An Adventure in Two Acts
S Peter Davis
All characters (C) SEGA, Archie and SP Davis 2004.
Used without permission
Sonic fans, especially the oldschool variety, will probably recognise the Archie/SatAM Sonic universe buried in this tale, but notice that it does not fit with the canon version from the cartoon or comics, and in fact there's really nothing canon about it at all. Don't try to connect this with any official material, for it exists within a parallel universe and is entirely my creation. The reason being that I had written later events originally within the canon continuum but found it irresistable to pour in a copious amount of creative licence and convert it into something barely recognisable. Thus an original universe requires an original foundation, and that's what this is. This is how it all began, according exclusively to me.
I should say a word about the character of Packbell. As far as I can tell, the character was originally penned by an author named David Pistone, who may or may not still write under his own or another name. I have never read any of David's stories. I stole Packbell from NetRaptor a long time ago who in turn, I should say 'borrowed', him from somewhere else a long time prior to that. As a result, a Chinese whispers effect has converted the character into something probably unrecognisable to the original vision. I've given Packbell a first name in this story to suit my purposes. At this point it's best that you consider it a wholly original character who happens to share the name "Packbell". It's a really great character name. I can only attempt to credit the original author as best I can and invite him to contact me if there is a problem with me using this bastardization of his character, but there are more popular authors than I who have been doing it for longer, which suggests to me that nobody really minds.
I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Prologue: The Very Heart of Origin
The world is not enough,
But it is such a perfect place to start.
And if you're strong enough,
Together, we can take the world apart.
Mobitropolis is where it all began, the entire great mess. It is difficult to believe that such a place could give rise to such events - such a clean, uncorruptable marvel of the modern world. But rise they did, and I will tell you how.
The council sat in an organized fashion before the king, as it always did. Those with a Minister's portfolio sat at the front bench, with the entire array of political councillers seated in back, all two hundred of them. But the King sat in front and faced his government, and they faced him with their modest attire, so it was and so it always had been. Beside the King, his hair to the throne - Prince Martin - and his only daughter - Princess Sally. Nine and eight years old respectively.
"Your Majesty," the chairman said, "The council will now hear from the Minister of Science. Professor Ivo Robotnik"
The King nodded his approval. The Minister of Science stood and moved to the speaking position beside His Majesty. The politicians ceased their hushed whispers to pay attention.
Ivo Robotnik, crisp and sharp in a freshly steamed full business suit, was twenty-five. One of the youngest politicians in the room, and the youngest to ever take a front bench position. On the bench were six foxes, two squirrels, a raccoon, and Robotnik. What was he? Was anybody to question it? He was, as far as anybody ever wondered, simply Robotnik. His features were ape-like, yet devoid of the thick, black body hair apes possess. His skin was entirely visible, save for the roughness on his face. Although he shaved smooth every morning, within a few hours the thick red bristles already began to emerge from his pores. Despite the extremely rapid facial growth, his hairline was receding abnormally soon in his life. His devil-red hair would very soon fall from his scalp, leaving it as bald as the surface of an egg.
Robotnik. While not hideous in a malformed kind of way, he was nevertheless cursed with an extremely unattractive face. His head was small and round, almost spherical, and his ears panned outwards. His features were too small in the centre of his face, his eyes in craters, his nose too large. He wore circular spectacles, mostly for reading, but with increasing frequency that showed he was beginning to develop a sight problem. But his unattractiveness was perhaps the devil's bargain for his other attributes. Robotnik had an intelligence far beyond his years. It was an intimidating kind of intelligence, one that looked down on you and knew its own superiority. He had completed a PhD before his peers had completed high school. It was a relatively simple task to enter into politics with such a decorated career, despite the mystery which almost completely shrouded his past.
"Dr Robotnik," King Acorn said with a smile on his aged face. Few things could bring humour to His Majesty, and Robotnik was one of them. There was safety in Robotnik - trust, honour and dignity. Something that was missing from the easily corruptable democratic panel before him. "It is good to see you, my friend. I trust you bring news from afar"
"Indeed I do," Robotnik replied, and stood beside his King to address the government. "As you know," he announced, "I have spent the past months delegating to other kingdoms across the continent, as a diplomat for His Majesty the King of the House of Acorn. Unfortunately, my friends, I bring dire news. I have seen it with my own eyes. The Arack Empire is expanding"
The room burst into sound. Politicians began to talk amongst themselves, in worried tones of voice. The chairman hushed them, as Robotnik continued.
"As you all know, Arack has threatened our borders before. Even now, they continue to expand the Webb to the east, three new cities have emerged since last we travelled to their lands. The next time they threaten us, it is concievable that we will be unable to defend ourselves from them. Their speed is nothing short of remarkable"
"What plans have the other kingdoms formed to prevent attack?" King Acorn asked.
Robotnik looked over the parliament. His glance lingered on one politician, a member by the name of Packbell. Then he looked to the front bench, where the ministers were watching him intently.
