A/N: Just a quick note to let readers know that I'm currently running my annual fanart competition, details of which can be found at obabscribbler. livejournal. com (slash) 530588. html. There are prizes available, including a package of prizes you can receive through snail-mail and fic written by me to your specifications, so I hope people will consider entering and making it as fun this year as it has been for the past two years.
14. The Losses Mount Up
Sonic blasted through the trees, willing himself to go faster than he ever had before. He had run so many missions before where it felt like everything hinged on his speed, and every time he'd been up to the challenge. He'd grown cocky, to the point where overconfidence was his default mode. Sally was constantly ragging on him to be more careful, worrying that what she saw as his arrogance would one day get him killed – or worse. He always blew off her words. He was the fastest thing alive, wasn't he? It was insulting for her to think he couldn't handle himself, or that he'd screw up because he had the cheek not to doubt himself like everybody else. Modesty was for chumps. If you were good, why hide it under a bushel? Whatever a bushel was.
Right now, though? Sonic was also worried he'd screw up. He was worried big time. Suddenly, every single time Sally had warned him to be careful, to not take chances, to play it safe, they all rolled around in his head like an unpopped kernel in a popcorn machine. This time he couldn't afford to screw up. This time, more than all the others, he needed to be the fastest.
Because this time Sally was relying on him more than she ever had before – in a different way than she ever had before. Until now it had been all about the big picture – ousting Robotnik, retrieving the king, restoring Mobotropolis and the world they used to know. Now the crisis was a lot smaller, and at the same time a whole lot bigger.
Sally clung to him like her muscles were locked and she couldn't let go even if she tried. Sal was way too independent for that. He could feel her shake with pain each time he banked a hard left or right, or whenever he shifted his grip and brushed her injured side. It made him clench his jaw and force out an extra bit of hustle. It made him wonder whether he really was the fastest, and test his limits to see whether he really was sitting on his laurels or could bring it when it mattered most. At that moment, nothing else existed except Sally, the terrain, and the fact he had to get to the shelter if she was to survive.
So when he exploded from the brush to find a deep hollow in the ground where he knew one of the shelters used to be, he was genuinely caught between his two roles – one of the leaders of the Freedom Fighters, and himself, Sonic Hedgehog.
The edges of the hollow were burned. An acrid stench hung in the air. It looked as if the stump that covered the entrance had been dug out by one of Robotnik's earth-moving machines, which clawed up the ground like metal monsters burrowing to destroy the living core of the planet. In the middle of the forest's natural beauty, it was horrifying.
Likewise the fact there were no Mobians around, but there was blood on the ground.
Sonic's heart almost stopped. No, he thought desperately. One of the shelters had not only been breached, but the villagers hiding there had been taken. He looked up, and could make out blips in the distance that had to be those weird hover-transports the echidnas were using. Those things were fast. If they had taken the survivors to Robotropolis, it would take all Sonic's speed to catch up with them –
Sally groaned softly in his arms. "Sonic, what –" She moved enough to catch sight of the destruction. "Oh no. No."
Crashing emanated from the trees behind them. The lead they had on their pursuers was being eaten up the longer they stood there. Sonic gritted his teeth and made a snap decision. He couldn't help the captured villagers now – not and get Sally to safety. Though it burned him up inside, he had to choose between them.
"Sorry," he muttered, and took off again, not sure exactly who he was apologising to.
Bunnie entered the upper chamber and all her breath left her. She'd heard the entrance thump back into place before her head crested the lip of the hole into the lower chambers, and expected to find Sonic had returned. Part of her knew he wouldn't have come back without Sally and Dulcy, which made her heart lift until she reached the scene.
Sally lay in Sonic's arms, shivering like she was cold. One entire side of her vest was deep red, the fur around and beneath it matted into dark spikes. Sonic's expression hovered just shy of panic, mirroring Rotor and Antoine's. He met Bunnie's eyes and she read the silent plea there.
