The room was quiet, with only the steady, dull thrum of countless cooling fans, and the occasional click of a high-voltage relay. Jury-rigged cables sprawled across the floor in tangles, clustering together around occasional server nodes, all leading, inexorably, to the central console that dominated the dimly lit space. A machine, possessed by the mind of a man long dead.
Suspended in a shimmering column of light above the tangled mass of server hardware, the thin, balding head of Ovi Kintobor frowned.
Across tenuous chains of sensors painstakingly laced through dozens of zones, fresh distress signals were igniting with the regular, deliberate beat of a metronome. Another attack, on the heels of the last, and the one before that, every fresh assault beginning the instant the increasingly distant, separated freedom fighters had vanquished the machines they currently faced. Probabilities shifted with every new attack, and in the silence of the empty hideout, the Kintobor computer came to an inescapable conclusion.
The attacks weren't luring Sonic, or any of the fighters into ambushes. They were distractions, every fresh assault leading the others further and further away from the true target.
Which was here. Or, to be more specific, more personal - him.
Another panicked call for help rippled through his distant, patchy signals network. Wasp-like machines, hailing energy bolts down on a distant village. Several buildings were already on fire. Quietly, he redirected a couple of the increasingly exhausted fighters towards it.
Graphs, glyphs, percentages... his thought processes flickered across the mishmash of monitors plumbed into his pedestal. It would be simple enough to recall Sonic, or even just to warn him. The two options were more or less the same in outcome; the speedster would immediately turn back, and there was every chance he'd arrive before the trap snapped shut on the hideout. There was an equally high chance someone - perhaps many someones - would get hurt if Sonic wasn't there to deal with the next diversionary attack. Fast as he was, he couldn't be in two places at the same time.
It was no decision at all, really. He continued silently directing the fighters onwards, further and further outwards, further and further apart, and listened to the growing thunder of approaching engines. Tracks, miniaturised jet engines, the buzz of steel wings, the sound of steel feet. Then, finally, the soft crunch as the dome shaped underside of Robotnik's floating ship settled to the ground.
A voice outside, distinctive. Despised. Then, as Kintobor braced for the thump of explosions, an unexpected sound came instead. The click of a latch. Footfalls. Robotnik swept into the room. A compressed, rounded figure on two long, thin legs, his head almost invisible behind his round dark glasses and his enormous moustache, he was a distinctive sight. One that Kintobor beheld in quiet, resigned horror.
"I assume you're here to dismantle me," the projected head said in a level tone. "Will you be destroying me, or recovering me for experimentation?"
"Why, nothing of the sort." Robotnik smiled grimly as he strolled forward, and leant possessively on the console. "I'm here to talk."
"Then I have nothing to say to you," Kintobor replied. His local sensors were full of static and garbage, giving him nothing to go on outside the room. A jamming device. He began scanning the interference for patterns, trying to filter it out.
"I'm the supreme ruler of this world, Doctor. Adored, hated, oh yes, but never ignored. And I have one very key advantage..." He pointed towards his head with one thick gloved finger, a sneer in his voice. "I remember being you, and I know everything about how you think. You know nothing of me."
Kintobor's translucent lips thinned. "I know of everything you've done. I think of nothing else. I've had a great amount of time to think about you, and how I was twisted into the shell you became."
"Is that guilt I hear?" Robotnik leaned forward, cupping a hand around his ear mockingly. "Such a shame. Such a terrible pity. Is that why you didn't call back your precious freedom fighters, when you knew I was coming? Surely you knew at least that much."
"Of course. It was a ninety three percent probability after attack eight."
"Exactly. You knew, and I knew you would. I knew you'd sooner keep them out saving the weak and pathetic rather than coming back for you. Have you tricked them into building a self destruct for you yet?"
Kintobor's expression stiffened, his pale blue eyes hard.
"Oh yes, you have. I wonder what you told them... Of course, it's not hard to use them to your will without their ever knowing... is it. Tell one to build a component, another to insert a detonating chemical - for sabotage of my equipment of course - and a third to install it in you. Were you ashamed of how easy it was?" Robotnik's smile was mockingly conspiratorial.
"I am not fit to be part of their society, not after - after you," the computerised scientist replied sharply. "I am aware that a simple destruct sequence right now could remove all my mistakes in one detonation."
Robotnik gestured grandly. "Then go ahead. What are the chances that this body is a robot duplicate, or that I've created copies of myself in case of my untimely demise? Or the probability that I have a doomsday bomb ready to detonate if my life signs cease - after all, if I can't have the world... Still. You'll definitely die, and that's what you want, isn't it?" His words turned into a sharp growl. "Go ahead."
"You know that I won't, as long as there's a chance you'd survive. Are you here to talk me into self detonation? A curiously circuitous way of removing my aid from the freedom fighters." Time. The more Robotnik talked, the more time for his sequence of ambushes and lures to run its course.
"Don't bore me, Doctor. If I was going to destroy you, I wouldn't have come inside to do it."
"You like to gloat."
"Of course! Do you expect victory to have any meaning without savouring it? You're such a bloodless thing in there. Such a shame you're the only mind even potentially worth talking to." Robotnik exhaled through his moustache irritably.
"Because you were twisted from me? You are wasting your time. Two sides of the same coin will never meet." The projected face spoke softly, but with an iron in his quiet voice.
"Trite rubbish," Robotnik snapped. "We are the same, you and I, with just one realisation separating us. One single thought!"
"You are a perversion of everything I ever was! You can't imagine how far apart we are."
"Oh, but I can." The rotund dictator smiled unpleasantly. "You want to beat me, don't you? Then you need to think like me. You need to appreciate fear."
