By K. M. Hollar
Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, etc. copyrighted by Sega. Sally and the Freedom Fighters copyrighted by Archie and Sega. Packbell and Bookshire copyrighted by Bookshire Draftwood (used without permission). Slasher and Serena copyrighted by K. M. Hollar.
It was cold; bitterly cold. Sonic the Hedgehog shivered and wished he could curl up.
But he couldn't, for heavy chains bound his hands and feet. The chains were cold, and hurt his raw wrists and ankles. They held him motionless and immobile, locked to the wall.
He was lying partly on his side with his back to the icy cement wall. He pressed his face against the cold stone floor and tried to fight the waves of pain that washed over him. It was almost a physical pain, for his heart was heavy and aching. He felt like crying, but he wouldn't let himself. No, he mustn't cry, for in a way it would be admitting Robotnik had won.
But that didn't prevent Sonic from feeling sick. He wouldn't have felt so bad if he was all alone in the prison, for then he would have had the comforting thought that everyone at Knothole village, the Freedom Fighters, would be planning a rescue attempt. But even this was denied him.
Vivid was the memory of Knothole village going up in flames, and the invading robots shooting their stunners. Next came the memory of all the Freedom Fighters chained together and dragged away to the prison. Robotnik had chosen it specially, for although it was small, it was built with more security measures than the others. He had thrown everyone into the cells at the far end of the prison block, and locked Sonic into this end. On top of it all, he had chained Sonic hand and foot, sure he would never escape this time. The outside of the building was surrounded with the toughest of the SWAT-bots as well, insuring security.
It was all these factors combined that was making Sonic feel heartsick. That and the memory of his friends' faces as they were led away. Not to mention Tails's pitiful Despairing cry as he looked back at Sonic and saw him powerless in the grip of five SWAT-bots.
It was a cold November night. It was bone-chilling damp with a thick fog. Icy cold breezes stirred the mist and wafted in through the metal bars of the prison door. Sonic's cell was located directly across the hall from the door, and he received the full force of the chilly night.
Sonic huddled up, desperately trying to get warm. His skin felt clammy and wet, and the cold draft felt like an icy whip. A bit of light shown in from a streetlight attached to a building a short distance away. Every so often a big robot would clump by, it's operational lights flashing hazily through the mist. Sonic shivered again and closed his eyes. He lay still for a long time, wishing he was a million miles away.
Now, unknown to anyone, the cell Sonic was in was contaminated with a very virulent bacteria. This was the reason Robotnik didn't usually put anyone in that particular cell, for anyone left in it for any length of time usually died. (Ivo had never bothered to find out why.) And now, with each breath that Sonic drew, the deadly germs entered his system. The strain of bacteria was so infectious that if anyone was exposed to it they would be flat-out sick in a matter of hours. It was like a poison.
Sonic had had a very large dose of this bacteria, and it was beginning it's deadly work.
The cold seemed to intensify until Sonic was certain icicles were forming on his face. Miserable, he sat up and leaned against the wall. His head swam and he seemed to see bright lights in front of his eyes.
Uh-oh, he thought. There's something wrong with me.
He was so cold it was almost agony. He curled up as much as the cruel chains would allow and wondered why he felt so crummy. The answer was not long in coming.
The fever heat started in his head, then quickly spread to the rest of his body. His temperature rose until he could no longer sit up, but had to lie down and rest his throbbing head.
Man, I wonder what I caught, he thought. I never got sick so fast in my life. This is awful.
The prison seemed to pitch and roll like the deck of a ship. Everything wavered before Sonic's fevered eyes. After a while, he found himself too weak to even sit up again. He began to drift in and out of consciousness, the fever doing strange things to his mind.
Sally, one of the Freedom Fighters, seemed to be standing in the cell. She was about as tall as Sonic, but a light brown all over, with lighter stripes running down her face and ending at her nose. Her bangs hung over her eyes in a soft forelock. She was crying. "Sonic, oh Sonic! Help me!" Sonic opened his eyes and reached out, but she was not there.
Hallucination, he thought. I've never been delirious before. This is wierd.
All of his friends paraded themselves through Sonic's head, each one acting so lifelike that Sonic couldn't help reacting to them. Last of all were Tails and--to his surprise--Knuckles. The red echidna was standing before him; so lifelike in his usual pose that Sonic couldn't help but wonder. He had only met Knuckles once or twice--and why was he with Tails? As this went through Sonic's head, Knuckles looked down at him and said, "Hiya, Sonic. Whatcha doin' layin' on the floor like that?" Sonic started and stared around, but the cell was empty.
Unnerved, Sonic lay back down again, hating the fever for doing such bizarre things to his brain. He decided he wouldn't close his eyes again, but they kept sneaking shut in spite of him. The fever hallucinations set in again; Sonic lay still and watched entire movies on the silver screen of his mind.
It grew late. The icy cold fog thickened as the night wore on. Sonic sank into an uneasy sleep, unconsciously fighting the chains. He woke himself up after a while, and found himself stretched out on the floor, hands reaching as far as they could, feeling along the ground.
That's dumb, he thought. His hand touched something; a small object. His fingers closed around it and drew it toward him. At first glance he thought it was just a piece of pipe or something, but closer examination revealed it was flattened and pointed at one end.
A rusty old dog whistle, he thought, feeling something between disgust and disappointment. The feel of it was somehow familiar. He turned it over and over in his hot palm. The rusted surface bore several raised letters. Sonic wearily pulled himself into a sitting position and tried to make out what it said.
The letters had been all but worn away from much handling. Somebody had used this whistle many times before. He looked at it, straining his eyes to see through the gloom, but he couldn't make it out. Curious, he traced the first letter with his finger. It was an S. The following letter was almost obliterated, so he moved to the next. It was an N. The next was an I, and the next a C.
"S, something, N, I, C. Could that be Sonic?"
As he spoke his name he looked down at the whistle. To his surprise he saw the S begin to glow in electric blue. The color spread to the next, which was an O, then to the rest of the letters. "Cool," he breathed in awe. The whistle began to glow a dull red, gradually brightening. Sonic watched it for a moment before he realized that the glow was produced by heat. Startled, he dropped it on the ground and looked at his hand. He wasn't burned in the least, nor had he felt anything. Really curious and forgetting all about his fever, he picked it up again. It began to glow once more, but it still wasn't even remotely hot. As an experiment, he touched the glowing whistle to the damp wall and listened to the sizzle and hiss of water on hot metal.
He withdrew it from the wall and held it in his hand again. The red turned orange, then faded into white. As it did, it crossed his mind that maybe it could melt metal. He touched it to one of the chains that bound his leg, and watched with amazement as it melted it's way through the iron like a hot knife through butter.
He unchained himself this way, and found that he could feel heat from the melting metal, but not from the whistle itself.
"Weird," he muttered. He tried to stand up, but his fever had weakened him so much he couldn't. He slumped down against the wall and considered melting through the cell's bars, but thought,
What's the use? I'm not strong enough to free the others, and what good is one little whistle against fifteen SWAT-bots?
Glumly he stared at the whistle, still glowing, in his hand. His name was energized in electric blue. He fingered the whistle, and wondered how he knew, somehow, how the thing felt from all angles without needing to touch it.
I wonder what would happen if I blew it? he thought to himself.
Aloud, he mumbled,
"Well, you whistle, what are you for?"
A chill ran over him, for, as if in reply, another name appeared below his. The letters were all in scarlet. "SLASHER."
"Slasher," Sonic murmured. The name brought back a flood of memories; places, faces, good times, all long forgotten.
Sonic swallowed hard and angrily wiped his eyes with the back of one hand. "No crying now, ya wimp," he said to himself. He studied the whistle again. What were the signals? Slowly it came back to him. Clear as a bell he remembered Slasher saying, "One blast for 'come.' Three blasts for 'come quickly.' Five blasts for 'help, my life is in danger.' Wherever you are, I will be able to hear these whistles, and will come as fast as I can."
Whistles? Oh yeah, Tails had had one, too. One, three, and five. I'll blow five, `cause our lives _are_ in danger. Good excuse.
Sonic brought the whistle to his lips, drew a deep breath, and blew it five times. It was silent; Sonic couldn't hear it. From further down the cell block came a sharp cry. Tails, who had been asleep, leaped to his feet and covered his ears. His hearing was sensitive enough to catch some of the frequency. Almost without thinking, he counted the number of blasts. Five. He moved to the front of his cell and called, "Sonic, your whistle! Where did you find it?"
Sonic didn't answer. He was staring through the prison door and outside into the foggy night.
Where is she? he thought. His attention was drawn by a dark figure rounding the corner of a building. After a moment's scrutiny he sighed, disappointed. It was not the figure he expected; this was either human or a robot.
The dark figure was approaching the prison block. Sonic watched it dispiritedly. He heard the robotic voice of a SWAT-bot snarl, "Halt! State your identity and business!" The figure replied in a low voice, "I'm your boss, and my business is none of yours." Robotnik. The robots let him pass. Robotnik advanced to the barred door and unlocked it. He swung the door open with a rusty screech and looked around inside the darkened building. Sonic knew he couldn't see by the way he stood in the doorway and let his eyes adjust. Slowly Sonic moved the glowing whistle behind his back, hoping Robotnik hadn't seen it. Apparently the doctor had not, for he said nothing.
Sonic's eyes were drawn outside again by a sharp movement. Across the courtyard came a very large black shape--it was really hauling. He gasped and drew himself up against the wall, staring. He knew exactly who it was, but it still unnerved him. He had forgotten how fast Slasher could run. She was the only creature alive who had ever out-run him, but somehow he loved her the more for it. And here she was again, streaking through the mist, charging at Robotnik's back.
Robotnik had no clue. He had come out to make sure Sonic was still in his cell, and was cursing inwardly because he had forgotten to bring a flashlight. He started to turn around, thinking to call one of the SWAT- bots and use it's headlight to see. He never got the chance. Slasher hit his back doing seventy-five. It felled him like a bowling pin. His head hit the pavement with a solid clank; Ivo was out like a light. The big velociraptor crouched over him, ready to rend him limb from limb if he moved. He didn't.
"Good one, Slasher," Sonic called softly. The big raptor lifted her head, moved to the bars and gripped them with both three-fingered hands.
"Sonic, I'm back. I can't believe it, but I'm back!"
Her eyes glowed with muted affection.
"Slasher, get me out of here. There's something wrong with me. . . ."
Slasher whirled around and began to frisk Robotnik's fallen form. After a few seconds she produced a key ring. She stuck one of the keys in the lock and twisted it hard. The lock snapped open. She swung the door open with a protesting screech and stepped inside to help Sonic. She froze, big body suddenly tense. She stood motionless for a few seconds, head moving in short, nervous jerks, nostrils flaring.
"This cell's infected," she said uneasily. "I can smell it."
"Yeah," Sonic replied, "and I caught it. Help me, I can't stand up."
Slasher scooped him up in her forearms. She eyed the glowing whistle and said, "Keep a tight hold on that. While it glows only the Master emerald has more power." She turned to leave the prison, but Sonic said, "Slasher, my friends--Tails, too--all of them are in this prison. Get `em out, `kay?"
She bobbed her head to acknowledge, then glided up the hallway. Everyone gasped at the gigantic creature and shrank back, but Tails recognized her and bounded forward.
"Slasher! Thank goodness you're here! Get us outta here, please?"
Slasher unlocked the cell door with one hand and let Tails out.
"Hey, what's the matter with Sonic?"
"He caught something and is major-league sick. Is everybody here your friend?"
Tails looked around. "Uh-huh. The entire Freedom Fighter band is here."
Slasher looked around at all of them and sighed. "Sonic, give me your whistle." Wordlessly Sonic handed it to her.
Slasher ran her finger across her own name to charge it to herself, then began swiping it through the cells' bars. Back and forth she went, slicing through the metal with the whistle like she was hacking through a jungle with a machete. The bars crashed to the ground like so much scrap, and one by one the Freedom Fighters were released.
They stepped out nervously, eyeing the big raptor with distrust. Tails was reassuring. "C'mon, guys, she's a friend. Hurry up, she's not gonna hurt anybody."
"Except Robotnik," Slasher put in. "Let's scram before he wakes up." She led them to the open door and fearlessly stepped out. Sonic, in her arms, stiffened and hissed, "Slasher, the SWAT-bots!"
"Don't worry about them," she said to him and the others. She pointed off over several buildings to their left. A red glow lit up the mist. "The SWAT-bots were called away because of an emergency situation in the fuel station."
"Is it a fire?" Sally asked.
"Uh-huh. It was very nice of them to leave a flame thrower on a shelf in the station. Heh heh. Let's jam before the fire reaches the things of rocket fuel."
As the last of the group stepped out of the prison, Slasher shut the door and locked it with Robotnik still inside. She dropped the keys on the ground in front of the door, then turned to face the edgy Freedom Fighters.
"All right," she said, "stick close. The fog is very thick tonight, so it will be easy to get separated and lost. Because of Sonic's condition I can't come back until tomorrow to look for anyone. Now--" she looked down at Sonic's motionless form--"let's speed."
They were off. Slasher settled into an effortless swinging stride that kept everyone else at a jog. She led them down dark alleys and ill lit back streets, keeping always to the shadows. They had only been on the move about five minutes before there was a thunderous explosion, and the sky reflected a bright orange glow for a moment. "My first sabotage mission," Slasher muttered to herself. "I did pretty well, I think." Sally heard her, and had a feeling that this big creature would be running the Freedom Fighters before long.
In the fog the little group was nearly invisible. They proceed without a sound, strung out alongside and behind, but Tails and Sally stayed on Slasher's right and left. They didn't want to lose sight of Sonic. Sonic was curled up tightly with his burning face pressed against Slasher's chest. The warmth of her big body was wonderful to his chilled form. Slasher could feel that he was burning with fever, but he was sweating and already had a bad chill.
At last they made it out of Robotropolis. Slasher led them on a straight path across the plains and into the woods that faced the city. They kept going until they were a fair distance in, then stopped to make sure nobody had gotten lost. All there. "Where to next?" she asked them. They all looked at each other blankly. "Well," said Bookshire, an old raccoon, "I'd say Knothole, but it's been burned to the ground."
"Well," said Slasher, "don't you have an alternate village where you could go in a case like this?"
This thought had never even occurred to the Freedom Fighters. Slasher snorted at them, "Smart bunch you are."
She sighed and looked down at Sonic again. Everything was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being the drip-drip of moisture from the wet trees. Slasher bowed her head, eyes glittering fiercely, trying to figure out what to do next.
One by one the different creatures approached Sonic and looked at him anxiously. He was cradled in Slasher's muscular arms, and was trembling with cold. He opened his eyes and looked at them miserably.
Slasher's voice broke the silence. "I know where we can go. But it's a long way, and those who are already tired I'll carry on my back." She looked around at the circle of faces. Tails asked, "How far is it?"
"About five miles. We only have about half a mile to go until we reach the trail, and that covers the other four and a half."
Tails said without hesitation, "I'll ride." Slasher crouched down and let him climb up. "What about the rest of you?" she asked.
Sally stepped forward. "Frankly, I'm just worried about Sonic. Let's get moving; we can talk on the way."
"Wait," Sonic said hoarsely. "Slasher, I'll die if I get any colder. Can you carry me under a wing? I can't take another hour of this."
"Wing?" everyone gasped, looking at Slasher in surprise. She shrugged. "Yeah, I've got wings, but in the dark nobody's' noticed `em." She rolled her eyes. "The next question is usually, 'are you a dragon'. No, I am not. I am a winged velociraptor. I'll explain everything later."
She spread one of her broad feathered wings and placed Sonic in the warm hollow between it and her side. When she folded her wing back, Sonic was held securely underneath, but with enough room to be comfortable. "Poor guy," she murmured. "He's burning up, but he's shaking all over." Sternly she looked around. "Let's rip."
Slasher turned left and the rest of the group followed her. For some reason, the going was just a bit easier than walking through the woods normally. It was as if there was a ghost of a trail they were following. Some places were as overgrown as the rest of the forest, however, and Slasher would have to stop and claw her way through. Then she would turn and help the others.
Needless to say, they were all wet, cold and miserable after an hour of this. Sonic was curled up inside Slasher's wing and seemed to be asleep, but it worried Slasher. Little by little she kept stepping up the pace. The Freedom Fighters traveled faster to keep up, but without noticing. They were tired and footsore, and some of them were nearly asleep on their feet. Only Sally still walked with a firm step beside Slasher. She didn't know if she trusted the big raptor yet, but Sonic and Tails sure seemed to.
Sally puzzled over that for a long time. Slasher seemed to know Sonic and Tails like the back of her hand, and they knew her the same way. Sonic had known about her wings, about being able to ride under one. Even Tails, who was now lying nearly flat along Slasher's back, dozing, could ride better than the others behind him. But how? When? Sally sighed. Slasher had promised a full explanation, and they would all get it sooner or later.
Provided Sonic survived.
Slasher was worrying about him as she strode along. Her agile mind worked hard as she concentrated on where they were going and tried to remember exactly what kind of disease Sonic had at the same time. The smell in the cell had given her a hint. It was a sweetish-sickly odor that the bacteria produced. Memories associated with that scent were not pleasant. As Slasher remembered more about it, she also recalled the treatment and cure.
Every now and then, as they walked, one of Slasher's clawed hands would drop down, snag a leaf or a bit of bark, and transfer it to her other hand. Another hour passed, and she began to have a rather sizable bundle.
At last she stopped. Everyone bumped into her from behind, but their complaints were hushed by two words from Slasher. "We're here." She stood still, head slowly turning this way and that, scanning the area for badniks. Five minutes passed. "All right, the area's secure. Follow me."
They stepped out of the trees into a sizable clearing. In the center was one of the biggest trees in Mobius. It had to be ten feet across. The spreading branches didn't begin for fifty feet up the trunk. "What are we doing here?" Sally asked wearily. Without a word, Slasher walked up to the trunk, inserted her long claws into a strip of bark and pulled. A large, bark- paneled door swung silently outward, revealing darkness within the tree.
Most of them were too tired to appreciate this, but Sally stared open-mouthed. "What in the world--?"
"I'll explain later," Slasher interrupted impatiently. "This is the place, everybody. C`mon in." She turned and entered the tree. The Freedom Fighters followed, Sally last of all.
It was pitch black inside, and they could hear Slasher fooling around with something. There was the scratch of a match being struck. In the sudden flare of light they saw Slasher light a propane lantern and adjust it. The light revealed what looked like the inside of a regular cabin. Bunks were carved into the walls like lockers, and a stone fireplace dominated half the room. There was a small store of supplies on several shelves, six feet above the floor.
The room was small, but cozy. With all of them in it, it was kind of cramped. Slasher noticed this, and told everybody to pick a bunk and get into it until she had things arranged. There were only five bunks, so Sally, Tails and Roter sat on the floor. Slasher built a fire in the fireplace, and took several pairs of blankets down from a shelf and handed them out. A few more were needed to bed down the three on the floor. And then Slasher turned her full and undivided attention to Sonic.
She spread several blankets on the floor beside the fireplace, and took Sonic out from under her wing. He was in a dazed fever-sleep. Slasher wrapped him up in another blanket and gave him a drink of water from a big keg in the corner. It was soothing to his tortured system. Slasher's green eyes looked him over several times, and the signs she saw were not good. He was fighting a losing battle and desperately needed help from the outside. Slasher took the bundle of things she had snagged out in the woods and crushed them in her hands. A strong, spicy smell, like crushed mint, spread through the room. She dumped the whole mess into a small bag and tied the top shut. Next she took a small kettle from it's hook and filled it full of water, and hung it from a bar that ran crosswise through the fireplace.
Slasher turned back to her friend. His eyes were open and following her. She crouched down beside him and looked into his eyes. They were clouded by the fever. He shivered uncontrollably. The big velociraptor took him into her arms and held him close. Several feet away, Sally propped herself up on one elbow and watched her suspiciously. But what Slasher did came as a shock to her. The big creature bowed her head, closed her eyes, and prayed. Sally listened in amazement as Slasher humbly asked the Lord to heal her friend. She spoke partly in the tongue of `raptors, for it was in her own language she was able to express her emotions. She prayed for a long time, speaking softly, now and then lapsing into raptor.
When she was finished, Sonic had drifted off again. She gently put him down, then attended to the process of brewing a strong antibiotic out of the herbs. This took around twenty minutes, and by the time it was made Sonic was awake again. This time he was fully functional and coherent. Restlessly he sat up and looked around.
"Where are we?" he asked Slasher.
"A temporary shelter," was the reply.
"I don't feel very good," Sonic continued. "My head hurts and I'm dizzy."
"That's because of your fever. Drink this. It'll help your body fight off the disease."
Slasher handed him a mug full of a steaming liquid. Sonic sipped it and made a face. "Yuck. This is bitter, Slash."
"It's medicine. You're not supposed to like it."
"No kidding." Sonic drank a little more, watching Slasher the whole time. As soon as she turned her back, he looked over at Sally and pretended to throw up. Slasher turned back around and saw him. "Well, you haven't lost your sense of humor, that's for sure."
Sonic managed to get down the rest of the medicine, but not without grimacing at every swallow. He shuddered as he handed the cup back to Slasher and lay down again. "Gross," he muttered. He sighed and curled up in the blankets. A few minutes later he was asleep.
He slept the rest of the night, which wasn't really a long time, for the night was almost over anyway. Slasher watched him constantly, listening to his breathing, once in a while reaching over and feeling his forehead.
Morning came and found the Freedom Fighters asleep in their respective bunks. Sally, Tails and Roter were sleeping soundly on the floor. Across the room from them, Sonic was curled up in several blankets with Slasher stretched out beside him. The big velociraptor was not asleep but seemed to be, for her eyes were half-closed and the fire in them had died down somewhat. She was a little tired, and felt as if she was the one fighting the disease instead of Sonic. But her heart was singing in victory, for Sonic's fever had broken and he was sleeping normally. Silently she thanked her Maker the antidote had worked.
The resurrection of Knothole
"All right guys, push!"
Slasher threw her weight into the rope harness, dug her feet in and pulled. The ropes were attached to a ten-foot beam buried in the rubble of one of the huts that had been part of Knothole village. Antoine, Roter, Sonic, and Bunnie Rabbot were behind the beam, pushing as hard as they could. For a few muscle-cracking seconds nothing seemed to be happening. Slasher gave a determined growl, put her head down and flung her weight against the harness in short, rapid jerks. With a groan the beam gave way, tumbling out of it's resting place. Working as a team (and arguing the whole way), they hauled it to one of the piles of recovered lumber, a short distance away. By the time they reached their destination, everyone had broken out in a sweat and was breathing hard.
Slasher slid out of the harness and said, "Good work, team." She picked up a battery-powered drill and a hammer and set to work pulling out renegade nails and two metal braces.
It had been two weeks since that eventful night. They had all lived in hiding until Slasher was certain that going back to Knothole would not be too dangerous. Robotnik had been furious that they had managed to escape, (and that they had had the nerve to lock him in his own prison), and had sent scouting ships with five or six SWAT-bots each to watch Knothole for a week, assuming the Freedom Fighters would head for home.
Slasher had done some scouting herself, and knew the whereabouts of every visiting hovercraft. She watched the robots from a distance as well, monitoring their movements.
Robotnik eventually quit sending out the robots, figuring the group had headed for one of the southern Freedom Fighter bands.
Now they were relocating Knothole. Slasher had found a new location further back in the woods, so they were salvaging what they could from the charred ruins of the former village. The robots hadn't done a very good job of pillaging, so there were still things to be found in the rubble. Everybody had found something belonging to them.
All were cheerful, even on this gloomy, overcast December day. It was damp and chilly, for after the fog had blown away it had rained for the past week. Now it looked like it would snow. The cold was welcome to the 'labor force' (as Sonic laughingly called it). Already there was a pile of reusable stuff, and there was more to be had.
It had taken Sonic a week to recover. The first two days were a little rough (mostly because Slasher wouldn't let him get out of bed), but the last three days before Slasher started the salvaging, he was practically bouncing off the walls. (He was one time). But now he was working hard, helping his friends do some heavy lumber moving.
"Gosh," he said, leaning against the stack of wood and wiping his forehead. "This junks' heavy. Hey Slash, how're we gonna move this to the new Knothole?" Slasher pulled a nail out of the wood with an ear-splitting screech before answering, "I've got that covered."
She stood up, tossed a handful of nails into a nearby bucket and beckoned to him. "Come`ere, and I'll show ya." She turned and trotted into the woods, long tail swinging. Sonic followed. A few minutes of walking brought them to a small clearing. Parked there was a strange looking hovercraft. If a hoverbike was the equivalent of a motorcycle, then this was the equivalent of a heavy-duty pickup. Sonic stared at it in amazement. "Slasher, where'd you get that?" Slasher grinned at him. "Wouldn't you like to know."
She chuckled. "Actually, I kiped it out of Robotnik's big machine garage. I know a lot of clearance codes, and one of them worked. I got it out here unchallenged. I figured I'd leave it out here in the woods, so if we got attacked, it wouldn't be--well, repossessed, if you catch my drift."
Slasher and Sonic climbed aboard, revved the engines, and headed back to what was left of Knothole. ____________________________________________________________________
At that very moment, chaos was erupting in Robotropolis. It started with a young hedgehog named Serena. Several weeks before, Robotnik had invaded her home village and carried off all it's inhabitants.
Serena was an orphan, and was living with a large family of rabbits. She had only dim memories of her parents (they had been killed in the Great War), but she had heard rumors of an older brother still living. She didn't know his name or anything about him, or even cared. As far as she was concerned, the rabbits she was living with were her family.
Her life was shattered the day Robotnik had his SWAT-bots capture the village. He needed more subjects to robotize and had had his eye on the village for quite some time.
They were all thrown into the dungeon to await robotization at Robotnik's leisure. Day after day, a few at a time, the villagers were taken from the dungeon and never returned. Serena was terrified, but her scheming mind began to work after a day of imprisonment. By the time her turn came, she had pretty much figured out her only hope of escape.
Weeks passed. Serena was the last in the dungeon, nervously awaiting her turn. She had observed the SWAT-bots and how they treated prisoners. If you struggled, they tightened their hold on you so there was no way of escape. On the other hand, if you were limp with terror, they sensed you wouldn't be any trouble and didn't hold you nearly as securely. And this was what her plan hinged on.
Two SWAT-bots entered the dungeon and unlocked Serena's cell. She automatically cowered at the far end, making them enter to get her out. They took hold of both arms and dragged her out. As soon as she was out she got her feet under her and walked along with the SWATs, giving them no resistance at all. Her swift mind was in play. To get to the robotizer, they would have to leave the dungeon, go through the main building, and walk the length of the fortress to the entrance.
Serena matched strides with the robots, careful not to fight them in the least. They left the dungeon and the main building to walk along the side of the fortress. The `bots relaxed their hold a little, secure in the knowledge she wouldn't try to escape. They had almost reached the entrance when Serena went into action.
The young hedgehog stopped and almost sat down. The movement caught the SWAT-bots off guard, jerking them to a halt as well. Before they reached a complete stop, Serena kicked her feet up over her head and did a backward summer-sault, using the SWATs' grip on her arms as leverage. This broke their hold, and Serena landed on her feet behind them. As the robots spun around, she went into a spindash and crashed into one of the bots's chest, splintering it. As it crashed to the ground, she turned to find the other one pointing a laser pistol in her face. Boldly she reached out, grabbed the gun barrel and yanked downward. The laser blast hit the ground in a shower of sparks. With a clever twist of her wrist, Serena snapped the gun out of the robot's hand, flipped it around, and shot him with it.
All this took place in less than fifteen seconds. It ended with Serena standing between two piles of smoldering metal and trying to figure out what to do next.
Well, I could just stand here and look surprised when I get caught.
Her imagination kicked on. She envisioned herself standing before Robotnik with the robotizer in the background, saying, "I don't know what happened, Doc. Those two robots just collapsed all by themselves, and as one fell down, its laser flipped out and landed in my hand."
Yeah, right, like he'd really buy it. If I run I have a fifty-fifty chance of escaping. Ha, I know one place they'd never look.
Serena jammed the pistol into her belt and ran along the side of the fortress. She tried the first door she came to, found it unlocked, and ducked inside.
She found herself in an impressive entry hall. As she stood there panting, she heard footsteps coming up the corridor to her left. Wildly she looked around for a hiding place. She spotted an insignificant-looking door off to her right and dashed to it. The knob turned easily. She whisked inside and closed the door softly behind her. Then she looked around.
It was no closet like she had first thought. It was more like a castle turret, with a circular staircase winding up to the roof. Curious, Serena started climbing. Her bare feet made no sound at all on the thick carpet as she made her way up. After a few minutes she dropped to all fours and climbed with less effort.
I hope whatevers' at the top of this thing is worth it, she thought.
Gasping, she arrived at the top. She was a little dizzy from all the circling, and had to rest on the top step. After a few minutes she looked around to see a door just around the corner. It was ajar. Curious and cautious at the same time, Serena crept to it and peered around it.
It was Robotnik's bedroom. He had taken the best from all of Mobius and used it to furnish his room. The carpet was a deep red plush, and a canopied four-poster bed took up one entire wall. There was a desk, several assorted armchairs, and a big screen television. The room was dark, but light entered through a gigantic plate-glassed window that looked down on Robotropolis. What caught Serena's attention was light coming from a side room. The door to it was pulled to, and white light streaming through the cracks.
She crept across the richly furnished room and looked into the adjoining chamber. A wondrous sight met her eyes.
The room was only a third of the size of the bedroom, and was stacked from floor to ceiling with computer equipment. It was all connected to form one huge computer. It took her a second to realize that this must be Robotnik's main computer, the one that controlled everything.
A few minutes of wide-eyed staring later, she noticed the monitor and the figure seated at the keyboard. The person was seated in a gray swivel chair and was typing madly. His back was to her, and it didn't look like Robotnik; he was too small horizontally and vertically. Serena watched him nervously, then let her eyes scan the room again. This time she saw several boxes stacked in one corner. Before she had time to see anything else, however, the person in the swivel chair stopped typing, gave 'enter' a vicious stab, then leaned back, staring at the screen.
Serena squinted. She wished she could see his face instead of just his back. She was startled by his voice as he grumbled aloud, "C'mon, c'mon, the ro-bo-tizer should be on by now...." He picked up a small microphone and said, "C'mon, Doc, I'm waitin' for the ro-bo-tizer to kick on. What's the hold up?" Through the mike came Robotnik's voice, and he did not sound happy. "The subject somehow managed to smash her escorts and escape." His voice dropped to a venomous whisper. "She was a hedgehog."
"Ah," the figure in the chair replied. "So her fate was sealed, eh? Hmm. Need help hunting her down?"
"Yeah, come on down. She can't have gone far. Leave the computer on; I still intend to robotize her."
With a sinking sensation in her chest Serena turned to hide. She knew who they were talking about. Wildly she looked around for cover, then on impulse dove under the bed. To her dismay it was crowded with heavy boxes, but by shoving desperately she managed to work her way a good twelve inches underneath. She felt more than heard the footsteps of whoever it was, and watched his feet walk past the bed. He was wearing flashy red and yellow high-tops, almost boots, trimmed with a gleaming metal, and green socks. He walked to the door and paused, looking around. Serena couldn't resist moving her head a little to see who it was. She didn't recognize him. A bright red echidna, he had a pointed face, long dreadlocks, muscular chest and arms, and a white crescent on his chest. A few seconds later he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
She waited a few minutes to be sure he was gone, then rolled out from under the bed. Feeling a bit more secure now she was alone, she trotted into the computer room for a closer look at the machinery. The whirr and hum of the computer was alien to her unaccustomed ears, but she examined the screen with interest. It was a lot of numbers and computer code; coordinates for the robotizer. She swallowed uneasily. For some reason Robotnik had it in for her. He hated hedgehogs.
I wonder why. Well, I can give him a reason to hate me. Let's try a hand at vandalism.
With her mind on destruction, Serena looked around for a possible way to trash the computer. She made a list on her fingers. "Well, viruses wreck computers, uh, power surges, umm, magnets, water--" She looked at the screen again. "Amateur hackers."
With her mind turning over these options, she slid the boxes out of the corner and opened them. She found herself staring at several different joysticks, a gamepad, and stacks of game CDs. Nothing that would work. She closed the boxes and put them back, wondering who would have all that game stuff.
Remembering the boxes under Robotnik's bed, the youngster trotted into the next room, got down on all fours, and yanked the first box out. It felt like a ton of bricks, and the cardboard all but ripped in her hands. Curious, she opened it's sealed top, thinking maybe it was spare robot parts or something--and found the box full of big circular magnets, like the ones in speakers. A thick padding of Styrofoam separated one layer from the next. Thrilled, Serena took out four, stuck them together, and carried them back into the computer room. There she wrenched the magnets apart and stuck them to the computer in various places.
At first nothing seemed to be happening. Disappointed, she looked at the screen and saw it was a blur of fuzzy colors which flashed and sizzled frantically across the monitor. Serena snickered and said, "This is your brain normally. This--" she pointed to the screen for the benefit of an imaginary audience, "is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" She was interrupted by a strange buzzing sound within the computer. It crescendos to a scream, and the machine began to spark and smoke. It looked like it was about to blow up. Serena lost her nerve and bolted for the door.
She got five steps down the carpeted stairs when she heard someone bellow like a mad bull and thunder up the stairs. Somehow, she knew it was Robotnik. She lunged back up the steps, leaped behind the door and waited. (Robotnik had an elevator so he wouldn't have to climb the stairs, but with the computer down nothing worked. He had to take the steps.) He was so mad he was charging up them three at a time, swearing with each breath. Halfway up he had to rest, so he made use of this and pulled out a hand-held communicator. "KNUCKLES!!" he bellowed. GET UP TO MY #@$&*!# OFFICE RIGHT NOW!!" He paused for a breath, then continued in a slightly softer tone, "Something happened to the computer, and you were the last one on it!!" Ivo could be heard all through the building. Serena cringed and thought, Oh man. If I get caught I really will be dead meat.
Stamping, sweating and snarling, Robotnik charged into his bedroom. He flung open his door with such force it hit the wall, chipping the plaster. It missed Serena by an inch. She waited until he had entered the computer room before slipping out, not wanting to be anywhere near the smoldering human dynamite when it exploded.
Serena fell more then ran down the stairs, but even halfway down, the building seemed to shake when Ivo discovered what had happened to his central computer.
Serena was looking over her shoulder, back up the stairs, when she ran into someone. It knocked them both over. It was the red echidna. He stood up. "Hey, watch where--" he broke off as he saw her. He recognized her as the escaped hedgehog. He said no more, but his eyes flamed as he jumped at her, wrestled her down, twisted her arms up between her shoulder blades, and marched her back upstairs on her toes.
Robotnik met them at the top of the stairs, his face a mask of fury. His gigantic mustache stuck straight out, and it looked angry, too. He was about to scream at Knuckles, but stopped short as he saw Serena. He stared at her as Knuckles explained. "She ran into me as I was coming up the stairway. I figured she must be the runaway hedgehog, so I snagged her." Without taking his murderous gaze from Serena, Robotnik hissed, "Take her in and look at what she did."
Knuckles marched her in and looked at the computer. He was shocked. Robotnik had unplugged it first thing, but the machine was obviously wrecked. At the sight of it Knux was gripped with a rage that nearly equaled Robotnik's. He tightened his grip on Serena so much she winced in pain. He whirled around and walked her out. Robotnik's voice was very soft, but it belied the murderous hatred beneath. "Take her out to the Testing Lab. Robotizing her would be kind. I will not treat her kindly." His black eyes bored into Serena's. "Believe me, hedgehog, by tomorrow night you will wish you had never been born. You will pay for this damage; with every drop of blood in your body you will pay for it."
Stunned, Serena let Knuckles march her down the stairs and out of the fortress. He was snarling and muttering under his breath, his mind on the computer. As they left the fortress, he snarled, "You have no idea how many saved games you erased. I worked for days on that level, and just as I beat it you had to fry the computer!"
Knuckles continued breathing indignation as he guided her along the side of the building, back toward the prisons. As they walked, Serena saw the two crumpled SWAT-bots still lying on the ground. The sight sent her mind into action. Her body followed a swift second later.