"She got shot," he said, something desperate and vulnerable in his voice that he cleared his throat to be rid of. "Those echidnas were chasing her, but I jammed right outta there. No way could they follow us." His gaze ticked back to the top of Sally's head. "But they shot Sal with some kind of laser thingy, I think. And they …" He stopped. There was more he wanted to say, Bunnie could tell, but instead he asked, "Where's Rosie?"
"In the lower chambers with the others." Bunnie was horrified by Sally's injury. Rarely had she ever seen her so helpless. Sally was an expert in putting on a brave face and downplaying every setback, every wound and every disappointment from every mission. It rocked Bunnie to her heart, seeing her best friend like this: clinging to Sonic's neck not out of love, but because if she let go there was no guarantee she could hold herself upright. "I … I left her down there … with Tails …"
"I'll get her," Rotor said instantly. "I fix machines, not people. I'm no good at situations like this. I'll take Rosie's place down below, help keep order and all that." His tone was apologetic, though what he said made perfect sense.
"My princess," Antoine murmured. "What have they to be doing to you?"
Bunnie agreed. Sally looked awful. Worse than awful. And another terrible though had occurred to her as she looked around and found the small space still relatively empty. "Sugar-hog, what about Dulcy?"
For a second Sonic looked pained. It was an incrementally different expression, though no less disturbing. It looked like he had something he really didn't want to have to say. Since Sonic was the worst culprit for blurting every thought that popped into his head, with no thought for consequences, this in itself was worrying. Today was definitely a day for unpleasant new experiences.
The trend continued as Sally saved Sonic from having to answer. "She's gone," she mumbled groggily. "They're … they were all gone …"
Bunnie's insides went colder than the metal of her roboticised limbs. "Sally-girl? You sound like you ain't got both oars in the water, sugar. Hush a while an' save your strength until Rosie gets here –"
Sally interrupted her. "She's gone. Dulcy's gone." Her voice broke in the middle like a sheet of ice she was trying to stand on too close to the Spring thaw. The water beneath was icy. As one, they all plunged in.
Horror and incredulity closed over Bunnie's head. She couldn't breathe. The news was just too shocking. Her lungs seized up, her hands were like lead weights on the ends of her arms – even her ears flopped back and dangled like they'd had the wind knocked out of them. No words would come loose from the back of her throat. Even if they had, she had no breath to say them.
Dulcy, dead? No. Gone meant absent. It just meant she wasn't here. She was probably off flying around, distracting the enemy or … something. Never mind the anguished note in Sally's voice, or Sonic's expression, or the feeling deep in Bunnie's own gut that told her the worst possibility was the right one. Sally was groggy and in pain. She wasn't thinking clearly. She was confused. Gone didn't mean –
"Robotnik's new allies killed her," Sally said. "Sh-she gave me the ch-chance to escape. She wouldn't leave after they shot us down … I couldn't make her … she was too injured, but I … and then they … I ran away. I just ran away and they … they …" She took a deep, shuddering breath. "They raided one of the shelters, too."
"No." The word slipped from Antoine, but they were all thinking it: This isn't happening. This can't be happening. Please, let this not be happening.
"Sonic?" Antoine looked to him for confirmation.
Sonic looked away. "They took everyone. We couldn't do anything." Defiance crept into his tone, but it was clear this tore him up inside.
"It happened before we got there," Sally added. "But it … it happened …" Suddenly all the fight seemed to go out of her. She slumped in Sonic's arms. The tension holding her rigid left her and she drooped, head back, arms slipping from around his neck. The one closest to Bunnie hung down, allowing blood to ooze down her palm and along her fingers, dripping steadily onto the floor.
"Sal!" Panic infused Sonic's voice completely. Nobody would mock him for losing his cool – not even Antoine – not at a time like this. They were all too close to doing it themselves. "Sal, don't do this! Stay with me. Sal? Sal!"
