-The Night He Came Home-
Soft cloth and sheets caressed Fox's fur, and the sensation was perplexing after so much pain. His eyelids fluttered open, pupils adjusting to bright glow panels in the ceiling. Raising his head from his pillow, he glanced out a window and saw the silver and white towers of Corneria City stretching far beyond into the horizon, the monochromatic spires interrupted by vertical forest parks and the constant traffic of starships and skycars. His brow furrowed and he looked around the room, at the clinical hospital bed and at the IV drip hooked into his right arm. He jolted in surprise at the sight of the green-skinned amphibian sitting in the chair next to his bed.
"Slippy! You're... alright," were the first words out of Fox's mouth.
The amphibian grinned and nodded enthusiastically, adjusting the red and white cap between his eyes.
"Everyone's fine, Fox!" Slippy chirped, "You did it, you saved everyone. We saved everyone."
"I…I don't know what to say," Fox breathed, his mouth dry, "Where am I now? H-How did I get here?"
"Shhh," Slippy simpered, "Don't worry about it. You're with us now."
The amphibian laid a hand on Fox's wrist, just below his IV tube, squeezing gently.
Fox sighed, looking out the window again, about to ask where the others were when Slippy hissed, "You're with all of us now."
His wrist burned and Fox looked back to see Slippy's fingers sink into his wrist like putty, the amphibian's pupils swollen so his eyes looked black. Warping yellow lights danced in Slippy's eyes as hollow moans shook the room. Fox screamed but no one came and Slippy's mouth opened and dozens of pink tendrils writhed out, squirming into Fox's fur, burrowing under his flesh, into his eyes-
Fox gasped, his eyes flying open as he jerked upwards in bed. This was a mistake. Pain seized him all over his waist, his legs, his chest and arms, and he groaned loudly as he fell back into the pillow. He caught his breath as cold sweat settled into his fur and soaked his hospital gown. He was looking at the same gray ceilings and pale glowpanels, and he winced as he made another effort to sit upwards. The aches seized him like an electric shock up his side, and he fell grunting into the pillow. He caught his breath and looked down over the bandages and thermoplastic casts, the tubes in both arms and the treated synthflesh covering the section of forearm where he'd been bitten. Fox grunted and looked out the window, seeing the brightly lit skyscrapers and shimmering air traffic of Corneria City under a dark, sunless sky. It was still there.
Muffled murmurs of a familiar voice reached his ears, and a door at the corner of the room slid open. Fox spied a holovision flatscreen up on the wall, turned on to a commercial for what looked like dandruff shampoo as Peppy Hare stepped through the doorway with a relieved smile on his face. He sighed as his eyes met Fox and pressed the power button on the flatscreen display as the announcer menaced, "We now return to your twilight horror feature: Curse of the Hypnotoad! On WCA-Corneria." The flatscreen winked to black and Peppy looked back at him as if for the first time, the light of the glowpanels reflecting off his spectacles. He came towards the bed as Fox struggled to sit up.
"Here, don't push yourself," Peppy remarked, looking over the bandages and casts. He pressed a button on the side of Fox's hospital bed and the back end tilted upwards until Fox was more or less in a sitting position.
"Where am I? H—how long was I out?"
"You're in Sulmount Ward General Medcenter," Peppy replied, "You've been in and out of consciousness for the past two days. The docs say you've been having nightmares."
"I have..." Fox breathed, letting his eyes rest for a moment. He almost smelled sweet-vomit stench, and his eyes flew open wide.
"What happened?" he stammered desperately, "Did the ship crash? Are the nanites spreading?"
"Calm down," Peppy instructed, putting a hand on Fox's shoulder then dragging a chair away from the wall and taking a seat at Fox's bedside, "I said don't stress yourself, you took a pretty hard beating."
The leporid's face dropped slightly, and Fox could see his own terrified expression reflected in Peppy's glasses. Peppy cleared his throat.
"The Starghast was completely destroyed twenty nine klicks over Corneria City by the CSB Enforcement Fleet. You bailed out maybe thirteen seconds before it happened," Peppy answered, "A few dozen pieces hit the surface, some of 'em big enough to damage some buildings... If you hadn't used the Self-Destruct Program to kill the Source, it's very likely enough nanites would've survived."
