25. Silver Lining: Part 1: The Mission

by NetRaptor1

Silver Lining

By K. M. Hollar
_________________________
Copyright info: Sonic and related characters copyrighted by Sega. Destro the fox
copyrighted by Destro, used by request, with permission. Zephyer copyrighted by
K.M. Hollar. This story copyrighted 2003 by K. M. Hollar.

If you want to use the concept of chaos fields as presented in this story,
please put a disclaimer in your fan fiction saying who thought it up.
________________________

Stay for a while
When it's good to see your smile
And I love your company
Stay for a while
And remember the days gone by
For a moment it can seem
Just the way it used to be.

--Stay for a while, Amy Grant

________________________

Part 1: The Mission
________________________

"Gee whiz, Knux," said Sonic, staring into the derobotizer room. The hedgehog
had opened the door to find a mass of machinery lying across the doorway like a
barricade. "Knux?" Sonic called, peering over the mess. "Are you in there?" The
rest of the room looked like a tornado had hit--machine parts lay everywhere,
jumbled together in heaps. There was a hole in the floor and ceiling where the
derobotizer had been.

At Sonic's call there came a grunt and Knuckles stepped into view, rubbing his
eyes. "What do you want, Sonic?"

"Did you stay here all night?" Sonic asked.

"Yes," snapped Knuckles. The echidna's face and dreadlocks were stained with
grease, and the dark hollows under his eyes showed he had not slept in some
time.

Sonic felt sorry for him. "I just wanted to see what you'd been doing. Junking
the derobotizer, looks like."

"No," said Knuckles, "I've been rebuilding it." He grabbed the thing lying in
front of the door and dragged it aside. Sonic recognized it as part of the
machine's circular base. "Don't touch anything," said Knuckles, "especially not
that." He pointed at a flat disk wrapped in a towel in the corner. It was the
terbium crystal lens, the secret ingredient that made the derobotizer work.

Sonic looked in disbelief at the chaos around him. "You want me to get Tails or
Rotor to help you?"

"No," growled Knuckles. "I can do this."

"Any luck with the biometal?"

The red echidna pointed at a dark stain on the floorboards. "That's all it does.
It converts to chemicals and either catches fire or melts."

Both of which would kill Zephyer, who had been robotized with a biometal
prototype.

Knuckles sat on an upside-down housing panel and held his head in his hands. "I
have a killer headache."

"Get an aspirin," said Sonic. "Have you tried my belt yet?"

"I tried it last night," said Knuckles without looking up. "It's on the console
if you want it back. The super emeralds weren't meant for interacting with
machinery--I tried them one by one. The violet one made the metal catch fire,
and the rest made my head hurt."

Sonic picked up his belt and examined it for scratches. The belt and its seven
glowing stones were unharmed, so he buckled it around his waist. It became
invisible as soon as he fastened the catch.

"I wish I had a chaos emerald," said Knuckles, lifting his head. "You sure you
don't know what happened to them?"

"I was in space, being blasted by chaos energy," said Sonic, folding his arms.
"I wasn't paying attention to where the emeralds went."

There was a brief silence, and Knuckles massaged his forehead.

Sonic picked up a scrap of biometal and looked at it. "What about the Master
Emerald?"

"There's no way to bring it here without endangering the Floating Island," said
Knuckles. "I don't think it'd work, anyway. I need the green chaos emerald."

"Why that one?"

"Healing powers." Knuckles looked up at the hedgehog. "If I can heal her as I
derobotize her, she might have a chance."

Might have a chance? Sonic looked at the biometal scrap. No one had said
anything about the derobotization process being fatal. He had been friends with
Zephyer for years, and it scared him to think she might die.

Someone knocked on the door. "Come in," said Knuckles.

The door opened and a female echidna peered in, a look of shock on her face.
"Good grief Knuckles! What did you do to the derobotizer?"

Knuckles got up and went to clear a path for Zephyer through the mess. Sonic
found himself staring at the metal encasing her from the neck down. Taking it
off her could be fatal.

Zephyer's eyes were fixed on Knuckles as he dragged things aside. "Knux," she
said, and he looked at her. She glared at him. "When was the last time you
slept?"

"Last night," he said.

"Don't lie to me," said Zephyer, folding her arms. "You've been in here for
three solid days!"

"I'm doing this for you," snapped Knuckles, who between a headache and lack of
sleep was in a terrible mood.

Zephyer came right back at him. "Killing yourself won't help me. Look at you,
you aren't even thinking straight anymore! Get out of here and get some sleep."

"I swear, Zephyer," said Knuckles, clenching his fists, "one of these days..."

She stood aside and pointed at the door. He left, slamming the door behind him.

"I can't believe you're actually going to marry him," said Sonic. "Aren't you
afraid he'll punch you?"

"That's like asking if you'd ever spindash me," said Zephyer, picking her way
through the tangled equipment. "You don't understand echidnas. We fight. If we
don't, we're not happy." She uncovered the terbium lens and looked at it. "Why
isn't he using this?"

"Don't ask me, I'm not a mechanic," said Sonic. "He told me that so far the
biometal either burns or melts."

She bit her lip. "I knew it wouldn't be easy. He won't be able to do it."

Sonic stood up. "I'm going to run back to Knothole. I'll bet Tails would have
some ideas, he helped build this thing."

As he made for the door, Zephyer said, "It'll kill me, won't it?"

Sonic hesitated, then left without answering. This was between her and Knuckles,
and Sonic didn't want to hurt her any more.

The derobotizer was built inside a tree house thirty feet from the ground. It was
part of a tree house village known as Eagle's Nest, and was built in the tops of
the tallest trees in the Great Forest. It had been Knothole's secondary village
for years, and now that Knothole was a bustling town with several hundred
people, many of the original Freedom Fighters had moved to Eagle's Nest for some
peace and quiet. Sonic was one of these, and it gave him an excuse to run if he
wanted to visit Knothole.

Like now. He galloped down the trail from Eagle's Nest, cutting corners and
keeping an eye out for pedestrians. He had once mowed down three people, and the
resulting scandal had been the reason he moved to Eagle's Nest. This time he
avoided two people and skidded onto a Knothole side street with a grin. The more
dangerous his run, the better he liked it.

Tails still lived in Knothole. His workshop and airstrip were there, and he did
a bit of mechanic work on the side, fixing the hover cars and appliances of the
people who came through on their way to New Mobitropolis. Sonic dropped by
Tails's workshop and tried the door, but it was locked. There was no sign of
Tails inside, so Sonic guessed he must be out somewhere and did a quick check of
possible locations. No Tails. So Sonic went hunting for Sally.