Which was, of course, when fresh hell broke loose from under their feet.
Rotor's head popped up from the hole to the lower chambers. "Guys, we have a situation down here."
"We have a situation right here," Sonic snapped. "Where's Rosie, man?"
"That's kind of the situation. We're about three whiskers close to an all-out revolt. There's been some sort of cave-in that has everyone spooked, a child's gone missing in that area, creatures are starting to panic, and Rosie's on the other side of a big mob who'll stampede or worse if I even hint about –" His gaze fell on Sally. And the widening pool of blood. He was especially caught by the blood. "Oh no. Oh man. Oh no. Is she –?"
"She's still breathing," said Sonic. "But she needs help now."
Rotor's jowls quivered the way they always did when he was bewildered and desperately thinking through what he should do next. Rotor was a creature of logic. It was why he engaged so well with machines and making repairs – if it was broken, there was a logical way to fix it or reuse it to fix something else. Messy organic things like flesh and blood, or emotions, put him on shaky ground. His habit of doubting himself increased tenfold when faced with a those kinds of crises – and here was one with all of them all at its centre.
He glanced down the hole and then back up at them. "Creatures are gonna get hurt no matter what we do," he said. "Aren't they?"
Bunnie heard his words and something inside her tightened, like thin strands knotting together to form a ball of steel. They had lost too much today already – lives, their home, part of their remaining innocence, and other things besides. Robotnik was close to winning. Closer than he ever had been before.
She couldn't let that happen. Regardless of what she'd done today, she was still a Freedom Fighter.
"Not if we can help it, sugar," she said to Rotor.
"But how –"
Bunnie stepped towards the hole. "Y'all just let me worry about that. It's time for Bunnie to dispense some good ol' fashioned down-home reason to a few critters who need to hear it."
An' if that don't work, she added privately, it's time for a few critters to get bopped on the head until this here crisis is over.
Tails heard Bunnie's feet hit the dirt before he heard her voice. He felt them too, as vibrations against his cheek. He pressed his palms against the floor to lever himself upright, but whoever was sitting on him was a burden he could well do without. Tails thought the guy must have been knocked unconscious in the scuffle that had broken out before Rotor and then Bunnie arrived. Whatever. It didn't really matter how he'd come to be unconscious, just that he was, and that he was a lot bigger than Tails. It was difficult to even breathe with that much weight on him.
"Listen up, y'all," Bunnie called. "You ain't doin' nobody no favours actin' like a bunch of ants tossed outta the farm. Have y'all taken leave of your senses? We gots to pull together at a time like this, not apart, an' we especially need to watch out for each other instead of backbitin' an' in-fightin'. Won't do a single body any good at all if'n we do Robotnik's job for him."
A susurrus of murmuring went up. Some of it sounded embarrassed. Some of it was still panicky. All of it was laced with fear.
"We're gonna die," tried a voice on the other side of the chamber.
"We ain't gonna die," Bunnie snapped, startling them all. "Ain't nobody here gonna die today. You know why? Because we're survivors. We been doin' it for so long, it's second nature to us. We're good at it. Robuttnik may have taken our huts an' our vegetable patches, but he ain't took Knothole yet. Know why? Because we're Knothole – us guys upstairs an' you guys down here – an' he ain't gettin' a single one of y'all so long as there's breath left in my body. Just because you guys don't go on missions to Robotropolis don't mean you ain't Freedom Fighters in your own way. You fight back just by surviving', an' deprivin' Robuttnik of what he wants. He can't win so long as even one Mobian's still standin' on the two feet they was born with. Now y'all just quit tryin' to do that dictator's job for him an' act more like the Freedom Fighters you are, y'hear? Let's have a lil' more responsibility taken where it's needed, 'kay?"
The susurrus depleted into shamefaced silence.
Tails shifted his arms and legs. "Aunt Bunnie?"
