Note: Terbium is actually a real mineral. Here is a little about it:

Terbium is reasonably stable in air. It is a silvery-grey metal, and is malleable, ductile, and soft enough to be cut with a knife. It is a rare earth metal found in cerite, gadolinite and monazite. The element itself was isolated only recently.

To learn more about it, go to the Periodic table of WebElements at: http://www.shef.ac.uk/chemistry/web-elements/nofr-index/Tb.html ______________________________________________________________________

This story is dedicated to my brothers, Ben and William. If they had not been nuts about Command & Conquer, I would never have written this story for them.

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Terbium Moon

By K. M. Hollar

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Chapter 1

Disaster at Dawn

It was a typical summer evening for the Freedom Fighters. The woods were dark and peaceful, the clear indigo sky studded with stars. Everyone was in bed, windows standing open to catch the cool night breeze.

In Robotropolis it was business as usual. The SWAT-bots went about their normal patrols. The factories were running unusually well.

Nobody knew that everything was about to change.

It started as a single star moved out of its place, grew larger. A shooting star, it seemed at first. But instead of burning out, it grew larger and larger, screaming down through the atmosphere. Burning gases and materials streamed from it, forming a white-hot tail that traced back across the sky.

No one among the Freedom Fighters or in Robotropolis saw the meteor. Even if they had, nothing could have been done to stop it. The burning stone was flying at an angle, shooting toward Robotropolis.

The doomed robots in its path looked up at the glowing thing coming at them, had time to question its identity, and were destroyed as it made contact with the ground. The stone burst on impact, blowing a big hole in the pavement, knocking down the surrounding walls and setting fire to everything flammable. What was left of it afterward slowly cooled and became reddish-brown rock.

* * *

"Dr. Robotnik, a meteor has landed in western Robotropolis," Metal Sonic announced. He had walked into his master's private office unbidden, which usually meant something serious was going on.

Robotnik swiveled his chair around and stood up. "Are the Freedom Fighter responsible?"

Mecha looked at him like he was crazy. "No sir. It came from beyond Mobius's atmosphere."

"Was there much damage?"

"No. It destroyed three buildings, five SWAT-bots and shattered the asphalt; small losses, considering. There are scattered fires, but they are being extinguished."

Robotnik sat down again. "You seem to have it under control. Repair the street when it is safe to approach."

"Yes sir."

* * *

Morning came. Sally did her usual check of the Robotropolis computer mainframe for any news that might be useful. She found the report on the meteor almost immediately. Leaning back in her chair, she called through the open door of her hut. "Hey Sonic!"

The blue hedgehog swung in, hanging into the hut from his hold on either side of the doorway. "Yeah Sal?"

"Look at this. A meteor hit Robotropolis."

"Cool!" Sonic stepped in and looked at the computer screen. "It wasn't very big," he commented after a moment. Disappointed, he stepped back. "I was hoping to look out and see a smoking crater in place of all our troubles."

Sally glared at him reproachfully. "THAT'S real nice. What about your uncle?"

"Oh yeah. I forgot about him. I guess it was a good thing it was small." Sonic read the report again silently. "Cool. Can I run out and take a look?"

The squirrel shrugged. "I don't care. Just don't get too close!" This last was addressed at a yell, but Sonic was already out of hearing range.

* * *

"That it?" Serena whispered.

The violet hedgehog and her brother were flat on their bellies inside a large empty pipe lying on its side. It was resting on top of two others, safely above the usual scans of patrolling SWAT-bots. They had a clear view of the hole punched in the street. Tongues of smoke rose from it, and a foul, acrid smell tainted the air. The robots, they noticed, were careful not to go near.

"That's it," Sonic whispered. "It must still be hot. The SWATs are programmed to keep away from high radiation levels."

"What was it? Do you know?"

"A chunk of rock and metal, the scanner says," Sonic said, looking down at the instrument in his hand. "It shattered on impact. It'd be cool if we could get a sample."

"You got a vial or a box or something?"

"No. I left in too much of a hurry. I ain't gonna carry any in my hands, either; it might be radioactive."

The two sat in silence for a while, watching the robots as they cleared away debris and set orange pylons around the crater. "How deep is it?" Serena asked presently.

"A couple feet," Sonic replied, keeping his voice low. "Little bitty. Why?"

"I'd like to get closer." Serena's eyes were bright with adventure.

"Forget it, sis," Sonic said, shaking his head. "What if it WAS radioactive? It could hurt you. Wait a while. It'll cool down."

"Let's come back tomorrow and check it out," she returned, disappointed.

"Okay." Sonic glanced around for danger. "You go back. Sal wanted me to check the secondary power plant for weaknesses."

"All right, I'm gone. See ya, Sonic."

The hedgehogs crawled out of the pipe and went their seperate ways.

* * *

He was sitting on a low rock near a lake, miles from Robotropolis. Tall wiry grass thrust up all around him, hiding him within its green curtain.

The only part of his body in motion were his fingers. They were flying across the keyboard of the computer in his lap. His eyes were locked intently on the tiny screen.

His body was green. The fur on his face turned abruptly back, and a black stripe ran down the top of his head. He wore a red headband with a single black stone set in it. This was usually covered by the long hair on his forehead, which was always dangling in his eyes.

Absentmindedly the hedgehog put up and hand and brushed his forelock out of his face. This brought his left hand into view. He usually wore gloves, but because he was alone, he had taken them off. His hand gleamed with a stark metallic sheen; a robot hand. Yet the robotizer had never touched him. His entire left arm was bio- mechanical ... a replacement for the limb he had lost.

He had seen the meteor fall, and was looking for information on it. He had succeeded in getting a remote modem uplink to the Robotropolis system. He found the same report Sally had, and a few robot reports, as well. No one seemed to have been hurt, and there did not seem to be anyone worried.

Yet it worried him. There was a certain blue, fast-moving hedgehog in that vicinity who would be curious about such matters. For some reason, he could not escape the feeling that he needed to go to Robotropolis.

Spark's disposition had changed quite a bit since he had met Sonic and Serena Hedgehog at the Championship Races. He had spent the following summer months wandering from place to place, as was his custom. He did not know why he did this. Before, he had been searching for Sonic, intending to kill him as vengeance for the death of his parents. But, by finding Sonic, he had learned Sonic was not a murderer, had not killed his parents, and that Robotnik and his minions were the real culprits.

Sonic was Spark's younger brother.

Spark did not yet trust himself enough to go to his brother and sister. Deep in his heart, he still had a red thirst for blood, and retained his knowledge of how to use a knife. And sometimes the Super Mega-Muck in his blood (a mutated DNA) would flare up, cloud his brain and force him to run amuck, totally out of control.

And yet, the night he watched the meteorite fall, he had felt an urge somewhere inside to go to Robotropolis, to find Sonic. It was so compelling he was almost alarmed at it. He had been thinking of seeing his brother again, but had not felt as if he had to. This was the reason he had hidden away with a borrowed computer and sought information on the meteor. Why must he go?

Well, there was not much information on the meteorite yet. He would wait. Quietly he snapped the screen shut on the laptop and stood up. He would return the computer, and await further developments.

* * *

A few days slipped by. The crater in the street became old news to everyone. Sonic managed to find a piece of the red-brown rock and took it back to Knothole for testing. Robotnik, uninterested in the meteor, had given Metal Sonic permission to do the same.

* * *

One evening in Knothole, Sally had Nichole run a general scan of the rock fragment. After a few minutes of analyzing the contents of the box locked to its side, the computer displayed its findings on the screen. "Object has been identified as terbium," Nichole said. "A very rare, inert mineral, terbium is found often in meteorites. I must say, Sally, that this is the purest specimen ever found."

"Wow," Sally said. "Is it valuable?"

"Not particularly."

"Nichole, conduct a specialized scan and give me everything; chemical structure, impurities, the works."

* * *

The crater in the city street had been filled with debris and had stopped smoking. There were no robots around, and the night was undisturbed.

Suddenly, for no reason, the pavement a short distance away from the crater cracked. It bulged upward slowly, as if a mushroom were growing from beneath.

* * *

"Sally, my scans have detected activity."

"Yes?"

"The terbium seems to be feeding off the carbon dioxide in the air. It is ... multiplying. Enlarging its atomic structure."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it could be dangerous. It is growing like only plant life should. I recommend you do not remove it from this sealed box."

* * *

The asphalt continued to rise in a mound about two feet across. Slowly the cement slid aside or flaked off, revealing a reddish-brown growth. It looked like a thick-sided bowl, and slowly forced its way out of the street. It sat there, motionless, for a good while.

As dawn neared and the sounds of Robotropolis were heard again, several red points could be seen in the bottom of the fungus-like bowl. They grew slowly, revealing themselves to be vibrant scarlet crystals. They grew until they protruded one or two feet above the rim of the bowl, then stopped.

By this time, other brown fungi had thrust their heads through the asphalt. These, too, set to work growing the glowing red crystals.

* * *

Sally, concerned about Nichole's findings, showed them to Slasher. The big velociraptor read Nichole's printouts and examined the microscope photographs. "And this was a piece of the meteorite," Slasher said, eyes on the papers in her hands.

"Yes," Sally replied. "Don't worry, Sonic used gloves and everything."

"I wasn't thinking about that," Slasher murmured. "This is only a PIECE of the meteorite. What about the rest of it?"

Sally paled and sank back in her chair. "I didn't think of that."

Slasher looked at her gravely. "I think somebody had better go see if anything unusual is happening in Robotropolis."

* * *

If Spark had obeyed his intuition and travelled to the city, or if Slasher had gone in Sonic's place, none of the following events would have happened.

Sonic agreed to run into Robotropolis and check around. He took his shortwave radio, and told them what he saw as he saw it. This is what happened.

The receiver radio crackled from its place on the table, and Sonic's voice said, "Sal? Slash? You guys there?"

Sally, wearing the headphones, pressed 'talk' and said, "We read, over."

"I'm almost there. I just had to dodge a bunch of SWATs, so I'm a little behind. Over."

"As long as you get there," Sally replied. "Over."

There was radio silence for a few minutes as Sonic worked his way to the impact area. Abruptly his voice came again. "Okay, I'm on the street. Any idea of what I'm looking for? Over."

Sally looked questioningly at Slasher, who leaned forward and spoke. "Any rocks out of place, strange plants, dead robots ... anything. We don't know what the terbium looks like. And keep your distance! Over."

They could hear Sonic's loud breathing into the speaker as he picked his way along. "All right," he said after a moment, "I'm at the crater. Over."

"See anything, over?"

"Give me a minute." There was a long interval of silence. Suddenly Sonic's excited voice came again. "Whoa! You guys outta see this! Talk about weird!"

"Describe it," Slasher commanded.

Sonic did so. "Sort of a cup-thing, about two feet across. Its brown and shiny, like skin. I ain't gonna touch it. Stickin' out the top are a bunch of red crystals. They're glowing, like the ones in Hidden Palace. I think there's four of the cup-things. Over."

"Terbium? Over."

"I donno. They're all on one side of the crater. Man! They're kinda throbbing, you know, like fish gills. Over."

"Don't get too close, over."

"How close is too close, over?"

"Within twenty feet, over."

"Oh. I'm too close then, heh heh. Over."

They heard him begin to back away. Suddenly there came a sharp cracking sound, as if the ground were shattering beneath Sonic's feet. "What in the world--" they heard him mutter. Then he yelled, "It's one of those things! Right here!"

There was a sharp clatter as the radio hit the ground. Damaged, it began to cut in and out. In the midst of the static, they heard an agonized cry from the hedgehog.

And then it fell silent.

Chapter 2

Commissioned

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At the very moment Sonic screamed, Spark was lying flat on his back under a tree, eyes closed. He had taken an experimental antidote to the Super Mega-Muck, and as a side effect, had developed a splitting migraine headache.

His entire body ached. His head felt like it had an active jackhammer in it, and a white stripe of pain stretched through his brain. Even the tiniest sound were torture--birds singing, leaves stirring in the breeze, grass rustling. His body was at once burning hot, soaked with sweat--then he was cold, shivering in the dense shade. He could take no pain killer, as that would counter-act the antidote he had taken. All he could do was endure it.

In a lull in the agony Spark dozed a little, seeking relief from the pain. He dreamed one of the senseless dreams one has when one is in discomfort. It was a white rod suspended in space. Nothing more; simply the rod floating and rotating in darkness. He lay still and watched it on the insides of his eyelids, knowing he would awaken when the headache began again.

The rod began to grow and draw nearer. "It's the migraine," Spark thought. "When it gets here the pain will start."

It began to spin end over end, faster and faster like a helicopter rotor, slowly approaching. Suddenly it split in half. The two halves continued to spin, but now began to move around each other in a circle. Spark watched without a question. He hurt so bad, there was no question his brain was doing weird things.

Both spinning, flickering rods split again, increasing their number to four. The group kept moving in a circle, but faster. Soon they were spinning so fast they appeared to be one continuous wheel. After a few seconds, the wheel shifted colors to yellow, then green, then blue, then violet, then red ... Spark felt the pain returning, searing heat pouring into his spine from the top of his head. He kept his eyes shut, not wanting the suffering to begin again.

Suddenly the colored wheel came at him, spinning closer and closer until it burst in his face, and exploded into a myriad spinning particles.

In the instant of pure white, before it faded, Spark had seen something. A figure standing only an arms length away, gazing at him with its large violet eyes. Its heart-shaped face was framed in a purple hood-type garment. It wore a bright pink vest around its purple chest. Its long white sleeves were trimmed with violet.

Forgetting his headache, Spark sat up with a jerk and gasped, "Nights!"

Of course, he was alone under the tree as before. The pain hit him like liquid flame, and he sank down with a moan and closed his eyes. "Nights," he murmured. He, too, had had an adventure with Nights, along with Reala, the evil nightmaren. The only difference between his and Sonic's experiences was that his had happened in reality. This was the reason he had cyborg limbs; he had taken much personal damage.

"Maybe I can see him again if I doze," Spark thought. He had not dreamed of Nights in six months. He lay back and relaxed on the grass. The headache washed through him in waves, drowning out all coherent thought. Before long, he had entered the shallow half-sleep again. This time he did not see Nights. He only heard his voice.

"Spark," Nights murmured, "I have been allowed partial access to the Portal, but only for a moment. You must listen, and listen well. Go to the city of Robotropolis. Your brother, Sonic, is in grave danger."

"What's wrong?" the green hedgehog's subconscious replied. "Does it have anything to do with the meteor?"

"Yes," Nights's voice replied. "You have sensed the danger. You must go as soon as you awaken. Sonic may be dead by sunset."

* * *

Slasher was in the air, flying hard. Serena crouched over her neck like a jockey. They were both dreading what they would find on the city street. They did not know what had happened to Sonic, but they intended to find out.

Robotropolis spread out below in shades of blue and grey. Shadowy buildings rose up all around. Even at nine o' clock in the morning on a sunny day, the city was a gloomy place. Serena, who was used to exploring on foot, could make no sense of the streets from above. "Where's the crater?" she called against the wind in her face, hoping her fear didn't show through her voice.

"A little further," Slasher replied, turning her head a little so as to understood. Her own fear showed through her sternness. "Another minute. Stay on my back, no matter what happens."

About thirty seconds later the winged velociraptor swooped around a ghostly skyscraper and dipped sideways, descending into the streets. She landed with a slight bump, looked around, then folded her wings to her sides like a big condor. The area was unnaturally quiet. Serena sat up a little and brushed her mussed bangs from her eyes. "Where are we?"

"Hush. We're very close," the raptor said, rearing up slightly and looking behind them. "Stay alert."

Slasher began to move down the road, claws clicking faintly on the pavement. Her head bobbed and jerked constantly as she watched for danger. Once she stopped and whispered, "Smell that?"

Serena sniffed, but could smell nothing more than the usual Robotropolis odors. "No. What is it?"

The big velociraptor did not answer, but resumed walking.

Presently they rounded a bend. The remains of the crater came into view. Slasher stopped. Serena looked with her and saw the four terbium pods, each with red-orange crystals protruding from the tops. She noticed the strange smell, like acid. It was deathly still.

For a long five minutes they stood there tensely, looking, listening and smelling. As Sonic had said, the terbium growths pulsed and throbbed, like a fish's gills. They had a loathsome look.

Cautiously Slasher moved forward. "There should be one more terbium-thing," she murmured, as if afraid the pods would overhear. "It sounded like it came up right under him."

But, as they drew nearer, they could see only the four, and the asphalt was cracked only around the terbium. There was no sign of Sonic.

"What if it, you know, absorbed him or something?" Serena finally built up the nerve to ask.

Slasher stopped. "No. There he is."

Sonic was lying on his side against a pile of rubble, eyes closed. He looked as if he had been flung there like a crumpled paper bag. The terbium was between him and them.

"I'll jump it," Slasher whispered. "Slide down, 'Rena, and--"

"Slash?" Sonic lifted his head, aroused by the sound of her voice. His eyes had a strange look, almost as if he were sick.

Serena and Slasher stared at him a second, startled. Then Slasher called, "Are you all right?"

Sonic pushed himself up on his arms, wincing. "I guess so," he replied. "I donno what happened--" He slowly dragged himself to his feet, pressing one hand to the small of his back. "Argh, that hurts. Don't go near that stuff; I'll come to you."

He limped between the terbium pods and up to them. He walked strangely, as if he were drunk. He could not follow a straight course, and had to grab Slasher's arm to steady himself. As he did, the big raptor caught his scent. He smelled like a mix of Sonic and the terbium, and a bit of something else she did not recognize.

Wordlessly she crouched, and he climbed up on her back. Funny, he did it as if he had never done so before. Serena noticed this, as well. She slipped her hands around her brother's waist and held on as Slasher wheeled and headed away from the ominous terbium.

A pair of glowing red eyes watched them go from the shelter of an alley. Metal Sonic watched them until they were out of sight, then focused his gaze in the opposite direction, on the terbium. After a few minutes, he said simply, "Terbium test Alpha engaged." Then he, too, turned and disappeared into the ghettos of Robotropolis.

Chapter 3

Ally Down

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Sonic continued to act strangely after they got him back to Knothole. His eyes kept their vacant, glassy look, and he refused to eat or drink. Often he would glance toward the sky, watching the sun.

"Why do you do that?" Serena asked him. She had been sticking around, keeping an eye on him.

Listlessly he looked at her. "I'll feel better when the sun goes down. It's too hot. Too bright ..." He was not feeling himself.

"I'm worried about him, Slasher," Serena told her friend in private. "What did the terbium do to him?"

The velociraptor shook her narrow head. "I donno. Sally's still running tests on the stuff, and we won't know anything until she gets the results." She tossed a glance at the blue afternoon sky. "But somehow, I think the sun being up has something to do with it."

* * *

Meanwhile, deep in the Dark Mountains ...

"Robo Knuckles, here are the reports you wanted."

The big red robot took the papers from Packbell's hands and rifled through them. "Is this all?" he growled, glaring at the android with his green eyes. Packbell nodded and stepped back. The robot had been very moody lately, and Packbell had taken damage because of it.

Robo Knux dropped his eyes to the printouts. "There is not enough here. Why isn't that fool Metal Sonic trying harder to analyze that material?"

"He probably has other work to do."

If he had been flesh, the robot's snarl would have been horrible. It was bad enough as it was. "All work should be stopped in the face of this mineral! It has power ... abilities that are unheard of!" He tossed the papers in the air and slashed at them with the metal spikes welded to his knuckles. The papers floated down in fragments.

"I must have a sample of the terbium for myself," Robo Knux growled, dusting off his heavy hands. "I have a very low opinion of Metal Sonic's intelligence. He could be staring straight at a great discovery and not see it. He does not think of warfare. He thinks only of himself." He paused a second, then looked up at the android. "Get out of here, Packbell."

* * *

Contrary to what Robo Knux thought, Mecha HAD been conducting extensive tests on the terbium. He was now attempting to get Robotnik to let him try some field tests.

"Doctor," the blue robot said, folding his arms stubbornly, "I have nothing against your latest scheme. You know that. But I need more information than it will provide. I need to plant the terbium in a forest setting AND a biological setting."

"You already have the forest setting," Robotnik replied gruffly. "And what do you mean, 'biological setting'?"

"I need to know its impact on living flesh," Mecha replied calmly. "From the outside, and from the inside. I need your permission to do it on S--Son--the blue hedgehog."

"Why him?"

"Why him? Why anyone else?"

"What about the Omega plan?"

Metal Sonic hesitated. "I could use that, I suppose," he said slowly. "But it is not truly biological."

"It's close enough, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is." The robot was reluctant. "But I still need to know the effects of terbium on living organisms."

"Get a control unit."

"I had not thought of that." Mecha's eyes took on a new light. "A control unit. Yes. And I know exactly whom I will use."

* * *

It was two o' clock in the afternoon by the time Spark made it into Robotropolis. He stood in the shadow of one of the big buildings, dark eyes scanning the streets. It had been years since he had looked upon the devastated city, but this time he gazed upon it with a free mind.

Slowly he moved forward, one hand straying to the blaster rifle slung across his chest. He had been enslaved, last time, and in command of the SWAT-bots. He was not anymore. He would need this weapon.

Sunset. He glanced toward the sky. He had another three hours. He was hanging desperately to the hope in Nights's words ... "Sonic MAY be dead by sunset." If his presence could keep his brother from harm, he would come. He smiled a little. Funny. Only a few months before, he had been out to kill Sonic. What a change.

"Intruder! Halt or be--"

Spark whirled, whipped the rifle to shoulder and fired. The SWAT- bot exploded in a shower of sparks, limbs and parts flying in all directions. The hedgehog peered around in the haze. Strange for a SWAT- bot to be by itself. He had better get a move on.

* * *

"He is here."

"Good. Is everything in place?"

"Yes."

"Prepare for terbium test Beta to be engaged."

* * *

Several miles away, in Knothole, Sonic lifted his head, as if listening.

* * *

Spark crept through the streets, rifle cocked, loaded and ready. He shot every SWAT on sight, whether it had seen him or not. He was taking no chances. And yet he was uncertain. He had come to Robotropolis; now what? Perhaps he could find the meteor crater.

* * *

"He does not know of the terbium yet, correct?"

"No."

"Excellent. This should go smoothly, then."

* * *

At last Spark rounded the sharp bend in the street and came upon the terbium. He stopped in the middle of the street and stared, quietly lifting his rifle to the ready. "What's this?" he murmured aloud. For a time he stood still, taking in every detail. Whatever that stuff was, it did not look healthy.

"Spark!"

Sonic's voice. It was coming from a cleverly concealed speaker, but Spark did not know that. He looked all around in surprise. "Sonic?"

"Spark, I'm stuck over here-- behind the terbium-stuff."

"Terbium? Is that what that's called?"

"Yeah. Hurry -- I've been stuck here all day."

Cautiously Spark advanced. "Where are you? I don't see you."

"I'm right here ..." the voice suddenly became weak. " ... under a slab of cement. Next to the biggest terbium pod."

"How'd you get there?" Spark clenched one hand into a fist in preparation.

"A thing sprouted and knocked it onto me. Come closer ..."

Spark began to smell the strong odor the terbium produced. He was beginning to feel nervous. His survival instinct was telling him that stuff was dangerous. "Sonic, are you hurt?"

"I donno ..."

He was within ten feet of the throbbing growths. The very sight of them was making him sick. "Sonic?"

No answer.

"Sonic?!?"

"The pain ..." Sonic's voice was little more than a whisper. "Help me ..."

Strange, his voice had been strong enough a moment ago. Spark edged a few steps closer.

* * *

"Terbium test Beta engaged. Watch closely, Dr. Robotnik."

* * *

In Knothole, Sonic leaned back a little, eyes fixed blankly on the sky, ears pricked. "No ..." he growled.

* * *

Spark was feeling distinctly queasy. Close enough now to touch the slimy surface of the terbium, the smell was nearly overpowering. Was it just his imagination, or were the red crystals growing brighter?

"Here, down here," came Sonic's voice. Spark stepped around the pod, eyes on the ground. Yes, there was a large slab of up-ended pavement, quite close to the foot of the terbium.

Spark stooped, feeling his stomach wrench. He was closer than Slasher had been. "Sonic, give me your hand."

