Hey, everyone. I've done a small rewrite to this story. Nothing major, just updating some areas I felt were lacking and tweaking a few scenes I didn't like. This story still doesn't fully reflect my current writing quality, and I didn't want to mess with it too much, but it's a little less outdated.
This is the first in a trilogy focused on Shadow and Maria. This series has a lot of one-shots and spinoffs as well, such as Snow Angel and Black & White. If you liked this, please check those out too. You can also find them all collected together on my AO3 account if that's easier to navigate.
Despite the impression of these first chapters, this story has a generally serious tone and involves issues like abuse and murder.
Echoes of Eternity: Part 1
Endless I wander through a dream, set adrift through scattered memories. Around me is void, nothing, an expanse of tiny lights that flare and stretch into infinity. Floating absently through this dark and lonely existence, I sleep.
And then I open my eyes to light, light, light. Wrapped in eternity, the world closes in on me, blinding me. Small pieces of infinite choices slip through my fingers, each one a mirror of the last, yet different in the tiniest of ways. Snow. Yes, that's what it is that surrounds me. It's something... something I'll never get to see. Except here. Only in this fleeting shard of eternity.
I seek it out: the black star. A tiny warmth that flickers through the blizzard, pulling me in. From the very beginning, we were drawn to one another, no purpose except to find each other; no reason to exist, except for that cause.
I saw him standing there, trapped in the void I had come from. Alone. He was always alone. It seemed I could never catch up to him, but I reached out anyway.
"Shadow," I said, my whisper swept away by the storm. Hesitantly, he took my hand. And for just a moment, there was a spark of warmth in that cold, empty world.
It was the beginning; it was the end.
But that's the thing about dreaming. Someday you have to wake up.
She awoke into darkness, the encroaching shadows twisting around her like a snake and pulling her back into the protection of sleep. The young girl's silhouette crept sluggishly along the wall, tracing smooth metal until it found the switch. She rubbed her eyes and pushed the covers back as the lights snapped on, sending the snakes slithering back under the bed.
Every day, a tiny miracle. She'd survived to see another morning. And here was the same place again: same sterile white walls, same blinking green lights on the monitor, the small room she had slept in every night for nearly her entire life. Always, she awakened into a day much like the others before.
Her room was decorated comfortably enough, with an overflowing bookshelf, a toybox, and her bed slotted into an alcove in the far corner. But the soft rug couldn't quite ward off the cold of the metal floors, and the pictures on the wall did little to mask the violently blank grey. There was no sunlight, and no life; she was always miserably aware of those walls closing in on her.
So Maria dreamed. Of escape; of other worlds, places where it snowed forever, where she ran free without the narrow walls of this ship confining her. Every day was different, in some small way, rather than an endless procession of sameness.
But her dreams were just that. Fantasy. Make-believe.
Flinching, the girl tugged at the electrodes hooking her to the bulky vitals monitor until they detached from her arms and chest. The sudden screech as the machine registered no heartbeat nearly sent her through the roof. Immediately the panel above her bed began ringing, only adding to the cacophony. With a grimace, she shut off the squealing box and scrambled to answer the call.
Professor Robotnik's frowning face promptly appeared on the little monitor. Though it was only five inches long, worry clearly creased his brow. "Maria! How many times have I told you? First turn off the machine, and then remove the leads! You're going to give your old grandfather a heart attack..."
Showing a rare display of petulance, the child scowled. "Why do I have to use this old thing anyway?"
"Now, Maria," said Gerald, his tone patient despite having explained this many times, "you know what happened the last time your blood pressure dropped. Any longer before Dr. P found you and you would have had a stroke! We just need to make sure you're alright."
Maria flopped back down on the bed, sighing into her pillow. For all of her seven years, this was what she had known. Machines and medication, always someone worrying over her. It was a lifeless existence, a constant reminder that she may not live to see the next day.
She made the best of it as she, the ray of sunshine on the ARK, was apt to. But even she felt discouragement at the end of the day, when the steady beeping of the heart monitor lulled her to sleep.
And the Professor was even worse for wear. Saving Maria was his obsession, and all of his worrying left him stressed and grey.