She dropped like a stone and flopped on the ground. With her arms twisted behind her in Knuckles's iron grip, this really hurt. She gasped as pain shot through her shoulders. At the same time, Knuckles stopped and leaned over her to drag her to her feet again. That was what she wanted. Serena kicked her legs up, locked her knees around Knuckles's head and swung him up and over her. He hit the ground flat on his back with kind of a whooshing grunt. Serena leaped to her feet and fled as Knuckles doubled up, gasping for air like a fish out of water.
It took a few seconds for Knux to get a decent breath, but as soon as he did he grabbed his `com link. "Doc," he choked into the microphone, "she got away. Send re-enforcement's." Robotnik's answer could be heard all the way outside. His language was a deep blue in shade; Knuckles winced and held the `com out at arms length. As Robotnik was cursing, he was plunging down the stairs four at a time. A few minutes later he burst out the door, breathing heavily, a look of frenzied rage in his eyes. He skidded to a stop with an oath when he saw Knuckles. The echidna looked up at him, and the look on his face was grim and cold. "She hurt me," he wheezed. "Kill her."
Robotnik switched channels on his `com and said, "Calling all SWAT-bots. Red alert: escaped prisoner." He looked down at Knuckles, who gasped, "She's dark violet--almost blue." Ivo continued, "Number-one priority hedgehog. Apprehend. Capture alive." He switched off the mike, then sneered. "She looks enough like Sonic to be mistaken for him by a robot. And believe me," he said, looking across Robotropolis, "she will be captured." ___________________________________________________________________
Serena was tearing across Robotropolis at remarkable speed, fear and adrenaline adding wings to her feet. So far she had seen no SWAT- bots, but had seen several robotized citizens of the city. The sight of them reminded her of what they intended to do to her, and her speed increased. She kept to the back streets and alleyways, setting a straight course out of the polluted city.
She had run for a good five minutes before a SWAT spotted her, called it's buddies, and the chase was on.
The robots had the advantage, for they knew the layout of the city and she didn't. The metallic sounds of the SWATs behind her filled her with terror, and she ran like a scared rabbit. It was a nightmarish experience. Serena just knew she would turn a corner and find a dead end. She thought of the pistol still jammed in her belt. It hadn't been noticed when she had been caught, and was still there. She didn't want to use it though, for that would mean turning at bay and fighting however many robots were behind her. She cocked her ears backward, listening to the metallic footsteps of her sinister pursuers.
Serena was really faltering by the time she reached the garbage dump which formed the outskirts of Robotropolis. When she saw the piles of garbage and rotting discarded machinery, her heart sank, thinking she was trapped. In desperation she ducked into it and wove her way though like a gigantic obstacle course, always heading the same direction. The SWATs were slowed by the loose garbage; they weren't as small or light as the young hedgehog and couldn't leap and bound as she did.
Serena was beginning to tire. A terrible cramp was developing in her side, and her breath came in shallow ragged gasps. Still intent on her pursuers, she didn't notice the junk was thinning out. She was leaving Robotropolis behind; before her stretched five miles of open plain, bordered by the Great Forest. Serena lifted her head, saw the great empty space before her, and her heart plummeted to her toes; she couldn't face racing robots across that. With grim resolve, she stopped, turned, and drew the laser pistol from her belt. Holding it in both hands, she set it on 'rapid fire' and held it up, ready to shoot as soon as she eyeballed the first robot.
The SWATs had broken up, fanned out and emerged in twos and threes from the dump, scanning for 'priority hedgehog.' As they came into view, Serena took aim and fired systematically. She was a good shot. Every blast hit a SWAT in the head or chest, blowing it to bits. One bot was carrying a blaster rifle. Serena shot the robot, then darted forward and snatched the rifle. Jamming the pistol back into her belt, she cocked the rifle and resumed firing.
Twenty robots later found Serena still standing her ground, slowly looking up and down the dump for more attackers. But she was alone; she had won the skirmish. Not quite believing that she was victorious, she counted how many bots she had blasted. There were thirty-seven. The hedgehog frisked each robot and exchanged her pistol for a better one. She also found a gun charger that would reload the guns with energy. Then, with the blaster rifle slung over her shoulder, the pistol in her belt (and feeling quite dangerous), she headed for the Great Forest.
* * *
A few hours of alternately walking and running found her in the woods, headed back to her village. Serena was quite woods-wise; her hearing and sense of smell had been honed to a fine edge, for animal qualities had been important in her village. They had been dulled by her long stay in the prison, so it was perfectly wonderful to be outside again, to breathe the fresh cold air and feel wet cold leaves underfoot. She didn't care that it was freezing cold and cloudy; being free was enough to make it all delightful.
As she traveled she occasionally circled back to catch the breeze for any sound of pursuers. But no one was following her. She had taken out the first wave of SWATs, and they hadn't had time to re-group yet. By the time they did, she would be long gone.
As she made her way through the forest, she thought about what she would do. She was going home to get supplies for living out in the woods, but what to do after that? Her thoughts turned to her brother.
"I could spend my time trying to find him, I guess. Too bad I don't know his name. _If_ he really exists. He's probably about fourteen or fifteen by now. Heck, this won't be easy. There aren't that many hedgehogs in Mobius nowadays. Just finding a hedgehog would be a challenge. I wonder if he's even alive, or if he's been robotized, or what." Serena sighed.
Another hour of hiking brought her to the charred remains of her former home. She wasted no time in staring around forlornly, but cut across the clearing and stepped onto a nearly invisible trail. It didn't look like a trail to someone with less experience, but Serena knew all about it. Many times her bare feet had followed it to it's destination, along with her friends. Now she followed it's familiar twists and turns easily as it wandered aimlessly through the trees. (The turns were necessary to lose any 'spies' that might be following.) It made the path hard to see, but Serena followed it quite easily.
It ended in a little clearing that was more like a gap in the trees. Built around the base of a tree trunk was a cunning little fort. It was cleverly camouflaged by branches and brush. Serena and her friends had built it and had hidden it there. It was their secret clubhouse. The youngster walked up to it and pulled aside two leaning boards which served as a door and entered. Inside were a couple chairs, some boxes and other miscellaneous objects. Serena, relieved that the clubhouse had been left undiscovered by the robots, stepped over to a pile of burlap sacks, pulled them aside and revealed a hole in the dirt floor beneath. In it was her backpack and a few treasured belongings.
Serena sat down and opened her backpack. In it were her pocketknife, her precious flint-and-steel, and a pocket flashlight with several sets of batteries. She put several things in, including her shoes that (fortunately) had been left there.
I'll want these later, when it gets really cold, she thought.
Then she turned to go back to the village. She would see if she could find anything worth keeping. As she left she paused and looked back at the little fort, thinking sadly of her robotized friends. She would probably never see them again. And then it hit her. Why not join the Freedom Fighters? They might know something about her brother, and she could help in the war for freedom.
Thus cheered, she headed for the village. Serena found what was left of her home, and managed to salvage a few items she thought she would need, like blankets. All went into her pack.
It was getting dark when she finally left. The young hedgehog had tears in her eyes as she turned her back on what had been home and plunged into the woods. ______________________________________________________________________
The discovery of danger
Two weeks passed, and Knothole village was nearly rebuilt. With Slasher there as supervisor, overseer and architect, things were running smoothly. The village had slightly different layout than it had had in the old location; each hut was invisible from the air. A tree sheltered each one, and at the same time served as a windbreak.
Everything was going great, but Slasher seemed troubled. She was a little too quiet, and in the evenings it was not raining, she would steal off by herself and be away for hours. One night Sonic went looking for her.
He found Slasher at a small lake about a mile from Knothole. She was lying down, forearms crossed in front, hindlegs folded comfortably underneath. She was also completely motionless, staring out across the water. She was perched on a big boulder, and screened by overhanging trees and brush. Sonic knew she liked to come to the lake; he also knew she would be invisible in the dark to all but the sharpest eyes. So he cheated. He took along some infra-red goggles.
Even with them, she was hard to find. He finally spotted the big raptor and tried to sneak up on her. It was twilight, so he didn't think she'd see him until he surprised her. He got within ten feet of her before she said, "Hi, Sonic." His cover blown, Sonic climbed up on the rock beside her. "How'd you know I was here? I thought I was pretty quiet."
"Not quiet enough, though. I could hear you as you looked for me, and I knew when you spotted me."
"Oh, I could tell by the way you were moving." For the first time she looked over at him. "And I didn't have night-vision goggles." Embarrassed, Sonic took them off. He knew Slasher didn't approve of using machines for hunting.
"What're you doing here?" she asked after an interval. Sonic shrugged.
"I want to know what's' wrong with you."
"What's wrong with me?"
"You've been acting really un-cool lately. Like you aren't interested in what's been goin' on. What's the deal?"
Slasher turned away with a deep sigh and was quiet for several minutes. When she turned back her eyes looked strange; a haunting, haggard look. It startled him. "Slasher, what's wrong?" he asked, alarmed. For answer she looked up at the sky and pointed to the south. "Do you see that star cluster? The little blurry patch to the left of the pine tree." Sonic looked.
"Yeah. What about it?"
Eyes fixed on it, Slasher replied in a low voice, "It doesn't move. Sure, it moves 'cause of the rotation of the planet, but it never shifts position; never sinks lower after a few weeks or rises after a few weeks. Neither do the other constellations."
Sonic felt a chill of foreboding run down his spine. "What that mean?"
"It means," Slasher replied grimly, "that Mobius is locked into a space-time continuum."
Slasher sighed. "The whole universe--as far as we can tell--is all in the same time frame. It's called a space-time continuum. Well, Mobius has been locked into a separate time. Our time is different from that of the rest of the universe. That may be okay for right now, but it means trouble in the long run."
"Our solar system revolves around our sun. The system is moving through the galaxy, and the galaxy is traveling through space. Now, if Mobius is no longer in the same time frame, it gets left behind." Sonic's eyes widened, and Slasher saw most of the blood had drained from his face. "You're kidding." Slasher slowly shook her head. "I wish I were. Mobius's orbit is already starting to decay. Winter has been colder because the planet is a little further from the sun. Summer will be hotter 'cause it's just a bit closer. Eventually gravity will take over and we'll either hit the sun or be hurled out into space." She paused. "But if we could free the planet from the continuum, it's orbit would be able to stabilize. If we wait even three more years it will be too late."
Sonic felt like he was sinking with nothing to hold on to. He put his arms around Slasher's neck and held on. "Oh Slasher," he breathed. It was all he could say. "Oh, Slasher."
She put an arm around him. "You wanted to know what's been bothering me." "Yeah," Sonic murmured. "You don't worry about anything small, do you?"
"Well, I wouldn't say that," Slasher replied. "You're small, and I worry about you." They were quiet a few minutes. Sonic broke the silence by saying hopelessly, "But how do we free Mobius? Is the continuum natural or what?"
"No Sonic, it's not natural. It's man-made." Sonic sat up and looked at her. "Say what?" Slasher put her head to one side and looked into his eyes. "Think back, Sonic. Remember when Robotnik first took control of Mobitropolis?"
"Yeah. Few years ago."
"Do you remember a day when the light changed colors, and the planet suffered from massive earthquakes?" Sonic's brow furrowed in thought. "Um...well ....uh...wait, yeah, I do remember a day something like that happened. I was scared, and just hid until the shaking stopped. Why?"
"Because that was the day the planet entered the continuum. Robotnik somehow locked Mobius into it, and that's where we've been for a long time." Sonic looked puzzled. "What for? What would it accomplish?"
"Well, I've come up with two reasons. One is to keep anyone in space from landing on Mobius. Like, say, from Earth. The second reason is that if Robotnik falls, he figures the planet will self-destruct afterward. So he wins either way."
Sonic was glowering. "What a jerk! Doesn't he know how close he is to dying with the planet?" Slasher shook her head. "From what I've gathered, he has no clue. But I have to figure out a way to destroy whatever mechanism he has for maintaining the continuum." She got to her feet. "Well, it's getting late. Let's head back. Hey, want a free ride?"
Sonic swung himself up onto her back. Slasher spread her wings, crouched, and sprang off the rock into the motionless, starry sky.
In which Serena joins the Freedom Fighters
It was early morning. The forest was motionless as the sun arose above the eastern mountains. Birds who had been warming up their feathered throats burst into full song.
As the sun's first rays shown down into the trees, Serena stirred and pushed back a low hanging tree branch. She had spent the night on the ground, curled up with her back against the tree trunk and a heavy blanket around her shoulders. But it was morning again, and she rolled out from under the tree and looked up at the sky. It was clear and cloudless. "Another fine day," Serena murmured.
She had slept with her shoes on. Now she took them off to go barefoot again, and folded her blankets. She opened her backpack and took stock of her supplies. She was nearly out of food--she had enough to last another three days, but that was it.
Too bad I don't have any money, she thought. She was not afraid to work, but was hesitant, for she knew Robotnik probably had a price on her head by now.
For three weeks she had lived in the woods, sleeping where she could and avoiding all robots. She had been to the Freedom Fighter bands further south, asking about her brother. Some had been kind, others suspicious, but none had heard of him. Discouraged, she was headed for the last band she knew of. If they hadn't heard of him, she would give up and simply join the little rebellion.
Serena knew the village was somewhere in the area, but felt she was looking for a needle in a haystack. Someone at another band had told her Robotnik had discovered it, captured all the Freedom Fighters and burned the village. Somehow the band had managed to escape and were rebuilding somewhere else.
And if I know Freedom Fighters, it will be so well hidden I'll never find it, Serena thought. But it was worth a try. She had nothing else to do.
Serena shouldered her backpack and walked down to the stream. The night before, when she had found it, she had made sure it wasn't flowing out of Robotropolis. If it was, then you could bet it would be polluted. Contaminated streams were marked with bio-hazard signs every few feet, but it wasn't hard to tell, anyway. The water would be multi-colored. This stream, however, flowed from the mountains and was fresh and clean. The young hedgehog drank from it and washed her face and hands. Then she put on her pack and headed north, following the creek.
After thinking about it, Serena had narrowed village locations to a few possible places. She knew they needed water, and wouldn't be too far from Robotropolis. (The other bands praised the inhabitants of Knothole village for their hit-and-run sabotage operations.) So Serena was following the stream. She figured that she would follow the creek until she reached the mountains, then would double back and trace it's tributaries. That way she hoped to find Knothole. The fact she was nearly out of food, though, worried her. It meant her searching time was limited.
Serena thought about it as she walked upstream, eyes on the ground. She traveled for an hour without really noticing her surroundings, vaguely aware of the sun's winter warmth on her back. Her eyes followed the muddy bank of the stream beneath her feet without interest; that is, until she caught sight of a very large footprint. It stopped her dead in her tracks. She bent down and studied it. It was a robot's footprint, perhaps SWAT-bot. But, gosh, it was huge! It was five times larger than a regular SWAT's foot. She gingerly placed her own foot inside it, and found the print was much larger than her own. What was eerie about it was that it was fresh; very fresh. Serena lifted her head, trailing the bot's path with her eyes. It had came out of the woods on the far side of the stream, walked though the water, and vanished into the trees on this side.
Serena was instantly on guard, staring around her and listening. The robot was close by; she sensed it's presence. A chill of foreboding swept over her, and she was suddenly aware of how exposed she was. She moved sideways into the brush that lined the riverbank, careful to make no unnecessary sound. She had a feeling she would be doing some running, so she took off her backpack and hid it under a bush where she could find it again. As an afterthought, she took out her pistol and stuck it in her belt where she could reach it easily. Then, curious and cautious at the same time, she set out to find the bot with the big feet. It would do no good to run if she didn't know where the robot was. She might run into it instead of away from it.
A sound. A twig cracked under feet not her own. Serena turned and faced the direction the noise came from. It wasn't far away. Softly Serena crept toward it. The woods were very quiet; too quiet. It frightened her, but she was determined to see the robot. Another sound, further away. She followed. Now the bot's progress was marked plainly by the crunch-crunch of robotic feet. That SWAT must be really clumsy to make that much noise, Serena thought.
Then, from only a few feet to her right, came the harsh metallic voice of a SWAT-bot. "NUMBER-ONE PRIORITY HEDGEHOG!! APPREHEND!!" Scared out of her skin, Serena leaped away like a frightened deer and fled, the robot in hot pursuit.
It was not a regular SWAT. It was bigger and burlier. In one metal hand was a sound caster; a device which played sound effects and put them at any distance from the user. It had baited Serena with it until she was almost in reach. But now she knew what it had done, and was running as fast as she could. The robot was gaining on her, covering the ground in huge strides. Serena glanced back. Fear was beginning to be replaced by outrage that she had fallen for it's trick. "Let's see how you handle an obstacle course, you back-stabbing creep," she growled, then began to dodge through the thickest of the brush and trees. This slowed her down a little, but it slowed the SWAT even more. She began to pull away from it.
Then her heart plummeted into her shoes, for behind her the robot fired up it's rocket pack and blasted into the sky. That was no normal SWAT-bot. It was an Ultra SWAT. As stormtrooper is to dark trooper, so was SWAT-bot to Ultra SWAT-bot. And Serena was unfortunate enough to have one on her tail.
Ultra SWATs had a wider area scan than regulars, motion sensors, sound sensors, and sight sensors. You name it, they had it. Robotnik had had Ultra SWATs in the making for quite a while, but was just beginning to deploy them. As a test, he sent several out after Sonic. Serena happened to look like him, and was now targeted as 'priority hedgehog.'
The robot turned off it's jet pack and smashed to the ground a few feet to Serena's right. She veered left. As she ran, she glanced over her shoulder, back at the robot--and slammed into another SWAT. It was standing there, arms folded and metal legs braced, just waiting. The U-SWAT behind her arrived, and another stepped out of the trees to her left. Serena was surrounded.
Simultaneously the robots produced blaster rifles and aimed them at her. "Drop your weapon," the biggest one growled. Serena pulled out her pistol and let it fall. As she put her hands in the air, the one that had spoken-- she noticed the status symbol on it's chest--pressed a button to radio Robotnik. "Have Apprehended Priority Hedgehog. Request Further Instructions." Robotnik's voice came through a speaker on the robot's belly. "Turn on the cameras." Immediately the eyes of all three bots lit up as the internal cameras came on.
Three screens in Robotnik's computer room came on with different angled views of Serena. At first Robotnik was disappointed it was not Sonic, but then he leaned closer to the screens and looked again. "Well well well," he said with an evil smile. "If it isn't our little saboteur." He pressed a button on an intercom. "Knuckles, come up to the control room. I have something to show you."
"All right Doc, I'm on my way," came the echidna's voice through the speaker. A few minutes later Knuckles walked in. "Hiya, Doc, what's up?" Robotnik motioned to the screen. "Take a look at what my U-SWATS caught." Knuckles looked. "They snagged Sonic?"
"No. Look again."
Knuckles squinted. "Hey, ain't that the girl who blew up the main computer a few weeks ago?"
Knuckles's face darkened. "I still think we should kill her."
"My sentiments exactly," Robotnik agreed. "Robots, destroy Priority Hedgehog."
Serena would have died a horrible death if someone, or, rather, two someone's, had not been out scouting the woods that day.
The head U-SWAT put away it's blaster and clapped it's metal hands together. "All right, robots," it said, "let's slice and dice." All three robots snapped open panels on their lower arms, revealing razor-sharp sawblades. That wouldn't have been so bad, but they turned them on with a high-pitched whine. Serena gasped as she realized what they were going to do to her. "I'm not priority hedgehog," she cried. "I'm somebody else!"
"Yeah," said a voice behind the lead SWAT. "I'M the guy you want, ya stupid bots."
What happened next was almost too rapid for Serena to grasp. The big robot spun around and fired three laser blasts from it's wrist gun in quick succession. Whoever it was firing at smashed into it's legs. As the robot reeled backward, a large creature appeared out of nowhere. It came at Serena at great speed, but it was gentle as it's arms encircled her waist. It lifted and carried her as if she weighed nothing. It sprang away from the robots and set the young hedgehog down behind some brush. "Stay here, you're safe now," it said in her ear. Then it whirled around and returned to the fracas. Serena had an impression of long claws, green eyes and a long reptilian tail. She parted the brush to see what happened next.
She was in time to hear the other creature's taunt: "How many of you idiots does it take to change a light bulb?" He went into a spin, racing around and around two of the robots. As he became a blue blur, he flung out the answer to his own question: "Fifty! One to unscrew it, another to hand up the replacement, and forty-eight to figure out how!" He slammed into the robots over and over, crippling them. The other animal, the one who looked like the biggest lizard Serena had ever seen, pounced on the other SWAT from behind. The blow knocked the robot to the ground, but before it could recover, the lizard flipped it over and smashed in the back of it's head by landing on it with both feet.
And then it was over. The blue blur resolved itself and turned out to be a blue hedgehog. He gave the lizard a high five. "Good work, Sonic," the lizard said.
"I love doing that," Sonic said, grinning broadly. "What?" Slasher asked playfully. "Destroying helpless robots?" Sonic kicked at one. "I wouldn't call them exactly _helpless_. We got the parts Roter wanted. I see ya just disabled this one." "Yeah," Slasher replied, "I figure we better learn how U-SWATs operate before we take out any more."
Then Sonic remembered. "Hey, where's the kid the SWATs were gonna disassemble?"
Serena stepped out of the bushes. "Right here." Sonic surveyed her critically. "Well, you kinda look like me, but gosh! a robot shouldn't confuse us. Weird." Slasher started as she noticed the resemblance, looking from Serena to Sonic and back again. She said nothing, but had an odd look on her face. "Thanks for saving me," Serena said. "Hey, no problem-o," Sonic replied. "I'm not about to let anybody get ripped apart just `cause they look like me. By the way, I'm Sonic, and this is Slasher."
"Hi. I'm Serena."
Sonic looked her over from head to toe. She was a tad shorter than he, and a violet blue all over. She wore tattered jeans and a faded red sweatshirt. She looked a little pale, but seemed cheerful enough.
"Serena, eh? Pretty name," Sonic said. He looked down at the robot. "Well Slash, let's head back. We're gonna need help to clean all this up."
"Good idea," Slasher replied. They both turned to leave, but stopped as Serena yelped, "You're just gonna walk off and leave me? What if there are more SWATs around?" Sonic opened his mouth to reply, but Slasher beat him to it.
"You see, young Serena, we are Freedom Fighters, and you are a total stranger. How do we know you aren't a spy for Robotnik?" Slasher could see plainly the girl hedgehog was no spy, but wanted to test her and see how she would react. Sonic was about to jump in, but he caught the mischievous glint in Slasher's eye and decided to play along. Serena seemed stunned.
"Me--a spy? Where do you get that? I can't even imagine working for Ivo. He robotized all my friends and step-family, and almost got me. How could I work for someone so evil?"
"Prove it," Sonic said haughtily. Serena's mind raced. How in the world could she prove something like that? "If I'm working for Robotnik, why did he have the robots try to kill me? Or, to take it one step further, why have a hedgehog working for him at all? I've noticed he has a special hatred for Hedgehogs. The only way he can stand us is if we're robotized." Sonic raised his eyebrows and glanced up at Slasher. That was a good point. Slasher returned his look with a barely distinguishable nod, then returned her gaze to Serena.
Serena was looking at the ground. "He robotized everyone I knew and burned our village." An impish grin spread across her face. "But I got him back. I wrecked his central computer."
That got Sonics' and Slashers' attention. "What??"
"Oh, before I escaped I stuck magnets all over his main computer. So now Ivo really has it in for me." She made a list on her fingers. "I smashed two SWATs, wrecked his computer, then knocked the wind out of a bright red echidna who tried to take me back to prison." She looked up and saw Sonic and Slasher grinning broadly. "Ya know, Slasher," Sonic said, "I think she has the makings of a first-rate Freedom Fighter. Whaddya think?"
"I think you're thinking what I'm thinking." Sonic slapped Serena on the back. "C'mon, we'll take ya to Knothole."
"Wait a minute--Knothole? As in, the Knothole that Robotnik discovered, burned, and carried off all inhabitants?" Sonic just rolled his eyes as he remembered. "Uh-huh."
"How'd you escape?" Sonic tossed a meaningful glance at Slasher and said, "It's a long story." "Yes," murmured Slasher, "longer than you realize."
They started walking. They had only moved a few paces when Serena stopped and said, "Oh, wait a minute, I forgot my backpack. It's down by the stream; I'll go get it." The youngster turned and glided away into the woods. Sonic watched her go. "Whaddya think of her, Slasher?" Slasher put her head to one side and partly closed her green eyes. "I don't know yet. She seems okay, but there's something familiar about her. Like I've seen her before, or hung out with her before." She looked down at Sonic and studied him intently. Sonic ignored her stare; she was always studying him intently. "Sonic," Slasher asked, "do you have any family?" Sonic shrugged. "I donno. As far back as I can remember I've been an orphan and living with Uncle Chuck. You know that already. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, out of curiosity, that's all."
Before Sonic could make any sense of this, Serena arrived, backpack slung over one shoulder. "Okay, I got it," she said breathlessly. "Let's go."
As they trotted through the woods, Sonic asked, "How'd you manage to knock the wind out of Knuckles?"
"Huh?" Serena replied, looking at him.
"Knuckles. You know, the red echidna. How'd ya do it? Knuckles ain't exactly the easiest guy in the world to fight with."
"Oh, I didn't fight him. When we get to a clear place I'll show you what I did."
"Why, do you know martial arts?"
"Nope. Well, I don't think so. I learned a few things from some of the older kids, mostly because I was the one they practiced on."
But they didn't find a clear place until they reached Knothole, and then they forgot about it.
Serena was formally introduced to everyone. Slasher offered to share her hut with Serena until they had a place to put her, and everyone agreed. Sally cornered Serena and demanded to hear her whole story, to which Serena gladly complied. While they were talking, Slasher, Roter, Sonic and Bunnie headed off to collect the remains of the U-SWATs. The group made three trips by the time the two girls finished talking.
Slasher prompted them to help by giving them a pointed look and saying to the others, "Well, back to work, guys. The _ladies_ obviously aren't done chatting yet." Sally laughed as she got to her feet. "We better go help them, Serena. Or else Slasher will needle us for the rest of the evening."
As they walked back to where the robots were, Serena caught up to Sonic. "Hey Sonic," she called, then lowered her voice as she slowed him down to walk behind the others. "What's up?" he asked her. "I want to know about Slasher," was the reply. "Is she a dragon or what?" Serena had noticed Slasher's wings. Sonic gave her an odd look. "No, she's a winged velociraptor. In fact, she gets really offended if you even suggest she's a dragon." "But raptors don't have wings!" Serena protested.
"I know, but Slasher sure does. All she'll say is she was given them. Then she changes the subject."
"I know. She doesn't like to be asked about it, either. But--" his voice lowered even more--"she's not from Mobius. Don't tell anyone, but Slasher is originally from Earth."
"I donno. She has an interesting history, you would think. But she's never told us about it. At least, not that I can remember." Sonic's brow furrowed as a troubled look crossed his face. Serena had no more time for questions, for they reached the fallen U-SWATs, and in the work that followed she couldn't close to Sonic again.
The group carefully disassembled the intact Ultra SWAT and carried the parts back to Knothole. Putting it back together was more of a chore, and dusk had fallen by the time they finished. Somebody lit the campfire. Dinner that night was prepared by Sonic (they all took turns at this), so of course they had chili dogs. Afterward came the most interesting part of the day. It was the informal debriefing sessions which took place around the campfire.
Usually Sally planned the sabotage runs, but that night she said, "Slasher has something special planned, and she wanted to tell us about it." She looked at Slasher, transferring everyone's gaze to the big raptor. Slasher had remained standing, and now her posture added emphasis to her words.
"I know how you have all noticed how every clear night I head off into the woods, and don't come back until late."
Sonic interrupted her by jumping to his feet. "No, Slasher!" he almost shouted. She looked at him sorrowfully. "Sonic, they have to know. It's too big for you and me to handle on our own. We need help." Beaten, Sonic sat down again, but he sat with one hand over his eyes so nobody could see what he was thinking.
Slasher went on to tell them about the space-time continuum, and what it was doing to Mobius. The Freedom Fighters reacted the same way Sonic had, with fear, despair and anger. Slasher paused for a few minutes, then informed them about Robotnik controlling it. "And so," she concluded, "we need to start some major reconnaissance missions. Our lives depend on destroying the thing, or things, that hold Mobius in danger." Slasher sat down. She was finished speaking. Let the others digest the news, and see if they came up with a way to reverse the continuum process.
A heated discussion followed. It finally ended by organizing scouting groups that would try to find out all they could. Slasher refused to lead a group, though. Her reason was this: "I intend to go to some pretty dangerous places, and I will risk no life but my own. I won't have somebody getting killed because of me."
It was late before they all went to bed, but no one slept for a long time. The news had been terrifying to Serena's rookie ears, and she agonized over it for hours before she finally dozed off.
But that was nothing compared to what Sonic went through.
Sonic remembers, and where Slasher got her wings ___________________________________________________________________
He thought he had learned to live with the idea of the continuum, but as he lay there in his hammock that night, he found it still terrified him. What emphasized it was this: out his window, across the treetops, he could see one bright star. It didn't move. Sonic stared at it and stared at it, his mind a turmoil of horrible thoughts. At last he fell asleep, but his eyes closed with the light of the star in them. Perhaps that is what caused his dream; or perhaps not.
It wasn't really a dream--it was more like a floodgate of memories opened in his subconscious mind.
Suddenly he was reliving his previous adventure on Floating Island. Bright and fast the memories hit him, exploring the island with Tails at his side. Knuckles stealing the chaos emeralds. Falling into Hydrocity. Finally escaping and winding up in the heart of Floating Island; a place called Marble Gardens. The setting sun in his eyes as he and Tails landed in the Carnival. The bright lights and rides. Slasher meeting them outside the gates. Leaving the island and flying to the snow-capped mountain range on the mainland. Exploring the Ice Cap and the caves. Pursuing Knux to Launch Base and seeing Death Egg take off. Seeing the enormous ship crash later on Floating Island. Running through the island's Mushroom Hills. Hitching a ride on Robotnik's warship and meeting Metal Sonic. Fleeing the ship at Sandopolis. Experiencing a desert sandstorm. Finding and exploring the pyramid. Falling through the mine shaft into the Lava reef mines. Barely escaping with their lives, fleeing to Knuckles's Hidden Palace. Sonic's showdown with Knuckles, and arriving too late to save the Master emerald from Robotnik. Knux showing them through the Sky Sanctuary, high above the ground. Entering Death Egg as it flew over. Metal Sonic's fury--
It was there Sonic awoke. He sat up in bed, eyes wide, breath coming in deep gasps. He looked out the window. The lone star had not moved, but Sonic could feel it was around midnight. All was not normal, however. The dream had broken the barrier in Sonic's memory, and he could recall all the way back to before Robotnik. He could also remember why he had forgotten it all.
One day, he, Knuckles and Tails were messing around with a portable teleporter. It had been acting up, so Knuckles was at the controls while Sonic stood in the beam. The device was set to three-fourths power; that is, you could see wherever it would take you without it doing so. Sonic was calling out what he saw, and Knuckles was making adjustments. Tails was watching from a safe distance.
And then the quirk came into play. The teleporter did something it wasn't supposed to do. Sonic remembered yelling hysterically, "Turn it off! Turn it off! It's the Interweb! Yaaahh!!" But the thing was locked and wouldn't shut off. Knuckles and Tails leaped forward to forcibly drag Sonic out, but as they grabbed his arms the teleporter came all the way on and sucked the three of them into the trackless universe of the Interweb.
Sonic and Tails managed to stay together, but Knuckles was flung away from them and lost. Time had no meaning in the Interweb, so they were unaware of how long they were in it. But by the time they made it out and back to Mobius, they had both lost their long-term memories. It had all been erased by the brain-draining functions of the Interweb.
Robotnik had been busy, meanwhile. He had played a big role in the Great War and succeeded in capturing Mobitropolis, which later became Robotropolis. He also perfected the robotizer, and began his dictatorship over Mobius.
Sonic and Tails started a Freedom Fighter band, which quickly became a sort of underground rebellion. They forgot about the Interweb in the meantime. It was such a horrible experience that it went into one of those airtight compartments in their heads and was conveniently forgotten about.
Another thing that changed was the fact Slasher was gone. No one knew when she had left, or had even heard of her. Knuckles had gotten out of the Interweb, but isolated himself on the Floating Island and for a long time lived by himself, alone and secluded. Only recently had he started working for Robotnik; the Interweb had erased his memory as well. But he was still reserved and didn't completely trust anyone.
Sonic remembered everything, and with a clarity that was a little freaky. As he sat there, staring out the window, his thoughts flew back to Slasher's arrival. What had she said? "Sonic, I'm back! I can't believe it, but I'm back!" Back--from where? She had not been in the Interweb, for she still had her memory. Yes, he could see that--she was constantly saying things that related to his previous adventures, but he never understood her innuendoes.
He had to know. Sonic quietly slid out of his hammock and made his way outside. It was clear and cold; already a thick frost covered everything. The stars lit the world with a soft luminescence, allowing Sonic to see quite clearly. He glided across the clearing and entered Slasher's hut.
The big raptor had built her hut to have the maximum amount of floor space. She didn't sleep on a bed, for she preferred the floor. Her only bedding was a pile of branches and dried grass covered with a canvas tarpaulin. Serena was asleep on a cot in the corner. As Sonic entered Slasher's head lifted, showing she was far from asleep. Sonic padded over to her pallet and sat down. "Keep it down," Slasher murmured. "Serena's asleep, but lightly from nervousness." Sonic nodded, then said quietly, "Slasher, I remember--everything."
One of Sonic's hands was on Slasher's shoulder, and he felt a deep tremor run through her. "At last," she said softly. "I've been praying that the Lord God Yeshua would break whatever barrier it is that stands in your mind."
"Or Jesus. He is the creator and Lord of all--even Mobius. But if you remember everything, you must remember all I told you about Him." Sonic thought back. Yes, Slasher had exposed him and Tails to Jesus, and Sonic had always sort of sloughed over it before. But now....
"Slasher, I want to know what happened to you. We got sucked into the--the...." he couldn't bring himself to say 'Interweb'"....and when we came back you were gone. Where'd you go? When I blew my whistle you said you couldn't believe it, you were back." Slasher closed her eyes and shook her head. "To explain this I'm afraid I must admit to one of the stupidest mistakes I've ever made."
She looked at him. "Way back before the Interweb--" Sonic cringed"--I told you why I live on Mobius instead of Earth, and how I got my wings. Remember?" Sonic looked down, thinking. "Oh yeah! I remember now! You said those weird aliens took you to that planet called Cockytus, and they gave you wings so you could work for them more efficiently. Right?"
"Brilliant, Holmes. Keep going." Sonic thought a moment more. "And all the aliens tried to become gods and vanished, and you sank into a hundred- year hibernation. When humans from Earth showed up, one of them befriended you and you showed him around and helped him bring back the aliens. Then the aliens let you go home. Am I right so far?"
Slasher nodded. "Uh-huh, and I'm glad you seem to be thinking clearly, for I was not."
"When all three of my friends were sucked into an alternate dimension," Slasher continued, "I figured I'd never be able to rescue you by entering the teleporter. So I tried to go in a back way. I remembered where the aliens had gone, a place they called 'Space-time Six.' I tried to go there."
Sonic looked shocked. "You didn't."
"I did. That's why it was the stupidest mistake I ever made. I used an object the creatures gave me (and I've sworn I'll never tell anyone what it is), and left Space-time Four. I mistakenly thought I could reach the Interweb through Space-time Six. I was wrong."
"The instant I entered Space' Six the portal closed behind me. I knew if I advanced one step further I would never be able to find my way back again. So I waited. I knew enough to know I must be needed outside for the portal to open again, so I despaired when I saw that you had gotten back, but had forgotten about me. Still, there was always a slim chance, so I stayed close to the portal. Nothing happened until I began praying and then--I still can't explain it--you found your whistle."
"The moment you blew it the portal opened and I leaped through it. I came through so fast that there was a few minutes before time caught up to me again. That's how I was able to set fire to the fuel station and attack Robotnik in the same thirty seconds."
