us these things if I worked for him, but it wasn't long before I realised that living under his wing was no better than living under the knife of the Armada on Kitsune Atole. So I tried to get us away again, tried to escape. It didn't work the second time... Nails tried to have me killed. I got away, and I tried to get back to you... I tried to get you back, tried everything I could..."
Now it was Trevor who put his face in his hands and began to sob, and Tails who put an arm around him for comfort.
"He told me you were dead," the boy said, "All these years... All these years I thought..."
"It's so good to see you again, Tails. I'm so happy."
"I'll never leave you again. Never."
Reality began to set in for Tails, the reality that extended beyond this quiet copse and the tranquility of the natural setting, himself and his reclaimed father. There was a reality bigger than this, a reality of Freedom Fighters and the struggle against a powerful empire. Of war, and danger beyond the trees.
"Dad," he said, "We should get back to the village."
Trevor frowned and screwed up his face like he'd tasted something bitter. "It's just the same thing again, Tails," he spat, "These people are trying to control you, trying to use you for their own twisted purposes."
Tails was shocked. "The Freedom Fighters? What do you mean? They're heroes!"
"Well, let me ask you this... what kind of heroes employ a fifteen year old kid to fight and die for their cause? They don't want you to come away with me, Tails, they want you to stay here and get killed when it all comes down on their heads. That's not heroism, son."
The young fox sat in silence for a few moments, unsure of what to say. It hadn't even dawned on him that his father would be leaving New Knothole soon and would want him to come. Now that it was said, it seemed self-evident. Trevor certainly didn't want to stay here, not when he was so certain that the resistance was flat-out suicide, and there was no way that the two of them were going to be separated again. Neither of them would ever let that happen.
"They're my friends," Tails whimpered, "They took care of me, after I left Station Square... They are heroes, Dad... you'd know it if... you met Sonic..."
"You know, the princess doesn't like me," Trevor said, "I always thought Princess Sally was just a legend, that she'd died during the fall of Mobitropolis and her Freedom Fighters were an optimistic rumour. I never imagined I'd be here, fighting her for the right to be with my son."
"I'll tell them," Tails promised, "They'll like you, when I tell them you're okay. You'll see. This is all gonna work out." He nodded. "And I'm fourteen, not fifteen. I turn fifteen tomorrow, it's my birthday."
"Huh." Trevor frowned. "No, that's not true. You're fifteen, your birthday is in January."
Tails broke into tears again.
As the day wore on, the clouds again began to gather in the sky, building the nightly storm, covering the sun as though its shine was offensive to the season. It didn't matter how much gloom befell the Mobian skyline, though, because Sally knew that it would never be as clouded as her mind was on this day. She watched the moon poke its head up over the horizon like a curious silver face impatient for the coming of the night. The sun travelled down its final path toward late afternoon, as the clouds broiled and menaced and prepared to storm.
The warning of Delsey DeBono haunted her, ran through her tired mind again and again.
They are coming, they are closing the net. You think that you pose a threat to them, but you don't. When they get here, it's the end for you. The end for the Freedom Fighters, in the blink of an eye. There will be no compromise.
Terrible thoughts for the leader of a resistance to allow herself, and she tried to block them out, but the situation was indeed turning dire for the Freedom Fighters very quickly. There was a silent extermination going on, a fast and efficient sterilisation, so quiet that it was terrifying. Beginning with the elimination of Sonic the Hedgehog, their greatest hero, and yet it seemed to have been an amazingly simple operation for them. A piece of cake. What had Delsey seen or known that had prompted his immediate removal? And now the remains hidden in the forest... what did they want with Tails? Was he a target, or was he simply a source of information to tap, a way of getting to the true target, the one that mattered, the most important mark of all, the Freedom Fighter leader?
Bunnie shouted her name, cutting through her thoughts, and she snapped her head around with a suddenness that she hoped wouldn't be interpreted as shock. The rabbit was running toward her, mechanical legs clanking heavily on the hard ground.
"What is it?" Sally asked.
"It's Tails, and his Dad! We found them, they've come back!"
"That's not his Dad," Sally spat, and she craned her neck to see them. Tails and Trevor strolled into the village hand-in-hand like a father and son returning home from a leisurely picnic. The look of it made Sally sick to her stomach. She lifted a two-way radio and spoke into it.
"He's here. Take him."
Almost immediately, armed guards spewed forth from every corner of the village, training their weapons on the elder fox, shouting and barking commands. Tails shrieked and backed off as though it was him who was being threatened, and one of the guards came around behind him and pulled him away from the other fox. Trevor grasped for him and shouted his name, but he was tackled and his arms wrestled behind him.
"Dad!" Tails shrieked, and squirmed violently in the arms of the guard who held him. Trevor had several guns trained on him as he struggled to overpower his captors and get to Tails. He roared and clenched his teeth, looking up to see Sally standing above him.
"I suggest you stop fighting," she said, "Or our guards will take more drastic action. You're not going to get to him, not while I have any say about it."
"What is this?" Trevor demanded, but Sally did not reply. She stood aside as the guards hauled him away roughly, and looked back at Tails, who was still being restrained. The small fox was crying, and glowering at her with an intensity of hatred that she had never seen him direct toward her before. It almost brought her to tears, herself, but she knew that she had to be strong. She never pretended that her job was a glamourous one, and after all, she was doing this for his own protection. Wiping away a single tear, she turned a deaf ear to the miserable cries of the child, and followed her prisoner to the holding cells.
Trevor was ropable when the guards threw him into the makeshift prison for the second time since his arrival in New Knothole. He grabbed the bars of the cell door and almost won a tug-of-war for it, but after a short struggle he was locked inside, Sally staring in at him with an icy glare. He got as close to her as the bars of his cell would allow, grasping them so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
"Give me back my son!" he screamed in her face.
Sally's hair blew aside at the force of his demand, but she stood firm.
"You need to start telling us the truth, now," she said.
"Truth? What truth? I've told you the truth, what is this about? Why won't you stop harassing me and my son? What more is it that you want?"
"Oh come on, we know your little secret. We found something very interesting in the forest today that I want you to explain, and the truth this time, or else things are going to start getting a lot worse for you."
Trevor growled. "What are you talking about?" he demanded through clenched teeth.
"Some remains," Sally replied, "Skin and fur, mostly. But what confuses me is that these appear to be your remains, Trevor Rex Prower, except that you appear to be wearing all of your skin and fur right now. So tell me, if you've been killed and taken apart and hidden in the forest, how is it that you're standing before me?"
Trevor grasped his head as though wracked with a sudden headache, and squinted his eyes. "What?"
"Unless," Sally continued, "Unless the person standing before me isn't Trevor at all. Unless you're someone or something else, you stole his identity and got rid of the original, and now you're busy gathering intelligence on me so that you or somebody else can make a hit."
The fox shook his head and even laughed a little. "You've flipped," he said, "You've lost it, princess. What is this, paranoid delusions? The body-snatchers are coming after you?"
"If that's not the answer, then you explain it to me," Sally replied, "Because you sure know something about this."
"You're wrong. Whatever it is that you think I've done, you're wrong. All I want to do is take my son and leave here, and you'll never have to see me again."
Sally may have been furious, but she was certain she saw something in Trevor's eyes when he denied her accusations. Though she wasn't exactly sure what the skin in the forest meant, she was sure that he was lying, and that was enough. A momentary glance, a refusal to meet her eyes, a flinch, a stammer, a flush. Tiny signs of dishonesty, he was rife with them.
"You're not taking him anywhere," she said, "And you're not get getting out of that cage, not this time. I'm going to get to the bottom of this, and you're staying here until I do."
The medical hut in the village of New Knothole was empty aside from its solitary resident, the physician Doctor Horatio Quentin Quack. The general health level of the village was sound of late, and that was exactly the way he liked it. The only thing he enjoyed more than proving the superiority of his medical knowledge was not having to. When everyone was healthy, everyone was thankful that they had such a fine and upstanding piller of the community as Dr Quack keeping them well, and Quack himself was free to endulge his greatest passion, which was sitting around and not doing anything. It was for these reasons that he had to struggle not to groan when he saw Bunnie enter the hut with an expression of grave concern. He received her, placing a mark in his book but keeping it near, and sipping at his coffee, gesturing for her to proceed.
"Dr Quack? Sally needs you to take a look at something."
"Oh, look," Quack replied, "I've told her again and again, it's just a mole. It's definitely not a skin cancer, and despite what she might suspect, you can't get skin cancer from a denim vest no matter how much ammonia you wash it with. Cancer just doesn't work that way, and why is everyone always so paranoid about cancer, anyway? No, you can't get cancer from not getting enough sleep. No, you can't get cancer from shaking hands with someone who has cancer..."
"It's nothing like that," Bunnie insisted.
"Oh, good then. Well, what is it? Another infection? Man I hate those..."
"It's this." The rabbit held out something that looked like part of a dead animal, something with matted and muddy orange fur, and that smelled like rot.
"Now that's just disgusting," Quack said, "What is that, a dead rat?"
"It's a part of something we found in the forest. We think it's a skin... a whole skin. A mobian's skin."
"That's somebody's skin," the doctor reiterated, "I see. And besides informing you that that's probably the most disgusting thing I've ever seen, you would like me to do... what, exactly?"
"Study it, if you could. Something very strange is happening here, like downright freaky-bizarre, and this is a part of it. If you could find anything unusual about this, it might help us figure out just what the hoo-haa is going on."
Dr Quack reached out slowly, pinching the clump of filthy skin and hair between two fingers. "Why is it that, whenever you need a scientist or a biologist or something, you come to me? Come on, I'm a physician for pete's sake."
"You've been to medical school, you'd know better than anyone if this stuff is normal, if it's mobian or animal," Bunnie explained, and then, as an afterthought, "And you're smarter than anyone else here."
A smile crept across the doctor's beak. "You know exactly what to say, don't you, honey-bun. Fine, leave the crap with me. I'll see what makes it tick. And then afterwards I might go and wash my hands in dog-poo to make them cleaner."