He turned, and began pacing back and forth across the room. "You don't understand the nature of emotion like I do. Striving away, trying so hard to protect these mewling wretches from me. Do you imagine they're grateful to you? Bah! How long do you think their gratitude will last? A day? Two? If you ask them to risk their existence for you, do you imagine they'd do it?" He snorted derisively. "Pathetic. Give me a day and I will make one of these cringing animals fear me for the rest of their lives! Pure, simple… honest fear."
His dark glasses glinted in the light bleeding from the projected face of his former self. "Imagine this. One day you suddenly notice that your precious friends and allies are nothing but mannequins. You can see their strings, see the workings of a puppeteer behind each unconvincing expression, you see the emptiness of their glass eyes, and you realise they've always been that way. How can you look at them as anything but a pathetic joke, an affront to your emotion, your dignity? Every drooling expression false, insulting you by implying you can't see through it. It makes you want to smash their pathetic faces, destroy every last one of them so the clattering puppets will leave you in peace! You know that you'd feel the same!"
Kintobor's expression twisted into a look somewhere between disgust and horror. "Is that what you believe? You're insane."
Robotnik snorted. "Cheap insults have no meaning. The animals you try so hard to care about are nothing but mindless, grimacing machines made out of meat. It's disgusting. Nothing but hormones and hindbrain. Better to lock them away, yes. Seal them inside true machines, machines I have created, hard and clean. Better that they look like what they are, they are my puppets, puppets of the one decent mind on this wretched world, than slaves to mindless chemical interactions." His lips, barely visible beneath the thick moustache, twisted with disgust. "You know I could have built badniks with chemical power sources. Organic batteries were never necessary if energy was all I wanted. Though I have gotten very good at it. No. The creature within is the point. And as for all the whimpering wretches I haven't got around to purifying… I can dominate their emotions with fear, make them feel something honest, something clean. Something born of more than empty dolls clattering into each other and tangling their strings! Something with purpose!"
"What kind of God complex does it take to think you're the only real mind on the planet?" The computer's calm was shattered, and he hurled the words at the strutting figure, hating each grandiose gesture he made.
"Empirical evidence, Doctor! You can't say I haven't given them enough chances!" Light slid and broke across the dark lenses of Robotnik's glasses, as he turned, gesturing broadly with his short arms. "Again, and again, nearly perfect death traps, nearly perfect machines. Tests, Doctor. Tests. A true mind would see what I see, see the gaps, the way the system fits together. A true mind would comprehend the entirety of what I have done, and seeing it, they'd walk through everything I've built unhindered and join me. Because when you understand the nature of the world, what I have done, my way, is the only way that makes sense."
Robotnik's lips drew back to reveal his teeth, his voice now a shout. "Instead, that idiot hedgehog ruins everything! Nothing but muscles and reflexes, nothing but meat. There is nothing in him that is even capable of thought, and he has to die, Doctor, he has to die so that I can force those pitiful few with even the spark of potential to the utmost nadir of their desperation, to make them think because they have no other choice."
"You're a monster, and you are mad. Do you think I'm not a real mind either? Because I certainly don't agree with a word you've said, let alone a single thing you have ever done."
Robotnik twisted around and jabbed at the console with his finger. "You have potential. Why else would I be talking to you? All you need is a moment of... clarity."
Kintobor's eyes flicked up from his hand to his face. "I suppose you're the one to give me that moment? My core personality is encrypted. You will never break it."
"Doctor, Doctor, you wound me." His eyes narrowed. "You insult me. And you still don't understand. If I rewrote your personality, you'd just be another puppet. No, I'm going to put you where you can best learn the lesson I learned. Here. Surrounded by them. Watch them, Doctor, every day. Watch them ruled by their petty fears and desires. Nothing but hormones and meat, watching the tedious ripples spread as they tangle with each other. Pull one string and the whole world dances. Watch them. I've got all the time in the world... you will come to see things my way. It is the only way, after all."
Turning his back on the computer, Robotnik strolled towards the door. Kintobor bristled, calling out sharply "What will you do when it fails? When no one ever comes to see things your way?"
Robotnik halted, without turning. "I'll use this world up looking, and that is only the beginning. So many worlds, Doctor, so much time! We are immortals, you and I. Why, I look forward to the day I've wrung every last drop of possibility out of this wretched mudball and move on to somewhere more promising. But for now... you will excuse me, Doctor. I have work to do."
He disappeared through the doorway without a backward glance, and this time, Kintobor made no effort to stop him. Outside, the thunder of mechanical movement rose in pitch before gradually diminishing into the distance.
Kintobor floated in his glowing column, silently overseeing the response to the last few diversionary attacks. Eventually, when the last badniks had been chased away or destroyed, he tracked Sonic streaking back towards their hideout. His sensors barely had time to register his imminent approach before the blue streak slammed to a stop in front of him, eyes wide. "Hey, Kintobor! Outside's covered in badnik tracks, what happened?"
The projected head shook. "He's located our hidden base, Sonic. We'll have to pack everything up and move again. The badniks pulled back at your approach, but they'll return."
"Won't egg-face ever give us a break? Back in two, packing." The hedgehog immediately blurred back into a streak of movement around the room, loose items thrown into the air by the wind of his passage and caught before they hit the floor to be thrown into travel cases.
A pair of gloved hands manifested in the projection column and took the small, clear glasses from the end of Kintobor's thin nose to polish them with the image of a handkerchief. Setting them back onto his face, he nodded once. "Thank you Sonic. Excuse me while I notify the others. I have work to do, too."