I tend to feel Sonic stories ought to have a 'version of reality' explanation attached to them, there's so many variations of canon. This one starts out in the world of SatAM and since I was always disappointed that Knuckles never made it into that series, is my attempt to 'fix' that!
Where SatAM offers no opinion on such things as Chaos Emeralds, I do tend to mentally default to Fleetway's version of affairs but no prior knowledge of that continuity is required.
Also, a thanks is due to the beta for this fic, Bruce Pendragon who helped untangle my more confused moments, and pointed out the places where I'd carelessly assumed my readers could read my mind ;-) If you've not read his stuff -- do it. Wonderful SatAM. (And to Starfire201 for spotting that the upload process had stripped out my section breaks somehow!)
"Go, Sonic!" Sally yelled, as the laser fire sizzled around them. The bellow was unnecessary. The hedgehog was already moving. He snatched her into his arms, and streaked around the corner so fast his sneakers skittered several clear metres up the concrete wall.
Sonic swerved, dodging down a side street, then dropping down into a now empty watercourse. This had been the riverside once, an upmarket area where the old waterfront warehouses which had once fed a healthy trade, had long since been converted into plush apartments popular with those residents who fancied themselves of an artistic bent.
Now the riverbed was empty, the water diverted to feed some turbine or dam of Robotnik's making. It had become instead an obstacle course of discarded rubbish and broken technology.
An obstacle course which Sonic was far, far better at than the pursuing swatbots.
Out of the direct line of sight of the swatbots, the noise of weapons fire died behind them but now they faced the new problem of getting out of the city. Any pretence at stealth was long gone and the bots behind them would have reinforcements mustering at the boundaries.
The boundaries where Bunnie and Antoine were waiting to rendezvous.
Sally struggled against the rushing wind of their speed to reach her communicator and then had to shout into it to have any chance of being heard.
"Bunnie, we're coming in, we're coming in hot, swatbots on our heels!"
"I hear you, Sally-girl!" came back the answer promptly – almost as though Bunnie had been waiting for exactly that piece of bad news. "We'll set you up a little welcoming party here."
Before Sally could begin to explain that she'd intended, 'get clear' rather than 'get ready', the sounds of pursuit increased so rapidly that further conversation became impossible. There wasn't even time to suggest to Sonic that they seek a different route.
Sally felt the acceleration as Sonic cast a glance over his shoulder, said one word, "Pods," and sped up even further. As the empty apartment block they'd chosen as a fallback position flashed past, she heard a second round of firing open up. She resisted the urge to duck or flinch, not wanting to upset Sonic's balance and pace.
When the hedgehog yelled and leapt back onto the bank, she looked up.
"Company, Sal!" he crowed.
Sally risked a look around, and indeed the new blasts were coming not from behind but from the broken windows of the apartments. Not only that, but further shots were coming from the old warehouse on the opposite side of the riverbed and the swatbots were falling. How Bunnie and Ant had moved so fast to set up the ambush Sally had no idea. Even Sonic gave an appreciative whistle as a final loud crash marked the destruction of the pod.
A brief, incongruous silence fell, then Bunnie led the others in a charge out of the buildings.
"What d'ya say we scoot before their buddies show up?" she drawled, looking justifiably pleased with herself.
"Bunnie, that was past cool!" Sonic grinned.
"Why thank you, sugarhog," Bunnie smiled, "But only 'past' not 'way past'?"
Sonic smirked but his reply was pre-empted by Antoine who was fidgeting nervously.
"Should we not be moving from here now?"
"We should " Sally said firmly, back on her own feet. "We've had good luck. Let's not push it."
"I take it good luck means you got it then?" Bunnie asked.
In answer Sally held up a small memory chip.
"I got it."
Back in Knothole, the group stared at Nicole's findings in undisguised disappointment.
"This has to be old data," Sally said. "A Floating Island, gems with special powers, a guardian..."
"Been there, done that," Sonic with an exaggerated yawn. "So why's Robuttnik's gone chasing off after it? It's not like we had any great success with those supposed-to-be-so-great Time Stones last time was it?"
He adopted a mock-lecturing pose and ticked the points off on his fingers.
"One, we spend all day flapping around with Dulcy trying to find the place. Two, we crashland when we do find it. Three, we get chased chased off again by giant stone dogs with wings. Four, we get asked some gobbledegook riddle. Five, we end up running round after our five-year-old selves, trying to stop Robotnik and making no difference whatsoever."
He ran out of breath, and scowled. "Waste of time."
Sally sighed. "Maybe."
Nicole chimed in. "In fact the data does not mention the Time Stones but refers instead to 'Chaos Emeralds'. There are other discrepancies. Enough differences to suggest this might be a separate and distinct site."
Sonic pulled a face, "Oh yeah, right, like there's going to be two islands floating around in mid air..."
"That would indeed be unlikely. More probable is that both sites -- if both exist -- are products of the same civilisation. Perhaps both products of the same attempt to create this power source claimed by the data."
Sally frowned as she gave that some consideration.
Sonic shrugged. "If you say so. So what's the plan, Sal?"