But now, a bit of hope shone in his voice. "Cheer up, Little Alice. That wasn't all I needed to talk to you about. You remember the project I've been working on?"
"It's done?!" Maria bolted up, surprising her grandfather with the sheer force of the grin on her face. After how drained she'd been lately, he thought perhaps she'd never beam like that again.
"Yes, but – Maria, you haven't even – !" Gerald sighed and laughed to himself, rubbing the back of his bald head as he ended the video call. She had run off, barely taking the time to put her shoes on.
A few minutes later, the pitter-patter of Maria's tiny feet on the metal floor signalled her arrival. The door to the lab slid open at her approach, and she peeked into the darkness, shivering as a chill washed out into the hallway.
Though it sometimes gave her the creeps, she liked her grandfather's personal laboratory. Whereas the other labs were blindingly bright and filled with the roar of a hundred scientists' conversations, only the soft hum of machinery drifted out from this moodily lit room.
Maria padded in silently, gazing around at the cluttered tables and shadowed figures of machinery. The lab was a mess, which meant Grandfather had been busier than usual. Most of the time, the place was spotless, not the haphazard disarray it was in now.
"Grandfather?" she called softly into the dark. No response but the distant clicking of a keyboard.
Turning the corner of a particularly high stack of crates, she nearly ran into a stasis tube. Stepping back, she peered up at the green luminescent tank that loomed tall over her. Her frail heart gave a resounding thump, and though she was the picture of calm, fear entered her small being.
In moments, though, that apprehension turned reluctantly to curiosity. She took a few small steps closer, staring at the strange creature trapped within the glass.
"What is it?" she asked aloud. Her hair, green-gold in the light, fell to the side as she tilted her head.
The Professor's booming voice, so unlike his granddaughter's, resounded behind her. From the shadows he stepped forward, the cylindrical tank's light illuminating his face. "This, my dear Maria," he rumbled like a volcano, "is the final result of Project Shadow."
The young girl stared at the appropriately named creation. Suspended in fluid, arms spread as if beseeching, his chest gently rose and fell as a mouthpiece pumped oxygen into his body. His slick fur was pitch black, shockingly contrasted with reds and whites running along his head and limbs.
Though only humans resided on the ARK, Maria had read about the Faunas of Earth in countless books. This one, somehow, felt different. Compared to the pictures she'd seen, he looked in no way out of the ordinary – but there was just something about him that exuded power, strength, will.
He's scary. That was the first thing Maria thought about him. And she was justified. Stunted and small as she was, he was nearly as big as her, and his darker colours reminded her of nightmares.
And yet, staring at him, she couldn't find much logical reason to be afraid. His appearance was frightening, but... he looked peaceful. Serene, even. And this was the creature who was going to save her, if Grandfather was right. How could he create something that would hurt her?
Maria trepidly tapped on the tank and relaxed when the hedgehog within remained immobile. "What's his name?"
The Professor, who had returned to his computer to examine diagnostics, looked momentarily taken aback. The idea of a name, something so indicative of humanity, had never crossed his mind. To him, Experiment 56 was just a test subject, nothing more.
"Maria, there have been many before him. This iteration looks promising, but he may not even survive out of stasis." Gerald glanced over his shoulder before returning to his work. "Besides, he's just an experiment. He may have a brain, but he... he can't think for himself."
Gerald did wonder just what this artificial Faunas was capable of, but he knew that his experiment could not get out of control. It was hardwired in his brain: do not make choices, do not think, do not feel. A mere simulation of life.
The little girl might have been timid, but she could be stubborn too. She crossed her arms, face set. "He needs a name."
Gerald sighed, shuffling to the other side of the desk to pick up some reports, but his bushy moustache twitched in a slight smile. "You can name him, then."
Maria thought about it for only a moment. She knew her grandfather had named this project after the shadows he had been chasing in an attempt to cure her. Something that always lingered, yet untouchable. Always ever so slightly out of reach. But now, they finally stood together under that shadow.
"Just that?" Gerald asked. Usually, he thought, Maria was much more creative than that.
"It's gotta be Shadow."
