It pleased him to see a smile upon any face he cared to examine. His own eyes twinkled, the closest thing to a smile he was willing to give in public. A dignified appearance was something hard-earned and easily lost, as his father used to say!
He had chosen a perfect day to hold the ceremony. The sky above the stadium was empty of clouds and shone a pure azure blue, and the gentle breeze did a fine job of keeping the pleasant summer sun in check. Beyond the stadium walls, the tall buildings that comprised Paladin's famous skyline twinkled in the sunlight. A perfect day indeed.
He waited a few moments longer, watching his citizens' excited faces, listening to the hum of anticipatory chatter, before finally speaking. "May I have your attention?" he asked, his good humour audible in his tone. The microphone in his hands broadcast his voice to loudspeakers at every corner of the stadium, and within mere seconds he had the rapt attention of untold thousands of people. The murmured conversation ceased as if a switch had been flicked and every pair of eyes focused eagerly on the stage.
Williams paused for a moment, more for dramatic effect than anything else. Behind him, at the rear of the stage, a mammoth screen stretched towards the sky, a live video feed relaying his image to even the most distant observer. Even approaching his golden years he looked every bit a distinguished leader. With his white hair neatly combed, his moustache carefully trimmed and his broad-shouldered frame clad in a finely tailored suit, he seemed to radiate benevolent authority.
"Ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls of Paladin City," he continued. "It is an honour to stand before you on such a grand occasion. We are known to many as the City of Heroes, and I believe there are none who deserve such a title more than our guests today."
At this, excited chatter and scattered cheers sounded from the crowd below. Williams waited patiently for them to subside before continuing. "Without their noble and selfless actions, our fine city and countless others across the world would stand no more. Their legends are known by old and young and they appear at the signs of disaster as if born from a wish, but they are rarely seen in less troubled times. As such, I consider it my great privilege to bring them before you today."
More animated chatter from the crowd. The anticipation was building, and Williams had no intention of making them wait. "Without any further delay, I'd like to welcome them onstage. Good people of Paladin City, I give you Knuckles the Echidna, Miles 'Tails' Prower and Sonic the Hedgehog!"
The crowd of thousands, who until that moment had shown remarkable restraint and patience, erupted at the names of their heroes. A great cheer almost deafened Williams, and it only grew louder as a small shape climbed onto the stage. No more than four feet high, he was nevertheless an imposing figure as he strode confidently to the centre to stand beside the Mayor. Deep red fur shone brightly and amethyst eyes took in the rapturous crowd. Long spines hung down from his head like dreadlocks and hands almost as large as his head were by his sides, each white glove equipped with a duo of sharp spikes that lent him his namesake.
Knuckles was quickly joined by a second figure. Barely topping three feet tall, a tiny fox with orange fur gave the crowd a cheery wave. Behind his back a pair of bushy, white-tipped tails twirled and spun lazily. Dazzling sapphire-blue eyes glinted with a blend of childish virtue and sharp intellect and an amiable smile sat upon his white muzzle. By birth his name was Miles Prower, but he was better known by the apt moniker of "Tails".
A chant began to echo around the stadium, rapidly growing in volume until Mayor Williams was certain that every man, woman and child in attendance was shouting with all their might. He didn't so much hear the sound as feel it.
"SO-NIC! SO-NIC! SO-NIC!"
Knuckles and Tails each took a few steps backwards, leaving the front of the stage clear. Long moments passed as the crowd eagerly scanned the sides of the stage, looking for any sign of their hero. It was several seconds before anybody located him, and a collective gasp sounded around the stadium. One moment the front of the stage had been empty, the next it was occupied. A flash of blue light and a sharp gust of wind had been the only signs of his arrival.
Sonic the Hedgehog casually stepped to the front of the stage, raised one gloved hand in the classic "thumbs-up" gesture, and gave the crowd before him a wide grin. An awed silence filled the stadium as thousands of eyes, wide with wonder and amazement, gazed up at him… but it didn't last for long. A cheer went up, so loud and so prolonged that Williams' ears began to ring and he made a mental note to buy earplugs if he ever had this privilege again.
