“Come on, Ant! You’re too slow!”
Antoine was not slow, he was average. His friend’s charge did not give him enough time to point that out before Sonic zipped by him again, leaving a huge trail of dust and dirt in his wake; Antoine waved his hand in front of his face in an effort to keep the dust from reaching his eyes.
He had known this kid for two years and the attitude had not gotten any less annoying.
“Sonic, may I suggest you play a bit more fairly?” Antoine said; Sonic was still dashing about and could not be looked in the eye. “You are ze only one of us who can clock speeds that high--”
Whoosh. “No one likes a spoilsport!”
Antoine grumbled something under his breath, and looked to his friends for help.
Sally Acorn reclined on a water-damaged park bench, watching her young companion run rings around Antoine with barely-concealed amusement. She didn’t mean to pick on Antoine; it was just so funny to see a four-year-old having such a ridiculous upper hand on someone much older.
“Sorry; I’m only about as fast as you,” she told him.
Rotor was too busy adjusting the unknown device he’d brought along to give the hedgehog and coyote his undivided attention. He was never really one for social gatherings, anyway.
Bunnie Rabbot’s head was nearly spinning on her shoulders; trying to keep her gaze locked on Sonic was almost as difficult a task as catching him--a task that Sonic had given to Antoine seemingly out of nowhere. “Ah think you should just ask him to stop, ‘Twan,” she said.
“But if I ask him to stop, I give up, and he wins,” Antoine protested. “And I did not walk all ze way to ze park to be shown up by a pre-schooler!”
He was just grateful that, as always, the streets of Mobotropolis were largely deserted.
Sonic paused to taunt his opponent from atop the fountain. “They’ll never let you be General if you’re too slow!”
“Breaking ze sound barrier is not how you become a General, needle mouse,” Antoine replied, audibly agitated. “It is your mental processes that must be faster zhan lightning…”
Now that Sonic was stationary, he could keep his gaze locked on the hedgehog--could see him shift slightly and prepare to run back down the fountain, or hop off. It would be difficult, but if he could just time it right--
Antoine leapt forward a second after Sonic placed one foot in front of the other, and caught the hedgehog in a bear hug, grunting from the impact and nearly landing on his back--but the hedgehog had been captured and Antoine won.
Sonic squirmed about, unable to free himself from Antoine’s grip. “No fair!”
“Look who’s talking…” Antoine released Sonic and watched him immediately speed over to Sally.
“Are we gonna spend all day in the park?” he asked. Not two seconds after that challenge had been lost and he was already changing the subject. “I wanna look around the city before the sun goes down!”
“Your Dad asked me to try and stay in the park when you’re with us,” Sally said. “Makes it easier for my bodyguards to find us if something goes wrong.”
Sonic was about to point out that no one could catch him, but…someone just did. And the last time he’d tried to carry someone, he just ended up being smushed.
“Can we go to that one big tree, then?”
The park had many big trees, but one of them in particular was perfect for climbing--at least from Sonic’s perspective. Sonic frantically tugged on Sally’s arm. “Pleeeaase, Big Sis? I think it‘s starting to get dark!”
Sally chuckled. “OK, OK…”
She’d barely had time to swing her legs over the edge of the bench before Sonic broke into a run. “Hey, don’t get too far ahead of us!”
The device Rotor had been working on fell into his messenger bag with a soft “clink”. “That ‘big tree’ is the one with sap pouring out of its branches, right?”
“We can wash it off. Let’s go before we lose sight of him.”
The trees in the park that hadn’t already been there were planted in such a way that they formed defined paths, most of them leading to enclosures with benches and tables set up. The one Sally’s group was now in had no furniture, just another tree--one whose leaves seemed to form a thick shell around it, with a single opening just wide and tall enough for Sally and Bunnie to follow Sonic through without ducking.
Before vanishing into the leaves entirely, Bunnie leaned back. “You two gonna join us this time?”
Rotor and Antoine both shook their heads. “My father did not appreciate me coming home covered in sap,” Antoine stated.
“Even though it all washed out fine?”
“Yes. Said it was ‘unseemly’ of me.”
“I just don’t like getting dirty,” Rotor added.
Bunnie shrugged. “Suit yahselves.”
There wasn’t much room within the shell for the girls to climb about, but they did have a clear view of Sonic hopping from branch to branch, never slipping or losing his balance. He’d been doing this for so long that he could easily avoid clipping his friends--not that that was much of a problem today, what with his friends just sitting.
“How come you only play with me when we’re not in Knothole, Aunt Bunnie?” He’d taken to calling her that not long after deciding that Sally was his big sis.
“Ah’m usually reading when ah’m at home,” she said. “Uncle Beauregard sends me a bunch of old novels from time to time--ah don’t think they’re available over here--and ah said ah’d read as many as I could.”
