THIS story begins at the very end of Genesis/MegaDrive Sonic 2.
May you read it without feeling the urge to kill yourself. Or me.
The robot, and, by extension, the Death Egg, only had eight seconds left.
But eight seconds was a long time.
Even to the E-97, which wasn't equipped with nearly the most advanced processors in its creator's repertoire. That honour went to the DE-90210 supercomputer, nestled inside a shielded column of liquid helium under the Death Egg's bridge. It was sleeping, now; clocked down to a mere trillion calculations a second. DE-90210 dreamed in Kerr metrics, permuting the warped space-time of the singularity its master would conjure at the space station's heart. It would nurture the monster, feeding millions of rings down its insatiable maw, coaxing the event horizon to bend to the Doctor's wishes…
At least, it would have, if not for a certain blue hedgehog.
Eight seconds was a long time.
Long enough to run fifty-three-and-a-half thousand simulations of the Mark 12 Solarium-lambda reactor, failing even now the heart of the giant, Robotnik-shaped robot. The Doctor's greatest battle machine hadn't been enough to defeat the hedgehog, and now its central core was approaching critical chaos flux. Every probable (and many an improbable) configuration of the inevitable explosion was imagined, cross-referenced, and fed back into the working model, refining the algorithms to flawless scalpels of mathematical precision. They analyzed the damaged reactor in exquisite detail, determining which fields should be twisted, manipulated, to arrive at an optimal set of finishing conditions. The complexities of their artificial cogitation belied the simplicity of the objectives:
COMMAND PRIORITY: ALPHA ALPHA: SAVE Doctor
COMMAND PRIORITY: ALPHA BETA: SAVE Installation
COMMAND PRIORITY: ALPHA GAMMA: NOT SAVE Hedgehog
Eight seconds was a long time.
Ample time to calculate the trajectory at which the pink dome of an escape pod should be ejected, the precise sequences in which the micro-rockets should fire. Ample time to activate the negentropic rotors, the rings in their cores blinking out of existence as they spent their weird substance to counter the worst of the damage the pod had suffered. Ample time to watch through lidar eyes as the charged pink capsule spiraled through the central void of the Death Egg, before it flickered in space-time, passing through metres of vacuum-hardened superstucture like smoke. Primary and secondary duties discharged to the best of their abilities, the subroutines turned their attentions on the tertiary.
Eight seconds was a long time.
There was nowhere for Sonic to run to.
The grim realisation hit him as the hedgehog raced away from the listing robotic Eggman, the Death Egg's final defender. He didn't know what that ominous, electronic threshing sound meant, ringing out across the spherical void at the centre of the giant satellite; he just knew he didn't want to be around when it was time to find out. But there was nowhere to run to. He couldn't exactly open a door and step outside, now, could he? The stars twinkled beneath him as he ran over a vast, curving window set into the Death Egg's floor, as if to drive home the point that there was no avenue of escape.
A flash of purple light burst suddenly out from the robot's ailing core; the hedgehog thought, for a moment, he thought he could glimpse the bones of his own shadow. Then, somehow soundlessly, the machine blew up.
Sonic saw it all as if through slow motion. Most things seemed like slow motion to the hedgehog, when he was running; his supercharged metabolism made movements, reactions, even his thoughts quicker than they ever were when standing still. But this was different, in a freaky kinda way. The seconds seemed to stretch, like a strand of cheese on a hot pizza slice.
A shock front of torn metal rippled out from the detonating mech; in the distorted progress of time, Sonic saw individual rivulets popping out of the Death Egg's curved plates, a cloud of nuts and bolts forming the crest of the steel wave which raced towards him. There was no point trying to outrun it; the space station was a sphere, so there was nowhere to go.
He ran anyway.
But then the glass pane under his feet exploded. In a long, drawn-out instant, the billion shards of crystal were sucked outwards, into the insatiable vacuum of space. The hedgehog flew with them, as the blue-green orb of Mobius shon brilliantly beneath him.
Sonic had the foresight to hold his breath, before he was cast into the blackness.
Robotnik blinked, and the monitors were back. The windows were back. The control panel was back. The alarms were back.