Sonic strolled from one end of the stage to the other, looking perfectly at ease before the titanic audience. Adulation flowed from them to him like waves upon a shore. His spines, an eye-pleasing royal blue in colour, bobbed gently up and down with his footsteps. His eyes were a deep jade and they darted keenly from person to person, his attention never focused in one place for long.
In the crowd, people hopped up and down excitedly, shouting and waving and yelling with glee when he waved back. Williams noted with amusement a girl no older than fifteen almost fainting when Sonic shot her a wink. She was supported by a young man with an annoyed frown on his face, ostensibly her boyfriend. Looking to his right, Williams noticed Knuckles leaning across to Tails and speaking into the fox's pointy ear; Tails put one hand over his mouth and giggled.
After a full sweep of the stage, Sonic returned to the centre to stand between his friends. Williams watched them as they effortlessly commanded the attentions of the crowd. How many battles had they fought for no reason other than the goodness of their hearts and strength of their spirits? How many innocent lives had they saved? How many disasters averted? They were truly worthy of being called heroes.
He snapped out of his reverie and outstretched his hand. Sonic reached up and grasped it, giving it a firm shake. Green eyes locked with Williams' and for a moment he saw brilliance within them, a youthful playfulness united with the utmost compassion and respect. The combined flare of a hundred flashbulbs bathed the pair in white light. Tails was next to shake his hand, followed by Knuckles, whose grip was almost uncomfortably firm.
Williams turned to address the crowd. "Before we commence with the ceremony proper," he said, "I'll let our guests say a few words." A roar of approval issued from the crowd. Williams turned his head to look down at young Tails. "Mr. Prower, would you like to go first?"
The fox nodded and accepted the microphone. He stepped to the front of the stage and cleared his throat. His twin tails had begun to twirl more quickly, and Williams absently wondered if it was a nervous reaction to being in front of so many people.
"Hey everybody!" he said cheerily, his high, boyish voice betraying none of the nervousness Williams had suspected a moment earlier. "It sure is great to be here! Paladin is a great city and I'm honoured – we all are – to be here today. Check it out…" He reached behind his back and retrieved a small book, apparently from nowhere. Whether it was a parlour trick or a hidden pocket of some sort, Williams couldn't tell. The back of the book was illustrated with a map that he recognised as Paladin City and the surrounding area.
Tails held the book aloft. "I even got the tourist handbook!" he said blithely. Laughter sparkled up from the crowd, almost drowned out by a wave of applause. Tails giggled. "Thanks, everyone, and have a great day!" Stepping backwards, he handed the microphone to Knuckles, who took centre stage and waited for the crowd to fall quiet once more.
"It's an honour to be here in the City of Heroes," he began, his deep voice immediately seizing the crowd's attention. "A hero is defined as somebody of distinguished courage or ability, who is admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities. As the sole remaining member of my species and guardian of the sacred Master Emerald, it's essential that I practice these and many other qualities. I feel that I belong in the Hall of Heroes, alongside so many other great warriors. In fact-"
He was cut short as Sonic plucked the microphone from his grasp and spoke himself. "Geez, Knuckles!" he said with mock exasperation. "They didn't ask for your life story!" Thunderous laughter erupted around the stadium and Knuckles' peach-coloured cheeks momentarily turned the same shade of crimson as the rest of his fur. He glared angrily at Sonic for a moment, before haughtily sticking his nose in the air and folding his arms.
Sonic shrugged and turned to face the crowd. A smile lit up every face as he spoke. "So, I guess some of you have heard of me?" The crowd gave a spate of laughter, and Sonic grinned back. "If I can be serious, what we do," – he gestured to himself, to Tails and Knuckles behind him – "isn't for the rewards or the fame. Adventure and excitement are what I live for, and if I can help people out too, then all the better." He turned to look at the Mayor. "Even so, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate being here, and I wouldn't dream of turning down an award like this. Thanks, Mr. Mayor."