Tails was already waiting for Sally when she stepped out of the prison building, and her stomach did a flip-flop when she saw him, made her feel queasy and nervous. The fox who claimed to be this boy's father couldn't intimidate her in the least for all of his yelling and banging around, but for some reason, the boy himself achieved what Trevor could not. Sally had never been particularly close to Tails, she had no children of her own and lacked the skills of motherhood, and without Sonic around, she didn't know how to deal with the young fox by herself, especially with the expression he wore on his face at the moment.
Tails ran up to the princess and virtually tackled her, and she very nearly fell over backward, surprised by his strength. It was no wonder really, he was close to throwing off the shackles of his childhood entirely and becoming an adult. He was about the age now that Sonic had been when she had first met him, and that alone served as a warning not to underestimate the power of an angry teenager. Sally regained her footing just as Tails shoved her again, and this time her guards began to move in on the scene.
"Tails!" she yelled, and wrestled with him as he tried to shove her a third time. The young fox was heavily flushed, his eyes red and wet from crying, and his entire face scrunched up like a clenched fist.
"He was right about you!" he exclaimed, "You don't care about me! You don't care about me at all, you just want to use me! You don't want me to find my father, you want to keep us apart! Just like Nails did! You're just another stinking Nails the Bat, using me to get what you want! I hate you! I hate you!"
When the village guards moved to interfere in the conflict, Tails turned away and ran from her, leaving her to recover from the encounter. Why did she feel so bad for simply doing what was in the boy's best interests? She could understand him not seeing her eye-to-eye, but from where did her own feelings of guilt arise?"
Rotor had been watching from nearby, and after Tails left he approached the princess.
"Tough words, huh? You okay?"
"I'm fine," Sally sighed, brushing her hair out of her eyes. "Somebody should probably talk to him, though. I wouldn't know where to begin, and I doubt he wants to hear what I have to say, anyway."
"Bunnie's better with kids than I am," Rotor replied. "What's the story with the guy in there? Has he fessed up?"
"He's hiding something. He knows very well what's going on around here, it all centers on him somehow."
"What do you think he is? Some kind of android replacement? It wouldn't be the first time something like that has been tried."
Sally shrugged. "I'm not sure. I don't think he's a robot, that would be more suited to Robotnik's style than the Aracks. Besides, he's... too animated, too expressive. Too alive. What we're dealing with is more complicated, I think."
"What other possibilities are there?"
"Some kind of mobian replicon, perhaps. An Arack facsimile in the shape of a fox, driven by the Empire. I still don't have a decent grasp of their technology."
"Delsey DeBono believed that there were things hunting him and his companions in the Great Forest," Rotor said. "Says he's seen things that aren't exactly machines, but aren't exactly alive. Things that hunt you in the night and strike in silence."
"Things that take the skin right off your body?"
Rotor looked at the ground.
"There's something here," Sally continued, "Something big. It took DeBono in the night, ripped his hut to pieces. Whatever it was, it was a lot bigger and a lot stronger than the fox inside that cage. Whatever he is, he's a part of a much larger plan, and if we don't figure out what we're fighting against soon... let's just say we need to get some kind of understanding about this thing as soon as possible." She looked up at the siking sun, partially covered by gathering storm clouds. "Tonight."
"Bunnie and I are all over it, Princess. What do you want to do in the meantime?"
Sally sighed again. "I think we should have the rest of the refugees escorted out of here as soon as possible. As soon as it can be arranged. They might all be targets, like DeBono was. If we can get them to Nutwood, they might be able to get out of the Great Forest fairly quickly, head up toward the larger settlements in the north. And someone needs to talk to Tails, as well, before he runs off and gets himself killed." A raindrop fell upon her shoulder, and she looked up at the gathering clouds. "I don't want him to be the next victim of whatever it is roaming around out there."
Tails had nowhere to run when what he ran from was his home, so his running was directionless. He wasn't even sure that New Knothole even was his home anymore, in fact he was almost sure that it wasn't. Reflecting upon his life, he had made some sudden and powerful realisations. He had been a puppet, a truster, a gullible young fool, the span of his entire life. As expected, every single person he had trusted had proven a fraud. Nails had once given him the most powerful piece of advice he had ever received, and he still consistently failed to follow it, despite it having proven accurate, time and time again.
"Friendship is a sham, kid," the gritty voice of the gangster rang in his ears, "You know what people really want? Power. Wealth. Pleasure. Sometimes you need other people to help you get it. So you use them. You have to be a user, kid. Because if you're not a user, then you're being used. That's the way the world works. Three words - Never. Trust. Anybody."
And he had taken it to heart, all those years ago, but had he really followed it? He had trusted Nails, after all, hadn't he? He had been told that his father was dead, and he had believed it.
"Got a bit of bad news for you, I'm afraid. He's gone. They both are. Had an argument with a bullet, and the bullet won."
Nails had been nobody worth trusting, but Sonic had come along and he had changed Tails' life, taken him away from his dark street life and introduced him to the Freedom Fighters. But now it was all too clear to him, Sally Acorn was nothing more than another Nails the Bat, her rebel warriors were just like Nails' flunkies, and once again Tails was being enslaved to a dangerous cause that he didn't necessarily believe in. And just like Nails, Sally sought to keep him from the truth, keep him from his father, keep him under control.
And what of Sonic? The one who Tails had come to idolise above all others? What had he really done to deserve such praise? Taken him out of one oppressive situation and put him into another? And where was he now? If he was any great friend, where was he now?
Tails' choice became clear to him, now. The confusion was lifted like a veil. His life had entered another phase, a new phase, and it was time to move on again. When his father was released, they would go together to start a new life, and Tails would leave the Freedom Fighters behind him. It was time to unlock his shackles and start living.
When Bunnie went looking for him, Tails had settled in a ditch with his tails curled around his body for warmth and his face in his hands. In this position, he looked as though he had reverted to the childhood he had never had. Like the child inside him hadn't been lost at all, merely dormant, waiting for the right amount of stress to lure him out. It was lightly spitting rain, the greying sky dulled the colour of his damp fur and darkened the foliage, the soft tones making him look like a portrait drawn by a melancholy artist.
He sniffled, looked up at her, and turned his face away. He hadn't wanted to be found.
Bunnie descended into his little ditch and kneeled beside him, close enough to hear his gentle sobs.
"Go away," he mumbled from behind his hands.
"It's raining," Bunnie said, "You're going to catch a cold out here, why don't you come back to the village?"
"I don't wanna go back. Not ever."
There was a peculiar popping-springing sound, and the rain stopped falling on Tails' head and shoulders. He took his hands away from his face and saw that Bunnie had opened an umbrella, and was sheltering him with it, despite getting wet herself.
"Thanks," he mumbled.
"You're angry with the Freedom Fighters," Bunnie said.
Tails sighed. "You're not bad people. You've always been there for me. But only because I'm a resource. Just because I can fix things... build things... invent things... things that help Sally to win her war."
Bunnie tried her best not to feel hurt by this remark. "Who's been telling you this? Trevor?"
"He's my father," Tails replied softly.
"Tails... we love you. You're family to us, all of us. We're like a big family, that's why we're always there for each other. And you know, because we love you, we're all hoping really really hard that this guy really is your father, and that you can be with him and fill up that part of yourself that's been missing all this time. But there is also a chance, just a chance, that he isn't what he says he is, and that he's come here to hurt you or someone else. And until we're sure that isn't true, we have to take some precautions. Also because we love you."
"But you trust him less because you know I'll go away with him."
"We're not going to let him take you away if he's a fraud, Tails. We don't want to see you hurt."
"But I know he's my father!" Tails protested, "You always treat me like I'm just a dumb kid and I can't make my own decisions! If I can build an aeroplane and fly it, then I must be smart enough to figure out if someone's my father, you've gotta see that!"
"I know you're smart, you're the smartest person I know, no matter how old you are, but sometimes... sometimes our emotions can cloud our minds. It happens to everybody, sometimes when we really, really want something to be true, we can see evidence that might not really be there, come to conclusions that don't necessarily make sense."
Tails looked up at her with weary eyes. "Is that true for Sally as well?"
"Sure. It's true for all of us."
"Bunnie, Sally doesn't want him to be my father. She hates him, and that's what she wants to be true. She'll never be convinced that he's my father."
"Tails, Sally is under a lot of stress at the moment. Keeping Knothole safe from the Aracks is taking a lot out of her, and she just wants to be prudent."
"She's emotional, you mean," Tails replied, "And emotions can cloud our minds."
Bunnie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Tails had trapped her. It was rare that anybody needed to be convinced of the boy's intelligence, they only had to carry a debate with him for a few minutes and watch him win every time.
"If I proved it to you," he continued, "If I proved that he's my father, would you believe it? Would you help us?"
Bunnie put her head down and looked at the ground. "If you can convince me, beyond reasonable doubt, then I'll do my best. Sally is still the leader here, her decisions are final, and I won't argue with them, nor would I want to. But I'll hear y'all out. If he is your Dad, mind, then he has a lot of things to explain."
"Can you take me to him?"
Thunder cracked somewhere to the north, distant but fast approaching. It would storm hard again tonight.
"Sure, let's get outta this rain," Bunnie said, "But I'm sticking with y'all, okay? I can't leave you alone together, not behind Sally-girl's back."
"That's okay. I want you to see."
The guards posted outside Trevor's cell were wary and conflicted when Tails approached, but Bunnie set them at ease enough to allow the both of them entry to the building. The sun had given up its daily fight against the clouds and the darkness, and retreated over the horizon. Its shine was replaced by silvery moonlight and constant lightning, the caution of the approaching storm. Most of the villagers had already disappeared indoors in anticipation of the weather's seasonal wrath. Sally had probably retired to her home, mulling over the troubles in her life, while Bunnie exercised this particular liberty behind the princess' back. She had been asked to sort out the situation with Tails, and this seemed to be the only way to do it. She just hoped her methods would not be misinterpreted as deception.
Trevor sat in the corner of his empty cell, cradling his head in his hands, looking defeated. When he saw Tails, his demeanour changed instantly, and he launched himself at the cage door. Tails did the same, and they met in the middle, hugging each other through the bars. Bunnie felt mildly embarrassed being there, but reminded herself that Trevor was under suspicion. She considered telling them to break it up and not to touch, but strongly doubted either would comply.
"Tails..." Trevor sighed, "Thank God..."
"Hey Dad. Are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm good. Bread and water isn't so bad once you get used to it."
"We've come to get you outta here, Dad. Don't worry about a thing."