Gerald knew that it didn't matter, but he decided to humour his granddaughter and picked up a pen. "Alright, Little Alice, whatever you want. Experiment 56," he said, his blocky, no-nonsense letters stamping the top of the report. "Shadow."
And somewhere far away, Shadow dreamed. He dreamed of a harsh, lonely world, a world relentless in its cruelty. Unchangeable, eternal, and yet. On the horizon, a golden star, the only warmth in that existence. The tiniest shot at change.
Even as the dream faded to cold and dark, it never stopped shining. Though it trembled like a fire about to go out, still it remained, the only thing he could see.
Lost among the dying stars, he wondered how a world so full of suffering could contain this impossible beauty.
Maria gasped and stumbled backwards, hitting the boxes behind her and making her grandfather snap up in alarm. Noticing what had startled her, he shook his head. "It's just a reflex, Maria. He's probably not awake." Gerald turned back to his work, oblivious to Maria's wonder.
But she knew he was wrong. Because Shadow's eyes were open, and they were locked on her. It was unmistakable. She straightened and his gaze followed her. She blinked, and he blinked too. The young girl giggled quietly. She supposed he wasn't so bad. As she approached the stasis tube again, the dusky hedgehog's eyes trailed her all the way.
They flicked to her hand as she placed it against the cool glass, feeling the gentle hum of the machinery that surrounded him. With some difficulty in the viscous fluid, Shadow raised his arm and looked at it, as if unsure what to do with it. But, hesitantly, he reached out and pressed it against Maria's hand.
And the only thing between them was an inch of glass.
A week passed without event. Maria waited all those long days, hoping just to get the chance to see Shadow again. Things were looking good for his viability, but there was a lot to do before he'd be able to survive outside of his pod, and Gerald was pushing himself harder than ever.
But every day that passed came with the chance that Maria just wouldn't wake up, or that her illness would flare and it would be too much for her body to handle this time. Any week could be her last, and she knew it. Maria didn't have the liberty of time, but there was nothing to be done. Shadow wasn't ready, so she had to wait.
That was a sad existence, for a child to understand her own mortality, but that's the way it was. Some things just were. And it'd been so long a part of her reality that she never really wondered if there could be anything else.
To her credit, Maria did do her best. Even during those weeks when she relapsed and her health declined. When Gerald, eternally "too busy right now", somehow found the time to stay with her all day as she remained trapped beneath the covers. She knew what that meant.
Even, when she recovered and could walk again, the beeping of the vitals machine reminding her that this was only temporary.
But she held onto hope where others would have just let it die. Hope that someday she would step off this ship for the last time, and feel the warmth of the sun on a body untainted with the virus that plagued her.
It was just a daydream. But we all need something to wish for.
Though she remained optimistic, Gerald knew that Maria was beginning to waste away. If things went on as they were, she probably wouldn't live to see her thirteenth birthday. The signs were too subtle even for the girl herself to notice, but the Professor saw them quite clearly.
By now, all the blood had drained from once-rosy cheeks, and the scrawny child became ever more frail with each passing year. She was already unusually small for her age, but it seemed as if her growth had completely stagnated.
Maria's pallid skin becoming greyer, how little she seemed to grow, her constant fatigue... She used to have so much energy. Always running. Always laughing. That smile, as brilliant as the sun, always flashing. But now, she slept and slept.
So his nights were spent always in the lab, long after everyone else had retired. Even after this breakthrough, he still had much work to do yet. But for the first time, he felt like they might just have a chance.
Though one thing still troubled him about Maria. Her unusual lethargy went back further than the illness setting in, which was strange. Even when she'd still looked healthy, a few years ago, she had suddenly started losing energy. Maybe that had just been the NIDS taking its toll on her before she began to show outward signs. Maybe not. But what had caused that was an issue, though always on his mind, he hadn't yet the time to track down.
Maria, however, tried not to think about such things. Today, she was engrossed in her usual activity: reading. Specifically Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (for the 21st time).
It wasn't that she had a lack of reading material; Gerald was sure to have the scientists on holiday bring back many Earthly treasures for her. She had amassed quite the collection of toys and books. They were piled in her toybox, her shelves packed to the brim with trinkets.
