Shadow's body was half-robot, and GUN hated him for it.
His left arm, left leg, and the left side of his face were made of gleaming black metal. Shadow had taken to wearing a black body suit to hide most of it. He wore sunglasses and a jacket with a hood to conceal his disfigured face and glowing red eye.
He stood on a rain-washed street in Sapphire City early in the morning, hands in his pockets. Across the street was a research hospital with an empty parking lot. Inside that building was the weapon that GUN had built to destroy him.
Once, Shadow too had been a secret experiment, created by government contractors in their quest to create the ultimate life form. But the project had been shut down and he had barely escaped with his life. GUN had hunted him ever since. His robotic upgrades had only made him stronger, and they feared him even more. For a while, Shadow had agreed to work with them, trading his service for their generosity in not throwing him in prison. But a glimpse of his future, courtesy of Mephiles, had sent him into hiding.
He'd been spying on GUN for months, tracking any mention of his name. That was how he discovered a top secret project to create more creatures like himself - powerful, augmented Mobians who would destroy him at their masters' command.
Shadow had come to destroy their first creation before it had the chance to hunt him.
He waited and watched for an hour, staying out of the rising sun, lurking in the shadows. He could afford to be patient—he had to be more cunning than his enemies. They would never expect him to boldly stake out one of their own hospitals.
His patience was finally rewarded as the hospital door swung open. Two female hedgehogs stepped out, one on crutches. Their voices carried across the street.
"Do you want me to come along?"
"No! I need to do it myself." This was the girl on crutches. Her fur was an odd pearly gray color. Shadow couldn't guess her age.
She swung carefully across the parking lot on her crutches. Her legs bent beneath her, only touching the ground with the tip of one toe.
Shadow zoomed in with his robot eye.
The girl's legs were smooth, mechanical constructs, white with black trim. They didn't seem to work very well. She only extended the right one. The left leg remained curled at the knee, the foot bent at an awkward angle.
Was she the weapon meant to take him down? She could barely walk. Maybe this was some kind of trap, and the real weapon would be watching to see if he intercepted her.
Shadow followed her from the other side of the street, pretending to stare at a smartphone. After one glance, the girl paid no attention to him. She focused on walking along on her crutches.
She was trying to work her legs, Shadow observed. Each step, she struggled to extend them, bend the knees, force the hip joints to work. It reminded him sharply of his own physical therapy after receiving his own upgrades. Here was someone else living out that same nightmare, day by day.
By the time the girl reached the end of the block and collapsed onto a bus stop bench, Shadow was intrigued. How did GUN think such a pathetic girl could ever be a threat to him? His scans picked up no other augmented life forms for a mile.
She gazed at him defiantly as he approached. "What do you want?"
"Hi." He stood there, language draining from his brain.
She braced her mechanical legs awkwardly against the concrete, the knees in and the feet out. She glared at him, as if expecting him to make fun of her.
Slowly Shadow pushed back his hood and pulled off his sunglasses, revealing his robot eye.
The girl gasped and covered her mouth, but not in fear—more like in sympathetic recognition.
"I'm augmented, too," he said quietly. "I thought ... maybe you'd like some company."
The girl stared at him for a long moment. Her gaze roamed across his body, trying to guess how much of him was mechanical. She didn't seem to recognize him, which was good. Maybe they hadn't trained her to hunt him yet.
He held out his left hand. "My arm and leg."
The girl touched one of his metal fingers. A smile grew on her face. "Mine is my legs, pelvis and spine. They said I'd be able to run fast." She slapped one of her legs. "Do I look like a champion sprinter to you?"
He sat beside her. "I'm Shadow."
"I'm Dina." They shook hands.
"I'm not supposed to talk to anyone," Dina said, fingering the handle of her nearest crutch. "It's not like anybody wants to, anyway. 'Mommy, what's wrong with her? Why don't her legs work? She's scaring me, Mommy.'"
This frank admission pierced Shadow's heart like a shard of glass. He swallowed a sudden, unwelcome lump in his throat. "It wasn't easy for me, either. How long has it been? Since your augmentation?"
"Two months," Dina replied. "The nerves are still reconnecting. It's why I can't move this one." She whacked her left leg with a crutch.
"I don't even know how long it took me," Shadow admitted. "Months, probably. It felt like ages. And it hurt."
