S Peter Davis
All characters (C) SEGA, Archie and SP Davis 2004.
Used without permission
DEATH EGG - I
The planet Mobius sat in space like a blue and green rock suspended in an ocean of nothing, moving through the blackness like everything around it in the bottomless pit that was the universe. The word mobius itself meant infinity in the old language, and Mobius was a very ancient indeed, the way you think of gods as old. A single moon, grey, lifeless and cratered, turned like a cog around Mobius, gently tugging on its oceans and providing a silver light to its darkened side, just as Mobius turned around its own yellow star in a perpetual motion echoed through the ages, timeless and unwavering. Mobius. Infinity.
What was that, if not the simplest and largest machine of all?
The moon was not the only satellite to circle Mobius, a much younger and more complex object also enjoyed this ageless carousel. The space colony ARK. The largest (and some would say the most terrible) piece of machinery ever built by mobians wasn't built by mobians at all. The circle of creation was another kind of infinity, for ARK was a machine built by machines built by machines, and its sole purpose was to create a lot more machines in time. Looking at the ARK, it was quite possible to lose sight of just what place life had in the world anymore.
A small shuttle left the atmosphere of Mobius with a cloud-trail and entered the blackness of space, that pandemonius state of being where there was no gravity, no breath, no pressure, and concepts like up and down become as fictional as liquid fire. Ivo Robotnik sat in the pilot seat, his eyes following silently as ARK rose like the morning sun in his viewscreen. His devil-red moustache floated in the zero gravity and appeared as though it really were aflame.
The shuttle was laden with hundreds of barrels and drums, each carrying the Acornex logo. One of the barrels rocked back and forth under its own power while the others remained completely static. Something hammered on the top of the barrel from inside it. After one final powerful thump, the top came off and fell to the ground, and a single brown hedgehog emerged from inside, grunting and groaning at the effort.
Kethriel picked himself up and dusted himself off. "Sonic," he rasped, "Where are you"
A muffled voice emerged from another barrel, barely comprehensible. "In here!" it exclaimed, "Quick, I can't breathe in this thing"
Kethriel found the right barrel and helped to remove the top. Sonic tumbled out of it, breathing heavily.
"Hey, check this out," Kethriel said. There was a window in the cargo bay that allowed the hedgehogs to see what was outside the shuttle. What appeared before them was an endless black abyss, littered with thousands of white points of light.
"Is it night time?" Sonic asked, "That was quick"
"We're in space," Kethriel replied, "It's always night time in space"
"Whoa, this is space? This is what's outside of Mobius"
"It's so... empty"
Kethriel chuckled. "That's why they call it space. Look, you can see the ARK"
The space station came into view, a queer sight to Sonic's eyes. Why couldn't this huge contraption just fall down? Then he remembered that this was space, where the usual laws of science didn't seem to apply.
All at once, the two hedgehogs saw something that stopped them breathing.
The keystone of the Mother Hen Project was a superweapon, the true name of which was unknown to anyone besides Robotnik and probably the late Prince Martin, but its code name had been the Egg, the hellish mechanical spawn of Project Mobitropolis that had been hidden in orbit for a decade to conceal its horror from the world.
"The Death Egg," Sonic murmured.
"What did you say?" Kethriel asked.
"I had a dream once where that thing was called the Death Egg"
Docked within the spiral arms of the ARK space colony was an enormous spherical object like a second moon. Its surface shimmered in the starlight. It was simply a giant metal ball, and on the front of it was the simplified image of a face - two circular eyes (they look just like the lens of the Robotizer, Sonic realised, only much, much bigger) a triangle nose and a broad moustache. Even though it was so simplified, it was easily identifiable as a representation of Robotnik's face.
"He wants everybody to see his face right before he kills them," Sonic said, choked with horror, "He wants it to be the last thing that anybody sees."
"...This is Lexington Grammar for Mobitropolis Radio One, reporting from Acorn Palace, where the biggest celebration in a hundred years is about to begin. Dignitaries from everywhere across Westerica and the world have arrived in Mobitropolis tonight to partake in a royal jubilation celebrating thirteen hundred glorious years of the Acorn monarchy.
"The atmosphere tonight is just magical, as you would expect, and this morning's unanticipated terrorist attack on the capital has failed to dampen the spirits of the guests and partygoers as celebrations are held all over the city tonight. Security is extremely tight, as expected, and practically nobody is getting too close to the palace tonight unless they hold a special invitation. Now, they're not letting me get in to see any of the action unfortunately, so we won't be interviewing any of the dignitaries, but information reveals that the high-profile guest list includes Lady Krysta del Terios, Governess of Catilina; Prince Logan and Princess Nerissa of Elhorn; and Duke Redthorne and the illustrious Dutchess Jemima Pierce. In fact, we've even received information that Lord Vlanmire Cartouche, Greatsire of the Arack Empire, will be partaking in a very rare mingling between the two kingdoms. Will tonight's celebrations possibly even serve to soothe the cold war between Arack and Mobitropolis? Only time will tell..."
The concept of space continued to dazzle Sonic with his limited perception of reality. Many times he had stared upward and wondered just how far you could travel, but he had never imagined reaching a point where the air would thin to nothing and the ground would simply give up trying to pull you back to it. The hedgehogs had left the cargo area and immediately escaped the artificial gravity, losing their grip on the ground and floating aimlessly like bubbles. Kethriel burst out laughing, but Sonic went into a panic attack.
"Keth! Something's got me! Something's got me"
"Nothing's got you!" Kethriel replied, in hysterics, "There's no gravity in space"
"No gravity? What do you mean, no gravity? Gravity is everywhere! That's like saying there's no air"
"There's no air in space either, Sonic"
"What?" Sonic held his breath, hands shooting up to his neck, cheeks puffed out, legs kicking at the air like he was trying to tread water. Kethriel laughed so hard that he almost seemed like he might cry. Sonic started trying to swim back to the cargo area, where the world made sense, but despite his best efforts he only wound up floating backward.
"There's air in here!" Kethriel said between breaths, "You're fine, kiddo, relax! Just don't try going outside"
"Yeah, what happens outside?" Sonic demanded, a look of horror still painted across his face.
"Your blood will boil," Kethriel replied matter-of-factly, "And the air pressure will make your lungs explode"
"Can we go back to Zero Seven now?" Sonic asked, "It was much safer there"
The shuttle slowly approached the huge and silent doomsday weapon that floated imposingly over Mobitropolis as though it might fall at any moment and crush the life out of everything. The ARK space colony was as dark and foreboding as its purpose. Staring into the gaping maw of this black machine, Sonic was suddenly overwhelmed by bafflement. Why would anybody on Mobius go to such an immense amount of effort in the name of evil? It was a frightening thought. Few would consider evil to be a motive, in and of itself. Evil was a symptom, not a cause. What mobian was fueled by hatred so intensely as to dedicate their entire life to the extermination of others? A surprising progression of logic brought a consideration to the forefront of Sonic's mind, a thought so simple and yet so immense in scope that its implications were unimaginable.
"Keth? What is Robotnik"
Kethriel looked at Sonic questioningly and muttered "Hm"
"Well," Sonic replied, "He's not a mobian, is he"
Kethriel considered it for a moment. "Robotnik is... Robotnik. Nobody ever really questions it. To be honest, it feels like it's better not knowing the answer to that question"
"What if he's the Devil?" Sonic asked, "What if he's come out of... you know... What if he can't be stopped"
"Those who really know Robotnik," Kethriel replied, "I mean, nobody really does, but those who know him best... they say that he's an artist. He thinks of science as his art. I think I agree he's some kind of artist, except I don't think his art is science at all. Science might be his medium, but his art is death. He's been practicing for years, and now he's decided it's time to paint his masterpiece."