"In dealing with this threat, many of our allies are considering the use of satellite technology"
The parliament burst into chatter again. One politician, a weasil, stood and addressed Robotnik directly in a loud voice.
"You want to put something into space? In orbit around us? This is starting our folly all over again"
Robotnik shook his head slowly. "In fact, I do not feel that a defense satellite will be enough to protect us. I feel that, in order to truly display our might and intimidate hostile forces, we need to construct a full space defense colony. A space station"
Outrage in the parliament. "You're mad"
Robotnik tried to shout over the raised voices, and the room calmed as he spoke. "There are three individual aspects to our lifestyle that we must protect with the utmost vigilance. Number one - Acorn. We must sustain the government, the guard, and His Majesty the King and the First Family. Number two - Residents. Me must protect the people from any outside threat, keep a cop on every street and the trains running on time. Keep terrorists and invading forces out of our land. And number three - Kingdom. We have to protect our way of life, the constitution we all live by, and the rights we all deserve. With our current military force, we struggle to do this, and how would we fare if the Arack Empire marched into our land? I have the schematics for a station that can uphold the stability of each of these institutions - Acorn, Residents, Kingdom - by monitoring every activity that goes on inside and around our lands, a simultanious surveillance and tactics development stronghold. If we built it on Mobius it would be the first thing our enemies take out. But in space, who can touch it? The A-R-K is a reality. I have worked out every detail. I call it Project Mobitropolis. It will take ten years to complete, but after that time, our safety is assured. Now, it is true that it will cost considerably, but we can budget it." He cleared his throat. "We can develop robot workers to wipe out labour costs"
Now, there was complete anarchy in the parliament. Councillers stood and shouted incomprehensibly at Robotnik. They spoke to each other with shock and awe. Only Robotnik himself appeared calm, he seemed almost certain that his ideals would be upheld, one way or another. Beside the King, Princess Sally shifted uncomfortably and looked up at her father, who was paying careful attention to Robotnik.
"Professor," shouted an outspoken counciller from one of the front benches, "You realise what you are saying, surely! Now, perhaps you are too young to remember the Android Wars, Professor, but I am not. That was a horror that nobody on this planet wishes to repeat! Robots fighting robots, by the end of it there was no mobian involvement in the conflict, except the movement to shut it down before they destroyed the planet! And that is why there is an international agreement, Professor, never to research or manufacture in the field of robotics. Even the automobile fringes on illegal technology. Any machine we build, must be completely and entirely driven by a mobian. There will certainly be no Project Mobitropolis, no ARK, and no robot military in charge of it"
"Hear hear!" somebody shouted.
"I am aware of the restrictions on artificial intelligence," Robotnik replied, "But I am also aware of the protocol to bypass it. The international agreement was made with the unanimous decision that robotics may be produced if it is strictly in the interest of self defense. Has the Arack Empire not threatened us with force if we do not appease their one-sided material interests? This is a cold war, and we must do everything in our power to make sure the enemies of freedom do not prevail"
"I must concur with the Professor," spoke a voice from the depths of the parliament, and heads swivelled to see who might be so mad as to support this notion.
It was Andreas Packbell. The counciller's species was the same as that of Robotnik, although nobody ever questioned this species just as nobody questioned that a sphere was round. Some things in this world just were as they were. Packbell had a full head of hair, all of it grey. His face was pocked with wrinkles and dimples, not signs of significant age, but age enough to tell he had been around for quite a while. His past was even more shrouded than that of Robotnik, yet he was greatly admired. People suspected and feared Robotnik, but Packbell was different. He was one of the boys. He was no genius, but his wisdom was quite remarkable.
"You agree with this madness?" the outspoken counciller demanded.
"Indeed I do," Packbell replied, "And it is not madness, Mr Counciller, but mere common sense. The ban on technology implimented after the Android Wars is nothing but paranoid overregulation, restricting us from developing technology on par with Arack and any other rogue state. They already have machines, and great ones. The reality of the situation is that the deregulation of robotics is the only way we can protect our way of life. We learn from mistakes, there will be no repeat of the great wars. The Android Wars occurred because we developed robots too quickly, it will not repeat as long as we take great care in our planning"
There was chattering in the hall, now. Robotnik's ideas could be seen as outrageous, but Packbell? His support turned the tide of opinion, and now many didn't know what to think.
From his position near the King, Robotnik looked out into the crowd and glanced directly at Packbell. Packbell glanced back, sustaining eye contact for only a moment, and then the glances parted.
Robotnik lingered in the wings after the parliament was dismissed. Alone, he sat in his place on the front bench.
A plaque was positioned in front of him, a little metal thing with golden letters. "Minister of Science," it read, "Prof. Ivo Robotnik". He smirked a little as he looked at it. It was true, he was a professor. Skipped four years of school, replaced them at Mobitropolis University and achieved a PhD in physics, physical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and chemistry. With honours. Despite his ego, he chose not to use his title, most of the time. Casually, he was merely referred to as Dr Robotnik.