"Ah, I wondered about that," Sonic nodded. He put an arm around her muscular neck (she was so big he had to reach up to accomplish this), and said, "I've needed you a lot in the past few years."
Another hour passed before they finished talking. Sonic went back to bed with a much lightened heart and a refreshed mind. They had talked over everything that had happened so long ago, and Slasher had told him he had to tell Tails about it, and revive his memory, too. "Too bad we can't talk to Knux," Sonic had said regretfully. "I'd like to ask him what happened to him in the--the--man, I wish I could at least say it." As he fought with himself, Slasher had looked increasingly thoughtful. "That's not a bad idea," she had murmured. Shortly afterward she had kicked him out, for it was late.
Tails, Sonic, and Slasher's plan
Early the next morning, Sonic awoke Tails. "Hey, little bro," Sonic said softly. "I need to ask you something." Tails sat up and yawned. "What's up, Sonic?"
"Tails, uh, do you remember --the Interweb?"
Tails gasped at the name and writhed backward. "Don't say it, Sonic! I don't want to remember it!" "Tails," Sonic was firm. "You have to. Because you have to remember what happened before it got us. It's like, really important." Tails tried to think, but shuddered and looked up at Sonic. "I can't remember anything past--it."
"You have to!" Sonic implored earnestly. "Don't you remember Floating Island? Remember the earthquake in Marble Gardens that almost killed you?"
"Floating Island," Tails murmured. "Marble Gardens. They sound familiar, but I don't--"
Sonic began to recount their previous adventures in detail while Tails listened, wide-eyed. Unknown to them, everyone in Knothole gathered around the door and windows and were also listening, wide-eyed. For thirty minutes it went on, Sonic so absorbed in what he was telling Tails he didn't notice he had an audience. He ended at the doomsday battle between himself and Robotnik, and Tails suddenly remembered it all. They talked back and forth about everything. Tails said, "The only thing bad about remembering all this is that I can't forget the Interweb and what it did. Man, I wish I could. How awful to totally forget everything else, though!"
It was then Sonic looked up and noticed everyone clustered around the windows and door. "How about that?" he shouted at them. "Did you guy hear all that okay?" In a lower voice he said, "C'mon, Tails. Gosh, I feel like I've said that a lot!" He got up and walked outside, where he was inundated with questions. "Slasher, help!" he cried in mock dismay. Slasher was standing back with her forearms folded, watching. When Sonic called she grinned and moved forward. "You seem to be very popular at the moment," she chuckled.
Two hours passed. Sonic was at the center of attention as he told everyone about fighting Robotnik many different times. Tails told his side as well, with Slasher imputing her angle every so often. But once nobody could think of any more questions, Sonic said, "Well, there was one more person who was there, too. But he's on the wrong side." "Who?" Sally demanded. Sonic and Tails looked at each other and said in unison, "Knuckles."
Slasher stood up and announced unexpectedly, "And he needs to have his memory revived as well. He could give us valuable information on the continuum. I've been thinking about it, and tonight Knuckles will join our side." Daylight Savings, Part 2
Daylight Savings, Part 2
Knuckles joins the Freedom Fighters _______________________________________________________________________
A silent shadow slunk into Robotropolis that night. No one noticed it; no one could. It sank into blackness every time a robot passed, then continued its glide forward. It was Slasher, of course. She was the darkest of shadows, and just as quiet. She kept to the back alleyways between buildings, avoiding the pools of light cast by streetlights.
It would have been easier to fly into the city, but a storm was brewing, and a thick layer of smog filled the sky. Besides, it was more fun to sneak in on foot. Slasher loved sneaking to avoid detection and was quite good at it. (When she was younger, her raptor playmates wouldn't let her play hide-and-seek with them, for she would vanish and no one would find her.)
Slasher made her silent way into the heart of Robotropolis, aiming for what had been the castle, but was now Robotnik's fortress. Serena had provided some info on it, mainly the location of the little side door where she had entered. The center of the city was a maximum security area, but if an amateur hedgehog had gotten out, then an expert velociraptor could get in. And so far Slasher was undiscovered.
At the thought of Serena a half-smile spread across Slasher's face.
Sonic, as a joke, had snuck up behind Serena, grabbed both arms and doubled them up behind her. "March," he had hissed in her ear, and march she did--for three steps. Then she dropped to the ground like a dead weight, which made Sonic stoop over her. Quick as lightning her legs whipped up and locked her knees around Sonic's neck, then flipped him up and over her in a wide arc. He hit the ground flat on his back with a groan and just lay there, breathless and stunned. Serena jumped to her feet and asked, "Are you okay? I didn't hurt you, did I?" Sonic closed his eyes and played dead until his lungs started working again. Then he sat up and rubbed his neck. "Where'd you learn to do that?" was the first thing he said.
"Well, I kinda made it up," was the reply. "In my village all the roughest kids picked on me. They would ambush me, twist my wrists up between my ears and march me away to be their prisoner. So I would knock the wind out of whoever grabbed me, then I'd get up and whale the stuffing out of him." As an afterthought, she added, "I didn't flip you as hard as I did that echidna, the one named Knuckles. He looked like a fish out of water!"
That proved the newcomer had a few tricks up her sleeve. No one had picked on her since.
That's why Robotnik's after two hedgehogs, instead of just one, Slasher thought. Well, that's tough, `cause he'll never get either one of them.
She was nearing the fortress. It was in sight now, indeed, a little too plainly. The building was illuminated with searchlights for a hundred feet in all directions. Slasher paused, crouched in the shadows behind a pile of cement pipes, and tried to figure out a way to reach the fortress without being spotted. SWAT-bots were everywhere. Slasher was not afraid of them (rather, she scorned them as 'total wimps'), but knew that if she was discovered she would be chased out and reported to Robotnik. That was one thing Slasher didn't want. She preferred to be anonymous.
The sound of tramping metal feet reached Slasher's ears. Instinctively she pressed herself into the corner, flattening out, becoming invisible. The raptor watched as four SWAT-bots and two U-SWATs walked by, headed for their patrol station. She was in no danger from their scanners. The robots never initiated extra safety measures until they left the security blocks. Wimps, she thought.
As soon as the bots were a safe distance away, Slasher crawled out of the shadows. She looked around sharply as she emerged from hiding, for sometimes badniks lurked around every corner. Well, not tonight. Everything seemed quiet. A flash of lightning lit the sky for an instant, and Slasher figured she knew why. The robots were under shelter; Robotnik was expecting a downpour. An icy breeze blew down the street, carrying more than a threat of rain. Very interesting, Slasher thought. A snowy thunderstorm. That shouldn't happen normally. Oh well, it's probably because of the continuum.
Slasher began to circle the fortress, looking for the small side door Serena had described. Halfway around she spotted it. Again she sank into the shadows, considering. There was a brightly lit patch of fifty feet, and a surveillance camera slowly panning back and forth. It seemed impossible to reach the door, so Slasher did the next best thing: she waited.
She was in no real hurry; she had all night. Another lightning flash and a rumble of thunder reminded her of possible danger from the elements, but she figured she could weather the storm. She turned so she was facing into the cold gusts of wind that came whipping through the dirty streets, and angled her wings to shelter her body from the cold. There. Let the storm come; she was ready.
Ten minutes later, a sound caused her head to whip around. The little door was opening. Slasher immediately narrowed her green eyes so they would not reflect the light. To her surprise, out stepped Knuckles. He closed the door behind him, then turned to face the wind. She heard him draw in a deep breath of the wild air with enthusiasm; the pollution and closeness of Robotropolis was beginning to stifle him. A few seconds later he pulled out his com-link and spoke into it.
"Doc, I'm headin' out to Maintenance C." Robotnik's voice crackled through the microphone. "Hmm, well, all right. Maintenance C needs to be checked, anyway. Get back here right afterward. You aren't finished with the robotic upgrade yet."
"Yeah, yeah," Knuckles replied. "What's the clearance code for Hanger Four?"
"Copy that. I'll sign on later. Knux out." The scarlet echidna clicked off the com and headed down the street.
Slasher listened to this with interest.
10681, eh? Hmm. I'll have to see what's inside this 'Hanger 4,' she thought as she glided along behind Knuckles.
I wonder what Maintenance C is? It's gotta be a codeword.
Knuckles ran with the wind, keeping to the lighted main streets. Robotropolis gave him the creeps, anyway, especially at night. This didn't work out so well for Slasher, so she leaped to the roof of a building and followed him from the air, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. After a few minutes, Knux began to get the feeling he was being followed. The street was empty behind him, but his instincts cried out he was being trailed. The stormy wind and thunder didn't help. He couldn't listen for footsteps. Somewhere, in the depths of his memory, something stirred. A memory of being stalked through the darkness by something he couldn't see. Something with glowing green eyes and a black shapeless form. Something with a soft purring breath. Knuckles started running.
Slasher watched him as he grew uneasy and began to look over his shoulder more and more often. She wondered if he remembered their little game of 'hunt and stalk' in the Carnival. He must, for he was afraid.
The storm was worsening. A drop of rain streaked down, and another. Then the sky seemed to open. A blinding sheet of water poured down. Each raindrop had a little hard core of ice to it; it was turning to snow. The wind blew it into a slant, and it got colder by the minute. Slasher, nearly blinded by the onslaught, cleared her vision in time to see Knuckles duck into a side street. She followed him in leaps and bounds.
Knuckles came to a stop before Hanger Four. It was locked tight. He didn't go to the big sliding doors, but to a smaller one in the wall beside them. Mounted next to it was a keypad for the combination for the electric lock. Hurriedly he punched in 'ten-six-eighty-one.' The door swung inward silently. He slipped inside, shaking the ice water out of his eyes and hair. Then he slammed the door shut and leaned against it. Whatever was out there couldn't get in. (He assumed.) He heaved a sigh of relief, snapped on the lights and walked off among the different ships.
Outside, Slasher landed next to the door, shook the water from one hand, and typed '10681.' The door opened. She jumped inside and quietly closed the door behind her. A furtive look around revealed many different attack ships and a number of hovercraft. The room was dominated by an enormous cargo freighter, parked just behind the hanger doors. One side door was open, showing the disassembled parts of several ground mechs.
I wonder where those are going, Slasher thought.
She glided into the deep shadow under a hoverbike and peered around for Knuckles. He was on the far side of the hanger, tinkering with something. A moment later a hoverbike engine roared to life, and toned down to a steady purr.
The red echidna came into view. He was riding a very small hovercraft; a hover-scooter. It had been a prototype for scooters Robotnik had discarded as too light. Knuckles had recovered it and fixed it to suit his needs. It had a hoverbike's engine, which gave it considerable speed, and was highly maneuverable. Knux used it often, as was evident by the fact he put on a helmet first. It wasn't the little craft was dangerous--far from it. It was, well, a little _too_ much fun at times. And it's better to be safe than sorry.
Knuckles rode the hoverscooter to the big hanger doors, but hesitated a moment before opening them. He could hear the wind flinging handfuls of sleet at the side of the building. It sounded like someone trying to get in....
He jumped off the scooter and ran to the rear of the building. The parked ships blocked Slasher's view of him, but he reappeared a few minutes later. As he walked he was slipping into a sort of cape with a hood. Slasher noticed the blaster rifle slung across his chest and decided to take no chances. Knux certainly wasn't.
He remounted the hoverscooter and pressed a button on the wall. The doors slid open with a noisy rattle and Knux coasted out into the wild night. Slasher wasted no time following him, but this time she kept a street between them.
The storm was gaining strength. The wind was stronger than ever now, and the rain was mixed with ice. Slasher pressed her wings tightly against her body to keep her vital organs warm, but her clawed feet splashed wetly through the icy streets. It took more than cold to hurt Slasher, but she grew worried as she lost all sensation in her feet. She couldn't thaw them while on the move, which put her in danger of frostbite.
Knuckles was headed out of Robotropolis. He had the cloak wrapped around him, his head was bowed against the rain. Whatever Maintenance C was, it was important enough to bring him out into the storm. Slasher pondered this as she sped along on numbed feet, breath chugging out of her nostrils in clouds. She didn't dare get closer to him, for she knew Knuckles was nervous, and would shoot first and ask questions later. He was also a dead shot with a blaster. So she simply trailed him by the sound of his craft's engine.
The little craft struck a path that wound it's way out of the city. As it entered the garbage dump that formed the outskirts of Robotropolis, Slasher fell in behind Knux. The rotting hulks of machinery provided cover, and Knuckles seemed to be relaxing.
They had gotten about halfway through the dump when all the lights faded from the sky behind them. Knuckles stopped by jerking the little craft around sideways on the path, looking back. Slasher instantly melted into the shadow of some rusted pipes, but out of curiosity she too looked back.
Robotropolis had suffered a massive power failure. All lights were out. "Shoot," hissed Knuckles through his teeth, except he didn't say 'shoot.' He reached forward to the scooter's handlebars and clicked on the headlights, then dug into his pocket and pulled out the `com link. He clicked it on and said hastily, "Doc, are you there? What happened?" At first the only reply was static, but then came Robotnik's voice; seething with rage. "Bleeping lightning must have struck the main bleeping powerstation.- - - - -! I can't believe this! No- - - -power anywhere!!"
What Robotnik said next is unnecessary to put down, but Knuckles turned the com's volume way down until he finished.
"Knuckles, where are you?" Robotnik's voice seemed sufficiently calmer.
"I'm just leaving Robotropolis," the echidna replied.
"When you get to Maintenance C," Ivo continued, "divert half power to the city's main systems for one hour. That should give me enough time to get backup power going. Comprende?"
"Yeah," Knuckles answered. "Copy that. I'll give ya power in fifteen minutes. Over and out."
Knuckles turned off the com and looked at his watch. "That should be enough time," he muttered. He punched his ship into gear, whirled it around and took off.
Slasher glided out of hiding again. Now she was really interested. To get backup power, the whole city needed electricity for thirty minutes at the minimum. Whatever was in Maintenance C must be very powerful.
Knuckles left the dump before opening the throttle all the way. Slasher settled into a ground-gulping stride to keep up. They covered the five miles of open plain in less than five minutes.
Knux slowed down and turned on the muffler, muting the engine's noise. It also dragged him down to twenty miles an hour. Slasher followed him as he entered the woods. The scooter apparently had passed that way many times before, for it had blazed a trail through the underbrush.
The forest broke up the wind and rain, but it was still cold. Everything was sopping wet, and the tossing trees flung gallons of ice water to the ground. Knuckles knew the way like the back of his hand, however, and steered expertly through the trees. Slasher, now back in normal surroundings, became the ghost of a shadow and twice as silent. Sure, she was drenched and half frozen, but so intent on her quarry she hardly noticed.
Knuckles entered a small clearing. Slasher watched him from behind a large fern grove as he parked the scooter and dismounted. He walked to a pile of branches piled haphazardly against a tree trunk and pulled them away, revealing a square metal object. After a furtive look around the wild woods, he seized it and dragged it into the open. He fooled with it a few seconds, then reached over and switched on the scooter's headlights so he could see. The beam of light revealed a complex, folded metal thing. It looked like a curled-up spider. Knuckles expertly began to unfold the legs and plant them in the ground. Slasher didn't recognize the contraption until it was completely unfolded.
It was shaped like a star, and in the middle was a translucent disk the size of a dinner plate. When Knuckles flipped a switch the disk began to glow with a faint blue light, and hum softly. Slasher suddenly realized what it was. It was a portable teleporter. This was the largest of the portables; usually they were small enough to be carried under the arm.
Knuckles stepped onto the disk. His weight triggered the teleporter, and a sudden blinding beam of light surrounded him; so bright it was nearly solid. Slasher crouched, staring into the beam. As soon as Knuckles vanished, she leaped forward and entered the light as well.
For two seconds there was a floating sensation as the teleporter gathered itself up and warped them to their destination. As the light faded, Slasher leaped out of the beam and away from the receiver dish. Though she was still half-blinded, her other senses told her her location. Instantly she remembered every possible hiding place. She leaped behind a nearby pillar.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she recognized the rough texture of cave walls. The black pillar she leaned against was crowned with a huge, glowing, red super emerald. Around her were six other pedestals, each one supporting an impressive colored emerald. Supers were the only thing more powerful than the chaos emeralds. For sheer magnitude of power, however, there was the green Master emerald. It was as big as Slasher, and set in a bed of smaller crystals.
Knuckles beamed down. He stood on the receiver plate until the beam was completely gone, then walked off among the glowing gems. Slasher waited until he was a safe distance away, and shook herself vigorously. She also reared up and beat her wings a few times to get the water out of them. Feeling much better, she stepped out of hiding and looked around the cavern.
The place was called Hidden Palace. It was hidden for good reason, for if the power stones fell into the wrong hands there would be no telling what could happen. Slasher had not been there in a long time. She stepped into the middle of the grouped pillars, looking around, drinking it all in. All the emeralds seemed to be in good shape. Slasher cast a glance in the direction of the Master emerald's pedestal. Then she looked again.
The Master emerald was missing. The little green crystals were still there, lining the hole where the big stone had been, but the gem itself was gone. The big raptor walked up to the holder and peered over the edge, just to be sure. But the emerald was gone.
Slasher whirled around. The only ones who knew where it was were Knuckles and Robotnik. She was not about to ask the latter, but the former was here. He could talk to her. Slasher turned in Knuckles's direction, lowered her head and snorted loudly.
On the far side of the cavern Knuckles snapped erect. What was that? his mind screamed. He turned slowly, pulling his blaster out of it's holster as he did so. Something was here. He felt sure it was whoever had trailed him through Robotropolis. Knuckles pulled the safety off the gun with a loud click.
"All right," he called stormily, "I know you're in here. Show your face!" His heart leaped into his mouth as a soft voice purred in reply, "No. _You_ come to _me_." It came from around the receiver dish. Carefully, quietly, Knuckles began to make his way there. "Who are you?" he called, and his voice didn't sound nearly as bold.
"Oh, you know me quite well," was the answer. Knuckles paused.
"I don't know your voice. If I know who you are, why don't I recognize your voice?"
"Because you have forgotten how it sounded, that's why." Silence. Then, "Hurry up. I'm getting tired of waiting."
Knuckles was losing his nerve, and he knew it. "Are you going to kill me?" He might as well ask.
"No," the voice replied airily. "I won't hurt you unless you hurt me first. I don't normally kill old friends in cold blood, you see."
"Old friends? Who are you, anyway?"
"Come and see."
The red echidna looked down at his hands and saw they were shaking. Angry at himself for being a wimp, he stole forward to the first pillar. He leaned back against it, and holding the blaster at ready, peered around it. A large shadowy form was standing in the center of the pillars, waiting for him.
In one smooth motion Knuckles stepped away from the pillar and aimed the gun at the creature's heart. But before he could fire, it said, "Are you sure you want to do that, Knuckles?" He hesitated, uncertain.
"Well, uh, state your identity and business!" he snapped. The creature laughed. "Is that your impersonation of a SWAT-bot? Or Robotnik?" As it spoke it glided forward, and in one liquid motion took the blaster from his hands. Robbed of his weapon, the next thing that kicked in was instinct. Knuckles raised his fists and flung himself at her.
Slasher dodged backward, still chuckling. She caught one of Knux's flailing arms, then the other, and quicker than you could say 'knife' he was on the ground. He leaped to his feet, unhurt and fighting mad. He had been scared for too long, and now he was going to take it out on someone. His reluctant opponent backed away. "I don't want to fight you, K-T-E," she said to him.
"Why? Scared?" he snarled at her.
"No. I'd have to end up hurting you."
"Oh," he sneered, "you're one of those purists. One of those 'violence-never-solved-anything' types. Well, I'm gonna teach you differently!" Knuckles lunged at her, but was met with a blow that sent him reeling backwards. Slasher swung her whip-like tail back, ready for another blow, but she looked sad. "I didn't want to do this to you, but here goes!"
She dealt him another stunning blow with her tail, then let him attack her. His hands and knuckle-spikes were powerful weapons, and he hurled them with deadly accuracy. Slasher blocked his blows as best as she could, but one struck home, a powerful uppercut to her jaw. The pain aroused her ever-present temper, and she attacked Knuckles with moves only a velociraptor could know. Her first whirlwind rush should have left him torn open and dying, but Slasher wasn't going to kill him, only teach him a lesson. And so she charged him again and again, striking with her head, forearms, hindlegs, and tail.
No one, not even one as tough as Knuckles, could withstand a beating like that for any length of time. He collapsed to the ground, sick, winded and dizzy. Slasher crouched over him, spreading her wings a little to hide him. "By rights," she panted, "your life is forfeit to me. Or in other words, you started it and I won. I could kill you right here."
"Then do it," Knuckles wheezed. He was lying on his back; a vulnerable position when a velociraptor has you. He turned his head and closed his eyes, waiting for the blow to fall. But it didn't. Instead, Slasher stepped away and crouched down beside him.
"I'm sorry I did this to you," she said quietly. "I should have introduced myself to you first. I'm Slasher, remember?" Painfully Knuckles sat up. "Slasher? I remember hearing that name a long time ago...." he wiped a thin stream of blood from his lip and broke off. "Yeah," Slasher replied. "Back before the Interweb." Knuckles sat bolt upright and stared at her. One eye was already turning a nice shade of purple; a real shiner, but the other eye opened wide in terror. "Don't even say it's name," he gasped. "It was horrible. I don't want to remember it. I can't remember it! Not there!"
Slasher nodded understandingly. "I know. Sonic told me about it." A strange light came into Knuckles's good eye. "No. What Sonic and Tails went through was nothing compared to what happened to me. They were at least together; I was all alone. It was--Hell, Slasher. That has to be what Hell is like." He shivered.
"How'd you get out?" the raptor asked him.
"I guess I went through the last portal. I don't remember much about the last part. It had warped my mind so badly that I just hid on my island until the nightmares stopped and I could look people in the eyes again. But why am I telling you all this? You're a complete stranger to me."
"Not really," Slasher sighed. "Can you remember anything before--It?"
Knuckles shook his head. "No. Well, sometimes something slips through. A thought, a feeling, a memory. But I can't recall all of it."
"Let me jog your memory, then," Slasher said. "Tonight I was following you through Robotropolis. And you knew it. It brought back the memory of another time something like that happened. Am I right?" Knuckles nodded wordlessly.
"Now, watch me," she commanded. Slasher slipped away into the shadows between the pillars and began to prowl back and forth, letting her green eyes catch the light and purring with each breath. Knuckles stared at her and his mouth dropped open. "I've seen that before," he breathed, and the memory was not pleasant.
"Now," Slasher said as she walked toward him, "tell me where this has happened before." She slipped behind Knuckles and drew her long claws down his back. He started violently and leaped to his feet. "You!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "I remember that night in the Carnival. It was the only other thing that's ever happened to me that came close to matching the terror of the Interweb!"
"Well then," Slasher said calmly, "you seem to remember that quite clearly. Do you remember why I did it?"
Knuckles thought a few seconds, then shook his head.
"Because you were going to rough up Sonic and Tails so they would lose the fight against Robotnik. And I wasn't about to let you do that."
Knuckles allowed himself a rueful grin. "Yeah, I do remember something about that." Then he frowned. "Tell me more. I don't enjoy having a blank spot in my memory."
So Slasher spent over an hour telling him about everything. When she finished, Knuckles was no longer afraid of her. He was also no longer on Robotnik's side. "Heck, I can't figure out why I'm working for that jerk again! How'd I get myself mixed up with him?"
"I'll tell you. You have a lot of ability he discovered when he hired you the first time, and he figured since you didn't remember what he did to you before, he'd get you again."
They both stood up. "Now," said Slasher, "I have something a little more serious to tell you." And she informed him of what the continuum was doing to Mobius's orbit. Knuckles knew about the continuum, but had no idea that it was causing any harm. "And so," Slasher said soberly, "we need to disable it, and ASAP. Do you know how it's maintained?"
A half-smile spread across Knuckles's face. "That's why we call Hidden Palace 'Maintenance C.' C stands for Continuum. It's base is here." He beckoned to Slasher and led her to the far corner of the room. There, clasped in a big machine, was the Master emerald.
"Right now, power has been diverted from it to power Robotropolis." He pointed to a massive cable which ran into the wall. "That's why it isn't glowing too brightly. This contraption harnesses it's power and directs it."
"Does it control the continuum?" Slasher asked interestedly. Knuckles shook his head. "Nope. The Master only provides the raw power. There are seven points around Mobius that maintain the continuum. I know. I helped Doc get his hands on each and every time stone."
"You think you can manufacture a break in the universal continuum with plain machinery? Are you kidding? So we ransacked Little Planet and got all seven of `em. We outfitted each base with a stone, powered `em up, and presto! Here we are."
Slasher sighed heavily. "I didn't think it would be easy. Well, do you know where each station is?" Knuckles shrugged. "Yeah, but I couldn't lead you. I'm terrible at directions. You'd do better if you had a map."
"Is there a map?"
"Yep. In Doc's desk."
"Can you get it?"
"Are you crazy? He'd filet me alive!"
"Hmm. Well, could someone else, say, Sonic, get in?"
"Maybe. His office is--wait a minute. You already know where it is!"
"The girl hedgehog. She crashed the computer system. When the SWATs caught her about three weeks later, someone rescued her. We assumed it was the Freedom Fighters."
"Well, you assumed correctly. Her name is Serena, and she has indeed joined us."
"She could tell you where his office is." Knux glanced at his watch and gasped, "Oh great! I was supposed to be back right away! It's already midnight! Oh man, Doc's gonna kill me!" He ran back to the receiver dish. Slasher followed him, deep in thought. As he began powering up the teleporter, Slasher asked him, "Are you a very good liar?" Knuckles just shrugged. "Sometimes, when I hafta be. Why?"
"Look at me." Knuckles glanced up at Slasher, then back down at what he was doing.
"Yep, it'd work."
"You're already beat up pretty bad. You could make up some story about a roving band of Freedom Fighters intercepting you on your way back and shoving you around. We could even splatter you and your speeder with mud to give the story credibility."
Knuckles put his hands on his hips and looked up at the big velociraptor. "I like that. That sounds pretty good." Then he snickered. "It's almost true. Except I was intercepted here. I encountered a Freedom Fighter who roughed me up big-time, then turned around and allied me to her side. Ha! But wait a minute, what about my blaster?" Slasher picked it up from where it had been flung during their fight. "Say they hit you so fast you didn't have time to use it."
"Okay. C'mon, let's head back."
Knuckles donned his helmet and cape, and re-slung the blaster across his chest. As he turned on the teleporter, Slasher asked him, "Does this work the same as the old ones?"
"Yep," was the reply. "I haven't upgraded them in a long time, and I'd like to keep them easy to use."
"Good. I have a feeling that I'll be coming back to Hidden Palace again." Knuckles shot her an agonized look, and she quickly added, "Alone. I wouldn't bring the others here, and you know it."
They teleported back outside. The storm had abated somewhat, and the ground was streaming ice water. It was very dark. Slasher helped Knuckles mount the hoverscooter. It was none the worse for wear for having been left out in the rain, although it was dripping wet. The big raptor guided him out of the tossing trees (the wind was still blowing), and onto the plains. There they found a muddy spot and got Knux fairly dirty. "There," he said as he climbed upon the bike again, "how do I look?"
"Like somebody just beat the heck out of you," was the reply. "And you'll really feel it tomorrow morning."
"Thanks," Knuckles called as he jammed the craft into gear and took off. "I think," he yelled over his shoulder.
Slasher watched him leave, a wide grin on her face. The she turned and headed into the woods. A minute later, the teleporter fired up and transported it's operator back to Hidden Palace. She didn't return until morning. ______________________________________________________________________
Tails flattened himself against the ground, pressing his small body into a hollow in the earth under the spreading bushes. He sat there motionless, watching and listening.
It was early morning. The sky still bore tatters and shreds of last night's storm. The woods were drenched and dripping, and it was only twenty degrees. Tails was cold, but it wouldn't make him give away his position. He and Sonic were acting as scouts. Ten feet to his right was the road that led through the Great Forest, across the plains, and into Robotropolis. Sonic was somewhere on the far side of the road, but like Tails, was hidden and invisible.
But not for long. A sudden crash marked Sonic's location. Tails saw him picking himself up as he muttered, "Who put that branch there? Dumb place for it; in the middle of a forest." He backed into hiding once more, then spoke into the communicator strapped to his wrist. "Ya there, Tails?"
"Yep, I'm here, grace."
"Oh sure, rub it in, will ya? Are you in position?"
"Uh-huh. I have a clear view of the road and part of the plains. If I were up a little higher I could see Robotropolis."
"Sound's cool. Start scanning. I've got my infra-red goggles; I'll be the lookout."
Slasher hadn't come home last night, and was still out there somewhere. Sonic and Tails had been in three different places already, searching with scanners and infra-red, but so far had turned up nothing.
Tails pointed the scanner out toward the plains and clicked it on. The screen was clear; nothing of interest. Slowly the young fox swung it from side to side, panning over the landscape. Nothing. Tails twisted a knob to increase the range. Again he swept it from side to side. A blip appeared on the screen. "Sonic, I've got something," Tails hissed.
"I don't know. It's almost out of range, but it looks like it's coming this way."
"A little to the south of Robotropolis." Sonic looked that way with his goggles. He could see something, but couldn't make it out. "Tails, is it a life-form or a `bot?"
"Uh," Tails adjusted a dial. "Life-form. Think it's Slasher?"
"Could be. I'm gonna try the whistle. Stand by."
Sonic always wore the whistle around his neck, now. Somehow, he felt closer to Slasher when he wore it, for all he had to do was blow it and she'd come running. Now he grasped it, lifted it to his lips, and blew one piercing blast on it. Tails was watching the figure with the area scan, and saw it begin to move rapidly in their direction. "Well Sonic, it's either Slasher or a very fast velociraptor." "Good," Sonic replied, relief evident in his voice. He put on the goggles and looked toward Slasher. She had broken into a swift flowing run and was gaining speed. The jubilant smile on her face was apparent as she drew nearer. "Wait until she gets a little closer," Sonic said into the com, but he and Tails stepped out of the woods and onto the road.
The big raptor slowed to a limping walk as she reached them. "Hiya guys, miss me?" Slasher asked as she gave them both high-fives in greeting. "Miss you?" Sonic demanded. "What kind of sissy do you think I am?"
"Yes," Tails interrupted him, "he was so worried about you that he got me out of my warm bed at four this morning to look for you. I'm glad you showed up, 'cause Robotropolis was our next stop."
Slasher flashed a grin at Sonic. "C'mon, you know you don't have to worry about me. How's that song go--'there is no circumstance that you can't handle--when you use your mind'?"
"Yeah," Sonic replied, "but that song is about me, not you. Where were you, anyway?"
"Befriending Knux, like I said I would."
"Well, no, just until midnight."
"What were you doing the rest of the time?"
"Ah, that is the question of the hour! Tell ya when we get back to Knothole." ________________________________________________________________________
Sonic's special abilities enabled ________________________________________________________________________
An hour later found the Freedom Fighters grouped into the large community hut. A fire was roaring in the fireplace, and Slasher was stretched out on the hearth, warming her frozen feet and preening one of her wings. Between intervals when her attention was fixed on her feathers, she told them about all she had done the night before. The whole band was amazed at her for befriending Knuckles, for it was commonly known he trusted no one.
"Yep," she said, "we can stop the scouting missions. I took care of all of them. And so," she finished nonchalantly, "there are two things I have for Sonic."
"What?" he asked eagerly.
"The first is a mission. You and Serena need to sneak into Robotnik's fortress and steal a map. This map shows the locations of the places a time stone is being used to maintain the continuum."
"And the second?"
Slasher's eyes sparkled with a supressed smile. "A new toy."
Sonic jumped to his feet. "Straight up? What?" Slasher reached up to her throat, and her hands made a motion like they were grasping something; but nobody could see what. Then she looked down and fooled with something. There was a click, and all at once a long strip of leather appeared in her hands. Everyone gasped. "Where'd that come from?" somebody demanded. Slasher handed it to Sonic. He took it and looked at it. It was a beautiful leather belt, intricatly engraved, set with seven glowing crystals. Except it didn't feel exactly like leather. As he turned it over and over in his hands, Slasher seemed to read his thoughts. "It's not leather. It's a unique type of plastic-- I think. It's from Cockytus, so I don't really know what it's made of. The stones had fallen out a long time ago, so I put those in."
"This is from Cockytus?" Sonic asked. "Way past cool! And you're giving it to me?"
"Yep, but it has a bit more value to it than that. Look at the stones." Sonic did, and discovered touching them made his fingers tingle, like touching a live wire.
"What are they? Don't tell me--don't tell me; the chaos emeralds, right?"
All eyes flew to Slasher. To have all the chaos emeralds was an unheard-of feat. Slasher slowly shook her head, and everyone sighed in disappointment.
"No, not the chaos. Those are super emeralds."
The casual way she spoke made everyone say, "Oh. Just the super emeralds. The SUPER EMERALDS!?!"
Sonic nearly dropped the belt. "These are--these are--you mean these--you mean I'm holding--"
Slasher nodded. "You know what they are, right?" Sonic gaped at her. "Yeah, but, I mean, how in the world did you make this? Supers are great big!"
"It was easy. You had all supers when you were sucked into the Interweb. As you entered, the emeralds gravitated back to their original home. I took the miniatures you were carrying and inserted them into the belt. I figured they'd be easier to carry that way."
Sonic stared down at the belt again, this time with new respect. "What are super emeralds?" Serena spoke up. She had been lost when they started discussing the power stones. Still looking at the belt in his hands, Sonic murmured, "Supers are far and away more powerful than the chaos. They take power directly from the Master emerald, and one time they drained the chaos emeralds of their power, too. There's no end to the stuff I can do with 'em." He looked up at Slasher.
"I've only used them twice. Do you think it'll work again?" Slasher shrugged. "Donno. Should. Do it outside, though, and about ten feet away from anybody." "What are you two talking about?" Sally demanded. "You started talking in code or something." Sonic looked at her, his eyes glowing with intense excitement. "I can use them to become Hyper Sonic," he said in almost a whisper.
Five minutes later they were all outside. Sonic stood a short distance away from everyone, Slasher showing him how the belt clasp worked. Sonic strapped the belt around his waist, and as soon as he fastened it it vanished. Everyone gasped in surprise, but Slasher calmed them by saying, "When you wear the belt, it becomes invisible to all but the wearer. Calm down. You can still see it, right Sonic?" He nodded.
"Okay, everybody, stand back! I'm gonna see if I remember how to do this." Sonic crouched down, crossing his arms in front of him. Then he leaped into the air, at the same time snapping his arms across the emeralds and behind his back. A bright light shown from the belt for an instant, and Sonic's cobalt blue turned a variety of flashing colors. His spikes stuck nearly straight up, as if charged with electricity, and balls of energy, like fireworks, spiraled up and around him before burning out. This was Hyper Sonic.
Sonic looked down at himself, then up at his staring friends. "Coooooll!" he yelped, then took a running leap and bounded all the way across Knothole and back in two seconds. He moved at nearly the speed of light and was completely invincible. "Yip-ee!" he shouted. He leaped into the air, came out of his spin and flew around ten feet above the ground. He landed lightly before the wide-eyed Freedom Fighters. "This is so much fun!" he said to them. "I feel like I weigh five pounds, and I can run faster than when I have a power ring! Way past cool!" He took off in another series of aerial stunts.
"Showoff!" Tails yelled. Sonic landed before him. "Whassamatter, little bro? Wanna use the belt?" Tails shook his head. "Aw, c'mon," Sonic said, swiping one hand across the belt to de-hyperize himself. He took it off and held it out to Tails. The young fox shook his head. "No, I can't, Sonic. It wouldn't be right to use it without the birds." Sonic sobered. Tails was right. With the flickybirds dead, there wouldn't be any point to it.
Sonic re-strapped the belt around his waist. He figured he would make it a permanent part of his person, like Slasher's whistle. And indeed, it proved useful in the adventure that followed. ______________________________________________________________________
"C'mon, Sonic, this way!" Sonic ducked back into the alley and looked uncertainly at Serena. "You sure, 'Rena? This ain't the safest way to get to the fortress." "This is how I got away from it," the girl hedgehog replied. "I think," she added under her breath. Sonic heard her, but made no comment. "Well then, let's speed," he said.