Bunnie perked up at this. "Whoa there, just you hang on a darned minute, that ain't all exactly true."
"But we're gonna prove it to you," Tails replied, "We're gonna prove it, and then you can prove it to Sally and Dad can go free."
"I can try, sugar. That's the best I can offer, and this proof has yet to be produced."
"What do you want?" Trevor asked, "A blood sample? A birth certificate?"
"Tails says that you know things about him that only a father could possibly know. So why don't we start with that?"
Trevor sighed, and broke his embrace with the younger fox. He walked across his cell until he faced the small barred window that allowed a sliver of dusk light through. Every so often the lightning flashed, lighting up his silhouette like the flash of a camera.
"Tails was barely a year old when we escaped the Kitsune Atole," he said, "The island where he was born, where we all grew up. There was always a hope that he would be born healthy and normal, unaffected by the Armada's experiments. Some are, I mean it isn't unknown. The mobian genome... it doesn't like to be tampered with, it resists, fights back. That's why they always have so much trouble getting their alterations to hold. When Tails was born and I saw that they had changed him, I decided there was no way he would be raised on that island and suffer what everybody else has had to suffer. I took him across the sea and we settled on the mainland, where I could raise him in peace, beyond their reach. My wife... Tails' mother... she had been placed under surveillance by the Armada. She stayed behind... so that we could escape. She sacrificed her freedom for yours, Tails. She loved you so much."
Tails had tears in his eyes, and although Bunnie was moved, she was also cautious. Trevor was weaving his story in a way that had a very strong emotional impact on the young fox, and sucked him right into it. Such a story could easily be the work of a very adept con artist.
"Do you remember any of this?" she asked Tails. The young fox dried his eyes and shook his head.
"He was so young," Trevor said, "I'm glad. It's better for him to have grown up without memories of that awful place."
"But it doesn't help you," Bunnie replied, "You could just as easily say anything, create any fanciful story you wanted. What does it prove?"
Tails gave her a dirty look, but she knew she was right. If Tails had no memory of these stories, then they counted for nothing. They couldn't risk him being taken away by some stranger with a vivid imagination.
"I could tell you about our life in Station Square," Trevor said, "He remembers that. I tried to get work but it was very difficult, in the end I was reduced to petty crime just to keep us alive. And if you're in the business of crime in Station Square, it's only a very brief matter of time before you attract the attention of Nails the Bat. Of all the mistakes I've made in my life, the one I regret above all others was the day I agreed to work for that scoundrel. For four years I did his dirty work, and endangered my son by exposing him to that lifestyle. I'll never forgive myself."
"Oh Dad, it was all Nails' fault!" Tails exclaimed, but Bunnie hushed him.
Trevor flinched for a moment, as though in pain, and clutched his chest. He glanced warily out the window before he composed himself and continued.
"I discovered very quickly that Tails was a very intelligent child. He was already reading almost fluently before his second birthday, and by the time he was five, he was teaching me things." He winked at Tails. "I think that was the year you saw your first aeroplane. You were looking up at the sky and you said 'Daddy, how come it doesn't fall down?', and I didn't know the physics behind it, so I just said that the wind keeps it up. And from that day forward, my little genius, you were dedicated to finding some way that you could fly just like the plane did. I bought you all these books on aeroplanes, and you always had your nose in them, even the technical ones, the adult books. I found a flight manual of some kind in the garbage near the airport and gave it to you, and you read through it with barely any trouble. You used to run down the street as fast as you could with your arms stretched out and cardboard wings taped to them, trying to take off." He laughed so hard at this that he had to lean on the wall, and had to wipe tears out of his eyes. "One day," he continued, "We were hanging around the airport as we often did, and you saw a different kind of plane taking off. You asked me what it was and I told you it was called a helicopter, and it didn't need to run-up because its wings were on its head, they just needed to spin really fast to catch the wind. You were so amazed by this, you were spellbound, like you'd had a revelation. For the rest of the day you were jumping in the air, waving your arms around in circles, trying to be like the helicopter. And then, finally, right before my eyes, you leaped into the air and spun your tails instead... and you flew straight up! You soared, I didn't think you were going to come down! You were so excited that you almost gave yourself an aneurysm, and so was I. I was so proud of you... my boy, you found a problem that was impossible to solve, and you worked at it until you broke it. You didn't even understand the concept of impossible, you didn't believe in it. Because you wanted to fly. That was the long and the short of it. You wanted to take off like an aeroplane, and you weren't going to give up until you did."
Trevor grunted and flinched again. He clenched his fists and drew back a sucking breath through his teeth, squinting his eyes shut. "No," he whispered, "Not tonight. You're too weak now, this is my time, go to sleep. You can't have me."
"Are you okay?" Bunnie asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied. The fox took a deep, calming breath, and continued. "After this, naturally, Tails was flying all the time. I couldn't keep him on the ground, he was just zooming up into the sky, falling back down again and touching the ground just long enough to launch himself back into the air. He made quite a public spectacle of himself, people were taking photographs. I tried to persuade him to settle down but he just wouldn't. Eventually, one of Nails' boys caught on to the rumour that my son could fly, all by himself. When it got back to Nails, as usual, he started to think about how this fact might benefit him financially. Only this time, I wouldn't have any of it. This was my son he was talking about. Bad enough that Tails was immersed in this kind of thing every day of his life, I wasn't going to allow him to become a part of it. But Nails was adamant... and charismatic. He wanted Tails to learn some of the tricks of the trade, start doing some small time pilfering so he could work his way up to the big stuff and start lining Nails' own pockets for him. He was always asking me, what's wrong with that? The kid's Daddy's a crook, why not follow in his footsteps? He began to work on Tails behind my back, talking to him, trying to lure him away from me. So, once again, I began to plan an escape for me and my son. Nails did not appreciate disloyalty... getting away from him was a lot like getting away from the Arack Empire in that respect. Once you were a part of his little family, you were part of it for life. He had a finger in every pie in that wretched city, his tendrils were everywhere, he had an ear on every wall and an eye on every street. He found out I was planning to leave, and so he tried to have me killed. Except-"
Trevor's sentence was cut off apparently by a wracking pain that seemed to ram his chest. He screamed and clawed at his ribs with both hands, his eyes wide and bulging.
"Dad!" Tails shrieked, and ran to the door of the cell. Trevor shuddered and moaned, falling to his knees and drawing himself into a tight ball.
"Trevor, what's wrong?" Bunnie demanded, "What is it?"
The fox looked up at her, a look of sheer terror etched across his face. He turned his glare to Tails, and then finally to the window carved into the wall of his cell. The moon was now clearly visible, framed by the square window like an artwork - a little over half full, silvery and bright. It shone through the clouds, through the rain, through the window, its light travelling millions of miles to illuminate Trevor's face in a white glow. He began to scream, and Bunnie was strangely sure that it was the moon he was screaming at.
"You can't have me! You can't! You're waning! This is my time! You sleep now, do you understand? You've had me long enough and now you sleep!"
"I'm going to get the doctor," Bunnie said, and she shot to her feet. "Tails, come with me."
But Tails did not come. He ignored her, reaching through the bars and screaming for his father. He didn't even notice when she fled the building.
Trevor hugged himself close, writhing in obvious pain. Tails was terrified, he had no idea what was happening but he knew it was severe. He couldn't lose his father on the day he found him, not after so many years apart, it was too cruel to fathom. But his father was out of his reach in a locked cell, and all he could do was cry and scream and reach through the bars with splayed fingers as the elder fox writhed and moaned. Trevor began rocking back and forth, muttering to himself too quietly for Tails to understand what he was saying.
Almost ten years ago, Tails had been forced to live with the death of his father. Now, on the night before his adopted fifteenth birthday, he was faced with the prospect of going through it a second time. Though he didn't know what was wrong with his father or how to stop it from happening, he was convinced that everything would be all right if he could just get to him. He would not stand back and watch as his father was taken from him again. Tails, stretching out for his father with one arm, grabbed the bars with his other hand and began pulling. His screams almost matched his father's in intensity, and for a moment it seemed as though the two foxes were engaged in some horrid duet. Tails' muscles trembled and ached as he manipulated a strength he didn't even know he had; his shoulder slipped between the bars, and then his belly and hips began to squeeze through. He slipped one leg into the cell, then the other, and with a final, powerful heave, his head followed suit, although it hurt a lot and caused one of his ears to bleed. He barely felt the pain.
Trevor appeared more agitated when he found that Tails was inside the cell with him, but he was preoccupied with the pain. His son ran to him and draped both arms around him, felt his shuddering mass. Now he was close enough to hear what his father was whispering, although it sounded like gibberish.
"...the sound of thunder rips across the heavens...a third of the living creatures in the world fall into death and rot away at the sound of his arrival...for he is the consumer of souls...he rides upon a pale horse and holds within his skeletal hands the terrors of a thousand ages...he is the monster that lives in the dreams of every child...his name is Nightmare...his name is Nightmare...his name is Nightmare..."
"Dad!" Tails cried, holding his trembling, writhing father, "What's wrong? What's wrong?"
And it was now that he saw the blood. He pulled away and saw it on his hands, and saw that it soaked his father's fur. His skin... it looked as though it was breaking apart like a ripe cuccoon. Tails screamed in horror and backed away as his father turned around, but it was not his father's face that looked at him now, it was the face of some unholy beast, the kind of monster that had no place outside of children's closets and imaginations. The thing that was his father looked at Tails with bulging yellow eyes and spoke.
"His name is Nightmare," he said in a guttural voice, "My son... run from him."
Horatio Quack was still at work when Bunnie went to find him, which was unusual for him. Quack was rarely known to do more work than was absolutely necessary, and even rarer to see him working after the sun went down. Bunnie, drenched by the rain, shouted his name when she saw him at his desk, but he spoke to her before she could get another word out.
"Bunnie!" he exclaimed, looking bedazzled, "Where was it you said you found this?"
"What?" The rabbit was struck momentarily dumb.
"This bio-matter you wanted me to look at. You're not going to believe what this is... I hardly believe it, myself."
"Tell me about it later," Bunnie said, "There's a medical emergency, we need your help."
The wonder vanished from Quack's face in an instant, replaced by mild frustration. "Oh why me?" he asked, "Why not one of the other doctors?"