King Acorn had been the ruler of the city and kingdom of Mobitropolis for many decades, but he had never looked more regal. And despite it all, he still carried out the humble tradition of greeting each of his guests in person.
When each of the official guests (three hundred and twenty-seven in all) had been seated, the king retreated from the action.
"Where is Martin?" he hissed.
Sally looked over the seated guests with a growing dread. The seat reserved for her brother remained empty. She knew where Martin was, all right. He was getting ready to bring a war down on top of Mobitropolis. Despite the great feast awaiting her, she wasn't the least bit hungry, and in fact her stomach was almost ready to evacuate its contents at the mere smell of roast meat and gourmet delicacies.
Her mind screamed at her that she should have told him about Martin's insurrection from the very beginning. Her proficiency with tactics commanded her to handle the situation as quietly and delicately as possible, but now she feared that it had been like attacking a runaway train with a water pistol. Martin wasn't going to do this quietly or delicately. He was going to take Mobitropolis kicking and screaming.
"Please, Kethriel," she prayed, as though trying to evoke a deity to intervene in this chaos, "Please, Sonic Hedgehog. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing... stop this from happening."
A patrol of worker bots had already been waiting when the shuttle docked at the ARK. A long reinforced tunnel like a steel straw extended from the colony and attached itself to the cargo bay. With a loud hiss of decompression, the doors opened and the robots came out. Ever willing to help and never sluggish about their job, the small black forklift-shaped bots promptly began to load up with barrels and drums from the shuttle and take them back into the depths of the isolated colony. Moving as they did in two continuous rows, Sonic couldn't help thinking that they looked like worker ants, marching back and forth from the nest and stocking up for the winter.
Sonic and Kethriel slipped past the robots and entered the space station. It was a lonely, dead looking place, as dark as a hive and as quiet as the depths of space beyond its walls. The robots were apparently held down by magnets, because the hedgehogs floated above them through the ARK's corridors. Sonic grabbed the top of one of the bots and let it pull him along, finding no other way to propel himself in the zero gravity environment. "My stomach feels really funny, Keth," he said, "I think I'm going to.. erk"
"Try to keep it in, Sonic, I don't want to have to navigate through a belt of vomit asteroids"
The cargo route led directly into the Death Egg, and after floating for a while, the hedgehogs slowly gained weight until their feet were back on the ground. It felt different to being on Mobius, like a synthetic force that only imitated gravity (which was probably exactly what it was) but it sufficed. They entered the craft by way of some kind of massive fuelling station. The robots carried the drums of malcohol to a series of mechanical arms, which picked them up, opened them and poured their contents into giant tubes. There were hundreds of these apparatus in all. The tubes led away into the dark depths of the Death Egg's mighty engine.
"Look there," Kethriel said, and pointed. In the darkness, barely illuminated, was a raised metal platform obviously for mobian use. "It's sound construction policy to provide a technician's access route behind the scenes, in case anything should go wrong that a robot might not be able to fix," he said, "That should be the easiest way to get around the Egg. Let's move."
Ivo Robotnik gazed at his reflection in the Eye of Mobitropolis. The blue emerald glowed with a fearsome energy that even he, with his uncanny intellect, could not entirely grasp.
He held the gem in his hand, and looked beyond it to its six brothers. Each was encased inside a glass prism, floating in a vaguely greenish liquid. Even so, their individual hues radiated distinctly. The red - Martin's favourite stone, like a vial of blood lit from the inside, was first. Then the mouve, the gem that Sonic had fought over in the mountains of Kirandul and which had subsequently lost for him the others when Tails had rebelled and taken them. Next was the cerulean and the green, the first and the last to be excavated, respectfully. Then there was the orange emerald, and finally the grey, slightly larger than the others and possibly slightly brighter, although that may have been an illusion due to its lack of colouration. The echidnas who buried the emeralds thousands of years prior had referred to the grey as the controller, the unifier of the Seven Chaos, and they had left it above the ground in the forgotten Temple of the Lagoon, protected it fiercely until they had been driven from Mobius by way of whatever force had overcome them.
The next prism capsule was empty, and Robotnik carefully placed inside it the blue emerald he had pried from the king's own crown, the crown that had been created before the written record. How the prehistoric founders of this city had come across a Chaos Emerald, nobody may ever know. The capsule closed around the emerald and with a hissing sound it filled with the greenish fluid.
"Tonight, Mobitropolis will celebrate its own immortality," Robotnik said, "And tomorrow night, I will celebrate its destruction"
The scientist turned to a massive console on his left, thousands of buttons and switches laid out before him, and monitors lined across the wall like modern art. Silver, his pet, shambled up to him and stared blankly at the computer panels without any semblance of understanding.
Robotnik typed a series of commands into the system and then hesitated, his finger hovering just above a single button.
"I've waited for this moment my entire life," he said, "Viva Robotropolis"
He hit the button. Machinery began to power up and lights flickered on.
initialising sequence... all systems powering up... preparing to route power from emerald battery to central engine facility
In Mobitropolis, the moonlight beamed down upon a vagrant rat who was busy rooting through a dumpster for buried treasure. He pulled out a soiled nappy and pulled a disgusted face, but paused for a moment, considering the possibilities. Deciding finally that there were none (or at least none worth considering) he tossed it back in and started digging again. Then he grabbed a hold of something else, a very over-ripe banana, and smiled. He gathered the rest of his haul. A stale hamburger bun, a pickle and an old jar of mayonnaise that had turned in the heat. He put the banana in the bun with the pickle, scooped out a handful of rancid mayonnaise and spread it on his sandwich with the flat of his palm. "Fit for a king," he said, "Bet they're not serving anything this good at the fancy schmancy royal feast"
Rat took a bite of his tasty sandwich and waltzed through the dark, brisk alley as though he really was a king. He saw a shape at one end, silhouetted against the street, and at first he thought that it was a person, but soon realised that it was a SWAT-bot. The robot stood as motionless as a metal statue in the empty night, staring in his direction.
"Buzz off, bolt-brain, I'm trying to eat," Rat said.
The SWAT did not move. It stood its ground, and when Rat tried to get past it, the robot shoved him backward into the alley with one solid push.
"Hey!" he shouted. The sandwich flew out of his hand and he fell onto his backside. "What was that? You got a short circuit or something, buddy"
"Stay where you are, citizen," the SWAT-bot droned, "Do not attempt to leave the city or you may be restrained with lethal force"
"Lethal force?" Rat shrieked, "Oh man, you really are busted, ain't you! Since when has it been a crime to go rooting through other people's garbage? I gotta eat somehow"
The robot stood as silent as a monolith. As Rat glared at the SWAT-bot, he also saw past it to the main street. Hundreds of robots, thousands, marched together in rows along the bitumen, the massive regiment illuminated by street lights on either side. People looked on fearfully from their windows and from the curb, but few dared to move. The terrible implication was clear: The SWAT-bots no longer served the people of Mobitropolis.
red chamber engaged - power 100
mouve chamber engaged - power 100
The media, gathered near the entrance to the palace, continued their newscast.
