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Chapter One: Out of the DenEdit

"Because in Den 16, nofox enters... and nofox leaves."

Grey.

The walls of the maintenance stalls were all a very monotonous, dull grey. The particular wall I was staring at had the merit of being a very clean grey. PipDogs were notoriously hardy and reliable, so being the Den’s PipDog Technician meant that there were long periods of nothing to do. Being the PipDog Technician’s apprentice meant that I was assigned all the mundane daily chores while my trainer took extended naps in the back room. Chores like cleaning the walls.

“This wall needs a mural.”

I let myself fantasize, picturing the Overfox agreeing and ordering Moonshine herself to turn our entire stall into one of her brightly colorful masterpieces. Moonshine was the greatest painter in Den Sixteen, and like every skilled artist, that made her a den treasure. Life in Den Sixteen inevitably began to eat at your spirit -- you were born in the Den, you lived your whole life in the Den, you were going to die there, and the course of your life was largely laid out for you to see by your 10th birthday party. So the Overfox insisted that a new song be added to the Den broadcast’s repertoire each week, that public areas were brightly painted and adorned with uplifting and motivational murals, that regular parties were planned in the atrium… all in an effort to distract and stave off depression.

Reality came crashing back as I stared at the eternally blank grey. Beautifying maintenance areas was tragically low priority already, and the PipDog Technician stall was one of the least trafficked parts of maintenance. I felt my ears droop as I started to realize that I’d be staring at this same grey wall nearly every day for the rest of my life.

“Oh dear. Is it really that bad.”

And there she was. Lilac, the gorgeous cream-coated fennec fox with streaks of color in her sandy coat and with a voice as smooth as silk and rich as finest chocolate, was standing in the doorway of my stall. I felt immediately grateful that I had finished the cleaning and simultaneously ashamed that the room was so beneath her.

I couldn’t believe she was standing there. I’d seen her on the stage above us at late parties; I’d listened to her songs incessantly, recording every new one on my PipDog so that I didn’t have to wait to hear it again. I’ll admit it now, I’d had a crush on Lilac for years. Me and at least three hundred other foxes. My mother used to laugh at that. “Blackberry,” she would say, chortling with her friends, “Lilac’s barn door doesn’t swing that way.” It took me a couple years to understand what my mother had meant by that. And took me several seconds to process that Lilac had just asked me something.

“W-wha-huh?”

Wonderful response, Blackberry. So elegant. I wanted to dig my way through the concrete floor and pull the chunks over the top of me.

She smiled sweetly. She smiled at me! And in that amazing voice, “You looked so heartbroken when I came in. Is there anything I can do?”

Lilac offered. To help. Me.

I was shocked back to my senses. Lilac must have some reason to be down here. Some PipDog reason. It wasn’t like she would just go wandering around maintenance, after all. Looking around, I realized that I was the only fox on duty. My teacher was, as usual, asleep in his office.

“Oh… no, it was n-nothing.” I tried to regain composure. “How may I be of assistance?”

Lilac’s expression was both compassionate and unconvinced, but she lifted a forepaw, raising her PipDog up to my gaze. A more elegant model than mine, with her initials embellishing it tastefully. “I hate to be a bother, but it’s begun to chafe. Could you replace the padding?”

“Oh, absolutely!” I was already picking up the special keys used to unlock a PipDog from a fox's forepaw (as an apprentice PipDog Technician, I had all manner of special precision tools in the pockets of my utility barding). “I’ll have it done in right quick!” The PipDog came off with a click.

Lilac chuckled hesitantly, lowering her paw. “Oh no, that’s all right. Take your time. I’m going to put some salve on this leg back in my room and rest up for the afternoon.”

That’s right! Lilac was performing at the Den Sixteen Saloon tomorrow night! I would have to polish it up, make it worthy of being worn above her paw. If I spent all night on it, I could give it a full tune-up, have it running as smoothly as the day she got it, and still have it back to her before the show.

“All right! I’ll have it back to you by this time tomorrow. You won’t be disappointed. I promise!”

She smiled at me again, and all the grey in the world couldn’t darken my day. “Thank you.” And then she turned to go. I watched as her tail disappear around the doorway. Then she was gone.