But Alice in Wonderland had enchanted her since the first time Grandfather read her the story. It sparked a new hope in her: the dream of escape. To her, Earth was akin to Wonderland. A distant fairytale just waiting to be discovered.
In the end, Alice awoke to find that it had all been a dream. Maria hoped one day to wake up in Wonderland instead.
Heavy footsteps resounded down the hall, but she was too engrossed in her reading to notice. The girl shrank back instinctively as the door beeped and slid open, but only her grandfather's serious face met her.
"Maria?" he questioned, narrow eyes examining her. His tone, usually light-hearted and jovial with his granddaughter, was strangely somber. "Come with me."
"Why? What happened?" she asked, sliding off the bed and slipping her shoes on.
"Shadow is awake."
That certainly convinced her. Still struggling to pull on a last slipper, she snatched the book off her bed and bounced over excitedly. "Really? Can I meet him? Can he talk?"
Tenderly he took her tiny hand in his large one and led her into the hallway, but his solemn expression didn't falter. "You can see him."
It was silent after that, as they walked side-by-side through the long halls. The ARK, though a monotonous place to live, could be credited for being peaceful at least. The only sound was a distant hum from machinery deep within its core. Sometimes a muffled voice came through the thick metal walls, but quickly lapsed into quiet again.
Soon they reached the outer halls of the ship, where wide windows offered a clear view of the beautiful star-studded reaches of space. But even better than that, if the ARK was at just the right point of orbit and rotation, one might catch a glimpse of Earth.
And as luck would have it, there the blue orb sat, only its top half visible from where they stood. Beneath a thick vortex of clouds, a bit of green was just discernible. Beyond that, pale blue ocean as far as the eye could see.
Maria leaned on the sill beneath a window, staring down at her beloved planet hung amongst the stars below. A slight smile crossed her face as she drifted into fantasies of life on Earth. Gerald looked down too, hoping Maria didn't notice the deep sadness etched on his face.
He had failed her all these years. Nothing could ever excuse having ripped her from her only home when she was barely a year old, and not even being able to promise that she would live to see that place again.
Of course, he had no choice. If she so much as caught a cold, the results could be catastrophic. To get early access to the experimental medication, the drugs that had barely kept her alive this long, he'd had little other option than to take this job.
But it wasn't just the ability to prolong her life a bit longer. He'd been promised the chance to work on a cure, if he gave the government what they wanted. That'd gone about as well as it ever had... But after his recent "breakthrough", he'd simply combined those two goals into one.
A chance to truly cure her, to cure all fatal disease – that was something he couldn't pass up. Not after everything he'd done to get this far.
And the way people with NIDS were treated down on Earth... If she had stayed, Maria would have been just as likely to die at the hands of people as her disease. The decision he'd made for her had been the only sensible one. The one that had saved her life, so far.
But at least she would have been happy.
At that moment, the Professor made a promise to himself and to his granddaughter. If Project Shadow failed, then he would let Maria die in peace. He didn't want her to fade away strapped to a dozen machines in a cold, white room, a hundred miles from the warmth of the sun. He would try and try until the end, but if there was nothing left to be done, Maria would spend her final months on Earth.
Gerald bowed his head. First, he had to keep her safe for that long. "Maria, I wanted to talk to you before we visit Shadow."
Maria straightened, lost in excitement and barely paying attention as they started down the hall again. "What is it?"
The old man smoothed back his head, a reflex from his younger days when he'd had more hair. It was better to just get this over with. "I've noticed how attached you've become to Shadow, and... Maria, there's something you must understand. This experiment, he can't be your friend."
He held his hand up as Maria began to protest. "I know that you're lonely, but Shadow was not created for that reason. I made him for two reasons: to cure you, and to protect you."
Gerald hesitated, thinking of the experiment's true purpose. She was too young to truly understand what Shadow had been made for. "He is... dangerous. There are powers inside him that no natural creature has ever possessed before. Until I know he's under control, I can't even let him out of his testing chamber.
"He is also very, very unstable. Only one other experiment has ever survived out of containment, and it quickly became unmanageable. The same could happen to this one, or perhaps he will die, like all the others. I don't want you to have false hope."