"...and rumours suggest that a dialogue may open tonight that will enable a much wider avenue for trade between Mobitropolis and the rest of the world. Although tonight's celebrations are not geared towards political motives, there is indeed a chance that... sorry, what?... uh... okay, I'm receiving a news flash at this time... it seems that there are reports of strange SWAT-bot activity within the city? I can't be sure about the details at this time but... I'm being told that SWAT-bots are gathering together at various places in the city, um... moving in large numbers, displaying... hostile intentions? Is this accurate, Brad? I'm getting conflicting reports, here, worrying reports, I can't quite... Oh my gosh, look over there... Folks, there is definitely something of grave concern happening here at the palace tonight, I am seeing it with my own eyes, what appears to be a large... a battalion of SWAT-bots have gathered together and are marching... oh my gosh, there's another one... several regiments are marching along the main streets of Mobitropolis, hundreds of robots, I'm being told that reports are coming in from all over the city with the same story. SWAT-bots are telling people to stay indoors and not to move from where they are. I wish I could report the reasons for this, but at this point we have received no official word... the robots are driving people away from the palace, now, they are surrounding partigoers and moving people along with what appears to be some degree of force, there is a lot of confusion here, folks... Holy smokes, I've never seen so many SWATs before... some of these people are very afraid, there is panic in the air, and... Oh my gosh... Oh my gosh... Did I just hear shots fired? I think... Folks, I don't want to report inaccurately but at this time it appears that the SWAT-bots are firing at civilians. There is a huge amount of panic, now, I'm sure you can hear the screams from this end, the SWATs are... ... ... ... Folks, the SWAT-bots have just instructed my team and I to return to our homes, they are informing us... informing us that we are not to leave the city, we have been threatened with... Brad, did it just say lethal force? I can't... Folks, I think we are going to have to end this transmission, we... Oh my gosh... their weapons are armed, I repeat, the SWAT-bots are aiming their weapons at us and instructing us to move along..."
cerulean chamber engaged - power 100
green chamber engaged - power 100
"My honoured guests," King Acorn said, "Might I present my beautiful daughter, my darling Princess Sally Acorn." Everybody clapped, but he the loudest, as Sally entered the dining hall. Her dress was a thing of stunning beauty, as white as the clouds in dreams. It was a patterned off-the-shoulder and half-backless gown draped in lace as thin and whispy as the morning mist, so expertly tailored that it only barely touched the floor, never dragging. She gave an uneasy smile, though at any other time and in any other circumstances she would have been flattered by such a welcome, so much so that she would probably have been unable to keep from giggling. Right now, there was so much weight on her mind that she was having trouble standing.
The king whispered the word "Martin?" amidst the applause, and she shook her head. She sat to the right of her father, and he looked at the empty chair to his left reserved for his son. Next to Martin's chair sat Commander Packbell in a dinner suit, and the Commander shook his head and shrugged.
There had been two glossy black SWAT-bots standing either side of the main entrance to the dining hall. Sally noticed to her puzzlement that there were now four. She turned to look at her father, but as she did, she saw that Packbell had been staring at her. The Commander looked away quickly, but not in time to stop a shiver darting down her spine.
"I can't wait for Martin any longer," the king said, "Let's eat."
orange chamber engaged - power 100
grey chamber engaged - power 100
With a series of smoky, soundless explosions in the vacuum of space, the supports that held the Egg to the ARK broke away, and the craft began to drift on its own. The expressionless motif of Robotnik's face turned toward Mobius, and anybody on the ground who had a sufficiently powerful telescope would probably have been able to see what appeared to be another silvery moon - a moon that gazed back at him with humourless contempt. Thrusters on the rear of the craft started up, releasing periodic bursts of pressurised gases, and the Death Egg began to descend toward the planet.
error! blue chamber failure - power 0
Robotnik glared at the report with a sudden pang of fury. "Blast it," he growled, and turned to look at the emerald chambers. A small red light was blinking in a steady pattern under the prism holding the blue Chaos Emerald.
"Hardware failure... nothing ever works the way it should in theory. Why?" He typed another command into the terminal and it brought up a status report. There was enough energy in the other six emeralds to launch the ship and hold it aloft, but the seventh would have to be accessed if it was to operate at full potential. Robotnik ordered the ship to drop from orbit and the engines to power up. No more time was to be wasted - The Egg would launch on schedule. There would be enough time, he figured, to work the bugs out of the faulty transformer before it reached its destination.
As he was about to get to work on the problem, another alert blinked up before him.
intrusion detected - engine sector breeched - unauthorised life forms present "What now?" He brought up a visual image on the monitors. A familiar blue hedgehog and his companion were walking along the service access route in the engine sector, unmindful of the camera watching their movements.
"Sonic!" Robotnik raged, "Here! Curse him! Bah, so much for the echidna, I should have put him through the machine after all. What is it they say about getting a job done right, hey Silver? Time to take matters into our own hands, I think."
The Death Egg was more than a fortress. Sonic figured that the entire population of Mobitropolis could live comfortably inside this craft if they were properly equipped to do so. It was like a city in space - a ghost city, without even a single living soul to fill its vast chambers.
"Keth, why is this thing so big?" Sonic asked.
Kethriel shrugged. "Since Robotnik is striking tonight, I think it's probably safe to say that he has more than Mobitropolis on his mind. The king is holding a feast right about now in the royal palace, and some of the most powerful diplomats on this side of the world have been gathered together. Tactically, taking Mobitropolis tonight is a brilliant strategy"
"A strategy towards what?" Sonic asked, "World domination"
"Why not? He could build up an army fairly quickly, hundreds of war machines, thousands, fill this thing to the top with enough firepower to blow up the world, and just leapfrog to the next major city, and the next, and the next. Every time he wins, it'll be easier to do it again. With the anti-technology legislations in place, nobody stands a chance against this thing. You're not going to bring it down with a trebuchet, that's for sure"
"You sound awfully cool about it," Sonic said flatly.
"That's because it's not gonna happen," Kethriel replied, "We're stopping this, remember? Right now. We're cracking this rotten egg"
It was then that the ground seemed to shake and vibrate, and Sonic was afraid that the thin structure they were walking on was going to break apart and throw them into the oily depths of the Egg's mechanical yolk. The loud, booming sound of moving parts operating and gearing up echoed through the empty corridors. Kethriel calmed Sonic down and instructed him to keep moving.
"It's starting up," he said, "We're dropping from the ARK. I don't know how long we have before we get within attack range of Mobitropolis"
"Where are we going?" Sonic asked.
"We have to find the Chaos Emeralds," Kethriel replied, "If only we can find where he's keeping them, I know how to stop them. I have a feeling that we'll find them wherever Robotnik is. That's okay, I'd like to have a few words with the Eggman as well, if you know what I mean"
"Eggman," Sonic said, "That's funny"
Soon enough they discovered why the sounds seemed to be so close, for the engineer's access tunnel opened up and emerged from the side of a huge chasm. The hedgehogs stopped to look over the edge, without going too far. Below them was something that was obviously some kind of massive engine. Several tubes arranged in a circular pattern, each one capped with a rapidly spinning fan as wide as a house. Sonic could see a lot of machinery operating under those fans, pumping cylinders and spinning cogs.
"Wow," Kethriel said, awed, "What I wouldn't give for a hundred tonnes of TNT right about now"
The updraft from those engines was quite substantial, and the bridge they had to cross went straight over it. Sonic was afraid that they might be blown right off the flimsy thing and end up as hedgehog pudding.
"Go ahead," Kethriel said.
"Uhh, age before beauty," Sonic replied. The bridge was wide but the rails were low, and the other end looked it was getting further away right before his eyes.
Kethriel stepped out and the draft caught his spines, blowing them upward. Sonic looked up to see where the air was being sent, but could see only darkness above. He stepped onto the bridge and let the wind catch his spines and tickle him.
"It's funny," he said, "A week ago, I didn't know who you were. Seven days later, we're risking our lives together, crossing a deadly chasm on a flimsy bridge inside the biggest weapon ever built." He wanted to talk about something, anything, so that he didn't have to think too hard about where he was.