"There are no other doctors, Doctor."
Bunnie had more on her mind to worry about than the results of the doctor's research, but even in this time of emergency, she couldn't help the curiosity from bubbling up below the surface. Quack seemed very hesitant to leave his desk, as though what he had found was something truly revolutionary. He glanced back at it twice as he followed her outside, and even after leaving it, his mind was clearly somewhere else.
Later, girl, she told herself, There'll be time to ask him all about it, but for now, there's more pressing things to worry about.
The rain was pouring down in torrents, now. Thunder crashed overhead, almost in tune with its partner the lightning. Quack had to yell over nature's smothering cacophony to make himself heard.
"What seems to be the problem, then?"
"He's just collapsed!" Bunnie shouted back, "In pain, just screaming nonsense!
There was another crash of thunder. But was that thunder? It was hard to tell through the heavy rain and howling wind, but it had almost sounded like the bellow of an animal.
"The one whose skin I gave you to study!"
"You're kidding!" Quack exclaimed, "I have to meet him!"
They approached the prison building, which was now strangely unguarded. Bunnie didn't pay any mind to this at the time, but her attention was quickly refocused as they came near the entrance - and another animalistic roar, this one powerful enough to shake the heavens, came from within. It was followed by a crash that shook the entire building, pieces of rubble tumbling to the ground.
Bunnie and Quack froze, looked at one another. Bunnie began to proceed, but the doctor grabbed her arm and pulled her back as he retreated.
"I don't think that's a good idea!" he exclaimed, "We have to go! We have to go back!"
"What's wrong? I-"
Another almighty crash dwarved the storm's ferocity, and this time the entire prison building lurched, buckled, began to crumble slowly in on itself like an aluminium can with all the air sucked out. Bunnie was confused, dumbfounded, just standing and staring at the crumbling building. Quack seemed to understand and was desperately trying to pull her back, but she was too stunned to even move. A number of other villagers were now emerging from their homes despite the rain, equally confused, and as a powerful flash of lightning framed the building in a black silhouette, both of the guards who had previously been standing sentry fled from inside the falling prison with masks of horror over their faces.
Sally was running through the crowd, now, and she clearly hadn't noticed the prison building. A drenched, muddy night-dress hugged her frame as she waded through the rain, glancing wildly over the village to find the source of everybody's distress. Her eyes met Bunnie's, but gleaned no answers from her.
Then there was another crash, and all eyes turned to the prison.
With a final lurch, the stone building crumbled. There was a mighty splash as the entire construction fell into the mud. And from within its debris there emerged a horrific creature.
Bunnie thought she would be driven mad just from the sight of it. Beneath its bulging, veiny, muscular frame was the ghost of a likeness to Trevor Prower, but surely he could not have become this monsterous thing. The beast was wild, it scoured the village with bulging, hungry eyes and panted and foamed like a rabid dog. It turned its head to the sky, searching for something, finally settling its gaze upon the moon, and broke into an unspeakable howl. For a few moments it stared at the orb in the sky, as though in a trance, and then it looked back down to the village, and roared.
This broke most people out of their shock, and the villagers began to flee screaming into the rain. The monster crawled out of the debris, snarling and snapping at the rioting crowd. Bunnie was almost knocked over twice, and when she regained her footing she found Sally standing over her, the princess' face a map of confusion and fear.
"What is that thing?" she screamed, and Bunnie could only match her gaze, possessing no satisfactory answers. Sally turned her head to look upon the thing that had come to terrorise her village, struggling madly to comprehend its sheer impossibility. Though she had sought to expect anything in light of recent events, this seemed more than she could handle. She grappled for the shreds of her control, struggling to take charge in an incomprehensible crisis.
"Where are my guards?" she demanded, "Take that thing down! Take it down!"
The monster howled and swiped with long and deadly-looking claws, driven into a frenzy by the panicked villagers. Soon it would begin to land blows, and there would be a massacre.
Gunshots rang out over the sounds of the rain, the thunder and the screaming. The flashes of automatic weapon fire lit the sky along with the lightning. But these were mostly warning shots, dead bullets cutting the sky apart, for nobody was willing to fire through the crowd. Sally's voice was barely audible over the cacophony. She was screaming for people to leave the area, return to their homes, get out of the way. The creature rose onto its hind legs and bellowed again, an insane animal shriek, and the frenzied crowd finally began to thin and dissipate. Every guard in the village took up arms and began to advance on the monster, circling it. Bunnie, still barely able to comprehend what she was seeing, backed away from the scene. Was it her imagination, or did the creature appear almost fearful? Was she crazy with fear, or was there an intelligence behind those bulging eyes, now? The monster stopped flailing and swiping, and backed onto its haunches instead, shielding its head with its monsterous arms. The guards took no pity, advanced on the cowering beast and raised their weapons for the kill.
This was when a small shape ran into view, a wet orange fox who scrambled between the beast and those who would destroy it. Bunnie didn't believe it at first, didn't want to believe, but what had happened in the past few minutes that was within the realm of believability?
Tails Prower stood between the guards and the monster, stood close enough for the beast to merely reach out and grab him.
"No, Tails!" Bunnie screamed, "Get away from it! Run!"
But the boy remained, and stretched his arms out on either side as though he had even a shadow of a chance of protecting the massive beast that towered over him. The guards tried to line up their shot, but nobody was willing to risk engagement with Tails so close. The fox was crying, and it was a few moments before Bunnie could understand what he was screaming.
"Don't shoot my Dad! Please! Don't shoot my Dad!"
He thinks that thing is his father, Bunnie realised, He's mad to believe this thing is even mobian, let alone his father.
The distraction was enough, however. Already she was shocked to see that the beast was smaller than it had been, was in fact shrinking before her eyes. Its muscles retracted into its body like air being slowly let out of a balloon. As it cowered, it pulled back into itself, and one by one the guards lowered their weapons in confusion. The beast shrank until it was reduced to a limber, frail ghost of itself, trembling, rocking back and forth in the mud.
Tails turned and threw his arms around his father, bawling in the rain.
Sally Acorn clenched and unclenched her hands in constant rhythm, staring stony-faced and embittered into the ever raging storm outside the window. She had dried her fur and hair as best she could, though it now stuck out as though statically charged, and she had replaced her drenched bed-dress with a more formal and less revealing set of clothing. She was the only person in the meeting hall who was not looking at Trevor Prower.
The fox sat cuffed and bound at one end of the long conference table, looking down at his lap, a shadow covering his face. Doctor Quack sat closest to him, looking over his body with extreme interest, the way somebody might inspect a particularly remarkable invention. Rotor the Walrus had his steepled fingers on the table, tapping it intermittently, as though nervous. Bunnie stood beside Sally, leaning against the wall. Seven guards were also present, each of them keeping vigilant watch over the captive fox, each of them keeping one hand on a loaded weapon.
"So," Sally said in a low voice that barely carried over the sound of the storm. "Let's skip over the polite formalities this time."
The ceiling of the hall leaked in several places. A puddle had developed in the middle of the table, and every few seconds the silence in the room was broken by a crisp plop.
"Let me explain..." Trevor said.
"I've heard enough of your explanations!" Sally shouted, and she spun around to face him, hammering both fists onto the table. Her eyes bored into his. "I want the truth!"
"I'll tell you the truth."
"You've told an awful lot of lies."
"That's because the fiction is more plausable than the truth!" Trevor cried.
"That has yet to be seen. We'll start from the beginning, then. Who are you?"
"Trevor Prower, I haven't lied to you about that."
Sally moved as though to strike him, but threw her arms in the air instead and returned to the window, where she stood in silence, breathing heavily.
"What was that out there tonight?" Rotor asked, "Can you explain that?"
Trevor sighed. "I've been cursed, you see. Ever since I was a young boy. I don't know why he's chosen me, but... it happens whenever he awakens, and it keeps happening until he closes his eye."
"What happens? Who are you talking about?"
"Him." Trevor pointed with both his hands cuffed together. His outstretched fingers pointed past Sally, out the window. But nobody was out there, just the dark and the storm.
"I don't see anybody, Trevor."
"You don't think you can, but he hides in plain sight. His eye lights up the sky at night. Right there, right where I'm pointing."
Rotor looked again. "Are you talking about the moon?"
"This is ridiculous," Sally spat, shaking her head.
"The moon," Trevor said, his voice full of contempt, "You think you're looking at the moon, something benign and thoughtless. But it's his eye and he is looking at us, right now."
"Who is he?" Rotor asked, "Who or what do you think is out there? Is looking at you?"
"I don't know who he is or what he wants," Trevor explained, "He never tells me, never talks to me, doesn't care about my questions. I believe, however, that he is a being that my parents told me stories about in my childhood. A dark god named Nightmare who infects the souls of naughty children and gives them bad dreams. A fairy tale, people think, just a story to keep kids in line. Except that I know the truth behind the story, and Nightmare has chosen me to be the one to help him carry out his insatiable bloodlust. Every month, for about a week, when he is fully awake, he takes me in the night. He possesses my body, transforms it into an instrument of death, and goes on a rampage. It only lasts until he closes his eye... he tries to stay awake, but even he cannot fight the sleep. He tried to take me tonight, but he is too weakened. That is how I was able to fight him... to keep from hurting Tails, from hurting anybody. Most nights I have no control... he is far too powerful."
"What you're saying is that you turn into a monster during a full moon," Sally said, "That you kill people in the dark, innocent people. It would have been nice if you had told us this when you came into our village, when we took you in."
"It isn't me who does these things, it's him!" the fox protested, "And I didn't warn you because I was sure he was already too weak to take me when I arrived here. He had already waned so far... but it can be difficult to tell sometimes. I did take a stupid gamble, and I'm so sorry for that."
"Apologise to your friend Delsey DeBono," Sally snapped, "We sent the rest of your friends out of the village this afternoon, sent an armed escort with them to Nutwood, but we needn't have bothered, right? Because there are no Aracks patrolling this forest, are there?"
Trevor sadly shook his head.
"It's you who has been hunting people in the night, picking them off while they sleep," Sally continued, "You, under the influence of your evil moon-monster."
