Sonic CD
By K. M. Hollar

Copyright notice: Sonic, Tails and related characters copyright of Sega. Slasher, Jay, Robin, Thief and all other minor characters copyrighted by K. M. Hollar.

Author's note: This story takes place on and all over Little Planet. Since Amy has not been introduced into my stories, I have substituted Serena instead. I feel it is a better story that way.

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Chapter 1

Sonic the Showoff and Little Planet

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It was quiet that morning at Never Lake. A faint wind stirred through the scattered clumps of trees and danced over the grass. It died before it could ruffle the glassy surface of the lake. Then everything was quiet again. It wasn't silent, really, for the birds chirped and sang from the trees and tall grass. There was the sound of ripples lapping at the beach. The only thing out of the ordinary was the moon-like object that filled the sky above the clear lake.

A shout broke the stillness. It was faint and clouded by distance, but it was followed by a high, "Yee-ha! Never catch me!" The speaker came into sight an instant later as he tore around the spur of one of the many tall rock outcroppings. He was running easily, but his speed was incredible. His legs were a spinning blur beneath him. He ran with his head down and forward, arms bent at the elbow and held against his ribs, out of the way of his flying feet. Three rows of spines stuck out the back of his head and ran down his back. He was a dark blue all over, except for his muzzle, arms and belly. They were a regular brown color, but darkly tanned by being out of doors. His hands were protected by white gloves, but they weren't so white now. They were dirty from leap- frogging over rocks and dragging the ground when Sonic changed direction quickly and needed balance.

He did now. Sonic swerved right, leaning down and striking the ground with that hand. It was enough to get him upright and headed in this new direction with little effort; otherwise he would have slid sideways several feet. The blue hedgehog charged into a nearby grove of trees. He dodged through the glade, then spotted two trees. Their roots and branches protruded toward each other, nearly interlocking. He hit the trees' roots, shot up one trunk, along the underside of a limb, reached a limb on the other tree, shot down it's trunk, along it's roots, and up the other tree again. He did three loop the loops before he tired of it, flung himself to the ground and was off again. This time, instead of just running between the tree trunks, he twisted sideways and propelled himself from tree to tree in huge bounds.

As he left the grove in his dust, he shouted into the wind, "Ha! Betcha can't do that, Sissy!" A faint reply reached his pricked ears. "Sure I can! But if I do, I'll miss your next stunt--and don't call me Sissy!"

Sonic's next stunt ground was just ahead. The ground sloped down toward the lake and was studded with assorted rocks and boulders. He took it in his stride--rather like he had the trees, flinging himself from rock to rock, sometimes on top, sometimes nearly horizontal between them. Now he spun to the top of a tall stone crag. He slapped both hands down on top of it as if he would jump over it, but he changed his mind at the last instant. His momentum nearly hurled him head-first from the rock, but he caught himself and balanced, surveying the territory before him.

The ground met the lake shore fifty feet away. Directly ahead, across the water, an abrupt cliff flared upward for two hundred feet and branched out along most of the opposite shore. Sonic squinted, measuring the distance. The sun was glaring off the water's surface and reflecting into his eyes, so he lifted one hand and shaded his face for a few seconds. He looked funny, perched on the crag like that; balanced on one hand, legs out to the sides as if frozen in mid-jump. But he only stayed like that about three seconds, because once he had had his look he plunged from the crag, hit the ground running and was gone.

He ran down the hill to the water and leaped out over it. As he came down he started running again. His flying feet met the water's surface with a slap. The way he hit caused the water to rebound, sending him flying. He landed in the water about ten feet away, and again came down running. The water tossed him again. He proceeded to cross the lake in a series of jumps, looking like a cross between a grasshopper and a waterbug. He did it so well he didn't even get wet.

Sonic was rapidly approaching the foot of the cliff. It rose sheer and smooth, straight out of the ground, as if it were a man-made wall. It looked like Sonic would have to stop and go back, but this wasn't what he was planning on. With a lunge and a twist he hit the face of the cliff feet-first. The same speed that got him across the water aided him here. He propelled himself up and across the wall. Gravity pulled at him at first, but the higher and faster he went, the more he defied it. He raced horizontally, arms pumping to help his pounding feet. He was almost to the top of the cliff.

Sonic turned and raced downward on a long slant. Now, THIS was speed. Sonic felt a hot rush flash from his head to his toes, then the air became an invisible barrier; hard to press against. He recognized the feeling as the sound barrier. Thinking of his watching friend, he shouted, "Sound block!" Then he grinned, pulled up his arms and used gravity to increase his speed. The sound barrier broke with a thunderous sonic boom.

By the time he reached level ground again he wasn't about to stop. No way, not yet. He had too much speed going. But, oddly, now his friend could catch up to him. The air turbulence he created, if rode correctly, could boost another's speed to match his. This is why Sonic kept glancing over his shoulder. He had been teaching her how to do that.

A speeding purple hedgehog tore out of the vegetation just ahead. Sonic swerved a little so as not to mow her down, and watched her over his shoulder. Expertly she fell in behind him; not directly behind, but a little right.

She was a little smaller than Sonic--not shorter, but lighter of build. She wore blue jeans and a t-shirt; it wasn't exactly cool that day. Her feet were a flying blur like his, and she ran the same way-- arms bent and held high. Her dark eyes were flashing with determination as she ran alternately with and against the wind. The air behind Sonic was hot when he had broken the sound barrier, and it was hard to breathe. Fiercely the concentrated on the next move. If she did it right she would accelerate and be able to catch him. If she missed; well, a nine-hundred mile per hour crash could be painful, if not deadly.

"Now!" Sonic yelled. She leaped, spun and came down. Even as she did, they both knew she hadn't jumped far enough. Her feet hit the ground. Darn! She had missed the boost zone that would have fired her forward like a bullet from a gun. No chance to try again--the following air blast and sonic boom hit her before she could get going again. It knocked her head over heels. Automatically she curled into a ball, hands over her ears against the deafening sonic boom. She tumbled and rolled across the hilly terrain for quite a distance before finally coming to a halt against a large rock.

A bit dizzy, and crestfallen from having messed up, she unrolled. For an instant she thought something was wrong with her head, as the world was upside-down. Then she realized her feet were in the air above her--she was the one who was upside-down. With a little laugh she relaxed and drooped a little, watching Sonic run circles around the meadow. Her eyes strayed up--or down--to the sky. The smile faded from her face as she noticed something. She tossed her legs over sideways and propped herself on her elbows to see for sure.

She jumped to her feet, cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, "Hey Sonic! There's Little Planet!" She saw him look at her, then up at the sky. She knew what he would say before he said it: "Cool!" He went into a spin and coasted to a stop. She ran up to him. "That's Little Planet, right?"

"Yep," Sonic replied. He was dusting himself off. "You okay, sis?"

"Sure," she shrugged. "I've had worse falls. Too bad I didn't make it." She looked up at Little Planet again. "I thought it was supposed to be a world. It looks more like Death Egg to me."

Sonic turned and looked, noticing for the first time the dead grey color. "Hey! It's not supposed to be like that? What happened?"

Serena shook her head, then pointed. "Lookit that! It's chained to that rock formation on the other side of the lake! Think Robotnik did it?"

Sonic nodded. "Yeah. Nobody else would. I'll bet he heard about us taking the last two time stones up there. But how? It was supposed to be a secret!"

"Bet he had spies watching us."

"Yeah, you're pry right. C' mon, let's get closer. I want to see how the heck he managed to chain up a whole planet."

Little Planet was an entire world unto itself. It orbited Mobius slowly, and once a year appeared above Never Lake. The time stones originated there, and it was because of them that Little Planet could seldom be found the rest of the year. It skipped to the future or the past daily, but it always came to the present when it reached Never Lake. There were places on it that time passed over entirely. And it was because of all this that Little Planet was tethered to Mobius.

The Freedom Fighters had just had a lot of trouble with the time stones about three months before, when they discovered a plot that would destroy planet Mobius. Five of the time stones had been returned to Little Planet afterward, and a little later the last two had been recovered and returned as well. All you had to do was mention 'time stones' in Knothole, and everyone would stare at you and shudder. (Especially Knuckles.)

But Robotnik still wanted them. So he had chained up Little Planet to keep it from going anywhere while he looked for the stones, as they were scattered all over the place.

Sonic and Serena speculated about this as they cruised around Never Lake and toward the point where the huge chain attached to the ground. As they neared it, they realized how big the chain really was. Each link was seven feet long and two feet thick, and there seemed to be miles of it. It was embedded in in the rock spire somehow, and curved up into the sky toward the captive planet. It looked like the biggest kite and string in the world.

Now the two hedgehogs were standing at the foot of the spire, looking up at where the chain connected to the stone. "Stay here, 'Rena," Sonic said to his sister. "I'm gonna climb up there and check it out, 'kay?" Serena nodded. "Go ahead. I'll be cool." Sonic jumped up on the foot of the crag, dug in with his feet and hands and started up. Serena backed up a little, watching him. "Be careful, Sonie." Sonic glared at her over his shoulder. "Argh! Don't call me 'Sonie!' You know it drives me nuts." She smiled sweetly at him and didn't answer. Then she turned around, threw her head back and looked up at the metal-covered surface of Little Planet.

She could smell a subtle taint of exhaust in the air. She made a face. Yuck. It smelled like Robotropolis did in the summertime. It was hot, too. The air was still cool, but the sun felt strong and burned her bare face and arms. She turned away from it to look at Sonic. He was about twenty feet up and still going. He wasn't too far from the chain, now. As Serena watched he paused, looking up, then scrambled up the last few feet to the first link. He swung himself up onto it and examined the place where it joined the rock. "This is weird," he called down to Serena. "It's like he opened the rock, stuck the chain in and closed it again. We'll have to use explosives to get it out." Sonic turned his head and looked down at her. She was looking over her shoulder, up at Little Planet.

"You listenin' sis?"

She started, looked at him, then back up at the planet.

"Yeah, sure."

"Whatcha lookin' at?"

She pointed. "Somethin' just left Little Planet and it's coming down. See it shining?"

Sonic looked up, then turned himself around so he could see better.

Sure enough, something shiny--metallic-type shiny--was flying down toward them. It was hardly more than a speck, but the sun glinting off it showed where it was. "Robot," Sonic said shortly. "We'd better get out of here. We're easy targets." He climbed off the chain and slid down the rock face. Then he stood by Serena, shading his eyes and trying to see exactly what kind of robot it was. Sometimes it was better to face them than run from them.

The gleaming thing was picking up speed and coming at them quickly. After a little, it changed direction. It circled around and got between them and the sun, then resumed it's approach. Sonic shifted his weight from foot to foot uneasily. Something about that sent off a warning in his mind. A regular badnik wouldn't do that. This one knew very well that with the sun at it's back they couldn't look at it directly. Serena was looking down, temporarily blinded from trying to make out the robot's shape. "What is it, bro?" she asked. Sonic shaded his eyes with both hands and squinted. "I can't--can't quite tell," he said slowly. "But it might be Metal Sonic." Serena froze and stared at Sonic, then glanced up at their approaching foe. "We'd better get out of here," she said, scared. "I don't want to have anything to do with Mecha. Let's jam!" She turned to run, but Sonic grabbed her arm. "No. Stay here. When he gets real close, we'll split up and fly. If he goes after me, you circle around and get him. I'll do the same for you. Cool?"

"Cool," she replied unenthusiastically.

The robot was picking up speed rapidly. If they had been able to see it, they would have seen it was no longer flying upright. It was leveled out, arms extended. It's engines made a soft, 'VVVVVVVV' as it drew nearer. Sonic and Serena crouched, back to back, ready to run on Sonic's mark. "Ready," he said through his teeth. A moment later, "Set." Then, "Go!"

Instead of running the directions they were facing, they both whirled and ran the other way to confuse the robot. As soon as they did, Sonic realized his mistake. That WAS Metal Sonic, but he was going slower than Sonic had thought. He wasn't close enough for them to have run. "Heck," Sonic hissed as Mecha swerved, following Serena. The robot was leveled out, closing the gap between himself and Serena quickly.

Sonic whirled around and headed after them. "'Rena! 'Rena, change directions! Zig-zag!" This made her look back to see why, and when she saw Mecha she panicked. She ran like a scared rabbit, but each time she swerved Mecha moved with her, coordinating his moves with hers.

Sonic was nearing them. His mouth was dry with fear--not for himself, but for his sister. Mecha hated her with a deathless hatred, especially since their last run-in. Sonic was afraid the robot would tear her limb from limb if he caught her. And indeed, Metal Sonic looked as if he would gladly do it. He was gaining on his young quarry, and so was Sonic.

The gap between the three of them was narrowing. They were only ten feet apart now. Five. Three. They were nearing the point when they would all collide--and it came almost inconceivably soon. Metal Sonic's outstretched hands closed on Serena's shoulders, then slid down to her arms. With a jerk he pulled her arms behind her back. Behind him, Sonic leaped for the robot, but missed when Mecha snapped erect and whirled around, Serena in front of him. Sonic stumbled, and caught a glimpse of her face as he fell almost at her feet. Her eyes were full of terror and pain, but her mouth was shut tight. She didn't make a sound as Mecha jerked her over sideways to be out of the way of his engine intake. Holding her in both arms, he revved his engines and rocketed skyward.

Sonic jumped at him as he took off, but fell short. He heard Metal Sonic chuckle wickedly before he was out of earshot, moving close to warp speed toward Little Planet. Sonic picked himself up and shook his fist at the departing robot. "You'll pay for this, Mecha!" he shouted. Then, with a sudden thought, he headed back toward where the chain was tied. He could climb it and get to Little Planet from there. As he ran, he thought, "Brave kid. Didn't make a sound at all. Sally would have been screaming her head off."

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Chapter 2

A.P..; Information on Little Planet and Robotnik's plans.

