TAILS OF BRAVE ADVENTURE
S Peter Davis
All characters (C) SEGA, Archie and SP Davis 2006.
Used without permission
This was not the way it was supposed to end.
He was on a gurney, but he couldn't see who was pushing him. His head was a drugged-down lump of lead on a rubber neck, he couldn't move an inch. Fluorescent lights on the ceiling marched past his vision as he floated along the hallway in a white bed. The people around him had no faces. No... they were wearing masks. Blank, white masks. Dozens of eyes stared down at him and he tried to speak but he couldn't. He wasn't even sure he was making a sound, because his ears didn't work. The world was a reel of film without a soundtrack.
This was not the way it was supposed to end.
To understand how he had arrived in this situation was a futile effort. He couldn't remember. His past was a blur to him as a dream becomes vague and incorporeal upon waking. The mountains... ah, but even they were slipping away into that dark abyss, now. Besides, what relevance did the past hold when his present was what it was? His quest was surely lost. He had failed his family and himself. His failure was utter and total. It didn't matter what became of him, now.
This was not the way it was supposed to end.
Now he was in a room... a white, sterile room without windows. He watched the masked people above him as they handed various silvery instruments back and forth to one another. They were all wearing rubber gloves and blue plastic coats. He was completely paralysed, unable to do anything but watch, but nevertheless he could feel his flesh creep underneath his skin as he was lifted onto a white table, a soft pillow slipped under his head. A bright light was switched on above him.
This was not the way it was supposed to end.
One of the faceless strangers stood over him and held up something that glinted in the light. He knew his father had died in vain. There was no justifying his life, which had been so fleeting and pointless that he couldn't even remember it by the end. He tried to say this; he tried to announce that it didn't matter what they did with him now that his purpose had been terminated, because without his destiny he was just a sack of rotting meat in a freak's shell. But he couldn't speak. The drugs had numbed him. He could only lie in wait.
Tails was awake and watching when the scalpel came down.
This was not the way it was supposed to end; but this was how it began.
Somebody was mopping the sweat from his brow with a soft rag and speaking to him in whispers. For a few minutes, Tails Prower was five years old. His father stood by his bed and ran a gentle hand through his forelocks, breathing softly so as not to disturb him as he dozed. It was warm in his presence, and Tails knew that as long as he was near, nothing bad was going to happen. He scared away all of the monsters. Tails smiled and wrapped himself more tightly in the soft blanket.
But Tails was not five. He was fifteen. His father was dead. Nothing could ever change this. Time does not heal all wounds, and the best we can do is learn to live with them.
He opened his eyes and it was not his father who stood above him, smiling down at him with paternal devotion. The sky stretched from one horizon to the other through a great glass ceiling, and although the sun beat down on him, he felt cool and relaxed. Some manner of technology had neutralised its warmth; filed down nature's sharp teeth.
"There you go," the figure above him said, "How do you feel?"
Tails blinked and stared as his vision sharpened. Standing over him was a stranger, a tall avian male wearing an elaborately decorated cloak dyed with every colour of the rainbow. The only part of him that was visible beneath his flowing clothing was his head, donned with a spectacular crest of plumage dyed at the tips. He lowered his long, pointed beak and smiled warmly at Tails as he laced his hands and took a step back from the bed. His eyes were a haunting, brilliant shade of blue.
"I feel... fine..." Tails muttered, and sat up to take a look around. The huge room around him seemed to form the tip of a great glass obelisk. All he could see was sky amidst the sterile white of the sculpted architecture around him. He was in the middle of a tropical garden. Palm trees and ferns grew freely amidst intricately pruned hedges and succulants. He could hear a fountain somewhere. The air was a little humid. Tails noticed that the bed on which he'd been sleeping didn't belong here; he'd been carried here just so that it could be the first thing he saw upon waking. It was breathtaking.
"I'm so glad to hear it," the bird said. He was soft-spoken, and radiated an atmosphere of pleasantness that put Tails at ease almost immediately. His accent was unique and exotic, subtle and elegant, a manner of speaking Tails had never heard before. "You'd been hurt quite badly, out there. Taken quite a few blows to the head, we feared that you might have acquired some lasting damage. But our doctors, they are the best."
"I don't... remember much." Tails said.
"You had some trouble with your memory, yes. We treated it, as well as your concussion. You've been asleep for twenty-five hours, you know."
"Twenty-five hours," Tails repeated, and yawned. "Excuse me, but... where am I?"
"Oh, how rude of me!" The colourful stranger laughed. "I beg your pardon. I am Badoru Kukku. And this is my paradise."
He pronounced his name with precision and pride, placing emphasis and elongation upon the second syllable. Kukkuu. It was nearly enough to make Tails ashamed of his own pedestrian and comparitively almost ugly name.
Suddenly he remembered something. "Hey wait... I was in... I was in an operating theatre!" He remembered the horror of the scalpel that glinted in the sterile white light, saw it again as it fell toward his abdomen. He ripped the sheets off the bed and inspected his body, clutching at handfuls of fur.
"Oh, don't worry," Kukku replied with a humoured grin, "There wasn't an operation. We just patched you up a little, dressed your wounds, tended to your bruises."
"But I remember the scalpel, they cut me!"
"Just a nick. Just to extract a tiny sample of tissue. We took a bit of blood, too, just a thimble full. You were barely scratched, I made sure of that myself. You're a very special boy, you mean so much to me. So much to all of us. A little miracle."
"I don't understand."
"Oh, I will explain later. For now, there is something I want you to see. Come over here, with me."
Tails slipped out of bed and followed Kukku to the glass wall, where they stood side by side and gazed out over the landscape. The room was much higher up than Tails even imagined. The ground was very far away, it looked as it did when he saw it from the cockpit of the Tornado. There was a great forest beneath them, though the trees looked like moss growing around fields and lakes, a great expanse of undisturbed nature spread right out to the ocean.
"Do you like it?" the bird asked, "The most precious natural haven on all of Mobius, and all of it mine. And yours, too. Just look at what you've come back to. Nothing in the outside world could compare to this."
Indeed, Tails was awed beyond words. The view was stunning, and from this vantage point he could see for miles in all directions. "But there's more," Kukku announced, and he lifted some kind of remote control device, tapping at the buttons. This was answered with a low rumbling noise that echoed through the whole room.
"What's going on?" Tails asked, but Kukku hushed him with a smile. All at once the walls began to shift, the glass pyramid that encapsulated the room split open like a great blooming flower and slid away, leaving the two of them together with nothing between them and the blue expanse of the sky. The sun's warmth bathed over Tails, and a breeze ruffled his fur. He closed his eyes and breathed it in, the clean and pure air of the lower stratosphere. He was in the cockpit again, shearing through the clouds, looking down on the world below with its stresses and trivialities. He laughed, and threw his arms out either side of him. Tails had no fear of height; on the contrary, he was in love with height, and he stood right on the edge of the building, taking in every drop of the experience. This was unbelievable, the sensation of flight captured in a jar. It was heavenly.
"Welcome home," Kukku said from behind him.
Tails stood at the edge a moment longer, as though parting with an old friend, and then backed away again, shaking his head in disbelief. "This is amazing," he gasped.
"Isn't it?" Kukku pressed another button on his device and the glass walls began to ascend again. He placed the device atop an ornate pedestal, where a groove was carved for it.
"But what do you mean when you say I'm at home?" Tails asked.
Kukku smiled warmly again, and his blue eyes sparkled. "I told you that you are a miracle," he said, "I am so pleased you decided to return to us. We can verify the identities of your parents from your genetic code, you see. It is not impossible to have a child in Quarantine without our knowledge, despite what most of my colleagues would attest. Nature found a way, it seems. The miracle is that we did not even know that you existed until you came back to us."
"You knew my parents," Tails said, realisation blooming. "I'm on the Kitsune Atole, aren't I."
"No finer place on all the planet, my boy."
"I can't even remember coming here."
"The genetic code can tell us absolutely anything about a person," Kukku said, "Except, of course, his name. That is something that only you can tell us. Might I ask what it is that we can call you?"
"Tails. Tails Prower."
Kukku laughed, truly amused. "Tails! Well now, that is certainly appropriate, isn't it! Truly a fine name. A fine name. And Prower, of course, the name of your father. I remember him, you know. He was a fine specimen of a creature, very healthy, very potent genes. I knew he had a lot of potential, and clearly I was right. I was sad when he left. I see that he hasn't returned with you... that is a pity."
"He died. He was killed, I mean."
"Oh... I am sorry to hear that. Very, very sorry." Kukku slouched his shoulders and hung his head, his long beak pointed to the ground like an arrow. "The world out there is like that. Barbaric. Primal. Untamed. So juvenile. So many people dying for so many futile reasons. Killing and dying. Not here, though. We maintain this little slice of heaven as a beacon for the world. The research that we do here, we're going to change the face of Mobius some day. Some day..."
"What do you research?"
Kukku's spirit's brightened and his smile returned. He had a very contageous smile, Tails found it almost impossible to keep a straight face. "Oh, I'll tell you all about it," the bird said, "Another time. After dinner, perhaps. For now there is so much to do! We weren't prepared for your arrival, but I've seen to it that you have a room fully furnished. I'll take you there now, if you would like to see it."
"You've made up a room for me? You want me to stay here?"
"Oh, Tails... I want so much for you to stay. In fact, I'd like to try and convince you to join our family."
Family. The one thing Tails had sought all of his life. The very word put a smile on his face, bedazzled as he was with the heavenly palace in the sky. He asked to see his room, and Badoru Kukku was overjoyed.
"I don't understand why you want to do this," Tails said, "Why you're showing me all this. Taking me in and healing my injuries and everything. What's so special about me?"
Badoru Kukku was still smiling as they walked down a long spiral staircase. "Oh, you're very special indeed," he said, "You validate our work, my dear. You are a beacon of hope. Your very birth is going to be an inspiration to all of our people. I cannot wait to show you off."
"I still don't understand."
"You will. Very soon, you will."
The staircase twisted and curled down from the garden penthouse like the belltower of an old cathedral. The stone walls were a little suffocating, but it didn't look as though there was far to go. He could see a light ahead.
"You are the future, young Tails," Kukku said, and Tails thought he could even hear a trace of a sob in the bird's voice. "You are the proof that mobiankind can elevate itself, that it is evolving, slowly and steadily, toward greatness. Some of my colleagues were convinced that my beloved Cremaria was an aberration, but now there can be no question."
They reached the bottom of the spiral staircase, and the shock of what Tails saw almost sucked the air from his lungs.
The stairs ended with a freefall. A circular platform that hovered above an abyss of nothing. There were no rails and no barriers. They were standing, it seemed, at the top of a huge, hollow tower. In a way it seemed half-built. The walls were packed tight with rooms, doorways opening up to nothing. There were towers within towers, great columns made of open rooms, stacked one on top of another. Hundreds of rooms, hundreds of platforms, and all of them swarming with people.
It was a vertical city. The strangest thing about it was that there were no connecting paths, no stairways between rooms, no bridges of any kind. And the people didn't seem to care in the least, because they were all birds.
Dozens of them were flying about at any given moment, flitting from doorway to doorway. In fact, it was clear that bridges and stairs would only ever serve as a hindrance. They didn't need them. These mobians had a transport much more efficient than walking. The sound of flapping wings echoed constantly throughout the building and merged into the background, just as one gets used to the sound of traffic along a busy highway.
"Welcome to Sanctuary," Kukku declared, "The beacon of the civilised world. Soon we shall be a guiding light for all of Mobius. This is my dream, Tails. This is my gift to mobiankind. And I want you to be a member of my family, my dearest child, because you are one of the first pioneers of a new age. This is why you are a miracle, Tails. You have crossed the biological schism that truly seperates us from the barbarians. You have made the greatest evolutionary leap! Flight, Tails! You have achieved flight!"
Tails watched the people of this floorless city dart to and fro from one room to another without a worry in the world, and imagined how wonderful it must be to throw off the shackles of one's planetbound prison, and truly be free. It occurred to him at this moment that this really was the home he had always sought. This was his paradise. A tear tracked its way along his snout and perched upon his nose until he sniffled it away. This was his home.
"I'll show you to your room," Kukku said, "Just follow me." And with that, he flicked away his robes to display his impressive wingspan, and dove from the platform, circling downward until he vanished into the flock. His robes trailed behind him like a fluttering, colourful cape.
A shiver ran down Tails' spine. He wasn't afraid of heights, but then he'd never been asked to leap into an abyss before. Kukku may not have known it, but Tails' flight didn't work the same as that of a bird. He needed a boost, and even then he only had a few moments before he would exhaust himself. If he simply walked off the edge of the platform, he'd fall to his death. If he could fly like a bird, then he wouldn't need a plane.
One of the mobian birds flew close past him, and he felt the wind from the wings. It blew his hair back with a puff and he imagined himself flying freely as they did. They had no constraints in heaven or Mobius, they almost willed themselves to a location and they were there. They really did possess a gift that had only been half-granted to Tails, and he envied them for it. He wanted to be them, if only for a moment. If only for two.
Spreading his arms out either side of him, Tails closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He pictured the vast blue sky, scattered white clouds like cottonbuds, calm and cool. He flexed at the knees, once, twice, then leaned forward. If he was to die today, then he would die in flight and thus carry no regrets. He would die free; he would die a bird.
Tails jumped, dove forward off the platform and spun his tails like the rotor of a small helicopter, just as he always did, although this time he did not ascend. He threw his arms out in front of him and launched himself in a controlled dive. His spinning tails worked somewhat like a parasail, slowing his descent as he glided through the building. He pulled to the side very quickly but only narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a brick wall. He zipped past dozens of doorways that opened into thin-air, felt the jetstream of scores of flying birds, and realised that this was a very dangerous activity. He was travelling very quickly, circling downward, and searching madly for any sign of where he was going. The tower was a honeycomb of rooms, the portals wide, somewhat elliptical, and almost identical. They streaked past his vision and he began to grow dizzy.
Only a flash of vibrant colour brought back his bearings. Badoru Kukku's brilliant cloak, trailing behind him as he flew. Tails twisted his body and aimed his trajectory toward it, conscious that his powerful tails were getting very weary and strained at the constant spinning, twisting and curling. If they cramped up, he would freefall. It was crucial that he land very soon, on something.
Kukku took a hard left in mid-air and dove, a bit of ostentatious flying that was clearly meant to impress, and vanished again into the flock. Tails tried to follow but he couldn't turn so well, and he again almost crashed. He ran along the curved wall for a few metres before pulling away and levelling off again, and just spotted Kukku darting into one of the doorways. He followed, his tails aching, and nearly fell short of the hole. He crashed inside the room, rolling a short way until he landed in a pile of soft pillows.
Badoru Kukku was laughing as Tails fought with the pillows, panting. Kukku had, of course, landed perfectly.
"You still have some difficulty in using your talents," he said, "You'll learn very quickly, here. Everyone is going to be so anxious to teach you! As will I, of course, and your sister Cremaria. All of us, one family of the air."
Tails crawled out of the pillow pile a little cranky, a bruise already forming on his behind, but he immediately forgot his pain when he saw the room around him.
It was beautiful.
A bed was draped in soft blue curtains of satin and silk. Upon it were cushions so soft that they looked as though they might fly away like balloons. The floor of the room was polished oak, furnished with fuzzy rugs, and the walls were an unoffensive cream-white and decorated with landscape watercolour paintings. Tails could see a large, elegant wardrobe and dressing table setting, a huge pine desk, and a window that took up almost an entire wall, looking out at the clouds and the horizon from this unbelievable vantage point.
"My God..." Tails muttered, "It's gorgeous."
"Yes. Oh, but my boy, this is only the surface. There is so much more for you to see and experience." He smiled. "But we'll speak of these things later. We have all the time in the world. I should let you settle in! Do say that you will join us for dinner, though."
"This is all a little daunting."
"Yes... yes, I know it must be, but do relax and make yourself at home. You are among family, now, and it is perfectly safe within our Sanctuary. I want you to feel that you are welcome here. If there is anything you need, anything at all, just press this button."
Kukku indicated something that looked like an intercom device beside the doorway.
"Anything at all, Tails," he said, "And someone will arrive immediately to assist you. You're entitled to anything, you are after all a member of my family. My staff are paid to ensure that I and mine are comfortable. They will be happy to accomodate you."
"I will have you collected at six so that you may join me for dinner. There are many people who are just dying to meet you, Tails, and people who you will be happy to meet. Will you be there?"
Tails' stomach was already growling a little. "Sure thing."
"Oh, I'm so happy. I mean that." He clearly did, judging from the fireworks in his eyes. "Then I will see you at six. Feel free to explore the facility, though I do hope that you will be careful."
With that, Kukku gave a little wave, turned, and flew out the open portal.
Tails' attention turned once again to the room. Never in his life had he been treated to such luxury. As a child of the streets, rescued and made a Freedom Fighter, there were only a handful of times that he'd ever had a comfortable bed to sleep on, or even slept inside a proper building that didn't leak when it rained. This was nothing like he'd ever seen before. It was the kind of room he imagined a king or a prince might sleep in.
Not for the first time today, he wondered if he might be dreaming. What an obscure, surreal kind of wonderland. Tails had expected the Kitsune Atole to be a horrible place, like the bowels of the Arack Empire, some alien nightmare from which his father had sought to liberate his enslaved people. Instead he'd been granted an instant promotion to the status of some kind of royalty. Bird royalty, no less.
Of all the situations he'd found himself in over the past few years, this was immediately one of the most puzzling.
Badoru Kukku, whoever he was, had known Tails' father. Had respected him deeply, by the sound of it. The question was whether that acquaintance was in the capacity of a leader. Perhaps times had changed, perhaps somebody had already taken up Trevor's sword and changed things on this island. If that was so, then Tails didn't know what he was going to do here. The prospect actually saddened him a little. If he couldn't change anything here, then he had no way to avenge his father. No way to prove his life worthwhile.
All of these problems were brushed somewhat under the shroud of Tails' immediate shock. The last thing he lucidly remembered was embarking upon his quest, to come here. Obviously this mission had been a success, but how much time had passed in between? He might have been wandering the globe for years before getting here. Tails looked into the ornate mirror above the dressing table, ran his eyes over his body. He didn't look any older.
(and there were memories. Deep, deep down. Just fragments, snapshots. Postcards from the past.)
The cacophony of flapping wings outside his entrance was extremely distracting. He supposed that birds learned to get used to it, but doubted whether he ever would. Frowning, Tails approached the portal and looked out. Scores of birds flew past every minute, taking no notice of him. Flittering from one doorway to another. A lone feather drifted down in front of his face and landed at his feet.
Tails found a button with his hand, and clicked it in. Immediately a tinted glass door slid across the hole and snapped shut. It cut the sound of flying birds out completely, much better than Tails had even hoped. The door and room seemed to be utterly soundproof.
Happy with his new state of relaxing seclusion, Tails sat on the side of the bed for a moment, taking another incredulous look about the room, before lying down. He had a lot of thinking to do. A lot of remembering.
Trevor Prower did not shiver before the presence of the bat in the pinstripe suit, even though the bat's hand never moved from its suspicious position underneath the desk. Rain was pattering softly upon the roof of the old church, and the ceiling had sprung several leaks, none of which the residents of this den of vice ever bothered to patch up. There was an old, dirty bathtub wedged in the aisle between two pews, catching the worst of the dribble.
"Nails, Nails the Bat," he said as he sliced the tip off a fat cigar. "I trust you've heard of me. This is my town, after all."
Trevor didn't reply. After a few moments, Nails grinned a jaw full of thin, yellow dagger-teeth and bit down on the cigar. He ignited a match on the desktop and lit the smoke. "It has come to my attention," he said, "that you have repeatedly been caught thieving in my neighbourhood. I find this problematic, to say the least."
"Just food," Trevor replied, "To feed my child. We don't have any money, he'd starve otherwise. We're not doing anything we don't have to do."
The two suits who stood either side of him, the sphinx and the crow, moved a little closer. In response, Trevor pulled Miles closer to himself.
Nails just chuckled and shrugged. "Hey. Profits is profits is profits. Doesn't matter whether you're jacking sports cars or stealing cheese from the rats. Fact of the matter is your thieving hurts my bottom line."
"He's only three years old, for God's sake," Trevor hissed.
"Oh, really? Well gee, in that case, maybe we should all pitch in some cash. Hey, boys! What do you think? Why don't we all dig deep and get the kid a decent feed? Heck, scratch that, we'll give him three square meals a day. Set up a superannuation fund, drop a few payloads into his bank account, buy him a new wardrobe and a decent education."
"Sounds like a mighty fine idea, boss," the cat replied, "Kid could be the next High Justice of the Supreme Court, he could. We wanna give him every opportunity in life, especially considering how he's a little deformed retard and everything."
"You don't talk about my son that way," Trevor snapped.
"Yeah, Floyd," Nails said, "Don't go talkin' about the kid like that, no reason for that kind of nastiness. We're all reasonable gentlemen here, are we not? Listen, all I'm saying is, that just ain't the way the world works. You can't just go around doing whatever you like, sooner or later you're going to be accountable to the people whose pockets you're emptying. Can you imagine what would happen if there were a thousand little kids whose daddies stole to support them? I'd go out of business!"
"How can it possibly affect you?"
"An example," Nails said, and dragged deep on his cigar. He puffed out a thick cloud of smoke that obscured his face for a moment. "Say there's a particular merchant, a fine businessman, who runs a small produce outlet in town. Now, he only wants to feed his kids too, just the same as you. He's got three little rug-biters at home who need to eat, same as yours. When you steal his wares, you deprive this businessman of his income, and he has to work a lot harder just to bring home the bacon for these three darling little angels." He dragged on the cigar again, and puffed the smoke out of his nose like a dragon. "Now, let's take the example a little further. Say, for example, that I have a deal arranged with this businessman. Say that the businessman agrees to filter a small percentage of his profits to me, and in return, I agree not to send the boys around to smash his spine into three pieces with a crowbar and burn his quiet little shop to the ground. It's a friendly little business arrangement of mutual benefit, everybody's happy. Say that the terms of our agreement are such that I also agree, for just a little extra, to implement my vast resources to provide this businessman and his fine family an umbrella of protection against all the scumbags in this city, not just my own. Say that I have a similar deal arranged with dozens of other upstanding business owners across town. Can you see it yet? Sure, I could go soft on you, after all you are just doing this to survive, but can you imagine what would happen if I went soft on all the poor mongrels in this city who are down on their luck? If everyone who had a kid to feed suddenly went out and started robbing my clients here and there just to make ends meet? Pretty soon all these businessmen start to wonder what it is, exactly, that they are paying me for. I start to lose a lot of income, and then I start having to do a lot of unpleasant things just to remind these businessmen what they're paying me for. Things get very messy, a lot of people wind up with hospital bills they can't afford, some wind up dead, a lot of fires start very mysteriously, and all this is further weight on my profit margin because my clients can't pay me my dues. I have a reputation in this city that's very much in my interest to uphold, and in order to do so, I'm afraid I really do have to take a hard-line stance."