"They thought that the Empire was following us, I didn't tell them otherwise. Does it really matter so much? He took me the first night that he awoke, that was how I escaped from Terantulopolis. I didn't want the others to follow me but they did... I didn't want him to attack them as well, but he did. All we could do was try to get to safety as quickly as possible and await his sleep. It took longer than usual this time, sometimes he awakens for eight days or nine at a time, sometimes six or five, but he will not return tonight. He will sleep for three times as long as he awakened, that I promise you."
"You've been loose in the Great Forest for a week," Sally said, "Have you... has he... killed on every one of those nights?"
"I never see. He never lets me see. I wake up from it as though I had slept through it, unless he is as weak as tonight. But he always kills, of that I'm sure."
Sally moved close to him and sat down in the chair next to him. Several guards moved closer and unholstered their weapons, protective of their princess leader. She didn't seem to care, instead leaning in to speak to the fox almost intimately, and her lip was trembling slightly.
"I have something very important to ask you," she said, "And you better tell me the truth. Do you understand me? You had better not lie to me."
"What is it?"
Sally closed her eyes and seemed to expend some effort in gathering the energy to ask. She breathed through her mouth, her breath ragged with exhaustion and fear.
She cut off, her voice cracking. She sat in silence for a moment before she tried again, her voice barely rising above a whisper.
"Did you kill Sonic the Hedgehog?"
Trevor's eyes betrayed no understanding. "Who?"
Sally dug into a pocket and withdrew a photograph of Sonic, slid it across the table for the fox to see. The fact that she even had the photo with her revealed that she had held a suspicion, had intended to ask him this very question ever since she had returned home to change, if not longer.
"Did you kill him?"
Trevor looked at the photograph, ran a finger over the hedgehog's image, and then looked up at Sally, leaning toward her with his eyes wide and fearful.
"Do you really want to know the answer to that question?" he asked.
Sally snatched the photograph back, staring coldly into his eyes. Then, with an unexpected motion, she slapped him hard with the back of her hand. The sharp report sliced through the empty silence and over the sound of the rain outside. Trevor's head remained to the side even as the princess stormed out of the hall.
The rain weakened as the night wore on, and eventually stopped, the storm having passed overhead and continued on its northward journey. Trevor Prower was being held in the meeting hall, the most secure building in the village aside from the destroyed prison, until it could be figured out what to do with him. Bunnie returned to Dr Quack's office to discuss what his tests had proven, as the doctor only seemed to grow more excited about a situation that most everybody else considered morbid and terrifying.
"At first I didn't think that what I was looking at was mobian," Quack explained, "I used what primitive equipment I have here to seperate and isolate the genetic material, I thought it might help to tell us who or what this... skin came from. Take a look through that microscope."
Bunnie put her eyes up to the scope and looked through it, but lacked the knowledge to decode what she saw. About two dozen little black things like tiny bonbons were lined up roughly in rows.
"What am I looking at?" she asked.
"Too many chromosomes," Quack replied, "Too many by far. That is, if this is the DNA of a mobian."
"There's no doubt about that, though."
"Yeah, well what I discovered next will blow your mind right out of your pretty head. I did some further tests and found that some of those chromosomes have some rather unique characteristics, more specifically, they're not real."
"What do you mean?"
"As far as I can tell," Quack explained, "This poor bloke has been the victim of a form of genetic manipulation that goes far, far beyond any technology that we know to exist. I've heard of engineering experiments that have taken place with animals, efforts to transplant actual chromosomes from one creature to another, graft them into genetic code, effectively cross-breed creatures that do not go together naturally. Even this technology is fringe and hardly ever successful. But what we're seeing here... whoever did this has gone beyond mere genetic transplantation. Whoever did this has learned to build DNA from scratch. To effectively manipulate protein strands at the molecular level and build a chromosome that exists nowhere in nature."
"But who could do that?" Bunnie asked, barely comprehending any of this, "And why?"
"I don't have a friggin' clue who could have this kind of ability," Quack replied, "But to say that they're better genetic engineers than anybody I've ever heard of before, by far. Whoever did this has cracked one of the most fundamental mysteries in the nature of life as we know it. They've mastered the genetic code, to they extent that they've begun to actually program commands into it, like a computer. Bunnie, whoever did this isn't very far off the ability to create life from dead matter. They're very close to... in a sense, decoding God's programming language. Whatever this guy changes into at night, nothing like it exists in nature. It's somebody's invention, and it can't be long before they breed a successful version of whatever it's meant to be."
"This one's not successful?" Bunnie asked.
Quack shook his head. "The introduced DNA doesn't quite hold properly to the base code. His body has rejected it, like it might reject a transplanted organ. It's the same basic concept. Most of it is benign junk, just sitting there dormant. But it's not entirely inactive... his cells take orders from his DNA, it tells them when to multiply, what shape to grow, how to act. But they're confused about the junk material, these artificial chromosomes. When the conditions are right, they take orders from the wrong source, and grow something that isn't mobian... and so he sheds his skin and temporarily becomes whatever they originally envisioned him to be. And that in itself explains his periodic bloodlust... he might not be natural, but he has adapted to nature. He sheds his skin every time he changes, which means that for the duration of one week in every month he's growing an entirely new dermis every single day. That's a lot of extra protein his body needs."
"A lot of raw meat."
"But how does the moon come into this?" Bunnie asked, "Why does the lunar cycle trigger his change?"
The doctor sighed. "Well, I don't have all the answers. If I did I'd be a genius, I'd be able to leave this hole and go make a billion dollars. All I know is that science isn't really an exact science. There are still a lot of mysteries that even the smartest buggers in the world haven't got an answer for yet. I know they say that if you leave a razor blade outside under the full moon overnight, it'll be completely blunt in the morning. They say that something about the full moon brings about a change in people, brings out their anger or screws with their sanity. I really don't know. That's just the way it is. But there are more serious things to worry about here than this, things that nobody seems to have considered yet. Regarding the boy, Tails."
"Whether or not Trevor is his father," Bunnie said.
"Well, yes, that's for starters. And I'll do a test as soon as possible to confirm that. What I'm talking about, though, are the implications of that. This guy Trevor is a biological curiosity, an intricately designed genetic mutant. It's almost certain that he will have passed some form of complications to his offspring. Complications that may not have shown up yet because of the kid's young age."
Bunnie's eyes just about leaped from their sockets. This was indeed something she had not considered. Speechless, she looked down at the microscope and pondered.
Tails sat alone in his home, from where he could see the meeting hall in which his father was being held. Confused and frightened, utterly alone. The last thing he had ever expected was for his father to transform into a monster before his eyes, stranger still was the insanity that had been behind the eyes of the father-beast, but silenced by something unmistakably mobian. Even through his dual nature, his father's love for him had survived, and Tails had been unharmed. The boy had seen many strange things in his life, and this was only another on the list, but something deeply personal that reinforced his beliefs. Nobody loved him more than his father, who overcame the beast within himself for his son. If anybody had ever really loved Tails at all, then he was the one. And that was all that mattered.
The clock struck midnight, and Tails realised that it was his birthday. Not his real birthday, but the one that he and Sonic had adopted to celebrate the anniversary of their first meeting. A personal celebration shared between himself and his best friend. And Sonic had not shown up. For the first time since their meeting, Sonic had been absent on their special day, and Tails took this as a sign, as a confirmation, that his life as a Freedom Fighter was not to be. His trust had burned him again, and it was time to stop trusting. It was time to give this all up and crawl back inside himself, begin reclaiming his life from those who would use it for their own purposes. He and his father would go away to Catilina or some other large impersonal metropolis where they could be anonymous. He was young and intelligent, he could get a mechanic's apprenticeship and work in an airport or machines factory, his dream job. It wasn't too late, he was in the prime of his youth. In the city, he wouldn't have to worry about friends or confidantes. His father would serve as both, and nothing else would matter. Loneliness was a disease that could be treated without opening oneself up to hurt - thousands did, every day.
As Tails reverted further into the mentality of his former life, he began to remember it with improving clarity. People and events since forgotten that had played important roles in his life at the time when he proudly called himself a member of Nails the Bat's band of thieves. Fragments of memory regarding his father, how he had kept Tails safe from harm right up until he had left his life. Clear of all was the night that Nails had informed him that his father had been killed.
"Got a bit of bad news for you, I'm afraid. He's gone. They both are. Had an argument with a bullet, and the bullet won."
Something about that confused Tails, now. He remembered those words very clearly, they had been burned into his mind, and yet he couldn't quite remember what they referenced. Nails had definitely said He's gone. They both are. Who was he talking about? Who else besides his father was supposed to have died that night?
Tails drifted off to sleep as he tried to remember. Old memories filled his mind as he dozed, and in the last waking moments he felt like his old self again for the first time since a blue hedgehog named Sonic had turned his life around.
Early the next morning, as the sun banished the half-waned moon from its nightly reign, Bunnie Rabbot walked through the still-waking village of New Knothole toward Dr Quack's hut. She had barely slept all night, running the doctor's last sentiments through her head over and over again.
"This guy Trevor is a biological curiosity, an intricately designed genetic mutant. It's almost certain that he will have passed some form of complications to his offspring."
Was Tails doomed to take on his father's unfortunate biological duality? There was always a chance that he hadn't, but then Tails' very appearance challenged that hope. It had always been known that the boy had been born with some very unusual genetic characteristics. Bunnie hated to admit that the logic of the situation made perfect sense - that two tails were just the beginning, the precursor to the emergence of two seperate beings in one body. The dormant beast within.
As she walked, she was startled to hear the voice of Sally Acorn call her name. Bunnie turned and saw the princess standing in the doorway of her hut, holding a cup of hot coffee.
"Bunnie, can I see you for a moment?"
Her expression was stony, and it was clear that the visit was not to be a casual one. This was business. The rabbit detoured toward Sally's hut and entered, while Sally closed the door behind them.
The princess asked her to sit down, and did not offer her any coffee, although the pot was still on the boil, which reinforced Bunnie's assertion that she was in a spot of strife. She tried to think what she might have done to invoke Sally's wrath.
"I've heard some troubling information," Sally said, "That apparently you took Tails to see the prisoner last night."
"It's true," Bunnie replied, "I did, but-"
"I've been told that you spoke to him without my knowledge, and that you left him alone with the prisoner, inside his cell, while he did his monster performance."