“What kinda novels are they?”
“Romance an’ science fiction, mostly. They’re usually from the early-to-mid 70s.”
“Is that why the paper’s never white?”
Bunnie felt her side being nudged. “How come you never share them with me?”
“Ya never asked before now, Sally-girl.”
Sonic rebounded off the branch Bunnie was sitting on, shaking her slightly. “Aren’t they gonna open a used bookstore here soon?”
“There’s been talks, but all the places they considered for it had problems,” Sally replied. “I think one of them had a weak roof? Nearly caved in on the investigators when a tiny little Flicky landed on it. They were gonna repair the roof, but something came up and they had to shelf that--”
“Had to put it on hold.”
Outside, Antoine had begun pacing back and forth, from the nearest pine tree to Rotor. Babysitting Sonic could be a real drag sometimes, but it did take his mind off certain things--and before long, he might not get to do this anymore. The time would come when he’d have to keep his firearm on him at all hours, and spend long, cold nights patrolling Mobotropolis’s borders, alongside men and women with nothing to say to a teenager. Well, nothing that didn’t involve accusing the General of nepotism.
The only soldiers anywhere near as young as Antoine were Len and Tristian, but they were in a branch that didn’t interact much with the coyote’s, if at all. And they were relatively new to the force, so from what Antoine could tell, their co-workers avoided them, too. Was it standard for new guys to be given the silent treatment, or was that just how every soldier acted after a few years? Would the three of them end up like that, too?
“Something bothering you, ‘Twan?”
Antoine looked up. “Oh--nothing important. Have zhey hired you yet?”
“They’re still going through my background. It’s gonna be a while.”
“How long do zhese background checks take, on average?”
“A week, if you’re lucky. It’s a very high-security job.”
There came a yelp from inside the leafy shell, followed by a thud. “Sorry, Aunt Bunnie!”
“You know…how come he never addresses us as ‘Uncle’?”
“He doesn’t know us as well, I g--”
Antoine’s sentence was cut off by his own shriek of surprise--Rotor couldn’t have tapped him on the shoulder because the walrus was directly in front of him, and Antoine hadn’t heard anything, so who--?
Oh, it was just Len.
“You sound like a herd of buffalo when you run, yet you’re completely silent as you walk?” This wasn’t the first time she’d caught him unawares; Antoine didn’t even try to hide his agitation. “How do you do that?”
“Lots of practice?” She flashed him an awkward grin and shrugged. “Sorry, Ant.”
Len walked past the boys and leaned over so she could see past the tree leaves. “Time to go home, Sonic!”
“Aww…” Sonic trudged through the opening, followed by Sally and Bunnie.
“Anything happen today?”
“Ah got an unexpected gut check, but otherwise, no.”
“Can you get back to the castle on your own, Sally?” The answer was usually “yes”, but Len had been strongly advised to ask her that every time.
Len nodded, and looked down to her son, still clearly dejected. Today’s visit seemed a bit shorter than usual. She gently nudged his foot with hers. “Race ya.”
That had become a sign for Bunnie to hop into Len’s arms, as they were all going home the same way and she’d never catch up otherwise. She had just enough time to catch a glimpse of Sonic’s face--now determined and beaming--and to shoot her friends a quick “Bye!“ before the park and the city became an incomprehensible blur.
Oddly, carrying a teenaged rabbit in her arms didn’t seem to slow Len down much. Nothing did, really.
Antoine coughed and tried not to face the trail of dirt clouds. “Shall we be heading home ourselves?”
They parted with Rotor at his apartment building, and were eventually standing before the gates to Castle Acorn, in all its pyramidal glory. Antoine would accompany Sally to the front door, then take a sharp left turn to the training facilities, and Sally would not see him for the rest of the night.
This evening there were meant to be soldiers posted near the door, but they were off to the side and paying attention to no one but themselves. Antoine scowled and muttered something about reevaluation under his breath.
On most evenings Sally would have gone anywhere but the auditorium, but there was a meeting being held there and she wanted in on it. Anyone else would’ve been turned away, but no one batted an eye at the Princess casually ducking through the double doors.
“--very worried, Your Highness. I’ve sent them a dozen letters and faxes and have yet to receive a single reply.”
That voice Sally recognized as one of her father’s advisors. Next to her was Sir Charles, and next to him Jules, and then Julayla, and King Maximillion, and Queen Alicia, and Prince Elias, and Sally after she pulled out a chair and sat down in it, all in one motion. She had a feeling that she already knew who the advisor was talking about.
Aside from them, the auditorium was completely empty.
“Months of nigh-consistent failure to establish contact,” the advisor, Penelope, went on. “I don’t believe that’s normal for anyone whose establishment is still functioning. And the one time we sent someone down, they came back with a warning not to send anyone out to their provinces in person again, ever. Our agent couldn‘t even walk up to the front gates.”