No answer.

"Sonic?"

Still no answer.

He crouched and peered under the slab. Nothing. Sonic wasn't there.

A trap; that was what it was. Spark's eyes turned to the terbium, and he began to back away. His throat was constricting. He could not help but see that the red crystals were almost too bright to look at. What was going on?

Fear hit him. He opened his clenched fist and held his palm toward the slimy pod. White sparks blazed out and hissed onto the leathery skin of the terbium. The crystals dimmed a little, and Spark felt his head clear a little. He turned to run, but found himself unable to. His strength was gone.

* * *

"The purpose of this test is to show how the terbium gets its fuel. It seems to drain the energy from flora and fauna around it. Notice how bright the crystals are. We will see exactly how it effects an organism when we bring him in."

* * *

Spark stumbled and went down. He felt very, very tired, as one does after a long illness. He slowly picked himself up, wincing at the scrapes on his hands and knees. He was still too close to the terbium. He could sense that it was doing something to him; weakening him, somehow. He needed to get away.

He could not run if his life depended on it. (Which it did.) He began to walk down the street, pressing one hand to his forehead. It was a sickness in his head; not a pain, exactly, but an extreme weariness. When he closed his eyes, the shape and glow of the red crystals was emblazoned on his eyelids.

"Halt, hedgehog!" Three SWAT-bots appeared and were running toward him. Spark lifted his gun part way, but could not get it into position. It was too heavy. Thinking quickly, he held out his natural right arm, palm outward, and touched his robot left to the black stone in his headband.

A blast of white energy rolled from his outstretched hand and slammed into the approaching robots. They went down instantly, their circuits blown from the charge. Spark turned to go, but found himself staring down the barrels of four U-SWAT plasma cannons.

"Freeze," the middle one commanded. "No sudden moves."

Spark again held out his right hand and lifted his left to his forehead.

Immediately the U-SWAT lifted it's weapon, lunged forward and clubbed him across the side of the head.

The green hedgehog went down like a ninepin.

The robot stood over him triumphantly. "Subject captured," it reported. "Bringing to fortress as requested."

* * *

In Knothole, Sonic murmured, "Whew. The mother plant is safe." Then he got up and walked away.

Chapter 4

Advancement of the Terbium

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Sunset.

Sonic did not die. On the contrary, as soon as the red orb slipped below the horizon, he began acting himself again. He tricked Serena into tasting a chili dog that had a little too much pepper on it, and challenged Tails to a race. The only thing that did not change were his eyes. They still held the cold, glassy expression.

But that fateful day had not yet ended.

Knuckles was on furlough from the Freedom Fighters, a two week vacation on the Floating Island. He had already been there three days, and was enjoying himself. He had been working hard, fixing all the little things that seemed to go wrong while he was on shore.

As the sun went down, the echidna climbed the tall peak in the center of the island. The waterfall that poured down the western cliffs had been looking a little thin lately, and he was checking out the plumbing.

Knux had dutifully turned off the falls before maintaining them. He smiled wryly as he climbed, remembering the time he had not done so. He had pulled out the rock that was blocking the water, only to be blasted off the cliff and into the river below. He had earned several good-sized bruises and a minor concussion from THAT experiment.

He planted his knuckle-spikes into some handy cracks and peered into the horizontal four-foot cement pipe. It was overgrown with tree roots. He had suspected as much. He stepped into the pipe, ducking his head a little, and pulled the hedge-trimmers from their strap over his shoulder. This should not take too long--

As Knuckles worked, he was aware of an unusual sound outside. It sounded like the wind was blowing, but with no pauses between gusts. It was a constant roaring, like surf. He paid it no attention until he had cut through all the muddy roots, and the pipe was clear. Then he stepped to the opening and looked out.

The tropical forest below was swaying, shifting, as if in a heavy wind. But there was hardly even a breeze that evening. As the astonished Knuckles watched, a wave seemed to pass through, and the green leaves cascaded from the trees. In a moment the entire forest was nothing but bare trunks and branches. It was as if fall had happened in an instant.

"What in the world?" the echidna muttered. He had heard nothing of the meteor or what it had brought. "It had better not be something of Robotnik's ..." He threw down the clippers, extended his arms, and leaped into the air.

Knuckles glided out over the bare forest, slowed, then dropped feet first. He landed with a crunch on a pile of green leaves. The ground was covered with them. He looked around at the trees. "What the heck happened?" he questioned aloud. "These trees aren't diseased. I've never seen anything like this ..."

A crackling sound drew his attention. A short distance away the ground was boiling upward in humps. Knuckles cautiously approached the one nearest him, placing each foot carefully. He stopped ten feet away and watched a moment. The hill was rising as if thrust from beneath, earth and leaves sliding down its sides. In another second the brown, shiny sides of the terbium pod appeared. Knuckles made a face. It was like one of the disgusting growths that attacked certain palm roots. He could smell it almost immediately.

In the evening twilight, the echidna could see other terbium pods appearing. They were the things that had killed the trees, he was sure. They were spreading and reproducing faster than they had done in Robotropolis. In ten minutes their number had doubled. They had been planted there by Metal Sonic (the Floating Island was the 'forest setting'), but of course Knux did not know this.

Knuckles began to sense his danger. If those things could kill trees, what about people? He began to back away, even as the closest one slowly put out the ominous crystals, as a snail extends its eyes. It was so unnatural, so unlike the way a crystal ought to grow, that it frightened him.

He turned and ran for his life.

* * *

Night settled over the Mobitropolis valley. No one among the Freedom Fighters yet knew of the events on the Floating Island, or in Robotropolis. Sonic was acting normally, and all seemed to be well.

The big terbium pod's crystals in the city street were still glowing brilliantly, casting a weird red light into the darkness. Slowly, ever so slowly, the light began to dim. As it did, the cement a few feet away from it cracked, split, and another pod bulged upward.

* * *

At first, the only thing Spark was aware of was the pounding in his head. It ached almost as much as his migraine headache had. The whole left side of his face was bruised from the SWAT-bot's blow.

Gradually he returned to his senses. He was lying flat on his back, wrists and ankles tied down. Bright light overhead. He opened his eyes. He was strapped to a cold metal table (he had been on it so long it was not cold anymore), and several large, sharp instruments hung over him. The light over his table was the only one in the room.

"Well," he thought, "I made it to Robotropolis, but I have no idea if Sonic's dead or alive. Nights, you got me into this mess. You'd better help me get out."

A door opened softly. Spark turned his head. He could see nothing in the shadows but a pair of glowing red eyes.

Metal Sonic advanced. Spark watched him quietly. He was not afraid of the robot. He knew all about him.

The robot moved to the edge of the low table the hedgehog lay upon. He extended one hand and placed it on Spark's chest. "Well hedgehog, your pulse is strong," he commented flatly. "It appears you will survive." He turned and walked around the table to the machines on the right.

Spark followed his movement with his head. "Why? Did the robot hit me that hard?"

Mecha turned his red gaze on him a moment, then turned to the machines. "No. The terbium itself affected your system. I have been running extensive tests on you to see exactly what it did." He began to unhook a sharp thing on a cord from its place in the machinery. "Now that you are awake, you can tell me all that you feel. And I want to know everything, Claude."

Spark flinched at the mention of his real name. He still had not gotten used to it, after ten years of 'Spark'.

After a moment of silence, Spark asked, "Are you going to kill me?"

"Perhaps," the robot replied, lifting what looked like a cattle prod and turning it on. "It depends on your pain tolerance. The more you can stand, the larger your chances of survival."

He turned to face his victim, an instrument of pain in either hand. "Let's begin, shall we?"

* * *

The night passed quietly. Outside the fortress, in the streets, Spark's screams could barely be heard. The new terbium pod slowly put out its crop of crystals, fed by the energy the other pod had drawn from Sonics' and Sparks' bodies.

As dawn began to blot out the stars, Spark's cries faded and stopped.

* * *

"Dr. Robotnik," said Metal Sonic, "my theories have been proven correct. The terbium indeed draws energy from any carbon-based organism. Claude Hedgehog's metabolism had dropped several points. His blood pressure and heart rate lowered considerably. Simply put, it drained him of his muscle tone and stored chemical energy. He withstood the probe and shock tests remarkably well."

Robotnik looked at the robot thoughtfully. "So, what exactly does this mean?"

"It means that the possibilities of terbium ... are LIMITLESS."

* * *

Spark and Nights, their forms bonded in the dream-world of Nightopia, swooped and pirouetted over the landscape. When Spark was in control, his face would be the one looking out from the purple costume. When Nights was driving, it was the other way around. At present, Spark's black face was the one visible.

"Watch this," the hedgehog said to his friend. He swooped high into the sky, then back down, his path marked by the blue sparkles that streamed from his fingertips. As he passed his previous trail, he reached out and touched his hands to it. A large, colorful pyrotechnic display blazed out above them, then vanished.

"Wonderful large loop!" Nights applauded. "But see if you can do this." Nights face appeared in the costume, large violet eyes bright. He arched his back, threw out his arms, bent one knee to his chest and twirled skyward. Then he doubled up, grabbed his toes, and spun to the ground.

"Wow," Spark said. "Lemme try!" And he did, but could not quite do either stunt.

"Takes practice," Nights assured him. "You'll learn. Let's unbond. I believe you wanted to talk."

They sank to the ground. Nights released his hold on Spark, and the hedgehog stepped out of their forms and onto the grass. In Nightopia, Spark's body was whole, without the robot parts. He looked up at his friend. "Why did you tell me to go to Robotropolis? I didn't see a sign of Sonic, and I got captured and tortured 'til I fainted. What gives, huh? Or was that actually Reala disguised as you?"

"It was I," Nights sighed. He folded his legs and sat on the air, two feet off the ground. "I am a messenger sometimes, you know. That was all I knew at the time. I had to tell you to go to the city."

"Do you know anything else? What about Sonic?"

Nights shook his head, making the two tails that hung from his head swing. "I only know a little more of the situation in reality than you do. I am not permitted to tell you anything yet. And as for Sonic, he is sleeping. Your appearance in Robotropolis has saved him for the present. He may yet enter Nightopia. When he does, I will go to him."

"So he's okay?" Spark said, relieved.

"Yes," Nights replied. "He's okay."

Suddenly Nightopia wavered, and the colors faded. Spark jumped to his feet. "Oh great, I'm waking up. Nights, can you help me at all?"

As the dream began to fade, Nights's voice floated to him: "Not yet will I assist you. There are still some in reality who will aid you. Keep the faith, friend, keep the faith ..."

* * *

It was the loud, harsh sound of a rusty key in the rusty lock of a rusty door. Spark opened his eyes. He was in a dark, cool place. He could feel the heavy chain on his left ankle. It clanked when he moved. Slowly he sat up. His entire body ached from Metal Sonic's prodding and hurting, and his robot arm was bent and twisted. He could barely move it. He extended his good hand and touched the floor, then the wall. The floor was rough, hard cobblestones, the wall made of solid granite.

Spark leaned back against the wall. He could not move far with the heavy chain hampering his movement. There was just enough light to see by. It came through the tiny barred window in the thick wooden door, a dim twilight. He began to realize where he was. It was the ancient dungeons below the fortress. Once reserved for the most violent of criminals, Robotnik used it liberally. The whole place smelled of slime, rot and filth.

Up until now, the far away grating and rattling had been the only sound. But now it stopped, and dead silence ruled for a moment. Then the darkness was filled with tiny squeaks and pattering; rats. Spark shuddered and wondered what they ate.

After a moment his ears caught the sound of footsteps. The rattling sound must have been someone coming in. But who? The green hedgehog held his breath and listened. The footsteps clanked a little, as if a robot were making them. Great, it must be Metal Sonic. Spark wondered what his plan was now, or if he was coming for him at all.

The stealthy metallic footsteps approached Spark's door, then halted outside. Silence a moment. Then the clanking of a latch being fumbled with. Spark braced himself and waited.

Slowly the door swung open, squeaking and groaning on its rusty hinges. A little more of the dim blue light streamed in. Spark stared. There stood a metal hedgehog.

Not Metal Sonic, mind you; a robotized hedgehog. It was plainly not Sonic, however. It stood and gazed a moment at Spark. "Who ... who are you?" Spark ventured. The robot did not answer. Instead, it knelt and grabbed Spark's chained ankle. Spark held still as the robot carefully unlatched the iron bracelet, freeing him. It stood up, gave him a robotic stare and growled, "Come with me, prisoner. No false moves, or you die."

Spark followed meekly as the robot hedgehog led him out of the cell and down a long, damp passage. Once out, he could see that the only light came from a small window, far up on the wall. There were many other wooden doors in the stone walls, but there was no sound from any of the other prisoners.

One prisoner in particular paid attention to them. He was chained hand and foot and gagged so as not to make a sound. He had been a dangerous criminal and had been captured. He listened longingly to the pair of fading footsteps. He was one of the few who knew all about the terbium. He needed to share his information with others who could help, but for now, was held a silent prisoner in the depths of the dungeon.

Chapter 5

Rescue

_____________________________________________________________________

The robot hedgehog opened the heavy outer door and motioned for Spark to pass through. He obeyed, then waited nervously as the robot locked the prison behind them. They were now standing in a long, cool, ill-lit hallway. It was, at least, cleaner than the dungeon had been.

"Come," the robot said, its mechanical voice echoing a little. It moved past Spark and began to walk down the corridor. The green hedgehog followed, somewhat bewildered. Why was he not re-chained? Did the robot take it for granted that he would not try to escape? Or was this so he would have the chance?

The robotized hedgehog came to a door set in the wall. It did not appear to be the exit, but it opened it anyway and motioned for Spark to enter. Hesitantly he stepped in and looked around. It was a little closet, so full of odds and ends there was hardly any floorspace left. His stomach twisted into an apprehensive knot as the robot entered and closed the door behind it. Its eyes stood out against the darkness like live coals.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. The robot broke it with, "We must keep it down. I couldn't speak freely in the hall; there's surveillance cameras."

Spark spoke the first question on his mind. "What's going on, and aren't you supposed to be enslaved?"

The robot gave a mechanical sigh. "I had to get you out of the dungeon. Metal Sonic has been making arrangements to ship you off to the Dark Mountains, and you know what that means."

Spark was new to Robotropolis. He didn't. "What?"

"Robo Knuckles was to have you."

Spark shuddered. If Mecha was unpredictable, then Robo Knux had invented the chaos theory.

"I used to be enslaved," the robot continued, "but my nephew freed me. You see, I am Sir Charles Hedgehog."

Spark recognized the name. He stared at the robot. "YOU invented the robotizer?"

"Sadly, yes. It never would have been mis-used, however, had it not fallen into Robotnik's hands."

There was a short pause. Then the robot said, "All right, lets get down to business. I can't out-and-out help you escape. That would blow my cover. But I CAN set you up and give you a chance. How about it?"

Spark nodded. "Okay. What will I need to do?"

Sir Charles explained his plan in a low voice. "And then get to Knothole with everything you have," he finished. "Metal Sonic wants to conduct terbium experiments on every living thing."

"But I don't know where Knothole is," Spark replied. "If I knew, that's where I'd be. Robotropolis was the closest I could get on my own."

The robot looked at him a moment. "Your brother never told you how to get there?"

"No, I wouldn't let him. And how did you know Sonic's my brother?"

"Because I'm his uncle."

Spark found himself staring. "I--you--that means that you're my uncle, too!"

"Yes. If you're like Sonic, you'll be calling me Uncle Chuck. But not around Robotnik or the SWAT-bots, _please._ By the way, the way to Knothole is--" Sir Charles began to give his nephew directions, pointing this way and that. Spark listened attentively, then said, "If Robotnik ever found out you knew where Knothole is ..."

" ... I'd have as much chance as a snowball in July," the robot finished. "I know, I know. Come on. We've been down here long enough."

* * *

With the sun's first rays, Sonic again began acting strangely. He complained of headaches and heat flashes, and would not touch food. All he wanted to do was lay around and sleep. The others, worried, permitted him to do so.

Metal Sonic had saved his terbium reports to the Robotropolis mainframe, where of course Sally found them. They nearly matched Nichole's findings. What was more, the robot had investigated all the way to the atomic level. Terbium contained no carbon whatsoever, unlike most other elements. His other findings required a brief knowledge of atomic structure.

All atoms have a center made of photons, neutrons and other trons, called the nucleus. Electrons spin around this nucleus like planets around the sun. Their path, of course, is known as an 'orbit.' There is one path that is very close to the nucleus, called the 'inner orbit'. A maximum of two electrons can be be on the inner orbit at once. A little further out from the nucleus is another path of orbiting electrons. This path is the 'outer orbit'. There can be many outer orbits, but the maximum electron capacity is eight.

Terbium, proving its bizarre nature, had three electrons on its' inner orbit and nine on the outer orbit, one more each than was possible. But, instead of being unstable and radioactive, it behaved more like a sort of biological life. It was indeed an unusual element.

"I've been keeping tabs on the terbium in Robotropolis," Slasher told Sally as the squirrel sat before the computer. "It's put out another pod. That makes five."

"How does it grow?" Sally wanted to know. "Does the stuff have roots?"

Slasher shook her head. "I have no idea. I'm not going anywhere near it."

Sally sighed, exasperated. "Well, until somebody does, Metal Sonic will be the one with the info, feeding us what he wants us to know."

The raptor gazed at her. "You've never seen it, Sal. You wouldn't go near it, either."

* * *

At that moment in Robotropolis, a certain crimson robot approached the terbium. Fearlessly he broke off one of the crystals, put it in a plastic box, gouged a chunk out of the pod itself and put it in another box. "There, Mecha," he growled. "Now I'm one up on you."

* * *

The robotized hedgehog led his oldest nephew through Robotnik's fortress. He had explained to Spark that a weapon had been installed to a certain brand of robot, and he happened to be that brand. It was a kind of invisible chain, like a forcefield. It could bind the hands of a prisoner, and the robot would drag them along as if the chains were visible. Spark was to cross his wrists in front of him as if he were wearing the electronic binding, drag his feet, and act like a prisoner. No one would question it -- Sir Charles had all the clearance he needed.

No one looked twice at them as they made their way through the fortress. Spark kept his eyes on the floor. Years as a mercenary in distant parts of Mobius had taught him to hide his feelings. He did a good job of looking beaten and somewhat sulky. Nobody would be able to tell he was more excited than he had ever been in his entire life.

A scary moment came when a door opened ahead of them and Metal Sonic stepped into the hall. He saw them immediately. "You, robot 1680! Come here at once!" Sir Charles obeyed, and Spark could do nothing but follow him. They stopped before the blue robot. Spark kept his eyes down as Mecha said, "Where are you taking this accursed creature? He was to be left in the dungeons until I sent for him."

"Yes, Master," the robotized hedgehog replied expressionlessly. "There was no more room in the dungeons, and cell 117 is unusable. I was given clearance to take the prisoner to cell block sixty." His voice was bland and monotonous, like all robotized creatures.

Metal Sonic gazed at him a long moment. Spark thought he was going to ask to see their papers, but he did not. Instead, he said, "Very well. But if I hear he has escaped, I will know what robot to deactivate. Go."

Mecha walked away, and the two hedgehogs continued on down the hall. Spark was shaken, but tried not to show it. His uncle seemed unfazed.

At last they stepped through one of the outer doors and into the morning light. "Come, prisoner," Sir Charles said, acting his role as a robot. "We must go." He looked back at Spark and winked. Spark nodded. His opportunity to break and run would come soon.

As they walked through the dirty streets, Spark murmured, "Will they kill you?"

Sir Charles looked around for danger before answering. "No. Robotnik won't allow it. But I will be punished. There ARE ways, you know."

"Why are you doing this for me? I don't want you to get hurt."

"Look at it this way," the robot replied. "Better ME being punished than YOU being killed."

They made their way along in silence for a few minutes. Occasionally a SWAT-bot would pass by, hardly looking at them. Spark was glad. He did not feel well enough to fight.

At last Sir Charles, without stopping or looking back, said, "You're clear. Go north until you're out of the city. I'll give you ten minutes, then sound the alarm. You should be out by then."

"Okay," said Spark, looking north. "Thank you. I really don't deserve this."

"None of us do," the robot replied mildly. "But that's what grace is. Now get out of here. The sooner you get to Knothole, the better."

"Bye," Spark said, a little awkwardly. Then he turned and fled into Robotropolis, repeating the directions to Knothole to himself. He would get there if it took all day.

Chapter 6

Arrival at Knothole

______________________________________________________________________

Knuckles was getting a crash course on terbium growth, 101.

The stuff had consumed the forest on the south side of the island, destroying the trees and terrain. It had worked its way through the ruins of Marble Gardens and had come to an abrupt halt at the edge of Sandopolis. Apparently it couldn't grow in the desert climate. Knuckles was fighting tooth and nail to keep it from advancing further.

He had grown to hate the slimy pods and their red crystals. He knew (from experience) their ability to drain the life out of anyone near. He watched them grow. He dug up a pod before it had put out its crystals, and discovered it not only leached minerals and elements from the soil, but that it had a simple root system.

When one pod took root, it sent out a long horizontal streamer several feet underground. This streamer, fed by the pod (instead of the root feeding the pod, as in real plants), would spurt up and produce more pods at the surface. These would send out streamers of their own, until the earth was a network of thick roots.

But the terbium also reproduced another way.

Knuckles discovered this while gliding over the terbium forest, mourning the death of the trees. He spotted a certain tree that looked rather unusual. Carefully he landed in the open, advanced to twenty feet away from the tree and watched it.

It had once been a stately date palm. Now dead and stripped of its branches, a strange growth had covered most of the trunk. It appeared to be a mould of some kind. It was brown near the bottom, but as it got higher, began to be speckled with orange. It had the same soft, slimy texture as the terbium pods. At the very top of the growth, where the palm branches had been, was a thick, oval-shaped bulge. This bulge pulsed and throbbed, much as the pods did.

As Knuckles looked on, the top of the bulge split apart. The thing convulsed, then spewed out what looked like a cloud of grey smoke. It smelled of rot and decay. The top of the swollen growth closed, and it resumed throbbing.

Knux kept an eye on that smoke. It was slowly dissipating, but unlike smoke. It seemed to be raining particles to the ground.

He sneezed uncontrollably. Dust? Pollen? He was not allergic to those. He sneezed again, almost without warning. He began to back away, knowing he must flee the dead forest. What was in that cloud that was affecting him?

As he turned to run, it came to him. Spores. Mushroom spores always made him sneeze. Was that cloud made of terbium spores? If so, his island would be doomed with the first faint breeze.

* * *

Spark made his way through the forest, eyes and ears open for anything out of place. He needed to follow the stream for half a mile, then go east until he crossed a thin trail. Follow that to its end, and there was Knothole. Almost childishly simple, but it had only been discovered once, by accident.

He stepped into the stream to avoid a tangled mat of briers. Perhaps this was why; robots could not handle water for very long. Thinking of robots, he looked down at his crumpled cyborg arm. Metal Sonic, curious about it, had first electrocuted him through it, then conducted a series of stress tests. For this reason, only two of his five fingers worked, and his arm appeared atrophied. He hoped there was a mechanic in Knothole. Otherwise he was little better than crippled.

After a bit he decided he had covered half a mile, and turned left into the woods. As he walked, he found himself listening intently to every sound in the forest. Why? he wondered. The further he went the edgier he felt. He had learned long ago to trust that odd sixth sense, and so stopped and peered around intently. Nothing but trees and bushes. The birds chirped nonchalantly overhead. Still, something seemed out of place.

Spark backed up to a tree and stood against it, eyes tracing the woods. What was it he sensed? Probably the presence of another person. Deciding to make his move, he cleared his throat and called, "Okay, I know somebody's out there. C'mon out. I'm unarmed."

The bushes to his left parted immediately, and Slasher stepped into the open. "Hello again, Spark," she said. "My, but you're quick. It would have taken Sonic at least another ten minutes to realize I was around." She bobbed her head. "Salutations. What brings you here?"

"Long story," Spark said, stepping into the open. He had learned Slasher was trustworthy during their last encounter, and was rather relieved to see her. "I'm trying to get to Knothole. I heard -- I heard Sonic was in trouble."