He found her in her hut, surrounded by paperwork and looking exhausted. Sonic
hated intruding on her work, but he never got the chance to talk to her anymore.
"Hi Sal," he said, knocking on her open window.

She looked up. "What?"

"Do you know where Tails is?"

"Yes, he's in New Mobitropolis. He did somebody a favor and they're paying him
back."

"A favor, cool," said Sonic, looking at the papers on Sally's desk. "You ought
to come outside. It's a beautiful day. The sun's actually shining for once."

Sally looked at him, then motioned to her desk. "I can't, Sonic. I have too much
work to do."

Sonic sighed and turned away. Sometimes he wished Robotnik were still in power,
so Sally would go on missions with him instead of spending her days locked away
with her political red tape.

Sonic jogged out of Knothole and onto the newly paved road that led to New
Mobitropolis. He crouched for a moment, bracing his feet as if to start a race;
then rocketed away, the wind in his wake sucking leaves from the roadsides. Some
days speed was his only friend.

New Mobitropolis consisted of three blocks of houses and one block of small
businesses. Knothole had the larger population, but New Mobitropolis adjoined
two highways and the Great River, making it the ideal location for a capital
city. Even after its destruction, people wanted to return and resume business,
and the two recycling plants that had set up were going great guns.

Sonic trotted down the single main street toward the business district, keeping
an eye out for Tails. He wasn't on the street, so Sonic slowed down and looked
in the windows of each store as he passed. To his surprise, he located Tails
inside an upholstery shop.

He walked in and was struck by the odors of vinyl and leather. A black bear was
cutting out a long strip of leather, and Tails was seated in front of a sewing
machine bigger than he was, stitching together what looked like a net.

"Hey Tails," said Sonic, gazing at a half-dismantled hover car with its seats
sitting on the floor. "I didn't know we had a place like this in New
Mobitropolis."

"Hi Sonic," said Tails without taking his eyes from the flashing needle. "Gus is
showing me how to do upholstery."

"Yeah," rumbled the bear. "Tails repaired my other sewing machine, so I thought
I'd show him the ropes. I doubt he'll learn anything, though."

"Gus is never happy," said Tails. "Don't mind him. I'll be able to redo the
Cyclone's seats now. The vinyl was getting cracked along the sides." He pulled
the tangle of leather straps from the sewing machine and held it up. "Look what
I made you, Sonic!"

"Thanks, little bro," said Sonic, looking blank. "Is it a parachute?"

"No, no," said Tails. "Let me put it on you, you'll understand once it's on."

Sonic stood still and let Tails buckle the mass of straps around him. It felt
like a backpack, for a mass of weave covered his back, and it buckled across his
chest and waist. "There!" said Tails, snapping the last catch and standing back.
"How's it feel?"

Sonic took a few steps. "It feels like I'm wearing a harness. What's it for?"

"You remember how you'd carry me piggyback and run really fast?" Tails said.
"This is so you can carry somebody without their arms and legs getting tired."

"Oh, I get it," said Sonic. "It's a hedgehog saddle!"

"Yeah!"

Sonic plucked at a strap. "Want to try it out?"

Tails's face lit up, and he climbed onto Sonic's back, slipping his arms and
legs through loops in the harness. "I also made a seatbelt back here," said
Tails, fastening it around his waist. "But if you spindash, whoever's back here
gets ground to hamburger."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Sonic. He walked out of the shop, carrying Tails
on his back, and jogged down the street. "This is like wearing you as a
backpack." Before Tails could respond, Sonic reached the end of the street and
opened the throttle.

Sonic decided to test the strength of his harness, so he raced across the fields
and plunged into the woods, weaving between the trees at eighty miles an hour.
Tails clung to Sonic instinctively, harness notwithstanding. The leather
stretched and creaked, but it fit so snugly it did not chafe.

Sonic ran back to New Mobitropolis, but stopped a short distance from the road
to cool down and let Tails recover.

"Helmet," panted the fox. "Forgot about wind speed."

"Helmet?" said Sonic, walking and glad Tails was so light. "Wasn't I careful to
dodge all the brush?"

"Yeah, but I can't breathe when you go that fast," said Tails. "I don't know how
you do."

"I never thought about it," said Sonic with a shrug. "I didn't come out here to
test your inventions, you know."

"You didn't?" said Tails, feigning shock.

"Knux needs a chaos emerald to derobotize Zeff. Any ideas on tracking one
down?"

Tails was quiet a moment. "I have a tracker, but it's not very strong. You'd
have to be within fifty feet, and that doesn't help much. We had the emeralds in
the village so long I never built a stronger one."

"Could you build a stronger one? Maybe one that could distinguish colors?"

"What color do you need?"

"Green."

Tails was silent a few minutes as Sonic walked onto the road and turned toward
town. "You know, you should ask Sally."

"Why Sally?" said Sonic. Tails didn't answer. Sonic turned his head, trying to
see the fox's face. Tails was smiling. "What? What about Sally?"

"I promised not to tell," said Tails.

Sonic's eyes narrowed. "I could go find her, and you'd have to go with me."

"No, don't!" Tails fumbled with the harness. "Let me down. I need to get back to
Gus."

"Yeah, right," said Sonic, but he let Tails dismount. "And take the saddle off,
will you? It's hot."

"Will do." Tails unclasped the harness and pulled it off. "I think I need to
make the padding wider, it was digging into me." He grinned at Sonic. "See you
later."

"Yeah," said Sonic, peering at him. "You sure you meant Sally?"

Tails only winked and walked off.

* * *


The village of Carrotseed was a quiet place, built on the plains of Central
Mobius. With the ocean to three sides and the mountains of North Mobius to the
north, it had temperate weather and was good farm country. In the ports ships
came and went, and the occasional human vessel arrived with goods to trade, but
inland life was quiet.

A few miles north of Carrotseed was a private airbase. It was ringed with barbed
wire fences and patrolled constantly by guard robots. No one cared to venture
close, although lately the tailfins of huge aircraft had begun to tower into the
sky. Smaller aircraft constantly flew in with supplies and materials.

This had been going on for eight years, and the inhabitants of the land
roundabout had ceased to pay attention to it. Giant ships were always being
built--the last one was a monstrous airborne aircraft carrier.

Thus it was that when a single robot crept out of the airbase and attacked
Carrotseed, the inhabitants were taken by surprise.

It was a red robot patterned after an echidna, and it proceeded in a leisurely
fashion, killing anyone it caught, and torching houses and stores with a
flame-thrower mounted in one arm. It laughed at the local police and ignored
their warning laser blasts.

