by K. M. Hollar

Copyright info: Sonic and related characters copyrighted by Sega, Archie, and K. M. Hollar. This story is copyrighted 2005 by K. M. Hollar and may not be duplicated. It may be distributed online as long as this copyright header remains intact. Visit for more fics.

A word of warning: This is a fic in a long story arc involving the rise and fall of Metal Sonic. Mecha was defeated in the end of Sonic Heroes, but he has recovered from that with Shadow's aid, and that of a chao. Please see the fic Mercury Inferno Rising for the adapt of Sonic Heroes, and the fic Worthless, which chronicles Mecha's lengthy recovery.

Another scar from fighting the truth now

Has left me like a stranger to my need now

A masquerade, a game to figure out now

A cruel charade I cannot scream aloud

Oh please reach out to me

Open my eyes to see

I'm running from you now

Come rescue me somehow

"You are commanded to hunt and kill the living," said his Master. "But not all living ... only those who venture into our city. Those who are our enemies."

"But I am alive," the subject wanted to say. "Why should I destroy that which cost so much to create?" But he couldn't say it, because he could not physically question an order. He bowed his head and stepped through the door into the city of the dead. Only the undead zombie slaves populated it, and he, too, was a slave. A living slave in the dead city, and his mission was to destroy any other living creature. Nothing was allowed to live, because life was too unpredictable, too uncontrollable. He himself was only half alive, and the life in him balked at the living death around him.

Life detected. He received an order to hunt it down and destroy it, and he had to obey. He ran toward the enemy's location, through streets populated by the undead, their eyes staring, forever unblinking. He shunned them, for he was different. He was alive. He hated them, feared them, because one day he might become like them.

The living creature came into sight as he turned a corner. The vivid brown of its fur stood out against the drab greys of the city. It saw him and fled, and he pursued. It was alive, and no one was permitted to live in the city of the dead. He hated it on sight, because it was alive while he was half-dead. He feared living creatures, because one day he might become like them.

His orders were to kill. To take away the life that this intruder was arrogant enough to possess. He obeyed this order, but even as the life left his victim's body, the life within him screamed in agony. He was destroying something sacred and wonderful, something valuable, something that should not be destroyed, and the half of him that was alive struggled and wept in agony. But he had his orders, and they came first. Master's commands always came first, for he ruled supreme over the city of the dead.

Over Robotropolis.

Metal Sonic awoke and sprang to his feet, his synthetic heart racing. Had he done it? Had he killed again? No ... his panicked eyes took in the four walls of his chamber, his cot, the chao sleeping in a nest of blankets on the floor. No, he hadn't killed. He had had another nightmare.

He sat down on his cot and tried to calm himself, rubbing his forehead with one clawed hand. It was the same nightmare he had every time he dared shut himself down. Every night he relived his Robotropolis years, except in the dream he was the semi-organic creature he was now, and not the demon robot he had been. He had killed so many people at Robotnik's command ... so many innocent people ... and he had taken even more to the roboticizer, to make them into undead slaves like himself.

Mecha rose to his feet, left his room and stalked down the hall to the control room. He growled, "Computer activate," and the three idle computer screens blinked on. He paced back and forth in their light, his red eyes casting a dim glow of their own.

The nightmares were growing worse. Ever since his last major upgrade, when his hoverjet had been removed to make room for his new carbon-based power system, his sleep had been wracked with ghosts and regrets from his past. He had only left Robotnik's service a year ago, rewriting the old code and destroying the old programs. Sometimes he mildly regretted this. Then he remembered all the things that Robotnik had made him do, and his regrets vanished. Enslaved and half-alive.

Why only half? Mecha pondered it for the hundredth time while suppressing a shudder. The dream meant something, he was certain, but it had already faded from memory, leaving him only with a vague dread.

He turned in his pacing and jumped. Standing in the hallway was a chao, its eyes reflecting the light of the computer screens. Mecha snarled at it. "What are you doing awake? Go back to bed, now."

The chao's ear-nubs flattened, and it hung its head and toddled back into the darkness. Mecha regretted being so harsh. He had never wanted a chao and never considered owning one. But Shadow had stolen an egg from somewhere, and it had hatched in Mecha's hands. The chao imprinted on him, and along the way she had done the impossible and stolen Mecha's heart. He had named her Aleda. He had nearly lost her to Robo Knux a month before, and it had made him fanatically protective of her. When he wasn't ordering her out of his sight.

Mecha's pacing slowed, and he stood looking up the hallway after Aleda. He felt guilty for snapping at her. Guilt! The sense that he had done something wrong! It haunted his dreams and his waking hours alike. His nanite brain was developing new pathways all the time, and his capacity for feeling was increasing exponentially. Which meant that half the time Mecha was an emotional wreck and didn't know why.

He walked softly back to his room, pausing to listen outside of Shadow's door. Mecha's ears detected the hedgehog's deep, even breathing, and Mecha was relieved. At least Shadow wouldn't bother him tonight.

During the long period following Mecha's final defeat at Sonic's hands, Mecha had sank into depression and wanted only to die. Shadow had been determined that Mecha would live, and they had shared a room for most of the summer so that Shadow could watch him. Mecha was past that stage now, and had moved back into his old quarters down the hall, and could roam at night as he chose.

Which was convenient when the nightmares started.

He pushed open the door to his own room and looked around for Aleda. Her blankets on the floor were empty. Then he saw the lump on his cot, and smirked. If she couldn't be with him, then she would steal his bed. Aleda's logic always amused him. He pulled back the blanket and picked her up. She blinked at him soberly, her feelings still hurt.

"Aleda," he said quietly, "there are times when I wish to be alone. Tonight was one of those times. However, I do not wish to be alone any longer."

A grin broke across her face, and she made a low, happy trill. She was only two months old, and had not yet evolved due to certain injuries, but she understood every word Mecha said. He stroked the top of her head and wondered when she would evolve, and if he would still like her once she could talk back to him. Most of his annoyance with Shadow stemmed from the hedgehog's backtalk.

He sat down on his cot and leaned against the wall, setting Aleda in his lap. She curled up with a yawn, and he stroked her, watching her eyes close and feeling her relax. She could sleep so easily. Mecha slept only if he commanded his robotic elements to idle, and then his mind tormented him with buried fears enacted in a virtual environment. He closed his eyes and rested his metal spines against the wall like a tripod. If he couldn't sleep, at least he could rest his body with inactivity.

Dr. Robotnik strapped himself into the Egg Walker, and pulled a pair of goggles over his eyes. He flipped a switch to activate the walker's energy shield, and as it flickered to life, he rubbed his hands together and grasped the control stick. It seemed as if he was preparing for combat, but this was not the case.

He was attending a meeting with a client.

Robotnik had lost weight during the five months that Metal Sonic had kept him imprisoned. Upon returning to freedom and his old hideouts, Robotnik found that he could fit into the smallest pants he had worn in thirty years, and grudgingly admitted that he had more energy. But dieting wasn't something that Robotnik did of his own accord, and he was working hard to regain his lost weight.

He guided his craft out of the hanger and down a ramp under the stars, flicking on his headlight. The walker itself had a rounded body with two squat, thick legs, but it could move at speeds up to 60 MPH. The walker had served him well, even after the beating that Tails had given it on the ARK.

He left the cover of the buildings and moved out onto the runway, his mech's feet clanging. After Mecha had vacated the Egg Tower and emptied the airbase, Robotnik had quietly taken up residence there, keeping up the pretense that the tower was abandoned. Only a select few knew otherwise, and he was meeting with one of them tonight.

His headlights caught a glint of metal, and two electronic green eyes appeared in the darkness. Robotnik stopped and turned his shield to full power. "Come on, Robo Knux," he called. "This is a truce, as you had agreed."

There was a long moment in which nothing happened, and Robotnik began to sweat with the tension. Then the robot walked up beside the Egg Walker and stood looking up at him, arms crossed.

Robo Knux was modelled after an echidna, with long triangular dreadlocks, a heavy body, and eight-inch claws on his knuckles. He had upgraded the panelling on his lower arms, and Robotnik saw that they were bulletproof shields, dented and scratched. Robo Knux had them crossed in front of him in a defensive posture. This was a meeting of dire enemies.

"All right, I'm here," snapped Robotnik. "What do you want?"

Robo Knux gazed at him with unblinking, digital eyes. "You've lost weight, doctor. Didn't Mecha feed you enough?"

"If you've come to insult me," Robotnik growled, but the robot cut him off.

"I need upgrades. Lots of them. You're the only one who can perform them."

Robotnik leaned an elbow on the dashboard and smiled. "Upgrades, eh? Why should I upgrade you? You're a rebel and a troublemaker."

"I only doublecrossed you twice, and that was years ago," said Robo Knux, shaking his head and making his dreadlocks swing.

"I only recall once," said Robotnik, fingering the end of his mustache.

"Once then," said Robo Knux, gazing at the Egg Walker's leg rather than at his old master.

"The point is, I owe you nothing," said Robotnik. "And you'll use your upgrades to doublecross me a third time. I know how you think."

Robo Knux's eyes flickered. "You have no idea how I think." He made as though to uncross his arms, but thought better of it. "Perhaps you'll be inclined to help me if I tell you why I need those upgrades."

"Yes, do," said Robotnik, eyes narrowing. "Assuming I can believe anything you say."

"You can believe this," said Robo Knux, uncrossing his arms at last and baring his torso to the headlights. His metal hull had been pared open in four gaping holes, and Robotnik could see the machinery running inside.

"Repairs, eh?" said Robotnik.

"Metal Sonic did this to me," said Robo Knux, his voice dangerously quiet. "I need enough upgrades to do the same to him, but fifty times worse. And mostly to his head." He re-crossed his arms, hiding the damage, and raised his chin defiantly to the human.

Robotnik gazed at him in silence, stroking his mustache. After a long moment he said, "Are you aware of Mecha's actions in July?"

"Yes," said Robo Knux. "Pity I missed the show. He's so strong it's insane."

"You're not the only one who wants revenge," said Robotnik.

The two gazed at each other. Robo Knux tilted his head to one side, and he would have grinned if he could have. "So! The great Doctor Robotnik is willing to stoop to enlisting one of his enemies to take down a rebel?"

Robotnik retorted, "It seems that the great Robo Knuckles is willing to stoop so low as to enlist his enemy to repair him. What happened to your little friend in Sapphire City?"

Robo Knux stiffened. "How did you know about him?"

"Who do you think is training him?"

There was another long pause.

"What kind of upgrades are you after?" Robotnik asked.

"Something to make me stronger than Mecha," said Robo Knux. "You're aware that he's semi-organic now?"

Robotnik looked him up and down. "You ARE stronger than Mecha. I have your elementary schematics on file. Your hull has honeycomb crossbracing for added strength, and your armor is half an inch thick. Do you still have the fusion core?"

Robo Knux nodded.

Robotnik shrugged. "You're the superior design. Robotics are superior to organisms in many ways."

Robo Knux grabbed the side of the Egg Walker, jolting it. "Didn't you hear what I said?" he snarled. "Metal Sonic appears inferior, but he inflicted this damage on me! He is NOT inferior, and I have to have the capabilities to destroy him!"

Robotnik looked at the diamond-tipped claws protruding through the energy shield, making it ripple and glow green. Robo Knux was desperate. Robotnik was amused, deep down; Mecha had whipped Robo Knux in a fight, and Robo Knux's pride was damaged.

"Well," said Robotnik, leaning back in his seat and steepling his fingers. "Sounds like you're after some nanotech upgrades."

Robo Knux released the Egg Walker's side, stepped back and nodded, folding his arms.

Robotnik glared at him. "I have news for you, friend. I don't build robots out of semi-biological nanotech."

Robo Knux's shoulders slumped and his arms dropped to his sides. His disappointment was almost comical.

Robotnik waved a hand in dismissal, as he used to do with the SWATbots in Robotropolis. "Go find yourself another pawn. I can't help you."

Robo Knux stood stock still, head hanging. Suddenly he lunged forward and grabbed the side of the Egg Walker in both hands, rocking it up on one leg. Robotnik yelped and grabbed his armrests as he was tilted toward the robot's pointed face.

"You have to help me," hissed Robo Knux in Robotnik's face. "You are the only one with the technological prowess to complete the upgrades I need. And you ... and I ..." The green eyes darted from side to side, and Robo Knux released the walker, letting it slam down on both feet.

Robotnik banged his elbow on the edge of the cockpit and cursed, rubbing it. Then he gazed at the robot, who had turned his back, and tried to figure out what Robo Knux was trying to say. "And I am ... perhaps, the only one you can trust?"

"I never said I trusted you," snarled Robo Knux, turning his head. "I want to destroy Metal Sonic, and so do you."

Robotnik considered. One of his fondest visions for the past eight months had been taking a sledgehammer to Mecha's head. And Robo Knux was begging to become that sledgehammer.

"I don't have any nanotech facilities," said Robotnik. "Aside from finding one and maneuvering a way to manufacture the upgrades you require, I'll also want payment."

Robo Knux spun around, eyes glittering. "Payment I can handle. What do you want? Money?"

"No, not money," said Robotnik, studying the robot. "How about a chaos emerald?"

Robo Knux lowered his head and clenched his fists. "I don't do chaos emeralds anymore, doctor."

"Do you want more power than Mecha or not?" snapped Robotnik. "They're not for you. I'd like a few for ... study." He smiled.

Robo Knux looked at him, then paced in a circle, eyes tracing back and forth as if he was reading his own thoughts. Robotnik watched him, feeling nervous and amused at the same time. Robo Knux's own desperation would undo him.

Robo Knux straightened and lifted his head. "What if I gave you Shadow?"

Robotnik lifted an eyebrow. "Shadow's alive?"

"He's Mekion now," said Robo Knux. "He's Mecha's faithful slave. What if we could reprogram him?"

"I wondered about Mekion," said Robotnik thoughtfully, pulling his mustache. "I only saw him twice, so I wasn't certain. How did he survive the ARK?"

Robo Knux jerked his head scornfully. "It's a long story involving a phoenix and lots of nanotech. He's rather boring, if you ask me, but he's dangerous if you cross him. Wouldn't it be fun to reprogram him to revolt against Metal Sonic? Then neither of us would get our hands dirty." He looked at his claws. "Not that I'd mind getting my hands dirty."

"I doubt reprogramming Shadow would be that easy," said Robotnik. "Brainwashing is difficult to overcome. I want a chaos emerald, any color. Further payment is up to you." He met Robo Knux's eyes, and the robot nodded. The implications included snaring Shadow.

"I'll be in touch," said Robo Knux. "Locating a chaos emerald will take time." He turned to go, but Robotnik stopped him.

"Wait, Robo Knux. I need your current schematics so I can plan upgrades."

Robo Knux gave him a narrow look. "You can't work with what you already have?"

Robotnik motioned to the robot's arms. "You've upgraded yourself since your original construction. I need to see the upgrades and decide how to proceed."

Robo Knux thought about it, then said, "I'm transmitting a partial schematic to your walker. I can't reveal all of my secrets, now can I?"

Robotnik opened the channel and received the files. "All right," he said. "Here's some of my own files as insurance." He punched a button to upload the files, and Robo Knux's eyes flickered off for a second.

Then they reignited, and he said, "But they're encrypted!"

Robotnik sneered. "I can't reveal all of my secrets, now can I?"

Robo Knux's eyes shimmered in hatred, and he turned without a word and strode away into the darkness.

Robotnik returned to the Egg Tower, deep in thought.

The sun was peeking over the blue mountains in the east, sending beams slanting down into the mists that wrapped the Great Forest in shadow. Tails slipped out of his hut, easing the door shut behind him, and shivered. The sun was a pale white disk, and the sleeping village around him was hazy and indistinct. It was a little after six.

The fox trotted to the building across the street, which looked like a shed with a lean-to built against the back. He unlocked the door, stepped inside and flicked on the space heater. He could see his breath, and felt his fur bristle all over his body to trap heat. Tails's thick winter coat had only partly grown in, and these chilly fall mornings made him wish it would hurry up. He grabbed a grubby windbreaker from a hook by the door and put it on, then pulled a tarpaulin off a massive object that took up most of the shed's floorspace.

"Good morning, Tornado," said Tails to the machine. Here lay his baby, his favorite toy, propped up on jacks with the outer panelling stripped off. It looked like a biplane that had sprouted legs, and its insides were composed of hydraulic rods and pumps. The Tornado - the plane - could transform into the Cyclone - the walker - in thirty seconds flat. Tails had also added a car mode, and was working on a boat mode to add amphibious capability. But making a transforming vehicle waterproof was a bigger challenge than he had expected, so the Tornado remained on its jacks, sucking down every spare mobiad he possessed.

Tails climbed over one of the wings and leaned into the cockpit. Resting on the seat was an orange crystal sphere like a bowling ball, but with a shimmer of light in its center. Tails picked it up, his fingers shrinking at the sphere's icy surface. The glow inside was dimming again, and he sighed.

This was a thrall sphere from the Floating Island, and when he had brought it to the mainland, he had discovered that not only did its power over chaos emeralds cease, but that it needed recharging every three or four weeks. This he accomplished by taping Sonic's chaos emerald to the sphere for a few hours, but at the moment the chaos emerald was in Sonic's hut, and Sonic was asleep. Tails would have to wait.

Tails set the sphere back into the seat, trying to ignore its soft, hypnotic hum. He reached into the space where the Tornado's flight computer had been, and pulled out a metal cannister with air slots along the sides. He unscrewed the top and slid out a thick glass tube, which he held up to the light. Inside was a glistening silver mass like a giant slug, floating in clear fluid. This was a five-pound bio-nano-computer, which Tails had bought on the Cocytan black market and wouldn't have paid off until next winter.

He carried the tube to his workbench, uncapped a bottle and opened a tiny vent on the tube's top. He added three drops to the tube's fluid, and watched as the blue-green drops were absorbed into the grey mass. The nanites were not yet mature, and needed daily feeding. It was a hassle, but Tails needed juvenile nanites if he wanted to integrate them into the Tornado. Once he added this supercomputer 'brain' to the Tornado, the Tornado would be 'alive' in a sense.

These nanites had a twenty-year lifespan, which Tails thought was more than long enough. When they ran down, he would be thirty-five, and probably wouldn't use the Tornado anymore anyway.

As the fox was screwing the glass tube back inside its metal casing, there came a knock at the door. "Come in," Tails called.

The door opened, and Sonic stepped in, carrying a steaming coffee cup in either hand. "Heya little bro," he said. "Want some coffee?"

Tails set the nanite cannister in place, straightened up and looked at the coffee cups dubiously. "Thanks, but I don't really like coffee, Sonic."

"You'll like this," said Sonic, grinning. His blue spines were freshly combed, and Tails could smell his hairgel. Mach 90, Sonic's favorite brand, for obvious reasons.

Tails walked up and took one of the cups. He sipped its contents and smacked his lips. "This is coffee? Whoa!"

"Yeah, it's amazing how good it is with cream and sugar," said Sonic, sipping his own. "And a few other ingredients I forgot to mention."

Tails grinned. "Trying to copy the Novadeer coffee, huh?"

"No point in paying eight-fifty for something I can make myself," said Sonic. "Aww, look at the poor Tornado. When're you gonna put it back together?"

"Once I get the new computer trained," said Tails. "I have ten holodisks left to put into it." He pointed at a box in the corner which was filled with neat stacks of disks, each labelled and numbered.

"So you already fed the brain?" Sonic asked, sitting down on an overturned crate.

Tails perched on the edge of his workbench. "Yep. And it's not a brain, it's a bio-nano-computer."

"It thinks for itself, doesn't it?" said Sonic. "It's a brain. Like Mecha has."

"Mecha's is a lot more sophisticated than this one," said Tails, and sighed, ears flattening. "You know, I kind of miss him."

Sonic gazed at Tails and didn't reply.

"Well, sue me," said Tails defensively. "He was kind of ... nice, and he helped save us out in the desert and everything."

Sonic looked down. "Yeah, he did. But he's still Mecha, don't forget that. And don't forget what he said he'd do to you if you ever tried to contact him."

Tails shivered. "I guess I shouldn't have tapped his network. But it was an accident!"

"It was an accident the first time, anyway," said Sonic, sipping his coffee. "Are you going to teach the brain to use the thrall sphere?"

"Not just yet," said Tails, thankful for the change of subject. Sonic didn't want Tails to make friends with Mecha, partly because Sonic was afraid that Mecha would try to corrupt Tails, and partly because Sonic was jealous. Tails didn't understand all this, and simply tried to avoid the subject.

Tails got up and took the thrall sphere out of the cockpit. "It's going dead again. Can I borrow your chaos emerald for a few hours?"

"Sure," said Sonic. "It's my day for the Hedgehog Express, but some exercise will do me good."

Tails clapped a hand to his forehead. "Today's Monday, isn't it? I can wait until tomorrow to borrow the emerald ..."

"Naw, take it," said Sonic. "I'll pick it up this afternoon. I'll still make quota."

Four times a week Sonic hauled packages from New Mobitropolis down to Riverbase, a round trip of a hundred miles. Sometimes he made the trip on foot, but most of the time he used his emerald to chaos control back and forth. Most of it was commercial supplies for the new businesses in New Mobitropolis, but sometimes it was mail. He was paid for how much material he could move between 8 AM and 6 PM, and he had never once fallen behind. Sonic, in essence, was being paid for his speed, and he loved it. He flippantly called himself the Hedgehog Express; but without his emerald, he would have to work a little harder.

The pair finished their coffee, and Sonic took Tails's cup. "I'll take care of these and get you the emerald. Want breakfast?"

"No, I'll get some later," said Tails. "Thanks, Sonic."

"No prob." Sonic ruffled Tails's headfur and left, closing the door behind him.

Sally Acorn walked into an office in New Mobitropolis, a short drive from Knothole. New Mobitropolis was being built on the ruins of Robotropolis, the Mobians slowly reclaiming their own from the tyranny and destruction of Dr. Robotnik. The old highways were being rebuilt, and the river was being dredged so that traffic up and down could resume.

Once Sally had been chief coordinator of all this, and the pressure had almost killed her. But she had given her executive power as Princess to the Mobian Senate, and they had shuffled her sideways into another office: Commander in Chief of the Great Kingdom's armies.

Now she was able to manage peacetime activities. The Great Kingdom didn't have an army at this point, and Sally was busy laying the groundwork for recruiting and maintaining one. She was playing Freedom Fighter for real, and she loved it.

She left work just before six and walked the five miles back to Knothole. The air was crisp and clean, like fine wine for the lungs, she thought. The forest was turning red, orange and yellow, and in many places the road was buried in drifts of leaves. Sally shuffled her feet through them as she walked. She did love her job, but even more than that, she loved getting off work and seeing Sonic. She joked that he was her first soldier, and he always sniffed and said, "The term is 'commando', okay Sal?"

She arrived in Knothole with her pockets full of pecans that had fallen into the road. The village was quiet and almost deserted, except for a few children playing at the forest's edge nearby. She stood and watched them, cracking pecans and eating the nutmeats. She had never dreamed that one day Robotnik's rule would end and children could play outdoors, unsupervised, without the fear of capture, torture and roboticization hanging over them. Rebuilding their world hadn't been easy, but Sally was already harvesting the fruits of her labors, and found that they were better than she had imagined.

She went to her hut and changed out of her uniform into her vest and boots, and paused in front of her mirror to run her hands though the fur on her arms and legs. Like Tails, she was growing in her winter coat, and shedding her summer fur was driving her crazy with the itching. She was taking vitamins to make her new fur grow faster, but she couldn't see any change. She brushed the long fur on her forehead out of her eyes, and went to see if Sonic was home yet.

His hut was dark and empty, but she knocked anyway. No answer. She sighed and turned toward the road leading in from the city. It was nearly seven. Surely he was off by now! She waited for a few minutes, then walked over and peered through one of the windows. She smiled. Sonic was sprawled face-down on his bed, one shoe kicked off and one arm dangling, snoring. His chaos emerald was a green spark on his bureau.

Sally returned to the door, opened it and stepped inside. As soon as she entered, Sonic opened his eyes. "Hi Sally." He sat up and blinked down at his feet. "Gah, I fell asleep! Sorry, Sal!"

"No problem," she told him, picking up his other sneaker and handing it to him. "You must have had a hard day."

"Yeah," he said, putting on his other shoe. "I made eighteen trips in on foot in three hours."

Sally stared. "That's eighteen hundred miles!"

"Yep!" Sonic looked smug. "Then Tails gave me back my emerald, and I chaos controlled the rest of the day. Broke quota at five." He stood up and stretched, then gave Sally an offhand sort of hug. "I'm starved. Want to get some food?"

"You bet," said Sally, smiling. She pulled a pecan out of her vest pocket. "Want one?"

"Sure!" Sonic crushed the shell between the heels of his hands and picked out the meat as they stepped outside.

Knothole had a big community kitchen and food storage as a holdover from the Freedom Fighter years. Sonic and Sally walked in and found two other families cooking dinner for themselves, and Tails was busily constructing a pyramid of chilidogs. Sonic sprinted to him. "Hey Tails, I ever tell you that you're my favorite person in the whole world?"

Tails looked sly, lying his ears back. "I am, huh? What'll you give me for these chilidogs?"

Sonic grinned. "I have three bucks in my wallet."

"Good enough." Tails handed him the plate, and waved to Sally. "Hi Sally! Hope you don't mind this for dinner again."

"Oh no," she said, smiling. "I didn't have to cook it, so it's fine with me!"

The three carried the food into the next room, which was set up with chairs and tables. They grabbed a table in the corner, then sat down and went to work on the chilidogs.

"How's the Tornado, Tails?" Sally asked.

Tails licked sauce off his fingers. "Doing pretty well. In another few days I can start integrating the nano-computer, and that'll be great fun."

"Yeah, you get to teach it to talk and stuff," said Sonic. "You gonna have it call you Master?"

"I don't know," said Tails. "Maybe 'operative' or something."

Sally nodded. "I guess it's not really a person ... it's just a machine."

"To do my evil bidding," said Tails, mimicking Metal Sonic's voice, and Sonic almost choked.

As Sonic recovered, Tails said, "Hey Sally, when you get the army running, can I design weapons for you?"

"Sure!" said Sally. "I'll appoint you as chief designer."

Tails's ears perked up.

Sally smiled mischievously. "When you're twenty-one."

Tails looked disappointed, and it was Sally's turn to laugh.

Sonic reached for another chilidog. "Buck up, little bro. It's only six more years. Think how smart you'll be by then."

"I guess so," said Tails. "I'd like to sign up at a university somewhere and take physics and metalshop. I still can't weld aluminum."

"Getting a scholarship for you would be a cinch," said Sally. "I'll get one of my aides on it. Oh, Sonic, you'll never guess who just got promoted to advisor."

Sonic shook his head.

"Fealor Nash," said Sally. "Remember that cougar who you and Slasher picked up during the biotic war?"

Sonic froze and stared at Sally. He nodded slowly, then swallowed and said, "Uh, Sal, wasn't he, like, mentally unbalanced or something?"

"No," said Sally, frowning. "His friend was the crazy one. Remember how angry Fealor was at him after the Riverbase incident?"

Sonic nodded, his eyes taking on a haunted look. "Sal ... fire him. Don't let him get into government."

"Why?" said Sally, raising an eyebrow. "He's bright and talented, and he's honest, which is more than you can say for most politicians these days. You're not jealous of him, are you?"

Sonic looked at Tails, who was watching them while he ate. "Trust me on this. Nash is bad news. He'll get to the top and turn into another Robotnik, except worse."

Sally blinked. "How do you know?"

Sonic opened his mouth, then closed it. "Nevermind," he said, picking up his chilidog again. He spent the rest of the meal in silence, leaving Sally and Tails to carry on a strained conversation, aware of Sonic's odd brooding mood beside them.

Up in the Ice Cap mountains, winter had begun in October, and the mountaintops were locked in tons of ice and snow. Deep underground, somewhere amid the ridges and valleys was an old base of Robotnik's that Metal Sonic had taken and used as his headquarters. During the winter it was dangerous to venture outdoors, and this was one reason Mecha liked it. During the winter months, the odds of anyone finding his hideout were nil. The only downside was that Robo Knux knew that Mecha used this base, so Mecha and Shadow were constantly on the lookout for him.

Inside, the hallways and rooms were kept dark to conserve power, and Metal Sonic and Shadow moved about using their infrared vision settings. But this winter Mecha was operating in his new body with all of its organic shortcomings, and for the first time he could feel the deep, penetrating chill of the concrete floors and walls. He marvelled that Shadow and the two chao had suffered this cold for so long without complaining, and set about making the base more habitable.

Mecha and Shadow closed off all the rooms that they did not use, and ignited the heaters in the main control room, along with the luxury of several lights. The control room became the primary hangout for the cyborgs and chao. Shadow controlled all access to the outside world with his orange chaos emerald, which he used to teleport to nearby towns for supplies and fuel.

Mecha's attention was consumed by two new projects. The first was to master chaos control for himself using Shadow's chaos emerald. Shadow attempted to train Mecha, but Shadow didn't understand how he used chaos power, himself. Shadow would often secret himself away out in the dark outer corridors and practice chaos controlling, and summoning the lightning bolt that he called 'chaos spear'.

Mecha's other project was a massive data search across every network and archive he could access. The first phase of this study was to learn about copyright laws in every country in the world. That was easy enough. The laws varied from country to country, but they all agreed that copying another person's work without permission was wrong.

The second phase of his study was giving him a harder time, however. He was looking for the head designer, the Master Designer, who had designed all life. By copying the organic body with his own synthetic designs, Mecha had violated the copyright that the Master Designer had on his creation. When this had dawned on Mecha, it had rattled him to the core. He had never thought of his quest for organic life in that light. So he was looking for a way to contact the Master Designer, whoever and wherever he might be, to discuss this violation and any penalties.