The breath rattled out of Fox's lungs, and the aches all over his body felt vaguely dulled. He sank back into his pillow and swallowed, staring into the ceiling. Peppy smirked underneath his whiskers, leaning back in his seat.
"So," the rabbit grunted, "How's it feel to save the world?"
"It only hurts when I breathe," Fox groaned.
"That crazy stunt Falco and Krystal pulled nearly killed you. Not that you left us much choice for getting you off the ship. The shuttle's inertial dampeners and artificial gravity cushioned your fall enough that you weren't liquefied on impact. Instead, you broke... what was it?" Peppy remarked, ticking the points off with his fingers, "Three ribs, both legs, your right arm in three places, your right collarbone in two, hairline fractures in your pelvis... I think that's a record for you, isn't it? Oh yeah, and one of your ribs also punctured your spleen and your liver. Good news is it missed your stomach, and they're cloning you a new liver, so uh, drink up... Turns out you don't really need a spleen. You even know what it does? I don't."
"Awesome," Fox muttered, trying to shift to a comfortable position, but every time his body moved a new place began to hurt.
"Maybe not as bad as you think," Peppy shrugged, "You'll be back on your feet in a month or two. Helix Biotech is underwriting the cost of your medical bills on top of our other fees. We turned over the evidence we found and they seemed happy. You were still out, but R.J. McMurdo and I had a pretty good chat with the Ministry of Defense and the CSB. Morrow was embarrassed to learn one of her own agents sabotaged the ship and the whole situation is sensitive as far as the government's concerned, so everyone's just going to say it was a rogue AI and a mutated phage virus and agree not to talk about it anymore. The company was damn pleased, so we got a pretty hefty bonus. We'll be able to check a few things off our wish list with the Liat coming our way."
Fox sighed and tried to smile, giving Peppy thumbs-up.
"Does that bonus include turning up the painkillers?" Fox grimaced, "Because that would be really cool."
"I'll see what I can do in a bit, you should probably be coherent for this stuff," Peppy nodded, shifting in his seat as he fiddled with the data assistant on his wrist, "Here's one thing you really wouldn't have expected to hear: You may have just won some of Gillian Morrow's respect."
"Oh, really?" Fox wheezed, unable summon enough feeling to care about what Gillian Morrow thought of him.
"Really," Peppy nodded, a holographic page of green text appearing over his data assistant, "I mean, it's not like we can really talk about what happened too much, but I did get this: To Commander Fox McCloud and Lieutenants. On behalf of the Commonwealth Security Bureau, I extend my gratitude for your actions in defense of Corneria and it's Commonwealth. The neutralization of condition Delta-Romeo-Alpha on the CRV Starghast and the favorable conclusion of ComSec Op 625982 would not have been possible without your efforts. Operative Firestarter has been safely recovered for debriefing, and the matters of internal security and operative fealty will be rigorously investigated. Though you will receive no medals and public disclosure of your most recent assignment is prohibited under the State Secrets Act, all of Corneria, myself included, owe you a debt that cannot be quantified. The Bureau may re-evaluate it's position concerning Team StarFox and it's role in safeguarding the people and interests of the Commonwealth. Signed with regards, Gillian Morrow, Director of the Commonwealth Security Bureau, codename Den Mother."
The page of text dissolved in the air and Peppy cocked a wry eyebrow.
"I think you made a friend," the rabbit smirked.
Fox blew air out through his lips, not quite a whistle, and shook his head, not sure how to feel. Recent events hadn't left him inclined to trust anyone outside of his teammates. His eyes swelled at the thought and he almost shoved himself out of bed, remembering the restrictive casts at the last moment.
"Oh my god, Slippy! Is Slippy alright?" he demanded.
Peppy frowned and his ears drooped slightly. After a moment he nodded, the glowpanel lights dancing off his spectacles.
"We were able to put him in a stasis chamber and stop the spread of the nanites before it was too late," Peppy nodded, "He needed some minor surgery, but physically he's fine, recovering just down the hall. Mentally... he's going to need some time. Maybe some leave, vacation with Amy, that sort of thing. His nightmares are worse than yours, I think. The docs want to put him on antipsychotics for a while. I spoke with him for a bit earlier today... he was having a calm moment. He wants to have a funeral for ROB."
Fox tried to swallow, his mouth dry.