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Dizzily Sonic jumped off the last chain link and lay down flat on the ground. He was now on Little Planet, and the sudden gravity change had confused him. Suddenly 'down' toward the ground far below was changed to 'down' in the direction of Little Planet. He had nearly plummeted head- first from the chain, and had had to turn and climb 'down' toward Little Planet. The ground (Mobius) tilted at a crazy angle, making him sick to his stomach. Now he lay on the ground, staring up at the chain running 'up' to the rocky crag and Never Lake, which now seemed astonishingly small. It appeared hazy through Little Planet's atmosphere. Completely confused, he closed his eyes and drew deep breaths.

When he could function again, he rolled over and sat up, vowing never to look at the sky while he was there. He stood up and looked around. The chain's base was welded into the ground, just like on Mobius, except the ground around it was protected by a big metal panel. The ground was sheets of concrete that seemed to have been poured on hastily, for it was thin and cracked in many places. Cables ran over the ground, smaller wires lashed to them. They criss-crossed the ground in every direction. There was no sign of life anywhere.

"I wonder where that stupid 'bot took Serena," he thought to himself. He began walking. It was flat cement as far as he could see in every direction. It was deathly still and silent. It felt like there was no living thing left on the entire planet. Not even a breeze stirred. The sun burned down, glaring off the concrete and sizzling faintly in the air.

Sonic had walked for about fifteen minutes before anything happened. He heard a sound like gears grinding with a high-pitched whine. He froze and looked in that direction. It was a badnik that looked like a beetle on wheels. It was shiny blue and sported two blasters on it's back. It was about two feet long and a foot and a half tall. It's eyes were made of glass, showing it had a pilot inside. It was coming almost directly toward Sonic, but it didn't seem to be on the offensive. It didn't even appear to have seen him. Sonic folded his arms and watched it. Then on impulse he jumped at it, spun in the air and slashed with his spikes, generating a split-second burst of energy.

The badnik stopped, it's little engines winding down. "Too easy," Sonic muttered. He kicked the robot over on it's side. There was a small door on the underside that latched from the outside. Sonic flipped the latch open, swung open the door, then crouched down and looked inside.

The interior of the robot was dark compared to the brightness outside, and Sonic couldn't see the pilot. "Anybody in there?" he called. There was no reply, but his ears caught a faint rustling. "C'mon out," he said. "I won't--"

He was interrupted as something jumped at him from the darkness within the robot. It hit him in the face and knocked him backward. All he could see was a brilliant green and blue--feathers? A high- pitched voice was screaming at him, and it took him a second to realize there were words in it.

"I'll get you, you good-for-nothing metal hedgehog! Put me in that thing, will you?! I'll peck you limb from limb!"

Wings were beating his ears and face, and a sharp beak drove at his eyes. Sonic crawled backward and shielded his face with his arms. "Cut it out, will you? I'm not a robot! I'm not Metal Sonic!"

The beatingwings withdrew. "You're not?" the thing said uncertainly.

Sonic lowered his arms a little. "No, I'm Sonic the Hedgehog, Mecha's arch-enemy."

"Oh," it said. "Sorry."

Sonic brought his arms down all the way. His attacker was a large parrot. He was a bright green all over with long blue tail-feathers and a flaming red crest. His eyes were bright as black dewdrops and contrasted with his orange-yellow beak. He was hovering in mid-air, wings beating rapidly around his sleek body. Now he fanned his tail and dropped to the ground. "I thought you were that metal imitation of you," he said as he folded his wings.

Sonic stood up. "Nope, but he's the reason I'm here." The parrot cocked his head and looked up at Sonic. "Oh really? He's the reason I'm here, too. Heh heh."

Something about the way he said it made Sonic chuckle.

The bird continued, "What'd he do to you?"

"Kidnapped my sister."

"Ooo, now that's a good reason. Where'd he take her?"

Sonic shook his head. "I donno. I've never been here before."

"Bummer," the parrot replied. "Well, I've been all over Little Planet, and I could show you a few places she might be. What's your name, again?"

"Sonic."

"I'm A.P."

"Does it stand for anything?"

"Yep. Annoying Parrot," A.P. said brightly. "I've been told it fits."

Sonic laughed, and it was more than a chuckle that time.

When Sonic's display of mirth subsided, A.P. asked, "How'd you get here?"

Sonic turned and pointed to the chain in the distance. "Climbed, then fell," he said.

"Ah," A.P. said wisely. "Gravity sickness, huh? You get used to it if you live here."

Sonic sized up A.P. again. He was only one-third Sonic's height, but his eye-catching color made him stand out.

"So, A.P.," Sonic said, "is all of Little Planet covered with cement and metal?"

A.P. gave a squawk of indignation. "Ranncckk! Of course not! Little Planet's as alive as Mobius is!"

Sonic motioned to the concrete beneath their feet. "Call this alive?"

A.P. glanced down, then back up at Sonic. "Are you kidding? This only covers a few miles. The real Little Planet is everywhere else." He motioned with one wing.

"Show me," Sonic said, folding his arms.

"Okay, smartypants," A.P. retorted, "keep up--if you can."

The bird spread his green wings, and with a flurry was off the ground and gone. Sonic took off after him, a little surprised at the parrot's speed, but not really impressed. In about ten seconds he was cruising alongside A.P. The bird looked down at him and whistled loudly. "Whew! You really _can_ run fast! Wanna race?"

"Sure," Sonic replied, "but I bet I can beatcha."

"Ha! You're on! One-two-three-go!" The race was a sight to see. A.P. was really pushing Sonic, and Sonic was astonished at how fast that bird could fly. Every time he pushed himself a few m.p.h. faster, A.P. would catch up and stay alongside. And A.P. was impressed with Sonic's endurance. Any other creature would have fallen behind after the first five minutes. The bird flew still faster and surged ahead.

The two were multi-colored streaks when Sonic yelled, "Ready to bite the dust, Annoying Parrot? 'Cause this is where I put the speed in 'sonic!'"

"Yeah, right!" A.P. called back. If I can't stay with you, then my my name's mud!"

Sonic lowered his head, pulled his arms up against his chest and broke out of the loping stride he had been in. The one he settled into now was more like flying. His speed increased dramatically, the ground a grey blur beneath him, the world streaming past him with dizzying speed. A sideways glance showed A.P. was no longer beside him. Ha, Sonic thought smugly. He could feel himself approaching the sound barrier, when he heard the parrot's voice shrieking, "Stop! Stop! There's a canal--"

The next instant the ground fell away before him in a deep ditch. Sonic did the only thing could do at that speed--jumped. He hurled himself out over the edge and was airborne for two long seconds. Then the ground on the other side rose up to meet him. Sonic landed on his feet, and with a shock noticed the brilliant green grass. I guess I can stop now, he thought. He leaned back, dug in with his heels and slid to a halt. His momentum carried him about fifteen feet, leaving two deep furrows in the grass before he finally stopped. He stood up, dusted himself off and looked around for A.P.

It was a full five minutes before the bird caught up to him. A.P. landed in a nearby tree, gasping for breath. His neck feathers were slightly ruffled, and his eyes were flashing. He looked as if he had plenty to say, but not enough breath to say it with. Sonic grinned at him, hands on his hips, waiting. It was another thirty seconds before the parrot could say anything. "You--you--you--hedgehog! You out-ran me! *Gasp*. I can't believe it!

"Believe it," Sonic grinned. As an after thought, he added, "Your name's mud, now. I won."

A.P. glared at him out of one eye, and his crest flattened to his head. "Oh yeah? Well--well--you--you--" He lifted one wing and shook it. Two feathers fell out and fluttered down. "Look! Lookit this! I'm so ticked off that I'm moulting!"

Sonic snickered, then said, "No hard feelings, okay? Look, my name's not Sonic for nothing."

The bird looked at him out of one eye, then the other. "No kidding," he muttered through his beak.

Sonic had a feeling A.P. was mad at him, so to change the subject, he turned and motioned to their surroundings.

"So, where are we now?"

"Little Planet."

"I know that-- where are we now; general area, I mean?"

A.P. looked at him steadily out of his left eye. "Lower Mundane."

Sonic glanced at him sharply. "What?"

"Lower Mundane. That's the name of the city, and so that's the name of the suburbs."

Sonic smirked. "Mundane? Don't that mean boring?"

The parrot bobbed his head. "Sure. Nothing ever happens there, so they named it that. Heck, what else would you call a garden city?"

"Well," Sonic said slowly, "You could call it Mobitropolis."

"Ah," A.P. replied, "but this isn't Mobius. We know all about what happened to Mobitropolis--or Robotropolis, as it is now. And Lower Mundane is a lot like Mobitropolis was before."

Sonic raised one eyebrow. "Oh really? Can we go there?"

"Sure. We have to go there, anyway. Dr. Robotnik is planning a complete takeover."

Sonic spun around and stared at the bird. "Say WHAT? Why didn't you say so? Let's cruise!" He turned and would have just headed off, but A.P. squawked, "Not thataway, stupid! This way! Better follow me if you want to do any good."

A.P. dove out of the tree, spread his green wings and began to fly slowly in the opposite direction, next to the canal. Sonic followed him at a jog and was soon alongside.

"How's Robotnik planning to take over the city?" he asked anxiously.

"Well," A.P. replied, "to tell ya that I gotta tell ya a few more things. Do you know about the time stones?"

Sonic flinched and nodded in reply.

"Well, Eggman got ahold of all seven once and took 'em off Little Planet. It stayed in orbit, but couldn't time warp. Then, about three years later, the red echidna who lives on Floating Island brought five of the the stones back. Little Planet's balance was restored, but we couldn't warp without the last two. And not too long ago, about the time the metal hedgehog showed his ugly face, somebody snuck up here and brought the two rogue stones."

Sonic nodded. "I was in on both missions, but I never actually came here. What else?"

"Well, I guess ol' paintbrush nose still wanted the time stones. He came up here during our regular pass-by of Never Lake--oh, about a year ago. Middle of the night, too. Anyway, we made the mistake of keeping all the stones together. Evil was able to get his hands on them, but when he did, they split up and time-warped all over Little Planet."

"His name is Ivo, not Evil," Sonic broke in.

"I don't care," A.P. responded. "It fits him better."

The two went along in silence a moment or two. The trees to their right were thickening and increasing in height. Most of them were palm trees. Sonic broke the silence. "How does this apply to the city--uh, Mundane?"

"Lower Mundane," A.P. corrected snappily.

"Yeah, what you said."

"Well, the reason I'm telling you this is because mister Mad Scientist is looking for the stones. In-control time warping is reserved only for whoever has the power of all the stones, but anyone who goes fast enough can skip through time at random. That can be surprising. So he has managed to plant an automatic badnik maker in the past about fifty to a hundred years. There's one in every major city on Little Planet. And with fifty to a hundred years to make robots, well, that's more than enough to take over a city, and parts of Mobius besides."

"Man!" Sonic exclaimed.

"I know," A.P. agreed. "So let's hurry up and get there. I don't want to see Lower Mundane become another Robotropolis."

The path they were following was becoming more of a dirt road. Numerous paths ran out of the trees and joined the road. The canal was on their left all the while. It was about twenty feet deep, but only a small trickle of brown water ran through the bottem.

"What happened to the water?" Sonic asked A.P.

The parrot shook his head. "That's bad news. When I got snared and stuck in that stupid robot, it was running full. It must be dammed up." He flew a bit faster.

Sonic noticed the anxious look on his face. "What's so bad about that?" he asked the bird.

A.P. shook his crested head. "It's not good at all. Lower Mundane is a garden city with many levels of different plants and greenhouses. It uses a lot of water, and it's gotta be kept flowing or it stagnates. And if the water has stopped. . . . he trailed off.

"And if it's stopped," Sonic prodded, "that means Robotnik got the city, right?"

A.P. nodded. "Right, my man. Let's cruise a little faster."

The two stepped up the pace. The parrot's eyes were bright and glittering, but Sonic couldn't tell if he was scared or angry. The path was ten feet wide now. The ground was hard packed and looked as if it had been paved at one time. The ground was hot in the sun, but cool refreshing breezes wafted out of the darkness of the palm trees to their right.

The trail mounted a low hill and curved down the other side. "That's the first dike," A.P. told hid hedgehog companion. A little later, another hill came into view, higher than the last. A.P. left Sonic's side, swooped to the top and landed. Sonic reached him a moment later, and this is what he saw.

The hill ran down to flat, grassy ground--the original river flood plain. The canal branched off two different ways, and the road did, too. One way continued alongside the right fork of the canal, and the other way crossed the canal in a narrow causeway and followed the left fork. And between the two forks was the city. _________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 3

Lower Mundane, Robots and Eagles _________________________________________________________________________

It was built on a hill, so the middle of the city was the highest point. The sun shining down on it picked out the many glass-roofed buildings and solar panels. Sonic was reminded of Robotropolis as he looked at it, for it had pipes running all through the city--numerous as powerlines in downtown L.A. Most of them were some sort of clear plastic or glass--they could see the water moving through, even at that distance. Green of all shades were all through the city; lining the streets, poking through windows, growing inside the greenhouses.

"It's beautiful," Sonic murmured. He felt a tug at his heartstrings-- if not for Robotnik, Robotropolis would still look like that.

"Rraack, it's perty, all right," A.P. agreed. "Water's still running, so it can't have been blocked long enough to hurt. Looks like everything's still going. C'mon." Without a backward glance, A.P. spread his wings and sailed off the hilltop. Sonic followed, wondering what Lower Mundane would look like up close.

The grassy stretch at the foot of the hill was about half a mile square. It was completely flat, and covered with a short, thick, curly grass which was fun to walk in, but hard to run over. A.P. surged ahead without noticing Sonic's trouble. The blue hedgehog felt like he needed snowshoes. At each step his feet sank in up to his ankles, and he would have to lift them clear before taking another step. He noticed A.P. had gotten way ahead, but wasn't about to tell him to wait. No way. Not while I'm breathing, Sonic thought. He struggled along as best as he could and thought wistfully of his emerald belt. If he became Hyper Sonic he could fly right over that mess. But he had loaned it to Knuckles to use while Sonic went to Little Planet. (They had worried the super emeralds might cause the time stones to get out of whack.)

