Part 3 – Feasting

Chapter 15 – The Sweet Escape

A solitary tear escaped five year old Mercury as he blinked awake, but one of many that he'd shed while he slept. His bleary eyes found themselves staring into those of his half-sister, who lay beside him on the floor.

"What's wrong?" Misty inquired. "How come you're crying?" Mercury squinted at her and rolled over.

"I'm not," he mumbled.

"Yes you are! I saw you!" She climbed onto his side and stuck her nose back in his face. He brushed her off with his arm as he sat up.

"…I just had a…sad dream."

The lavender hedgehog quickly rolled upright. "About what?"

"My mom…." he answered, pausing to sniff and swallow as he suppressed more tears. "I dreamed that I was with her in the garden…."

"Really?" Misty curled her lips inward as she pondered the garden she'd heard so much about over the past couple of years. "How come your mom can't leave the garden?" Her brother continued to gaze at the floor.

"I don't know…." A brief silence passed between them as he mulled it over. "…I guess because if she left the garden then no one would be taking care of it…."

"Where is the garden?"

"Mobius."

"Do you know how to get there?"

Mercury tilted his head. "Kinda…."

"Well…" Misty mused, "why doncha go see her?" The suggestion was met with a curious stare. He'd never considered it. "And I'll go too!" She hopped to her feet.

"—Right now?"

"Yeah!!"

"W—but," her sibling stammered, "Miss Amy said to just take a nap…."

Misty giggled. "We did that already! C'mon, let's go! Don't you wanna go?"

"Well, yeah, but…we should prob'ly write a note or something first…."

"Oh yeah!" Misty trotted across the living room of the new home into which her family had moved a little over a year ago. Entering the kitchen, she reached up and felt the countertop for the notepad that was usually there. Mercury stepped over and pulled it down for her, along with a turquoise gel ink pen. She dropped the pad on the floor and sat beside it as she began to write:

DEAR mOm,

me and mucuRy aRe Going to the GaRdon. to see his mOm.

BE bacK Soon LOVE IRIS

Mercury wrinkled his nose at the note. "That's not how you spell my name…."

"Close enough!" she asserted dismissively, tearing the page free and tacking it to the fridge while her brother replaced the pad and pen. Seconds later, as they both stood just outside the front door of the house, she turned expectantly to him. "Okay, which way?"

"Um…." The older child paused more out of hesitation than recollection. Going out by themselves at this age wasn't unusual, but they'd never ventured more than a few miles from either's home before. "First…we have to get to that one station." He led her downtown, where they boarded a trolley and rode for several miles until Mercury caught sight of a familiar landmark. "There!" He pointed to the west entrance of the massive Mobius Monorail Station, then took his sister into his arms and hopped off while the trolley was still in motion, eliciting shouts of disapproval from its operator. Mercury only glanced back for a second before Misty was set down and they continued on their way.

Inside the station, Mercury balked at the coins in Misty's hand. "That's all you have??"

"Hey!" her tone reflected her offense. "It took me a whole month to get this!"

The boy's eyes grew even wider. "That's all the allowance you get in a month?!"

"I don't get allowance!" she explained impatiently. "Daddy just buys me what I want! I got this from the couch!" Mercury maintained his crooked leer at her for a few seconds longer before retrieving the quarter and two dimes from her hand, leaving her with the three pennies. He wrapped them with the dollar bill in his other hand. "Hope we have enough…."

"That'll be a dollar seventy five," the clerk behind the ticket window charged. The young hedgehog released the money onto the counter.

"This is all we have," he lamented.

The clerk leaned forward a bit to get a better view. "Oh, I didn't realize there were two of you. That would actually bring it up to three fifty." Her brow faulted as she unraveled the bill. "…Where are your parents? Is your mom here with you, or your dad?"

"We're going to see his mom," Misty declared, straining on her toes to see over the counter. Despite having been built with Mobians in mind, it was still quite a reach.

"Your mother is on the other side?" There was a brief silence after they both nodded. "All right, here you go." Two tickets were kindly granted in exchange for the insufficient funds. Mercury beamed as he accepted them.

"Thank you!!"

Misty mimicked the Fire Nation salute of Avatar, pressing her fist into her open palm as she bowed. "Thank you very much!"

