Sorry for the delay with this chapter, folks. I hate to make excuses, but I've been having something of a difficult time lately, and fanfic was the last thing on my mind. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to some semblance of regular updates again.
The alarms start ringing roughly thirty seconds after the professor, Topaz and I begin running.
They're accompanied by a sound effect normally reserved for four-minute warnings. That sound has always freaked me out, for obvious reasons, but even more so now that it's directed at us rather than at some theoretical H-Bomb. I hear Topaz muttering 'damned stereotypical alarms, what is this, a B Movie?' but I'm too busy running for my life to comment. I'm just trying to keep up with what's happening.
And what is happening, exactly? Asks the tiny, annoying little voice in my brain that hasn't spoken up for a while. What exactly is it that you hope to accomplish here?
I'd be a liar if I said I knew the answers. All I know is we're running through the corridors of a government base in search of... something. I don't know exactly what. Some kind of ridiculous lab filled with tanks and pupil-less, soulless, Ultimate Life form point zero replicas? I doubt it. It's not clones of Sonic they're after. It's all the skill and power of Sonic minus anything close to a heart.
'This is ridiculous,' Topaz curses. I can see her disbelief written all over her face. She looks very much like I imagine I did they day I walked into my office to see my next patient list for the week included one S. Hedgehog in its line up. I'd thought it was a joke at first, snapped at a couple of my more prank-oriented colleagues (yes there are pranksters in the government, you'd be surprised) and had to take the letter to my superiors for confirmation of its veracity.
Things have changed. And now Topaz is pressing a gun into my hands, making me close my fingers around it.
'I hope you're not going to hand me one of those things,' the professor yells over the alarms. Topaz says nothing. I think she's grasped by now that he's about as willing to take a gun as Rouge would be willing to walk away from a pile of jewels the size of her head.
'Sorry sir, but the two of you weren't exactly part of this plan; you should've been out of here by now.'
'And what exactly IS the plan anyway?' I swallow, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice just a little (it's been a long day), 'Run around until we get caught?'
'Well actually that's only part–' Topaz starts to say.
The sound of gunshot, and the sight of the metal wall denting just a few feet from her temple cuts her off. We run again.
It takes longer than Knuckles feels it really should for them to take out the computers. And there are a lot of computers. Really, how many machines can it possibly take to do... whatever it is they're doing here anyway? Knuckles is starting to think that maybe humans just enjoy drowning themselves in all of this artificial, metallic garbage and shutting themselves out from the real world. Like they're scared anything even vaguely green penetrating their cosy artificial shells.
The others think Knuckles doesn't notice these things. He lets them assume they're right.
Still smashing the thigns up is vaguely satisfying, after the week they've had. By the time they're done, there are cracked screens and hissing electrical circuits all over the room, ganglions of machines and wiring torn out and broken apart. The air is red and flashing and the sirens are too loud to be comfortable but at least, they're quieter now. Sonic must have busted up the speakers. Now Sonic is crouched on the ground in front of Knuckles, the soles of his shoes smoking ever so slightly, as tends to happen when he tries to kick up Sonic speed on a metal surface.
Honestly, he looked like he enjoyed that a little too much.
'There.' Knuckles snaps. 'Are we done already? I think we've caused enough chaos for now, and those alarms aren't ringing to alert people that it's time for lunch, you know.'
'Aw don't be such a party pooper, Knux, you know you love the chaos.' Sonic's voice is light, but there's an edge to it that only somebody who's skirmished with him several times would notice. The slightest quiver of uncertainty. Something happened here, that's for sure. He hasn't just been sitting in a bubble bored out of his mind for hours. (A bubble which, it turned out, was much easier to break from the outside. Human designs tends to be flawed that way. You'd never get this from good old fashioned Echidna temple traps.)
'All the same, Sonic, I think all the creepy metal machines are dead.' He's just waiting for more of those annoying guards to bust in at this point. Frankly he's surprised nobody ran in on them already. You can hear the human doctor yelling and slamming on the door of the closet you've locked him in. the sound of his frustration is oddly satisfying. 'I should tell you to get out of here already, seeing as it's you they're after but something tells me you're not going to.'