Sonic finally found if he did a high-stepping jog he could do pretty good. He had his sights set on the green parrot again when he became aware of a strange sound. It was a humming drone, like a very large swarm of insects. It was soft at first, but getting louder. He looked around apprehensively. Up ahead, A.P. gave a loud, astonished squawk. "Shrack! It's those dumb mosquitos! Run, Sonic!" The bird looked around for the hedgehog and found him fifty feet behind. Sonic was just standing there. "What are you doing?" A.P. yelled, but it was perfectly obvious what Sonic was doing. He was staring--staring at the cloud of insects flying at them from the direction of the city.

A.P. fanned his tail feathers and hovered in one place, looking first at Sonic, then at the approaching swarm. "Run, Sonic!" he cried again. He was astonished to hear Sonic call back, "No, I think YOU had better get outta here. Those are robot mosquitos." A.P. looked from Sonic to the robots and back again. Then, his mind made up, beat his way skyward.

The insects were flying slowly, about five miles per hour. Sonic had plenty of time to look at them. They were each six inches long with big round eyes, pointed snout and red and white body. Sonic didn't know how they would attack, but had an idea their long pointed snouts were a weapon of some sort. They were thirty feet away from him when things began to happen.

The lead robot beeped a signal and the robots targeted Sonic. It was a bit unnerving to see all the robots focus their calm, indifferent gaze on him, but Sonic kept his cool. He knew how to handle robots, but it bugged him that A.P. had just taken off, leaving him alone. "Don't know your friend until you need 'em," Sonic muttered, watching the approaching swarm. His body was tense, his knees slightly bent, his heart starting to pound. He had entered what his friends called 'spontaneous SuperSonic mode.' When his adrenaline started pumping, any and/or all robots had better watch out.

The swarm sank closer to the ground, until they were only eight feet high. Each dull robotic eye was fixed on the hedgehog, and the robots slowly swung in a circle to get all the way around him. Sonic watched them warily. His instincts were screaming at him to run, but his head was saying no, wait. So he waited watchfully. The mosquitos were studying him and closing the ring, pressing toward him. The large lead badnik was now only five feet away. It hovered in place and slowly tilted so it's sharp snout was aimed right at Sonic's head. Out of the corner of his eye, Sonic noticed the others doing the same. Then the lead mosquito flared it's round body, as if inflating. An instant later he shot downward at Sonic. Sonic dodged, and the robot speared into the ground and stuck.

The other badniks followed suit. Each one flared up and fired themselves at Sonic. Robots rained down. Sonic was reminded of games he used to play with a screwdriver, throwing it into the grass and making it stick upright. The robots were doing the same thing. He took off running underneath the ranks of hovering badniks, who dropped to the ground a second after he passed below.

Sonic dodged left and right, then jumped into the cloud of robots and lashed out with his spikes. The instanious energy flash hit five robots in every direction, and when they fell to the ground it wasn't snout-first. "Make yourselves scarce!" Sonic yelled. "Pest control is here!" He lunged into the ranks of robots and did it again. Badniks rained down, some head-first and others just dead.

It wasn't easy to maneuver in the deep grass, and after four rounds, Sonic's legs began to ache. He decided to simply clear out and worry about them later. His ears were full of the droning hum of the many moters, and the thin shriek of the damaged robots. The air was tainted with their foul-smelling exhaust. Sonic was afraid to draw a deep breath. He turned and pounded away over the thick turf. Robotic insects shot after him, their hard beaks plunging into the ground on either side.

Then it happened. Sonic's right foot hit a tangled patch of grass that tripped him up. He fell into the heavy grass face-first. Thinking only of the robot's attack, he rolled sideways. A mosquito hit the place he had just been, and more were coming. He pulled himself to his knees and was about to leap to his feet when he felt metallic claws dig into his back. It was one of the badniks. It dug it's thorny claws into his back and embedded it's two front legs into his spikes. Sonic yelled and tried to shake it off, but it seemed there to stay. He got to his feet and thrashed around. He could feel it trying to stick him with it's snout, but it couldn't quite do it. He wouldn't hold still long enough.

Then the air around them was shattered by a shrill whistle--a scream, really. It was so loud Sonic out his head down and covered his ears. The robots all around broke in midair and fell to the ground, some in pieces. The steam-whistle shriek was only a few seconds long, but it seemed like hours before it finally stopped. Sonic carefully uncovered his ears. They were ringing, and his head was throbbing strangely. The robot was still on his back, but it was dead from what he could see of it.

All the robots were off-line. They lay on the ground like so much scrap, and not one of them moved. Sonic looked at them, then around for whatever had made the sound. It had sounded close, but there was nothing obvious in sight. Suddenly suspicious, Sonic looked up. Then he held out one arm straight. Annoying Parrot landed on his arm and folded his wings. "They almost gotcha, kid," he said to Sonic. His voice sounded scratchy. "You're a little hoarse," Sonic told him. A.P. cocked his head. "I'm not a little horse--I'm a parrot!" He chuckled. "I know I am. I can't scream like that very often." Sonic rolled his eyes. "So that was you? Gee whiz! Ya took out all the robots with sound effects!" A.P. didn't answer. He was leaning forward, looking at Sonic's back. "There's a mosquito on you," he said matter-of-factly. "I know it," Sonic replied, "and wouldn't you know it, I left my fly-swatter at home!"

A.P. jumped off Sonic's arm and walked around him on the ground. The bird looked at the badnik while Sonic examined the red scratches on his arm left by the parrot's claws. "You need a manicure," said the hedgehog. "Sorry," the bird replied. "Hold still. I'm gonna try to pull that robot off." A.P. fluttered up and hovered behind Sonic. He pulled the robot's barbs loose one by one with his thick beak, then jerked the badnik loose. "Ow!" Sonic yelped. He spun around. "Can't you be more careful? It felt like you ripped a chunk out of me!" He gingerly felt his back with one hand, but he didn't seem to be bleeding anywhere. A.P. looked sarcastic. "Oh, does that upset you? I AM sorry." Sonic kicked at the robot on the ground. "Let's get outta here," he said to the bird.

They made it back to the road with no opposition. They stood at the fork and looked around. The left fork crossed the canal and entered the city, while the right fork continued alongside the river. "This way," A.P. said confidently. He flew across the canal into the city, and Sonic followed on the causeway.

The buildings were low and flat-roofed with many large windows. Most of them were grown over with vines and climbing flowers. Palmtrees towered over everything in clumps. Their trunks were exactly five feet apart, and their bases were ringed with stones and earth to retain water. The air smelled fresh and clean, and had the scent of growing things.

The roads were paved with hard packed gravel, and edged with the thick grass from the meadow. "The roads are changed every seven years," A.P. explained. "They rope off the area and remove the gravel, then plant grass. At the same time, they take other grassed-over areas and pave them over. Keeps the soil fertile, you know?" "Cool," Sonic replied. "So the roads are different every year?"

"Yep. Cool isn't the word, though. More like, smart."

They made their way through the quiet city, passing from sun to shade and back again. Sonic was amazed at how clean it all was. The only city he was familiar with was Robotropolis, but this was much, much different. Instead of rotten factorys belching out black smoke, there were big solar panels on all the roofs to provide power. Instead of rusty pipes carrying toxic chemicals and leaking at every joint, there were thick, transparent plastic pipes carrying water into the buildings. Instead of half-ruined buildings, the low structures were well kept, and their colors were fresh and clean. There was glass everywhere; all polished and clear, showing the delicate vegetation behind it.

The dominant colors were white, blue and green. Sonic felt as if he'd died and gone to heaven--it was all so beautiful. He almost ran into a wall, he was so busy looking everywhere but ahead. A.P. laughed at him for being so shocked. It was a while before Sonic got tired of looking and started asking questions.

"Where are we going, A.P.?" The green parrot motioned with his head. "You see the tall building with the glass domed roof?"

"The one with solar panels for walls? Yeah."

"That's the capital of Lower Mundane. We're going there to ask about your sister, and those mosquito-bots." They cruised along for a while in silence. Then Sonic said, "Who takes care of this place? I haven't seen anybody." A.P. cocked his green and red head and looked up at the sun. "It's about noon. Everyone would be inside, using the strength of the direct sunlight to power the pumps and take care of the indoor plants. Then later, they come out and take care of outside."

"What kind of people live here?" Sonic asked with interest. "Oh, lots of birds," A.P. relied with a twinkle in his eye. "And then there's the moles and gophers who take care of the underground watermains and structural maintenance. Iguanas, chameleons and a few snakes watch over the palm trees and indoor plants, and the frogs take care of pest control. The river otters take care of everything else that has to do with water."

"Wow," said Sonic. "Do you live here?" A.P. shook his head. "Naw. I live over by the Stardust Speedway."

"What's that?"

"An aerial racetrack. It's pretty neat."

Before Sonic had time for more questions, however, they came to a tall hedge. Or, that's what it looked like at first. It was a fence made of towering shrubs planted every few feet. The green branches were laced together, and the whole thing was over ten feet high. Looking up, Sonic noticed the coiled vine growing through the top of the hedge. It was covered with inch-long thorns. "Natural barbedwire," he commented. "Yep," A.P. confirmed. "Don't touch the hedge--it's a sort of cactus."

The parrot landed on the ground with a flair of his blue tail. He whistled three times, then trilled like a canary. There was an answering call from behind the hedge, and to Sonic's surprise, a huge eagle whooshed over the fence and landed before them. He was black with a white underbelly, and white patches behind his yellow eyes. He was as tall as Sonic. His iron-blue beak was hooked at the end, and very sharp. His legs were thick and scaly, and his feet were armed with long black claws. He folded his wings to his sides and studied them cooly with one eye, then the other.

"I am Fisher the osprey," he said in a low croaking voice. "Greetings, A.P. What brings you here, and who is this with you?" "Hiya," A.P. returned the greeting. "I've got some bad news to tell Thief, and this is Sonic the Hedgehog. His sister was kidnapped and brought here, so he's looking for her." Fisher looked Sonic over from head to toe. Sonic could almost feel the osprey's piercing gaze on him like a hot light. "Very well, you may pass," Fisher said at last. "Come with me, please."

The huge bird turned and walked off along the hedge. Sonic and A.P. followed. "He's big enough to eat you in one bite," Sonic muttered to A.P. "I know," the parrot replied. "Wait 'til you meet Thief; he's big enough to eat YOU in one bite. Ah, these birds of prey! But they have good hearts." "Who's Thief?" Sonic interrupted. "And why is he named that?"

"Thief is a harpy eagle," the parrot answered. "When he was younger he thought it was easier to steal things rather than earn them himself. But he got caught and got in real trouble. So his nickname is Thief. Nobody likes his real name--it's too sinister."

"What is it?"

"Killer."

Sonic felt a shiver run over him. "Boy, I hope he isn't!"

"Oh, he's not," A.P. reassured him. "He's a real nice guy. He runs Lower Mundane, and everybody likes him. He couldn't if he lived up to his name."

Up ahead, Fisher had stopped and was waiting for them. As they reached him, they saw the gap in the hedge. "This way," the osprey said. He stepped through the fence, and Sonic and A.P. followed. As soon as they were through, Fisher turned and laced the gap shut with one tough claw. Sonic felt a little nervous, being locked in like that, but A.P. seemed to be a cool as a cucumber. They waited there until Fisher was done, giving Sonic a chance to look around.

They were standing almost at the foot of the solar paneled building. The roof was a solid glass dome, gleaming in the sun. The structure was about four stories tall--not a skyscraper, but high compared to the low buildings roundabout. The grass was cropped short and a light green color. A gravel path ran around the base of the building. The thorny hedge rand all the way around it, with a tall, spreading oak tree in each corner. There was an osprey in every corner, acting as sentries.

The black and white bird turned back around. "I must remain here. A.P., you can show yourself in, along with your friend. Farewell." The osprey spread his wings and whooshed up into the tree again. "C'mon, Sonic," A.P. said, fluttering up into the air. "Where to?" Sonic asked.

"Over there--see the door?"

The door was set in the wall of the big building between two solar panels. As they walked up, Sonic was aware of a faint humming coming from them. The black surfaces were hot, as well. "Well?" A.P. squawked. "Open the door! I can't while I'm flying." Sonic twisted the doorknob and pushed it open. A.P. flew in, and Sonic followed.

Annoying Parrot landed on the floor. It was made of smooth, cool tile. There was a dim hallway before them with doors set at regular intervals in the walls. "C'mon," A.P. chirped, and walked away down the hall. Sonic followed, dimly aware of the bird's claws clicking on the floor. He read the titles on the doors with interest. 'Power room.' 'pollination' 'Greenhouse.' 'Water.' Well, what did I expect? Sonic thought.

At the end of the hallway was a big freight elevator. It's sliding doors were closed, and there were two control panels on the wall beside it. One of them was three feet up, and the other was below it, next to the floor. A.P. walked to the lower one and pressed a button with his beak. The doors slid open. As they stepped inside, A.P. remarked, "It sure was nice of them to put a panel where us short guys can reach it." The inside of the elevator was about ten by six. The walls were a pale green, and the floor looked like clear water with gravel in the bottom. Sonic stared at it as A.P. pressed another button. The elevator began to move.

The bird noticed Sonic studying the floor. "Whassamatter, never seen artificial water before?"

"No. It's pretty cool."

"Yeah," A.P. sighed. A moment later Sonic said, "Where are we going?"

"Up."

"I know THAT! And you know what I mean."

"We're going to the main greenhouse. That's where Thief hangs out most of the time. That's what the glass bubble is."

"Oh."

The elevator stopped and the doors opened.

They stepped out into a room the size of an auditorium. It was very bright, for the only ceiling was the clear dome. Plants everywhere grew in profusion. Whole trees stuck up in the center of the room, extending toward the glass ceiling. The air was warm and damp, and smelled of moist dirt. "Whew!" said A.P., opening his wings. "It's hot in here. C'mon, let's find Thief."

The floor was covered with gravel, just like outside in the city. It crunched underfoot as they walked. As they drew closer to the big plant grove, they could see thin paths criss-crossed through it. The vegetation was mostly ferns and palm trees. They shaded the paths below them deeply. It was very quiet.