"There's no way to recover him?" Fox asked quietly. Peppy looked to the side and swallowed.
"We've got a backup of his operating system and memory files, but that dates from before the Aparoid Invasion. Even then, it doesn't account for the imperfections in his programming from all of Slippy's tweaks and upgrades. The ghosts in the machine that made him what he was... we'll never get those back. We can rebuild him, but it won't be the ROB we lost."
Fox's mouth was dry, his jaw tight, and he squeezed his hands into fists. ROB had been there, with Peppy and his father for as long as Fox could remember. Even when he'd pushed away everyone on the team after his break up with Krystal, ROB stayed. To most people in the Lylat System, androids stood somewhere between a pet, a slave and an appliance. Fox had felt the loss of someone special before, and it didn't feel like he'd lost an appliance now.
"He knew he was sacrificing himself for us," Peppy said hoarsely, "Most robots, especially operators, the way their programming works, wouldn't come to that conclusion. They're not allowed to consider self-termination. But he did it. I don't know why. Maybe it was the most logical choice, the one that minimized harm to us. Or maybe, somehow, he felt something for all of us. We held value to him in a way that didn't compute, in a way that took priority over even his most basic functions. I like to think of it that way, true or not."
Fox nodded softly, closing his eyes for a moment.
"I think a funeral's a good idea," Fox whispered, "He deserves one."
When Fox opened his eyes, Peppy was still there, leaning forward with a serious look on his face.
"Before we started this, you asked me how many close calls before we lost someone. We all came close last time, but we faced it together. This time? We lost someone. And there were moments where each of us almost died, not together but alone. Isolated."
Fox licked the roof of his dry mouth and stared into Peppy's brown eyes, ignoring the ache in his lower back.
"We all faced death that night," Fox said quietly, "My worst fears, all of them... not being able to save any of you, or the people I swore to protect, or this planet... losing one of you... I looked all of that horror right in the face."
"And what now?" Peppy inquired, his rough deep voice reverberating around the corners of the hospital room, "Is that fear going to stop you from going back out there?"
"ROB wouldn't have wanted us to give up. If it had been you, you would've wanted us to go on. If it had been me, I would've wanted you to go on. When I thought I was going down with the ship... I was afraid but...it wasn't important. You were counting on me, everyone was. It was bigger than me or how afraid I felt. There were more important things," Fox answered, pausing, "Some day, each of us is going to have one close call too many. I have to come to peace with that, even though all of you are the only family I've got. What we do is bigger than me, and even if we're afraid, we don't ever give up. We can't give up. Because we're StarFox, and the end of our story probably is we die. I mean, what else do we do, retire and play chess? It doesn't work that way. We fight until we drop. And one day, I guess we will drop. But until then, we'll fight."
A soft smile formed under Peppy's whiskers, the brown eyes under the spectacles softened.
"This would normally be the part where I tell you how much you sound like someone I used to know..." Peppy murmured, resting a hand on the wrist of Fox's cast, "But I think you know that already."
Fox returned the smile as Peppy rose out of his seat.
"By the way," the rabbit remarked, "I forgot to ask... when you went to the Source, did you find out what those messages meant? What was it?"
Fox's smile dissolved and he started to feel cold again. He looked back out the window. A haze of light was appearing over the horizon, between the polished towers. In the glare of the ceiling glowpanels, he saw the haunted look in his green eyes. Even Fox wasn't sure what he'd encountered on the Starghast. True, it had Pigma's voice, his face, but it had morphed into a very different monster from the duplicitous glutton that betrayed James McCloud. What could he say to make Peppy understand?
"Just a ghost," Fox said simply, "A ghost in a haunted house."
Peppy stared for a moment, then quietly nodded.
"I'll gather up the figures when Helix pays us. See if we can figure out what our profit is and where we can put it. Try to get some rest," The rabbit said, turning towards the door with his long white coat flowing behind him. The door slid open and he left.
Fox breathed out and sank into his pillow as the door began to slide shut, but a blue feathered hand grabbed onto the door and pushed it back open. An avian with scarlet highlights around his eyes stepped into the room, clad in an auburn flight suit and a white Team StarFox jacket. The soft corners of his beak were upturned in a smile and he spread his arms as he came into the room.
"Heyyyy, there's our Foxie!" Falco Lombardi beamed, striding across the room to the side of Fox's bed, "How ya doin' fuzzball? That was some of tha' coolest shit you've ever done, I think."