The big velociraptor put her head to one side. "Oh? How did you know?"

"Is he okay?" Spark asked, sidestepping the question.

"Yeeess, technically. Come with me. Maybe you can help."

They began to walk. "What's wrong with him?"

"We don't really know. He had a run-in with the terbium in Robotropolis and has been acting strangely ever since ..."

* * *

Robo Knux, armed with his stolen terbium samples, quickly learned everything Metal Sonic knew about terbium. Robo Knux now had the advantage; Packbell's entire base was at his disposal.

He learned that terbium pods and crystals could not effect machinery and robots directly. The spores, however, would attack anything. He also found out that Mecha had planted the terbium somewhere to watch it grow, but did not know where. The location was a closely guarded secret.

The was an alternative, however.

Robo Knux quarantined one of the weapon testing stations, walled it in with glass, air-proofed it, then brought in rocks, soil, trees and plants. He worked for several days on his little atrium, making it as natural as he could. Then, with Packbell watching, he released his terbium samples into it and closed the door.

"Now, Packbell," the crimson robot said, glowing eyes fixed on the little greenhouse, "watch, and we will see exactly how it grows. We will have the jump on Metal Sonic yet."

Nothing happened for exactly ten minutes. Then the tell-tale hump appeared, and the first terbium pod came up. "Success," Robo Knux applauded. "We will harvest the crystals and investigate their properties. You see, Packbell, this element may be the key to the weaponry I have been experimenting with. Once I have this power harnessed, I can take Robotropolis for myself and stamp out the cursed Freedom Fighters." He stroked the knuckle-spikes on his right hand, a gesture that showed his thoughtful moods. "I would love to see Robotnik and his minions bow the knee to me ... right before I blow them away!"

His evil laughter rang out through the hallways of the secret base. Packbell, bad as he was, shuddered. This robot he had created far surpassed Mecha. This robot's ultimate goal was to command and conquer.

* * *

Spark and Slasher entered Knothole. Spark was introduced the the Freedom Fighters. They had been told of him, but none had met him until then. When he met Rotor, the first thing the walrus said was, "Hi I'm Rotor looks like your arm could use some fixin'."

"Yeah," Spark chuckled. "It got ... kind of ... smashed. Can you fix it?"

"Sure," said Rotor. "I've got some spare parts in my workshop. C'mon over when you're ready."

"Thanks," Spark returned, "but I want to see Sonic and Serena first."

Serena had gone down to the river to swim and had not made it back yet, so Spark went to see Sonic.

Sonic was in his hut with all the shades drawn, suffering because of the sun. Slasher tapped softly. Spark was startled to hear his brother's voice snap, "Who is it? I don't want to see anybody." It sounded remarkably unlike the Sonic he had raced two months earlier.

"It's Slasher," the raptor replied. "Somebody just arrived who wants to see you."

A brief pause as Sonic considered. "Oh, all right. Bring him in."

Slasher opened the door and stood aside. Spark stepped in. It was dark inside, and it took him a moment to see Sonic, sitting up on his bed, glaring at them. "Come in and shut the door, Slash," he growled. He stared at Spark. "Who are you?"

Spark, already uneasy in the close dimness, returned his brother's stare. "I'm Spark. Remember? Your brother?"

Sonic gave him a sneer that would have done credit to Metal Sonic. "Brother? I don't have a brother. I only have a sister, and that's Serena."

Spark glanced at Slasher, who looked as bewildered as he felt.

"Sonic," she began, "remember the races? Spark? You saved him on the Stardust Speedway?"

He looked at her blankly. "Huh? What are you talking about? I've never seen him before in my life."

"Sonic," Spark said desperately, "you asked me to come to Knothole. Remember?"

"No. I never asked anyone to come to Knothole."

An uncomfortable moment of silence passed. Spark lifted a hand to his forehead. This didn't make sense. He THOUGHT Sonic had asked him. This was messing with his mind. Maybe HE was the one who had the problem.

Sonic lay back on his bed. "Leave me alone. I'll see you later, when the sun goes down."

Slasher nodded silently, turned and led Spark from the hut.

Once outside, she said quietly, "I don't know what's wrong with him. He's been like this ever since the terbium incident."

Spark looked up at her, the black fur around his face intensifying his expression. "Slasher, I had a run-in with the terbium. I'm not acting like that, am I?"

The velociraptor looked at him sharply. "What sort of run-in?" The green hedgehog told of how the crystals had drained his energy, skipping the part about Sonic's voice being the bait. "That's why Metal Sonic ran all those torture-tests on me. To see what it did. But I didn't get sick of the sun. What happened to him?"

Slasher stood still, one hand on her chin, eyes on the ground, mind racing. After a little she said, "Were you thirsty afterward?"

"Well, yeah. Burning up. Why?"

"Sonic was cold as death, and has not touched any liquid since."

Their eyes met. "What's wrong?" Spark asked. "Did affect him differently?"

"I don't know," Slasher replied. "I really don't know. It may have. But wouldn't it affect everyone the same?"

"Has anyone else been hurt by the terbium?"

"Not that we know of. But Knuckles is due to report in by radio tonight. Maybe he can figure out something."

Chapter 7

Two with one blow

___________________________________________________________________

The big receiver radio crackled and fizzed. Sally adjusted the frequency and tried again. "Knuckles, this is Knothole. Come in, please." She looked at the others and shrugged. "Probably forgot to turn his on. Don't worry. He always calls in, eventually."

A number of Freedom Fighters were seated in a semi-circle around the squirrel's chair, waiting. They were in the big community hut, so there was more than enough floor space.

Spark, still looked upon with suspicion (he had not proved himself), was seated a little behind everyone, alone. He had always been a loner and was not about to change now. Serena would have sat with him, but was still a little afraid of him. The sun had not yet set, so Sonic had not joined them.

Sally tried again. "Knuckles Echidna, this is Knothole. Come in, please."

This time something came through. "Sal--" fitz-whine-crackle- "--ouble. Island is--" -static- "--terbium. I got too close and--" --white noise--

Everyone looked at everyone else. Knuckles's voice was weak and strange-sounding. Worried, Sally said, "Knuckles, you're breaking up. Go down to channel three."

Static-fitz- "--oing down--" -whine- "--annal three." Abruptly the interference faded out. "Sally? Hello? Anybody there, over."

"Knux, this is Sally. Please repeat what you were saying; we couldn't understand you. Over."

"Sally, I'm in trouble. The island is almost covered in terbium. I got too close, and I'm flat-out sick. Over." He sounded oddly unlike himself.

Sally exchanged glances with the others. "Are you all right, over?"

"For the moment. I'm camped out in Sandopolis. The terbium doesn't like the desert. But it's getting worse. Half the island is destroyed, and the other half will go as soon as the spores get carried there. I breathed some. They'll probably kill me. I need to get out of here ..." He drew a rattling breath, then said, "Over."

"Where are the Chaotix, over?"

"I haven't seen them since I got here, but I found a note from Espio saying they saw the terbium and fled. I'm alone. Over."

"Do you want us to pick you up ourselves, over?"

Knux coughed before answering. "Yeah. Send Sonic by teleporter. It's fastest. If I can get away from here I might pull through." His voice took on a bitter tone. "Floating Island is ruined, anyhow. Over."

"Okay, we'll send Sonic out there pretty soon. Hang in there, Knux. Over."

"I'm hangin' with everything I've got. Hurry. Over and out."

Spark, being closer to the door, was the first one out. He had met and raced Knuckles, and viewed him as a potential friend. He had not the faintest clue as to how Sonic could teleport, but decided he would be the one to ask him to.

Sonic was standing just outside his hut, watching the sunset colors fade from the sky. Spark approached him. "Sonic--" The blue hedgehog turned. "Oh, it's you again. Hi. What do you want?" Sonic still did not know him.

"Sonic, Knuckles is in trouble."

Sonic appeared unmoved. "Yeah?"

"They want you to teleport out and bring him in."

Sonic frowned. "Teleport? How the heck do they expect me to do that? I ain't Metal Sonic. And who cares about Knuckles, anyway?"

Spark stood still, unable to believe his ears. Was this the Sonic he knew, his brother? He reached out and touched Sonic's arm with his robot arm. (Rotor had made repairs.) "Sonic, please--"

To his surprise, Sonic jerked away as if he had been burned. "Don't touch me!" he shouted. "You're electronic!"

Spark pulled his hand back and looked at it, bewildered. "Electronic? This is bio-mechanical. There's no electricity."

Sonic stood facing him, panting, a wild look in his eyes. "Stay away. I don't know who you are, but you're up to no good!"

"Did the terbium make you do this?" Spark asked quietly.

Sonic stared at him stonily, then bared his teeth. "What do you know about terbium? You're the one with the problem."

Spark began to back away. He did not know this Sonic. This Sonic reminded him of himself while taking the Super Mega-Muck.

Sonic crouched a little, back arched like a cat's. His hands curled into animal-like claws, and his spikes stood almost straight up. He looked ferocious. "That's it, stranger," he snarled. "Run away. You'll live longer."

Something of the old fight flared up in Spark, and he stopped and stood his ground. "What is the MATTER with you?" he demanded. "You wanted to see me again after the last race."

"A lie," Sonic snorted. "How could I want to see you when I've NEVER seen you?"

"Sonic," came Serena's voice. She was leading the group out of the community hut. Spark turned away from his hostile brother to look at her. She looked at them and said, "Sonic, Knux needs our help. He-- Sonic? Son--SPARK!!"

As she screamed, Spark was dealt a blow to the solar plexus that sent him reeling. Before he could recover, Sonic struck him again, knocking him to the ground. Then Sonic was on him, wrestling him down, pinning his arms, socking him repeatedly in the face. The attack was so swift Spark could not ward off the blows. He was dimly aware of the other Freedom Fighters shouting for Sonic to stop, but the hedgehog took no notice of them. He was rabid with fury.

There was only one thing to to--fight back. Spark was not exactly a featherweight, himself. He drew back his robot arm, and nailed Sonic squarely in the jaw with an uppercut.

To his surprise (and everyone's), Sonic went flying. Spark sat up in time to see his brother's body roll to a stop. He lay still and didn't move. Spark climbed to his feet, sickened by the whole thing. He had just knocked out his own brother. What a reception--

Wearily he approached, even as Slasher arrived and stooped over Sonic. "I'm sorry, really," Spark said. "I didn't mean to hit him so hard--"

"He's been acting so weird lately," Slasher murmured. "I'm sorry he attacked you. Gee, he's out cold. Sonic, wake up. Son--" She broke off suddenly and felt his chest. Then she pressed two fingers against the side of his neck.

Spark felt a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had done that, himself, making sure his knife victims were dead. Could Sonic be ...?

Slasher stood up abruptly, shock written across her face. She looked at the green hedgehog. "Spark, he's ... he's dead."

Spark opened his mouth and shook his head. "N--no! He can't be! I hit him in the jaw, not the temple or--" Unable to believe it, he dropped to his knees and felt for a heartbeat. But, as Slasher had said, there was none. Confused, he slipped a hand under Sonic's body and felt down his neck and spine. No, his neck was not broken. How ...?

The next few minutes were utter confusion as the other Freedom Fighters surrounded them, unable to comprehend what had happened. Spark backed out of the crowd in a daze. A few things stuck in his memory; the tears on Sally's face. Serena on the ground with her arms and head on her brother's chest, sobbing. The vacant look on Slasher's face ...

Spark could not recall the rest of that fateful evening. He knew that everyone held him responsible for Sonic's death, and walked around him as if he were a mud puddle. He knew Slasher departed for the Floating Island to bring back the forgotten Knuckles. He knew Tails and Serena were inconsolable. He knew he was exhausted ...

* * *

"Terbium test Alpha disengaged. Test unit one operational. For one of Dr. Robotnik's foolish plans, this is working out wonderfully well."

* * *

Strong feelings in reality, when bottled up, funnel themselves into dreams. Spark had been crying in his sleep for a good while. He had never known grief could be an actual physical pain. Somehow, the deep racking sobs eased it a little.

After a while, he became aware of someone sitting beside him with an arm around his shoulders. He knew who it was without needing to see. Nights said not a word, but stayed beside him comfortingly.

Slowly his tears subsided, and he found himself able to speak. "Sorry for crying like a girl," he said to Nights. "I can't help it."

"A friend does not mock a friend for that which he cannot help," Nights replied gravely. "I, too, have known tears. Let them fall. They are healing."

"You know what happened, then?" Spark asked, drying his eyes.

"Yes," Nights replied. "But tell me yourself."

So Spark recounted Sonic's strange behavior, attack, and death after one blow. Nights listened quietly, large violet eyes cast downward. Spark's voice was cracking by the time he finished. "Nights," he said brokenly, "Did I kill him? Did that one little punch take him down? Am I responsible?"

"No, yes and no," Nights answered. "You have a way of asking the same question several times."

"What did you mean?"

"Think about it, Spark. You met Sonic at the races. You were shocked at what a nice guy he was. Correct?"

"Yeah."

"And yet, now, he did not know you and behaved unlike himself, correct?"

"Yeah ... but didn't he get hurt by the terbium?"

Nights gazed at him. "What do you think?"

Spark's mind was in a fog; he couldn't think. But Nights was waiting for an answer. "Well," he said slowly, "the terbium hurt me. And then I went through those tests ... but I didn't go crazy. I don't understand--" He paused and looked up at Nights. Something had clicked. "Wait, did you just say that I DIDN'T kill Sonic?"

Nights only looked at him wordlessly. Spark tried to sort it out. "You mean--like--his heartbeat was there all the time and we just couldn't feel it? He's still alive?"

"No, Spark," Nights replied. "That Sonic is dead. It took only one blow in the right place."

"THAT Sonic? There's another one?"

"You said it."

"H-how? Where?"

Nights looked away and didn't answer. Spark jumped to his feet, frantic with the need to know. "Nights, tell me!" A thought came to him. "How did my going to Robotropolis save him? Nights, answer me! Please! I HAVE to know!"

Nights looked at him, his big eyes sympathetic. "I told you once that I only know a little more than you about the situation in reality. And the little I know, I am not allowed to disclose. It would be telling the future. I'm sorry."

Spark sank back, mind freewheeling. "But Sonic--the real Sonic-- is alive somewhere. Do you know where, or can you tell me?"

"No, I can't. I wish desperately that I could, though."

"Why?"

"Sonic is my friend too, you know."

Spark sighed. "You can't tell me anymore?"

"No."

"Then take me to Nightopia. I need to rest."

Nights rose to his feet, smiling. "There's no better way, friend. Come, let's go ..."

Chapter 8

The plot thickens

___________________________________________________________________

"Yes, Doctor, the Freedom Fighters think the android was S-Son-- my nemesis."

"Good. Have you activated the capsule inside it yet?"

"Not yet. I would not want to act prematurely."

"What of Spark?"

"He is the one who deactivated the android. The Freedom Fighters will probably send him out on his ear."

"A traitor--of course."

"Of course." The robot's eyes shimmered with anticipation. "I am almost certain Sally will do that, at least. She tends to act without knowing all the facts."

"And then?"

"And then my side of the scheme will come into play. Those of the Freedom Fighters who do not perish will be captured. From there, perhaps we can learn the locations of the other bands." Metal Sonic clapped his hands together. "Victory will be ours!"

* * *

Even as Mecha spoke, the angry Freedom Fighters were dragging Spark into the open. He was struggling and trying to make himself heard, but everyone was shouting and drowning him out. He was to be tried as a murderer, and his penalty would be worse than Mecha had expected.

The mob threw him down in front of the tree stump Sally was using as a judge's bench. Her eyes were like ice. Spark, his hands bound behind him, could not get his feet under him. He could hear angry voices all around him, shouting things like, "He must die for what he did!" "He's always been a thug!" "Shouldn't he get the death penalty?" "Of course! Sonic's blood is on his hands!"

A hand closed on his arm and lifted him to his feet. Questioningly he looked up. It was Slasher. Her green eyes were pained, but compassionate. "Courage," she said, her voice barely audible over the hubbub.

"Slasher," he said pleadingly, "if I could just explain--"

"Hush. You'll get your chance."

"Quiet down!" Sally barked. "This court is in session." Slowly the group quieted, but the red fury in their eyes would have been enough to fuel a volcano.

The squirrel looked down at the green hedgehog. "Spark Hedgehog, you are charged with the murder of your brother, Sonic Hedgehog. How do you plead?" It had taken much talking on Slasher's part to allow Spark any voice in his defence.

Spark was ready. "Not guilty!" he bellowed.

If looks could kill, Spark would have been dead on the spot. There was dead silence for the space of two seconds, then the yells and retorts erupted.

"'Not guilty'?!?"

"We saw what he did with our own eyes!"

"Has he no conscience? He's NOT GUILTY, yet he killed his own brother!"

"Hey! Hey, what is this?"

Everyone spun around to see Knuckles approaching. He had a coat draped around his shoulders and did not look well, but his eyes were clear and bright. He stopped a short distance away. "Let him talk, people," he said. "Does killing a SWAT-bot make someone a murderer?"

Spark stared at Knuckles. Did he know?

Slowly, every eye was turned to the hedgehog again. Spark cleared his throat. "Sonic's been acting weird since his encounter with the terbium, right?"

Everyone nodded.

"I had a run-in of my own before I came here," Spark continued. "It actually sucked the life out of me, and I'm not afraid of the sun!"

No one said a word. Spark turned to Sally. "I'm not guilty because ... that wasn't Sonic."

As one, everybody gasped.

"That THING is an android," Spark said, knowing he had scored a direct hit. "Programmed to have Sonic's personality and memories. He didn't know me because Robotnik didn't know he knew who I was. The REAL Sonic is being held captive in Robotropolis as we speak. So please, drop this dumb trial, scrap the robot, and let's rescue my brother!"

As he said this, it dawned on him as to how he had saved Sonic by going to Robotropolis. The tests conducted on him had originally been meant for Sonic.

Before the questions could start, Knuckles spoke up. "And you idiots are holding Claude responsible. C'mon, nobody would die of a sock in the jaw--I should know. The reason the robot couldn't drink anything or go in the sun was because it was an incubator for the terbium. It's gone now. See?" He turned and pointed.

On the far side of the village, a wide swath had been made in the trees. These trees had no leaves--all were bare branches and twigs. "It was consumed from the inside," Knuckles said. "And now the Great Forest has the same problem that killed the Floating Island. I suggest we evacuate."

* * *

An old radio transmitter could be a dangerous weapon in certain hands. And those certain hands had been working on it non-stop since the atrium had been completed.

Robo Knux called Packbell in to view his creation. "I have modified this device to operate on the frequency of all SWAT-bots," he said, holding up the box-like object. Packbell examined it as Robo Knux said, "I have replaced the radio crystal with a terbium crystal. It is the key to Robotropolis. I can block all other frequencies, and the SWAT-bots will obey me alone. I have attempted to get it to work on robotized creatures, but they are constructed differently. Your opinion, Packbell."

"This is ingenious," Packbell said. "I never thought of using the SWAT-bots themselves. We already have the allegiance of the Ultra SWAT-bots."

"Yesss ... but there are more SWATs than U-SWATs. I planned accordingly." The crimson robot turned his green eyes to Packbell's face. "You have been working on something as well. Correct?"

"Yes. I have been testing the terbium and playing with weapon prototypes."

"Yes?"

"And a de-robotizer."

"Fool! Do you realize what that sort of technology could mean if the Freedom Fighters got their hands on it?"

"If you would let me finish, you would see my point," Packbell said with exaggerated patience. "Only the strange atomic pattern of the terbium would make it possible. The lens would be constructed of terbium crystal."

"Would be? You have not constructed it?"

"Of course not. I have been testing the blueprints on the computer, is all."

Robo Knuckles turned away from him and clasped his hands behind his back. "Hmm. On second thought, continue to do so. I have said that enslaved robots are one step beyond worthless. A de-robotizer could free their minds, yet keep them loyal to us. But keep it secret. The Freedom Fighters have tried for years to build one of their own."

"What of the quest for Robotropolis?"

Robo Knux turned and fixed his hypnotic gaze on the android. "It will begin when I deem it time, Packbell. Why do you want to know?"

Packbell looked uncomfortable. "Uh ... I was just curious. I--I wanted to know so I could get the U-SWATs ready."

The robot continued to stare at him. "Oh really? Prepare your robots as if we were departing an hour hence." He stepped forward and tapped Packbell's chest with his knuckle-spikes. "No one double-crosses me, Packbell. Remember that when you think of warning your buddies in Robotropolis. Double-crossers will be double-crossed. Understand?"

The android swallowed and hastily nodded. Robo Knux watched him narrowly as he turned and left the room. He murmured to himself, "He is a turncoat if I ever saw one. I will watch him closely from now on."

* * *

A cracking sound, like cement splitting. Sonic looked around, startled, and saw a big robot rising from the debris in the crater in the street. It had been waiting in ambush for him. It was a certain kind of robot, one meant to capture Freedom Fighters. A tidbit of information had been found on them in the Robotropolis database, and effort had been made to learn more about them--and then the terbium appeared.

Without thinking, Sonic lifted his radio and cried, "It's one of those things! Right here!"

Sensing him, it turned and moved in his direction. Startled, he dropped the radio, then dodged away. It moved with him. Quick as a striking snake, a long cord whipped out of it's arm and encircled his legs, throwing him down. He cried out without realizing it. The robot reeled him in and lifted him up. He could hear the SWAT-bots coming--

Sonic awoke with a start. A dream, yes ... but it had happened. He was still in the dank dungeon, surrounded by mould, rats and darkness. He wore chains on both wrists and ankles, and one around his neck. The gag had been removed, thankfully.

He had heard his uncle rescue Spark, although he could not tell who they were from inside his cell. Usually the only time the dungeon door opened, it meant death; either a prisoner being taken to the robotizer (or worse), or a prisoner being brought in.

Sonic didn't know why he hadn't been rescued. Didn't his friends realize he was trapped here? Maybe they didn't know where he was. Gingerly he fondled his whistle. For some reason, it had never energized after the second time he used it. It was only a whistle now. And yet, blowing it would do no good. He was in a stone cell with a tiny four by six-inch window in the door. The dungeon was made of stone, buried beneath the fortress. There was only one small window in it, and that window looked out into the sewer. Slasher would never hear him. Oh, if only they would take him to the robotizer or something! His whistle could be heard there, he was sure. But all he could do now was wait and dream of home ...

* * *

Since Knothole had been discovered once before, elaborate steps had been taken to insure security if it happened again. An escape plan had been formulated and rehearsed with everyone regularly. This is what was happening now.

There was no way to stop the deadly spread of the terbium. The best the Freedom Fighters could do was block off that section of Knothole. People rushed around like ants in an anthill, arms full of belongings. Slasher and Sally teamed up and were right in the thick of it, directing traffic and helping load the three crawler-transports.

Spark stood in the middle of the confusion, alone. His only belongings were the shoes on his feet, the knife at his hip and the red band around his head. He watched with a sort of numbness. It was all happening too fast. There was no order that he could see. All he could think of was that deadly scarlet terbium as it took over the Great Forest, perhaps the entire world. Was there no way to stop it?

A tap on his shoulder. It was Knuckles. The echidna's eyes were calm and quiet. "Quite a circus, ain't it?" he said to Spark. Spark nodded. Knux was still wearing the coat, although the day was rather hot. He shivered and pulled it tighter around him. "I've been though the evacuation plan. This is routine. I'm ... I'm so cold ..."

Spark awkwardly put an arm around his shoulders. "Isn't there any way to beat the terbium? There HAS to be a way to stop it!"

Knuckles looked at him expressionlessly. "Get Sonic back, and we'll talk about stopping it. Only he can do it."

"What do you mean?"

The echidna turned away and did not reply.

At that moment, Spark vowed to himself that he would get his brother free, no matter what it took.

Tails ran up to them. His face held a mixture of fear and excitement. "Knux," he panted, "Slash said to come get on the transport. She wants you to ride, since you're sick. And Spark--" the fox turned, but Spark wasn't there.

Tails and Knuckles looked around in bewilderment. "Where'd he go?" Tails asked.