Tails wrapped his arms around his father's waist, and Trevor held his son close. "I have no quarrel with you," he said, "Please. I just want to do what I can so that my son and I can survive, we've had a very difficult life."
"Now hang on," Nails said, "I never said I was going to let you die, I'm not that kind of monster. I have an opportunity for you, in fact, a very good opportunity that'll see that both you and your adorable spawn never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from again." He grinned and leaned in closer, another cloud of smoke bursting forth from every hole in his face. "Work for me," he hissed.
"Work for you?"
"That's right! You want a job, don't you? I'm offering you one. The best thing about it is that you basically only have to do what you're already doing right now, only I tell you who you can rob, and half of what you find comes back to me. It's got security, benefits, and best of all, you'll have my protection for both yourself and your son. I'm being very generous, here, only because I like you and I feel sympathy for your plight."
"You want my son to be subjected to life in the criminal underworld?" Trevor asked, "I don't rob people because I like it, sir, it isn't my career choice, I don't want to do it for a living. I do what I can to survive. I'm sorry, but there's a difference between what you do and what I do."
Nails frowned at this. He sucked deep on his cigar. "If you think that, then you're a fool," he said, "There is no difference, none whatsoever. I do wish we could all live in a world of roses and sunshine, but the fact is that we don't. Morality is a creation, my friend, a bleeding-heart fantasy. Let me tell you a little thing about morality. In a hard world, where only the fittest survive, there are only two kinds of people - the strong, who win, and the weak, who lose. The weak people are the ones who came up with the concept of ethics, and why? Because they're so freakin' weak that they need an excuse with which to justify their existence. I don't need ethics, my friend, because I'm a winner. The question is whether you're going to decide to be a winner as well, or whether you're going to keep being a victim and hold onto this bizarre, hypocritical notion that what you do is more ethical. We're in the exact same business, you and I. You only think you're doing it for different reasons."
"I get the feeling you're not going to give me much of a choice," Trevor muttered.
Nails' grin returned, and he stubbed out his depleted cigar in an ashtray that he kept atop the former pulpit he used as a desk. "You steal to survive," he said, "If you worked for me, that wouldn't change. You'd still be stealing to survive, only it's not starvation that'll kill you. It's your choice, and in this hard world, it's very rare to come across an offer this good. I am a very generous person, you see."
Tails awoke to a soft rapping sound. Eyelids heavy, he glanced around and remembered where he was. The light outside was fading - midafternoon. He was shocked that he'd slept so long, but then again he had been mighty tired. Now he felt more rested than he ever had in his life, and he didn't know whether it was because of the obscenely comfortable bed, or the medical tampering of his avian hosts. Or a combination of both.
The rapping at the door was timid, almost embarrassed, and Tails hoped that whoever was so nervous about getting his attention wouldn't mistake his inaction for irritation. In reality he was just so comfortable that it took him a little while to work up the strength to get out of bed.
Wandering over to the other side of the room, he pressed the button to open the door hatch. He expected to see one of the birds on the other side, which was why he had a double-take when he saw who was standing on the precarious ledge that served as a doorstep.
A young girl, a rabbit, about a foot shorter than Tails himself, looked up at him with a large pair of hazel eyes. She was about eleven or twelve, and cloaked in a kind of elaborate frilled dress. Oddly, her ears were tied together with ribbons behind her back, like a long ponytail. She knitted her hands together over her belly in a very regal kind of posture. She smiled nervously, and tried to say something (a statement she'd clearly rehearsed) but it got caught in her throat and she just kind of murmured.
"Oh," Tails said dumbly. "Hello, there. Um."
The rabbit curtsied, hurriedly as though it were something she just remembered she was supposed to do a while ago. Then there was an uncomfortable moment's silence.
"Can I help you?" Tails asked.
"Yes, hello," she said, and blushed a little. "Father sent me to meet you. I've been- I've been a little curious and he said it would be good for us to meet. If we could, I mean. If you'd like to."
This was an awfully cryptic explanation, and Tails figured her ability to communicate coherently with him had a lot to do with the fact that she was clearly very timid and uncomfortable being here. He suddenly realised that she was confronting him while standing on a tiny platform over a deep drop, and if he was displeased with her he could easily give her a light push and send her to a messy death. That might have contributed to her discomfort. He invited her inside.
"Your father sent you," Tails said, confused, "I don't know your father."
"He thought we should be acquainted," she replied, "If you are to join our family."
As she walked past him, Tails saw her from behind and noticed something very strange about her. A rabbit ordinarily had very large ears, but hers were huge. From where they sprouted from her head to the very tip, they were perhaps a metre long and more than thirty centimetres at their widest point, though that was hard to discern as they were folded over and tied together. They brushed the backs of her knees as she walked. Tails figured that they would keep her entire back warm and in the cold weather she could use them as a blanket. She brushed them aside so she could sit on the edge of his bed without sitting on her own ears.
Tails frowned. "Uh, I'm sorry. Who did you say you are?"
The girl blushed again and looked embarrassed. "Apologies, I don't believe I did. My name is Cremaria Kukku. Though it is often shortened to just Cream. You can do that, if you like. I rather prefer it."
She spoke with the same accent as the birds, and put the same exotic and precious pronunciation to the word Kukku. Folding her hands in her lap, she swung her short legs around in the air a little as they didn't touch the ground from where she sat on the bed.
"Kukku," Tails repeated, "So... your father is-"
"Oh, I know what you're thinking. He is not my natural father, I was adopted as a child. But he is a wonderful father. He's doing some wonderful things."
"So he tells me. This building is definitely something. I've never seen anything like it. It's a work of engineering genius! They've utilised every inch of three-dimentional space. You can't get around without flying, though."
Looking at the rabbit, sitting there with her hands folded neatly in her lap, a question suddenly occurred to Tails. Something that didn't quite add up. He remembered her standing on his doorstep, nothing but freefall behind her, like she'd teleported there.
"Hey," he said, "How did you get here?"
Cream giggled a little. "Same way as everybody else!"
"But you're a rabbit, not a bird. You can't fly."
"You're a fox, and you can fly."
Tails snorted. "Hardly. I mean, in the broadest sense of the word, I guess. But I use my tails as rotor blades. To really fly you need wings. You need to be a bird, or a bat."
"I can so fly," Cream replied, in a mildly pouting tone that made Tails struggle to keep back a smile. "I could since I was born. It's why Father took me in, it's because I'm special. Would you like to see?"
"Go on, then," Tails replied, crossing his arms.
Cream reached behind her back and started to untie the ribbon that held her ears together. When they were released, she shook her head to flatten them out. Tails gasped a little, for they were even bigger than he had suspected, and suddenly he had some idea of how she might have flown here. The idea was bizarre, ridiculous, but perhaps no moreso than a two-tailed fox helicopter. Cream's ears spread out either side of her like a couple of bedsheets attached to her head, and Tails could see that they were thick and very muscular around the edges, but nothing more than a thin membrane in the centre. She raised them under their own power and flexed them in the air, while her hands remained folded neatly in her lap.
It was one of the strangest things Tails had ever seen.
Dropping down from her perch on his bed, Cream suddenly flapped her ears like a bat's wings and lifted instantly off the ground. Her earspan was immense, and the massive things must have been heavy, but the little girl managed them effortlessly. She flew around the ceiling for a little while, bumping light fittings and knocking things off high shelves, before dropping down to land. The wind her ears generated on landing almost knocked Tails over backwards, but she handled herself as expertly as a bird who had been born to fly. Satisfied, she tied her ears back again while Tails choked on his own words.
Cream looked very proud of herself. A little too proud, as though she'd just won an award. Badoru Kukku was evidently quite vocal about the value of his young daughter's talent, and she was overjoyed that Tails was impressed.
"I do hope that you'll decide to stay," she said, "And I hope that we can be friends. Father and his staff are so good to me, but it does get lonesome. I had a friend once but he left and never came back. And it'd be good to have somebody else like me around. Somebody special."
Why not? Tails thought, This is my homeland, after all. They treat me like royalty here. It's not like I have anywhere else to go.
"This is all very sudden," he said, "I'm not even sure how I got here. I can't just decide to live here without knowing where here is."
"But you might, if you spent some time here?" Cream asked, hopefully. "It really is the perfect place to live. We have everything that you could ever need. And we're so far from the nastiness of the world up here. So far from war and famine and disease."
"It sure is beautiful."
Cream nodded, and smiled. "Come. Father was hoping that you could join us for dinner. The Armada are very anxious to meet you."
"Father's elite council. I'll take you to the dining room."
"Oh... okay." Tails started to walk toward the door, but Cream started giggling. He frowned and turned to her, confused. "What is it?"
"You can't go like that!"
Tails looked down at himself. He didn't wear clothing, he never had. Occasionally in the winter he'd thrown on a shirt, but his fur alone provided a great deal of warmth. He couldn't understand why it would be a problem.
"So what?" he asked, "I'm not cold."
Cream giggled again and Tails started to grow modest about his body. He found himself trying to hide one of his tails from view, as he often did around strangers, but it was just habitual. He didn't know why he should feel modest around a rabbit with ears the size of wings, or what right she had to laugh at him.
"You can't get around like that," she said, "It's uncivilised. That's what comes from living out in Terra Nullius."
"The untamed lands. The wilderness. Come, Father said there's some clothes here for you."
Embarrassed, Tails went with her to the wardrobe to investigate. They looked through the items that had been left for him, but to his dismay, they were just a bunch of very retro-looking and old fashioned suits. Tails had never slipped on a pair of pants, let alone a suit, and these were hardly his preferred style. He hoped the pants wouldn't fit him so that he would have an excuse not to wear them, but they were specially tailored for mobians with large tails, and even with two such appendages, the pants fit him like a charm. His tails poked out a neat hole in the back. The top half was next, and even though he struggled to figure out how to tie up his tie, he still avoided looking into the mirror. If he looked even half as ridiculous as he felt, then the shock wouldn't be worth it.
Cream helped him with his tie and his shoes, and combed his hair. It dawned on him that she was enjoying this immensely, and wondered whether there were any other children in this whole complex for her to play with. Tails had grown up without the company of other children and had missed out on a real childhood, so he knew the pain. This youngster needed friends, other little girls to play dress-up and braid each other's hair and relish the few years of true innocence that she had. Already they had her speaking and acting like a thirty-year-old, and she was barely in the double-digits.
"You look great!" she declared.
"Sure," Tails murmured, "I feel like I can barely move." He didn't understand the purpose of the tie, why anybody would want to choke himself in the name of fashion. He squirmed like a five-year-old in the suit and couldn't wait to get out of it. Cream was overjoyed, and took him to the open door.
"Wait a second," he said, looking out into the open tower as birds flew back and forth, their flapping wings echoing throughout the building. He looked up to where his view ended in darkness, the ceiling too high to see, and then looked down to the same vision. Like a bottomless pit. He didn't fear heights, but then he liked to at least be able to see what was below him. "Are we going up there?"
"That's going to be a problem. My ability... it isn't true flight, I can only get about a dozen feet before my tails cramp up and I descend. Even getting down here was difficult. I'm not sure I can get around in this place."
"Take my hand," Cream replied, and she held it out.
He did so, and she squeezed back tightly. "Now," she said, "On the count of three, jump into the air with me, and do your thing. Okay?"
Tails didn't know exactly why, but he trusted the young rabbit. More than being a little girl, she was a girl in which Tails saw a version of himself. At her age, he had still been engaged in a struggle to discover what he was, and why. Nails the Bat had never missed an opportunity to remind him that he was a freak, even though his abilities were paramount to Nails' interest in keeping him around. He had lived among adults through his entire childhood and wrestled with the curse and blessing of his mutation. It defined him, it swallowed his entire identity. His tails were who he was, he even adopted them as his name. Miles Prower could have been anybody, but Tails... say that, and everyone knew who you were talking about. And he feared that Cremaria Kukku was living under the same curse. After all, it seemed they had both been adopted purely for the fact that they could use their random deformities for the purpose of flight.
How often did her father remind her that her ears were her identity?
"One. Two. Three!"
Tails jumped, and Cream did the same. For a moment they seemed suspended in midair, beyond gravity, beyond time. Tails closed his eyes and spread his arms out. He leaned forward and spun his tails in the motion that had become second nature to him over the years. This was different, though. He didn't just bounce high into the air and drift down again as he always did. This time he rose quickly, and rose, and rose, and rose. He opened his eyes and saw that he was still holding onto Cremaria's hand, and she was flying through her own power. She bore the weight of him with her powerful winglike ears, and he found that he wasn't cramping up or growing tired.
Holy smokes, he thought, I'm flying. I'm really, actually flying. Like a bird.
Tails hadn't felt a rush like this since the day he first realised he could use his tails for propulsion. For the first time he was experiencing true flight, without the aid of machines. This felt to right to him, so natural that for a moment he wasn't sure how he could ever bear to walk again.
He laughed as they flew together, every bit as able as the birds who circled around and past them in this glorified aviary, and he felt the wind rush through his hair as never before. Oh how he wished more then ever that he hadn't been forced to wear this heavy suit, so that he could experience this feeling through his fur and over his body. Together they swooped and glided and ascended, showing off to one another, and Tails felt like a child again. This moment stripped away his responsibilities and pressures. Nothing existed apart from him, Cream, and the air around them, in his hair, in his lungs, under his arms and through his spinning tails. He lived for this moment. It was over too soon, for after only a few minutes they landed on solid ground.
The moment Tails' feet touched down, he was greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause.
About twenty birds, all in white suits and red or blue ties, stood at the entrance of a great hall and applauded Tails as he and Cream set down. Tails, shocked, didn't know what to say or do. He just stood and smiled uneasily, waiting for the fuss to die down.
Badoru Kukku led the greeting party, and after a while he approached Tails with a broad smile and his arms spread out to either side. He knelt down in front of Tails, put his hands on the fox's shoulders, and planted a kiss on both of his cheeks (insofar as it was possible to kiss with a beak). Tails was embarrassed by the affection and stood (probably rather rudely, he figured) with his arms by his sides.
After gushing over Tails for a moment, Kukku turned to his adopted daughter, giving her a hug and a kiss on the forehead. He then stood and turned to the audience of white-suited birds.
"Behold!" he announced, "After nearly four decades, the results that we have all anticipated. These two mammalian youths flew here under their own power. They survive competently within an environment constructed specifically for avian capabilities. These children are the future, gentlemen. They represent the final phase. Our project is nearing completion."
Tails didn't understand what any of this meant, but it was met with another fierce round of applause from the audience. Kukku took his hand, and Cream's, and led the two of them through the crowd toward the hall, where two long tables were set up with glasses and cutlery. Again, Tails was blown away by the elaborate beauty of it all. For most of his life he'd been a homeless kid, sleeping in an abandoned church and stealing to survive, completely unaware that he was considered something like royalty on a far-away island. It was so ironic that it hurt.
While he was being led toward the tables, people were touching him, as though they didn't believe that he really existed. Somebody ran their hand along one of his tails, and he didn't like it. He wrapped them both around his waist and walked a little faster.
Somebody grabbed him by the arm, but with force. He turned around to come face to face with a bird who, unlike the others, was dressed all in black. His feathers were as black as his suit, which was adorned with a bright red tie, and a tall crest of black plumage sprouted from his head. Also unlike the others, he didn't seem happy to see Tails. In fact he looked downright sour.
(and you've seen this one before, buckaroo)
"You are not one of us," the bird hissed at Tails, "It would do you good to remember that, yes. Do you very good indeed, savage."
He relinquished Tails' arm and vanished into the crowd of gawkers. Tails searched for him, trying to figure out why he had seemed so very familiar, but Kukku took him by the hand again and guided him away.
"Take a seat, my boy," he said, "You sit with me, at the head of the table. You are our special guest."
Tails, grunting with discomfort in his suit, sat upon a chair that was too high for him, and tried to keep his eyes from rolling out of his head when he saw the silverware in front of him. He restrained his old instinct to slip one of the forks away when nobody was looking. If these were still the old days in Station Square, it probably would have fed him for a month.
(you need never go back to that, miles, never again)
"So tell us," one of the birds said, and Tails tore his attention away from the cutlery. "What is it like, out there?"
"Out where?" Tails asked.
"Terra Nullius! The untamed wilderness, the rough lands. Badoru has told us that you've lived most of your life in the world beyond. However did you survive it on your own?"
"Clearly his evolution provided him an advantage," another bird said, "He would naturally be elevated above the riff-raff. A god among mobians."
"Actually, um-" Tails stammered, but held his tongue. He didn't feel like telling these people that he'd lived his life on the streets. How embarrassing, given the extravagance of his current treatment. What if they discovered his past and changed their minds about him? What if they thought he was scum, and swept him outside with the garbage? He looked at the loving expression on Badoru Kukku's face and cleared his throat.
"Well, it's hard," he said, "But I survived. That's all you can do, you know, just... just survive."
"But you came back to us," someone else said, "That proves everything that we have theorised! The epoch that all things tend toward! Your superiority has drawn you to seek others like yourself. You've returned to the pinnacle of civilisation."
To Tails, it sounded like these people might have been speaking a foreign language. He just smiled and nodded and allowed these strangers to fawn over him while he enjoyed the perks of their attention. He glanced at Cream and she winked at him.
Tails and Cream were the only people here without beaks and feathers. The birds around the table were all dressed in white, but there were others, all of them standing and all dressed in black, who appeared to be guards or police. They stood by the doorways, mostly. One of them was staring at him - the same bird who had grabbed him earlier and issued a stern warning. The one with the black crest, who Tails found eerily familiar.
It wasn't long before dinner was served. It was the best meal Tails had ever eaten. A feast fit for royalty, and indeed that was what he felt like. The birds, the group Cream had referred to as the Armada, ate heartily and with great mirth, chatting and laughing and playing like brothers and sisters at the world's largest family dinner table. There seemed no bad blood between any of them. A family indeed. One huge family, of which Tails had been invited to become a part. He ate heartily and in good company, but even so he was cautious. He didn't want to drip anything on his suit, or slurp his food, or do anything in a manner that might reveal his less than privileged upbringing. And while he ate, he tucked one of his tails under his body, out of sight.
After dinner, as the guests began to disperse, Kukku and his adopted daughter pulled Tails aside to speak with him.
"I would like to show you something. Follow me."
Once again, Tails took hold of Cream's hand, and the three of them together - bird, fox and rabbit - flew upward and away. Once again, Tails settled into the sensation of true, uninhibited flight. He was already picking it up as second nature (or first), ducking and weaving and ascending in time with his guides, and with every bit as much skill. It seemed that his entire life had served only as a practice for this.
This is what he had been born for. This was his reason to live.
The three of them landed in a room that looked like it might have been a research laboratory. Kukku flicked on the lights, and revealed dozens of computers, hooked up to strange and expensive-looking equipment, lights and dials blinking in the dimness. Sickly liquid sat stagnant in glass vials. Rows and rows of little clear boxes covered a circular table in the center, and what was inside each one, Tails couldn't even hazard a guess.
"I have sensed that you are confused," Kukku said, "About what we do here. About your place in our sanctuary."
"You keep calling me a miracle," Tails replied, inspecting the laboratory with great interest. "I guess I have trouble understanding why. It has something to do with my tails, right? Because I can fly... like you."
"Ah yes, but there is so much more, young Tails, so much more for you to understand. For you to fully appreciate the work that we do here... You need to comprehend the science that drives us, the true nature of the world as it is. You need to know why your birth is a great victory for us, and not just for us but for the entire world, all the people of Mobius. You are a gift, Tails. You are the future."
"Father, you do like to carry on," Cream said, giggling.
"Oh!" Kukku exclaimed, "There I go, rabbiting on again, eh?" He winked at Cream, who shrank a little and blushed. The bird strode across the lab with great purpose on his long, bean-thin legs, raising one winged hand and pointing to a poster on the wall. The poster had images of four mobians standing side by side, arranged like anatomy diagrams. From left to right; a spider, an iguana, a fox not unlike Tails, and a bird.
"All mobians are not born equal," Kukku explained, "There are four distinct groups of anthric mobian in the world. As you see here - The arthropodians, the reptilians, the mammalians and the avians." He pointed to each image. "While members of each of these groups typically share similar characteristics, there are vast differences between groups. And nobody can interbreed across groups. For example, while a mammalian couple of differing race, let's say a squirrel and a hedgehog, have the ability to produce children together, it would be impossible for a mammalian to breed with, for example, a reptilian. Do you understand?"
"Do you know why?"
Tails thought about it. He didn't have the same aptitude for biology as he did with physics. "Not really."
"Well you see," Kukku continued, "Like our zoic counterparts, we mobians are subject to a force of nature known as natural selection. In any closed biological system, such as Mobius, organisms will tend toward more efficient, more successful forms, through random mutations and such. Given enough time. The weaker, less efficient, inferior models die away due to competition with more successful organisms."
"Say for example a herd of animals live in a field and eat the leaves that hang low off the tree branches. Some of the animals are born taller than others, and can reach higher branches. Eventually the herd grows too large, and they eat away all the leaves on the lower branches. With no food, the shorter animals all die, but the taller ones survive because they can reach food that the others can not. Natural selection. Nature picks out the better creatures while the others fall behind. This simple, automatic process has given us the vast diversity of life that we see all around us." Kukku dramatically spread his arms as wide as he could, and his wings draped down like curtains.
"Sure," Tails replied. Made sense. He scratched the back of his neck in the spot where his suit was chafing him.
"Mobiankind is subject to the same forces. The same diversity. The same rhythm. Evolve and purge. Evolve and purge. Evolve. Purge. Each of these four groups of mobian have evolved from one another. Each is more successful in civilisation than the former. The arthropodians have been here the longest... brutish people, just bugs with brains, really. Violent and uncouth. The world will fare much better to be rid of them."
Tails thought about the Arack Empire, and was inclined to agree.
"The reptilians," Kukku continued, "Evolved directly. And the mammalians in turn from them. And finally, at the top of the evolutionary chain, the avians. Birds, such as myself and my colleagues. We are the newest mobians, recipient to the greatest gift that nature has ever bestowed upon mobiankind, the gift that enables us the greatest advantage over all other civilisations around the world."
"Flight..." Tails muttered aloud.
"Flight," Kukku confirmed, "The one gift that enables us to eliminate from neccessity all manner of transportation technologies, from planes to bridges. We are true masters of this planet, able to reach any place on the ground or above it. Here in our Babylon, in our Sanctuary, we have created the closest thing to a perfect society anywhere on Mobius. And we would like nothing more than to spread our utopia across every inch of the planet, tame the wild lands of war and poverty and misery. This is my dream, Tails, it always has been. A wonderful, civilised world."
"How are you going to do that?" Tails asked, "I mean, this is a natural process, right? What's all this going to do?" He motioned around the lab.
"Ah, but you see, when you understand the process, as we do, then the process can be assisted. By science." Kukku stood behind Cream and rested a tender, fatherly hand upon her head. The girl smiled.