      • *** ***

The next day, I was whistling one of Lilac’s songs as I walked down the halls towards her room. Her PipDog was clutched between my teeth, freshly padded with the best lining I could find, looking shiny and new. I was tired from a long night or work, but in high spirits. Lilac was going to be so happy with my work!

Turning the corner, I was startled out of my reverie by the mass of foxes gathered outside Lilac’s room. Damn, I was going to have to battle my way through pawprint seekers and paparazzi. Lifting the PipDog higher, I started to shove my way into the crowd.

“She’s gone!” “How could she leave?” The hushed voices and panicked yelps around me grew alarming. “Why would she abandon us?”

Gone? Lilac was… gone?

And then the words that stopped me cold. “I didn’t think the Den door even could open!”

She was gone outside?!?

“Don’t worry, everyfox!” boomed the voice of the Overfox from somewhere in the crowd. “I have the tag of each and every fox in the Den. I will personally send out a rescue party. We’ll have our Lilac back by the end of the day. Worry not.”

I felt I was drowning in cold, wet cement. My gaze slowly moved down towards the PipDog I held.

I lowered my head, slowly trying to back out of the crowd, curling the PipDog close. When the Overfox brought up Lilac’s tag, it would lead everyfox not to Lilac but to her PipDog sitting in the maintenance…

With a thump, I backed into somefox, startling me enough that mouth opened and the clean and shiny PipDog clattered to the floor.

Turning, I found myself eye-to-eye with the Overfox.

She didn’t speak, her gaze turning to the PipDog on the ground. Lilac’s initials clearly visible.

“What. Is. This?” The Overfox spoke slowly, dangerously.

All eyes turned to me. I could feel every pair of eyes. Nofox spoke. The silence bore down like a lead blanket. My mouth went dry. I couldn’t find my voice.

I didn’t need to. I could feel the wave of loathing. Dozens of Lilac fanfoxes, and I was the fox holding the reason why their idol was lost to them.

The Overfox’s voice was low and surprisingly gentle. “Take it and go to your room. Swiftly.”

She didn’t need to tell me twice.

      • *** ***

I lay on my bed that evening, poking at Lilac’s PipDog as the radio in my own played yet another re-iteration of the tragedy of the day.

I couldn’t believe it. Lilac was gone. I couldn’t understand. How could she leave? Why would she go?

The door out of Den Sixteen was closed and sealed. Only the Overfox knew the secrets to opening it, assuming it even could open. Which, obviously, it could.

But why? Nobody really knew what was outside, if there was anything out there at all. Historical books suggested the world outside was blasted, lifeless and poisonous. That was, at least, the common and logical assumption. But a ghost story somefox told at my first (and only) slumber party had given me horrible nightmares and still lurked in the shadows of my head: a tale of a fox who somehow got the Den door open and stepped outside… only to find out that there was no outside! Just a great nothingness that whisked the fox away, devouring his soul so that he was nothingness too.

Empirically, I knew that wasn’t the case, but the mental image still haunted me.

The two things I did understand was that Lilac had gotten me to remove her PipDog so the Overfox couldn’t track her with it, and that I was screwed.

Being the smallest red fox my age, and the only black one, did not facilitate building friendships with my peer foxes. Mother honestly didn’t help either. Nor did waking up screaming at my first slumber party. So I was used to being alone. But I’d never had enemies before. I’d been beneath the notice of other foxes, but I’d never had one hate me.

I really couldn’t blame them either, even though it totally wasn’t fair. They were upset and hurt and needed a scapegoat. The news hadn’t mentioned me by name, just “Lilac’s custom-decorated PipDog was found in the possession of a PipDog Technician fox”, but with a whole two of us, it wasn’t hard for everyfox to figure out, even without the scene outside her room earlier.

The Overfox was speaking on the radio. “We are all feeling this loss. But I want to remind everyfox that Lilac chose to do this. She chose to leave her home. To abandon us, her family. She betrayed my trust and she betrayed yours, just as she betrayed the trust of the fox who she tricked into removing her PipDog, ensuring we could not find her. I know many of you are angry or hurt. I urge you to direct that anger where it truly belongs…”

As thankful as I was for her words, it wasn’t going to change the resentment that I would face every day, even if every fox kept it to themselves. It hung in the air like old smoke.