Knuckles shrugged. "I donno, but I bet I could guess. We'd better tell Slasher that Spark won't be coming with us."

"Why not?"

"Because, to paraphrase," he chuckled, "'he loves his brother as himself.'"

Chapter 9

Robotropolis

___________________________________________________________________

Spark was running through the woods, ducking branches, dodging trees and leaping rocks. His dark eyes were fixed unswervingly on the forest ahead. He knew where he was going. No matter that his only weapons were the black stone in his headband and his knife. Most of his life had been spent as a wandering fugitive and killer, and those weapons had served him well.

He turned right and broke out of the trees. Now only five miles of grassy plains separated him from Robotropolis. He could only run a little further before he was forced to slow and catch his breath. He was good at many things, but running was not one of them. He didn't understand how his brother and sister could have such speed. Why didn't he?

Spark looked over his shoulder at the wall of trees. How soon would the Great Forest be totally leveled? He had better hurry--

Alternately walking and running, he finally made it into the city. He stood just outside the garbage dump for a few minutes, gathering his bearings. If he did not ascertain his route from the outside, he would soon be hopelessly lost in the twisted streets. After a bit he set off again. Strange. He had fled this place only yesterday, and was now going back.

The hedgehog slunk into the city like the fugitive he was, all his senses alert for danger. The SWAT-bots would be making their morning rounds, and he was sure to meet some. He would be sure to keep his distance, unlike LAST time.

He travelled for quite a distance before anything happened. He thought he heard a sound behind, and was looking over his shoulder as he turned a corner--and smacked into a lone SWAT-bot, hidden in the shadows. He gasped and leaped back. To his surprise, the robot did not move or even look at him. It was looking straight ahead, frozen in place. Spark watched it for a moment, his fear slowly melting away. Cautiously he stepped up to it and waved a hand in front of its eyes. It didn't stir. Receiving a transmission, maybe?

Spark continued on his way, perplexed. He wondered if any other SWAT-bots were stuck that way. He began to watch as he went along. Sure enough, here and there were other SWATs, fixed in place and gazing straight ahead. There was something uncanny about it. Something was wrong. Well, at least he wouldn't be chased.

He rounded a bend and came into sight of the fortress. The towering, imposing structure was surprisingly unguarded. Spark looked around warily for the SWAT-bots. He finally spotted them; they too were frozen.

Too wise to enter by the front gates, the green hedgehog circled around to the back. His favorite way to get in during his enslavement had been through the robot-access doors. There they were; a pair of insignificant-looking metal doors to the left of the regular ones. He slipped up to one and turned the handle. It opened easily. He looked in suspiciously. Inside was a long dark hallway with an elevator at the end--it seemed quiet. After a moment he entered and closed the door softly behind him.

No opposition of any kind. The building was dead silent. Wary of the elevator, Spark took the stairs. He knew this was not the way to the prisons (he didn't know Sonic was in the dungeon). To get to the prisons, one had to go up a floor, cross it, take the main elevator down two floors, then exit in the basement. Hopefully all would go well, especially with the SWAT-bots disabled or fried or whatever.

He arrived on the second floor safely. Another hallway stretched out before him, studded with doors and security cameras. Quietly he knelt next to the wall and ran his flesh fingers along it until he located a wire next to the floor. With his robot hand he dug his fingers in around it and pulled. It ripped away from the wall with a cracking of paint. Smoothly he drew his knife and snapped it in two.

All the security cameras in the hall went dead, power severed. Pleased with himself, Spark rose and walked down the hall.

His pleasure did not last long. For the first time a sound met his ears; two voices arguing savagely. They were approaching the hall from inside one of the closed doors. Thinking quickly, Spark leaped to another door, flung it open and ducked inside. He pulled it to and listened as a door was slammed open and the two entered the hall. With a chill Spark recognized them; Metal Sonic and Sonic, himself. Sonic was saying, "I don't care what you do to me, I'm never gonna tell you where Knothole is! You're gonna be sorry you let me out of the dungeon--"

"We can drain your mind of all it possess," Mecha shot back. "Stop struggling, you! You will soon pay for your impudence--"

Spark cracked the door open a bit, just in time to see the robot and his brother pass by and move up to another door. Metal Sonic had his prisoner's arms doubled up behind his back. It was with difficulty he managed to free a hand to open the door. He turned the knob, kicked it open, moved inside, then slammed it shut with his heel.

Spark pushed the door open and made as though to step out, but a voice stopped him in his tracks. "Hello there, Spark." He whirled, and felt the blood drain from his face.

He had taken refuge in Robotnik's private office.

The doctor himself was seated in a chair behind his desk, grinning evilly at the hedgehog. He rose to his feet and extended a hand. "It's good to see you again. We haven't seen each other in--what, ten years?"

Spark didn't answer. He was standing with his back to the door, ready to run at a moment's notice. Robotnik could see this plainly. Unbeknownst to Spark, he stepped on a small button on the floor beneath his desk. "What have you been doing all this time?"

"Insurrection," Spark replied sarcastically.

Robotnik chuckled. "Don't tell me you joined the Freedom Fighters."

"Okay, I won't tell you."

"You sound just like Sonic."

"I should."

"And why is that?"

"You know how much alike brothers can be."

"Ah, so you know."

"KNOW? You TOLD me the whole time you were brainwashing me so as to be sure I'd kill him. Well, guess what. I'm not your slave anymore."

"No," said Robotnik coolly, "But you will be. Seize him, Mecha."

Before Spark could turn, two hands clamped down on either wrist and pulled his hands behind him. From their yellow and silver color, he knew it was Metal Sonic. He could hear the robot's engines purring softly. Spark held still, knowing Metal Sonic would not stand for another struggling prisoner.

Robotnik stepped around his desk and moved forward. "I only want to know one thing," he said to Spark. "What are you doing here?"

"What's it to ya?" Spark snapped.

Robotnik gazed at him a moment before answering, "You were looking for Sonic, weren't you?"

Spark made no reply.

"That was it, doctor," Mecha said from behind Spark. "He stiffened at the word 'Son-Son-' you know."

Robotnik chuckled, noticing the sudden flame in the hedgehog's eyes. "Good. Take him to the robotizer. I will be along shortly."

Mecha alternately shoved and dragged Spark through the door, down hall, and into the same room Sonic had been dragged into. Spark was thinking furiously. There HAD to be a way out ... some way of escape, somehow ...

The robotizer towered up in the center of the room, a large glass tube with machinery around the top. Inside it was Sonic.

Sonic's defiant glare changed to an expression of shock as he saw Spark. He pressed both hands against the glass and called, "Spark! What are you doing here?" His voice was muffled by the tube, but Spark could hear him.

"I came for a visit!" he shouted.

"How are you?"

Spark allowed Mecha to lead him across the room to a big cage. "Same as ever!"

"That bad, huh?"

Spark was thrown to his knees inside the cage. Metal Sonic slammed the door shut with a clang and locked it.

The green hedgehog leaped to his feet and looked out at Sonic. "Are you okay?"

"As well as can be expected," was Sonic's muffled reply. "I haven't had a decent meal in ages! What about you? How's Serena?"

"She's fine, but Knuckles is really sick. Terbium."

Sonic's eyes widened. "Oh great!"

Metal Sonic also turned and looked at Spark. "What are his symptoms?"

Spark considered a moment, decided it would hurt nothing and replied, "Chill, dizziness, something like the flu or pneumonia."

Mecha gazed at him a moment, thinking. "Hmm. Interesting. Excuse me, please." He turned abruptly and left the room, leaving the two alone.

"I'd say we have about two minutes to live," Sonic remarked from inside the robotizer. "Any ideas?"

"I'm working on it," Spark said, pulling and shaking each iron bar in turn. "I used to live here, you know."

"You're gonna die here, ya know," Sonic replied dryly. "Convenient."

A short pause. Spark found no weaknesses and stepped to the front of the cage. "Sonic, can you still become hyper? I don't know how you do it."

"Well, yeah, but I don't know if it'll protect me from this thing."

"We gotta do something! They're evacuating Knothole."

"Evacuating? Why?"

"Well, to make a long story short, a bunch of terbium was released right in the middle of it."

Even from across the room, Spark saw his brother's face go white as chalk. Sonic had to brace himself against the glass to keep from toppling over. "No," he breathed. "Oh no. Not into the Great Forest. Please, no ..."

At that moment the outer door swung open and Robotnik stepped in. He looked around in surprise and said, "Where's Mecha?"

Spark sneered at him. "I waved my hand and he melted into a puddle of grease. Why?"

Robotnik gave him a displeased look, then noticed Sonic. The blue hedgehog had his forehead pressed against the glass, eyes closed. "What's the matter, Sonic?" he asked tauntingly. "Awaiting robotization?"

Sonic lifted his head and looked at him dully. "You've killed us all. Releasing the terbium was the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas. Now it'll take over the entire planet." Suddenly angry, he pounded a fist against the glass. "You're so stupid! You're all so STUPID! The terbium will kill everything! EVERYTHING!"

The door opened again and Mecha reappeared. "Doctor," he said, ignoring the prisoners, "I have had a breakthrough in my research."

"What is it?"

Both hedgehogs pricked up their ears.

"The terbium is sensitive to touch, especially through the crystals. In fact, it even--"

Suddenly all the lights dimmed. A computer's voice blared, "Invader alert. Invader alert. Alien SWAT-bots entering by south gate, west gate, east gate--"

"WHAT?!?" Robotnik bellowed. He and Metal Sonic hit the door running and were gone.

Sonic and Spark exchanged glances. Uh oh.

A memory came to Spark--the SWAT-bots frozen to their posts, looking at nothing. Maybe they HAD been receiving transmissions! "Hang on, Sonic!" he called. "I think I know what's going on! Go hyper and get out of there!"

* * *

Robo Knux burst through the main gates, both arms bearing exposed gun barrels. Packbell was going through the city, looking for any SWATs they may have missed and gunning them down. Robo Knux was commanding a squadron of two hundred robots, both SWATs and U-SWATs.

"Sweep the fortress from top to bottom," he ordered through his intercom. "Take hostage all you find. I want none dead. Do not touch the worker 'bots--they will not oppose us." Aloud, to himself, he said, "And now, Metal Sonic, we will see each other face to face once again."

The crimson robot strode through the building, issuing commands and receiving battle reports. He was particularly pleased when several of the U-SWATs announced that they had apprehended Robotnik and Metal Sonic. "Secure them," he said, "and I will be there shortly."

The robot stepped into the main control room, which was where the two had been taken. Robotnik was being held by two of his own SWAT-bots, and looked ready to explode with rage. Mecha had been struggling, and so was bound hand and foot with cord, surrounded with four U-SWATs. They were helpless without command of the SWAT-bot army.

The robots' eyes met. Immediately Mecha said, "I always knew you were a traitor."

Robo Knux waved a hand. "Yes, yes. You would have done the same, given the chance. I will deal with you later."

He turned to Robotnik, green eyes glittering. "And to think I once called you Master," he said condescendingly. "Where are you now?"

"If you would drop the gloating," Robotnik snarled, "I would be able to tell you! These bucketheads won't listen--"

"Yes? What?"

"Sonic and Spark Hedgehog are both imprisoned in the robotizer room; if your army ants haven't already found them."

"Spark!" Robo Knux said, looking toward the door. He had always hated Spark much more than he did Sonic. "Hold these here, robots. You and you, come with me."

The robot echidna tore down the hall, the two U-SWATs trailing behind. He knew where the robotizer was kept; he had played with it often. He slid to a stop before the door and hurled it open.

A section had been broken out of the glass robotizer tube, fragments littering the floor. The cage in the corner was standing open, empty. The cover to a ceiling air vent lay on the floor. The vent was open, a dark hole in the ceiling. Robo Knux walked up and stood under it, gazing first upward, then at the broken robotizer, cursing. The birds had flown.

Chapter 10

Two-way Takeover

_____________________________________________________________________

The evacuees of Knothole village had journeyed for quite a distance, moving deep into the forest, following the river. It was quite a sight--the three flat, tank-like vehicles loaded with people, surrounded and followed by even more villagers.

At last the three transports turned away from the river. The villagers travelling on foot were beginning to tire. Many of them had never been to the emergency shelters, and had no idea how much further they had to go.

Sally signaled a halt. The people riding on the transports climbed off, and the others climbed on for a rest. Sally climbed down, and walked around a bit, supervising. "How much further?" everyone asked her. "Just a little," was her reply, although she was not sure herself. She finally managed to flag down Slasher.

"Where are we?" she asked the raptor, keeping her voice down. Slasher cocked her head and looked up at the sun. "About half an hour away, not including rest stops. Two miles, I think."

Sally turned and looked the way they had come. "I wish Spark hadn't run off," she said worriedly. "He could get himself killed."

"I think he knows that," Slasher said comfortingly. "Don't worry. He'll be along. Who knows; he may even bring Sonic with him."

A few minutes later the caravan set off again. Sally had decided to walk and give Tails her seat--he was tired from the long walk. As she followed the slow-moving transports with the others, she pulled out Nichole. "Uplink to Robotropolis mainframe," she said, intending to check on the latest prisoner reports. If Spark had been captured, she would find out.

Nichole's hard drive light flashed, and a message flashed across the little screen: [Server Currently Down. Try Again Later.] Nichole said, "Cannot uplink. Mainframe unoperational."

"What?"

"The core system is off-line, Sally. I cannot connect."

"Try the secondary systems."

The computer obeyed. "Sorry, but the entire Robotropolis city mainframe is down. None of the systems are responding."

"Keep trying and tell me if anything comes back on-line. How long has it been down?"

"Since ten forty-nine."

Sally glanced at her wristwatch. Twenty minutes. She snapped the screen shut and ran to catch up with the head transport, which Slasher was driving.

"Slasher," she panted, swinging up beside the open cockpit.

The raptor looked up. "Yeah?"

"Slash, everything in Robotropolis is down. Nothing works. Nichole says none of the secondary systems are working, either."

Slasher glanced at her, puzzled. "What could take down all those computers?"

"A virus, maybe, but not even backup ...!" Sally was very concerned.

"What about users? Is there a command that could do that?" Slasher questioned calmly.

"I don't know." Sally's blue eyes betrayed her apprehension. "What could that mean?"

"Anything. Don't worry about it. Maybe they had a power failure or something. Keep an eye on it. Something's bound to come through." Slasher was preoccupied with relocating an entire village and worrying about Sonic and Spark. Little wonder she was a bit terse when yet another concern appeared.

* * *

Spark took a flying leap and landed on all fours on the next roof. It was blazing hot from being in the sun all morning. He hastily stood up, shaking his hands to cool them. He turned and looked across at the other rooftop, about ten feet away. "C'mon, Sonic!"

Sonic came running, leaped the gap between buildings and landed beside Spark in a roll. "Man, does it feel good to run again," he said as he jumped up. "Have we been spotted yet?"

"No, don't think so," the green hedgehog replied, glancing toward the streets. "Let's go. I don't want to have those U-SWATs on our tail."

"I wouldn't mind," Sonic said cheerfully.

"Yeah," Spark grumbled, "I know YOU wouldn't, but _I_ would. C'mon."

The two had been proceeding from rooftop to rooftop since exiting the ventilation system. They had seen Packbell and his armies patrolling the streets, and were trying to steer clear of them. They had no idea the mainframe was down.

"I wonder if Robo Knux is here," Sonic wondered aloud. "I'll bet he'd chew us up and spit us out if he caught us."

"No kidding," Spark agreed. "I don't like him. He's a total jerk, not to mention meaner'n a rattlesnake."

"Do you think Robotnik knew about this?"

Spark didn't reply until they had both made it across another alley. "Probably not. He wouldn't take over the same city twice. This must have been Packbell's thing."

"Or Robo Knux's. He's power-hungry."

"I wonder what'll happen to Mecha?"

"Bet Robot Knux tries to kill 'im or something. They've hated each other since R.K. brought Metal S--

Spark interrupted him by grabbing his arm and dragging them both to a halt. The green hedgehog dropped flat to the slanted roof, and Sonic followed his lead. "What? What is it?" Sonic whispered.

Spark made no reply for a moment. His eyes were sweeping the cityscape ahead. After a bit he murmured, "Follow me, but be careful. Shh."

He began to army-crawl up the hot roof's slant. Sonic followed, puzzled and mildly concerned. They had seen no robots for some time. What had Spark seen?

They crawled up to the peak of the roof and scrambled down the other side. There was a flat section of roof there, with a low two-foot wall that provided cover. The two hedgehogs crouched behind it. "What?" Sonic panted softly. Spark slowly lifted his head and looked over the wall. "Look," he said simply.

A short distance beyond them, Robotropolis ended abruptly. Every building in sight was flattened, as if a great wind had swept through. Poking up through the rubble and cracking the asphalt were the disgusting terbium pods; hundreds of them. The red crystals could be seen in every direction. Here and there were slight, sluggish movements as other pods thrust themselves from the pavement, or put out the crystals. The air was heavy with a foul, rotten odor.

Wordlessly Spark pointed. Sonic looking in the indicated direction. He saw what at first he took to be a tree. But wait; there were no trees in Robotropolis. He looked closer. No, it was not a tree-- it was a tall spike of the same color and texture as the pods. It had a big, thick bulge on one side. As they watched, this bulge bunched up. The top split apart, and the bulge spasmed upward. It belched a cloud of smoke, then closed. Fortunately for the hedgehogs, it was more than sixty feet away.

Spark and Sonic exchanged a horrified, disgusted look. "Blossom tree," Sonic said. "I heard Mecha talking about 'em. Breathe that smoke and you're a goner." He looked back at the terbium field, suddenly afraid. "I hope that isn't what happened to Knux ..."

Spark slapped him on the back. "Let's go. The sooner we get out of here the better."

* * *

The emergency shelters had at last been reached. To the surprise of many, it was not huts built on the ground. It was a series of the most wonderful treehouses you could imagine.

The area was slightly swampy. The trees were unusually tall there. One particular grove had been selected for living quarters. The huts were built in rings around the tree trunks, supported by the thick branches. Wood bridges connected each with its neighbors. Everything was painted in camouflage, and difficult to see from a distance. The entire community was thirty to fifty feet from the ground.

Many of the Freedom Fighters were overwhelmed by the sight, and could only stand and stare in awe. Sally was one of them. She had helped plan the construction, but had never actually seen it ...

"Welcome to Eagle's Nest," Slasher called to the villagers. She had flown up into the main tree to let down the rope ladders. "Or at least, that's the name until we come up with something better. Watch your step, and one at a time!"

Slowly the evacuees began to enter the treehouses. Slasher assigned each a hut number as they came up the ladder, keeping it simple. Tails, who had made himself her assistant (and knew where everything was), escorted everyone to their quarters, flying around like a big bee.

Knuckles had worsened during the trip. He was too weak to climb the ladder; Slasher had to fly him up. He was taken to the hospital hut and laid on one of the beds. His breathing sounded as if he had asthma, but one look into his eyes showed it was far worse than that. He had no fever.

"Slash," he gasped to his friend. "It's awful ... it hurts ... the terbium ... it's growing." He clutched at his chest and coughed. Slasher stood over him and massaged his chest until the spasm had passed and he relaxed. "That feels good," he wheezed, closing his eyes. "When Sonic ... and Spark ... get here, tell them I want ... I want to see Sonic."

"Okay," Slasher said. "Stay here and rest. We'll put you on the respirator as soon as they get the generators running."

He nodded without opening his eyes.

The big raptor quietly walked out.

She found Sally in her assigned hut, preoccupied with Nichole. "Sal," Slasher said, "tell Rotor to get the generators running. Knuckles is in the red zone."

Sally looked up with a start. "He's that bad off?"

"Yeah."

The squirrel set her little computer down. "Okay. It'll be a few minutes." She stood up and walked to the door, but paused as Slasher asked, "We have a respirator, right?"

"Yeah, it's a good one, too. Slash ... will he pull through?"

The raptor only looked at her, her green eyes showing her fearful concern. Sally looked down, bit her lip, then departed.

* * *

"Where're we going, Sonic? Knothole is that way."

The two hedgehogs were jogging through untamed woods, ducking branches and dodging various obstacles. Sonic, in the lead, looked back at his older brother. "You said yourself that Knothole was evacuating."

"Well, yeah, but--"

"They go fast, bro. They're to Eagles' Nest by now."

"Where's that? Another Freedom Fighter band?"

"Nuh-uh. It's our hidden fort we built. It's way back in the woods. I helped work on it, ya know."

"Why's it called that?"

"It's built in the trees. It's pretty cool. I opted for the name Sky Fort, but I got voted down."

They travelled in silence for a while, each alone with their thoughts. Sonic broke the quiet with, "Uh oh. Spark, look over there!"

A short distance away, just visible through the trees, was a lone terbium pod. It was bigger than most others they had seen--about five feet across--and a crop of bright red crystals protruded from the top. Far from its family pods, it was flourishing on the surrounding vegetation and soil.

"I hate those things," Sonic said venomously. "Let's juice, bro."

* * *

Packbell entered the main control room of the fortress, head high and eyes alight with victory. Robo Knux was seated in Robotnik's chair, working furiously at one of the terminals. He stopped, turned, then stood and saluted. "Well done, Commander."

Packbell saluted in return. "You have fared well, also."

Robo Knux returned to his seat. "Yes. My raid took the fortress completely by surprise. I apprehended both Robotnik and Metal Sonic. They are in the main prison, heavily guarded. How did you do?"

"Very well. We only met two SWAT-bots that opposed us, and Robotropolis is very much in our hands. I do have bad news to report, however."

The crimson robot gazed at him curiously. "Yes?"

"The terbium has spread and destroyed a fifth of the city. We cannot contain it."

Robo Knux dropped his gaze to the table and tapped one metal finger. "Hmm. Very well. Post recon cameras in that area. I want the terbium under surveillance at all times. I want to know immediately if it begins to spread in this direction."

"Done, sir."

Robo Knux swiveled back around and resumed typing. For a few minutes the only sound was the clicking of the keyboard and the occasional beep the computer gave. At last Packbell ventured, "Uh, Robo Knux, what are you doing?"

"Re-programming a few things," the robot replied without turning. "I had to take the entire mainframe off-line for a while. Just a moment. There's one more line to go." The robot typed furiously, his automatic fingers never missing the intended keys. Packbell waited patiently.

Robo Knux hit one more key and leaned back, watching the surrounding monitors. "There," he said, "it is done. Stand by and watch well, Packbell."

The main computer was dark with three words in the upper left corner: "Loading. Please Wait." One screen off to the right flickered, then flashed, "Central control room status: operational. Activating primary systems." One by one the other monitors flickered on, announcing each newly on-line system.

"Because robots now rule the city," Robo Knux said, eyes glowing, "I have renamed the city after my robot name: Mecha Bot four. Packbell, welcome to Mechatropolis."

Packbell immediately saw a problem. "It sounds like you named it after Metal Sonic."

The red robot frowned. "I had not thought of that. It WOULD seem I was giving credit to my enemy. Well, he will soon be destroyed. And the name fits its inhabitants, no?"

Packbell nodded. His face disclosed nothing of what he thought. He said, "With your permission, I would like to begin construction on the de-robotizer."

"Why?" The question was sharp.

"Because I need to know if the terbium can be used in that manner. De-robotization could be very useful in the days to come."

The crimson robot gazed at the android a long time before answering, "Very well. Do as you wish; the entire city is at your disposal. Consult me before any tests. I would like to be there."

"As you with."

* * *

"Sally, Robotropolis mainframe now on-line."

The squirrel lifted the little computer. "Good. Do you know what took it down?"

"A new operative," Nichole replied. "A robot called Robo Knuckles. He is now high commander and ruler over the city. Packbell is next in rank. They have renamed the city Mechatropolis."

Sally couldn't believe her ears. The robots had captured the city ...? "What about Robotnik?" she asked the computer.

After a moment, Nichole answered, "He is being held in cell block 80. Security code required for more information."

Robotnik was under lock and key. "Is he to be executed?"

"Security code required for more information," Nichole repeated.

Sally didn't know whether to be overjoyed or shocked. Robotnik's own army had turned on him! Somehow, she knew this change was not for the better. Robotropolis (or Mechatropolis, as it is now named) and the robotizer were in the hands of two very, very evil robots.