"It's strange the way things turn out, isn't it?" Kethriel replied, "You never know where the next day is going to take you"
They were halfway across the bridge, and although Sonic was trying to keep to the centre of the path he couldn't help taking another look over the edge. The fans were moving so fast now that they looked like ghosts.
"Hey Keth, l-" he began, but something fell from above and cut him off. It landed on the bridge a few feet behind him with a very loud clanging sound. Sonic, shocked, turned around and saw the Shambler rising to its feet, orange eyes glowing like embers.
Terror had frozen Sonic to the spot, and for that crucial moment he was a child again, drained of the ability to move. There was a demon staring at him, a ghost from his childhood, a hideous jagged silver parody of a hedgehog with bulky, powerful arms and jagged shards embedded in its back that looked like they could slice through flesh as easily as through fog.
"I'm sorry!" Sonic wanted to scream, but his throat was clogged up. "I'm sorry I was bad!" He wanted to beg for his life.
"It's only a machine, Sonic!" he heard Kethriel exclaim, but he sounded so far away, "It's nothing but cogs and wires and springs"
But it was so much more. Robotnik had finally made good on his promise and sent the Shambler to destroy him, to rip him into thin blue shreds.
For a moment the robot with the featureless orange spotlight-eyes seemed to stare at him (or through him) with all the animosity of a sharp silver teddy bear, its head cocked slightly and its arms by its sides. But then with a very slow, fluid movement it raised its hands a little, and six-inch blades emerged from its fingers.
"I have-" Sonic choked.
"Sonic, listen to me," Kethriel snapped, "You're faster and stronger than that thing. It won't hurt you unless you let it"
"I- I have"
The Death Egg's massive engines whirred and roared beneath them, and now the blades on the Shambler's back were moving in rows like three chainsaws and making a fierce churning sound. The prototype assassin that Robotnik had named Silver began to approach him, its claw-blades raised and ready to slice him in two, and all that Sonic could see was a silver ghost with red and blue snakes slithering around it in deadly harmony.
"I have no right to life!" he screamed at it, his muscles finally depetrifying. "Leave me alone! I exist only to develop my potential! Go away"
The snakes hissed, and Silver buzzed with mechanical fury. Its orange eyes seemed bright enough to see right into Sonic's soul. His feet rooted to the spot, his entire body trembling, he saw himself inside a glass cage with a treadmill under his feet and wires attached to his head, and he knew that running would do him no good because the treadmill could go just as fast as he could and he was trapped, trapped with this jagged silver nightmare rushing toward him.
"Where are you?" Kethriel demanded from some other world, thousands of miles away, "Come back, Sonic! Come back to now! Snap out of it and come back"
And the Shambler wasn't shambling anymore, it was rocketing toward him, great plumes of black smoke trailing behind him in flames, blades spinning too fast to be seen, claws swiping at the air. Sonic's mind lost its powerful grip on the illusion of the past for but a moment, and he was suddenly jerked back into reality. He wasn't in the Gene Room, he was in the Death Egg. The Shambler wasn't an unstoppable demon out of his nightmares, it was an idiot robot named Silver with a brain like a pocket calculator. With a shriek, Sonic ducked out of the way just as it was close enough to impale him, and he went rolling away and almost dropped off the edge into the roaring engine below, catching himself just in time and digging his heels into the metal grating of the bridge. He pulled himself to his feet. Blood dripped onto the grating, and he saw that his shoulder had been gashed by Silver's bladed claws. A fraction of a second later and he might have lost his entire arm.
But the Shambler wasn't finished. It had turned a wide arc in midair and was coming toward him again, only this time it had curled itself into a ball, blades spinning like an out-of-control buzzsaw, and Sonic realised that this was the first version of a power that he himself possessed, his ability to spin-dash. This had been built into him like he was a kind of robot as well. He ducked away again and Silver rolled past in a rush of wind. By the time Sonic stood up again, he was back in the Gene Room, surrounded by glass and machines. His body locked up again.
Robotnik had materialised out of nowhere and was shaking his head sadly. "You refuse to learn," he said, "I will teach you." He pressed a button on his panel, and Sonic realised that the cuff was back on his wrist. It shocked him fiercely and he was thrown to the ground, jerking and spasming with electric charge.
(but it's all in your mind)
No! It was real and he was being deservedly punished for his transgressions. Why would he defy his master and fight? What did he have to live for? He had no right to life! Didn't he understand that by now? After all this time, why couldn't he just learn to submit?
(there's nothing there)
Robotnik faded, nothing but smoke and mirrors inside Sonic's troubled mind, and he stood to face the Shambler for its next assault. Silver stood and turned, its emotionless eyes betraying nothing but calm. It looked at him again, calculating its next move.
Sonic wanted to cry. He wasn't ready for this, he was only a kid, and the Shambler was death's puppet. For years it had bided its time, waited with impeccable patience and watched him through that glass, waited for the day when it would be asked to kill him. That day had come, and it would never tire, would never rest and would never slow until its mission was complete. It advanced on him again, and his feet fused to the spot again.
Images of the past slithered through his mind like snakes (like red and blue snakes) and he bit his lip hard enough to make it bleed. He saw Robotnik glaring through those thick spectacles, saw the streets of Mobitropolis littered with cigarette butts, saw snakes hissing and writhing, saw Rat dividing up the day's plunder, saw Tails crying and wailing in his conflicted misery, saw Slick running from SWAT-bots in a tattered trenchcoat, saw Kethriel and Sally laughing together with more than just friendship on their minds, saw the Death Egg dropping from the heavens and hatching the end of the world.
Silver, blades screaming, rockets bellowing, burst from it all with its razor claws slicing through the air, mad for blood. Sonic stared hypnotised into those orange spotlight-eyes and knew that he was going to die and there was nothing he could do about it.
But just as the robot was almost close enough for Sonic to smell its oily metal hull, to feel the air displaced by those flailing claws, something else collided with the Shambler from one side and it was ripped from its course, rockets spluttering and blades whining. Kethriel. The hedgehog and the hedgehog parody went tumbling together over the side of the bridge.
All at once, there was silence but for the roaring of the Death Egg's engines below.
Sonic was still held to the spot for a while, his mind clearing away all the chaos that had clouded it.
"Kethriel?" he called, a tremor in his voice.
There was no reply.
"Oh... oh no..." He suddenly felt very alone and vulnerable, but his mind still seemed to refuse to believe what had just happened. Was Kethriel-
"Over here, Sonic"
Keth! Thank heavens! Sonic rushed to where the other hedgehog had fallen, and saw Kethriel's hands gripping the metal grating, knuckles turning white. His head was just visible over the side of the bridge.
"How's it hanging, Keth?" Sonic smiled with relief.
"Just fine, kiddo, just peachy," Kethriel replied, and laughed. The laugh had an uneasy quality to it.
"You sure taught that ugly brute a thing or two," Sonic said, "Let me help you back up"
"No, Sonic." Kethriel's smile had faded, and his face was contorted in what looked to be a great deal of pain. He was gritting his teeth and snorting.
"What do you mean? Here, give me your hand"
"I've got a- bit of a- problem here, kiddo"
Sonic approached him and looked over the edge. Kethriel was holding himself to the bridge with a great deal of effort, his body below his neck hanging over the side in mid-air, one leg kicking at nothingness. And... what else? Sonic leaned over further to see.
Kethriel's right shin was little more than pulp, and grasping his leg with mindless determination was the Shambler. Its claws dug into Kethriel's flesh like hooks. It stared upwards with those emotionless eyes, and released him with its lower claw, brought it up and grasped a higher point, drawing more blood and an agonized grunt from the hedgehog. Sonic realised with a huge amount of horror that the robot was climbing Kethriel like a rope.