"So, uh, where IS Thief?" Sonic asked uneasily, the stillness getting on his nerves. "I donno," A.P. replied, cocking his head this way and that. "Thief!" he called loudly, his shrill voice piercing the silence. "It's A.P. and a friend! I have some bad news!" Nothing happened. "Maybe he's not here," Sonic muttered, glancing around anyway.

A gust of air hit them, and something big and dark collided with Sonic, knocking him down. It was heavy. Scaly claws bigger than Slasher's closed on his shoulders and it stood there, it's dark feathers and raised wings blocking the light. Sonic found himself staring into an eagle's face. It reminded him of Fisher, only five times bigger. It's eyes were an olive green, and it's cruelly hooked beak was black. A big ruff of blue-grey feathers stood up on it's head and went all the way around it's face. It's mouth turned down on a snarl, and up in a smile. Throatily it chuckled and stepped aside.

Sonic sat up shakily, gasping. The eagle was gigantic! It was almost bigger than Slasher. It's wings were, anyway. Thief's back and wings were a dark brown. The underside of his throat all the way to his tail was creamy white, with dark streaks on his chest. His face was lighter than his dark wings, and his grey and brown crest gave him a fierce look. It went up and down as his moods changed, just like A.P.'s.

"Hello," Thief said. His voice was deep and rasped a little. It matched his gigantic size. A.P. looked like a sparrow beside him. "You didn't have to do that," A.P. said to the eagle. His voice sounded higher than usual. Sonic realized he had been frightened, too. "I know," the eagle replied with a grin. "But I had to introduce myself." He turned his intent gaze on Sonic, who was just climbing to his feet. "And you are?"

"I'm, uh, Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog."

"And what is your business here?"

"Well, my sister Serena was kidnapped and brought here, and I'm looking for her." Sonic had a feeling he needed a pretty good explanation, and was glad he wasn't there on a whim. Thief's crest went up, making him look curious and concerned at the same time. "Who would do such a thing? An inhabitant of Little Planet?"

"Well, no. It was Metal Sonic."

Thief's crest flattened and his eyes narrowed. "The evil robot hedgehog? He is here? Can you confirm this?" Sonic nodded. Something about the harpy eagle's personality made him very serious and respectful, for some reason. "Well, uh, sir (what else could he say?), I saw him and tried to chase him down, but he flew here. By the time I got up here, though, I'd lost him." Thief turned away. He seemed worried. "The metal hedgehog is not in Lower Mundane," he said at last. "I would have gotten word if he was. But he poses a threat to our world, so I will send out the swiftest of the golden eagles to all the major cities on Little Planet to investigate." He turned his green eyes on Sonic once more. "We will find your sister, don't worry."

Thief turned his enormous body to face A.P. "Well A.P., you said you had bad news. What is it?" The parrot seemed intimidated as Sonic was, but to a lesser degree. "Yessir. The reason Sonic is with me is 'cause he rescued me. Metal Sonic had put me inside one of Dr. Robotnik's robots, and Sonic set me free."

"Where was this?" the eagle asked.

"I was put inside the robot at the Factory in Stardust, but Sonic found me in the place the chain first appeared."

"Hmm," said Thief with a sigh. "That IS bad news."

"I have worse news, though."

Thief's crest went up. "Eh? What's that?"

A.P. told of the swarm of robot mosquitos which had seemed to come from the city, and that the canal wasn't flowing. Thief listened intently. There was a moment of silence after the parrot had finished. Then Thief said, "Only Dr. Robotnik would do such a thing. We must put the city on the alert. Come, you two, we must go for a flight." Thief crouched and spread his broad wings, but checked himself. He turned to Sonic. "I'm sorry. I forgot you can't fly. You must ride."

Sonic's eyes widened. "R-ride? Are you sure?" "Yes," the eagle replied. "I am strong. I can carry you." The bird turned his back and crouched. Hesitantly Sonic climbed up the slippery feathers until he was right between Thief's wings. He buried his hands in the thick, warm feathers and grabbed ahold. "All set?" the eagle asked, turning his head to look at Sonic. Sonic nodded. "I think so," he muttered through clenched teeth. Thief turned, spread his wings and jumped into the air.

Riding a bird was different from riding Slasher. He could get a kneehold on that raptor; he couldn't on this one. And as the huge, broad wings beat heavily, lifting them into the air, Sonic got the feeling the bird's whole body was centered and built around the wings. Each beat was sheer power.

The eagle and parrot soared higher and higher, toward the glass dome. Sonic looked up and noticed the tiny hole in the tip top of it. "What's that for?" he asked. "Fresh air," Thief replied. "And the rising warm air creates a decent updraft. That's how we'll be getting out." The huge wings stopped beating, and the harpy eagle circled, rising all the while. Sonic couldn't see A.P., but guessed he must be somewhere below them.

The tiny hole was actually a fifteen foot opening. Thief and A.P. made it out easily.

They were a long ways up. Sonic looked over Thief's wing and saw the whole city spread out below them. It gleamed in the sunlight like a many sided jewel resting in the grass. The blue hedgehog turned his head and looked back. Little Planet spread out below them in blue, green and gold, streaked with rivers and roads, hazy blue with distance. Sonic faced forward again as Thief said, "All right, Sonic, hold on. We will be losing altitude rapidly.

With that, Thief's wings closed and they plummeted from the sky. The drop was so sudden Sonic gasped deeply and felt hid legs and body lift from the eagle's back. His arms were wrenched terribly, and he desperately tightened his grip on his fistfuls of feathers. The building swept past vertically, and the ground raced up madly to meet them. With the fierce wind in his face Sonic couldn't get a good breath and his eyes were streaming. He shut his eyes against it, and to block out the sight of the ground.

There was a whoosh and they weren't going down anymore. Sonic pried his eyes open and looked around. They were flying low over the city. There still weren't any people on the streets, but Thief screamed anyway. His voice was loud and piercing, and each cry seemed to have words in it, through Sonic couldn't understand them. They flew back and forth over the city as Thief warned Lower Mundane of danger. A shadow passed over Sonic's face. He glanced up and saw A.P. flying above him. "Look behind you," the parrot called down. Sonic twisted his head around and looked.

Six eagles were flying behind Thief. They weren't the same kind as he, for they were a golden brown all over and crestless. Their bodies were sleeker and lighter than his, and they were all about two sizes smaller. Their eyes were dark brown. Thief must have called them.

They landed in three gigantic oak trees in the southern end of Lower Mundane. Thief talked to the other eagles in their own language-- it consisted of clicking the beak, ducking and jerking their heads and high-pitched sounds in their feathered throats. After five minutes, the golden eagles flew out of the tree one by one, each heading a different direction. "There," said Thief, turning his head to look at Sonic. "The fastest of the eagles are going to each of the major cities to get any news of the metal hedgehog, and your sister. They will be back within three days. You may stay here, or depart and search on your own. The choice is up to you. Right now I must go to the river otters and see about the canal."

Thief dove out of the tree and let Sonic slide off. He turned and looked into Sonic's eyes. "You have my permission to timecard. All you must do is break the sound barrier. . . . and it would help if you could retrieve the time stones." Sonic met his eyes steadily. "Yes sir, I'll try. And sir--"

"Yes?"

"Do you control time?"

"No," the eagle replied. "Only One controls time, because He invented it and is outside of it. And it will be with His help you locate all the stones." He paused. Then, "Goodbye, my friends!" The eagle sprang into the sky and was gone.

____________________________________________________________________

Chapter 4

Warping--future, past and the Time Rippers ____________________________________________________________________

Sonic and A.P. stood still, staring after the rapidly diminishing bird. Then Sonic looked at A.P. and said, "Well, do we go or stay?" A.P. shrugged his wings. "I don't care. Why don't we stay a wile, then leave? I'd like to look around." "So would I," Sonic agreed.

The two cruised off into the city. Apparently A.P. had lived there once, for he seemed to know a lot about Lower Mundane. The city was generally quiet and peaceful, and every so often an eagle would soar overhead, a dot against the Mobian background. (It still made Sonic dizzy to look up, so he didn't much.) The birds kept a constant watch over the city, and as a result there was no crime.

It was so peaceful, in fact, Sonic started to get bored. His thoughts went back to what Thief had said. Abruptly he interrupted A.P.'s account of how greenhouses worked. "Hey, what'll happen if I timewarp?" A.P. paused and looked at him. "Duh. You'll timewarp.

"I know. I mean, where will I go, and how will I get back to the present?"

"Well," said the bird, "like I said before, you skip through time at random. There's roughly four categories. Future, far future, past, and far past. The timewarp drops you off at anywhere along those points. As for getting back, every other time you warp it brings you back to the present." "Cool," Sonic said eagerly. "And all I have to do is break the sound barrier? Heck, I've done that a million times!"

Sonic broke into a run. "See ya!" he yelled to A.P. "Hey, wait!" the bird called, but Sonic didn't hear him. He raced down one empty street after another, gaining speed with each passing moment. He was approaching the sound barrier when he felt claws dig into his shoulder. It was Annoying Parrot. As Sonic's speed increased, the bird leaned forward and opened his green wings. His streamlined shape seemed to almost increase Sonic's speed by braking the air.

There was the sonic barrier. It pulled at Sonic's legs and chest, trying to slow him down. If he could have seen himself, he would have noticed the blue sparks flying off his body and streaming out behind. It was the prelude to a timewarp. Sonic pushed himself to go faster-- faster. . . .

The warp blazed into effect. The surrounding trees and buildings faded into a yellow negative, then vanished. Sonic felt himself and A.P. being lifted--no, more like propelled--up off the ground and into the blazing air. It wasn't hot at all, but stunningly bright, and he felt the sensation of speed faster than anything he had ever experienced. There was noise, but it wasn't loud enough to hurt. It was as if he could hear the years passing without seeing them. He was aware of A.P.'s claws clenched tightly in his shoulder. Then--

The light faded into buildings, trees and some strange shapes. The light drained away completely, and the world became solid.

There was grass underfoot, but it was dead and brown. Sonic and A.P. hardly noticed it for staring at their surroundings. They were still in Lower Mundane, but what had happened? The transparent pipes were cracked and stained, and the fluid inside them looked like dirty dishwater. The once-beautiful buildings had fallen into disrepair. The climbing vines had died, and most had been torn away. Black blast-points marred the walls with craters, and most of the glass in the windows had been shattered. The elegant palm trees had been sawed down, but a few towered up here and there, sad, grey and dead. The air no longer smelled clean. It was stale and burned the back of the throat. The once carefully maintained roads had been paved with asphalt. They looked worn and dirty. The entire city looked unkempt and ruined.

It was somewhere around sunset, so the light not blocked by the purple haze was dim at best. Sonic and A.P. just stood and stared everywhere the light touched, their mouths hanging open in shock. Neither of them said a word for a long time, but at last A.P. broke the dead stillness. "What--what happened?" he croaked, his crest flattening to his head. Sonic shook his head. "I donno. It looks like Robotropolis; only worse. I don't think Robotropolis has ever looked this bad!"

The air was chilly. The two started walking in sort of a fascinated horror. The mutilated city looked worse the further in they went. Presently Sonic said, "So, is this near-future, or far-future?" "Uh, probably far- future," A.P. replied. "Far is usually 'bout a hundred years, near is usually 'bout ten." They walked in silence a few moments. Then Sonic kicked savagely a a piece of broken pipe and said, "I'll bet Robotnik and Metal Sonic did this. Jerks! So, this is what will happen if I just leave?"

"Or if they kill you," A.P. added. Sonic glanced at him sharply. "Say what?" "If they win," A.P. corrected hurriedly. "Hey, I don't say they _will_, just that they _might_. I mean, look at this place! If it doesn't spell 'takeover,' then sue me." "So," said Sonic, "this is how it will look? Like, I got killed or something. What about 'Rena? What about _you_?" he turned to A.P. The bird ruffled his feathers. "I don;t think I want to know," he said. "Let's hit the warp again."

The city was deserted, so it wasn't very long before they entered the living light of the time warp. It was dazzling after the gloomy bleakness of bad future, and in their eagerness to get back to the present, A.P. and Sonic both leaned into the light, trying to increase their speed all the more. Suddenly the light changed. It went from yellow to blue, yellow to blue, then went all the way blue. "What happened?" Sonic shouted to A.P., aware the words were being ripped from his mouth as he spoke them. He barely caught A.P.'s reply: "I donno!"

And then the light faded into recognizable shapes, draining away to leave the time travellers standing on firm ground in green surroundings.

The sky was clear and sunny, the air fresh and clean. But something was wrong. Instead of Lower Mundane, there was only a grassy meadow with scattered trees adding variety. After gazing around in bewilderment, Sonic looked down at A.P. "Where the heck are we? I thought it would put us back in the present!" "Well," said A.P. slowly, "maybe I was wrong. But I was sure--ah-ha! the light changed colors in the warp, remember?" When it turned blue, we must have bypassed the present!" Sonic looked around again. "So--where are we? The past?"

"That'd be a good guess!"

"But I didn't want to go to the past. We need to get back to the present--or future from here--and warn Thief! I don;t want Lower Mundane to look like that."

A.P. cocked his head and focused one black eye on Sonic thoughtfully. "Neither do I," he muttered. Suddenly he burst into a squawking laugh that made Sonic jump. "Ra ra ra rack! The past is where we want to be! Remember when I told you Evil planted a badnik maker in the past? If we could find it and blow it up, then this branch of his army will be wiped out, and ten to one he won't be able to take over Lower Mundane!" "Hey, good idea!" Sonic exclaimed. "Why didn't I think of it?" "Because it was a good idea," the bird replied mischievously.

The two of them set off at an even pace across the meadow. The grass was short, thin and easy to walk in. Sonic was observing this as A.P. said, "Now, a badnik maker would be in a safe place to keep it from getting hurt--" "Naw," Sonic interrupted, "not if I know Robotnik. It would be right smack in the middle of the city. And that would be. . . where would that be?"

A.P. shot up into the sky, wings a flurry of green mist. Sonic shaded his eyes with one hand, tilting his head back to watch the parrot. He noticed Mobius through the mist of Little Planet's atmosphere, but it didn't make him dizzy at all. Maybe he had finally adjusted to Little Planet's gravity field.