His skill above his peers was strengthened by the fact that he was fantastic with his hands, as well as with his mind. His fingers were thin and nimble, there was no tremble in his hands whatsoever, and his patience was remarkable. Despite this, his name was coincidental, nothing to do with his skills. His adoptive parents were chimps, they had carried the name Robotnik for generations. In old Mobian, it meant 'independent spirit.
He touched his plaque with those tremble-free hands now, ran his finger across the smoothness of it. Dr Robotnik, Mobitropolis' young Minister of Science. He reached up and scratched his cheek - it was rough, where it had been smooth mere hours ago. One day, he thought, he would just let it grow. If he was losing hair on top, he shouldn't discourage the rest of it.
Somebody else entered the hall, now. Robotnik was not surprised, as he was expecting it. Andreas Packbell sat next to him, in the Defense Minister's place, and said not a word.
"They certainly don't like the idea," Robotnik said, "They're stuck on the idea of a perfect world without technology. Pathetic, isn't it"
"Quite so," Packbell replied, "But that's why you have me here"
"Indeed. But everything would fall into ruin if they knew what you really were. Everything we've built up to these past few years, we would be a travesty. We're entering a crucial period now, Packbell. We have to take meticulous care, every step of the way. I almost have you elected Defense Minister"
"Things will run smoothly," Packbell assured him, "As long as our tracks are covered. How is your research coming along"
Robotnik smiled. "Better than I expected. His speed is magnificent, and I have mapped his muscle structure. I can almost begin to create the replica design"
"You know," Packbell said, "That you have to destroy him"
"Naturally," Robotnik sighed, "But it is almost a shame. He is such a magnificent creation. So rebellious, though, such a strong spirit. You cannot control a spirit as you can a machine. It is a pity"
"I wouldn't know," Packbell said, and looked down at the bench.
These two political figures, embodied opinions in a growing democratic movement, were the only individuals on the planet who could have predicted the storm that was coming.
The story, the real story, doesn't begin until ten years later.
Act One - Evil Rises
He opened his eyes. The morning light was shining onto them, but that wasn't the reason he awoke. He could stand the light, after all this time he was used to it. But he wasn't used to the rustling and clanging of somebody going through his personal belongings.
He lifted his head and saw an intruder in his home. In the heart of the city, things like this happened all the time. He found it remarkable and irritating that the intruders apparently don't even realise they're trespassing. He grunted, but the intruder apparently didn't hear him. Couldn't they see they were invading his property? Eventually he became alert enough to speak.
"Hey kid... get out of it"
The intruder looked up. His hands were full of garbage. They stared at each other for a short while, the intruder apparently quite startled. He looked up and down the walls of the dumpster and came to a realisation. The intruder climbed out quickly, and fled down the street.
Irritated at the premature awakening, the hedgehog clambered into a sitting position and stared at the urban landscape visible from his makeshift home, a green dumpster with chipped paint and rusted edges. His choice of decor was appalling, and the lighting was dismal, but the furnishings were quite comfortable most of the time, unless some jerk decided to throw out a broken bottle.
The hedgehog saw his intruder as he hurried away, and was startled, himself. It definitely was just a kid, a young fox with matted orange fur, and from his rear-end view the hedgehog could quite clearly see two tails attached to the kid's backside. Unless he was seeing double in his weariness.
"Hey Blue!" somebody shouted, and the hedgehog turned at the sound of his name.
"Rat," he replied, "What's up, man"
Rat was grinning like a rat, and both the name and the grin were quite fitting, because he was indeed a rat. His thin pink tail swished around lazily as he leaned on Blue's dumpster.
"Glad you're awake," he said, "There's something big goin' on downtown, every man, woman and wallet in the city has gotta be down there. Outside that big satellite facility thingamajig. It might just be the best crowd I've ever worked. We might just be able to afford fish this week"
Blue grunted and, with an exaggerated effort, climbed out of the bin. "What's going on"
"Beats me," Rat replied, "Doesn't really matter. They're preoccupied with something, that's the main thing. We're meeting the boys down there, outside the parliament building. I wanna get a good chip in before Nails' boys get down there. C'mon"
The sun was shining brightly on the planet Mobius that day. The sky was cloudless, and the wind wasn't strong enough to roll the cigarette butts along the pavement (which was Blue's highly accurate method of measuring the wind). The weather was, for all intensive purposes, perfect. All this was vital in deciding how to go about working a crowd. His friends looked up to his abilities, even relied on them, because a wrong move could spell the end. Blue never moved wrong, at least not any more.
Bosley, an elderly walrus, and Powder, an albino hawk, waited for the two of them outside the Mobitropolis Parliament House. The Palace of Acorn was visible nearby, and Blue always looked upon it as a beautiful building. He wondered what fabulous activity went on inside, where the Royal Family lived. Surely nothing they would want a blue-spined hedgehog from the city street knowing about.