"That was some of the best flying you've ever done," Fox countered, "Looks like you saved me this time, thanks for that."
"Mehh, it was nothin'," Falco shrugged, "Nothin' I couldn't do again. Ya' know, I heard Jimmy McCloud got inta' some weird shit in tha' good old days, but I don't think he ever fought tha' living dead. That's a first, ain't it? They need ta' make a holodrama about us or somethin'. Who ya' think should play me?"
"I've seen some feline actors that could pull off your swagger."
"Hey watch it Academy Boy, next time ya' need me ta' catch you in freefall I might just be off by a degree or two. They'll be moppin' you off the side of the hull," Falco sniped.
"Yeah, and then who's going to put up with you?" Fox chuckled, his gaze wondering to a new figure in the doorway.
He and Falco fell silent as their eyes landed on Krystal, wearing a gray tee-shirt and vest with white jeans. Her aqua eyes locked onto Fox and she came quietly into the room until she was right at the foot of his hospital bed.
"Hel-lo, nurse," Fox quipped and Krystal giggled, putting a hand over her mouth then wiping something out of the corner of her eye. She came around the side of the bed, her bottlebrush tail twitching behind her, and without a word she wrapped her arms around Fox's neck and exhaled into his shoulder.
"Hey be careful, you might break another bone," Fox said warmly.
"I'm...I'm very glad you're not dead," she whispered in his ear.
He felt her breath on the fur of his ears, the warmth of her body against him and her smell like fresh forest rain in his nose. He didn't really feel like he needed the painkillers so badly.
She pulled back and looked down at him, he looked at her, and Fox realized that Falco had quietly left the room. She hadn't smiled at him like this since they were lovers.
"You know, when I left you there on the ship, I thought I'd never see you again. I—I should've known better, but at the time... I didn't think you were coming back. I felt like I could've said... more," she told him quietly, "I didn't realize how much I still cared. We've been through a lot together, you and I. You are... something special to me. As strong as I can be, I've never felt stronger than when I'm with you and my friends."
Fox bit his bottom lip slightly, looking up at her, enjoying the moment completely without any thought or expectation for the future. For however long, in whatever capacity, he was glad Krystal was in his life. He felt an electric tingle as her mind touched his, and there was no pain whatsoever. She gently squeezed his wrist and sat down on the corner of his bed. Their eyes were still locked on each other. She sighed and brushed a lock of cobalt hair out of her eyes.
"Do you remember that poem I was working on earlier?"
"I've had some time in the past few days. I think I've finished it. Would you like to hear the rest?" she inquired tenderly, looking at her knees, "It doesn't rhyme and it sounds better in the original Cerinian, but I think the ending is much better than the beginning."
He laid his head back into his pillow with a smile.
"Let's hear it."
Krystal cleared her throat, tracing a pattern with her fingertip into the pale hospital sheets.
"Day is done and the sun has set, so hold me close, my love; take my hand and feel my heart, as I take yours in mine, for the nights are black and full of horror," the vixen recited, her voice filling the room even though it was barely above a whisper, "Your heart beats with mine, together in the black. The darkness is patient and consuming and inevitable. But the smallest flame can hold it back. And our hearts, joined and strong, are the cleansing dawn."
They looked out the window as she finished. They could see their reflections in the glass, ghostly and fading away as the sun appeared brightly over the horizon, blazing with yellow light through the city's white towers.
"That was nice," Fox smiled, gazing out the window.
"I'm glad you liked it," she replied, the pale fur on her face glowing in the golden light of the dawn.
Moments passed and both of them were silent.
"...would you like me to go?"
"No," Fox said, his eyes still turned towards the window, "Stay with me for a while. I... It's been a while since I've seen a sunrise, you know? You can take them for granted. Some nights just go on for so long, it feels like it's never going to end. And then the sun comes up. And you can keep going."
He wasn't sure which one of them slid their hand close. But their fingertips touched, and soon enough his hand was clasped gently in hers. Fox sighed, smiled, and thought nothing of pain and darkness and death. He thought only of her next to him, and that was enough to push the darkness back as the sun rose over Corneria City.