"Oh yes!" Dina agreed. "Some nights the pain still keeps me awake! My spine, you know."
They talked for a long time. With every word, Shadow admired her more. Dina's courage and fire warmed him, and her suffering had been so similar to his own. She had been in a terrible car accident that had left her paralyzed and near death. They'd asked her if she would agree to a secret program that might allow her to walk again, and she agreed.
"Jury's still out, though," Dina said, levering herself to her feet. "I mean, these legs don't even work right."
Shadow jumped to his feet and stood by in case she needed help. "Well, there's really only one way to make that happen. Let's go to the park. It's this way."
"Then what?" Dina said, giving him a suspicious look.
He grinned. "We'll run races."
"Races," she said flatly. "Shadow, my legs don't work!"
"So?" he said, giving her a mischievous grin. "That means you'll be easy to beat."
Dina stared at him for a moment, then grinned. "You're on. And when I win, you're not allowed to cry like a sissy."
They walked two blocks to a nearby park, Shadow pacing along sedately and Dina laboring on her crutches.
As they walked, he carried on a silent conversation with Maria, the AI he carried inside the robot half of his brain. "What do you think of her?"
Maria appeared on his internal screen, a blond-haired human in a blue and white dress. She crossed her arms. "Do you think this is wise? She's probably the weapon created to kill you. And you're going to help her get stronger?"
"I like her," Shadow replied. A vast, warm feeling filled him that he didn't understand and couldn't explain. He'd barely known the girl for two hours, but it was balm to his soul to meet someone who he identified with so deeply. He knew nobody else who had been drastically altered, chemically and mechanically.
"You have a crush," Maria observed.
Shadow mentally shrugged. "Would you rather I killed her now? As Mecha asked me, which is better? Justice or mercy?"
Maria looked troubled. "I don't know."
"Let me try mercy first," Shadow said. "If things go wrong, then I'll side with justice."
The hedgehogs reached the park, a wide grassy meadow studded with mature shade trees. Dina was trembling and panting, so Shadow helped her sit on the grass. Or tried to.
Dina refused his help. "I have to do this myself," she gasped.
Her shifting weight forced her robotic knees to buckle. She lay on the grass, her legs twisted awkwardly to one side.
"Uh," Shadow said, "need a hand?"
"No!" Dina snarled. "I need a leg!" She struggled fiercely. One leg uncurled suddenly and kicked Shadow in the stomach. He doubled up, the wind knocked out of him.
"I'm sorry!" Dina exclaimed. "It's these dumb nerves!"
Shadow was choking and laughing at the same time. He sat on the grass until he caught his breath, still laughing.
Meanwhile, Dana rolled and struggled until she straightened her legs out at last. Both of them did respond to her will, Shadow was pleased to see. But they were sluggish and unpredictable. Finally, Dina reached a sitting position and sat there, panting. She pushed back her pearly gray quills and tried to compose herself.
"We're still going to race," Shadow said.
She shook her head. "Come on. I'm so tired already. I can't stand one more minute on those crutches. They hurt my arms."
He pointed at her with his robot hand. "We're going to crawl."
"Crawl!" Dina exclaimed, then laughed. "What are you, my therapist?"
A short while later, Shadow was teaching Dina to crawl. She was surprised to find that her legs actually obeyed her a little easier. But she also spent a lot of time face-down in the grass.
"I did this on a concrete floor," Shadow said, sitting nearby and waiting for her to recover. "They wanted me to be tough."
Dana propped herself up on her elbows, wincing as her spine creaked. "At least you didn't get grass in your mouth."
She managed to crawl a few more feet, then collapsed again. Her clothes were soaked with sweat from the effort. Shadow knew exactly how that felt.
"That's enough," he told her. "We'll do it again tomorrow."
Dina stared at him, her cheek pressed into the grass. "Are you serious?"
He nodded. "And don't tell anyone about me."
She pushed herself into a somewhat-sitting position and gazed at him, eyes narrowed. "Why? Are you dangerous?"
He rolled his eyes. "Anybody with augmentation is considered dangerous. I'm dangerous. You're dangerous."
"Ha," she said hollowly, but she gazed at her legs for a moment with a sober expression, as if considering what their existence really meant.
Shadow held out a hand. "Tomorrow, we'll race."
He said it every day for the rest of the summer.