"Kick it off!" Sonic shouted.
"I can't, Sonic, listen"
"Kick it off, it's climbing"
"Listen to me"
Sonic listened, looked into Kethriel's eyes and saw the torture must have been immense.
"Take care of Amy," Kethriel said.
"Huh? What do you mean?" Sonic didn't understand.
"My sister, take care of her. She doesn't have anybody. Okay? Tell her I love her"
"Kethriel, you can tell her yourself"
"No. I can't, Sonic"
Horrible understanding developed in Sonic's mind. "Hey... whoa, Keth, hey, no"
"Listen to me. The emeralds. Find the emeralds"
Silver brought another claw up and gripped Kethriel's knee. He howled in agony as it splintered.
"The emeralds," Sonic repeated.
"Find them, Sonic. Find them and- open the bag, Sonic, open the bag and use it"
Sonic's gaze fell to the bag that was still around his neck, the bag he had taken everywhere with him ever since he left Knothole. He still had no idea what it was.
"What's in it?" he asked.
"Use it when you- when you find the emeralds," Kethriel said, "Listen Sonic- You're the best thing that's ever happened to the Freedom Fighters, I know it. Sally knows it. You- you're going to win this for us"
"Keth, what if I can't"
"You will- you will"
Silver brought another claw up and sank it into Kethriel's thigh.
Sonic's face hardened. "Yes," he said, "I promise, Keth. I'm going to rip this accursed machine to pieces"
"Good kid," Kethriel said, and he forced a smile. Despite his pain, the expression was clearly genuine. "We're all wanderers in the desert, Sonic," he said, "But you have shown me the way." With that, he let go of the grating with one hand and held it up for Sonic, and Sonic thought that he'd had a change of heart and was asking for help after all. But when Sonic took the hand in both of his, Kethriel just gave him a solid handshake. "Thanks, kid"
With so much weight under him, Kethriel couldn't hold himself aloft with just one hand. He slipped off the edge of the bridge with a whimper, and the last that Sonic saw of him was the hand that he still shook right up until it broke away from his and disappeared.
In the short silence that followed, he didn't even think that his heart was beating.
It might have been anywhere between a few seconds and eternity, but at some point the roaring of the engines below was interrupted by a powerful and deafening explosion. Kethriel's end probably didn't make much of an impact, but his passenger's body would have been devestating as it was pulled through the delicate machinery. The entire Death Egg seemed to lurch and rock as flames from the damaged engines licked the bridge beneath Sonic's feet.
Kethriel hadn't even allowed himself to die without it being some kind of blow against Robotnik's machinations.
(you have to run)
The mural of the DNA strand that Sonic's young mind had perceived to be two coiled snakes bared down on him from above, seemed to hiss at him and confirm his fate. "You've been a bad, bad, bad kid," the snakes hissed, "And now you're going to go to the Big Treadmill in the Sky." The infant hedgehog trembled in his bed, pretended to sleep. The door was open... the door to his prison. That rarely happened. The Master was outside, he who could make Sonic's bracelet electrify him, he who gave the commands and made the rules and administered the punishments. What had he done now? The look on the Master's face was grave, and he held a large needle in his hand.
(you have to run)
But Sonic couldn't move, his body was frozen, he might as well have really been asleep. He wasn't sure exactly what it was that convinced him that he was about to die, or why. Perhaps his purpose had finally been exhausted - he existed only to develop his potential, maybe it had been developed as far as it could go. He knew that if it was his time to die, then he should close his eyes and take it. There was nothing for him in this world, he had no right to life, none at all.
And yet, something within him wanted to... wanted to.
The door was open, and the Master stepped through, holding that needle, his eyes impossible to read inside their deep craters and behind those spectacles. His hook nose flared, his mouth pulled up in a scowl. Sonic couldn't help his trembling, his muscles tensed up so much that they hurt, his mind screamed at him.
(you have to run, run, run)
And something happened. The voice in his mind achieved some kind of victory over reason, and before he knew what he was doing, he was on his feet doing what he did best. Only this time, there was no treadmill. This time, he was going somewhere. The Master's face contorted into a gasp of surprise as Sonic ran past him and out the door. He was running like the wind. The Master was chasing him, screaming his name, and the Shambler was after him too, now, and it would tear him apart if it caught him. Sonic was crying as he ran, he didn't want to disobey but he was just so scared, so frightened, he wanted to live, live, live.
But Sonic wasn't a child at all, and although he was running and crying, he wasn't running through the dark corridors of Zero Seven, but the steel recesses of the Death Egg. It had been ten years since his escape from the Gene Room, ten years without a memory and without a life, and now he was back where he started - in the hall of the Robot King, naked, frightened and utterly, miserably alone.
(but there is a difference this time - your life has a purpose)
Twice, he felt an explosion rock the Death Egg, and as he ran he momentarily lost weight and floated a few feet, as though the disturbance was disrupting the false gravity that flowed through the craft. Both times he fell back down and continued running, missing not a beat.
"What can I possibly do?" he screamed into the darkness, "I'm still a kid! All I know how to do is run and steal"
He slowed to a stop, panting. How long had he been running? And how far? Fleeing from his grief, his torment and his guilt.
"Pull yourself together," he hissed, and he gave himself a brisk slap in the face. "You weak, useless hedgehog, you hesitated back there and you got Kethriel killed. He gave his life so you could win this thing, don't you dare fall apart now"
His hand fell upon the silk bag, tied up with a drawstring and hanging around his neck. At that moment he almost grabbed it and opened it, but stopped short. Kethriel had known that they might be in this situation, had known all along. Always one to plan ahead. Whatever was inside that bag, it could be used with the Chaos Emeralds - some kind of device designed to destroy them or stop their power somehow. It was the final resort, the one thing that could stand between Robotnik and the end of the world. He had to get this bag to the emeralds. He wasn't even permitted to die trying.
Sonic took a step back and looked around. The corridor opened up into some kind of multi-layered chamber with a balcony of sorts, and a winding staircase leading to the platforms below. He stepped up to the railing of the balcony and squinted into the dark of the abyss.
The chamber was very deep and very vast. Sonic figured that he had entered some kind of storage facility or warehouse of sorts, for there were many boxes and crates stacked atop each other, some the size of shipping containers or bigger. He couldn't see the opposite wall, but there was another balcony a few metres from him, the platform to which it attached leading back into the shadow of the unknown. Sonic began to wonder whether he should descend the stairs or jump across to the next balcony, and as he considered this, the darkness began to recede. Were his eyes adjusting, or was there more light? He started to get the uncomfortable notion that space wasn't quite so adept at cloaking them in its black shroud - they were returning to Mobius.
In the new light, Sonic saw a figure standing at the next balcony. A large figure, tall and robust, with a round head and an impossibly broad moustache.
"Hello, Master," Sonic replied, but he spat the last word as though it were a bitter seed in his mouth.
"You do remember, after all," Robotnik replied.