The Doctor threw back his head and laughed, his insane cackles vying with warbling klaxons in the enclosed module. It had worked, it had worked! It was a delicious, delicious irony. So many times, the blue hedgehog had avoided painful deaths he truly deserved by hiding behind the energies of the gold rings, and the invincible, hyperspace phasing they conferred on him and his pestilent vulpine companion. But he had stolen their trick! Used it to phase right through the Death Egg's outer shell, escaping the impending-
-escape pod was tumbling through space, losing its battle against Mobius' gravity. His monitors screamed at him in the jagged fonts of Code Black; the alert for uncontrolled time distortion. This was precisely why you didn't allow Solarium reactors to fail. The Chaos Emerald at its core was supposed to be stabilized a by ring-filled support tokamak, but that still-
-standard computations were almost useless, but the Doctor had algorithms for this, running on massively complex quantum computing matrices planetside. They could at least hazard guesses at the contorted tangles of causality that radiated out from chaos events, stretching tendrils into the past, present, and future-
-incomplete data on the rifts that were opening up. Or would open up. Or had opened up. A black mark flashed above the Jungle Zone, text indicating a dimensional fracture that would appear five weeks into the future; another near-
-island edging through the clouds? It couldn't-
It was the sonic boom that woke the hedgehog up; and for once, it wasn't his own. Sonic forced his eyes to open through a film of blood - and wished he hadn't. The sight before him was a sea of clouds and azure sky, spinning crazily around the hedgehog as gravity sunk its greedy talons into him. In the middle distance, scything through the clouds, pieces of the Death Egg burned as they fell, black contrails of smoke trailing up into the blue.
Sonic's spines were a marvel of aerodynamics, meeting the furious atmosphere and channelling it around him harmlessly, so the hedgehog was in no danger of burning up during re-entry. Unlike the debris. Though this was not particularly consoling as Sonic cannoned unstoppably towards the Mobian surface.
Another sonic boom exploded, nearer this time; he watched the fragment in question disintegrate as it punched through its own sound wave, scattering flaming metal across the heavens.
The hedgehog flailed his arms, careering sideways as red-hot steel lanced across his path. A fist-sized lump of shrapnel smashed into his side, branding a charred circle into his blue coat. Tumbling from the impact, Sonic desperately attempted to right himself as he plunged through the sky. It felt like one of his ribs was cracked; he couldn't… breathe. The air was rushing by… too fast…
And then, suddenly, impossibly, there was a surface under his belly. Instinctively, the hedgehog threw out a hand, finding a straight edge - what felt like… wings?
It was the Tornado! There, in the red plane's cockpit: Tails, it was Tails! His orange fur was streaked with grease and motor oil, but through it all a huge, triumphant grin was plastered onto the little fox's face. It looked like he was trying to yell something to Sonic, even as the kit fought to bring the aircraft back onto a level flight path; but his victorious words were ripped away by the screaming winds.
It didn't matter. He'd saved him. Mustering enough energy for a belated thumbs-up, Sonic took the much-needed opportunity to pass out again.
Robotnik awoke inside a cluster of white airbags, like an obese grub stirring to life in the centre of some giant cocoon. The impact had caught his pod's processors off-guard; what should have been a stately, controlled, parachute landing had become a mess of emergency retro-boosters and flash-inflated gas vesicles. He had made landfall at an impossibly high altitude, if the wall-mounted barometric pressure sensor could be believed.
Groggily pushing the airbags out of the way, the Doctor's questing fingers found a keyboard that appeared connected to one of the few unbroken monitors. Typing was uncomfortable; his knuckles felt bruised from some jolt he must have sustained during re-entry. Nonetheless, he called up a diagnostics report.
It was a litany of structural damage. Communications antennae – gone; GPS transponder – gone; main processor unit – gone; hermetic containment – gone. Robotnik's moustache drooped as the ruinous statistics scrolled up the screen. The damage couldn't have been that bad. Not unless…
The Doctor wasn't a man who got depressed when faced with adversity. He was a man who got angry. And the hypotheses forming inside his skull at that moment, the preliminary inklings of what might have happened to his escape vehicle, set his vast whiskers twitching with pre-emptive ire.