There was indeed a crowd that day, and although Rat often exaggerated, he didn't this time. The crowd was tightly packed in an open area, people climbing on each other to get a view of what was happening ahead. They were standing outside a huge facility, bordered with a wire fence. The top of the fence, about forty feet upward, was barbed. Of course, Blue knew it well just as he knew the entire city, but he wasn't sure what went on inside. Something scientific and classified. There was a huge sign near an always-locked gate, which read 'Project Mobitropolis: Research and Launch Facility. Authorised personnel only. Clearance required'
It didn't look quite so imposing right now, however. There was a celebration of some kind going on. Vendors were selling balloons and hotdogs. The usually vicious and morbid chain-link barbed fence was tamed by streamers and colourful decorations.
There was music playing, and some very important-looking people milling around behind makeshift barriers. Blue recognised one of them as Dr Robotnik, the Minister of Science. There were other familiar faces, politicians and scientists.
The attraction was quite obvious, for it dominated the scene. Something was erected inside the facility, a massive construction that looked like it may touch the sky. Blue knew enough about things to know it was a space shuttle. He had heard stories about shuttle launches in his youth, but had never actually seen one.
"We going in?" Powder asked, "I want to get this over with while they're all standing and looking"
"Right," said Rat, "Let's do it"
They moved in to mingle with the crowd. Blue stayed behind a while, his head pointed to the heavens to try and see the top of the shuttle. One of his friends called out his name, and he moved in.
A hedgehog with blue spines tended to yield a lot of strange looks, which worked against him in these situations. But he managed to get by quite well with his other natural skills. He moved up to stand next to a tall fox in a leather overcoat. "Nice day for it," he commented.
"Yes, very nice," the fox replied. Blue moved away casually. Nobody had noticed that, not only had he swiped the fox's wallet, but also the wallet of the gecko who had been standing on the other side of him.
Blue was quick. He was like the wind. This was not a skill he picked up, rather one he had learned to use, for as far as he knew he had always possessed it. Not only was he quick with his hands, but much more than that, he was quick on his feet. He could run faster than most people could imagine. Blue lightning, they called it. Needless to say, there wasn't a lot of room for running in the city, unless one was caught doing something one wasn't supposed to be doing.
As Blue worked the crowd, Bosley, the lookout, approached him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Look out kid," he said, "SWAT-bots on your left"
Blue ceased his activities immediately and pretended to have a good time, while slyly he watched a patrol of seven SWATs make its way past the crowd. The people still froze up and looked a little uneasy whenever the robots came near them, but by-and-large, they were beginning to get used to them. It had only been three years prior that the Mobitropolis police force had been replaced by the black-armoured SWAT-bots. The Special Weapons And Tactics Robots, as would be expected, did not fear being punched, kicked, shot or stabbed. As such, they were many times more efficient, and, unlike living police, they were not in any way violent. The only exception was if the assailant was threatening a live victim, in which case the SWATs were programmed to use lethal force. In the vast majority of cases, if a SWAT-bot saw you committing an arrestable offense, you went to directly to prison, immediately and promptly. The secret to crime in Mobitropolis was simply not to be seen.
By the time the SWATs had passed, the mood of the crowd had changed, which meant that Blue's tactics would have to change. Everybody was suddenly focused on the shuttle - prime working conditions. With the right method, Blue could have taken up to twenty wallets in a minute. He called it freeze time, the condition where everybody was focused on anything other than their pockets, and time appeared to freeze for everyone but the pickpocket. But Blue himself, on this day, fell into a trap he had never before fallen into. He allowed his own attention to wander.
There was a giant black screen with red digital numbers displayed on it, and they had begun to count down from ten. Everybody in the crowd was counting aloud. Blue lost track of what he was doing, and watched the shuttle, his mouth open in wonder. It was like a giant aeroplane, aimed into the heavens. Smoke was pouring from the rockets, he could smell it saturating the air. People in the crowd began coughing as they counted.
The countdown reached zero, and the shuttle launched. The people cheered. Blue watched it, his spines blowing back in the now powerful wind. He watched it climb into the blue sky and vanish as if it had teleported away, nothing remaining but a trail of puffy cloudlike smoke.
"That was brilliant!" Rat exclaimed. There was much hooting and hollering in the alleyway after the launch, and at least twenty homeless mobians had gathered together to divide the spoils. Rat was laughing hardest of all, as he dumped a handful of cash onto an overturned barrel. He turned and tossed a bunch of wallets into a dumpster. "Fantastic freeze time! They were like stunned cattle! Man, I bet Blue cleaned up, right mate"
Blue cocked a smile and put a handful of cash down, not a much larger pile than Rat's.