"You killed Kethriel"
"No, you killed Kethriel," the scientist sneered, "You should have seen yourself, Sonic, standing there like you were made of wood. Very disappointing. I taught you better than that, I think. Not a very enthusiastic display of potential"
"You killed Prince Martin"
Robotnik faltered. "Well... yes, I'll give you that one"
"Why?" Sonic shrieked, "Why are you doing all of this? Do you think that you're God, is that it"
Robotnik snickered, and it was the closest thing to a smile that Sonic had ever seen on his face. "Don't be stupid, Sonic, don't patronise me. I've had people try to compartmentalise me all my life, but it's always the same nursery school psychology garbage, all of it. I don't have any delusions of grandeur, although I do suspect that, if God does exist, He and I do have a few things in common"
"Then why? Why would you do all of this"
"It's simple, Sonic." Robotnik leaned into the light so that Sonic could see his round, unsightly face hidden behind those glasses and that explosion of red facial hair like flames, and for a moment he really could have been the Devil. "Why do I do it? Because I can"
"I'm going to stop you," Sonic said, "You disgusting monster, I'm going to stop you, do you understand me? You're going to rue the day that you breathed life into Sonic the Hedgehog"
"I think not," Robotnik replied, "You are an enduring one, I'll give you that. You're more like a cockroach than a hedgehog, I've sent everything in the world after you and you still manage to scurry away. You could probably survive a nuclear winter if you had to. But even the biggest, fastest cockroach on Mobius is powerless to really do anything worthwhile. All you can do is watch: in an hour or so, every living soul in Mobitropolis is going to be a walking pile of scrap, a stringless puppet for my entertainment, and you cannot stop it from happening. Sonic, at this point I don't even think I could stop it from happening"
"You're the cockroach," Sonic spat, "You vile thing. You plague"
"Who knows, Sonic, you may be right." Robotnik began to back into the darkness, the shadow shrouding him, making him disappear. "You may be right. You may be right"
"Oh no you don't, you don't get away that easy." Sonic began to descend the spiralling staircase to get to the bottom. He could see now that there were more than crates stored in this place. It was some kind of armoury. There were robots lined up by the hundreds, none of them operational. As Kethriel had predicted, Robotnik was building an army. With every city he took, he would instantly draft thousands of new troops with his terrible Robotizer. How long would it really take for the Death Egg to give Robotnik the world? A year? Less?
A very loud sound broke his train of thought, and he stopped dead, staring into the darkness. Silence. What had that been, another explosion? He hadn't lost gravity, and it hadn't sounded quite like an explosion at all, more like a thud, like something very big falling deliberately.
Boom! There it was again. The sharp, loud blow of metal on metal. Closer this time. It rattled the railing that Sonic had been touching.
Slowly he continued down the stairs, all the while transfixed on that gaping abyss before him. There was another loud thud, and another, closer and closer, and now he saw something coming out of that darkness. Something very, very big. Each footfall like the gait of a titan. Gradually, dreadfully, the colossus came into view.
King Acorn stood before his guests, whose conversations dropped to silence as they paid due civility to their host. The feast had been consumed, and everybody in the room was satisfied. The king turned his head with regal poise, and at this point it was dismally clear just how old the monarch had become. The squirrel king, his fur and hair thinning and greying, was an emaciated figure betwixt the relative youth of the guests in his court. The radiant, divine beauty of the princess to his right, and the prince... still not present. The monarch's gaze lingered on the empty chair to the left of him just for a moment, but a great sadness seemed to fall over him.
Still, he retained his composure and looked over the faces in the great dining hall. Over three hundred were present. Kings and queens, lords and ladies, dukes and dutchesses, and political figures. Even an Arack lord, his four hands clasped, sat politely at this table tonight, attention fixed upon him.
The king took a deep breath, and smiled. His warmth radiated over the congregation, and everybody present was sobered by it, calmed and contented.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "I want to thank you all for being here tonight."
Sonic stared up at the most monsterous robot he had ever set his eyes upon, Silver notwithstanding. It stood perhaps fifty feet tall, perhaps sixty, a massive tank of a thing on two legs, each thicker than the trunk of the mightiest oak on Mobius. For some reason, Sonic found it particularly horrid that this thing was apparently made to look like Robotnik, although the doctor had been quite generous in reproducing his bodily appearance. It was a muscular hulk of a machine, painted red and wearing a thick metal armour of sorts that Sonic doubted any gun ever invented could puncture. Its head was little more than a swivelling dome with lens-eyes and a painted-on moustache. Its arms were claws, and attached to each forearm was a massive cylindrical machinegun turret.
Robotnik's voice boomed through a loudspeaker that Sonic couldn't see, and a daunting fact suddenly occurred to him, that the doctor was actually speaking from inside this behemoth.
"Sonic, I would like to introduce you to the Doomsday Mech. I decided I should award myself some kind of protection in the unlikely event that my plans were compromised. I'd like to submit you to one final test, if I may. Let's see how far your potential has really expanded over these years"
The Doomsday Mech pointed its turrets towards Sonic and opened fire in a storm of bullets.
"As you know," the king said, "This is a celebration of thirteen hundred years. Thirteen hundred years since the great Ridgewars, when the crown was passed from the house of Greyblack to the house of Acorn, who have watched over this kingdom ever since, with altruism and pride. But let us not see tonight as a celebration of one family, rather as a celebration of Mobitropolis."
The gunfire licked at his heels as Sonic sprinted as hard as he was able, but there was precious little room to move in this place, and he had already run so much. He had used all of his energy reserves quickly in his panic, and now was running purely on adrenaline alone. He was slowing down. The blue blur was slowing down. And as he ran in circles he couldn't help wondering how long he had to play this game, how long before the citizens of Mobitropolis looked up into the sky and saw a second silvery moon rising in the east, this one emblazoned with Robotnik's horrid motif, laughing at them.
Sonic saw an opening, a corridor, and blazed into the darkness of its unknown, the only thing on his mind the image of Kethriel, screaming at him to keep running, just keep running. He heard Robotnik's Doomsday Mech thundering after him, guns blazing.
"For it was only after these great wars merged the peoples of Westerica together under one flag that the glory of Mobitropolis truly began. Only then could this city truly enter its golden age, and it is not the house of Acorn that is responsible for this glory, but the people. We must never forget the people."
Sonic's lungs burned. He was tiring, and there was no destination in sight. The ghastly machine was gaining on him, the gunfire hitting home closer and closer, he could feel some of the bullets ricochet close to him and ping off the metal construct of this devilish warcraft. There were blisters on his heels inside the red sneakers that a small fox had stolen for him once. And suddenly he was back in the land of his dreams. He was small himself, as young as that fox had been, and there were ghosts chasing him. They howled and shrieked their horrible cries, and Sonic was oh so tired, but he knew that he could never be caught. He had to run, he had to live, because he did have a right to life and there was more to his life than being some beastly professor's basement science project. He was the blue blur, he was the blue thunder, he was Sonic the Hedgehog.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am an old king. My youth is but a distant memory to me. My end is in sight, and I fear I am not too long for this world. I have seen many things in my lifetime, I lived through the ravages of the Android Wars and I saw this great city rebuilt again to its former glory. I have seen through a great many changes in my time and I have propogated the first seeds of true democracy in my court. But I will not be around to see the fruits of my labours. I will be succeeded by another, and my successor will carry on the work that I have begun. It is my intention tonight that I name this successor, the heir to my throne."
The ghosts were near, now. He could feel their rancid breath on the back of his neck. Ghosts from his past and ghosts from his present. Snakes slithered and hissed and opened their poison maws to devour him whole, but he kept running. He ran but he did not fear. He ran to survive, and this time he did not cry as he ran, but he laughed.
"My son, Martin Acorn, is a strong and intelligent young man. I took great pride in his raising, as did his late mother. Since he was a lad of no more than five he has taken a solid and unwavering interest in the history and the inner workings of Mobitropolis. He loves this city more than anyone I have ever known, and he is truly the jewel of his father's crown. I love him very dearly and I wish he could be present tonight to hear me say so. He would make a fine monarch and a finer gentleman. For these reasons I am conflicted, however set in my decision, to announce that my daughter Sally will inherit the crown after my passing."