It had been two days since Sonic had received the belt, and since Knuckles had joined their side. Sally had used the hand-held computer known as 'Nicole' to break into the newly online computer system and contact their new ally. He had offered to help Sonic and Serena get access to the map by doing a few small things, such as conveniently having the surveillance camera by the door upgraded, taking it off-line for several hours. The only catch was they had to be in and out before their time was up.
It was about eight o`clock in the morning but rather dark, for above the thick blanket of pollution and smog was a layer of clouds. It was bitterly cold, and the occasional snowflake sifted down, promising the blizzard to come. Slasher had said she had a lot of neat stuff to show them to do with snow, so they were looking forward to this storm, instead of dreading it.
The two hedgehogs were planning to be back before the storm started. Snowstorms usually weren't a problem in their area, but the weather had been changing lately, and they didn't know what to expect.
Sonic and Serena slunk through the filthy streets and alleyways, making their fugitive way to Robotnik's fortress. Serena was leading the way, with Sonic following a bit hesitantly. He had been there more than she had, and had a pretty good idea of the city's layout. The road they were following, Sonic knew, led straight to the fortress. It was also flanked by two SWAT-bot guardstations. The area could be swarming with robots at a moment's notice, they were walking right into it.
Sonic said nothing, however, until they were one street away from the guardstations and Serena hadn't stopped. Then he grabbed her by the arm and growled, "Stop!" Serena irritably tried to break his hold. "Sonic, we're almost there. Leggo!" "No!" He whirled her around and pressed her back against a building. "What are you, nuts?" he hissed in her face. "You're walking into a security block!" Serena opened her mouth to reply, but Sonic shut her up by covering her mouth with his hand. "Shh. Now, look around the corner and tell me what you see." She did so. "I don't know. I see the street, and a couple of newer buildings on either side, but I don't see anyth--" Sonic cut her off. "Those 'newer buildings' are SWAT-bot guardstations! Do you know what would happen if an unauthorized person walked between them?" Serena shook her head. "You become Swiss cheese, that's what! They use you for target practice, and then take whatever's left of you to the robotizer. Get me?" Serena nodded. "Maybe you should lead the way," she said uncomfortably.
Five minutes later found them three blocks away and running. Sonic wasn't one for just moseying along; he liked to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and they were doing just that. Serena could run surprisingly fast; she was holding her own with him, and wasn't getting tired. Sonic didn't really have time to marvel at this, for he was concentrating on navigating the dark streets. He followed such a twisting, turning path that Serena was completely lost in a matter of minutes. Once Sonic stopped, and noticing the bewildered look on his companion's face, asked her which way was north. She pointed randomly to their right. "Nope. That's southwest," Sonic chuckled. "How do you know that?" she asked him. "Carry a compass in my head," he replied, then took off again.
Thirty seconds later Sonic led her out of the alleys, and before them was Robotnik's fortress. Serena stared up at it, then at Sonic. "Where'd it come from?"
"Been here the whole time. We just came a back way, which is also the safest. Hey, check out the camera."
They were on the side of the fortress where the little side door was. The security camera mounted next to it was off-line, as was shown by it's flashing red light. "Perfect," Sonic murmured. "Knuckles is supposed to meet us here, so we'd better wait for him. Let's go over there." They trotted over to another door, but this one was barred and locked, probably a emergency exit. The two hedgehogs leaned into it, pressing themselves into it for cover.
Everything was quiet for a few minutes. Serena whispered, "Maybe he forgot or something." "Naw, I don't think so," Sonic replied in a low voice. "He turned off the camera, didn't he?" They were quiet a few minutes more. While they had been moving they hadn't felt the cold much, but now it was apparent. It was the raw, bitter kind of cold that sinks in and makes it hard to get warm again. Well, at least the winds' not blowing, Serena thought. A single snowflake fluttered down. It reminded her things could be worse.
Her thoughts were jerked back to the present as the door they were watching opened a little, then a little more. Knuckles leaned out, looked around and called in a half-whisper, "Hey! You guys out here?" "Yeah," Sonic answered as he stepped out of hiding and beckoned to Serena. "Well, hurry up! I only have a few minutes!" The two hedgehogs dashed through the door and into the warm interior of the building. Knuckles's eyes narrowed a bit when he saw Serena, but he said nothing to her.
They found themselves in a very large entry hall. Sonic stared around, bewildered, but Knux hissed, "The hall's only empty a few minutes at a time. Hurry, follow me!" He led the two hedgehogs to an unimportant looking door off to their right, opened it, and they all moved in. Knuckles shut the door quietly, then leaned against it with a sigh of relief. "Man, I just knew somebody'd see us," he said. "Robotnik's nephew, Snively, is always looking for a way to get me in trouble. He doesn't like me much, `cause once he crossed me and I punched him out."
Sonic had been looking Knuckles over from head to toe. He still looked kind of beat up. Slasher had inflicted no superficial wounds, but he still bore many sizable bruises. His black eye had turned a greenish color, but Knux could see out of it. He noticed Sonic staring at him. "What? I don't look that bad, do I?" Sonic looked away, drew a shuddering breath, and said, "No. Y-you look fine." Knuckles detected a tone in Sonic's voice that said otherwise. He grinned at him. "Well Sonic, let me give you a bit of advice. Never tangle with a velociraptor, and you'll stay un-hurt and healthy." His gaze shifted to Serena. "Or a girl, for that matter."
Knuckles glanced at his watch. "Well, we'd better head upstairs. I was transferring some files, and they should be done by now." Sonic walked to the foot of the stairs and looked up. "We have to climb all these?" he asked. "Nope," was the reply. "Doc went up them twice, then had the elevator put in. It's over here. C'mon."
The three of them stepped through the sliding doors and into the elevator. Knuckles pressed a button, and the elevator started up. "Hey Sonic, remember the rotating transport elevators back on Launch Base?" Sonic nodded. "Do I ever! Those were the bomb! Why?"
"`Cause that's what this'n used to be."
"Straight up? Cool! How come it ain't spinning, though?"
"I was working on it one day, and Robotnik didn't know and used it. It went so fast it almost killed him. When he found out why, he almost killed me. So he modified the elevator so it wouldn't spin anymore. Too bad, huh?" Sonic shrugged. "I thought they were a blast, but they made Tails sick." He looked at Serena. "Bet you wouldn't be able to handle it, either." Serena held up both hands and shook her head. "I have no idea what you two are talking about, so I really can't say anything." She looked at Knuckles. "I want to apologize for flipping you a couple weeks ago. I didn't mean to do it so hard, but I was scared." Knuckles put a hand on her shoulder and gazed sternly into her eyes. "The only thing I'll say is this," he paused. Serena just knew that he was going to yell at her, but then his scowl gave way to a smile. "You gotta show me how to do that sometime." In other words, he forgave her; no hard feelings.
The elevator, which had been moving smoothly upward with a soft hum, slowed down and stopped. The doors opened, and the trio trooped out. They were at the top of the stairs, on the landing. Directly opposite them was the door to Robotnik's bedroom. Serena hung back as Sonic and Knuckles walked in. She was thinking about what had happened last time she went through that door. Sonic didn't notice, as he was staring around the richly furnished room in wonder. Knux had seen it all before, and looked back at Serena. Seeing the hesitant look on her face, he beckoned to her. Nervously she made her way inside. Knuckles shut the door, the said, "Whassamatter, scared?" Serena shook her head no, then said, "Yes." Sonic glanced at her and chuckled. "So, Knuckles, where is the infamous computer?"
"In here. C'mon."
The red echidna led the two hedgehogs to the back of the room and showed them into the computer room. "So this is the central computer," Sonic said incredulously. "Pretty big." "Well, this is some of it," Knuckles replied. "We're still trying to get it all on-line again. She did a good job," he jerked his thumb in Serena's direction, "but fortunately I had just backed up the entire system. I'm in the middle of feeding those files back into the hard-drive." He tapped a smaller computer which was plugged into the big one. It was making a 'zit-zit- zzziiiizz-zit-zit'. "Once this gets done, I have to go in and un-zip all those files. Lotsa work. Wanna hear some good news, though?" Sonic and Serena both nodded. "The operational files for the robotizer were all lost. Without those files, the robotizer can't run. Heh heh. Don't let Doc hear I said that, though. He's plenty ticked about this, anyway." He sideyed Serena. She had a humorous, but rebellious, look on her face. "You'd do it again, wouldn't you?" he said to her. "In a heartbeat," she replied.
Knuckles slid a few boxes and other things aside to reveal the desk. It was buried and covered over with the computer equipment. "Hey, I didn't know that desk was there," Serena said in surprise. Knux glanced at her and muttered, "Good thing, or you'da vandalized it, too." He opened one of the drawers, rooted through it, and pulled out two maps. He handed one to Serena and the other to Sonic. "Copies," he explained. "If something happens to one, you have the other to fall back on. I had 'em both--uh, what's the word, um,...laminated for you. That makes 'em waterproof, windproof, bulletproof, and fire resistant. I thought it would be a good idea, considering the places you guys have to go. Make any sense outta 'em?"
Sonic turned his this way and that before answering. "Yeah. This is a complete map of Mobius, right?"
"I've never seen one this good before. It's--well, it's like a photograph. Where'd ya get it?"
Knuckles shook his head. "I haven't been able to figure out how Doc made 'em. I'd be willing to bet, though, that he's got satellites out there. It's the only way to explain the high resolution." Sonic looked at Serena. She was studying her map intently. "What are these little scribbled stars?" she asked, indicating several. Knuckles smiled. "The object of the game." "Huh?" Knuckles took the map from her. Sonic and Serena looked over his shoulders as he said, "The stars mark each time stone generator. There's seven of 'em. Count 'em." Silently they did so. "Hey," Sonic said suddenly, "one of them is right here in Robotropolis! Look, a star right on top of us!" The hedgehogs looked at Knuckles. "Where's it at?" they asked in unison. In reply, Knuckles dug into his pocket, pulled out a gleaming object and tossed it from hand to hand. Sonic recognized it as a time stone; a gold one. Knuckles tossed it to him. Sonic caught it and studied it.
It was about five inches long and three inches wide. It wasn't really gold, but a deep yellow crystal. There was a glowing yellow spark in the center. The gem was cool and heavy in his hands, and seemed to vibrate ever so slightly. It had a power, yes, but a different sort of power than the chaos and super emeralds.
"Where was it?"
Knux pointed to the ceiling. "The generator's mounted on the roof; right over our heads. I figured it'd be a good place to start, so this morning I climbed up on the roof and took the stone out. When I did I found out something. If you take the stones out of all the generators, one by one they all self-destruct. Fail-safe. You know." Sonic nodded. "Just like before. When Death Egg blew, it signaled the other bases to blow up, too. Robotnik must like doing that." He handed the time stone to Serena, who looked at it carefully before handing it back to Knuckles. "What're we gonna do with 'em?" she asked.
"Take 'em back to Little Planet, what else?" Knux replied. "Oh, and one more thing. Before you disconnect the last stone, contact me and make sure I'm not in this tower. Those thing's explosions equal ten sticks of dynamite." Sonic grinned. "It'll wipe out the computer again, won't it?"
"Yep. I'll be running for Knothole when that happens. There's a human case of explosives that I want to avoid."
Knuckles beckoned to them and led them back into the bedroom. He got down on his knees beside the bed and shoved a few boxes around, looking for something. "What are you looking for?" Sonic asked him.
"Almost--got--it--there!" Knux pulled out a medium--sized box. He slid it into the middle of the floor and opened it. In it were six pairs of short-wave radios. He handed one to Serena and another to Sonic. "These are the handiest things," Knuckles said. "I use 'em all the time. They have a range of about a hundred miles max; better than most we have. If you want I'll give you the whole box. Make sure everybody on the search for the stones has one. Use this channel," he held up one and turned it's dial so a blue light came on. "Red, green, yellow, and orange are all operational frequencies around here. Nobody uses blue."
"Sounds cool," Sonic said. "Give me three pairs." Knuckles handed them to him. Sonic hooked them onto his emerald belt, forgetting Knuckles didn't know about it. Knux stared at him. "How're you doing that? They aren't attached to anything!" Sonic looked down, then snickered. "Oh, I forgot to tell you. Slasher got her claws on the down-sized versions of the super emeralds and put them in a belt. The belt's invisible as long as I wear it. See?" He unclasped the belt, then refastened it. "Neato!" Knuckles exclaimed. "Do they work?"
"Yep. Real well, too."
Suddenly Knuckles's watch started beeping loudly. He snapped it off and hissed, "Great! You have less than five minutes to get out of here. I can't escort you; Doc's due to come up any time. Take the stairs; they're safer." He shoved the box back under the bed and started to re-enter the computer room. He paused with his hand on the door. "Thanks, K-T-E," Sonic said to him.
"Right. Now get going!" Knuckles snapped.
The two hedgehogs headed out and started down the stairs. "What does 'K-T-E' stand for?" Serena asked Sonic. "Knuckles-The-Echidna," Sonic explained. "I thought it was pretty obvious."
They descended ten feet more. "Sonic," Serena panted, "try going down these with both arms twisted up behind your back." Sonic smirked at her. "I'd rather take your word for it." They were both winded by the time they reached the bottom, and rested a few steps up from the floor. Suddenly Sonic's radio clicked on. "Are you guys out of the building?" came Knuckles's voice. "No," Sonic replied.
"Ya got thirty seconds. Scram!" It clicked off. Serena looked at Sonic. "I think we'd better go."
"Yeah, so I noticed. Let's jam!"
They lunged through the little door, turned left and jumped through the outside door. A shock of cold air met them, along with a flurry of snow. There were already two inches on the ground. The hedgehogs left the fortress at a run and ducked into the dismal streets. They got about five blocks away from the fortress before they stopped. "That was kinda close," Sonic exclaimed. "Yeah," Serena agreed. "Wow, look at the city! If you don't look very closely, it almost looks pretty!" Sonic smiled at her through the falling snow. "The snow won't be white for very long, thanks to the factories. By the way, did you mean to make that rhyme?"
"Nope. Brrr, it's cold. Let's go back to Knothole."
"Sounds cool to me," Sonic replied. "Let's take it easy. I can't see very far in this, and I don't want to run into any SWAT-bots. C'mon, 'Rena."
They settled into a fast walk. Sonic stayed a few feet ahead, straining his eyes to see through the curtain of swirling snow. It was getting deeper by the minute, and their tracks were soon covered. Everything was muffled and very quiet. Even all the city noises were hushed by the falling snow.
Serena pulled out her map again and studied it. On the far side of the map, it showed a small X with the words, 'Floating Island formerly here.' Why would somebody write that on a map?
"Sonic, why--," she stopped. Sonic wasn't there. She looked around, then down at the snow. Only her own footprints marked the soft powder. Somehow, she had taken a wrong turn. I'm lost, she thought. Lost in Robotropolis in a snowstorm. "Son-ic!" she called piercingly. Her voice didn't carry very far. Shivering, she started walking. I found my way out once, I can do it again, she thought to herself. She walked down a couple of streets without seeing anything familiar. The swirling snow obstructed her vision, disorienting her. The silence was beginning to get on her nerves, too. And as her discomfort increased, she remembered Robotnik wanted her dead, that he knew who she was, and she was lost in his city.
Serena made her way down a dark alley, wishing for a flashlight and a change of clothes. She was half-way down it when she suddenly felt that someone else was there. And it wasn't Sonic. An eerie feeling. She shrank to the side and pressed herself against the wall, straining with eyes and ears to make out who or what it was. Silence. Nothing happened. She could see nothing but the dancing, swirling snow, and hear nothing but the pounding of her own heart.
Maybe I just imagined it, she thought after a few moments. But something told her that Someone was close by. He was watching her. He knew who she was. He hated her on sight. And he was completely motionless. "Who's there?" Serena called after a few more minutes of suspense. Motion! Something big and dark came at her out of the shadows. One hand closed on her arm, and with iron strength it pulled her out of hiding and threw her on her face in the snow. She automatically rolled over and tried to get up, but suddenly her limbs turned to lead and she couldn't move. She stared up at the dark form. It had one hand extended toward her, pointing at her. The figure made no move, so she asked it, "Who are you?" "Me?" it replied. It's voice was deep, and had an evil quality to it that rivaled Robotnik's. It had another quality, too.... "I can ask you the same question. What are you doing in Robotropolis, Freedom Fighter?" The question was not kind. "None of your beeswax," Serena snapped. The creature made a sound in it's throat like a growl. "Haven't you figured out who I am? I am Packbell. Give me the information I want or I'll kill you."
Serena had heard nothing about Packbell, or she wouldn't have been as arrogant. "Packbell? Who's Packbell? I ain't never heard of anyone named that." "I'M Packbell, idiot!" he roared. He reached up and flicked on a small light protruding from the wall above him. Serena found herself staring up at--a human! He was dressed in a brown uniform and shiny black boots. The light shown on his sandy hair and his harsh features. His eyes seemed to be lit from within by a fierce light. They stared down at Serena intently. She returned his gaze a moment, but was forced to drop her eyes. "Now," he hissed, "what are you doing here?"
"What makes you think I'm a Freedom Fighter?" was the ready retort. "Because," Packbell replied, "you are a fugitive and a spy. I know as well as you what you did to the computer. I should destroy you right here, but Dr. Robotnik wants you alive, if only by a little." Serena struggled. "Let me go!" she snarled. "Why would I do that?" Packbell replied icily. "You'd escape. What are you holding?" He had spotted the map. He snatched it from her grasp and examined it. "Well well well," Packbell said dryly, "what have we here? A satellite map of Mobius! Where did you get this?" She didn't answer him. "Where did you get this?" Again no reply. "ANSWER ME!!" Still she said nothing, which infuriated the android. Serena's mind was racing. How had he paralyzed her like this? It had to be the object he was pointing at her; a little black box with a wire coming out the end, like a walkie-talkie. Walkie-talkie. Her radio! For the first time she remembered it. It was hooked onto her hip, but she couldn't reach it now.
Packbell was enraged. "SPEAK!!" He hit her so fast she never saw it coming. It knocked her over sideways into a snowdrift. It hurt. Serena gritted her teeth and made no sound, eyes fixed on the thing in Packbell's hand. The big creature kicked her in the side, hard. She realized she would probably take a lot of damage before he let her go.
Packbell grabbed her by one arm, lifted her all the way off the ground, then threw her down. Now this was pain. She had landed on the radio. As she rolled off it with a half-stifled moan, she saw the blue light was on. Immediately she cried, "HEELLPP MEEEE!"
* * * * * *
It had taken Sonic a bit longer to find out Serena wasn't with him. He had said, "Hey 'Rena, keep a lookout behind us, in case we're being followed, all right?" No answer. He had turned around and found that he was alone. A wave of sickening dread washed over him. He fought it down with an effort, then began to re-trace his steps. The snow made everything confusing, even for him, so a few minutes later he stopped, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "'Re-na! Ser-e-na!" Then he listened. His voice seemed hushed by the tons of falling snow. No answer.
Sonic began to run. He ran up and down streets and alleyways, calling Serena's name until he was so breathless he had to rest. No reply. No sound anywhere, it seemed. He was alone in this dim world of cement, metal and falling snow. "Where is she?" he panted into the mist, breath coming in white clouds. "This is as bad as when Tails was lost in the cave. Except this is worse, 'cause I have no idea where Serena is!" He took one of the radios that were hung around his waist, clicked it to channel blue and said, "Serena, are you there?" Static. "Man, I wish I knew how Knux turned mine on like that." He was interrupted by Serena's cry for help. It not only came from the speaker, but from somewhere behind him and to his right.
Sonic whirled around and headed that way. As he ran, he could hear sounds of struggle coming through the speaker. It made him mad; somebody was beating up his friend, trying to get her to talk, most likely. His blood ran cold as he recognized Packbell's voice. Packbell was bad news. He was a highly sophisticated android, so human it was impossible to tell otherwise. Robotnik had built him as a prototype, but he had turned out a little too successfully. Packbell was commander of Robotnik's army, and had a hand in building the Ultra SWATs. He did everything from patrolling to murder. The only robot possibly worse was Metal Sonic.
Sonic skidded into a dark, narrow alley. He saw Packbell standing over Serena's limp form. He had just pulled a gun from it's holster. "I see you require a different form of persuasion," Packbell was saying. "Hey moron!" Sonic shouted. "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?" Packbell snapped erect. "Hedgehog! I should have figured; you wouldn't let anything happen to your sister, would you?" He fired three laser blasts at Sonic. "Man, you need to take safety lessons for that gun," Sonic taunted. "You almost hit me." He crouched down, crossing his arms in front of him. He sprang into the air, activating his super emeralds. Then he stood still, confident and fearless. "Shoot me. I dare you," he said to Packbell. He made a good, brightly lit target. The android took aim and fired, but stared in shock as each blast bounced off his enemy. "See?" Sonic laughed. "I'm invincible." Then he leaped through the air, splitting it as he whizzed across the twenty feet separating them, and landed, feather-light, between Packbell and Serena. His body broke the stunner's beam, and Serena was released. She painfully got to her feet as Sonic confronted her attacker.
Sonic made one lightning-quick move and toppled the android into the snow. "Give me her map," he said to him, for Packbell still clutched Serena's map in one hand. "Never," Packbell snarled. Sonic touched him lightly on the chest, then withdrew his hand. Packbell responded as if Sonic's hand had been a live wire, writhing backward as panic filled his eyes. "I'll touch you, and I won't let go 'till I short-circuit everything in your operational core," Sonic growled. "Give me her map!" Packbell didn't move. Sonic placed both hands on his chest and leaned into his face. Packbell struggled, the power from the emeralds hurting him in a real physical way. But Sonic was strong, and he couldn't throw him off. "Enough! Take the stupid map!" he cried at last. He threw it in Sonic's face. Sonic tossed it to Serena, then reached down and hit the side of Packbell's head; not slapping, but a hard cuff. Packbell was out like a light.
Sonic got off of him and walked over to Serena. "I've always wanted to shut that jerk down," he said. "He'll be back on-line in a few minutes, though. Are you okay, 'Rena?"
"Well, to be honest, no," she replied.
"What's wrong? He just beat the tar out of me, and you ask what's wrong? I don't think I'll be able to walk home, if that's what you mean." Sonic shook his head sympathetically, then crouched down. "Here, climb on and I'll carry you home. Think you can hang on?" Serena climbed on his back. "I donno. I think so."
"All right, 'cause here we go!" And Hyper Sonic was off. He ran two steps, then settled into the easy glide that came with the power stones. He also left no tracks.
The city went by in less than five minutes, and then they were out on the open plains. The five miles of open space before them excited Sonic, and he said, "Here's where we put the 'hyper' in Hyper Sonic. Hang on, 'Rena, cause in ten seconds I'm gonna leave the speed of sound in the dust." "How fast are you gonna go?" Serena asked in alarm. Sonic laughed and said, "Well, lets just say light is starting to get jealous." Before Serena could protest she wasn't invincible like he was, he took off.
Sonic leveled out and began to pour on the speed. As he flew, he counted down from ten. When he reached one, right on time he hit the sound barrier. It was a literal barrier; suddenly the air and gravity seemed to drag at him, slowing him down. Sonic had blown it many times before, though, and a rippling sonic boom marked when he did. Now, above Mach 1, he could really haul. "'Rena, watch this!" he yelled into the wind, and grabbed the belt with both hands. It worked the same as flooring the gas pedal. His speed increased greatly. By now he had crossed the plains not once but several times, and was ready to head for home. He decided that running through the trees would slow him down (not to mention he might mow somebody down), so he drew both knees up to his chest, aimed at the ground, and kicked out. It sent him flying up at an angle, and with his incredible speed he stayed fifteen or twenty feet above the ground. A backward glance over his shoulder showed the energy stars trailing out behind him like the tail of a comet.
To someone who has exceeded Mach 2, Knothole was not very far away. In fact, it was too close. Sonic had to fly in big circles, trying to slow down enough to land. When he dropped below Mach 1, the sonic boom announced his arrival. As he landed, his friends came out to meet him. "How'd it go?" Sally asked him as she shielded her eyes from his brightness.
"Fine. Got the maps and some pretty cool radios." He rubbed his wrist across the belt to de-hyperize himself, and noticed with annoyance Serena was still on his back. She was heavy. He had hardly noticed her while he was hyper.
"'Rena, get off! We're home!" She didn't answer him. Slasher approached. "What's the matter?"
"Serena won't get off my back." Slasher looked at the young hedgehog, then down at Sonic. "Good grief, Sonic! She's unconscious! Did you forget that she's not invulnerable? How fast did you go, anyway?" Sonic looked down and seemed to study the snow under his feet. "Over Mach 2." "Mach 2!" Slasher exclaimed. "I'm surprised she's not dead! Hold still; she's got a death grip on your quills."
In the end they had to cut her loose from Sonic's back. He grumbled about this, but at the same time worried about her. They put her to bed until she recovered. "What's wrong with her, Slasher?" Sonic asked anxiously as the big raptor covered her with a blanket. "You hit speeds that no one can survive unless they're invincible. Serena couldn't breathe, so she passed out. I think the only thing that kept her from getting killed was that she must have absorbed some of your energy. Poor kid. You wanna tell us what happened?"
Sonic told everyone about the maps and the radios and meeting Packbell. He pointed out the locations of the generators and told them what would happen when all seven stones were recovered. "Boom!" he said. "I want to know, who wants to go with me'n Slasher to get the stones?" The Freedom Fighters all looked at each other. Slasher noticed their hesitation and said quietly, "Who feels qualified to go?" Tails raised his hand. "I'll go," he offered. "I've been on dangerous trips with Sonic before." Sonic slapped him on the back. "I knew you'd come, little bro. Anybody else?" The group looked at each other again, uncertain and afraid. Sonic's eyes narrowed. "Are you guys too scared to save Mobius? C'mon, this is a matter of life and death!" They were all quiet a few minutes. Then Sally said, "Sonic, I'd volunteer, but--"
"It's such a long way from here. Across the Dark Mountains and into places we've never seen before. How are we going to get there?" The question hung in the air like a mist. Sonic looked at Slasher, who was watching all this without a word. "Good question," she replied. "I've been thinking about that. You know, only about a hundred and eighty miles of ocean separates us from the east coast. You could hijack one of Robotniks' big cruisers and fly out there."
Slasher had been looking at one of the maps. Now she spread it on the table before them and said, "Look. One--no, two of the generators are near the east coast. One is right here, on Copie Wright Island. The other is about sixty miles inland. If a team of three took a big attack ship and flew across the ocean to right here, you'd be able to knock out both of these in about twenty-four hours." Sally studied the map. "You know, Slasher, you might have something. If we all team up we could get this done." She looked at the map again. "What if the bases are guarded?" Slasher thought a moment. "Then you'll have to have weapons." Suddenly she snapped her fingers. "Ah-ha! The great mind strikes again! Listen; while I was in Robotropolis, I got the access code to Hanger Four. There was a really big ship in there. It was like a cargo freighter, but it was armored and had guns. It was transporting ground mechs."
Everyone gaped at Slasher. The raptor seemed to be thinking. "It'd be one heck of a job to get it out of there, though. If you landed it anywhere near the city, you'd be intercepted by a SWAT patrol for sure. Better just fly straight west so you wouldn't get snagged." She looked around at the circle of astonished faces. "Who can drive a ground mech?" Sally, Rotor and Bunnie raised their hands. "Do you three want to do this?" They all nodded. "All right, then. Sally, you're the best leader. Think you could lead the mission and get everybody back alive?" Sally looked at her two friends and said, "I think so."
"Sonic, give them their radios." Sonic was still carrying the seven radios around his waist. He took off all of them and handed one to each of his friends. He hooked one back on his belt, and as an afterthought, gave one to Tails.
The remainder of the day was spent setting up a base for all the radios to tune in to. Roter modified an old radio from Robotropolis to pick up all the channels, and even flash the band's color light. Bookshire, the old raccoon, would be in charge of it and any computer hacking they might need done. Slasher laid out the plans for how they would get each generator off-line, and even did a rough estimate of how long it would all take. Another loose end--when to start--was fixed by a radio call to Knuckles. He liked their plan, and told them that the big armored freighter was going to a military base further south, and was scheduled to leave in seven days. It's cargo was four ground mechs and their fuel. The Freedom Fighters decided to hijack it the day it was to leave, so it would be completely fueled up.
Everyone had forgotten Serena. She was curled up on Slasher's pallet, a thick blanket covering her. She was unconscious for about four hours. Slasher looked in on her every so often, but no one bothered her. The young hedgehog woke up, though, eventually. Slowly her senses kicked on again. She was aware she was lying in bed. It was quiet. It was also rather cold. Her hands felt cramped. She looked down at them, and noticed they were still curled in clenched fists. Slowly she opened them. In each hand was a fistful of Sonic's quills. As she stared at them, she remembered going incredibly fast, hanging on to Sonic for all she was worth. The spikes in her hands were blue, instead glowing all the colors of the rainbow. She dropped them, flexed her stiff fingers, and stretched. She slid off the bed and carefully straightened up. Boy, was she sore! Her left shoulder, side and leg were bruised and aching from Packbell's beating.
Serena limped to the door and opened it. It was late afternoon and still snowing. The low-hanging clouds made it seem like dusk. The snow was thick and soft; there was a foot of it. She looked around. The village seemed devoid of life and empty. Then she spotted the lights in the biggest hut. It looked like that was where everybody was. Serena made her way out into the deep snow. She floundered across the clearing, and was wet, cold and tired by the time she reached the community shelter. As she entered she was met by cries of greeting. Sonic was the first to reach her, and the first thing he said was, "Gee, I'm sorry for going so fast. Are you okay?" Everyone echoed his question. Serena replied that she was fine, and what are you guys doing?
Slasher told Serena their plans. The youngster was impressed and excited, and asked, "Can I go, too?" Slasher replied with a question of her own. "Can you handle a ground mech?" Serena's face fell, and she shook her head. "No. But isn't there something else I could do? Can't I go with you, Sonic and Tails?" Slasher considered. "Climb on my back. I need to see how heavy you are." Serena mounted her. "Hmm. You're pretty light. I could carry three, I suppose. And if you stayed on Sonic's back while he was going close to two thousand miles per hour, I guess you could stay on me. Do you know anything that might be useful?" Serena slid off her back. "I donno. I depends, I guess. Can I look at the map again?" Both maps were spread on a nearby table. The young hedgehog walked over and looked at them. One of the maps had been marked with a red pen. Four of the generators were numbered, and the two Sally, Roter and Bunnie would tackle were circled and their coordinates scribbled next to them.
"By the way, why does it say 'Floating Island formerly here?'" Serena asked Sonic, who was standing next to her. "Because," he replied, "that's were it was when we had our little adventure on it a couple years back. Knux made note of it right there to remind me 'n Tails."
Preparation and departure
The days following were busy ones. Knothole village was preparing for the departure of their intrepid adventurers. Sally, Roter and Bunnie were all outfitted with survival packs. Slasher instructed them on what to do until they felt like they'd already done it. Serena learned how to ride Slasher almost as well as Sonic and Tails. And by the time the seven days had passed, everyone was more than ready to go.
* * * * * *
Three hours before dawn, Sonic, Tails and Serena put on their short-wave radios and light packs, mounted Slasher, and took off. As soon as they were out of sight in the eastern sky, the three on the ground took off on their mission. They took the hovercraft Slasher had swiped when they were rebuilding the village, and headed to Robotropolis.
Sally parked their craft in the dump, and the trio headed into the city on foot. All three of them carried concealed weapons. Hijacking a ship practically under Robotnik's nose was a dangerous business. They snuck through Robotropolis as inconspicuously as possible, trying hard not to be seen. They saw a few worker bots and a couple SWATs, but other than that were unchallenged.
It took thirty minutes to reach the hanger. They hid behind some piled junk and watched the entrance to Hanger 4. A group of SWATs seemed to be standing guard. "You know," Roter panted, "I'm really not used to this kind of thing. Sally and Bunnie replied with a fierce "Shh!" "Can you run faster than me, Bunnie?" Sally asked in a whisper. "Ah don't know, Sally girl," Bunnie replied in the same whisper. "But if'n Ah lead them 'bots away, ya hafta make sure ya'll don't shoot me." Bunnie slipped out of hiding and circled back around the building. She came around and found herself eyeball-to-gun-muzzle with the SWAT-bots. "Halt, Freedom Fighter!" one of them barked. Bunnie whirled around and took off, the robots in hot pursuit. She heard the sound of laser blasts as her friends picked them off one by one. A backward glance revealed only one SWAT-bot was after her now. Bunnie ducked around a corner and waited for it. As the robot came around the corner, she clenched her robotized hand into a fist and punched the robot in the chest with it. The SWAT crumpled and fell to the ground. "That'll teach you bots not to mess with me," Bunnie said to it.
As soon as the coast was clear, Sally leaped out of hiding and ran to the smaller door beside the main doors. She hurriedly punched in 10681 on it's keypad. The door clicked and swung inward. "Bingo," she muttered, then beckoned to Roter. He came running and ducked inside. Bunnie came back, and she too entered the building. Sally carefully closed the door. "All right guys, see if we can find the cargo freighter." "Don't need to," Roter replied. "Look." Sally turned around and saw the biggest freighter she had ever seen. It was parked directly behind the doors, ready to go.
"Let's fly this puppy outta here," Roter exclaimed. He was already in love with the big ship. The three of them made their way up the boarding ramp and into the cockpit. Roter sat down in the pilot's seat, and Sally and Bunnie strapped themselves into the passenger seats behind him. "Can you fly this thing?" Sally asked him.
"Sure. Well, I think so." He stared at the control panel. Experimentally he pressed a button marked 'power.' The lights on the control panel lit up. "Uhh," he muttered aloud. Rotor hit another button on a smaller panel near the top of the control panel. The big hanger doors, outside, began to open. "Oops, that must be the garage door opener," he mumbled.
"I thought you said you could fly this thing!" Sally said apprehensively.
"Sure I can. I just can't get the dumb thing started!"
"Uh-oh," Bunnie said suddenly. "Ah think we've got company." She pointed out the cockpit window to the big outside doors. Two SWAT-bots were standing in the doorway, suspiciously looking around. "Can they see us?" Roter asked.
"No, the windows are tinted, so they can't see in," Sally pointed out. "Get the ship started! If they board us, the jig's up!"
Suddenly all three radios crackled to life. "This is Knuckles. Are you three having trouble?" "No," Roter started to say, but Sally interrupted him with, "Yes. We can't get the engines started. Can you help us?" Knuckles sighed into his radio. "Thought so. That ship's a little hard to get on-line. Well, do you see the button marked 'power'? Press it." "We already did that," Roter replied.
"Oh, okay. Well then, do you see the big knob in the top left of the control panel? Pull it down five clicks." Roter did so. The trio was startled by the sudden sound and vibration as one by one the ship's systems began to come on. "Did it work?" Knux asked.
"Yeah, I think the engines are on."
"Good. Now, as soon as the little screen in the middle blinks 'system ready,' release the clamp on the flightstick." Roter did. "Now, pull down the three levers that are mounted above the little screen. That opens the fuel lines." Roter eased the levers into position. "Now you're ready to take off. Somebody needs to be co-pilot and handle elevation controls. Don't forget, you're in a highly sensitive hover-freighter."
Sally slid into the co-pilot's chair. Knuckles told her how to handle the controls, then to Roter, "You're in charge of steering and gun controls. If you encounter air-to-air resistance, turn on autopilot. The computer will automatically nuke all attackers. The controls are super-sensitive, so don't over-steer. Got it? Now, maneuver out of the hanger."
Roter pulled up on the flightyoke and nearly slammed them into the ceiling. "Oops, sorry," he said weakly, and aimed the nose of the craft at the open doors. The ship jolted twice, and a computer voice said, "Robots firing at six`o clock. Destroying." All three of them looked at each other, then back at the two SWAT-bots. Two guns on the wings swiveled around, locked, then fired once. "Enemy robots destroyed," the computer said complacently. "Gosh," Bunnie muttered, "Ah'm glad we ain't them SWAT-bots." They all turned back around, and Roter edged the ship toward the exit. "Sally, are we clear of the top of the doors?" "I think so," she replied. As they taxied out of the building, the ship lurched and there was a grinding, screeching sound as it hit the top of the doors. "Sally!"