Williams gave him an appreciative nod. Sonic turned back to the crowd. "At the risk of doing a Knuckles and boring you all," – behind him, Knuckles' frown deepened another inch – "I'd just like to say that anybody can be a hero. You don't have to save the world. You just need a good heart and the courage to use it." He paused, thinking. "I guess that's all I've got to say," he said after a moment. "Thanks, everybody!"
He handed the microphone back to the Mayor, who once more addressed the crowd. "Now that everybody has had a chance to speak," he said, "we'll commence with the ceremony."
"Not quite everybody!" boomed a voice that didn't belong to Williams, nor to the three heroes. It seemed to be emanating from the loudspeakers dotted about the stadium. "Don't I get a chance to speak too?" It was not a pleasant voice, rather it was snide, with a tone of superiority. The crowd looked around, puzzled, but their attention was soon diverted as the enormous screen behind the stage fizzled with static. As they – and the four onstage – watched, the static resolved into a new image.
The crowd gasped with recognition as they looked upon the round face of a middle-aged man. He was entirely bald, with all the hair on his head instead sprouting from either side of his large ruddy nose in a thick brown handlebar moustache. Dark glasses obscured his eyes. His image looked down at Sonic and his friends, as if he could actually see them, and his lips parted to reveal a wide, toothy grin.
"Ho ho ho ho!" he cackled. "So nice to see you again, Sonic!"
"Eggman!" exclaimed Sonic. He clenched his fists and stared up at the enormous screen. "What are you up to this time?"
"What indeed?" replied the interloper. Despite the concern Mayor Williams felt at the appearance of the notorious mad scientist, he couldn't help but wonder how Dr. Eggman could see and hear them. "Since your little ceremony has attracted the full attention of the city," continued Eggman, apparently not bothered by logic, "I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to make my announcement!"
"And what announcement is that?" asked Knuckles tersely. His hands clenched and unclenched slowly. Eggman threw back his head and laughed. "It just so happens I have in my possession a new weapon!" he said finally. "An incredibly powerful weapon, at that! In fact, you might call it a doomsday weapon! Ho ho!"
Sonic rolled his eyes. "Get to the point, Doc," he said. "We're on a schedule here."
"Impatient as always, I see!" Eggman boomed. "Very well, I'll tell you exactly what I plan to do." His head turned slightly to the left. Somehow feeling the madman's gaze on him, Mayor Williams took an involuntary step backwards. "Mr. Mayor," said Eggman, "I suggest you listen closely. I have in my possession a weapon that can level your city in a single blow. If you do not surrender Paladin City to me within 24 hours, it will quite simply cease to exist."
A cacophony of gasps, shouts and screams came from the terrified crowd. Williams turned to them and spoke into the microphone, his voice carefully composed. "Ladies and gentlemen, please, remain calm," he told them. They did, and Williams inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. He turned back towards Eggman's gigantic visage. "What do you intend to do with Paladin City?" he demanded.
"It's a fine city," replied Eggman. "Large, solidly built and surrounded by mountains on three sides for easy defence. In other words, it will be the perfect cornerstone for the Eggman Empire!"
Sonic sighed. "You're still trying to do the Empire thing?" He shook his head. "You need a new hobby, Doc." Eggman ignored him, his attention still focused on the Mayor. "24 hours is more than enough time to evacuate all of your citizens. You can't say I'm not being fair. So, what's it going to be?"
Williams stared back at him, his gaze like steel. "I won't surrender this city without a fight," he said firmly. The crowd behind his back was abuzz with nervous chatter, torn between fear and indignation. They waited for the scientist to speak again.