After emerging from the station on the Mobius side of the portal, Mercury leaned against the building and held one foot in his hand, folding the hinge-mounted strip of wheels from the side of his custom-built skate underneath it until it locked into place. Misty teetered to an arm-crossed jig as he repeated the process with the other skate.

"Okay, let's go," he prompted, gracefully pushing off. Though he was still a far cry from his father's breakneck skating skills, he was now able to maneuver quite well and maintain a steady, decent pace. The siblings had traveled nearly a mile from the station when Mercury peered behind him and realized that Misty was barely keeping up. Usually it was no trouble for her to pass him. He coasted to a stop, calling to her, "What's wrong? How come you're going so slow?" She held her hands to her bottom as she caught up and marched in place beside him.

"I have to go potty!"

Mercury drew a breath and heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Why didn't you go at the station?"

"I didn't have to go then!"

"Well…" he breathed, glancing ahead, "wait 'til we get to the forest and go there." He ignored his sister's whines as he set back into motion.

A short time later, while Misty did her business in the thick of the woods, Mercury wandered along the edge of the clearing, inspecting the ground. He crouched beside a few clusters of wrinkly beige fungi and checked them closely before beginning to pluck them from the moist earth. Misty ventured back to his side just as he completed his harvest. "Look what I found!" He extended his cupped hands and shook them, prompting her to offer her own. "Here, take 'em." The spongy treasure piled into her tiny palms until the last of it tumbled over their sides.

"Mushrooms?"

"Yeah. These are called morels. They're really good!" As they trekked back onto the trail he added, "Mama used to cook 'em with porkchops."

"What do they taste like?"

"They're sweet, kinda like honey. Hey, maybe she can cook these and then you can try 'em!"

"Yeah!!"

They resumed their journey enthusiastically, but Mercury soon came to a stop and looked about. "Hmm…." The route was a bit fuzzy from this point. "Uhh…I think it's this way……no, wait……maybe……no……yeah. This way." After carrying on for nearly an hour, he slowed to a halt once more. "This doesn't look familiar…."

Misty grunted. "Are we lost?"

"…I think we should go back and take that other path," he resolved, pivoting about. Now it was Misty's turn to sigh.

After some extensive backtracking and Misty's appetite-quelling first taste of a raw morel, at long last they found their way. Mercury's eyes shined like polished silver as the burly branches of a well known oak came into view.

"We're here!!" He unlatched the wheels of his skates and folded them aside, then sprinted the rest of the way to his former home's front door. It was unlocked and slightly ajar; with a heavy push he forced it open, closing his eyes as dirt briefly rained down. His heart pounded as he stepped inside. "Mama?"

Everything was covered in dust. Both hedgehogs left a trail of footprints as they made their way into the living room. Misty continued on through while Mercury stood silent in its midst, blinking. All was just as he remembered it, but as such, it brought him no comfort. A dark stain remained on the hardwood floor where he'd last seen Maple. He stared at it pensively, then turned aside and walked over to the yawning closet door, gently pushing it closed for the final time. Stepping back across the room to the bed he and his father had shared, he leaned over and picked up a wooden toy that peaked out from under its mattress. It was a bullfrog on wheels that was great at making an awful racket as it rolled along the floor. Aside from Mushi, it had been his favorite. He rubbed his fingers over its well-worn features in somber reminiscence.

"Ewwwww!!" Misty exclaimed from the kitchen, slamming the refrigerator back shut. She coughed and quickly retreated to her brother's side, who raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, where'd you put the mushrooms?"

"Over there," she answered, pointing to the table. Mercury grabbed a bowl from the cupboard and blew a dead spider out of it before raking the morels in. He paused upon noticing a dome-covered glass platter in the center of the table, which harbored the rock-hard remnants of his birthday cake under a layer of dead mold. His frown deepened as his eyes lingered on the dish.

"…Let's go look at the garden," he finally said as he set the bowl down. He led Misty outside, where the meager flower bed, once brimming with begonias, lay in a weed-choked entanglement. He hadn't noticed it in his excitement on the way in. Hopping up the twisted oak roots that gripped the bluff, only a meek breath escaped his slacked jaw as he took in the ratty overgrowth that was the garden. Scattered scores of feral crops stood in silent watch over the remains of their unharvested ancestors amidst an audience of towering weeds and grass. Mercury strained to hold in the tears stinging his eyes, not desiring to further cast himself the crybaby in front of his sister.