Maria clutched her book to her chest and stared at the ground, her dreams of a new friend crushed. "But..."
"No buts," the Professor said sternly. "It isn't coded in his brain, Maria. He's a robot with a false face. He can't make choices on his own, he doesn't have free will... And he will never be your friend." Seeing her huge blue eyes holding back tears, his tone softened. "He's extremely dangerous, and I must keep you safe. Please understand this."
Her silent stare broke Gerald's heart, but he maintained his grim expression. Finally, she spoke, her stare falling to the floor. "Okay." Maria's small voice was even quieter than usual.
As they walked on, not speaking, a rebellious flame sparked inside the young girl. She just couldn't believe what her grandfather had said about Shadow. How could he truly have nothing inside him? Could it be that a creature who lived and breathed and dreamed possessed no soul, no free will, not even the capacity to untap these things?
And as simple as their first interaction was, Maria could sense the curiosity inside this strange creature. Just by the way he had looked at her, followed her movements, fixated on the pinnacle of life before him. She knew that she didn't imagine it.
She resolved then to ignore Gerald's command. She only had one friend aboard the ARK: Rei, a guard twelve years older than her. And she loved Rei, with all her heart, but that single friend couldn't erase the loneliness she felt every day.
Sure, everyone on the ship was nice to her, but they were only happy to listen to her chatter while they took diagnostics. Then they quickly ushered her out so they could focus on their work. The single other child on the ship was barely a year old. So the only people she could really talk to were Rei and Grandfather.
Maria was just lonely. She only wanted another friend – maybe that would be enough. And Gerald knew this, but he was scared, more scared than anything, that Maria would get hurt. That was something he could not allow, not when they were this close.
It wasn't much longer before they arrived at Shadow's containment chamber. The door was locked with a fingerprint scanner coded only to open to two people: Gerald and Maria Robotnik.
The clueless professor believed that his granddaughter was blind to the fact that she had access to every room on the ship, thinking her too innocent to sneak about. He had no idea that the girl had been running around at night since she could reach the scanners. Having a friend who happened to be a night guard did have its benefits.
The door chirped and slid open at Gerald's touch, revealing a small rectangular room. A simple chair sat before a panel with a plethora of confusing buttons. At the far end, a heavy metal door led into a huge testing chamber. One entire wall was made of thick glass and looked into that room.
Maria, cheering up as excitement flooded her again, rushed over to the glass barrier and peered in. The room on the other side was even more bare, with nothing except featureless white walls and blinding lights set into the ceiling within.
And there, in the middle of the floor, was Shadow.
He had a dazed look on his face, his red eyes unfocused as if he couldn't see very well. Now that he was out of the water, his fur was puffed up and his quills had sprung out, so he looked a bit less like a wet puppy. Now, too, he wore a thick pair of gloves with red and white shoes – probably provided by Gerald. The gold bands on his wrists glinted in the blinding light.
Shadow was on his knees, struggling to stand. With every attempt he fell down again, and his dazed look shifted to one of frustration.
Maria pressed into the wall, her breath fogging the glass. "Can he hear us?"
In response, Gerald reached for the microphone suspended on a wire from the ceiling and spoke into it. "Shadow."
He stopped and looked around, his eyes snapping into focus as he spotted Maria and her grandfather standing on the other side of the barrier. He stared intently at them, only vague recognition in his face.
He doesn't look dangerous, Maria thought defiantly, not daring to say it aloud.
"Shadow, can you hear me?" the Professor asked. In response, the black hedgehog nodded. "Good. Can you stand?"
Shadow attempted to get to his feet once more, but trembled and fell down with a grunt. The inside of his room had microphones, so they could hear every noise he made. He shook his head.
Gerald scribbled something onto a clipboard sitting on the panel. "You've been asleep for a long time, Shadow. You've never been outside your life support tank, so basic functions may be an issue, but you'll develop your strength soon enough. Let's try to talk now. Can you speak?"
Shadow didn't respond, eyes locked with the strangely familiar girl on the other side of the glass. He'd seen her before, he knew it... But where? He had never been anywhere but this place.