"Oops. I guess we're not." She lowered their altitude a few feet, and they were outside. "Well," Knuckles said over the radio, "you sure butchered your way out, didn't you?" Bunnie picked up her radio. "Knuckles, can ya'll see us or somethin'?"
"Yep. I'm on the roof of a building about three hundred feet to your right. Come out all the way, then get to an altitude of four hundred yards. Oh, and turn on the VAL 9000. She's a better instructor than I am."
"Just say, 'computer on.'"
"Computer on," said Roter.
Through the ship's stereo system came a voice. "Testing. Testing." The sound of someone blowing into a microphone. "Hey, is this thing on?" As the trio looked at each other and Knux burst out laughing, a smoother, pleasanter voice came on. "Hello, I'm the VAL 9000. Please identify." Sally spoke into her radio. "What do we say, Knuckles?"
"Tell her your names, what else?"
"Ah'm Bunnie." The computer waited a moment, then said, "Computer network login completed. How can I help you?"
"Um, can you give us instructions on how to fly the ship?"
"Choose your destination, and I will fly for you."
A big map slid out of the ceiling and lit up. It was a complete map of Mobius, like the one they were carrying. "Touch the area on the screen you wish as a destination." Roter held out his hand to Sally, who handed him the map. He looked at it, comparing it to the computer's. Then he touched a place between the two stars. "The selected area," said VAL, "is restricted. Do you wish to continue?" "Yes," he answered firmly. "As you wish," the computer said indifferently. The engines fired up with a rich hum, and the armored freighter rose into the air until it was level with the tops of the buildings. And then Knuckles spoke into his radio again. "VAL, this is operative Knuckles. Proceed to area 19276998 point 0001. Park for five minutes, then continue designated course."
"What in the world did you just say?" Bunnie asked him. Knuckles laughed, his voice tinny over the speaker. "I'm coming with you," he said.
* * * * * *
Forty miles in the opposite direction, two hedgehogs and a fox were riding a winged velociraptor over the big desert which separated them from the Dark Mountains.
Sonic's radio was on. All four of them were quietly listening to all this. They were almost out of range, so at times the station drifted and became static. But enough came through so they knew what was going on. As Knuckles announced that he was going with the Freedom Fighters, Sonic leaned forward and said, "Slasher, is that all right?" "Sure," Slasher replied leniently. "Knuckles can handle any machine ever built, and well, you've seen him in a mech. He knows the territory, too, and that's a big plus."
"I'm glad he's going," Tails said.
"Yeah," Serena put in. "This way we won't have to worry about blowing him up."
* * * * * *
Deep in Robotropolis, someone else had a radio also tuned to channel blue. He was well hidden in his guardpost, and the dim light that filtered in gleamed dully off his tarnished metal body. His red half-circle pupils glowed brightly in his black eyes as he listened. "I thought Knuckles had been acting funny," the robot purred to himself. "And now he has joined the Freedom Fighters. He is probably even friends with that--Sonic!" It spat the name with sudden fierce hatred. "Well," he resumed his calm voice, "he will suffer for it. And perhaps I can settle the score with--Sonic." The robot fondled the razor-sharp strips of metal on his lower arms with his claw-like fingers.
The robot switched channels on the radio to orange. "Dr. Robotnik, I have news for you." He relayed what he had just heard to his master. "Curses!" Robotnik exclaimed. "I thought Knuckles acted strange when he heard about Packbell. Now I know why. Come to the fortress, Mecha, and we will form a counter-attack."
The calm before the storm
For several hours nothing interesting happened. VAL 9000 flew the ship smoothly northwest as Knuckles directed Sally, Roter and Bunnie how to fly the ship in case of a computer failure, and the best way to handle the mechs. They encountered no resistance, for Robotnik knew what the freighter would do to any opposing ships.
Heading the opposite direction, Slasher was carrying her three passengers into the heart of Mobius. She was breaking the monotony of the long flight by riding an updraft way up, then dropping toward the ground. She gained a lot of speed this way, and would skim along the ground, wings half-folded and beating rapidly. When she began to tire, she would glide into another updraft and do it all over again. The effect was somewhat like a roller-coaster; go up slowly, then drop straight down, gaining speed as you go. Then you level out and streak along and then hit another long steep hill that takes forever to climb. But when you reach the top you shoot down again. Sonic and Tails loved it. Serena was uneasy at first, but after an hour she was more than used to it.
During one of the boring ascents Sonic dug out his map and looked at it. "Hey Slash, just over the mountains is number two. To the southeast. It's only about--" he compared the map scale to the map "--a hundred miles from the Great Forest." "Let me see," Slasher replied. He handed it to her. She studied it a moment or two before giving it back.
"That one'll be our target for today. I'm going to wait until we're in the mountains before changing course, though. Hang on, we're at the top of the updraft!" After that nobody said anything for a while.
Another two hours brought them to the mountains. Slasher's wings were weary from the flight (or so she said), so they landed next to a small stream and had lunch there. Afterward, as they rested a little, Sonic started fooling around with his radio. He couldn't reach Knothole with it. Experimentally he flipped through the other channels. On station green he picked up something. It was a voice reciting something into the radio and relaying it someplace. It seemed to be a code or something, for it was all numbers and a few letters. It wasn't coming from Robotropolis; if pointed in that direction the signal became fuzzy. It seemed to be coming from somewhere further back in the mountains.
"I'll betcha I could tell you where it's coming from," Sonic said suggestively, and his eyes strayed to the map. Serena was examining it.
"But according to this, we're still way out of range of the first generator!"
"Yeah, I know," Sonic agreed, "but that signal has to be coming from somewhere. Maybe the map scale ain't all the way accurate or something." Slasher turned on her own radio and went through the same motions Sonic had, pointing it in all directions.
"It does seem to be coming from the mountains," she admitted. "What say we track this transmission before we go on?"
"Yeah!" everyone agreed.
Five minutes later they were all in the air. Slasher was holding her radio in her clawed hands and was following the clearest part of the signal. "What if it's a trap?" Tails worried. "I mean, we are in the Dark Mountains, and Packbell has a base somewhere in here. What if it's coming from there?"
"We've all got weapons," Slasher pointed out. "Besides, Packbell's base is supposed to be somewhere further north. Who'd set a trap way out here, anyway?"
"Robotnik," Sonic replied. "He suffers from extreme paranoia."
As they flew over the mountains, Slasher noticed it was the straightest possible route through. She didn't have to swerve out of her way to avoid an occasional rocky crag or peak. The scenery was ruggedly beautiful. It was cold, too. A light powder of snow covered everything. The higher they went the denser the woods below became. Looking down at it, Sonic commented, "Boy, I'm glad we don't have to walk through that. It'd take forever!"
Fifteen minutes later the mountains dropped away in foothills and steppes into a very large valley. The mountain range stretched north and south, and further south extended eastward. To the north another spur also branched out eastward, but they couldn't see it from where they were. Most of the valley was cloaked with lush forest. The trees descended from the mountains and had not yet taken over, so the center of the valley was grassy and treeless.
As they soared out over the immense valley, Slasher said, "Well, the signal could be coming from anywhere down there. I wish we had a radio tracker. Then we could tell--whoa!" Slasher's body went ridged and she seemed to freeze for an instant. "Slasher!" her three passengers cried in alarm. The big raptor drew a deep breath and shook her head. "I'm okay," she reassured them. Then her eyes became bright with sudden fear, and she gasped, "I can't move! I can't move my wings!" She tossed her head back, sighed heavily and seemed to regain her composure. "I know what it is," she said matter-of-factly.
"What? What's wrong?" Tails demanded.
"Nothing is wrong with me. Ha! It sounds ridiculous, but I'm locked into some sort of tractor beam. I won't be able to move until it brings me in."
"Brings you where?" Serena demanded.
"I donno. The beam seems to be coming from a long distance, so I'd say from around the generator. There's probably a guard outpost or something."
"Can you break out of it?" Sonic asked.
"No. I tell you I can't move. At all. There's nothing I can do, so I guess we sit back and enjoy the ride."
For a long time nothing happened. The tractor beam was coming from such a distance it wasn't pulling them very fast. This gave the four of them time to plan what they would do when they landed. Slasher had them take off the gear she was carrying and put it in their packs. "That way they might believe me if I say I'm just passing through," she explained. She told them to wait until she was within ten feet of the ground before bailing out. "I don't know if I'll be forced to crash or what, but if I do I don't want to hurt you guys, too."
After a while they began to gain speed and sink closer to the ground. "We're getting close," Slasher warned. Her three riders sat up straight and craned their necks, trying to see down into the woods, hoping for a glimpse of the generator, or perhaps the tractor beam. All they saw was the roof of a low-lying building and a long narrow landing strip. "Well, at least I don't have to land in the trees," Slasher commented, relived. "Get ready to jump." They dropped lower and lower, faster and faster. Soon it seemed as if they were skimming the treetops. "Jump yet?" Sonic yelled.
"No, wait until I tell you!" They descended for what seemed like hours. The racing ground below seemed awfully close.
"Tumble and roll when you hit the ground, got it?" Slasher called.
"Got it," the three replied.
"Okay. . .now. . .jump!"
The ground was further away than it had seemed--ten feet down instead of the five it had appeared. This went through Sonic's head as he spun to the ground and landed with a grunt. To his left and right, Serena and Tails were also landing and rolling to break their fall.
"Quick, get to cover!" he hissed, and they all scrambled to the cover of the woods. There they all turned and anxiously watched Slasher land.
The beam shut off a split second before she hit the ground, so automatically her feet whipped out and hit the ground first. At her speed, though, she couldn't keep her balance and fell over. She skidded for several feet before stopping. Her friends held their breaths as she lay still for about thirty seconds, motionless. Then she raised her head and said, "Whew! Well, that wasn't so bad." She climbed to her feet, folded her wings and dusted herself off. She turned and faced the little building, about fifty feet away.
She had good reason to. Out of the woods stepped three ultra SWAT- bots. They quickly surrounded Slasher. "Give us your identification," one of the badniks snapped. Cooly Slasher replied, "I have no identity to give you. I'm just passing through, and I carry nothing." A lie. But at the moment she was carrying nothing. The robots confirmed this with an X-ray scan. "Where are you going?" the same bot asked. Slasher hesitated, then said, "The great desert."
"Ha!" the SWAT scoffed. "Why would you be going to that barren wasteland?"
"And that business is?"
"None of yours."
The robot didn't appreciate that. It drew it's gun and pointed it in her face. "Are you a Freedom Fighter?"
"A Freedom Fighter? You mean those puny wimps who think they're leading a rebellion? Ha! You gotta be kidding me." The robots looked at each other uncertainly. "What I'd like to know," Slasher continued calmly, "is why you dragged me out of the sky like that. I'm not a ship."
"We brought you in," the robot replied, "because on a radar map you contain more mass than a bird, and--"
"And so you reeled me in. I get it. Now, I would very much like to be on my way. And if you take me in for extensive questioning, I'll turn around and go straight to Dr. Robotnik." The robots seemed intimidated, and consulted among themselves before answering.
"All right, you're clear to go," the robot growled. "If you come through here again, though, we'll blast you. Get it?"
"Good. Now scram."
Slasher leaped into the sky and was gone. "Did she leave?" Serena whispered fearfully. Sonic shook his head. "Nah. She'll get out of sight, then land and circle back to us. All we gotta do is wait." And so they did. They had waited fifteen minutes when Tails said softly, "Here she comes. That way." A moment later their raptor friend glided out of the brush to their right.
"Hi, guys. Everybody okay?"
"Yeah, sure, we're fine," they replied.
"Listen," she continued, "I found the generator. It's off by itself, behind the guardpost. C'mon, I'll show ya."
They crept through the woods in single file, Slasher leading the way. They circled around the building, keeping always to the thickest cover, and at last came to the generator.
It was in a big circular clearing. A huge, heavy cable ran out of the woods and disappeared into the side of the machine. The thing itself was round and flat, almost like a turtle shell. In the top was a lens which resembled the one in the teleporter that had taken Slasher and Knuckles to Hidden Palace. It was lit from within by a blue glow. "Ooo, bizarre," Sonic murmured. Slasher nudged him. "You're the fastest. Go check it out."
"No, I'm talking to the blue hedgehog behind you. Yes, you. See how the thing opens."
Sonic shrugged his shoulders, then dashed out to the big machine. As he walked around it, looking for seams, he was aware of a faint humming sound. The metal was highly polished; he could see his reflection in it's surface. The metal hull was completely welded together. No seams or weak spots. Sonic climbed up on top of the contraption to examine the lens. It was about two feet in diameter, and translucent white. Down inside it he could see a glowing blue spark--the spark inside the time stone. Sonic reached down and touched the lens; it was warm. He tried to pry it off, but the glass was inserted so firmly into the metal he couldn't get a fingerhold. Sonic knocked on the glass, then hit it. The glass was probably over an inch thick. He slid off the generator and ducked into the woods again.
"It's all melted together," he told his friends. "Nobody's supposed to get the stone out, I guess."
"Well," Tails spoke up, "there's more than one way to skin a cat. Become hyper and bust the thing!" Sonic snapped his fingers.
"I just thought of something. I'll just become hyper and bust the thing!" Tails smirked at him as he started to crouch down, but he stood back up and looked at Slasher.
"Won't the power of the supers and the power of the time stones-- uh--clash? What if it blows up?"
"Then it blows up," Slasher replied. "You're invincible. You should be able to handle it. Now move!"
Sonic chafed the emeralds and became Hyper Sonic. Then he attacked the machine, spindashing it from every angle. When the metal was completely dented out of shape, Sonic leaped lightly to the top, and with super strength pryed the lens off. Inside, the timestone was held in an iron vice, it's power drained off and configured to form a laser beam. Sonic reached down and touched the machinery. Instantly a power surge rushed through, frying almost everything. The stone, it's power no longer directed away, began to glow brightly. Sonic reached down and tried to pull it free, but the vice held it fast. Annoyed, Sonic swung his feet down into the cavity and kicked it to pieces. The stone broke loose and fell to the bottom of the machine. Sonic reached down to retrieve it, but to his surprise it flipped away from him like wet soap. Sonic tried again and again to get it, but each time it evaded his grasp. Finally it entered his head to use this to his advantage, and he catapulted it out onto the ground.
Sonic slid down the machine's ruptured side, became normal, then reached down to the stone. To his surprise he was able to grab it easily. Must have something to do with the supers, he thought. Then he held the stone above his head and shouted, "That's one!"
Five minutes later found all four of them on Slasher's back, fleeing amid heavy blaster fire. As they finally got out of range, Serena said, "Well, we got the first time stone, but did you have to announce it to the whole station?"
"Yep," Sonic replied. Nothing could dampen his spirits; one of the mission objectives had been completed. "Two down, five to go," he commented.
"Yes," Slasher answered. "But if the others on the far side have been doing as well as we have, it's only four to go. I just hope they haven't had any trouble."
"Ha!" Tails laughed. "Anywhere Knuckles goes there's gonna be trouble."
Tails wasn't far from the truth. At that moment the other Freedom Fighters, Sally, Roter and Bunnie, were crouching breathlessly in the bushes, watching Knuckles run toward them, hands covering his head. Behind him was another guard station, and walking out of it were two SWAT-bots and an Ultra SWAT. They were firing repeatedly at Knux's retreating back, trying to hit him squarely. They were coming awful close. Knuckles dropped to the ground and rolled behind a fallen tree. Using it for cover, he crawled into the woods, got a couple trees between himself and the robots, and ran to his friends. As soon as he reached them, Sally commanded, "Split up, everybody. Rendezvous back at where we parked the mechs. Let's move!"
This was the first real opposition they had met with. They had landed the big freighter in an open meadow to give themselves enough room to unload the mechs. Disembarking four seventy-five ton mechs actually wasn't that hard. Knuckles just said, "VAL, remove cargo." Automatically the entire back half of the ship opened up, and there were the big machines. Each one's legs were folded beneath the head, and the arms were stored away neatly by themselves. None of the robots had fuel. To give the mechs energy they would have to re-fuel them, and the only difficult thing about that was finding the attachment that screwed into the mechs' tanks.
While the computer fueled up the robots, the four Freedom Fighters released the clamps on the joints of the legs, allowing each one to stand up. Here was the first problem. Each mech was over thirty feet tall. "Gosh," said Roter, "How're we supposed to attach the arms? It'd take a crane to put these things together!"
"That's why Doc took their technology a step further," Knuckles replied smugly. He walked over to a compartment inside the freighter, opened it, and took out four things that looked like remote controls. He flipped one on, punched several buttons, then pointed it at one of the mechs. Immediately the machine moved itself, rotating until it was facing into the still-open ship. Two of the twenty-foot mechanical arms--which had recently been unpacked--levitated upward, floating toward the mech. Each one turned and positioned itself, and finally hovered on either side of the mech. Knuckles pressed another button, and the arms moved inward and attached themselves to the robot.
"That 'un's ready to go," the red echidna announced as he picked up another remote and repeated the process with another mech. It wasn't long before all four robots were on-line and awaiting their pilots. Since they had no way to get in the cockpit directly, Knuckles had the VAL 9000 direct the mechs to lower the ground access lifts. Each one lowered a little platform from the underside of the cockpit, or the 'head' of the robot. Sally, Roter and Bunnie rode them up into the cockpits and got themselves settled while Knux closed up the freighter and had it hover ten feet above the ground. Then he got in his own mech, and the four of them drove the mechs around the meadow for a while, getting the hang of how they worked and moved.
The mechs were the type called 'timberwolf' or 'mad cat'. They averaged from seventy to seventy-five tons, depending on how much ammunition each carried. They could move up to one hundred seventy-two m.p.h., but cruising speed was only about 108. The robots' heads were oval, and were set into the square engine housing. Attached to the sides were the big arms. The ends of each (instead of hands) were heavy guns. And the top of the arms, the shoulders, sported great square missile launchers. Each leg had a certain amount of flexibility. There were joints where the leg attached to the body of the mech, the joints that flexed backward in the knees, and the swivel joints in the feet. Each foot had three toes; one in back and two in front. The whole robot resembled a chicken walker, but sleeker and meaner looking.
Knuckles's robot was the full seventy-five tons, for it had the heaviest weaponry available. Everyone else's were a bit lighter than his. To drive the mech, each person sat in the pilot's seat with the motion controls in front of them, and a big helmet on. The helmet was attached to the robot by a network of cables and wires. It sensed which way you wanted to go, and the cockpit would either swivel in that direction, or the mech would turn and go that way. The weapon controls were also automatic, so everyone made sure the personal computer was set to 'reconnaissance' instead of 'combat.'
Once everyone had got the hang of how to steer, Knuckles showed them how to get into formation, and told Sally to lead the way. "I already told you, I'm no good at navigating," he told her over the battle mech's radio. So Sally set her nav points and took off, studying the infra-red map. They cruised for a short while before Bunnie Rabbot commented, "Ah've always wondered what it'd be lahk to be ro-bo-tized completely. Now Ah know."
It took about an hour and a half of hunting to finally locate the outpost. They parked an eighth of a mile away and snuck through the woods to the outpost. As they hid a short distance away, Knux said, "Hey, I'll bet I could get us free access to the stone. I still have my clearance card; all I gotta do is give it to the robots."
"You think it'll work, Knux?" Bunnie whispered.
"It should. Doc won't suspect I've defected until three days from now. Wait here. I'm gonna try it."
But Robotnik had already learned of Knuckles's treachery and had alerted all the SWAT-bots to be on the lookout for him. As soon as Knuckles entered the building the robots identified him and surrounded him. When he realized his cover was blown, Knuckles had attacked the robots with his spiked fists, shattering one with each blow. That's why there were only three left to run him off.
And now they had joined up back at the parked mechs. "Get into the robots!" Knuckles commanded. "We'll be safer there." They all took the lifts back up into their transports. As soon as they were hooked up again, Bunnie asked, "Well, what the hoo-ha we gonna do now?"
"I don't know," Knuckles replied through his intercom. He was still panting.
"I say we use these mechs and blast 'em," Sally suggested aggressively. "And then we can disable the generator, get the stone, and get out of here."
"Sounds like fun to me," Roter put in. Knuckles considered. "All right, I'm game. Bunnie, what about you?"
"Ah think it'd be a real blast to take out that there hornets nest. Let's do it!"
They all switched the mechs' computers to 'combat,' and following Knuckles's directions, turned on 'targeting computer' and locked onto the building. "Now," Sally grinned, "let's give Robotnik a taste of his own medicine."
They attacked one after the other. Roter went first and hit with pulse lasers and machine gun. Bunnie was second, and took out the thick front wall with light and heavy lasers. Sally came next. Her mech had a little of everything, so she hit with machine gun, light lasers, pulse lasers, and rockets.
The outpost was a wreck by now. It was on fire from the rockets, but wasn't yet leveled. Knuckles took care of that. He came in last, and made sure everyone was a safe distance behind him. Then he stopped his mech before the building and let it have it with everything he had. His mech was armed with heat-seeking guided missiles and a PPC cannon. (PPC = Particle Projection Cannon.) The PPC really caused a lot of damage, leveling the building almost instantly. Knuckles was careful with it, though, for the super-heated ion blasts could easily cause his mech to overheat.
He backed away a safe distance and rejoined his friends. Sally said over the intercom, "Well, now we gotta find the continuum generator. I'm gonna scout around for it."
"Be careful," Knuckles warned. "The PPC leaves residue radiation. It ain't much, but it'll harm your mech if you get too close."
"All right, I won't get close to the building," Sally replied. She opened the throttle and took off.
The others watched her mech move around through the trees, torso twisting this way and that and the young squirrel scanned for the generator. Fifteen minutes passed and she still hadn't found anything.
"Try locking onto the strongest power source," Knuckles suggested. Silence a few minutes. Then, "Hey, I think I found it. It's over here."
"Where exactly is 'over here?'" Roter inquired.
"Uh, to the north of you guys--I think."
Knuckles turned on his sensors and located her mech. "Be there in a minute, Sal."
The generator was identical to the one Sonic had destroyed, except it's timestone was pale green. They discovered the whole thing was solidly welded together. A few well-aimed laser blasts blew the contraption to pieces. Knux retrieved the stone, and together the four mech-warriors reorganized and settled into a long, cross-country tramp that would bring them within jump-jet distance of Copie Wright Island.
Deep in Robotropolis, Snively had just received some bad news. He was manning the big receiver radio and had just gotten word two of the time stones had been stolen. He knew he had to tell Dr. Robotnik, but somehow the idea didn't appeal to him. Ivo was already in a foul mood over Knuckles joining the Freedom Fighters, and this last feather would surely break the camel's back. But Snively had to tell him.
Reluctantly he made his way up the hall to Robotnik's office. He knocked nervously. "Come in," came Robotnik's growling voice. Snively opened the door and peeked around it. Robotnik was hunched over his computer terminal, typing something. It was quiet a moment as Snively worked up the courage to enter. The only sound was the hum of the computer and the click of the computer. Robotnik knew he was there, though. He stopped typing and swiveled around in his big chair. "What do you want, Snively?" he demanded. "This had better be important--I don't have time to chit-chat."
"Oh, it is."
Ivo watched his nephew edge into the room, Snively cringing at each step.
"You act like a whipped dog," Robotnik commented drily. "What is it?"
"I have some bad news, sir," Snively sniveled. Robotnik sighed heavily.
"What is it this time?"
"Well, sir," Snively began, nervously clasping and unclasping his hands, "I just got some--uh--reports from. . .um, uh, outpost two and, um, outpost, uh, six." Robotnik leaned forward. "And?"
"And, well, you see, um, well, outpost two lost a stone earlier today, and--"
"WHAT?!?" Robotnik grabbed Snively by the front of the shirt and nearly lifted him off the floor. "How could they just lose it?" he hissed in his nephew's face. Snively cringed backward. "I don't know, sir, honest! The robots went out to check everything, and the generator was smashed and the stone was gone!"
Robotnik dropped the sniveling Snively on the floor and walked to the window. He stared out it for what seemed like hours before he turned around again and glared in Snively's direction. "Did Sonic do it?"
"They don't know, sir. They beamed me some photographs, and I don't see how one hedgehog could do it. It looks like it was attacked with a wrecking ball!"
Robotnik turned to his computer, logged on to Snively's and was soon examining the photos. "You're right, for once," he admitted grudgingly. "Even Sonic couldn't do that to stainless steel. What about outpost six?"
"It's gone, sir."
Robotnik spun around and stared at Snively. "What did you say?"
"Outpost six is gone, totally blown away. Log on to the recon camera in that area. It looks like a crater."
Ivo did so with amazing speed. He stared at the smoking wreckage as if his eyes would pop out.
"The big freighter, the one transporting the three mechs--"
--four mechs, is missing."
"What do you mean, missing?"
"It's been hijacked or something. It's not in the hanger."
This was almost too much. If not for the fact Robotnik hadn't been brooding over that very thing when Snively knocked, it might not have been so bad. Robotnik went ballistic. Since Snively was the only hurtable thing in sight, he became the object of Robotnik's wrath. It ended when Robotnik drop-kicked him through the door. The door was closed at the time, so exit was somewhat painful. Snively found himself lying on the floor of the hall, surrounded by the remains of what had been the door.
Robotnik pressed a button on the intercom and said, "Metal Sonic, come to my office right away."
A few minutes later the steel-blue robot came clanking up the hall, but stopped at the sight of Robotnik's bleeding nephew. "Gosh, Snively," Mecha said gravely, "you don't look very well. Did you make another exit through a closed door? Don't you know it isn't good for you? I know you think it's fun and do it routinely, but eventually you must quit this." Snively's only reply was a hideous glare.
Sniggering to himself, Metal Sonic shoved open the shattered door and walked in. The room was a wreck, and Robotnik was standing at the window again, hands behind his back. Once more the only sounds were the hum of the computer and a high-pitched whine. Robotnik whirled around and bellowed, "Snively, stop the high pitched whine! It's getting on my nerves!" He focused his attention on Mecha. "Are you sure they took the freighter with the four mechs?"
"Yes, sir. I told you that already."
Robotnik looked as if he would hit him, but Mecha didn't care. He was made of metal, and wasn't the one who would suffer from such a blow. He simply stood there, awaiting orders. "Metal Sonic, have you seen outpost six?"
"No. Now that it's gone."
"Take a look at the computer."
The robot turned and studied the screen with his video sensors. "It was done by the four mechs," he stated calmly. "My enhancement software shows light radiation. It is only caused by the particle projection cannon, and only a mech can carry PPCs."
"Mecha, the Freedom Fighters, and possibly your namesake are in those mechs. I need you to hunt them down and destroy them. Leave the mechs intact if possible, and bring me the two time stones." The robot turned to leave. "Oh and Mecha," the robot paused, "if you find Knuckles the echidna, bring him to me. I want him alive. Go."
It was dusk at outpost three. A layer of clouds were banked on the horizon, so dark seemed to come sooner than usual. The SWAT-bots did a last routine patrol, then reported to Robotnik all was secure. All the robots entered the building but one. A single Ultra SWAT-bot stayed outside the door, scanning with sight and sound sensors.
Suddenly, out of the dark trees a short distance away, came a blindingly bright comet. It sped through the air and slammed into the robot, splintering it almost instantly. The glowing figure was motionless a split second--in the darkness he was difficult to look at directly--and then was gone, shooting over the ground like a fiery missile. He didn't head back for the woods, though. He sped around the building like a flash of lightning, looking for the continuum generator.
He spotted it's glowing lens. The dark enabled him to see the beam shooting up into the sky and vanished. "Ha! Tag, you're it!" he muttered through clenched teeth. He hurled himself at the machine ferociously, denting the steel surface inward. He skillfully directed his blows to the area a foot below the edge of the lens, so halfway around the glass shattered under the pressure. He bounded to the top of the wrecked machine, reached down inside it and unhooked the vice which held the shimmering green time stone. Then he stood up and rubbed the invisible belt strapped around his waist. His fiery glow faded out, leaving him nearly invisible in the dark.
Snatching up the glowing stone, he considered announcing his presence with another yell, but Slasher had solemnly promised if he did that again, she would personally kill him. Sonic didn't believe her, but decided against it just the same. He slid off the broken machine and sped back to his friends.
They were waiting for him a little ways back in the trees. Sonic tossed the stone to Tails, who caught it and dropped it into a little leather bag. They had figured it was the best way to carry the stones without revealing the noticeable glow. "Have any trouble?" Serena asked. "None to speak of," Sonic replied. "That bot never suspected a thing. I'll bet it doesn't even know it's off-line. Hey Slash, where to now?" Slasher shrugged. "I figure we should set up camp for the night someplace sheltered. Those clouds up there are promising snow. I spotted a good place a ways back--c'mon."
They had walked the last few miles to avoid a possible tractor beam. This base was in the low coastal mountains, where part of the continent dipped down toward the ocean. It was built on top of one of the hills, but still had been difficult to find. Once they had located it, Slasher warned Sonic not to do anything stupid, for robots could pursue them a long ways over the open hills and light scrub forest.
And now they were following Slasher. She cut straight across the open hillsides, heading back toward the valley below them. It was not the first one they had entered--this one was further north, smaller, and with gentler mountains around it. It was mostly flat and grassy--a prairie. It was full of game; Slasher had said she could hunt and hunt and hunt and never even make a dent.
They traveled for an hour. Darkness caught up to them, and they were forced to use the time stones as flashlights. The four of them were footsore and weary by the time they reached their destination; a small cave in the side of a hill. The entrance was narrow, but it opened up in a nice sized cavern a little further in. Slasher built a small fire on the cave floor while the others flopped down, groaning and kicking off their shoes. "Gee, I'm tired," Tails complained. He rubbed his feet. "I'm not used to walking straight up and down hills for hours on end without stopping. I'd rather fly."
"Yeah, I'd rather run," Sonic put in. "It's more fun to run and run and never stop. You can get going pretty fast, too. Like five or six hundred miles per hour."
"Oh, knock it off, you guys," Serena interrupted. "I'm already tired as it is, without you guys talking about doing it again." Slasher gave her a sideways glance and looked away, a half smile on her face.
The big velociraptor unstrapped her pack from her back, pulled out the sleeping bags and tossed them to her friends. As they smoothed out the places they would sleep, Slasher opened their food supplies and made supper. A little later, as they were eating, she said, "All right, here's the plan." She spread out their map on the floor before them. "The next place is a long way from here, about twenty-four hundred miles. I'm thinking it will take three days of solid flying to cover the distance. What do you guys think?" The three leaned forward and studied the map.
"If we're going in a straight line," Sonic said, "we cut straight across the valley, brush this place marked 'unexplored region,' part of the Great Desert, and hit it right on the button. Are these mountains?"
"Looks like it. See, it separates the desert from the unexplored part."
"Why is it unexplored?" Tails queried curiously. Slasher gave him a funny look. "You'll see when we land there." Serena frowned. "I don't like the sound of that." Slasher looked at her. "There's a lot of things you won't like the sound of."
"Some of it is tropical jungle, but the part we get to cross is the Forbidden Zone. There are some really weird and ferocious creatures living in it, who crossed over from the jungle. Most explorers don't come out alive. I don't want to stop there at all, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." They were quiet a while after that as everyone thought about that and finished eating. Then they cleaned up and climbed into their sleeping bags.
Slasher was tired, but something warned her to keep watch for a while. She spread a blanket on the ground and lay down at the mouth of the cave. It was pitch black outside, and bitterly cold. The clouds had come in, and the darkness was promising snow to come. Slasher was uneasy. She had a strange feeling way down inside something was wrong. She stared out into the impenetrable blackness, sniffing, testing the breeze, though she didn't know why or what for.
Unknowingly, she was feeling the same kind of fear Serena had on that afternoon in Robotropolis when she met Packbell. It was the gut-wrenching terror of the unknown. The raptor had only felt that kind of fear once before, the day she stood before Robotnik as a pup, wondering what he would do with her. She felt it again now. She was suddenly aware of how visible the mouth of the cave was to anyone outside--like a beacon shouting their location.
On impulse she began to pile rocks in the cave entrance, blocking it in. The entry wasn't very big and she worked fast, so it only took a few minutes. She left a six-inch opening along the top to let in air, and held her head near this hole, watching and listening.
Sonic was watching her. Quietly he climbed out of bed and made his way to her side. He sat down next to her and whispered, "What's up?"
"Something's out there."
The way she said it made the hair on the back of his neck rise. "What?"
"I donno. It's something evil. And I can almost bet you it's looking for us. Why don't you hand me Serena's blaster rifle?" Sonic did, and picked up his own gun.
"Suddenly I'm not tired. Can I stay up with you?"
"Sure. I'd be glad for some company."
Long into the night the two kept watch. After the first two hours the feeling of nameless dread left Slasher, but she remained at her post; just in case. It began to snow right after that, and she wondered if it could have been a robot. Around midnight Sonic simply lay down and fell asleep on the floor beside her. Before long, she too relaxed her vigil and yielded herself to slumber.
At the same time, elsewhere. . . .
"It's snowing, Dr. Robotnik. I can't search for them anymore." A pause. "Yes, they have the time stone." A longer pause. "No, the tracker didn't work. I didn't pick up anything on the stone's location. Only distance or solid rock can block the signal, so they must have fled." Another pause. "Yes, I've noticed they're hitting the generators in order. Next would be outpost four." Silence a moment. "No, they aren't driving the mechs. They're on foot. It will take them a while to get to station four, and--" Mecha seemed to have been interrupted. He stopped in mid sentence. "No, I don't know how they took out two, three and six on the same day. They must be split up--one group on foot and the others in the mechs." He paused. "And no, I don't know how they got from two to three so quickly." He stopped again. "No doctor, I don't know who we're dealing with. The SWAT-bots here never saw a thing." Metal Sonic heaved a deep, robotic sigh. "Yes sir, I'll go to outpost four and wait for them. Do you want them dead or alive?" He paused, then replied, "Acknowledge. Only Knuckles the echidna is to be brought back alive. Anything else? Very well. Mecha out."
Metal Sonic clicked off the radio and pounded his robot fist into his other hand. "Well?" asked the person standing behind him. Mecha turned around. "Packbell, my friend, we get another chance to exterminate these Freedom Fighters once and for all. Dr. Robotnik only wants Kunckles."
"Yes," agreed Packbell, "and he doesn't have to be in good shape, either. What about Sonic?" Packbell had hardly spoken the first syllable of Sonic's name before Mecha struck him across the face. It knocked him down. As he cowered on the floor, one hand pressed to the red mark on his cheek, Metal Sonic spat, "Don't ever mention his name in my hearing again, do you understand?" Packbell hurriedly nodded.
"When we find him," Mecha continued, turning away and acting as if nothing had happened, "he is mine. I don't want anyone to interfere when I have him in my grasp. You and your U-SWATs can take care of the rest, but HE is mine." There was murder on the robot's face as he abruptly walked out of the room. Packbell watched him go. He wasn't surprised at his companion's actions. He hated Sonic, too, but hatred didn't begin to describe Mecha's feeling for him. Mecha hated Sonic because Sonic was the original and he was only a cheap copy. If Sonic was dead, Mecha would be the only one. And now Mecha might have a chance to destroy his rival.
Packbell envied his friend a little, but he knew Sonic was smart. This is why, although Sonic and his evil replica were bitter enemies, Sonic didn't hate Mecha as Mecha hated him. Hatred eventually kills the one who bears it, be he human, hedgehog or robot.
"That will be one heck of a battle," Packbell muttered as he strode out to the awaiting transport. The shuttle would carry both robots to base four. And it was there they hoped to nail the Freedom Fighters once and for all.
The MechWarriors again
Thirty-six hundred miles from outpost three was outpost seven. It was built on Copie Wright Island; the biggest volcanic island on Mobius. The crater in the center was no longer active and half of it had collapsed or eroded away, leaving a crescent ridge like the letter C, the reason for it's name.
The outpost on it was hidden somewhere in the dormant crater. It's generator was powered by the biggest of the time stones, the blood red one. It easily contained half again as much power as the rest put together, and for this reason was well protected.
The four Freedom Fighters in their mechs were going to make an assault on it.
The night it snowed on their friends in the valley to the west, they set up camp on the beach and slept on the ground, surrounded by the parked mechs like huge sentinels in the night. The next morning they were ready to go.