"What's that big thing?" Misty asked, her finger aimed at a distant rock that jutted well above the vegetation.

"I dunno…." Mercury started toward it, stretching his neck to see over the grass as he pressed through. Misty grabbed hold of his arm and blindly trailed behind. Upon reaching the stone, both blinked at its crudely carved inscription of the letters R.I.P.

"…How come it says 'rip' on it?" the younger sibling wondered. Her brother shook his head.

"I dunno."

The shouts of a distant voice caught both their ears. "Mercurrry! Iriiiis!" Misty eagerly jumped about as Amy climbed into view from below the bluff's ledge.

"It's Mommy!" She scurried back through the grass and happily attached herself to her mother's side. Mercury remained by the makeshift tombstone, looking on with glassy eyes before turning away.

"You two aren't old enough to be going this far by yourselves," he heard her chide as she approached. She paused with slightly widened eyes upon realizing that the rock stood in the very spot where she'd fought for her life against Maple. "…Mercury? You okay, baby?" His back still to her, he gave only a few quick, silent nods. She beheld him dolefully for a moment, then walked up and gently put her arms around him. Tears were already streaming down as he returned the gesture, burying his face and gripping tight. A smile stretched Amy's lips as she rested her cheek on his head and tightened her embrace. The tender moment soon turned dark, however. Amy opened her eyes as a massive shadow suddenly crept over the entire length of the garden. Peering skyward, she gasped loudly.

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A fragile silence hovered just outside of the Comfort Zone furniture store as Sonic and Shadow emerged from the establishment dripping wet. Though both faces were flushed, Shadow wore a fuming scowl while Sonic brandished a heavily contorted simper. It wasn't long before the blue hedgehog was unable to contain it any longer and erupted into a barrage of cackling laughter.

"I swear I didn't know it was a waterbed!!"

"Neither did I," Shadow snapped, "but you didn't see me throwing myself on it quills first!"

Sonic doubled over. "Y-you shoulda seen the look on your face…!" He fell to his side on the concrete, barely able to breathe through his amusement. Shadow kept walking. "Hhh-hey, but look at it this way—now you definitely know what kind of bed not to get Mercury!" he added as he clambered to his feet and caught up.

"You've been a great help," sarcasm saturated Shadow's voice.

"At least they were cool about it," Sonic ignored the jab. "I'll just hafta do an endorsement or something to pay 'em back. We're about due for an income boost anyway." His words were overlapped by the distinctive buzz of his watch's built-in cel phone. He depressed the speaker button. "What's up?"

"Sonic!" Amy sounded almost frantic. "Come out to the world portal! I just saw one of Eggman's battleships!"

"Eggman, huh?" After a moment's thought, Sonic's cocky tone abruptly dissipated, "--The heck you doin' way out there? Aren't you supposed to be watchin' the kids?"

"It's a long story. I've got them with me. Just hurry up and get down here!"

"All right, be there in a sec!" He ended the call and breathed a quick sigh. If it were Tails and Knuckles there with him, he wouldn't think twice about rattling off an invitation, because he knew exactly what the response would be. Dealing with Shadow, however, would take a more careful approach. Sonic turned to address him but found himself standing alone.

"What the hell are you waiting for?" Shadow shouted from nearly a block away. "Let's get moving!" Sonic sprinted after him with a sheepish grin.

On the Mobius end of the portal, Amy gave the briefing. "I saw the ship fly overhead when I was on Maple's farm, and it looked like it landed a few miles away. I had to come back here just to get a signal for my phone. It might still be out there, though!"

"It was huge!" Mercury exclaimed.

Sonic gestured in his usual pomp. "We'll go check it out!"

"Daddy," Misty called in her sweet asking voice, "can I come?" Amy wrapped a hand over the girl's shoulder.

"Iris, no!"

"Aw, let her come," Sonic compelled. "It's about time she learned how to crack an Egg! She'll be fine. I'll take care of her." After a few moments' hesitation, Amy released the child to him.

Mercury peered anxiously up at his father. "Can I come too??" Shadow stood with his arms crossed, his eyes jumping from him to Sonic and Misty and back.

"…Stay in sight," he required. The boy jumped with excitement.

"YEAH!!"

"I guess I'll just wait here by myself…." Amy remarked. Mercury turned to her, clasping his hands behind him.

"Don't worry, Mother. We'll be right back!" The word drew startled glances from both fathers. Amy warmly smiled and nodded.