It was always cold inside the Anvil. Gammel was sure the warden kept it like that to remind them of where they all were. The security in the prison wasn't quite as heavy as other joints the rodent had been in, and it didn't need to be: unless one somehow commandeered a ship, the only escape one would find through the walls of the Anvil was the icy death of space. He thought of that as he sat down at the mess hall table next to the athletic cheetah and the grizzled wolverine with the scar over his neck. Gammel looked down at the food tray in front of him, contemplating the three different shades of protein paste that filled the chambers. At least it was a more palatable-looking shade of greenish-gray than yesterday's lunch.
"Drowned a guy in a toilet once. Heard of this other guy... set the guy up as a cotamine mule, booked him on a cruise from Fortuna to Macbeth so he could smuggle the drugs through customs. Soon as he met up with his contact? They wail on his guts with octagon bats until the capsules burst in his belly. Nasty fuckin' way to go," the cheetah explained.
"What are you talking about, Matai?" Gammel sighed.
"The weirdest, most fucked-up ways we've heard of killing someone," the wolverine named Mitchell grunted in a gravelly voice.
"I shared mine," Matai shrugged, flicking a brown crumb of biscuit from the sleeve of his orange jumpsuit, "Mitch? Used to work for the Kerouac Cartel. They brought in some guy trying to turn state's evidence. Attached him to a bungee cord. Spaced him out an airlock, then towed him back in. You can survive that shit if they bring you in quick enough. They spaced this guy three times before his lungs exploded. Fucked up, right? What about you, weirdest way you've ever seen someone get offed?"
Gammel's mouth twisted, glancing down at his protien paste and going over the time he worked for the Deathclownz pirate gang before they were wiped out. As his mouth opened to give an answer, a rough voice from behind drawled, "Coffee cup."
They all paused, confused, and turned to the next table, where a muscular and scruffy gray lupine sat alone at the end of a mess hall table with his back to them. The wolf was looking over his left shoulder at them, or at least he should have been looking at them. Instead of an eye, there was a shriveled pucker where an eye should have been, bisected by a pair of short and jagged scars.
"Coffee cup? The fuck you mean by that?" Matai inquired, his spotted brow furrowing.
The lupine grumbled, turning his shoulders. His pointed ears cast a horned shadow over their table.
"I was out with my friend when we were kids. We were at some hole-in-tha-wall place gettin' coffee. Tha' waitress brought us two mugs and a pot and poured us some. My friend said he thought she was cute just like she was. She said thanks. She came back with tha' bill, and as I'm payin', my friend tells the waitress he thinks she's cute just like she is. She says thanks again an' my friend wants ta tip her, so she stays there while he finishes off his cup. Soon as he's done, he takes the mug an' wham! Breaks it off on tha' table so it's all sharp and jagged, grabs her by tha' hair an' carves her neck open. Happened like that," the wolf said, snapping his fingers for emphasis, "Folks are screamin' an' I'm runnin' outta there with 'im, and when we're back at the car I say Leon what tha' fuck. He looks at me an' he says I thought she was cute just like she was, I wanted her to stay like that. This way everyone'll remember her just like she was."
The three of them were almost silent enough to hear each other blink. The wolf shrugged and turned back in his seat, then Gammel turned around, looked at Matai and mouthed, "Who the fuck is that?"
"You don't know, mate?" Mitchell grunted, "He's our newest celebrity-"
"O'Donnell! Your meal time's over, get the fuck up!" a bold voice shouted. The three of them snapped to look at a gray-uniformed shepherd dog holding a shock baton, striding up to the seated wolf with a squeal of polished boots across the metal flooring. The guard reached the wolf's side and gestured with his shock baton, once more prompting the prisoner to rise. The wolf's head slowly turned and looked up at the guard.
"I'm takin' my time," the wolf growled, "Can't eat too fast or it's bad for my digestion."
"Funny," the guard grunted, "Lets see how funny it is when I use this to fuck your eye-hole."
The shepherd jabbed the shock baton into the wolf's shoulder and there was a sharp crackle of electricity. The lupine flinched away from the baton, but didn't make a sound.
The rough gray tail hanging off the end of his stool was stiff and still, and the wolf looked up at the guard silently.
Gammel looked around and realized that every convict at the surrounding tables was pretending not to watch the confrontation.
A harsh sniff erupted from the wolf's snout.