Sonic looks at you, momentarily serious. 'They're all safe, right? Amy and Chris? And the professor and Ella?'
'So far as I know. They were keeping them all in the same place. Topaz is in the building. She's looking for... I don't know evidence, I guess. Something we can use to shut this place down and get ourselves off 'The United States Most Wanted' list.'
'...Okay.' He can work with that. It's not much of a plan but hey, since when did Sonic care much for planning ahead anyway? Well with the exception of right now, that is. 'I still can't believe those guys even fell for this. I mean, how dumb were these guys if they thought we actually believed THAT would work?'
'What, the whole 'dyeing Amy's quills to make her look like you' thing?' Knuckles snorts. 'I've always felt that human brains are often just sharp enough for them to impale themselves, Sonic. I wonder if all humans are this predictable.'
'I dunno, Chris is pretty smart, and so's Helen.'
'Uhuh. Tell me that again on the day one of them design's their own rocket ship like the fox kid four years younger than either of 'em. Enough yapping already, let's get out of here.'
'There's just one more thing for me to do, first.' he pauses, looking Knuckles in the face and said something that, to Knuckles utmost surprised, Sonic seemed actually reluctant to say. 'Thanks for the save... Um... You can scram now, if ya want.'
You manage to contain your grunt. It's not that you don't believe him but really? He expects you to leave him to deal with this alone now? When you've stumbled across something that's bigger than anything you've ever been involved in, (excluding any possible End of the World scenarios, at least)?
'Yeah right. Pull the other claw. Amy will only whine if I leave you alone again and Tails will give me the annoyed face and yadda yadda. Not worth the stress, so I think I'll stick around if that's okay with you...'
'Sure, whatever.' Sonic shrugs, as if it doesn't really matters but there's an undertone to the action that seems... less than genuine, somehow. Okay, Knuckles is now quite sure he's imagining things, because there's no way in hell Sonic could be expressing any kind of relief. 'So long as ya can keep up, that is.'
Tomasina Ducal is the twenty three year old Employee of the Flair Foundation's carefully selected film, audio and camera crew. Her speciality is the Sound Department, working with microphones and post production recording and various other tasks that she would swear blind to anybody who asked are a lot more interesting than her resume makes them sound. She's young, was even younger still when the Foundation employed her five years ago, but thanks to the Flairs she has good contacts with many media agents and organizations. She's capable and self assured and knows how to get what she wants.
She is also, at this exact moment, terrified.
Honestly, she feels she has every right, as she steers one of the company's registered cars, one of the ones with dark windows, through the streets of Station Square, trying her hardest not to flinch at passing police vehicles. 'I hope you know what you're doing here, kid. I don't think I need to tell you that you guys are all over the news right now. You're in it up to my neck. And given the height of you, that means you'd be drowning right about now.'
'I know. And we really appreciate your doing this, ma'am. Mrs Flair tells us you're very trustworthy.'
Tomasina shakes her head in disbelief at the sheer hilarity of it all. She is employed by the film industry, and if she were watching this in a movie, one of those action affairs that Mrs Flair so often performs in, with the street-rough but ultimately good hearted heroine and the nervous, straight cop who's never so much as short changed a vending machine in his life, then she'd be the first in the theatre to work out they were never going to get away with this.
And yet, here she is. It's been a strange day.
'I trust Mrs Flair, kid, you can be sure of that. She's been nothing but good to me since I started working with the company. Understand that I'm doing this for her, okay?'
'I know. Don't worry about it. If anything goes wrong then we'll, um... "take the rap". I think that's what they call it.' The creature chuckles lightly. 'I guess we're already in trouble anyway , what's one more little thing?'
Tomasina shakes her head again. Except that He's... well kind of adorable, actually. Certainly now what you'd consider Criminal Suspect material. Frankly, you could mistake him for a teddy bear and take him home to your kid, and nobody would be any the wiser. She supposes that's how they've managed to remain hidden at the Flair residence for as long as they did.