"Be careful! All of you!"

"No sweat!" carried Sonic's parting words as the four headed out.

A quick search of the Crawdad Creek vicinity yielded somewhat surprising results. Sonic whistled as the group beheld Dr. Eggman's most enormous carrier ever.

"That ain't no battleship!"

"I wonder what it's doing in the valley," Shadow pondered.

Sonic charged forth. "One way to find out!"

There were no robots on patrol around the carrier, so sneaking on board was easy enough. On the main deck, the hedgehogs spotted a floating mechanical sentry about the size of a basketball doing its rounds. Sonic clapped a hand on Misty's shoulder. "All right, time to put your homing attack lessons to the real test! Have at that little guy there!" Biting her lip, Misty shuffled toward the bot, her father calling reminders after her. "Keep your head tucked in, and remember to keep your quills tight once you launch!" After a couple of preparatory bobs, she leapt into the air, balled up, and hurled herself into the machine, smashing it soundly. Bits of circuitry and loose bolts clattered to the deck, followed by the child, who tumbled clumsily upon landing. Sonic applauded with a wide grin. "Great job! That's my girl! Just keep working on your landings!" He pulled her to her feet and patted her on the head as she giggled with glee.

"I wanna do the next one!!" Mercury declared. It wasn't long before they encountered it. The boy gasped an excited breath and waved his fists in front of him. "Oh!! Okay! Okay! Okay!" Shadow watched with a raised eyebrow while Sonic belted out a chuckle. Having conquered his nerves, Mercury came at the sentry fast, barely having time to roll up before reaching it. A foot whipped back out and slammed down on its target, sending it crashing into pieces on the floor. He used the force of impact to thrust himself back upward and gracefully landed clear of the debris. Shadow granted an approving nod as his son eagerly turned to him.

"Pffft," saliva sprinkled Sonic's downplay of the performance. "Not much of a contest when there's almost two years of age difference."

"Didn't realize there was a contest," Shadow returned, slightly sour. "Only a coward puts his child where he should be." The blue hedgehog huffed into a fleeting gape.

"That some kind of challenge?!"

"If it's a challenge you want, the last one to the bridge gets to pay for the next trip to Chuck E. Cheese's."

"Hah! You're on!!" Sonic was about to assume the racing position when he paused and turned to the children. "You two stay here for now!" He then turned back and began the countdown as Shadow uncrossed his arms. "Three…two…one…GO!" The kids blinked as their fathers tore off across the ship. A whiny groan escaped Mercury.

"I wanna see the bridge…."

"How come a ship has a bridge? Where does it go?" Misty asked as she wandered off. Finding an unmarked button on the cabin wall, she depressed it, and the door beside it lifted. "Hey, cool, look what I found!" Her brother trotted over and lit up at the cargo room full of power rings.

"Wow!!"

While the children helped themselves to the treasure, Sonic and Shadow continued their lengthy race. Just past the forecastle they split into separate paths, with Sonic staying above deck while Shadow cut through the interior. As the black hedgehog glided past one of the many rooms along the corridor, the display on its massive monitor caused him to skid to a halt and double back. The second look confirmed his initial impression of what he'd seen—an overview of the ship's schematics. He caught his breath as he stepped closer and reviewed the data.

Several minutes later, he joined Sonic just outside of the bridge, who snorted at his rival's uncharacteristic tardiness.

"What, d'you get lost?"

"Change of plans," Shadow stated simply, gesturing with his head for Sonic to follow. They ended up deep below deck, navigating the sweltering maze of engine rooms. "We should be close…."

"What?" Sonic shouted against the noise.

"It should be right around here." Shadow led the way through two more doors, and at last they reached their destination.

"Oh wow," Sonic uttered in the surprising silence of the immense room, stepping toward the circular structure in its midst. It appeared to be some kind of receptacle, fitted into the top of which were six familiar gemstones. "Chaos Emeralds! Oh, he's definitely up to no good!"

"He's probably tracking the final emerald in this area," Shadow surmised. As they neared the stand, the entire room suddenly began to shudder. Both whipped their heads about, half expecting a trap, but it soon became apparent what was occurring.

"The ship's taking off!"