A.P. interrupted his thoughts by calling, "The middle of the city is right over there--in that clump of trees." The bird dove from the sky and landed on Sonic's shoulder. "The river only flows one direction," he said matter-of-factly. "So sometime between now and the future, somebody dug another channel." "Cool," said Sonic, without really caring. He started moving in the direction of the trees A.P. had indicated.

The bird was thinking aloud, speaking softly inside his beak. "If the canal hasn't been dug yet, we must be in the far-past. The canal's been there hundreds of years, so we must be way way back." He cocked his bright head and looked up at Mobius. "Our warp must have effected only Little Planet. Mobius is still the same. Bizarre. I haven't warped in a while--haven't been to Stardust. Usually the warp effects everything, though, so--" "So something's wrong?" Sonic finished. "Yeah," A.P. replied. "Something's amiss with the time stones, I'm afraid."

By this time they had reached the grove of trees. Sonic made his way through, looking around sharply for any sign of trouble. It was quiet--too quiet. "No birds," A.P. muttered uneasily. "Not a good sign. Something's up." Suddenly his small body stiffened and his claws clenched into Sonic's shoulder. Sonic gasped and grabbed at the bird's feet. As he pulled out A.P.'s claws, the bird whispered, "Metal Sonic! Over there!" Sonic's head snapped up. "Where?"

"There! See him?"

Sonic's probing eyes spotted the blue robot, and he froze, as well. What was Mecha doing here? Had he seen them?

Then Sonic relaxed and sighed, the cold sweat of relief breaking out all over him. "It's a hologram," he breathed to A.P. "Oh," the bird said. "Whew!" Sonic walked up to the hologram. Lifesized, it depicted Metal Sonic, red eyes alight, torturing a little squirrel. "Why you--!" Sonic growled. He noticed the projector on the ground next to the picture. Unceremoniously he stepped on it, crushing it like an aluminum can. It sparked a little as the hologram disappeared.

Sonic turned a little, dropping his shoulder. A.P. slid off with a flutter of wings and landed on the ground. "Hey!" he squawked indignantly. "Whadja do that for?" "You can walk from now on," Sonic told him, rubbing his shoulder. "You about sent me through a warp of my own, grabbing me like that." "Oh," the bird chuckled sheepishly. "Sorry."

The sullen quiet under the trees was broken by a bird's chirp overhead. It was answered by a trill a little further off. Then, as if it had been a signal, the trees were filled with a rush of birdsong. The two of them stood there and listened. "Whaddya know about that," Sonic said softly. "It's like this hologram kept 'em all scared." "Betcha my life it did," A.P. commented.

At that moment there was a whoosh of air from somewhere behind them, followed by a sound like a prolonged laser blast. Startled, A.P. took off and landed in a tree a few feet away from Sonic. "Danger!" he squawked. Sonic didn't seem to hear him. A grin was spreading slowly across his face. "Well, I'll be," he began. He looked up at A.P. and said, "That's not danger. That's the sound of a time rip forming!" He turned, scanning all around. "It sounds close," he muttered, then took off running. A.P. followed him, calling, "Not so fast! Slow down! You might hit the rip and fall in!" But Sonic didn't care. That sound was was one he associated with excitement, adventure and new friends.

A moment later he slid to a stop before a large rock. The sound was loud there, and his eyes could just make out a dim blue thread running down the rock's surface. He stood before it, feet planted wide apart, hands at his sides, eyes alight with excitement. He hadn't long to wait. A few seconds later the blue thread widened and spread into a blue glowing rift across the surface of the stone. A blast of cool air hit him, nearly knocking him over, but he stood his ground and stared into the time rip.

The figure appeared so unexpectedly Sonic jumped. It leaped out of the rift and landed on it's feet. The rift closed behind it, and it stood there, half crouched, eyes on the tiny screen strapped to it's wrist. He was dark red all over, an echidna like Knuckles. His hair was shorter than Knux's, and looked more like spines. He was short and lightly built. His hands were smallish, too, although they bore knuckle spikes. He wore tennis shoes that looked a little too big, and a belt around his waist studded with strange contraptions. An imposing gun hung at his hip, and he had odd things lashed to both arms. He was looking at one of these things now, a little computer screen.

As Sonic watched, the newcomer pressed several buttons on the computer, then looked up. He almost jumped out of his skin when he saw Sonic standing there. "Hey!" he yelped. "Who are--" Sonic interrupted him with, "You always told me never to interrupt a Time Ripper while they check their coordinence." The echidna stared at him, then a smile broke across his face. "Sonic! Sonic the Hedgehog! How are you, you ol' arsonist?" He stepped forward and wrung Sonic's hand.

"I'm fine, Jay. Man, you've grown. What are you doing here?"

"Trying to find the time stones. That the reason you're here?"

"Well, partly. Remember Metal Sonic?"

Jay frowned. "Yeah."

"He kidnapped my sister."

The echidna looked shocked. "Oh, I--I'm sorry. Um, so, the missing stones are the least of your worries, eh?"

"Well, sorta."

At that moment A.P. winged his way over. He started to land on Sonic's shoulder, but checked himself and dropped to the ground. Sonic started to introduce the two, but Jay interrupted with, "Hi there, A.P.! Don't tell me you're hanging out with this loser." He winked at Sonic. A.P. replied, "All right then, I won't tell you."

"Wait a minute," Sonic broke in. "You two know each other?"

"Sure," the parrot shrugged. "Everyone on Little Planet knows the Time Rippers. Actually, I should ask you the same thing--you two know each other?" Jay slapped Sonic on the back, nearly knocking him down. "`Course we know each other! I came barging into Sonic's life 'bout two months ago, took him back with me to my home time. Helped me, my brother and my dad save Little Planet and Floating Island. Didn't expect to see him again, though. How're you and Spike gettin' along?" This last was addressed to Sonic. The blue hedgehog shrugged. "Okay, I guess. We haven't killed each other yet, if that's what you mean."

"Uh-huh. And how's Knux?"

"Oh, he's fine. He's out on the Floating Island right now. Still recovering from our adventure last winter, I think. Say, are you sure you're related to him?"

"Sure enough. Direct family line through my brother. Robin, I think, is about ready to call it quits with the Time Rippers. He wants to be made Guardian of Floating Island.

"How do you know Knux is?"

Jay pointed to his chest. The small white crescent was plainly visible there. "Every echidna of our family line has this mark, and Knux has it."

"Don't it mess with your mind to see what your family will be like three and a half millennium into the future?"

Jay shrugged. "Sometimes. That's why we always try to avoid our family clan outside our time. Keeps us from losing it, ya know?"

Jay drew a deep breath and looked around the quiet terrain. Abruptly his gaze returned to A.P. and Sonic. "Hey, aren't you guys about two centuries off? This isn't the time I left you in, Sonic." A.P. hopped forward. "We warped on our own, hoping to save Lower Mundane." Jay searched their faces, alarmed. "Lower Mundane? Why? What's wrong?"

The two informed him of what they had seen on their first time warp. Jay looked troubled when they finished. "Ain't a good sign, it ain't," he muttered. Then he said, "That would only happen if Robotnik and Metal Sonic had total and complete victory. Not only would you have to be out of the way, but the Time Rippers, the Freedom Fighters, the Nomads, the Wolf Packs. . .everybody." He paused. "Got any ideas as to how he's gonna try it?"

"Only what we already know," A.P. replied. The bird told the young echidna about the badnik generators and what they were doing. Jay looked interested. He kept quiet, however, until the parrot had finished speaking. Then he said, "Haven't found anything made by Robotnik here, have you?"

"Well, yeah," Sonic told him. "A projector with a hologram of Metal Sonic. Why?"

"Really?" Jay perked up. "Show me."

Sonic turned and began to walk in the direction of the off-line projector. A.P. fluttered up on Jay's shoulder and perched there precariously as the echidna followed Sonic. After a moment or two, the three of them arrived at the little machine. Sonic pointed to it and said, "I busted it." "Hmm, no kidding," Jay muttered. "Get off, A.P." The bird hopped off, and the echidna hunkered down to get a closer look at the projector. After a moment he said, "Ah-ha. Just like I thought. Dr. Robotnik was afraid he wouldn't be able to find the generator after he left, so he put a marker on this one. Look." Sonic bent down and noticed for the first time the little arrow painted on top of the projector. Jay sighted along it. "I don't see no generator. Sonic, walk in a straight line away from us. See if you can spot anything." Obediently Sonic trotted away. After a few steps he turned and walked backward, trying to move in an exactly straight line.

He got about thirty feet away from his friends before anything happened. His back hit something solid. He stopped and turned, but--there wasn't anything there. His outstretched hands could feel what he took to be rough metal, but he could see nothing but the grass. "Hey guys," he called, "there's somethin' cloaked right here." His friends hurried over. They eagerly felt around and touched the cold metal surface. Jay rapped his knuckles on it. It sounded like he was knocking on a propane cannister. "It's gotta be it," Sonic murmured. "Stand back, guys. I'm gonna try and bust it." Jay and A.P. moved away, and A.P. called, "Be careful, Sonic. It might explode or something."

Sonic went into a spin and crashed into the invisible metal thing, then ran his hand over the cold surface. It was dented. Encouraged, he hit it again, then again. He hit it five times before anything happened. He felt a leak of ice-cold air in his hands when he touched the thing again, and could smell something like sulfur. "Gas leak," he announced to his friends. "This is a fuel container of some sort. I dare ya to light a match over here." "I'll take that dare," Jay said confidently. "Why don't you take cover?" With a smile he held up one arm, his small wrist-mounted laser pointed in the direction of the invisible machine.

A.P. and Sonic looked at each other, then took off toward the trees. The green parrot landed in a tree about thirty yards away from Jay, and Sonic ducked behind the tree's trunk. Then they both peered out toward the daring Time Ripper.

Jay had also taken cover behind a large rock. He aimed his laser at where he knew the machine to be and fired.

The thing exploded on impact. A mushroom of orange and yellow flame burst out and rolled upward, surrounded by black smoke. It had indeed been a fuel cannister, and had been more than half full. It's cloaking device ruined, it sparked into view, now not much more than a blackened metal shell. It had pipes leading from it into something else, though; they faded into thin air, apparently hooked to something else that was cloaked. Jay fired a few more shots, ducking behind the boulder each time. On his third try he nailed the thing squarely. It blew up, too, but not as well as the fuel cannister. It's metal parts went flying, then fluttered to the ground as burned, twisted pieces of aluminum.

The two fires died down after five or six minutes. Sonic and A.P. carefully came out of hiding, looking around warily. Jay stood up, watching the smoking machines. He turned and beckoned to Sonic and A.P., and they joined him. "Robin would say that was very irresponsible," he muttered, then aloud, "There. Something just went drastically wrong in the future, and Robotnik lost the battle. C'mon, you two civilians. I'll take you back to the present."

The red echidna pulled the gun from it's holster at his hip and held it up. It didn't look like a blaster at all--Sonic realized it was a time gun. It worked on the same principles as a laser pistol, but was capable of generating rips and tears in the spacetime continuum. They worked especially well on Little Planet. "So, Jay," Sonic commented, "your dad lets you carry your own time gun, now?" "Yeah," Jay replied, pleased he had noticed. "Dad said that because I showed such responsibility with it when I brought you, he let me keep it."

Jay pulled back the power lever on the gun and waited for it to recharge. It had to charge completely before it could successfully rip time. The meter on it had only reached one-third charged when Jay's wrist computer beeped. Jay pressed a button, looked into the tiny monitor and said, "Hiya, Robin. What's up?"

"Hello, Jay." Sonic recognized the voice of Jay's older brother. Robin continued. "I'm in Amusement Central in the year 4157. It's a mess! Dr. Robotnik calls it 'Collision Chaos' now. It fits. Where are you? My monitor can't get a complete lock on your equipment."

"I'm in the year 3001. Sonic and A.P. are here, too."

"We're separated by a millennium, then. Hey, did you say 'Sonic?' The blue hedgehog we kidnapped a while back?"

"Yep."

"Cool! Tell him 'hi' for me, okay?"

"Sure, Rob. Hey, Metal Sonic kidnapped Sonic's sister for real. Her name's Serena. Can you keep an eye out for her?"

"Sure thing. Found any time stones?"

"Nope."

"Neither have I. Keep ya posted, though. Look, I gotta go. See ya in time, 'kay?"

"`Kay," Jay replied.

Jay clicked off his little computer and smiled at Sonic and A.P. "Robin says hi." He checked his time gun again, and finding it charged, fired it at a nearby boulder. A blue stripe appeared on the rock's surface, then widened into a ragged opening. A.P. jumped on Jay's shoulder, Sonic took the echidna's hand, then the three ran forward and leaped into the rip.

It was just like Sonic remembered. The sparkling, indigo light and the odd sensation of flying blind. He could see nothing but the blue expanse, but he knew Jay was just to his right because of their locked hands. Time ripping was different from time warping. It affected the senses differently, and only a Time Ripper could navigate it.

It was only a few seconds before he felt Jay pull him sideways and down. The light changed from blue to while, then yellow. Sonic's eyes made out the bright patch he knew to be their exit-rip. An instant later he was stumbling through it.

The sunlight blinded him momentarily, but he was aware of gravel crunching beneath his feet. He drew a deep breath and recognized the cool, fresh scent of Lower Mundane. He shaded his eyes. Slowly they adjusted, and the low, white buildings took shape. "Back in the present," he heard A.P. sigh, relief evident in his voice. The bird was half-blind as well. He tumbled from Jay's shoulder and shook his little head. "I'll go tell Thief what we've learned," he volunteered, opening his pointed wings. "Go ahead," Jay told him. The bird fluttered away into the sky.

The echidna turned to the hedgehog. "I think Thief already knows. He always knows, somehow. Oh well, let A.P. tell him."

"What's Amusement Central?" Sonic asked curiously. "Is it far from here?"

Jay looked at him. "Well, it wouldn't seem very far to you. About eight miles. In the mountains."

"What is it?" Sonic queried again.

