This is a stand-alone story, not part of any series. And it's a good thing, because nobody wants to see my SatAM series get completely wrecked. New chapter every week!
Artemis the wolf met Infinite for the first time when her city fell prey to the Eggman Empire.
For weeks, the news had covered the hostile negotiations between Dr. Eggman and Spagonia. Artemis watched the vid screen in her home with her parents, but it seemed unreal and far away.
"He'll never get as far as Willow Springs," her father scoffed. "Our forces are deployed at the Spagonia border. Eggman is insane if he thinks he'll win a war."
Reassured, Artemis went about her life, attending school, doing homework, hanging out with friends. The young wolf had beautiful magenta fur, and the biggest excitement of her life was being allowed to bleach streaks in it.
"If Eggman gets to Willow Springs," she told her friends, "the least I can do is look good." They were sitting on the lawn outside her house, her two other wolf friends carefully painting bleach into her fur.
One of her friends looked up. "Ugh, no. Here comes Honir."
Artemis couldn't turn her head because it would mess up the stripes they were painting on her cheek-fur. "Who's Honir?"
Her friend Sapphire rolled her eyes. "He's this jackal who keeps hanging around our pack. The alpha told him to get lost, but he hasn't."
Artemis squinted sideways, trying to see. A jackal with black fur and a white muzzle was crossing the lawn toward them, shooting anxious looks at the house, as if hoping no one would notice him. He walked with a cringing, fearful crouch. Aside from a fluffy tail, he didn't look much different from a wolf.
"Don't jackals have packs?" Artemis said. Something about the way Honir moved sent a pang of pity through her heart. "Maybe he's lost them somehow."
"Or he was kicked out of his pack for being a loser," Sapphire muttered.
"Shh, here he comes," whispered her other friend, Jaden.
The jackal walked up and stood looking at them. "Hello. I'm Honir."
When neither of her friends spoke, Artemis said politely, "Hello, Honir. I'm Artemis, and this is Sapphire and Jaden."
"You're cubs from the Gemstone Pack, right?" Honir said.
"That's right," Sapphire snapped. "The most powerful wolf pack in Willow Springs."
Honir smiled briefly, as if this pained him. "You must tell your alpha that Eggman is sending his advance weapon tomorrow to destroy the city."
Sapphire and Jaden laughed. Artemis didn't. She gazed at Honir, troubled. He gazed back, his yellow eyes sad.
"Eggman will never even cross the border!" Jaden exclaimed. "Our military is more than a match for him. And if he does make it here, my dad can smash robots like that." She slapped a fist into one palm.
"This isn't a robot," Honir said. "This is a weapon nobody has ever seen before. All of you need to pack supplies tonight and prepare to evacuate to the edge of Spring Woods. Tell your pack."
The serious tone in his voice sent chills through Artemis that she didn't understand. Thoughts of nuclear missiles flickered through her mind. But people had seen those. What kind of weapon had never been seen before?
"Spring Woods!" Jaden exclaimed. "But that's, like, ten miles away. You're crazy."
Honir didn't respond to this. He turned to go, but hesitated, looking at Artemis. "And don't believe everything you see."
The jackal walked away. Artemis gazed after him, the fur on her back prickling. He might be lying, of course. But he might be telling the truth.
If she could believe him, Eggman was going to capture the city tomorrow. She'd seen the videos of what Eggman's armies had done to Apotos and Shamar. She looked around at the houses in her quiet neighborhood, imagining them burning, people running, giant robots striding down the highways.
Her world fell out of focus. Bleached fur lost its appeal. School no longer mattered. Nobody could fight Eggman's war machines. She would warn her pack. They'd need food and water, blankets, matches ...
"You're not taking him seriously, are you?" Sapphire exclaimed as Artemis stood up. "He's just a stupid jackal trying to sneak into our pack by saying scary stuff."
"Maybe," Artemis said faintly. "Go home and prep. If he's lying, it won't hurt anything."
"But we're not finished with your fur!" Jaden squealed.
Artemis looked down at the white stripes painted down her chest, arms, and right leg. "It looks fine to me." She went inside to shower, then told her parents what Honir had said.
They laughed, too. Her father repeated his reassurance that Eggman would never arrive. Her mother complimented her new stripes.
Artemis went away and packed her backpack.
The next day at noon, Infinite took Willow Springs.
The enemy army appeared out of nowhere. It was a mix of robots, Spagonian soldiers, and, disconcertingly, human soldiers who wore GUN uniforms with the logos printed upside down.
Willow Springs fought back, but there was no end to the army. They slaughtered people in the streets, anyone who shot at them, anyone who attacked using chaos powers, anyone who resisted. They ignored the buildings, so people barricaded themselves indoors.
The Gemstone Wolf Pack fought. Artemis saw the pack alpha fall with a bullet through one eye. Her pack mates, her parents, her friends, one by one were ruthlessly killed by this enormous, unstoppable army.
She hid in the courtyard of a hotel, sobbing, terrified, cowering in a corner. There was no escaping this. It was only a matter of time before they killed her, too. Why hadn't they listened to Honir? Why hadn't she fled last night? Why didn't her parents listen to her? Her whole world had spiraled into black emptiness.