Sally thought a moment, then decided. "Robotnik is gone from the city. He thinks there's something in this, even if it's not clear quite what. If he wants it, then I want him not to get it. The plan's the same We go after him."
Sonic nodded willingly, but Bunnie hesitated.
"You don't think we'd be better taking advantage of Robotnik being gone from the city? There's a lot we could try with him outta the way..."
"I thought about it. But we decided to go after him before we even knew what he was chasing. I don't think this changes that. He might even have more data on how likely this all is than we do. We've got to assume the worst."
She looked again at the data in front of her. "If even half of what's claimed for these Chaos Emeralds is true... We can't take the chance."
Sally looked around for other objections, and found none. "Fit to fly, Dulcy?"
"Always," the dragon grinned.
Behind his hand, Antoine muttered, "The flying is not being the hard part."
Sally gave him a quelling look. "We leave as soon as everyone gets their gear together. Ant, Rotor, you stay. Just because Robotnik's out of town doesn't mean nothing can go wrong here. I don't know if we'll be in range of the communicators for long, but you can try in an emergency."
"Uh, and which way are we actually going?" Dulcy asked.
"We've got the spy camera footage of Robotnik leaving. I know it's not much to go on, but we'll take our bearing from that for now. I suspect he doesn't have much tolerance for detours. Odds are good, if he's got a location he'll take a straight line to get there. Any questions?"
Sonic bounced on his toes, already impatient to start, but there was no other response.
The silence and the late afternoon light lent a tranquil air to Angel Island. The quiet was barely broken by the steady footfalls of its Guardian and protector as he loped easily across the grass, scanning alertly about him as he went.
Knuckles was careful never to get into a routine that might be exploited, but he quartered the Island daily for any sign of intruders. He'd made one complete circuit of the flatter ground near the rim, already. If any intruder arrived by air that was the most likely landing spot. He'd found no sign, so now turned inland.
The thick turf beneath his feet added spring to his step, a welcome help as the slope steepened. The day was past its hottest, but yet to cool significantly. He reached the top of the slope where the ground abruptly dropped away into a cliff and without slowing leapt from the edge. Flaring his spines, he caught the warm updraft from the plains and let it him carry him in a gentle, gliding descent.
The air on his face dried the sweat he'd worked up on the run and he surveyed the area below comfortably. The air was still and slightly muggy. Empty, save for a faint pall of smoke smearing the horizon out towards Lava Reef. The volcano had been more active lately. He should probably head over there once his circuit of the Island was complete. Some of the old devices still gave warning of its state and might give him a better idea of whether it was anything to be more than usually concerned about.
At first Knuckles thought the flash of silver was just a trick of the heat haze. The second time it happened he changed his direction, turning towards Lave Reef and sweeping his gaze across the sky. Searching for the source of that flicker. Perhaps it was merely the light catching a piece of debris caught in the rising air but he felt his heart rate quicken, and a intense focus descended on him as he stared around.
His mind raced. If it was an enemy, an intruder, what was the best course? Should he stay gliding here, try to locate it? Was he visible? Should he descend? Get on the ground and approach from cover? He'd skirted the fringes of the zone only the day before and seen no trace so he hadn't gone deeper. How long had the intruder, if it was one, been there? What weapons or defences might they have? Surely they couldn't have gotten too far in. The wards and traps were obstacle enough, even without the abnormally high lava level recently.
The third time he saw the speck there was no doubt. No trick of the light. The silver gleam didn't fade this time. Instead it grew. Now recognisably a device of some kind. Now clearly a flying craft. Now -- too close! Realisation hit Knuckles at the same time as the noise from the machine. It was approaching at an alarming rate. Whether he'd been seen or not he was about to get rammed.
He tucked his spines close, spilling the air trapped there, and dropped instantly from glide to free-fall. He caught a glimpse of the machine, blocky and ungraceful, as it hurtled above him, then had to return all his attention to landing. He flared his spines with seconds to go and hit the ground hard, crumpling as he touched down to break the fall as best he could.
He rolled onto his back and lay breathless for a whole minute or more, looking up at the craft he'd so narrowly missed. It had slowed and was moving back in his direction. Not in a straight line but a weaving -- searching-- pattern. Whoever was flying knew they'd almost hit him and was looking for him. Knuckles doubted it was out of concern for his well being.
He forced himself to move. There was the forest and plenty of thick undergrowth nearby, he could at least get out of sight from the air while he considered his next move.
Muscles and bruises protested as he scrambled to his feet and ran, in a stumbling crouch to the treeline. Just inside the forest, he found cover and ducked down to watch as the craft approached. It slowed and zigzagged over the spot he'd fallen, and he knew he'd left a trail of trampled grass and plantlife in his scramble for cover.
Still, there was a lot of forest, no reason to run from his hiding place just yet. He watched more closely, trying to identify the craft's power source, weaponry, potential targets for attack. It was hovering on jets of some kind. Knocking one of those out would probably be sufficient to make it uncontrollable. They were poorly defended too. Below, and slightly out of the line of fire of the laser canon mounted on the craft. Knuckles waited for his moment.