How the heck he got into the Studio is something else entirely, but she's resisting the urge to ask. The last time she did that he rambled off on some high tech complex scientific explanation about Security Camera locations and artificially produced technical shutdowns or something.
The car is pulling through a pair of security gates now, and before them loon the red brick buildings of the Station Square News centre: a mere stone's throw from the Filmdom City studios, but by comparison, it looks like an office block. Her heart pounds as she opens the window just enough to show her cards to the bored man on the gate.
'Ms Ducal, right? Franklyn told me you were coming.' The woman holds out a long, perfectly manicured hand, and he just stands there for a while, watching Tomasina, waiting to see what she'll do with the kind of nervous look on his face that most kids get when introducing their friends to their parents.
It's pretty much the most adorable thing ever. Tomasina can't help but smile as she takes the woman's hand.
'I'm sorry to get you involved, Miss Ducal. It's just that... this was the only way that a Thorndyke car could get anywhere near a news station right now. I had to come through the underground,' Tails wrinkles his nose –adorably, Tomasina pointedly does not think – and sniffs. 'It stunk.'
'I can imagine.' Scarlet smiles. 'And I wouldn't worry about it. I like to think of myself as a bit of a rebel of the news agency. And hey, if this doesn't bring in viewers then I don't know what will. Let's see if we can make some world news this evening, hm, Tails?'
Thomasina looks at them, at the relief on Tails face that finally, finally there is somebody here who believes him, and at Scarlet's firm expression. She's peaking before she can stop herself: 'I... what can I do?'
They look at her. 'Well...I'm here now. Might as well make myself useful'
The beam on Tails face makes the worried, tangled feeling in her gut feel just a little bit worth it.
'Well I don't want to get my regulars involved with something that could work out badly,' Scarlet says. 'How are you at handling a camera?'
if Knuckles has to look at one more of all these disturbing pictures they've just found on the walls of the next room in the facility, then he 's going to start tearing things.
The room he and Sonic are now in has a bank of computer screens against one wall ,and on everyone of them runs a recording. Most of them don't seem to display anything of note – until you check them out in slow mo and realise: they're all recordings of Sonic: running, fighting, lazing around on the roof of the Thorndyke's. The number of films that come from inside the Thorndyke home's grounds is actually kind of disturbing. And then there are the photographs, and papers strewn all over the desks, all of them screaming 'important legal documents' and 'seriously dangerous stuff'... it's like a colder, scarier, more organized version of the professor's lab during one of he and Tails' Thinking sessions. They spend a couple of seconds, forever so far as Sonic is concerned, just staring at the walls. And almost all of them are of hedgehogs, in some way or another.
'Look at all this... There are more pictures of ya on the walls here than there are crayon drawings in Chris's class.'
Sonic has stopped in front of a picture that looks, disturbingly, like a newborn from their world. Labels and tags marking out important notes. Honestly, Knuckles finds the whole thing more than a little creepy. 'Heh. Yeah well... they're not all me,' Sonic says. 'Not exactly.'
'I figured. That one over there looks just like Shadow...' And the one next to it, he notes silently, is Emerl. The one after that is a scribbled, quickly sketched mess, as if somebody drew it in but a few scant seconds based on grainy film footage, but still, he thinks it's supposed to be the monster they encountered on board Space Colony ark. The one that tried to keep them from the Master Emerald.
And the pictures next to that...
Knuckles stares at the images for several long moments, jaw clenching. His eyes narrow instinctively, hands curling into fists inside the shovel claws. For the first time in pretty much the entire time he's known him, Sonic actually looks... nervous. 'Sonic, what exactly have these maniacs done?'
'Okay so I get that we're running a little low on allies, right now, but you were really the omnly option? Really.'
Oh, charming.' Rouge casually takes the (diamond tipped, naturally) tool out of the lock she's trying to pick. The nearby hiss of the electric charges that are circling the walls around them (the most obvious back door trap in the world, did they really think she'd fall for it?) in making her fur crackle and stand on end, and her wings twitch, and Amy is just one more element of annoyance in an already tedious job. 'I could just take you right back into that room, ya know. And don't touch the walls.'