I distracted myself with the errant PipDog, taking note of an encrypted file. I had spotted it yesterday, figuring it was probably an unfinished new song. I didn’t want to open it then, both out of respect for Lilac’s privacy and a dislike of spoilers, but I guessed it didn’t matter anymore. The song would never be played.

Opening a pouch on my utility barding, I withdrew an access tool that would allow me to remove the encryption safely and easily. It was a sound file. I played it.

“The override code for opening the door to Den Sixteen is… DoD4ever.”

I shot up in surprise at what I had heard. Swiftly, I turned off the radio and played it again.

I didn’t recognize the voice. It was female, kinda sweet, and had a strange accent that didn’t sound like anyone in the Den. But now I knew how Lilac left.

I must have sat there for hours, contemplating what I should do. But finally, I made my choice.

I was going to go outside after her. I was going to bring her back.

      • *** ***

I stood there, staring at the huge steel door that sealed Den Sixteen away from the horrors (or nothingness!) outside. And at the two guard foxes who blocked my way. I had my bags packed with apples and necessities. Even a Big Book of Weapons Sciences for something to read. I had two canteens around my neck. I was ready to go. But the Overfox was making sure there were no follow-up acts.

Insistence and glowering looks weren’t getting me anywhere. They stood their ground, unimpressed. They weren’t going to let me anywhere near the control panel.

“Hey, aren’t you the vixen who let our Lilac get lost outside anyway?” one of the guards inquired daringly, taking a bullying step forward. The other guard looked away in disgust. I’m not sure if he was disgusted at me, or if he felt like the Overfox seemed to about foxes wanting to take it out on me. I was kinda hoping it was the former, considering what I was about to do to them.

THUD!

I bit down on the rope holding the metal footlocker above their heads, snapping it in half and knocking them out cold.

I was at the controls, entering the passcode from Lilac’s PipDog when the Overfox’s voice boomed through nearby speakers.

“Stop! I order you to stop this instant!”

Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

“Guards! I want every guard fox at Den Sixteen door! Stop that fox!”

Oh crap!

My paws flew up to the main switch for the door, and I prayed to Dinner that the code worked. Then, with all my strength, I threw the switch.

A loud clanging filled the air, followed by a hissing of steam and a great rumble that shook the room. As I watched, the massive bolt that held the door from Den Sixteen shut slid back. A huge hinge-arm swung down, attaching itself to the door, and with a teeth-hurting squeal, pulled the massive steel door out and away.

Randomly, I found myself thinking in my mother’s voice “Den Sixteen’s barn door doesn’t swing that way.” The door to Den Sixteen wasn’t supposed to swing at all. Even though I threw the switch, I was stunned to see it actually open.

“You don’t have to do this… Blackberry, isn’t it?” The Overfox’s voice kicked me out of my stupor. I could hear the paws of racing guards drawing near.

I took a step towards the door. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring her back.”

“No you won’t! If you leave here, you’ll never be let back in!”

For a moment, the unfairness stung. The Overfox was willing to send out a search party to bring Lilac back. But then, Lilac was special, and I was… not.

Part of me wanted to turn back right there, crawl back to my room and my dreary but safe life.

Drawing myself up, I stepped out the door.

      • *** ***

With a final hiss and clang, the steel door of Den Sixteen closed irrevocability behind me.

I don’t know what I expected to find just beyond the door, but it certainly wasn’t this long, dark hallway that smelled of rotting timbers and sepulcher air. I was no longer in the Den. But I wasn’t outside yet either. I was in limbo.

I turned on my PipDog’s light, and recoiled with a gasp at the skeletons of long-dead foxes which littered the hall. The outside of the Den door was marred from where foxes had slammed on it until their paws cracked and shattered, trying to get in.

Moving forward quickly, I discovered that the hallway opened into an old room with stairs leading up to a horizontal door with a shattered lock. The entrance from the outside world into Den Sixteen had been cleverly disguised as the door to a humble apple cellar. And by disguised, I meant that the fox who built it had been building an apple cellar.

Taking a deep breath, I trotted up the stairs, swung open the cellar door, and stepped outside.

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