"Very well," Eggman said after a moment's consideration. "I expected resistance. After all, this is the City of Heroes, is it not? To help you make up your mind, I've sent a… hmm, let's call them a 'coercion force', shall we?"
Williams' eyes widened as he considered the implications of these words. He didn't have to consider them for long. His attention was jerked to the sky as a cluster of shapes appeared over the walls of the stadium and descended rapidly towards the stage. They landed in a rough circle, surrounding them. Williams counted a dozen in total. Robots, perhaps six feet tall and humanoid in design, with some kind of weapon mounted on the end of their right arm. Weapons that were aimed at him, and at the three heroes beside him.
On-screen, Eggman howled with laughter. "What do you say now, Mr. Mayor?" he cackled. "Starting to see things my way?" It was Sonic's voice that replied. "Guess again, Eggman!" He turned quickly to the Mayor. "Mayor, get to safety and take everybody with you. We'll take care of Eggman."
The next few moments were the longest and most difficult of Williams' life. He looked up at the grinning, malevolent face of the insane doctor. He looked into the dark barrel of the weapon pointed squarely at his chest. He looked back at his citizens, thousands upon thousands of them, powerless to move or speak and staring up at him with wide, fearful eyes. Finally, he looked down at Sonic.
"Trust me," the hedgehog said. His mouth was set in determination but his eyes were devoid of fear or doubt. Looking into them, Williams believed in him. He could stop Eggman, and he would. He smiled in spite of his fear and gave the hero a brief nod, and turned his eyes up to Eggman. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but I'm afraid my answer is still no. I will not surrender Paladin City."
Eggman's brow creased and his features darkened with anger. Clearly, this was not the response he had been expecting. "Then you leave me no choice!" he cried. "In 24 hours time, there will be nothing left of this city but a hole in the ground!"
He turned to look down at the three heroes. "Don't even think of trying to stop me!" he bellowed. Sonic exchanged a quick glance with Tails and Knuckles, and gave the screen a smirk. "Eggman, how long have we known each other?" he asked. "Do you reallythink we'd just let you get away with something like this?"
Eggman appeared to quiver with rage. "Then be destroyed!" He looked down at his robots. "Attack!" he cried. "Eliminate Sonic the Hedgehog!" At his command, the robots all swivelled to face Sonic. Twelve weapon-tipped arms locked into place, all pointed at him. Sonic glanced over at the Mayor. "Go!" he shouted. "Now!" Williams didn't need to be told twice. He turned and ran from the stage, quickly descending the steps that led to the ground.
Confident that he was safe, Sonic turned to his friends. "Knuckles," he said, "I guess we get an even split, six each. Sound fair?" Knuckles smirked and pounded his rock-like fists together. "Sounds about right to me," he replied. "Tails," continued Sonic. "Is there any way to find out where Eggman is located?" Tails nodded. "I should be able to triangulate the signal-" he began, but Sonic interrupted him. "Don't talk about it, do it!" he said emphatically. Tails gave another brief nod. "I'm on it!"
A high-pitched whine filled the air, the sound of the robots' weapons charging. "Attack!" Eggman repeated from the screen behind them. "Destroy them!" Sonic hopped into the air just as the robot in front of him and the robot behind him fired simultaneously. Thick beams of red light sizzled through the air and struck the robot opposite, burning right through their metallic chests. The pair clattered to the floor, their charred innards smoking.
Tails charged towards another robot, tucking and rolling to avoid a laser blast. His momentum carried him right between the robot's spindly legs. He uncurled and ran on. The robot's torso swivelled 180 degrees to track him, not noticing the red echidna that approached from behind. A spiked fist slammed into the back of its head, crumpling it like a paper cup. The crippled contraption stood upright for a moment before pitching forward like a toppling tree.
Sonic darted for another trio of armed automatons, moving too quickly for even their advanced targeting systems to accurately pinpoint. They fired in sequence, all three beams slicing harmlessly through empty air. A spinning blue ball of spines descended upon them. Sonic bounced off one robot, smashed into the second and ricocheted into the third. All three of them collapsed, fizzing and sparking.