The trouble was that no one had ever heard of a Master Designer. There were vague references in the writings of various mystics and priests, but so far Mecha had unearthed next to nothing. He sat in front of the control computers and drummed his claws on the console. This would be easier if he knew the Master Designer's name. Maybe he had friends or contacts somewhere ... but how to locate the associates of a being whose name you didn't know?

Mecha knew he also had to consider that the Master Designer might live on a higher plane of existence, and was probably inaccessible to beings in the third dimension. The thought depressed him.

As he sat at the console, his thoughts a million miles away, he heard the patter of chao feet and felt a soft paw on his leg. "Mecha, are you busy?" said Nox.

Mecha gave the black chao a dirty look. "Yes. Is there a problem?"

Nox was Shadow's chao, black with twisted spines, striped with orange. Mecha tolerated Nox's existence, but the chao had the uncanny ability to feel the emotions in other people, and Mecha quietly despised him for it.

Nox was bouncing in place with suppressed excitement. "Nothing's wrong, no, but I thought I should tell you, but if you're busy, then - "

"What is it?" Mecha growled, drumming his fingers.

Nox couldn't contain himself. "Aleda's in otiae!"

Mecha rose to his feet and nodded, keeping his face blank. "Where is she?"

"You're excited, too, don't try to say you're not," crowed Nox. "Come on, she's in here!"

Mecha restrained himself from kicking the chao, and followed Nox out of the door and down the hall to the food storage room. "I was looking for her," Nox explained, "because I hadn't seen her in almost an hour, and here she was!"

Mecha entered the room and saw the cocoon at once. Infant chao grew into their mature forms by entering a cocoon stage and finalizing their genetic code. When they emerged a few hours later, they sometimes had changed colors, they were bigger, and could talk. The chao word for this was 'otiae', but everyone else called it a 'growth-sleep evolution'.

Mecha knelt and touched the cocoon, red eyes glowing brighter than usual. It was smooth and hard, like glass. The interior was turning a frosty white, and he could barely see Aleda inside, asleep sitting up, breathing slowly and deeply.

Nox danced around the cocoon and Mecha, clapping his paws and saying, "She'll be able to talk now, I can't wait! This is so great! Can I go tell Shadow? Please?"

"Yes, do," said Mecha through his teeth.

Nox darted out, leaving Mecha in the cold room with Aleda.

Mecha had been anticipating this day and dreading it at the same time. He wanted to see his little chao grow up, but he was afraid that when she emerged, she would no longer be Aleda. For one thing, she would be able to talk. What if she annoyed him, and he hurt her, and she stopped loving him? He clenched a fist - he must not hurt her. He must be kind, even if she annoyed him. If only he understood love and affection! He did not know how to show it to another person, except by refraining from harming them.

He picked up the cocoon and carefully carried it back into the warmth of the control room. He set it on the console and sat down in a chair beside it, where he could observe the phenomenon of a chao evolving. He had read about it, but never witnessed it. It was natural use of the chaos field, and perhaps condensed moisture.

Shadow's voice spoke across the wireless network that all the Mecha-bots used for close range communication. "Is she evolving, Master?"

"Yes," said Mecha, gazing at the white shell. "And I request that you do not call me Master."

"Yes Master," said Shadow with a touch of humor. "Notify me when she emerges. I'm busy with chaos practice right now."

"Affirmative," said Mecha, thinking of the orange chaos emerald. If only Mecha could learn to use it! But so far his chaos field was far too weak. And the new power system had not helped matters. The system allowed Mecha's body to run by processing organic material for fuel; in essence, it was a digestive tract. But it caused more problems than it solved, for Mecha had spent the week afterwards throwing up. A month had passed since then and his stomach had settled down, but Mecha still didn't trust it. He felt that it had weakened his entire body, and affected the strength of his chaos field.

He realized that he had been brooding on this for some time. The cocoon was slowly becoming translucent again, and he blinked and leaned forward. He made out Aleda's outline, but now it was bigger, and the shape of her head had changed. The cocoon was dissolving from the outside in, evaporating into water vapor. Mecha watched, fascinated.

She became more visible as the cocoon thinned. Her short fur had changed from muddy gray to a beautiful metallic blue that matched his own gleaming skin. Her tiny wings had divided into two pairs, like a dragonfly's, and her head had three spikes, just like his own. Her hands had elongated into hook-shapes with thumbs, and two feelers grew out of her head just between her ears. He had never seen a chao with insect characteristics before. Aleda was truly unique.

The cocoon vanished, and Aleda opened her eyes. Her irises were bright crimson, like his own. She looked at Mecha, and he gazed back, wondering what she would do next. She cocked her head to one side and said, "Hello, Mecha. Or should I call you Master like Shadow does?"

"Just Mecha," he said. "Never call me Master. I should never have conditioned Shadow to do so."

She climbed to her feet and looked down at herself. "Wow, look at me! I'm all shiny! Are my eyes red?"

"Yes," he said. "You have taken on several insect characteristics, as well." He pointed out her wings and antennae, and she felt them with amazement.

"Wow! Nox will be really impressed. Where are Nox and Shadow, anyway?"

"Elsewhere," said Mecha, eyes narrowing. "I doubt that they are interested in your development, however."

"You think so?" said Aleda. "Maybe we'd better ask." To Mecha's astonishment, her antennae straightened and she said over the network, "Hi Shadow! I'm through otiae. Do you want to see me?"

There was a long silence, then Shadow said, "Master, is that Aleda?"

"Yes," said Mecha, staring at his chao. "It seems that she has developed a few ... abilities."

Aleda clapped her little hands and laughed. "Oh good! You and Shadow always computer talk, and now I can, too! I can listen to you all the time! Better not say anything bad, Mecha."

"No," he said, looking at her with distaste. He was upset and delighted all at once, and wasn't sure how he felt about her.

Aleda didn't know how he felt, however. She smiled up at him with total innocence and said, "Can I have something to eat? I'm so hungry I feel like my stomach is caving in."

"Affirmative," said Mecha, rising to his feet. "Come with me."

She leaped off the console, flapping her wings, and managed to travel five feet before hitting the floor. Then she ran ahead of Mecha out of the control room, and he followed, trying not to feel amused.

Nicholas Karabian had an unusual job. He was a scientist who worked in a chaos-shielded laboratory, and he was the only human on staff. He knew that there were reasons for this, one of them being that he was the only human that his colleagues could tolerate. Nicholas joked that it was because he was almost Mobian, himself.

At the moment, all this was far from his mind. His hands were inside a pair of electronic gloves that governed a pair of plastic arms inside of a vacuum tube, and he wore a special headset that let him see the tube's contents through infrared, ultraviolet and chaoscope.

On the other side of the tube was a Mobian otter, also wearing electronic gloves and a headset. "Nick," he said, "catch the upright tablesphere, it's drifting."

Nick moved one hand, and the plastic claws inside the vacuum tube swerved and gently seized a long cylinder that was covered in nanite goo, which was threatening to stick to the side of the tube. He drew it back to the object in the center of the tube and released it. "Lintel, I'm picking up activity in the chaoscope. We haven't even put the chaos drive in this thing yet."

They were building a chaos-powered engine prototype using nano-based technology. The only problem was that chaos energy destroyed machines, including microscopic machines, and every time that they inserted the chaos drive, the engine incinerated. Nick and Lintel had taken every precaution this time, but now the chaos levels inside the tube were jumping around for no reason.

Nick heard the patter of feet behind him, and felt a tap on his shoulder. "Nick, Lintel's chaos field is interfering with the experiment. Shut it down before it overheats."

Nick groaned, and reached for the top of the tube with the mechanical arms. "All right. Cutting power in five, four, three - "

Lintel folded his mechanical arms against the far wall, and Nick switched off the internal power to the nanites. The moving, pulsing mass within the engine went still and limp, and the lights in the tube clicked off.

Nick pulled his hands out of the gloves and took off his headset. "Well," he said, grinning at the squirrel behind him, "guess we didn't see that coming, did we?"

"No," said the squirrel, whose name was Barlet. He was a gray squirrel, and despite his color, was the youngest member of the staff. "Touis said give it two hours and try it again."

Lintel stepped around the tube, wiping his sweaty paws on his labcoat. "Sorry Nick, Barlet," he said, flattening his ears. "I got nervous and it set off my field."

Barlet looked at Nick, expecting the human to get mad, but Nick only laughed. "We hadn't even brought in the chaos drive, and you go turn the thing on! We ought to build one that'd run off minor chaos fields." He checked his watch. "Too early for lunch. I'm gonna grab some coffee."

"I'll be over with Kray and Touis," said Lintel. "Have to let my field cool off." The otter walked away, shaking his head in disgust at himself.

Barlet followed Nick through the airlock and out to the office that the technicians had converted into a rec room. The tables, chairs and counter were built to Mobian scale, but Nick was five feet tall, and barely had to stoop to reach the coffeepot. "Want some?" he asked Barlet.

The squirrel shook his head. "No thanks. Um ..." He caught the end of his own bushy tail and ran his fingers through the fur. "How come you never get mad at us? Harold and John would get fighting mad if someone's chaos field messed things up."

Nick shrugged. "I grew up in Metrocard. I'm just used to Mobians and chaos stuff. Harold and John were raised human, and the prejudice is hard to overcome." Nick thought of some of the things humans did that were taboo in Mobian culture. He had once seen a woman stroke the fur of a Mobian tiger, only to have the tiger maul her in fury. You respected Mobians, because they had their own cultural rules, and if you broke them, the results were dire. He had grown up in a Mobian community, and their culture was second nature to him. Which was why he had worked in this lab for six years, outlasting the other human technicians.

He sat down in one of the little chairs, sipped his coffee and sighed. "Man, we've got to get that new facility."

Barlet poured himself a glass of water and sat down across from Nick. "Yeah. All these nanotech experiments to do, and only one airlock chamber."

"Dang red tape," muttered Nick. "We shouldn't have gone to GUN. TerraUnited was interested, too."

This was a common topic of complaint.

"Is three airlock rooms such a big thing to ask?" Nick went on. "They have twenty at the nanotech hospital in Rio Del Fuego."

Barlet growled sympathetically.

The outer door opened and Touis the chipmunk looked in. He was the head scientist, and also the shortest person in the lab. "There you are," he said, looking at the gray squirrel and human. "Get in here, we're having a meeting. Something big's come up, and I mean big."

Nick and Barlet exchanged glances and jumped up.

The meeting room was another converted office, and it was a squeeze for the five of them. Nick scrunched himself into a chair against the wall and watched as the Mobians did the same, climbing over the seats to reach their places. Touis scurried under the table and climbed into his chair from below.

"Okay," said the chipmunk, setting a sheet of paper on the table. It was covered in large, untidy handwriting. "I received a phonecall ten minutes ago, about our GUN contract."

Everyone straightened.

Touis's eyes sparkled with excitement. "They've finally processed our paperwork, and decided to grant us a new facility!"

The scientists whooped and cheered, Nick among them.

Touis raised a paw for silence. "Hold on, there's more." They quieted down, and Touis read from his notes. "The facility is located on Deimos Island, about two hour's flight off the coast of Sapphire City. It has four airlock chambers - "

He was interrupted by more cheering. When it died down, he went on, "Four airlock chambers, six thousand square feet of lab space, and five pressurized nanotech manipulation chambers. The computer system was designed exclusively for the facility."

"Dang!" exclaimed Kray, who was an opossum with long fangs. "How'd we wind up with a place as nice as that?"

"Well, that's all on one condition," said Touis. "We postpone our projects for three months, and give our attention to a top-secret GUN project."

There was a brief silence. Then Lintel said, "Can we do that? I thought we'd lose the grant money if we let the nanoswarms die."

"I've got that covered," said Touis. "All our technicians would stay here until the three months are up. They'd look after our projects, and after three months we'd ship everything out to the Deimos facility."

"No techs?" said Barlet. "You mean we'd have to do everything ourselves?"

"No, no," said Touis, shaking his head. "GUN offered to provide specialists for us. So nothing classified gets out, you know."

"What about pay?" said Nick. "The commute itself can't be cheap."

"GUN is offering us an eight million dollar contract, human currency," said Touis. "They want this project completed as soon as possible. They didn't tell me the specifics."

The group exchanged glances. Kray crossed his arms. "Why do they have to dump us on an island? Are we building a bomb?"

Touis shrugged. "It's a bigger facility. I wouldn't care if it was built on a glacier in North Mobius, as long as it had those airlock chambers."

"Well, I'm for it," said Nick. "November, December, January - we'd be working on our chaos engine again by February. Not a bad way to spend the winter, in my opinion."

Lintel and Barlet nodded, but Kray still looked skeptical. "I just wish I knew why they'd use us five for a top-secret project. Why us? Why not one of those bigger laboratories?"

"We're qualified," said Touis, looking affronted. "And maybe it's because we got our paperwork in so long ago."

Kray was silent a long moment, his ears flicking up and down. Finally he sighed and said, "Fine, let's go for it. It's only three months, after all."

Nick left the lab that evening, pulling on his coat as he stepped onto the wet sidewalk. The Analytech lab was crammed in a building with three other businesses, and no signs or numbers distinguished it from the doorways on either side. Nanotech was so dangerous that they couldn't publicize their research for fear of losing the facility they did have. And why they absolutely had to have airlock labs, in case of a nanoswarm spill.

The rain beat on his face as he walked down the street, and he pulled his hood over his head with a shiver. Sapphire City's winters were cold and wet, for it was too far south to receive snow, but too far north for the warm, tropical storms of the equator.

He walked along, head bowed, watching the reflections of the streetlights in the sidewalk. He saw something move, and lifted his head to see a black hedgehog twenty feet away. His spines were soaked and dripping, and he stared at Nick as if surprised to see another living being out in the rain. Nick waved, and to his astonishment, the hedgehog vanished into thin air. Nick ran to the place where the hedgehog had been, but there was no trace of him. Nick rubbed his eyes. "I guess I've been working harder than I thought."

He heard quiet footsteps behind him and turned. Then he gasped and flattened himself against the wall as a Mobian-sized robot ran past. Nick glimpsed red paint, green eyes and - knives? - then the robot was gone as quietly as it had come.

Nick bolted for the bus stop, hoping to see nothing else so strange.

Shadow reappeared in one of the dark, frigid hallways of Mecha's hideout, dropped to all fours and shook himself, spattering the walls with spray. Then he rose to his feet and brushed water off his metal arm and glass eye. This was his penalty for needing exercise so badly. He liked Sapphire City because of the dangers it offered, and he often teleported there without telling Mecha. But tonight, not only had it been pouring rain, but Robo Knux had ...

Shadow paused, thinking. Robo Knux hadn't done anything except talk to him ... and pursue him when he ran, of course ... but Robo Knux had not tried to hurt him.

Shadow slipped down the hall to his room, took a towel off the shelf above his cot and dried himself thoroughly. He ran Robo Knux's words through his head as he worked.

"My purpose is to destroy things. Metal Sonic's is to destroy Sonic. What is your purpose, Shadow? Why did they build you up there on the ARK? The ultimate lifeform, they called you. What's the point of all that if you're not supposed to do something?"

Shadow had said, "Why should I listen to you? You've tried to kill me every single time we've met."

"You didn't answer my question," Robo Knux purred. "Go ask Mecha what your purpose is. He won't be able to tell you."

Shadow had thought about this. It was the same argument that Rouge had blindsided him with back on the ARK. "What are you, Shadow?" He had come to grips with who he was and moved on, but his self-confidence was shaky. And along came Robo Knux to chip away even more of it.

Robo Knux had said, "I thought you might like to know that I've discovered your purpose. Not that I'm going to tell you what it is. Go on, run from me! Living life without a purpose is worse than being an assassin robot."

Shadow hung up his towel to dry, picked up a comb and ran it through his spines. He didn't want Mecha to know that he had been out. Shadow had been forced to learn how to groom himself, for back on the ARK Maria and the scientists had cared for him. He had been freed from cryogenic freeze barely a week before he had 'died'. Mecha knew nothing about grooming fur, never having had any, so Shadow was forced to conduct research in secret, observing how other Mobians cared for themselves. He was becoming adept at it, he thought, looking at his sleek reflection in a handmirror.

His thoughts looped back to Robo Knux. "What is your purpose, Shadow?" Perhaps he could ask Mecha without telling him that Robo Knux had posed the question.

Shadow skated down the hallways, passed through two doors, and entered the light and warmth of the control room. Mecha was pacing back and forth before the computer consoles. Two screens displayed maps, and the third contained text. Nox and Aleda were sitting in the corner amid lockblocks of all shapes and sizes, building a tower. Nox gave Shadow a knowing look as he entered, but said nothing. Nox knew about Shadow leaving the base on the sly, and often covered for him.

Shadow stood in front of a heating vent, warming his natural hand. Mecha ignored him and continued pacing back and forth, eyes half-closed, thinking out some new problem.

"Mecha," said Shadow over the network, "can I talk to you for a moment?"

Mecha looked up. "Hello, Shadow. I did not notice you come in. What is it?"

Shadow looked sidelong at Aleda, who was industriously adding a wing to the tower. "Can she hear us?"

Mecha shot Aleda a glance, and she met his gaze with an impish look. "Yes," he said. Aloud he said, "Aleda, Nox, please leave this room for a while."

Nox looked outraged, but Aleda said, "He doesn't want me eavesdropping. I can't hear the network from twenty feet away, so we'll go next door." She gave Mecha one of his own dirty looks, and the chao pattered out and closed the door.

"All right, what?" said Mecha quietly.

Shadow sat down in one of the console chairs and fixed his red eyes on his master. "I was thinking ... what is my purpose for living?"

Mecha gazed at him for a long moment, then blinked and raised a hand to his forehead. "Shadow, if I knew your purpose, I would know my own. What is the reason for anyone to live? Why does life exist at all? These are the questions I have been striving to answer for so long."

Shadow's mouth curled in a cynical smile. "I'm afraid that I was thinking more of my birth on the ARK. I am the ultimate lifeform - or a type of one. What does that mean?"

Mecha shrugged and turned to study the maps on the screens without answering.

Shadow dug his robot claws into the padding on the chair. "I was being trained to use chaos energy in new ways. But my training was interrupted by GUN. Is that my purpose? To use chaos energy? But even Sonic can do that."

Mecha turned his head and studied Shadow, as if considering how to reply. "Perhaps I should tell you ... but it is a terrible thing to bear."

Shadow's natural ear pricked forward. "What?"

Mecha looked down at the console and traced a pattern with one claw. "One aspect of the Ultimate Lifeform project was to achieve immortality. One of the prototypes could live in any environment. The other ... escaped the second law of thermodynamics."

Shadow cocked his head, trying to understand.

Mecha glanced at him. "Your body cannot wear out, Shadow. They mingled your DNA with that of a cat whose chaos field was so powerful that it granted him impossibly long life. He may have also extended it through other means, as well. Dr. Gerald inserted a gene to age you prematurely, a gene which was damaged by fifty years of cryogenic freeze. You began to age. But then Nox healed you when he revived you. Your body is built in such a way that the effects of aging were removed and the artificial gene itself was destroyed."

Shadow stared, and Mecha returned his gaze.

Mecha continued, "You are the first survivor of my Mecha-Fusion projects, because of this. The addition of healing nanites to your bloodstream accelerates this process even more."

Shadow stared blankly at the wall, digesting this information. "I'll never die of old age," he thought. "But I can be killed. I'm not immortal, I'm just ... ageless." For a moment the thought exhilarated him, then it depressed him. He would outlive everyone on this planet.

Mecha turned away. "As I said, it is a great load to bear. I would have preferred not to tell you."

"Are you ageless, too?" said Shadow.

Mecha shrugged. "Who can tell? Can a creature die who was never really alive?" The cynicism that was always below the surface crept into his voice. "You asked about purpose. My purpose was to destroy Sssssonic. Yet he defeated me! What purpose is left for me now? Why bother to continue my futile existence?"

He was warming up to go on a tirade, so Shadow headed him off. "What are these maps for?"

Mecha looked at them, scowling. "Oh. I am researching possible centers of knowledge where I can find data on the Master Designer."

Shadow examined the nearest one. Road maps. "Mecha, are we going to journey to these locations?"

"I see no other way to reach them," said Mecha sarcastically. "At the moment, my only purpose is to locate the Master Designer and discuss copyright infringement penalties."

"Assuming he exists," muttered Shadow.

Mecha gave him a poisonous look. "Of course he exists. How could this world exist unless someone built it?"

Shadow lowered his head sullenly. "Maria prayed to a God all the time. He sounds a lot like your Master Designer. If he exists, why did he let them kill her?"

Mecha and Shadow stared at each other for a frigid second. Mecha said, "I do not have an answer for that."

"Sure," said Shadow. "I'll come with you, but I don't think there is a Master Designer. You're wasting your time."

"Then I am wasting it," snapped Mecha. "If there is no Master Designer, then yes, my quest is in vain. But if there is a Master Designer, then I am going to do everything in my power to contact him. Because I have been without meaning in my existence, and this quest returns meaning to it again. Or perhaps you would prefer it if I returned to seeking to terminate my existence?"

"No," said Shadow, rising to his feet. "You answered my question, thanks." He left through the outer door.

The chao were listening to this conversation through a crack in the side door, for their owners didn't bother to use wireless communications. "Is Mecha looking for God?" Aleda whispered.

"Yes," Nox whispered back. "He thinks he can find God on Mobius somewhere."

"Can you see God?" said Aleda doubtfully.

"Mecha seems to think so," said Nox. "I hope we get to go. I'd love to see what Mecha turns up."

"Me too!" Aleda whispered, clapping her paws. "What if God IS on Mobius somewhere?"

"I'm sure he is," Nox replied. "We'll just have to see what happens."

Tails clipped the final wire into place and sat back on his heels to survey his work. He had attached all the communication wires and conduits to the casing of the bio-nano-brain. It was covered in a nest of green, white and red wires, resting crosswise across the space where the brain would fit into the Tornado. Tails took a voltage tester from his toolbox and tested each connection, making adjustments as he went. He was shivering with excitement and cold; it was almost midnight, and it was so cold outside that the heater couldn't repel it anymore.

But Tails couldn't wait until morning. He had to get the brain attached tonight and see if all that voice recognition software worked. The brain had slurped up the operating system he had given it, and Tails had a suspicion that the brain didn't need it. But he had installed the other programs easy enough, and now Tails was plugging in what amounted to its body.

He carefully set the computer-brain's casing down into its compartment, fitting the wires into their protective slots. Then he screwed everything down and reached for the power button with trembling fingers.

The Tornado's tiny screen flicked on in the cockpit, and Tails climbed into the cold seat and sat looking at the screen, hugging himself and trying not to let his teeth chatter. "Tornado," he said into the microphone, "run program. Activation code terra banaka sich motha questaloph." It sounded vaguely Cocytan, Tails thought.

The screen scrolled rapidly through sheets of numbers, then it changed to display a single question. "User ready?"

"User is ready," Tails said.

The screen went blank, and a bland, vaguely masculine voice said through the speaker, "User identification ready. State your name."

Without thinking, he said, "Tails."

"Tails," said the computer.

"No, wait, Miles Prower!" said Tails, but the process had already moved on.

"Primary use of this unit - civilian or military?"

"Military," said Tails, forgetting even to shiver and watching the code flash past on the screen.

"Unit type: land-based, water-based, air-based?"

Tails hesitated, then said, "All."

The code flashed past for several minutes, and he felt the Tornado vibrate as its systems activated. He wondered if this computer could handle a transforming machine, and blew on his cold hands.

"Standby," said the computer. "Accessing design schematics of craft Tornado."

Tails waited, and after a moment the screen went blank.

"Query," it said. "Is Tornado in land-based mode at present?"

"Yes," said Tails.

More flashing code. Then the Tornado said, "Query. Amphibious mode is not operational. Is it damaged?"

"No," said Tails. "It doesn't work right."

The Tornado 'thought' about this, and asked several more questions about its internal workings that Tails found almost funny. It was as if someone was inspecting his machinery and figuring out how it worked from the inside.

Suddenly the screen blinked red. "Critical error," said the computer voice. "Visual sensor array not found."

"Visual sensor array?" said Tails in confusion. "But there isn't one."

"Sensor array is critical to operation," said the Tornado.

Tails shook his head. "No, this machine is meant for a pilot. The pilot is the visual sensors."

"Negative," said the computer with the vaguest of angry inflections. "Scans indicate that this unit is capable of independent action. Absence of visual sensors presents a critical error."

For a moment Tails was frightened. He hadn't expected the Tornado to run around on its own! He had a fleeting vision of his walker striding unmanned around Knothole, shooting people and launching missiles. He clenched his fists. "No!" he said. "You are not to act independently without a direct order from the user. Do you understand?"

The red error vanished and code resumed flickering past. "Affirmative," said the Tornado. "User is registered as visual sensor array in absence of necessary systems."

"What about independent action?" Tails said, willing himself not to shiver. His fear had sent a chill through his body that was colder than any frost.

The Tornado replied, "User command required for independent action."

Tails breathed a sigh of relief.

"Systems will commence internal diagnostics," said the Tornado. "Please wait."

Tails climbed out of the cockpit and checked his fat instruction manual. The internal diagnostics took place while the nanites built the proper paths to allow control of the machine. It took a minimum of twelve hours. Perfect. Tails turned off the heater and the lights, left his workshop and sprinted through the cold night to his hut. He whisked inside, turned on the heater there, pulled off his shoes and dove into his bed, wrapping the blankets around himself. It took him a long time to warm up, but as soon as feeling returned to his fingers and toes, he was out like a light.

A cold dawn spread over the world, and Nicholas Karabian sat hunched up in the helicopter seat, watching the endless wrinkled sea passing by below. His hands were buried in the pockets of his jacket, fingering the fifteen cents that had been there for years. Lintel and Kray were strapped into the seats beside him, and Barlet and Touis were in the back seats, all with their fur fluffed out and tails wrapped around their legs. Nick was the only one tall enough to see out the windows.

It was a two-hour flight to Deimos Island, and all five of them had arrived at the helipad at four o' clock that morning. Barlet and Lintel were asleep, chins resting on their chests. Nick kept staring at the horizon, warding off airsickness. He hated long car rides, and long air-rides were even worse. The helicopter swayed gently and constantly, and he felt his stomach churning. He kept his eyes on the horizon and his mouth clamped shut.

After a long, indefinite period of watching the sun's light brighten the ocean from gray to blue, Nick realized that there was a dark smudge on the horizon ahead of them. He straightened and craned his neck, squinting. Yes, it was land, and his stomach felt better immediately. He watched the island grow clearer and darker. It looked like the shoreline was all cliffs, and beyond those was a tangled mass of trees. Oh well, no sunbathing on this island, he thought with a wry smile. Not that you could get much of a tan in November anyway.

"Kray," he said softly, "you can see Deimos Island. We're almost there."

The opossum gave him a weak smile. His eyes were glazed, and Nick knew that he wasn't the only airsick passenger. Kray elbowed Lintel and hissed, "Wake up, we're almost there."

The otter opened his eyes. "What? We are?"

The pilot's voice spoke over the intercom, startling them all. "Welcome to Deimos Island, folks! The lab facilities are on the north end, which is also the only harbor on the island. I'll be making trips once every two weeks to haul in supplies, but there's a couple speedboats down there, I've heard. All right, we've been cleared to land, so fasten your seatbelts."

As the scientists moved to obey, Touis said, "You know, seventy percent of all airline accidents occur at takeoff and landing."

"Thanks, I needed to know that," muttered Nick, tightening his seatbelt.

"Yeah," added Lintel, grinning. "Most of them take place in clear weather, too."

Barlet, Kray and Nick exchanged glances and gripped their seats.

But despite their fears, the helicopter swept in over the island and descended to a helipad with no problems. The helipad was built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and Nick glimpsed the silver roof of the laboratory through the trees. They touched down with a bump, and the engines cut to an idle. The pilot jumped out and opened the doors, and the scientists unbuckled, grabbed their suitcases from the overhead racks, and stepped out into the wind.

A strong wind was blowing off the ocean, and Nick squinted against the cold and drew a deep breath, feeling his airsickness subside. The air smelled clean and wet, and the helipad was so high that he could see for miles up and down the island's coast. The tide was rolling in and crashing against the cliffs, sending up plumes of white foam hundreds of feet, and Nick stared, fascinated by the sheer violence.

Touis prodded him, and Nick woke up and turned. His little group was standing close together, the wind blowing their fur backwards, trying not to look bewildered. Beyond them, a wide asphalt road led away from the helipad, vanishing into the trees in the direction of the lab building. Walking up this road was a single human in a black GUN uniform. "Welcoming committee," Nick muttered under his breath, and moved toward him. Touis was already trotting to meet the human, and the other three padded behind, carrying their suitcases and blinking in the constant wind.

"Welcome to Deimos Island," said the human, extending a hand to each of them in turn. Despite the uniform, he looked friendly enough - red hair, blue eyes, freckles. "Come with me," he said. "Windy enough for you?"

The group muttered that it was.

"Get used to it," said the officer. "Windiest spot in two hundred miles. I'm Sergeant Kenneth Jackson. Come with me, I'll show you your new facility."

He led the way with a quick, military step, and the scientists hurried to keep up. The road sloped downhill, inland, and trees rose up on either side. They were the same types that grew in Sapphire City - elms, beeches, eucalyptus - but these were bent from the wind, and only grew leaves on one side. Nick wondered if windsurfing was possible out here, then remembered the cliffs with the ocean booming against them. Probably not.