"The reason," he said, "that the four mobian groups cannot interbreed is because nature is preparing them for a purge. The biological schism is widening, isolating the inferior groups from the gene pool. The arthropodians... the reptilians... they will all vanish eventually, will probably wipe themselves out in war. They are too primal, barbaric, beyond hope. But the mammalians... people like you, Tails, and Cremaria, you can be saved from this fate. That is our mission here. To evolve the world. To help the untamed world evolve beyond its inadequacies and achieve true civilised harmony. A new age... brothers and sisters of the sky."
"Wait a second..." The penny dropped in Tails' mind. He saw the equipment laid out around the lab, the samples in the clear boxes, the glass vials, the diagrams covering the walls. He looked down at his hands... his arms, down his body... his twin tails... "You did this? You did this deliberately? You made me this way?"
"Not entirely," Kukku replied, "Your success, and that of Cremaria, was serendipitous. Nature found a way. But it found a way through us. Genetic science is extremely complex and rarely predictable. There are many unexpected successes... and failures. But we have made advancements beyond anything that anybody else on the planet has ever imagined."
"You're engineering birds out of foxes and rabbits."
"We are doing precisely what nature intended. We are creating evolution. Enabling everybody to share the benefits of superior genetics. You two, my beloved children, you are the first. The proof that we have almost achieved our goals, our dream. Soon we will raise an entire generation of children bestowed with our gift, and the untamed world will share in the fruits of true civilisation."
A tear trailed its way down Badoru Kukku's cheek. He wrapped an arm around Cremaria, who returned his embrace with a mirthful grin. Tails, hands trembling, took a step back from them.
So many things became clear to Tails as he lay in the luxurious bed that the birds had provided him and pondered. The mysteries of his life were falling into place like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
The Armada were meddling in genetics. They seemed to have been doing it for some time. When Tails' uncle Tyler had come to New Knothole, he had spoken of a place where the ruling class were using genetics to alter people's appearance. It was now clear that he had been speaking of the Armada, these warm-hearted avian scientists and their esteemed gentleman leader Badoru Kukku. They had given Tails his namesakes, not to make a freak of him but to try to elevate him, make him better. These were the people that Tails had come here to stop. Tyler and Tails' father had called them evil, and Tails had imagined a brutal tyranny not unlike Robotropolis during Robotnik's reign, a horrible and twisted autocracy of suffering. What he'd found instead was a place of peace. A group of idealists with some strange ideas, but none of them hateful.
Had his father been wrong about these people? Misjudged their intentions? The answer to that question didn't lie here, in Sanctuary, the avian utopia. Tails knew there was only one way to see this from his father's perspective.
He had to go outside.
Cremaria Kukku, eleven or twelve, bird by proxy, must also have been tampered with. Somewhat more successfully than Tails. It seemed that the Armada's strange vision to attach wings to creatures not otherwise built for them was coming closer and closer to fruition. Using her ears, she could fly every bit as well as a bird
(or a bat, his mind whispered amid a vision of Nails' snarling maw)
but it was not God or nature who had assured her this skill. She had been built for a purpose, in much the same way as Sonic the Hedgehog had originally been designed to fulfil a schematic. The same way, apparently, as Tails himself had been designed.
What an eerie parallel.
He looked at Cream, who was sitting on his floor with her ears wrapped around herself and staring back up at him with more respect and admiration than he would expect from someone who just met him.
"Cream," he said, "There must be people around here. Not birds... mammalians, like you and me. The people your father conducts his... research on. Where are they?"
"You mean Quarantine. The little town in the valley under this tower."
"A town. Have you ever been there?"
"Sure, I go there all the time."
"And they're... happy?"
Cream looked a little confused. "Why wouldn't they be?"
"Some people might not like having their genes tampered with."
"Father is doing a great deal of good for them," Cream retorted, "They are very lucky. We are very lucky. They all know this. They are treated very, very well." She looked as though she was starting to get a little offended, so Tails didn't push the issue.
"I'd like to go there," he said.
"Father and I are visiting Quarantine tomorrow," she replied, "I am sure that he would love for you to join us. He is very proud of them. He loves showing off and talking to you about his work, it makes him very happy. He says it's exciting to talk with somebody who is intelligent enough to understand and appreciate the work."
Cream spoke of her father in a glowing, almost worshipful tone. Her love for him made Tails ache inside. It was the same love that he had felt for his own father. The love that he had come to feel for Sonic. Now that he had nobody, Tails' love was at a loose end. Was it possible that he might come to feel the same love for this saintly feathered scientist as Cream did? He never doubted the filial love that the two of them shared, even despite the vast racial chasm between them. And he didn't doubt the love that Kukku had for him, even though they had never met before today. The bird was willing to take him in as a son, rescue him from his pain in the same way as Sonic had, asking nothing in return.
But he was his father's enemy. This was the problem, the paradox. His father's enemy had taken him in as a son, and this could only lead to a powerful conflict. Tails could already feel it welling up inside him. So strong was his sense of duty to avenge his father that living here would be almost an act of treason for which he didn't know if he could forgive himself. But such was his need for what Kukku offered him that to reject it, to go back to the life he had before, would be a betrayal against himself. To turn his back on the only place in the world where he might not feel and be treated like a freak... he didn't know if he could forgive himself for that, either.
"Do you remember your real parents?" he asked Cream. "I mean, before you came here."
The little rabbit closed her eyes and her head drooped a little. "I remember my mother," she said, "Just a little bit. Pictures. Broken images. She is smiling at me."
"What happened to her?"
"I'm not sure." She shook her head. "She got sick. I don't remember, I was very young. I remember that I loved her very much. Father tells me that she must have been a saint, because she made a little miracle. That's what saints do. Make miracles." A small tear tracked its way down her cheek and came to a rest under her chin.
"But life is good here, right?" Tails asked, "I mean, these people, the Armada... they treat you well?"
"They love me. I love them. Most of them. It is a little difficult, though, knowing... I am different, I know that, even though they treat me like one of them, I know I'm not really. When there is nobody else like you around, it can be hard. I did have a friend, once, he was just a little broken robot. I called him Tock. He kept me company. But he went away a little while ago, and I haven't had anybody... until now." She looked up at Tails and beamed.
"Wow," Tails replied, "You could easily have just described my life." He sighed and sat up in bed. "I know how it feels. After my Dad left... it was like there was nobody in the whole world who could have known what it was like to be me. My whole life I've been called a freak. I had a friend, too, and he showed me that I was worth something, that there was more to me than just some kid mutant. He went away too... that's kinda why I'm here."
"Tell me about him?"
"He was a good person. One of the last truly good people, I think. You would have liked him. He was a real hero, to the core. The best friend I've ever had... really the only true friend I've had, but I couldn't ever have had a better one. He was an... an inspiration, I think you could say. That's why I'm here. It's for my father's honour, really, but I wouldn't have any idea what honour was if it hadn't been for Sonic. I still can't believe he's gone."
"What happened to him?"
Tails sighed again. "Your Dad said it best, I think. It's a cruel world out there. It just doesn't make sense. After all, he's been through so much, he's fought monsters and gods and empires and come away without a scratch... but something got to him. He was taken in the night, in the rain. The world just opened up and swallowed him. I never saw him again."
Trying hard to keep strong in front of the little girl who looked up to him, Tails choked back a sob in the face of the images that came rushing back to him. Tyler Prower, his uncle, had been host to the horrid beast who had taken the life of his father... and then returned years later to take Sonic, as well. In this way, Tails was as haunted by Nightmare as Tyler. For this realisation, Tails knew that, although he didn't blame Tyler for Nightmare's actions, he could not stay with his uncle. The monster inside him would continue to kill everyone in his life that he cared about.
Cream just frowned a little at his explanation, as though it didn't satisfy her. It would have to do, though, because Tails didn't intend to delve much further into the story behind Sonic's death. It was too painful.
The girl said, "Are you sure that your friend died?"
"Yeah," Tails replied, "He's gone. It kills me to know it, but..."
"You said you never saw him again. Perhaps he is still out there, somewhere?"
Cream's innocent optimism and persistance started to irritate Tails a little, particularly as she was giving voice to a fantasy that Tails already held deep within himself. The fantasy that Sonic was still alive. After all, what evidence did he truly have that the hedgehog was dead?
Tyler had tearfully admitted to both Trevor's demise and Sonic's, one night on the road between the Great Forest and Catilina city. It was something that Princess Sally had evidently already known for some time, but kept to herself. Sonic had stepped out into the rain one full moon night, stepped into Nightmare's domain, and disappeared.
Yet there was no body. No remains. Could Nightmare really have consumed him whole? Spines and all? Without evidence, all there was were the suspicions of a fox who had no memory or knowledge of the acts committed by the beast inside. Guesswork at best.
But what other explanation was there for Sonic's disappearance? If he wasn't dead, then where was he? Tails just couldn't hang on to false dreams, artificial hopes.
"Wish in one hand, crap in the other," he mumbled.
"Sorry, what did you say?"
"Nothing." He shook his head. "I should probably try to get some sleep. It's been a long day."
"Yes. It has." Cream smiled at him again. Mature before her time, the little girl occasionally showed a sign that there was indeed a child in there somewhere. Tails smiled back.
"So I can come with you tomorrow? Into Quarantine?"
"I do hope so. It's wonderful there."
After you rob enough people, you lose the ability to quite recognise them as people. At first it's a deliberate process. It just makes it easier to do what you have to do if you don't have to carry around the weight of guilt. You desensitise yourself, tell yourself that these people are not like you. They don't know your life. They have never been as low as you, nor will they ever be. What you steal from them can feed you for a week, and they'll think it nothing but a mild inconvenience.
They don't care about you, you say, so you don't care about them.
This was how Trevor Prower lived with himself day to day. In Station Square, there was one law, and that was the law of the jungle. There was a food chain in this city. These people who walked the streets as calm as cattle, as mindless as herds of buffalo, they were the prey. Faceless, unfeeling herbivores. Trevor was not the predator, however; No, no. He was a scavenger, a parasite, feeding upon carrion and the dead excess of live beasts. As much as he could rationalise his lifestyle, he could never think of himself as being anything greater than the layer of scum that coated the streets of this city, and that weighed on him like a bag of bricks.
It was Nails who was the predator. Nails, with his casinos. Nails, with his puppet strings. Nails, with his cronies. Nails, with his guns. Trevor fed on these people's excess, but Nails swallowed them whole and spat out their chewed bones for the vultures. In Station Square, no matter who you were, no matter what your role in life, everybody was accountable to the king of the jungle. One way or another, everybody answered to Nails the Bat.
Tails observed this all with great interest. His father's transformation into a professional criminal happened so gradually that only the mind of a child could perceive the subtle change. Trevor Prower, once a struggling vagrant of great moral fiber, whose foray into the carnal depths of the criminal underworld once brought him great pain, embarrassment and suffering, had begun to change. He began to cool and harden like molten lava. Not that he ever enjoyed his work, not in the way that Nails did, but he did go through a kind of numbing. In the same way that a meatworker must harden his gut against the violence of his occupation, working errands for Nails was hardening Trevor's heart. Soon he was simply going through the motions, doing what had to be done. Gradually, it began to seem less like a temporary job to make ends meet and more like a career. A rut.
Tails was never a part of his father's lifestyle at first. Trevor Prower, still a very moral individual at heart, loathed the idea of his son watching him engage in criminal acts, learning from it, emulating it. It was less his own shame than it was his fear that Tails would spend his life a lackey for Nails the Bat. But at the same time, there were very few options on the table. He could join Trevor in his daily business or he could stay in the company of Nails' thugs, and on the list of potential babysitters, a ragtag group of bandits and thieves probably weren't the most eligable candidates.
Trevor's policy regarding Tails changed abruptly one occasion, when he discovered that Carson Crow and Floyd Tabs had been teaching his son how to play poker. He decided that, if his son was going to get an education, he'd get it from his father and not a bunch of gangsters. And what he learned was going to be of better value than gambling and deception. After that, Tails stayed with him at almost all times.
Trevor's job originally consisted of robbery and petty crimes, but as his favour with Nails increased, the gangster allowed him to climb the ladder within his exclusive family. More important jobs came with enhanced benefits, greater security and better pay. The trade-off was that they were more deviant, malicious and dangerous. But Nails was an expert at managing staff and breaking their spirits. He might have been a psychologist, had he not decided the criminal underworld to be more lucrative. He always knew exactly which strings to pull to make people do what he wanted them to do.
Trevor was promoted eventually to a position for which Nails provided him a car and a gun. All that Tails knew about his father's job was that he drove around all day and sometimes at night, visiting houses and docks and bridges and creepy old alleyways. Tails would get in the car with Dad in the morning and they would drive to one location after another, and just park. Trevor would get out and leave Tails alone for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. Then he would return, get back into the car, and they would drive to somewhere else. Trevor didn't tell his son exactly what he did for a living. Tails only asked once, to which his father replied only that he was like a mailman, but that he collected things instead of delivering them, and that was good enough.
Tails received most of his education in the passenger side of that rusty old car. His father would visit the library and borrow out dozens of books at a time for him to read while he waited. Books on every subject imaginable. Tails took in everything, but one topic that interested him more than anything else was aviation. He became fascinated with planes. Tails began to request that his father get him more information on every aspect of them, from different kinds of planes to their schematics, planes through history, famous pilots, how to fly them, novels about them. Trevor preferred his son to try to engage in something that had more relevance to life, but Tails was persistant and unyielding. He bargained for it. And Trevor, who was coming to realise that his son was almost a prodigy when it came to learning and retaining knowledge, didn't want to stifle Tails' persuit of information. He got his son what he wanted.
Tails' fascination only intensified over time. Trevor began to take his son to visit the airport in his spare time, and they sat for hours just watching planes take off and land. Tails became obsessed with a desire to fly, himself, but his father always told him no. Perhaps one day, but not now.
For Tails, that was not a good enough answer. If he couldn't fly in a real plane, he decided, he would build his own. So began his mission to learn how to fly. Using a knowledge of aviation physics that he learned in books and manuals, he made a great many attempts, using boxes and discarded materials, to invent his own flying machines. While all of his experiments turned out to be spectacular failures, Trevor propogated his son's persuit of knowledge as well as he was able.
The summer when Tails saw his first helicopter, and discovered that the secret of his own flight was in his tails, was one of the happiest days of his youth. It was as though he'd found some hidden buried treasure, the key for which he'd held around his neck since birth. His father had never been prouder of him.
That was the last day that Tails had seen his father truly happy.
Tails found Badoru Kukku in a lavish, spacious penthouse that was apparently his office. The walls were lined with vines and classical works of art. Marble statues of mobians, all of them avian, stood lifeless about the place, so many that one could almost be tricked into believing there was a whole crowd in this vacant room. Tails didn't recognise any of them, though they were evidently significant enough to Kukku for him to have their likenesses immortalised.
The bird himself stood at the far window, a silhouette against the light from outside.
"The beauty of the world is vanishing," he said aloud, without turning around, as Tails approached. "A work of art so delicate that it has been meticulously designed over millions of years, atom by atom, gene by gene. Gentle erosion and slow evolution." He shook his head sadly. "It has been estimated that a thousand species become extinct every day as a direct result of mobian activities. There has been no greater extinction since the dawn of time, when the planet Mobius was a still-cooling ball of volcanic rock, churning seas and undying storms. Such a disasterous waste. A travesty, a holocaust. Do you know why it is happening?"
"I'm not sure," Tails replied, and joined him at the window, looking out at the green world below the tower. He squirmed uncomfortably in the suit he was wearing. Tails had dressed himself this morning, partly out of a desire to impress his hosts, but just as much out of his own need. For some reason, for the first time in his life, he felt indecent when he was naked. His own body offended him, embarrassed him, and he felt it was the only decent thing to do to cover it up. It was the civilised way to behave.
"Because mobiankind is still in its infancy," Kukku said, "Like a child breaks all his toys because he doesn't know how to handle them responsibly. See that below?"
Tauls looked down and saw a small village at the base of the tower. Undoubtedly the mammalian villa that Cream had called Quarantine.
"That is how they build," Kukku continued, "They take up space, they expand across the face of the world, they spread out. For comfort. Habitats are destroyed to accomodate them. So many things must die for so few of them to live. They are fickle, Tails. Young. They do not understand. But we... The ability to fly grants us the power to live in harmony with this." He spread his arms, from horizon to horizon. Their altitude gave a brilliant, unobstructed view of the island. "This place... you call it the Kitsune Atole, but we call it Babylon. Named for a legendary place without war, without prejudice or hate, without destruction or unnecessary death. A utopia, a harmony world. It is attainable, my dear Tails! By rising above nature and all of its chaos, we develop the ability to protect it! We are the custodians of the planet, my boy, we have evolved this way. It is our duty." He turned to Tails with a smile wide across his pointed beak. "My dear Cremaria has informed me that you wish to join us on our excursion today. To see for yourself the wonderous work that we are doing for our unenlightened brothers and sisters."
"Yeah," Tails replied, "I'd like to see. Biology's always been my weakest science, and, well, I'd like to start learning a bit about this process." After a short consideration, he added: "I mean, if I'm going to be a part of it."
Kukku's face brightened even more. Tails had said exactly the right thing.
"My boy," the bird sighed, "You cannot know how overjoyed I am to hear you say that. It fills my heart with happiness. This morning we will go down into Quarantine together, as father and son, and I will show you the wonders of all that we have accomplished - that we are accomplishing, day by day. Come with me."
Hand in hand, Tails and the bird who would be his surrogate father flew through the avian complex as though they were two parts of the same being. Instilled with this new freedom, Tails allowed himself to wonder who could really be considered his true father. What was it that defined a father? Kukku loved him unconditionally, wanted only the best life for him, and could provide that life. Trevor had cast him into a life of crime under the employ of a brutal, loveless gangster, and left him abandoned. Trevor Prower and Badoru Kukku, enemies. Both had provided Tails with love and DNA. His fox half and his bird half - which seemed more real? Which seemed more pure?
Together they landed in what appeared to be a machines factory, and dozens of avian engineers were hard at work drilling and soldering and sawing toward an unknown goal. Tails and Kukku were met by three scientists and half a dozen birds in military uniforms, one of whom was the crested stranger who had shown Tails such disgust at dinner the previous night. He didn't look any happier this morning. Cream was here, as well, and she bid Tails a good morning and gave him a shy hug.
"Tails," Kukku said, "I don't know whether you have been properly acquainted with the captain of my guard, Lieutenant Overdraw."
The word Overdraw stabbed Tails in the center of his mind when he heard it. He recognised it, knew it well, but had no idea why. The name symbolised danger to him, a warning. He wasn't at all surprised when Kukku indicated the bearer of that name - the tall, black bird in the dark khaki suit, emblems emblazoned upon his shoulders and a crest of black fingerlike feathers upon his head. He scowled down at Tails but said nothing. He didn't have to, because his voice echoed through the fox's head like a ghostly broadcast.
(You are so far below us that we tread you beneath our feet, yes?)
He tried to ignore the Lieutenant, who was certainly doing his best to ignore Tails in return.
Tails followed the entourage through the factory to a deeper corridor, but his interest was captured by the activity here, being more in his element as an engineer. He looked about the factory with excited curiosity, trying to work out what they were making and whether he could do it any better. As they passed through, Tails spotted a dim warehouse visible through a pane of glass, and what he saw inside made his stomach do a somersault. He broke away from the group to get a better look.
"That's mine!" he exclaimed, pressing against the glass. "That's my plane! Oh man, what's happened to it?"
The Tornado lay inside the warehouse, damaged but unmistakably recognisable. For Tails, it was almost like seeing his own child beat up and lying in a hospital bed. He had no idea how this had happened. Did this have something to do with why he couldn't remember coming here?
"Ah yes." The voice of Kukku behind him. The bird sounded a little disgusted as he placed one feathered hand on Tails' shoulder. "Your flying machine. An interesting contraption. So primitive. The product of the flightless world of uncivilised Mobius trying to better itself. You can see how they try to evolve themselves artificially using machines... but the machines crash and kill their masters. You are lucky to be alive, my boy, trying to manipulate that thing to serve your whim. In the world that I perceive for the future, there will be no need for machines such as these."
"Don't wreck it," Tails pleaded, "Please don't wreck my Tornado! I've built most of it myself, it means more to me than-"
"It is nothing but a toy, here in Babylon," Kukku interjected, "But I decided to keep it intact. For you, Tails. Primitive as it is, it is a testament to your evolution. To build and control a machine such as this... you are a genius, my child. And that is the avian in you." Tails looked up at him, and he smiled. "Look!" he said, "My engineers have even been repairing it for you. It was in much worse a state than this where you left it."
Tails tore himself away from the sight of his damaged plane to continue on with the group. He followed them to what appeared to be the lobby of the complex, the gateway between Sanctuary and Babylon, between science and nature. A wide arena that opened out to a sprawling, beautiful garden at the base of the great tower. It was stunning, and Tails was taken aback by it. It seemed that everything he saw of the Armada's accomplishments, every new scene, was twice as amazing as the last. Indeed, if anybody on Mobius was capable of building a utopia, then surely it was these people. Tails had never seen beauty such as this.
"Believe me, Tails, when I say that your arrival, along with my dear Cremaria's coming of age, has injected a new vigour into this project," Kukku said. "I do believe that we are reaching the final stages. The magnitude of our successes... the culmination of everything we have worked toward for so many years, decades. Soon we will celebrate a great and terrific victory, my boy, with you by my side."
Tails looked out into the open world and saw the path laid out before him. Standing tall, up ahead, like a monolith. The gates to Quarantine. His birthplace. The place where he had been conceived, and within which lay the secrets to his entire existence.
Like a pioneer, lost for years in the wilderness, Miles 'Tails' Prower slouched home.
Tails didn't know what to expect from Quarantine. The village's purpose, indeed its very name, might have suggested a ghetto, a kind of prison or concentration camp, where people were packed into slums and cells for easy access, waiting in abject misery for their overlords to conduct their invasive scientific experiments. That was certainly the impression given to Tails through Tyler's description of the place.
Strangely, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Quarantine was a quiet and homely little village, neatly maintained and instilled with a kind of relaxing holiday atmosphere. A friendly little country community, the likes of which those who had worked hard all their lives were inclined to retire to. It was truly heartwarming.
Kukku and his entourage were met at the entrance by a convoy of citizens from within the village, a group of mammalian mobians who were all dressed in strangely old-fashioned clothing. In fact, everything about this village seemed old-fashioned, from the clothing to the old style cottages and decor. It felt a little bit like he'd stepped back in time.
Kukku was shaking hands with a wolf who looked to be on the far side of middle-aged. The wolf was wearing a brown suit and tie, and a small set of bifocal spectacles sat on his snout. He and Kukku seemed to be quite well acquainted.
Lieutenant Overdraw leaned over and whispered something in Kukku's ear. Kukku waved his hand in dismissal, and Overdraw appeared aggrivated but said nothing.
"Who is that?" Tails asked Cream, speaking of the smartly dressed wolf.
"That is Alain Bristol," she replied, "Head of the community. He has been here for a long time."
"I see that you've brought Cremaria!" exclaimed Alain Bristol, and as he approached, a confused expression crept onto his face. "And... another child?"