Several robots still remained. Knuckles grabbed one of them by its legs and swung it around like an Olympian swinging a hammer. After several rotations he released it and it rocketed through the air like a missile, impacting with one of its fellows, causing the both of them to explode. Their component parts scattered in every direction.
Three of the remaining four surrounded him, their weapons charging. Knuckles reacted without thinking, allowing his instincts to take over. He pivoted to the left, narrowly avoiding a laser blast, and bought his right arm up, striking one attacker with a fierce uppercut. Its head was knocked clean off by the blow. Knuckles ducked, dodging another scathing beam, and swung his right arm. His fist connected with the second robot's chest, punching a hole in the polished metal.
Knuckles span around just in time to see the third opponent fire. He tumbled to one side, avoiding the projectile by scant inches, opened his arms wide and then brought them together. Stone fists slammed into either side of the robot's torso, spiked knuckles tearing through alloy and circuits and meeting in the middle. He pulled them loose and the robot fell uselessly to the deck beside the others.
He turned to face the sole survivor. It stood perhaps five meters away, its weapon aimed at him. Knuckles dropped to a crouch, his muscles tensed, ready to react. He didn't have to. A sudden gust of wind ruffled his spines and he saw a blue blur of motion in his peripheral vision. A second later, Sonic struck the remaining robot like a cannonball. It hurtled into the air and slammed into the enormous image of Dr. Eggman, leaving a spider web of cracks across his features.
Eggman's splintered face frowned. Sonic thought it resembled a cracked mirror. The good doctor had probably seen plenty of those in his time. "You win this round," Eggman admitted, "but the final victory will be mine. Once I have activated the Tectonic Engine, this great city will be reduced to rubble – not to mention any other city I feel like levelling – and I'm afraid there's nothing you can do about it, Sonic!"
"We'll see about that!" replied Sonic, unmoved by the mad doctor's threats.
"Sonic!" Tails' voice rang out. He came running over, smiling triumphantly. "I got a fix on his location. He's right outside the city!" Sonic smiled and patted the fox on the shoulder. "Good job, Tails!" He looked up at Eggman. "You hear that, Eggbreath? We're coming for you!" He looked over at Knuckles. The echidna gave a short nod, confirming his co-operation.
"Do as you wish!" boomed Eggman. "It will be the last thing you ever do! Ho ho ho ho!" His maniacal laughter still echoing throughout the arena, the image fizzed to static and the screen went blank.
Sonic, Tails and Knuckles turned around to see that several thousand people still occupied the stadium. They had witnessed the entire battle, choosing to watch their heroes in action rather than flee. An awe-struck silence fell over them as the heroes stood victorious, surrounded by smoking pieces of metal that only a minute ago had been lethal weapons. The silence was replaced by applause that grew in intensity until it shook the floor beneath their feet.
Mayor Williams stepped out from the crowd and ascended to the stage once more. He held the microphone in his hands. "Sonic, Tails, Knuckles," he said, shaking their hands again. "I cannot thank you enough for what you've done, but…" He trailed off, unsure of how to continue. Sonic took a step towards him and spoke into the microphone.
"Don't worry about it, Mr. Mayor!" he said brightly. "I haven't seen a doomsday device yet that I can't dismantle!" He turned to his friends. "Come on, guys, clock's ticking!" Without another word he turned on his heels and sprinted away, red sneakers spinning like a vortex. He reached the edge of the stadium in mere seconds, dashed vertically up the steep wall, and disappeared over the top. "Sonic, wait!" the Mayor called after him. Tails stepped up to the microphone. "Don't worry, Mr. Mayor," he said. "He'll be back soon."
"What makes you say that?" asked Williams. Tails hesitated for a moment before replying matter-of-factly, "He doesn't know where Eggman is."