“I think my siblings and I handled a similar case back in the 80s,” Charles said. “Turned out they had a stockpile of WMDs waiting and ready to go. They didn’t last much longer.”
“They” were the previous management of the Hill Top Zone. If only their hubris hadn’t caught up to them; the people wouldn’t have realized, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were being led by a gang of warmongers.
Queen Alicia was next to speak up. “Have we been able to gather any information on the Eggman Empire, besides ‘they exist’?”
Jules shook his head. “Nothing we can really work with, Your Highness. This ‘Empire’ seems to be limited to a single domed structure in the middle of nowhere; nothing’s seen going in or out. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a decoy.”
“Seems likely at this point. Have you made any scans for underground tunnels?”
“We tried, and got no results. We’re currently making sure the scan isn’t being blocked.”
Sally’s turn to speak. “Aside from their no-visitors rule, has the Eggman Empire shown any signs of aggression towards us or anyone else?”
“Not towards us,” Charles said. “But we’ve noticed something troubling. There’s a number of populated Zones that have recently taken up the Empire’s flag alongside their own, and they’re just as tight-lipped about their apparent allies as the Empire itself. What little they give us isn’t enough to work off of.”
“Allies, or conquests?” Julayla asked.
“We’re leaning towards the former until we have more information.”
Throughout the talks, or at least the part Sally had been present for, her father and brother remained silent. Elias was just as observant as the King, even though he’d never shown any interest in politics; Sally wasn’t too surprised, however. Nothing about this situation bade well.
Before long, it was apparent that there was nothing left to discuss. King Max stood up.
“We will continue to monitor them as closely as we are allowed to,” he stated. “I will speak with General D’Coolette shortly. Dismissed.”
The chair legs made an unpleasant scraping noise as they were pushed across the hardwood floor. The King and Queen were the first to leave, followed by Penelope, followed by the Rose brothers. Julayla opted to remain with the kids, at least for a few minutes.
Elias uncomfortably shifted his weight; he wasn’t looking Sally in the eye. “The Hill Top guys had mustard gas. Apparently some of their people suspected them, and they were gonna use it in case those people started rallying.”
It was an unspoken agreement that the Eggman Empire most likely also had mustard gas. Maybe worse.
He abruptly changed the subject. “How’s that Adept thing coming along, Sally?”
On the walls of the auditorium were rows of shelves with assorted potted plants. Sally retrieved a plant from the nearest wall and set it on the table.
Adept powers, Chaos Magic, whatever you wanted to call it--Sally had only recently discovered her own abilities, and once the shock of accidentally making a flower spontaneously grow wore off, she’d wanted to develop them further, to see what she could really do. Could she rearrange the trees in the park? Could she finally grow some tomatoes that didn’t taste like they’d been sat on?
The most important part of using her powers, at least at this stage, was concentration. The ceiling fans were decades old and sounded it, but they weren’t too difficult to block out. Elias and Julayla were helpfully being quiet, watching Sally squint at a houseplant with her index finger pointed directly at its stalk. It seemed rather silly when observed like that, but so did a lot of things.
The plant slightly bent to one side without the influence of wind, but that was it.
Sally turned to her brother and teacher. “Pitifully,” was her answer.
“Well, Adept powers aren’t mastered overnight. You only realized you had them about three months ago? It usually takes about a year before, say, you can make plants grow on a regular basis.”
“A year?” Sally did her best not to pout in front of her teacher or brother. “Julayla, that’s…a while. I might forget to try and get those flowers Sonic likes to grow around his house by then…”
All the hallways on the bottom floor of Castle Acorn were lit except for the one Charles was staring at. He’d specifically requested that the lights remain off. If it was too dark, then no one could see past the vaulted door at the end of the hall. No one could see a young sparrow, mangled almost beyond the point of recognition, walk into a glass chamber in the middle of the room. No one could see the machine that had to be told to exit the chamber--had to be told to follow his kin back home--did not look at his family with even the faintest flicker of emotion or comprehension.
But the lights in the room had been on that day, and the security cameras were pointed at the chamber. The higher-ups could call on that footage at any time to remind their co-workers why the roboticizer was off-limits.
Charles didn’t need cameras. He’d built the damn thing.
“…you know, ever since I was accepted, Amy’s been wanting to see the guns. I keep telling her that I’m not allowed to bring them home--”
“And you wouldn’t anyway, right?”
“Right. Wouldn’t load them, but Amy’s a smart kid; it’d only be a matter of time before she figured out--”
Tristian’s voice trailed off when he saw Charles. “Um…hey, Chuck?”
He and Jules were standing just a few feet away from Charles; from the ways their bodies were turned, they’d stopped in their tracks.
This wasn’t the first time they’d seen him like this.
Charles sighed. “I know, I know. Let’s just go home.”