Typing out a new set of commands, he instructed the computer to display the date.
Three-hundred and ninety-nine days.
The Chaos Emerald had sent him back three-hundred and ninety-nine days.
"That… cobalt… VERMIN!" Robotnik roared. Rage pushing the last remnants of disorientation out of his mind, he searched around for something to strangle. Grabbing one of the nearby airbags in his meaty hands, the Doctor squeezed, imagining Sonic's smugly satisfied face on the balloon. Rather than popping, as the incensed scientist willed through slitted eyes, the bag just deflated in a highly unimpressive manner. For catharsis, that wasn't much good at all.
Still cursing under his breath, Robotnik pawed his way through the remaining gas pillows and threw open the door release at the top of the pod. A brilliant, cerulean sky, replete with nebulous clouds, greeted the Doctor as he hauled himself out of the smashed escape vehicle. His black lab shoes touched down onto real grass for the first time in almost three years. Robotnik grimaced with distaste as the spongy loam yielded just slightly under his bulbous weight. He was… outdoors.
A picturesque, sunlit meadow stretched out before him, decorated with colorful flowers and the occasional shady tree. Playful zephyrs gusted through the branches while birds sang happily from their high perches, and golden butterflies danced amongst the vibrant plantlife. Darting round the hovering black-yellow forms of assiduous honey-bees, the vivid insects fluttered onwards, while segmented catterpillars looked on enviously, before resuming their crawls across the delicate fronds in search of the tastiest leaves to chew on. A pair of rabbits frolicked across the grass, their white pelts shining in the morning sun.
The Doctor's face contorted in disgust at the spectacle.
Raising his gaze upwards to avoid having to look upon the offensive ecology, Robotnik scrutinized the cloud patterns more closely. As he'd thought; altostratus and cirrocumulus. But there was something about the way they moved… as if they were closer than they should be. The Doctor remembered the barometric reading from inside the pod, and the fact that the parachute in his escape pod hadn't deployed, despite being hard-wired to balloon out at twenty thousand feet. Connections formed in his mind, searching for a viable explanation.
There was a reason Robotnik quested insatiably for the Chaos Emeralds, and his present predicament demonstrated precisely why. Even possessing one opened up unimaginable possibilities for manipulating time and space; but that was all they were. Possibilities. And as a scientist, he dealt only in unequivocal certainty. Trying to tame the awesome, frightening physics of chaos control with only one piece of the hyperdimensional jigsaw puzzle might yield limited results, but it was an incredibly dangerous game to play. The gems were fantastically unpredictable in isolation, but bringing others into the vicinity seemed to stabilize them a little; it made their behavior more controllable, not to mention more powerful.
There were, perhaps, methods… sometimes, in his most advanced calculations, the Doctor thought he saw hints of weird symmetry hiding in the equations, the suggestion that there could be ways of reducing the minimum safe configuration. But at this stage, he needed at least six or seven before he dared use the Emeralds in anything more complex than minor experimentation.
Firing up the Solarium reactor in the Death Egg's final mecha had been an act of desperation; with only one Emerald at the core, it was an accident waiting to happen. And, indeed, look where it had got him: four hundred days into the past, no means of communication, totally lost, no food, no water, and, worst of all - in a meadow. With animals.
And, if he wasn't mistaken, he was being watched.
The observer must have realized it had been spotted, for it chose that moment to abandon its vain attempt at blending into the thicket behind Robotnik's pod. Crimson really wasn't the best colour for discreet camouflage.
The creature that emerged was – the Doctor raised an eyebrow – an extinct one. Tachyglossus bathychromus maximus, the Mobian red echidna. Now that was interesting. Briefly, the worry flashed into his mind that his clocks were wrong: that he'd been sent back much, much further, to the time when this species was building Mobius' last, pitiful attempt at a civilization. But Robotnik squashed the kernel of doubt; his clocks were infallible. How could it be otherwise, given that he'd designed them?