A young rabbit and her mother ran from their home and fled into the fields. The
mother carried a homemade rail gun over one shoulder, and the daughter carried a
chao in one arm. The two ran hand in hand, their town rising in smoke behind
them. Once they stopped for breath, and the young rabbit looked back with wide
eyes. "Mom, what about everybody else? Will they be okay?"

"Yes honey," her mother reassured her, but she loaded the rail gun with one hand.
"We're going to the field warren, we'll be safe there."

They jogged on, often looking over their shoulders. The chao clung to his young
mistress without a sound, but he felt the air around them crackling with chaos
energy. Both rabbits were upset, the young one especially. He tried to calm her,
but today her aura was too intense for him. He hoped there were no machines in
the field warren.

They arrived at a dry irrigation ditch with a high bank on the far side. Dug
into the bank were three large holes, and the rabbits dove into them. They
followed the main tunnel down to a wide cavern, and there they paused to rest.
There were no lights, but the young rabbit's chaos aura was so strong she was
surrounded by a faint yellow glow.

"Cream," said her mother, "you need to calm down."

"Mom, I'm scared," squeaked the rabbit. Her mother sat down on the floor and
laid the rail gun aside. Cream climbed into her lap, holding her chao. Eva could
feel the chaos tingling inside her daughter like electricity, and knew that if
Cream did not calm down, she might make the burrow collapse on their heads.

Eva held Cream and rocked back and forth, humming. Slowly the anxious yellow
glow faded, and darkness enfolded them.

"I wish Daddy was here," whispered Cream.

"Your Dad's on a business trip," said Eva. "He won't be happy about this, I'm
sure." She continued to rock and hum.

Had the pair lived three hundred years earlier, they would have been considered
witches or chaos warriors. But because of modern science, everyone knew that
Eva's body absorbed the local chaos field. On the opposite end of the spectrum,
Cream emitted chaos energy in huge amounts, and she had been banned from
touching a computer since birth. In a desperate attempt to regulate her power,
her parents adopted a chao for her. This chao developed the ability to moderate
Cream's disruptions, and as long as he was with her, Cream could enter the same
room as electronics equipment without breaking anything.

As she rocked, Eva kept one ear tuned for any suspicious noises from the
entrance. Her ears did not stand up very well, for she was a 'lop', but she
could prop one up if she needed to listen. Her daughter had inherited her
lop-ears, but one of her ears could stand up like her father's.

Footsteps outside. Eva carefully laid Cream on the floor, noting with relief
that she had fallen asleep. The chao stirred, and Eva whispered, "Watch her,
Cheese." She picked up the rail gun and flicked a switch to charge it, then she
slipped up the tunnel toward the entrance.

Cheese sat in the stuffy darkness within the burrow, snuggled against Cream, but
listening for sounds from above. For a while all was dead silence. Then he heard
the shriek of the rail gun fairing, and a muffled shout from outside. Then
nothing.

The chao sat in the darkness beside his mistress, torn between loyalty to Cream
and longing to know what had happened outside. Eva didn't come back.

A little later Cream awoke. Cheese was sitting inside one of her enormous ears,
and she knew he was keeping watch. "Cheese?" she yawned. "Where's Mom?"

"I think she went back to help," said Cheese, keeping an eye on Cream's aura.
The chaos field was visible to him, and he saw it as a colored mist hovering
around people. His young mistress had a strong one, and it changed colors and
swirled according to her moods. Right now it was small and moving slowly.

"By the way," said Cheese, "today my name is Monty."

"Your name is Cheese," said Cream, shaking him out of her ear and swinging it
over her shoulder.

"Yes, but what kind of cheese?" said the chao, folding his stubby arms.
"Mozzarella? Cheddar? Swiss?"

"Monterey Jack," said Cream, grinning.

"Right," said the chao. "So call me Monty."

"You change your name too much," said Cream. "And you don't look like a Monty."

"I don't look like a cheese, either! I'm the wrong color."

"There's blue cheese..."

"Oh, can it."

"Do you hear something?" Cream pricked up her strong ear. "Something's outside.
It's walking around."

Cheese--or Monty--listened, but couldn't hear anything. Cream got up and felt
her way toward the entrance. Monty hung back. "Cream, don't go up there. What if
it's that robot hunting for us?"

"It might be Mom," said Cream. "I just want to look out. Is there anything wrong
with that?"

"You might get spotted," grumbled Monty, but he followed her up the tunnel.

The irrigation ditch was empty. Cream crouched and listened, her strong ear
swiveling this way and that like a satellite dish. Monty pressed up behind her
and peered out, nervously stroking and soothing her aura to keep it quiet.

"Do you feel anything?" she whispered.

"Yes," he whispered back. "Somebody's really close."

Cream poked her head out of the burrow to look up and down the ditch, and
gasped. A short way up the ditch was a fallen figure. "Chee--I mean Monty,
look!"

The chao crawled out and followed her gaze. "Uh oh!"

"He's not a robot, is he?"

"No," said Monty, squinting. He had been afraid that Eva had been hurt, but that
figure was too big for Eva. As they watched it, it rocked to and fro and moaned
in pain.

"It's a survivor!" exclaimed Cream, and bolted from the burrow.

Monty ran after her. "Cream, wait! There might be blood!"

The figure was a burly fox in armor, and he had been shot in the stomach. There
was blood all right, and Cream gasped and turned her back--she turned faint over
a paper cut, and this was much worse.

But Monty was made of stronger stuff, and he looked closely at the dying fox.
The size of the wound made it look like he had been shot by a rail gun. But why?
Was he an enemy? As Monty watched, a shred of Cream's chaos aura tore free and
was sucked into the fox.

"Monty, what are you looking at?" asked Cream. "I want to go back to the
burrow."

"He's absorbing your aura," said the chao. "I've never seen that before."

"He's what?" said Cream, turning around and looking at the fox.

The fox's eyes opened, and for a moment he gazed up at the rabbit above him. She
returned his gaze, speechless. He held out one gloved hand and whispered,
"Please help me."

Cream thought he wanted to get up, so she grabbed his hand and tried to lift
him. "Don't touch him!" cried Monty, but he was too late. The fox seized Cream's
hand in both of his and clung to her, gasping.

"Let go!" squealed Cream. "You're hurting me!"

Monty watched as Cream's aura flamed up in greenish-yellow shades of terror, and
was sucked into the fox like water into a sponge. The terrible wound in his
belly began to heal. "Monty, help me!" cried Cream, trying to break out of the
fox's grasp.

"Wait a minute!" said Monty, running to her. "He's absorbing your chaos field
and healing himself! Look!" Cream saw the wound was closing. In a few more
seconds it had closed and only a jagged scar remained.