"Oh, it's like the Carnival on the Floating Island. Bumpers, rides, flippers, drop-offs, etc-cetera. You know. Typical stuff. It's pretty popular around here. It's also right in the way of Robotnik's attack on the Sunken City. The road runs right through it, so--"

"A sunken city?" Sonic interrupted. "Cool!"

"Well, maybe if you're a fish," Jay replied drily. "Anyway, Robotnik has to take it over or wipe it out if he wants the road. So, apparently, he tried to. If I were you, I'd make that my next stop."

"I'll think about it," Sonic said with a wink.

_____________________________________________________________________

Chapter 5

The prisoner's experiences

_____________________________________________________________________

Serena was not enjoying herself. Metal Sonic hadn't said a word to her the whole trip to Little Planet. His red eyes were fixed stonily ahead, and his cold, metal arms encircled her chest uncomfortably tight. The robot's engines whirred quietly and steadily. Serena thought of how long Roter has worked over them, trying to get them to work again. But Mecha had turned on the Freedom Fighters and fled back to Robotnik. And now, here she was again, in the clutches of the one she feared most.

Being a robot, Metal Sonic was not effected physically by entering Little Planet's gravity field. To adjust, all he did was turn his metal body so the surface of Little Planet was 'down,' and he landed fine. It was sickening to Serena, however. As her kidnapper turned the blood rushed to her head and her insides mixed together like a shaken soda pop. When Mecha set her on her feet and released her, she sank to the ground, sick and dizzy. She lay still for a while with her eyes shut until the throbbing in her head subsided and her insides had calmed down.

The violet hedgehog opened her eyes and looked up at the robot, realizing for the first time he had let her go. Metal Sonic was standing stock still, legs planted wide apart, hands clenched at his sides. A red light was blinking on and off inside his head, reflecting through his tinted glass eyes. He was receiving a transmission. Serena turned her head and looked around. It was the same place her older brother would stand in another forty-five minutes; the cement area around the foot of the chain. It all looked boring and dead, and she let her gaze wander upward.

A complete map of Mobius spread out before her. Sickened, she lay back again and closed her eyes, not wanting to throw up. She didn't move until she felt Mecha's hard, chilly hand grasp her wrist. He pulled her to her feet and said abruptly, "Dr. Robotnik desires to see you. Come." He used the fewest words possible to get the point across, as if it disgusted him to speak to her. He wrapped his metal arms around her again, lifted her off her feet and began to fly once more.

"Where are we going?" she asked him. He didn't answer her. Figuring he would avoid speaking to her at all costs, she fixed her attention ahead. She would eventually find out, anyway.

The robot's speed was increasing. His engines whined to a higher and higher pitch the faster he went. Serena had developed a speedometer in her head long ago, back when Sonic had showed her how to run. She watched the ground fly by beneath her dangling feet, her head gauging their speed. One hundred, one-fifty, two hundred, two fifty, three hundred-- The wind in her face was becoming unbearable. Her eyes were streaming, her breath blown from her lungs. The countdown continued as Mecha's engines rose to a scream. Five hundred, five-fifty, six hundred-- The aerodynamic drag hit them, slowing them down. Serena was paralyzed, unable to breathe. She would be unconscious in a moment.

The sound barrier broke, and a thunderous sonic boom rippled across the landscape. But instead of their speed increasing as it usually would, they simply shot straight up into the sky. Bright yellow light surrounded them, brighter than the sun. Serena's lungs filled with air and her vision cleared. The air wasn't tearing at her body anymore--the wind had stopped. She lifted her head. Her eyes were dazzled by the brilliance, but not blinded. "What the heck is this?" she yelled, but her words were torn from her lips as she spoke them. Metal Sonic didn't answer. Is this the Void? she thought, alarmed. Sonic had told her about it. It was a void, though--nothing--while this was all light.

The color of the light changed to a deep orange. Metal Sonic abruptly dropped downward. They seemed to be falling out of the light. It was draining away. Serena's eyes made out darker shapes. They solidified more and more; then all the light vanished and the world was real.

They were standing in what had once been an amusement park. There were rides and attractions built all around, but all of them were still and silent. There were a few battered lights that still worked, but that seemed to be all. The ground was carpeted with a thin layer of dead grass, and the ground was bare in spots. The sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. A slight breeze blew. It was hot and dry and hard to breathe. A few dark clouds floated against the Mobian background, but 'Rena was careful not to look up.

Metal Sonic continued to carry her as he walked swiftly through the dead park. Serena kept looking around. There were all sorts of buildings with strange shapes, built exclusively for fun. Their brightly colored paint was chipped and faded, as if no one had used them or cared for a long time. The entire place had an air of sadness about it.

Mecha stopped, and Serena saw they were standing before a large building. Barbed-wire fences connected to it's walls on either side and stretched in opposite directions, enclosing what was left of the park. The building looked run down as well, but there were lights in some of the windows.

The robot strode forward, toward a door. Serena thought it was a wall at first--it was a slab of unpainted metal. Mecha seemed to know all about it, though. He pulled open a panel on the wall next to it, revealing a keypad. He punched in a code and the door slowly slid up into the ceiling. The robot walked into the dark interior beyond, taking his fearful and unwilling prisoner with him.

* * *

Robotnik's swivel chair was facing away from the office door, but he heard when it opened. "Who is it?" he said gruffly. "Metal Sonic," came the reply. The doctor swung his chair around slowly. Metal Sonic was standing there ominously, Serena held firmly against his metal side. She looked scared, but returned his steady gaze calmly.

"Well, young hedgehog, we meet again at last," Robotnik said, his voice holding pleasure. Serena simply glared at him and didn't answer. Robotnik noticed this, but he didn't care. "Your name is Serena Hedgehog, is it not? And you are indeed Sonic's sister?"

"So what if I am?" she snapped. "You couldn't care less."

"True," Robotnik answered, pressing his fingertips together. Serena's eyes rested a moment on his robotized left hand and arm. Robotnik saw and extended his hand toward her. "Would you like your hands to look like this, my dear?"

Her lips parted in a sneer. "Go ahead and try, jerk. Sonic'll save me before you can get your fat behind out of that chair."

Robotnik made no reply, but Metal Sonic struck her sharply across the mouth, then threw her to the floor. "Impudent rodent," Mecha snapped, using his master's pet name for Sonic. He pulled her to her feet and twisted her arms up behind her back in a painful position. She held still, her flaming gaze locked on Robotnik. He studied her through half-closed eyes, one hand twisting and untwisting the end of his gigantic red mustache. After a moment of cool consideration, he said, "Do you know where you are, Ser-e-na?" The way he spoke her name infuriated her, and it was only the condition of her arms that held her tongue in check. "No," she managed to say.

"You are in the year forty fifty-seven. The future." Robotnik spoke with slow deliberation. "Little Planet and Mobius have fallen under my rule."

"Oh yeah?" Serena interrupted. "Then do you have the power stones?"

Ivo glared at her. "No, in fact I don't. I have all the time stones, if that is what you mean. Or do you happen to know where the chaos and super emeralds are?"

Serena said nothing.

"I thought so," Robotnik said with conviction. "Your cursed brother must have them. Well, young Ser-e-na, do you wish to see his future?"

She shook her head.

"Ah! I thought you would. Bring her, Mecha."

Robotnik rose to his feet and walked out the door. Metal Sonic followed, half-dragging Serena. She struggled half-heartedly, knowing full well Mecha was in control of her. She wondered what Robotnik had done to Sonic. Killed him? Robotized him? Probably the latter; Robotnik had no greater joy than making an enemy a slave. Especially a mindless slave.

The doctor led the way down the hall, down some steps, through a door and outside. As Mecha brought her out, Serena guessed they must be on the far side of the big building. There were wrecked machines everywhere, and tall brown grass had grown up around them. Robotnik lead them through the junkyard to what looked like a mine entrance in the side of a low hill. Serena's ears caught the sounds of engines running and other things down there; it was obviously a working mine. Robotnik pulled out what looked like a complicated remote control and pressed one of it's buttons. Then he put it away and leered at Serena. "This is the future of your brother," he chuckled throatily.

After a few moments they heard footsteps coming up the mine shaft. Serena braced herself and thought, "It's not going to be real. It hasn't really happened ..." And then her thoughts stopped completely in shock.

She had been mentally prepared to see a metal, robotized Sonic, so what stood there stunned her. It was Sonic, standing there in the fading light. He didn't have a metal plate on him anywhere; he looked completely normal. Except--something had changed. His eyes were vacant, and his face was pale and haggard. His hands hung limply at his sides, and he didn't stand all the way up. He looked old and tired. "Sonic," Serena whispered. He turned his empty gaze on her, showing no recognition whatsoever.

In horrified fury she turned on Robotnik. "What did you do to him?" she nearly screamed. Robotnik laughed at her, then replied, "I used the brain-washing techniques of the robotizer on him. I enslaved him, but left his body unchanged. And now--heh heh--he is mine. And you soon will be, as well. Mecha, take her to the prisons." The robot turned to go, then stopped and turned back. "Sir, the prisons are full."

"Blast," said Robotnik, snapping his fingers. "I forgot. Well then, take her to the Pen. Nothing can escape that."

* * *

The Pen was a big hole in the ground with an eight-foot barbed-wire fence built around the edges. Mecha shoved his prisoner through the gate. She dropped straight down into the hole and landed with a thump. As she picked herself up, she heard Metal Sonic say nastily, "You will be robotized and join S--Son--your brother in the mine. And finally, I will be Sonic!" He did a fair impression of Robotnik's evil laugh as he walked away.

Serena stared up at the gate helplessly. It was much too far to jump, and hole was shaped like an hourglass--wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. Spindashing was impossible. Suddenly despairing, she sat down with her back to the wall. Maybe Metal Sonic was right. Maybe this was the real future. Sonic had been brainwashed! It wrenched her heart to think of him like that. Involuntarily a sob broke from her lips. She buried her face in her arms and cried, brokenly murmuring Sonic's name over and over.

But after a while her sobs subsided, and her mind felt clear again. For some reason a thought popped into her head. What would Slasher do? Knowing Slasher as she did (almost as well as Sonic), the answer was obvious. Pray. Serena bowed her head and began uncertainly. "Uh, God, I'm not really used to praying, but if you're listening, I would really like it if you could get me out of here." She opened her eyes and looked around, half expecting a lightning bolt to strike the fence and form a ladder. But nothing spectacular happened. Rather, the change was inside of her; a growing peace. Somehow, she could feel that God had acknowledged her prayer and would answer.

A song started going around in her head. It startled her, for she hadn't heard it or thought about it for years. But, like things of that nature, she could remember every word. At first she just sat and listened to it in her head, then hummed it softly. And then, figuring it wouldn't hurt anything, she began to sing it aloud.

"Waiting to be found--waiting to be found. Well the sun climbs high, and the sun goes down, on people waiting to be found--" She sang that part again, then added some more. "Waiting to be found--behind the laughter-painted eyes-- waiting to be found--deep in the shadows where we hide--well the sun climbs high, and the sun goes down, on people waiting to be found ..."

Suddenly she jumped and stopped singing. Another voice had joined hers and was singing an addition to the chorus: "People lookin' high and low for the One who is closer than they know..." The voice added softly, "Keep singing so I can find you." Serena joyfully leaped to her feet and obeyed. She stopped as the figure appeared at the fence above her.

She had never met Jay, or she would have seen the resemblance immediately. He was a tall, gangly echidna. He had the same spiked haircut as Jay, but about three times as much gear. He wore a purple headband, and his hair hung over it a little in front. He looked like the mildest, most serious kid you'd ever want to meet. "Hi," he said, looking down at her. "Hi," she replied. "Can you get me out?"

"It's polite to have introductions first," he said mildly. "My name is Robin, and I'm a Time Ripper."

Embarrassed, Serena replied, "I'm Serena, Sonic's sister. I've been kidnapped."

Robin nodded. "Yeah, Jay told me." He turned and walked to the gate. He fooled with the padlock as he told her, "Jay met up with Sonic, and that's how he found out you were in trouble. Things are happening in the past that'll change this future around."

The echidna pressed a thing on his wrist against the face of the lock. There was a faint buzz and the padlock snapped open. Robin swung the gate open, climbed up on the inside, closed the gate and relocked the padlock from the inside. Then he jumped down beside the curious Serena. He was a head and a half taller than her. She stared at his arms. They were covered with gismos and gadgets from shoulder to wrist. He wore a tiny screen around his neck, and his belt (which was almost identical to Jay's) was weighted down with nameless equipment. His time gun hung at his hip, fully charged. "The computer wears tennis shoes," he told her with a smile. "When me and Jay go 'ripping by ourselves, I'm the base unit. Mom and Dad thought we could try it by ourselves this time."

He motioned to Serena to stand back. He drew his time gun and fired it at the wall of the hole. A small blue thread appeared in the wall, even though Serena had seen nothing come out of the gun's barrel. The thread widened into a blue crack. The expanse beyond it was a deep blue and seemed full of stars. "Take my hand," Robin instructed, "and no matter what happens don't let go. Okay?" Serena grabbed his hand, her heart beginning to pound. Robin looked toward the glowing rip. "Let's go," he said softly. The two of them ran forward and leaped through the rift.

It was just like Sonic's experience had been. She could see nothing but the deep blue expanse, hear nothing but the rushing in her ears, feel nothing but Robin's grip on her hand. Terrified, she gripped his hand as hard as she could.

After a moment in time, she felt her escort pull her downward. Automatically she looked down, noticing a break in the endless blue. It was a white rent, and looked like daylight. In a second she was stumbling through it, aware Robin had let her go. She stood still, blinking and looking around, as the Time Ripper beside her adjusted his instruments.

They were in Collision Chaos again, but this time in the present. It looked like Amusement Central now. It was packed with all sorts of people (mostly kids), who were running from ride to ride, buying stuff to eat and drink, or simply having fun. The air was alive with the sound of many high-pitched voices and loud music, and permeated with the smell of popcorn and hotdogs. The two time travellers were standing behind a row of brightly painted booths with a high chain-link fence to their backs.