Sonic came to a dead end and turned. Where to go? Walls on all sides of him, the Egg was a maze from which there seemed no escape. And storming out of the darkness came the horrific Doomsday Mech, guns raised and locked on.
"I do wish you could stay and watch the party, Sonic," Robotnik's voice boomed, "But I do have quite a lot of work yet to do. I hope you understand. You've lived much longer than you were ever supposed to. It's time to terminate you like the pointless experiment you are."
There was no longer silence in the court, as shocked voices chattered away enthusiastically. King Acorn gave it a moment and then raised his hands for quiet so he could continue.
"In my darling daughter's eyes I can see the soul of Mobitropolis. I see the beauty of its cobbled streets, its blue waters and cerulean skies, its green grass and the cheerful laughter of its children. That is what Mobitropolis is - soul. It is the soul of the people that beats within her, and this city that I love, that we all love, will grow ever more beautiful with my stunning young queen on its throne. It is in the shadow of this beauty that Mobitropolis will live on for another thirteen hundred years."
But Sonic could see a glittering light between the legs of Robotnik's mech, in fact it was seven points of light, each with a different colour of its own. He saw these lights shining brilliantly and without hesitation he went for them, just as Robotnik roared at him and opened fire.
(run sonic keep running don't you ever stop)
"When I look at Sally, I see the future of Mobitropolis. I see it in her eyes that whatever happens..."
Sonic ran right between the mech's legs, nearly toppling it as it followed him with its guns amidst Robotnik's cry of fury.
(run sonic run run run run)
"...that whatever the future may bring..."
(run towards the light)
(run sonic never stop)
"...are we on air?
"This is Lexington Grammar for Mobitropolis Radio One. It appears that the situation we reported earlier has not interfered with our ability to broadcast, but we cannot make any assumptions as to if and when that might change. We will try to report the facts as we are aware of them.
"A few hours ago we and hundreds of others witnessed a kind of martial uprising in Mobitropolis. At around eight o'clock this evening, reports began to circulate that the city's SWAT-bot militia was assembling to enact some kind of citywide curfew. As far as we can tell at this time, no citizens have been permitted to leave Mobitropolis since the incident began.
"We are unable to confirm whether this action was initiated by the government, or whether it constitutes some kind of unlawful rebellion. Already a number of frightened citizens are making reference to the great Android Wars of sixty years ago, when militaries governed by artificial intelligence began to usurp their creators all over Mobius, and waged a war against each other with little mobian involvement.
"So far, we have received no official word from the government. Before the SWAT-bots assumed control of the city, Radio One was covering the centennial celebrations at the palace, but no communication has been established between the government or the monarchy since the confusion started, and the state of the king's health and safety cannot be reported with any accuracy.
"My producer is informing me of new eventualities as reports come in. I'm being informed that a number of independent sources are reporting sightings of what is being referred to as... I hope this is accurate... as an unidentified flying object. Apparently the large, spherical object was seen to light up like a meterorite upon entering Mobius' atmosphere, but was and is moving far too slowly to be of natural origin. The accuracy of these reports and the nature of their connection with the SWAT curfew has yet to be ascertained.
"We have confirmation that the robot military continues to prohibit the free assembly of citizens in Mobitropolis. There are unconfirmed reports that a group of mobians have attempted to fight past a blockade of SWAT militia at the city limits and, tragically, the robots have opened fire to prevent the passage of citizens beyond the Mobitropolis city line.
"We can only advise at this time that nobody attempt to initiate conflict with the SWAT-bots until the motives behind this situation can be reported and confirmed. Until then, please, stay in your homes. Remain calm and keep your radios tuned to this station. We will continue this broadcast for as long as possible. This is Lexington Grammar for Mobitropolis Radio One, keeping you informed..."
Sonic the Hedgehog stood alone in the Death Egg's central control station, and wished desperately for Kethriel's guidance.
Buttons and dials in their hundreds were lit up all over the chamber, and only Robotnik knew what they all did. If there was a way to make the villainous contraption self-destruct, to turn away from Mobitropolis and crash or render itself benign, Sonic didn't have the vaguest idea how to command it. And there wasn't enough time to take the trial-and-error approach. He could hear the monsterous sound of the Doomsday Mech close behind him, trying to rip its way through the Death Egg's innards to get to him. He probably had no more than a few minutes or less before it succeeded, and he was cornered in this room.
It occurred to him that, one way or another, this was the end of the line for him. He was about to give his life for a cause, a concept that he would have found ridiculous only a week earlier. But Sonic had grown to sympathise with the Freedom Fighters and their quest. So much so that he now found himself sharing every bit of the passion that had led to the movement's original fruition. He finally understood why this needed to be done. Robotnik's snarling face burned itself in his mind, he associated it with every moment of pain in his entire life, and he knew. The wayward Science Minister of Mobitropolis had to be stopped, at all costs.
He turned his attention to the dozens of monitors on display, each of them presenting a different set of information, most of which was gibberish to him. The largest monitor, however, showed a huge video image of the view outside, like the window in a plane's cockpit. Sonic could see an expanse of blackness, the night-time landscape of Westerica far below. In the centre was a galaxy of light, thousands of little points of glittering silver, and Sonic knew instinctively that they were the lights of Mobitropolis. The view of the city was growing steadily larger as they approached it.
There was a loud crash and a mechanical whine as Robotnik's mech made its way closer to him. He could smell the oily stench of its gunsmoke.
Sonic turned to the right and saw some kind of massive machine built into the wall of the control chamber. At its base were seven cylindrical columns, at the top of each a kind of glass prism full of greenish liquid, and each prism held a Chaos Emerald. Under the blue emerald was a blinking red light that seemed to indicate some kind of error, but the whole machine was humming with energy. There was something strange about that blue emerald, Sonic thought. The other six were glowing with almost the radiance of an electric bulb, but the Eye of Mobitropolis was dim and dull, even for a Chaos Emerald. Even then, he began to suspect, began to understand.
Another loud ripping noise and the sound of straining machinery. Sonic feared that if he turned around he would be able to see the barrel of the Doomsday Mech's weapon, and so he remained focused on the emeralds. With a brisk motion, he grabbed the silk drawstring bag around his neck and snapped it off. There was something strange happening with the bag, as well. It seemed almost to be throbbing, pulsing with energy. Sonic's heartbeat seemed to double, just being in the viscinity. The bag's contents were warm in his hand. It almost seemed to want to leap out of his grasp, but he held it tight. Carefully he slipped his fingers into the tight aperture at the top of the bag and pulled it open for the first time.
Robotnik inched closer, ripping a hole in the entrance to the control room big enough to fit the Doomsday Mech through. The soft whining of the mech's limbs as they moved was audible now through the clamour of its actions.
At first, Sonic didn't quite understand what he was seeing. The bright glow in his hand, like blue fire. The emeralds were rattling in their cases, now, as the hedgehog struggled for comprehension. But yes, it did make sense, and he laughed, though it almost sounded like the laugh of a lunatic. Kethriel had not been anybody's fool. On the contrary, it appeared that he had outsmarted absolutely everyone.
The emeralds were in turmoil. Each one glowed like the core of the sun and crashed around inside its prison. The object in Sonic's hand filled his body with warmth, saturated him with it. The blue glow was almost too bright to observe... the real Eye of Mobitropolis, in all its awesome power. The counterfeit emerald in the machine exchanged its fake blue glow for a red-hot one. There was a blinking red light under all seven chambers, now, and several urgent-looking messages appearing on Robotnik's monitors.