Chapter 11

Secrets

______________________________________________________________________

Night had fallen by the time Spark and Sonic made it to Eagles' Nest. Sonic automatically looked up as they approached, but Spark stared around at the woods in bewilderment. "Where's it at?" he asked his brother.

Sonic smirked at him, which went unnoticed in the darkness. "I told you, it's a treefort. Ya gotta look up."

Spark did, and his mouth dropped open. The lights of the village filled the treetops with a warm yellow glow. They were high overhead, and the light didn't reach the ground, giving the impression of a floating city.

Sonic paused, looking around uncertainly. "The main tree is really big," he told his brother, "right in the middle. Know what? You look really freaky in the dark. I can't see your face."

"I can hardly see you, period, so we're even," Spark replied.

With some difficulty they located the main tree. Sonic picked up a stick and tapped the trunk three times. After a moment, a voice called, "Who goes?"

"Sonic and Spark," Sonic called softly.

"Sonic!" the guard exclaimed. "That's really you?"

"Yes," Spark answered for him. "Hurry and let us up. We're starved!"

The rope ladder was quickly lowered. The two hedgehogs climbed carefully, partly blinded by the night. At last they reached the platform above. The guard happened to be Spike, the purple porcupine. He had once been Sonic's ultimate rival, but they had made friends some time ago. He helped them up, staring hard at Sonic. "I can't believe you two made it out alive," he murmured. "I'd take you to your rooms, but I can't leave my post. Here's your room numbers." He handed them each a strip of paper. "Go check in with Slasher and Sally as soon as you can. Sonic, Knuckles has been asking for you."

Sonic nodded. "Okay. Chow, Spike. Good to see you again."

The two hedgehogs walked away into the darkness.

* * *

Packbell descended the narrow prison stairs, proceeding carefully so as not to slip. It was after hours, he knew, but his visit could not wait. Musty odors rose to meet him from the cold depths. Rats scurried away from him. If he had been human, Packbell would have shuddered in revulsion. But he was not human, and paid his surroundings no mind.

He stepped down the last step and stood in the prisons. These were a floor higher than the dungeons, but just as filthy. The android began to walk down the main hallway, shining his flashlight at the cell block numbers. 78, 79, 80. 80 was where Robotnik was being held. He turned and made his way down the row of cells. There were no other prisoners here; most had been robotized already or used in horrible experiments. (The good doctor doesn't have a Ph.D in Mad Science for nothing.) Robotnik and Metal Sonic were in the cells at the end.

Packbell stopped outside Robotnik's door and tapped softly. "Who's there?" came Robotnik's ill-tempered growl.

"Packbell," the android replied.

A pause, then another growl. "Well, what do you want?"

"I need your help with some technical schematics."

A clanking sound came from the cell next door, and Metal Sonic panted, "Let me see them."

"I came to see Robotnik," Packbell said icily.

"Yes," Mecha replied, "but he is chained. You must let me holo- project the schematics into his cell."

Packbell was about to refuse, but the robot growled, "You took out your own projector ages ago, and you brought none with you."

Grudgingly Packbell handed the holodisk through the bars of the cell door. Mecha took it. There was a click, and the schematics blazed into view in Robotnik's cell, a 3-dimensional, glowing green map.

Packbell waited a moment, then said, "Are you reading them, doctor?"

"Yes," came the irritable reply. "What is this? A de-robotizer?"

"Yes."

"It will never work."

"Why not?"

"There are fatal flaws in your design. For instance, your laser crystal. It's too thin, and the structure is too simple."

"Did you see what it is made of?"

Silence. Water dripped.

"And how do you intend to build it of terbium crystal?"

"Simple. Robo Knuckles has perfected the refining process."

At the mention of Robo Knux, Robotnik and Metal Sonic both made a disapproving, hateful sound.

"Look," said Packbell, "I'm sorry he did this to you. I had no part in it."

"You helped him take the city," Metal Sonic snarled.

"I didn't mean that," Packbell retorted. "I meant in your imprisonment."

"Leave us," Robotnik growled. "I won't offer my assistance to robots who demote me with my own SWAT-bots."

"Agreed," Mecha added. "Take your disk, Packbell." His hand thrust it through the bars, and Packbell took it.

There was a moment of silence. Then Packbell said, "I cannot give you back Robotropolis. But if you help me, I'll let you escape."

A very long period of quiet. Rats squeaked. Water plinked.

"Let's see the holodisk again," said Robotnik.

* * *

Spark had eaten a hasty supper and fallen into bed, but Sonic's night was not yet over.

He had eaten as well, answering questions between bites. Only Sally and Slasher were there, as it was quite late by this time. Sonic told them what he knew about the terbium, which was quite a bit. Mecha had spoken before him freely, as he was to have been robotized. Sally wrote down everything he said.

When the interrogation was over, Slasher leaned forward and said quietly, "Sonic, you need to see Knuckles. He's asked me over and over to let him see you as soon as you got back." She looked down a moment, then back up at the hedgehog. "Sonic, he's really bad off. Maybe even dying. You'd better go in there."

Sonic stood up. "Okay, I'm all done. Lead the way, Slash."

Sally stayed behind to feed Nichole the terbium information.

* * *

Knuckles was lying in the hospital bed, the green oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. His eyes were closed. The only sound was the gentle hum of the respirator. Sonic stared at him in shock as Slasher bent over him. "Knux. Knuckles, Sonic is here." The echidna opened his eyes, looked at the raptor, then at the hedgehog.

"Take me off the machine," he mumbled to Slasher through the mask.

"But you can't breathe without it."

"Just for a minute. I need to talk."

Reluctantly she unstrapped the mask from his face and switched off the respirator. Immediately he began wheezing. Slasher lifted him to a sitting position. This seemed to help somewhat, as his tortured breathing quieted. He sat unsteadily, swaying a little, looking at Sonic.

Sonic had to sit down in a nearby chair. He had never expected to see Knuckles look so ... old. It was a horrible shock. Knux's eyes were dull, as if drugged. His heavy, calloused hands rested on the blankets, too weak to do anything their owner wanted. Sonic could hear the dense rattle in his chest with each breath, as if he had a bad case of croup.

"I'll be right outside," Slasher said, and left them.

"What'd you want to tell me?" Sonic asked gently.

Knuckles ducked his head a little, as if seeking the breath that would allow him speech. "Sonic ... there IS a way ... to stop the terbium."

Sonic stared at him. "There is? How?"

Knuckles coughed, then cleared his throat. His voice was husky. "This is a secret. Been handed down from ... generation to generation ... Dad taught me the formula ... right before he retired. No guardian ... was supposed to tell this ... unless the terbium came again."

"Again?"

"Yeah ... but that's a long story ... and my time is limited ... Sonic, the cure is ... is on the Floating Island."

He paused and struggled for air. Sonic waited, feeling his own lungs ache. Knuckles's voice was slightly weaker when he continued. "It's a crystal ... we always called it the Green Crystal ... new element ... isolated as antidote." He closed his eyes, forcing his voice and thoughts to remain coherent. "Terbium has ... three electrons on the inner orbit, and ... nine on the outer ... one more than possible. The Green Crystal ... has one on the inner ... six on the outer ... one less than ... any other element. Makes it unstable ... but it bonds with ... with anything but lead. Release it on the terbium ... and it'll seek out ... and bond with ... all other terbium ... neutralizes it ... can re-grow the forest with it."

"Where do you get it?" Sonic asked, interested, impatient and sorrowful at the same time.

Knuckles did not answer for a moment. He closed his eyes, thinking. "The molecular structure ... makes it really unstable. Can't keep Green Crystal around for very long." He opened his eyes and gazed directly at his friend. "Sonic ... did I ever tell you the purpose ... of Lava Reef?"

"You mean the place in the middle of the island with all the lava? No. I thought it had something to do with keeping the island afloat."

Knuckles shook his red head and drew a breath. "No. The island doesn't need it ... the reason is ... you need lava ... magma ... to make Green Crystals. There's a machine ... you know the big cave ... the one I almost killed you in?"

"By rolling the rock at me and Tails? Yeah."

"The machinery is there. By the lava pools ... it's by the lava pools. I haven't been to Lava Reef in a while ... because of the terbium ... but it should still work. Pour in about a cup ... of lava ... in the top ... it should make about a handful ... of Green Crystals. Don't touch 'em ... they'll kill you. There's a lead box ... catch 'em in that."

"How do I get into Lava Reef?"

Knuckles was having serious trouble breathing by now, but managed to answer. "Mine entrance ... south side of ... of main mountain ... take lights ... mine lights don't start until ... mile down. Teleport-- don't walk on ... island ... terbium'll ... kill you."

"Want me to use the Green Crystals on the island?"

"No ... Island done for ... bring it here ... or we're done for ... _I'm_ done for ... ya gotta hurry ... Sonic ..."

Knuckles was about to pass out from suffocation. Sonic leaped up, turned on the respirator and pressed the mask against his friend's face. Air filled the echidna's lungs. He opened his eyes and looked at Sonic gratefully as the hedgehog carefully strapped the mask to his head and helped him lie down. "I'm going now," Sonic said. "And I'll be back soon. I promise."

He stepped outside and nearly ran into Slasher. "Where are YOU going?" she asked.

His looked up at her, jaw set. "To the Floating Island. There's a way to stop the terbium, and I'm going to find it."

Chapter 12

Missions: Impossible

_____________________________________________________________________

Sonic was on the Floating Island as the sun rose.

He had located the Lava Reef shaft the night before, but realized he was simply too tired to embark on the downward trek. Extreme weariness could be fatal to his mission, so he had slept in the mine entrance.

But now, as pale golden light began to illuminate his surroundings, he was struck dumb, horrified.

The island, once lush and green, was a desert. Terbium pods and blossom trees were everywhere, along with a new gruesome growth. This growth looked like one of the pods, but without crystals. Huge, thick roots, like tentacles, streamed out of the core and trailed across the ground. Every few feet along the length of a root were yet more terbium pods. These seemed to occur as the underground root network became so dense that no more pods could grow. So some of the pods mutated and began spreading roots above ground.

Sonic stared until he was too sick to look anymore. This parasite had destroyed the beautiful island, and was adapting its growth to do so more thoroughly. The only reason it had not climbed the mountain was because the rocky soil prevented root growth.

As the blue hedgehog flicked on his flashlight and stepped into the mine shaft, he found a savage hatred born in him. A hatred of the terbium pods, of the blossom trees that had sentenced one of his best friends to painful death. This junk was threatening to destroy everything he knew and loved. He was prepared to battle it to the end ... his or its, it remains to be seen.

* * *

"No."

"But Slasher, I have to! It's the only way--"

"No, Sally." The raptor was firm. "If I could go with you it would be different. But I can't--I have to stay with Knuckles."

"What about Sonic? What if he went with me?"

"Sonic isn't here. Even if he was, I'd still have second thoughts."

Slasher and Sally were in the latter's hut. The squirrel had worked most of the night on Nichole, analyzing and testing terbium models. She still had the fragment of the long-ago meteor, but it had remained largely inert in the airtight box. Sally needed a live chunk of terbium to complete the analysis, and maybe find a way to kill it off. She was not aware an antidote already existed, or that Sonic had gone after it. This was one of the reasons Slasher was adamant about not letting her go out alone.

Slasher folded her muscular arms and tapped one toe-claw against the floor. "Sally, you've seen what that stuff can do. There's no way to protect yourself from it."

"Except by distance," a voice added from outside. The two turned as Spark poked his green-and-black head in. "What's going down, and where's Sonic?"

Sally looked at Slasher. "Yeah, where IS Sonic?"

The raptor waved Spark inside and closed the door. Then she stood with her back to it and said, "Knuckles knows an antidote to the terbium. It's on the Floating Island, and Sonic went to get it."

"Alone?"

"He teleported, and he took his belt. At the very longest, he'll be back tomorrow afternoon." A look of concern and worry flashed through her green eyes. The stress and danger she had been coping with had made her overly cautious.

Spark flexed his robot hand. "I'll go with Sal," he offered. "I've been around the terbium quite a bit, myself. We could take some long tongs or something."

Slasher looked at him with one eye. "Spark, it's dangerous--"

Sally saw her chance. "C'mon, Slash! He knows all about the terbium. Let him go with me! Please?"

Slasher lifted both clawed hands. "No! A thousand times, no!"

* * *

Spark and Sally made their way though the forest, carrying airtight containers for storing the terbium in. "Sure was nice of Slash to find all this stuff for us," Spark remarked.

"I know," Sally replied. "Right up to the last minute I wasn't sure she'd let us go."

They stepped over a creek. "Where're we going, Spark?" Sally asked.

The hedgehog stopped, looked around and set out again before answering. "When me and Sonic were on our way back yesterday, we saw one terbium pod way out by itself. We might be able to get samples from it without too much risk."

"As long as there's no blossom trees around."

"Yeah. I'll look around a little before we tackle it."

They hiked along in silence for a while. Every so often Spark would stop, gaze around at his surroundings, then continue. "I'm used to the woods," he explained to his companion. "One time I was hired to kill some guy, and the whole city turned out to hunt me down. I had to hide in the woods until the search was called off."

Sally sideyed him uneasily. "You've killed people?"

"Sure. I've worked as a mercenary most of my life." His eyes dulled. "I didn't enjoy it. I was miserable. I wanted friends ... I wanted family, but I felt like I was cut off from all happiness. And then I finally found Sonic, and he was so different from me ..." His voice trailed off.

Sally looked at him. His head was down, eyes half-closed, reliving the terrors of his past. Abruptly he drew a hand across his eyes and looked up. "But that's over and done with."

"What made you change?"

Spark's eyes took on a faraway look. "I had a dream ... right after the races ended. With Nights. You ever dreamed about Nights?"

"Sonic has."

"I dreamed about Nights," he continued dreamily. "But it wasn't just Nights, exactly." His voice took on an eager, secretive tone, as if he had always wanted to tell someone but never dared. "He introduced me to--I met--his Master. The One who tells him who to go to and gives him messages. He--I can't describe Him, except that He is--" Spark struggled for words-- "More wonderful ... more glorious ... than anyone, least of all me, had the capacity to imagine. And he wasn't the guy called 'Wizeman', either. I--He--I was humbled, Sally. I saw myself for what I was--a heartless killer. I was so ... filthy beside all that purity ..." He paused, swallowed, then continued in hushed, reverent tones. "I fell on my face, Sal. It was all I could do. I cried for the first time since ... since I was little. I begged His pardon for my ugliness, my dirt ... and what was so neat was ... He did."

Spark turned glowing eyes to Sally, who was listening with interest. "That's why I stopped killing people. That's why I sought out Sonic. I can live now. It's weird, but ... I don't HAVE to kill anymore."

"Wow," said Sally. She could think of little more to say. It was remarkable at the change in him, compared to his behavior at the races ...

* * *

The green hedgehog stopped. "There it is," he said quietly.

Sally looked around and saw it; a very large terbium pod, all by itself.

"Give me a box," Spark said. "I'll get the samples. Stay here." The squirrel handed him a plastic box, and he moved forward.

He drew his knife as he approached. "Let's see how tough this stuff really is," he muttered through his teeth. Like his brother, he had grown to absolutely hate the terbium. He walked boldly up to the slimy side, closer than he cared to be. The smell hit him like a kick in the gut. He held his breath, wondering vaguely if the smell was somehow toxic and would eat his lungs.

He reached out with his robot hand and grasped one of the red crystals. It was warm. With his natural hand he took the knife, reached down inside the pod's bowl-like interior, and began to saw at the crystal's base. To his surprise, it sliced easily; the crystal was soft at the root. He cut it free and lifted it out. It was surprisingly light. Its glow faded as soon as it left its mother plant. Wondering about radioactive decay, he dropped the red crystal into one of the boxes and snapped on the lid. He turned and tossed it to Sally, who caught it easily. "Stand back," he told her. "I'm gonna cut a piece out of the pod. This could get nasty." Sally hurriedly backed away.

Spark began to hack at the rim of the pod. To his disgust, it curled under his blows, such as a slug does when poked with a stick. Grimly he drove his knife into the leathery hide again and again. A thin blue liquid leaked from the wound and trickled down the pod's side. Spark crept on, chopping a V out of the rim.

There was no sound but his own jerky breathing and the thud- crunch, thud-crunch of his blows. So it was a shock to hear Sally's sudden cry, and feel strong hands grab him from behind. Reacting instantly, Spark backlashed with one foot and robot elbow. His attacker fell back. Spark whirled, knife dripping blue slime, ready to fight. He found himself facing three big U-SWATs. How they had crept up on him without him hearing was a mystery.

"Halt, Freedom Fighter," one began. "Surrender--"

"No, idiots! Attack! Attack! Get him down!"

The green hedgehog had no chance to see who was speaking, for the robots obeyed. The struggle was pitifully short. The U-SWATs were far stronger than he. All Spark could do as his hands and feet were bound was to yell, "Run, Sally, run!"

Roughly the robots lifted him to face the attack's mastermind. He was not surprised to see Robo Knuckles standing there, heavy arms folded. The robot moved forward. "Don't worry, your companion has fled. She is of no consequence to me ... it is YOU I wanted."

Spark chose not to answer. The robot regarded him coolly. "You have learned much, hedgehog. Fortunately, your death will be long and interesting. We have a new machine prototype to test, and you are the only eligible prisoner. Bring him, robots."

Spark looked over his shoulder. The last thing he saw was the big terbium pod, still bleeding the blue liquid ...

Chapter 13

Captured

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Sonic carefully picked his way down the tunnel, playing the flashlight beam along the floor. The shaft had once been well maintained, but lately had fallen into a state of disrepair. Rocks and piles of dirt covered the earthy floor. Sonic felt a pang. The island was dying with its guardian. Would he be the last person to traverse this passage ...?

His head was full of dreadful thoughts. The terbium slowly, steadily destroying everything; the vines crawling, the blossom trees puffing, the pods bursting out of the earth. The sound of Knuckles's labored breathing. The island slowly sinking out of the sky and crashing into the ocean. "Ya gotta hurry, Sonic ..."

He was surprised to hear himself repeat his friend's words aloud. His voice echoed off the rough walls and faded away. "Hello," he said, and listened to the echo. He was lonely. It was not loneliness so much, though ... it was the constant apprehension that gnawed at him relentlessly. The constant fear of what could happen. He did not feel it so much when he was with his friends, but once he was alone it returned in full force. This was why his imprisonment had been so hard to bear. He had known of the danger and had been helpless in its path.

His thoughts looped back to Knuckles. They always seemed to in one way or another. Was there no way to stop the spores growing in his lungs? For one wild instant Sonic wondered if killing the terbium on the island would somehow heal its guardian. He squelched that idea immediately. No, it was the infection within the echidna's body that needed an antidote. Maybe, once he had the Green Crystals, maybe ...

The passage snaked sharply to the right. Sonic rounded the bend, shown his light down the tunnel and stopped in his tracks.

The tunnel ahead of him was criss-crossed with the now-familiar terbium roots. It was woven solidly from floor to ceiling with them. The sides of the passage were cracked and bulged outward dangerously. It seemed as if a breath would bring the whole shaft down on his head.

Needless to say, Sonic stood very still for several minutes, taking in the situation. It was quite still. Obviously roots that went this deep were not as active as the ones on the surface. He had to get by them. Automatically his hands dropped to his invisible belt. Invisible to all eyes but his, that is. It was set with seven glowing stones; the miniature versions of the Super Emeralds.

Sonic inspected the walls and ceiling above him before acting. It seemed solid enough. Well, maybe if he was careful not to ricochet around too much ... a tunnel collapse would not kill him as Hyper Sonic, but it would trap him indefinitely.

He flicked off the flashlight and felt a chill as total darkness surrounded him. Alone in the dark with live terbium roots ... Hurriedly he clipped the light to his belt, then crossed his wrists against the front of the belt and yanked them back.

Light flooded into the corridor from his entire body. Energy poured into him from the activated emeralds in his belt. Partly blinded by the power rush, he stood still until his vision faded back in. Now his eyesight was better than Slasher's. Bright bursts of electricity flared away from his body, circled up, then burned out. He was quite a sight, indeed.

Feeling a good deal safer, he threw himself into a spindash and slammed into the wall of tangled roots. They were amazingly strong. He charged again and again. One by one they began to snap and give way. If he had been looking, he would have noticed that the severed ends writhed and curled up like dying snakes, oozing a blue fluid.

The tunnel was packed solid for a good fifteen feet. Sonic steadily hacked and tore his way through, strength and stamina unlimited. It would not be fair to say he was not panting by the time he made it through, however. He leaned against the wall to catch his breath, looking back at the disgusting tangle. If the pods on the surface died because of this, he would not be sorry.

Deciding to stay charged for the time being, Sonic turned his back on the roots and continued the downward trek.

* * *

"You're gonna be sorry for this, really, you are!" Spark snarled at Robo Knux from between the three Ultra SWAT-bots. They were carrying him by his arms and waist. His hands and feet were bound and shackled, but his mouth was free. He was seeing to it that their journey back to Mechatropolis was not a pleasant one.

"I don't care what you do to me," he continued, directing his tirade at the robot's back ahead of him. "I'll make you pay, somehow. Maybe a doormat. Maybe a coffee cup, who knows? I know--a scarecrow! You're ugly enough to scare the bark off a tree."

They had left the Great Forest by this time and were crossing the five miles of open country on foot. Mechatropolis was in sight. Robo Knuckles was about to short-circuit. Spark knew this, and continued to be as annoying as possible. Might as well deserve the punishment he was about to get.

"Did you know you look like a wasp when you fly? A big, red, robot wasp. Your hands hanging down are like the legs, and the way your dreadlocks flare out are like the wings. It's a wonder nobody's swatted you by now. Like the SWAT-bots. That's why they're called that, right, to swat big robot wasps?"

"Close ... your ... trap," Robo Knux growled, barely able to control his rage.

"Shut up, you mean," Spark corrected cheekily. "Okay, I'll shut up. You won't hear another peep out of me. I always shut up when people tell me to shut up. I'm the best shutter-upper in the--"

"ENOUGH!!" Robo Knux roared, whirling to face him. The U-SWATs following him automatically stopped. The red robot stepped up to the green hedgehog. "I'm about to go crazy, vermin," he spat. "Stop your insolent chatter or suffer the consequences."

"I'm already going to die," Spark shot back, eyes darkening. "I might as well have a little fun before then."

Robo Knux lowered his head. "What if your death is to be by torture?"

"Then it's by torture," Spark replied bitterly. "I'm not afraid of pain."

The two engaged in a defiant stare-down for a moment. Robo Knux pondered during the course of this, then said, "You were not to be killed, actually."

"Yeah? And what are you going to do to me?"

The crimson robot made a sign for the U-SWATs to continue following him, and began to walk once more. "You are to be robotized."

Spark snorted. "That's ALL? Heck, I thought it would be something new."

The robot shot him a hateful glance. "And then Packbell will try out his de-robotizer prototype on you."

THAT was something new. Spark's eyebrows went up. "A de-robotizer? Will I get to keep my free will?"

"Of course not. The effects of the robotizer will not be reversed."

The information had its desired effect. Spark fell silent, thinking. After a moment he said, "Why do you need me? There's jillion worker bots."

The robot held up two fingers. "Two reasons. One, we wanted to monitor everything the robotizer did to you for future reference. Second, if it does not work and you are destroyed, I will have vanquished my enemy." The robot gave him a ghastly smile.

* * *

Sonic slowed to a walk, one hand brushing the wall. Just ahead was a glowing green crystal embedded in the ceiling. These phosphorescent gems were used for light in the Lava Reef mines. He was almost there.

No need to use the supers now. Sonic decharged himself and stood a moment in the dimness, letting his eyes re-adjust. Yes, now that his invincibility shield was gone, he could feel the peculiar damp warmth that filled the heart of the island. It would not be long now.

* * *

The robots took Spark into the city by the main gates. He had seen them perhaps four times in his life--the most common way to get in was though the sides or the back, through the junkyards. Six Ultra SWAT-bots were standing guard. Robo Knux nodded to them, and they saluted and stood aside. "Welcome to Mechatropolis," the crimson robot said to his less-than-thrilled prisoner. "Named for myself, of course."