Overdraw darted forward, rather menacingly, and thrust something that looked like a metal baton in front of the wolf's stride. "Watch yourself," he hissed, "Advance no further, approach not what your hands are too filthy to touch, yes?"
"Apologies, sir," Bristol replied, and shrank back.
"Overdraw, please," Kukku snapped. "Alain, this is Tails. He is living with the rest of us in Sanctuary. We are very proud of him, he is blessed with the same skills as Cremaria."
"How wonderful!" Bristol gushed, "Such good news!"
"Tails," Kukku said, "Do follow. We will go into town and observe what the miracle of science is achieving."
There were a few other villagers standing around, all of them staring at him, and all of them seemed wary to keep their distance. Tails noticed one in particular, whose face seemed vaguely familiar. It was a raccoon, his lower jaw obscured by a bushy black moustache that covered his lips like a hairy shroud.
(you've been here before, buckaroo, you just wound down and forgot it all, these people)
"Right," the fox said, shaking his head, "Let's go."
The village of Quarantine was a queer little oasis indeed. Its cobblestone streets were lined with cottages that might have been made of gingerbread, and people were wandering back and forth all dressed in frilly white dresses and smart brown corduroy suits. When they saw Kukku and his entourage passing through the town, they all froze, and Tails couldn't quite tell whether it was awe or fear that would make them react in such a fashion. Surely not fear. The tall, elegant, smiling figure of Badoru Kukku inspired many emotions, but fear was not one of them.
Lieutenant Overdraw, on the other hand...
Tails tried to be pleasant and smile at the villagers he passed by, but they all stared back at him with equal parts confusion and apprehension. It was almost as though these people knew something of him already. They recognised him, and he didn't know why.
The strangeness of this town did not end here. As he wandered through it, Tails noticed more and more things that made him feel slightly uneasy. Like the fact that there seemed to be no shops in this village, no doctors, no police, no cafes, none of the public amenities that one would usually find in a town... but there were libraries. So many libraries. Almost like the only thing to do here on a lazy weekend was to pick up a book and read it. Not that weekends would have any meaning here in Quarantine - that in itself was faulty logic. Because, without any amenities, without any shops or cafes or services of any kind, then what could these people possibly do for work?
And then there was the people themselves. The more Tails looked at them, the more he developed the unpleasant notion that there was something quite wrong with them. The way they walked, and the way they looked. Slightly too skinny, with bulges in the wrong places, slightly hunched over. They all carried a proud, swaggering gait with a mild limp or lurch. Some had too much skin attached to their necks that hung down in flaps, like they had lost too much weight too fast. Their eyes were too big, their mouths too small. In fact, if not for the fact that there were so many distinct races of mobian represented here, Tails might have come to the conclusion that they were all related. He turned to the left and saw two squirrel women in pink dresses with large bonnets, ribbons hanging down and blowing in the breeze like jellyfish tentacles. They turned their heads to see him - oddly small heads on necks that were too long and thin, and one of them whispered something to the other and pointed to him. Her fingers were far too long, spindly, with a nail at the end that curled down like a claw...
"I do love to visit here," Cream said all at once, tearing his attention away. "Wouldn't it be marvellous if the entire world were like this? It's so peaceful."
"It's cute," Tails replied, though a light shiver was travelling up and down his back.
"Is there anywhere like this in Terra Nullius?"
Tails thought about Knothole village, the Freedom Fighters' stronghold, and what a haven it had been. But it had also been a constant danger, with military always patrolling the borders. Everybody had always been too edgy, too on guard, to truly enjoy life. There was the threat of open war every minute of every day, the threat of sudden death, utter elimination. No such threat existed here. These people were very well protected, and had no enemies besides.
Tails' gut churned a little as he thought about his old friends, left behind some time ago. How did they fare? For a moment he envisioned them desperately fighting off a maurauding army of Arack soldiers, falling and dying one by one by the Empire's weapons...
He shook away the thought. No, he couldn't get hung up on that. Not now. Their quest was not his, their troubles none of his concern. His place was, always had been, here.
"Probably not," he said, and looking at this queer out-of-fashion little town with its oddly contorted folk, he figured that was probably true. "I don't think there's anywhere quite like this out there at all."
They approached a building that was much larger than most of the other buildings around town, and shaped differently. Kukku stopped by a window and turned to Tails, who looked through it, putting his hands either side of his head to block out the sunlight.
He saw a large, spacious room in which rows of children were sitting and facing away from him. An adult, avian, stood at the front and was lecturing to them, saying things that Tails couldn't quite hear.
"It's a school," he said.
"There is more to civilisation than good genetics," Kukku explained, "We provide our youngsters the best education, give them every opportunity to learn the intricacies of this fascinating world. We teach in every subject - literacy, mathematics and the sciences, history, geography, music and the arts, biology-"
Yes, I bet you focus specifically on that one, Tails thought, I bet you take great care in explaining to them their natural inferiority.
"-for it is knowledge that is the key to a truly advanced society. These children have a natural predisposition to learning, their brains are genetically more efficient. They are smarter! As smart as an avian! This is the same gift that we have also given to you, my dear Tails."
As smart as an avian, Tails thought, That puts the phrase bird-brained in a whole new light.
One of the children in the classroom rose his hand to answer a question. Tails frowned and squinted at the child, whose species he couldn't quite discern from behind. But it had to be a bat, of course. There was no other possibility. Or so he thought, until another child, who was clearly a badger, rose his hand also. Something was very wrong, here.
"There's something strange..." Tails said, "Something strange about... what's that? Under their arms, what is that?"
"The future," Kukku replied, and he kneeled down beside Tails to bring himself closer to the fox's level. "One of our greatest successes. Alteration Seventy-Six."
"I think that there is somebody I'd like you to meet," Kukku said.
When Tails had once asked his haunted uncle Tyler about his irregular appearance, Tyler had consoled him.
"Kid," he'd said, "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."
Tyler had been pretending to be Tails' true father at the time. But Tails imagined that his real father would have said the same, should he have lived to be asked. It was a powerful sentiment, and an important one for a parent to express. Because in this superficial world, looks were important. Irregularity, bumps in the wrong places or shapes that weren't entirely usual, uniqueness, was not a virtue. People were frightened by difference. It disturbed and revolted them. It carried with it unappealing connotations, unpleasant assumptions. There was no room in the world for a fox with two tails. For those who he loved, who he trusted, to make clear to him that his unusual appearance did not disgust them, did not in fact matter at all, that was important. That was powerful.
And so Tails, looking down at the infant lying before him, could only hope and pray that this boy's parents made every effort to express this to him as soon and as sincerely as possible.
The baby was half-wrapped in a thick dark shawl, held tenderly in his mother's portly embrace. She leaned over a little so that Tails could have a good look. A raccoon family - Mummy, Daddy, and baby made three. She smiled warmly as she showed off her newborn child, and her husband, with his carbon-copy smile, stood over her with a hand around her shoulders. He was the same raccoon that Tails had seen earlier, the one who seemed so familiar to him, but he wasn't occupied with that peculiarity right now.
The baby was content. He bore the curious expression of a baby, his eyes wide and glaring (though were they a little too wide?) and sucking hard on the pacifier in his tiny mouth (though was it a little too tiny?) while he reached out to grab Tails' nose, as though picking a cherry off its branch. Tails could only stare at that arm as the child reached, his fingers too long, too thin...
It wasn't really a shawl that the baby was wrapped in.
"Alteration Seventy-Six," Badoru Kukku explained in a soft voice, "is the result of many years of gruelling research and experimentation. A carefully engineered set of chromosomes that adds a specific set of information to the genetic code. Since we fully decoded the mobian genome a number of years ago, we have been able to develop a method of manufacturing specific protein strings - additional chromosome pairs which effectively expand upon the blueprint already provided within the DNA."
"You're adding to them," Tails clarified, "Creating limbs that people wouldn't otherwise have. Building upon their design."
"There has been a lot of experimentation. A lot of research. Many mistakes, many surprises. Genetic science is... extremely complicated. But we have finally made the advances that have begun to crack the deepest, most intricate secrets. The secrets behind the genesis of life itself. Now it is more a matter of refining the design."
Kukku reached out and lightly grasped the baby's hand and stretched it out while his mother cooed over him. The baby laughed as though tickled.
"This is very exciting for us," Kukku said. "Every child who has been conceived in Quarantine over the last thirteen years has been given Alteration Seventy-Six. A very carefully designed gene sequence. As you can see, the alterations are not a perfect success, but they are closer than ever before. When these children grow up, they will breed together, and by that time we will have further refined our gene sequence. Their children might very well be the children of the revolution. A truly evolved race, saved from the tyranny of natural selection."
"You gave a raccoon wings," Tails murmured.
The baby giggled, and stretched out both of his arms. The huge membranous flaps that ran from his spindly wrists down to his waist stretched out wide either side of him. He flapped them like he was a true bird.
"He cannot fly," Kukku lamented, "None of them can. But their children... Tails, you and your sister prove it possible. A future for all of us, a future in the sky. In paradise. It is not just a fantasy, it is a reality. And it is imminent."
Badoru Kukku and his associates took great interest in the health of the winged raccoon child, and stayed for quite a while in the family's home, performing an extensive medical check-up. Tails found it almost impossible to tear his attention away. He'd never imagined anything like this. Biological upgrades, manufactured genetics, it all seemed like science fiction. And why did it seem that there was something sinister about all of this?
Tails believed that he had seen evil in his life. True evil. But the people who he considered to fit this criteria always followed a standard set of behaviours, of ideologies. Nails, the gangster who had enslaved him in years of squalour, had been an unfathomably self-driven person. There wasn't an inch of him that cared for anybody besides himself, and he enjoyed flexing his power to the detriment, even the demise, of others. Later, Tails became acquainted with the megalomaniac Ivo Robotnik, whose actions stemmed from some kind of profound apathy. Sonic had once explained to him that some people do what they do because they are angry, upset or disturbed, whereas Robotnik did what he did because he was bored. And that was, truly, evil. But what he felt now, a sense of unease bordering almost on horror, made no sense to him. The actions of the Armada were not selfish or sadistic, they did not desire to inflict pain on suffering on anybody. Their intentions seemed to come from a genuine desire to help, and the villagers of Quarantine were entirely compliant. Tails even saw the sense in it, though the methods may have seemed alien and bizarre. He didn't think he knew anybody who wouldn't appreciate the ability to fly, should it be granted to them.
Yet his father had seen something abhorrent in all of this. Had in fact been so horrified that he opted to escape, to take his son away from this little utopia and force him instead into a life of crime in a far away city. Right now, Tails was feeling so puzzled as to his father's motives that he was almost angry. The life he had here, in the paradise they called Babylon, was pristine. Here, nobody looked down at him for his appearance. Nobody thought him stupid or strange or dirty. He was considered something of a prince, superior, not inferior. And he would have given anything to have spent his youth here, with these people, instead of the streets of Station Square, with Nails the Bat, being jeered and spat at by the public. Anything.
Why did Trevor Prower make the decision that he made?
Cream, the flying rabbit, seemed forlorn. Tails found her sitting in an antique-looking chair and watching the team of scientists perform their medical observations on the baby and his mother. Tails sat down beside her.
"You were right," he said, "This place really is something. I can't believe half the stuff I've seen and heard today."
"Father is doing some wonderful work," she replied, flatly.
"Something's troubling you."
She turned to look at him for the first time, and forced a smile. "Oh, not really. It's just... sometimes I wonder what it would have been like."
"That." She pointed, and Tails turned to look. The mother, smiling, cradling her infant child in her arms. A genuine, powerful bond of love. The child cooed and grasped his mother's nose with one altered hand. His digits were webbed like fins.
"Having a mother," Tails said. It was a desire that he himself rarely felt. Every role model in his entire life had been male, and as such he tended toward an almost misogynistic disrespect for female authority. It was an aspect of his personality that often caused him strife with Sally Acorn, for obvious reasons. For years he'd mourned and searched for his father, but what of his mother?
"I know her name," Cream said, speaking of her own. "Vanilla Rae. Is that not a lovely name? If she were still here, I think I would prefer to call her by her name, rather than Mother. Such a lovely name."
Tails wasn't sure he liked the name as much as Cream did, but her lamentations about her mother gave Tails an idea that, for some reason, still hadn't occurred to him. He fretted and puzzled over the motives of his father, but who alive would know them as well as his own mother? Melissa Prower was her name. According to Tyler, she had stayed here when he, Trevor and Tails had fled the island. She, and another uncle named Yared, if he remembered right. He did have family here, somewhere. A family who were to be rescued when Trevor returned as promised. Maybe he could find them, and maybe they could shed some light on this mystery. Tails had come here to fulfil his father's promise to rescue his people, but so far he hadn't found anybody who needed to be rescued.
"Mr Kukku?" he said.
Badoru Kukku turned around quite startled. "Mister! Oh, how ridiculous!"
Tails had a good idea that Kukku wanted him to say father, as Cream did. But he wasn't quite ready to do that, at least not yet. Though he questioned his real father's judgements, he wasn't yet prepared to commit that ultimate treason.
"I was wondering if I could take a walk around."
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely! Go and explore, acquaint yourself with our little paradise! No dangers outside these walls, dear Tails. This is not like the wild lands that you're accustomed to."
Tails turned to Cream. "Wanna come with?"
The girl shook her head with a smile. "I think I shall stay a while."
He nodded and left her to her thoughts. He knew as well as anybody else that, sometimes, all a person has are their fantasies.
"Wait a minute, there, Trev," Nails said as Trevor led his son toward the car. The fox turned around to the bat who stood in the doorway of his old church, smoking on a cigar and leaning against the crumbling frame.
"What is it, Nails?"
"Wanted to discuss something with you. Your boy, namely."
"What about him?"
Nails smiled and sucked on the cigar. "You take him out a lot. He gets to see a lot of the job, yeah?"
"No sir, I don't subject him to any of that."
"Well, maybe you should." He feigned thoughtfulness. "You know, the kid's smart. Got a lot between the ears." He tapped his own head with one finger. "If he wants, I can give him a few errands of his own. Even earn himself some pocket-money for it."
Tails' eyes lit up. "Can I, Dad?"
"No," Trevor stressed, and his son looked forlorn.
"Aw, come on, Pop," the bat said, "You see? He wants to! I bet he'd make a great apprentice. I bet he'd take to the job real quick. He's got a lot of pep, your kid. A lot of spark. Ain't that right, kid?"
He smiled like a candy salesman. Tails liked his Dad's boss. The others weren't always very nice, but Mr Nails was always friendly and accomodating, even though his father always warned to stay away from him.
"You don't need my son working for you," Trevor said with a venom he rarely used when talking to Nails. "You've got me, you don't need him."
The bat's smile faded a little. "Watch it," he warned. That was all Nails ever needed to say, and it was all he meant. Just watch it. Like putting a backtalking child back in line. After that, he puffed on his cigar again and his smile returned. "Now, come on, Trev. Be reasonable. I've heard some things on the grapevine lately. I've heard your son has some skills."
Trevor frowned. "Skills?"
"Yeah, like, I've heard he can pull off some pretty amazing tricks with those two floor-sweepers of his."
"I can fly!" Tails exclaimed, while balancing on one leg for reasons only a child would know. His father told him to hush.
"Wowsers!" Nails replied, "Hey, you know who else can do that?"
Tails shook his head. Nails grinned like a crocodile and pointed both of his thumbs toward himself. The boy gasped. "No way!"
"Yes, way. Completely self-taught. You know, it really helps a lot, in this line of work. You can do very well. I can teach you some tricks, if you're interested."
"That's enough," Trevor said, and ushered his son toward the car. "Thanks, but no thanks."
"Just consider it! That's all I ask! The offer is always available."
Trevor drove for fifteen minutes in silence, and Tails recognised and feared the expression on his face. It was the face he wore when he was furious. When Tails was in some deep trouble, his father's face hardened into this mask of bitter disapproval, and said nothing, even when Tails tried to speak. He looked that way now, and Tails, anxiety and confusion rising in his six-year-old gut, tried to read his father's thoughts through his eyes.
"Dad?" he asked, "Are you mad at me?"
His father said nothing. He just drove in silence for a while. When they arrived at one of Trevor's locations, he parked, turned the engine off, and sat quietly for a couple of moments. Then he turned to his son and spoke in a low, very firm, tone:
"Miles. I want you to promise me something. Stay away from Nails. If he speaks to you, if he says anything at all, don't you pay attention to him. Don't you listen to a word he says. Have I made myself clear?"
Tails wondered what he would say if he was to meet his mother here. He wondered what she would say to him. Would she be happy to see him, or would she reject him? Why hadn't she joined Trevor and Tyler when they first fled this place? Was it because she had no interest in her son's future, or just because she didn't want to leave this place? This place where nobody ever had to work, where all their food, shelter and comforts were provided for, and where the only price for paradise was to allow your children to be engineered into birds, or as close to them as biology would allow.
The school in Quarantine had been excused for recess, and Tails watched the children play in the cobblestone streets. Mammalians, all of them, the group or subspecies of mobian that the Armada considered to be the highest evolved, save for the avians. He saw all types; raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, wolves, hedgehogs, cats, all named for the zoic counterpart that they resembled, all playing together and laughing, the innocent fun of a childhood without burden and responsibility. Different races, all united as family by the muscular flaps hanging under their arms, their webbed fingers, their large, bright eyes and narrow mouths. Tails couldn't see any foxes among them, or any other evidence that he might have relatives still living here, which disheartened him a little.
Several of the children were taking turns trying to fly, flapping their arms as hard as they could manage, squinting their eyes shut with the effort, then collapsing in exhaustion. They seemed to know that if any of them had this ability they would gain favour with the Armada, be adopted into Sanctuary and live as they did. But their bodies were still too heavy, their wings rudimentary and ineffective. Like baby birds trying to leave the nest, they flapped until they wore themselves out, but they just didn't have the potential. The next generation might indeed be a different story.
His name, spoken from behind him, so faint that it might have been his imagination. Tails turned around and at first saw nothing, just one of those adorable cottages surrounded by a hedge and a row of trees. But then, movement. There was somebody standing in the yard, in the shade of one of the trees. He was obscured by shadow, but Tails could have sworn that it was a tall orange fox standing there, motioning for him to approach. A fox, just like him. Somebody who knew his name, knew who he was.
His family was here, after all! After all this time!
Tails hurried to meet the stranger, but the other fox turned and fled around a corner.
"Wait up!" Tails called, "Wait! It's me, Tails! It's Miles!"
He ran around the cottage and looked about for the other fox, who seemed to have vanished. Why had he called to Tails and then hidden from him? Or was Tails supposed to know something that he didn't?
Behind another cottage, in the next yard. Tails saw the stranger, his orange fox-tail curled around the side of the building, standing close to the corner as he waved. Tails leaped over a white picket fence, but the fox had already fled again.
"What is this, a game?" He ran around another building, jumped a hedge and another fence, and found himself in a field at the edge of town. Somebody had planted some gardens and trees, here, in order to make a park. The trees shaded the ground just enough that this would be a pleasant place to spend an evening or a whole day, to read or take a nap or just walk about. There were benches, a stone path and a little lake with ducks. Nobody else was here, though. Presumably, everybody was in town, making a fuss about the Armada's visit. He was alone with nature, and the stranger who had beckoned him was nowhere to be found.
Just as he was about to return to Quarantine, he heard a branch snap behind him and turned, the hairs on his back bristling. There was the stranger, standing under a tree, staring at him, not a part of him moving except for his tail, slowly curling and uncurling itself. His face was still obscured by darkness.
"Hey," Tails said, and approached the figure slowly, "It's me, Tails. Do you know me? Do you- Do you know my mother?" He frowned. "Yared?"
When he got close enough to see the stranger's eyes, he froze. His hands trembled, and he tried to back away but his feet forgot how to move. He'd made a mistake. Those cold eyes did not belong to the family he sought. That growling, foaming mouth. This fox was feral.
Tails gulped. "You-"
Before he'd uttered so much as a full syllable, the fox launched at him. With a wet, barking roar, the stranger clamped his jaws around Tails' throat, scratched at him and threw him to the ground. Tails fought to get up, but a heavy foot landed in his gut and winded him. He was dragged to his feet by the scruff of his neck, and thrown up against a tree hard enough to knock him senseless, the urgency of attack combined by the inability to fight his attacker sending him into a desperate panic. He thrashed and kicked like a drowning infant, but he was held fast, held by the neck, so hard that it almost choked him.
"Remember me?" the monster barked in his face, so close that he inhaled a glob of the feral's putrid spit, making him cough and hack. He writhed and scratched at the attacker, horrified that what was holding him against the tree, choking the life out of him, was not a hand, but a claw, something brown and scaly and strong as iron, a talon, a gnarled, hairless talon.
"Do! You! Remember?" the beast roared again, and Tails
had an idea that he did remember, though he couldn't figure out how or from when or where, just a splinter embedded in his mind, something he'd repressed.
He screamed: "I remember! I rem-"
But the assailant punched him in the gut, winding him again, and released his throat so that he could curl up in the grass and weep.
"Retard," the other fox spat, dismissive, and waited a moment for Tails to collect himself.
Tails, bleeding and trembling, looked up at the feral who had attacked him. He knew this mobian, like a pigeon knows its way home. It seemed like instinct, like a predator will stay away from anything that glows a certain colour. Knowledge his unconscious had learned and retained even after his conscious forgot.
Dalziel. Pronounced Dee-ell, but spelled with a 'Z'. He loomed over Tails in the tatters of his unwashed clothing, one arm corrupted after the elbow in a crooked and scarred tree-branch claw. He scowled with a fury the likes of which Tails knew nothing.
"Get up," he commanded, and fearing another brutalising, Tails complied.
Dalziel looked him over, like a store owner inspecting some shoddy merchandise. "You ain't got a whole lot going for you, do you, kid? Still, there's something about you these hamsters want, and that's good enough for me. Listen up, there's two ways we can do this: The easy way, or... well, I gotta be honest with you. You should choose the easy way."
Tails stared at that awful three-fingered branch that passed for this guy's right arm, and decided that the easy way was probably indeed his best option. He looked around for anybody who might be able to help him, but they were all gone, all congregating around the village.
"Ain't no hamsters around here, retard," said Dalziel, as though he knew what Tails was thinking. The boy's shoulders slumped. "What are you going to do to me?"
"You're going to come with me, that's what. And you're gonna come now, or else I'll knock you to an inch of your life and drag you."
"I'll go. Whatever, just... take it easy. I'll go."
And he did. Dalziel, his good hand clasping Tails by the collar of his ruffled suit, led him at a brisk pace through the empty park all the way to the other side. When the landscaped gardens and cobblestone paths came to an end, they kept walking through the sparse shade of the scattered oak trees beyond. When the trees ended and nothing was left but rolling green hills, still they walked. Tails looked back to see how far they were from Quarantine, but Dalziel yanked him forward.
"How far are we going?" Tails pleaded.
"Every time you whine," Dalziel replied, "Every time you whinge, or mope, or cry, or complain, I'll break one of your bones. And I get to pick which one. You feeling lucky, kid?"