The fact that Trevor has lost his right to a name and was now being referred to exclusively as the prisoner did not go unnoticed by Bunnie, but she was taken unaware by the allegation that Tails had been left inside the prison cell.
"I was only gone a minute, I went for the doctor," she said, "I didn't suspect that he could do that, transform like that, nobody did. And Tails certainly wasn't inside the cell."
"Both of the guards who were on duty at the prison last night confirm individually that Tails was inside the cell with the prisoner when he had his... episode," Sally replied.
"Well, I don't know what to say. If he was, I didn't put him there, Sally-girl."
Sally exhaled and drank the last of her coffee, sitting down across from her guest. "I'm still the leader of this operation," she said, "Whether or not you knew the dangers is frankly irrelevant, the point is that you did something behind my back and an innocent child almost paid the price. I need to know what's going on in my village, Bunnie. Now more than ever. This is a tightly oiled machine, we're all working together, not apart, okay?"
"I know, Sally-girl," Bunnie said in a low voice, "You're right, I'm sorry."
"I've also heard that you and Dr Quack have been digging up some information on just what the heck is going on here. I don't want to be left out of the loop on this."
"Well, it's Quack mostly. He's done some tests on Trevor to try and figure out his... condition."
"And what is his condition?"
Bunnie recounted what the doctor had told her the night before, keeping it as straight-forward as she could, glossing over the things she only barely understood herself, such as the presence of the unnatural "artificial" genes in Trevor's DNA.
"What you're telling me," Sally said, "is essentially that he's told us the truth, that during the full moon he goes through some kind of transformation. You're telling me he's some kind of werefox?"
"Without the supernatural implications, perhaps," Bunnie replied, "As far as we can tell he's not undead or cursed, he's just a guy whose genes have been tampered with... but that brings up another problem altogether, something I was on my way to Quack's place to discuss."
"The last thing we need is more problems, Bunnie."
"I know, but... It's Tails. Sally-girl, if Trevor has passed on the same genetic defect to Tails, then we need to know-"
"No," Sally interjected, "If there's one thing I know about this guy, it's that he's not Tails' father. I don't know what he wants with the boy, why he's so determined to get his mitts on him, but he's as much Tails' father as I am."
Bunnie raised an eyebrow. "I dunno, Sally, I think there's a strong case for him."
"He's a liar. How many things has he told us since he came here that haven't been lies? He's stirred up the boy's emotions so much that he could probably be convinced that a fire hydrant is his father."
"I think you should give him a chance, you haven't heard the things I've heard-"
"What you've heard?" Sally snapped, "You mean in your private sessions with him that I haven't been privy to? Listen to me, that fox is dangerous and delusional. He thinks that there's some kind of demon-god who lives in the moon and regularly possesses his body. He turns into a monster and kills randomly. I don't care if he's seduced you into his fantasy world, but I don't trust him as far as I can throw him, and I promise you, as long as I'm alive, he is never going to take Tails anywhere, willing or not. I don't even want them speaking again, and that means no more private sessions. I just want to figure out a way to get rid of him as soon as possible, no matter what that entails. And believe me, if he does his werefox act again, I will have him executed for the good of this village, I swear."
"You're taking a very extreme position."
"I'm a very extreme person."
Trevor Prower, from his imprisonment within the village meeting hall, stared out at the moon. The windows had all been closed and locked, leaving the room quite dark even in the sunlight, but there was one crack through which a few of the golden rays could shine, and through which Trevor could see the moon, the half-asleep eye of Nightmare, as it descended behind the horizon to commence its month-long slumber. And good riddance. Trevor watched it with a spiteful eye.
But as much as he despised his demonic Other, the childhood god who had terrorised youths on the Kitsune Atole with his ever watchful presence, he also recognised that he was indebted to him. In a twisted kind of way, they needed each other. Nightmare was Trevor's strength, and although cursed with the burden of having to suffer as his mobian vessel, he couldn't forget the fact that his life had been twice saved by this haunting entity. Their original escape from Kitsune Atole would not have been possible without his help, and the same was true for his recent escape from Terantulopolis. Nightmare's dedication to his freedom might not extend beyond his own selfish interests, but it was a fact all the same. Just as it was quickly becoming a fact that he would need the assistance of his Other once again to escape the clutches of these fanatics who still insisted on holding him against his will. They would never release him, not now that they had seen Nightmare's face. They would leave him here to rot, and he would never see Tails again.
He would not allow it. Although Trevor hated to see him free to roam and kill, his own freedom was more important. It was important for him to be with Tails, to raise him and protect him and nurture him. This was important for his redemption, for his catharsis. He had to make up for what he had done to the boy so long ago. And for what he had done.
For one of the few times in his life, he wished that he could stay awake for just one more night. Just one more. But it would be a while before his Other could awaken again and carry him and Tails out of this place in a wave of carnage. Nightmare was asleep, now, and would be for another month.
Trevor only hoped that the Aracks wouldn't come for them before then. These naive villagers might have been slightly relieved that the beast who terrorised them at night was not the Arack army, but they could rest assured that the spiders were coming. And when they came, they would wipe this place out like an exterminator removing a hive of wasps. He had only to make sure that he and Tails were not still here when it happened.
"I've got a problem, Rotor," Bunnie said to the walrus, who sat alone at the edge of the village, eating his lunch. Rotor smiled with his mouth full of anchovies and rye, motioning for her to sit down.
Bunnie sat on a fallen log, her heavy metal-clad posterior making a dull clang. She put her head in her hands and sighed.
"Rotor, have you ever gone behind Sally's back?"
The walrus thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged. "That an accusation, Bun?"
"No, no, nothing like that. I was just wondering... whether you would ever defy an order, I mean, if you thought you were in the right. Is that a moral thing to do?"
"Depends on what we're talking about," Rotor replied, "Way I figure it, Sal's a very moral person, always tries to do the right thing by everyone as best she can. Most times I trust her judgement, even when we don't quite agree on certain things... I'm a Freedom Fighter, and in that regard I've made the decision to make myself an extension of her cause. I figure that can only work if I make myself an extension of her morality, too. Even if that means waiving my own. I trust her."
"But even that only works to a point," Bunnie replied, "I mean, if she took up the banner of the Arack Empire one day and started pillaging, then you'd stand against her."
Rotor laughed. "I can't see that being a concern."
"It's an extreme example, sure, but the point still stands. I've stood behind her on every decision she's made since the Freedom Fighters first came together, but..."
"Is this about Tails?"
Bunnie sighed and nodded. "This isn't a slight on Sally-girl, don't think that for a second. She's just been under so much stress lately, we all have, but her more than any of us. I worry that it might affect her ability to see past the most urgent concerns. I know that the decisions she makes are for own safety and she has nothing but our own good in mind. But she's so vehement about this, she's nowhere near as open to advice as she usually is on these kinds of matters."
"You really think that Trevor is Tails' father."
"I have to admit I'm almost certain of it. There's too much evidence for me to think otherwise. And although I love Tails with all my heart, and I'd hate so much to see him walk away... there's that part of me, a big part, that knows what it's like to be without a proper family. I know what it's like to be different, to feel like a freak. I mean, just look at me." She held up her robotized hand and wiggled her fingers, the mechanics of the hand making faint whirring sounds. "I know what it's like, and that it's important to be around others who truly understand. Sally's a great person, but she's no parent. Neither am I, and neither is- was Sonic. It's more important for Tails to be with his father than to be here with us, I mean for his own sake. Sally just won't have any of it."
"I wish I could give you some advice, Bun, you know I do," Rotor replied, "But I think this is something you really need to work out for yourself. I can't tell you to defy Sally, but then I can't tell you to defy your instincts and your ethics. A bit of a catch twenty-two, isn't it?"
Bunnie nodded. "Yeah. I get that. Thanks, Rote. Can you help me to do something, though?"
"I need to speak to Trevor. Just one more time. I have to find out the real truth, I have to be sure. I just have to be sure."
The locks on the door clicked open one by one, and so Trevor knew somebody was coming in long before they actually did. With this in mind, he imagined standing beside the door armed with a piece of furniture ready to clobber whoever came in and make a hasty escape. He would have, too, if he hadn't been chained up like an animal.
When the door opened and the room brightened, it was Bunnie and Rotor who stepped inside, closing the door behind them. Neither said a word.
"Could you loosen these chains?" Trevor asked flatly. He sat so deep in the shadows that his features were barely visible, but a sliver of light fell upon his face from a crack in a window above his head, illuminating just one of his eyes. The other was nothing but a white twinkle in the blackness.
"We've come to hear the truth," Bunnie said.
"I've been telling you the truth," the fox replied, "There's nothing left to say."
"You've told us some entertaining stories, sugar, now we're here to confirm them. To make sure you are who you say you are."
"If it's him you're worried about, then don't. His reign over my body is at an end for the time being, it's just me now."
"I'm not talking about him. I'm talking about you. And Tails."
Trevor leaned forward, into the light. His eyes widened. "Are you going to let me see my son?"
"Not right now. Not until we know for certain that's who he is."
"Let me ask you something," Trevor said, "What was your name, again?"
"Do you have children, Miss Bunnie?"
She was a little taken aback by the question, and a little depressed. Many times she had considered raising a family, a dream shattered by the curse of her partial robotization, which had left her unable to ever conceive, among other things. "No," she replied.
Trevor turned to Rotor. "Do you?"
He shook his head. There were families in New Knothole, a few villagers had birthed and raised children through the course of their war against Robotnik, but by and large, that kind of life conflicted with the life of a Freedom Fighter.
"They become a part of you," Trevor said, "There's a connection, one that can't ever be broken. You feel their pain, through every part of you. The meaning of your life completely changes, you suddenly know, truly know, what responsibility is. And there's nothing short of death that can keep you apart." The eye that was visible under the spear of light welled up with tears, and he leaned forward again. "I lost him once, but I never gave up searching. It felt as though someone had chopped off all my limbs. They took a part of me away, can you have any idea what that feels like? To have a real part of you taken away and replaced with something cold and empty?"
Bunnie idly ran her flesh hand along her robot arm, letting her fingers caress the numb, cold surface of it, but did not reply.
"I could always feel him, somewhere out there," Trevor continued, "And I searched for him, I made a vow that I would never give up, not ever. And now that I've found him again, I will not walk away from him. No matter what any of you say, no matter what you try to do to me. That part of me has been replaced, and I'll never let go again."