The fox opened his eyes and released Cream's hand. She sprang away and stood
watching him from a safe distance. The fox sat up and rubbed his stomach. He
wore armor over his upper torso, but had been shot just where it ended. "I'm
alive," he said, marveling. He climbed to his feet and said, "Thank you, young
lady." In the same breath, he looked up at the sky and said, "And thank you for
sending her to me."

"I heard a sound, and I came to look," said Cream. "Are you from Carrotseed?"

"No," said the fox. "But I saw what happened. I was pursuing the robot when I
was intercepted by friendly fire." He rubbed his middle again. "I'm Destro."

"I'm Cream," said the rabbit, "and this is my chao, Monty Jack Cheese."

Monty was more interested in Destro's wound. "Friendly fire, you said?"

"Yes," said Destro, looking down. "She fired just as I passed in front of the
robot."

Cream blanched. "It was my mom, wasn't it?"

Destro shrugged and turned away. "I must be going. Farewell, Cream and Monty."

"No, wait!" said Cream, but she was interrupted as Monty gave a cry of terror.
Cream spun around and gasped. Standing on top of the bank was the killer robot,
its green eyes glittering in malice.

Cream snatched up her chao and backed away, her aura flaming yellow with violet
borders and flecks--fear bordering on hysteria. The robot sprang off the bank,
landed on the floor of the ditch, and paced toward her like a hungry panther.
"Destro!" Cream cried.

The robot paused, its eyes focusing on the fox behind her. The armored fox
walked up behind Cream, and she heard a ringing rasp as he drew his sword.
"Be gone, monster."

The robot crouched and brandished the eight-inch spikes welded to its fists.
"You want to fight me hand to hand?" it hissed.

Destro stepped in front of Cream, who retreated, clutching Monty and watching,
wide-eyed. Destro did not answer.

"Very well," said the robot. "I haven't had a good hand to hand fight in a
while." It sprang forward. Destro swung, and there was a crash of sparks. The
robot whirled and slashed with both claws at Destro, who parried the blows with
his blade.

Suddenly the robot leaped away and stood still a second, its head turned as if
listening. Then it said, "Consider our little battle postponed." It fired up its
engines and rocketed out of the ditch. They listened to it fade into the
distance, and Destro re-sheathed his sword. He turned to Cream, just as she ran
to him and flung her arms around his waist, sobbing.

* * *


Sonic looked through the window into Sally's hut. She was still hunched over her
desk, head in one hand, filling out paperwork. He knocked on the window frame.

"What, Sonic?" she asked without looking up.

"Get a secretary," said Sonic. "Can I come in?"

"No," said Sally, so Sonic opened the door and walked in.

"I need a way to track chaos emeralds, and Tails said to ask you about it."

Sally studied him. "Why do you need to track a chaos emerald?"

"Knux is trying to derobotize Zephyer, and he needs the green one to keep her
alive," said Sonic.

Sally gazed at him a long moment, then said, "You mean it'll kill her to
derobotize her?"

"That's what Knux thinks."

Sally looked down at her papers and sighed. "I knew I'd have to show it to you
someday." She opened a drawer in her desk and removed a small box. She opened it
and took out various parts, and assembled them with the ease of long practice.

Sonic watched over her shoulder. "What is that?"

"Rotor built this for me after you got your belt, and later Tails modified it to
utilize a satellite," said Sally. "This is a tracking device for chaos energy."
The squirrel smiled at the look of shock on Sonic's face. "I had to keep tabs on
you somehow, since I wasn't going on missions with you anymore."

"Why didn't you ever tell me about it?" yelped Sonic.

"I know you," said Sally. "You'd brag that your friends had built the most
powerful emerald tracker on Mobius, and a week later you'd have treasure hunters
lined up to steal it."

"I won't tell anybody about it," said Sonic. "How does it work?"

"I have to plug in Nicole," said Sally. She removed her battered palmtop
computer from a drawer, and plugged Nicole's input slot into a port on the side
of the tracker. The tracker itself was a flat box with a screen, and a little
satellite dish mounted on one end. "Nicole," said Sally, "uplink to local
satellite using chaos tracker."

"Affirmative, Sally," said the computer. The little dish swiveled back and forth
until it located a signal, then Nicole announced, "Connection established."

"We're online, Sonic," said Sally. "What do you want to see?"

"The location of the green chaos emerald," said Sonic. "I'm worried they're in
orbit or jumped dimensions or something."

"Locate green chaos emerald by field signature," said Sally. As the computer
worked, she said, "All the emeralds affect Mobius's chaos field differently.
When we had all of them here, I logged each signature, so now I'll be able to
distinguish each emerald."

"You hope."

"I hope." Sally frowned at the screen as a blip appeared along the left edge.
"Oh rats."

"What?" said Sonic. "Is that it?"

"Yes," said Sally, typing a few commands on Nicole. The blip enlarged, and an
outline of a continent appeared around it.

"Where's that?" said Sonic.

"Central Mobius," said Sally. "It's not on West Mobius at all."

"I've never been there," said Sonic. "Do they speak New Mobian?"

"They probably speak Borese," said Sally. "The rest of the northies do, but I'm
sure we can find a translator if we need to communicate."

"We?" said Sonic. "You're going with me?"

"Oh," said Sally, looking at her papers. "I'm sorry Sonic, I slipped back into
my old mission-planning mode. I can't go."

"Come on, Sal," said Sonic. "If you stay in here much longer you'll become a
hunchback, and that wouldn't be very popular."

Sally gestured to her desk. "I have to get this done. It's the zoning
regulations and ownership deeds for New Mobitropolis, and I have to get it
cleared up before the rebuilding can start."

"Sal," said Sonic, leaning toward her, "read my lips. Get. A. Secretary."

"Sonic, this is my responsibility," said Sally, looking weary. "Being a princess
isn't just wearing a crown and sitting on a throne, you know. I've got to be a
politician now."

Sonic spun around, walked to the wall, and turned back. "So you're going to
spend the rest of your life inside a cage, and you're not going to do anything
about it?"

"What can I do?" said Sally. "I'm the last heir to the throne. I have to do
this. I've been doing it for years already."

"Just run away!" said Sonic. "Go someplace they'd never find you!"

"Not everyone can run away, Sonic. Some people have to stay put and run things,
and I'm one of those people."

"Change the laws," said Sonic. "Make it a democracy like the human colonies
have."

Sally only shook her head. "You can't change laws that easily."

Sonic paced in a circle, his strides jerky with anger. It infuriated him to see
Sally accept chains that he didn't think she needed to wear. He spun to face
her. "Fine. Stay here and become a politician. But come with me on one last
mission, please?"

The question hung in the air. Sally gazed at him for a long moment, then looked
at her stacks of unfinished work. Slowly she looked at Sonic again. "How long
would we be gone?"