Waited too long, he realised, in the instant the craft drew back and a hatch opened to release dozens of smaller, rotund, ugly little flyers that immediately set about searching the bushes. Knuckles swore and broke from cover. He could handle any of them, possibly even all, but not while dodging the weapons of the larger craft as well. His only chance was ambush and taking out the larger craft first, and for that he needed cover. Ducking and weaving among the trees, Knuckles ran for it. Perhaps he could lead the smaller craft off and double back.
He realised that this too was a mistake when the first firebomb landed, feet away from him. It soaked a nearby bush in something acrid smelling and immediately burst into flame. It spread rapidly. So rapidly in fact, that after doing their work, even the devices themselves withdrew.
Knuckles glanced around, feeling the air thicken with smoke, his breath starting to catch and the heat becoming oppressive. The edge of the forest was still close, he hadn't come far, but the larger craft still waited there, and he was not about to be flushed from cover to be shot like some frightened, witless grouse.
He broke into a steady, ground-eating lope, picking the clearest route through the forest that was rapidly becoming an inferno. If he cut across diagonally he could find the edge that opened onto the lake and Hydrocity. From there he could regroup and come up with some way to stop this.
Sonic yawned, loudly and conspicuously.
"Are we nearly there yet?"
"Yes," said Sally.
The hedgehog perked up. "Really?"
Sonic deflated. "Very funny."
"Well stop asking then!" Sally sounded exasperated. She had cause, it must have been the fifth similar question in the past half an hour. "How do I know if we're nearly there yet, when we don't even know where we're going?"
"How do we even know Robotnik came this way anyway?"
This was also not a new question and Sally's answer was just as blunt.
Sonic grumbled to himself but sank back and continued to wait.
Dulcy squinted ahead. "Hey, guys. Don't get too excited, but I think I see something.
Sonic shifted quickly, causing the dragon to shift and protest.
"Where?" he asked, enthusiastically.
Dulcy pointed. "Smoke,"
Sonic snorted. "Yeah right, or a cloud."
Dulcy shook her head firmly. "It's not cloud."
She was proved right only moments later when Sally said, "I think she's right. I can see something too. Smoke, and something darker. Could be land."
Bunnie, who'd been the only one who'd managed to nap during the flight now joined them in looking out.
"You're in luck sugar-hog," she drawled. "I think we are nearly there..."
Reluctantly, Knuckles had been forced to slow to a walk, struggling for breath in the smoky air. The flames were all around now -- even overhead, racing through the canopy, leaping from tree to tree where the upper leaves mingled. Branches had started to fall and the noise was incredible, not just from the roaring flames, but the creaking of branches and trunks, popping and spitting.
All thoughts of a short dash, cutting the corner of the forest to double back on his attackers, were abandoned. All of a sudden, simply getting out again -- anywhere-- was what mattered, and even that required a circuitous route to avoid the thickest flames, and detour around fallen and burning plantlife.
Knuckles had been turned back and around so many times that even his normally reliable sense of direction was faltering. The familiar paths were gone and the flames and smoke made the light strange and stripped the directional cues that sunlight would have provided. The urge to stop to catch his breath was getting harder to ignore, but he knew that would be the beginning of the end. Stubbornly, he continued to put one foot in front of the other, trying not to reflect on how much time it was taking. Too much time.
Maybe by now there was no way out left at all. The sudden mental image of the flames closing around the border of the forest spurred him momentarily into a jog, but he was unable to sustain it and dropped back to a walk, gasping.
He was so focused on simply breathing that the sounds around him became barely noticeable. He didn't hear the hiss of burning sap or the warning popping and snapping. He did hear the almighty crack as a branch overhead finally gave. Heard in time to move, though not far enough. He flung himself away and the heavy bough which would have smashed his skull instead landed across one leg.
Even if he'd known how narrow that escape was, it would have been little comfort. The flames leapt and danced and jumped greedily along the branch and the smell of burnt fur was added to the general reek. Knuckles shrieked, unable to contain himself, as he batted at the flames and tore at the branch and yanked at his trapped leg. It might have taken seconds or long minutes thrashing in panic and pain before he freed himself and rolled clear, beating out the flickering flames on the dry ground where he fetched up.
His chest heaved but he could drag no more oxygen from the choked air, and when he forced himself to his feet, his knee twisted painfully and almost spilled him back to the ground. He righted himself through sheer willpower but things had gone far enough. He was the Guardian and could not die in here like this. Could not leave the Master Emerald unprotected. Most certainly could not leave it to be found by whoever it was had done this.
There was an alternative. He used it rarely. The power was dangerous, and addictive, but it was there when truly needed. He reached out, seeking with his mind for the touch of that familiar power, letting it fill him, letting it take -- for now -- the pain of burns, torn muscles, scorched lungs. Letting it give back instead the energy, the strength he'd need to defend it.
Another flickering light was added to the dancing flames that filled the forest. Knuckles the Echidna, the Guardian, glowed. His stance became more sure, no longer precariously balancing his weight on one good leg. Then, without hesitating or pausing for direction, he ran. He ran straight and unfaltering, and fire and undergrowth were no obstacle. He would find who had done this, he would stop them and then...
He'd worry about "then" when it came. For now, he ran.