The further they walked, the more the wind was broken by the trees, and when they reached the laboratory it had dropped to a breeze. The lab was actually four single-story buildings, each adjoining the largest central structure. It was white with brown trim, and there were no windows. But three of the buildings had domed skylights, the glass reinforced with steel crossbracing.

The sergeant stopped, and Nick realized that they had reached a fence. He looked up at it with a sense of foreboding, for it was eight feet of chain link with razor wire ringing the top. The sergeant passed a keycard through a slot in the gate, and it rolled open. "You'll each be issued one of these," he said, holding up the keycard.

"What's the fence for?" asked Kray.

"Protection," said the sergeant, walking on. The Mobians and human exchanged glances. They were on a rocky, uninhabited island. Protection from what?

The gate clanged shut behind them, and they walked up a long driveway toward the entrance. Once there, the sergeant swiped his keycard through another slot, and the doors swung open with a whoosh of air. Inside was a lobby painted a bright, cheerful yellow, and four short hallways branched off it with an airlock chamber at the end of each. "All right!" said Barlet under his breath, and the others nodded, trying not to grin.

They toured the facility quickly. The main lab was pressurized, and contained three nanotech vacuum chambers. The three smaller airlock rooms were also labs, and contained the two other vacuum chambers, as well as a sophisticated computer control room. The north wing housed a rec room and a dormitory, and a kitchenette stocked with food.

But one thing bothered Nick. The facility was empty except for themselves. "Where are the specialists?" he asked the sergeant as they arrived back in the lobby. "I thought GUN was providing the extra help?"

The sergeant checked his watch. "They'll be arriving in ten to twenty minutes on the next helicopter. I have to leave now. When the new officer arrives, he'll debrief you on your project. Goodbye." He left, striding back up toward the helicopter pad.

The doors swung closed and locked with a click of finality. The others looked at Touis. "Okay," said Kray, "what have you gotten us into here?"

Touis spread his arms. "What's the problem? This place is great! Look at all the room!"

"This place is a prison," said Lintel, crossing his arms. "Did you see that fence and those cliffs?"

"Eh, so what?" said Touis. "They gave us what we asked for. I'm sure this will all be cleared up when the next helicopter gets in."

"In ten minutes," said Nick, checking his watch. "I'd like to know what they're protecting us from on an empty island."

"It's so we don't try to leave," said Kray. The opossum was pacing back and forth in front of the door, wringing his hands. "They're gonna keep us trapped in here, I know it. I don't like traps. When you're trapped, they do bad things to you." He pulled the glove off his right hand and held up his hand. It was made of cold gleaming metal, each joint moving seamlessly.

The others stared at him. Touis stepped forward. "Put that glove back on, Kray. Get ahold of yourself. This isn't Robotropolis, and there's no need to panic." He turned to face the others. "What are you, cubs? This is a military installation! They're protecting their investment, and they sure aren't going to let anything happen to us."

Kray sullenly pulled his glove back on, and there was an uncomfortable silence. It was broken by a click from outside, and the whoosh as the electronic doors swung open. They turned to face the rush of fresh air, and found themselves face to face with four robots.

They were Mobian-sized, had round bodies and gangly arms and legs, and their heads were flat panels on top with a pair of glowing yellow eyes shining from the fronts.

The scientists backed away, staring. The robots entered the room, moving with swift, jerky movements, and stood in a row. A fifth figure stepped through the door behind the robots, and the doors closed behind him. A human, heavyset and bald, but sporting an enormous red mustache. The scientists recognized him from pictures, or in Kray's case, tortured remnants of nightmare memories.

"Hello," said Dr. Robotnik. "Glad to see you made it." He was greeted by stunned silence. He grinned. "I appreciate the welcome, really, I do."

"You ... you're working for GUN?" said Nick hoarsely.

Robotnik looked at Nick, and his brows drew together in a frown. "I didn't know there were any humans on the roster." He waved a hand. "Not that it matters. I am Dr. Robotnik, and no, I am not working for GUN. In this case, they are working for me. These robots here are E-200s, the miniature series of my E-100 line. You will find them more practical than live technicians, because robots don't make mistakes."

"You're overseeing the lab?" said Touis, trying not to stare.

"Yes," said Robotnik, smiling. "You see, I have two projects to complete, but I lack the skills myself to complete them. You'll be compensated for your time, of course." He stepped forwards, and the scientists backed away from him as if he was some kind of germ.

Robotnik stepped up to the airlock leading to lab 1 and said, "Come with me, and I'll show you what we'll be working on." He paused, looking at them. "Do any of you have active chaos fields?"

Lintel shakily raised a paw.

"Good," said Robotnik. "You'll be particularly interested in this project." He stepped into the airlock chamber, and one by one the scientists followed, feeling as if they had just sold their souls to the devil.

"Chaos relocate!"

The green chaos emerald sparkled and whipped Sonic instantaneously through the chaos field, setting him down inside a warehouse filled with crates and boxes. Sonic slung the bag he was carrying into the proper crate, held up his emerald and said, "Chaos relocate." He warped back to the warehouse in New Mobitropolis, picked up another bag, and repeated the process.

After the fifth trip, Sonic slung a bag over his shoulder and darted out of the door. It was time he made the trip to Riverbase on foot and let this accumulated energy run out of his chaos field. Besides, he wanted to run, and too much teleporting muddled his thoughts and made him sleepy.

He left the road and turned onto the dirt road parallel to the highway that he had worn himself by constant travel. He poured on the speed, his chaos field lifting him slightly above the ground and repelling all particles in the air around him, so he was effectively travelling like a bullet in a bubble of air.

He had thought that he had forgotten about his brief sojourn in the future. He had put it out of his mind and forbade himself to think about it, because after all, that future no longer existed. He had changed it. Right?

But mention of Fealor Nash had brought it all back. Today Sonic had accompanied Sally to her office and met Nash, her new aide. Nash remembered Sonic from the biotic war, and tentatively greeted Sonic as if hoping that Sonic had stopped hating him. Sonic greeted him coldly and left a few minutes later, and had been working like fury ever since. Nash wasn't evil yet, and might never be. But Sonic's memories of the future were too horrible to forget. As he ran, they danced before his mind's eye all over again.

A young orange hedgehog named Jason. Sonic's own son. A young echidna missing an eye, Knuckles's son and Jason's best friend. Nash bending over Sonic and hissing about murder and the eighth chaos emerald. Nash holding the injured Jason and pitching him through a time portal to the roboticizer ...

A sonic boom echoed over the countryside as Sonic broke the sound barrier. He ran faster and faster, breathing through his teeth, feeling the terror, hatred and grief all over again. It couldn't come true, it couldn't! Nash couldn't rise to power, Sonic wouldn't let him! Sonic would kill him first!

Riverbase came into sight on the horizon, and Sonic began slowing down, wishing it was further so he could run longer. He didn't know what to do about Nash, and just looking at the cougar brought everything crashing back. No wonder the Time Rippers had been upset, because Sonic shouldn't have seen his own future, particularly not one that he had changed. Without the eighth chaos emerald, Nash was powerless.

What made the situation so perplexing was that Sonic could tell no one. Least of all Sally, and she was the one he wanted to tell the most. But how could he breach the topic? "Hi Sally, I know we're not married yet, but I want to tell you about our future son..." Yeah, right. She'd flip out, or think that HE'D flipped out.

The only person who had been there with him was Zephyer, and they had agreed long ago not to talk about what they had seen and done. Was she stressing like this, too? After all, it was her son who found the eighth chaos emerald in the first place. And caused Zephyer and Knuckles to die. Knowing how you might die had to be worse than encountering Robotnik's future replacement. But if Zephyer was going to have a baby, she hadn't mentioned it, and Sonic had a feeling that she would. Because that child was her potential link to a very bad future.

Sonic skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust, opened the door to the post office warehouse, waved to the Mobians sorting mail, and slung his sack into the crate. Then he trotted back outside and ran north, back towards New Mobitropolis. He accelerated even faster without the weight of the mailbag to slow him down, and broke the sound barrier within a minute.

It was torment to look the future straight in the eye and pretend to ignore it. Here was Nash, and Sonic had seen what Nash might become. And he had also seen himself married and with a family, which held its own sort of terror. Sonic loved Sally and wanted to marry her, but his glimpse of the future had paralyzed him. If he went ahead with it, was he bringing about the downfall of his whole world? But Sally had sacrificed so much for him ... he couldn't just throw that all away. For better or worse and all that, and he had already seen the worst. And if he didn't marry her, then he would never see Jason again. Sonic did want to see him again, if only so he could erase the little tombstone with the ID number of an orange hedgehog who had died shortly after deroboticization ...

He dashed the tears out of his eyes and slowed down as he approached New Mobitropolis's city limits. The future had tainted the present, and he couldn't escape it. But he couldn't let fear dictate his actions. He had changed that future. It might still be possible, but there were other futures open to him now. He thought of the alternate future that he had glimpsed, the one where they had all survived. That was the one he had to hope for.

Sonic ran in a big circle until he could stop without skidding, then re-entered the post office and snatched his chaos emerald out of a locker. He would teleport for a while, because he wouldn't have time to worry.

Aleda pushed hard against the computer console, and flopped down in the swivel chair as it spun around and around. She watched the world revolve around her, gradually slowing down. Metal Sonic was folding a blanket on the floor, and watched her with a look of disdain. As she stopped spinning, he shook his head and resumed folding the blanket. "What's the matter, Mecha?" she said.

"Nothing," he replied. He compressed the blanket into a tiny square and stowed it in a canvas backpack.

Aleda bounded out of the chair to help, but hit the floor and fell over, finding to her dismay that the world was still spinning.

Mecha smirked. "I recommend you remain still for several minutes until the fluid in your inner ear has stabilized."

"No, I can walk," said Aleda, getting up and staggering up to Mecha. "Where did you get that backpack?"

"Storage," said Mecha. "We are going on a journey and must carry supplies."

Aleda swarmed up the side of the pack and climbed inside. "Ooo, can I ride in here?" she begged, lifting the flap and looking out at Mecha.

"Perhaps," he said, picking her up and setting her on one of his shoulder-plates. "Stay there for now. I must finish packing."

Aleda hooked her claws under the edge of the plate to anchor herself, and rode along on Mecha's shoulder as he moved in and out of the room, collecting various items and arranging them in his pack. She liked sitting there, so close to his face, even when he stooped or turned suddenly, almost unseating her. Among other things, she could talk to him as much as she wanted. "Are we going on a trip to find God?" she asked.

"The Master Designer," said Mecha, checking a map printout. "Whether he is God or not is irrelevant."

"So where are we going?" Aleda asked.

"There is a library in a town called Silvaline one hundred kilometers from here," said Mecha. "They have a collection of documents preserved from Mobius's first millennium. I wish to consult them."

"First mell - mill - meleninim?" said Aleda, trying to force her tongue to pronounce the syllables.

"First one thousand years," said Mecha in annoyance, folding the map and tucking it into his pack. "There have been many changes to the Mobian calender, and our current years are counted from the fall of the Golden Era, which lasted for thousands of years before that. No records survived the fall, however. At least, none that we can now read."

"Why?" said Aleda.

Mecha paused, eyes taking on a faraway look. "I haven't the time to recount Mobius's history to you, Aleda. The Golden Era ended and Mobius's geography was remade."

This tidbit of information nearly drove Aleda wild with curiosity, but Mecha had withdrawn into his own thoughts, and was obviously busy packing. So Aleda held her tongue and let her imagination run wild with images of maps rearranging themselves and oceans rolling away to reveal new lands beneath.

To her surprise, Mecha said, "You are unusually quiet."

"I was thinking," said Aleda. "About the Golden Era. Was everything made out of gold then?"

"No," said Mecha, reaching up to rub her head. "I know little about it, myself. That is why I must visit the library and read about it. I will share my findings with you."

"Okay," said Aleda. She closed her eyes and enjoyed his fingers on her head, and purred as she had when she was a baby. But now the purr had words. "Red-eyes, Red-eyes, I love you, my Red-eyes ..."

Mecha withdrew his hand and raised an eyebrow at her. "What?"

"Oh." Aleda stopped and blushed. "Sorry, I didn't know I was saying that."

"Red-eyes?" said Mecha, bemused. "Is that what you call me?"

"I made it up when I was little, and I didn't know your name," said Aleda, too embarrassed to look at him, and studying her paws instead. "You do have red eyes."

Mecha was silent for a moment, then said softly, "You may still call me that. But only when Shadow and Nox cannot hear."

She dared look at him and saw that he was smiling. "Okay."

The outer door opened, and Shadow entered, carrying a backpack in one hand and his orange chaos emerald in the other. Nox trotted at his heels. "Hello Master," said Shadow. "I've packed enough food for two weeks. Are you sure you don't want me to transport us using chaos control?"

Mecha raised both eyebrows. "Can you teleport to a place that you have never seen?"

"No," said Shadow, looking down.

"Exactly," said Mecha. "However, both of us were built for travelling at high speeds. I'm certain that we will manage."

"A hundred kilometers in the winter is a long way," said Shadow, fingering his orange gem. "I travelled like this last winter, and it's not easy. You and I risk freezing to death out there, to say nothing of the chao."

"I have given the matter much thought," said Mecha, eyes narrowing. "Do you doubt me?"

Shadow's ear grew pointed. "Yes, I do. Half the time you fail to take into consideration your own weaknesses. They're different now. You can't handle sub-zero temperatures anymore."

"Nor can you," said Mecha, his own ears flattening as he scowled. "I am more intelligent than you give me credit for, Shadow. There is a type of Mobian clothing manufactured for the climates we will be entering. Aside from conserving body heat, it will act as a disguise for certain physical characteristics." He held up one hand, curling his silver fingers.

"How will you acquire such supplies?" said Shadow.

Mecha plucked an object off the control panel and held it up. It was his debit card, which tapped into his bank account in Sapphire City. His funds came from his trades in the human stock market, at which Mecha had become adept. Money had never been one of Mecha's worries - his brain was a supercomputer, and making money was easy.

"Why don't you let me use that?" said Shadow, glaring.

Mecha set it down again. "I use it only when necessary, and it is not necessary for you to use it." His tone was cutting.

Shadow opened his mouth, changed his mind and said nothing, and stood in silence as Mecha continued to load his pack. Aleda watched the whole exchange without a word. Her mind was still growing, and she paid close attention to everything her beloved Mecha did. When he was silent, she was silent.

When Tails dragged himself out of bed at noon and stumbled into his workshop, he found Sonic there on his lunch break, deep in conversation with the Tornado.

As Tails pushed open the door, he saw Sonic sitting on an overturned barrel, a sandwich in one hand, facing the half-dismantled Tornado and saying, "Yeah, I don't fly so much anymore. I got enough to do with my feet on the ground. Oh, hi Tails! Tornado, Tails is here."

The plane's computer said, "Welcome, Tails. Your friend Sonic is fascinating."

Tails stared, open-mouthed, first at the Tornado, then at Sonic. "You've been talking to it? Like, really talking?"

"Sure," said Sonic, taking a bite of his sandwich. "It's not the brightest robot I've ever met, but it's up there. I came in looking for you, and it wanted to know who the heck I was and what I was doing here."

"I had to determine that he was not an enemy," said the Tornado.

Tails trotted up and climbed into the cockpit. The screen was flicking with code up one side, and the other side had a window open with 'User Profile: Sonic' written across it.

"You don't mind, do you?" said Sonic, watching him.

"No, no, it's fine," said Tails, still feeling amazed and bewildered. "I didn't expect it to learn so fast."

The Tornado said, "I have exceeded your expectations. Pleasantness."

"That's not a word," said Tails.

"It is now," said the Tornado with a touch of smugness.

Tails and Sonic exchanged an astonished look. "You shouldn't just make up words," said Sonic. "Pretty soon nobody will be able to understand you."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado.

Tails climbed out of the cockpit. "What are you doing here anyway, Sonic?"

"Looking for you, like I said," said Sonic, popping the last of his sandwich in his mouth and brushing crumbs off his hands. He picked up a catalog lying on a nearby shelf and thumbed through it. "I need your opinion." Sonic handed the catalog to Tails and pointed to the open page.

Jewelry, diamond rings. Tails looked up with a grin. "Rings, eh? For a certain Sally?"

"Yep," said Sonic, keeping a straight face. "I can't decide which one to order, and some of these I'll kind of have to save up for."

Tails couldn't stop grinning. "It's about time!"

"Yep," said Sonic, smirking. Then he looked at the rings, and his smile faded into a look of desolate fear.

Tails blinked. "Sonic, what's wrong?"

Sonic's quick smile returned. "Nothing, little bro. Just thinking of how much overtime I'll have to do."

Tails squinted at Sonic. He knew him well enough to tell when Sonic was hiding something, but Tails didn't press the matter. He looked at the catalog. "I think some of these would be too gaudy for Sally. She's not into fancy jewelry."

"I liked this one," said Sonic, pointing to an emerald with a tiny diamond set on either side. "You know, emeralds and all that. But do you think it's too flashy?"

Tails studied the picture. "I kinda like it. I can see her wearing that. But gee, it's the most expensive thing on this page!"

"I noticed," said Sonic with a wry smile. "I have about half of it saved already. I just couldn't decide which to get her."

Tails cocked his head. "When are you going to ask her?"

Sonic shrugged. "I have to get the ring first, and I want it to be a surprise. I'll think of something."

"Can I be there when you do it?" said Tails. "I want to see her face."

"Okay, I'll let you know beforehand," said Sonic, rolling up his catalog. "Thanks, little bro. I'd better get back to work. Bye, Tornado!"

"Goodbye, Sonic," said the biplane.

Sonic left, and Tails sat looking at his plane. "So I guess you finished diagnostics?"

"Affirmative," said the Tornado. "Query. Are there any more users who I must profile?"

"Why do you need to profile everyone?" asked Tails.

"Everyone not profiled is a potential threat," replied the plane. "This is a result of the Military setting."

Tails closed his eyes for a moment in dismay. "Tornado, most people you encounter are friends, not enemies. I don't enter combat much. And when I do, I mostly fight robots."

The Tornado didn't answer for several minutes, and Tails laced his fingers in his lap. Then it said, "Affirmative. Settings changed."

"Good," said Tails. "You're not allowed to use your weapons without user permission, either."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado, sounding disappointed. "Observation. If I possessed visual sensors, I could identify friend and foe without user input."

Tails sighed. "I don't have any, and the kind you need are really expensive."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado.

Tails sat looking at the biplane for a long moment, wondering where he could pick up a sensor array. Then he stood up, went to a dusty shelf in the back of his workshop and took down a box. Inside it were several chunks of rock, and one of them glowed deep green. Tails had mined these gems himself on the Floating Island, and he was loath to part with them. They were his own secret treasures. But he had spent every penny he had and was in debt for the Tornado's brain, and now it was time to dip into his savings. He pushed aside the glowing green stone and picked up a red stone that flashed in the light, but had no glow. It would be worth a lot more if he could get it cut. They had jewelry stores down in Riverbase ... he could assemble the Tornado and take it down there to train it. Then maybe he could hunt sensor arrays and price them ...

He smiled and took out the red stone, sliding the box back into place. "Hey Tornado," he said, "how would you like to go to Riverbase for a few days?"

Down south a storm system had moved in to pour more rain on Sapphire City. Far out to sea, a small island also received a deluge of rain, and the storm drove the ocean against the cliffs until the island echoed with the crashing, thundering surf.

The five scientists had received keycards to the outer doors and fence, and could come and go as they chose. But aside from a couple of trips out to the edge of the cliffs, the howling wind kept them indoors. Nick and Lintel both tried to find the harbor where the speedboats were kept, but the road was cut into the side of the cliffs, and the sea had turned it wet and slick as oil, and neither of them dared venture down it.

Then the storm blew in, and all outdoors was a roaring tempest with so much rain that it almost drowned Barlet when he opened the outer doors to look out. So the scientists remained in the lab, unwilling prisoners of the elements and Dr. Robotnik.

Nick had to admit that working with Robotnik was amazing. This old man could do things with machines and numbers that Nick had never thought possible. The first day, Robotnik inserted a disk into the main computer and called up a series of schematics on screen.

"This is a type of robot," Robotnik told his captive audience. "One of my older designs, it is nonetheless highly successful." He lectured them on the finer points of its construction and central processor for a while, then loaded a second set of schematics. He layered this over the previous design and said, "These are third-party upgrades that this unit has received. Some have enhanced its effectiveness, while others hamper it."

Nick felt Kray poke him in the back. Nick glanced at him and saw that the opossum had made a gun-shape out of his thumb and forefinger, and nodded at the screen. Nick nodded back. They were looking at a walking arsenal. This robot was armed with a flamethrower, a rocket launcher, two different types of lasers, and an item connected to the fusion core that was blanked out, as if no schematics existed for it.

Robotnik noticed Nick's nod and said, "Do you have a question, Karabian?" His tone was condescending.

Nick swallowed and said, "Uh, yes. How can a unit this small carry all that weight?"

"It does so only with difficulty," said Robotnik, gazing at the schematics. "I believe it does not carry full ammunition at all times. Now, your task is to upgrade this unit as much as our present technology allows. What are your suggestions?"

The five studied the diagrams on the screen, and shifted their weight uneasily. Touis was the first to speak. "We could upgrade the eyes," he said, pointing to the screen. "I think the central processor could support the V-145 series optic sensors, maybe the V-149."

"But we'd have to modify them," said Lintel. "The V-145 is for medical use, not military. This unit needs infrared vision, at least."

Robotnik nodded. "Good. You'll start there. However, this is only a secondary project." He inserted another disk and paused, looking at the scientists. "What I am about to show you is top-secret. Word of it does not leave this lab, understand?"

They all nodded - they dealt with nanotechnology and were used to secrecy.

Robotnik opened the files. They displayed particle physics data, and diagrams of ... something. Nick couldn't figure out what he was seeing. Then the Mobians all inhaled in shock, and Nick saw the fur on Barlet's shoulders stand up.

"Elementary chaos physics," said Robotnik, watching their faces. "Particularly in relation to a chaos emerald. We have limited data on its effects on personal chaos fields and the body, and I hope to have more soon. As you will notice, some of the measured energy resembles radioactivity - "

"Uh, sir," said Touis, raising a paw. "What do you expect us to do with this data?"

Robotnik gave the chipmunk a scornful look. "I expect you to manufacture working chaos emeralds. That is enough information for now. Phase two of this project is strictly conjecture until we know if emerald manufacture is possible."

Nick swallowed. Genius or not, Robotnik was also power-mad. Nick hoped that they would live to get off this island.

There was a flash of light, and two hedgehogs appeared out of nowhere on a snowy hillside. They staggered on the slope, regained their balance and stood looking around, breathing the frosty air and blinking in the sunlight.

At first glance they were ordinary Mobians, bundled up in coats and snowpants, each wearing a backpack. But upon closer examination, one of them had black eyes and glowing red irises, and a silver muzzle that gleamed in the watery sunlight. The other had a cyborg eye and odd-looking hoverskates on his feet. Their backpacks moved, and a chao looked out of each, one chao black, the other blue.

Mecha pointed northwest. "We make for Silvaline. Their library of ancient writings is famous, and it survived the biotic war because the biotics were interested in victims, not spoils."

"Are you certain you don't want me to teleport?" whispered Shadow, his breath hanging in a haze before his face.

"No," growled Mecha. "You don't know the way, and the travel will take no more than two days." He walked down the hillside, settling his pack more comfortably on his shoulders, and Shadow followed him.

They picked their way down the rocky hillside, headed for the trees half a mile below them. The chao snuggled down in the backpacks where it was warmer, and Mecha took the lead, relishing the chance to stretch his synthetic muscles and feel the tingle of icy air in his lungs.

The slope became gentler as they reached the trees, and Mecha broke into a light jog. Shadow swept after him, his hoverskates sensing his increased speed and flicking on, the jets melting the snow as he passed over it. The pair wove in and out of the trees, not concerned about sticking together, for their radar contact was enough. There were other dangers, but Mecha and Shadow feared neither cold nor wild animals. They were a match for anything they might meet.

But the woods were quiet, the sort of deep, far-reaching silence of winter. The two travellers were alone in the uninhabited wilderness north and west of the Ice Cap mountains.

As Shadow skated, his breath coming swift and easy, he again thought of meeting Robo Knux in Sapphire City. "I know your purpose, Shadow." Shadow had asked Mecha what his purpose was, and although Mecha had told Shadow some disturbing things about himself, Mecha could not tell Shadow his purpose. Robo Knux was right.

Shadow dodged around a snow-capped boulder and ducked under low-hanging fir branches, receiving a dusting of snow on his head. He heard Nox laugh in delight and knew that his chao was enjoying the trip so far. Mecha was thirty yards to his left, running like a fleet ghost among the trees. Shadow might have mistaken him for Sonic if he hadn't known any better; Mecha ran like Sonic did, and was nearly as fast.

The trees thinned and a wide snow-covered meadow opened before them. Shadow automatically sped up and so did Mecha. Mecha glanced back at Shadow and smiled, and Shadow smiled, too. Now here was something he had never done before: racing his master! The pair flashed across the meadow, and for several minutes Shadow couldn't narrow Mecha's lead. Then the trees drew together again and they both had to slow down. The snow was deeper, as well, and Mecha found himself sinking to his knees while Shadow skated lightly over the top of the snow.

Aleda's voice rang over their network. "No fair, Shadow! Mecha's caught in the snow!"

"I am not," snapped Mecha through the network.

Shadow laughed, glad that the trees blocked him from Mecha's view. He skated on ahead, enjoying the illusion of solitude. Again he thought of Robo Knux with a touch of discomfort. Shadow should not have gone near him at all, not after Robo Knux had sworn to destroy Mecha and Shadow both. But once he was in range of communication, Robo Knux had said things that grabbed Shadow's attention.

"What is my purpose?" Shadow asked himself. To simply exist as an ageless being - that was no reason for existing. What did Robo Knux think Shadow's purpose was? Shadow frowned. Robo Knux probably thought that Shadow's purpose was a sharpening post for his claws. But Shadow couldn't help feeling curious. Robo Knux had said that he had found out Shadow's purpose ... the kind of statement that implied a bomb planted in your head, or a password tattooed to your back. Shadow knew that he shouldn't listen, that responding to Robo Knux was playing straight into his hands. But the sense of danger piqued his curiosity all the more.

If Mecha had been the one to tell Shadow that he knew his reason for existing, Shadow would have been politely interested. But because it was Robo Knux - a sworn enemy - Shadow's curiosity knew no bounds.

"Correct your trajectory, Shadow," Mecha said over the network, interrupting his thoughts. "You are drifting due north."

Shadow checked Mekion's compass and turned northwest again. It was hard to travel in a straight line through these trees, and he told Mecha so.

"Affirmative," said Mecha. "Consult your compass every ten minutes. That will keep you aligned. How is Nox coping with these temperatures?"

"Nox, you okay?" Shadow whispered over his shoulder.

"Roger!" came his chao's voice.

"He's fine," said Shadow over the network.

"Good," said Aleda's clear voice. "Because I'm freezing. Mecha, why aren't you warm like Shadow is?"

At first Shadow wondered how he could hear Aleda when she was so far away, then realized that Mecha's link with her broadcast her voice throughout the entire network.

"My systems operate at lower average temperatures than his do," Mecha replied. "Do you feel that your life is threatened by the ambient temperature?"

"No," said Aleda, sounding cross. "I just wish my life didn't have to be threatened before you did something about it."

Shadow could almost hear Mecha wince. "Yes. What would you have me do?"

"Nothing," said Aleda. "I'm fine."

"You just told me you were freezing!"

"I over exaggerated," said Aleda.

Shadow laughed so hard that he nearly collided with a tree. As he staggered around it, Nox demanded from his backpack, "What? What're you laughing at?"

"Aleda," said Shadow, still grinning. "She's too intelligent for her own good."

Shadow skated on, and Mecha ran with him, sometimes so close that they were in danger of colliding, other times a mile apart. The country sloped downhill, and the pine trees became mixed with other trees, their naked limbs creating a net against the cloudless sky. Here in the lowlands the snow was wetter and had melted away in wide, muddy patches, lingering in the shade under the trees. Dead grass and weeds stood in skeletal clumps, their leaves rattling in the breeze. Shadow grew uncomfortably warm under his coat, so he unzipped it and ran on, letting the cold air cool him. Even Mecha's mechanical body was warming up with the constant exercise, and Aleda's nest in his backpack lost its chill.

They ran for hours, stopping once in a while to catch their breaths. Shadow always tired first, because his muscles were organic and demanded more oxygen than he could supply. But even Mecha found that he, too, had to stop and gasp for air once in a while. While his artificial muscles did not burn oxygen as quickly as Shadow's, they did require oxygen and slowly developed a deficit until he had to stop and catch his breath.

The sun reached its zenith and descended toward the west, and the shadows of the hedgehogs lengthened behind them. The air grew colder until both Shadow and Mecha's breath steamed. "Shall we stop for the night?" Mecha asked, slowing down.

Shadow coasted up to him, his hoverskates shutting off. "I'm not tired," he said. "However, the chao need feeding, and I daresay we do, too."

"Affirmative," said Mecha, nodding. He slipped off his backpack and opened the top flap.

Aleda blinked up at him. "Are we there yet?"

"No," said Mecha. "This is a brief halt for refueling."

She climbed out of his pack as Shadow opened his own pack and let out Nox. Nox rubbed his eyes and looked around. They were on the edge of a tree-covered hill, and looking westward the country rolled away into a blue haze of trees. It was vast and utterly silent. Nox inhaled deeply and sighed. "I love being outside."