"Whew," Serena breathed. "I never thought it was such a cool place." Robin, finished with his instruments, grinned at her. "Yeah? Well, we'll have to come back another time. Right now you need to go down the road a few miles. I need you to take this time stone down to Lower Mundane for me. I've gotta head over to Stardust." The echidna turned to the fence, climbed it without a thought and vaulted over. Serena followed suit, mildly surprised at his agility.

Robin led her away from the fairgrounds and to a neat gravel road. "All you have to do is follow this road until it enters the city," he told her. "It's safe. Nobody will hurt you. Here--" He opened a small bag that hung on his belt and pulled out a small cloth-wrapped object. "--This is the time stone for that city. It must be returned, or Robotnik will have the upper hand." She took it from him and held it, feeling it's warmth. "Who do I give it to?" she asked.

"An eagle named Thief," he replied with a smile. "He is the overseer of Lower Mundane, and--"

He was interrupted by a short eagle cry from overhead. They both looked up in time to see the bird fold his wings and fall from the sky. At the last second he opened them and landed beside the two. "Hello," he chirped. "My name is Windspeed, and I am from Lower Mundane. Greetings, Robin." The golden eagle was only as tall as Robin, and was still rather young--his dark adult plumage hadn't grown in all the way yet. His eyes were bright with an enthusiasm for life.

"Hi, Windspeed," the echidna replied. "What brings you out this far?"

The bird cocked his head toward Serena. "Her, as a matter of fact. Sonic, her brother I guess, showed up at the solar dome and told Thief about her. Thief sent out six eagles to all the cities to look for her. I'm one of them," the eagle concluded.

Serena stared at the bird in awe. "Really? He did that for me?"

Windspeed fixed his bright eyes on her. "Sure. Why not? I must take you to the city; Sonic was there when I left this morning."

Serena looked at Robin, who shrugged. "I guess this means you don't have to go on foot. Windspeed, can you carry her?"

The young eagle looked her over. "Certainly. She is not very big. I can bear her as easily as one of my own feathers, I'd warrant."

Serena looked up at the bird uncertainly. "You mean I have to ride you?" she queried. The bird bobbed his head. "Of course," he chirped. "You didn't think we were going to walk, did you?"

* * *

The ground fell away in a dizzying spiral. Windspeed's wings pumped up and down, lifting them into the sky. Serena gripped the bird's body with her knees and clenched her fists deep in the warm brown feathers. She could feel the eagle's breath expanding and contracting the light body beneath her as Windspeed 'mounted up with wings as eagles.'

Then they were flying down the valley, headed toward the small city in the distance. The green countryside spread out below, marked only by the grey strip of road that cut a straight line across the plain. Serena lifted her head, enjoying the free, cool breeze in her face and the powerful muscles surging beneath her.

* * *

"I'm sorry, young Serena, but Sonic left thirty minutes ago."

"Oh," Serena replied, crestfallen. She studied the ground intently as the towering harpy eagle said, "He and a parrot called A.P. went to Amusement Central."

She looked up into the long, sharp face and said, "I just came from there. I have to go back?"

She sighed as Thief replied, "Yes. Windspeed, would you mind taking her back?"

The young golden eagle shook his head jerkily. "Naw. I kinda like her, and she enjoys flying."

"Oh, that reminds me," Serena said. She dug into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out the cloth-wrapped object. "One of the Time Rippers--his name was Robin--gave this to me and said I should give it to you." She opened the cloth cover, allowing the glowing gold color of the time stone to show through. Thief reached forward with one of his huge feet and took it from her. "Thank you, young one," the bird said, his crest flared high in pleasure. "Thanks to you and the efforts of Robin, Lower Mundane is safe once again." The huge, dark bird spread his gigantic wings and leaped into the air, his claw still curled around the stone.

Serena sighed as she watched him fly toward the Solar Dome. "Missed Sonic by that much. Well Windspeed, I guess we'd better--Windspeed? What are you doing?"

The young bird had ruffled all the short feathers on his head and neck, trying in a vain attempt to make a crest. "How do I look?" he asked proudly. Serena covered her mouth with both hands and giggled. "You look funny," she tittered. The eagle sighed in disappointment, and his feathers flattened. "I wish I had a crest like Thief's," Windspeed said glumly. "It would be neat to be a harpy eagle.

"What's wrong with being a golden eagle?" Serena asked.

The bird cocked his head to one side as if thinking. "Nothing, really," he replied after a moment. "But sometimes I just want to be big and strong, like Thief is."

"You're already big and strong," Serena said, walking to the bird and stroking the soft feathers on his breast.

A few minutes later they were in the air, soaring back toward Amusement Central. The two talked about this and that, becoming fast friends. Windspeed told her that he had seen Sonic, and that he had been afraid of Thief. "No kidding," Serena replied, thinking secretly that she didn't blame him. "Well," she said, changing the subject, "Do you think I'll find Sonic in Amusement Central?"

The bird put his head to one side. "I donno," he replied. "If he's looking for the time stones, he'll be there, but at any point in time. You know, you'd have a better chance of finding him if you looked for the stones, too. That way, with you, Sonic and the Time Rippers looking for them all at once, it won't take long to find them at all--and Robotnik won't be able to get his hands on them."

They flew in silence for a while. Amusement Central had just come into sight when the young eagle said, "Hold it. What are those?"

"What?" Serena replied. She pushed herself up and looked around. Just outside of the park, but coming closer, was a swarm of robots. They weren't the mosquitos Sonic had encountered. These were a different sort of robot bug. They appeared to have seen the approaching eagle, for they were rising into the air to meet them.

"Wasps," Serena muttered.

"What?" Windspeed asked, Turning his head to look at her.

"Wasps," Serena said again. "Robot wasps. Sonic showed me one a long time ago. They can fly really fast. Windspeed, I think you had better turn around."

"No way!" Windspeed chirped. "I wanna see 'em. Besides, no robot can out-fly an eagle."

They kept going. Serena pressed herself against the bird's back, wondering how long it would be before the robots got a lock and started firing. It wasn't long. Windspeed dodged several feet to the right, and a laser flashed past them. "Okay, I saw 'em," Windspeed commented. "Hang on. I'm gettin' us outta here!"

The golden eagle folded his wings and dropped like a stone. Serena held on for dear life as Windspeed dove downward determinedly, getting below the robots. They were only thirty feet above the ground when Windspeed leveled out and began to fly as hard as he could. Serena tossed a glance over her shoulder in time to see the shimmering curtain of robots roll and dip, pursuing them.

"Must go faster," she murmured into Windspeed's neck feathers. "Must go faster. They're catchin' us!"

The eagle glanced back. "Forty feet," he grunted. "Keep an eye on 'em. Tell me if they're gaining."

Serena twisted her head around to look at the badniks. They were gaining an inch at a time. "Thirty-five feet," she said. "Can't you go faster? Another five feet and we'll be in blaster range!" In response, the eagle's wings began to beat even faster, driving them on.

Serena looked back again. The robots had fallen behind a bit, but now the foremost ones were firing. The distance reduced their accuracy, so the red shots went wide.

Then the young bird's wings missed a beat, faltered, slowed. "What are you doing?" Serena nearly screamed. Windspeed looked back at her. "Tired," he said simply. His hooked beak was open, panting rapidly. With a pang Serena realized he simply wasn't strong enough to carry her and fly swiftly at the same time. Fearfully she looked back. The wasps were closing the gap rapidly now, their lasers charged and ready.

A rain of red fire flashed around them. Serena stared back, terrified of a blast in the back. One wasp, flying ahead of the others and only ten feet away, leveled it's laser on her and fired.

The world went slow. She had time to see everything. The sun's gleam on the black metal body of the wasp. The crimson reflection of the laser on it's underside. The laser itself, cutting toward her like an arrow, hardly visible in the sunlight. The feeling of the slowly moving wings and labored breathing between her knees. The heat of the soft feathers clenched in her sweaty fists. She had time to envision what would happen. The blast would strike her, killing her instantly. She would be thrown from Windspeed's back and fall down, down, down ... The eagle would follow a second later, his sleek feathers burned by the killing, merciless lasers ...

All this flashed through her head in an instant. By rights, she should have died the way she thought. But, for a strange reason, the laser never reached her. It vanished midway, as if it had been clicked off. Still looking back, she saw the robots vaporize by the dozens. They just disappeared, as if they had never existed. In two seconds flat they were alone in the sky.

_________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 6

Out of sync

_________________________________________________________________________

Fifty years before, Sonic stood in the open countryside. The only sign of Amusement Central was the spray-painted lines in the grass, left by the surveyors. Construction wouldn't begin for another two months.

In fact, the only sign of civilization was the formerly cloaked generator--or, what was left of it. It and it's fuel cannister were now a pair of smoking craters in the grass.

Sonic dusted off his hands. "That takes care of this place," he said. A.P., who had been watching from a safe distance, flew up and landed on the ground beside him. "At least we got the time stone," he said. Sonic nodded and pulled it out. It was a warm orange, and glowed softly in Sonic's soiled palm. He looked at it critically.

"You know, I don't think the power emeralds are as hard to get as these. Good grief! What was that place, anyway?"

A.P. shook his red head. "I donno, Sonic. It sure seemed like we were in outer space. Did you see the big striped planet through the clouds?"

Sonic nodded. "Yeah. It was bizarre, all right." He thrust the stone into his pocket. "C'mon, little bird. Let's head back to the future."

* * *

"What the heck happened?" Serena yelped.

"What?" Windspeed gasped. "Why did they stop firing?"

"They disappeared!"

"What?"

"I'm not kidding! All the wasps just--well--vanished! They're gone! All gone!"

Windspeed twisted his dark head to look back. "Well, I'll be darned! Heck, I guess I can slow down, now." His wings dropped to a very slow beat. Serena felt him relax. "Are you okay?" she asked him.

"Sure," he replied shortly. "Winded is all. And you?"

"I'm fine," she told him.

Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Serena had a chance to look around. The ground below them was all ups and downs in low mountains. Ahead, the sun sparkled off something ... the ocean! Puzzled, she looked back. The patch of color on the ground that was Amusement Central was almost out of sight. "Windspeed, we passed it already!" she yelped. The bird cocked his head and looked down with one eye. "Yep," he said.

"Well? Are we going to turn around?"

"Nope."

"Why not?"

"Can't."

"Why?"

"Not enough strength."

Serena fell silent. Windspeed continued, "I'm going to the sunken city. They have a resting place for eagles. I need a break."

Serena cast a longing glance of her shoulder at Amusement Central, which by this time was nearly out of sight. "I won't give up until I find Sonic," she told herself fiercely. "And if I have to help find the time stones, then I will. But I won't let Robotnik win. I won't let him brainwash Sonic!"

* * *

At that moment, Sonic was materializing in Amusement Central, A.P. perched on one arm. A few people stared at them, then went on. They were both dazed for a moment, then got their bearings. "Hey," A.P. said. "I'll take the stone to the owner of Amusement Central, if you like. It's kinda on the other side of the park."

"Sure," Sonic replied. He handed the bird the stone, who took it awkwardly in one claw, the the other, then clamped his beak on it and flew into the sky.

Sonic watched him go, a smile playing at his lips. Then, arms folded, he turned and surveyed Amusement Central. His first impressions were fairly similar to Serena's, but different as well. He saw the place as the big carnival on Floating Island. Except with people. Lots of people. They were everywhere, running to and fro, walking in groups of threes and fours, screaming on the roller coasters, or waiting in line at the food stands. Here and there a group of parents stood under a tree or sat at picnic tables, watching the goings-on and talking. Red, green and blue seemed to be the dominant colors of the place. The smell of hotdogs and popcorn filled the air. It reminded Sonic he hadn't had lunch yet.

Five minutes later found him sitting under a tree with a chili dog and a coke. He was hungry, and the food was good. As he ate, his thoughts turned to Serena. Where was she? Was she okay? Was she in the past, present or future? And why had Mecha kidnapped her in the first place? Spite? Revenge? Maybe both. But he usually had an ulterior motive, especially if Robotnik was involved.

He was staring straight ahead, thinking, chewing and swallowing mechanically. He didn't notice the shadow pass over the tree above him, or the sound of beating wings. So it gave him quite a start when the big golden eagle landed six feet away with a whoosh.

A.P. fluttered down beside him. "Hey Sonic, they found Serena!"

Sonic forgot everything else. "What! Is she okay?"

The green parrot turned to the eagle, who nodded. "Yes," it said. "She delivered the time stone to Lower Mundane, and was on her way here. But the eagle she was riding was pursued by flying robots, and they are now at the Sunken City."

Sonic finished his lunch in three bites. "Let's go!" he said eagerly.

The eagle held up one yellow claw. "Not so fast, kiddo. You are needed at the Quartz Quadrant--urgently. We will see that you and your sister are reunited, but for now, you have things to do."

Sonic wilted in disappointment. "You sure? I couldn't just stop by a minute and say hi?"

The eagle shook it's brown head. "No. The Sunken City is to the north-- Quartz Quadrant is to the west."

Sonic sighed and looked down, hands limp at his sides. "Oh-kay," he said, as if it were the hardest request in the world.

"Hey," A.P. said. "It's not that bad, Sonic. Now all you have to worry about is how much like you she is."

Sonic looked at him. "Say what?"

A.P. ruffled his feathers. "If she's like you, she's gonna get into trouble, right?"

Sonic's mouth twisted in a half-stifled smirk. "Yeah. Yeah, she will, won't she?"

The big golden eagle moved between them. "Excuse me," it said, annoyed, "but to paraphrase, we've got a planet to save!"

"Oh, right," said Sonic, making a show of feeling guilty. He climbed up on the bird's silky back to sit between it's wings, buried his hands in the warm feathers and said, "Okay. I'm ready when you are."

It took them about ten minutes for the eagle to climb into the sky, get it's bearings and head west. A.P. fell in just behind it, riding the updraft the bigger bird created with it's mighty wings. Sonic noticed how, although he respected this bird, it didn't scare the heck out of him like Thief did. A golden eagle was just not as imposing as a harpy eagle.

"So," Sonic said after a few minutes, "time for the formal questions. Who are you, how did you know 'bout 'Rena, et cetera."