"Here's our shortcut back to the bridge." Shadow grabbed hold of one of the emeralds and wrenched it free of its prongs. Each hedgehog gathered three of the gems, then proceeded to manipulate their mysterious powers. "Chaos Control!" A bright glow instantly consumed Shadow, into which he seemed to vanish as he warped from the room. Sonic followed his lead.

"Chaos Control!" All at once his surroundings distorted into surrealistic blobs, and their colors rippled together as if reflections on an oil slick. He focused his thoughts and floated upward through ceilings and walls until arriving within the confines of the bridge cabin. As his body rematerialized, he found himself staring at the back of Dr. Eggman, who stood at the helm with the seventh emerald in hand.

"Set course for Washington DC!" he commanded his robots, then chuckled to himself as he turned around. "Let's see that irritating hedgehog stop me n-AAAH!!! How did you get in here?!?"

"Hiya, Doc!" Sonic greeted with a trophy smile, holding up one of the emeralds. "Found your little stash!"

Eggman didn't waste a second. "Get that hedgehog!!" he barked at the pilots, all three of which turned and propelled themselves on little wheels at their target. Sonic made short work of them, but the distraction had allowed Eggman to slip outside. Running out after him, he spotted him on the upper deck just as he ascended in his personal aircraft. From a safe height, Eggman broadcasted his orders, "Killipede!! Come forth!" Seconds later, a large panel opened in the wall behind him, and a humongous mechanical millipede emerged. The madman pointed a finger at Sonic. "Destroy him!!"

Sonic blinked as Killipede scrambled down the wall to his level with surprising speed, its infrared eyes seeking to lock on. "Wuh oh!" He darted several feet ahead of the monster, then turned and launched himself in a homing attack at its metal head. Despite a direct hit, he found himself bouncing harmlessly off. A second attack, against one of its fifteen segments, yielded the same results. Worse still, it stayed on his every move; he had to jump again right after landing to avoid being caught between its razor-edged mandibles. "Boy, you're a nasty one!" The fight spilled all the way down to the main deck, but still Sonic found no weak spots. Finally Shadow made the scene, unleashing a homing and chaos attack combo on its tail. Again there was no damage, but the move was enough to get the robot's attention. It came at him by rapidly curling itself backwards to strike from above—giving Sonic his chance. He smashed into its vulnerable underbelly like a cannonball, damaging the internal assembly and disabling the legs on the impacted segment. Killipede's upright body writhed wildly for a few moments before it slammed back down on its feet and resumed pursuing the blue hedgehog. The dead legs' sharp ends made a horrendous sound on the metal deck as Killipede simply dragged them along. "Where the heck have you been??" Sonic shouted to Shadow, who pointed a thumb toward the bridge.

"I took the kids to a safer place," he answered, circling about for another strike at the enemy's tail.

"Oh, good, in that case, lemme draw it towards the bow, and then you should have a clear shot!" Sonic raced forward to the airship's forecastle, and like clockwork, Killipede straightly clambered after him. Shadow sped up and slammed into its tail once again, and again it curled back for a counterattack. Sonic seized the opportunity to take out another segment. "Yeah, it's working! Keep it up!!" After repeating the tactic several more times, only a few segments of Killipede's body remained functional. When it could no longer effectively chase its targets because more legs were dragging than running, it abruptly changed strategy, curling itself into a massive metal ball. Its working legs pushed it into motion after the hedgehogs in an attempt to crush them under its weight. "Crap!" Sonic grunted after his homing attack deflected from its side, "How're we supposed to get at it now?" He barely dashed out of the way as Killipede rolled through, clearly picking up speed.

From just outside the bridge, Mercury and Misty watched their fathers battle the giant arthropod. What had looked like a sure victory was becoming more and more uncertain. The elder sibling glanced into the cabin.

"…I have an idea!" He yanked the door open and scurried inside, his sister tailing close behind. Standing at the control panel, he was just tall enough to see its myriad of levers, knobs, and buttons. "Remember that game we used to play called Labyrinth, with the ball and the holes?"

"Kinda," Misty replied, her brow sinking.

"Maybe we can do that with the robot down there! One of these sticks probably makes the ship move, right?" He grabbed one and pulled it toward him. Suddenly the nose of the carrier tipped skyward, sending unsecured objects flying to the back wall. Outside, Sonic and Shadow landed on the rear wall of the forecastle just moments before the rolled up Killipede slammed into it between them.

"Uah…! Okay, not funny!" Sonic stammered, leaning himself away from the wall.