Aleda, on the other hand, took one look at the wide world and shrank close to Mecha's leg, hiding her eyes. "I don't like it," she whimpered. "It's too big and empty."

Mecha stepped away from her. "Move around. It will help. You have been in a tiny enclosed space all day." He walked around in a circle, and Aleda hurried after him, trying to look only at him or the ground and ignore the empty space around her. She had been hatched and raised in Mecha's underground base, and her world consisted of walls, a ceiling and a floor. This unbordered world terrified her. She had the terrible fear that something was about to attack her from out of all that space, and her brain couldn't process all the information her eyes were taking in. Thus when she looked up at the horizon, she saw only disjointed colors and shapes.

Shadow opened his pack and pulled out a package of freeze-dried rations. He ripped it open with the claws on his robot hand and gave it to Nox. Nox was watching Aleda. "Why's she scared of being outside?"

"This is only the second time in her life that she has been outside the base," whispered Shadow, pulling out more rations and setting them on a nearby stone. Nox shivered and began eating.

Mecha and Aleda walked up, and Mecha knelt and opened a package for Aleda. She squeezed between him and his pack on the ground, and only then could she eat, with the illusion of walls on either side of her.

Mecha picked up the last package of rations and opened it, and sat looking at it for several minutes. Eating was still a foreign concept to him, and the memory of throwing up after his new system was installed was hideously fresh in his mind. Intellectually, he knew that he must eat, and that doing so would not hurt him. But his instincts said otherwise, and he wondered if it was possible to travel to Silvaline before having to refuel. He checked his internal fuel gauges and knew that he couldn't do that. He would only last four more hours before running out of energy and collapsing.

Mecha slowly pulled out one of the hard, tasteless crackers in the ration pack, put it in his mouth, chewed and swallowed with the utmost concentration. If he wanted to be organic, he had to get used to things like this. Nearby, Shadow carefully kept his attention on his own meal, knowing that if he looked at Mecha, he would laugh his head off. He and Nox found the sight of Mecha eating so carefully to be hilarious, and they didn't look at each other or they would laugh. And if they laughed, Mecha had promised to maul them both.

The sun sank as they ate, and when they finished, the horizon was awash in red and orange, swirled with wispy clouds. The temperature was dropping, and Nox and Aleda began to shiver uncontrollably. Shadow was trembling a little, himself, as his metal half conducted cold into his warm living half. "Back in the pack," he told Nox, and bundled the chao into the pack and slung it on his shoulders.

Mecha did the same with Aleda and put on his own pack. He was shivering, too. "We'll need our infrared settings soon," said Mecha. He looked up at the sky, checking the satellite for directions with his internal computer. "We are halfway there," he told Shadow. "By midnight we will reach outlying settlements. Therefore be cautious."

Shadow nodded, jogging in place to warm up. "Affirmative, Master. Let's go!"

Shadow sprang away down the hill, and Mecha followed, knowing that if they stood still in the open any longer, they would overcool and freeze to death. It would be a cold night.

Sally and Sonic were watching the sun set. They stood at the edge of the Great Forest, looking westward at the fiery horizon. There, where once had been the dark cloud of smog that was Robotropolis, now was a sprinkling of warm yellow lights from New Mobitropolis.

"It's so beautiful," Sally whispered. She shivered under her overcoat, and Sonic put an arm around her.

"Yeah," he said, gazing at the lights. "Never thought I'd see it look like this again." He took one of her hands and said, "Sal, you're like ice! Where're your gloves?"

"I forgot them," she said, smiling. "On purpose. I was practicing with the chaos emerald." She dug into her coat pocket and pulled out the violet gem.

Sonic smiled. "I take it you still can't control it."

"No," said Sally, gazing at the gem a moment, then thrusting it back into her pocket. "I don't think I'm strong enough. The emerald just does whatever it wants."

"You'll learn," said Sonic, tightening his arm around her in a half-hug.

The pair were silent a moment, content to be together. The red and orange in the sky faded to pink and violet, and more lights appeared in the city. Sonic wished that he could propose right then, for the moment was perfect, but he was three paychecks away from being able to afford Sally's ring. Whoever heard of proposing without a ring? He would have to wait, but it was killing him. Sonic hated waiting for anything.

"Hey Sal," he said, "I have a hypothetical question."

She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Okay."

Sonic motioned to the city lights. "Say you married some random guy. Would you want to live there, or in a little backwoods village in the forest?"

Sally laughed. "You make it sound like such a hard choice! Let's see. If I married some random guy, I'd want to go on living in Knothole. It's not far from the city, and it's a lot quieter." She gazed at Sonic, who was watching the horizon. "I spent the best years of my life there," she concluded.

He smiled and didn't answer, still without looking at her.

"Wasn't that the answer you wanted?" Sally asked.

Sonic shrugged. "I told you it was a hypothetical question. I have another one."

"Okay, shoot."

Sonic looked down. "Say you married some random guy, and you both lived in one-room huts. What would you want to do about that?"

Sally laughed again. "You're funny, Sonic."

He glanced at her. "Well?"

"I'd want to have a house built," she said. "Not a hut - a real Mobian house, with plenty of room and a big yard."

He nodded, and she saw his eyes glint with mischief as he looked away. He was pretending that he didn't care what she said, but he did care, very much. "Third question," he said, trying not to smile. "Say this random guy you married was well-nigh penniless and couldn't afford to build a hut, much less a house."

"Well," said Sally, putting an arm around him and slipping her cold hand into his warm one, "I'd tell this random guy that my job pays enough to support us, and I can pull some strings to get the house built."

"No," said Sonic, shaking his head. "You're not gonna support us. I will. I just haven't figured out how yet."

"Whoa," said Sally playfully. "Was that a hypothetical statement?"

"Uh, yeah," said Sonic, looking away. "Yeah, it was."

Sally was conscious that his spines were slowly piercing through the fabric of her coat sleeve. "Why all the questions? Got something on your mind?"

"Naw," said Sonic, shrugging. The motion drive his spines through her jacket into her arm, and Sally jerked away from him by reflex.

Sonic jumped, then saw that she was rubbing her arm. "Oh, Sal, I'm sorry - "

"It's my fault," she said, smiling. "I knew I shouldn't have reached across your back like that." She didn't tell him that she was bleeding under her coat.

Sonic ran a hand over his blue spines. "They're great for smashing stuff, but not much good for interacting with people. Let's go back - my winter fur hasn't grown in yet."

"Mine either," said Sally, nursing her arm and trying to look like she wasn't. "The sunset's gone, anyway."

They walked back down the path to the village, Sonic kicking himself for hurting her, and Sally kicking herself for being careless enough to let him hurt her.

Aleda awoke from a hazy dream to find that Mecha was shaking her with a metal hand so cold that it felt red-hot. She gasped and cringed, and he released her at once. "There, she's awake," he said over his shoulder to Shadow.

Aleda lay on her back, looking up at Mecha's glowing red eyes. The sky was full of stars; hard, frosty stars. Her whole body felt numb and weighted, and she felt herself dozing off again.

Mecha saw her eyes close and shook her roughly. "Aleda! You must stay awake!"

"I'm so sleepy," she mumbled.

Mecha cursed under his breath and looked from side to side, as if seeking some way to help her. "I'm not losing you again," he hissed through his teeth, and unzipped his coat. He picked her up in his frigid hands - she gasped at his touch - and tucked her inside of his coat. Underneath, his metal body was warm from running, and Aleda realized how cold she really was. She began to shiver violently, and Mecha zipped up his coat over her and stroked her through the fabric. She pressed herself flat against his chest, and listened to his quick, anxious breathing and the beating of his heart.

She heard him say to Shadow over the network, "She is nearly dead of hypothermia. How is Nox?"

"The same," came Shadow's voice. "I put him under my jacket, and he's ... he's not really awake."

"Neither is Aleda," said Mecha. "When the temperature reached minus five degrees, I knew we must check them. We are still twenty kilometers from Silvaline."

"We can't return them to our packs or they'll die," said Shadow. "And we have to keep moving or we'll die."

"Yes, I noticed that," said Mecha, and Aleda felt a fine tremor pass through him. "Let us run for a while. Keep Nox covered."

Aleda felt him turn and begin to run. Instead of being jostled inside the backpack, she was nestled securely inside Mecha's coat, and he kept one arm under her to support her as he ran. "Mecha," she said over the network, "would I have died?"

"Probably," he replied the same way. "You still might, if you fall asleep again. As I said, don't fall asleep."

This frightened Aleda even more than her agoraphobia. "I won't go to sleep," she told Mecha. "What about Nox? Is he okay?"

"Yes," said Shadow over the network. "He's finally awake and very cross."

"Let him be cross," said Mecha, sounding relieved. "If he's angry he's less inclined to fall asleep."

Aleda's paws and feet began to tingle and burn, and the pain made her twitch. "My feet hurt," she told Mecha through the network.

"Yes," he said. "Your blood is flowing through your cold fibers and nerve sensations will resume. Be glad for the pain. It will end shortly."

Why should I be glad for the pain? Aleda thought. It hurts! Maybe it's because it means I'm alive.

Slowly the tingling faded, and Aleda grew gloriously warm. She began to feel sleepy, and it scared her. "Mecha," she said, "can you unzip your coat a little so I can see out? I'm afraid I'll go to sleep again."

"Affirmative," he said, and unzipped his coat a few inches. She peered through the gap and received a blast of ice-cold air in her face, which snapped her wide awake at once. The sky was lit with a pale blue light from the stars, and the land lay about them in an indistinct jumble. Away to their right was a flicker of light that Aleda knew was Shadow's hoverskates. Looking out at the world from the safety of Mecha's arms made the vastness less frightening to her, and she was able to bear it.

"Are you cold, Mecha?" she asked.

"A little," he replied. "I am slightly uncomfortable, but my synthetic fibers are not as complex as those of a true organic, and thus can tolerate lower temperatures with few ill effects."

"Oh," said Aleda, wiping her eyes, which were watering from the cold wind. "So in other words, you're fine."


"How far is it to Silvaline?"

Mecha was silent a moment, consulting his internal map. "Fourteen kilometers. We will reach it shortly after dawn. Shadow, the maps of this region indicate a farming community ahead. Make a detour to the north."

"Yes Master," Shadow replied through the network, and Aleda saw his flickering shoes veer off. Mecha turned, too, and Aleda sensed they were travelling downhill.

"Why can't we just go through the farms?" Aleda asked. "Wouldn't it be faster?"

"Yes, it would," said Mecha, and hesitated. "We want to avoid detection because ... well, because of who I am."

"Who you are?" said Aleda, craning her neck to see his face. Mecha's eyes were fixed straight ahead, and his mouth was set in a firm line.

"Yes," he said. "In the past I ... did some things that earned me an unsavory reputation."

"Like what?"

Mecha didn't answer for several minutes, and Aleda waited, knowing that he would answer her even if it took him an hour to think of something to say.

"Aleda," he said at last, "I am what is called an assassin robot. I killed people at my master's command."

Aleda was silent. He had killed people? Her beloved red-eyes had killed people? No, he couldn't have. He was so nice! He was grouchy sometimes, of course, but so was she, and Shadow was grouchy sometimes, too. Mecha was an assassin robot who killed people. She wanted to cry. She wanted to believe Mecha was perfect and had never done anything wrong; especially not killing people. That was horrible.

"Mecha," she said brokenly, "you couldn't have killed anybody. That's ... that's just ... you couldn't have."

"I am not proud of it," said Mecha quietly. "It is one of the reasons I left my old master. He commanded me to do ... those things. That was the reason he created me."

"Who was your master?" asked Aleda, trying not to cry with the shock.

"An evil human named Dr. Robotnik," said Mecha, the name rolling off his tongue with disgust. "One thing I must say for Robo Knux ... he saw Robotnik for what he was long before I did. But I was programmed to be loyal, and it was a core component of my internal matrix. I could not physically question or overcome it until I upgraded my processors to a nanotech design."

Aleda couldn't take in the big words. She was stuck on the image of Mecha killing people. "Did ... did you only kill bad people?" she said.

"I thought they were bad at the time," said Mecha. "I do not wish to discuss this topic any longer."

Aleda wriggled deeper into his coat and curled up. He had only killed bad people; that was some comfort she could cling to. She told herself fiercely that she would not cry, and tried not to think about it anymore. She also tried not to dwell on another question that was growing in the back of her mind. Would Mecha have killed her if Robotnik had told him to?

She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

Dawn spread its cold tendrils over the world, and Tails emerged from his hut in Knothole with a backpack slung over one shoulder. He hurried to his workshop, inhaling deeply and looking at the sky. The storm that had been lashing Sapphire City was moving north, and the sky was gray and overcast. It was warmer than it had been for the last week, and Tails guessed that they would get more rain than snow. Which was fine with him, because he didn't feel like driving to Riverbase in a snowstorm.

He unlocked the garage door on the back end of his workshop and rolled it open. There stood the Tornado in walker form. He had spent the previous day reattaching the body panels, and now the little walker was ready for travel. Tails reached into the cockpit and flipped the power switch, and said, "Good morning, Tornado!"

"Good morning, Tails," the Tornado replied. "Are conditions ready for travel?"

"Yep!" said Tails. "Except it looks like it's going to rain, so I'm putting up the canopy." He picked up a a folded metal frame like an accordion with canvas attached to it. He unfolded it and mounted it over the cockpit.

As he was strapping it down, Sonic appeared in the doorway wearing a jacket. "Heya Tails," he said, leaning against the frame. "Going somewhere?"

"Yeah," said Tails, snapping down a clamp. "I'm taking the Tornado down to Riverbase for some upgrades. I'm gonna get one of my Floating Island jewels cut."

"I wondered if you'd ever sell those things," said Sonic, putting his hands in his pockets. "Hi Tornado, how're you doing?"

"Hello Sonic," said the Tornado. "I am doing exceptionally well, thank you."

Sonic grinned and shook his head. "Still cracks me up to hear it talk. Tails, what kinds of upgrades you getting?"

"I'm going to price sensor arrays," said Tails. "I don't even know how much they are."

"Be careful down there," said Sonic. "Last time you went down there by yourself, we had that big earthquake and stuff."

"I know," said Tails. "I'm gonna stay the weekend. Maybe I'll come by the post office and say hi."

"That'd rock," said Sonic. "Have to be quick to catch me, though. I'm there about thirty seconds at a time. If you're gonna stay longer than the weekend, call me and let me know, okay?"

"Sure," said Tails, looking at Sonic over his shoulder. "Why?"

Sonic looked down and kicked the ground. "I worry about you, kiddo. Especially with this machine having a mind of its own now."

"Aww, don't worry about me," said Tails, secretly touched. Sonic hardly ever admitted to worrying about anything. "Part of the reason for this trip is to get the Tornado trained real good, and I'll teach it to protect me. I'm gonna visit the firing range down there."

"Cool," said Sonic. He tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. "It's starting to rain. I'm getting out of here. See you later!"

"Bye Sonic!" Tails called, but Sonic was already gone in a rush of air.

Tails left one corner of the canopy unclamped, and slung his backpack into the rear seat along with the thrall sphere. He grabbed his jacket from its hook by the door and put it on, then climbed into the dark, covered cockpit. The canopy had clear plastic panels along the sides for windows, but it was still dark inside. Tails flicked on the compartment lights, released the safety brake and gripped the controls. "All right, Tornado, pay attention. This is how it feels to move."

"Affirmative," said the computer.

Tails guided the Tornado out of the door, then climbed out to close the door behind them. Then he returned to the cockpit and drove out of Knothole, taking the road to New Mobitropolis. He turned on the radar and said, "Okay, we're going to take Forest Avenue to Beech Lane and cut over to highway 39. That takes us straight to Riverbase."

"Understood," said the Tornado, observing its real-time radar maps with interest. "It appears that I have some forms of visual enhancement after all."

"Told you," said Tails, grinning.

It was so early in the morning that there were no other vehicles on the road, and raindrops splattered Tails's windshield. he turned on his wipers and explained to the Tornado about weather and what happened when the roads were wet. The Tornado was curious about everything, and asked many questions as they strode along.

When they reached the highway, Tails transformed the walker into car-mode. The legs retracted and rotated so the tires rested on the road. The axle extended and two wheels unfolded in front to lift them off the street. The Tornado had become a small blue car with a tall tailfin.

Tails opened the throttle, and the Tornado roared out onto the highway. Tails grinned and yelled over the engine, "Car-form is the fastest one we have, aside from plane-mode!"

"Affirmative," said the Tornado. "Be careful of the wet pavement. Our traction is weak at these speeds."

Tails was aware of that, but he was also aware of the miles of empty road ahead of them. He kept the throttle open and gloried in the power of his machine.

Aleda awoke to find someone shaking her. She stirred and opened her eyes. At first she thought that she was still in Mecha's coat, then she looked up and gasped. The person holding her was a fox, not an android. "Who are you?" she blurted, staring.

"Hush," said the fox in Mecha's voice. "We are in Silvaline and I had to adjust my shape to avoid attention." The fox looked hard at her and she saw that his irises were red and glowed faintly.

"Oh," said Aleda, relaxing. "You scared me." She sat up and looked around. Mecha and Shadow were sitting on a bench in a park. They had removed their heavy clothing, but Aleda was still sitting in Mecha's coat, spread over the bench. The grass was brown and the trees were bare, and through them Aleda saw rows of buildings and a street with hovercars travelling to and fro. Nox was sitting on the bench on Shadow's other side, eating a package of rations, and Aleda was suddenly ravenous at the sight. "Mecha, can I have breakfast, too?"

"Yes." Mecha lifted her out of his coat, set her on the cold bench, and said, "Shadow, feed her, please." He folded his coat and crammed it into his backpack as Shadow tore open a pack of rations and handed it to Aleda.

The sun had risen over the mountains in the east, and the sky was barred with clouds. It seemed to Aleda that the air had grown warmer. Shadow's head was hanging, and he looked tired. Mecha, on the other hand, was gazing around with a calculating expression. Aleda sneaked looks at him as she ate.

She knew that he could alter his shape, because he had demonstrated it for her once. His biometal skin would take any shape if he had the information for it, for the nanites could orient and arrange themselves in limitless amounts of combinations. The only thing they couldn't form was fur. Mecha compensated for this by making the nanites stand up to create a velvety texture all over his body, reducing the gleam of his skin and creating the illusion of fur if seen from a distance.

"The ancient library archive is housed inside that building across the street," said Mecha in a low voice. "Shadow, you may accompany me if you wish."

"I'd rather stay here," said Shadow, looking weary. "I need to rest."

Mecha gazed at him. "Yes, travelling one hundred kilometers through rough terrain is not easy. Remain here with our packs. I will take Aleda with me. I will return within an hour or two."

Shadow nodded.

"I'm done," said Aleda, stuffing the last of her food in her mouth. Mecha picked her up and set her on his shoulder, and she giggled and stroked his velvety arm. "Act as if I have always had this appearance," he muttered. Then he rose and walked away, leaving Shadow and Nox on the bench.

Shadow watched Mecha cross the street and enter the tall building across the street. For a long time neither Shadow nor Nox spoke. Then Shadow opened his pack and pulled out his orange chaos emerald. "Nox," he whispered, "I'm going to leave for about fifteen minutes. Watch our stuff until I get back."

"Now where are you going?" said Nox, looking up at the black hedgehog. The chao sensed that Shadow was nervous and excited, and not as tired as he let on. But Shadow said, "I'll explain when I come back. Wait for me." And he teleported in a flash of light.

Robo Knux was leaning against a wall in an alley, rotating power cells in the laser in his right arm, when he received a transmission. "Robo Knux, I've come back. Tell me what my purpose is."

The red robot lifted his head, and if he could have grinned, he would have. "Why Shadow! How nice of you to visit." He tracked the source of the transmission. Shadow was half a mile to the east, on a side street that was empty so early in the morning. Robo Knux broke into a run in that direction.

Shadow's voice was annoyed. "I don't have all day. You said you know my purpose. What is it?"

"I can't explain it to you all in a minute," said Robo Knux in his oiliest tones. "It would be best if I spoke with you face to face."

"I don't think you know anything," growled Shadow. "You're setting me up with your lies."

"Now Shadow," said Robo Knux, faking shock, "when have I ever lied to you? I have data. Gigabytes of it."

"Where did you come by this data?" said Shadow.

Robo Knux took two shortcuts through back alleys and one across the roof of an apartment complex. His scans showed that Shadow was waiting for him. Perfect. Robo Knux had been planning this meeting for days.

"You know how Dr. Robotnik discovered a disk containing the diary of Gerald Robotnik," said Robo Knux. "I have discovered another while, shall we say, relieving our own doctor of some files he didn't need." He paused to let Shadow think about this. Two blocks to target.

He slowed to a walk and ducked across the lawn of an office building. Leave it to Shadow to plant himself in a public area where people would see them. Shadow had no fear of being seen, not while he carried that chaos emerald.

"What kind of files did you find?" Shadow said slowly. He had taken the bait.

"I found the entire Project Shadow database," said Robo Knux. "Information on you in incredible detail, and more of Gerald's personal notes." He rounded the last corner and saw Shadow standing there, gripping his orange gem and watching Robo Knux as a swimmer might watch a shark.

Robo Knux stopped twenty feet away from him. "I've read the files. You have purposes that you cannot begin to imagine. You have to read them yourself and form your own conclusions."

Shadow's natural eye narrowed. "What do I have to do in return?"

"I want some of Mekion's data," said Robo Knux, and gave him the filenames.

Shadow consulted his robot half and found that they were storage files of things he had done. He commanded Mekion to copy them and erase everything pertaining to Metal Sonic from them. Aloud, he said, "I am copying the files. Give me your data first."

Robo Knux opened a panel on the underside of his arm and pulled out a flat, rounded holodisk. He fingered it and regarded Shadow. "How do I know that you'll give me the data?"

"You don't," said Shadow. "For all I know, you're lying."

"A distinct possibility," said Robo Knux, enjoying this. "However, there is also the possibility that I am telling the truth, and it will torment you until you go mad."

The pair stared at each other. Around them, Sapphire City was awakening, and the traffic noise was crescendoing to its daily roar. They didn't have much time left before someone spotted them and reported Shadow to GUN.

"Give me the disk," said Shadow. "Then I'll transmit my files to you."

Robo Knux slowly walked forward. Shadow stood his ground, but his robot hand curled tighter around his chaos emerald. Robo Knux held out the disk. Shadow hesitated, studying the gesture for possible traps, then snatched the disk out of Robo Knux's hand.

A concealed dart fired from the disk's surface and plunged into the palm of Shadow's natural hand. He flinched and dropped the disk.

"Tag," said Robo Knux. "I told you that it was possible that I was lying. Well, I was. You have only one purpose, Shadow. My purpose for you."

A numbness was spreading up Shadow's arm. He dropped his chaos emerald in panic and gripped his injured hand with his robot one. He had never been tranquilized before. "You've poisoned me!" he gasped, backing away. "You filthy liar!"

"Liar, yes, filthy, no," said Robo Knux, watching Shadow's distress with sadistic delight. "I don't want your files, either. I want your chaos emerald. And you."

Shadow stumbled and fell to his hands and knees. "No, no, no," he was snarling. "You can't do this to me! You tricked me! Now I'm dying!"

"No, not dying," said Robo Knux. "You're going to fall asleep for a long time."

"Mekion, do something!" Shadow screamed mentally at his robot half. Mekion immediately transmitted a distress signal on every channel he could access.

Robo Knux retaliated with a scrambling signal. "Pathetic," he said, shaking his head. "Give it up, Mekion. Your master can't help you now. He doesn't know where you are, does he? Now he never will."

Shadow's head was drooping toward the pavement as the drug took hold. He struggled to stay upright, but his consciousness was deserting him. With a groan he slumped flat, and Mekion's eye flickered out.

Robo Knux picked up the fake holodisk and returned it to its compartment. Then he pulled out a cloth bag, swept the chaos emerald into it, and stowed it in another compartment. Then he nudged Shadow with one foot. "It's a good thing Robotnik showed interest in you. Otherwise I'd put my claws through your skull and call us even." He stooped and picked up the unconscious Shadow, and jogged back up the street and into the maze of alleys where he spent his time.

His hours of detailed planning had paid off.

Metal Sonic entered the library and looked around. It was a vast two-story building crammed with shelves of books. Wide windows lined the southern wall, and groups of study tables stood in the few open floor spaces. It smelled of old ink, paper and air freshener.

"Wow," said Aleda softly, looking around. "I didn't know there were this many books in the whole world."

"Yes, there are far more than this library contains," said Mecha quietly. "I wonder how one accesses the ancient documents." He approached the librarian, who was a mole who looked as if she never saw the sun. "Excuse me, I am doing research on Mobian history ..."

"Ancient documents, eh?" said the librarian, adjusting her glasses. "I heard. Do you have a library card?"

"No," said Mecha. "But I can register for one."

As he filled out the form with nearly-true information, Aleda again remembered that he had killed people, and it put a sick wiggle in her stomach. She gazed at his disguised face, still looking like Mecha under the false colors, and at his lithe, strong hand writing on the form. She couldn't even imagine him fighting, let alone killing anyone. Shadow had told her that Mecha had defeated Robo Knux in hand to hand combat, but she had been unconscious at the time and didn't remember. She shook her head at her dark thoughts. Maybe he had killed people before, but not anymore. He was nice now.

The librarian gave Mecha a card, then swiped it through her computer and waved him around the counter. "Through the door in the back," she said.

Mecha nodded and stepped through the doorway behind the counter. He found a short hallway with three doors. One was labelled "archeological storage", and this was the one that he entered.

It was a well-lit room piled high with boxes on racks, each categorized and numbered. "Here it is," said Mecha, going to the darkest corner and pulling down a box. He carried it to a table in the middle of the room, opened it and carefully lifted out a stack of yellow, fragile parchment. The ink was brown and faded, and he squinted at it as he set it on the table. "Aleda, you may run about if you wish," he said. "I will be here a while."

"Okay." He set her on the floor, and Aleda looked around at the shadow under the shelves with a shiver of delight. If Nox had come, this would have been the perfect place for hide and seek. She scampered off to explore.

Mecha studied the parchments, photographing them into his databanks for future reference. It was written in different dialects of Old Mobian. Fortunately Knuckles had taught him to translate Old Mobian, and Mecha had since studied the language further and broadened his vocabulary. This was an account of a war between two kingdoms that he had never heard of. He translated it roughly to himself, laid it aside and picked up another sheet. He wanted data on the Creator, the Master Designer, the being who had built the worlds. But it seemed that the ancient scribes had been more interested in the political doings of their time. It was probably interesting to someone somewhere, but not Mecha. He moved to the next parchment, and the next, accumulating lots of data but nothing that he wanted.

He was so absorbed in his reading that he did not hear the door open behind him, so he jumped when a voice said, "Hello! I didn't expect to find anyone in here."

Mecha turned to see that a Mobian rat had entered. He was as tall as Mecha, with a long pointed face and shifty eyes. He wore a brown robe with a hood, currently pushed back.

"Hello," said Mecha, inwardly gnashing his teeth at this intruder. "Can I help you?"

"Not really, I know where everything is," said the rat. "I'm Catter." He extended a pink hand.

Mecha regarded it, then slowly reached out and shook it. He didn't want to give his real name, so he cast about in his databanks for an alias. One of the odd names in the parchments sprang to mind. "I am Melthision," he said.

Catter nodded. "He Who Seeks. An apt name for a scholar. What's your field of study?"

"I am searching for information on the Master Designer," said Mecha. "The one who made all life. I have a few matters to discuss with him."

Catter almost laughed, then saw that this oddball fox was dead serious. "Like what?" Catter asked, pulling up a chair. "Maybe I can help."

"A few things that concern only myself," said Mecha coldly. The rat kept looking him up and down, up and down, as if he was puzzling over Mecha's disguised appearance.

There was a patter of feet, and Aleda appeared at Mecha's ankle. "It's scary back there," she said, and Mecha lifted her and set her on the table. She saw Catter and became quiet and still, staring at him.

Catter's eyes sharpened as he looked at her, and his round ears pricked up. He looked at Mecha again and leaned forward. "What if I told you that I know the Master Designer?"

Mecha raised an eyebrow. "Do you?"

Catter leaned back in his chair and studied Mecha and Aleda, thumbing his upper lip. "Yes," he said. "But he is particular about who approaches him. His power is beyond anything on this planet."

Mecha tried not to look interested, but his heart had sped up for no reason. At last, a lead in his search! Even if this rat was untrustworthy, he might have new information on reaching the Master Designer. As for the Master Designer being picky about the people in his presence, Mecha expected no less. If Mecha was all-powerful, he wouldn't let just anyone approach him, either.

"Perhaps he is the one I have been looking for," said Mecha. "Could you arrange an introduction?"

Catter looked him over for the dozenth time. "I sense you are a creature of knowledge with a thirst to learn. But is your mind open to the mysteries of the universe? Can you possibly grasp the mystery and majesty of a being who dwells in more dimensions than us?"

Mecha thought about this. "Probably not. But I try to keep an open mind and will learn what I may." He watched Catter and waited for a reaction.

Catter remained cool and calculating. "Perhaps you are open to the things that the Master Designer, as you call him, could teach you. Approaching him requires the setting aside of all pride and possessions. You must enter his presence with fear and trembling."

"Of course," said Mecha. "A god requires no less."

"Yes." Catter rose to his feet. "Come with me. I will attempt to arrange an encounter with the Master Designer. It requires much preparation and ceremony - "

"Do whatever it takes," said Mecha. "I must have an audience with him."