He grinned--he'd won the battle. "Not more than a week. We can take the Cyclone,
fly out to Central Mobius--shouldn't take more than two days--find the emerald
in two or three days, and fly home. Easy."

Sally stood up and began to disassemble the tracker. "You don't instill me with
a lot of confidence, Sonic. When do you want to leave? I can pack in twenty
minutes."

"Let me check out the Cyclone," said Sonic, and left the hut at a run.

He had a week with Sally--one precious week to spend time with her before the
courses of their lives split them apart. As he skidded onto the airstrip, he
realized he didn't want that to happen. He and Sally had been a team through the
dark Freedom Fighter years, and lately he had neglected her to go off on his own
adventures. And he had all but lost her.

Sonic vaulted into the biplane's cockpit and checked the fuel levels.
Fully-fueled; Tails always kept the tanks full in case he wanted to fly
somewhere, which he did at least once a week. Sonic did a bit of flying,
himself, to keep his pilot's license current.

Sonic leaned one elbow on the plane's seat and gazed at the throttle. After this
week was over, Sally would return to her government position forever, and Sonic
would be merely a bystander. She might make him captain of the guard or
something, but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted things to stay the
same--but they couldn't. New Mobitropolis was being rebuilt. The monarchy would
pull itself together. Knothole would become a historic ghost town in the woods.
Sally would marry some suitable rich snob, and that would be the end of it.
Sonic would be left to himself with nothing but his speed and a few fans to his
name.

He would have to do something really drastic to keep this dismal vision from
coming true. Like marry Sally. He laughed at himself. After what he had seen of
her determination to take on the mantle of ruler, she would either refuse him or
marry him and make him king. King Sonic. The very thought of the title made his
flesh creep. He would be forced to do all the things Sally was doing--be a
politician--and spend the rest of his life entombed indoors as his speed and
energy withered away.

NO!

He jumped out of the biplane and stood beside it, panting as if he had escaped a
deathtrap. He turned and gazed at the tail section, where his name was painted
in black letters. He traced the S with one finger. S for Solitude. He didn't
want to lose Sally forever. But marrying her meant giving up everything else
that he loved, and he couldn't choose between them. Not yet.

Sonic gazed at the trees ringing the airstrip. A bit of preparation wouldn't
hurt.

* * *


In Central Mobius, the fires in Carrotseed were being extinguished, and the
villagers ran around, looking out in terror for the fearsome red robot.

A mile from town, a fox in battered armor and a young rabbit with a chao were
walking along a dirt trail through a carrot field. As far as the eye could see
were rows and rows of ferny green growth. From time to time Cream would turn
aside, pull a carrot from the ground, clean it off and eat it. "You want some?"
she asked Destro, offering him a small carrot. "The little ones are the
sweetest."

Destro took the carrot and ate it without speaking.

Cream watched him. "Is it sweet?"

"Yes."

For the past hour, all Cream could get out of him were "yes" and "no". When she
had run to him, crying in the aftermath of her terror, Destro had turned to
stone. He was taking her back to Carrotseed and would scarcely speak to her.

"I think you scared him," whispered Monty in her ear. The chao had eaten so many
carrots his mouth was stained orange.

"How did I scare him?" whispered Cream.

"You hugged him."

"Hugs aren't scary."

"Well, he didn't like it. He acts like he's mad at you."

"I'll ask him." Cream looked up at Destro. "Are you mad at me?"

"No," said Destro, looking straight ahead.

"Because Monty thinks you're mad at me," said Cream. "Because I hugged you. Are
you afraid of hugs?"

Destro didn't answer.

"Well, ARE you?" asked Cream shrilly.

The fox looked at her, and his glass eye flashed in the sun. Cream recoiled--she
had not noticed his artificial eye before. "It's been a long time since anyone's
hugged me."

Cream stared at him. "What happened to your eye?"

Destro looked away and didn't answer.

Monty elbowed Cream, but she was too fascinated to drop the subject. "Is it
robotic? Can you zoom it in? Can you see in the dark?"

"No," said Destro. "It contains targeting systems and readouts."

"Oh." Cream nibbled the stump of a carrot in her hand. "Are we there yet?"

Monty lifted his head. Throughout this one-sided conversation he had kept an eye
on the chaos field around them. Cream's was swirling and pink, as it was when
she was in a good mood. Once in a while playful surges shot out toward the
ground or Destro, and Monty caught them and pulled them back with his own small
aura. Just because Cream was happy didn't mean that rocks, leaves and passersby
should fly around.

Destro's armor was no longer absorbing chaos energy, but from time to time
little ripples of power passed over him, usually when Cream asked him a
question. Monty admired Destro's control. Destro had a natural aura, like most
Mobians. But unlike Mobians, Destro kept his entire aura locked away within
himself, showing his iron self-control.

But now Monty felt a wave of disturbance roll over them, making Cream's aura
wave like kelp in an ocean tide. He looked around and saw a vortex of energy
sweeping toward them over the carrot field like a purple tornado. Monty had
never seen anything like that before, and sat up straight. "Cream! Destro!
Something really bad is coming this way, and it's really, really bad!"

"The robot," said Destro, and started to draw his sword. Then he looked at Cream
and Monty and hesitated.

Monty looked at him. "He's got a chaos vortex with him. I have no idea what
that'll do, so I think we'd better run."

"Right," said Destro. He re-sheathed his sword and scooped up Cream. "Hold on,"
he said, and she put her arms around his neck. The armor on Destro's back
unfolded and expanded to form a rocket pack, which ignited with a tearing roar.
Destro shot into the sky, a visor automatically unfolding from his helmet. Cream
was crushed against his armored chest by centrifugal force, and couldn't breathe
until Destro leveled out.

Monty was clinging to her. "This--is--so--cool," he gasped.

"Still see the vortex?" said Destro.

Monty peeked over Destro's shoulder. "Yes, but it's shrinking. I think we lost
him."

"Good," said Destro, and kept flying.

It wasn't until later that Jack wondered why Destro believed his warning about
the chaos field when most other Mobians had no idea what he was talking about.
Being the only person able to see the chaos field was lonely business.

* * *


Zephyer stopped at the top of a ladder leading up to the platforms of Eagle's
Nest, and leaned on the railing. She was panting from the climb, which seemed a
little harder every day. It was the metal she was packing around; it was heavy
and oppressive, and hauling it up and down the ladders was wearing her out.