After about twenty minutes of walking, they finally reached something new. It was a fence. A very tall, wire-mesh fence covered in barbs, and at the top, maybe forty feet up, were loops of razor-wire. A fence that nobody was supposed to get past.
Why would anybody be so desperate to leave this place that they would need a fence like this? Tails wondered, but the answer came to him almost as soon as he'd asked it. His father had been so desperate, for reasons that still eluded him.
Dalziel was searching for something, and cursing under his breath. They walked along the length of the fence, and Tails' kidnapper was watching the base of it very closely, breaking every so often to cast a worried glance back toward Quarantine.
Tails was watching the village, too, hoping that any moment the Armada's military would rush over that hill with loaded weapons. He'd even be happy to see Lieutenant Overdraw, right now.
Eventually Dalziel found what he was looking for. A spot at the base of the fence where the wire had come apart, making a concealed hole just big enough to squeeze through.
"There," he said, and with one hard thrust he threw Tails to the ground. "Crawl through it."
Tails did as he was instructed, grasping at the soft, muddy ground and crawling through the hole. The jagged wire dragged along the back of his suit and he heard it rip, but it didn't matter that much because he figured the mud and grass stains had ruined it anyway. When he reached the other side, he removed the torn jacket and dropped it by the fence. He did the same with his tie, loosening the collar to grant himself a little more comfort. He didn't remove all of his clothes, though - he didn't want to be naked. Even out here, in the wilderness. It was uncouth. Uncivilised.
Even Dalziel dressed himself, albeit his clothing was threadbare and filthy, tattered, falling apart at the seams. He still chose to retain that much dignity. As Tails pondered this, Dalziel was trying to drag himself through the fence-hole, grunting and cursing. It was barely big enough for him, and if not for the fact that he'd clearly squeezed through it once before, Tails would have doubted he could at all. He was about half-way through when his tattered shirt got snagged on the wire, and he got stuck.
It was now that Tails' stiff legs broke, and before he had time to consider the thought, he turned tail and ran. Dalziel shouted after him, but he had youth on his side, and this was one party he wasn't sticking around for. Whatever this feral intended to do with him, it probably wasn't any more pleasant than the experience had already been so far. Tails put his head down and sprinted toward a copse of trees at the edge of a forest. He was going to be fine. All he had to do was stay hidden, make his way back to Sanctuary, to the Armada and to the warm arms of Badoru Kukku. He would be safe there, he would-
Tails collided face-first with something so hard that it put his lights out for a moment, threw him upside down and put him on his backside. Stars swarmed through his head. He opened his eyes to see what he'd run into, but his vision was blurred and there was blood in his eyes. He brought his hands to his face, waited for his brain to stop spinning around, and then looked again.
A massive wolf was staring down at him, snarling. Another feral, but this one appeared much further gone. His pelt was spotted with mange, his eyes were haunting and crazed, and saliva foamed from his mouth as he growled. But he was smiling, too. A sadistic grin. And in his claws he was holding a thick tree branch, with a patch of red on it. Tails brought his hands up to his nose, and found that it was leaking blood like a faucet.
The wolf dragged him roughly to his feet, and held him in place. Dalziel was storming toward them, murder in his eyes.
Sometimes, when you know that pain is coming, you can brace yourself for it and it won't be quite as bad as it could be. Tails closed his eyes and tried to do that now.
"Thanks Dale," Dalziel said, and brought his knee up into Tails' gut.
Tails, winded for the third time, buckled over in the wolf's grasp and just tried not to throw up. Dalziel grabbed his chin with the talon-hand and lifted his head to see the fox's eyes.
"We've been through this before," he said, "Maybe you remember, and maybe you don't, but either way, we've been here before. What you need to understand is that we've got no problem with hurting you. This isn't Quarantine, this isn't the hamster cage. There's no rules out here, no mercy or forgiveness, no niceness, no pity. You're back in the wild now, kid. And believe me. It is a jungle out here. So wise up and get used to it." He pulled Tails closer, and spat "Buckaroo."
It was amazing how much Tails missed the good life after living it for only a day. Fifteen years had rolled by, divided between the streets of Station Square and the Freedom Fighters in the forest, living a nomadic life in between. Nothing had been easy or comfortable about Tails' life, but having been a part of Sanctuary for just one day had changed things. He looked down at the filthy, stained shirt he was wearing and lamented. Sitting on the rocks on the forest floor bothered him in ways it never had before, he couldn't make himself comfortable. There were no cushions, no pillows. The world was so rancid and filled with dirt.
Badoru Kukku had been right. The world was a pile of crud. The wild lands outside of Babylon were full of hate and bitterness, war and deceit, violence and sadism. People like Nails the Bat, Ivo Robotnik, Dalziel and Dale. Barbaric, uncivilised and filthy. Terra Nullius, a world without soul. Perhaps it would be better if nature's selective hand really did sweep down and purge it all. Prepare a new beginning. Those who were truly worthy, truly evolved, could live here in paradise, while the unclean masses choked in a squalour of their own creation.
Tails tucked the base of his shirt back into his trousers and frowned at his kidnappers, who sat eating like the beasts they were. They were devouring the rotting scraps of some unidentifiable former meal, the loud noise of their chewing and slurping and slobbering and crunching echoing through his skull. His nose throbbed and his head ached. His breathing was shallow from the beating that his gut had endured. He only wanted to go back home to Sanctuary.
"Hungry?" Dalziel snarled.
"No," Tails replied, bitterly. With his nose busted, the word came out: Doh.
"Yeah, well good. You're not getting any."
"Who are you people? What do you want with me?"
"Didn't I tell you no whining?"
Tails' lower lip trembled and he hugged his knees. But a part of him went through a transformation, there and then. Fifteen years, the filthy world's punching bag. He'd been a victim through all of his life, a hollow shell to beat with a stick until he cracked. Nails' little puppet, turned Freedom Fighter for a cause he had no real attachment to, and now beaten and tortured for no real reason by a couple of feral mutants. Whenever anybody loomed over him with a fist or a finger or a gun cocked, stared down at him and told him to be silent, be still, do this or do that, his lower lip had trembled, he'd hugged his knees, and he'd said he was sorry. He always backed down, shrank away from pain, allowed himself to be used and abused at the leisure of any scoundrel or beast who saw fit to have their way with him.
But not anymore. It was at this moment that Tails decided he was done being the victim. He was better than these people. He'd evolved. There was no excuse in allowing them to break him down, he was the superior one, he had inherited authority over the beasts of the world, he was so far above them that he trampled them under his feet. They hated because they feared and because they envied. He only took their abuse because he allowed it.
"Do it," he spat.
Dalziel stopped chewing and looked up at him. With a mouth full of food, he said "Excuse me?"
"Go ahead," Tails said, louder. "Beat me. If you think that you can put me through any worse pain than I'm already in, then let's see you try it. Thrash me to death. Whatever you think that will prove, or if you just get a natural thrill out of it, be my guest. I deserve to know what you intend to do with me, why you've dragged me out here and decided to beat the stuffing out of me, you cowardly, filthy, failures at life."
For a moment, the silence hung heavy through the forest, and Tails expected that the two ferals would just march over to him and pummel him with rocks until he resembled raw chicken stuffing. At least that would end this, and he would die having stood up for himself. He was so sick of this forsaken life that it would be somewhat of a blessing to just end it on a relative high note.
But Dalziel just snorted and went back to eating. "Where'd you get so cocky, retard?"
"You can stop calling me that," Tails said. But really, the insult just rolled off his back, now that he knew his unusual traits actually set him above these people rather than below.
"Sure, retard," Dalziel replied, smiled, and then resumed eating loudly. Tails figured this was the end of a short and pointless conversation, so he lay back on the rocks to rest his newly re-injured body. But then Dalziel began to speak again.
"They promised us reincorporation."
"What did you say?" Tails asked, raising his head.
"Reincorporation, means they said they were gonna toss us back into the hamster cage. All we had to do was deliver you to them. Something about you really took their fancy, you see. But they lied. We took you right to them, didn't even beat you up too bad, and they didn't give us a thing. Didn't even thank us. Shoulda known they'd never let us back inside. Bad genes and all."
"I don't remember this," Tails said.
"Of course you don't, you had a problem with your noggin. Seems to be all fixed up now, though. I guess I hit you hard enough that it fixed you good and proper. Amazing, you can fix anything if you give it a good whack."
"None of this explains why you're doing this to me."
Dalziel laughed. "What are you, completely brain-dead? Cause and effect, kid. They broke their end of the bargain, so we're breaking ours. Tit for tat. Karma."
"We're on an island, you know. Not a very big one, either. They will find me."
Dalziel took another bite of his rotting meal. "If they come, then we'll kill you. Make them watch."
"Then they might kill you."
"So what? Let them! Take a look around, have a good look. Life stinks. How bad do you think we wanna hang around here every day eating garbage for breakfast, lunch and dinner? At least we'll die knowing that we got our own back, that we'd shown an Armada brat what life is really like out here. It'll be good to die knowing we struck a blow against them, make them know the pain of watching someone kill their family."
How morbid, the barbarian's desire to hurt, to maim and to kill, at any and all costs. He remembered the thrall of the criminal life, how it had captured his father, and how Trevor had reconciled his lifestyle, silenced his moral objections, by reminding himself that those who lived more privelaged lives were evil, and deserved to be robbed, to be hurt. A mentality that Tails now recognised as flawed and poisonous.
"That's revolting," Tails spat, "The only thing you think about is how you can best hurt someone. How can you be so cruel? Because your life isn't as comfortable as theirs? They're good people, why can't you just leave them alone?"
Dalziel and Dale both laughed at this, his reprimand just a big joke to them.
"Oh man," Dalziel snorted, "You really do sound like one of them. An exile who talks like a hamster. Let me tell you, kid, that never lasts long. You break outta that mindset pretty quick."
"What mindset? Common sense? Peacemongering?"
"You know what? I think you ought to come with me. There's something you should see."
"Why should I go anywhere with you? What could you possibly show me that I'll give a darn about?"
"Easy there, retard. I'm just gonna give you an education, that's all. Who's the Bad Guy, one-oh-one. I'm not saying you'll give a darn, but if you really want to know where we're coming from on this, then here's your chance to find out."
Tails figured that it couldn't hurt. At least they weren't beating him anymore. So he went with Dalziel, who led him through the forest to a cliff that overlooked the valley where Quarantine lay. He pointed to the village, an oasis in an otherwise unspoiled wilderness. From here they could see the little town and its surrounding parkland, encapsulated within a wide wire fence, all lying at the base of the twin towers of Sanctuary. The white towers, one taller than the other, were cylindrical and very thin, but the shortest was perhaps a hundred storeys tall, the other another fifty. Kukku was right, they took up very little room but had an awful lot of space - if you could fly.
"Take a look at your good people," Dalziel spat, "Take a good, hard look."
"All I see is a village. A peaceful little village where nobody fights or hurts each other, and where everybody has everything they could ever want."
"You really are an idiot," the feral said, "Don't look at them. Look at them!"
Tails followed his gaze downward, beyond the white spires of Sanctuary and the rose-gardens of the village below; beyond the razor fence that gave Quarantine its name.
There were people milling about outside the fence. More ferals. They were scrounging, foraging for garbage, like animals, grazing. There was a marked difference between these people and the residents on the other side of the wire. None of these people looked healthy, none of them content. If Quarantine was the height of civilisation, as the Armada defined it, then these people lived on the exact opposite side of the spectrum. Two mobians, Tails saw, were fighting over a scrap, and they barked and snarled at each other like rabid wolves. There were perhaps half a dozen of the pitiful creatures.
"Who are they?" Tails asked.
"They're us," Dalziel replied, "We're the exiles. We're what happens when someone pees in the gene pool. And why do you think we don't get to live in paradise with the rest of the dumb old hamsters?"
"You're too wild," Tails replied, "Too uncivilised. Look at that, they're so feral, almost zoic. Unrestrained violence. You'd just make it like the rest of the world."
"Wow, quick answer. That sounded almost rehearsed. Just like an Armada-trained seal. Can you jump through hoops, too? How about you just shut up and pay attention."
"We're all born animals. It's no different for you or me or any of the people in that cage. You don't get thrown out of Quarantine because you're too wild, you get thrown out because of this." He held up his right arm, the thin, gnarled talon. "Don't buy into their propaganda, kid, don't think that they're infallable. They make mistakes, a lot of mistakes. We're the mistakes."
Tails squinted to see the exiles more clearly. Indeed, they weren't just unhealthy. Beneath the tattered clothes, the filth and the mange, these mobians were all malformed. Too many limbs or too few, heads too big for their bodies, legs too short or too crooked, eyes too close together or too far apart. The people of Quarantine looked strange for their physical traits, but they weren't typically so unusual that you would call them deformed. These poor souls, on the other hand, had been dealt a very bad hand at birth.
"They like to keep the gene pool clean inside the cage," Dalziel said, "Don't want anyone polluting their little experiment. That's why, if you're born a little weird, you got too many arms or one eye or tentacles, you get marked for removal. No appeal, no argument, just a one way ticket to foraging garbage for the rest of whatever life they allow you to have. It don't matter who you are. You know my mate Dale, back there? You know who his father is? Alain Bristol, their supposed leader, that's who. Dale Bristol, that was his name. Just Dale, now. It don't matter who you are." He turned to Tails, the gleam of hatred and madness in his eyes. "Don't you see? They made us this way. They banish us, then punish us, for the way we look. Now that you're one of us, tell me what you think of your beloved Armada."
Tails watched the pitiful, deformed people at the base of the hill make themselves into beasts, fighting over scraps of rotting garbage with their hooked postures, clawed hands and horrid growths, and suddenly everything clicked into place for him. His father's fear, his quest and promise. Badoru Kukku's words ran through his head again:
It is not impossible to have a child in Quarantine without our knowledge, despite what most of my colleagues would attest. Nature found a way, it seems. The miracle is that we did not even know that you existed until you came back to us.
He had been a part of the Armada's project to breed a higher evolution of mobian, but he hadn't been expected. His father would have known about the policy of removing those who displayed defective traits. He and Tails' mother would have good reason to fear that their child would be marked for exile. And of course, when the child had been born, with two tails hooked to his rear end...
"Don't get all narky because I'm calling you names," Dalziel said with a wry grin, "I don't mean anything nasty by it. You see... we're all retards here, Tails. Every one of us. Welcome to the family."
"Have fun?" growled Dale, the feral wolf, with a smirk on his face. Tails didn't reply, he just sat on the rocks and held his nose with his eyes closed. It had started bleeding again, staining a red racing strip down the centre of his shirt.
"We had an enlightening little chat regarding the nature of his life from now until forever," Dalziel said, "Taught him a thing or two about his heroes up in the tower. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he would'a figured it all out pretty soon anyway."
Tails sighed. It seemed that Babylon wasn't quite a paradise after all. At least not for those who the Armada deemed to be genetically inferior. If Dalziel's story could be trusted, then Kukku and his scientists' hospitality extended only toward the people who fit a set genetic criteria. It made a kind of sense even still; it fit with the same theory of evolution that Kukku had espoused, that the genetically superior mobians would naturally rise up while the weaker ones would be swept under the rug. But Tails hadn't seen the coldness of the theory until now, hadn't seen the real unemotive science behind what was being done. He only saw warmth in these people, kindness and affability. But here was the other side of the story. Here was what his father had seen, that which he himself had been blind to.
"It's called eugenics, if you're wondering," Dalziel muttered.
Tails lifted his head again. "Hm?"
"Eugenics. My Pop taught me that, before I was exiled. They gave us a lot of books in the hamster cage, and he made good use of them. He told me it's basically like maintaining a swimming pool. You pour in the chemicals, keep the water clean, scoop out all the leaves and the other muck that forms on top of the water. At least, that's the way they see it. I guess it makes sense if you believe a person can be garbage to be scooped out."
The Armada were breeding a super-race of evolved mobians, but only according to their patented definition of evolution. For the others, those who didn't fit the mould, they were forced to endure horrifying disfigurements, foraging for food scraps, as the Armada didn't want to waste any resources maintaining these genetic failures.
Their society may have been paradise, but it was also cold, sterile and soulless. Science without empathy.
"Why do you call them hamsters?" Tails asked.
Dalziel snorted. "Hamsters. Guinea pigs. Lab rats. Take your pick. You know, they built that fence to keep us out, but it's also there to keep them in. It's a cage. They should put a great big plastic wheel right in the middle to complete the picture."
"But you want to get back in."
"'Course we do. Know why? 'Cause it feels good to beat the system. Law of nature, survival of the fittest. Don't you think that we're all just a big happy family out here, we exiles, 'cause we're not. Survival of the fittest. I'd step over the corpse of every single one of these losers for another chance at the cage. In the cage, there's food. Shelter. Clean water. Protection. Ladies." On that last note, he and Dale grinned at each other.
Tails saw now how his father slipped so easily into a hatred of the rich. He'd come to see them in the same light as the Armada. A system that privelaged a few while remaining apathetic about those who didn't fit a criteria. In Station Square, the criteria was financial rather than genetic, but the results were the same. Like these exiles, Trevor had hated the elite - but would have given just about anything to be a part of it.
No honour among theives - or exiles.
Tails looked over the pitiful beings who had snatched him, confused about how to feel about them. It was easier to think of them as scum, brutes whose life away from society had whittled their souls to dust, but it seemed that the story was more complicated, the situation more complex. They had kidnapped him, beaten him senseless, broken his nose, openly admitted that they intended to kill him for revenge against another enemy. He did not have the friendship or allegience of these people. But the Armada... what of them? Something was far from right about their activities on this island. Tails was growing disillusioned about their nobility, though until now he'd been enraptured with the idea of genetic and social betterment, what Kukku had called evolution and Dalziel had called eugenics. This was not a utopia after all - perfection came with a price, and somebody had to pay it.
Dalziel, such a hateful creature, haggard and malnourished, crude and violent, didn't seem much more empathetic to anyone than the Armada were toward him and the other exiles, but then again, the former had been sired and raised by the latter. Tails didn't know much about Dale, the other, for the wolf spoke and did very little, but he imagined they shared the same worldview and mentality. There was nobody here to teach him what to believe, how to think. All that was left for Tails was to return to the mystery that was his father - try to figure out his reasons, and what exactly he had promised, and to whom.
"My mother," he said, "I've been looking for my mother. You used to live in Quarantine, right? Would you know anything about-"
"Mother," Dalziel spat, "Good luck with that, she's probably dead."
Tails frowned. "How could you possibly know that? You just made that up."
"Maybe I did, retard! Just to make you feel even more like crap. It's funny to me. But, then again, maybe I didn't!"
"Forget I said anything," Tails said, shaking his head.
"Why, do you miss your Mummy? Wish she was here to tuck you in, patch you up, take you away from these nasty bullies? Losing Mummy just happens to be a fact of life around here... and in there."
"Oh yeah?" Tails growled, losing patience with the smug kidnappers who seemed to enjoy his pain so much, "And why is that?"
"Think about it, kid. Think with your head, not your butt. Do you see any women in exile?"
"I don't know, I haven't been here that long."
"Well there ain't. Chicks don't get exiled. Know why? 'Cause they breed. They don't want that. They don't want a bunch of retards and rejects out here having kids and screwing up paradise. If you're a chick and you get tagged, they don't send you out here. They send you down a long tunnel with a bright light at the end of it."
Tails stared at him for a long time, trying to work out if Dalziel was lying just to cause him pain.
"The chicks, they're the core of the project," Dalziel said, "They're what make the whole thing work, what keeps the big plastic wheel spinning in the hamster cage. The birds, they tag 'em like dairy cows. Got tracking devices in 'em, so the birds know exactly where they are, who they're with, and if, heaven forbid, they ever get out of the cage. Gotta keep strict checks on the women. Keep an eye on them, especially when they start having kids. A mother who gives birth to rejects is bad news. Means there's something wrong with her. They got no use for someone who keeps spitting out kids with too many bits and pieces. They have a word for it, they call it corrupted. That's a breeder that produces bad stock. Corrupted. Polluting the gene pool. Gotta get rid of it. Gotta remove it."
Tails didn't want to hear any more, but he had to. The horror of this was inconceivable, he imagined dozens of women, kids' mothers, being lined up outside a killing pen designed for cattle. The children being taken away and the mothers removed for the crime of inferior genetics. But there was more, an even greater horror building in Tails' mind, a terrible realisation.
"You said they're tagged. What did you mean, like with computers? They can trace them?"
Dalziel grinned again and nodded. "Yep."
"They know exactly where all the women are?"
"All part of the grand plan, kid."
That was the answer to everything. Tails' father, his escape from the island and his promise to return. One mobian's desperate effort to save his family, the agonizing decisions he had to make. Tails trembled, held his head in both hands just to stop them from shaking. This was too much to bear.
"If you're out here," Dalziel said, "then your mother is probably dead. Corrupted. Removed. Like I said, fact of life out here. Mine's dead, Dale's is dead, and yours too."
It was nothing more than luck that Tails noticed the face sticking out of the dirt.
For an hour he sat in the exiles' camp, lamenting about all that he had learned today. He knew now why the Armada had been his father's enemy, and hated himself for having been seduced by their philosophy. He'd lived in their tower, spoken to them, walked through the grounds of Quarantine and viewed the results of their project first hand, and yet he hadn't seen it. He'd been in the belly but couldn't see the beast. As Sonic might have said, he couldn't see the forest for the trees.
He'd had to spend some time out here, in the dirt with a broken nose, to see it. Because, up until now, he'd been seeing it through their eyes.
The face was staring up at him without expression, and Tails had been looking at it for quite a while before he actually noticed it. Something buried with the rest of the junk in this makeshift campsite, something Dale and Dalziel had found and brought back here, probably only to decide it was useless and discard it. The face of a doll or a little statue. It was caked with dirt and half-buried. Tails might have left it there to rot, if not for the strange sensation that he'd seen it before.
(And why not? You knew these other guys, the moment you saw them. Knew their names, even before they told them to you. You've got a lot of lost time to account for, buckaroo.)
He leaned over to dig the thing out. It was some kind of toy, perhaps, or a model. Something made of metal that looked like a little gold pig, with a key sticking out of the back of it. His mind throbbed with familiarity, he knew the contours of it, the weight of it. Like Déjà vu, but ongoing. It urged him to reach for the key on the back of the thing, to give it a few hard twists.
"Come on," Dalziel said, "We're moving."
Tails took his hand off the key and pocketed the toy. Though he couldn't imagine what good it would be to him, he couldn't stand to leave it behind. Perhaps later it would help him to remember something.
"Where are we going?"
"We're going!" Dalziel barked, "You gonna co-operate, or are we gonna have to beat some more of the stuffing out of you?" He seemed anxious for some reason, as though something was making him feel uneasy. He was craning his neck to see the sky. So Tails followed, figuring Dalziel would just find something else to break if he didn't.
"Hurry up," the feral fox was urging, "I heard them. They know we're here, we have to-"
If Tails' hearing was any more astute then he might have heard a sound behind him, a quiet thump like something of little mass dropping softly in the leaves. As it was, nobody did hear it. Nobody knew anything until it was on them.