Catter led Mecha out of the library through a back door, down a side street and up the steps of a building that Mecha recognized as a temple. He hesitated on the threshold, looking at the doors that were engraved with fanged monsters. He was carrying Aleda on one shoulder, and she shuddered. "This place looks scary," she said through the network.

"Yes," he said. "I am not certain that I trust Catter, or believe his paranormal babble. Let me do the talking."

"What if the Master Designer really is in there?" said Aleda as they entered the temple. Inside was a big room with a stone floor, and a bare altar stood at the far end, surrounded by rows of flickering candles. Catter was waiting for them beside the altar, and Mecha walked toward him.

"If the Master Designer is here," said Mecha digitally to Aleda, "then my quest is already complete. But I do not think so. His temple would be far grander than this."

As they reached the altar, Catter said, "Now you must wait here. I am one of his high priests, and I must make preparations before you are permitted to enter his presence." Mecha nodded, and Catter's eyes lingered on Aleda for a long second before he turned away and vanished through a door behind the altar.

Mecha and Aleda waited, growing nervous in the silence. The inside of the temple was lined with pillars and tapestries, and incense braziers stood every few feet along the walls. The outer doors had closed behind them, and the only light came from two small windows high up near the ceiling.

"Mecha," said Aleda through the network, for she was afraid to break the silence of the room. "What's this big square thing for?"

"It's an altar," said Mecha, touching its cold stone surface. "It could be used for many things, from various religious rites to sacrifices. It depends on what kind of worship is held here." He looked around at the temple in distaste. "This is what I have been trying to avoid. The trappings and rules of religion. I feared all along that Mobius would have woven such things about its creator, which therefore disqualifies me from ever locating the Master Designer. There is no room in religion for robots. There is no room anywhere for robots." His mental voice was bitter.

Aleda patted his shoulder. "It'll be okay. If he does live on a higher plane of substance, he'll probably talk to you."

"Existence," corrected Mecha, but he smiled. "Perhaps. It depends on his nature."

The door opened and Catter reappeared. His hood was up, and he wore a long red scarf around his neck that dangled down the front of his robe. "Come, quickly," he said. "An audience has been arranged, but you must do as you are told. Do not interrupt the ceremony!"

"Agreed," said Mecha. He strode forward and followed Catter through the door into darkness. Stairs opened before their feet, and Mecha automatically flipped on his night vision to see where he was going.

"Mecha," Aleda whispered through the network, "your eyes are glowing. They'll know you're a robot!"

Mecha shut off his night vision and eye-lights as well, and groped his way down the stairs in deepening darkness. From below he could hear male voices chanting. It echoed off the stone walls, and on his shoulder Aleda trembled with fear. "Hush," he told her through the network. "No harm will come to us."

But Mecha was feeling uneasy. The underground room, the darkness, Catter's potential backup ... it smelled like a trap to his old assassin instincts. He reprimanded himself that the surroundings were inconsequential if the Master Designer was really here, and continued descending the stairs.

At last he turned a corner and entered a room with a ceiling so high that it was lost in darkness. The only light came from green torches burning high on the walls, and two incense burners that smouldered before a low dais. Surrounding the dais and screening its contents from sight were fifteen priests in hooded robes, each identical to the next. They all carried ornamental spears in their hands, and Mecha eyed them warily. Hand weapons didn't worry him, but they could harm Aleda. He took her off his shoulder and held her in his arms.

"Stop there," one of the priests commanded, and Mecha halted. He was twenty feet from the dais, and as he watched, one of the priests began to beat a drum. It echoed in the room, and the priests began to dance and chant, a low, haunting melody. As they moved in a circle around the dais, the drumbeat quickened and so did their chant.

"Mecha, Mecha, I'm scared," whimpered Aleda through the network.

"It is meant to unnerve us," said Mecha. "It will stop soon enough. It is their form of worship."

"The Master Designer must not be very nice if they worship him like this," said Aleda, hiding her face against his chest.

The dance and chant grew faster and louder, and Mecha's heart hammered along with the drum. He knew that it was purely a psychological reaction, but he couldn't help himself. It worried him that in order to meet an ethereal being, one had to whip oneself into an emotional frenzy. It went against the grain of his own logical personality, and the longer the priests danced, the more he hated them. He knew that he was being narrow-minded, but he simply couldn't accept that a ritual like this had anything to do with any being with whom he wanted to speak.

Suddenly the drum stopped and dead silence fell. The priests turned to face Mecha, and one of them strode forward. In the darkness he was unidentifiable, but Catter's voice rang out, "The great God Mun-Icytho has granted you an audience. Behold, there he stands! Worship him!"

The priests parted ranks, fell to their knees and paid homage to the object on the dais.

Mecha and Aleda stared. Mounted on the dais was a statue, suddenly illuminated from below by hidden lights. It resembled a human with a snarling wolf's head. Six arms sprouted from the torso, and a fish's tail composed the lower half of its body. Four arms were raised as if to strike, and two more were held out, palms upward, as if awaiting an offering. Its eyes glowed blood red. Illuminated in poisonous green light, it looked twisted and evil. Aleda gave a gasping cry and hid her face again.

Catter looked up and saw Mecha was still standing. "Bow, infidel!" he bellowed. "Kneel before your God!"

Mecha ran a scan over the statue. It was made of stone and wired with lights. "I am not bowing to that," he said.

The priests jumped to their feet and gripped their spears. Catter said icily, "Can you not see the power and terror of Mun-Icytho? This is the Master Designer you are seeking, Melthision."

Mecha cocked his head and looked at the statue. Diplomacy had never been his strong point, so he proceeded to speak his mind. "No," he said. "The Master Designer is a living being, because he could not grant life unless he himself was alive. That statue is made of marble and bronze. While it is an impressive work of art, it is not a living god. It cannot give life."

The priests inhaled and muttered to each other. Catter faced Mecha, fists clenched. "That statue is a representation of the god Mun-Icytho. We cannot imagine him as he truly is, so he inspired this image of himself. The true god himself inhabits it and accepts our offerings."

Mecha looked doubtfully at the statue. "If that is so, why does he not speak to me himself, instead of letting his priest defend him?"

Catter snarled. "He does not speak to such fools as you. Only the enlightened mind can hear his voice."

Mecha looked sarcastic. "Possibly. But if he created all life and is all powerful, he can speak to whomever he chooses. It appears that you control all access to this god, and if he performs at your bidding, then he is a puppet and not a god."

Aleda whispered, "You tell them, Mecha!"

The priests growled and shifted their spears. Catter turned to look at his followers, and they exchanged a hissing conversation. Then they turned to face Mecha again. "You have blasphemed our temple and our god. Blood must be shed to atone for this sin. Mun-Icytho demands the life of your chao." He pointed at the statue's outstretched hands.

Aleda stiffened in stark terror.

"You mean you demand the life of my chao," said Mecha quietly, with a dangerous undertone that only Sonic would have recognized. "If your god wants her, he can try to take her."

Catter took a spear from one of his companions. "If you do not give up the chao, you will never leave this chamber alive."

Mecha lowered his head, crossing his arms over Aleda's body as a shield. "You have no idea who you are dealing with."

Catter hurled his spear. It struck Mecha in the forehead and sliced across his right ear, leaving a deep silver gouge in the biometal. Mecha flinched and blinked, and the lights in his eyes flashed on and glowed a ferocious red. "Aleda," he said through the network, "hold on to my neck and don't let go no matter what happens."

She clasped her paws around his neck, and Mecha's body liquefied into silver metal. Aleda nearly slipped off, but his skin solidified again, and she regained her hold. Mecha had recalibrated his skin into battle armor mode. He had not used his battle armor since his final battle with Sonic, but he was so angry that he wanted to look as fearsome as possible. His arms and legs were now thickly paneled, the spines on his head were long and razor sharp, and his blue metal was striped with intricate white patterns.

He faced the priests with his arms raised to protect Aleda, and they watched his transformation in horror. "I am Metal Sonic," he told them. "Release me or I will gut every one of you."

"Mecha, don't kill them," whispered Aleda. He didn't answer her.

The priests looked to their leader, and Catter stared at Mecha. For a long moment no one moved. Catter was caught in a web of his own weaving. He had lured this stranger in to take the chao from him by force, for he had done it to other people in the past. But this person was a notorious killing machine who had insulted their god and refused to give up his chao. Behind Catter stood his priests, who would never respect him again if he let the robot walk away. Catter's pride was too great to allow that.

He bared his rat-teeth and pulled a long, curved ceremonial knife from under his robes. Mecha did not move. Catter sprang forward and slashed at Mecha's stomach, but Mecha was no longer there. Moving like lightning, Mecha sidestepped and buried his steel claws in Catter's arm. The rat yelled, and the other priests raised their spears and attacked.

Mecha didn't care if they hit him or not, for his goal was to protect Aleda. Thus he took some heavy blows from the spears that left cuts and slashes across his biometal body. They closed up again within seconds, but the pain only added to his rage. His original plan had been merely to injure them all, but when the last of his enemies collapsed three minutes later, and he swept them with a scan, Mecha realized that he had killed five of them. His claws were stained red.

With a growing sickness inside of him, Mecha bent and wiped off his hands on the robes of the nearest priest, then turned and hurried for the stairs. He had killed. Just like in his nightmares. He could try to reform himself, but deep down he was a bloodthirsty assassin robot who could kill easier than maim. He couldn't deny that he had liked fighting. It sickened him.

He emerged from the temple into the clean morning sunlight, his arms still wrapped around Aleda. She was clinging to him in silence, eyes tightly shut. Mecha wanted to stroke her, but his hands smelled of blood and he didn't want to traumatize her any more. He strode up the street toward the park, knowing that he was still in his battle armor and not caring. He was leaving this city anyway. The killer robot part of him wanted to turn back and burn the temple to the ground, but he restrained himself and walked on.

Nox was still sitting on the park bench with two knapsacks, but Shadow was not there. He stared as Mecha approached, and said, "Wow! How come you're wearing that?"

"Nevermind," said Mecha, looking around. "Where is Shadow?"

"He left," said Nox, hanging his head. "He said he'd only be gone fifteen minutes, but it's been an hour now ..."

Mecha sat down heavily on the bench, set Aleda in his lap, and rested his head in his hands. He felt stressed and tired, and somehow dirty from the ceremony and the battle. On top of all that, Shadow had run off. "Did he say where he was going?" said Mecha.

"No," said Nox. "But ... usually he goes to Sapphire City."

Mecha turned his head and gazed at the black chao. "Usually?"

Nox nodded. "We kept it a secret because we know you'd get mad. But he always comes back when he says, and this time he hasn't come back."

Mecha rubbed his head where the first spear had cut him. The wound had closed, but it would ache for several hours, as did all the other wounds he had recieved. Aleda was just sitting still, staring down at the bench. He knew the signs of shock, and it added grief to the emotional illness within him. Anger at Shadow, horror at intelligent Mobians who worshipped a carved stone and expected him to do the same, rage at what they had tried to do, remorse and grief for slipping into his old assassin ways so easily. Maybe there was no Master Designer. Maybe he was deluding himself with his own logic.

He opened a remote connection and transmitted a message to Shadow. "Shadow, this is Mecha, please respond."

The message bounced back to him, and Mecha felt an additional twinge of fear. The last time Shadow's port had been blocked, GUN was conducting a city-wide hunt for Shadow and had blocked all communications.

He readjusted his biometal to his every-day blue hedgehog form, and lifted his backpack. "It seems that we must pay a visit to Sapphire City," he said. Then he snarled and beat a fist against the bench. "Curse you, Shadow! The most dangerous city of all, and the hideout of Robo Knux!"

He bowed his head and rubbed the closed cut again. "Aleda," he said softly.

She turned her head and looked at him.

"I apologize for taking you in to such a situation," he said.

"You killed them," she whispered. "I asked you not to and you did. I hate you."

Her words cut through him, sharper than any spear, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "Very well," he said. "I deserve your hatred. But I do ask that you forgive me."

She only glared at him.

Feeling even more weary, Mecha opened his pack and set her inside. Then he motioned to Nox. "There's enough space for two. Keep her company." Nox nodded and climbed into the pack, and Mecha lifted it and slung it onto his back. He picked up Shadow's pack and put it on back-to-front, over his chest. Then he set off at a jog southwards, trying not to listen to Aleda. She had begun to cry at last.

When Tails reached Riverbase at ten that morning, the rain had settled in for the day. It drummed on the canvas roof of the Tornado, and formed minuscule rivers on the sides of the road. The clouds hung low and gray, and other vehicles drove by with a flare of headlights and a swish of wheels or sputtering hoverjets.

Tails drove the Tornado through the streets of the Mobian city, looking for a store called Industrial Parts and Warez, which was where he did most of his parts shopping. It had moved to a larger building downtown, and in the rain it was hard to see the signs on the buildings.

Finally he located it. It was a metal-sided warehouse with a domed roof and rounded corners, like most large Mobian structures, and Tails parked the Tornado as close to the doors as he could. "I'm going inside to look at parts," he told the computer. "I'll be back pretty soon."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado. "I will utilize radar to watch for you."

Tails unsnapped a corner of the canvas, climbed out into the rain, and snapped it back in place. Then he pulled his coat over his head and ran for the doors of the store, feeling the rain beating cold on his face and legs, soaking his fur.

He pushed open the door and stood just inside, shaking water off his jacket and fur. A female duck behind the counter waved to him. "Hi Tails! Long time no see!"

"Hi Janee," he panted. "It's pouring out there."

She rubbed her prehensile wingtips together. "All right! I love rain. I'll go play in it as soon as my shift's over."

Tails wiped his feet and set off to look around. "When did you move?" he called.

"Three months ago," Janee called back. "We'd totally outgrown the old place."

Tails wandered through Hydraulics, breezed through the power tools, and arrived at the sensor gear. He browsed through the new and improved radar and various types of night vision, some based on human designs, while others were strictly Mobian. The Cocytan rack was the smallest and the most expensive, but they had the bio-nano support that Tails wanted. Visual sensor arrays began at 500 mobiads and went up from there, and Tails gazed at them covetously.

After a while he wound up at the checkstand again. "Can I have a catalog?" he asked, and Janee handed him one as thick as a phonebook.

"Just looking?" she asked.

He nodded and grinned. "I'm too poor to afford the stuff I want."

"Aren't we all?" she sighed.

"Hey," said Tails, "know where any jewelers are?"

"There's one down on Standard," she replied. "I fly over it on my way to work."

"Okay, thanks," said Tails. "I'll be back." He tucked the catalog under his coat and dashed out into the rain. He scrambled back into the Tornado's cockpit, closed the flap behind him, and sat panting and listening to the rain on the roof.

"Greetings, Tails," said the Tornado.

"Hi," said Tails. "I looked at sensors, and they're dang expensive."

"Define 'dang expensive'," said the Tornado.

Tails grinned. "They cost about ten times more than the money I do have."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado, sounding slightly puzzled.

Tails opened the catalog and propped it against the control panel. He wanted to read about the types of sensors in greater detail.

He had sat there in silence almost ten minutes when the Tornado said, "Receiving transmission."

Tails jumped. "What?"

"Receiving transmission," the Tornado repeated. "It is a low frequency distress signal, very low power. Running cleanup and amplification now."

Tails looked at the screen, which displayed a sound file as the operations were done on it. "Who would send a transmission like that to you? I don't even have your software configured!"

"I configured it," said the Tornado smugly. "Transmission was broadcast to any user on the frequency. Play now?"

"Yes," said Tails.

A voice crackled through the speaker. "Mayday, mayday! This is Mecha-Fusion Unit Alpha. I am under attack and require immediate assistance! My coordinates - " The message ended.

"Play again," said Tails, and listened carefully. When it ended, he said, "Mecha fusion unit alpha. That's Shadow! What's he doing sending a distress signal?"

"Data unavailable," said the Tornado.

"Where did this message originate?" asked Tails, tapping the 'track' button on screen. The screen displayed the nearest satellite, but beyond that the source was unknown. "That signal could have come from anywhere in the northern hemisphere," said Tails, ears flattening in discouragement. "Shadow could be anywhere ... and why would he send a distress signal? He's too mean a fighter to call for help."

"Data unavailable," said the Tornado. "Observation. Local satellite is in geosyncronous orbit over Sapphire City to assist in human communications."

Tails slumped in his seat and stared at the screen. "That doesn't mean anything. Shadow could still have been anywhere. And what am I gonna do about it, anyway? Go rescue him? And have him frag me for making contact again." His thoughts strayed to his thrall sphere, which he could use to communicate with the Mecha bots. Then he thought of Metal Sonic's threat to torture him to death if he ever contacted him. If Tails contacted Shadow, Mecha would know, and Tails didn't like to think about Mecha hunting him down.

He turned on the Tornado's engine. "We're gonna drive across town and look for a jewelry place," he told his computer. "Maybe I'll be able to afford your sensors after that." He tried not to think about that transmission. It frightened him too badly.

Robo Knux stood on a clifftop overlooking the ocean, eight miles from Sapphire City. Here the clifftop was wide and sandy, a perfect place for a helicopter to land. It was cloudy and the sea was gray and restless, but far to the south he could see blue sky and breaking clouds. The storm was over.

He turned and walked across the open to a dense patch of grass, and looked down at Shadow. Shadow was lying as Robo Knux had dropped him, his arms and legs tied together with heavy tape. His eye was half-open and so glazed that he looked dead, but Robo Knux knew otherwise. Shadow would stay unconscious for 24 hours, or so the package of tranquilizer darts had claimed.

"I wish I could kill you," Robo Knux told the motionless black hedgehog. "Ever since you protected Mecha from me, I've wanted to kill you. Well, no, it started before that. The first time I laid eyes on your miserable carcass I wanted to put you out of my misery."

He paced around Shadow in a circle, hands clasped behind his back. "Mekion, Mekion. You are Metal Sonic's weakness, and I can't fathom why. You're a hideous freak. I suppose he likes you because he's the one who mutilated you, but even that makes no sense. He's built other robots and didn't care about them. But you're not a robot, are you, Shadow? You're a miserable organic hedgehog, now with robot parts."

He kicked Shadow's robot leg and continued to pace. "I don't understand it. It shouldn't be possible for Mecha to form emotional attachments. It's a weakness, because even the mightiest person can be controlled by threatening those they care for. I will certainly never go that direction." He spat the words with hatred and kicked Shadow again.

"He's even got a chao now. A puny worthless chao! I've studied chao as much as he has. They die too easily. Why bother with them? But he has. And he's ... he's ..." Robo Knux let out a bellow of anger. "ARGH, he's HAPPY. I can't stand it! Mecha's not supposed to be happy! I hate him!"

He drew back a fist to drive his claws into Shadow's head, thought better of it and slammed them into the ground instead. Robo Knux didn't understand this all-consuming jealousy that raged within him. Metal Sonic had always been the older model, the inferior of the two. But now Mecha was stronger than Robo Knux, and off doing things that Robo Knux didn't understand for reasons that Robo Knux couldn't fathom. It drove him mad.

He walked to the cliff's edge and looked out at the horizon again. The helicopter to pick up Shadow was due any time. He chafed at the delay and walked back to Shadow. "You're a slave," he hissed. "I was there when Mecha conditioned you. Mekion is programmed to be loyal and Shadow has been trained. I saw what happened when you remembered who you were. You should have revolted and run off to your little friends. Look what Mecha's done to you, after all!"

He prodded the metal side of Shadow's face with a claw. "But you didn't," Robo Knux whispered. "You came back to him. Even with Mekion disabled, you've always come back to him. Why is that? A slave like you owes nothing to him. He said that being kind to you would win your affection, even though it disgusted me at the time. Kindness was never one of Mecha's faults until now. But perhaps it worked. He's won your affection by being kind. If I was kind, could I win your affection, too?"

Robo Knux stabbed the ground again, several times. "Here's what I think of affection and feelings and weakness! I don't want them, I don't need them, and Mecha will die for having them, I swear it!"

His audio sensors detected the distant purr of a helicopter, and he returned to the cliff's edge. "About time," he muttered.

The helicopter swept up and landed, and two uniformed GUN officers stepped out. They looked suspiciously at Robo Knux, who pointed at Shadow. They walked over and looked at the black hedgehog, and could not hide their grins. The escaped convict was at last back in custody. They lifted Shadow by his arms and legs and carried him to the helicopter. Robo Knux watched as they loaded him in, closed the doors, and lifted off again.

His part of the bargain was complete. Now it was time for Robotnik to keep his.

Nox sat curled up in a corner of Mecha's backpack, facing Aleda. She was facing him, but the six inches of space between them might as well have been six miles. She was huddled on her side with her eyes closed, locked up so tightly within herself that Nox couldn't feel her at all. They sat on Mecha's folded coat, and cool air seeped into the pack through the gaps in the top flap. Metal Sonic was running at high speeds, and his gait was far rougher than Shadow's skating glide. Nox had caught Mecha's worry, and it frightened him. Where was Shadow? Why hadn't he come back?

Beneath that, Aleda and Mecha were estranged, and it was almost more than Nox could bear. From Aleda, he caught glimpses of the same horror and grief that radiated from Mecha, except Aleda's feelings were directed at Mecha, and Mecha's feelings were directed at himself. Neither of them spoke to Nox, and he was certain that they weren't speaking to each other. All he could do was endure it, and feel like a third wheel that nobody wanted.

He thought of Omega, the massive robot that he had piloted, and wished that he could pilot it again. People took you seriously when you packed that much firepower.

Mecha ran for hours without stopping, and Nox grew cramped and shifted positions. Aleda had fallen asleep again, so at least he didn't have to fret about her ignoring him.

Nox was dozing, himself, when he felt Mecha's pace change, slowing down. Nox peered out of the crack in the knapsack and saw some sort of building that Mecha was circling. "Where are we, Mecha?" Nox asked.

"An outbuilding of a farm," said Mecha. "I must rest somewhere without fear of discovery."

Nox heard a door rattle open, then they entered the darkness of the building. Nox pushed open the flap and looked out. They were in an old barn with rusted equipment piled in the corners. It smelled of musty hay and animal droppings. The floor was thick with dust, and it appeared that no one had been inside in months.

Mecha turned in a slow circle, scanning the interior. Then he walked to a corner and lifted a mass of tarp off the floor. Dust and dead insects fell out of it, and he shook it several times, then half-draped it over a rusted harrow. He pulled off his two packs and shoved them underneath, then crawled into the makeshift tent, himself. "Nox," he said, "how is Aleda?"

"She's asleep," said Nox. "Want me to keep watch?"

"Yes," said Mecha, curling up on his side. "I am at the end of my strength reserves. I must sleep."

"I'll take care of us," said Nox, climbing out of the pack. "Don't worry about a thing."

"Affirmative." Mecha relaxed, closed his eyes, and was asleep within seconds.

First Nox left the shelter of the tarp and explored the barn. It was full of farm implements that he had no hope of understanding, and a broken-down tractor that took up the far end of the barn. He looked outside and saw another barn in the distance, but it was freshly-painted and looked well-used. Their barn, on the other hand, was surrounded by tall dead weeds, and the path to its door was overgrown.

He returned to Mecha's hiding place. Mecha was sound asleep, breathing evenly and deeply. Nox dug into Shadow's pack for some food, then checked on Aleda. Her eyes opened as he lifted the flap. "Where are we?" she asked.

"Shh," said Nox. "Rest stop. Mecha was tired."

Aleda got up and scrambled out of the pack. She stood looking at her sleeping parent for a long moment, then quivered and turned to Nox. "Are we in a base?"

"A barn," said Nox. "Come and look around, there's lots of cool stuff. Want a cracker?"


The pair toured the barn, and Aleda forgot her shock for a while. Nox's enthusiasm was contagious, and for a while she was nearly as merry as he was.

Suddenly Nox froze and stared into the shadows behind the broken tractor. He shrank close to one of the tires, and Aleda followed suit. "What? What's back there?"

"Some guy's sitting back there!" whispered Nox, his eyes round. "I didn't even see him! I felt him, because he was laughing at us."

Aleda craned her neck to see around the tractor tire. There, in the darkest corner of the barn, sat a figure. They saw that his face was turned toward them. "Hello," he said in a low voice. "Don't be afraid. You're welcome to stay as long as you want."

Nox and Aleda exchanged glances, curiosity slowly replacing their fear. "He doesn't feel dangerous," whispered Nox, looking hard at the stranger. He stepped into the open and walked into the darkness behind the tractor. "Hi," he said. "My name's Nox, and that's Aleda. We're chao."

The stranger smiled. "My name is Melchizedek. I'm a hedgehog."

Aleda scurried up to join Nox, and they gazed at Melchizedek. He had more spines than Sonic or Shadow - they ran in multiple rows down his head and back, and they were short and thick. His face was very pointed, as if he was closer to a non-sentient animal than a modern Mobian hedgehog. His arms and legs were lean and muscled, and they figured that he must work on this farm. He wore a pair of tough leather boots, which were caked with mud. He was leaning against the wall as if perfectly at home in this barn. "I saw you come in," he said. "I'm glad you finally noticed me. The tractor hid me from the hedgehog who's with you."

"He was really tired," said Nox. "And he's not really a hedgehog, he's - "

"He is too a hedgehog!" snapped Aleda. She looked at Melchizedek. "He just didn't used to be. His name's Mecha."

Melchizedek nodded. "You look just like him, so you must belong to him, right?"

"Yes." Aleda hung her head. "Except I don't want to anymore."

Melchizedek looked curious. "You don't? Why?"

Aleda addressed the floor. "Because he killed those guys. He ... he just killed them."

Melchizedek studied Aleda, and Nox studied Melchizedek. This hedgehog was friendly and open, easy to talk to, but his attitude was strange. He acted as if he already knew Aleda's problem, without her telling him.

"You know what happened," said Nox. "Are you a mind-reader?"

The hedgehog looked at him. "Not exactly. I've been following you."

Nox almost panicked. "Why-why are you doing that? Are you gonna hurt us?"

Melchizedek shook his head and waved a hand. "Calm down, calm down. I saw when the priest led Mecha to the temple, and it worried me, so I went along to spy. I know Catter and his kind."

"You saw what happened?" said Aleda, staring. "You were there?"

"There are many hiding places in that temple," said Melchizedek, making a face. "To my disgust I know them all, because I worked there before the cult converted it to their temple. Of the fifteen priests, Mecha only killed five. He restrained himself very well for his first return to combat."

Aleda gazed up at the hedgehog, astonished. "I thought he killed all of them! But he still killed five."

"Yes," said Melchizedek. "The five who came the closest to killing both of you."

Aleda was silent.

Melchizedek leaned forward. "You must forgive him, Aleda. He was defending you, and if he had not, you would have died a terrible death. I know it was a horrible thing, and you will never forget it, but you can learn from it."

Tears were running down her face, and she sniffed. "I know," she whimpered. "But he used to kill people all the time, and - I'm scared he'll do it again."

Melchizedek sighed and looked at Nox, and Nox felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach. Melchizedek's emotions ran far deeper than Aleda's, and Nox realized that Melchizedek had the utmost sympathy for both Mecha and Aleda. Nox realized with a shock that the same sympathy also extended to him. "You are too a mind-reader!" said Nox accusingly. "How can you like me so much without knowing me?"

Melchizedek shrugged. "You have yet to learn some things about being a sympath, Nox. You'll understand eventually." He cocked his ears toward Mecha's resting place. "I think Mecha's waking up. You'd better return to him or he'll panic."

"Right." Nox grabbed Aleda's arm and dragged him across the barn to the tarp. As they arrived, Mecha opened his eyes and blinked at them. "Greetings," he said. "All is well?"

"Yeah," said Nox. "There's this guy over there we were talking to, but he was really nice."

Mecha scrambled to his feet in instant terror. He threw aside the tarp and scanned the barn again, then saw the barn door was just swinging shut. "Why didn't you wake me?" he hissed at the chao. "If he had tried to harm you, I could not have stopped him! We must leave at once." He grabbed up the two packs, hustled the chao into them, and was on the run two minutes later.

He had run several miles when Aleda said haltingly, over the network, "Mecha ... I forgive you."

It pierced his heart the same as when she had said that she hated him, but in a different way, because it was so unexpected. "You do?" he said. "I am grateful."

"The guy in the barn said I should," said Aleda, and told Mecha all about Melchizedek. Her story about a hedgehog who had followed him from the temple, but who had reached the barn before him, frightened him even more. Mecha had travelled most of the day at 200 miles an hour. The only hedgehog on record who could run so fast was Sonic, and this was not Sonic, but some self-appointed spy. Perhaps he had teleported instead, but that was little better. Teleports were undetectable, and Mecha couldn't guard against them.

So he ran like a hunted thing, staying under the shelter of the trees, and keeping his scans on their widest sweep. But under his fear was a warm sense of comfort that Aleda had forgiven him. He must keep the killer robot inside of him restrained from now on, for the taking of a life was a heinous thing. Even if it was the life of an enemy.

On Deimos Island, the weather had cleared and the wind had dropped, but the sea continued to crash and boom against the cliffs.

Nicholas stood with his hands in his coat pockets, staring east at the horizon. He never should have left Sapphire City. Here on the clifftop the helipad was wide and empty, and from time to time he felt a touch of mist on his face from the ocean hundreds of feet below. The sky was wide and blue, and the ocean was a smiling blue-green. It was so vast, and it held him and his colleagues prisoner.

Nick had taken to leaving the laboratory to walk around outside, because he couldn't stand Robotnik and his silent robot servants. The robots were always watching them, quiet, unobtrusive, blending into the background. But Touis had taken the advantage of examining one and discovered that each robot had a micropistol built into its chest. This had unnerved all of them. A robot watching you was the same as a gun pointed at your head.

So Nick had to escape once in a while. He hated to admit it, but he was starting to miss other humans. Robotnik didn't count, because subliminally, Nick didn't consider him human.