"You would take care of him," Bunnie said, "If you were allowed to. You'd protect him and let him have the life that he's never had."
"I love him," Trevor replied, "Every hair on his body. I loved him from the moment I saw him, from the moment he came into the world and we held his tiny hand and named him Tails Prower. That is something that will never change."
Bunnie nodded and looked down at her lap.
"Are you going to let me love him?" the fox asked, "Are you going to let me out of this room?"
"Princess Sally has decided to-"
"Screw Princess Sally. I'm asking you."
"You've hardly proven yourself to be someone who can be trusted," Rotor interjected, sensing that Bunnie was growing upset, "We'll gather some evidence in good time, some real evidence, and go from there. But even taken that you are the kid's father, how are you going to be able to protect him? How are you going to keep him safe from your silent partner, the monster in you that even you can't control?"
"There are ways of keeping him at bay," Trevor replied, his voice full of bitterness.
"You could have let your companions in on some of these ways," Rotor replied, "It might have saved their lives."
"You think I wanted that to happen?" the fox snapped, "We were in the middle of the woods, in his element. There's nowhere to run out here, nowhere to hide. In the city, however... if we left here now, tonight, then we would have a whole month to travel before he awakens. That's more than enough time to get to Catilina. There, he can be restrained. I have done it before, many times."
"I would hope so, because the last thing we would want for Tails would be for him to be-"
"I would never put Tails in danger," Trevor interrupted, "I've told you that. I would sooner die myself than allow him to be subjected to that monster. But that doesn't mean much to you, now does it? Because you two are just the yes-people. You won't give an inch unless your beloved princess gives a mile. And she's just as happy to see me rot in this little room while my son gets himself killed for your crusade. So what's the point of this conversation?"
"She'll come to the right conclusion about you and Tails when she sees some evidence," Bunnie said, "As will we all." She stood up and turned away from him, walking towards the door. Following her head, Rotor did the same.
Behind them, Trevor spoke. "We all see the evidence that we want to see, and disregard that which we don't," he said, "That's the way it's always been for everybody. Belief doesn't come from evidence, Miss Bunnie, evidence comes from belief."
It was an hour later when Bunnie was approached by Horatio Quack.
She sat alone outside her hut, staring into the forest. The forest into which Sonic the Hedgehog had disappeared four days ago and never returned. She wondered whether Tails would ever make the connection, would ever suspect that this fox who he trusted so deeply to be his father was the very person who had taken away the closest thing that he had ever had to a father before. It was a morbid irony, and another problem to consider within this maze of problems.
A shadow fell over her, and she turned to see Dr Quack standing beside her, his arms crossed.
"I woke up before eleven, this morning," he said, "Consider yourself special, I don't do that for just anybody."
"I came to see you this morning," she said, "I got held up."
"Yeah, well, I've been doing some work," Quack replied, "I had some blood samples stored away from Tails' last general check-up, and I ran them through some DNA comparisons against the sample from Captain Destruct-o."
Bunnie met his eyes. "What did you find out?"
"You sure you wanna know?"
"If you don't tell me I'll torture it out of you, Sugar."
Quack snorted. "Well, you have to understand that the equipment I have to work with is pretty stone-age. So these results probably wouldn't be permissable in a court of law, if you catch my drift. But from what I could discern, there's a match in at least ten of thirteen key genes."
"Does that mean...?"
"Let's just say that there's a better chance of me winning a lottery tomorrow and going to live on a resort island with cocktails for breakfast every morning than there is of these two not being related."
Bunnie sighed. "I see."
"I went further to check out the kid's DNA patterns. I'm sorry to have to say this, but... he's got it. The mysterious bio-engineered chromosome. His looks a little different to his dear old Dad's, but it's there."
"I was afraid of that."
"You gonna break it to the kid?"
Bunnie shook her head. "I don't know if I'd be telling him anything he doesn't already know. The question is what I'm going to do about it."
Sally Acorn sat alone with her door closed and her head on her desk. Somewhere underneath her face was a half-written letter with the ink smeared by her wet breath and tears, and she lay in a nest of crumpled-up sheets of paper. Let nobody ever suggest that this job was an easy one. Sally knew that by doing this, she risked the accusation of having sold out. She risked a loss of faith among the people who had believed in her for all of these years, who had believed so strongly that the Freedom Fighters would prevail victoriously over the enemies of freedom, and the Acorn monarchy would be restored to the throne of one of the oldest kingdoms on Mobius. With every day that passed, the memory of life in Mobitropolis faded a little more. Now, with the Arack Empire firmly rooted in the southeastern shore of the Westerican continent, it seemed that the old days were so alien to the state of the present world that it almost seemed like it might have all been a dream, some brief and distant fantasy.
Times had indeed changed. There was no denying it, the Freedom Fighters would also have to change. They would have to adapt. Sally herself was not afraid to fight, she would fight until they killed her, but she had to think about her people. The fact that she hadn't been crowned didn't make her any less their queen, and she had a duty to protect her subjects. No matter what.
She lifted her head, wiped her eyes and started over with a new sheet of paper. Her letter was addressed to the Governmental United Nations of Westerica.
Tails Prower sat with both of his tails in his lap. He looked them over, and though as parts of his own body he knew every inch of them, he now looked at them as though they were brand new. So much of his life seemed brand new. What was the purpose of these dual appendages? Tails had seen people with superfluous body parts, but his own tails did not seem to be genetic accidents, glitches in the blueprints of his conception. Each one was as perfect as the other, absent of the kind of randomised mutations typical of people with genetic defects. It was as though he was made this way on purpose, and he suddenly remembered Sonic having told him about the nature of purpose. He remembered his father telling him about the place where he was born, about the horrible experiments they did on people, playing with their genes like children playing with blocks. Was he made this way for some purpose? Was he really just some crooked scientist's pet project?
His father lived with some bizarre duality that haunted him when the moon was full. It seemed the entire Prower line was infected with the curse of two. The same affliction befell them both, but his father in a more salient form. Tails knew not the meaning behind any of it, but what he did know was that life finally made some kind of sense. They were two of a kind, and they belonged together.
The day wore on and the clouds over the Great Forest remained in the sky like a thick blanket, trapping the humidity underneath. You could already tell that the storms tonight would not visit this particular part of the world. There might be a drizzle overnight, but for the most part the monsoons were going to give the south coast one night's reprieve. The clouds thinned and broke up before sundown, and the moon was visible through their veil. Just about everybody in New Knothole watched it with a kind of mild distrust tonight, especially those who had heard Trevor's explanations the previous night. Everybody knew, of course, in their heart of hearts, that the silvery half-disc was nothing but a ball of dead rock locked into Mobius' cosmic embrace, benign and powerless, but the imagination was a formidable enemy for some. It was difficult not to imagine that it really was the eye of some forgotten god, ancient and twisted into mindless bloodlust, looking down on all creation with spite and malice. It was difficult to look up at it and not see the dark silhouette of a black head behind it, cloaked and hidden by the night; all too easy to look up at it and believe it was returning the gaze. Nightmare, He who rides upon a pale horse and carries death in his stride.
Tails was watching the moon when Bunnie entered his home unannounced, and he almost failed to hear her. He was able to hide that he was startled, however, and keep a visage of sullenness and silent animosity. His lights were off, and the hut was illuminated only by the moonlight streaming through the window. Bunnie walked over to his bed and sat down.
"Hey there, Tails."
"What you you want?"
Bunnie was a little hurt by the harshness of his response, but she could understand it. He had been treated harshly and without regard for his intelligence, although it had all been done with his wellbeing in mind.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked him.
There was a moment of silence and then, quietly, "What do you think I'm thinking about?"
"You do understand the reasons we had to be wary of him," she replied, "Your father is a dangerous person, and not by choice."
"It's not him," Tails protested, "It's the thing that lives in him. The thing that they put there. Just like they gave me two tails, they don't like anything to be the way it's made." After a moment he looked up at her, frowning with confusion - had she just referred to Trevor as his father?
"You know that we love you, Tails," she said, "We all do, you've become family to us. But you're an adult, now. I won't patronise you. The decisions you make are yours alone."
She had the young fox's full attention, now. He looked up at her with his handsome eyes reflecting the moonlight. Bunnie could see the silvery half-disc clearly in both blue pools.
"Several years ago I heard a rumour," she said, "that there was a plot inside the government to overthrow my home, to turn it into something horrible and ugly. I made a decision that I would oppose this future, reject it with every breath I had left in my body. I decided to be a Freedom Fighter, to fight for what I believed in and to follow my heart wherever it was to lead me. This decision cost me a lot, it cost me most of my body, but I never gave in. I wasn't much older then than you are now, but I knew that what I was doing was the right thing and I stuck with it. Because it was my life, and it still is, and I've never regretted any of it."
"You don't regret it?" Tails asked, "You mean, not even the robotization?"
Bunnie shook her head. "I wish it hadn't happened, sure. Every day I wish that. But if you give me a choice between being a Freedom Fighter and getting my legs and arm back, then I'll choose these ol' can openers in a second, every time. You know what I mean?"
"You followed your heart," Tails said.
"I know that you never made the same decision that I did, Tails. I know that you believe in the same things I believe in, but you're not here because of that. You're here because you've had a hard life and the Freedom Fighters were the only people who would take you in and give you a good home. I know that you've always wished for something more than this, for a real family and a decent life. Sometimes fate just tosses a little gift to good people, and all you really have to do is recognise it and grasp it with both hands."
Tails nodded and looked down at his lap.
"Tails," Bunnie said, leaning in close to him, "Can I ask you a very important question? Will you be honest with me?"
"Would you choose to leave here? To go away with your father tonight and start a life in the city? Is that what your heart wants?"
Tails had to think about this for a long while, but even so, Bunnie did not get the impression that this was because he didn't know the answer. It was a difficult decision to make, to leave behind the best friends you've ever had and embark upon a lifestyle that was new and strange to you. But, when the heart really knows what it wants, it's also an easy decision. Tails looked up at her again and she saw the answer in his eyes even before he spoke it aloud.