Amy sighs. Then much to Rouge's surprise she mutters 'Sorry, but I think I've got a right to be a little on edge. Where are we anyway?'
'Somewhere towards the abck of the building. We'll come out in the desert, after that it's a straight line back to civilisation and a decent cup of coffee. Relax, sweetheart, I know what I'm doing.'
'Where did Knuckles go?' Chris asks. The kid sounds concerned. 'Is he going to find Sonic?'
'That's the plan. After he dropped me off in that delightful little cell of yours, he went off to keep looking for your blue friend...' Honestly, while she'd never admit it to anybody, she's kind of envious of those shovel claws. The guy cuts through underground dirt and rock like it's water. Her screw kick just can't compete. 'Sonic can take care of himself, though, so I don't know why he bothers.'
'What you're saying we can't?' Amy mutters. 'Rouge you showed up to a rescue mission wearing heels an' a tube top, what credentials are we supposed to take away from this?'
'Wow. Since when did a little girl like you know great big words like credentials? And if you want credentials, you can talk to Topaz. Now do you kids want me to break you out of here or not?'
'Not now, Chris. I'm unpicking a lock.'
'No really, look—!'
She doesn't get to hear the end of his sentence.
Knuckles brain is kind of hurting at this point. But the pictures on the walls, and the monitors, and all those freaky computers, pretty much confirm Sonic's story. They walk down the corridors of the newly dismantled video room. The buildings walls are all steel plating and shining lights here, a car cry from the exterior walls of the facility, which are old, mouldy, and tinted with rust. This is where the important stuff goes down.
'So let me get this straight, hedgehog: you're telling me they've... Copied your brains and psychological profile thingamajig and now they 're going to use it to create... what? some kind of army? '
'Uh... something like that. That's what the Doc said, anyway. I don't mind tellin' ya he sounded a little on the loopy side.'
'No kidding. I mean, wow... what could possibly go wrong with that strategy? Oh, wait, I know: EVERYTHING. Don't these humans have the technology to create their own damned crazy robots? I've had just about enough of crazy robots!'
'Well... how do a coupl'a dozen of me sound?'
'Like a horrible, horrible nightmare, I can barely cope with the one. You realise how completely and utterly ridiculous this entire thing seems, don't you?'
'...Heh. Yeah, ridiculous. Kinda like my existence altogether, right? I mean... maybe we should've figured all along.'
Knuckles hesitates. 'Sonic I have no idea what you're talking about.'
'Neither do I, really... I just know what he said, an' what he said was that pretty much everything you thought about me, it wasn't true. I was born or created or whatever it the human world. Except not. Like I started as... I dunno, a baby or something in our world, and then I wasn't in our world anymore. I was here. I was the thing they used to create the ultimate life form project. They made Shadow based on me.'
'You... actually sound concerned about that,' Knuckles says, and he has to pause at that because Sonic sounding anything other than cocky or nonchalant is a freaking event.
'Shouldn't I be? I mean... that freak on the spae staion, and a;l that stuff Shadow did, the stuff I got blamed for, I... maybe I could actually do those thigns. Maybe I'm just as big a freak as that monster on Space Colony Ark.'
'Oh now you're just being ridiculous, you're not dangerous.' Knuckles says, although he already knows it's a lie.
'I'm not, huh?.' Sonic sounds serious. Knuckles just can't get used to it. 'They were tryin' to make an army outta me, for cripes sakes, Knuckles. Why would they do that if I wasn't dangerous? You think I don't know what I can do? You think it doesn't freak me out? I've never met anybody who can keep up with me on two legs. I've never seen anybody who can use the chaos emeralds, except for Shadow and— Oh... yeah that kinda makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it? He could use Chaos control because I can... He was based on me.' Sonic laughs, but there's no humour in it. 'Looks... looks like I wasn't the faker after all, huh?'