"You sure you didn't name it after Metal Sonic?" Spark asked.

Robo Knux glared at him. "No. Would I name it after my worst enemy?"

"Beats me. It's your mistake." Spark tried to look aloof and succeeded. The closer they got to the robotizer the less courage he had.

The city was crawling SWAT-bots and U-SWATs, all of whom saluted their commander as he passed by. The green hedgehog was surprised and somewhat impressed. They had never done that for Robotnik and his minions.

The fortress came into view. It, like the main gates, was heavily guarded. As they approached, the heavy gates swung open and a very large group of robots emerged. Spark was surprised, and for some reason, amused to see Robotnik and Metal Sonic were the prisoners being led out. Their hands were bound behind them, and they were surrounded on all sides by everything from blaster rifles to fusion cutters. Robotnik walked with his head down, as if totally dejected, but Mecha walked firmly and defiantly, red eyes taking in everything.

Robo Knux approached the lead U-SWAT. "Where are you taking these captives?" Spark was reminded of Mecha asking his uncle the same thing. It must be a common question. The robot replied flatly, "They are going to the main shuttle bay. They will remain there until Commander Packbell joins them. He is taking them to his secret base for examination."

Only Robo Knuckles knew this, but 'examination' was his and Packbell's codeword for death by torture. He approved. "Where is the commander at present?"

"Preparing the robotizer for new victim."

Spark felt his heart ricochet around his ribcage, then drop straight to his ankles.

"Very well. Carry on."

The squadron of robots passed on by, and then Robo Knux led the way into the fortress.

Chapter 14

The Robotizer

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The robotizer was open and ready for service as Spark was ushered in. Packbell was standing in front of the control console, reading a printout. He looked up as they stepped in. "Ah, you have returned successfully," he said, striding toward them. "Any trouble?"

"None at all," Robo Knux replied with a proud glance at his captive. "He has been very cooperative."

"I wouldn't be if you untied me," Spark snapped, tired of being treated like a wimp. "Not to mention you tackled me from behind, like a low-down piece of dog dirt."

"Enough of the organic insults," Robo Knuckles growled. "SWAT- bots, put him in the robotizer."

Spark was shoved into the indented circle on the low platform and released. He fell on his side and lay like a trussed chicken, unable to get up because of the cuffs on his hands and feet. There was a low hum from overhead, and the glass tube began to lower. To his disappointment, the hole Sonic had made had been repaired.

The sounds around him were abruptly cut off as the tube locked into place. He looked up at the big lens; it was not on yet. "You could at least untie me!" he yelled. His voice resonated inside the tube, as if he were speaking inside a bell. He felt his bonds go slack and jumped up. At least they permitted him THAT comfort.

The three U-SWATs who had escorted him in were standing guard beside the exit doors, watching expressionlessly. Robo Knuckles and Packbell were engaged in a hushed, animated argument beside the robotizer controls. Spark pressed his ear against the glass and tried to listen.

From what little he could make out, it seemed Packbell had built the de-robotizer equipment directly into the robotizer's hull. He kept repeating that 'it' may have unpredictable results, that 'it' might not work, 'it' may kill him instead of working properly. Spark couldn't tell if 'it' was the robotizer or the de-robotizer.

Robo Knux looked to be getting angrier and angrier. Finally he yelled, "Fine! Stand aside--I'll take the controls myself!" He shoved the android out of the way and stepped into the control console.

* * *

Sally tore into Eagles' Nest, hot and out of breath. "Slasher," she panted up at the village, holding her side where a stitch had developed. She was in too much of a hurry to climb the ladder. "Slasher," she called again, but louder. She kept seeing those U-SWATs grab Spark and overpower him ... and yet, he had had the presence of mind to tell her to run. She had been frozen to the spot. If he had not said something, she would have stood there until she was captured, too.

The squirrel was startled to see Slasher dive to the ground and land not ten feet away. "What is it?" the raptor asked, folding her wings back.

Sally had to pant a few time to get enough air to speak. "Spark's been captured," she managed.

Slasher stared at her in horror. "How in the world did that happen?"

"I donno ... we got jumped from behind by U-SWATs and--" she paused for a breath "--Robo Knux! Totally by surprise. Slasher, we didn't take any weapons--I couldn't do anything!"

Slasher shook her head in disbelief. "I don't believe this. This can't be happening! Sally, stay here and look after Knuckles. I'm going to Mechatropolis." She turned and looked up at the village above, where a crowd had gathered on the walkway. "Tails! Grab your gun and come with me!"

"Tails? Why Tails?" Sally asked, still panting.

Slasher looked at her with one eye. "Tails is just as good as Sonic is in a fight."

Tails, overhead, heard this and felt his heart swell with pride. He was? Well, if Slasher said it, then he was.

He ran for his gun.

* * *

Sonic stepped out of the mine shaft and stood still, letting his eyes travel over his surroundings.

He had been to the big cave in Lava Reef once before. Afterward, he doubted it was as big as it had seemed. Had it really been the size of four baseball stadiums? But now, as he stood on the cavern floor, he decided that yes, it WAS as big as he remembered.

The floor was covered with rough black lava floes, some lumpy, some in ridges and razor sharp. Seven massive stone pillars jutted out of the floor in various places, flaring up to support the distant ceiling. The cool green, and occasionally blue, glowing crystals gave the cavern a vague, unearthly light. The air was rather warm, and smelled of hot rock and sulfur. It was at once awesome and frightening.

Sonic set out cautiously. Everything was so big and far away it seemed to be a painted backdrop. After having been in the close tunnels, where one could touch both walls and the ceiling with ease, the cave overwhelmed the senses.

The blue hedgehog topped a small rise and looked around. Searching for something recognizable, he noticed a great fissure in the floor a mile distant. It ran parallel to his course. Yes, he remembered that. Knuckles had rolled a huge boulder at he and Tails, and in fleeing it, had found themselves trapped between the rock and the crack. They had been forced to jump into the fissure, which, at the time, had been full of lava. Sonic recalled the willpower it had taken to pull out the super emeralds while falling and hurl them into the lava below. The gems had cooled the molten rock, saving his and Tails's lives ... Sonic wondered if the lava crust down in the chasm was still cool, or if more magma had broken through.

Lava pools. Knux had said they were at the far end of the cave. Yes, he could just make out the orange patches on the floor there.

Sonic set out to reach them.

* * *

The yellow beam inside the robotizer flickered on, bathing Spark in its sickly light. He stood still, hands clenched at his sides, eyes on Robo Knuckles and Packbell. This was it; he was going to die. Wasn't that what happened during robotization? Wasn't your brain rendered useless as the machinery took over?

Spark had seen the robotizer in action many times before. He knew how its victims screamed in agony and beat the glass as the beam overcame them. He knew how the metal adjusted its design slightly to fit each new body.

He vowed that no matter how bad it hurt, he would NOT shame himself by crying out.

Packbell walked up and stood at the floor of the robotizer's pedestal. He had not had time to debug the equipment. He had tried to tell Robo Knux that he had had to take apart the robotizer itself to insert the de-robotizer. There was no telling if they would work properly. It could be that Spark, the first subject, would not survive either.

The hedgehog was standing remarkably still, staring at Packbell with eyes that were cold as ice. The android returned his stare and folded his hands behind his back. The robotizer was scanning Spark's system and recording the best way to robotize him. Nothing serious was happening yet.

Suddenly Spark's head jerked back, as if someone had him by the hair. His eyes closed, as a spasm of pain crossed his face. Robotization was beginning. Showing remarkable control of his body and mind, Spark again stood erect, staring futilely at his enemy. Packbell kept watching. This hedgehog's nerve was unsurpassed by any he had ever seen.

The metal began at Spark's fingertips and toes and spread inward from there. The pain must be intense; his face contorted, and he bit his lower lip until the blood came. Still, he made not a sound. He kept his eyes averted from the freakish transformation his body was going through. His cyborg hand remained unaffected, but his good hand was now covered in silver steel. Slowly the plates began to creep from wrist to elbow, then from elbow to shoulder. His legs underwent the same change, the plating covering them.

About the time the plating reached his chest and shoulders, his brain became the next target. This was the part where most victims went absolutely berserk. Packbell watched, impressed, as Spark only tilted his head back and closed his eyes, teeth clenched. He would not--give over--he would resist--he would keep his freewill--

Two things happened as once. Robo Knux cried, "Malfunction!" and Spark hit the glass headfirst. Packbell looked from one to the other. The crimson robot was wrestling with the controls. Spark, now completely clad in metal but for his head, was slumped against the glass on his hands and knees, eyes closed. He did not move until the plating began to creep up his face. He lifted his head, looked directly at Packbell and let out the most horrible scream the android had ever heard. Even Robo Knuckles looked around, startled.

Spark collapsed to the floor of the robotizer and lay still as the metal finished its deadly takeover.

Robo Knux yelled, "Packbell, shut down the emergency breaker! Hurry! The system's going haywire!"

The android leaped across the room to another control panel, pulled open a small door and pressed the red button beneath it.

The lights in the room dimmed slightly. The yellow robotizer beam flickered off, and all the machine's operating lights went out. The glass tube lifted halfway, then stopped. Slowly the lights brightened again, and silence reigned for the space of three seconds.

"Packbell! What did you DO?!?" Robo Knux demanded furiously. "That was a serious error! Did you wire it upside down or something?"

Packbell glared at him. "I told you it may not work correctly! I didn't have time to test the system."

"So it's MY fault?"

"Yes it is. But didn't you want Spark dead?"

"He's not dead, you fool!" Robo Knux was enraged at Packbell for telling him it was his own fault. "He's alive somewhere in there!"

"What's his brain status?"

"There's no reading. The process didn't finish." The robot stepped out of the control booth and crossed the room to the robotizer. He took Spark by the arms and dragged him into the middle of the floor. The hedgehog gave no sign he was alive. His now-robot eyes were closed.

Packbell looked at the red robot slyly. "I'll bet Robotnik could fix him."

Robo Knux shot him an icy glance. "Shut up. Ivo's as good as dead, now. Besides, I'm not crawling to HIM for help." The robot swept his victim with his scanner. "He is alive, but only half the operating system downloaded into his brain. Until you can get that STUPID machine fixed, he is little more than dead."

"What of the de-robotizer? We could undo all this."

Robo Knux looked at Packbell sharply. "I thought you said it reversed the body, not the mind."

Packbell brushed his hair out of his eyes and looked smug. "I said that was an option. I never said it couldn't do more."

Robo Knux seemed about to reply, but was interrupted by a buzz somewhere close. All the lights blinked and went out. In the sudden darkness, one of the U-SWAT guards said, "Master, a red alert has been called. Terbium spread has reached the fortress."

Packbell looked at Robo Knux's glowing green eyes (which were all that was visible of him in the dark) and snickered, "And you blamed ME for the malfunction. It might have been neither of us."

Robo Knux leaped up and spoke into his all-robot intercom. "Squadrons five and eighteen, engage terbium defence strategy. All other squadrons, stand by for orders."

He directed his attention to the U-SWATs in the room. "You three, open that door. Break it down, if you have to, but get us out of here!"

Packbell nudged Spark's motionless form with the toe of his boot. "What about him?

The crimson robot gave his victim a scornful look. "Leave him. He is useless, anyway. Let's get going."

The SWAT-bots forced the automatic door open and they fled the premises. Spark was left alone, a crumpled metallic shape on the floor.

Chapter 15

Struggle and Survival

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Enslavement of the mind is a terrible thing. The brain is harnessed and degraded to the level of a computer. The new software tells the brain what to tell the body, such as how to react to a command. The soul of the person, who used to be in control, is forced out of the way by the robotizer. This is why victims would come unglued during this process. It was mental and spiritual agony, followed by a blank numbness that would last to the end of their lives.

But partial enslavement was worse.

Spark's mind was a reeling mass of colored light, shapes, sounds and feelings. His brain had part of the software telling it to do one thing, while his spirit told it to do another. He was stuck in a mental tug-of-war with pain as the cheering squad.

It could not last forever. One or the other had to win out. The software, not being complete, might eventually give way. But could his mind stand the stress for that long?

He knew the robotizer had opened. He knew when Robo Knux dragged him out. He knew when he was abandoned in the power-less fortress, the open door letting in light. But he could do nothing about it. He was trapped inside his mind and robot body, and unless something happened, would be for a long time.

He had been trying to call out for a while. To somehow get enough control of his body to call out into the fortress. Somebody had to hear and come to his aid. But try as he might, his agonized cries never made it past his lips. He merely heard his voice in his head.

A voice called his name. At first he thought it was out in the hallway somewhere. But as it called again and again, he realized it was somewhere outside--in the dimension of the subconscious. He was on the borderline between them, unable to cross into one or the other. He tried to answer, but his words made little sense.

In his confused brain, against the crazily reeling backdrop, a familiar, long-legged figure approached. As it drew nearer, his surroundings solidified and grew still. Now it seemed to Spark that he was standing in the middle of a long, dark tunnel. There was light at either end, but each end was a dreadfully long way off.

Nights stood before him, unsmiling. He looked deadly serious. "Spark," he said, lifting a hand in greeting.

"N-Nights," Spark managed. It was difficult to speak coherently. "Wh-at are y-ou do-ing-h-here?"

The gentle nightmaren placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't try to talk. I had said before that I would not aid you, because there were some left who could help you. But now there are none. It is my turn." He nodded to either end of the tunnel. "You may choose one or the other. To the right is the enslavement software. It will format new programs if you let it. It is the easy path, but leads to sorrow, pain and eventually death." Nights beckoned to the left. "That way is consciousness and free will. It will utterly wipe out the software. It is the difficult path. The way is rough and painful, but it leads to happiness and comfort, although I cannot promise these things right at first. Make your choice, and I will help you reach either destination."

Spark gazed to the right. The tunnel was wide and smooth that way, but somehow, all he could think of was how sad the worker bots looked under their enslavement. He sideyed Nights and noticed his crestfallen expression. Clearly he was not supposed to help him decide, but could not help showing his feelings about the choices.

Spark turned left and looked. The tunnel looked as if it narrowed to a sharp point, and was studded with sharp rocks. THAT was the way out?

He lifted his good hand (he was not robotized in his mind's eye) and pointed left. "That--way," he said haltingly. "Y-ou will h-help-- me?"

"Yes," Night said joyfully. "You chose the right way!" He did a short dance right there, then extended a hand to the hedgehog. "Come. I will help you along. I will go with you all the way to reality."

As soon as they began to move, the tunnel faded away and a huge mountain appeared before them, its crown hidden in the clouds. "It is nothing," Nights said reassuringly. "It is nothing but mist. No matter what you see, remember it is all a dream."

Spark couldn't help chuckling. "That's the--the f-irst t-time I've eve-r heard y-you bash N-Night-opia."

"This is not Nightopia," Nights said darkly. "Nightmaria is closer to this, but is still not quite the same."

As they touched the foot of the mountain, it melted away to be replaced by a huge chasm in the ground before them, so deep one could not see to the bottom. The two kept going. Spark was well aware that Nights could fly, and a drop like that was no big deal.

As soon as they set foot on the brink, it too faded away. This time darkness enveloped them. They could see one another, but their surroundings were black. Terrifying sounds came out of the dark, as if a million wild animals were about to attack. For the first time Spark was uneasy. Nights sensed this. "Do not fear," he encouraged. "It is all smoke and mirrors. If you retreat, all is lost."

They walked a few more paces and the sounds stopped. Somehow, Spark's head felt a little clearer. "Are we almost there?" he asked his friend, noticing speech was easier.

"Yeah," Nights replied, nodding and making the tails that hung from his head swing. "Only a couple more trials left. They will be worse, but short. Persevere, friend." The black background did not change and they continued to walk forward, hand in hand.

"Spark!"

It was a familiar voice, calling to them from behind.

"Do not turn," Nights whispered. "It's a trick."

Spark kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, trying to ignore whatever was behind them.

"Spark! Wait up, man!" It was Sonic's voice. Spark felt a chill. He had fallen for a trap with Sonic's voice as the bait before; he would not do so again. He kept moving, and so did Nights.

"Spark! Bro!"

Spark flinched and made a conscious effort not to look back. He glanced up at Nights. "Can you see what it is?"

Without shifting his gaze from directly forward, Night replied, "No. That would weaken you, and you, too, would look back."

There was a brief silence. Then Sonic's voice said, "All right, I'll come with you. Where are you going in such a hurry?" The voice was drawing nearer. "Yo! Spark, cat got your tongue?"

Spark clenched his teeth to keep from answering.

The voice was only a couple feet behind him. "C'mon, bro--"

Spark was terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder; a hand that was not Nights's. Without looking around, he grabbed the hand and flung it from his shoulder. "Leave me alone!" he shouted. "I'm not going to look at you!"

He looked to Nights for reassurance, who gave it to him with the good-natured sparkle in his eyes. He seemed to find the situation amusing, somehow. It made Spark feel a little more secure. If Nights could laugh this off, then so could he.

Whatever was behind was still there. "Fine," it snarled, Sonic's voice changing into another, raspier one. "You'll never make it to consciousness, anyway. You'll snap during the last trial." A rush of coldness hit them from behind, and a thing like Nights soared over their heads. It moved ahead and floated in mid-air, outlined against the blackness. It had the two head-tails, like Nights did, but these were striped with black and red. Its face was a stark white, eyes and mouth rimmed with black. The rest of its costume faintly resembled Nights's, but was an off-white color, bordered at the wrists and feet with red and black. Spark recognized it and shuddered. This was Reala, the evil Nightmaren; Nights's arch-rival. "Good luck, Sparky," he sneered, then turned and dove out of sight.

"He could not truly harm you," Nights murmured. "Oh, but he wanted to. I'll have my work cut out for me when I get back to Nightopia. Anyway, one trial remains. It is the trial of pain Reala spoke of. Your mind will erase the robotizer's commands, but not without a fight. If you do not make it through this one, you'll never have another chance."

Their eyes met.

"I can do it," Spark said firmly.

"Good," said Nights. "I will be here. Let's go."

* * *

Sonic, meanwhile, had no idea of his brother's struggle. He was having problems of his own.

The machine Knuckles had spoken of somewhat resembled a giant pinball machine. It was about ten feet tall and twenty feet long, set on a rock ledge between two bubbling pools of orange lava. Sonic could see that it was dangerously rusted from the damp heat.

He walked all the way around it cautiously. He found a tarnished brass panel on one side that gave basic instructions for operating it. It seemed to run off the heat energy a cup of lava produced, and somehow used the elements in the molten rock to create the needed crystals. One problem. How to get that much lava into the machine's intake slot?

Sonic searched all over for tools of some kind, but there were none within view. He retreated out of the layer of dense heat around the lava to think. There had to be some way to get lava from the pool to the machine without risking serious damage to his person.

After ten minutes of feeling rather stupid, it dawned on him to use his emerald belt. He quickly activated it. Now glowing and invincible, he approached the nearest pool. He hesitated at the edge. What if he burned his hands off scooping up a handful? "Well," he muttered aloud, "at least it won't hurt."

Slowly he crouched and extended one hand toward the lava's surface. Funny, he could feel no heat. Suddenly bold, he tapped the lava and pulled his hand back. No, he was not burned in the least.

Hyper Sonic cupped his hands and dipped them into the lava. It was like picking up a handful of mud--glowing mud--it was soft, slimy and dripped from his hands. He hastily stood up and moved around to the machine's insert. Carful not to touch the metal framework, he dumped in the lava. It was not enough, so he went back for more. By the time he finished, the dipping lava had formed a trail of burning red splotches on the floor.

Sonic wiped off as much of the molten mud from his hands as he could, then blew on them. He must decharge to activate the machine, and he didn't want his hands bursting into flames as soon as he did.

As soon as his gloves quit steaming, he deactivated his belt. As his glow faded into cool blue, he noticed that his hands felt a little strange. They worked well enough and didn't hurt, so he decided to ignore it. He stepped around to the side of the machine to reach the 'on' lever, but checked himself. What was he to carry the Green Crystals in? Hadn't Knuckles said something about a lead box? Sonic looked around. There it was--in the shadows by the wall. He picked it up, shocked at the weight--it was only the size of a shoebox. He carefully positioned it beneath the output slot, then pulled the 'on' lever.

The big machine fired up with a whine and a creaking of rusty gears. Sonic watched closely as the lava he had poured in slowly drained through the intake slot and into the machine. It began to hum and vibrate slightly. Sonic stepped around and looked at the front, where the crystals would appear. After a minute, a faint green light illuminated the square opening, and a small Green Crystal, about the size and thickness of a pencil, rolled out and fell into the box.

One by one, four more crystals dropped out. Then the machine shut off, lava depleted. Sonic sprang forward and snapped the box's lid shut, as if trapping a lion. "There," he said, picking it up. "Now I can get out of here."

He only made it as far as the terbium roots in the tunnel, however. As he fought his way back through them (they seemed to have re-grown during his absence), his feet became entwined in them. He fell over sideways, dropping the box. The lid flew open, and the precious Green Crystals spilled out and shattered.

Sonic kicked his way free, feeling the urge to swear. He didn't dare touch those crystals, and would have to go back and make more. Valuable time was being wasted. For all he knew, Knuckles could be dead and the Great Forest destroyed.

Grudgingly he picked up the heavy box and trudged back down the shaft. He didn't noticed that the broken crystals had melded themselves into the terbium roots, or that the blue slime in the severed ends was now green.

Contrary to Knuckles's command, he had accidentally released the terbium antidote onto the Floating Island.

* * *

The pain was intense. Spark was tormented in every cell of his body as his mind fought the robotizer's commands. His surroundings--his brain--was again a mad whirl of fractint-like colors and lights, reflecting his struggle.

Nights helped him keep moving forward, speaking soothing words. If he had not been there, Spark would not have been able to cope. His presence was a great comfort.

The nightmare went on for what seemed like ages. Spark could tell when each program had been erased; that much pain faded from his head. As each moment of agony passed, he became aware of a single light ... far away, in front of them. The end of the tunnel. Each step toward it was difficult, as if he were trudging through knee-deep mud. Nights could see it, as well. "Courage, friend!" he cried. "We are almost to consciousness! The trial is nearly over!"

Slowly the light grew in brilliance, and the pain lessened. Suddenly he found himself running, Nights at his side. The white light engulfed him, and then--

Spark came to. He was curled up on the floor. His body was cold and stiff, as if he had been there for a long time. Slowly he pushed himself to a sitting position. His head was throbbing faintly, but otherwise he was in good shape. He lifted his good hand to touch his forehead--and froze, staring it it. His hand was clad in metal. He lifted his cyborg hand. It had remained unaffected, but his other hand--arm, too--was covered in silver metal.

"You are a robot now."

With a start Spark looked up. Nights stood there beside him, as real and solid as the half-open robotizer a few feet away. Spark's mouth dropped open. "Nights! How--" Abruptly he stopped. What came out of his mouth was an electronic synthesizer of his real voice.

Nights touched his shoulder comfortingly. "A shock, yes? But you have your free will."

Spark climbed to his feet, shuddering at the faint metallic clanking his limbs made. "Nights," he began, vaguely startled at his strange voice, "what are you doing in reality? I thought you were confined to dreams!"

Nights looked around at his surroundings. Indeed, his bright colors and strange build was out of place against the power-less fortress. "This was a special occasion. I cannot stay long, you know. I was merely allowed to escort you all the way to consciousness."

The nightmaren was interrupted by a voice saying over the loudspeakers, "Red alert advanced to level three. Terbium spread detected in sector fifteen, seventy-five, thirty-three and eight. Reinforcements needed."

Spark shook his head dazedly. "What's going on? What terbium spread, and alert level three?"

"I believe," Nights said, fingering one of his head tails thoughtfully, "that the terbium has grown from its confines and is dangerously near this fortress. All the SWAT-bots must be defending it."

Spark looked at him oddly. "How do you know that?"

Nights smiled. "Good guess." Suddenly he looked toward the door, as if he had heard something. "It's time for me to return to Nightopia, Spark," he said. He placed both hands on the robotized hedgehog's shoulders and gazed into his eyes. "Help for you is on the way. You have a few things to do before your body is returned to normal. But you have my solemn promise that you WILL be de-robotized."