He walked across the helipad and took a side path that led away from the lab, down toward the alleged dock. To his surprise, he saw Barlet the grey squirrel plodding up the path toward him. Barlet looked up and waved.

Nick walked down the slope to him. "Find anything?"

"No," said Barlet, ears flattening. "Come look. You can't get down there."

The pair walked down the path, which angled down into a deep cutting along the face of the cliff. Barlet carried his fluffy tail low, instead of up in a curl as he usually did. "Something got you down?" Nick asked.

The squirrel shrugged. "We're trapped. We can't get home, and there's no way to get a message out. Robotnik put a firewall on our computers, and I swear the thing is sentient. It wouldn't let me do anything that might reach the outside."

Nick smiled at him. "I didn't know you were a hacker."

Barlet gave him a sideways smirk. "You don't spend three years in college without learning a few things. Me and some buddies used to see how far into the system we could go ..."

"So that's how you kept from flunking, eh?" said Nick.

"Of course not!" said Barlet, outraged. "I had a 3.5 grade point average. But I did keep my buddies from flunking."

"Ah, the truth comes out," said Nick with a laugh. It felt good to laugh.

"Yeah," said Barlet, grinning. "The point is, I know computer security, and I can't crack this stuff. If Robotnik wrote it, he could sell it and make millions."

Ahead of them, the path sloped steeply and was slick with spray from the surf. Barlet and Nick halted. "Wanna try it?" said Nick, watching the water crash over the path.

"Don't bother," said Barlet. "I skidded down there, and there's a place where the path's been washed away for ten feet. There's no way across except by flying."

Nick allowed himself the luxury of a curse. He added, "Did you see if there was a dock down there?"

"No," said Barlet. "But see down there, how the cliffs curve back a little? It forms a natural bay, and the path went around a corner in there. If you could get boats through the reefs, that's where they'd be."

They looked at the water hitting the path, then turned and climbed back up toward the clifftops. Neither spoke, for they were feeling even more trapped and helpless.

Barlet stopped and his ears flicked forwards. He pointed. "Look! A helicopter!"

Nick's head snapped up and hope surged through him. "Maybe we can tell them what's going on, and ask them to take us back! Let's go!" He sprinted up the hill with Barlet in pursuit.

The helicopter swept in and landed as they arrived at the helipad. The engine dropped to an idle, and the side door slid open from the inside. Two uniformed GUN officers stepped out and greeted them, yelling over the engine noise. "Thanks for coming out! Even sedated, he's a handful. Give us a hand!"

They slid the door open all the way, and Nick and Barlet saw a black tangle lying on a stretcher inside the helicopter. "Good grief, what is that thing?" Barlet exclaimed.

Nick turned to the officer. "Sir, I need to speak to you - "

"No time," said the officer. "We're due back on base in two hours and we're almost late as it is." He grabbed the stretcher and slid it out, and instructed Nick and Barlet to take the handles on either end. "Good luck!" one of the men shouted, then the officers jumped back into the helicopter and slammed the doors. It lifted off in a blast of wind, leaving the bewildered human and squirrel holding the stretcher.

Nick made himself look closely at the creature upon it. It was a hedgehog with black fur and spines, but the left half of its body was composed of robotic implants. He looked at Barlet, who was also staring.

"Why did they give us this thing?" Barlet whispered.

Nick shook his head. "No idea. Let's get it back to the lab. Maybe Robotnik knows what to do with him."

They carried the stretcher back to the lab, fumbling out their keycards at the fence and front door. Once inside the lobby, they carefully set the stretcher on the floor, and Barlet went to fetch Dr. Robotnik.

Nick remained beside the black hedgehog, moved by pity. The hedgehog's hands and feet were bound tightly with clear tape, and Nick unwound it and pulled it off. Then he arranged the hedgehog's crumpled limbs in a more comfortable position, and looked into its face. At first glance its face was angry and terrifying, for one eye was an electronic one with a harsh, slanted socket. The natural eye was heavily browed, and the eyelid was half-open, revealing the glazed, ill-looking eye beneath. Nick looked at the metal blade-like spines on the left half of its body, and the sharp claws on its robot hand. This creature was dangerous when awake. No wonder it had been sedated. But where had such a bizarre creature come from?

The nearest airlock rotated open, and Dr. Robotnik stepped out, followed by Lintel, Barlet, Touis and Kray. Robotnik was grinning. "Well well, he arrives at last!"

He strode to the stretcher and gazed down at the cyborg, then turned to the scientists. "I'd like to introduce you to Shadow, the ultimate lifeform," he said with a wave of his arm. "He was created by the late Dr. Gerald Robotnik, my grandfather. The implants were added later, by another ... scientist." He stumbled slightly over the word. "He can control chaos energy in unusual ways, and I have had him brought here for study."

There was a moment of silence as they all looked at the shape on the stretcher. Then Robotnik said, "Take him into lab 1. He will have to be restrained, or when he wakes up he will destroy everything."

Nick and Barlet hurried to lift the stretcher again, and carried it through the airlock into the main lab. There they found that Robotnik's robots had bolted a steel frame to the middle of the floor, and chains were welded to the four corners, like a demented doorframe of torture.

Nick turned to Robotnik, who had followed them in. "You want us to tie him to that? It looks ... medieval!"

"If you don't," said Robotnik quietly, looking Nick in the eye, "then he will kill you long before I get around to it."

"Is that a threat?" said Nick softly.

"Yes it is," said Robotnik. "Chain him."

For a second Nick's fear and outrage flamed up into pure hatred of this man. Struggling to master it, he turned and said, "Barlet, help me lift Shadow."

Shadow was well-muscled, and his robot side was heavy and stiff. It took both of them to hoist him up and chain his hands and feet. When they were finished, Shadow hung by his hands in the iron frame, head dangling.

Robotnik nodded his approval and left. Nick scowled after him, then looked at the pathetic creature in the chains. "This is sick," he said softly to Barlet. "And we're supposed to study him?"

Barlet was gazing at Shadow, ears flat. "I can't do it," he whispered. "I've read about this kind of thing, and I swore I'd never do it. I got into nanotech because I can't handle blood."

The airlock door opened, and Robotnik returned, carrying a syringe in one hand. "A little anti-sedative for our friend," he said, approaching Shadow. "We can't let him sleep while we have tests to run, now can we?" He pulled back the fur on Shadow's arm and injected him, then stepped back to view the results.

For several minutes nothing happened. Then, as the stimulant worked its way through his bloodstream, Shadow began to stir. His head swung from side to side, and his organic eye blinked. He lifted his head and looked at them, squinting and trying to focus his eyes. His electronic eye was on, but it was flickering. Then he moved his arms and looked up at the chains, and the frame holding him. "What in the?" he whispered.

Then he lunged forward with such power that the frame shuddered. But the chains held, and Shadow was jerked back and swung back and forth until he got his feet under him again. He glared at the three of them in helpless confusion, finally staring at Robotnik. "What is this?" he hissed. "What are YOU doing here?"

"Don't trouble yourself with details, Shadow," said Robotnik. "Or do you go by Mekion now?"

"I'm Shadow," he snarled in a whisper.

Robotnik slowly smiled. "You would be much more useful as Mekion," he said, stroking his mustache.

Shadow again hurled himself against his restraints, fighting with such violence that Nick and Barlet moved back several steps. The frame shivered and shook, but did not bend to Shadow's fury. A moment later he collapsed and hung, panting, by his wrists. Robotnik only continued to smile and stroke his mustache. Without another word he turned and left through the airlock.

Shadow looked at Nick and Barlet, his face contorted in rage. "If I get out of this thing," he spat at them, "I'm gonna rip both of you apart. Don't you know who that is?"

"Yes," said Nick, "but - "

Shadow flung himself at Nick, but was halted by his chains. Nick and Barlet backed toward the door, all pity forgotten. "Run!" said Shadow in his broken voice. "Go on, run! I'm gonna break out and smash this place to pieces!"

The two fled through the airlock, leaving Shadow alone.

Immediately he went limp and let his head hang, groaning softly. "Mekion," he said, "locate nearest satellite and send another distress signal."

His computer ran channel scans and found an open port. Again he repeated his mayday signal, and transmitted it three times before the wireless firewall blocked him.

"Shadow," said Mekion, "our coordinates are still set to Sapphire City."

"Where are we now?" said Shadow. "Aren't we in Sapphire City?"

"Location unknown," said Mekion. "Our probability of survival is high, but it is possible that Dr. Robotnik plans to torture us via laboratory methods."

"Probably," muttered Shadow. "I can't believe this is happening. I hope Mecha gets my signal. I don't like the way Robotnik was smiling. And if those other scientists touch me, I swear I WILL kill them."

Shadow's transmission was received by three different people.

Metal Sonic picked it up as he was running through a wooded valley, following the Great River as it wound its way south. It so startled him that he slowed to a halt, scanning frantically for further transmissions. He picked up the next two, and stood waiting for more. None came.

He felt the chao shift in his backpack, and Aleda said in his head, "What's the matter? Why did we stop?"

"I received a distress signal from Shadow," he answered aloud, so both Aleda and Nox could hear. "It included coordinates for Sapphire City." His voice dropped to a mutter. "If he is in danger, then the transmission was certainly long in coming. Knowing Shadow, he probably did not consider himself in danger until it was too late."

In his pack, Nox bared his teeth and beat his paws helplessly against the side of the pack. "I should have gone with Shadow, I knew it, I knew it!"

Mecha began to move, first at a jog, then at a run, goaded on by his rising worry.

Aleda watched Nox with interest, for she had never seen him so angry before. "If someone hurt Shadow, would you kill them?"

Nox glared at her. "If someone hurt Mecha, would you kill them?"

Aleda was taken aback. "Uh ... I don't know. Is that possible?"

"I was there when Robo Knux was beating the snot out of Mecha," growled Nox. "And Robo Knux hurt Shadow, too, and I couldn't do anything. It drives you mad. You won't understand until it happens."

This was a new concept to Aleda, and she tried to picture her beloved Mecha losing in a fight. But it was so far from her experience that she couldn't.

The second person to receive the mayday transmission was Tails.

He had bought lunch from a Mobian fast-food restaurant, and was eating a steak sandwich and reading Popular Engineering when the Tornado said, "Receiving transmission."

"Not again," said Tails with his mouth full. "Play it."

The Tornado played the three signals, this time complete with coordinates, and Tails slowly lowered his sandwich into the wrapping in his lap. Shadow was calling for help again. He must really be in trouble.

"Display coordinates," said Tails.

The Tornado's screen showed a map of North Mobius, then zoomed in and highlighted Sapphire City. "I told you this already," said the Tornado, sounding pleased with itself.

"Oh, shut up," said Tails. "So you were right, fine. You shouldn't be able to gloat about it. So what do we do?"

"No recommended course of action exists in my databanks," said the Tornado. "Observation. This is a distress signal, which requires aid from whoever can give it."

Tails gazed at the map and at the red blip that was Sapphire City. Then he rewrapped the remains of his sandwich and set it in the back seat. He licked his fingers, wiped them on a napkin, and picked up the thrall sphere from under his backpack in the back seat. He settled into the pilot seat again with it in his lap, and its gentle, melodic hum filled the tiny space.

"I don't care what Mecha says," Tails muttered, "I'm gonna call Shadow. Tornado, I'm gonna be talking with someone. I'll address you by name when I'm talking to you again."

"Yes, Tails." The computer fell silent, and Tails had the feeling that it was observing him with interest.

Tails pictured Shadow in his mind's eye and placed his bare hands flat on the sphere. He had discovered weeks ago that the sphere let him hear anything, anywhere on Mobius, from traffic noise in Rio Del Fuego to Shadow chattering over the network to Mecha. All he had to do was tune the sphere's frequency, which he did by moving his hands slowly over its smooth surface. He felt the vibration of the sphere transmitted through his hands and arms to his ears, threatening to hypnotize him if he relaxed. Tails remained tense, forcing himself to listen. He had to find Mekion. He could talk to robots, but no one else, for only robots had the necessary radio hardware to respond.

The world around him fell silent, and Tails heard snatches of voices talking, birds singing, water flowing, like switching stations on a radio. Shadow was out there somewhere, if only he could find him. Tails turned his head slowly from side to side, trying to point his ears toward wherever Shadow was. "C'mon," he muttered, trying to hold a crystal-clear image of Shadow in his mind. "Shadow, where are you?"

Suddenly he had it. There was no voice, but he knew that he had locked onto Mekion's signal through the wavelength itself. Tails pitched his voice to the note of the thrall sphere and half-sang, "Shadow, it's Tails."

"Tails!" Mekion exclaimed, his voice clear and close, played directly into Tails's eardrums through the sphere. "Tails, why are you contacting me?"

"I got your distress signal," said Tails. "Are you in trouble?"

"Affirmative!" said Mekion vehemently. "I've been taken prisoner by Robo Knux and Dr. Robotnik, and I'm chained inside a laboratory somewhere, I think Sapphire City. I don't know what they're going to do to me."

"What should I do?" Tails asked, worry and fear punching his stomach at the mention of both his old enemies.

"Get down here and save me," snarled Shadow, as if hating to ask for help. "Bring Sonic, bring anybody. Have you contacted Mecha?"

"Uh, no," said Tails. "You know what he'd do to me."

Shadow grunted. "I'm not sure if his threat applies to this situation. I - " He broke off, then said, "They're shutting Mekion off. Hurry, Tails!"

His signal vanished.

Tails released the thrall sphere and sat with his hands in the air, staring at the control panel without seeing it. Shadow was in danger of who knows what, and his captors had the power to turn off Mekion. That in itself was frightening.

He set the thrall sphere in back again, then said, "Tornado, dial Sonic's cellphone. I gotta tell him about this."

The third person to pick up the distress signal caught it by accident.

Sally was seated at the desk in her office, drawing up plans for an army base and looking at available sites, when there came a tap at her door. "Come in," she said.

The door opened and a young cougar stepped in. "Hello ma'am," he said, ducking his head in a sort of bow.

"Hello Fealor," said Sally, turning to face him.

Fealor Nash was scarcely out of his teens, and his tawny fur still had a faded, juvenile mottling that he was finally outgrowing. He carried a sheet of paper in one hand, which he handed to Sally. "It's kind of strange," he said. "We got in our new communication equipment yesterday, and I was down there with Creft and Bobby, setting it up. We were scanning the low frequency bands when this message came through."

Sally read the message. "Mayday, mayday. This is Mecha-Fusion Unit Alpha. I am under attack and require immediate assistance. My coordinates are as follows." A string of longitude and latitude numbers followed. The message was repeated twice more.

Sally looked up with a frown. "Who is Mecha-Fusion Unit Alpha?"

Nash shook his head. "We ran it through our code records from Robotnik's days, and there's no matches. I checked with the human network, and there's no hits there, either." He motioned to the paper. "I looked up the coordinates there, and it's somewhere in Sapphire City."

Sally studied the message again, chewing her lower lip. "How did we pick up a low-frequency broadcast all the way from there? They don't have that kind of power."

"Seems it bounced through the satellite," said Nash. "Creft said he'd never seen anything like it."

Sally gazed at the name. "Mecha-Fusion ... is that Metal Sonic? But why would he send a mayday signal?" She trailed off, then said, "You're dismissed, Fealor. I have some calls to make."

Fealor bowed again and departed, and Sally picked up her phone. She called Sonic's cellphone and listened to it ring, hoping that just once he had remembered to turn it on. After six rings his answering machine picked up, and Sally groaned in irritation. She left a message telling him to call her back, then turned back to her computer.

But her concentration had shattered, and she kept picking up the printout and looking at it. A distress signal at low frequency ... possibly Metal Sonic. And her techs, of all people, had picked it up.

She was musing on it with her chin in one hand when there came another knock. "Come in," she called, straightening and trying to look busy.

The door opened and Sonic stepped in. "Hi Sal!" he said with a grin. "You busy?"

"Not really," said Sally. "You ought to turn on your phone more often."

"I can't when I'm teleporting," said Sonic. "That's how I burned up my communicator. Why, did you try to call me?"

"Yes," said Sally, sliding the printout toward him. "About this."

Sonic picked it up and scanned it. "Sally!" he exclaimed, eyes widening. "This is from Shadow!"

"Are you sure?" she asked, rising and circling her desk to join him. "It says Mecha right there."

"Yeah, Mecha-Fusion," said Sonic. "Mekion is a contraction of that. And he was the first one, so he's the alpha unit."

Sally immediately felt foolish for not realizing this herself. "Well, Shadow called for help and we picked up his message."

"Dang," said Sonic softly. "Where was this transmitted from?"

"Sapphire City," said Sally. "About twenty minutes ago."

Sonic looked at the paper again, and Sally could see the indecision in his eyes. "Sal," he said, "maybe I should go check it out. What do you think?"

She knew that Sonic and Shadow were rivals, but Sonic did care about Shadow and worried about him, when they weren't actively trying to kill each other. She nodded. "Go ahead. And turn your phone on, okay?"

Sonic grinned sheepishly. He was still wearing his workbelt, and his phone was clipped to it. He unclipped it and turned it on, and examined the screen. "Two messages," he said. "Maybe I should leave this thing on." He punched a button and listened to his voicemail, and Sally saw a look of disbelief flicker over his face.

"Sally," he said, "Tails called me. He picked up the exact same message, and he's on his way to Sapphire City in the Tornado!"

"Looks like he beat you to it," she said, smiling.

He nodded, lighting up. "Great minds think alike!"

"And fools seldom differ," said Sally, and laughed. "Go catch him! But leave your phone on."

"Right," said Sonic with a wink. "See you, Sal!" He left her office at a run.

Sally gazed after him, and her smile faded. The last time they had received a strange message, Sonic had been kidnapped, and faced death in several different ways, and the city of Rio Del Fuego had nearly fallen to a devastating air raid. She hoped that this message wouldn't lead to a similar situation, and she opened her desk drawer and looked down at her violet chaos emerald. Sonic had found it and loaned it to her, and she took it with her everywhere. If he went into danger again, she was going with him. And this time she was armed.

Robo Knux sat on a clifftop, letting his feet dangle over the edge. Exhaust rose from the ends of his dreadlocks, and his computer told him that their internal heat levels were still in the red. They made a ticking sound as they cooled. Two hundred miles made for a very long flight, and for a while Robo Knux had wondered if he would make it at all. Out over the ocean there was nowhere to stop and cool off, so he had pushed his metal body to its limits.

He had reached Deimos Island with minimal damage. Not that it worried him. Here on this island were the scientists who were going to give him the upgrades he needed so badly.

He had given them Shadow. The idea amused him. Either they would kill Shadow, or Shadow would kill them, depending on how well they restrained him. It was not exactly the bargain he had made with Robotnik, but Robo Knux didn't trust Robotnik to keep his word. Chaos emeralds were hard to come by, and Robo Knux knew how powerful they were.

Robo Knux snapped open one of the storage compartments in his chest, and removed a leather bag from where his heart would have been. He turned it upside down, and the orange chaos emerald clinked onto the rock. Robo Knux sat looking at it. After he had installed the chaos drive into his hull to enable him to use a chaos emerald, he had carried the green emerald for several weeks. It had increased his speed and power levels, but it had also disrupted the chaos field in ways he didn't understand. In the end it had almost destroyed him. He had sworn never to use a chaos emerald again, but now he had one in his possession.

It fascinated him. It was so powerful, and so forbidden to a creature such as himself. A creature made of metal, who could not absorb chaos energy and so could only incinerate.

He touched the emerald and his systems went haywire, his readouts fading to static, and his vision blurring into insane colors. He released the emerald and waited for his systems to return. They stabilized after a few seconds, and Robo Knux touched the emerald again. Again his computer went into the equivalent of seizures. He released the emerald again, and it was only then that he noticed it.

Chaos energy disrupted his systems. Therefore, he should be paralyzed. But he wasn't! He remained self-aware and capable of higher motor skills, like moving his hand. But that wasn't possible! He was a walking computer with claws, and he knew it. He had examined his own schematics many times, plotting upgrades and weapon implants. When his computer errored, his brain shut off. He thought about it with a growing sense of confusion. No ... because he knew when his computer errored, and raged and cursed at it in silence until it reactivated and repaired itself. He had never thought about it before, but it was almost as if he had a second brain, one that acted independently of his real hardware.

He loaded his schematics and studied them, hunched forward with his elbows on his knees. He had examined them so often that he knew them by heart, but he loaded the one on his brain anyway. There it was: circuit boards and chips, all contained inside a protective metal shell, waterproof, bulletproof, shielded from magnetic and electrical forces. He had taken great pains to ensure that nothing pierced his 'skull'. But there must be something more. Inside that skull was the computer that he was disrupting with chaos energy. But he could think independently of his computer, as if he was outside of his own skull.

He must locate this unknown component of himself and protect it! There was some vital part that he had overlooked, and if it suffered damage, then his consciousness would vanish. The thought unnerved him.

Robo Knux combed through himself for hours, as the sun sank lower in the sky and the wind returned, driving the waves against the cliffs, and bending the trees. He was aware that the ambient temperature was dropping, but he didn't care. There was something unknown inside of him, and he was going to locate it before he moved from that spot.

The solution was so obvious that the sun had set and stars were appearing before he discovered it. He had examined his entire body internally from head to toe before returning to his brain and staring at it. He happened to glance at some of the notes accompanying the blueprints, and the shock that hit him almost pitched him off the clifftop. His computer chips and circuits were in a protective sealed container, yes. The container itself was filled with a thick fluid comprised of nano-synapses to enhance his computer's capabilities.

Robo Knux's brain was almost exactly like Metal Sonic's.

He stared at the darkening horizon and listened to the roar of the sea. He possessed the same quasi-living mind that Mecha did. Therefore Robo Knux was capable of everything that Mecha was. He didn't know how to respond to this revelation - it turned his entire identity upside down. He was alive. And that meant that he could die. He thought of some of the upgrades that he had received, when some third-party inventor had plugged new hardware into his brain. What if the inventors had made a mistake and destroyed the nanites?

Robo Knux had never known fear like this. It immobilized him and crushed him, and the growing night seemed terrible and vast, full of hidden dangers. "I'm alive," he said aloud. "And I can die. What am I going to do now?"

Suddenly the cliff seemed very high, and the ocean below terrified him as never before. He crawled away from the edge and curled up at the foot of a tree, shielding his face from the world with his bulletproof arms. Now he understood, dimly, why Metal Sonic had gone in the directions that he had. And Robo Knux hated Mecha with a deathless, furious hatred. Mecha had escaped his imprisoned robotic existence, and Robo Knux could not.

As the night deepened, so did Robo Knux's torment.

By nightfall, Metal Sonic had accomplished two things.

He had travelled all the way to the Mobitropolis valley, and looking down from the hills, he could see the cluster of lights that was New Mobitropolis. The edges of the storm from Riverbase was just hitting, and scattered raindrops plinked on his head and arms.

The second thing he had accomplished was exhausting himself. By his measurements he had travelled more than 300 kilometers on foot in two days, and he had rested very little. His fuel reserves were low, and it looked as if it was going to rain all night.

Aleda and Nox looked out of the backpack and blinked as raindrops struck them. "Oh rats, I hate it when it rains," said Nox. "Mecha, can we sleep inside somewhere, tonight?"

"I would prefer it," said Mecha. "I am sick of nature. I must disguise myself first, however."

"Do Sonic!" said Nox.

Mecha turned his head and glared at him. "That city is New Mobitropolis. The hedgehog himself lives in the vicinity. I have no desire to meet him disguised as him. I will resume my generic fox-form." His skin liquefied and turned silver, then reformed into the fox disguise he had worn before. Then he strode down the hill toward the lights as the rain poured down.

Nox and Aleda rode with their heads poking out. Nox wanted to see where they were going, and Aleda was fascinated by the rain. She opened her mouth to catch drops on her tongue, and enjoyed feeling it soak her fur. The rain also made a musical sound as it beat against Mecha's head, a few inches away. He looked furry, but the rain made a metallic plinking sound that gave him away.

The city lights were further than they looked, and it took Mecha another hour of jogging to reach the outlying streets. He wanted shelter, somewhere out of the rain that was possibly warm. It was not as cold as the previous night, but being wet lowered his body's temperature until he began to shiver. Surely they had hotels here.

The streets were empty and wet, like bars of ebony, and the streetlights cast long shimmering reflections. Mecha observed the trees and shrubbery planted everywhere, and the odd, flowing architecture. This was how it had looked before Robotnik had overthrown it. The Mobians worked fast. He recalled the terbium that had brought about Robotnik's downfall, and remembered how Robotropolis had looked in its final days. And here he was, years later, no longer seeking bloodshed, finding the Mobians returning.

Suddenly his nightmare about zombie robians returned to him, and he suppressed a shudder. Hundreds of people had lost their lives at his claws in this place, and these people would never forgive him for it. Of all places on Mobius, this city was the most dangerous for him, but he needed a place to stay, and no one would recognize him, anyway.

He rounded a corner and saw a sign across the street that said, "The Outside Inn." He was so disgusted at the pun that he nearly walked on, but he checked himself. It had vacancies, and he was drenched. The chao were shivering now, creating a constant vibration against his back. He set his teeth and crossed the street to the open gate.

Mecha found himself in an open courtyard echoing the noise of the falling rain. The inn itself was ahead of him, and wings formed either side of the courtyard, each lined with doors. He glanced down to make sure his fox-disguise was in place, then walked to the main doors and pushed them open.

He stepped into a warm room lit with cheerful yellow lamps. A raccoon sat behind the counter, sipping a mug of something hot and reading a holoscreen with news reports scrolling across it. He looked up as Mecha entered. "Hello! Come in, come in. Terrible night to be travelling." His eyes rested on Mecha's packs and the water dripping onto the floor.

"Yes, it is," said Mecha, stepping onto the rug in front of the counter. "I apologize for muddying your floor. I would like a single room for the night, please."

"Certainly." The raccoon handed Mecha a form and a pen, and Mecha filled it out, his slight shivering making his handwriting wobbly. He gave his name as Melthision, and handed over his debit card. The raccoon charged it, handed it back, and gave Mecha a key. "Room 108. Outside, three doors to your left."

"Thank you," said Mecha, and walked back out into the rain.

Door 108 opened to his key and the lights flicked on as he entered. Mecha closed the door and pulled off his two packs. "We're here," he told the chao.

"All right!" exclaimed Aleda, looking out and seeing the four walls. "This is more like it!" She bounded onto the carpet and ran around, exploring. Nox was only interested in locating the food.

The room was small and clean, and a window in back was open a crack to let in fresh air. There was a single bed and a desk with a holoviewer on it. Mecha located the thermostat and turned on the heater, then entered the adjoining bathroom to towel himself dry. He resumed his original shape for convenience, and as he dried himself, he reviewed logs from his nano-controls. His skin didn't like holding a disguise for so long, particularly not a disguise as complex as the fox's. The nanites were tired, and his skin ached all over. His muscles were cold and stiff, and his fuel levels were low. These were new sensations to him, but he knew that the more complex his body became, the more maintenance it required.

He returned to the main room to find Nox and Aleda had turned on the holoscreen and were sitting on the bed, munching from a ration pack and watching a show about the life and social habits of humans. "What are you doing?" he exclaimed.

Aleda gave him a surprised look. "The holoviewer was here. Why not use it?"

Why not indeed? Mecha shrugged and pulled out a pack of rations for himself. He was dismayed to see that there were only three left. They had consumed the food faster than he had expected. He would have to buy more before they set out tomorrow.

Mecha carefully ate his own supper, and watched the holoscreen against his will. He had studied humans, himself, while plotting to destroy them, but this show presented them as people, just like Mobians. He was surprised that it was airing on a Mobian network.

He finished eating and turned off the holoscreen, to the protesting cries of the chao. "Enough," he told them. "We are here to rescue Shadow, not amuse ourselves. I wish to leave at dawn, and we must all be rested." He prodded the bed, thinking of how his metal spines would shred the mattress, then added, "I will sleep on the floor." He pulled off the bedspread, spread it on the floor and said, "You two may have the bed if you wish."

"Okay," said Nox, but Aleda only nodded and looked sly.

Mecha turned off the light, rolled himself in the blanket on the floor, and allowed the nervous tension to leave his body. He spiraled into sleep at once.

Aleda waited until she was certain that he was asleep, then jumped off the bed, scampered to him and burrowed into the blanket. She snuggled under his chin with a happy sigh. She couldn't sleep without him, and he ought to know that by now.

She was almost asleep when she heard movement, and heard Nox sniffling. She peeked out of the blanket to see Nox curling up under a corner. He missed Shadow and didn't want to be alone on the big bed. However, he didn't want Mecha's company, or even Aleda's. He wanted Shadow. But Shadow was gone, so Nox sought what companionship was available. Aleda felt sorry for him, and wondered what she would do if circumstances were reversed. If Mecha was gone, she would cry, too. She didn't want to lose her Red-Eyes. Slowly another thought formed in her head. What if someone threatened to take Mecha from her? Would she fight them, maybe kill them?

Suddenly Mecha's actions in the temple weren't as fearsome as she had thought. Mecha didn't want them to take her, so he had fought to protect her. She should have been grateful, but she had only whined like a baby and hurt his feelings. No wonder Melchizedek had told her to forgive Mecha.

"Aleda," she told herself, "you're just a stupid baby chao. Even Nox understands things better than you. You'd better keep quiet and learn things, or you'll hurt Mecha's feelings so bad that he won't love you anymore."

This prospect frightened her more than anything in that temple, and she huddled a little closer to Mecha. It was a long time before she fell asleep.