Blurry memories swam through his head: an old man always in his vision, throngs of people dressed in white staring in, and, before them all, a flash of gold...
This, my dear Maria, is the final result of Project Shadow...
His voice cracked like glass, but he managed to struggle out the word. "Ma... ria?"
It was like a switch flipping for both of them. He remembered her then. She was... different. All the others he had seen were weary and stiff, their dark eyes empty. She radiated energy and happiness, filled with animation, and yet, something sadder too.
She didn't belong here. That was it; that's what was wrong. She wasn't made to exist in a place like this. Maria was an oddity, an accident, never meant to live in the dead of space.
Shadow of course knew nowhere else, but even in his pseudo-infancy, he could sense the ship's walls crushing him. A thousand barriers between them and freedom. And he felt that, somehow, there may be a place without walls, somewhere that could release the free spirit caged inside the ARK.
Slowly, Gerald reached for the microphone, wondering if it was Maria he had to worry about. "Very good; I think that's enough for now. Try to rest, Shadow. I – "
Something in the Professor's pocket chirped insistently, interrupting him. He whipped out the small grey device and let the microphone fall back. A man appeared on the two-inch screen, pupils constricted in terror.
" – got to get down to Floor C, now! There was a leak of hydrogen sulfi – " The scientist was interrupted by an explosion that Gerald could hear from where he stood, and the call ended abruptly.
Grimacing, Gerald called the ARK's head pilot. "Red, seal off the vents, disable the elevators, and issue a Class B chemical breach on Floor C. And get some guards posted on the stairs; we can't have anyone going down there."
"Yessir." His voice came over the intercom. "Attention residents of the ARK, there has been a Class B Chemical Containment Breach. Please remain calm and return to your rooms immediately. All scientists on Floor C retreat to the chemical showers..."
The Professor sighed with perhaps a bit more dramatics than necessary. That was the third leak this year. Amateurs... "Maria, please stay here. I'll be right back." With that, he was gone.
The young girl was less than frightened. Crises of some form happened at least five times a year on the ARK, and while they were massively overblown, it was rare for any real damage to be done. Hopping up on the chair, she grabbed the microphone and pulled it down, settling next to the glass wall with her back to the panel.
"Hi, Shadow," she chirped into it, speaking as if they were old friends. "I suppose you must be a little dazed, huh? Are you feeling okay?"
Shadow nodded and managed, with much effort, to finally stand. Still weak from having been let out of the pod only recently, his legs shook, but he remained unsteadily on his feet.
"Hey, you did it! Once you're stronger, maybe I can break you out of there and show you the ARK." Maria laughed. "Just don't tell Grandfather I said that, okay?"
Shadow slowly and shakily made his way over to her, collapsing to his knees once he reached the glass. He tilted his head, as if wanting to ask a question but not being sure how to voice it.
Maria tilted her head in kind. "You don't talk much, do you? Oh well. I feel like I can kind of understand you even when you're not talking. I guess that's a little silly, isn't it? Grandfather says my mind wanders too much."
Aptly demonstrating her lack of focus, she switched topics abruptly. "Do you want me to read to you?" She pressed the cover against the glass then hugged it to her chest. "It's my favourite book in the world. It can be hard sometimes on the ARK, but reading is kind of like visiting another world... It makes it a little better."
Maria, nearly sailing off into daydreams, snapped back into reality. Shadow's face was blank as he struggled to process all the new words she was saying, but she smiled anyway. "I'll start from the beginning. If you don't understand something just tap on the glass, okay? 'Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank...'"
They stayed that way for hours, pressed against the glass separating them, both too absorbed in that odd world to notice the passing of time. It was a short respite from the horrors that waited for them on that ship, a brief reprieve from what was to come. And time stopped for just a little while, giving them this, at least.
Shadow began to understand what Maria had said, about losing yourself in a different world, someone else's life. It could give you hope for a better future.
He didn't know that much about the world he'd been unwittingly born into, or the Earth that waited for him. But trapped inside that small white room, Shadow did know that he and Maria would be happier anywhere else in the world, even in a fantasy. So he leaned against the glass, letting the cadence of her small voice carry him somewhere far away.
And for just a moment in time, he was at peace.