At the back of the bridge, Misty screamed. "Mercury!!!" Her brother still clung to the stick, struggling to pull himself back to the panel so he could correct the ship. His free hand grasped the lever beside it and held tight as he forced the other back forward. At last, the carrier leveled itself, now several hundred feet higher than it'd started. Mercury then proceeded to fiddle with the rest of the levers, gently. One of them tilted the ship left to right.

"Here we go! Hey, Iris, go outside and look and tell me which way to lean it!" Misty crawled from the mess in the back and pushed the cabin door open, peering out.

"Ummm," she returned, squinting, "…go left!"

"Okay!" With a nudge of the appropriate lever, the carrier gradually listed portward. Sonic and Shadow were keen to take advantage of the shift this time, using homing attacks to knock their opponent toward the ship's edge. The robot's feet dug into the deck, resisting them.

Misty stood tippy-toed and stretched her neck to see. "Mmmmm…now go right!" Mercury complied, creating a starboard list. "More!!" The lever crept further right, and the sound of sliding objects was heard again.

"Hang on!" he urged Misty, who tightly clung to the handle of the door. On the forecastle, Killipede could no longer counter the increasing gravitational pull; its body rolled across the deck and crashed through the railing clear off the ship. Sonic and Shadow held to the opposite rail.

"You got it!!" Misty yelled. Mercury quickly brought the carrier back level as he breathed a sigh of relief. Sonic and Shadow cautiously approached the starboard side, making sure the mecha menace was indeed gone.

On the carrier's highest level, Dr. Eggman took careful aim at the hedgehogs on the forecastle from a laser cannon turret. Its crosshairs in place, he squeezed the trigger, initiating its powerful charge.

"I've got you now!!" he bleated.

"Oh no you don't!!" At the familiar voice, Eggman looked up just in time to see an oversized mallet smash into the barrel of the cannon. He yelped and scrambled away as Amy continued her assault. The redirected cannon fired its shot into a communications tower, which crumbled and showered down onto the decks below. Satisfied with the results, Amy then turned her wrath on him. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he fled for the bridge. Just inside the cabin, he locked the door and stood catching his breath, until suddenly he became aware that two young hedgehogs were staring wide-eyed at him. After a few moments, Mercury sounded off.

"Get him!!!" Both attacked ferociously, one shattering the glass panel of the door as he ducked and the other nailing him right in the gut. He emitted a long, loud sound that somewhat resembled a whale call. Staggering back to his feet, the deranged scientist then ran screaming across the bridge and escaped out the other side. He panted heavily as he threw himself into his waiting aircraft and blasted away. The children watched from the door, laughing. Amy arrived soon after, reaching through the broken glass to unlock the door and let herself in.

"Mommy!!" Misty squealed gleefully as she scampered up and hugged her mom's leg. Mercury was happy to follow.

"Amy?!" Sonic's voice called from the other door. "What are you doing here?"

"I got worried," she admitted sheepishly.

Shadow stepped in from behind Sonic. "Looks like Eggman got away."

An explosion in the next instant rocked the carrier, nearly shaking the hedgehogs off their feet.

"What the heck was that?!" Sonic rushed out and surveyed the ship for the source of the noise. On an upper deck, one of the pole-mounted propellers was completely missing, having been blown off by hostile fire. Not far behind them, military fighter jets closed in. "Aw crap!" He quickly ducked back into the bridge. "We're under attack! We must've passed through the world portal while we were busy with that millipede, and now the military's after us! They think Eggman's still running this thing!"

Shadow checked the various communications devices. "Everything's dead." Another missile impacted nearby, cracking the thick glass in the front of the bridge. "We can escape with the Chaos Emeralds."

Sonic rubbed his chin. "Yeah, but what if this thing crashes into the city? People could be killed! We need to try to land it! I'm gonna go out and see if I can get 'em to stop attacking. Amy, take the kids deeper inside where they'll be safe. Shadow, you think you can keep this thing airborne?" The black hedgehog turned back to the control panel after casting a fleeting glare.

"I'll figure it out." As he looked over the instruments, Mercury leaned in and pointed to the levers he'd used.

"This one makes it go up and down, and this one makes it turn, and this one makes it tilt! I dunno what the rest of this stuff does." Amy waited on him nearby while Sonic headed back outside and Misty cracked open and peeked from the damaged door. Another projectile struck the ship, the force of its explosion slamming the door against the lavender hedgehog's tiny body. Amy shrieked.