Lintel the otter and Kray the opossum sat back to back, facing opposite computer screens. It was late, but they had volunteered to stay up and work on the secondary project. Robotnik had agreed. He was working on the primary project, himself; the one involving chaos emeralds. He was locked in lab three with his four servant robots, and the other scientists were free of observation for the night.

Lintel and Kray were good with nanotech integration, and between them, the visual sensor upgrade for the robot design was almost complete. But that was not the reason that they had decided to leave the dormitory - they wanted to talk in private.

Lintel spoke without turning his head. "The only time the cliff path is passable is at low tide."

Kray replied, also without turning, "Could you swim it?"

"At low tide, maybe," said Lintel. "I'm a river otter, not a sea otter. You have to be strong to swim those currents, and I'm not that strong."

"I walked through the forest today," said Kray in a low voice. "I followed the top of the cliffs until I could look down unto Barlet's bay. There's a boathouse down there, and a dock. But I didn't see any boats."

There was a brief silence, and Lintel changed a calculation on his screen. Kray muttered, "I can't stand him." There was no need to mention Robotnik by name. "I still have nightmares about the roboticizer. When they deroboticized me, they had to replace my right lung and kidney with synthetic models. It's all because of him. How many more people will die because of our work here?"

"I don't know," said Lintel softly. "If only we had a weapon of some kind! I worked through grad school in a firing range. Sira didn't like it, but we had to eat somehow. Gosh, I miss her."

There was another long silence. Then Kray said, "Shadow is a weapon."

"Not for long," said Lintel, feeling sick as he spoke the words. "You know what's going to happen to him."

"I know," said Kray, turning around at last. "We can't stop Robotnik from doing his experiments, but what if we got Shadow on our side? He'd made contact with the outside twice before we shut down his hardware. What if we had him send a message from us, so someone would know we're in trouble?"

"If we're going to try, it has to be now," said Lintel, looking at Kray. "Before Robotnik completes his project."

Lab one was silent, lit only by fluorescent bulbs along the south wall. Shadow hung in his restraints, wishing he could sleep, but he could not. With Mekion offline, the left half of his body was heavy and dead, and he could no longer support himself with his left leg. His right leg still worked, but trying to balance his semi-paralyzed body with his ankles chained made his muscles cramp. Then he had to relax and hang by his hands, and his right arm took most of the weight. Sooner or later his shoulder would dislocate, and then he'd be in real pain.

When not trying to find a position that was less painful, he dwelt on his fears and memories of Dr. Robotnik. The dictator who had misused the roboticizer, who had jumped at the chance to use the Eclipse Cannon, who doubtless wanted to trap Metal Sonic and kill him.

Robo Knux's words were hollow and mocking now. "Your only purpose is my purpose for you." It seemed to Shadow that his whole life had been full of other people's purposes. Gerald's purpose, Robotnik's purpose, Mecha's purpose. The only person who had not used him was Maria, and she was dead.

Mecha had used him in the beginning ... then Mecha's own plots had rebounded and crushed him, and Shadow had picked up the pieces. For the first time Shadow's life had had meaning, for his goal was to help Mecha rebuild his mind. And he had accomplished that goal, at least partly. Mecha no longer wallowed in self-pity, but now he was hunting a supernatural being who Shadow doubted existed. Maybe Mecha had truly lost his mind and Shadow hadn't noticed until now.

He smiled bitterly at the floor. He had gone with Mecha to look for the Master Designer, and now he was chained to a torture implement, at the utter mercy of his enemies. "Some Master Designer you are," he whispered to the silent room. "You let Maria die, and you let this happen to me. I don't think you exist at all. If you do, then do a miracle and get me out of here. Right now."

The airlock door opened and Shadow's heart almost stopped. He struggled to lift his head, and saw two of the Mobian scientists hurrying toward him. "What do you want?" he whispered, trying to calm his racing heart. This was a coincidence. There was no Master Designer, because those two had probably come to hurt him.

The opossum planted himself within arm's reach. "I'm Kray and that's Lintel," he whispered. "We're all being held prisoner by Dr. Robotnik."

"Sure," whispered Shadow. "You just want me to talk to you."

"No, hear me out," said Kray. He explained about GUN seeming to answer their request for a larger facility and sending them here, only to find that Robotnik had orchestrated it all.

As Kray paused for breath, Lintel stepped forward. "Robotnik wants to fabricate chaos emeralds, and that's why you're here. You have an exceptionally strong chaos field, and he wants to study you. He's going to start tomorrow, so we had to talk to you now. Before he starts ..." He trailed off and looked at Shadow with such pity that Shadow felt dread uncoil in his stomach.

"What do you want me to do?" he whispered. "If you hadn't noticed, I'm chained up."

"We'll reactivate your hardware," said Kray. "Then send a message to the government - no, the other nanotech companies - that we're in danger."

"They won't listen to you," said Shadow. "You're Mobian. You should contact the Great Kingdom."

Kray and Lintel exchanged looks. "It's worth a try."

"Reactivate Mekion," said Shadow. "And tell me what you want me to say."

Lintel unclipped a small scrambling device from the side of Shadow's head, and Mekion booted up immediately. He stood up on both feet and lifted his head.

Kray was thinking furiously. "Okay, say this. 'The Analytech Nanotech firm is being held hostage by Dr. Robotnik on Deimos Island. We are being forced to conduct illegal experiments, and all external communications are blocked. Please send help. Kray, Lintel, Barlet, Touis and Nick Karabian."

This message told Shadow not only his location, but what Robotnik meant to do to him. He swallowed and said to Mekion, "Locate high-frequency channel and transmit at full power."

Mekion located a free port within seconds and blasted the message through. As it went, Mekion detected a warning alert within the system itself. "Lintel, Kray," he whispered, "I've been detected. You'd better run."

It was already too late. The airlock rotated open and Robotnik stood there, arms folded, flanked by two robots. "Well well," he said, seeing Lintel and Kray's guilty expressions, and that Mekion's red eye was on. "Calling for help, are we?"

He walked over and clamped the scrambling device back on Shadow's head, and Mekion again went dead. Then Robotnik turned to face the Mobians. "No one. Ever. Betrays. Me." He twitched a finger at the robots, and each one fired a single bullet from the pistols in their chests.

Lintel and Kray hit the floor with cries of pain as the bullets struck both of them just above the knee.

"Tell your friends what you did," said Robotnik, smiling at their pain and terror. "Next time the bullets will be through your brains. Now get out."

Lintel and Kray limped and struggled to the airlock, panting and whimpering, until the airlock rotated shut and silence fell. Robotnik motioned to his robots. "Clean that up." The robots moved to clean the blood off the floor, and Robotnik turned to look at Shadow.

Shadow was watching him with his natural eye, his head tilted to one side because of the weight of his metal spines. "You're sick," he spat.

"So some have told me," said Robotnik, clasping his hands behind his back. "I never let their opinions stop me, however. Who did you call?"

Shadow's mouth twisted in a smile. "I'm chained and awaiting torture. How do you plan to make me tell?"

"I don't plan to make you do anything," said Robotnik. "When I'm through with you, you won't be able to stop from telling me whatever I ask."

"Where have I heard that before?" said Shadow, still smiling cynically. "Oh yeah, on Prison Island before they put me in cryogenic freeze. You know what I told them? Nothing."

Robotnik smiled again, but his eyes were cold and hard. "Still the same nasty attitude. I liked it when I opened your chamber, and I still like it. I have no intention of breaking you. As your esteemed master showed me, there are other ways of persuading a mind to do something it doesn't want to do. I seem to remember some intriguing stories about Mekion making Shadow do some awful things."

Shadow's smile vanished.

Robotnik's smile widened. "You see it now. That transmission you sent to Metal Sonic was your last. Oh yes, I can guess the destination of your transmission. By calling him here, you are playing right into my hands." He held up one hand - the roboticized one - and clenched it into a fist. "Revenge is sweet." He turned and walked to the airlock, summoning his robots, which followed him out.

Shadow was alone again, and gazed at the airlock. "I'm glad he thinks I'm so predictable," he thought. "He'll never dream that I went to the Great Kingdom, and that they received it, too. But Mekion ... not again, not again ..."

He let his head hang, remembering the nightmare of being controlled by his logical robot half. And Robotnik thought he could do it again.

"So, oh mythical Master Designer," Shadow whispered aloud, "I try asking for help, and any potential help I receive is shot down before it can get started. Thanks a lot. Now I know that Mecha's insane. And ... I soon will be."

He drooped in his restraints and black despair swallowed him.

Robotnik returned to the main lab and locked the airlock, so no one could enter without his permission. He tossed his keycard on the computer console and settled into one of the desk chairs. He was too wide for it, and its springs groaned in protest. He sighed and gazed at his two screens. He liked robots so much better than real people. These scientists were brilliant - he had read all their reports himself - but they were Mobian. Shifty, hard to control, stubborn.

Free will - how he hated it! Any will that opposed his own was necessarily enemy, and he had had to use force to cow them. He was certain that he had conquered the opossum and otter, but the squirrel and chipmunk ... and the human. He hadn't known that Nick Karabian was human until he had met him here at the facility. Humans were even worse than Mobians when it came to opposing him resourcefully. The biggest problem was that if Robotnik mistreated another human, the human laws would punish him, and such things were messy and inconvenient. Better for Nick to simply disappear without a trace.

Better for them all to disappear.

A message appeared on screen, and Robotnik raised an eyebrow. Speaking of free will ...

He opened it, and a familiar voice drawled through the speaker, "Good evening, Doctor. I am going to kill you."

"Hello, Robo Knux," said Robotnik, unperturbed. "I expected you to contact me long before this."

"Flying to Deimos Island had me distracted," said Robo Knux. "I want my upgrades, and I want them now."

"We have one set ready," said Robotnik, checking the logs, "and another set is on the way."

"Good," said Robo Knux. "I want them installed tomorrow. What are they?"

"Optics," said Robotnik dryly. "They wanted to improve your senses first."

He expected Robo Knux to become angry, but instead the robot said, "Eyes. Yes, of course I need better visual sensors." He was silent a moment, then said, "Robotnik, I need to ask you a question."

"Go ahead," said Robotnik, leaning back in his chair.

Robo Knux hesitated, then said, "Did you know that my primary computer is based on a nanite design?"

"Yes," said Robotnik. "All the Mecha-bots rely heavily on nanotechnology for their processors. I built them that way to increase their performance against a certain hedgehog. It also makes you dependent on support and backup, because those nanites will eventually starve if they don't receive care. Subconsciously, both of you know it, and it's the basis for your loyalty programming."

Robo Knux was silent for a long time, and the only way Robotnik knew he was still there was because the transmission link was still open. Robotnik waited. Robo Knux had at last discovered his true nature, and Robotnik wasn't sure what he would do. Robo Knux had always been unpredictable, but he had finally unlocked the secret of his own power, and was cautious about his next move. Robotnik didn't know that Robo Knux was being eaten alive by fear.

Finally Robo Knux said, "I want the upgrade."

"Fine," said Robotnik. "But you haven't kept your end of the bargain. I asked you for a chaos emerald."

"And you'll get one," said Robo Knux, sounding like his old cocky self again. "I'll deliver it after the upgrade is complete. And I want your Mobian slaves to oversee the upgrade, not you."

"And why is that?" said Robotnik, amused.

"You'll pull something," said Robo Knux. "I'll leave the emerald with the slaves. How's that?"

Robotnik thought quickly. He could oversee everything with his four robots. "Fine," he said. "Be at the front gates at six AM."

"Affirmative," said Robo Knux, and logged off.

Robotnik sat at the computers, deep in thought, for a long time.

Sonic opened his eyes and yawned. He was curled up in the backseat of the Tornado, which was parked in the airport in Sapphire City. Tails was slouched down in the pilot's seat, still asleep. They had received clearance to land at 2 AM, and neither of them felt like finding a place to stay for the few hours left until dawn.

Sonic rubbed a hand over the fogged plastic windows of the canopy, and looked out. The airport was wrapped in fog, and he could barely make out the shape of the nearest hangar. Beyond that was a wall of white.

Sonic stretched his arms and legs, one at a time, in the cramped seat. It was nice of the humans to finally open their airports to Mobian craft, and he supposed it had something to do with the Great Kingdom pulling itself together. He peered over the seat in front of him at Tails, and saw the fox's chest was slowly rising and falling. Poor kid was exhausted. Sonic decided not to wake him up, and pulled his green chaos emerald out of his coat pocket. "Chaos relocate," he whispered, and teleported eight feet to the right, placing him outside the Tornado. Then, emerald in hand, he set off at a light run across the tarmac, wondering where he could dig up some food.

He also wondered uneasily where Shadow was, and if he and Tails had arrived too late to help him. The Tornado hadn't picked up any more signals. He also wished that Sally was here. She would know how to pinpoint Shadow's location, and she had a way of persuading local authorities to do what she wanted. At the thought of Sally he smiled. He had discovered that the jewelry catalog had a payment plan, so he had ordered Sally's ring express. When he returned to Knothole, there would be a small box awaiting him ...

He rounded a corner and the terminal appeared out of the fog, its windows dark and misted, and the fence around it hung with dewdrops. Sonic trotted through the open gate and went inside. It was warm and dry indoors, and there were two people waiting for early flights, gripping cups of coffee. Sonic was cold and coffee sounded good, so he made his way to the beverage stand and bought two cups.

He was filling his own cup with samples of every coffee flavor in the vats when his cellphone rang. He jumped and nearly spilled his cup. He had forgotten about the phone in his jacket pocket. He punched a button and said, "Hello?"

"Hi Sonic," said Sally's voice. "Where are you?"

"Sapphire City airport," said Sonic, grinning. "Worried about me, huh?"

"Why should I worry about you?" said Sally playfully. "I called to ask about Tails." She laughed.

Sonic grinned. "The trouble with you, Sal, is you're a big faker. We got in at two this morning, and I'm out trying to find some chow before we chase down Shadow."

"That's really what I called about," said Sally, her voice becoming serious. "Can you teleport home? Something's come up, and I need you here."

"Uh oh," said Sonic. "You're being vague, so it must be serious."

"I can't talk about it over the phone," said Sally. "I know Shadow is important to you, Sonic, and I wouldn't ask you this unless I absolutely had to ... and I had to."

"Give me a hint," said Sonic. "So I have something to tell Tails."

Sally was quiet a moment, then said, "Dr. Robotnik."

Sonic felt as if someone had dumped a gallon of ice water down his jacket collar. "No," he said.

"Yes," said Sally. "We need you pronto."

"Okay, you win," said Sonic, his sense of humor oozing out of him. "Let me tell Tails, and I'll be right there."

He hung up, finished filling the coffee cups, and walked back out into the fog. Dr. Robotnik! Sonic's mind backtracked to the last time they had met. Metal Sonic had imprisoned Robotnik in one of his own cells, and Robotnik had engineered an ingenious way to defeat Mecha while there. Robotnik had disappeared shortly after Mecha's defeat, which was in July. It was now the end of November, which meant that Robotnik had been under cover for almost five months. Plenty of time to cook up some new plot. How had Sally heard about it? Why couldn't she tell him over the phone? Were they being watched? The idea thrilled him and fanned his curiosity to burning heights.

The Tornado appeared through the fog, a small biplane resting on its landing gear. Funny that it could think and talk now. Sonic had talked to it through most of yesterday's flight. It reminded him of other robots he had known, but without the attitude. It was picking up Tails's pleasant nature, and Sonic knew that he would like the Tornado very much in years to come.

He peered through the cockpit window at Tails, who was still asleep. Sonic tapped the plane's nose. "Hey Tornado," he said softly, "tell Tails to wake up."

In the cockpit, he heard its voice say, "Acknowledged. Tails, it is six thirty-nine AM, and Sonic desires your presence."

Tails opened his eyes and looked at the computer, then sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Sonic?" he said sleepily. "What're you doing out there?" He opened the door-flap, and Sonic handed him a cup of coffee.

"Keeping up the tradition," said Sonic. "Remember that morning down here when we woke up in the fog, and you got us hot chocolate?"

Tails grinned and held the warm cup in both cold hands. "Oh yeah. Right before all Chaos broke loose."

They sipped their drinks, and Sonic felt the fog condensing on his spines. "Tails," he said, "Sally called and said she needs me back home."

Tails looked up with a frown. "She does? Why? What about Shadow?"

"I said the same thing," said Sonic. "She said she couldn't tell me anything over the phone, but it's about Robotnik."

Tails's eyes widened and his ears laid back. "Uh oh. What's he up to now?"

"That's what I have to find out," said Sonic. "I'm gonna teleport home and check it out. I'll come back down here if I can. If not, I'll call you."

"Okay," said Tails. "Let me know if I can help. If I can't find Shadow, I'll come home."

"Okay little bro," said Sonic. "I hate running out on you like this."

"It's okay," said Tails. "Shadow said something about Robotnik when I talked to him, so maybe you'll be helping save him anyway."

"I hope so," said Sonic. "Although knowing Robotnik, he financed the hit on Shadow and is off doing his own thing. I gotta go now. See you, Tails!"

"Bye, Sonic!" said Tails, and watched as Sonic vanished in a flicker of green light.

Sonic appeared on the road leading from Knothole to New Mobitropolis, and jogged along toward the city. Here the road was wet from the night's rain, and the sky was blue and clear with only a few shreds of vanishing clouds in the north.

New Mobitropolis was quiet so early in the morning, and the gutters were full of water. There were a few people out moving around, and Sonic nodded and spoke to them as he passed. He hardly paid any attention to them, but one individual caught his eye. He was a brown fox, walking down the sidewalk in the opposite direction as Sonic, and as Sonic said good morning, the fox only stared at him. Sonic was several strides beyond him when the fox's look registered - it was one of savage hatred. Sonic looked over his shoulder, but the fox was walking on without a backwards glance. Sonic shrugged and hurried toward Sally's office.

Sally was waiting for him just inside the door. "Hi Sonic," she said, embracing him and handing him a paper at the same time. Sonic was surprised to see that her usually immaculate hair was standing up, as if she had been combing her fingers through it. She motioned to the paper.

"We picked up this transmission about midnight last night. Robotnik's up to his old tricks, but they were smart enough to get a message to the outside." She ran her hand through her hair again, and upon looking at the message, Sonic had the impulse to do the same.

"Hostage on Deimos Island ... Robotnik ... illegal experiments ... send help ..." Sonic looked at Sally in shock. "Good grief! He's got real live scientists this time!"

"Yes," said Sally. She led him down the hall and down a staircase to a windowless room whose walls were covered with maps. "I've had my strategists planning a mission for us since we got the message."

Sonic glanced around at the four Mobians in the room. Three of them were former inhabitants of Knothole, whom he recognized, but the fourth was Fealor Nash. Sonic resolved to ignore him and turned to Sally. "What're we gonna do?"

"First," said Sally, pointing to a map, "we need information. This is Deimos Island. It's about two hundred miles southwest of Sapphire City. Phobos Island is its secondary, about ten miles away. Deimos Island has been under GUN's control for fifteen years, and they have a harbor built here, on the east side." Sally looked at Sonic. "And that's all we can find out. GUN hasn't responded to our inquiries, and we can't get clearance to take pictures with their satellites."

"So how do we find out what's going on?" said Sonic.

Sally pointed to the chaos emerald in his hand. "We need you to teleport down there and check it out. Without being spotted."

Sonic smiled. "So, you need a spy! I'm up for that. Do I get any cool gadgets?"

"Yes," said Sally. "Come on, let's get you equipped and - "

She was interrupted by muffled gunshots from outside. There was a startled silence in the map room, then Sonic said, "Stay here, Sal, I'll check it out." He sprinted from the room.

Mecha had awakened at dawn, and found that Aleda was curled up with her head against his face. He pulled away from her slowly, so as not to wake her up, and pulled off the blanket. Nox was at the far end of the blanket, snoring, and it seemed that no one had used the bed. Mecha smirked at the irony, and transformed himself into his fox disguise. He felt rested and energized, and his biometal responded to his commands with swift precision. Depending on the weather, he could reach Sapphire City within ten hours.

He unlocked the motel room door and stepped outside, shutting it softly behind him. The sky was gray and dim, caught between the dark of night and the blue of day, and the air was fresh and cold. He strode out into the courtyard, breathing deeply and watching his breath forming clouds of mist. He needed to pick up fresh food supplies, then he and the chao would depart.

He located a market that was just opening, and entered. He scanned the store and mapped its layout, and realized that there was more food here than he had ever studied. Being capable of eating had not taught him what to eat, and Mecha realized that his databanks of information were lacking on organic fuel. More to the point, he needed to find food that he could carry and would last a while. Horrors! He would have to ask for assistance.

A teenaged beaver was manning the register, and he sized up Mecha as Mecha approached. "Hi," said the beaver. "Need help?"

"Yes," said Mecha. "I have some travel to do. What food items would you recommend for such an excursion?"

The beaver looked puzzled, for his vocabulary wasn't as large as Mecha's. "You mean you need some stuff to, like, go camping?"

"Yes," said Mecha, annoyed.

The beaver grinned and nodded. "Gotcha. Wait a minute." He dashed out from behind the counter and vanished into the aisles. Mecha waited, tapping one foot and hoping that this Mobian knew what he was doing.

A few minutes later the beaver returned with an armload of packages. He dumped them on the counter and said, "Okay, we got jerky, energy bars, meal bars, granola, this flat bread stuff and cheese to go with it. I left out the wood chips, though, 'cause foxes don't dig beaver food."

"Affirmative," said Mecha, running digital scans on each item. They were not rations, but they contained the appropriate amount of nutrients, so he said, "Very well, I shall purchase them."

"Dude," said the beaver, grinning and sweeping everything into a bag. He charged Mecha's debit card and handed him the bag. "Have fun on your camping trip, man!"

Mecha was on his way back to the motel, glad that locating provisions had been so painless, when he looked up and stiffened. Strolling toward him along the sidewalk was Sonic himself, a distracted look on his face. Mecha tried not to stare, but couldn't help himself. His enemy! The hated hedgehog! How fortunate that Mecha had not disguised himself as him.

Sonic glanced at Mecha and said, "Good morning," and walked right on past. Mecha didn't reply and forced himself to keep walking. He wanted to turn around and rip a few holes in the hedgehog's blue fur, and at the same time he wanted to run as fast as he could. Sonic, who had defeated him, Sonic, who had been kind at their last meeting, Sonic, who Mecha had no reason to hate any longer, but could not stop himself.

Mecha arrived at the motel in mental torment, and entered his room in a sort of trance. He snapped out of it when he saw Aleda and Nox were again watching the holoviewer, and had finished the last three ration packs. "Hi Mecha!" they chorused.

"Turn that off," he snapped. "We are leaving."

"Look, more food!" said Nox, slapping the remote control and leaping onto the floor. Aleda followed him, and they scampered up to investigate Mecha's purchases.

He dumped everything into Shadow's pack, zipped it closed and put it on. "You will see it at mealtime," he told them. "Get into my pack."

"Boy, you're a grouch," said Nox, glaring at Mecha. "Did you wake up on the wrong side of the floor or what?"

Mecha bared his teeth. "Get in the pack."

Aleda scrambled in obediently and said, "Better do what he says, Nox."

Nox obeyed, but took his time, watching Mecha and reading his feelings. Mecha glared at him and fastened the top flap once Nox was inside. Then he slung the pack on his back, left the motel room and went to return the key to the manager.

Mecha was stepping out of the motel's courtyard, and consulting the satellite to map out his route, when he saw a Mobian rat staring at him from across the street. The rat was dressed in shabby robes and looked vaguely like Catter. Mecha pretended not to see him and set off at a fast walk down the street.

"Hey!" called the rat, and Mecha heard running footsteps. He slowed and turned, and the rat ran up to him.

The rat squinted. "Are you Melthision?"

A warning flag waved in Mecha's mind. "No," he said.

"Yeah you are," said the rat. He bared his rodent-teeth. "Catter's still in the hospital, and you killed four of my friends and my brother. You're not a fox. You're a stupid robot." He spat on the ground.

Mecha ground his teeth and forced his voice to remain calm. "I do not know what you are talking about, rat. I suggest that you leave me alone."

To his surprise and fury, the rat grabbed his arm and tapped his nails on it. "Ha, it's metal!" cried the rat. "It looks real, but it's not!"

Mecha jerked his arm away and snarled, "Do not touch me again."

"Sure," said the rat, his eyes dancing with crazed delight. "I have a message from Catter, high priest of Mun-Icytho. But since you're a robot, it won't mean as much." He reached into his robe and pulled out a fat, stubby pistol with a muzzle wide enough to fire walnuts.

Mecha struck like lightning. With one hand he swiped the pistol out of the rat's hand and sent it flying out into the street. With the other hand he landed a devastating punch to the rat's snout, sending him into the street after his weapon. Mecha was running before the rat hit the ground.

The rat screamed, "Help! That guy just attacked me!" The few other people on the street looked around in surprise. The rat scrambled to his feet, seized his gun and fired two shots after Mecha. The gun boomed like a cannon and the kickback knocked the rat down yet again.

Mecha dodged to one side, and both bullets whined past him. As he ran, he slung the pack containing the chao off his back and held it in front of him. If that rat was shooting at Mecha's back, then Mecha preferred to take the hit instead of risking the chao's safety. But bullets of that caliber would do him serious damage. How could projectiles of that size hold together at such velocities?

He activated his scanner and looked for possible enemies. He was just in time to see one blip moving laterally to his own path when again that pistol roared in his ears, and something struck him savagely along the side of his head. He staggered and kept running. Behind him, the rat whooped, "Headwound! I hit it! I hit it!"

The bullet had grazed Mecha's head and left a deep, burning slash in the biometal. The pain enraged him, and he longed to turn back and rip that rat limb from limb. He checked his radar again and saw a red blip travelling toward his location at shocking speed.


Mecha thought quickly. He was fast, but he couldn't beat Sonic in a footrace. Therefore he had to opt for deception. He ducked onto a side street, tore off both backpacks, and transformed his skin into one of the models he carried in his databanks. Then he stepped back out into the street and looked for Sonic.

Sonic raced up to Mecha like a self-propelled bullet. "Knuckles!" he exclaimed. "What's going on? What're you doing here?"

"No time now," said Mecha in the echidna's voice. "It's Metal Sonic, I saw him! He ran that way."

Sonic was so close that Mecha could count his spines and see his reflection in Sonic's eyes. He was tempted again to reach out and grab Sonic's throat - it would be so easy -

"Mecha's here?" said Sonic. "Right, I'm on it!" He darted away up the street.

Mecha deliberately picked up his packs again, and carrying them in his arms, he walked down the street toward the edge of town. "What's happening?" Aleda asked over the network.

"Shh," he replied. "I will explain once we are out of danger."

Mecha was gratified to see Sonic run by twice more, and Sonic paid no attention to him. Shapeshifting had its advantages, but Mecha needed more models to choose from. Turning into well-known people was too dangerous.

The houses became fewer, and Mecha glimpsed the hazy blue edge of the Great Forest ahead of him, the rising sun gleaming on the treetops. Mecha turned back into a fox, and sprinted for the trees.

Sonic was worried and tense, and he ran around New Mobitropolis eleven times without ever seeing a sign of Metal Sonic. The whole situation set every warning bell in his mind to clanging. Mecha had claimed that he was finished with senseless killing, but this rat with the gun was claiming that Mecha had attacked him ...

The more Sonic thought about it, the less sense it made. Even when Mecha had been running loose with a murder fetish, his grudging respect for life meant that he killed only if someone meddled with him. So why in the world would Mecha come to New Mobitropolis and maul someone who was carrying a gun that big? The rat didn't look hurt. If Mecha had wanted him dead, the rat would be dead in some clean, scientific fashion.

Sonic ran back to where the rat panting for breath on the sidewalk. "I haven't seen a sign of Mecha," Sonic told him. "If Knux hadn't told me he saw him, I'd say you're making this up."

The rat lifted his head and glared. "That thing can shapechange. I saw it do it. It went from a fox into this freaky-looking blue hedgehog thing. It's probably disguised itself by now."

"So what?" said Sonic, laying his ears back in a frown. "If he was trying to kill you, you'd be dead. I'm not gonna stick up for him, but he might not even be here, and you're running around with a superglock."

The rat clicked the safety on his pistol and thrust it back inside his robes. "You said the echidna saw him too. So go ask the echidna."

Sonic looked around, but Knuckles had vanished. "I don't have time for this," he muttered. "Fire that gun again and you'll have more than Mecha to worry about. I'm outta here." Sonic turned and ran, vanishing up the street in two seconds.

The rat smiled and strode toward the city limits.

Mecha reached the eaves of the Great Forest and stopped to get his bearings. The trees here were old and tall, and the underbrush was dense and tangled. He pushed his way into it, wet twigs and leaves scraping harmlessly over his metal skin. Everything was dripping from the night's rain, and the ground was sticky with mud and decayed leaves.

He walked until he was surrounded by trees and felt slightly more protected than he did in the open. Then he set both backpacks on the ground and looked up at a nearby tree. Satellite views were well and good, but he wanted to see the lay of the land for himself. It was at times like these that he most missed his hoverjet, because blasting up twenty or thirty feet had been simple. Now he had to try something more difficult. Like climbing a tree.

"Stay here," he told the chao, who flipped open the backpack's top flap and looked up at him. "I am not going far. I want to plan a course and must decide whether to remain in the Great Forest or not."

Aleda looked around at the trees. "We've been in forests before. Why is this one so great?"

"It's not that kind of great, silly," said Nox. "It's called that because it's big."

Mecha turned his back before they saw him smile, jumped and caught a low-hanging branch, and swung himself up into a tree. The chao watched him climb, and Aleda said, "That looks fun."