At dawn they boarded the mechs. Roter calculated the distance from the island against the available jump-jet fuel, and figured they could cross the twenty miles of ocean with some to spare. "Good thing," Sally commented. "I wouldn't want to crash in the ocean with seventy-odd tons of metal around me." Knuckles pointed out the kind of jets they had were 'skimmers,' not 'jumpers,'which was a good thing. 'Jumpers' launched you straight up into the sky, and you had to rely on momentum to get anywhere. 'Skimmers' rocketed you over the ground at a tremendous pace, and were generally better for covering distance swiftly.
Knuckles took the lead, as usual. He headed inland a short distance, then turned his mech and charged toward the ocean full tilt. As his mech's feet splashed in the shallow water, Knuckles punched the jump-jets. The others were impressed to see the bright yellow flames spurt from the back and legs of his mech, lifting it out of the water and propelling it forward.
"All right," he said over the all-mech radio, "Bunnie, you're next. Don't go too deep in the water, and don't run into me. Remember, everybody, the mechs are more than thirty feet tall. Don't sink so low your feet drag in the water, or you'll get pulled under."
"Alraht, mister know-it-all," Bunnie broke in. "Ah've got sanse. So does ever' body else. We won't do none of them there thangs."
"I know. I'm just making sure you haven't forgot or something."
One by one the Freedom Fighters took off over the ocean. The twenty miles of ocean would take some time to cover, so they sat back and enjoyed the ride. Everyone kept an eye on the fuel gauges for a while, but it was obvious they would indeed make it with fuel to spare. Usually heat would have been a problem, but Robotnik had installed automatic fans to cool the jets before they got dangerously hot.
"Hey Knuckles," Sally called over the intercom, "did Robotnik build these robots himself, or did he get them somewhere?"
"These are from earth," Knux replied, "only, they aren't from right now."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Doc wanted to see what the time stones could do before he started the continuum, so he went to earth. He used the stones to time-warp, and arrived there in the thirty-first century. These mechs and others are used in warfare. Doc bought four of them (he couldn't steal any without being found out and killed), and brought them back to Mobius. He spent several years upgrading them and adding stuff. . ." He paused. "I was his test pilot, and that's why I'm sorta bossy about driving them."
The four of them lapsed into silence and concentrated on steering the mechs for a while. The jump-jets were eating up the distance like mad, and the island came into sight. At first it looked like a low grey cloud on the horizon, but gradually became larger and more distinguishable. One side of it towered into the sky in a needle-like ridge, bare and rocky. The stone cliffs met the ocean on one side, and dropped into the heavily forested hills on the other. Most of the island was carpeted with the thick, jungle growth, presenting a forbidding, rather unwelcoming spectacle.
"There's no way that island could fly," Knuckles muttered aloud. "Totally off balance--mass on one side rather than centered, not even the right shape!"
"What are you talking about?" Roter inquired. "Who cares if an island could fly or not?"
"I just think about it every time I see a new island," Knuckles replied, slightly embarrassed. "Comes from being raised as guardian of Floating Island, I guess."
"Who's taking care of your island, anyway?" Sally asked.
"My friends, the Chaotix. They can handle the island for a few days."
"You actually trust them enough to let them?"
"Sure. You wouldn't be here if you didn't trust me, would you?"
"Well, no. . ."
The island was coming up quickly now. The side facing them bore a wide, sandy beach--perfect for landing.
"All right, everybody," Knuckles commanded, "ease up on the jets. Don't stop, just slow down."
They all followed his lead, coming up on the right and left fifty feet apart. The huge robots touched down on the shore, the huge, heavy feet sinking into the sand and making it fly as they moved forward. After a few steps, everyone stopped and awaited Knuckles's orders.
Knux was scanning the island with radar, looking for the generator and not finding it. It took him ten minutes to scan the hundred-mile island. At last he sighed and said, "I can't find anything that even resembles buildings. "It's probably in the volcano's crater, where my scanner can't reach. What do you guys find?" It was quiet a few minutes as everyone scanned as Knuckles had. All came up with negative reports. "Rats," the echidna hissed into his microphone. "I guess we'll have to look for it manually. Do we stick together, or split up?"
The question was a controversial one. It was safer to stick together, but they would cover more ground if they split up. In the end they decided to split up. They would all stay half a mile apart; far enough away to feel alone, but close enough to maintain radio contact.
They had only been on the move a little while before somebody commented on the rough terrain. Jagged lava floes formed impassable cliffs and steep, rocky hills. Crumbly black sand streaked the beaches, and tropical forest wove an impenetrable wall against the mountainside and cliffs further inland. It looked somewhat like Hawaii--a Hawaii that had never been tamed or inhabited.
For hours the group worked their way over the island, fighting the mechs through jungle growth that sometimes dragged the powerful robots to a halt. Whoever's mech had been snared would have to climb out and pull or cut away the vines and things entangled in the metal feet. This was a hot and laborious job, for the vines were as strong as iron cables and didn't break easily. It was a rather cool day, but the bright sun was irritatingly hot to someone hacking through jungle growth with whatever was handy.
The day passed quickly. That evening they parked on the beach, all four of them worn out and discouraged. After they had eaten a lukewarm meal, talk turned to the other group, somewhere in the heart of Mobius. "How do you suppose them all be gettin' on?" Bunnie asked.
"Aw, they're probably all right," Knuckles replied. "They got Slasher with 'em. And you're safer with Slasher than with a whole army of these mechs." He gestured to the robots parked further down the beach, black, mechanical shapes against the orange sunset.
"I wish we had radio contact with them--or with Knothole," Sally sighed. "I don't like the feeling of being cut off from everybody." She brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked out at the quiet ocean. "I wonder if they have any time stones, yet."
They sat in silence a moment, each one alone with their thoughts. Roter wondered aloud, "I wonder where they are right now?"
"Probably en-route, if they haven't made camp already," Sally said. "They've got a lot of ground to cover."
Mecha Sonic strikes
The other group was indeed still en-route. Slasher was trying to cover as much ground as possible before the sun set and it was too dark to fly any more. The sun gradually sank into the west, staining the sky red and orange. They were over the Forbidden Zone, and none of them wanted to land.
But hunger and fatigue drove them from the sky at last. They made camp near a meadow with a clear stream flowing through it. Slasher scouted around a bit and pronounced their camp reasonably safe, but all of them were a bit nervous, anyhow.
In spite of that, they all managed to sleep quite soundly--exhaustion took care of that. They were all up bright and early the next morning, and were in the air within the hour.
"Look," said Slasher, the plastic-coated map in her clawed hands. "We covered a good hundred and sixty miles yesterday. If we can do the same tomorrow, we'll be there some time tonight."
"Is that good?" Serena asked. She was sitting at the very back, with Sonic and Tails in front of her.
"Yeah," Slasher replied. "It means I won't be completely bushed by the time we get done with this."
* * *
All day both groups traveled. The Freedom Fighters in the mechs tried to work their way further inland, but were rebuffed by the sheer cliffs and thick undergrowth in their way. At last it was agreed they would have to circle the island on the beaches and enter the crater through the collapsed section. But since they had already spent half the day trying to enter the wrong way, they didn't cover more than a few miles before dark.
Slasher's group, on the other hand, were only twenty miles from their destination when dark set in.
It had been dark for two hours, putting it around eight o' clock. The largest of the two Mobian moons had just risen, and Slasher was reading the map by it's light. "According to this," she said softly to Sonic, "we should be right above it."
"Good," Sonic replied. "Nobody else heard you. They're both asleep."
"Mm," Slasher answered. "I won't drop straight down, then. We can circle until we reach the ground, and maybe we can spot the outpost from the air."
Slasher banked sideways and began to glide downward. After they had lost a thousand feet, Slasher said, "Hey Sonic, look. There's Little Planet; over there, a fist away from the moon. It's just rising." Sonic looked. A rare sight, the tiny planet which orbited Mobius coming into view, it's land mass dark green, it's ocean aquamarine blue. Usually it's orbit was unpredictable, as it skipped through time once a day, although it appeared annually over Never Lake, further north. "A bad sign," Slasher said quietly, almost to herself. "We shouldn't be able to see it. It's unprotected without the stones--it can't warp."
They sank into silence. For some reason, Sonic's thoughts turned to Serena. How he felt a strange attachment to her, even though she sometimes drove him crazy. He thought of how much like Tails she was. His mind traced back to the time she went into Robotropolis with him and got lost, and how helpless she had been under Packbell's stunner. As he thought about it, he sensed something strange--something he had noticed and discarded as unimportant. What had it been? It had seemed odd at the time, too. . . something somebody had said. He couldn't quite remember, but like things of that nature, he was determined to pin it down if it took all night. Sonic thought and thought, replaying the event over and over in his mind, looking for the key word, element or phrase that didn't fit.
It came to him like the chime of a bell on a clear night. Packbell had said, "You wouldn't let anything happen to your sister, would you?" Sonic had been so caught up in the excitement of the moment he hadn't noticed, and neither had Serena. Sister? Sure, Serena looked like him, and Packbell could probably be excused, but it had been pretty spur-of-the-moment. Well, when in doubt, ask. He leaned forward, around the nodding Tails. "Hey Slash," he whispered in his friend's ear.
"I got a question."
"The other day, when we got the maps and Packbell beat up 'Rena, he called her my sister. What did he mean?"
Slasher twisted her head around sideways and looked at him with one green eye. "What did he say?" Her tone was deadly serious.
"He said, 'You wouldn't let anything happen to your sister, would you?'"
Slasher looked ahead again, mind spinning. So, her earliest suspicions had been confirmed by a slip from Packbell. The pieces fell into place. Serena looked like Sonic. She could run like he did and had his stamina, though it wasn't quite as developed as his. She could think on her feet. She could spindash. (No hedgehog but Sonic could spindash.) She had his sense of humor. The only thing that didn't fit was her age. She was younger then Sonic, but older than Tails. This put her at twelve or thirteen. I'd have to dig into the local genealogy records to make sure, she thought, but it seems awful close to be a coincidence.
Sonic was waiting impatiently for an answer. "Well? What did Packbell mean?"
"I donno, Sonic," was Slasher's lame answer. "But I think, and there might only be a slim chance, that she could be your younger sibling."
Sonic's hold on her back relaxed so suddenly she thought he had fainted. A backward glance revealed him to be sitting up straight, staring ahead without seeming to see anything. "Sonic, are you okay?" It was a moment before he answered faintly, "Y-yeah, I'm cool." Then he gripped her tightly with his hands and knees. "Slasher, do you think she--she--she might--might possibly--"
"Be your sister," Slasher finished for him.
"Yeah. Do you think she might?"
Slasher knew his hopes were rising quickly, and wanted to dim them without dashing them to pieces. "Well, Sonic," she said cautiously, "I'm only saying she _could_ be, not that she _is_. We'd have to trace your genealogy to be sure."
Sonic was quiet a moment. "All my life I thought my only relative was Uncle Chuck, and he's robotized. It would be so. . .so wonderful. . . to have a sister. . ." He twisted around and looked at Serena. She was nearly sound asleep, slumped forward with her forehead pressed against his back. "You might be," he said softly.
"Don't tell her," Slasher said sharply. "It might lead to one heck of a misunderstanding."
"Or it might not," Sonic added. "I don't like this 'might' and 'maybe' stuff. I want to know!"
He lapsed into silence. Slasher continued to glide downward, eyes on the landscape, mind on her passengers. Below them was a small range of thrust-fault mountains. They looked like great slabs of rock had been shoved up at odd angles, creating the folded look. "Earthquake central," Slasher murmured to Sonic. As he leaned over her neck to look down, she said quietly, "That region was thrust up by a volcanic reaction not too long ago. The ancient maps of Mobius don't show it at all."
"But there's trees and stuff growing down there."
"I know. Stuff'll grow in thirty years."
"I happened thirty years ago?"
"Uh-huh. And it's still under constant geologic upheaval. I'm surprised Ivo was able to build any sort of base at all."
"And we get to land there."
"Yup. Keep your fingers crossed we don't encounter any major earthquakes, either."
"Yeah. I've got a feeling this base is going to be waiting for us."
The words were hardly out of Slasher's mouth when there was an orange burst below, and a surface-to-air missile whizzed past her left wing. "Yipes! What did I just say? They're trying to shoot us down!" Serena and Tails both awoke with a start. "Whassamatter?" Tails whispered. "Surface- to-air missile," Sonic replied. "Hold on." Slasher dove sideways and another missile shot by. "Hang on, guys," she called back. "I'm starting evasive maneuvers."
She wove left and right, then went into a long, spiraling dive that sickened her riders and wrenched their limbs. Red streaks lit up the night as someone fired at them with a heavy laser, but Slasher was steering a drunken course across the sky and extremely difficult to hit.
Then she folded her wings and dropped like a stone into a grove of trees. It couldn't be called a forest, really; just scrubby oak trees and tall brown grass. They landed in it as softly as Slasher could. The group tumbled off her back. As the two hedgehogs and fox lay where they had fallen, Slasher crouched over them on all fours and let her wings drape down. "They'll be looking for us," she whispered to them. "Our lives depend on our silence, so hush."
The four of them lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to quiet their noisy breathing, listening for any sound that might mean their capture. For a while they could hear the metallic voices of SWAT- bots as they scanned the area, but time and again the scans missed them.
At last the robots moved on and it was safe to breathe again. Slasher lifted her narrow head high, looking around cautiously. "Good," she murmured, "we're relatively safe now." She moved aside, letting the others sit up. Sonic's hands went to his belt. "Want me to get the stone now?" The big raptor shook her head. "No, not yet. If you get it we'd have to run, and I'm too tired to fly like that again.
Slasher flopped down on the brown grass. "I have to rest a few minutes. Keep an eye out for trouble. If anything happens, wake me up, okay?" And she was out like a light. Tails stared at her. "Gosh, I didn't think Slasher ever slept!" Sonic shook his head. "Me neither. But she did just cover twenty-four hundred miles in two days, and that's a pretty long distance. Even for me." Tails yawned. "Anybody care if I crash, too?" Sonic and Serena nodded their ascent, and Tails lay down and was asleep in a moment.
Serena got up and moved a few feet away to sit at the base of a gnarled old oak tree. She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them and looked up at the starry sky. Sonic came over and sat beside her. "What's up, 'Rena?" She didn't answer him for a few minutes, just continued to stare up at the sky. Without moving, she said softly, "When Robotnik captured our village and I escaped, I decided I would look for my older brother." Sonic felt the urge to gasp loud and long, but fought it and outwardly remained calm. Serena went on quietly, "I went to every village, every Freedom Fighter band I could think of or find, asking if they knew about my brother. Nobody had heard of him. Knothole was my last chance to find him." She paused. "And I haven't even thought about asking about him. I got sucked into the whirlwind of events and totally forgot." She turned and looked at Sonic. "So I want to ask you, have you seen my brother?"
Sonic had to swallow several times before he got control of his voice. "How old is he, and what does he look like?" Serena gave Sonic an odd look. "What's the matter with you? Your voice went squeaky all of a sudden." Sonic shrugged, and she went on, "I think he's only a year or so older than me, and I heard somewhere I look a lot like him." Sonic thought, I'm a year or so older than you, and you closely resemble me. Aloud, he said, "Well, there ain't that many hedgehogs around, and I haven't seen any that match that description." Serena sighed with disappointment and looked down. "Bummer. I guess he must be dead or robotized, then." Sonic gazed at her searchingly and muttered, "I'll bet you're closer to him than you think." She jerked her head up and looked at him. "Huh?"
They were both quiet for a while, thinking their separate thoughts. Serena was thinking about her brother, and Sonic was thinking about his sister.
Gosh, I'd like to ask her some more, but I'd slip and say something. I wish I knew for sure. I wonder if she is. . . .Heck, I'm sleepy all of a sudden. . . .
He was suddenly so sleepy he couldn't hardly keep his eyes open. His thoughts drained away in a blur, and his muscles went slack. It was all he could do to keep from collapsing as he lay down. As he gave in to his fatigue, he wondered vaguely why he was so tired. As he sank into slumber, he thought he heard a soft, distant voice saying, "That's it, Sonic. Just give in. . . go on. . .fall asleep. . . ."
Serena watched him with a feeling somewhere between curiosity and alarm. "Man, I didn't think he was THAT tired," she murmured. She looked around. Everyone was asleep except her, and she felt wide awake. "Strange," she muttered, and lay down with her back to Sonic's and her face to the tree trunk. But after fifteen minutes, she was no closer to sleep than before. She knew the best way to fall asleep is to stop trying, so she sat up and gazed out at the quiet landscape. The night was silent--no crickets, no wind, nothing. Nothing but the brilliant stars above and the grey, dead grass.
There was no telling how long she sat there, but after a long time she heard a voice. "Serena," it said. It seemed to come from inside her head and was oddly distant. She looked around. "Huh?" "Hedgehog," the voice said again. "Who are you?" she whispered. The voice was familiar, somehow. . .
"Serena, listen to me. Your life and the lives of your friends are in grave danger. To save them you must go to the outpost."
"The--the outpost? But won't I get captured?"
"It is a risk you will have to take. Even now your friends will not awaken. Go to the rear entrance of the guardstation if you wish them to wake up alive."
Not quite believing what the voice said, she reached over and shook Sonic by the shoulder. "Sonic, wake up!" He didn't respond. "Sonic!" She shook him again, but he was so deeply asleep he couldn't feel her. Alarmed, she got up and went to Slasher, then Tails, but it was the same with both of them.
"You see," the voice purred, "they are completely powerless. Go to the outpost if you want to save them." Serena was starting to freak out. She decided to do what the voice said, but she took her trusty blaster pistol; just in case.
She made her fearful way through the little grove of trees, heart leaping at every sound. She hated to leave her companions, but it seemed she had no choice. The outpost was only five hundred yards from her starting place, but it seemed like miles. She made her way over the rocky, rough ground, stumbling over loose stones and wishing the other moon would rise so she would have more light. It was deadly quiet.
* * *
Inside the low oblong building, Packbell and Metal Sonic were standing before an odd-looking, box-like machine. Packbell was holding a microphone plugged into it's side. "She fell for it," he was saying, "hook, line and sinker. This little mind controller works like a charm, Mecha." "Yes," Metal Sonic replied coolly. "The fox and dinosaur were already asleep, but S-Son--the hedgehog was a little more difficult. I would prefer to be the one at the microphone, but my voice is not as human as yours is." Packbell checked a screen on a nearby computer console and said, "She is circling the building." "Excellent," Mecha growled. "Prepare her reception."
* * *
Outside, Serena had spotted the rear entrance and hesitantly made her way over to it. As she lifted her hand to the doorknob, the door clicked and swung silently inward. The voice in her head said, "Go in. Ahead of you is a short hall. Walk down it five paces and turn right." Serena did so. The building was completely dark. If the lights had been on she would have seen the two U-SWATs standing on either side of the door. They studied her as she followed her instructions. "You are facing a door," the voice said. "Open it and enter." Serena lifted her hand and felt for a doorknob. Finding none, she pushed against the door. It swung inward into a pitch- black room. The air was stuffy and held a taint of exhaust--something was in there. She stood in the doorway, straining to see or hear whatever it was. "H-hello?" she called uncertainly. "I'm here."
Something moved. It was soundless, but she sensed it and drew her pistol. A cold hand instantly closed on her wrist and yanked her into the room. As the door swung shut the lights came on. The dim light showed her to be in the same room as Packbell and Metal Sonic. Mecha had her by the arm. "Drop your weapon," he said smoothly, "or I'll crush your limb into putty." She let the gun fall to the floor. Mecha snatched it up, pulled her around so her back was against his chest, one metal arm holding both of hers to her sides, his other hand pointing her gun in her face. She fought and struggled, but it was like being in a straight jacket.
Packbell picked that moment to say, "Welcome." She recognized his voice. "You! I knew I'd heard your voice somewhere before!" "Yes," Packbell replied drily, "but it doesn't really matter. We have you, now."
"What was all that about saving my friends?"
"A clever ruse, concocted to bring you here. With our brain-belt device, we can do just about anything to anybody we want. Your three friends are deeply unconscious, and even as we speak a patrol of SWAT-bots are going to retrieve them--and the time stones."
"NO!" What Serena did next amazed her afterward. She ducked down through Metal Sonic's arms, grabbed one of his hands with both of hers, swung him up and over her head and let him fly straight into the brain-belt machine. He hit it back-first, driving his metal spikes through the protective aluminum shell and into the machinery. The contraption went dead, and as Mecha fought to free himself, Serena plowed into Packbell.
* * *
Sonic snapped awake. He snapped upright, rubbing his eyes and trying to think clearly. His mind was full of haze; his thoughts jumbled. But as he sat there his brain re-oriented itself and he remembered falling asleep. " 'Rena, what hap--'Rena? Where are you?" He stood up and looked around, but she was nowhere in sight. " 'Rena!" he shouted, then noticed a big group of robots coming toward him through the trees. He turned to Tails and Slasher. "Wake up, guys!" he called, shaking them. "Serena's gone, and we've got company!"
* * *
Packbell threw his little attacker off with a powerful swing of his arm. She landed on her feet in a half-crouch, eyes flaming, looking like a caged wildcat. The android had half a notion as to what her next move would be, so when she spindashed he ducked behind the wrecked machine. Serena slammed into it sideways, knocking Metal Sonic loose. "Get her!" Packbell called hoarsely. "She's gone mad!" Mecha scrambled to his feet and jumped at her, but Serena side-stepped his lunge and tripped him with a well-placed foot. She ducked in time to avoid a heavy blow from Packbell and spindashed again. This time she hit him squarely, and they tumbled to the floor with a thud.
* * *
Outside, the SWAT-bots sent to capture the others were having serious trouble. Tails and Slasher were blowing them away with their blasters, and HyperSonic was attacking in his own high-speed way. After a few minutes the robots had fallen, and the group had a chance to get their bearings. "Where's Serena?" Slasher asked, head count coming up one short.
"I donno; she was gone when I got up."
"Then you can bet she's been captured. Let's go!"
Tails swung up on Slasher's back as the raptor began her smooth, gliding run. Sonic took one step and was gone, shooting over the ground like a bright comet.
* * *
Packbell and Serena were battling it out on the floor in kind of a wrestling match. Mecha was looking on, stunner ready, but he couldn't fire for fear of hitting Packbell.
Serena's young body was charged with adrenaline, and she was uncommonly strong. She didn't seem to feel her opponent's blows; didn't even try to block them. Her blows were light and fast, aimed always at the android's face and head. Packbell knew Sonic had told her how to disable him, and finally succeeded in throwing her off. A hard kick in the stomach sent her skidding across the floor and into the far wall where she slumped over, the breath gone from her lungs. "Shoot her, shoot her!" Packbell yelled at Metal Sonic.
* * *
Sonic arrived at the front entrance and found it locked. With his super strength he yanked the doorknob, ripping the hinges loose. The door fell forward, and Sonic kicked it aside and entered. He was greeted with blaster fire from three angles. The lasers bounced off his chest and hit the walls with an explosion of sparks. Sonic leaped forward and recklessly tackled the three SWAT-bots, felling them like dead trees. Then he paused and listened. In the sudden quiet he could hear yells, thumps and crashes coming from the rear of the building. "I'll bet that's where 'Rena is," he muttered, and took off in that direction.
* * *
Mecha fired. The stunner shot a weak blue blast that knocked Serena over on her side, but didn't effect her in the least. The blue robot furiously pounded the butt of the pistol in the palm of his metal hand. "Arrgh! The power cells are going dead!" He suddenly froze and stared at the door. "Sssonic," he hissed. He leaped forward, grabbed up Serena and backed into a corner of the room.
Hyper Sonic hit the door running. It swung open and slammed into the wall as Sonic stood there, his glowing body casting a good deal of light into the dimly-lit room. He took in the room's condition at a glance; it was a mess. There was a machine in the middle that had four large holes dented in it, and rising to his feet from behind it was Packbell. His usually immaculate clothing was wrinkled and mussed, his hair tousled. He was panting slightly. "Packbell!" Sonic exclaimed in surprise. "What are you doing here? Where's Serena?"
"Sonic!" Serena cried from the corner of the room. Sonic turned, then froze, his eyes locked on Metal Sonic.
Metal Sonic was standing with his metal legs braced and one metal arm pinning both of hers to her sides, but the other was pressed to her throat, the sharp edge ready to kill her at a moment's notice. "Hello, rival," Mecha said coolly. "Don't move, or your sister dies."
"Sister?" Sonic and Serena exclaimed at the same time.
"Don't give me that," the robot snapped. "You know very well who she is."
There was silence a few seconds. "What do you want?" Sonic asked at last. "Need you ask?" Mecha replied. "Hand over the time stones." Sonic hesitated, trying to come up with a bright idea, but he couldn't seem to think with Serena's helpless gaze fixed on him. "Let her go first," he snarled. "No," the robot answered, "for you would grab her and escape. Give me the time stones first." Sonic considered it. There was nowhere for Mecha to go, and there would be a split second before he killed his prisoner in which Sonic could act.
"All right," Sonic answered smoothly. "My friends have it." He pulled out his ever-present radio, flipped to channel blue and said, "Slasher, Tails, this is Sonic. Come into the outpost; I've taken care of all the SWATs. Come to the back room, and come _slowly_. Over and out." He clicked it off. "I don't carry the time stone--my friends are afraid I'd lose it."
"You only have one?" Metal Sonic questioned guardedly.
"Yes, the one I got from outpost three."
"Who took out station two?" It sounded as if Mecha really wanted to know. Sonic acted surprised. "There's a station two? Bummer, we missed one! We'll have to go back!" He snapped his fingers. Mecha said drily, "It has already been raided and it's stone stolen. Funny, but the generator looked like it had been attacked with a wrecking ball; much as did outpost three."
Sonic didn't answer him, for Slasher and Tails walked through the door, saw Packbell, Mecha and Serena and stopped dead. "Tails," Sonic said without turning, "give me the green time stone, the _only one we have_." Tails caught his drift and replied, "Are you sure? We only have that one."
"Just give it to me."
Tails reached into the little bag that hung around his neck and slowly pulled out the green gem. Wordlessly he handed it to Sonic, who became normal before taking it. He fondled it in his hands, as if reluctant to give it up. "Hand it over, hedgehog," Mecha demanded impatiently. Sonic tossed it to him. The robot caught it and dropped it into a holding compartment on his side without a word. "Give me the other one," he growled. "I can see through your foolish ploy; give me the red one as well."
Sonic shook his head. "No, I told you we don't have it."
"Then your sister dies," Mecha smiled.
Sonic crouched. "So much as touch her and I'll destroy you."
"Perhaps," Mecha replied, "but I can be rebuilt, and her condition will be irreversible." Mecha seemed to be thinking. "It seems we are at an impasse. I will not give up my hostage, and you will not give up the stone. I am not foolish enough to kill her, though, she is far too valuable to exterminate so quickly." The robot stared at Sonic. "Perhaps you would respond to a different form of persuasion."
"What does that mean?" Sonic asked cautiously, glancing all around the room as if expecting sudden attack.
"Look, hedgehog, and behold my weapon!"
Metal Sonic swung Serena away from before him, exposing the opening in his belly his high-speed engines required to suck in air. The opening was not dark as it usually was, but contained a bright blue glow.
Sonic didn't seem impressed. "The blue chaos emerald. So?"
"Your insolence angers me, Son--Son--hedgehog. I will now depart and, as they say, hold your sister for ransom. The ransom is, of course, the other time stone. I will give you seven days to find my location, then I will kill my prisoner." Mecha held Serena against him and powered up, using the emerald. "Sonic!" Serena cried. "Don't let him take me! He'll kill me!"
Sonic knew the power of the chaos emeralds, and it was healthier not to interfere with an active one. But he wasn't going to just stand by and watch his enemy depart. He rubbed one hand across his emerald belt to become hyper, then dove at Mecha, hoping to grab the emerald and/or his sister before it was too late.
Metal Sonic was glowing a cold blue by now. Usually teleporting was instanious, but he had to charge more when carrying a prisoner. As Sonic leaped at him, Mecha lashed out with one metal foot. Invincible steel met invincible flesh with a crash and Sonic hit the floor, stunned. "Fool!" Metal Sonic laughed, and charging complete, he teleported, fading into thin air like a mist. Sonic grabbed at him, but his hands encountered only empty space. Mecha and Serena were gone, he knew not where. "No!" he cried despairingly. He stared at the spot they had been, then turned and wildly looked around. Slasher and Tails were still standing there, looking very helpless. He also saw Packbell slipping out the door behind them.
"Hey, don't let him go! Get him!"
The three of them charged after the escaping android. Slasher got to him first and attacked with all four feet and a ferocious raptor scream. She got him down and held him until Sonic got there. Sonic was furious. "Packbell," he said, standing over him, "I feel like I've done this before. Where did Mecha go?"
"To tell would be cheating," Packbell smirked.
"It's only seven days to search the whole planet, Packbell. It's not fair, and I don't intend to let my little sister be murdered. Where are they?"
Packbell looked away smugly. "I told you, I'm not telling."
Sonic bent down and placed both hands on the android's chest. The energy flowing from the super emeralds coursed downward into Packbell's body and straight to his robotic power core. Sonic stared into Packbell's contorted face, teeth bared and eyes narrowed. "I'll short circuit you, jerk, and we'll disassemble you and scatter your parts through the woods. _Tell me where Mecha took Serena!_"
Packbell thrashed and struggled, but Slasher had his arms and Tails had his legs. "Let me go!"
"Tell me first!"
"No! No! No! I'll never tell you!"
Sonic removed one hand from the android's chest and gripped his belt with it. His glow intensified, and the whirling energy stars got faster and brighter. Packbell yelled, "Stop it! It hurts!"
"TELL ME, YOU STUPID, CUSSED ROBOT!"
"NO! I'LL NEVER TELL YOU A THING!"
The two were screaming.
"You know," Slasher interrupted, tired of the noise, "we _can_ make you tell. When you finally break down, we can plug you into a computer and drain your memory banks. We CAN make you talk, like it our not." She was bluffing, sure, but it scared their prisoner.
"Arrgghh! All right, they went back to Robotropolis."
"Liar!" Sonic shouted.
"They did, honest!"
"Right," Sonic snorted, "how honest have you ever been, Packbell?"
The android named several other places, and each time Sonic saw through him. The longer Sonic continued to shock him, the weaker Packbell became. His voice was slurred as he whimpered, "I can't take it anymore. Metal Sonic went to outpost five. He figured you'd never look for him there."
"Is that right?" Sonic's tone said he was still skeptical.
"It's the truth, I tell you!" Packbell screamed. "Stop, please! I'm shutting down. . . ." The android's voice faded away, his eyes closed and he collapsed to the floor, to all appearances, dead. He wasn't, of course; simply off-line for the second time in three weeks.
Sonic stood up and de-charged himself. "I guess we're off to outpost five, then. How far is it, Slasher?" The big raptor let go Packbell's arms and stood up. She pulled out the map and measured. "About a hundred sixty miles to the south of us." She looked at Sonic and Tails and grinned. "If Knuckles and the others have done their job, five is the last one. Speaking of which, we need to get the stone from here."
They had the place all to themselves. With no fear of reinforcements, they took the liberty of exploring it from top to bottom and figuring out how the generator worked. It opened in the way you'd expect with a solid shell--the outer hull screwed down into the ground, and the machinery in the center lifted five feet into the air on a platform. Sonic stood at it's control console and fooled with it distractedly, his mind on other things, opening and closing it from inside. Then he flipped through the various screens, skimming through the incomprehensible data. One screen caught his attention. It was a chart on how well the continuum was being maintained. The graph showed a relatively level line near the top for three fourths of it, then zig-zagged toward the bottom of the chart. Interested, Sonic dug deeper into the different outposts and their performances. "Hey Slasher, Tails, come an' look at this!"
They had been messing with other things in the control room, but now walked over and looked over his shoulder. "Lookit this," Sonic exclaimed. "We took out station two and three, right? Look at six!" His friends stared at the radar map. "Is--is it still there?" Tails asked.
"Gosh!" Slasher exclaimed, "it's gone! It's been totally leveled!" She reached around Sonic and hit a few buttons. It brought up a satellite view of the base and they all stared at it. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Sonic said, "Well, we could safely say Knuckles led a successful attack against that one. Look at seven, too; the one on the island." It was the same, except it was still on fire.
"Well," Tails commented, "six down, one to go. Let's snag this`n's time stone and head for outpost five. I can't stand the thought of poor Serena in the clutches of Metal Sonic."
"Yeah." At the thought of his enemy Sonic's face hardened. "If he harms one hair on her head he's gonna regret it, bigtime." He turned on his heel and strode out of the building. Slasher and Tails followed and found him unscrewing the big lens to get at the stone. It was orange. He tossed it to Tails, who put it in the bag. Then they headed beck to where they had landed.
It was nearly morning by this time, and a chilly dew covered everything. They retrieved their packs, then eyed Serena's with sorrow. Sonic shouldered it without a word and asked Slasher how soon they could get to outpost five. The big raptor looked up at the sky, then at Sonic and Tails, gauging their weight against the time and distance. "Normally it would take two to three hours," she replied thoughtfully, "but I am weary from my last flight. I can reach it by noon if I push myself, but I will be so tired I won't be able to stand up." She looked at Sonic. "Your call." Sonic considered. He had a feeling he would need his friend's strength and abilities, but he was intensely worried about Serena. "Do what looks best to you, Slash," Sonic said to her at last. "I'm gonna need your help." Slasher bobbed her head, then crouched and let them climb on her back. She bowed low, her hindlegs winding up like springs, wings opened slightly. Then she sprang into the sky. She had a feeling she had a long hard flight ahead of her, but she set her teeth, ready for the challenge. This flight was to rescue one of her friends, and she would give everything she had to get Serena free.
A MechWarrior battle
The other group of Freedom Fighters knew nothing of what had happened on the mainland to their friends. Their night had passed quietly, the only interruption being when Knuckles sat up and hissed to the loudly snoring Roter, "What was that? Did you hear that weird sound just now?" Roter lay awake for hours, listening, and the others slept soundly.
That morning, as their distant friends set out on a rescue mission, the group climbed into their mechs and set out once more for the more accessable west side.
The crater of the volcano was shaped like a bowl, sloping down in the center to about fifty feet below sea level. It was grown over with the lush jungle vegetation, and criss-crossed with countless muddy streams. The robots had a hard time getting through and were forced to go very slowly to avoid entanglement. As they blazed a trail through the woods, everyone scanned for any sort of building. They had gone quite a ways before Sally spotted it. "Yes!" she squealed, "I've got it! To the west, nav point Delta." Almost at once everyone located it. "I'm getting readings on a big underground shelter," Roter said excitedly. "This has gotta be it." "Raight," came Bunnie's voice. "I'm on the far side`a it. Why don't y'all circle around thataway, and we'll surround this here base."
Carefully they moved into position, coming from the north and west so as not to catch each other in the crossfire. They all parked as soon as the base came into sight. "All right," Knuckles ordered, "try to find the generator. I want to locate it before blasting the base." Everyone was quiet for a moment, eyes on the scanner screen. And then they all spoke a simultaneous, "Oh-no!"
The generator was built into the roof of the building. They couldn't get the crystal out without shooting the generator, and the noise would alert the robots inside. They couldn't destroy the building, either, without losing the stone, too.
They were all quiet, studying the situation. "Anybody got any ideas?" Sally asked after a minute. Roter and Bunnie responded with no, but Knuckles took his time about answering. "Yeess," I think I might," he said slowly, eyes locked on the building. "What?" everybody wanted to know.
"I think this mech is tall enough for me to glide to the roof," he said. "If I took a pistol, I could blast open the machine and get the stone out without alerting any robots. Then I could glide back as far as I could, jump in my mech and we could head out. Sound workable?"
His companions considered it, and although it sounded rather dangerous, it seemed as if it might work. "All right, I'll go in," Knux said. "I'm taking my portable radio with me so you can tell me if my cover is blown. I'm going--" he grabbed his radio, "--going--" grabbed his blaster, "--gone!"