"Whoa," Rat said, "What happened to you? Something's not right. You aren't hiding any for yourself, are ya? Gimme a look at those wallets"
"I don't have them," Blue replied, his voice low and embarrassed, "I returned them, after I took the cash out"
"Pfft, why bother?" Rat counted the money, carefully, twice. "Well, the good news is we're all eating well this week, folks"
There was a cheer in the alley, not an overly excited one, but more one of relief. Rat began to divide the money and sort out everybody's share. He happened to look at Blue, who was reclining on a wall, looking disinterested. "What's wrong, Blue? Ya not feeling well"
"I dunno," Blue replied, "I just, I-" he sighed, "I don't feel right. I don't want to keep doing this. Stealing money, I mean. I don't like it, I feel dirty"
A few heads turned. Rat let out a forced laugh. "Hey, it's only charity! They earn enough money to support themselves, and the rest goes to support us! Everybody eats, it's a perfect world"
"It's not a perfect world, though, Rat," Blue replied, "There has to be a better way to live than this. We're not a part of this city, we're just leeching off it"
Rat's smile faded. "Hey, look kid. I didn't choose this life. I was forced into it, just like you were. Forced, because these people around us would make it hell for us if we tried to blend back in. Admit it, if you had a choice between this life and your old one, you'd choose this in a heartbeat"
"I don't know," came the reply, and then a silence.
"Oh, not this again," Rat said, "The old repressed memories story. You know I've known you for a year now, we've been through all this crud together, and you still refuse to tell me, any of us, your real name"
"I don't know my name," Blue protested, "I don't think I have a name"
"You have a name, you're just too much of a hypocrite to admit you're one of us," Rat said, and turned his back on the hedgehog. Blue sighed, and turned his attention back to the sky.
"Where do you suppose they're going?" he asked.
Rat turned back, "Huh"
"That shuttle they launched. Where are they supposed to be going"
"ARK," replied Bosley, the old walrus, in a very knowing tone.
Blue appeared confused for a moment. "There's a boat up there"
"Not a boat, a station," Bosley laughed, "A space station, a colony. Don't you read any science fiction"
"Oddly enough, no," the hedgehog replied, "I only read what people throw away"
"You know," Bosley said, "There never used to be all this technology around"
"Here we go, 'back in my day'..." Rat interrupted.
"Well it's true! It wasn't just back in my day, either, it was back as far as ten years ago. I was born just after the Android Wars, but they say the robots could have destroyed everything if we didn't stop them in time. Everybody on Mobius made a pact not to develop any more technology. That lasted a while, and then suddenly it all started up again. All these space colonies and robot cops and whatnot. Everyone's forgotten the Android Wars, of course, and they're back to talking about how robotics is the future and we have to finish building the ARK for the good of Mobitropolis. It's that Robotnik who's putting ideas into people's heads"
"Ivo Robotnik?" Blue asked, "The science guy"
"Man alive, I'd love to get into his wallet," Rat commented.
"Yeah," said Bosley, "Him. The whole ARK idea is his, he has some great big idea about protecting the kingdom from some outside threat. He was the one who started building robots again"
"How do you know so much about this junk?" Rat asked.
"I pay attention, sonny. Now, give me some of that cash so I can get myself a hotdog."
Crown Prince Martin Acorn was nineteen. He was a tall, handsome squirrel, the next in line for the throne after his ancient father of eighty. The paparazzi hounded him constantly for photographs, and he pretended to hate it. The media followed him to every important event, and he pretended to hate that too. One of the most popular icons in all of Mobitropolis and the kingdoms around it, and his insistance that he was as humble as any man fooled most and the rest didn't matter. He was a sparkling, eppervescent, and worthy successor to the throne, the one who would bring the crumbling and forgotten monarchy back to the glory it once was. And he liked it.
"Prince Martin," a reporter, scrambling for his attention, said into her microphone before holding it to his mouth, "Lexington Grammar, Mobitropolis Radio One. What are your thoughts on the launch"
"Well," he replied, "It was quite a show, wasn't it"
"Do you think Project Mobitropolis will offer the citizens the safety and freedom that has been promised to them"
"Project Mobitropolis is a very exciting time for the kingdom of Acorn. When it goes online later this week, the enemies of freedom and peace will never again threaten anybody under the protection of the Crown. A very exciting time, a time for rejoicing. It promises many, many years of peace and prosperity"
An unrecognised voice shouted over the flurry of reporters, "Crown Prince, what is your stance on the research of nanotechnology"
The prince was struck silent. His face seemed to go a little pale, but he regained his composure quickly. "I'm afraid I really cannot answer any more questions at this time, there is much to do"
He turned and headed inside the palace. The reporters followed close behind, but were stopped by guards. Prince Martin walked along a straight path towards the main doors of the Palace of Acorn, the sounds of shouting media, desperate for his attention, fading behind him.
The Acorn Dynasty of the Northern Kingdom of Mobius could be traced along thirteen hundred years. In the old days of the kingdom, the monarchy was everything. Now, the government had grown powerful, the change in beliefs and technology had created a democratic system of control under the King. Now, the Royal Family were little more than figureheads for media attention and novelty. Of course, according to the very constitution of the kingdom, the King retained absolute power over everything within his lands, but most of the time he opted not to use it. It was, he believed, in the interests of his subjects, that he allow democratic process to take place. Thus, under Martin's father, King Charles Acorn III, the monarchy itself had begun to erode.