When she had caught her breath, she walked along the creaking walkway to the big
circular room where Knuckles was working on the derobotizer. She paused outside
the door and listened. All was quiet. She turned the knob and opened the door,
peering around for Knuckles. The room was in shambles, as usual. The
experimental lens and extractor was set up where the derobotizer had been, and
she guessed Knuckles had been trying a new setting. The floor around it was
covered in scorch marks and a grimy, fluffy stuff she realized was fire-retardant
foam. So it had caught fire this time. If this kept up, Knuckles would run out
of biometal to experiment on. There were only a few biotics left, for the rest
had already biodegraded too much to use.

She gazed at the mess on the floor with a sinking heart, and regretted agreeing
to marry him. If Knuckles didn't kill himself trying to make the machine work,
then he would kill her trying to derobotize her. Maybe she should ask him to
break off the engagement.

Brooding, Zephyer left the derobotizer room. The next place to look for him was
the little library, where donated and salvaged books were kept. Knuckles had
been doing tons of research, trying to figure out a formula that would break
down the biometal into non-hazardous components.

She opened the door and stepped into the library. The walls on the east and west
sides were solid windows, and the rest of the walls were lined with shelves of
books. A table had been set up in the middle of the room, and here Knuckles had
spread his chemistry and nano technology books. He was bent over them now,
scribbling in a notebook, the image of an echidnaen mad scientist.

Zephyer crossed to another chair in the corner and sat down, not wanting to
disturb him. She idly picked up a book from a box at her feet and thumbed
through it. It was a kid's novel and contained the occasional illustration of a
Mobian collie who had a human boy as a pet. The idea turned Zephyer's stomach,
and she put the book down.

Knuckles laid his pencil down and massaged his forehead. "Hi Zephyer."

"Hi Knux." For some reason Zephyer was suddenly shy. "What're you working on?"

"New formula," said Knuckles. He had a maniac gleam in his eyes. "Metal Sonic
invented this biometal, so I should be smart enough to figure out how he did
it."

"You're taking on Metal Sonic by doing this, I see," said Zephyer. She looked
down at her clasped hands. "Maybe we should call off the engagement."

Knuckles looked at her, startled. "What? Why?"

Zephyer kept her eyes on her hands. "I don't want you to kill yourself over
this."

"I'm not going to kill myself," said Knuckles, standing up and stretching. "I'll
crack the code. I mean, I've built robots more complicated than this darned
biometal technology."

Zephyer looked up. "You're trying to figure out how to keep me alive, aren't
you?"

Knuckles looked at her a long moment, then walked to her, took her hands and
pulled her to her feet. "Zeff," he said, "there's always a risk involved. I'm
trying to find a way to minimize the risk."

"Don't be diplomatic, it doesn't suit you," said Zephyer, smiling in spite of
herself. "Spill it, Echidna."

Knuckles smiled a little. "All right. Building biometal is easy. Taking it apart
isn't. Right now the machine sees no difference between metal and flesh."

Zephyer went cold. The image flashed through her mind of being liquefied, and
the library whirled. She sank back into the chair and held her head. "Are you
all right?" Knuckles asked, then he growled, "I knew I shouldn't have told
you."

"No, I'm okay," said Zephyer, coming to herself with an effort. "I shouldn't
have asked." Her heart was racing, and her fingertips tingled.

Knuckles watched her a moment. "When did you eat last?"

Uh oh.

"Um, I don't know," said Zephyer. "Breakfast?"

Knuckles's lips pressed into a line. "Come on, Zephyer, don't do this to me." He
knelt in front of her chair. "You have to keep eating, you understand?"

Zephyer glared at him. "It's none of your business if I eat or not."

"Yes it is!" snapped Knuckles. "It's called Robotization Trauma Syndrome, when
you stop eating and die. You're not going to die on me, okay?"

"Okay," said Zephyer. "I don't plan on dying, it's just that lately all food
smells foul to me."

A muscle flexed in Knuckles's jaw. "I'll see what I can do." He started to get
up, but knelt down again. "Look Zeff, we're engaged. We've made a deal that if I
can derobotize you, you'll marry me. I want to add another condition to that."

Zephyer raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"

Knuckles's eyes were intense. "That you keep yourself in good condition by
eating regularly. If you starve yourself, you WILL die when we get the metal
off. Understand?"

"Yes." Zephyer looked down at herself and hated her metal all over again.

Knuckles rose and returned to his books. Zephyer remained in her chair. Despite
her humiliation, there was no place she would rather be than with Knuckles, even
if they didn't talk. She began to take books from the open box and place them on
an empty shelf.

She was thus engaged when the door opened and Sonic's head poked in. "Hi Knux,
hi Zeff," he said. "Zeff, can I ask you something real quick?"

"Sure," said Zephyer, rising and walking out to him. He motioned for her to step
outside, and she did. Sonic shut the door, checked to make sure they were alone,
then said quietly, "What did you do with those rings Knuckles made for you?"

"They're in my apartment here," said Zephyer, cocking an eyebrow. "Why?"

"I want to borrow one." Sonic's eyes were everywhere but on her.

"Sonic," said Zephyer, grinning. "Have we given you ideas?"

"Ideas about what?" said Sonic, staring at the wall.

"You and Sally," said Zephyer. "You've been friends an awfully long time..."

Sonic examined the railing. "I just want to borrow a ring. Sally and I are going
off to track a chaos emerald, and I ... I wanted to have a ring handy."

"Uh huh," said Zephyer, watching him. She had never seen Sonic so twitchy. "I'll
let you borrow one, but you can't have the red one."

"I wanted a blue one, actually," said Sonic, following her down the plank
walkway. "I don't have time to buy one or I would. We're leaving in ten
minutes."

"We'd better hurry, then," said Zephyer. She reached a tree house with three
apartment rooms, opened a door and ushered Sonic in. The room was tiny, with a
bed, a bureau, and a mirror on the wall. On top of the bureau was a cardboard
box, which Zephyer picked up and held out to Sonic. He glanced in and snatched
out a ring with a blue stone.

"Great," he said, yanking off his glove and sticking it on his own finger. He
pulled the glove back over it and said, "She'll never suspect a thing."

As he turned to go, Zephyer said, "She loves you, right?"

"Sure," said Sonic. "Everybody loves me."

"You haven't been very nice to her," said Zephyer, following him out the door.
"You'd better work hard to be nice, or she'll turn you down flat."

"How do you know?" said Sonic, looking half-scornful half-worried.

"I talk to her, unlike some people I could mention."

Sonic winced. "Point taken. See you in a week." He dashed off down the
boardwalk, and Zephyer leaned against the wall for a moment. Maybe she should
take Knuckles's advice and eat a little more often.

* * *


The red robot was hunting Cream, Destro was sure of it. Every time they tried to
double back to Carrotseed, the robot appeared and tried to catch them. Monty the
chao always saw the robot coming because of something in the chaos field. Destro
could feel changes in the field itself sometimes, but he could not see them the
way Monty did.