He lowered the ground lift so he could get back in the mech again, then clambered out on top of the cockpit. From there he again analyzed his position. He slung his radio and blaster over his shoulder, stretched his arms out in front of him, and jumped off the mech. His friends stared as, defying gravity, he glided through the air toward the low-lying building. "How does he do that?" Roter muttered to no one in particular.
Knuckles landed lightly on the flat roof of the outpost and made his way over to the domed surface of the generator. The metal was hot to the touch, but he put this down to sitting in the hot sun all morning. Carefully he climbed up on top of the metal contraption and stared down at the smooth, featureless lens. It's whole surface was lit from within by a deep red glow. "Red time stone," he thought. "I wonder how thick this glass is?" he reached down and touched the glass--and was thrown off the machine as if he'd touched a ten thousand volt wire. "Gosh," he thought as he picked himself up, "that thing's kinda charged." He climbed up on top again, wondering vaguely what would happen when he touched the crystal itself. He drew his blaster and hesitantly touched it to the lens. The weapon vibrated but other than that nothing happened. He pulled the trigger. The blast chipped the glass a little, but otherwise didn't harm it. He moved the gun down, pointed it at the place where the glass met the armor and fired again. The glass cracked a bit. Knux fired again and again, slowly moving all the way around the lens. When he had nearly reached his starting point the lens shattered into a jillion pieces, revealing the biggest time stone he had ever seen. It was twice as large as the one they had already retrieved, and was the color of blood.
Knux set his teeth, reached down and touched the stone. Nothing happened. Relieved, he unfastened the clamp that held it and pulled it out. It was heavy, he noticed. He held it above his head for two seconds, letting his friends see he had it, then tucked it into and empty ammo pouch on his blaster strap. Mission accomplished. He walked to the edge of the roof and glided off the edge.
He was twenty feet from the outpost and ten feet from the ground when a searing pain ripped into his back, between his shoulderblades. He jerked with the sudden pain and lost his glide. As he tumbled to the ground, the sound of laser blasts echoed in his ears. He automatically rolled under a bush and lay still, breathing heavily and trying to make sense of what had happened. "I've been shot," his mind screamed. "Shot in the back with a laser." In the back of his mind he was surprised it didn't hurt more. He gingerly felt his back with one hand. To his relief, it wasn't very deep at all--more like a shallow, bloody gnash. "It grazed me," he thought.
Knux grabbed his radio and clicked it on. The first thing he heard was Sally's voice yelling, "--get out of there! Knuckles, can you hear me? Three U-SWATs are coming to get you! Run! Get to your mech!" He turned it off and grabbed his rifle. He pulled himself to his knees, aware of the blood trickling down his back and the dull, throbbing pain. He waited until he eyeballed the robots and let them have it. Then he leaped to his feet and fled to his mech.
As he buckled himself into the pilot seat, he could hear his friends over the intercom.
"Is he all right?"
"I think so. He made it to his mech."
"Are you sure? I could almost swear he was shot down!"
"Knuckles, are you okay?"
He snatched up the radio. "Yeah, I'm fine. It only grazed me. Now lets take out this mess of robots and get out of here! I'm bleeding."
What followed was like a scene from 'Mechwarrior 2.' All four mechs attacked the outpost at the same time. But no matter how much they blasted, the SWAT-bots and and Ultra SWAT-bots kept pouring out of the base like a swarm of insects. The robots were attacking as soon as they emerged, some ducking behind the building for cover, others scrambling into the woods. The weapons they carried were heavier than any portable blaster the Freedom Fighters had ever seen.
"Move out!" Knuckles shouted suddenly. "I'm gonna use PPCs and wipe out these jerks!" The others scattered as he locked on target. "Weapon loading, please wait," the computer said. Knuckles did, setting his cross-hairs on the side of the building. "Weapon ready in seven, six, five--" The robots had stopped moving around and all was still. "--three, two--" Then the biggest robot Knuckles had ever seen stepped out of the complex, whirled around and faced his mech. It was over eight feet tall and looked like a mech, itself. One of it's arms was a huge, built-in cannon of some sort. Smoothly the robot raised it's gun, aiming at Knuckles. "--one. Weapon ready."
Knux squeezed the trigger and felt the robot jerk backward as the brilliant blue bolt streaked through the air and hit the building with a terrific explosion. Green and yellow flames burst out of the blast like liquid, consuming everything they touched. The outpost, needless to say, was toast.
As it's destroyer watched the flames with satisfaction, he saw a dark shape appear, outlined against the flames. His mouth dropped open as he saw the gigantic robot stride out of the carnage like Terminator, red-hot but unhurt. It was then the indicator light began to flash in the control panel. "Warning, enemy has established lock," the computer said calmly. "Warning, enemy has established lock. Warning--" In his mind, he heard Robotnik's voice from his days of testing. "Watch out; when the computer says that, you'd better run or fight, or that'll be the last thing you'll ever hear."
Suddenly panicky, he drew a bead on the robot and fired with machine gun. The bullets hit and bounced off. He fired again and again, but nothing seemed to hurt it. It kept coming. Unnerved and desperate, Knux opened the throttle to run. He turned right, broadside for the moment to his enemy. He glanced out the side window in time to see the robot again raise it's gun.
It fired molten plasma. As each super-heated charge hit the mech, the computer began to say, "Critical hit: engine. Critical hit: gyro. Critical hit: auto eject. Heat level critical." Knux stared at the control panel in horror, a dawning realization beginning to form. If the mech was destroyed, without auto eject, he would be killed. "No!" he cried, pounding one hand franticly on the controls. "No! This can't be happening!" The awful feeling of terror was suddenly replaced by fury. He turned the mech around so abruptly it almost fell over. He ran directly at the robot, aware of the flames licking across one side of the cockpit, and the growing heat coming from that direction.
"Fine, you got me," he snarled at it, as if it could hear him. "I'm good as dead. But if I'm going down, I'm taking you with me!" He slowed down and timed the rise and fall of the mech's feet so one of them would land on the robot. "Seventy-five tons should take care of you--" As the mach passed over the robot he felt the vehicle sway a little. "Ha! That should leave you deeply impressed!" Indeed, the robot was now a flattened metal pancake in the bushes.
Knuckles turned the mech and headed back into the open, one despairing eye on the heat gauge. He spoke into the intercom. "Hey guys, the 'bot got me," he said to his friends. "My mech is about to blow up; stay away, okay?" He could hardly believe he was saying this.
"What about you?" Roter asked. "Eject!"
"I can't--auto eject is damaged."
"So you're just going to die with your robot?"
"I don't have a choice. I can't get out."
"Hang on, then; we're coming!"
"No, stay away! It'll blow your mechs, too!"
They wouldn't listen, he knew. Knux covered his eyes with his hands and leaned his elbows on the control panel, shielding his face from the heat. He didn't want to see the flames licking across the windshield. He didn't want to see the heat gauge rising into the red levels. Vaguely he wondered if it would hurt very much, and what would happen to the Floating Island without him. Another thought struck him--he had the last two time stones in his mech. Would they be destroyed as well, and what would happen if they did? The computer interrupted his thoughts. "Shut-down sequence initiated." A few seconds later, "Shutting down." The sounds of the engines quieted as the mech went dead. "Any time, now," Knux thought, feeling sick.
Over the sound of the burning robot around him, he heard the metallic thud of another mech approaching his. He was broadside to it. He turned and looked out the window, raising one arm to shield his eyes from the intense heat. Through the orange flames and blackening glass, he recognized Roter's mech. One of it's arms raised and aimed at his mech. He had a split second to see a white spray shoot out one of the openings in the end, then the mist covered that window and he couldn't see out anymore. There was the hissing of the fire being extinguished as the white chemical smothered the burning hull.
His portable radio crackled to life and Roter said, "Don't worry, Knux. It's almost out." Knuckles grabbed his radio, relief and gratitude flooding through his heart. "How are you doing that?"
"My robot has a tank of all-purpose fire retardant. I thought you knew about it."
"Yeah. Of course I knew about it--I just forgot. Oh man, thanks a million!"
"No problem. Hey, you're practically leader anyway. Is your mech still running?"
"No, it shut down a couple seconds before you showed up. It'll come on again when heat is back in the green range. You know, any other mech would have blown up by now."
"Yep. You're saved by Endo steel."
Fifteen minutes later the control panel lit up. The computer went through it's regular power up information. "Planet: Mobius. Local temperature: seventy-four point two degrees. Local time: One zero three PM. All systems nominal." Knuckles grinned as he put on the control helmet and grasped the controls. "Boy," came Sally's voice over the intercom, "your robot looks pretty beat up. Does it still work?" Knuckles twisted the mech's head to the right and looked at hers, a short distance away. "You bet it does. Now, lets beat it before re-enforcements arrive."
In which Knuckles does something dumb and nearly pays with his life
The triumphant group fell into cruising formation and headed out of the volcano's crater. This time, Knuckles took the lead. He had been examining his infrared terrain map and discovered an easier way out. The map took away all his excuses for not being able to lead; it was a motion map. That is, it showed the location of his mech as a green dot which slowly moved through the blue outlines of the map. "Any idiot could follow this," he thought to himself. There was a wide path through the mountain that opened up on the beach. And following the beach around to the side of the island facing the mainland would be no problem.
Somebody brought up the problem of not having enough jump-jet fuel to make it back. Knux assured everyone his mech was carrying a gadget that would convert regular mech fuel to jump-jet fuel, so they still had more than enough to make it home. Everyone relaxed--until Knuckles did something stupid.
The clear, wide path Knux thought he had found turned out to be a narrow pass over the ridge. It had a sheer cliff wall to the left and a deep canyon on the right. It was wide enough for one mech at a time to walk over it, if the pilot drove slowly and carefully.
Sally insisted on going first to make sure it was safe. She maneuvered her robot over the dangerous hundred feet without a problem, and stopped on the far side. "Whoever comes next," she warned over the radio, "be careful to hug the wall. The drop is really far, and I don't think the edge is very strong, either. Just don't hit the side of the cliff."
Roter went next. He made it over all right, his only scary moment being when his mech's left arm brushed the cliff face and rocked him toward the drop-off. But he recovered and joined Sally on the far side.
Bunnie went third. Like Roter, she got a little too close to the wall in avoiding the edge of the drop, but she too made it over without incident.
Knuckles was last.
He walked his mech out on the pass and was half-way over when he got curious about how far down the drop really was. He should have went all the way across, parked and came back on foot, but he thought he could do it in his mech. He turned and walked it very slowly toward the edge. "Knux, what are you doing?" Sally asked nervously.
"I want to see how far down it goes," he replied calmly. He tilted the cockpit downward to look, but he wasn't yet close enough to see over the edge.
His companions held their breaths and they watched the robot take one more step to the very lip of the precipice and look down. "Wow," came Knuckles's voice over the radio. "It's like, really, really deep. Maybe half a mile."
"Yeah," Bunnie snapped, "now, get away from that there edge before you gives me a heart-attack!"
"Okay, okay," Knuckles replied. "Whassamatter, 'fraid I'm gonna fall?" As he spoke he punched the mech into reverse. The mech moved backward, away from the edge, and his friends sighed with relief.
Then Knuckles made his mistake. He mis-judged the distance between the edge and his mech. He stopped and turned, intending to continue his path across the pass. As the robot turned, it's right foot fell dangerously close to the edge.
The rim of rock was weakened by the mech's weight. As it's foot fell there again, the rock crumbled beneath it. Knuckles felt the robot jerk toward the edge and begin to fall. A cold dagger of fear shot through his heart as he grabbed the controls and struggled for balance. The robot clawed at the ground for a second and seemed to steady itself. Knuckles was panting, a cold sweat broken out all over his body. That was too close! He could hear his friends all talking into their intercoms at the same time, their voices frightened, words blurred together. They all seemed to be saying the same thing, though--get out of there!
He very carefully activated the idling mech and stirred forward, his heart thundering in his ears, cold fear of what might happen tingling through him.
Oh, the treachery of it! As his mech moved, it's shifting weight crushed what little support the edge had left. The rest of the ledge beneath his mech crumbled and caved in, falling into the deep chasm below. As the mech tilted sideways, Knuckles was able to look up through the windshield at the ground far below, frozen with a sort of fascinated horror. As the mech began to topple slowly, every so slowly, over sideways and upside-down, Knuckles was aware of the undeniable fact--he was going to die, and his friends could not help him this time.
Arrival at outpost 5
Slasher had been flying for hours over the vast featureless desert. She was tired, but her big black-tipped wings were still beating, carrying them onward. Sonic and Tails would doze, jerk awake, doze, jerk awake again. They had finally spotted the river that ran right past the outpost when Sonic half-murmured half-sang, "Exhaustion takes over. Will this someday be over?" Slasher looked around at him. "Too true, Sonic. You don't even have to quote the song to get the point across. But look; there's the river. The base sits right on it, so we should be able to find it, no problem." She banked and began to drop toward the ground.
Thirty feet above the ground they went into 'landscape traversal mode,' that is, they skimmed along at high speed. The desert side of the river was muddy and had a little grass growing. And, for an abrupt contrast, the opposite side was overgrown with semi-tropical jungle.
The ground began to look broken up. One area would drop away suddenly, marked with strange ripply marks and sharp hills. Slasher studied the terrain closely. "This wasn't done that long ago," she said. "Look at that tree right there; the one growing on the edge of the drop-off." Sonic and Tails saw the big tree leaning precariously over the edge, half it's roots sticking out. It was still green.
"That tree is technically dead. See how the biggest of the roots are severed? But it's still alive." She paused. "That means this broken ground wasn't done that long ago. Within a month."
"Gosh," Tails responded, "what could cause earthquakes like that?"
"I'll bet I know," Sonic put in. "The continuum. I'll bet it started cracking up when we started getting the time stones."
"You're probably right," Slasher replied. Then she pointed and gasped, "Look at that!"
The whole jungle was swaying, trembling. A low, ominous rumble came to their ears. It grew louder as the earthquake intensified, snapping the trees back and forth like in a high wind. One part of the forest began to settle softly downward. With a thunder of falling rock and earth, half the forest dropped away twenty feet, creating new rapids and waterfalls in the river.
The three aerial observers looked on in awe and fear. The earthquake subsided and stopped, but it showed the continuum was weakening. The planet was gravitating back into the universal continuum, and the other holding it was putting on stress. "Slasher," Sonic said soberly, "I don't want to be down there when we get the last time stone." "Yes," Slasher replied through her teeth, "but you don't want to be in the sky, either."
They flew in silence a few minutes, then Tails said, "Serena's down there. She was in that earthquake." Sonic stiffened. "That's right, she was," he whispered. His grip on Slasher increased so much it almost choked her. "Hurry, Slasher, hurry." In reply, she stared down and said, "There it is."
The country dropped steeply downward, creating the neatest waterfall you ever saw. It poured straight down for twenty or thirty feet, then ran over a ledge and dropped another fifteen feet to the next ledge, and from there to a green pool far below. Crossing the top of the waterfall was a flimsy wood-and-rope bridge. And on the far side, set back fifty feet from the river, almost hidden under the trees, was the outpost.
Slasher dropped down to the desert side of the river. "It would be foolish to land in front of the guardstation," she explained. "I need rest, and will stay here. You two go get the stone and 'Rena. Make sure you get the stone last of all, and get Serena over here first."
Sonic and Tails took off their packs, and as they headed for the bridge, Slasher called after them, "And don't burn your bridges behind you!"
How group two finished their mission
Motion, a swaying. He was vaguely aware of the sound of metal dragging over rock, screeching and sliding, sliding, sliding down. Then a crash as the world around him slammed into the ground. It hurt his head--all he wanted to do was sleep.
Knuckles was still in the pilot seat, hanging from it by the harness. He knew he was swinging back and forth, dangling just below the chair, but he didn't know why. It hurt to move. Oh, it hurt--everything hurt. Slowly he opened his eyes, feeling he had won a battle just by doing that. Everything looked strange. Perspective had changed, and for a long time he didn't grasp what his half-focused eyes were seeing. He simply hung there, staring without seeing.
The cockpit moved again, grinding it's metal hull against the ground, skidding downhill a bit. It aroused him a little.
"Where am I?"
He stirred. The harness bit into his chest and stomach, and his head ached terribly. He felt bruised all over, like how he felt the morning after Slasher had beat him up. Except, this was much worse. A few more minutes passed as he gathered his senses. He became aware of his arms. They could move. He slowly lifted one hand to his face, then touched the harness on his chest. He knew he could undo it, it was very simple; he had done it many times before. He lifted his other hand,grasped the catch with both and pulled it open.
With a zi-ip of fabric the harness went limp and shot through the buckles. Knuckles, hanging as he was, free-fell out of it and landed with a thump on the floor. Pain shot through his body. He lay motionless for a while, eyes closed, barely breathing.
Glass fell on him from above. He opened his eyes and looked around. He was still inside the mech, he realized. It was lying on it's side, the cockpit tilted at an odd angle. He was lying on what had been the wall. Curving up and a little over was the big window. It was crushed inward on one side, where it had taken the brunt of the landing impact, and most of the glass was gone. What was left was crumbling away, plinking into the cockpit. One of the metal support ribs was gone, he noticed. The control panel was tilted upward, and the pilot chair, above, had been knocked crooked. It was a wonder he hadn't been killed.
Slowly he pulled himself to a sitting position. The inside of the mech was a mess. The bottom was littered with broken glass and numerous other objects that had broken loose during the fall. One hand touched something warm. He jerked his hand away, only to see it was a time stone--the dark red one. He grasped it, then looked around the cabin for the other one. He spotted it by it's glow. As he picked it up, he felt something warm and wet trickle down the side of his face. He touched it and saw his fingers were stained red. "Great," he thought, "I'm bleeding again." Nothing was hurting seriously, so he decided to ignore it and concentrate on getting out.
His backpack was resting on the floor a few feet away. He wearily crawled over to it. It was surprisingly heavy in his weakened hands. He opened it and took out a shoulder bag. He put the stones in it, then slipped his arm through the strap. He slowly climbed to his feet. Something told him all was not right with his legs, but they worked, anyway. He walked in the direction of the shattered cockpit window, gingerly stepping around and over the many objects on the floor. He climbed up on the control panel (the mech was dead, so it didn't matter) and pulled himself up to the broken window. With a shock he saw the robot was lying lengthwise along a ledge about a fourth of the way down the cliff. The head, (the part he was in), was hanging over the edge, above empty space. He slid back inside the mech to think. He couldn't get out the big window, that was for sure. He thought of the exit hatch in the floor of the mech; only now it was the left wall.
He grasped the metal handle and twisted. The door didn't budge. He shoved it again, then paused to rest. He was still shaken up and hadn't yet regained his strength. "When this is all over," he thought, "I'm taking the Floating Island to the center of the ocean, and not set foot on the mainland for a year." He tugged at the handle again, but it was like trying to pull a limb from a tree.
Then something happened that wasn't supposed to happen. The mech powered up again. The lights on the control panel blinked on, and the engines began to hum. "Oh no!" Knuckles groaned. The throttle had been jarred all the way open, so the robot's legs began to move, lurching it toward the edge of the cliff. As the cockpit began to inch along, Knux frantically tugged at the metal handle. As he did, the computer came on, and the things it said threw him into a panic. "Critical hit: engine. Critical hit: heat sinks. Critical hit: torso. Internal ammo explosion detected. Warning: heat level critical." "Give more time!" Knux begged, struggling to the control panel. He hit the button marked 'shut down,' and to his horror the computer replied, "Shutdown is no longer optional."
He attacked the closed hatch again. Fear gave him strength, and the handle turned at last. He swung the door open and saw the mech's moving legs, waving senselessly in the air. A glance at the control panel revealed the switch on the throttle had been jammed all the way open and broken off that way. Knuckles looked back at the legs. One was below him, the other above him. A straight glide would take him out, but the sharp metal plates on the toes made him nervous. It was a dangerous maneuver, and Knux didn't quite trust himself to do it. That is, until the computer said, "Self destruct sequence initiated."
"I didn't know it would self destruct when critically damaged!" Knux exclaimed aloud.
"Self destruct in T minus fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven--"
Nothing for it, he would have to make the glide. He slung the time stones across his back, held his arms out in front, sucked in a deep breath and jumped. It was over before he knew it. He passed neatly between the feet with room to spare. He landed and looked around.
The ledge was no more than ten feet wide and about forty feet long. It hadn't fallen very far; the top of the cliff was only fifty feet up. The ground was littered with broken glass and twisted metal, and the side of the cliff bore deep scratches from the mech's limbs. It was rough and nearly vertical. Knuckles walked unsteadily to the base of the cliff and looked up. It was a long way to climb. As he stared upward, his three friends appeared at the top, peering down. "Knuckles!" Sally called down in surprise. "You're still alive! Are you all right?"
"No," Knuckles called up, and his voice sounded funny, even to him. "I-I think I'm in shock, `cause I know I'm beat up, but I don't hurt. My mech is gonna self destruct. I gotta climb the cliff."
The Freedom Fighters watched as Knux tapped one hand on the wall, testing it. Then he jumped at the side of the cliff, gripped with his knuckle-spikes and feet and started up.
It was the hardest climb Knuckles had ever attempted. Normally he would have enjoyed it, for the cliff was a good one for climbing, but he was exhausted by the time he covered ten feet. He tried to climb faster by using the inchworm approach, by which he would raise his feet to his hands, reach up as far as he could, pull his feet up to his hands again. . . . That's how he usually did it. Now he only had the strength to do it once, for pain shot through him like liquid flame. He was hurt a lot worse than he had thought. Grimly he settled into the fisthold by fisthold approach again.
Before long he had to stop. His limbs were trembling, and sweat mixed with blood was dripping in his eyes. He wiped his eyes with the back of one hand, then looked down at the mech. It was balanced precariously on the edge and looked as if it would fall any second. "Hope it falls before it blows," he thought, then gritted his teeth and kept climbing. He made it another fifteen feet as his friends shouted encouragement from above. He stopped again and looked back, for with a shriek of metal the heavy mech began to slide over the edge of the cliff. As it fell, a bright explosion ripped through it's hull, consuming it's upper part. Then it exploded, but by then it was below the edge. All Knuckles could see was flames, but he could hear as the seventy-five tons of burning metal clattered and smashed it's way down. He watched it go without a qualm. The thing had nearly killed him twice; good riddance.
Knux took his time about climbing after that, but he was so worn out by the time he reached the top his friends had to help him up. The first thing he did was to take the bag slung across his shoulder and drop it on the ground. Bunnie picked it up. "Knuckles boy, this here bag is heavy! Why the hoo-ha did ya bring it all the way up that there cliff for?" He had his hands on his knees, breathing hard. "Open it," he said shortly. She did. "Why Knux, it's the time stones! Ya saved `em!"
"Yeah. At risk to my life." He dropped to his knees, unable to stand any longer. As his three friends told him what a great guy he was, he simply sat there, about to keel over. Suddenly he forgot everything else. "Shh!" he hissed fiercely. The talking ceased abruptly. From down below them, deep underground but all around at the same time, came a low rumbling. The ground quivered slightly.
Knuckles dragged himself to his feet. "Let's get off this cliff," he said sharply. He took two steps and fell down. "Oww, it huurts! I can't walk-- please help me!" The three lifted him to his feet and half-carried half- dragged him off the pass, back toward where they had parked the remaining three mechs. Knuckles was deathly pale as they laid him on the ground. "Somebody-- get in a mech," he gasped painfully. "Turn on--computer. Look at ground; target. That's radar. See if--volcano--active--continuum--"
Roter whirled around and raced to his idling mech. He carried out Knuckles's orders, targeting the ground. He opened the cockpit window and called, "There's some massive heat spikes below the old cone of the volcano."
Knuckles shook his head. "The volcano's gonna erupt. We gotta get outta here--oh, no."
"What?" the other three demanded.
"We can't get off the island. We can't convert regular fuel to jet fuel. My mech had the only attachment." Knuckles let himself collapse to the ground and closed his eyes. "Remind me to thank Sonic for the lovely weekend," he muttered.
Roter continued to look at the underside of the volcano with the mech's radar. The heat spikes were advancing upward at a hundred times the rate of normal ones. Each time one spurted up, the ground trembled as if in fear. Roter was no geologist, but he could see the volcano would blow toward the east--that was the angle of most of the pressure. "Hey guys," he called, "if we go to the west side of the island, we might make it. We'd better hurry, though; it's going really fast."
Bunnie and Sally looked at Knuckles. "I can ride in the back of someone's cockpit," he suggested. "Does anybody have any room?" Sally shook her head. "Mine's full of supplies and stuff. What about yours, Bunnie?" Bunnie shrugged. "Mahn has room in the back. You could ride with me, Knux." He sat up and smiled weakly. "Well, at least I don't have to run along behind." The two girls helped him to his feet and into Bunnie's mech.
It didn't take very long to get on the roll again. Everyone opened the throttle all the way whenever they could. This was often, for the beach was mostly clear. The ground was shaking almost constantly now, making the mechs stagger on the shifting sand. This made the normally smooth ride a little rough, but Knuckles rode in silence. He grimaced at every quake, and before long was hanging on to the back of Bunnie's chair, trying to keep from being thrown around.
After thirty minutes of swift travel, they reached the western-most point of the island and parked the mechs. The four exited the robots and walked a little ways away from them. The ground pitched and rolled in one big tremor, then stabilized for a while. The rumbling continued, though. It was ominous and frightening, and added to the nervousness of the group on the beach.
They sat there for an hour--the longest hour of their lives, waiting for the volcano to erupt. Knuckles's shock-induced pain-killer had worn off, and he was lying on the ground curled up in a ball. He tried not to make a sound, but every so often a soft moan escaped him. His companions knew he probably had internal injuries, but they could do nothing.
As the hour of waiting neared it's close, the red echidna had found a position that almost didn't hurt. It was lying flat on his back with his knees bent. He lay there, thinking of what somebody had once said about malaria and how it applied to him: "The first week you hurt so bad you're afraid you might die. By the second week you feel so much worse, you're afraid you might not."
His eyes were fixed blankly on the blue sky above. Suddenly he sat up and shook his head, thinking something was wrong with his eyes. The blue was changing to a deep purple. Startled, he stared around. His friends noticed him and looked up as well. Then they stared, open-mouthed.
The sky was now a solid violet, like it sometimes appears after sunset. The sun looked pink and seemed to pulsate; growing, then shrinking. It looked like an eclipse.
Then the real earthquakes hit. The things they had been experiencing were tremors compared to this. The ground went up and down, rippling like water. The sound was so intense nobody could describe it afterward. It completely drowned out all other sound. Everyone lay down flat and tried to keep from being hit with the flying debris. It was awful. In the midst of all this the volcano erupted, which added to the chaos. Roter had guessed correctly; the volcano erupted eastward, on the low eastern side, so they completely avoided the blast's path. They could hear it, but nothing came their way.
There was no telling how long this nightmarish ordeal went on, but it seemed like a lifetime. It was actually about thirty minutes. Then the sky and light returned to their normal colors, and the massive earthquakes subsided. The volcano continued to erupt, and would do so for another twenty-four hours. The mechs were hopelessly wrecked, but fortunately did not self-destruct. Roter, Bunnie and Sally managed to get out enough supplies to build a sort of make-shift camp. Knuckles watched them, occasionally offering advice when he could make himself heard above the volcano. He seemed strangely happy. Roter asked him why, and the mildly shocked reply was, "Don't you know? The weird stuff that happened was because we exited the continuum. Mobius is no longer in danger." He punctuated this with an ear-to-ear grin.
Later, as the sun sank into the ocean in the west, the group lit a fire on the beach, wondering how in the world they were going to get home again. It grew dark, the only sound being the roar of the volcano as it continued to erupt on the far side of the island, miles away. One by one the stars came out, and the group noticed with satisfaction that the sky had rotated to match their season of the year.
Suddenly, from up the beach, there came a bright flash of light. Everyone turned and stared in that direction. A glowing figure was speeding toward them. It looked for a moment like he would plow into them, but he jumped at the last second and sailed over their heads. As he landed amid a spray of sand ten feet beyond them, they recognized Hyper Sonic. He glided back to them. "Hiya guys," Sonic said cheerfully, "what's up?"
"Sonic!" Sally exclaimed, jumping to her feet, "what are you doing here?"
"Checking on you guys. Is everybody cool?"
Knuckles had been lying down. He sat up painfully and replied, "Nope." Sonic stared at him. "What the heck happened to you?"
"Rode my mech over a cliff."
"Geez, you look worse than when you tangled with Slasher!"
Knux only nodded.
Sonic turned to Sally. "He's in bad shape. How come you guys haven't made tracks by now?"
"Can't, Sonic. We're out of jump-jet fuel, and the earthquakes wrecked our mechs, anyway."
Sonic looked down. Sally's eyes followed his, and she noticed the cast on his left wrist and hand. "Hey, what happened?" she asked him, reaching out to take his injured hand. He jerked it away from her. "Ah! Don't touch it. I've sustained minor injuries from this trip, myself." He looked toward Knuckles. "I'll just have to take you all home myself, then."
"With this." He pulled out the blue chaos emerald. "I can teleport with this. One at a time, though--Slasher made me promise." He smiled wryly. "C'mon, Sal, I'll take you first."
Sonic and Sally vanished and were gone five seconds. Sonic reappeared alone, and teleported with Bunnie, then Roter. Finally it was Knuckles's turn.
"C'mon, buddy, ya gotta stand up," Sonic coaxed, one hand on his arm, glow lighting up the beach like a floodlight. "Sonic--I can't. I just can't!" Knuckles tried anyway. He only made it to his knees before he almost screamed in pain. It scared Sonic. He knelt down beside his old rival. "Grab my belt," Sonic said. He took one of Knuckles's large hands and rested it on the active emerald belt. Knuckles felt it and grasped it with both hands. The energy flowing through Sonic's body was partly diverted and flowed into Knux. Sonic's glow, as a result, was transferred to his friend. Knux hadn't used the supers in a long time, and was amazed they could split their energy like that. He found the strength to stand. Sonic held one of his arms and touched the chaos emerald to a super.
Teleportation was instanious. Knux found himself in the Knothole village. "Don't let go the belt," Sonic warned. Together they walked to Bookshire's hut. Calmly Sonic explained the situation. Bookshire had Knuckles lie down on one of the beds; then Knux let go of Sonic's belt. The pain and weakness returned before you could say 'knife.' Bookshire hurriedly gave Knux some anesthetic to put him to sleep and began doctoring him up.
Let us leave Knuckles where he his. He is in good hands, and while he is being cared for, let us take a look at where we left Sonic, Tails, Serena, Slasher--and Metal Sonic.
Finale, but not the end
The river was a lot wider than it had seemed from the air. The waterfall was more than thirty feet wide. Thousands of gallons a second went thundering down the falls, plunging in white foam into the lagoon far below.
The rope bridge was old, frayed and rotten in places. Sonic stood on the edge, hands on his hips, looking uneasily at the stringy ropes and weathered boards, some of which were missing. From beside him, Tails voiced his thoughts. "That bridge don't look safe." "No kidding," Sonic agreed. "If we speed across it, though, we should make it." "I hope so," Tails replied.
Sonic crouched, dug his feet into the rocky dirt and shot away. He went across the bridge so fast it hardly quivered. He paused on the far side and beckoned to Tails. Tails stepped back several paces, then ran forward. He crossed it without incident and arrived safely on the far side. He gave Sonic a high-five, then stared toward the outpost.
This guardstation was unlike the others, in the fact it was completely unguarded. It appeared to be abandoned and forgotten. The recent earthquake hadn't seemed to have hurt it much, although several large trees had snapped like toothpicks and lay haphazardly in front of it and collapsed against the walls. As Sonic and Tails cautiously approached, they noticed the deadly quiet. No movement, no birds sang, nothing. Even the air was still and rather hot. "I don't like this," Sonic muttered under his breath. "Too quiet. Metal Sonic has to know we're here by now." Tails stayed close behind him, looking around nervously.
Slowly, taking their time, they approached the outpost. It seemed totally devoid of life, and the trees, which were usually kept at bay, had grown right up to the walls.
"Tails, go that way, and I'll go this way. Meet ya at the back of the building."
Tails opened his mouth and shook his head. "No way! I ain't leaving when it's so scary around here!" Sonic seemed about to argue, but changed his mind. "All right then, come on. I'd hate to have to rescue you, too." He flashed an easy-going smile at Tails and started off.
It was a little difficult to force their way through the thickly entangled undergrowth alongside the building, but Sonic blazed the way by spindashing through in short spurts. As they went along they kept an eye out for doors or windows, but there were only two windows, very small, barred and next to the roof. Tails was on edge and jumped at every sound, and just couldn't seem to calm down. He stayed right behind Sonic, panting with fear.
They reached the end of the building. Behind it was a small clearing, but no sign of the generator. This puzzled Sonic, for the ones he had blown were always on the ground. Knuckles could have told him to check the roof, but he wasn't there. Anyway, Sonic crouched behind some bushes, scrutinizing the clearing suspiciously. It was still very quiet; he and Tails had heard no sound other than what they made themselves.
Sonic suddenly had a feeling something was going to happen. Without a word he turned and pressed his back to the wall, motioning for Tails to do the same. For a long time they just sat there, looking and listening. There was no sound anywhere, no movement. No breeze, either. At last Tails mustered the courage to ask Sonic, "What's wrong?" "I donno," Sonic replied just above a whisper, "and that's what's bothering me." At that moment their overly- sensitive ears caught a sound. Sonic grabbed Tails's arm, then carefully turned his head to look into the clearing.
The sound had been the click of a door unlocking. Sonic saw the edge of it as it swung open, then closed again. Serena stumbled into view, as if she had been shoved from behind. She lost her balance and fell over, then climbed to her feet, brushing herself off. She looked unhurt, except for her wrists and ankles, which were red from bring tied up. As Sonic and Tails watched, she stood erect, folded her arms and growled, "Jerk." She cupped her hands to her mouth and seemed to be yelling at someone inside the building.
"Mecha," she hollered, "I still think you're an idiot! I don't like being dragged out into the middle of nowhere to be murdered at your leisure, and if Sonic really is my brother, he's not gonna let you kill me! Got it, mister maladroit?" She paused for breath, then added, "Maladroit means, 'inept, unskillful, and/or clumsy'!" She laughed.
"Well," Sonic muttered, she hasn't lost her sense of humor." He let go of Tails's arm and whispered, "Don't go anywhere, okay, little bro? This is looking a little too easy." He turned and called in a hoarse whisper, "`Rena! 'Rena, over here!" She turned. "Sonic!" "Shh!" Sonic hissed fiercely, putting a finger to his lips. "Come here and let's make a break for it!" She took a step toward him, then hesitated. "Whassamatter?" he called in a whisper. Her eyes were fixed on something behind him. "Watch out!" she screamed suddenly, pointing. Sonic whipped around in time to see a sharp metal arm come swinging in a downward arc toward his head. He dodged quick as lightning, grabbed the arm; and found himself staring into Mecha's metal face.
Metal Sonic almost smiled with delight. "Hello again, rival," he said. "I didn't expect you to actually figure out where I am. You are smarter than I first thought. Release my limb." "No," Sonic replied. Suddenly an electric charge coursed through all the metal in the robot's body, zapping Sonic's hand. He let go with a start. Mecha was elated at Sonic's dismay. "You see, hedgehog, the blue emerald gives me powers I had never considered before." Sonic saw the indigo chaos emerald was still in Metal Sonic's engine intake, and was glowing very brightly. "And I can use my weapon, as well. You may have the super emeralds at your disposal, but you do not use them to your advantage. And now you never shall."
The robot made a swift move, a downward striking motion. His clawed hand slashed through the belt. It became visible and fell to the ground. "Hey!" Sonic cried, reaching down to grab it. That was a mistake. Mecha clenched both hands into metal fists, raised them and brought them down on the back of Sonic's head.
* * *
"Sonic, please wake up!"
"I hope he's not dead."
"Don't say that! He's not dead--I hope. Sonic, wake up!"
"Shut up, prisoners. If he's dead, it would be a real let-down for me. He is not."