Prince Martin's heels clicked on the polished floors of the palace as he proceeded down the hall. Guard robots lined the walls, silent and inanimate like toy soldiers. Martin tried not to look at them. Every so often, somebody living crossed his path. He nodded to each of them, a slave to tradition.
There was quite a lot of walking to be done, but he didn't mind. He loved to walk, it cleared his head. He loved the sound of his clicking heels more than anything. When his foot came down, it made two quick, crisp sounds in succession, as his heel clicked and then his toe. It was his favourite sound in the world, a very cultured, important sound.
There was a door. The guards posted outside moved mechanically out of the way as he approached, and the prince was constantly horrified by the way an inanimate metal statue could move like a person. He opened the door nevertheless, and entered.
The room was well furnished, and the first person he saw was one he hadn't expected - Commander Packbell, the Minister of Defense. Packbell smiled at him warmly. "Your Majesty," he said.
"Commander," replied the prince, "If you're finished here, I rather hope you have something more important to do elsewhere"
"Of course, Majesty," Packbell replied, "Doctor, if I may be excused." Without waiting for a response, he left the way the prince had come, and closed the door behind him.
There was a large oak desk before Martin, a flurry with papers of all kinds. The plaque atop the desk, with neat silver lettering, read 'Prof. Ivo Robotnik - Minister of Science'. Robotnik himself was seated behind it, hard at work on some kind of schematic design, riddled with mathematics and jargon that the prince couldn't begin to understand.
"Majesty," Robotnik said absently, without looking up.
The science minister had become a very different person, physically, in the ten years he had held this title. He was in his thirties, now, the remenants of his youth were about to say their final farewell and leave him forever, his skin showed the first signs of wrinkling. His head was entirely bald, his scalp a half sphere like a perfect dome, smooth from his neck to the creases of his forehead. In a bizarre kind of balance, he had grown a stiff moustache that stretched out either side of his head like two orange brooms.
Perhaps the clearest difference was his size. Robotnik did very little physical labour, he did the intricate work on machines occasionally, but the majority of the construction was done by other machines. Construction machines built robots, which in turn repaired and sustained the construction machines. Robotnik was the brain that allowed it all to work, and years of very little movement other than sitting, eating and thinking had done considerable damage to his once decent figure. Robotnik had always been terribly barrel-chested, but now he was obese.
"Doctor," the squirrel prince said, "I do fear that things are getting out of hand"
"How so?" Robotnik asked. He still did not look up.
"These robots, for one thing. I do hate them so"
"Well, you ought to get used to them. We're going to be making a whole lot more of them soon"
"Quiet down," the prince insisted, and toned his own voice down, "That's another thing. I'm not sure I trust your level of discretion. Just moments ago, one of those media parisites outside asked me something about nanotechnology"
At this, Robotnik stopped what he was doing and looked up. "What did they say"
"Nothing in particular, but it's not something you just bring up unless you know something about it. There are people who know what's going on here, and if this gets back to my father"
"It won't get back to your father," Robotnik assured, "Your father is not somebody you need worry about much longer"
Something of an alarm sounded in the office, not a loud noise, but loud enough to startle the prince. Robotnik appeared frustrated, and checked a laptop computer that was idle on his desk. He grunted loudly. "Hello. I think your leak is making a very stupid move, Majesty. Somebody is hacking my computer"
"Hacking?" the prince shrieked.
"Don't worry," Robotnik replied, "My system is infallible. Even if he breeches the code, the SWAT-bots are remotely channelled into my network. They will be arresting him as we speak"
"For your sake I hope you're right," the prince said, "Just remember that you have as much to lose as I do."
As the space shuttle trailed its way into the sky, it could be seen from hundreds of miles in every direction. Residents from Station Square, from some of the western settlements, even from Catilina far to the north, could see the trail of smoke as it burst from a miniscule point of light. Thousands were watching, but only one was dismayed.
Knuckles the Echidna observed the launch from a telescope. The image was too small to make out properly even so, but to the naked eye it appeared to be a white line connecting the ground to the sky.
He folded the telescope and frowned at the bizarre spectacle. Something he had seen a number of times in his young life, always from the same location. It stirred him. He picked himself up and looked out to the calm sea, glad that he didn't live on the mainland where so many bizarre things happened. It wasn't a spectacle he wanted to witness up-close.
Knuckles was nineteen years old, and heavy-built. His bright red fur and dreadlocked spines were a mirror to his wild nature. He was strong and independent. He was also completely, utterly alone.
It wasn't that the echidna never craved the contact of others. It wasn't in his nature to be alone. For eleven years he had been the only survivor of his kind, his mother having died in childbirth, and having buried his own father at the age of eight. The gods had taken his entire civilisation into the sky and left his family behind, and he agonized over it. He wasn't even sure he believed in the gods anymore.