They were driven further and further from Cream's home, Destro using his
rocket pack when the robot drew too close. He didn't like to use it so much; it
drained the energy out of his armor, which drew power from his body. He knew the
chao could see the transferring power, because sometimes Monty's eyes would
follow something as it traveled along Destro's body. Destro wondered what chaos
power looked like, but didn't ask. Over the years of solitude his natural
shyness had become a silent mask. He did not speak to anyone except when
absolutely necessary.

Thus he found Cream's chatter unnerving and irritating. She talked constantly,
and he wondered if she had a single thought in her head she did not speak aloud.
He heard about her mother and her father, who worked far away, and her crazy
uncle who was also really funny, and her grandma who hated her dad, and the
place where they got Monty, and the school she went to, and her teacher there.

The sun was sinking by this time, and Destro was thinking about finding shelter
for the night. It was early spring, and the nights were cold. Destro usually
slept under a tree somewhere, but he doubted that Cream would survive a night in
the open with the robot hunting her.

They came to a farmhouse with a cellar dug in the ground a short distance from
the back door. As darkness descended, Destro led Cream and Monty to the cellar,
and they snuck down inside it.

Cream was sleepy and full of carrots, so she curled up on the earthen floor and
fell asleep at once. Destro examined the cellar. It was lined with shelves on
which were stacked jars of preserves and canned vegetables. The cellar door
latched from the outside, so Destro took up his vigil at the foot of the steps.
Monty, who had accompanied Destro on his tour of inspection, asked, "Will that
robot be able to find us?"

"I don't know," said Destro. "But I can feel when he's near."

"I know, your aura sways with Cream's," said Monty. "And I thought Cream
distorted the chaos field!"

Destro was silent a moment, then said, "It must be able to feel her."

Monty shivered. "If you feel it coming, wake me up."

"Yes." Destro watched as the chao walked to his young mistress, turned over one
of her ears, and curled up inside it. Their combined breathing became slow and
even.

Destro reached behind him and flicked a switch on his armor to let the batteries
rest, and closed his eyes. Inside his bionic eye he opened a file containing the
sacred writings of the religious code he followed. Reading it helped clear his
mind of all the distractions of the day, and he quietly asked his God, the
Lightgiver, if he should continue to protect this child. He knew what the answer
would be before it came.

"Yes. Your paths crossed for a reason."

"Shall I fight the robot that is hunting her?"

"No. Journey south to a place I will show you."

"Thank you." The Lightgiver had been Destro's only companion for so long that
communicating with him was second nature. It was sort of like telepathy, but
Destro had to keep his mind pure in order to do it--the Lightgiver could not
illuminate a darkened mind.

Destro wished he could fight the robot, for long ago he had sworn to eliminate
evil from the world wherever he found it, but the Lightgiver had other ideas.
Sometimes he would direct Destro to attack an enemy, but at other times he was
to avoid an encounter, or flee, as now. But over the years Destro had seen these
odd instructions lead to amazing victories, and so he was prepared to continue
running from the robot for Cream's sake.

Destro let himself doze, his armor taking on a dark, dull color to blend with
the wall. But he kept a part of himself awake, waiting for that silent roll of
power that preceded the robot.

* * *


In West Mobius it had been night for three hours. Sally was wearing a coat and
goggles in the passenger seat of the Cyclone, but she was shivering, partly
exposed to the wind. The Cyclone had been converted to attack mode for extra
speed, and Sonic was in the pilot's seat, navigating and occasionally swigging
from a thermos of coffee. Because of the wind and engine noise all talking had
to be conducted at a yell, and Sally was too sleepy to bother. She slouched down
in the seat, thankful for the floor heater Tails had installed, and closed her
eyes.

Even the prospect of riding in a small plane for two days was more welcoming
than the hours of paperwork that awaited her. She had done nothing for a month
but fill out forms, and the thought of the boxes of papers under her desk made
her want to cry. But she had to make the best of it. Eventually she would
finish, and life would resume. The years of being a Freedom Fighter had taught
her to put the best face on everything. If she could fake confidence in the
midst of a trying situation, then those looking up to her would also be
confident.

But Sonic always saw through her. Just as he had seen through her that morning
with his comment about living in a cage. It was the same metaphor that had been
growing in her own mind; living forever indoors, bent over books while all
outdoors was crying out to her. She had lied to Sonic about having done this
sort of thing for years--what she did best was plan tactical moves and mission
objectives, and encourage downcast refugees. She was a military commander, not a
queen, and making the transition was killing her by inches.

Sally lifted her face and inhaled the chilly air, which contained the scent of
the sea. This was the kind of mission she liked, with plenty of outdoor work
involved. The emerald tracker was tucked inside her coat to protect it from the
dew, and she touched its square edge under the fabric of her coat. This was no
military mission; it was a treasure hunt.

Her thoughts wandered to Knuckles and Zephyer, and of the hours she and Zephyer
had spent talking. Zephyer was terrified of the duel prospect of derobotization
and marriage, and needed lots of counseling. During the process Sally and
Zephyer had become good friends, and Sally received some counseling of her own.
Zephyer had the unexpected knack for encouragement, and Sally had received the
extra energy she needed to continue working.

Sally thought wistfully of the look in Zephyer's eyes when she talked about
Knuckles, as if he was a movie star who Zephyer was permitted to spend time
with. There had been a time when Sally felt the same way about Sonic, but he had
remained cocky and indifferent. He had gone off and done his own thing, and
gradually Sally had accepted this and buried herself in her work. There was no
point in wasting time on Sonic when he viewed her only as a friend. But her
heart didn't want to believe it, and she harbored the hope that someday Sonic
would return to her. Now if only they could get a chance to talk! She had so
much to ask him about, like the Mekion incident, which Sally had heard about
second-hand. Sonic never talked about it...

Hours later Sally opened her eyes. A dim light was growing in the sky behind
them, and the stars hung low and heavy. Sonic was hunched over the control
stick, and a dim landmass had appeared on the ocean to the right. "Sonic,"
called Sally, "where are we?"

"Patuxet islands, I think," Sonic called back. "The airport's got us in a
holding pattern. You doing okay?"

"Kind of stiff, but okay," said Sally, stretching as much as possible in a
cramped space. "How's fuel?"

"I have a quarter of a tank," said Sonic. "We're good for another hour. Tails's
planes get good mileage, that's for sure."

The pair fell silent. It took too much effort to compete with the Cyclone's
engine.

Ten minutes later Sonic received clearance to land, and circled in to land at
the island airport. Sonic wanted to refuel and fly on, but Sally objected.
"We've been flying since noon yesterday. How much longer do you think you'll
stay awake?"