For a couple of moments, Knuckles doesn't know what to say. The red lights are silent here, and there's nothing to distract him from the awkward silence. He remembers the first time he and Sonic met, and all those fights they had on on Emerald island for... he doesn't know, stupid reasons probably. He remembers Absolute Chaos sinking Station Square and the colony hurtling through space, how Sonic was there, each and every time. Always involved where things were at their most dangerous. Knuckles thinks that he himself has had more reason than any to worry about the things Sonic is capable of, the things his friends just don't seem to understand.
And then Knuckles makes up his mind. 'I don't believe it, Sonic the hedgehog, who fights robots on a daily basis, is actually freaked out by something? I never thought you had it in you to be that sane.'
'Well, yeah, I mean... It's creepy as heck, Knuckles. I'm not just a hedgehog, I'm a prototype.'
'For what?' Knuckles snaps. 'The most stubborn, pig headed creature in all of existence? Because if that's the case then you're a pretty damn good one.'
'Sonic. Do you seriously think this matters? We never even knew where you came from in the first place, and we still trusted you so what difference should this make? Even though you never tell us anything about you, where you grew up, who your parents were... you did have them, right? Or at least you had people who gave a damn about you, people who knew you when you were a snivelling little baby hog who hadn't figured out how to run yet.'
'...Nah. I could always run. I don't remember bein' a baby, but I guess nobody does.'
'What about being a kid?'
'...Bits an' pieces. Sixteen years worth of bits and pieces. To be honest, the only real memories I've got are from when I met Tails. S'like he's the first thing that was important enough to keep track of.'
'Huh. You brain always did hop around as fast as your feet. So you've got some mysterious past that places your birth in another universe, Sonic, big deal. Frankly, I'd be more surprised if you grew up in some normal, happy little family with a brother and sister and a penchant for playing the guitar or something. Pull yourself together. Like any of your friends give a damn about what you are or where you came from. You're Sonic, that's all that matters. Got it?'
'Look, enough of the dramatics. It's making me feel like I've hopped into a parallel universe where everything is backwards. You're Sonic the freakin' hedgehog and Sonic the hedgehog does not, under any circumstances, freak out. And what're you sniggering at?'
'...heh. Nothing. I gotcha.'
'Good. Now can you please quit it with the whole being thoughtful garbage? It's creepy. Next thing I know, Chris will be demonstrating sudden forethought and Amy will stop chasing you around.'
Knuckles isn't sure exactly what he said that worked, but Sonic is grinning again, back to his old self, and then they're running down the corridors into the heart of the facility.
That's where they finally see the Sonic X project for themselves.
They're standing on a metal stairwell, looking down into a quasi dark space the size of a soccer pitch. No people – just machines under flashing red lights. The walls are lines with banks of computers and the floor strewn with wires. The whole place is like a mechanical geniuses paradise. Tails would be right at home here... or at least he would, until he looked down into the middle of the room and saw the...
The whatever they are's.
'Oh-kaaay that's seriously messed up,' Sonic mutters, sounding a lot calmer than he should really, it the wake of Knuckles pep talk. Knuckles can't help but agree.
He and Sonic exchange a look before they leap the railing and land in the dark room.
'Okay so exactly where are we now? I presumed you had a map or something...' The professor sounds a little peeves. I don't blame him. the alarms have faded, but the red lights are still flashing and it's giving me a headache. The gun is a heavy weight in my hand, and I have no idea what on earth I'd actually do with it, if the opportunity to use it came about.
We've been walking for what feels like forever now, and finding nothing but empty side rooms and more corridors. No people, either. it's like the whole building has been deserted.
'The walls are changing.' I mutter. It's the first time I've noticed. The deeper we go into the facility the less it looks like some abandoned factory out in the middle of nowhere. Were approaching the nerve centre of this whole operation and, hopefully the answers we need.
'Hm. I don't like it,' Topaz mutters. 'There aren't any guards...'
It's true; we've hardly seen another living soul for over half an hour now, after we lost our pursuers in the earlier tunnels. It's almost as if they lost us on purpose. 'You think the building's been evacuated?'