But he did have important work to be done, ancient work that would likely die with him. He was the guardian of the island, as his father before him, and the great Locke Echidna from whom he spawned had taught him everything.
The island. It was his life. He would gladly lay that life down for it. He didn't know why it was important, only that it was. It sustained him. He was the final legacy of the echidnas, the last person on Mobius who would care for the island that floated in the heavens.
The ocean was calm. Two hundred feet above its surface, a land mass hovered softly. It made no sound, it merely hung like an ornament in the clear blue atmosphere, a colour that reflected off the great ocean below.
Knuckles' life was for the island, and for the Master Emerald. He was unaware how far this dedication would be tested in the coming weeks.
In the heart of Mobitropolis, late afternoon, a blue hedgehog caught up on his sleep, inside a filth-encrusted city dumpster. The garbage that formed his bed was pointy, but no moreso than he himself.
His dreams were the only place where he could remember. They came to him, not always, but at times when he was troubled or in times of hardship. He never remembered them when he awoke, only the residue of familiarity and realism. These were events that really happened.
He was running. He liked to run, but this time he was not running for the love of it. He ran to escape. He ran to get away from his life, or however it could be described as a life. He was persued by ghosts. They haunted him every time he closed his eyes, invisible, nameless entities from his past. He didn't dare look back to see their faces. If they caught him, it would be over, and he knew that if he looked back he would lose the will to run.
He could see the light of day, now. The sunlight was rushing towards him at an impossible speed. The ghosts were destroyed by the light, but one of them remained and, angrily, it roared out his name.
The hedgehog was blown back into reality. Something landed on top of him with furious power and snapped him awake so quickly that he wasn't sure he wasn't still dreaming. The light was blocked by some kind of material over him, and something heavy thumped beside him with an audible grunt. The hedgehog screamed.
"Shut up!" somebody exclaimed. The hedgehog could see the light again. Somebody was furiously groping at him, pulling his spines in awkward angles, flailing with the confusion of a madman. At last the stranger slipped a hand over his mouth, tight, and the two of them lay huddled together, almost intimately. The stranger was panting with hoarse breaths, trying to stay quiet. There was silence apart from those breaths.
Then, more sounds. A clanking outside the dumpster. Something walking around with metal shoes. The stranger's icy grip pulled tight on the hedgehog, tense and shivering softly. The hedgehog knew those sounds. His new unwanted roommate was being persued by SWAT-bots.
The sounds faded, travelled down the alley. He could feel the relief in the stranger's muscles, as they loosened, as did the stranger's breath. He heard an unfamiliar voice speak to him.
"If I let you go, will you keep quiet"
The hedgehog could hardly breathe. He obliged quickly with a nod of his head, and he was released.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"It's not important," the stranger replied. The hedgehog shifted his position to see the stranger's face. He was a weasil, filthy from head to toe, dressed in some kind of badly torn black trenchcoat.
"If you've killed someone or something, I'm not going to protect you," the hedgehog warned.
The weasil appeared shocked, as if he had been struck. "I've done nothing bad!" he rasped, "I'm fighting for the good guys! The things I know are imperative to your survival in the future, I suggest you help me by keeping your trap firmly shut. If I'm caught, we could all be dead next week"
The hedgehog was taken aback. The stranger was clearly a lunatic. He didn't know how he should handle the situation, whether he should betray this stranger to the authorities, or hide him and risk being tied into his crime. Moralities clashed in his mind, if only he could think as fast as he could move.
"What are you going to do with me?" he asked.
"I didn't know anybody was in here, I leapt in to hide myself. I'm not going to do anything with you, like I said I'm not a criminal"
"So what if I give you up to the SWATs"
"Well, that's your choice, isn't it. But, like I said, if you do, we're both dead"
"They can detect you, you know. Heat sensors. Motion detectors. They'll catch you eventually, you can't just lie here"
"What are you trying to do, break my spirits"
More silence. It was almost agonizing. Then the stranger began to breathe heavily again.
"I'm going to try and make a run for it"
The weasil leaped out of the dumpster as quickly as he had dropped in. The hedgehog sat up, curious to see what would happen.
The situation was dire. SWAT-bots lined every street and blocked every alley. It was as if they had been waiting for him to make the first move.
"Halt," a mechanical voice, devoid of character, commanded, "You are under arrest. Lie down with your arms behind your head"
The stranger searched frantically for somewhere else to run. In every direction, a robot stood within reach of him, ready to capture him with iron strength. If he moved to run, it would be over for him.
The hedgehog saw an open corridor, unprotected. It was too far for the weasil, if he ran towards it he would be intercepted and captured. The hedgehog's gaze shifted back to the stranger - desperately he was looking left, right, left again. Then he looked back at the hedgehog, a desperate, begging look.
The hedgehog didn't know what it was about that look. There was something pathetically innocent about it, so sincere and upsetting. Vague memories in the hedgehog's own mind recognised that look - he saw some of himself in it.