Sonic didn't know what he was supposed to do, but it happened anyway, like some kind of natural instinct. With an effort that felt more like a release, he let the Chaos energy surge through his body. It flowed into him like light into a black hole - and then kicked back. The fake emerald exploded inside the machine with a shattering blast, glassy blue fragments and green liquid raining down upon everything. Sonic could hear explosions within the emerald machine as overloaded circuits blew apart and machinery incinerated. One by one, the prisms burst with a shower of liquid and the Chaos Emeralds flew towards him, around him, like planets in a system, like electrons in an atom, chaos and harmony at the same time. Sonic saw that his body wasn't blue anymore, it was aflame like the sun, and it didn't feel so good anymore. He was the conduit, he was the burning apogee of the combined energies of the Chaos Emeralds, and it was more than he could handle. Thoughts raced through his mind faster than he could interpret them. He drew his body together with a pained whimper, contracted all of his muscles, drew the energy tightly into his very centre... then with a scream, splayed his limbs and blew it out again. A wave of energy filled the chamber, and all of the monitors exploded in a shower of glass and sparks. His body brightened like a flare and the emeralds' energy flowed like a circuit into the Death Egg's control board, through its engines, and back into him. More explosions could be heard deep within the craft's diabolical viscera.
Robotnik roared within his battle mech, and opened fire on the incandescent entity that had formerly been a hedgehog. A raging hoard of bullets that should have torn Sonic's body apart deflected off his glowing chassis with little effect. Sonic turned around, his face contorted into a map of insanity. His eyes flared, but the image they sent to his brain was lost among a million other images racing through his mind. He was losing his grip on reality... good God, he was losing his mind. His body burned from within... the emeralds were going to rip him to shreds, but not before they destroyed his sanity.
With a scream, Sonic reared up and ran, but the emeralds were fuelling his speed as though his legs were rockets. He ran through the tide of bullets, leaped up and full-body-slammed the Doomsday Mech right in the centre of its hull. The mech tipped over backward, guns still firing, bullets ripping an arc in the Death Egg's framework. Sonic didn't look back, he left it all behind him as he surged forward. The emeralds were following behind him like the trail of a comet, as though magnetised to him, but they could not keep up with him. He was the blue blur. He was the fastest thing alive.
In his growing insanity and increasing alarm, Sonic never really knew at what point he left the Death Egg, or how. He supposed that he had run so fast that he burst right through its shell and kept going. But at some stage he simply lost control of the energy flowing through him, lost whatever focus he had over it, and it had dispersed from him like smoke in the wind. His stressed mind pulled itself together enough to regain control of his senses, and he found himself literally running through the air.
Sonic, his familiar blue spines blowing in the wind, was very high up. For a while his body retained enough kinetic energy that for a while he was weightless. His legs and arms were still pumping, and he was still running. Even the end of the road could not stop him running. It may have been the thin air making him euphoric, or it may have been the sheer bliss associated with the concept that he had beat the Devil and come out of it running on air like a superhero, but Sonic began to laugh. He laughed until he nearly burst.
After not too long a time, Sonic finally began to fall. He felt gravity take hold of his body and tilt him downward so that he could see the vast ocean. Dawn was breaking, and he could see the sun's orange glow reflecting off the water, creeping over the curved liquid horizon in the east. There was something else below him... an island, although it wasn't quite right. Perhaps his sanity hadn't returned entirely, because what he saw was a mass of land complete with deep vegetation and tall, snowy mountain peaks, the entire thing flying above the water like a cloud. Illusion or not, in the light of dawn it was so beautiful that he could have wept.
Seven tiny points of light came into view below, and Sonic knew that they were the Chaos Emeralds. No longer enslaved to his body, the emeralds fell to Mobius. Sonic had enough time to realise that they were going to land on the island (and that he wasn't) before a combination of a lack of oxygen and sheer exhaustion began to black out his consciousness. He closed his eyes, smiled, and let it happen. This was what it was like to be free, he thought. This is what it felt like to be a creature of purpose. And Sonic, his purpose fulfilled, contentedly fell to his doom.
But that wasn't to be.
Dead hedgehogs don't dream, and in Sonic's dreams he was still running. Not out of necessity, however, or out of fear, but because running was what he did. He loved to feel the wind in his spines, feel it rushing through his splayed fingers.
There were ghosts in his dream, too, but they weren't chasing him. They came up beside him and began to speak, but he ignored their chattering. He cared not about these shapeless spectres, he was basking in his freedom.
"I think he's waking up, I do," said one ghost to the other.
The other ghost's reply was drowned out by the roar of the engines.
Sonic groaned and opened his eyes. The wind was still rushing through his spines, but he wasn't running. The light blinded him and he couldn't make out the blurs around him, and the only thing he could hear was that roaring, chopping engine. The hedgehog sensed somebody behind him, and he turned to face them, squinting for focus. The blurs coalesced into the image of a stork, beak pulled back in a wide grin, eyes hidden behind goggles that were attached to a leather cap.
"Hi hi hi there!" the stork exclaimed over the wind.
"Flightless Joe..." Sonic croaked. "Hey... whoa, hey, where am I"
Joe pointed ahead, and Sonic turned around. He and Joe were squeezed together in the passenger seat of a small red biplane, Joe's treasured Tornado, and Sonic almost laughed when he saw who was in the cockpit. A young orange fox, almost too short to see over the dashboard, two tails flapping in the wind. Tails Prower, also in a leather flying cap, turned around and grinned at him.
"Heya, Tails," Sonic said dumbly, exhausted and bemused.
"In all my years of flying," Joe said, "I ain't never seen a pilot catch a falling hedgehog in mid-flight. I've seen a lot of things, yes I have, some things you wouldn't even believe, but I ain't never seen that. But now I have, now I have"
"Couldn't just let him fall to his death, could I?" Tails shouted, his voice almost too soft to be heard over the engine, "Now we're square"
"Why did you come back?" Sonic asked, "I was horrible to you"
"You chose me, Sonic," Tails replied, "Remember the cliff? The emeralds? I did some thinking and decided on what was important. It's a good thing I came, too, got here just in time"
"The Death Egg," Sonic said, his memory rushing back, "What happened to the Death Egg"
"That big metal thing?" Joe asked, "I tell ya, I've seen and collected just about every aircraft that's ever flown, yes I have, but I never seen a bird as big - or as ugly - as that one. Looked like the moon came down for a visit, it did." He thought for a moment. "Wouldn't mind it in my collection, though"
"But what happened to it?" Sonic demanded, "Did it crash"
Joe simply pointed, and Sonic followed his gaze. The Tornado was headed inland, and they were just crossing the coastline. Off on the horizon was the machine city of Zero Seven, and a huge dome sat in the water offshore.
"Oh no," Sonic groaned, "He's docked it, I hoped it would crash." Sudden panic flooded his face. "Did he take it to Mobitropolis? Did he attack"
"Kid, nobody took that thing nowhere," Joe replied, "It flew like a dying seagull. Just about when it spat you out like it didn't care for the taste of you, it started spluttering about and came down in a corkscrew. Seems a miracle that it managed to gain control enough to splash down at the dock"
"Have to stop that thing," Sonic grunted, "Robotnik's relentless, he'll relaunch if he can. Have to destroy it"
"Not right now, you ain't," Joe said, "You need a rest and some food, and the girl here needs a refuel. That thing's not going anywhere today, even if it does ever fly again, which I doubt. Homeward bound, Tails"
"Aye aye!" Tails called back, and the Tornado banked and flew towards the mountains. Sonic yawned and began to doze again, but before his eyes closed he saw that floating land mass again, hovering far out to sea. It was real after all, and he supposed that stranger things had happened. But for now he put his head down and slept.
END OF ACT ONE