The crimson echidna advanced towards him. Robotnik glanced back to the door of his pod, considering a hasty retreat inside. Although this place didn't look like part of the South Island archipelago, the area within which he had conducted his… 'unpopular' experimentations, he couldn't be certain that the walking fossil didn't recognize him. Even if not, Mobians tended to be stupid, violent Luddites as far as the Doctor was concerned. And probably diseased as well.
Raising a gloved hand in Robotnik's direction, the echidna called out to him. "I don't know who you are, or what you want," the figure croaked, in a voice withered through years of underuse, "but you must leave the Floating Island. Now."
'Presumptuous little cretin, aren't we?' the Doctor thought, even as he allowed himself a small measure of relief that he was unrecognized. His mind was racing, straining to remember what few details were known about the old echidna society. He was certain he recognized the crescent curve of white fur which the creature sported around its neck; no doubt from some ancient temple mural that his badniks had dutifully photographed, before blowing the place apart for building materials…
"My humble apologies, noble echidna," Robotnik responded, struggling not to grimace at his own words. "I am known as The Doctor. My…"
"I don't care who you are," the dreadlocked creature interjected, his voice growing stronger as he remembered how to use it. "Get back in your... whatever it is, and get off my island. There's no reason for you to be here."
"My machine was attacked," Robotnik continued, irritation seeping into his voice despite his efforts to placate the savage. He slapped the pod's hull for effect, evoking a dull clang. "I have no desire to intrude on your… territory, but I havn't the means to depart-"
All of a sudden, the echidna was upon him, grabbing the cuff of the scientist's claret lab coat in a spiked fist. He pulled the Doctor's face to his; Robotnik was not so much startled as horrified, that he was drawn so close to one of the flea-bitten Mobian pests.
"Leave," the red face hissed, through a mouth contorted in anger. "Or I'll throw you over the edge myself."
"Pachacamac" the Doctor sputtered.
The word's effect on the echidna was instantaneous, but not in the manner Robotnik had hoped. Eyes widening with surprise, the scarlet creature grabbed the Doctor's collar with his other fist as well, and pulled the scientist even closer. Robotnik recoiled, desperately trying to keep his nose from touching the echidna's own. Just as he'd thought: stupid and violent. The Doctor imagined he could smell the diseases which the vermin undoubtedly harbored beneath its fur.
"Where did you hear that name?" it demanded, shaking Robotnik by the lapels. Its must have been incredibly strong, to manhandle him so easily. "What do you know about Pachacamac?!"
In truth, the Doctor knew very little. The name had simply popped into his head when the echidna had first grabbed him; jolted out of distant memory by the creature's threats. He suspected it was some warlord or other; the name had featured on a number of artefacts that his badniks had found over the years. But Robotnik had made very little progress in translating the ancient, and complex, Echidnean cuneiform language; and besides, he generally had more interesting things to research than the mystical ramblings of long-dead Mobian spear-chuckers.
Though even with that said, he probably knew more about the lost civilization than anyone else on this education-starved planet.
"I'm just a scientist," he wheezed, "a roboticist trying to better the world through my inventions." The grip didn't waver. "I learned about Pachacamac and, and…" the Doctor wracked his memory furiously, "…and Tikal-aka while I was studying ancient tablets. I don't know much, but I would be happy to share what I have if you would refrain from any more threats!" Listen to himself, bartering with this chattering disease-bag. The Doctor resolved to metalize the creature's horrible meadow as soon as the opportunity presented itself. He would keep him alive long enough to watch his home become a smoke-belching industrial complex.
The echidna grunted, apparently satisfied with the Doctor's explanation, and dropped him unceremoniously onto the grass. As Robotnik picked himself up, desperately fighting to keep the indignation off his face, the creature regarded him with folded arms and a softened expression. Slightly softened.
"It will just be Tikal, not Tikal-aka," he said. "'Aka' is a feminine suffix; it means 'priestess'. But it's an easy mistake to make. Why did you come here?"