"IRIS!!!" She raced over to find her daughter surrounded by scores of rings. The child sat up and rubbed her head.

"Owie…."

Amy blinked dazedly as several of the rings absorbed into her own body. "Oh my gosh…." She snatched the girl into her arms and then grabbed Mercury. "C'mon, we need to get downstairs!"

Left to himself, Shadow tested the controls. Remaining on board was against his own impulses, but he understood Sonic's concern. Down there were thousands of other people's Marias and Mercuries, counting on them to do the right thing instead of just looking out for themselves. He drew a breath.

You haven't let me down…and I trust You to come through again, for what's best….

On the uppermost deck, Sonic hopped and waved and did everything he could think of to get the pilots' attention. Even he had difficulty seeing through the smoke that plumed from the damaged carrier, however. Another two missiles were fired; one was destroyed by the automated defense system Shadow had managed to activate, but the other hit its mark, taking out two more propellers. An unsettling creak emanated from the ship as it began to list. Sonic's eyes widened as a huge black helicopter emerged from the thickening smoke, less than twenty feet away. Surely they had to see him now! He formed an X with his arms and stroked them outward, signaling a cease fire. The chopper hovered for several tense moments, then fell back. All he could see after that was smoke…but seconds later the roar of jets filled his ears as they tore past, having disengaged. Sonic wiped the mounting sweat from his brow.

Back at the bridge, Shadow struggled to keep the carrier upright. "Can't see a damn thing," he grumbled as Sonic stepped back into the cabin. Smoke almost completely blocked the field of view.

"Here, lemme see if I can tame the fires." Sonic bailed back out and approached the worst of the smoldering areas of damage. He ran intense circles around it until the ebony clouds were reduced to a corkscrewing wisp. Glancing up to the bridge, he could now see Shadow clearly, who gave him a thumbs up.

With each passing minute the carrier listed just a bit more, but hope shined in the form of seemingly endless rows of lights, marking the runways of the Station Square International Airport. All of the hedgehogs were again gathered in the bridge, watching Shadow make the wounded approach with bated breath. Air traffic had been diverted, and dozens of fire trucks waited on the scene; now it was just a matter of landing. With crippled maneuverability, he was forced to wind downward in steep circles. Once the ground was close enough to taste, he sent the ship into its final dive. Its keel struck the corner of a building on its way down, tearing away a chunk of it and sending the aircraft tipping onto its side. Everyone inside cried out as they hit the starboard wall…and then it was over. After a couple of quick breaths, Sonic broke into laughter. "Whew!! Great ride, huh? Everyone okay?" With all five's safe arrival confirmed, the hedgehogs ventured outside.

Hundreds of people flocked up to the carrier, cheering. Sonic grinned widely and waved, Amy kept an arm around each child, and Shadow stood with his arms crossed as he skimmed the sea of faces. Among them, he spotted Chris, who beamed brightly, and Sam, who shook his head in disbelief. Even Phil and Andrea were present, shouting and whistling hand in hand. Shadow couldn't help but crack a smile.

As the hedgehogs jumped from the lowest level to the ground, countless camera flashes dazzled from every angle. It was only fitting that one of those shots make the cover of TIME magazine the following week, just above the headline FAMILY OF HEROES.

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Author's Note: Hope you enjoyed these near and dear fruits of my blood, sweat, and tears! Though I'm saddened to reach the end, this journey has been a truly wonderful experience, and I thank you all for helping make it that way! Your support through each and every chapter has been deeply touching and greatly appreciated, much more than words can convey.

I would also like to extend a special thanks to my best friend, known here on the site as Sonic Rose, who both inspired and encouraged me to pull these stories out of my head and put them into virtual print! She helped me overcome my fears and fulfill a long held-dream, for which I will always be grateful. A new friend I made along the way, known here as shadowamypunk, has been a tremendous source of encouragement as well! In addition to their outstanding support, both of them have graciously supplied excellent illustrations for my stories, which can be found on their respective DA accounts. By all means, please check out their work and let them know what you think!

And now to take a little breather, lol! I'm going to see about finishing up Sonic on my bro's XBox360, and then you just might see a story featuring Silver next! Hehe! Take care 'til next time, everyone, and God bless!