Spark nodded. "I hope so. Goodbye!" he added.

Nights stepped back and faded into nothing.

Spark looked down at himself. Robotized, just like his uncle. With a strange sense of foreboding in his chest, he set out to find the help Nights had spoken of.

Chapter 16

Terbium uses; good and bad

_____________________________________________________________________

"Sally, where's Slasher?" Serena asked, leaning against the doorjamb of Sally's tree hut.

Sally was lying on her bed, trying to rest after her long run back through the woods. She lifted her head. "She took Tails and went to Mechatropolis to rescue Spark. Why?" She immediately realized she should not have said it that way.

Serena snapped erect. "WHAT?? She went to do that and didn't take ME? Unfair, unfair! Bye, Sal."

Sally jumped up. "No, 'Rena, wait!"

But the hedgehog was already gone.

* * *

Slasher was crouched on the roof of the fortress, peering over the edge at the street below. The curve of her neck, position of her body and constant swaying of her tail showed she was ready for trouble. Tails was crouched low over her back, feet worked down beneath the folded wings, blaster pistol at the ready. He, too, was looking down.

The west side of the fortress was barricaded and guarded heavily. The reason for this was the blossom tree not twenty yards away, industriously puffing away. Every time a terbium pod emerged from the pavement on the side nearest the fortress, the robots would pounce on it and blow it to pieces. Though this may have worked for a while, two hours had passed and the SWAT-bots were beginning to show the strain. They did not respond as quickly to the appearance of pod. Several of the robots had been destroyed by the exploding pods and littered the area in pieces.

This was the reason reinforcements had been called for.

"Let's not disturb them," Slasher murmured to Tails. "They might buy us some time, and they're gonna get wiped out eventually, anyhow."

"What if the terbium gets to the fortress?" Tails asked worriedly.

Slasher shrugged her wings. "It'll tear it down, like it's done to everything else. Let's get in there and find Spark." She whirled and glided back across the roof. With all the SWAT-bots occupied, entrance would be easy.

* * *

Sonic again closed the lead box and tucked it under his arm. He was hyper this time, and taking no chances. He would not drop those crystals again!

He turned his back on the machine and took off across the big cave. Now to get back to Knothole.

* * *

Spark wandered down one of the deserted hallways, bewildered. His body and mind were in shock from the sudden robotization and ensuing struggle. He knew the fortress was empty. He knew he must somehow get out, and that something serious was going on, but couldn't seem to remember where the exit was. The power was still off. The hallways and rooms were dark, the only light coming from the occasional window. None of the computers were operating. Spark wondered vaguely if that meant the mainframe was down again.

A thought came to him. What had happened to the black stone in his headband? He lifted his robotized hand to his forehead, but the metal had dulled his sense of touch. He lifted his cyborg hand, which was more sensitive. Yes, the stone was there--sunk into the metal. His headband had been covered by the metal, but the stone had been preserved. He touched his face reflectively. He must look absolutely hideous.

His robot ears caught the sound of footsteps, far off, down the hall. Suddenly afraid, he shrank to the side and pressed himself into a dark doorway. What if it were Robo Knux? Should he act enslaved?

Voices.

"Do you think he's in here?"

"He has to be. They wouldn't put him in any of the cell blocks for fear he'd escape."

He recognized the second voice. Slasher! As he looked down the hall, he saw the big raptor padding forward, head turning from right to left as she looked into each room. Tails was sitting on her back, looking very nervous. Spark wondered if he would get blasted for showing himself.

"Slasher?" he called uncertainly.

She stopped immediately, head going up. Tails fumbled with his gun, trying to get it aimed in the right direction. "Who's there?" the raptor called.

"They don't recognize my voice," Spark thought, feeling awful. "It's me, Spark," he called again, without moving into the light.

Slasher's nostrils flared. "Spark? I can't smell you."

Spark looked down at his metal body witheringly. "You can't. I'm-- I've been robotized."

Slasher broke into a long lope and covered the remaining distance between them in record time. She jogged to a stop just in front of him. Spark looked at her and stepped into the light. He felt like he might as well be standing under a floodlight, so ashamed was he of his metal body.

Tails stared at him in horror, then covered his eyes. Somehow, that hurt the hedgehog more than if he had been shot in the head. He looked down and turned away. "Well, if I look that bad ..." he muttered under his breath.

"Oh Spark," Slasher said, sinking down to his level. "I'm so sorry ..."

Spark lifted his head and looked at her. "You'll never know what I've been through, Slash. I still don't feel very well ..."

Wordlessly the raptor embraced him. After a second he returned the hug, knowing he must be like hugging a tin can. But somehow, it was comforting to know that Slasher was not afraid to touch him.

She released him and sat back on her haunches. "Spark, I can carry you if you need me to."

He shook his head. "No, I can walk."

"Okay." She stood up and glanced back at Tails, who was still staring at Spark. She looked back at the hedgehog. "Don't mind him. He's already freaked out because of the terbium. It's almost here, you know. We'd better get moving."

Spark nodded. "I knew something was wrong. Lead the way."

* * *

Serena was sneaking into Mechatropolis on her own, her short-range blaster hanging at her hip. "I'm just as good as Sonic or Tails," she muttered to herself. "Why didn't Slasher bring me? Because I'm just a giirrlll ..."

She didn't consider the fact that there might be things going on that Slasher didn't want her to see.

The main gates were deserted, the violet hedgehog noticed. So were the streets. What had happened to all the SWAT-bots? Maybe it was a trap of some kind. Serena ducked in and out of hiding, just in case.

It was a shock to round a bend and come upon fifty SWAT-bots and that many U-SWATs. They were all standing around, waiting.

Serena gasped in terror and ducked back around a building. They had all seen her, she was sure. The chase would begin in a minute--

But no robots pursued her. After an age of waiting, she cautiously peered around the corner. The robots were still there. Several turned their heads and looked at her, but none gave the usual alert. What were they doing?

Tremulously she asked the question she had heard Knuckles ask once: "Battle report?"

Instantly one of the U-SWATs replied, "Battle report. Awaiting orders. Terbium spread detected in this sector. No battle plan issued as current."

All the SWAT-bots had been gathered to battle the terbium.

Serena turned and fled from them, wondering. The threat of the terbium must be much too great to worry about the Freedom Fighters. To have every single robot on guard against it ...!

She saw no robots until she neared the fortress. Her approach was from the north, so she saw right off that the terbium had advanced deep into the city. Everything to the right was flattened, blossom trees and terbium pods everywhere. The squadron of SWAT-bots were still in their defence position, but their number was only half of what it had been. The ground was strewn with robot parts. The battle was heavily against them.

She turned left and began to circle the fortress's eastern side. It was only a matter of time, she knew, until the terbium overcame the SWAT-bots and destroyed the fortress.

As she crept down the side of the big building, a sound caught her ears. Two voices talking and coming toward her. She ducked down an alley and crouched behind a stack of old boards. There were gaps between them, letting her see through. She watched through these cracks and saw something it may have been better she had not.

Robo Knuckles and Packbell came into view and stopped at the mouth of the alley. Packbell was speaking. "... hold it off for long. We must evacuate."

Robo Knuckles glared at him. "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate its chances."

"No," Packbell returned, "you overestimate OUR chances. We only have so many SWAT-bots, and--"

"Yes," the crimson robot cut him off. "We will go to the secret base."

Packbell looked alarmed. "No! Not there! We'll go to Haven base number one-oh-three. It's safest, and--"

Robo Knux's eyes burned. "You do not think I am blind enough not to see your plan?"

Packbell looked nervous. "Plan? What plan?"

"Admit it. You sent Robotnik and Metal Sonic to your secret base in the mountains. Not to kill them, but to save them!"

Serena caught her breath.

"You have seen to it that they were protected and taken care of. You think I don't know? You think I never knew of your treachery?" Robo Knux's voice was hard and sharp. "Let me tell you this, Packbell. A traitor does not live long after his deed is done."

Packbell had nothing to say. Robo Knux had found him out. Suddenly the robot's last statement seemed to register. He held up both hands and stepped back fearfully. "Sir, let me explain! I--"

"Hold your tongue," Robo Knux snapped. He opened a panel on his lower arm. "I'm sick of your lies, and I never intend to hear them again!"

He pulled out a long red thing. At first Serena thought it was a knife, but then recognized it as one of the terbium crystals. It was about a foot long. Packbell recognized it, too. "No, please--" he began, but it was too late for words.

Robo Knux clasped the base of the crystal in both hands, leaped forward with incredible speed and plunged the sharp tip into the android's chest. The force of the blow drove it all the way through Packbell's body, so the tip protruded between his shoulderblades.

The victim made a strangled sound, tried to swing at the robot, clutched at his chest, then fell on his face at Robo Knux's feet. The robot bent toward him a little and said, "Mercy is for the weak. I show no mercy." Then he whirled and strode away, leaving Packbell with a terbium crystal through his heart.

Serena was sick, there in the alley.

* * *

Several of the villagers in Eagles' Nest were startled to see Sonic fade into sight in their midst, glowing brilliantly, a small grey box under one arm. As soon as teleportation was completed, he looked around and grabbed a rabbit's arm. "Is Knuckles the echidna still alive?"

The rabbit nodded. "Uh yeah, I think so."

"Great!" Sonic turned away and bounded toward Sally's hut.

He checked himself just outside and knocked. "Who is it?" came Sally's tired voice.

"Sonic," the hedgehog said.

"Sonic!" she exclaimed, weariness vanishing. "Come in!"

He opened the door and stepped in. She was lying on her bed with Nichole in front of her. She sat up. "Did you get the cure or whatever?"

He nodded and set the lead box down on the table. "Yeah. How's Knux?"

"Well ..." Sally looked down. "He'd have to get better to die."

Sonic winced. "Not good. He's been going down fast?"

"Yes ... especially over the last few hours."

Sonic undid the clasp on the lead box, but hesitated before opening it. "These are radioactive crystals, Sal. Do you think I should take one directly to him?"

Sally gazed at the box a thought a moment. "How do they work?"

"He said they bond with whatever they come into contact with. Then they adapt and seek out more of the same stuff."

"Hmm," Sally muttered. "Better not just take one to him. It would attack him instead of the terbium, then get the rest of us." An idea came to her, and she looked up at the glowing hedgehog. "I know. Have it bond with some terbium, then take THAT to him."

"That would work," Sonic said, nodding. "I'd better ask Slasher, first--"

He started to turn, but Sally caught his arm. "Slash went to Robotropolis. Spark was captured."

Sonic stared at her. "WHAT??"

"Him and me went out to get terbium samples, and we were ambushed. They only wanted him ..."

Sonic stood still, trying to think. Did he go after his brother, or help his ailing friend first? Well, Slasher had already gone ... he probably had a little time. But Robo Knux was in charge of the city ...

"Knux first," he said, shaking his head to clear it. "Slasher'll pry be okay for a few minutes." He swallowed, hoping it had been the right decision. "Ya got any terbium handy?"

Reluctantly Sally reached under her bead and pulled out the red crystal Spark had taken. It was still in the plastic box. Sonic held it up and looked through the translucent side. "That's not very much," he said. "I'll use half a Green Crystal. That should be enough. I need a hammer and tongs, Sal." Sally hunted around and found some for him.

Sonic gestured for her to stand back, then opened the lead box. Green light poured out, as if the box were full of christmas lights. He carefully reached in with the tongs and clamped down on one of the crystals. He tapped it with the hammer. It broke easily, as if very brittle. Sonic picked up one of the pieces in the tongs, closed the box, then said, "Sal, open the box with the terbium. I can't do it with one hand. Sure glad I'm invincible ..."

The squirrel opened the plastic box, set it on the floor and backed away. In one smooth motion, Sonic stepped over and dropped the Green Crystal in on top of the red one. He threw down the tongs and snapped the lid on, then stood back with Sally and waited.

At first nothing happened. The green fragment lay on top of the thick, bigger crystal, glowing a little. Then its glow seemed to dim and go out, and it began to melt like an ice cube in the sun. It shrank slowly until it was a little green puddle on the terbium's smooth surface. Then it began to soak into the larger crystal. The terbium slowly changed colors from red to yellow, and a thin glowing spark appeared inside it.

"Neutralized terbium," Sonic announced, lifting the box in his glowing hands and taking a closer look at its contents. "I'll bet we could touch it now."

"Well, I'M not," Sally said. "Better take it over to Knuckles. He needs something done right away."

Sonic nodded, pried the lid off and lifted the yellow crystal. "See ya, Sal."

And he was gone.

Chapter 17

The Death of Mechatropolis

__________________________________________________________________

Slasher swung the fortress door open, peered around cautiously, then stepped out. "All's clear, Spark."

The robotized hedgehog followed her, looking as if he expected the sky to fall on him. "I'll never get used to this," he muttered in his electronic voice. "I guess enslavement is kind of a mercy. They don't know they're miserable."

"Where ARE the worker bots, anyway?" Tails asked Slasher. "I haven't seen any since we got here."

"They were evacuated," Slasher replied, scanning up and down a street before crossing. "They were too much in the way."

"Where are they now?"

"I donno. We'd need an area scanner to locate them ... hopefully before the terbium gets to them."

Spark shivered. To have the life drained out of you while encased in this metal shell ...

* * *

Sonic stepped into the hospital hut, eyes seeking out his sick friend. If anything, Knuckles looked worse. His face was as white as the pillow beneath his head. His eyes were closed. Even with the respirator, his breathing rattled and wheezed in his chest. He was slowly being worn down by the struggle to breathe.

Sonic knelt by his friend's bedside and carefully placed the yellow crystal on Knuckles's chest. Now he could only hope that the mixed elements would penetrate the echidna's lungs and kill the terbium ... He took Knux's big hand and held it in both of his, eyes on his friend's face.

For a long time nothing happened. Knuckles continued to lie there, apparently asleep. The respirator kept his lungs going, but even then, every new intake was a triumph. The yellow crystal glowed faintly, unchanging. The minutes ticked by. Sonic's hopes began to fall and doubts crept in. What if the neutralized terbium did nothing and he had wasted half a Green Crystal? What if Knuckles never recovered? What if he ...

Sonic rested his head on the edge of the bed, eyes on the floor and ears on his friend's breathing, warming the cold hand between his warm ones. Suddenly, Knuckles's hand gave his a squeeze. Startled, Sonic looked up. Knux's eyes were open, looking at him.

"Hey," he said weakly, then paused for a breath.

Sonic felt himself grin foolishly. "Hey, Knux."

"What's this," Knuckles whispered, "crystal healing? That ... that doesn't really work."

"It's neutralized terbium," Sonic said, clasping his hand. "That's what it looks like when the Green Crystal gets it."

Knux dropped his eyes to the thing on his chest. "You--did-- the right thing," he said, and coughed. "Plain greens--would kill me."

"That's what we thought."

"It's working."

"You can tell?"

"Yeah. I'm awake ... ain't I? They didn't think ... I'd ever wake up ... up again."

Sonic shuddered, thinking of the time he had come close to doing that very thing himself.

"It's breaking up," Knuckles murmured. "I can feel it. It's easier to breathe."

"Good!" Sonic said, a triumphant warmth spreading through him. "Keep that there until you're better. Look, I gotta go."

"What's the rush?" Knuckles asked plaintively. "It's lonesome in here. Everybody's busy."

Sonic glanced toward the door impatiently, then back again. "Spark got captured, Knux. Slash went to go get him."

"Worrywart," Knuckles mumbled, sensing Sonic's fever to get away. "Go on, then. They might need your help. And Sonic--"

The hedgehog paused, one hand on the doorknob.

"Thanks."

"No prob, Knux. Take it easy and I'll be back soon."

Knuckles closed his eyes as Sonic rocketed from the room. "And be careful, you creep," he murmured, although Sonic could no longer hear him.

* * *

Getting out of the dead and dying city was easy with no SWAT-bots around. Spark found the exercise helped him adjust to his robot limbs-- he got his blood flowing and figured out how to balance. Unfortunately, his ability to shoot sparks from his hands had been cut off by the metal.

As they began to cross the plains to get back to the forest, a brightly glowing Sonic flashed out to meet them.

He screeched to a shocked halt as he caught sight of Spark. "Bro!" he exclaimed, horror written across his face. "Oh my gosh, what happened?"

"Robotized," Spark said obviously, studying the ground. Sonic just gaped at him.

"Sonic, please," Slasher said. "He's miserable enough already."

After a moment the glowing hedgehog tore his eyes away from his brother. He glanced up at Slasher and Tails, then looked around. "Where's 'Rena?"

"Serena?" Slasher said, startled. "She's still in Knothole."

"No she ain't," Sonic said, beginning to look worried. "Sal said she went chasing after your guys ... I take it she didn't catch you."

All three of them glanced back at the silent city.

Sonic stepped forward. "Take them back, Slash. I'll find her."

The big raptor hesitated indecisively, looked at Spark and Tails, then sighed. "Okay. C'mon, Spark. Sonic, I'll be back as soon as I drop them off."

He gave her a thumbs-up, and they took off in opposite directions.

* * *

Serena had fled the scene of Packbell's murder. She was presently wandering the streets in a state of shock, searching for Slasher, unaware she was already gone.

Something like claustrophobia tore at her. She was afraid of the dead, silent city. All the robots were grouped together to kill themselves fighting the terbium. All the worker bots were gone. A cold wind blew through, touching her face and arms. She drew herself together and shivered. Where were the others? Perhaps she should simply go home.

As she turned to retrace her steps, the vision of Packbell lying on the silent street flashed before her. As long as she lived she would never forget it. Terbium could kill in more ways than one ...

"Serena!"

She jumped, spun around and shrieked at the same time. "WHAT!?!"

It was only Sonic. He had decharged himself and was his cool blue. He was panting slightly from his rooftop-search.

She wilted and gasped for breath. "Don't DO that!" she said. "I almost had a heart attack!"

Sonic took her by the hand. "Sorry. We need to get outta here. You can't believe how fast the terbium's spreading."

She pulled away and looked him straight in the eyes. "Sonic, Packbell's dead."

That got his attention. He stared at her. "What did you say?"

"Robo Knux killed him. Stabbed him with a terbium crystal." Again the terrible vision passed before her eyes. She felt the blood drain from her face. "I saw it," she finished.

Sonic looked at her with pity in his eyes. "You shouldn't have seen that, of all things," he murmured. "C'mon. We've gotta get outta here."

The two broke into a quick jog. "They got Spark out," Sonic told his sister, "but he's been robotized."

Serena flinched and looked at him. "Enslaved?"

"No, his mind's okay, somehow. But he doesn't feel too good."

"I don't blame him."

They cut through a couple alleys to reach one of the main streets. It, too, was deserted. A couple hoverbikes lay on their sides where their drivers had abandoned them. Sonic and Serena lifted one back upright and tried to start it, but its electrical system was jammed. None of the bikes worked. It seemed the only mode of transportation was by foot.

Not all robots were gone, however.

As they rounded a bend and the fortress came into view, Robo Knuckles crossed the street in front of them. He noticed them, stopped and stood his ground. The two hedgehogs stopped twenty feet away.

The crimson robot lifted a hand. "Greetings."

Serena couldn't look at him--not after what she had just seen him do. She kept her eyes on the ground.

Sonic saw this and moved in front of her. "I hear Packbell is down," he said to the robot.

Robo Knux nodded slightly. "News travels fast. Yes, I eliminated him. He was a turncoat." The indifference with which he spoke chilled them.

Sonic noticed a small black thing in the robot's hand. He pointed at it. "What have you got? A blaster?"

The robot glanced down, then lifted the thing for Sonic to see. It was a little black box with red buttons on one side. "This is a thermal explosive. I am going to destroy the fortress with it."

"Why?" Sonic asked quizzically, even as Serena squeezed his hand. She wanted to leave.

The robot dropped his hand to his side. "I have my reasons. Let's just say I have hated that structure since the day I first set foot in it. Besides, the rubble may prevent the terbium from advancing further. Now, if you'll excuse me ..." He turned on his heel and walked away.

The hedgehogs began to run again. Serena was trembling. "You can't tell what he's going to do," she quavered softly. "At least with Metal Sonic you have some idea. But Robo Knux is a thousand times worse!"

"Too bad Mecha's dead, too," Sonic muttered. "He was the only one smart enough to compete with him."

"But Mecha's not dead," Serena said, "and neither is Robotnik. Packbell shipped them off and let them go. That's why R.K. killed him."

Sonic stared at her. "Oh great. That means that nobody worth killing is dead."

A shadow passed over them. They looked up in time to see Slasher land on a rooftop a block down. A gleaming robot sat on her back.

As Sonic waved to them, Serena shaded her eyes and said, "That's not Spark, is it?"

"Sad to say, yes," Sonic replied. "Don't stare at him. It hurts his feelings."

Slasher walked along the roofs until she was even with the hedgehogs, then jumped down into the street. She staggered a little as she landed, for Spark's weight had increased with the added metal.

She recovered her balance and walked up to them. Her eyes were stern. "Serena, you shouldn't be here. It's too dangerous! The terbium has already reached the fortress and is heading this way."

"Yeah," Spark added in his robot voice. "Fast, too. I brought the Green Crystals, Sonic." He lifted the grey box in his hands for emphasis.

Sonic elbowed his gawking sister. "Good. Why don't we just fly over and drop 'em in the terbium fields?"

"That should work," Slasher approved. "Get on, you two."

Sonic and Serena scrambled aboard the big raptor and seated themselves behind Spark. Serena could not help but stare. She had had nightmares about Sonic looking like that ...

Slasher settled into her swinging stride--she needed a longer street to take off in. As they went along, Sonic told of Packbell's demise and of the reason for it. "Now know what Robo Knux is gonna do?" he concluded. "He's gonna blow up the fortress. I think he's crazy."

Spark jerked around and stared back at him. "He's WHAT?"

"Gonna blow up the fortress," Sonic repeated. "Why?"

"Slash, stop!" Spark said. She did and he slid off. "That's where the de-robotizer is!" he said frantically, shoving the lead box at Sonic. "Not to mention all the documentation. Packbell was the one who invented the de-robotizer. Now that he's dead, all we have left is the work he did. Slasher, Sonic--I can't stay like this! You know what it does! I HAVE to get that stuff!"

He whirled and tore toward the fortress, feet clanking on the pavement.

* * *

Robo Knuckles stood in the center room of the fortress. It was a floor above the robotizer--in fact, the very spot he was standing was just over the machine in the room below. He had taped the explosive to the floor and set the timer for ten minutes. It would take him at least that long to get to safety.

He stepped back and surveyed his work. Perfect. The robotizer, de-robotizer and all the computers would be wiped out. If he could not profit from taking the city, then he would make sure that neither would the Freedom Fighters. He pressed the 'activate' button. The timer flashed, "10:00. 9:59, 9:58 ..."

"There," he chuckled, leaving the room. "My abandoning this dying city will do no harm now. Let the Freedom Fighters have it. I will return."

He stepped out the door of the fortress and vanished from this story.

* * *

The robot Spark flung open the back door and ran into the fortress. All the power was still out, so he took the stairs. He had to get to the robotizer room.

* * *

Slasher, Sonic and Serena were hot on Spark's heels. Slasher, however, stopped before they could reach the door Spark had entered by. "Look!" she cried. Sonic and Serena did, and gasped.

All the SWAT-bots had fallen before the terbium. The pods had advanced, unchecked, all the way to the walls of the fortress. Several had actually come up under the wall, splitting the stone. Cracks zig-zagged all the way to the roof.

"Sonic, get ready with the box," Slasher commanded. "Drop one crystal into the terbium, and one crystal only. Those things are too precious to waste."

She spread her wings and leaped into the air. Sonic and Serena hung on until she had leveled out, then Sonic unsnapped the lead box's catch.

* * *

Spark skidded into the robotizer room. It was dark; the only light came from the open door. The robotizer loomed up in the twilight like some monstrous cocoon, just the way he had left it.

He had no time to be nervous. He had no idea where the bomb was or how long he had before it went off, so he had to work fast.

He began to jerk open cabinets and drawers, searching for notes and documentation.