'Probably,' Topaz shrugs. 'Maybe that's what all these sirens were about after all. It wasn't a warning for us being loose in the building, I mean, why would they kick up suck a stink over just a few escaped political prisoners? Even one like Sonic?'
'Then the alarms are a warning to the workers to get out,' the professor says, coldly. 'The question is what for?'
By now the corridors around us are sleek, modern and well lit. Just like you'd imagine a secret government building should look. rather, I think, like I had imagined Space Colony Ark would look in my dreams. The next locked door comes as no surprise, though we check it anyway just to be sure. It's a high security door – two industrial locks on top of what appears to be a retinal scanning system.
Topaz stares at the locks for a moment, before deciding, presumably, that her retinal scan is probably not going to be on these people's records.
'You know,' the professor says thoughtfully. 'If this were a movie, we'd have some guard that we conveniently knocked unconscious a few moments ago, who we could use for that clever scanning thingamabob so we can get through this thing.'
'Yeah, well, sorry I never thought to pack us an unconscious security guard. We were a little busy running for our lives,' Topaz says. Then she steps back and draws her gun. The professor gives her a look, but neither of us have time to react before she blows the locks.
Well, that's one way to get in.
Topaz pulls back, and looks at my expression and shrugs. 'Oh, what exactly are they going to do, Doctor? Set off the alarms? Little late for that, don't you think?'
'...Can't argue with that logic.'
'Hey, I may not have some clever psychology degree, ma'am, but I know my industrial espionage.' Topazsmirks. Then she grabs the door and drags it. It takes all of us tugging at once to force the door open, and reveal the dark, narrow corridor beyond.
That's when I notice the humming. It's a faint sensation, like a dentist's drill at the back of my head. It's probably been there for a while: the hum of technology, of a thousand computers working synchronously. As we step into the corridor beyond, the humming gets even louder. I can feel the blood pounding behind my temples but, strangely, I'm not as afraid as I was a few moments ago.
That's probably some kind of psychological deadening at work in my head. The human brain is very good at deadening itself to trauma, or even just to things it doesn't want to admit are true. There have been a great many studies done into the ways we cope with things our bodies just weren't designed to deal with. However for all our coping strategies, the human brain isn't infallible. When we're unable to express our fears in the usual ways, our bodies find other methods. In mild cases, we develop habits: biting our nails, tapping our feet, staring into our Newton's cradles for a few minutes a day, that sort of thing. But in worse case scenarios, we develop more serious problems. Things like, for example, post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. One of the worst conditions to befall people who have already had to fight for their lives, and frankly don't deserve to have to take that pain home with them.
...I wonder just how much Malcolm Torn must have been going through when he got involved with this facility. IT's almost enough to make me feel sorry for him.
Any sympathy I've gained, however, is about to go well and truly out of the metaphorical window. We leave the tunnel and enter a large room. The drilling sensation at the back of my head reaches its peak, and all I can really do is stare.
'Oh good lord,' the professor mutters, at about the same time as Topic mutters a 'holy crap!' that I honestly think is rather fitting given the circumstances.
It looks kind of like I always imagined one of Doctor Eggman's labs would. The Robots are lined up back to back, at least fifty of them, with room for many more in the chamber around us. They're small, is the first thing I notice. Not much bigger than the actual Sonic, more streamlines and sharp edged, too. Their eyes are as black as the dark corners of the room, their bodies thin and compact, like... well, like living weapons might look, I suppose. The professor gets close enough to one of them to see its hands – no oversized white gloves here, just tapering fingers tipped with sharp blades. There's actually relatively little about them that resembles Sonic. They're shining grey rather than bright blue, cold an sharp where the real Sonic isn't. It's just the face where you can really see it. The face, and the computers, code and information relaying down the screens, one by one.
This whole room, every creature in this place, was created based on the patterns in Sonics head. On the studies I carried out.
A whole room filled of Metal Sonic's.
And standing at the other end of the room, staring at the assembly between us, is the real deal.