"Ah, the taste of fear and misery," said a strange voice. "What a delicious mixture."
Artemis sat up with a gasp. On the other side of the courtyard, a creature floated ten feet off the ground. He was some kind of canine-the tail said wolf or jackal-but he wore a gleaming helmet that obscured his entire head. His fur might have been black, but it was hard to tell, because a nimbus of red light flowed around him. A scarlet crystal pulsed on his chest.
Artemis groped for her laser pistol, even though the battery was dead. Her hand shook so much, she only nudged the gun further away.
"Still trying to fight," the floating being observed. "Even though I have destroyed your entire pack and taken your city. Your fear is delightful. Go ahead. Run away and I'll let you live."
A lump of hot tears rose in Artemis's throat. She scrambled to her feet and ran out of the courtyard, away from that red person in the mask, away from his amused, condescending voice. She burst into tears as she ran. "I'm a coward! A stupid coward!"
She fled the fighting, hiding, running, hiding again. At last the buildings gave way to fields and pastures. She met other people, carrying packs like her own, fleeing Willow Springs.
"We have to get to the rendezvous," a bear told her. "Before sundown."
Artemis checked the sun. There were only a few hours of daylight left, the afternoon sun casting long shadows across the hills. Behind her, smoke rose from the city. Crowds of people were pouring out of it, some carrying the injured, others shepherding small children.
"What rendezvous?" Artemis asked, hurrying alongside the bear. She rarely spoke to any Mobian who wasn't a wolf, and hardly knew what to expect.
"The evacuation, of course," the bear said. "The Resistance got news of this attack far too late, but they're doing what they can."
A tiny sliver of hope entered Artemis's mind. Maybe all wasn't lost, then. Maybe there was hope for her and the rest of these people.
"So," said another voice, "I see my warning didn't do much."
Honir the jackal fell into step beside Artemis. His black fur was dusty, and he carried a small cat over one shoulder. The cat was barely older than a kitten, and slept on his shoulder as if exhausted.
"Honir!" Artemis exclaimed, overjoyed to see someone she recognized. "I told my family, but nobody believed me." She glanced at his tail. It had the same fluffy white tip that the terrifying floating being had.
"I saw ... someone," she said haltingly. "I think he was a jackal. But he wore a helmet. And he flew."
Honir gave her a sharp look. "Did he have a red stone embedded in his chest?"
"That was Infinite," Honir said in a low voice. "The ultimate weapon. Where did you see him?"
"Back in the city," Artemis said. "He ... he said he would let me live if I ran away. So I did."
Honir closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "You're lucky to be alive. Infinite kills for pleasure, but he enjoys pain even more. He wanted you to suffer."
"Why?" Artemis cried. "Why would anyone be so cruel?"
Honir shook his head. "There is no explaining evil. For now, all we can do is flee. But one day we will fight."
Artemis walked in silence, rolling the syllables around on her tongue. Infinite. He must have immense chaos power, and ruthlessness to match.
The rendezvous point was at the edge of the Spring Woods. A black hedgehog with red stripes paced back and forth, talking on a headset and counting refugees as they arrived. People whispered the name Shadow.
A group of Mobian soldiers greeted them soberly and arranged the refugees into orderly groups. Artemis sat on the leaves and watched. This must be the Resistance. They had already planned to rescue people. So not only Honir had known of this attack, then.
Shadow began using chaos control to transport the groups of people. By the time he got to Artemis's, he looked very tired, his black and red spines in disarray. How did you speak to a hedgehog? The way you spoke to a pack member? She didn't know his rank, but he definitely outranked her. She used her politest tone.
"I'm sorry, sir," she told him as the group joined hands. "That you're having to work so hard."
Shadow smiled bitterly. "I wasn't in time to save Willow Springs, kid. I'm the one who should apologize."
He was gruff, but friendly. Maybe hedgehogs didn't worry about pack ranks. They didn't have packs at all. She might be able to tell him things.
"I saw him," she blurted. "Infinite. With the helmet and the red gem."
The hedgehog looked at her, his expression sharpening. "And he let you live?"
Shadow considered this for a long moment. "I'll take you to our commander once this evac stage is over. He'll want to know what you saw."
"How did this happen?" Knuckles exclaimed. He pointed at the wall of computer monitors that showed various maps and camera views of burning cities throughout Spagonia. "Eggman's forces are still held up at the border! Where did this second army come from?"
Amy Rose flicked through different screens and maps, the same ones, over and over. The pink hedgehog's face was pale, her eyes shadowed from lack of sleep. "There were no troop movements. No trace of an invasion force. This army appeared out of nowhere with ten thousand foot soldiers."
Knuckles looked wildly around at his other generals. Six months earlier, they had only been his friends. There were the Chaotix, Vector the crocodile, Charmy Bee, and Espio the Chameleon. Amy Rose stood at the computers. Silver, a white hedgehog, sat in a tattered folding chair with his arms folded and head bowed.