The night passed with uneventful calm. There were no monsters stalking the village on this night, no beasts panting and snarling in the shadows to snatch away those who dared venture outside. There was no storm, only a drizzle that muddied the topsoil and vented the humidity. The moon, once again just a moon and no longer the eye of some mad pagan god, made its journey across the sky and then conceded to the sun's daytime rule.
Sally stared at her with the cold, unblinking face of a golem statue. She may have been awaiting some response, or apology, or explanation. Bunnie had none of these things.
Sally turned to one of the village guards, a brawny raccoon. "Don't think that you're inculpable, here," she said, "You have one job to do, Christian, and I expect that you'll do it properly. You're employed to protect the lives of the people who live here. To protect their lives."
"Hey!" the guard, Christian, protested with a wild hand gesture and a heavy frown. "I take orders from her just as often as from you! If she tells me that I'm to stand down and she's to replace me, who am I argue? What you need to do is decide who gives the orders around here and who takes them. I've never questioned a direct order, not once, not from the king or from you or from the people you put above me."
"All I'm asking," Sally replied coldly, "is that you employ a bit of common sense. When somebody asks you to stand down and leave a dangerous prisoner unguarded, perhaps those are orders that you should be questioning."
Christian threw his arms up in the air and backed away. "Unbelievable," he muttered, and shot Bunnie his own deadly leer as he left.
Sally turned to her again. "I'm still waiting to hear what you have to say about this."
Bunnie could not meet her gaze. She was not ashamed, but she knew she had driven a powerful wedge between herself and one of her best friends, one that would be difficult to heal, if it was even possible.
"I did it for Tails," she said simply, "Without Sonic... what life is there for him here? He may never have seen an opportunity like this again."
Sally closed her eyes and looked away, as though she couldn't stand to look at her. This action alone felt like a kick in Bunnie's gut with a steel-soled boot.
"I have not chosen an easy life," the princess said softly. "I have a difficult job, and my heart has been broken and glued back together more times than you could possibly imagine. I've lost a lot of friends to this life, Bunnie. I've lost everybody and everything I have ever cared about. My father, Martin, Kethriel... now Sonic as well... I fought to save Mobitropolis, and when I failed that, I fought to restore it, and now that is also a lost cause and all I fight for is to keep everything good about this world from rotting away like some cancerous organ. When I began this fight, I had the unwavering trust of every single person in this village. Many of those people no longer trust me. Many of them have lost faith that what we fight for is possible, and with every day that passes it becomes more difficult for me to lead a group of people who no longer believe that I am competent to lead them."
"Oh, Sally-girl," Bunnie stammered, "You're still-"
Sally looked her in the eyes again and rose her hand sharply, silencing the rabbit as though pulling an invisible plug.
"You say that you have to do what you feel you have to do," she continued, "Well, so do I, Bunnie. I've lost a lot of friends during the course of my life as a Freedom Fighter, and I will continue to lose friends. What I will not do, however, is compromise my duty to the people I have sworn to protect. No matter what any of those people might think of me, whether or not they recognise me as their leader, I will protect them with all the power I have to do so. I had a sworn duty to that child and, while I was sleeping, you sent him away with some stranger who turns into a murderous carnivore during the full moon. I'm sorry, Bunnie, but if I can't trust you to follow my orders then I can't trust you to give them out. You've been a good soldier and Freedom Fighter for years now, even after they took your legs, but-" She choked up a little, "I no longer consider you a member of the Freedom Fighter council. From now on, if you have any bright ideas, you'll have to run them by somebody with authority, just like everyone else does. And believe me, there are plenty of other ordinary civilians here who share your opinion that I'm not capable of leading this group. Perhaps you can make friends."
With that, she shot Bunnie a final, teary glare and walked away. Bunnie didn't try to stop her, she knew that this was a rift that would take longer to heal.
She sat alone for a long while, staring into the Great Forest, idly wondering whether something might be staring back at her from those shadows. It was difficult to tell, these days. These were strange times.
Eventually she felt somebody sit down next to her, and she saw that it was Rotor. She smiled, tried to hide the fact that she was on the verge of crying, but it was a futile facade.
"You got chewed out pretty bad, huh?" the walrus asked her.
"Yeah. It's okay. I did what I felt was right, but I understand Sally-girl's point of view. I guess you're officially the lone deputy, Rotor honey, at least for a while."
"How long ago did they leave?" Rotor asked, "Tails and Trevor, I mean."
"About eleven o'clock last night," she replied, "That's about six or seven hours."
"I guess they're well on their way, then. Unless they camped for a while. At least we can be relatively sure they're okay. The nearest town is only a few miles away."
Bunnie looked at him with a strange expression on her face, a kind of puzzlement, as though he had just said something to her in a language she didn't understand.
"Miles?" she asked.
"Yeah. If they head straight north, there's-"
"Oh my God..."
Bunnie finally lost control of herself and began to cry into her hand. Rotor put an arm around her and tried to soothe her.
"Hey," he said, "Hey. What is it?"
"He fooled me," she whimpered, "He fooled him. He fooled everybody but her, Sally knew it all the time, she-"
"Bunnie, what are you talking about?"
She raised her reddened eyes to meet his. "He's not Tails' father," she said.
"What? But I thought you-"
"I've only just figured it out. The one thing wrong with his story, the one thing that doesn't make any sense. We missed it yesterday, we both did. When he told us he loved him from the moment he brought him into the world and named him Tails Prower. Except that never happened, because Tails' father named him Miles. He's never once called him by his real name like any father would."
Rotor closed his eyes and looked sullen. He knew it to be true. Though Tails had hated his birth name, he had always claimed his father had always insisted upon using it. And Trevor had never uttered it, never once.
"But the DNA," Bunnie stammered, "Dr Quack did the tests, they showed-"
"They showed that they were related," Rotor said, "He still knows too much about the kid not to be related to him. It doesn't make them father and son, not necessarily."
Bunnie groaned, covering her face as though she were ashamed to show it to the world. "Have I made a horrible mistake?"
Rotor looked out into the dark of the forest, the deep abyss that had devoured both Sonic and Tails in quick succession, leaving them both in the hands of fate.
"I don't think so," he replied at last, "I don't know. I can't really explain it, but I have a feeling that everything is going to turn out all right for him."
The elder fox had been staring up at the waning moon as Tails had slept by the fire, but now he looked down at the young boy with great shock bordering on horror.
"What did you call me?"
Tails was calm, his eyelids half-closed, still close to the the embrace of sleep. Despite the revelation he had just voiced, he appeared utterly contempt and matter-of-fact. He shrugged and said simply, "I know."
The other put his face in his hands, embarrassed and horrified. Tails sat next to him and put an arm around him. It's all right, that gesture said, We're here, now, and anger serves no purpose for either of us.
"How long?" Tyler asked.
"Since before we left," Tails replied, "Since before Bunnie came to me. I remembered... I remembered you. It just came to me, like I'd kinda known all along."
"And you still came with me? Why? We've been travelling for three days, now."
"Following my heart," he replied with another shrug. "Time to move on. It's a big world out there."
"And you remember everything?"
Tails was quiet for a moment, searching his memories. The fire crackled and popped, filling the silence.
"We left the island together, the three of us," he said at last, "I just barely remember I'm sitting in a boat with you... my father is on the shore and he's talking to someone else, he's saying that he's going to send help some day, that he will return and set them all free. You're shouting at him, telling him that we have to go, that you won't be able to hold them back next time."
"Yared," Tyler said, "Trevor's brother-in-law. He stayed behind, with Melissa... your mother. To take care of her."
"You left us," Tails continued, "But you were coming back. My father always told me that Uncle Tyler was going to come back some day, that you were going to come and take us away from Nails and Station Square and life on the street, that the three of us would have a real life together. It was you who my father was talking to behind Nails' back, you and he were planning to take me away... but he found you out. He told me you were both killed. He tried to kill you both himself." He shook his head sadly as the memories flooded his mind, but the sadness was balanced by the relief of finally knowing the truth. "Uncle Tyler... did he really kill my father?"
It was Tyler who now appeared on the verge of tears. "We got away from him, but he wouldn't let us back into town. Nails owned that city, he owned the police, he owned the gangs... if you were marked, you couldn't take three steps into Station Square without bullets flying at your head from every second passing car. You were trapped in there, trapped with him. Trevor... Your father wanted to do something that I didn't want to do, not again. That time we finally escaped from the Kitsune Atole... it had been a full moon, and it was Nightmare who cleared our path. Your father had wanted to use him to rescue you from Nails, but I tried to tell him- I tried- I told him I don't control-"
His words broke into barely comprehensible sobs, and Tails hugged him tenderly. It was painful, but he needed to know this. He had lived too long with uncertainty.
"Did Nightmare kill my father?"
Tyler sniffed and looked down at the boy with an unfathomable guilt that he had clearly carried with him for a very long time. A thousand ton weight that he now had to untangle from his soul.
"I woke up and there was blood-" he said, "A lot of blood. I never see what he does, and in a way it's merciful. But sometimes I think that if I see, maybe I can stop-"
"It's okay," Tails said, "It's okay, Uncle Tyler. It's not your fault."
"He told me everything about you, Tails," Tyler said, "You were all he lived for, sometimes he would talk about you all night. I swore that I would make it all up to him, that I would find you and give you the life that he never could. I would right the wrongs that he has committed in my name. I never gave up searching for you, Tails."
The two foxes held each other close by the fire, alone in the plains somewhere north of the Great Forest and south of the city. They would soon need to find shelter as the days heated up again and they prepared for the next batch of heavy storms, but for now the sky was clear and opportunity lay on the horizon.
Tails felt that his future was as bright as the silvery moon that waned above like a great winking eye, falling into sleep and leaving them at peace. And later that night, he slept without trouble.
The original incarnation of this story that I wrote a few years ago was entitled Werefox. I decided to change it this time around because I wanted to make the existence of said creature somewhat of a surprise through the course of the storyline. This is, after all, a horror story at heart, and as with every horror story you have to leave room for at least a little bit of mystery about its monster.
I hope to have fixed at least most of the gaping plot holes that existed in the original story. The first time I wrote it I was swamped with confused inquiries about Uncle Tyler's motivations. Though I vehemently defended it at the time, you were of course absolutely right. You always are, dear reader. And so I have taken care to transform what was a nonsensical plot into something a little more solid. I hope you think so.