Only a few feet above his head, the timer ticked away. 7:47, 7:46, 7:45 ...

* * *

Sonic shook the crystals around in the box until he had one halfway out. He clamped the lid down on it to hold it there. It was amazing what you could to to an object without touching it, he thought.

Serena wrapped her arms around Sonic's waist and looked over his shoulder at the box. "I'll hold you on while you drop it," she said in his ear.

He nodded to her, then called, "Get low, Slash. I want to be sure it lands right in a pod."

The big raptor banked to the right and began to circle downward. The ground below was almost solid with red-brown pods and scarlet crystals. The occasional blossom tree poked up here and there for good measure. Sonic noticed that there were no above-ground tendrils yet. The ground must still have enough room for root growth.

"Okay," Slasher called. "I'm gonna level out and fly ten feet above the stuff. Drop it as soon as you can. We'll only be able to fly by a couple times ... you know how it drains energy." Her voice became grim. All three of their lives were at risk. "Get ready--here we go!"

Slasher dropped a little and began to fly slowly above the terbium. Sonic leaned over her wing and looked down. Serena leaned the other way to counter-balance him. Sonic clenched his teeth. It would be like trying to drop a clothes-pin in a bottle while driving by it.

Pod after pod went by, of all different shapes and sizes. Sonic nearly dropped the crystal twice, but stopped himself each time. He wanted to be sure ...

"Hurry up!" Slasher called to him. "It's getting to me!"

Sonic jumped, looked at her, down at the terbium, and let the crystal fall.

* * *

Spark's probing metal hands pulled a thick booklet from a drawer. This drawer had been locked, and he had kicked and clawed at it until it opened. He thumbed through the book. Blueprints for the robotizer. Might as well take them--maybe they could give a hint as to how to build a de-robotizer. He flipped open a compartment on his shoulder, rolled the manual up, jammed it in and clapped the compartment shut. Then he continued to paw through the drawer. He was getting antsy. He needed to get away, and very soon.

3:34, 3:33, 3:32 ...

* * *

Slasher pulled up and beat her way into the sky. Sonic and Serena sat up again and hung on. "Did I make it?" Sonic asked, glancing back at his sister.

She nodded eagerly. "Uh-huh. It fell right into the middle of one."

"Good," Slasher panted. "Man, that was hard. Look back--we left a trail."

The hedgehogs looked. The crystals were bright orange along the path they had taken. The pods they had passed over had sucked at Slasher's energy.

"Well, that's me all over," the raptor commented drily. "We'd better get Spark out before this whole place blows."

* * *

Spark leaped to his feet. Long enough. He had found nothing else that was worth keeping, and saving his skin was foremost on his mind.

As he turned to leave, his eyes fell upon a small notebook lying on the floor beside the door. Funny, he hadn't seen it there before. On impulse he snatched it up. No time to look at it--he needed to get out of there. He stuffed it into a compartment in his chest, then pelted down the dim, silent hallway.

2:01, 2:00, 1:59 ...

* * *

Slasher landed in a street several blocks away from the fortress. "Sonic, 'Rena," she said as they dismounted, "get out of here. I'm going back to get Spark."

"But you're tired from the terbium!" Sonic protested. "Let me go. I can run faster, and I've got my belt."

"You'd have to go hyper, and he's a robot, Sonic. You'd fry him trying to help him. I'm gonna go. Now clear out! I'll meet you at the edge of the forest."

The big raptor wheeled and ran as only she could. Sonic and Serena looked at each other, shrugged and headed out of the city.

* * *

Spark reached the door and tried to open it. It didn't budge. He turned the knob and pushed again. It seemed to be barricaded shut. Beginning to panic, he flung himself against it. The door shuddered under his metallic blow, but did not open. Spark kept hitting it.

* * *

Slasher rounded the corner of the fortress and made for the door Spark was struggling with. Horrified, she stopped; a terbium pod had sprouted just outside it, holding the door closed. Even as she saw this, she heard Spark struggling to get out.

The raptor's green eyes narrowed. That pod would have to go, deadly or not, and it had to go now.

She attacked silently, slashing and kicking with her powerful hindlegs. If it had been another animal she would have bitten, too, but the last thing she wanted was terbium in her mouth.

Chunks of the red-brown flesh fell to the ground, cut by her long toe-claws, and the blue blood oozed out. It splattered on her arms, legs and wings, burning like fire. She didn't care. After a moment she shouted, "Spark! Can you hear me?"

* * *

Spark heard her and paused in his assault. "Slasher?" he called, his robotic voice echoing down the hall. He could hear dull blows being delivered. "What's going on?"

"A pod sprouted outside the door," came the muffled reply. "Hang on--I'll have it ripped up in a second."

Spark waited breathlessly, each moment expecting to hear the explosion.

"Open the door!" came Slasher's roar.

He hurled himself at it. This time it opened about eighteen inches. He squeezed himself out and saw Slasher holding the blue, bloody side of the pod away from the door, feet braced. As he jumped out of the way, she let it fall back into place, slamming the door shut again. Her limbs were covered with the blue slime. Reeling, as if drunk, she said, "C'mon, Spark. Let's get out of here."

They turned to run.

* * *

:03, :02, :01 ...

* * *

The raptor and robot hedgehog fled away from the fortress, terror adding wings to their feet. If Slasher had had the time to fly she would have, but there was not enough time or space for her to gain altitude quickly.

Spark had never realized what an impediment robotization could be. The metal armor that clothed his body weighed a ton. He could hardly move, let alone run. Slasher's death-grip on his arm was the only thing that kept him going. She was nearly towing him along.

They heard the explosion before they saw it. Slasher tightened her grip on Spark's arm. "Run like you never have before!" she shouted. "And DON'T LOOK BACK!!!"

The concussion blew out all the windows. For an instant the fortress appeared lit from within; golden light shining from every aperture. Then flames and debris shot through the doors and windows. Unidentifiable objects tore through the roof and went crashing down into the surrounding city.

Burning things began to pelt down around Spark and Slasher. To the hedgehog's surprise, the raptor opened one of her broad wings and held it over him like an umbrella. "Keep going!" she yelled without looking at him. "We're almost out of--"

Crash.

Something big, dark and heavy came down on top of Spark. He was knocked spinning, Slasher's hold on his arm broken. The ground whirled, tilted up and struck him in the face.

Darkness overtook his senses.

Chapter 18

Epilogue

______________________________________________________________________

Sonic and Serena watched the fiery explosion in the heart of Mechatropolis from the safety of the forest's rim. The fortress seemed to have been turned into a fireball. Even from that distance, they could see the flying debris.

Serena wrung her hands. "Oh, I hope they're all right. Shouldn't Slash have come out by now?"

Sonic's face was hard, as it was when he was worried. He gazed at the fire expressionlessly. "Yes," he said through his teeth. "If she's not in sight in two minutes, I'm going in."

"I'll go, too."

"No!" Sonic snapped, turning on her. "If not for you this wouldn't have happened. You stay here." He turned away from her, aware that he had just hurt his sister deeply. "I don't care," he told himself. "It IS her fault, anyway."

They stood in silence for what seemed like ages, watching the fortress burn.

Abruptly Sonic said, "I'm going. Stay here."

He took off, but not before he heard her say softly, "I'm sorry, Sonie."

"You're a mean hedgehog, Sonic," he thought to himself. "After what she's gone through she really didn't need ME jumping on her case." He put his head down and ran, as if trying to outdistance his guilt. "I'll apologize when I get back," he consoled himself.

He slowed as he approached the junkyard surrounding the city. He should have met Slasher by now, shouldn't he? What if she ... what if Spark ...

Sonic saw no sign of life in the junkyard, not even a robot. He got through it as quickly as he could and entered Mechatropolis.

Even on the very edge of the city, there was debris from the fortress. Pieces of stone, mortar, glass and wood littered the ground. Sonic picked his way over it, apprehension gnawing at his stomach. Where were they? Had they been IN the fortress? Were they wounded or possibly even dead? He didn't know. He could only hope they had been able to find shelter somewhere.

A sound off to his right. He spun around. Motion in an alley. A robot? He could not make out the shape because of the shadows. Cautiously he moved up and looked in. "S--Slasher?" he ventured.

"Yes," came the soft reply. "We're both here. Stand back--I'm coming out." The raptor's voice sounded almost casual. There was an awful lot of debris in there ...

Sonic moved back. There was some dragging and scraping, and Slasher emerged from the darkness. Sonic's eyes were drawn to the robot she carried against her chest. There was a very large dent on the top of his head. "He's unconscious," she explained. "The metal probably saved him. Sonic, I need you to run back to Eagles' Nest and get Spike's hoverbike. I can't carry him that far."

"He's that heavy?" Sonic asked.

In reply, Slasher turned and showed him her right side.

Her right wing was crushed and broken. It dragged pitifully on the ground, the long primary feathers bent. Blood showed through her feathers. There were deep red scratches all along her back and down her right leg.

"I am in pain," she told Sonic matter-of-factly, as if discussing the time of day. "I will walk as far as I can, but you HAVE to bring the hoverbike. Spark is not much better off than I." Her eyes were unnaturally bright.

Sonic nodded. "Okay, Slash, okay. Be back in a second." He turned and raced away, horrified. Slasher--hurt! He had always sort of thought her to be invincible, but the sight of her blood--red as his own-- banished that assumption forever.

Serena was just turning to enter the woods as he sped up. The look on his face told her he had completely forgotten his cruel words. "'Rena," he panted, slightly winded, "Slash and Spark got hit with debris. We need Spike's hoverbike. C'mon!" He grabbed her hand and leaped into the woods.

"Bad hurt?" Serena asked.

"Yeah!" Sonic replied grimly. "Wing's broken and everything. Spark's out of it. I just hope Slash don't bleed to death or something."

Because of Sonic's swift action, Slasher and Spark were back in Eagle's Nest before half and hour had passed.

Scans showed Spark had taken a heavy blow to the head. There was a bruise and concussion, but no internal bleeding. He was put into a hospital hut and monitored for any negative signs.

Slasher was literally wild with pain. She had ceased to be the kindly creature everyone knew--she was an injured velociraptor. She would allow no one near her, once she was in her hut, and snapped at all who approached.

At last, when she had nearly disemboweled Sonic with a swift kick, her head cleared enough to say, "Bring me a splint, hot water and bandages. Antiseptics. Leave it outside the door. I'll tend to myself."

Sally had jerked Sonic out of the way just in time. He was sprawled on the walkway, white as a sheet. He looked up at Sally, who was as shaken as he was. "Do it," he said, "before she kills somebody."

Sally quickly retrieved the supplies the raptor wanted. Slasher took them inside her hut and nothing more was heard from her for quite some time. Sonic finally built up the nerve to check on her, and found her asleep. She was stretched out on a blanket on the floor, wing extended and in a splint. The deep scrapes on her back and leg were also wrapped in white. She had indeed tended to herself.

* * *

Knuckles was 100% better. He had finally argued Sally into letting him get up and around. He had not been to Eagles' Nest since construction had been completed, and had to explore it from top to bottom all over again.

Even so, Sonic found him off by himself. The red echidna was sitting on the edge of the walkway with his legs hanging through the railing, a very unhappy expression on his face. Sonic could easily guess at what was on his mind.

He sat down beside his friend. "Feelin' okay, Knux?"

The echidna glanced at him, brushed his dreadlocks out of his face and gazed out at the treetops. "I guess."

"For someone who's red, you sure look blue."

Knuckles leaned his head on the railing planks and didn't answer.

Sonic folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them. "Uh, Knux, I didn't follow all your instructions."

Knuckles didn't move. "What'd you do?"

"I dropped a whole batch of Green Crystals on the terbium on the Floating Island."

Knux sat up and stared at him. "You what?"

Unable to read his friend's expression, Sonic explained about the terbium roots in the tunnel. As he did, a new light dawned on Knuckles's face. He grabbed Sonic's hand and pumped it up and down. "You ol' jerk! Man, thanks a million! If you hadn't have done that, the Floating Island would be about six hundred feet underwater right now."

"The reason I found you," the blue hedgehog said, "is 'cause I wanted to ask you to help me kill some terbium. We need to neutralize the stuff here in the Great Forest, Spark's in no condition to help, Slash is hurt, and 'Rena wouldn't go near it if her life depended on it. So I wanted to know if you felt good enough to go with me."

Knuckles nodded and stood. "'Course I do! That stuff nearly did me in. I'd love to kill it off. Let's go!"

* * *

Sonic and Knuckles departed. Serena watched them go through the window of the medical hut, where she sat at Spark's bedside. She would have went with Sonic, actually. He had apologized for his heartless words and they had made up, but she wanted to stay with her other brother.

She was holding his cold robotized hand in her lap. He had been unconscious for hours, but was not in a coma. Sally had said he was due to wake up any time, which is why Serena was with him.

Her eyes travelled over his metallic features. He really wasn't so ugly once you got used to him. In fact, he looked a lot like his old self ... except for the huge dent in his head. One of his ears stood up at an odd angle because of it.

After a while his steady, mechanical breathing gave way to a sigh, and his eyes opened. He gazed around at the room for a few moments, then at last noticed his sister. "Hi, 'Rena," he said weakly. For the first time he realized she was holding his hand. Well, she WAS his sister, after all, so he decided to let her.

"How do you feel?" she asked him.

He lifted his cyborg hand and gingerly touched his head. His fingers encountered the dent. "Awful," he replied, fingering the dent all around. "What hit me?"

Serena shook her head. "I don't know. Sonic thought it was a roof section."

Spark made an effort to remember, but drew a blank at exiting the fortress. "Slasher," he murmured. "What happened to Slasher?"

"She's hurt, too. She's all scraped up, and one wing is broken. She won't let anyone near her."

"If she feels anything like I do, I don't blame her," the robot said, dropping his hand back onto the blankets.

Neither said anything for a while. Spark closed his eyes and relaxed into the pillow. His head was pounding like mad, and coherent speech was difficult. It felt good just to lie still and feel safe. He had not felt truly secure in years ...

A thought came to him. He opened his eyes and reached for his right shoulder. His fingers fumbled at the little compartment door.

Serena tilted her head and looked, then said, "Here, let me do it. It's kind of dented; you can't open it with one hand."

He dropped his hand, turned his head a little and watched as she worked at the panel.

"What's in here?" she asked.

"Something I found," he replied faintly. "We might be able to use it ..."

The panel opened with a click. Serena peered in, then reached in and pulled out the rolled-up manual. "What's this?" she said, glancing at the blank cover, then thumbing through it.

He merely watched her, waiting for the moment of realization.

It came. Here eyes widened. "Spark, this is the instructions for building the robotizer! Why did you grab THIS?"

"If we know how it works," he murmured, pain flashing through his head, "we might be able to reverse the process." He closed his eyes until the aching subsided a bit, then said, "'Rena, run it over to Rotor. He'll get a kick out of it, I'm sure."

She nodded, staring at the book as if it were a coiled copperhead. "Okay. Be back in a minute."

As she departed, Spark lifted his head, looked around, then flipped open the panel on his chest. Inside was the little green notebook he had found just inside the doorway. He pulled it out, lay back and opened the cover.

The words leaped out at him: "Professional Journal of Commander Packbell. Classified Information. DO NOT READ!!" This last bit was heavily underlined in black ink. Of course, Spark flipped to the first page, and the second, and the third. At first it seemed only to be a record of daily events at the Secret Base. Pretty boring.

A diagram caught his eye. A detailed drawing of a molecule. Scribbled below it was, "Terbium. What uses could element have?" After that, drawings came thick and fast. Weapons, advanced lasers, radar, holo projectors, hovercraft that had never been built. Last, but not least, was a de-robotizer.

This was drawn and planned over and over on the following pages. Packbell had obviously poured many hours into the machine's perfection. Why? He gave no reasons in writing, apparently afraid that someone like Spark may view his journal.

One of the last entries spoke of revealing the contraption to Robotnik. The doctor had added the final touches to Packbell's design. The last twenty pages held schematics and part lists for the de- robotizer.

Spark had indeed found what he had been looking for.

* * *

Sonic and Knuckles accomplished two things on their little excursion.

First, they successfully stuck a Green Crystal into a pod and watched in satisfaction as the red crystals turned yellow.

Second, on their way back, they found the missing robotizer victims.

It seemed that one of the last things Packbell and Robo Knux had agreed upon was to run all the worker bots out of Robotropolis. They were simply getting in the way, but it would do no good to kill them off. They were needed for upcoming de-robotizer experiments. So all worker bots had been ordered to leave the city and go to a rendezvous on the Great Plains.

Sir Charles had somehow gotten wind of how fast the terbium was spreading, and where it was headed. He saw their location as extremely dangerous, and so had led all the robots into the woods.

Finding more than four thousand robots standing around in the woods was something of a shock to Sonic and Knuckles. All the robots were on guard, watching for anyone who might come along. None had weapons, and had been ordered not to attack anyone.

Sonic and Knux found themselves surrounded by quiet, smallish robots. "Intruders," a robot badger said. "Come. You are under arrest."

"Don't attack," Sonic whispered to his friend. "We'll be no better than murderers if we smash one of these. Let's see who's in charge."

They walked along with the robots, and to their surprise, were brought to Sonic's uncle. "Sonic! Knuckles!" he said in surprise. "Am I glad to see you! I've been scared to death Packbell would send the SWAT-bots out to get us and find us here."

"Packbell's dead," Sonic said. "Robo Knux killed him, then abandoned Robotropolis. All the SWAT-bots were butchered by the terbium. You guys are scott-free."

Chuck stood for a moment, shocked and staring at his nephew. Then he gave a deep sigh and drooped, as if releasing extreme tension. "I've lived in fear for two days," he said, suddenly tired. "I couldn't find Knothole because of the terbium, so we just camped out here. These robots need food and water; some are very close to collapse."

And that is how Eagles' Nest came to be surnamed 'Robotized Mobian Headquarters.'

* * *

One month later ...

* * *

Two hedgehogs, blue and violet, gingerly picked their way across the ruins of what had been Mecha/Robotropolis. Neither said much as they went along, except perhaps, "Look at this, Sonic," or, "'Rena, I think this used to be one of the main streets."

The sun, overhead, warmed their backs and picked out the shattered glass on the ground. Everything was somewhat damp from the rain the night before. For the first time in years, not a sound could be heard in the ruins of the city. There were no robots or machines running. There was nothing but collapsed buildings and the resulting rubble on the ground.

The terbium had been spreading at a tremendous rate when they added the Green Crystal. Thus, it took some time for the neutralization to catch up with the growth rate. The entire city had been leveled before the terbium had been stopped.

Packbell's remains had been discovered. Actually, all that was found was his left arm; the crystal through his chest had taken root and grown a pod right there, feeding off the android's body. There was little danger of Packbell ever being rebuilt.

The terbium in the Great Forest had not progressed nearly as far. It had only had a few days to get started, and so only a few acres of woods had been damaged.

More terbium had been spotted on defence radar (once Rotor got it working). Sonic had taken a Green Crystal and gone out to find it. To his surprise, it had once been Packbell's hidden base. The terbium Robo Knux had planted in the little greenhouse had broken out. The red growth covered the mountainside. Sonic unhesitatingly fed a pod the crystal, then triumphantly watched as one by one the scarlet terbium turned bright yellow.

Sonic was thinking of this as he picked through Robotropolis with his sister. All the terbium had been stopped, and there was one and a half Green Crystals left. Knuckles was planning to take them back to the Floating Island with him. Speaking of which ...

He looked at Serena as she lifted a board and peered underneath. "'Rena?"

"Hmm?"

"What'd the island look like?"

Serena and Knuckles had went out to the island for a look around. She stood up and looked her brother in the eye. "A jungle."

"Bad shape?"

She kicked a brick out of the way and prodded the space beneath with a stick. "Yep. You wouldn't believe it."

"I saw it when I went out to get the crystals."

"It's got worse since you were there."

"How?"

Serena dusted her hands off against her jeans. "It looked like every single pod had barfed its guts out, then had a war to see who was the biggest. It's awful. We had to hack our way through with those machetes Knux brought. It'll take ages to get the island green again. Poor Knux. He almost got sick all over again."

Sonic looked down. Yes, Knuckles HAD seemed a bit depressed when they returned.

The two hedgehogs poked along for a few minutes in silence. They weren't doing a very good job of scavenging; the terbium had pulverized everything. After a bit, Sonic said, "Knuckles told me where the Green Crystals came from."

Serena looked up at him. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Seems a couple hundred years ago, a terbium-meteor landed on Mobius. The king, then, tried to combat it, but it was unstoppable. So he called together every chemist and physist there was to find a way to stop it. Knux's ancestors, who were already pretty good at growing any kind of crystal they wanted, were the ones who came up with an 'incredibly unstable compound', as Knux called it. In crystal form. They tried it out, and it wiped out all the terbium. So they taught their kids how to make the Green Crystals, and built that machine, just in case the terbium ever came around again."

Serena said nothing. Sonic had expected her to at least be interested. "You listening, sis?"

"Oh yeah. Cool. Sorry, I'm just worried ..."

"About what?"

"Spark being the first one in the de-robotizer. What if it doesn't work?"

It was Sonic's turn not to answer. They turned over a slab of cement, and he said, "It SHOULD work. We made that processed terbium lens, and that was the key to the whole thing."

"But what if it flat-out doesn't work?" Serena persisted. She had to get her fear out in the open. "What'll we do with all those worker bots? It's hairy enough just livin' with 'em!"

"We'll send the plans to Riverbase," Sonic replied evenly.

Riverbase was the pro-Freedom Fighter city, further south.

"But we WILL get a de-robotizer built," he continued. "You'll see. We have to. Ol' Doc's still out there."

"AND Mecha, AND Robo Knux ..."

No more was said for a while. The two hedgehogs wandered along, alone with their thoughts. Sonic found a holodisk player, only slightly dented. Serena found a piece of glass that acted like a prism, scattering the light. A few useful machine parts were discovered.

The sun had begun it's swing into the west when Sonic called, "I've had enough for today. Let's head on home, 'Rena."

"Okay," she said, wiping sweat from her forehead. "I'm beat. Hope they have something decent for dinner tonight."

"Yeah, straight up."

They trudged out of Robotropolis, too hot and tired to run. "Sure is lonesome without the SWAT-bots," Sonic remarked.

"I know," Serena agreed.

They stopped for a brief rest on the outskirts of the city. Sonic was taking a swig of water from his canteen when he spotted something in the late afternoon sky. He stood up and shaded his eyes. "'Rena, look."

She followed his gaze. "What?" She saw it, and stood as well. "Is that a bird, or is it ...?"

"Her wing must have come out of the cast today," Sonic said. "I hope it's strong enough. Man, she's flying fast. Must have something to tell us."

The dark winged shape was approaching rapidly. The hedgehogs waved, and the raptor waved back. After a moment she pulled her wings in and began to dive downward.

"Look," Serena said. "Somebody's on her back. Who is that?"

Sonic couldn't make out who it was and didn't answer.

Slasher spread her wings at the last second and swept over them with a whoosh that fanned their faces. She landed jogging a short distance away, then came back.

The feathers on her right wing were ruffled and mussed from the cast, and many were missing. It must be tired from the exercise; she only folded it part way. The cuts and deep scrapes on her back and leg had mostly healed, leaving fading scars. Her green eyes were bright. "Guess what?" she called.

Sonic and Serena approached her. "What?"

Then they caught sight of the figure on her back. A hedgehog. A green hedgehog with a black face. He slid off the raptor's back and stood grinning at them.

"It worked," he said to his siblings. "I'm de-robotized."

Serena threw her arms around Spark's neck, and Sonic pounded him on the back. The questions came thick and fast, and Spark tried to answer as many as he could. For a few minutes it was quite noisy--a joyful noise.

Finally Slasher broke into their reunion. "Hey you three, it's getting dark. Are we going to go home or what?"

"You bet," Sonic replied. "Do we get a ride?"

"Sure," the raptor replied. "This ol' wing is strong enough. Climb on."

She crouched, and all three hedgehogs mounted up. "Ready?" she called back.

"Ready," they replied.

"Good," said Slasher, lifting her eyes to the orange sunset. "Let's go home."

And they did.

The End.