"Tails?" Bunnie's volume changed to his ears as she swung her head around looking for him. "Where you at, sweetie-pie?"
"Down here." Instantly many hands helped uncover him. One set even brushed him down and readjusted the bandage over his eyes. Hard to think that only minutes ago they'd been ready to trample him to get to the exits. "Aunt Bunnie?"
"Right here, sweetheart." Bunnie's voice came from much closer now. A hand rested lightly on Tails's shoulder. He reached up to lay his own hand atop it. "Rosie?" Bunnie called without letting go of him. "Could you go upstairs for a spell?"
"Right away, dear," Rosie said. Her footfalls as she climbed the ladder were much lighter than Bunnie's had been.
Bunnie was a solid and reassuring presence. "Aunt Bunnie," Tails hissed," some kids went poking around in the back of the chamber and found some kind of underground waterway. One of them fell in."
"They did, huh?" Bunnie's tone didn't stop being cheerful, but her grip increased slightly. "Well now, I'll just have to see about checkin' that out. Much obliged for the update, sugar. When did it happen? An' where?" Her tone was even but urgent. Tails could understand why. In the time it had taken to calm everyone down and get this news to someone who could do something about it, the kid may have already drowned.
"Please, Miss Bunnie," said a sniffly contralto Tails recognised as the missing child's sibling – the one who had run back to them yelling for help. The voice was too high and strangled with fright to tell whether it was female or that of a very young male. "I can take you there. Please, please hurry. He was holding onto this big rock in the middle, but I don't know how long he can –"
"Say no more, darlin'." Bunnie had obviously turned her face away. Her voice was muffled slightly, though her grip on Tails didn't slacken. "All right, y'all. Who here's ready to act like Freedom Fighters instead of scared lil' critters with only a mite more sense than bees in a shook-up hive?"
As rousing speeches went, it was lacklustre. A chorus of uninspiring noises greeted it, but they were enough for Bunnie.
"Righty tighty, then. I'm countin' on y'all. So is Tails here. He's in charge while I go check out this here predicament. I'll be back in a jiff'. 'Til then, you just mind him as you would me."
"That kid?" someone cried. "That blind kid? Are you serious?"
Tails bristled, but didn't have time to defend himself.
"Tails here done proved himself time an' again in Robotropolis. He got himself a good ol' head on good young shoulders. Now I ain't got time to argue with y'all about every lil' itty bitty thing, unless you want a drowned youngster on your consciences."
This time her words met with total silence.
"Didn't think so." Somehow Bunnie managed to sound simultaneously cheerful and grim. She patted Tails's shoulder. "I'm countin' on you, sugar-fox."
His chest swelled with pride. "I won't let you down, Aunt Bunnie."
"Never have before. Now then, young man," she said, addressing the sniffling child. "Lead on to wherever the hip-hop you an' your brother done wandered off to."
Not good. Not good at all.
Bunnie regarded the hole in the floor dubiously. Through it she could hear the rush of water, much as she could when standing on the bridge at night without looking over the side. It sounded far too fast-flowing for her liking. The dirt was spiderwebbed with cracks and obviously too thin to stand on without widening the hole. If a child's weight was enough, her robotic parts were sure to do the trick. Yet without getting closer she couldn't properly assess the situation.
There was nothing else for it. She was loathe to use the extending components of her legs, since they were apt to go wrong at the worst moment and Rotor wasn't around to fix them right now, but she little other choice. Through the hole also came the sound of coughing and the thin, terrified whimpers of a child. Bunnie's heart wrenched and her resolve hardened.
"Stand back, sugar," she told the little vole who'd led her through the tiny gap in the back of the lower chamber. "Don't want no more accidents today, do we?"
"No, Miss Bunnie."
"Less of the 'Miss', sugar, you're makin' me feel mighty old." Never mind that she felt like she'd aged ten years in the last three hours. "Landsakes, I just realised I don't know your name!"