The weasil fell to his knees. The SWAT-bots began to move in. Before he knew what he was doing, the hedgehog leaped from the dumpster, swooped down and scooped the stranger off his knees. The robots had not bargained on the hedgehog's speed, and he powered down the open corridor he had seen. SWAT-bots groped for him and missed, in an instant they had broken free of their trap.
"I don't know why I'm doing this!" he exclaimed. The stranger, spellbound, said nothing. They ran through the empty streets of Mobitropolis, the hedgehog's eyes scanning the street for more SWATs. The robots were tricky - they had a hive mind network, which meant that every SWAT in the city knew everything that just one of them knew. So every robot in the city would automatically be chasing them, from every direction.
There was a loud zap to the hedgehog's left, and he looked as he sped past. A signpost had been hit by a force beam, and was melted and blackened.
"WHAT?" he shrieked, "They're firing at us! They're not allowed to do that"
Another beam barely missed him. It was time to employ tactical measures.
The hedgehog ducked into an alley, leaped into some boxes and hurled himself and his captive over a fence. He ran into the street as the SWAT-bots trapped themselves behind him. When he reached the street, he saw a new troupe on the other side running towards them.
The hedgehog poured on the speed, leaving the robots in his dust. They fired two more beams, which hit the road behind him.
After running a while, the surroundings began to appear less commercial and more urban. They were reaching the outskirts of Mobitropolis. The hedgehog could see the Great Forest behind a line of houses.
Taking a shortcut through somebody's yard, the hedgehog reached the woods and threw his captive and himself into a muddy ditch. Once again they lay together, only this time, the other was panting.
"That was incredible," the weasil said at last, "That was simply... incredible. My stars... thank you! Thank you so much, you've saved us all..."
The sun began to go down. A hedgehog and a weasil walked together through the forest. SWAT-bots were not equipped to handle the wilderness, so it was a refuge.
"You must be pretty important," the hedgehog said, "They were firing at us. They were shooting to kill, and I've never seen them do that before"
"I'm not surprised," the weasil replied, "The things I know. It would be best for a lot of people if I were dead"
They stopped walking. The hedgehog turned to his strange companion. "You keep saying that you have information that can kill everybody"
"No, I have information that can save people from being killed. Something is stirring, big things are happening. Very big things, and so secret that I don't even think the king has any idea"
"How big?" the hedgehog asked, curious.
"Huge. Treason, plans for regicide. A coup on the throne. Possibly the death of everybody in the kingdom." He broke off. "I shouldn't tell you this. You'll become a target"
"Yeah," the hedgehog scoffed, "As if I'll ever be able to show my face in that city again. I just helped a wanted criminal to escape arrest"
The weasil sighed, "There is research going on. Bad research, completely secret. Nobody knows about it because it's happening thousands and thousands of miles above the ground, on that accursed space colony. Nanotechnology, cybernetic conversion. In layman's terms, a 'robotizer"
"Robotizer? What's that"
"We're not precisely sure," the weasil replied, "But we have good reason to believe it does just what it sounds like, it converts biological organisms - you and I - into robots. The operation is headed by Ivo Robotnik, the science minister. We have no idea who else is in on it, but the veins run deep into the government"
"What do you mean, 'we'?" the hedgehog asked, "There's some group of you? Conspiracy theorists"
"We call ourselves Freedom Fighters," the weasil replied, "And we are not conspiracy theorists. We have factual information, these things are happening. Our leader is a plant in the government. We all came together because of our skills, we've all seen the evidence. That's why I'm here - gathering evidence. I was caught... But you, we owe everything to you. The things I found out, it could enable us to stop this before it spells the end for us. I'm going to report back immediately, and I want to take you with me"
"Whoa," the hedgehog protested, "Take me? Where? I don't know about this"
"Knothole," came the excited reply, "Our base of operations, it's deep in the forest. I want to take you, they will be so greatful. I have to tell them what you've done"
"Well, okay," the hedgehog said, skeptical, "But only because I have nowhere else to go."
Knothole. They reached it before nightfall. There was a clearing in the forest, but enough trees remained within that the canopy was closed. It couldn't be seen from the air.
There was some kind of small village, a number of people wandering about doing various chores. There was a fire burning in the centre. The weasil approached two makeshift guards who stood nervously at the entrance to the clearing. They didn't seem to like the look of the hedgehog, and the feeling was quite mutual.
It took a lot of explaining. The guards didn't want to let a stranger in. The weasil was so passionate, however, that they finally let him through. Knothole must have been an important secret indeed.
The hedgehog was put up in an empty, shabby-looking hut that let the wind through and looked like it might fall down. The bed was an uncomfortable pile of cloth. He managed, however, to drift off to sleep. Before he did, he idly realised that he never knew the strange weasil's name. Possibly because he hadn't given out his own.
But he didn't know his own. He was nameless, just another stranger, but a stranger without a past life. It troubled him until he drifted away.
That night, the hedgehog dreamed about running from ghosts.