It happened very quickly. Tails was grabbed roughly by one of his tails and yanked backward, so hard that he fell onto his back and rolled. Somebody screamed "Halt!", then there was a horrid snarl and the shriek of attack. Tails dragged himself back to his feet, in time to see a fierce skirmish. Dale was mauling somebody. His victim was shrieking and flailing as they rolled together, locked in battle. Then there was a loud zap, like an electrical discharge, and Tails smelled the scent of something burning in the air. Dale yelped like a wounded animal, and Tails realised he wasn't attacking anymore, but spasming. The massive wolf fled from the battle, with a limp, and kept running until he was out of sight.
The other fighter rose to his feet like a great black shadow lifting off the ground and becoming whole. A dark cape that wasn't a cape flapped in the air.
Lieutenant Overdraw folded his mighty wings, craned his neck and turned toward Tails.
But then he was grabbed again from behind, a strong arm wrapping around his waist and another around his neck, and Tails saw to his horror that the hand near his neck was holding a knife to it.
"Don't you come any closer or I'll do it I swear!" Dalziel's voice barked.
"Exiles," Overdraw hissed, his voice dripping with contempt, "Beasts. Animals. Put down the knife, yes? Put down your primitive little tool. There is no contest here."
"I'll kill him," Dalziel said, and Tails was afraid that he was entirely sincere. Hadn't he said earlier that he would do it if he was cornered? He'd slash Tails open and face the consequences gladly. Tails squirmed, his heart thudding heavy in his chest.
Overdraw stood a few feet ahead, his eyes flitting between Tails and his captor, entirely unconcerned. "Oh please," he said, "That is a threat, yes? I am not bothered. In fact, I urge you to do it, yes. He has been a problem for me, this one. Why would you think that I care about the fate of this... animal?"
"You don't care about anything," Dalziel growled, "Anybody. You send us all out here to rot."
"And rot is what you shall do, yes? The sooner, the better." Overdraw lifted a gun and aimed it, showing no sign of concern that he might hit the wrong target. Tails' anxiety increased as he wondered which one of them was the right target.
"I will shoot through him to hit you, yes."
Tails squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the shot, but somebody grabbed Dalziel's arm away from him. He leaped away as soon as he was able, and turned to see that there were a full dozen of the military agents here, and several of them were wrestling with the screaming and cursing exile. Tails rubbed his neck in the place where the knife would have slashed it apart, and gulped. "Thank you."
"Thank me?" Overdraw asked. "You worm. You deserve nothing."
Tails looked up at the dark-clad Lieutenant, and found that the gun was still cocked. Overdraw was pointing it at his head.
"What- what are you-"
"Funny that we should find you wallowing in the filth with the rest of these animals, yes?" Overdraw said, "You can train a beast to sit at a table and dress in mobian clothes, yes, but you can not make him a person. Sooner or later he will run away to be with the rest of his kind. Roll in the filth together."
"I didn't run away!" Tails shrieked, "These people kidnapped me! Do you see my nose? Do you?" His injury made the word come out sounding like doze.
"Yes, yes, yes," Overdraw said, clearly his favourite word, "But they can smell their own kind, yes? They know an animal. I know an animal. But some, they do not, yes? Some, they think that if you flap your ears or spin your tails and fly like a real person, then you are a real person. It is a madness, yes? An infatuation with a fantasy. I am sick of hearing it, sick of smelling your stench through the towers of Sanctuary. Turning our paradise into a zoo. You are a curiosity, a biological marvel, nothing more. Yes."
"So what, you're just going to shoot me? What's Kukku going to think about that?"
Overdraw smirked. "We were sent to recover you, yes. From the clutches of these... beasts. But if the beasts were to kill you first, then what am I to do about that? The killing blow could be his or mine, but who would tell the difference, yes?"
"Your scientists can build chromosomes out of dead matter, I think it's likely they'd know a bullet from the Lieutenant's gun when they saw it," Tails said.
"Interesting. The talking beast can reason, yes? And if I were to pick up a rock instead? Beat you with it like an animal would? What then, talking beast?"
"Then I guess you'd prove what a big brave bird you are, beating a dumb harmless animal to death with a rock."
Overdraw frowned, and Tails wondered if he really would. But the bird smiled again, and lowered the gun. "Maybe some day you will get yourself stuck out here again, yes? And you will stay out here. Eating insects and bathing in dirt. As you should."
Tails became aware of an audible whirring that seemed to bathe the entire forest in sound. He hadn't a clue what it could have been, but it seemed to drive Dalziel crazy. He roared and gnashed his jaws, thrashed his limbs as four black-uniformed soldiers tried to hold him down.
"Kill me!" he shrieked, "Just kill me, you cowards! End this here!"
"Why should we want to do that, yes?" Overdraw asked, "There are so many more possibilities for a specimen such as yourself in Babylon. Oh yes, possibilities abound."
The whirring seemed to come from above, and Tails looked up to discern what it was. It was the kind of sound that resonated in a person's bones, made the entire body vibrate at its core. What he saw swimming in the air above, the thing that made such a sound, didn't make any sense to him. Not only did it not resemble any kind of machine he'd ever seen before, but he couldn't even figure out whether it was alive.
What descended from above was something vaguely resembling an ocean squid, except that it was black and had far too many tentacles. And, of course, it was in the sky rather than the water. The beast or machine or whatever it was spun in a clockwise circle with dozens of tendril-like appendages swimming around it. The body of the thing was an enormous bulb, upon which five bright strobe lights were arranged in a pentagon, mounted on a seperate disc that spun in the opposite direction to the rest of the contraption. As it descended, the tentacles shredded the canopy, forming a neat hole in the trees through which it passed. Tails feared what would happen when it reached him, but Lieutenant Overdraw didn't seem concerned. In fact, this all seemed like routine to him. To Tails, it was like witnessing a UFO.
When the machine or monster or whatever it was dropped to a height of around six feet above their heads, emitting a whirr that Tails thought would rip him to shreds and a gale from its spinning tentacles like the wind from a helicopter's rotor blades, it stopped and hovered there. Tails had to shield his eyes from the lights. Dalziel was screaming and thrashing harder than ever.
Overdraw said something, but Tails didn't hear it. The monster-machine's lights faded and the dome split open like a flower in bloom, its petals expanding outward until it blocked out the sun, and the thing began to descend again, dropping down like the mouth of a hungry beast.
Tails liked life with his father, but that life began to go downhill the day his father cried.
It was the one and only time that Tails had ever seen it happen, and the impact on him was immense. He himself cried lots of times, of course, being a child, but he thought his father beyond such displays of emotion. His father was a pillar of strength, a superhero, immortal. When that broke down, Tails' sense of security shattered beneath him like a mountain washed into the sea.
It happened one day when Trevor was at work and Tails was sitting in the car as usual, reading a flight manual that he'd found in the garbage outside the airport. By this time he knew about as much about planes as anybody, though he'd never really been close to one. He read that manual over and over again, until he just about knew it word for word.
He'd been reading so intently that he was startled when his father opened the car door and collapsed in the driver's seat. He'd been away for quite a while, maybe an hour, one of his longer jobs, doing whatever he did inside a rather homely looking suburban house. Now he just sat and stared out the windscreen. Tails thought he'd seen something that caught his interest, but all he could see out there was the road. A row of houses with rusty wire fences and neatly trimmed green lawns. A sprinkler, going hiss-hiss-hiss-hiss.
"Dad?" Tails asked.
Trevor said nothing. He looked tired. In fact, he looked weary, exhausted. He slammed the car door closed, silencing that sprinkler, and just sat and stared.
It was then that Tails noticed something amiss. His father's clothes were ruffled. And they were stained red.
"Dad?" he tried again.
Trevor lifted his hands and turned his palms upward, and just stared down at them. Tails could see that they were covered in red. He didn't want to believe it was what it looked like.
"Dad, what happened?"
His father still didn't reply, but his face broke. It just shrivelled up, as though somebody had clamped his hand in a vise. He pounded fiercely on the steering wheel for a moment, and then planted his face on top of it and cried.
Tails never learned what exactly his father did when he visited those houses, apartments, docks, warehouses, shops. But whatever he did, whatever his job entailed, it broke him the day he came back to the car covered in blood. What truly frightened Tails was the fact that the blood clearly was not his own.
That was the last time Trevor took his son to work with him. From that moment onward, Tails stayed in the old church where Nails and his gang operated. He became much better acquainted with the characters who came here to help the bat handle his business. Like suave, sophisticated Floyd Tabs, the grinning sphinx, who knew how to do magic with playing cards. And the foul-mouthed but outrageously hilarious Carson Crow, who entertained him with excellent impressions of famous people. Once, after a news interview about a shuttle launch in Mobitropolis, Carson held a handful of broom bristles to his beak and did an impression of the Science Minister so good that it had Tails rolling on the floor in hysterics.
But most of all, he liked Nails. The bat in the pinstripe suit knew that Tails had sworn an oath to his father, but it wasn't long before he had the boy talking. He was, after all, very good at breaking people. Always a master manipulator. He treated Tails to a lot of things his father never let him do - like the time he offered Tails a puff of that thick brown tube he was always sucking on. The smoke tasted good, except the time he inhaled accidentally and went into a coughing fit, much to Nails' amusement.
Nails began to speak to him about his future, and if he would like to follow in his father's footsteps. His Dad did some very important work, he said, and he was very good at what he did, but Tails would be even better. Because Tails was a little rocket. He had skills that most other people didn't have. He appealed to the boy's sense of importance - after all, his tails had made him feel like a freak. Nails didn't make him feel like that. With Nails, he felt like his tails made him something special, something powerful.
After all, he and Nails shared a bond. They both knew what it meant to be able to fly. And that, in some way, made them kindred.
It was about a month after Trevor returned to the car with blood on his hands that he woke Tails up in the middle of the night. The boy sat up in bed to listen to the silhouette of his father whisper to him.
Trevor asked him if he remembered Tyler.
Tails only vaguely remembered his Uncle Tyler. He was very young the last time he saw him. Uncle Tyler was a lot of fun, but he couldn't live with them for some reason he couldn't remember, or never knew.
His father told him now that Tyler was coming back. And, a couple of nights from now, they were both going to meet with him, and the three of them would go away together. Away from this place, far away. They were going to have a better life, the life they had always wanted. But he wasn't allowed to tell anybody. Anybody at all.
Tails was sad to know that he was going to leave his newest friends, and asked why he wasn't allowed to say goodbye. His father simply said that he just wasn't, and made him promise, which he did.
It was somewhat sad, yes, but exciting also. Because his father had always promised him that this day would come, that they would go away together and travel. See the world. Live.
Trevor told his son he loved him, and Tails returned the sentiment. They hugged, and Trevor's silhouette stood up and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Tails, grinning, rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. He knew he wouldn't be able to, however. He was too excited, thinking about the adventures that the three of them were going to have together. Life was going to be great, from now on. Life was going to be just peachy.
Tails never saw his father again.
The tropical garden at the top of Sanctuary's highest tower had filled Tails' head with the most beautiful scents, the first time he had woken up here. This time he smelled nothing, his snout encapsulated inside some kind of thick glove, splinted and padded and soaked in something. His nose tingled constantly as though he needed to sneeze, but he never did, couldn't even when he tried.
Badoru Kukku was dressing a wound on his forehead with some kind of stinging disinfectant when Tails awoke, and the bird appeared glum, sighing and shaking his head.
"Those wretched exiles," he muttered, "I am so sorry, Tails. So, so sorry."
Tails tried to speak but found that there was nothing he could say. The warmth of the mobian who he had recently come to think of as a kind of surrogate father was romantic and alluring, but there were more issues to consider now.
Had Badoru Kukku killed Tails' mother?
"The treatment we have given you will rebuild the cartilage in your nose," Kukku said, and then after a pause, "So fragile. You know that we can build a beak for you. Just say the word, my boy. We have the technology to upgrade your body as though it were a machine. Organ donations are unnecessary in Babylon, we can grow anything from nothing. We only need a sample, just a drop of blood, a flake of skin."
Tails imagined himself with a beak, but couldn't crack a smile. There was something more morbid than comical about it. Walking around this citadel of science and death wearing a beak like a mask. One final betrayal against his father, wearing the symbol of the enemy on his face, covering up the snout that people had told him gave him the spitting image of Trevor Prower.
"Thank goodness you thought to drop your jacket by the fence," Kukku said, "Or else we may never have found the hole that horrid beast slipped through. Such a smart boy. Thanks to you, nobody else need be concerned about those from the outside infecting our paradise."
No problem, Tails thought, knowing that he hadn't actually dropped his jacket for that purpose at all, but he'd never corrected anybody who had mistakenly overestimated his intelligence. That was something he had learned from Sonic - what most called ego, but Sonic had preferred to call it a healthy dose of pride.
"I just feel... terrible," the bird said, "I fear your trust in me may have been wounded by this experience, but I assure you... we never take advantage of the lessons that we learn. Every mistake is a lesson, and we never make the same mistake twice, Tails." He shook his head. "Now you see the truth in what I have told you. The world outside these walls is a brutal one, full of such unrestrained hate and violence."
The world within these walls seems not much better, Tails thought.
Kukku smiled. "Experiences like these, they only strengthen my resolve, you know. More than ever I dream of a world where beasts like that do not exist, and where we can all live in safety."
But what of beasts like you? Tails wondered, Who would really be safe then?
Sonic the Hedgehog had sought to liberate Tails from a life from which, at first, he did not believe he needed to be liberated. Nails the Bat was a harsh master, but he kept Tails alive, and that was something he knew he could count on, if only because it hadn't been in Nails' interest to get rid of him. He couldn't have made the same guarantee about Sonic and the dangerous, insecure alternative he offered. And Tails had seen nothing wrong with his lifestyle, after all. Because the forest always was so much harder to see with all those trees in the way.
Now Tails found himself in the position that Sonic had been in, all those years ago. He looked into Cremaria Kukku's wide, hazel eyes as the rabbit stared back into his, and he knew that she would never believe that there was anything untoward about the Armada's project. At least not if he, an interloper from the wild lands of Terra Nullius, was the one trying to convince her. Still, he had to try... didn't he? Was it not his responsibility, his moral obligation, to save this girl from the life that she was being raised into?
The children sat together in Tails' room in the tower, Tails healing in his bandages and Cream with dire concern written into her face. She looked over the bandages and held his hand tenderly.
"I cannot believe this has happened," she said, "The exiles are such beasts, I do not know why Father doesn't just drive away the lot of them. I'm very glad that you are safe now!"
"Cream," he said, "There's something I need to speak to you about. Some questions I need to ask you." He hesitated, then added "You're not going to like it very much."
"Of course. Anything."
Tails tried to figure out where he was going to begin. He wasn't even sure how much of Kukku's eugenics program she was intimately familiar with. Did she know how they selected those who were worthy to live in Quarantine? Did she know what was done to those who weren't? As he struggled with his words, he became aware of an uncomfortable bulge in his pocket. He fished around with his hand and pulled out something familiar - the dirty little statuette he'd picked up in the forest. A piece of junk. He had no idea why he'd kept it.
Cream's reaction to it, though, was shocking. Her eyes locked on it like a child whose parents just offered her an ice cream. Her hands flew to her cheeks and her jaw dropped. Tails wondered for a second whether what he held was some kind of bomb.
"You found him!" Cream just about screamed.
"I found what?"
She pointed at the toy. "It's Tock! You found Tock!"
(Officially I'm known as Forty-Seven-K, but a good friend of mine always called me Tock. You can too!)
"Why is that familiar?" Tails asked, "I know this, somehow. I've seen this before. What is it?"
"Turn the key!" Cream exclaimed, "Turn the key and wind him up!"
Tails clutched the little key tentatively, as though turning it might make the little thing come alive and bite his fingers off. Somehow he knew it wasn't dangerous, but his fear was inherent in the fact that he didn't know why he knew the things he did.
Cautiously, he gave the key a few good cranks, then set the contraption down on the floor. He wasn't sure that the thing would even work, considering the state it was in when he found it, but lo and behold, the little key started to turn of its own accord, with a quiet ticking. The toy's lightbulb eyes flickered and then lit up, it snapped its hinged jaw a few times, and clambered in a tiny circle on its stubby little legs. Then, to Tails' surprise, it spoke in a tinny high-pitched voice.
"Remote Robot serial forty-seven-k reporting," it said, "Whoooooo! Feels good to be back, I can tell you that! Checking internal systems, please hold... status report: internal systems are crap. All systems therefore normal."
"Tock!" Cream exclaimed.
The tiny robot turned around, hobbling on its little metal legs, and looked up at her. Its eyes flickered, blinked on and off, and it seemed to wobble around with excitement, or at least it displayed this as well as it was able.
The robot leaped into her lap, and she laughed in glee. Tails was taken aback, if not just a little alarmed. Creampie? Oh, good lord.
"Buckaroo!" the robot exclaimed, and Tails realised it was referring to him. With a metallic clatter, its legs retracted into its body, and something poked out of the top at the same time. This revealed itself to be a tiny set of rotor blades, which immediately began spinning like crazy, and the robot launched itself out of Cream's lap and started buzzing about his head like an enormous beetle.
"I'm glad you're here!" it announced, "I have a message for you! An urgent message! Now, if only I could remember what it was. Oh yes! Buckaroo! You've gotta be careful, those two guys you're hanging out with are bad news! They're leading you into an ambush! They want the reward for your- Wait a second. Where the heck am I?"
"I do remember you," Tails realised, "Tock... We've met before. You helped me."
"That's all I've been trying to do!" it replied, "You help me and I'll help you! You've been winding down, good buddy."
"I don't wind down anymore. I got that fixed."
"Well, that makes one of us! Ha-ha!"
"But wait... you two know each other?"
Tails had never seen Cream smiling so much. Her premature adulthood stripped away instantly by just one dirty little toy.
"Oh, me and Creampie go way back, way back," Tock the robot said.
"He was my best friend," Cream added, "When there was nobody else like me and life was lonely, Tock would be there to cheer me up. Oh, Tails! You tricked me!"
"Yes, when you said you had something I wasn't going to like. This is the best present anyone has ever... Oh Tails, thank you!" Cream leaped up and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. Taken by surprise, Tails returned the embrace somewhat hesitantly. He realised that, curiously, she was also hugging him with her ears. The huge winglike appendages warmed him like a blanket.
"Right," he said, and forced a laugh. "I got you good." He figured that the reunion between the girl and her lost friend was probably not the best time to bring up the subject of violence and matricide. Looking at her now, Tails could believe that this was the happiest she had been in a long time.
Happiness, it seemed, real happiness, was a rare thing in paradise. In the absence of pain, a person is wont to forget exactly what pleasure is.
Sleep did not come easy to Tails, that night.
The itching of his face as his nose repaired itself under the bandages was one thing, but the itching in his mind was leagues worse. So many people wanted him to believe so many different things, but the truth always eluded him, so much so that he didn't know who he could trust.
You could trust Sonic, if he were here, his mind told him, None of these people you know from a bar of soap, but Sonic would have the answers.
But Sonic wasn't here. He could be anywhere or nowhere, but he wasn't here. Still, though his common sense told him that Sonic was dead and gone, what he had realised over the course of his time on the Kitsune Atole was that he'd never really lost faith that Sonic was alive somewhere. That faith was always there, in the back of his mind. He could crap in one hand and wish in the other and no matter which hand filled up first, he believed Sonic to be alive out there somewhere. Nuts to you, Nails.
Hope, faith, wishful thinking or blind optimism though it may have been, Tails closed his eyes and offered a prayer to his missing friend, somewhere out there, over the ocean and far away. Whatever he was doing, it must have been important. Though he wished that he was there to help Sonic through his hard times, he assured the hedgehog that his own task was important as well, and promised that he wouldn't let Sonic down.
With this established, Tails' thoughts turned to his own problems and how he was to resolve them. What would Sonic do?
He would look for the answers. He would find the truth.
And that was what must be done.
Tails opened the door to his room and peered out into the interior of the tower. It was dark and quiet, with minimal lighting. One thing that Tails found odd about the avians was how much they slept. There would be very few people awake in here by now, even though the night was still fairly young. There were no night owls; only early birds.
Closing his eyes, Tails dropped into the darkness.
He spun his tails and fell into a circling pattern, hugging the walls of the tower, passing hundreds of closed doorways, the small rooms in which the birds roosted and the labs in which they worked. What was housed in these labs, Tails shuddered to imagine. Things that defied and defiled nature, the meddlings of apprentice gods. This was a project that had been underway for some decades, probably started by Badoru Kukku's own father or ancestors, with a huge amount of resources behind it. If Tails was to decide that these people had to be stopped, how could he possibly achieve that? He couldn't stand up against the Armada. He couldn't bring down their towers or destroy their research. He could bring down the Quarantine fence, at least temporarily, but the people wouldn't want to leave. They had everything they wanted. Like Tails himself, back in Station Square all those years ago, escape was not an option. One could not escape with nowhere to go. If anything, opening the fence would leave them vulnerable to attacks by the vengeful and bloodthirsty exiles beyond it, and that was not something he wanted.
He'd come here to fulfil his father's promise to free the Kitsunes from the Armada, but now that he was here, he realised that he had no idea how. At this point, his mission was a stalemate. But if action was beyond him, then the least he could do was seek out the truth. It was all he had.
He landed in the machines factory near the base of the tower, and though the lights had all been switched off, his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark.
He liked this place; of everywhere else in this pristine wonderland of riches and luxury, this was the place that felt the most like home. Dust and scraps littered work benches, in front of shelves packed with debris and machine components. A mechanic's dreamworld. Tails passed the silent workbenches and machines with his eyes fogging up. He remembered Rotor's workshop and all that he had taught Tails about mechanics and metalwork, and remembered that he hadn't even said goodbye to the jovial walrus. In his haste to get out of New Knothole, fuelled by emotion, he hadn't thought to say a single word to those who he truly cared about. He doubted he'd ever even said thanks for all that the Freedom Fighters had done for him.
You're still a brat, he thought, Even after all this time, you're the same little thankless brat that Sonic brought back from Station Square. His lower lip trembled and he hardened his face to stop from crying. No more weakness, Tails, you're not the victim anymore. And if you give yourself the chance, you can make this all better.
He stopped in front of a tall window and placed one hand on the glass as he stared through. Hiding on the other side, encapsulated in shadow, was the Tornado. The little plane that had taken him and Sonic on so many adventures over the years. The Armada had repaired it, good as new. They had even repainted it. For some reason, Tails felt a surge of anger for this fact. He was furious at these people for taking him in, providing for him, treating him like one of them. After what they had done, he would rather be out there with the exiles, eating dirt.
He stood in the silence for a long time, just he and his plane, thinking. He'd been standing so long that a sudden shout from behind him almost scared him inside-out.
Tails spun around, his back flat against the wall, as the shout echoed throughout the empty factory. He searched madly for the source of it, sure that he'd been cornered by the exiles, and that they were going to rend him limb from limb, this time with nobody around to save him.
"Over here! Gettin' warmer, now. Here, you idiot, man you are a retard."