"It's Rushkin, Mi- uh, Bunnie."
"Right now, Rushkin, you just sit tight an' wait there while I rescue your brother. What's his name?"
"Aldo. His name's Aldo."
This cave was a place nobody but a child could have found in the middle of a crisis. It sat at the end of a long, narrow passageway she'd had to commando-crawl through while Rushkin only had to hunch. The vole-boy and his older brother had been exploring, and happened upon the spot by accident. According to him, his brother had crawled through and called him a coward until he did the same. Like younger siblings all over the world, even though it meant dirtying his overalls and getting their mother mad, Rushkin had taken up the challenge, only to find himself rushing back the way they'd come when Aldo suddenly disappeared through the floor in the cave beyond.
Rushkin hiccupped quietly as Bunnie knelt down, gripped the low ceiling with her metal arm to steady herself and telescoped both the arm and her legs out to the hole. Her flesh arm remained free to manoeuvre, though she mainly used it to keep her balance like a walker on a high wire as her torso swayed from side to side in the middle of the cave.
"Aldo?" she called. "You down there, sugar?"
A pathetic voice called back, "I-I'm here. B-But I can't h-hold on m-much longer. I'm so c-cold."
"Right you are, sugar. Now don't you worry none. Bunnie's here now, an' she's gonna get you outta there."
How, she wasn't sure yet. Her brain felt fogged with one thing and another – Sally, Robotnik, Knothole, Knuckles, the roboticised echidnas – so badly that she had to give herself a stern talking to and tell herself to concentrate on what she was doing and forget everything else.
There'll be time enough to worry about other stuff later. For now, you just focus on that poor lil' boy, Bunnie Rabbot, an' what his momma will say if'n your mouth overloads your butt an' you don't bring him home safe an' sound like you promised.
She took a breath and slowly, oh so slowly, lowered her head and upper torso through the hole to see what was what.
The river really was just that – a swollen mass of water rushing at a pace that had pinned Aldo against one of several boulders at its centre. His little pink hands were nearly white with cold and the death-grip he maintained on the uneven surface. His fur was so slicked down Bunnie could make out every bump and dip in his skull. He trembled, raising large dark eyes made dull with desperation and the beginnings of hypothermia. The air was much, much colder down here, especially after the stifling warmth of the crowded lower chamber. Bunnie didn't like to think how cold the water must be.
"H-help," Aldo said weakly. "P-please help me …"
"Hang tight, sugar. I'll get you outta there. Just don't let go."
Bunnie cast about. Running parallel on either side of the river were two smooth banks of rock and hard-packed dirt. It was amazing to find a place like this below the forest floor – especially below one of their shelters. Nobody had known it was here. She briefly wondered where it led, then dismissed the thought as beside the point. She could use the sides if she could get herself onto them. From there she'd be in a much stronger position to rescue Aldo.
Gingerly, she drew back to Rushkin and found a fresh handhold for her other arm on the ceiling. It was jagged and full of available spots she could get a good grip of – especially when her metal hand could dig in to make fresh ones. She retracted her legs in to her body and carefully hand-walked across the ceiling until she was positioned above the hole more. There, she let go with her flesh arm and lowered herself through. It put enormous strain on her roboticised arm and shoulder. The join where metal met muscle screamed, but she gritted her teeth and ignored the discomfort quickly turning to pain. The trickiest part of her plan was still to come. It was hard enough keeping just herself aloft this way. Now she had to somehow lift her own body and Aldo's at the same time without plunging them both into the river.
It took a moment for him to answer. "Y-yes," he said blearily.
Delayed reflexes and wooziness – not good signs. Not good at all. How long had he been in the water now? Too long, was the most obvious answer.
Bunnie looked up to reassure herself of her grip on the ceiling. It suddenly seemed a whole lot further away. "Aldo, can you get ahold of my legs?"