Sonic the Hedgehog was missing, and so was Tails. Their absence left a hole in the group that nobody talked about. Knuckles felt it like an ache in his spine. His friend, their most powerful fighter, their biggest morale-booster, was presumed dead. Tails, Sonic's sidekick, had abandoned them and wandered off into the wild somewhere, overcome by grief.
"Vector," Knuckles said, "do we have a place for the refugees?"
"Yeah, boss," the crocodile replied. "We've got them on troop carriers on their way to the Acorn Kingdom. They'll cross the border in a few hours."
"Good," Knuckles said, checking the maps. "At this rate, all of Spagonia will fall in three days. How is he doing this? I thought Apotos was bad-he took them out in one night."
"He must have some form of mass chaos control," Amy said, oblivious to the rest of the conversation. She was their tactical expert, specializing in the details of troop movements, supply lines, and hardware. "That's the only explanation for an army that appears out of nowhere."
Espio the chameleon stepped up beside her, his strange eyes searching the screens. "There." He found a drone video of the enemy army and froze it on a particular frame. "Those are GUN soldiers in the attacking army. But their uniforms are wrong."
Everyone crowded around the screens except Silver, who remained in his chair, head bowed.
"What the hell," Knuckles muttered under his breath. "Has GUN switched sides? But Spagonia's population is thirty percent human. They wouldn't turn on their own people."
"The uniforms," Amy muttered. "Something's wrong, here. They must be robots in repurposed outfits. Is Eggman using psychological warfare on us?"
"Why change tactics now?" Vector pointed out. "His other ones have worked so far."
A knock sounded at the door. Silver raised a finger, the tip glowing blue. The door swung open by itself.
Shadow stepped in, his black and red spines tangled and dirty. "Reporting in. All refugees relocated successfully."
Knuckles shook Shadow's hand. "Well done."
The black hedgehog looked at the screens. "I found a witness who survived an encounter with the weapon that destroyed Sonic."
Everyone straightened, gazes fixed on Shadow.
Shadow glanced over his shoulder and beckoned. A magenta wolf stepped into the room. She had the gangly look of an adolescent, arms and legs a little too long. Her fur had been fashionably bleached into white stripes, but her eyes held the desperate, lost look of a refugee.
Amy sprang to the wolf's side, taking her hand. "Welcome to the resistance. I'm Amy Rose. What's your name?"
"Artemis," the wolf said automatically. "Of the Gemstone Pack in Willow Springs."
Amy led the young wolf to a chair. Artemis sat on the edge, gazing at them as if expecting attack at any second.
Knuckles grabbed another two chairs from in front of the computers and set them down, facing the newcomer. He and Amy sat down. Amy opened a notepad.
"I'm Knuckles," he said, offering Artemis a hand. "I'm the commander of the Resistance for now. Shadow said you saw this ghost he's been talking about."
The wolf's eyes darted between Knuckles and Amy. "He wasn't a ghost. Honir called him Infinite. He was a ... a jackal, I think. With a helmet. And a red stone on his chest. And he flew."
"Hold on," Knuckles said. "Was this at the beginning of the invasion?"
"No ... toward the end." Artemis haltingly told them her story, of fighting a losing battle, hiding away, and being found by the terrifying glowing figure.
Amy scribbled notes with her tongue between her teeth. Knuckles listened, nodding as Artemis spoke. When she finished, he said, "It sounds like the same guy who took out Sonic. He's always on the sidelines of the worst attacks. I don't know what his connection is." He twisted around in his chair. "Shadow! Who's this Honir she mentioned?"
"A field agent," Shadow replied. He was sitting at a folding table, eating his way through a box of rations and looking weary. "He's out of our Mazuri branch. I haven't worked with him, but he's one of their best."
"Thanks." Knuckles faced Artemis again. "You're lucky to be alive, kid. Sorry we didn't get you on the transport with the rest. Do you mind staying here for a few days? We've got a war to fight and more people to save."
The wolf's gaze roamed the monitors that showed robots, fire, smoke, and fleeing people. She hunched her shoulders and nodded.
"Shamar surrendered to our superior strength," the Elder said. "They valued survival more than their so-called freedoms. Their leaders are begging for mercy in the Death Egg interrogation machines at this moment."
"You disgust me," replied the Lesser. "They had no strength. They were no threat. Yet you trampled their cities and torture their leaders?"
"We offered them a choice," replied the Elder, condescendingly. "Annihilation or subjugation. They chose wisely. We shipped in supplies from Apotos. You should have seen them, brother. They were rejoicing in the streets. They worship our robots. Shamar is far better off than they've ever been."
"For how long?" the Lesser snapped. "Until you've stripped the world of its resources? Until every last Mobian has died of sickness and starvation? This war is madness. It must end while there is still civilization left to rebuild."
"We are not fools," the Elder said coldly. "We spare farmland and orchards. We are appointing serfs to care for them. Our army may be mechanical, but we don't wish to starve at the end."
"Madness," the Lesser repeated. "I only pray that you see that before it's too late."
The Elder laughed.