Then he saw it.
Dalziel was locked up in an animal cage in the corner of the factory. He gripped the bars with both hands, grinning that snide, toothy grin, and staring at Tails with the fires of hatred in his eyes.
"What's life like on the outside?" he asked, "Must be nice to live among the lords and masters, huh? Free as a bird, so to speak?"
"Dalziel," Tails gasped, "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I kinda don't really know," he spat, "Lots of surprises in my future. My oh my, I shudder to think about the experiments they have in store for me. Always handy to have another guinea pig around the place. You really delivered, they must be proud of you."
Another voice, speaking from elsewhere: "Aaah, put a sock in it, you foghorn."
Something climbed out of a pile of debris on one of the workbenches, something with two little yellow lights on the front. With a whirring, ticking sound it took off and flew toward Tails.
"Tock," he sighed, "It's more crowded in here than I thought. What are you doing here?"
"I don't sleep, Buckaroo," the clockwork robot replied, "Might as well explore. Thought I might find myself a girlfriend down here."
"What if you wind down again?"
"Won't happen! I'm all fixed up!" The robot spun a loop in mid-air, as though to prove his health. "Cream-puff gave me a replacement spring. This baby'll last days!"
"Must be a relief."
"Happy happy days, everybody," Dalziel snarled.
Tock whizzed over to the exile's cage and hovered in front of his face. "Grumble all you want, nastypants, you got what was coming to you!"
"You weren't so cocky when I smashed you in half with that rock, small-fry," the exile snarled through clenched teeth.
"Last rock you'll ever pick up, nasty," the robot said, and let out a little digital whine that might have been its equivalent of blowing a raspberry. Then he returned to Tails.
"So, we know why I'm here," he said, "And we know why nasty over there is here, but the remaining question is... what's your story, Buckaroo?"
"I'm looking for answers," Tails said, "Just some things I need to know."
"Things like what?"
Tails sighed, and looked around the dark factory. "Answers," he said, "If I could just find some kind of... files. Records. Information that the Armada might keep on the people of Quarantine. My parents..."
"Well, I probably shouldn't tell you this," Tock said, "But since you did help me out so much, bring me in from the wilderness and all that..."
"What is it?"
"Well... follow me!"
The robot zipped down a corridor, and Tails followed. Running past darkened halls and shrouded doorways, his only guide the light from the little robot's eyes. They hurried through the sleeping complex for some time, before Tock finally ducked into a room through an unspectacular portal, above which was printed the word:
"What is this?" Tails asked, squinting in the darkness. "Engine? What kind of engine?"
"Analytical engine," Tock replied, and the little robot hit a switch on the wall that fired up the lights. Tails gasped as the darkness was chased away.
Hundreds of computer terminals were laid out before him. Thousands, perhaps. Monitors lined the walls; small ones, huge ones, wide ones and tall ones. Many were scrolling through data, numbers and pixellated dots swimming across screens. The buzzing and clicking of hard drives, the flashing green light of the blinking numbers.
"What is this place?" he gasped.
"This game takes a lot of data, Buckaroo. A thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters, and all that." He buzzed over the sea of technology, his rotor blades whirring. "This is where they unlocked the mobian genome! Thousands and millions and billions of terabytes of data, just counting genes, measuring chromosomes. Simulation programs run hypothetical gene sequences in simulated organisms and crunch the results. This is where it all happens, Buckaroo, and of course, the files are all here. Records on every mobian who's ever set foot in Quarantine or out of it. It's all here."
Tails, feeling overwhelmed, sat down at the nearest terminal and stared at the blinking cursor.
"How do I get into it?"
Tock landed on the desk next to him and retracted his propellor. "Well, you know, I really shouldn't be telling you this, Buckaroo. I don't think the bosses are going to be real impressed."
"Please, Tock. This is important. This might be the most important moment of my life. The truth about my parents is in here." He felt the tears begin to well up again, and this time he thought that, if they came, he would just let them flow. "I have to know, Tock. I have to know."
"Well... okay, Buckaroo. Now listen carefully."
The robot told him what he needed to know to break into the Armada's records, and soon he was faced with a simple prompt:
Tails took a deep breath and typed:
His finger hovered over the enter key, but he couldn't make it work. His hand weakened, his arm numbed. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Were these things that he really wanted to know? He knew that the truth could be more painful than the angst of mystery. Tock, the clockwork robot, looked up at him with his lightbulb-eyes dimmed.
"Go ahead, Buckaroo," he said, "If you need this, go ahead."
And he did need it. Fear aside, panic notwithstanding, all his life he had needed this. Since Nails had puffed on that cigar and told him matter-of-factly that his father was dead. Since Sonic had rescued him from a life of crime and misery. Since Tyler had wept and told him of his past, of Trevor's promise, and of his own demons. Tails needed to know.
He hit the key, took a deep, trembling breath, and held it.
The computer churned out its response:
PROWER TREVOR SEX: M GENERATION: 4 NOTES:
CATEGORY: RED VULPINE
SPAWN: 1 (M CORRUPT)
Irretrievable (effective termination);
The profile was followed by a large amount of technical information that Tails couldn't understand, detailing his father's genetic code and other things pertaining to the Armada's project. He stared at it for a long time, feeling as though he had just stumbled upon his father's headstone. Scrolling down, he found a photograph of Trevor, as he had looked shortly before he left the island, and ran his fingers over the screen as though he could hold it in his hands.
That's my father. There he is.
It was the first he'd seen of Trevor since the last time he'd seen him in the flesh back in Station Square. He let his breath out and mourned for a moment, squeezing his temples with his trembling hands.
"You okay, Buckaroo?"
"Yeah," he said, "Memories. You underestimate the power of a photograph, sometimes."
He returned to the profile and read over it again. Strange was the line that read SPAWN: 1. The date attached to the screen noted that this profile hadn't been updated for twelve years - not since Trevor and he had left the island. Kukku had told Tails that his existance had been unknown to the Armada until now. So if spawn referred to Trevor's offspring, then he'd already had one recorded before Tails had been born.
That explains a lot, when you consider his motives. It'd happened to him before.
"This isn't the hardest part," he said, "That's still to come."
"Well hurry up," Tock replied.
Tails took another deep breath, and typed another query:
But the computer returned:
RECORD NOT FOUND
Of course, you idiot, he told himself, Yared was your mother's brother. His name wasn't Prower.
"Okay, time to stop procrastinating," he said aloud, "Let's get this over with."
He typed. Hit enter. Another profile. Tails felt his heart land in his shoe.
PROWER MELISSA SEX: F GENERATION: 4 BREEDING FOR THIS SUBJECT HAS CEASED NOTES:
CATEGORY: RED VULPINE
SPAWN: 1 (M CORRUPT)
Subject regarded incapable for participation;
Flagged for review;
BREEDING FOR THIS SUBJECT HAS CEASED
Tails clenched his fists as he read the final line, over and over again. His breath rasped and his heart thudded. Every time he read it he hoped that it would turn out not to be true, a glitch on the screen or in his brain.
"No!" he screamed, and his voice echoed through the empty hall.
He pounded on the keyboard, another query:
PIDMORE YARED SEX: M GENERATION: 4 BREEDING FOR THIS SUBJECT BARRED NOTES:
CATEGORY: RED VULPINE
Subject regarded incapable for participation;
Flagged for review;
/ Flagged for wilful misbehavior, subject to review;
/ SUBJECT TERMINATED
BREEDING FOR THIS SUBJECT BARRED
PROWER TYLER SEX: M THIS SUBJECT REFERRED TO SPECIAL PROJECT
CATEGORY: RED VULPINE
THIS SUBJECT REFERRED TO SPECIAL PROJECT
He input more queries, throwing names into the computer almost as fast as it could process them. His fingers punched the keys so hard that he could just about have broken them.
On a whim, he typed one final name. What the computer told him now sent him over the edge.
Tails' eyes ran furiously over each new set of information. His mother, terminated. One uncle exiled, and another possessed. His entire family had been snatched away by these people, scattered into the wind, put down like animals.
"No!" he screamed again, and leaped to his feet. "No, no, no!" He beat his fists on the desk as his face and eyes turned red.
Tails ignored the robot, his hands covering his face, shaking his head. He stumbled backward, grabbed the keyboard and started beating it against the desk.
Tock took off with his rotor blades and hovered away from Tails, as though fearing the fox might take a swipe at him, which was entirely likely. Plastic keys were flying off the keyboard in a hail. At last, Tails let out another scream, and put the keyboard through the computer screen.
In a shower of sparks and noise, the computer imploded, flames licking its chassis.
"I'm outta here!" Tock exclaimed, and zipped away. Tails took no notice. Tears streaming down his face, fifteen years of pain finally exploded from his small body, and these computers, the purveyors of the news he had never wanted to hear, were to absorb every pound of his wrath.
Tails ripped monitors out of the wall, cords sparking and snapping, and smashed them against each other, again and again, until they were unrecognisable as anything but scrap. He cut his hands on the glass. He kicked the hard drives over and stomped them into twisted fragments.
Rows and rows of monitors, each of them displaying the same flickering information:
Tails picked up a chair and began smashing every screen that he could see. He reached into the smoldering ruins and pulled out handfuls of wires, ripped out hard drives with his bare, bleeding hands and smashed them against the floor, stomping on their remains.
Nails the Bat cackled through a cloud of smoke. "Afraid so, kid. Your Dad? He was a spineless freak, just like you. And he got what was coming to him. Mummy, too. Heck, your whole stinkin' family, the whole circus-sideshow lot of them. If you said they were deadbeats, you'd be half right."
Tails saw Nails' face in one of the monitors, laughing and smoking. He found a heavy metal bar, and swung it over his head as he cried out. The image in the computer exploded when the guts of the monitor burst out, sparks and debris littering the floor. He bashed it again and again, then moved onto the next, in which he saw Dalziel's mangy visage.
"Calm down, retard," he said, "What do you think you're gonna achieve? You can't change anything, you're just a weak little freak like the rest of us. Useless. Stupid. Face it, your parents sacrificed themselves for the sake of a dumb little retard who's about as useful as screen doors on a submarine. There's nothing you can do, nothing. You've failed everybody."
He smashed it. The plastic casing tore apart in halves as the metal bar sliced through it, the glass bursting outward. Sparks and wires. He moved on again, and through the next monitor peered Lieutenant Overdraw, his eyes aflame with hatred.
"You can train a beast to sit at a table and dress in mobian clothes, yes, but you can not make him a person. You are only animals, yes? We will put you down like animals, yes?"
"You don't have the right!" Tails screamed, and beat the monitor into shrapnel. He swung the bar like a bat, taking out rows of screens at a time, silencing them all. Blood from his hands ran down the bar and dripped on the ground. His nose bled again and soaked the bandage over his head. He dropped the bar and grabbed his ears, crushing them in his hands, and dropped to his knees in the wreckage.
He looked up and saw his fathers lined up before him. All of them. All of those who had, throughout his life, either claimed the title or won it through deed. Nails, scowling and smoking his cigar in a crisp, dark pinstripe suit. Sonic, wry grin, standing proud with his chest puffed out and his hands on his hips, winking. Flightless Joe, the tall crane wearing oil-spattered denim overalls and smiling warmly. Rotor the Walrus, holding a spanner with one hand and scratching his head, feigning modesty. Badoru Kukku, the lord of abominations, beckoning to him from his flowing, colourful robes. Tyler, the full moon reflected in his eyes, smiling on the surface but crying inside, where a beast lurked under his skin.
And standing over him, alive and well, was Trevor Prower, the one who had given him life. He offered Tails a hand, and smiled that fatherly smile.
Tails looked up at his father with his eyes red with tears, and he let them flow. Fifteen years of tears, he let them flow.
"Dad," he sobbed, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
And Trevor shook his head.
"Miles. My son. This is not your burden."
"I failed everyone, Dad. Everyone's gone."
"Our lives were given so that yours may not be, Miles. We don't need you to avenge us. We only want you to live."
"Everyone who cared about me is dead."
"Not everyone. There are people out there who care about you, and you care about them. Their cause is yours, now. Their mission. Not mine. This is not your burden."
Tails wiped away his tears and took his father's hand.
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, Miles. I'm so proud of you, boy."
And with a strength not shared by the dead he pulled his son to his feet.
When Cream found Tails, he was sitting alone with his head between his legs, in one of Sanctuary's grand halls. She descended from the tower's dark inverted abyss, landing softly on her slippered feet. She wore a slip over a pair of pink pyjama bottoms printed with a pattern of bird wings. Behind her, the little robot named Tock hovered on his rotor blades, lighting the way with his lightbulb eyes.
"There he is," he said, "Poor kid, he's done himself in."
They could not see the devastation that Tails had caused in the computer room; he had fled from that graveyard of memories. When Cream ran to him, put arm around his shoulder, he looked up at him with hid face soaked with tears and his eyes red and bloodshot from crying them. He put his hand over hers and held her close.
"Tock fetched me," she said softly, "Oh Tails, what is wrong? What is the matter?" She put a hand under his chin and raised his head, ran the other down his cheek. "You are bleeding."
"Cream," he said, "I need to ask you-"
"Can you- Can you take me flying?"
"Just one more time. I need to."
Though the rabbit couldn't quite understand Tails' motives, she looked into his eyes and could see that he was serious. And what did it really matter? She loved him like a brother. He might have been the only one in the world who had shared her unique pain. If she could do something for him, she would.
And so she took his hand in hers, and turned back toward the tower's core.
"No," Tails said, "Not up there. Outside."
"You kids are loopy," Tock said, "Completely nuts."
"We'll be back soon," Cream told him, "Wait for us."
The night air had a cold bite to it, as it rushed through Tails' fur. It blew away his pain. Hand in hand, the fox and the rabbit soared high above the ground, neither of them born to be confined to the tyranny of gravity.
Tails loved to look down and see the forest so far below him. The trees, their roots clinging deep to the bedrock, they knew nothing about the freedom of flight. True flight, a secret held by birds, but which the birds had decided to share. He was unrestrained, unshackled. His burdens had been lifted from him, and now he was released from their weight. He felt as though he could rise forever.
They flew around the tower, corkscrewed upward, higher and higher until they were almost in the stratosphere. It was the highest Tails had ever been without a plane, and maybe even with one. He told her so, and she declared likewise. Still, neither one admitted any fear, for neither had anything to fear from the sky. That was a fear for ground-dwellers, but not for them.
They passed over the mighty obelisk, the Armada's Sanctuary, peering down through the clouds at the dark glass pyramid at its top, which housed Badoru Kukku's private garden. Together they skimmed over the upper atmosphere of the world, looked out over the expanse of clouds beneath them, soared over it as conquerors, as masters. The air was thin up here, and if Tails looked up he could see the blanket of stars unobstructed, more stars than he had ever imagined existed. There was an infinity out there. He marvelled at the enormity of it all as they descended back toward Mobius.
Tails and Cream circled the Kitsune Atole, peering out over its flawless beaches. Beautiful, untainted forests met the glittering, clear ocean, buffered by a rim of fine white sand. The Armada were right to call this place Babylon, after a forgotten paradise where nature and beauty reigned supreme, uncorrupted and free. This could indeed be a paradise... if not for the people who called it so.
As Tails looked out over this world of beauty, he gave himself to the sky. Pledged his soul eternal. To be one with the rushing wind, the bite of the cold and the freedom of release. He was released. He was free. He was whole.
"There are things you need to know, Cream," he said, "Things that you're not going to want to accept, but you have to hear them."
"I trust you, Tails."
Their feet dangled in the open air as they sat side by side on the cold tile. The village of Quarantine had an old-fashioned bell tower, the highest point in town, and they sat atop its sloped roof to watch over the quiet cottages. Tails looked at her and sighed, wondering where he could possibly begin. Hitting an innocent child with something like this was an almost wretched thing to do. But far more wretched would be to let her remain ignorant. This concerned her as well, for better or worse. If she stayed with the Armada, he would respect her decision. But she had to know.
"I was born here," he said, "In Quarantine. You know that already. I was born in secret, my parents didn't want anybody to know I existed."
"How strange. Why should they want that?"
Tails took a deep breath and looked down at the village. He wondered which of these cottages he had been born inside. Pictured his mother, dressing in loose-fitting clothes, deliberately gaining weight quickly in a desperate bid to hide her conspicuous secret.
"Cream... do you know who the exiles are?"
"Beasts," she said, "Horrid people, wild folk."
"But do you know where they come from?"
"Father has to remove them from Quarantine because they are too wild. He calls them throwbacks. They are not evolved, like the rest."
"Well, I guess in a way that's true. Every so often somebody is born in Quarantine who looks a little strange, and those people have to be taken away before they have children of their own."
"Of course, or else they would pollute Father's project."
"But they can't choose the way they look, can they? They can't change who they are."
Cream shook her head. "I have asked Father these questions. I asked him once why he cannot simply cure the exiles, teach them how to be civilised so that they can live like the rest. He told me that it is beyond our power. They are how they are, and though it is sad, the best that we can do is help those who we can."
"My mother and father," Tails said, "They had a child who was different somehow. A son. The Armada put him into exile. A brother, who was sent away before I knew him. Before I was born."
Cream looked up at him. "I'm sorry," she said.
He nodded. "They didn't want him to be taken, but it was the law. So when my mother knew that she was pregnant again, they already knew the risks."
"They could still have asked for help. Father, he only wants to help people."
"They just couldn't bear the thought that they were going to lose another child. It must have been incredibly difficult, but they hid the fact that I was there, right to the end. Then, when I was born, and they saw that I was different..."
"But you aren't a throwback! You're one of Father's successes, like me!"
Tails shook his head. "My parents couldn't have known that. The Armada probably wouldn't have, either. I didn't know I could fly until I was six years old. Until then, I was just a freak baby with two tails. I would have been exiled, and my parents knew it. Both my Mum and my Dad had brothers exiled, and their first son was too much to bear. They couldn't lose me as well."
"Oh, Tails! I am sorry!"
"Don't be sorry, I- I'm not fishing for sympathy, I'm just telling you this because it's what I know. And what you should know."
"Your father... his people... it's taken them a long time to learn what they know now. There's been a lot of experiments, a lot of trials, probably thousands over the years. They did all sorts of things to all sorts of people in order to learn about genetics. How to... change people. My uncle, Tyler, he was one of their experiments. They implanted him with some kind of monster. But they mustn't have been happy with the result, because he was sent into exile as well."
"Now that sounds silly!"
"Not silly," Tails snapped, "The thing in him hurt people. Killed them. It might have killed my best friend."
"No, I'm- I'm sorry, listen, it's-" He frowned and looked over the town again. He pictured the story as he told it, overlaying the events over the empty village, making them vivid. Making them clear. "My Dad must have been in contact with my uncles, even though they were in exile. I guess they set dates to speak through the fence, when nobody was watching. I know because it was my uncles who helped him to escape."
"Yes. Tyler, the one with the monster in him, he did it somehow. I'm not sure how they organised it, but somehow they used Nightmare - the monster - to help break us out. My Dad and I. They found a boat, or made one, and used it to get away from the island. It was a huge plan, it must have been very difficult to organise, but they did it all. Just for me. To save me."
"You make it sound like a prison!" Cream exclaimed, "They're not prisoners."
"They have a barbed-wire fence around them."
"To keep the exiles out!"
"Only the three of us left," he continued, "My father, Uncle Tyler, and me. My mother didn't come, and my uncle Yared stayed behind so she wouldn't be alone. At first I thought that she'd preferred to stay in Quarantine, that she'd given me up, maybe because she didn't want me. But now I know... she stayed because she couldn't come with us."
"It's because of who she was. A female, a breeder. Your father and his people tagged her somehow so that they could always know where she was. If she'd escaped with us... the Armada could have tracked us down, wherever we went. She knew that I'd never be safe, so she gave me a chance... She basically sacrificed herself for me."
Cream didn't look impressed. She was giving him a cock-eyed look and growing more flustered. Tails wasn't surprised. Nobody wants to hear these things about the people close to them. He imagined how he would feel if somebody told him that his own father was a liar and a villain. It wasn't easy, but if she would only listen to the end, then she would see...
"You're saying some very silly things!" she exclaimed, "Sacrifice? Is it a sacrifice to stay and live in paradise? You sound like it was a rescue! But how can it be a rescue if they took you to Terra Nullius? How can you be rescued from a good place and taken somewhere bad? It sounds like you're all mixed up-"
"Please, Cream, let me finish-"
"You're just confused. Father would-"
"Cream. You have to hear the end of this. There's something you need to know, but I have to tell you this first."
"It was a sacrifice because my mother knew that something was going to happen to her. Because she was corrupted, Cream. She'd had two children and they were both wrong. What you call throwbacks. Your father doesn't tolerate women who just breed exiles, they just pollute the gene pool, but he won't send women into exile, either."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I'm saying they-" The pain began to well up again, but he bit down and pushed it back. He had to finish. For her sake, he had to finish. "They killed my mother, Cream. They just took her out of the equation, along with anyone else who doesn't fit, who doesn't help this stupid, ridiculous project. My uncle Yared, he stayed behind to look out for her, but they killed him too. I don't know why, probably because he helped us escape, or maybe he tried to stop them getting to my Mum. They took everyone, Cream, my whole family, anyone who didn't get off this island. But it's not just me, that's what I'm talking about. This is just the way it works, they're doing it all the time, to lots of people-"
"You're lying!" Cream shrieked, and she threw her hands to the sides of her head, as though she had any hope of blocking her enormous ears. "Why would you say things like this? You're trying to tell me lies!"
"Please, Cream, I have to finish-"
"Why would you say this, why?"
"-you have to know-"
"No!" The rabbit stood up and stomped her foot. "I don't want to hear it! I thought you were my friend."
"I am, Cream-"
"No, you're just being mean and making up things to upset me. Well, I don't want to know about it anymore."
But the girl had made up her mind. On the verge of tears, she leaped off the bell tower and spread her ears, gliding and then flying away. She headed back toward Sanctuary.
"You have to hear this, Cream, please!" The fox spun his tails and took off after her. But he knew already what was going to happen. He soared for twenty meters before a fierce cramp hit his tails and he began to descend. The girl in the pink pyjamas flew out of his vision as he fell into a steep dive and hit the ground with a thump.
Nails' office was full of smoke when Tails had entered, as it so often was. He'd come to ask where his father was. Usually Trevor was up early in the morning to say goodbye to his son before work, but this morning he broke tradition for the very first time. When Tails had gone to check on him, he had found his father already gone. Nowhere to be found.
Nails was sitting in the dark in his office, a silhouette but for the red point of light that was the fire at the end of his cigar. It glowed redder every now and then when he sucked on it, and the shadow let out a billow of black smoke.
Something didn't seem right, today. Something wasn't comfortable. Nails wasn't his usual chummy, hospitable self. He just ignored Tails' question, sucking on that cigar, blowing out smoke with a hiss of breeze. Something seemed cold.
Tails repeated the question, and was met with more silence. Now he grew very uncomfortable, and more than a little afraid. Nails broke the silence at last.