"I was attacked," the Doctor replied, manipulating the events into a version that would suit him. That was technically true, after all. "My laboratory was assaulted by an insane hedgehog. He destroyed my home and took an item of great power from me; I barely escaped with my life, and ended up here by accident." Again, all technically correct, although the Emerald hadn't really been taken by Sonic; it merely (violently) folded itself back into the Special Zone, in response to his destabilizing the reactor.
"I don't entertain guests," the echidna stated. "I guard this island, and I guard it alone." The Doctor saw something flash in his eyes: regret, or sadness, or something; and then abruptly, the crimson figure turned his back on Robotnik, and started walking away across the meadow.
"Repair your machine and go," he yelled over his shoulder. "I'll give you an hour. If you're not done by then, I'll tip you and it over the side. While you're falling, you can think about why it's a bad idea to crash into people's homes."
It all fell into place, then. The barometer, the undeployed parachute, the clouds, the talk of 'tipping you over the side'; the isolated facts sloshing about in his head suddenly clicked, coalescing into a coherent whole which the Doctor instinctively knew was exactly right.
He knew where he was. He knew why he'd landed here. He knew what had to be on this 'island', somewhere. And he very much suspected that he knew how to get it.
"You're not the last." Robotnik said.
That brought the reaction he was looking for. The echidna froze in mid-step, the swaying of his dreadlocks serving as the only indication he hadn't been transformed into stone. And then he turned, eyes like saucers, looking at the Doctor as though he'd offered a four-course meal to a starving man.
"What did you say?"
"There are others, down on the surface." Robotnik lied. "Entire colonies of echidnas. I've seen them, from orbit. If you help me, I can take you to them."
He fought to stifle a chuckle as the scarlet creature walked back towards him. Its eyes were narrow with distrust once more, but the Doctor had seen the expression a second ago, seen the desperate hope and longing.
He had him.
"I havn't been able to visit them myself, but from what I could tell, they looked healthy. Prosperous. Accepting." the scientist continued, spinning out fabrications like an obese spider weaving a web. "I think they'd welcome a lost brother home with open arms."
'Don't overdo it, Ivo, don't overdo it,' he cautioned himself wordlessly. As the echidna stood in front of him, Robotnik forced his face to present a friendly smile, and, squashing his disdain as best he could, extended his hand to the crimson figure. At least they were both wearing gloves.
"My name is Doctor Ivo Robotnik, and it's my delight make your acquaintance," he pronounced. "Might I enquire as to your name?"
The echidna's face was still creased with suspicion. But, slowly, tentatively, it reached out with a spined hand.
"I am the Defender of Angel Island, Custodian of the Hidden Palace. I am the Guardian."
As Robotnik clasped the glove inside his own bloated gauntlet, the echidna, for the first time he could remember, spoke the name which he had taken for himself.
"Knuckles. My name is Knuckles. I am... glad to meet you, Robotnik."
Oh, and fyi: Pachacamac was an echidna tribal chieftan, according to Sonic Adventure 1. And also Tikal's father.
If you can bear to stomach my hackneyed writing, you might want to try and read my 'Wing Fortress Zone', 'cos it's pretty much the same stuff. If not slightly better. :S Anyway, please forgive the fancy technobabble at the start of this chapter. It's an illness of mine, that I can't write a story without boring pseudoscience cluttering up the place. I've enrolled in a twelve-step programme to get over it. Honest. Finally, please leave a review whether you liked it or not. In fact, ESPECIALLY if you didn't like it. If you did like it (I know, I know, it's not entirely likely), I like to know people's favourite scenes / phrases / whatever, so I can do them MORE.
If you can bear to stomach my hackneyed writing, you might want to try and read my 'Wing Fortress Zone', 'cos it's pretty much the same stuff. If not slightly better. :S
Anyway, please forgive the fancy technobabble at the start of this chapter. It's an illness of mine, that I can't write a story without boring pseudoscience cluttering up the place. I've enrolled in a twelve-step programme to get over it. Honest.
Finally, please leave a review whether you liked it or not. In fact, ESPECIALLY if you didn't like it. If you did like it (I know, I know, it's not entirely likely), I like to know people's favourite scenes / phrases / whatever, so I can do them MORE.