"Two hours," said Sonic with a grin.

They checked into a small hotel outside the airport, and took two rooms. Sonic
crashed and slept without stirring for three hours, but Sally bathed and
tinkered with the emerald tracker. There were no chaos emeralds on the Patuxet
islands, but here and there she picked up people with strong chaos auras. Maybe
such a thing was more common here than on West Mobius. At home she could sweep
the whole continent and only Sonic's aura would pick up. Perhaps it had
something to do with the equalization of the chaos field after the flux.

She searched for the green emerald again and charted its location. She zoomed in
with the satellite and sketched out a map on a piece of paper, jotting notes
about other deceptive pockets of chaos energy. As she worked she kept an eye on
the hazy blip that was the green emerald, so she saw when the blip flickered and
died.

"What in the world?" Sally murmured. "Nicole, reacquire location of green chaos
emerald."

"Working, Sally," said the computer. The screen redrew itself, and there was the
emerald signal again. As Sally watched, the signal strengthened, then weakened
to nothing, then strengthened again. What in the world was going on down there?
The chaos field must be unstable. But this was the green emerald, the most
stable of the seven! Just in case, Sally scanned for other emeralds in the
vicinity, but picked up nothing. Unless her signal tracking was wrong, the green
emerald was in the midst of a field distortion.

"Nicole," said Sally, "bring up all available data on the chaos emeralds."

"Working, Sally," said Nicole. "A file already exists in my databank. Shall I
open it?"

"Yes," said Sally, and read the text that appeared on the screen. The file was a
compressed mess of research data she had gathered for Knuckles. Now she scrolled
through it, eyes narrowed. It only confirmed what she already knew: the red
emerald was the most unstable, the green was the most stable, and the rest
ranged between them.

Sally was tweaking her settings and reconfiguring the tracker when the adjoining
door opened and Sonic looked in. "Sal? You ready to go?"

"I'm ready when you are," she said.

"Great," said Sonic, walking in with a comb in one hand. "What're you working
on?"

"The emerald is causing a field distortion," said Sally. "Look at the screen,
it's changing power levels every second."

Sonic peered at the tracker screen, combing his quills. "It's not supposed to
fade out like that, is it?"

"No," said Sally. "This is the GREEN emerald."

Sonic lowered his comb and frowned. "Uh oh. It's acting like the red one."

"Yes."

The two exchanged worried glances.

"This will be interesting," said Sonic. "Grab your stuff, we're burning
daylight." He made for the door as Sally put away the tracker and slung her
backpack over one shoulder.

* * *


Destro awoke with his sword half-drawn, fur bristling. Something was in the
cellar with him, and it--wait a second. Nestled against his side was Cream with
Monty asleep in the hollow of one of her ears. Destro relaxed and re-sheathed his
sword. When his armor had been plugged into his body, Destro had lost all sense
of touch in those areas. The few bits of himself that still had feeling were
super-sensitive, and anything that touched him unexpectedly became a pile of
shreds seconds later.

He would wake Cream if he moved, so he sat still and let his senses tell him
about his surroundings. A rooster crowed outside--morning was near. The chaos
field was quiet. Not that it meant much--the last time the field had been quiet,
it was minutes before the robot appeared with its wave of power. But nothing was
happening at the moment, so Destro held a private discussion with the
Lightgiver, who had been standing guard while Destro slept. His instructions
were the same--keep moving south. Destro voiced his growing concern that he
might be considered a kidnapper, taking Cream like this, and was told that
Cream's mother knew what had happened and had delayed the robot that night.

This reassured Destro, who got up and opened the cellar door to check the time.
The sky was flushed pink in the east, and the grass was heavy with dew. The
chaos field remained quiet. Destro turned and looked at Cream. "Wake up, it's
time to go."

Cream stirred and lifted her head. She sat up partway, her head turned because
of Monty's weight in her ear. "Hi Destro. Did that robot come back?"

"No." Destro looked out the cellar door as the little rabbit untangled herself
and woke her chao. Monty sat on the cold floor and blinked sleepily. "Ugh, I
like sleeping in a bed better than camping."

"Me too," said Cream, looking in dismay at her soiled clothes. "Can we go home
today, Destro?"

"No," said Destro, glancing at her. "The robot is still pursuing us, but last
night your mother hindered him."

"Maybe Daddy's with her!" said Cream, her eyes lighting up. "I'll bet he came
home when he heard about the robot coming, and now he's trying to stop it!"

Destro shrugged and didn't answer.

Minutes later they emerged from the cellar and cut across a field to a road
leading south. On the far side of the road was a carrot field, and Cream helped
herself to breakfast as they walked along. She offered some to Destro, who ate
without comment.

Monty kept an eye on the chaos field. It was a vague haze that hung on the air
and concentrated in hollows in the ground like low-lying fog, and the only
movement was caused by Cream's crackling, burning aura. Today Destro's armor was
absorbing chaos energy, and the tendrils Cream's aura sent out were sucked into
it. Monty wondered if Destro knew about this, and after watching the fox for a
while, decided he didn't. Maybe the armor itself needed the energy.

They walked for three hours, sometimes stopping so Cream could rest. There was
no sign of pursuit, so Destro was willing to take it a little slower. He was
tired from the frenzied pace of the day before, and his armor's power levels
were low.

Near noon the road widened and cars began to come and go on the road. "Oh goody,
this is Prairietown!" said Cream. "My aunt lives here, I only see her on
holidays and my birthday."

Destro grunted. The sight of a town worried him--what if the robot tracked them
here and destroyed this town the way it had Carrotseed? He asked the Lightgiver
if this was the place to stop.

"No," the Lightgiver replied. "This is not the place."

"We won't stop here," said Destro.

"But I'm tired of walking!" whined Cream. "I want to see Aunt Peaches! Please
please?"

"No," said Destro, laying his ears back.

Cream whined all the way through Prairietown, which consisted of a hundred dirt
mounds with doors and tunnels in them. The bulk of the town was underground, and
only a few prairie dogs hurried by on the surface now and then, waving to
Destro, Cream and Monty.

As they left the town, a blue biplane swooped overhead and circled around to
land at the little airstrip. Cream pointed and waved, and Destro squinted up at
the plane. Single engine, two seats, laser cannons mounted on the underside of
the wings. Who would arm a biplane when there were superior aircraft designs
available? The biplane design was antique.

The biplane was wiped from Destro's mind as Monty cried, "Here comes the robot!
Run! Run quick!"

Destro grabbed up Cream and broke into a gallop, Cream looking over his shoulder
for a glimpse of the robot.




This story archived at: The Domain of NetRaptor