"Forget it, kid." The words were flat. Frigid. "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 always remembered how his blood had run cold at that moment. Like ice water.
This was the reality of life, though. Tails had learned to live in the wild lands and accept all that came as part of that. The reality of life was that it ended. And sometimes, or most of the time, death didn't wait for its victims to complete their business in the world. To make good on their promises.
Sometimes, it just didn't make any sense at all.
The fox blinked his eyes open, and saw the sky. Fluffy, white clouds. Clear blue sky. No wind. A nice day for flying.
"...Tails, my boy..."
He was one his back, his tails curled around his body for warmth. He frowned and sat up. A garden... The garden at the base of the tower. He'd fallen asleep outside, couldn't bear to return to Sanctuary. As he looked around, he saw dozens of stony faces. Beaked faces. Some were suited in white and some in black. And standing over him, wearing his colourful robes, was Badoru Kukku. Tails could see Overdraw there as well, with a smug grin. Standing behind her father's legs was Cremaria Kukku, looking forlorn.
"We may need to discuss matters," Kukku said, wearing the stern expression of an incensed father. It was the same expression that his own father had worn when Tails had upset him.
"That's probably a good idea," Tails replied.
"My daughter has told me a great many troubling things. It seems you've been spreading some rather venomous rumours."
"Really? Any of them true?"
"Slander, in itself, is something I can certainly look past. All that you are hurting is my pride, after all. But my daughter... She is only twelve, and you've scared her quite badly. Then, of course, there is the matter of the substantial damage that you have done to our property."
"I told her what she had to know," Tails spat, "I told her what you wouldn't."
Kukku dropped to his knees, and leaned close to him. "Tails, what is wrong? We've taken you into our home, I have taken you in as a son, given you everything you could ever need. Why would you turn against me?"
"You only took me in because of what I represent. Me and Cream both. You don't love us, Kukku, you love yourself. Every time your freaks flap their arms or ears or tails and fly around, you see yourself and fall in love all over again. And after what you've done to my family, I consider your hospitality an insult."
Kukku looked like he'd been stabbed. "Why would you say these hurtful things?"
"Because you're a selfish, conceited, murderous old turkey!" Tails shouted in his face, "It's less than you deserve!"
"Whatever you have heard, Tails, you're confused. You don't understand."
"Oh, there's no mistake."
Tails stood up and took on a defensive stance, but he knew that he was in trouble. He was completely surrounded, and the soldiers in black had taken a few steps forward, ahead of the scientists. Many of them were holding batons and other ominous looking objects. A few had sticks with loops of wire on the end, much like what they used to capture dangerous animals.
"I have always been concerned about this one, yes?" Overdraw said, "This interloper from the wild lands, he knows nothing of the civilised way to live. He comes to us naked, yes, in a mechanical flying machine. He associates with animals, invites them into our paradise. He has been nothing but trouble since he arrived."
"Overdraw, I-" Kukku looked choked up, conflicted. "Maybe it's best if you-"
"He must be removed!" Overdraw exclaimed.
"I'm sorry, Tails. I'm starting to think that... if it's for the best, that you..."
The Armada soldiers began to advance. Some of the weapons that Tails couldn't identify sparked at the end like tasers. He remembered the skirmish between Overdraw and Dale, the wolf shrieking and convulsing as though electrocuted. Tails was entirely surrounded, he saw only one chance open to him, and he took it before thinking.
Breaking suddenly into a sprint, he shoved Badoru Kukku out of the way and grabbed Cream around the waist. She screamed and thrashed against him, but he held tight, trying to look menacing and dangerous without actually hurting her.
"No!" Kukku shrieked, and held his hand out, "Stop! Stop, all of you stop!"
The soldiers stopped advancing. Tails had to move around quickly so that he didn't have his back to any of them for long, but he knew this wouldn't work for more than a few moments. These people were trained.
"Tails, let go!" Cream pleaded.
"Back off," he said firmly, "Everybody back off."
Kukku trembled in fear and nervousness, reached out to Cream even though he didn't dare approach. "You unhand my daughter!"
"Are you starting to find out how it feels, Kukku? When you think you might lose a member of your family? After you've torn apart so many? It's just a fact of life, for you, isn't it?"
"Please, you don't know what you're talking about-"
"How many have you murdered over the years? What's the death toll of this insane project?"
"I don't murder!" he protested, "I don't- Murder is something done with malicious intent."
"But you've killed."
Kukku seemed to see the distress in his daughter's eyes when he said this. She stopped thrashing against Tails' grip and instead looked at her father with a kind of pained confusion. He raised his fingers to his temples and averted his gaze. "I've done only what is necessary," he said, "Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. I don't like it, but it's science, we must look past these things. Please understand that."
The soldiers were advancing again, very slowly. Whenever Tails turned his back to one of them, the bird would take another step. Overdraw was the closest, his eyes stony as he held out his sparking rod.
"Don't talk to me about remorse," Tails said, "You had my mother killed."
"Tails, please! Let us talk about this."
"But let my daughter go!"
Tails' time was up. He was about to meet the bad end of one of those electric sticks if he didn't end this. He had a story to finish. Cream had flown away before he had a chance to finish what he had to say, but right now, with the girl squirming in his arms and the Armada advancing from every direction, he was going to be heard.
"You killed my mother," he spat, "And you killed her mother too."
Kukku froze solid. His eyes widened and rolled about in their sockets, and his beak trembled and stammered. "Tails-"
"I looked it up," Tails continued, "On the computers. The file is right there. Do you remember her? Vanilla Rae. You had her killed because she wouldn't breed."
"After her husband died she was useless to you. She wouldn't take another partner, she was just dead weight, using up resources. Inefficient. Uncooperative. You did her in for it, isn't that right?"
"Tell the girl to her face, Kukku, the girl you call your daughter. I think she deserves to know that you killed her mother-"
"Because she wouldn't let her go!" Kukku screamed.
A long silence. The sound of the leaves rustling in a low breeze. The zoic birds chirped, unperturbed by their anthric masters. It was broken at last by a little girl's trembling voice.
"You... you have to understand..." Kukku stammered, "Cremaria, you are the most important thing to ever happen to me, to my work. You are a little miracle, a prodigy, a conquest. You've breathed life into the project. It was imperative that we... learn from you. For the sake of everyone, Cremaria, for the sake of the world! Your mother... she didn't understand! I pleaded with her. I begged her. She just would not listen to reason! She wanted you all to herself. I had to do what I had to do. The woman did it to herself, she forced my hand!"
"Fatherrrrr!" Cremaria cried, the end of the word drowned by tears, "Oh Father no, Father no! No!"
"All for you, Cremaria, for the world, for the project! I beg you to consider what is important! All that I have taught you-"
Somebody swiped at Tails with one of the electric rods, and he just barely dodged it. Several others broke into a run, their rods and batons raised, and Tails braced himself to fight back. He wasn't going to be taken easily. He vaguely heard Kukku shouting at them not to shock him or else she would also be hurt, but Tails didn't think they were paying much attention, now. Overdraw was their Lieutenant, and Overdraw was leading the advance.
But that's when they took off.
Before Tails even understood what was happening, he was leaving the ground behind. Although he was heavier than Cream, and he wasn't bearing their weight with his tails, the little girl was carrying the both of them on the burden of her winglike ears. He grasped her waist so that she would not run, but now it was so that he would not fall. She was saving him, although she had nothing to fear from the Armada, and although it must have caused her immense pain and tremendous effort to do so. Tails didn't understand why, but he didn't take it for granted. He spun his tails and the two of them soared away.
"Thank you," he whispered in her ear.
Cream was crying uncontrollably, and through her sobs she said "We can't get away."
It was true. Overdraw and his soldiers could fly much better than a fox and a rabbit. There was one possibility, but typically, it was risky.
"Cream, we have to turn around," he said, "We have to return to the tower."
"They'll catch us!"
"You have to trust me. Please, Cream. I've never lied to you. We can make it."
"Back to the tower?"
"Back to the tower."
They performed a wide mid-air loop and flew back the other way. Overdraw and the Armada army were indeed in hot persuit, a flock of blackbirds with their heads down and their wings beating in regulated unison. Tails and Cream flew over them as they passed below, and headed back toward the towers of Sanctuary.
"We have to go inside," Tails said.
"We'll be trapped!"
And she did. He wasn't sure why, but she did. Tails positioned himself behind her and spun his tails vertical rather than horizontal, in the way he often did when he was running, for extra propulsion. The strange machine that they made together looked something like a living plane, rabbit ears for wings and fox tails for props, and it worked. Their flight sped up twofold, and they rocketed toward the tower. Later, Tails couldn't remember whether he'd been whooping out loud, or just in his head.
Behind them, the Armada peeled off, looped around like a fleet of battle jets, and came back the other way. Overdraw was in the lead, and Tails thought he could see the hate in his eyes even from here.
As they dipped out of the sky to enter the tower, they passed over the beautiful garden at its foot. The last that Tails ever saw of Badoru Kukku was now, as the bird sat in this garden with his head shrouded in his wings. He looked ashamed, but Tails wondered if he really was. He wished that he could ask. He wanted to believe that Kukku was repenting, that in some abstract way he really had fulfilled his father's promise to free the people of this island, but deep down he knew it wasn't to be. His visit here would change nothing.
(this is not your burden)
Except that it had changed something. For the first time in his life, Tails could genuinely forgive himself.
They shot through the halls and catacombs of Kukku's Sanctuary faster than either had ever flown, and Tails knew that in a way they really were siblings. They just fit together, and with Cream he felt unstoppable.
"Where are we going?" Cream asked, growing urgency in her voice.
It was the factory they needed to seek. The machine shop, where the Armada kept their scraps and from where they built their paradise... and where they kept the biplane that they had repaired for him. The piece of technology at which they snubbed their beaks and that they regarded as hopelessly inferior - the machine that was going to thwart them. For Tails yearned to see the feathered jerks try to keep up with his Tornado.
When they arrived in the shop and tried to land, they almost crashed on their faces for the speed they were travelling, but Tails managed to stabilise his flight partner and they landed without incident. He turned to run toward the warehouse where his plane was stored, when he heard a barking voice behind him that shocked him to a standstill.
He turned and saw Dalziel. Still grinning, still caged. He gripped the bars with one hand and one clawed talon, and scowled, his yellow and rotting teeth dripping on the concrete. "In a hurry?"
"Tails, we have to be quick! They're coming!" Cream exclaimed.
He started toward the warehouse again, stopped, looked back at Dalziel, then trembled like he was trying to move in two directions at once.
"What's wrong?" Cream asked.
Tails recalled being used as a punching bag for no real reason, having his nose broken, being kicked in the gut and slapped around, and tried to convince himself that Dalziel had everything coming to him. But he wasn't Nails the Bat, nor was he Badoru Kukku. He was his father's son.
"I have to let him out," he said, and ran to Dalziel's cage.
"What- what are you doing?" the feral snarled, "You're gonna let me out?"
"It's locked," Tails whined, as though this should be a revelation, and rattled the door with both hands.
"No, really?" Dalziel barked, "Wouldn't have guessed."
"Tock!" Cream came running up, holding a familiar gold-plated robot in her palm.
Tails looked at it. "What's that gonna do?"
"Tock's got a master key! He was a surveillance droid! He can open all the locks!" She cranked his key several times, and the little robot came to life.
"Aw, I was having a great dream!" he complained, "No, that's a lie."
"Quick, Tock! You have to open the cage!"
The robot turned to the cage, looked at Dalziel, then turned back to Cream.
"You're telling a joke."
"It's no joke!" Tails said, "Hurry up, we don't have much time!"
Tock's eyes flickered and the end of a key poked out of his face, where his nose might have been. Cream held him up to the keyhole, and he went to work, muttering all the while.
"Quick, Tock!" he mimicked, "Jump into that jar of acid! Oh, hurry Tock! Fly into that aircraft engine! We don't have much time!"
The lock clicked, and the cage door swung open.
"Good!" Tails exclaimed, "Now let's go! We have to get back to the-"
Dalziel struck him on the back of the head, and he went down on his stomach. The girl screamed as the feral cackled and kicked Tails twice in the side while he was down.
"Stupid!" he roared, "Stupid, stupid little freak!"
He glanced toward the hall that led out of the complex, his eyes aglow with the fires of the wild and the insane. He laughed, and kicked Tails once more for good measure, before he turned tail and ran down the hall.
"Dalziel, no!" Tails gasped.
"So long, suckers!" the feral fox yelled back, "You'll never take me alive! You'll never, ever, ever take Dalziel Prower alive!"
And with that, he was gone, only the residue of his voice lagging behind.
Cream tried to help Tails to his feet, but he'd gone wooden. Paralysed.
"Prower." He mouthed the word.
(they had a child in exile)
(a brother, sent away before I knew him)
"Tails, come on!"
"But I- I have to-"
"Let him go!"
"You have to let him go!"
Painstakingly, he ripped himself back to the now. She was right. This was something else that was not his burden. If he had known earlier, then perhaps... but now was now, and there was no time left.
"Hey Buckaroo," Tock said, "Would this be a bad time to ask just what the heck is going on?"
"Yes," Tails replied.
"Tock, we need to get into the warehouse. Can you help us?"
"Not a lock I can't open!" His propellor emerged from behind his key, and the little robot flew away toward the warehouse door. Tails turned to Cream, her hazel eyes wide with fear.
"Cream, they won't punish you. It's me they want. They think I've kidnapped you, they don't know you've helped me. Your life can be the same as before, with your father-"
"My father?" She spat the word out like it tasted bad. "I want my mother."
Tails remembered the night that Sonic had taken him out of Station Square, rescued him from the employment of Nails the Bat. He remembered it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday, except now, in his mind, he was Sonic and Cream was him. He remembered exactly what Sonic had said to him, all those years ago; that he'd known a group of friendly people who could take him in and give him a good life, if he'd be willing to go. Now Tails looked into Cream's teary hazel eyes, into her wounded, weeping soul, and made for her the same offer.
"Come with me," he said, barely above a whisper, and held out his hand.
Cream wiped her tears away and nodded. She took his hand, and they ran toward the warehouse as the door swung open.
"Open sesame!" Tock exclaimed, "Anything else I can do for you folks?"
"Come on, Tock!" Cream called, "We're leaving!"
"Leaving via what? The magic warehouse portal to the dusty storeroom dimension?"
Tails climbed over the wing of the Tornado and turned to offer Cream a hand, but she just flew over him to land in the back seat. Tails climbed into the pilot seat and allowed himself just a moment to run his hand over the plane's surface while he fired up the controls. Tock landed in Cream's lap with a digital squeal as the props fired up.
"There better be an in-flight movie," he said.
"There better be a window," Tails added, looking up, "Or else we're going nowhere."
There was a window, and with some luck it would be wide enough to fly through without damage. Tails didn't waste time considering the alternative, considering it was the only option available.
"Here we go! Hold on!"
He heard the storm of feathers and wings as the Armada army arrived in the machine shop, and the Tornado began to roll. Tails bit his lip and squeezed the flight stick as they picked up speed. "Come on, come on, come on..."
The Tornado took off just in time to avert a crash into the wall on the other side, and they rocketed toward the glass window, daylight shining through from outside.
"Cream, duck and shield your eyes!"
They both did, and the Tornado, itself protected by dozens of powerful upgrades that Tails had installed over the years, smashed through the window, showering them both in glass. Tails shook his head and roared with laughter.
"Do you do that often?" Cream asked.
Tails nodded. "Pretty often, yeah."
"What exactly do you do for a living?"
"You'll see! Now, hold on to your stuff!"
"Yes, hold on to me!" Tock exclaimed.
The Tornado banked steeply and they turned to fly back over Quarantine. Tails bid it farewell, the cottages, the cobblestone streets, the lake and its ducks. The towers of Sanctuary passed by their left, and he waved to them as well. "So long, Babylon!"
"Tails! Look out!"
He looked ahead again just in time to see something big rise from beneath them and fly in a collision course with the Tornado. It was the bizarre black squid-thing, its tentacles trailing behind it as it rocketed ominously toward them, the hatch on the front that resembled a mouth gaping wide open.
Tails pulled up hard, and the squid clamped its mouth shut on thin air as they flew over it in a barrel roll. But the squid was surprisingly aerodynamic, and it followed easily. They banked again, tried to get it off their tail.
"We have to lose this thing," Tails said through clenched teeth. He cracked his knuckles, leaned forward in his seat, and grabbed the control stick. "Hold on."
He used every flight trick he'd ever mastered to shake the beast machine off his tail, but it followed as though there were an invisible rope between them. Tails couldn't even figure out how the thing flew; it really did resemble a sea creature, swimming through the air. It opened its mouth and took another snap at them, which the plane narrowly avoided again.
Just when Tails didn't think it could get any worse, he heard a loud bang to his right, and the whole plane shuddered. He looked and saw a row of tiny holes along the Tornado's side.
The Armada army fell upon them, flying in formation, and each bird appeared to have a machine gun mounted on his back. Tails looked at them, looked at the squid, and gritted his teeth. "This makes things more interesting."
Lieutenant Overdraw rose from somewhere below, and flew beside Tails, his face hardened in a scowl.
"You think you will get away in your stupid-looking contraption, yes?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I do," Tails replied.
"You can not beat us in the sky, wretched animal," the Lieutenant growled, "The sky belongs to us! It is our birthright, yes? You challenge the Armada in their own element?"
"Oh, I know how to fly, bird-brain."
"Hah! You know nothing. Hand over the rabbit now or you will go down in flames. This will be your only warning."
"Shoot us down and we'll both be killed. You call that a rescue?"
"Ah, but we have had this conversation before, yes? I am not particularly fond of stinky rabbits and filthy vermin scampering about my home. If you were to decide to sacrifice yourselves I would lose no sleep, yes?"
"Well, then. Eat my slipstream, Lieutenant."
He banked the Tornado hard, and Overdraw was blown into a flurry of feathers. He squawked and dropped out of the sky.
The rest of the Armada opened fire, and now Tails had their bullets to contend with. He rolled and dipped, banked and spun in a spectacular display of aeronautics. The birds knew how to fly, it was in their blood, but Tails knew he could do better. Because he knew that nobody owned the sky. You could use it, but you were never its master. You could only befriend the sky, tame it, caress it, love it. Fall in love with it. Tails knew he could do better, because the Armada tried to whip the sky into submission, to dominate and control it. But Tails was in love with it.
"What are you gonna do?" Cream squealed.
"I'm gonna teach these birds how to fly," he replied, and banked the Tornado again.
The giant squid-machine snapped at them from the left as it rolled past, and Tails grit his teeth as he pulled away from it and turned to fly back toward the Armada - a black arrow-shaped formation of birds, with Overdraw at its head. He flew directly toward them, and could see them train their guns on him.
"Uh, Tails?" Cream stammered from the back seat.
"Hold on." He looked around to check the position of the squid, then turned to the Armada. He leaned forward and stared directly into Overdraw's piercing eyes.
"Tails, they'll shoot us!"
In a moment he would be in range of their guns, but he didn't bank away. He held his position, kept his eyes locked on the Lieutenant's. He turned to check on the squid again, checked his left and his right, then back to Overdraw. The bird was shouting something, either to Tails or his troops, but he couldn't hear it.
The guns were trained. Cream hid her face in her hands. Tails gripped the flight stick and cried out something incomprehensible as the squid closed in on them from behind and opened its gaping mouth... Overdraw shouted his command and the Armada opened fire... and at the very last moment, the Tornado banked.
What happened next was a marvel of harmonic unison. As the Tornado pulled away, the squid-machine following behind it clamped down, but it missed the plane. Instead it was Overdraw who flew, shrieking, straight into the beast's closing mouth. A muffled clang from inside the thing and a cloud of black feathers were all that remained of the Lieutenant.
At the very same moment, as the squid-thing flew over the formation of birds, the hail of bullets from the Armada shot it out of the sky.
A massive explosion billowed behind the Tornado as Tails rolled and banked it away from the catastrophe. The birds peeled out and degenerated into a confused mess without their commander, and Tails took advantage of the chaos to make an escape over the ocean.
Cream and Tock cheered from the back seat, and Tails tried to muffle his excited giggles and set a course with his instruments. He looked back as the Kitsune Atole vanished behind him, swallowed by sea and the horizon.
"Man, I'm glad I don't wear pants!" Tock exclaimed, "And that I can't crap!"
"Tails?" Cream said.
"Do not ever do that again."
They called it the Forbidden Zone, but this was a good day to fly it. The sky was clear and the wind was steady and calm. A great day to fly.
Cream had asked where they were going, and Tails hadn't needed to consider it. He knew the answer as though there had never been any question.
"We're going home," he said, "A village in the forest called New Knothole."
"That is a very strange name for a village."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"Is it as nice as Quarantine?"
Cream nodded. "Good."
Tails flew straight on toward the mainland of Westerica, navigating the familiar waters of his homeland. He'd flown over this water many times before, practicing his favourite hobby, doing barrel rolls and flips, just flying alone with the one he loved - the sky. His soulmate.
And as the coast came into view, a tear formed in his eye and he wondered why he would ever want to leave the Freedom Fighters. Because freedom was only an illusion if there was no home to slouch back to at the end of the day, pointless if there was nobody to love and to love him in return. And there would be no freedom at all, without people to fight for it.
He'd declared that their mission was not his own. And yet it was. Because the mission of the people he cared for was his mission. He'd searched the world for his father, for catharsis, and yet he'd left his real family behind in persuit of a quest, a promise he neither made nor understood.
As it was, his father's last gift to him was to help him see what was important.
Blood was thicker than water indeed, and Tails had spent enough time away from his family. As the big, beautiful blue sky marked his path, Tails Prower set his sights on home. And this was the way it was supposed to end.
Miles Prower, or Tails as he liked to be called, skipped along the curb while his father walked beside him in the street. It was a fine day, the sky blue and beautiful with funny white pillows of cloud.
"I like it here!" the little fox declared, "But Station Square is a stupid name for a city!"
"Well, I like it here too, Miles. And I guess it's not so silly once you get used to it."
"It's not as nice as our old home."
"No. No, it isn't. Thank goodness."
"Dad, look what I can do."
"That's very clever, Miles."
"Dad, what are we gonna do?"
His father sighed. "Well, I guess first of all I have to look for a job."
"Dad, you're not watching me."
"Yes I am. Very clever."
"Dad, why have you gotta look for a job?"
"Well, because that's how the world works. I need to-"
"You didn't need a job on that dumb island. It was dumb there. It was boring, and it was dumb."
"Things are different here, Miles. We'll have to try to fit in. You know, you'll have to look for work too, some day."
"Yes way. You'll find something you like to do, and you'll want to do it all the time."
"I already know what I'm gonna do when I grow up."
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
"I'm gonna be a freedom fighter! Just like you!"
His father smiled. "Oh, fighting for freedom is a tough job, Miles."
"I don't care! I'm gonna be a freedom fighter! Or a fireman."
His father ruffled his hair. "I have a feeling you're going to do just fine."
"Dad, you messed up my hair. Are we there yet?"
"This is gonna be fun, Dad."
"You know, I think you're right, kiddo. I think we're going to be all right."