"Everyone wants ta' talk about the eye," the wolf sighed, "But nobody knows tha' real story...You wanna know how I lost it?"
The guard sneered, but said nothing. The sneer disappeared after a moment and he leaned just a bit closer.
The wolf's tail swished through the air.
"Kinda secret. Come a little closer."
The guard leaned a bit closer, then drew back with a stern look on his face. The wolf smirked.
"I'm in a supermax joint surrounded by dicks like you. I'm not gonna do anythin', I just don't wanna tarnish my reputation. C'mon a little closer so I can whisper."
Gammel wondered if he was the only one to notice the wolf moving his leg just outside of the guard's stance. He knew better than to break the silence of the mess hall. The guard leaned closer, keeping his baton pointed at the wolf.
It happened fast.
The wolf's leg swept the guard's feet out from under him, grabbing the back of his head as he fell and smashing his face into the corner of the table with an echoing crash.
The guard howled and the wolf shot to his feet, bellowing "THAT'S HOW!", driving a knee into the shepherd dog's face and pounding a fist hard into his jaw.
Cries of alarm from the other guards rose up as the mess hall erupted with howls of support and laughter from the rest of the convicts, rising out of their seats as the wolf struck the guard over and over. Gammel watched in astonishment, not sure whether to grin or gasp, as the wolf's teeth sank into the shepherd's ear. The shepherd scrambled and batted at the wolf but he sent another blow into the guard's battered face as he thrashed his jaws.
"Lock 'em down!" a guard roared, leading a gang through the mess hall towards the scuffle. More than a few convicts rose up and threw protein paste or food trays and were quickly tackled by reinforcements with shock batons.
A pack of guards converged on the wolf, jabbing him with shock sticks, but the lupine only fell back into the floor when a guard swung a baton hard across the back of his head. The wolf spilled to the floor and the guards rained down blows, and the sounds were much more animal than Gammel had ever heard another person make.
"Put him in iso!" The lead guard bellowed, and Gammel saw the pack of guards thin and a group of four drag the wolf away, two on each arm. The wolf's heels scraped along the floor as he bore a bloodied muzzle and teeth to the crowd, spitting out a piece of the shepherd dog's ear.
"Who's funny now, fucker?!" Wolf O'Donnell roared.
A muscled equine rose up from his seat and shouted "Awww yeah! Wolf O-D baby! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!"
A handful more convicts joined the equine in the chant, shouting loudly "Wolf, Wolf, Wolf! Wolf, WOLF, WOLF!"
The guards dragged Wolf O'Donnell towards a gate, shocking him with their batons repeatedly, but they didn't wipe the feral grin from his blood-stained face or drain the intensity from his bulging lavender eye. Even through the pain and the blows he was cackling, watching the gate close shut on him as the guards struggled to contain the chanting convicts. By now the entire mess hall was chanting, and even as they dragged him to isolated confinement that was all that anyone in the Anvil's walls could hear:
"Wolf, Wolf, Wolf!"
"WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The end. Cut to black and play "The Fragile" by Nine Inch Nails as the credits roll. I'm pretty proud of my venture into the horror genre, though I do wish I'd found some way to work the Arwings into the story. I just couldn't think of a way to include them that didn't detract from the horror tone or the general pacing. I also feel like the characters are wonderfully poised for StarWolf's inevitable return. For those of you with questions about Alice Phoenix, Miyu and what became of both of them, I'd direct you to Phoenix Ray. Those questions will be answered by her since they're her characters and it's her story to tell, however I think you can expect Alice to make a reappearance in a future story of mine, perhaps. Though I do have plans for a follow-up to this, which would serve as the final chapter of my StarFox series with Fox and Wolf going at it again with the fate of Corneria in the balance, I'm afraid that's not going to come until much later. I'm starting my first year of law school soon and it's a little ambitious to think that I could complete that epic before my semester begins, or give it the attention it deserves while trying to make the dean's list. Don't fret, however, since I intend to leave you all with a parting gift to tide you over: I'm going to go all the way back to the beginning, in my interpretation of James McCloud's origin story. It's going to be called Legend, and you should expect it pretty soon. I hope to join you all in that adventure, but whether or not I continue to enjoy your patronage, I thank you all for reading. Leave me some parting thoughts if you would be so kind. Nighty nightmare, everyone, it's been a scream. -TU