"I … I don't think so. I can't feel my … anything. I'm n-not even sure how I'm h-holding onto this rock …"
"Don't you never mind none, sugar. Can you at least raise your right arm when I tell you?"
"I th-think so …" He didn't sound certain.
"Try your hardest, sugar, that's all I can ask." Bunnie couldn't help thinking her attempts at reassurance were paltry, but the best she could offer under the circumstances. She extended her arm to its fullest, stretched out her normal one and yelled, "Now!"
Aldo let go of the rock just as she swung herself towards him. Her hand closed around his wrist and she yanked. The muscles in her neck and both shoulders tensed. Her feet pistoned empty air. A small wet body clung to her and she heaved it up to nestle against her side. Bunnie instantly withdrew her robotic arm and they ascended to the cave where Rushkin waited.
"Aldo!" he shouted. "Aldo!"
Bunnie came to the final flaw in her hastily (and maybe very badly) constructed plan: how to get herself and Aldo back to firmer ground with only one arm. No way could the kid hold onto her unaided. He was shaking so much, it was all she could do to hang onto him so he didn't plop back into the river. Yet she had used two arms to get over here. How was she going to get them both back using only one?
Half a second later she got her answer.
The handhold she'd made for herself began to crumble. She felt the rock giving way and made a split-second decision. There was no more time to think, just act. Swinging wildly, she used the forward momentum of her own body to throw Aldo away from the danger area. It risked broken bones, but she just had to hope he didn't tense up too hard. A slack body broke less easily than a rigid one.
"Rushkin, head's up!"
"I got him!" It was a ridiculous statement. Rushkin was only two thirds Aldo's size. His brother landed on him and promptly emptied him of air. They both thumped against the far wall. "Oof!"
Bunnie was already swinging backwards. Her handhold came away in a tumble of scree. She pitched through the hole, banging against the side so that it, too, crumbled and large chunks of dirt and rock fell in alongside her. Her spine arched and her head spun from the blow, but it was the shock of cold when she hit the water that consumed her. It was more than freezing. Water had no right being that cold without turning to ice. It didn't just close, it slammed shut over her head and she instantly forgot which way was up and which was down.
Air! She needed air!
She broke the surface out of pure luck and sucked in a lungful.
"Bunnie!" shouted a voice that didn't belong to either Aldo or Rushkin.
Too late. Metal limbs weren't meant for swimming, especially at such low temperatures. Bunnie went under again, her roboticised arm and legs weighing her down. She had time to notice and, ridiculously, marvel at the thin stream of bubbles passing her face, like she was trapped in a giant glass of soda pop. Then the current took hold and dragged her down and away into the dark.
Knuckles jerked his head up. Alarm roiled in his gut. He jumped to his feet, suddenly hyperaware of every sound, every movement. He stood poised in a ready position, all the weight balanced on the balls of his feet so he could meet any attack without losing his footing.
Nothing attacked. Nothing even moved. The chamber was peaceful around him.
Nevertheless he felt edgy. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. He just didn't know what – or even what it could be. Unease was like a band of steel around his chest, making it hard to breathe. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the feeling, but it wouldn't go. If anything, it grew stronger.
The Emerald pulsed. He stared at it.
"Do you know what's wrong?"
Crackles only he could see played across its surface, but it gave no answer.
Knuckles shook his head again. His skin crawled. It was a truly unpleasant feeling. "Maybe I should patrol outside, make sure things are secure on the rest of the island," he said, only half to himself. He had been out of sorts ever since he got home. He shouldn't be surprised that even now he was acting unlike himself, feeling things he shouldn't feel and confusing himself. It was unrealistic to blame Bunnie for his sudden bad feeling this time, but the old resentment gnawed constantly at the back of his mind. Likewise that uncharacteristic guilt over feeling it.
Yes, a patrol was a good idea. Fresh air and something purposeful to do would clear his head.
The chamber glowed balefully behind him as he left.
To Be Continued …