"Oh, it is," said Nox. "The only problem is that you can slip and fall."

The tree Mecha was climbing was an evergreen, and before long he was out of sight among the pine needles. Nox scrambled out of the pack and picked up a pine cone. "Hey Aleda, look at this! Isn't it cool?"

Aleda jumped out of the pack. "Yeah! What is it?"

"It's the cocoon of a type of bug, I think," said Nox, turning it over in his paws. "I think it splits open along these cracks."

Aleda's eyes widened and she backed away. "That's a really big bug."

Running footsteps through leaves. Both chao looked up to see a hedgehog skid into sight, gasping for breath. It was Melchizedek, the hedgehog from the barn. His spines were stuck full of leaves, and his boots were even muddier than before. He looked at them, then turned in a half circle, searching. "Where's your master? Where's Mecha?"

"Up that tree," said Aleda, pointing.

Melchizedek looked up. "Oh, good. You have to get out of here, now. Catter's followers are after you, and he's already called his contacts in Riverbase. Avoid Riverbase at all costs. Call Mecha down, and RUN!" He ran, himself, as if all the priests of Mun-Icytho were after him.

As he vanished, Aleda said through the network, "Mecha, that rat guy is still after us. We have to get out of here."

"Yes, I see him," said Mecha the same way.

There was a slithering, scraping sound, and Mecha slid out of the tree amid a shower of pine needles and bark. The chao bounded back into their pack. Mecha put on both packs and jogged southwards, weaving through the trees and brush.

"Mecha," said Aleda through the network, "we have to stay away from a place called Riverbase. The rat's talked to his friends down there."

"How do you know that?" Mecha replied, startled.

"Melchizedek ran up," said Aleda. "He was all freaked out. He told me to tell you that, then he ran off. I think they're after him, too."

"Aleda," said Mecha so softly that even though the network she could barely hear him, "I was operating my scans at full power. No one approached you or I could have detected them."

"I saw him, Mecha," said Aleda softly. "Nox and I both did."

Mecha was silent for a long moment, then said, "Perhaps my scanner is faulty." He knew that his scanner wasn't faulty, however. His scanners were his second pair of eyes, and he kept them maintained and updated. But there were ways of fooling a scanner, like with a frequency blocker that kept a scanning signal to bounce and not return to its source. This hedgehog must be carrying one to escape Mecha's scans. Anyone who escaped his scans must be a spy or an enemy, and Mecha fretted as he ran.

Who was this hedgehog? Why was he following them and giving them warnings? Mecha wondered if he ought to go to Riverbase, then examined the logic of that and decided that keeping away from civilization was in his own best interests. He had stirred up the members of what looked like a far-reaching religion, and they were hunting him. He had never dreamed that looking for the Master Designer might be so dangerous. What if this Melchizedek was in league with the priests? Mecha hadn't yet laid eyes on him, and his fear of this invisible hedgehog bordered on superstition. Mecha had run and hid and disguised himself, and still this hedgehog tracked him. It frightened him more than any priests, and he broke out of the Great Forest and ran like the wind.

Sonic arrived back at Sally's office and entered. Sally was waiting for him, looking concerned and curious. He shook his head. "Some joker said Metal Sonic attacked him and the guy went trigger-happy. No sign of Mecha, and I think the guy was making it up."

Sally frowned at him. "We don't need that kind of thing in New Mobitropolis. Did you call the police?"

"The guy was leaving town," said Sonic. "I didn't think it was important enough."

Sally shook her head. "Sonic, a crazed gunman is always call for the police. Not everybody can dodge bullets the way you can."

Sonic shrugged. "I have other stuff on my mind, okay Sal? Like teleporting to an island I've never seen. What if I teleport into the ground, or inside a tree?"

"You'll be fine," said Sally, but she suddenly felt weak in the knees. She had forgotten that particular limitation to Sonic's ability. She struggled to mask her fear and led him back downstairs. This time she opened a door to the left and ushered him in.

Sonic looked around and whistled. It was a big room lined with racks of electronic equipment, and it smelled of fresh plastic and silicon. Sally walked to a shelf and took down a headset. "Put this on," she said, handing it to Sonic.

He put it on and found that instead of a microphone, it had a tiny camera lens that rode against his forehead. "Now this is cool," he said, positioning it. "How does it work?"

"It records video into this datastick," said Sally, sliding it into a slot under the lens. "It can hold two hours' worth, so don't take longer than that. Press the lens to turn it on."

Sonic did so and heard the faintest of beeps as it came on. He pressed it again to turn it off.

Sally crossed the room and picked up an object like a black box with a strap. She slipped it on Sonic's upper arm and tightened the strap. "This is a radar device. Right before you leave, turn it on and let it run for five seconds. It'll radar-ping the whole island and give us a map to work with." She showed him the power button, then led him back into the map room.

This was the part that Sonic had been worrying about. He dug his chaos emerald out of his coat pocket, then took off his coat and draped it over a chair. He turned to the map spread on the table in the center of the room, then met Sally's eyes and saw the fear there. He forced a smile. "It's okay, Sally. If something goes wrong, I'll come back. Otherwise I guess I'll be gone until I can snoop around a bit."

He inhaled and looked at the dot on the map that was Deimos Island. "Okay, this is an island. You said they have a harbor on this side? Like with a dock?"

"Yes," said Sally. "Aim for that."

"I will," said Sonic. He imagined a dock with the ocean lapping the posts, and forced himself to stare at the map. Without blinking, he lifted his emerald and said, "Chaos relocate."

The world shifted in the blink of an eye, and Sonic found himself standing on a dock, facing a boathouse with a lock on the door. He spun in a circle, looking around. He could hear the roar and crash of waves somewhere close, and the water beating the dock looked rough and unfriendly. Towering above him was a rocky cliff, streaked with layers of color and overhung at the top with tree roots and brush.

"Well, I'm somewhere," Sonic muttered aloud. "Might as well take a look around." He smacked the camera on his forehead to turn it on, and trotted off the dock and onto a path that wound steeply up across the cliff face. He followed it at a lope.

The path twisted up and out of the cove that sheltered the dock, and Sonic was blasted by the wind and saw the surf pounding the cliffs. "Dang, that looks dangerous," he thought, watching the foam fly, and continued up the muddy path at a near-run.

He reached the place where the path had washed away, but he was moving so fast that ten feet was an easy jump. He leaped the gap and continued up the path, once in a while swinging his head from side to side to give the camera a better view.

The path reached the clifftops, and Sonic slowed to a walk, peering around. Up here the wind was even stronger, and he thought he could hear voices. Here the path cut through a patch of stunted trees, and Sonic ducked into them and crept on, wondering if he had found the scientists.

Ahead was a wide cement area, and Sonic glimpsed the gleam of the sun on glass. He dropped to his belly and crawled forward until he could see more clearly. Screened by a tangle of dead nettles, Sonic realized that a helipad had been built on the top of the cliff. A long-bodied helicopter with GUN emblazoned on the side rested there, and a group of humans were unloading crates and boxes from its belly.

Sonic squinted. The humans all wore black GUN uniforms, but there were two Mobians helping unload; a squirrel and a chipmunk. They were directing the placement of the cargo, and as Sonic watched, the humans began carrying everything off the helipad and down a road to his right that led into the trees. Sonic followed them, keeping to the trees. The noise of the wind covered all sounds he made, but it made it hard to listen for the humans, too.

After a few minutes they arrived at a barbed wire fence, and Sonic hung back, watching the squirrel and chipmunk swipe their keycards through a slot at the gate, and herd the humans through as it opened. Sonic had no use for barbed wire, and the sight of it gave him chills. He was thankful that he could teleport through it, but for now he crouched out of sight beside the fence and watched the humans carry things in. Inside the fence were several buildings all connected together, and Sonic sensed that there was something odd about them, but he couldn't decide what it was.

It wasn't until the humans had finished bringing in the cargo, and the squirrel and chipmunk had closed the gate and were walking up to the main doors, that Sonic realized what was so odd about this place. It had no windows. He could see a skylight pyramid on the roof of the main building, but there were no other windows. It was built like a prison.

The squirrel and chipmunk vanished inside, and the doors closed behind them. Silence fell, and Sonic could hear the distant roar of the ocean over the rush of the wind in the treetops. He heard the helicopter take off from the helipad and fade into the distance. When nothing else happened for ten minutes, he decided the coast was clear and slapped the camera on his head to turn it off. He held up his emerald and whispered, "Chaos relocate."

Sonic reappeared on the roof of the main building, and dropped flat beside the skylight, hoping that no one had been looking up at the time. He turned his camera back on, then carefully crawled up and peered through the dusty glass.

Down below, a metal tube large enough to hold a human had been rolled into the middle of the room. A human in a white labcoat stood on one side with his arms inside the machine, and the chipmunk stood on the other side. The squirrel wasn't there. There were also four small robots moving around, carrying tools and watching a rack of equipment and monitors that were plugged into the metal cylinder. Sonic squinted. The robots looked like miniature versions of the old E-series, and he made certain that his camera had a good view of them.

He crawled on his hands and knees all around the skylight, looking at the lab below and trying to figure out what they were working on. (An illegal experiment?) Whatever it was, they were proceeding slowly and carefully, and Sonic thought it looked boring. He crawled away from the skylight, stood up and walked softly across the roof toward the next building. It had a skylight, but it was smaller.

Sonic again lay down beside it so no one would see him. Then he realized he need not have worried. Inside were an opossum and an otter who were lying on cots against the walls. The opossum appeared asleep, and had a thick bandage on his leg. But the squirrel he had seen earlier was working on the otter's leg, and the otter was screaming in pain. Sonic cringed and was glad that the skylight's glass was so thick. The otter was in such agony that he kept trying to bite the squirrel, but he was tied down and couldn't reach.

Sonic watched in morbid fascination for minutes on end. Finally the otter fainted, and Sonic saw the squirrel pull what looked like a bullet out of the otter's leg. Then he hurriedly washed and bandaged the wound, and left the room at a near run, leaving the otter and opossum lying limp and still. Sonic wondered what in the world had happened to them.

There were two buildings left, but only one had a skylight, so Sonic tiptoed to that one. When he peered in this time, he knew he had hit pay dirt. Another of the metal cylinders was set up here, and Robotnik himself was working on it and watching a rack of monitors connected to it. Sonic figured that this was definitely an illegal experiment, and watched for a while. Robotnik didn't move around much, occasionally adjusting one of the instruments beside the cylinder.

At least Shadow wasn't here. Sonic had been worried that Tails had been right. Knowing Shadow, he was probably safe and sound and laughing at the saps who had fallen for his transmission.

Sonic crept back to check on the scientists in the main lab. The squirrel was with the human and chipmunk now, and they were moving around the metal tube, unhooking wires and tubes. Sonic watched with interest, wondering what was inside.

The human opened a door in the side of the cylinder, and reached inside. Sonic stiffened. The human was helping a red robot to climb out - a red robot with long claws. What was Robo Knux doing here? Was Shadow here after all?

Robo Knux stood and looked around the room, his head turning from side to side. Then he looked up at the skylight. Sonic ducked, then slowly looked inside again. Robo Knux had doubled up with his claws over his eyes, and the scientists were gathered around him. Robo Knux swept out his hands, and they backed away. Robo Knux snarled at them and looked up at the skylight again. At once he ducked and covered his eyes, and Sonic realized what had happened. They had upgraded Robo Knux's eyes, which were sensitive to light.

Sonic wanted to laugh and watch some more, but he knew that it was time to leave. If Robo Knux spotted him, it meant a rescue attempt was out of the question.

Sonic turned off his camera, teleported back beyond the fence, and turned on the radar device on his arm. He let it run for five seconds, then shut it off and teleported home.

"What have you done to me?" Robo Knux cried.

He had expected higher-resolution optics, but what he had received was excruciating pain. Pain was new for him; throughout his existence his only method of detecting personal harm was through damage reports. But these sensors were capable of receiving huge amounts of information, so much that they overloaded his brain.

When he climbed out of the vacuum chamber, his first look at the lab had been revolutionary. The shapes were crystal clear, and the sterile grays now leaped to life with blue and violet tints. He could see every hair on Touis and Barlet's bodies, and see every thread in Nick's labcoat. It was amazing!

Then Robo Knux thought he sensed movement and looked up at the skylight. He looked directly into the sun, which had never bothered his old eyes. But now his new eyes were blinded, and pain lanced through them. He clapped his hands to his eyes and wailed, "It hurts! They're too strong! What have you done to me?"

"You have to give yourself time to adjust," said Touis. "Your brain has to generate the necessary pathways..."

"How long will that take?" said Robo Knux, hands still over his eyes. "I'm not thrilled about the pain. I've never had pain before."

Touis glanced at Nick and Barlet, and they all tried not to smile. Robo Knux's tone was so outraged and helpless that it was comical, but pathetic, too. "Owing to the nature of your brain, it may take anywhere from two hours to three weeks for the sensitivity to wear off. Your processor has to learn to compensate for the new information."

Robo Knux slowly lowered his hands and looked at them. "If something strikes one of my eyes," he asked, "will it hurt?"

"Yes," said Touis. "If you want, there's a protective shutter we could install. It protects the sensors from ninety percent of all airborne damage, and also keeps them clean."

Robo Knux thought about this. "Do you have this upgrade on hand, or will I have to wait?"

Touis picked up a sealed plastic container. "Got it right here."

"All right," said Robo Knux, examining his claws with his new vision. "If it helps moderate the pain, I'll do anything."

He climbed back into the vacuum chamber and shut down his systems, and the scientists sealed it.

"Interesting character," muttered Barlet, flicking his tail. "He's psycho. Won't giving him these upgrades make him even more psycho?"

Touis shrugged. "If he has pain restraining him, it may moderate his aggression."

"Or make it worse," said Nick. "I've never seen a robot that was so ... alive."

"I hear the Mecha-bot series is all like this," muttered Touis. "Living beings in metal bodies, trained to be killers by ..." He jerked his head at the wall to indicate Robotnik.

Nick and Barlet shuddered. Touis opened the lid of the container and inserted it into a valve on the side of the vacuum chamber. "Come on, let's do this."

Tails clicked off his phone and slid it into a compartment under the Tornado's control panel. "Well," he said, slumping back in the seat, "Sonic's not coming back."

It was nearing noon, and the Tornado in walker-form was standing in a parking lot, taking up a fraction of a parking space. It had listened quietly as Tails talked on the phone. Now it said, "Query. If Sonic does not return, shall we continue our search for Shadow?"

"I guess," said Tails, resting his head in one hand. "We're not far from the coordinates in that transmission. We might as well check it out."

He punched the Tornado into gear, backed out of his parking space and trotted toward the street. "City map on screen," said Tails. The Tornado's screen flashed on a map with them as a red dot in the center.

"Coordinates are here, Tails," said the Cyclone, drawing a green line on the screen.

Tails turned the control stick and the Cyclone turned down a side street.

The two of them were silent for a while. Tails was worrying about finding Shadow without Sonic handy, and feeling forgotten and abandoned. Sonic had been guarded and cryptic about what he was doing, but assured Tails that Robotnik was up to something bad. And Tails wasn't allowed to help this time, for it was a government operation.

Tails tried not to feel hurt, but he couldn't help it. He had upgraded the Tornado into a superefficient weapon, and he was certain he could take on anything Robotnik threw at him. And Sonic had no use for him.

Tails arrived at the coordinates in the transmission, and looked around. It was a side street with a commercial complex at one end. Nothing spooky or suspicious. "Tornado," he said, "scan for lifeforms. I'm gonna walk around."

"Affirmative, Tails," said the Tornado.

Tails climbed out of the cockpit and stepped onto the sidewalk, examining the ground. Had there been a fight of some kind? He poked around, looking for laserblast marks, broken glass, anything. But the sidewalk was clean and empty.

Disappointed, Tails returned to the cockpit and looked at the radar map. No lifeforms were detected on this street at all. It was empty and ordinary, but Shadow had been here and sent a distress signal. Something had happened ...

"Tornado," said Tails, "do you think I should try to contact Shadow again?"

"I have no opinion," said the Tornado. "Observation. If he was shut down, he cannot communicate with you."

"Yeah," Tails sighed. "I wonder if I should try Mecha. Shadow said that Mecha's threat wouldn't apply now ... and Mecha did say once that circumstances alter cases."

The Tornado said nothing, and Tails grabbed his thrall sphere out of the backseat. He had to do this quick, before he lost his nerve. "Okay," he said, "I'm gonna try to find Mecha. I'll tell you when I'm talking to you again, okay?"

"Yes, Tails," said the Tornado.

Tails pulled off his gloves and placed his bare hands on the sphere. He felt the familiar vibration and musical hum that was transmitted throughout his skeleton, and closed his eyes, holding a picture of Mecha in his mind's eye. He moved his hands slowly, looking for Mecha's frequency, sorting through a jumble of other noises.

Suddenly Tails found it, as he had with Shadow. But it was easier, because Mecha was speaking. "...trajectory will take us over the Gold Pass and down onto the highway there. I believe it is called the Kingdom Road, but I am not certain."

Tails glanced at his map. That was the road leading to Sapphire City. He swallowed and felt like a crumb for eavesdropping, but he pitched his voice to the sphere's note and said, "Uh, Mecha?"

A shrill female voice exclaimed, "Who is THAT?"

"Hush," snapped Mecha. "Tails?"

"Yeah," Tails half-sang. "I'm, uh ..."

"I told you never to contact me," said Mecha, his voice soft and deadly. "How long have you been listening to me?"

"Just a few seconds," said Tails, feeling like an even bigger crumb. The sphere allowed him to hear not only Mecha's voice, but Mecha's heartbeat and the breath travelling in and out of his lungs, and his footsteps. Mecha was running very fast, Tails realized. "I wanted to ask you about Shadow."

"What about Shadow?" growled Mecha.

Tails drew a breath and plunged in. "I picked up a couple of distress signals from him. I talked to him and he said to call you - "

"You spoke to Shadow?" Mecha interrupted, astonished. "When?"

"Yesterday afternoon," said Tails, feeling his hands beginning to sweat against the sphere's smooth surface. "Are you going to kill me for this?"

"I am considering it," said Mecha with an odd tone in his voice. Tails tried to identify it - was Mecha trying not to laugh? Mecha went on, "Repeat your conversation with Shadow. I want to know exactly what he said."

Tails thought back. "I contacted him, and he said that he had been taken prisoner by Robotnik and Robo Knux. He's in a laboratory somewhere, he wasn't sure where. He asked me to send help, and asked me if I'd contacted you. I told him that you'd threatened to kill me, and he said that you might change your mind - "

Was it just his imagination, or had Mecha snickered?

"Then he said that they were turning off Mekion, and I lost him."

That shrill female voice exclaimed, "But they can't turn off Mekion! That's impossible!"

"I told you to be quiet," said Mecha. "Tails, is that all?"

"Yeah," said Tails. "Who is that talking?"

"Aleda," said Mecha.

"Aleda?" said Tails. "She can communicate over the network? What'd you do to her?"

"How dare you insinuate such a thing," snarled Mecha. "When she evolved, she developed that ability. I assume it works on the same principle as your sphere." He paused, then added, "Tails, what is your current position?"

Tails was silent.

Again in that odd tone, Mecha said, "I am not going to harm you. Speaking to you in person is easier than network talk."

"You know those coordinates in Shadow's distress signal?" said Tails. "That's where I am."

"Ah." There was a moment of silence, then Mecha said, "I assume that Shadow is not there."

"No," said Tails.

There was another pause. Mecha said, "I am four hours from your position. Meet me there at 3 PM. In the meantime, see if you can contact Shadow again. We must learn where he is."

"Okay," said Tails. "I'll call you back."

He released the sphere and realized that his back was soaked with sweat. He had been so tense that now his hands were shaking. He leaned against the side of the cockpit until the spell passed and his head cleared. He had spoken to Mecha, and Mecha wasn't going to kill him. Mecha had laughed!

Deep down, Tails was thrilled to meet Mecha again. He thought of working with Mecha, Shadow and the thrall sphere to save them all in the desert, and of how much he had liked Mecha. It was ironic that Sonic had deserted him, so now Tails was befriending Metal Sonic.

Tails grabbed the sphere again and tuned it for Shadow. He thought he remembered the note that had picked up Shadow before ... after a few minutes he found it and listened, eyes closed. He could hear Shadow's heartbeat and his breathing, but it sounded like Shadow was breathing into a tin can. "Shadow?" said Tails. "Can you hear me?"

No response. If Mekion was offline, then Shadow couldn't receive Tails's signal. "Shadow, if you can hear me, say something." Still no response. Tails released the sphere and sighed. Then another thought struck him. What about Robo Knux?

Robo Knux was responsible for Shadow's capture, and Tails knew that thrall sphere communications were untraceable. He thought of the last time that he had seen Robo Knux - the robot had torn open the inside of the rescue helicopter and taken Aleda, and Tails and Sonic couldn't stop him. Tails felt a surge of hatred at the memory, and wished that he knew a way to hurt someone with his sphere. Contacting Robo Knux was a bad idea ... but Tails could eavesdrop on him and see what he could learn.

He placed his hands on the sphere again and adjusted its hum. He tuned it toward Shadow's frequency, then hit the notes around it, picturing Robo Knux and listening for him.

Tails froze. He could hear the humming of a machine, and tried to identify it. It didn't sound like an engine ... maybe Robo Knux was standing beside something noisy. Tails waited for a change, eyes closed and ears pricked. Minutes ticked by, and still he only heard that same humming. At last he pitched his voice to the note and said, "Hey Robo Knux."

"Huh?" said Robo Knux's voice. "Who is that?"

"Take a wild guess," said Tails.

There was a brief pause, then Robo Knux hissed, "Tails. I forgot about you and that sphere."

"Yep," said Tails. "What have you done with Shadow?"

"Oh, so you called about the cyborg freak!" said Robo Knux, his tone becoming amused. "I haven't done anything to him. That's somebody else's department."

"Robotnik's?" said Tails.

Robo Knux was silent a moment, then said, "Keep talking, kid. The more you know, the shorter your life expectancy becomes."

"If you could find me," said Tails, but his confidence was oozing away. What if Robo Knux somehow tracked him?

"Oh, finding you is no big deal," said Robo Knux. "I know where you live."

"That's nice," said Tails, but it was a struggle to keep his voice even. "Are you with Shadow?"

"Heck no," said Robo Knux. "The less I see of that little vermin, the better. Maybe I'll kill him once they're finished."

Tails's ears twitched. "When they're finished with what?"

"Ah, that would be telling," said Robo Knux, sounding as if he were grinning. "I'm out getting upgraded. When I'm finished ... well, let's just say that nobody on this planet stands a chance against me. Especially Mecha."

"Upgrades, eh?" said Tails, his stomach curling into a knot. "What kind?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," said Robo Knux. "Nothing that concerns you. Your tiny brain couldn't comprehend it anyway."

Tails clenched his teeth. "I'm smarter than you think."

"Sure you are," said Robo Knux. "When everyone else you know is an imbecile, you're quite intelligent by comparison."

Tails released the sphere, and that sneering voice vanished. "I hope Mecha shreds him," snarled Tails. He was trembling with fear and fury, and it was several minutes before he calmed down enough to call Mecha again.

Mecha was still running, and Tails said, "It's me again."

"What did you discover?" Mecha asked.

"I listened for Shadow," said Tails, "but he couldn't hear me. Mekion must still be off. So I tried Robo Knux."

"And?" said Mecha, sounding interested.

"He wouldn't tell me anything," said Tails. "He said some mean stuff about Shadow, then told me he was getting upgraded so he could destroy you."

"That's nothing new," said Mecha. "What type of upgrades?"

"He wouldn't say."

"That was bold of you," said Mecha. "I must consider this information. Meet me at three PM, as I said."

"Okay," said Tails. He let go of the thrall sphere and looked at the Tornado's screen. "Okay Tornado, I'm done."

"Affirmative," said the Tornado. "Who are we meeting?"

"Metal Sonic," said Tails. "Right here, at three."

"Is he friend or enemy?"

Tails opened his mouth and hesitated. Mecha used to be the enemy of all enemies, and Tails realized how odd it was to consider him a 'friend'. Mecha might still decide to kill him. "Is there a setting for 'neutral'?" Tails asked. "Neither friend nor enemy?"

"No," said the Tornado. "But I can create one. Is Metal Sonic considered a non-dangerous enemy?"

"Uh ... yeah, I guess."

The Tornado was quiet for a moment as it processed this contradictory phrase, and Tails wondered how a computer could handle such a thing. Then with a start he realized that the Tornado wasn't a computer - it was sentient. Its mind could process seeming anti-logic and not melt down.

"Done, Tails."

"Okay, good," said Tails. He put the walker in gear and said, "Since I have some time to burn, I'm gonna find a jeweler's around here and get my ruby appraised."

"Yes, Tails," said the Tornado.

Sonic sat in a hard wooden chair in the map room in New Mobitropolis. There were more comfortable chairs available, but his spines would shred the padding, so he was relegated to this one instead. Across the room, Sally and her three tacticians were watching the contents of his headset camera on a small screen. Sonic watched over their shoulders, disinterested. He had seen all this once already, and had dictated a report into a recorder. He was currently staring at the back of Fealor Nash's head and weighing the odds of that cougar becoming the next dictator of Mobitropolis.

Sonic wished that he could tell Sally everything. Why not? What was so hard to believe about it, anyway? He had time-travelled before, and Sally had believed him about his adventures on Little Planet. Then they could decide what to do about Nash.

The video reached the part where he had teleported to the roof of the laboratory, and Sally and the others leaned forward, studying the images. "Robo Knux is inside of that tube thing," said Sonic.

"Of course," said one of the tacticians, a deer named Bobby. "That's a vacuum chamber for manipulating nanites in a controlled environment."

Robotnik had been working on one. Sonic wondered what was inside of it. Then he thought of Sally's intention of going on this mission with him, and felt a surge of panic. Sally, going inside that lab with Robotnik, Robo Knux and those robots? He broke out in a sweat. Anything could happen, and Sonic couldn't protect Sally every second. He wished that his emerald belt still worked, but one of the Super Emeralds was missing, and the only way to restore it was to take all seven chaos emeralds to Hidden Palace. Sonic knew where three were, but the others could be anywhere in the world, and there wasn't time to hunt them. Sally could get hurt. Sonic wished that he could take Tails instead; Tails had the Tornado, and could defend himself. But the mission was officially within the government's jurisdiction, and Tails didn't have clearance.

Sonic wiggled his fingers. He had run to Knothole and discovered a small package waiting on his doorstep - Sally's ring had arrived. The band was too big for her delicate little fingers, he thought, but it fit easily on his ring finger. He was wearing it under his glove so he could give it to her at the first opportunity, and this impending mission made him all the more desperate to propose. What if she was killed and he'd never told her that he loved her? Or what if he was killed?

The prospect of his own death was much less of an issue. Sonic had entered far worse situations and escaped unscathed, and he was certain that this was no big deal. Four robots and Robo Knux were hardly a challenge. But for Sally ... he thought of the last time she had encountered Robo Knux, and felt sick at his stomach. If Robo Knux saw her again, he would gut her.

"Hey Sal," he said. She turned and looked at him, and so did the three tacticians. Sonic coughed and said, "Uh, yeah, uh, this is the part where I found those two hurt guys. Do you think they'd been shot?"

Sally turned back to the screen and studied it. "It certainly does look like a bullet wound ... but who would shoot these scientists?"

"Maybe they tried to escape," said Bobby.

Nash fingered his whiskers. "Or maybe they're the ones who sent us that message."

There was a brief pause as everyone stared at him. "You might be right," said Sally. "Which makes it imperative that we get them out of there."

Sonic jumped up. "I'll be outside," he said, and darted for the door.

Sally found him outside half an hour later, pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of the office building. The sun was shining, and the air was clean and cold. Puddles stood along the sidewalks, and hundreds of wet footprints showed that Sonic had been pacing for some time.

"What was all that about?" she asked him, stepping into his path.

Sonic stopped and stood looking at her. "Sally," he said, "I don't want you to go to that island."

She cocked her head. "And why not? Those people need help."

"Yeah, they need my help," said Sonic, eyes blazing green. "Somebody shot those two guys for sending a message. I can dodge bullets, Sal, but you can't."

"Sonic," said Sally, "all my life I let you walk into danger by yourself. I almost lost you in Rio Del Fuego - then we fought Metal Sonic and won. I'm not letting you fight alone anymore."

"Sometimes it's best if I fight alone!" exclaimed Sonic. "I can't watch out for you all the time, Sal! If something happened to you, I'd never forgive myself."

She put her hands on her hips. "Think this through, Sonic Hedgehog. There's five people to be evacuated. They're in a chaos-shielded laboratory. You can't just teleport in and out with them. You need backup."

"I never complained about backup," said Sonic. "I'm complaining about you, in the line of fire." He took one of her hands and turned it over, exposing the scar lines across her palms and fingers. "Robo Knux tried to kill you last time, Sal. He's even meaner now. And his claws have diamond tips." He looked up and saw that she was gazing at him, her eyes a deep, vivid blue.

"Sonic," she said softly, "you really care about me, don't you?"

"I thought Mecha had killed you in Rio Del Fuego, too," he replied, ears flattening. "I can't let that happen again."

"It won't," said Sally. "Come back inside, okay? We finished the video, and we're going to plan our mission. I'll be in charge of evacuation, and you'll be in charge of the break-in."

Sonic looked relieved. "You're not going inside?"

"Of course not!" said Sally, shaking her head. "We're going to need boats ..."

They reentered the building, Sonic feeling much calmer. If Sally was outside the combat lines, then he could handle this.

He did wish that Tails could come, though.