Sonic could hear the voices of those around him. Tails was the first voice, Serena the second, the their robot capturer the third. Slowly he opened his eyes. He was lying in a dark corner with his hands bound behind him, and the biggest headache of his life. Tails was tied up and sitting on his right, his sister on his left. They were in a very large, rectangular room with one skylight in the center of the ceiling. It was the only source of light in the room. Sonic guessed they must be in the outpost. He lifted his head a little and spotted the generator. It was directly beneath the skylight, and standing before it with his back to them was Metal Sonic. He had Sonic's belt and was fooling with it, probably trying to get it to work on himself.
Tails saw Sonic move and squealed, "Oh Sonic! You're not dead!" Sonic struggled to sit up, his head throbbing. "'Course I'm not. Not yet, anyway," he glanced in Mecha's direction. "Are we in the outpost?"
Serena eyed him and nodded. "Where else could we be?" She seemed very downhearted. Sonic had never seen her so depressed before.
"Whassamatter?" he asked her quietly.
"What's the matter?" she replied. "We're trapped by possibly our worse enemy, and you ask what's wrong?" She looked at Metal Sonic, then down at the floor. "Isn't it obvious?"
Mecha looked over his shoulder at them. "Ah, rival, I see you have awakened. I will destroy all of you soon, but not quite yet." He turned back around. Tails leaned toward Sonic and whispered, "We only have a few minutes. Can you get us free?" Sonic moved his hands. They weren't tied with chains or rope, but with some kind of steel cable. His hands were numb from the wrists down, and coupled with his headache, he didn't feel very well at all. "What in the world is this stuff?" he whispered after pulling and discovering the strength of the cable. "I donno," Serena whispered back. "He had me tied up with it. He shot it out of his wrist. Some kind of wire."
Sonic struggled again and managed to get his feet under him. "I think I can break it if I spindash. Think so?" Serena and Tails considered how that would feel. "Sonic, won't it hurt your arms to spindash with them behind your back?" Tails asked. Sonic nodded. "Yeah, but it's all I can think of. I'll--" he broke off as Mecha glanced at him. A minute later Sonic continued, "I'll try now."
He ducked his head down and threw himself into a spin. He spun for perhaps two seconds before his bonds shattered. He came out of his 'dash and sprawled on the floor, rubbing his shoulders. "That hurt," he muttered, then massaged his wrists and hands, getting the blood flowing again. He picked up a section of the cable, glanced at it, then glanced at Tails's hands. The binding was twisted into such knots Sonic knew he would never be able to untie them. "I'd need wire cutters, or--" He glanced down. To his amazement, Slasher's whistle was still hung around his neck. For some reason, Mecha hadn't taken it.
With a sly glance at the robot's back, Sonic traced out his name on the whistle's shiny surface. "C'mon, please work again," he pled softly as he completed the last letter. In response, the letters began to glow electric blue, and the rest of the whistle turned a dull red. Sonic held it behind his back, cupped in his hands so Mecha wouldn't see the incandescent glow. In the few seconds it took to charge, Sonic broke into a nervous sweat. He felt defenceless without his belt.
As soon as the whistle turned white, Sonic inched over next to Tails. "Hold perfectly still," he whispered, and pressed the whistle to the cable. The cable melted like wax, and Tails slipped his bonds off easily. "Keep your hands behind your back," Sonic commanded with a nod in Mecha's direction. Tails put his hands behind him as Sonic turned to Serena and freed her the same way. Then he sat down and stared stonily at Metal Sonic, wondering what to do next.
"Sonic, blow your whistle and call Slasher," Serena whispered. Sonic shot her a look that said, "Good idea," and grasped the whistle. Before he blew it he got his feet under him and motioned for his friends to do the same.
Sonic drew a quick, sudden breath, and Tails clapped his hands to his ears as Sonic began to blow the five signal.
At the first blast Metal Sonic whipped around. At the second he gave a mechanical scream and lunged at Sonic. The blue hedgehog only managed to get in one more blast before the metal hedgehog slammed into him. The first thing Mecha did was to wrest the whistle from Sonic's grasp and hurl it violently across the room. "You have damaged my high frequency hearing sensors!" the robot screamed. Sonic could see sparks from the malfunctioning hardware in Mecha's back eyes. The robot forced him to the floor on his back. Only one of his metal hands was free--the other was still clasped around the torn emerald belt. This hand was pressed against Sonic's chest, holding him down. Now the robot raised his empty hand, fingers spread, probably to slash Sonic across the face. The blow never fell. As Sonic cringed backward and shut his eyes, Serena grabbed Mecha's right arm, and Tails grabbed the other. With a "Now, Tails!" the two of them lifted and turned at the same time, flinging the big robot off Sonic and sending him skidding across the floor.
Sonic jumped to his feet and sprinted to the robot. Metal Sonic hadn't yet recovered his motion ability, so Sonic was able to yank the belt out of his hand. Without thinking, Sonic whipped the belt around his waist to put it on. As the broken ends met, the fibers fused together as if they had never been cut. Sonic hardly had time to marvel at this, for Mecha noticed him and swung at his legs. Sonic jumped with both feet off the ground, letting the blow pass beneath him, then jumped back. As the robot climbed to his feet, Sonic had a few seconds breathing space. "Tails! 'Rena! Make a break for it!" They made a beeline for the door as Mecha came at Sonic again.
The robot swung at Sonic and missed. Sonic had an eye on the generator, and was trying to figure out how to open it, become Hyper, escape and/or survive, and not necessarily in that order. Mecha suddenly stopped and held still. His engines had a high-pitched whine which showed how much he had been moving in the last few seconds. Sonic, expecting another attack, raced around to the other side of the generator, keeping the machine between them. Metal Sonic crouched a little, and a beam of light appeared in his back, growing in intensity every second. As Sonic watched uneasily, Mecha stood erect, threw his head and shoulders back, and hovered six inches off the floor. "Now, Sssonic," the robot purred, "we shall see who is the better of us."
Mecha moved so fast it almost caught Sonic off guard. He came flying over the domed generator, clawed hands outstretched. Sonic dodged him. He leaped into the open and began to run in a twisting, turning path, trying the robot's maneuvering skills to the utmost. After five minutes Mecha was infuriated. Sonic was still faster and could start and stop on a dime, while the robot overshot and had to slow down. Snarling, Mecha leveled out, and began to overload his power supply, draining the chaos emerald. He started to glow yellow and could move twice as fast as he could before. The robot gave Sonic a run for his money. What was worse, as Mecha pursued Sonic around the dimly lit room, was that the robot was starting to use his head. He wasn't Robotnik's head assassin bot for nothing. He was studying how Sonic moved, how he ran, and how he reacted when the robot got a little too close.
The last time Sonic stopped in mid stride, turned and ran the other way, Mecha was ready for him. He moved with his quarry, and had the satisfactory feeling of finally colliding with Sonic and driving him to the cement floor. Mecha crouched over him, pinning his arms and legs. Sonic struggled, but to no avail. "I have you now, Sssonic," the robot hissed, "and neither your friends nor your precious emeralds can save you. I--" He was interrupted by a colossal crash. Behind them, the skylight had just caved in. Mecha didn't release his grip, but turned his head to see what had happened. Sonic looked, too, and saw Slasher.
She was lying on the generator with a stunned expression on her face. She hadn't seen the skylight until she had stepped on it. Slowly her head turned, and she studied the two contestants. Her voice was clear and calm as she said, "The name's Bond. James Bond." Mecha bristled. "Leave, creature with the distasteful sense of humor. You have interrupted a murder." Slasher slid off the machine amid a shower of broken glass shards. As she gravely approached them, her clawed feet crunched on the glass. Sonic cringed, and it wasn't because of Metal Sonic.
Slasher was studying Mecha with interest. She didn't seem the least bit concerned about Sonic. "Ah," she said, "at last I get to meet the infamous Mecha Sonic. I have heard much about you. You are one of the best robots I have ever seen. And believe me, I have seen a lot." Metal Sonic didn't know how to take this. No one had ever tried to flatter him before. He was not a vain robot, but he seemed interested. His hold on Sonic's arms weakened a tiny bit. "Are you loyal to Dr. Robotnik?" he questioned doubtfully.
"What does it matter?" Slasher shrugged. "I am a free lance mercenary. I have seen many robots. Most are below my notice, and I scorn to even mention their makes. But you, Mecha, are different. You are not only swift of foot, but you think fast, too. You also seemed to have pinned an elusive victim." Her eyes flickered over Sonic indifferently. Sonic felt a chill run over him. She had never given him a look like that before. Was this an act, or for real?
This went on for another fifteen minutes as Mecha was pleased and Sonic became afraid, more of the big raptor than the robot. After a while, Mecha let go of Sonic entirely and stood up to face Slasher. Sonic slowly climbed to his feet, eyes jerking from the robot to Slasher and back. He was confused and didn't quite know what to do. He looked at his friend, bewildered. Again she gave him that careless glance, but this time one of her clawed hands stirred ever so slowly in the direction of the door. Sonic took the hint and began to edge toward the exit. Nonchalantly Slasher moved a few steps so she was directly facing the door. Mecha turned to face her, putting his back entirely to it. Sonic gave Slasher a thumbs-up and stepped outside, scott-free.
He turned on the speed as he raced down the side of the building and into the treeless area beyond. The roar of falling water filled his ears as he aimed for the bridge. Serena and Tails were on the far side, anxiously waiting for him. "Sonic!" Tails yelled, hands cupped to his mouth. "Be careful! The bridge--" But by then Sonic had flashed across the structure and was standing before them, unharmed. "You were saying?"
"The bridge ain't safe," Tails finished. "The planks are so rotten some of 'em just turn to dust when you step on 'em."
Sonic turned to look back. "Slasher is ex-tremely smart, ya know? I'd never have thought to soft-talk Mecha--and boy, did he fall for it!"
The three of them stood there for another five minutes, waiting for Slasher to leave the building. It was a long five minutes. But after a while, the big raptor came moseying around the side of the outpost, so casual she was fit to bust. If she could have buried her hands in her pockets and walked with a slouch she would have. After a few seconds she broke into a ground-gulping stride. She flew across the waterfall, scorning the bridge.
"Well?" Sonic demanded. "Where's Mecha?"
Slasher shrugged. "I took care of him."
"How?" Serena asked.
"Cultivated a healthy self-conceit."
"Slasher, say it in english," Tails said.
"Aw, c'mon, you guys are really no fun at all. I started asking him some really technical questions about his hardware and software; you know, acting like an expert. Finally I asked him his mass weight. You know, how heavy he is. He said two hundred plus pounds, and I said no way, he couldn't be that heavy. He said try to lift him and see. So I grabbed both arms, swung him off the ground and threw him into the generator. The generator!" The big raptor snapped her fingers. "I forgot to get the time stone! Aw, man!"
She turned to go back, but Sonic put a hand on her arm. "Let me get it, Slash. I can go faster." Reluctantly Slasher paused, considering, then relented. "All right, but be back before the earthquakes start."
Sonic was halfway back to the guardstation before he thought, "Earthquakes? What earthquakes?" But it was too late to turn back. He sprinted around the building, and skidded to a halt in the clearing in the back. The door was open. Slasher might have left it that way, but--no, it had a spring that held it closed. The door was propped open. Suspicious. Sonic sidled up to the opening and peered inside. It was darker inside than outside, so it took his eyes a few seconds to adjust. Metal Sonic was still in there. His heart pounding warily, he stuck his head through the door and stared hard into the darkened corners of the room. Nothing moved. He leaned in farther and looked into the corner to his right. Empty. He turned to the left--and saw only a metal fist, backed by Mecha's hate- filled eyes, slam into his face.
Stunned, he reeled backward and fell over, holding his forehead with both hands. He heard the thud-thud of the robot's footsteps as he ran around Sonic and out toward the river. Blindly Sonic groped for his radio and snapped it on. "Watch out, there's a metal hornet headin' right for ya!" He turned it off without waiting for a reply. Sonic climbed to his feet, shook his head to clear his vision, and started into the outpost. Before anything else happened, he would get the stone.
Slasher must have tossed Metal Sonic like a bale of hay, for the generator was sadly wrecked. One whole side was dented in, and the big lens on top had one edge exposed and was laced with cracks. Sonic only had to hit it twice before it broke, littering the floor with even more glass shards. He took out the time stone--pale green--and was startled by a computer voice saying, "Internal matrix for main system is loaded. System check beginning. Base one: negative. Base two: negative. Base three: negative. Base four: negative. Base five: negative. Base six: negative. Base seven: negative. System check completed. Vital component missing. All systems will shut down until further notice. Chain power surge in: Thirty. Twenty-nine ...."
Sonic had fled the premises at "Base two: negative." He hit the doorway running, skidded into the clearing, swerved and headed up the side of the building. As he ran he thought of Knuckles's instructions, so long ago in Robotropolis. "Ten sticks of dynamite. How big of an explosion is that? Will we be safe on the other side of the river? I don't want to be here, that's for--" His thoughts broke off in a sudden gasp as he dug his heels into the ground and skidded to a stop. There, not ten feet ahead of him, stood Metal Sonic. In his arms was Serena; again. She was unconscious this time, limp and pale.
Sonic took in her condition at a glance, a thousand questions flashing through his head. How the heck had he got her away from the others, and where were they? What had he done to knock her out? He gazed up at the robot. "Haven't we played this scene before, Mecha?" He queried. "Yes," the robot replied, "and if it worked the first time, it'll work a second. I still want the stones, but more than that, I want YOU. Oh yes, and don't try to trick me, either. The lizard was quite cunning, but I survived. Your sibling will not, however." It was quiet a few seconds as Sonic stared at the ground, heart and mind racing. There wasn't enough time to become hyper, for Mecha would simply teleport and that would be the end of it. But it wasn't safe to just stand there, either. The whole place would blow in less than thirty seconds.
He decided what to do and did it in the same instant. He went from standing to full stride in one step, dove into a spin and hit Mecha across the head. Unprepared, the robot stumbled backward. Sonic gripped his sharp metal arms, trying to make him release his prisoner. Metal Sonic resented this and lashed out with one foot, catching Sonic in the stomach. Sonic let go and doubled up, gasping shallowly for air. Mecha was about to take off, but paused a moment to watch Sonic's agony with smug amusement. It was a mistake. Sonic was staggering back and forth, choking and carrying on like he was dying, but as he passed by the robot he suddenly stood up straight and drove his fist into the robot's eyes.
That registered. Mecha let go his prisoner and clutched at his eyes. Sonic caught Serena and headed for the bridge, gasping like a fish out of water and favoring his right hand.
He reached the bridge and had to stop for breath. Tails and Slasher called from across the waterfall, "Sonic, stop!" He looked at them, the bridge, then back at Mecha, who was starting in his direction. "Why?" he called above the thunder of the falls.
"Metal Sonic cut--"
Tails was interrupted by an ear-shattering explosion. Sonic looked back and saw the base had erupted in a dirty orange ball of flame. It mushroomed up and outward, black smoke consuming the fire, blotting it out. The blast hit Metal Sonic, enveloping him in smoke.
Panicking, Sonic started across the bridge, Serena in his arms. It swayed and bounced under his moving feet, and each grey plank creaked a protest as he stepped on it. He moved rapidly, his stomach in a hard knot, his back tingling with the knowledge of who was behind him. He had made it half-way across before anything happened. Trouble presented itself in the form of a cracked board that gave way underfoot. His foot went down through the bridge, throwing him down. He dropped Serena on the planks ahead of him, trying to ride the bridge's resulting movements. Despite all his intentions, his eyes strayed down to the board beneath his hands, the down even further, to the gap between the planks and the falling water beneath. He was just in time to see the falling fragments of the broken plank as they were dragged under the white foam beneath the waterfall. He stared, transfixed.
Serena awoke with a start, the stunner's charge depleted. With a shock she realized she was on the bridge. She sat up, grabbing at the hand-ropes to steady herself, and saw Sonic. He was kind of slumped on all fours, one leg hanging through a gap in the bridge, staring downward as if hypnotized. "Sonic!" She held out a hand to him. With an apparent effort he tore his eyes away from the watery turmoil below and looked up. His lips moved. The rushing water drowned out his voice, but what he said was clear. Help me. She grasped his arm and pulled. He shakily lifted his leg out of the planks and crawled free. As he stood up, he looked over his shoulder. Serena followed his gaze. Metal Sonic was standing on the far side of the bridge, both hands on the hand-ropes, his body bent slightly forward, red eyes fixed on them. He didn't set foot on the bridge, or even move at all. He looked like a crouched cat, ready to spring on it's prey.
His presence unnerved Sonic. He looked back at Serena and pushed her gently in the direction of Slasher and Tails. They were standing on the other side, waiting. "Go!" Sonic shouted in her ear. "Get off the bridge!" Serena turned and ran the rest of the way, safely joining the other two. Her motion caused the bridge to lurch again, nearly throwing Sonic off. He grabbed both guardropes as the bridge stretched and pulled, sagged and tightened. Stretched and pulled, sagged and tightened. Sonic closed his eyes and tried to keep from throwing up.
A cry from his friends made him look up. They were staring past him with horrified expressions. Sonic turned his head, and what he saw became permanently etched in his memory. Mecha was calmly rubbing his sharp lower arm across the ropes. The logical thing to do was run for the other side, but Sonic couldn't think or move. His feet felt like lead weights, and all he could do was helplessly watch the robot saw through the first rope.
With a snap the rope broke. The rope under Sonic's left hand went slack and fell away, and the bridge sagged over sideways. Sonic's bruised right hand couldn't--or wouldn't--grab the other rope hard enough, so Sonic turned and grabbed it with both. As he did he caught sight of his right glove--the knuckles were stained red. "That's what I get for punching a robot in the face," he thought grimly. His weight on the rope twisted the bridge over sideways, slinging him down toward the waterfall. As he struggled to get his feet up on the boards, he glanced over at Metal Sonic. Mecha had nearly sawed through the second rope. Sonic wrapped one arm through the dangling first rope, anticipating what would happen next. The bridge jerked once, then the other rope snapped.
The bridge swung down in a wide arc. It hit the side of the cliff with a terrific slap. Sonic's body slammed into the wall with an involuntary grunt, knocking the wind out of him. The rope his arm was hooked through was nearly ripped off, and he painfully worked it loose. As he did, he discovered another problem. The loose ropes were twisted around his right leg in an impenetrable tangle. He pulled at them with one hand, but his weight on them had drawn them taut, stiff as wire. There were several loose ropes dangling around him. He grabbed one and tried to haul himself up, but his leg held him down.
He glanced over his shoulder at Metal Sonic in time to see him materialize and teleport to the other side, up above. Sonic looked up and Mecha looked down. The robot was delighted with Sonic's situation, laughing evilly. In the middle of his laugh, however, someone rammed him from behind. He lost his balance and slipped over the edge. Sonic watched in disappointment as the robot grabbed ahold of the bridge and only fell a few feet. His attention was drawn to the top as Serena looked over the edge. Shock passed over her face as she realized Sonic was entangled in the ropes. She turned her head to relay this information, but then Sonic's view of her was blocked by Metal Sonic.
Mecha had his feet braced on the wood planks and one hand on the ropes. From there he leaned out, looking down at Sonic. Sonic shouted up, "Well, Moron, how's the view up there?"
"I can't stand your insolence," Mecha called down. "I can still cut you down from here." The robot reached down below his feet and began to cut the ropes. Sonic watched from below while his friends watched from above. Then Sonic called, "I'll bet you're too chicken to come down here and throw me off yourself." "Sonic!" his friends screamed in horror, for Mecha, angered, began to climb down toward his enemy.
But Sonic had counted on this. He pulled up a long strip of rope and looped it up against the planks, preparing a snare for the robot. He braced himself, lightly holding both ends with either hand. Mecha didn't notice. He climbed down inside the loop where he could reach Sonic.
Metal Sonic turned around, facing his rival again. To his dismay, he saw that Sonic was tangled in the ropes and couldn't be just shoved off. Sonic grinned at him. "Can't push me off, tinhead," he taunted.
"Perhaps," the robot's voice was so soft Sonic could barely hear it over the waterfall, "but you cannot escape, either. Therefore I can readily kill you here, then cut loose the entire bridge."
"But what about the time stone?"
"I will take it and the belt from your lifeless body before I drop you into the water. I will--"
Mecha's voice was drowned out by a sudden, terrific rumbling roar. All around them the ground began to shake. The light dimmed. The two enemies looked up at the sky and forgot each other for the moment. The sky was turning a deep violet. The sun seemed to throb, and as all of them stared upward, red streaks shot across the sky like meteors. The ground lurched suddenly, slamming the bridge into the wall. It nearly knocked Mecha off, and as he scrambled to get a better hold, Sonic grabbed the ends of the loop and pulled backward with all his might.
The rope caught the robot in the neck. As he started to topple backward, one of his pawing hands caught a board. He clung to it as his rival tried to throw him off. Sonic strained to pull harder, but entangled as he was, he didn't have good leverage. Desperate, he tried what Slasher did to move something. He threw himself backward, pulling in short, spasmodic jerks. It worked. Mecha's claws splintered through the board, and he flipped down and backward. Sonic ducked as the robot fell past, but even in mid air, Mecha kept his head. As he fell he twisted, reaching out, and caught Sonic by the left wrist. His weight jerked Sonic downward, and it was with great effort Sonic managed to grasp the ropes with his other hand.
Metal Sonic hung there, staring down at the raging water below. After a moment he threw his head back and looked up at his enemy. Sonic looked down at him, only an arm's length away, and noticed the robot's glass eyes were cracked where he had hit him. It was a small comfort.
Out of pure spite, Mecha began to tighten his hold. His vice-like metal hand closed, crushing his rival's wrist. Sonic cried out and tried to shake him loose, but to no avail.
Another earthquake rocked the scene. Sonic was in agony. He aimed his free leg in a series of kicks at the robot, but it did no good. Mecha didn't care. He was hurting his enemy dreadfully, and enjoying it.
"Stop! Leggo!" Sonic screamed. "My wrist is pulp! Are you happy?" "Oh yes," Mecha replied, "but I'm just getting started. Watch this." The robot electrified his outer metal shell. The charges flowed through his metal hand in into Sonic's tortured arm. Sonic writhed in agony, finally letting go with his other hand and swinging upside down, trying to free his hand from Mecha's grasp.
Sonic's ears were deadened by the constant noise of the waterfall, and so he didn't hear the warning cries of his friends. He did notice when the roar got considerably louder. He looked up in time to see a twenty-foot wall of water come sweeping over the falls--a tidal wave driven on by the earthquakes. As he looked at it, he thought, "That's a lot of water." The torrent struck him and Mecha, tearing away the fragile bridge with them and dragging them down into the waterfall.
Ever wanted to know what a piece of driftwood feels like? Sonic experienced it first hand. The first wave slapped all the breath from his body, and now he was falling, surrounded by water. Ooff! He hit the first ledge and was swept off it at the same instant, driving out what little breath he had left. Then he was falling again, dragged downward by tons of water, the bridge, and Metal Sonic.
After an eternity he was washed into the deep lagoon below the waterfall. He was pounded down and down by the falling water, deeper and deeper into darkness. Or was he being dragged? Pulled by a heavy weight? Mecha's hand was still clenched around his wrist; he felt no pain anymore, but he was aware of the discomfort. He had to do something--they were sinking lower and lower, toward the bottom, the pressure increasing. Sonic's body was starved for air, his lungs aching terribly, his ears ringing like fire alarms.
Feebly he turned his head toward the light--he sensed that way was up. He tried to swim, but the robot held him down. Mecha had shorted out long ago, and was as dead as a robot could be. As Sonic looked down at him, his dimming eyes caught a glint of blue. Slowly, with effort, he remembered. The emerald. The chaos emerald in Mecha's intake.
Sonic reached down and pulled it out. As he did, the robot released his arm and fell away. Sonic turned and tried to swim upward, but the force of the falls was still beating him down. He couldn't go up. He paddled sideways, trying to get clear of the invisible barrier. His lungs felt like they had a total vacuum inside--more than anything he wanted to open his mouth and suck in a breath. A roaring filled his ears, along with each thunderous heartbeat. A black curtain seemed to cover his eyes. The last thing Sonic remembered was the feeling of his muscles going completely slack. As his eyes closed and unconsciousness overtook him, he thought, "And I never did find out if 'Rena is my sister."
* * *
Slasher had dragged Tails and Serena away from the edge as the wave roared past. It had only taken a few minutes for the first wave to go down, and as soon as possible the three rushed to the edge and looked over. The bridge, robot and Sonic were all gone.
Tails looked down the length of the falls and screamed, "Sonic!" Serena collapsed to the ground, sobbing, and Slasher just stood there, stunned. Suddenly she yelled, "He's got to turn up somewhere. On my back, you two!" Startled by the authority in her voice, Serena and Tails obeyed.
Slasher whirled and began to run downstream, following the decline in the bank to where she could reach the lagoon's bank. As she ran, Tails yelled, "Slasher, you're too much of an optimist for your own good!"
"Maybe," Slasher called back, "but if I wasn't so optimistic you and Sonic would have lost your lives long ago."
They slid to a stop on a sandy beach thirty feet away from the base of the falls. "Get off, I gotta go for a swim!" Slasher commanded, and the two slid off. They stood on the bank, watching anxiously as the big raptor spread her wings, leaped out over the pool and swooped toward the waterfall. Ten feet away from it, right where the foamy water began to settle into green, Slasher hovered, wings beating as she stared into the water. Abruptly her wings folded, and she dove headfirst into the water like a pelican.
The two on the beach held their breaths as she vanished beneath the surface. She was gone for what seemed like hours, and the water grew still. Then her head broke the surface, jaws wide as she gasped for another breath. She surface-dived and was gone again. She was under longer this time. Tails murmured, "Please find him, oh, please find him!" Serena was crying again, but neither of them took their eyes from the water. The ground rumbled, then shuddered under their feet. The quake intensified until it threw them to their knees, and subsided.
Slowly the sky began to turn blue again. Normal daylight returned, and the strange red streaks vanished. Tails and Serena couldn't care less. They were staring at the water, waiting for Slasher to re-surface. She did, gasping, but alone. For a third time she ducked under. "Oh Tails," Serena sobbed, "she can't find him. He must have drowned!" Tails was also deathly afraid, but wouldn't admit it. "Shut up!" he exclaimed. "Slasher'll find him or die trying!"
At that moment Slasher was ten feet under and diving. Her first two dives had turned up nothing, and she knew she had better find her friend or it would be too late. This time she was going straight down, wings clasped tightly to her body, arms and legs pressed to her sides, muscular tail driving her on. Like a powered stone she sank into the cold, into the darkness below the cascade. She felt the pounding of the falling water above, forcing her down like a gigantic hand. The pressure increased, and the water darkened.
Her eyes, glowing in the darkness like two live emeralds, caught a shadow below her. How far? Was it Sonic? She spiraled down, the weight of the water forcing air from her lungs in bubbles. She reached out with both hands, groping, feeling. One hand brushed something. She turned and groped again. Her hand closed around something; an arm. Sonic's arm. He was completely motionless and sinking slowly. She grasped both his arms, and holding him against her chest, she angled herself upward. She drove her slim body up and up with powerful sweeps of her tail. The pressure abated quickly, but the surface still seemed terribly far away. She forced herself to go faster, faster--
Her head broke the surface, jaws sprung wide, gasping. She held Sonic's head above water, but he wasn't breathing. When Slasher realized this, she headed for the shore with such speed that her shoulders and forearms were out of the water. "I found him!" she called to the two on the bank. "Is he all right?" Tails called.
"No, he's not breathing!"
"I told you it's too late!" Serena wailed.
"It's not!" Slasher yelled. She reached the shore and splashed out of the water, streaming water from her wings. Sonic was limp and pale in her arms--he looked quite dead. She put him down on his back, head downhill, then pushed down on his chest. Water streamed from his mouth, but he didn't move. Slasher cuffed him roughly, then pumped his chest again. This time he retched and coughed up an entire lungful of water. Slasher turned him over on his belly as he coughed again, then sucked in a rattling, painful breath. He coughed again.
Sonic's windpipe was on fire. It hurt to breathe, but oh, the pain was so good. He choked up a little more water, then lay still and concentrated on breathing.
"Is he okay?" Serena queried anxiously. Slasher was crouched beside him, one hand on his back. She replied without looking up, "I think so. He's acting normal, anyway."
Tails knelt beside his friend, his small body trembling with relief. He reached for Sonic's hand and froze, staring at it. Sonic's left hand was hideously mangled at the wrist. Tails gulped and pointed at it, stunned to silence. Slasher looked at it and murmured, "Metal Sonic still managed to hurt him." She stood up and looked around at the surrounding vegetation. Spotting what she wanted, she walked over to a thick-leafed fern. She tore off two long leaves and turned back to Sonic. She gingerly pulled off his wet glove, then wrapped the leaves around and around his hand and lower arm.
"That will serve as a make-shift cast until we get home," Slasher explained. Sonic moved his hand a little and opened his eyes, looking at it. Slowly he rolled over and sat up. "Hi, guys," he said slowly. "What happened?"
"You were washed away in a flash flood," Serena replied.
"Yeah, yeah, I remember that part. Mecha was dragging me down. He wouldn't let go of my hand. But--I took--" His right hand was doubled up in a fist. Slowly he opened it. There on his palm was the blue chaos emerald. Slasher took it from him and looked at it. "Yes, the emerald is safe," she said, "but what about the time stone you had, and the one Mecha had?" Sonic looked up at her. "They must be somewhere at the bottom of the falls," he said simply. "We still have the other two, and if Knuckles managed to get the other ones, plus the one from Robotropolis, we should do all right."
He stood up shakily, wiping the water from his eyes. "I won't need a drink for a week," he grumbled. He looked up at Slasher. "I guess we're all done," he said. "Can we go home, now?" Slasher shrugged and looked at the other two. "Yep. Guess we can. I don't feel like flying, though." The three of them stared at her. "What?" She pointed to the chaos emerald. "You're holding the smallest teleporter device in Mobius. YOU take us home."
Sonic looked down at the emerald in his hand. "How?"
"Try touching it to a super."
He did, and vanished instantly. A moment later he reappeared. "Yep, it works, all right."
"Where did you go?" Tails wanted to know.
"Knothole. Just like that. Cool!"
Sonic looked around at them. "Let's all teleport together." Wordlessly they all joined hands. "Hang on, guys," he said, holding up the blue gem. "Ready, set, go!" He brought the emerald down and touched it to his belt.
All around them the world shifted and changed. The river and waterfall vanished, and in their places were the huts of Knothole village. "Cool!" Tails yelped. "Gee," Slasher commented, "I wish we'd had that before. I wouldn't have had to have flown all that way."
Their sudden arrival was a shock to the others, who hadn't expected them back for quite some time. Slasher and Sonic dried themselves off, and while Bookshire patched up Sonic's crushed wrist, Serena and Tails excitedly told everyone of their adventures. After they had rested for a while and had had a bite to eat, Sonic asked about the other group, if they were back yet. Bookshire replied that no, they weren't back yet, and nobody had had any contact with them for days. This worried the intrepid four, especially when the old raccoon gravely told them the volcano on Copie Wright Island had erupted.
Sonic insisted on warping to the island to see if they were there, and if they were, he would bring them home. Slasher broke in by saying No way, he wasn't going anywhere until his wrist healed. A tremendous argument followed, and it ended in a compromise. Sonic could go, but only as Hyper Sonic.
Sonic went and found all of them (except Knuckles) in good condition. He brought them back, and Knux was put into medical for a few days. He was treated for minor internal injuries, concussion, three broken ribs, and his numerous flesh wounds. But he recovered. What happened next is about a week later, so ... read onward, if you please!
"C'mon, Bookshire, hurry up!"
"Sonic, it'll take a few minutes to access the genealogical records with the Robotropolis computer down."
Sonic sighed irritably and folded his arms. He turned his back on the computer and called, "Hey Knux, how long do you think it'll take to get the computer on-line?" Knuckles, who was reclining in an armchair in the corner, shrugged. "I donno. Probably not for quite some time. C'mon, you saw the tower. Doc's gonna hafta get a whole new replacement, and super computers ain't exactly plentiful."
When the generator on the roof of the fortress had blown up, it took half the tower and part of the roof with it. The computer was directly below the blast, and was vaporized and melted. Parts had been scattered across the city for miles. Robotnik was more stunned than angry. (Rage came later.) The big computer was required to run the network and the robotizer, and with no more computer, nothing worked. A crippling blow had been dealt. With Knuckles's expertise gone, Mecha destroyed and Packbell temporarily out of order, Robotnik was left without a leg to stand on.
But now, most of the Freedom Fighters were grouped into Bookshire's hut. He was accessing the Mobian civilian genealogical records; trying to answer the question of weather or not Sonic and Serena were related. Serena was standing behind the old raccoon's chair, staring intently at the screen. Sonic, behind them, paced the room impatiently. He stopped when Bookshire said, "Ah, here we are." Orderly rows of text appeared on the screen. "Okay, since we don't know your parents' names, we'll start with your uncle--Sir Charles Hedgehog." Bookshire typed in the name. A moment later the entry appeared. He typed in the word, 'relatives.'
Another list appeared. Most entries had the word 'robotized' in the blanks, but in the category 'close relatives' was 'brother.' Sonic and Serena both caught their breaths when they saw it. Wordlessly Bookshire entered it. The screen went blank a few seconds, and the computer clicked. Then a message flashed at them, "Warning. Corrupted data. Virus could be present. Do you wish to continue Y/N?"
Sonic covered his eyes with his good hand. "Oh no! Not when we're so close!"
"What?" Knuckles demanded. He got up and limped over. "Hmm," he muttered as he read the screen. "Viruses are a risky business." He put one hand on his chin and thought for a moment. Suddenly he snapped his fingers. "I got it! Hang on, I'll be right back."
Knux walked out. A few minutes later he returned with a couple disks in his hand. "This is an anti-virus program," he explained. "We got a bunch of software when we went to earth to get the mechs. I got all my games there, and my equipment. The games all came on CDs and DVDs, which are kind of like holodisks, but with slightly different format." As he was speaking, Knux was installing the anti-virus program to the hard drive. "This will scan for viruses and automatically delete them." A moment later, "There. Now go ahead." He stepped back and folded his arms.
Bookshire pulled up the screen again and pressed 'Y.' The computer gave them a short screen that said 'loading,' and then the personnel file came up. Sonic and Serena leaned close, reading it. Sonic slapped the table in frustration. "All the names have been erased! What good is that?"
Slasher, who had been standing back quietly, came forward and studied the screen. "There's still information here. Look. Your mom and dad were both incredibly talented runners; top athletes. That explains why you two can run so fast." She read some more. "Oh wow. Listen to this. 'When their son was born, their lives were threatened by the impending war. They sent him away to live with his uncle in Mobitropolis, assuming he would be safe there. Two years passed, and their second child, a daughter, was born.' " Serena gasped and gripped the back of Bookshire's chair. As Slasher continued to read, the young hedgehog turned and locked eyes with Sonic.
" 'When the child was two years old, their town was bombed during the Great War. Both parents were killed, and the status of their daughter in unknown at this time.' "
"Well?" Sonic demanded. "What's her name?"
"Hang on," Bookshire answered. "There's another link to her personnel file." As it loaded, the two hedgehogs joined hands quietly. The screen came up; the name at the top was 'Serena Hedgehog.' Everyone turned and looked at them. Sonic and Serena were staring at each other.
"Sonic, I--I don't know what to say."
"Me neither. 'Rena, you're--you're my sister. And--and--" Sonic paused, licked his lips and looked around at everybody. He had suspected it for a long time, but now he knew for sure he didn't know how to react. Serena did, though. With an "Oh, Sonic!" she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. Sonic put his arms around her and returned the hug. "Little Sister," he murmured. For the first time the words held special meaning.
For about five minutes they were totally unaware of everyone else. Then the two were suddenly aware of being stared at. They turned and grinned at the group. "Hey guys," Sonic said happily, "meet Serena, my long-lost sister." He turned and said gravely, " 'Rena, I would like you to join the Freedom Fighters. Will you?"
"Sure, Sonic. I'd like to."
Sonic turned and looked at the others. "Looks like we have a new recruit." He looked at his sister. "C'mon, 'Rena, let's go for a walk."
Together they strolled out, arm in arm. They had much to tell each other ...
Little did they know that the dead robot at the bottom of the falls, miles and miles away, would pose a new threat that would test their bonds to the fullest. But that's another story.