"My name is Goldie," the eagle replied. "You'd think I'd have a name like Farsight or Swiftwing or something, but nooo, I have the boring title of Goldie. It's like a cruel joke. And I'm a female. Just so you know."

"Oh," said Sonic, slightly surprised. He had thought all the eagles would act like Thief. Apparently they were all different.

"I knew about your sister," Goldie continued, "because I am one of the original six Thief summoned. My son, Windspeed, was the one who spotted her, but she had already been rescued by one of the Time Rippers."

"Who?" Sonic interrupted.

The big bird looked back at him. "His name is Robin," she said. "I don't know if you know him."

"Oh, I know him," Sonic replied. "I hung out with him and his brother Jay for a while, back on Mobius." And saved Little Planet from certain death, he thought. "And he found her? Huh. I wonder why he didn't contact Jay."

"I'll tell you why," A.P. chirped from overhead. "He didn't want his transmission tapped by the aluminum jerk and Evil."

"What else, Goldie?" Sonic said, smirking up at the parrot.

"Only what I just told you. Oh, and one more thing. Blaze is a little-- well--unusual. He's really friendly, but--different."

"Who's Blaze?" Sonic queried curiously.

"The head manager of Quartz Quadrant," was the reply. "He's an echidna, just like the Guardian of Floating Island, but of a different clan. He's an unusual character. You might want to mentally prepared to meet him, is all."

* * *

The Sunken City wasn't completely underwater. About two square miles of it were on the mainland, and normal people lived there. But the sunken part was another eight square miles, all of it twenty feet underwater. The ocean was fresh, incidentally.

Serena stared out over the city from a window in the tower, The tower had once been a lighthouse, but had been modified to accommodate the eagles who needed a pit stop. Windspeed was there, as well. He was perched on part of a dead tree that had been mounted for that purpose. His long claws were driven into the wood a little. He sat on one foot, the other drawn up into his feathers. His head was twisted and buried into the feathers of his back. His eyes were closed, his body rocking slightly with each breath.

The young hedgehog sat down on the floor, cupped her chin in her hands and waited. Apparently she wouldn't be doing anything until Windspeed had had his nap.

She had only sat there a few minutes when she heard soft footfalls approaching her. She turned to see a bright green lizard standing there. He was about as tall as she was, and his neck was marked with bright blue scales. A row of spikes stood up on his neck like a mohawk, then shrank to run down his back. An iguana.

He pressed one finger against his mouth, signalling to her to be quiet, then motioned for her to follow him. She did. He led her to a door in the wall, opened it and stepped inside. As Serena entered, she recognized it as an elevator. The iguana pressed a button marked 'floor 1.' As the elevator began to move, he said, "I'm Max. You're Serena Hedgehog, right?"

She nodded.

"Sonic's sister?"

She nodded again.

"Good," Max said, visibly relieved. "You probably have some of his speed, right?"

"Well," Serena replied, "I can't push the sound barrier, but yeah. Why do you want to know?"

"Because," the lizard replied, "the Sunken City is in danger. Word is Robotnik and Metal Sonic are on the loose, and we are in danger without our stone. We don't have any control over who warps where. The Time Rippers are at Electronics and the Stardust Speedway, and we don't have anyone willing to retrieve our stone--except Robotnik."

Serena held up both hands. "I don't have any idea as to how to do that," she said hopelessly.

Max shook his head. "You don't have to know how," he told her. "Our stone is in the ocean, somewhere in the middle of the Sunken City. You know how to swim?"

"Yeah."

"Scuba dive?"

"No."

"We'll teach you. We need our stone before sunset." _________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 7

Serena's underwater adventure _________________________________________________________________________

"Blaze?"

No answer.

"Blaze! You in here?"

No answer.

A.P. and Sonic looked up at Goldie. She looked down at them, shrugged her wings, and called again. "Blaze! Where are you?"

They were looking into a room that could have rivaled Robotnik's control center any day. One wall was solid TV monitors and computer screens. The wall opposite it bore a long table littered with paper, pencils, jars and knick-knacks. The wall facing them was a large blackboard, covered with chemical formulas and calculations. And the rest of the room was taken up by an enormous chemistry set. It towered to the ceiling, glass tubes and bottles going every which way.

"Blaze!"

He stepped out from behind a row of tubing and stood looking at them. Sonic and A.P. were shocked. They had expected someone to go with the room--a professor or technician, which Blaze was not. He was a tall, well-built echidna, but he didn't look anything like Knuckles. Long, narrow spines grew from the back of his head, down his back, and on the backs of his arms. He wore his spikes brushed up over his forehead and combed around to the side, and a pair of dark, narrow sunglasses. Instead of shoes, he wore high leather boots. His hands were covered by the kind of gloves that have the fingers cut out, covering only the palms. He looked fearsome, to say the least.

He reached up with one thumb and pushed his sunglasses back on his forehead. After a moment of consideration, he came forward, flipped his glasses down again and extended a hand toward Sonic. "Blaze Crystal. You are?" Sonic took the echidna's hand, only to have it nearly crushed to splinters by Blaze's strong grasp. "Sonic," he gasped, pulling away and favoring his hand. "Sonic Hedgehog." Blaze turned to A.P., who introduced himself, but prudently declined the handshake.

Blaze looked up at the eagle. "Hey Goldie, how's my favorite bird doin'?" Goldie looked at him narrowly. "Just fine, thanks. You wanted Sonic here, and I brought him. Now, if you'll just excuse me ..." The bird turned and left the building.

Blaze turned to Sonic and A.P. "Well, let's get a move on. Stuff to do, robots to destroy..." He flashed a grin at them, then pushed past them and walked out. Sonic and A.P. looked at each other. This would be interesting.

The building they were in was built like a five-sided pyramid. The doors were diamond shaped, and the knobs were clear crystal. In fact, everything in the Quartz Quadrant was built like pyramids or diamonds. The ground was covered entirely with grey gravel. The buildings were clustered together like crystal formations, and pipes ran every which way. It looked like a futuristic oil field. One thing Sonic noticed was that in places the metal pipes had leaked, tiny crystals had grown, some reaching an inch in height.

Blaze led them from the building and out toward the middle of the Quadrant. After a few minutes of awkward silence, he waved Sonic and A.P forward. "Well, let's not be too talkative," he said sarcastically. "Whassamatter, cat got your tongue?"

Sonic shrugged. "I donno. I just never seen a place like this." Or someone dressed like you, he thought to himself. Blaze clapped him on the back. "Aw, that's all right. Lotsa people ain't been to the Quartz Quadrant. It's kinda hazardous, 'cause we use lotsa chemicals to grow our crystals." A.P., his little feet hardly making a sound on the gravel, spoke up. "So .. where're we going?" Blaze looked down at him, the sunlight glinting off his dark glasses. "Right now we're goin' to the big mine.

"Uh, big mine?" Sonic inquired.

"Sure," Blaze replied. "Actually, it's our only mine. We call it the big mine 'cause it ain't so little anymore." He pointed across the field to a big, round, dome-topped building. "That's the entrance," he told them. "We happen to be located right on top of a gigantic quartz deposit. It'd been mined for years before we bought it. It's been said the Guardian Clan themselves used it to make the power emeralds, but ah, I don't believe it. If there was a strain with magical properties we'd of found it by now. The Guardians are all liars, anyways. It was my clan that produced the time stones, which seem to be in jeopardy right now."

They walked in silence for a few minutes. Then Sonic said, "The Guardians aren't all liars. I'm friends with some of them, and they're as honest as the day is long." Blaze looked at him over the top of his glasses. "You mean the Time Rippers? You're right--they're an exception."

"Yeah, but I mean Knuckles, too. The current Guardian of Floating Island." Blaze only shrugged. "Never met 'im. But I have a low opinion of his father." The dark red echidna fixed his eyes on the building ahead and muttered through his teeth, "He lied to me, betrayed me, tried to kidnap me ... Don't have much use for his clan anymore." Sonic and A.P. sideyed each other and said nothing. Blaze didn't seem moved to explain, and they didn't press him.

* * *

The iguana had taken Serena through the Sunken City with a whirlwind of introduction to many different people. It was an hour before she found herself down by the docks. A faint breeze blew off the ocean, and the water lapped at the many boats and piers with a slapping sound. Several faded shops sat along the boardwalk, weathered and grey. The smell of fish tainted the air. Bewildered, Serena padded along behind Max, looking around.

"Uh, Max--" He cut her off by turning and saying, "You sure you don't know anything about scuba diving?" She shook her head. Max snapped his fingers. "Darn. Well, here we are." They were standing before one of the little shops. "Why?" Serena queried. "What is this place?" Max ignored her and walked inside. She followed him.

The building smelled of fish and mould. A big fish net hung along one wall with dried starfish and shells stuck in it, she noticed. The little oblong room was dominated by the big counter, which was clean if you didn't look too closely. Max walked up to the counter and rang the little service bell. While they waited, Serena had a better chance to look around.

The fish net on the wall appeared to have been in service a long time. The big rip in the center showed why it had become a wall ornament. Barrels of who-knows-what lined the front wall. And in one corner was a pile of scuba gear, stacked haphazardly like a jumbled frog. A sign above said 'Diving lessons. 5.00 per person per hour. 3.50 an hour for groups. Ask for Christy at front counter.'

The sound of footsteps drew Serena's attention back to the matter at hand. A young sea otter was approaching. Her dark brown fur was sleek and shiny, and her equally dark eyes were alight with friendliness. "Hi," she said. "What can I do for you?" Max produced an envelope from somewhere on his person and handed it to her. "Give this to your mother. It's urgent." The otter took it, glanced at it and left. Max turned to Serena. "Christy will show you all you need to know about diving. Good luck." And with that, he turned and walked out. Serena stood and stared after him, feeling helpless and abandoned.

Voices. She turned. Standing in a doorway further back in the shop was the otter who had taken the note, and a larger one Serena took to be her mother. They were having a hushed argument. Serena pricked up her ears, curious.

"But mom, why can't dad watch the shop? I want to go!"

"I'm sorry, but I can't let you come. You know the dangers, and I can't look after two kids at once."

"But mom--"

"No buts. Stay here."

The big otter stepped around the smaller one (who stared after her indignantly), and stepped up to the counter. "Hi, I'm Christy," she said brightly, as if nothing was wrong. "You must be Serena Hedgehog." Serena nodded. "Well, yeah."

"Have You ever handled scuba gear before?"

"No, but I can handle hoverbikes, computers and my brother."

Christy laughed easily. "You'll learn fast, then. Come around to the rear of the shop and we'll get you equipped."

* * *

Stepping into the round, dome-topped building was like walking into another world. Huge stalactites hung from the ceiling high above like stone icicles, and weird stone growths covered the walls. The ground was flat and perfectly dry. It was covered with odd white sand, and their feet stirred up a fine, choking dust. "Ground quartz," Blaze explained, pocketing his dark glasses. "And I don't mean ground 'cause of where it is. We have problems in here with keeping the building from completely stoning up. So we have to go through, knock down the most troublesome formations, grind 'em up into sand and sell 'em." "They grow that fast?" Sonic queried incredulously. Blaze nodded. "Oh yeah. We've had to do four times in our seventy-year existence. Lotsa this ain't quartz, ya see. We've got salt, alum, gypsum, topaz, uh, amytheist, and uh, oh, I forget the others. Anyway, some of 'em grow really fast, like weeds. We hafta keep 'em groomed and trimmed."

At this point they rounded a gigantic natural pillar and saw what looked like a subway station. Railway tracks were sunk into the ground in six foot deep trenches. Several of them ran side by side and plunged down into the ground, under the stone walls. Buildings flanked each one. There were people everywhere. It reminded Sonic of a gigantic anthill.

"What's this?" A.P. asked from the shelter of Sonic's shoulder. Blaze paused, hands on his hips. "This," he said, "was the most controversial project ever undertaken." He began to walk down the slope toward it, and Sonic and A.P. followed.

"It's our mining subway system," Blaze continued. "We used to have foot tunnels that went all over the place, but you had to walk for hours to get anywhere. And if somebody got hurt way back in there, they hadta walk out; or be carried out, as the case may be. A lotta people died that way. So my dad came up with the idea of a subway. Five tracks make continuous interlocking loops through the mine. Sure, it would be a lotta work and might weaken the underground river dam, but it would save time and work in the long run."

"Well, you know how it goes. There's always somebody who don't agree with you. The Guardian of Floating Island, Knuckles's father, opposed the idea. He used to come up here a lot to mine seed crystals. He claimed that the subways would destroy the delicate formations around them. He even said we would plow right through the purest crystal bed in the world--including Mobius. But, for some reason, he wouldn't show us where that was. I don't get that. Why make all that fuss, then don't even try to preserve it? Strange thing."

"I was only eight then. I couldn't understand why anybody would fight dad like that. So, being the naïve kid I was, I chased down the Guardian and asked him why. He said to meet him in the mine after hours the following night and he would show me. Back then, that was way off limits for me, but I did it anyway. So I traipsed down there, only to have him grab me and march me at gunpoint way down into the mine. Come to find out he's going to hold me for ransom. If dad wanted to save me, he would have to scrap the subway. And if he didn't, he would never see me again. I really don't think the Guardian was going to kill me-- I was under the impression he would take me back to the Floating Island with him. But boy, was I scared."

"So what happened?" Sonic asked, interested.

Blaze shook his head. "Something did. All the lights went out, and somebody grabbed me and led me into a little side passage. He only spoke to me once--when he asked me how to get out of the mine. I told him, and he took off, dragging me along behind. It was pitch dark--I couldn't see, and I don't know how he could. But I hit my head on something, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in my father's arms."

"Who was it?" A.P. asked.

Blaze shrugged. "I never found out. Nobody ever came forward, and he never showed up again."

By this time the three of them were standing on the boarding platform next to the first subway. None of the people there seemed surprised to see Blaze, but they did stare curiously at Sonic and A.P. "Where are we going?" Sonic queried. Blaze gestured to the tracks below them. "We're goin' to the underground plant. Our mining robots have been strangely hostile lately, and we have confirmed reports of dangerous badniks. Someone even claims to have seen Metal Sonic, but that's been inconclusive so far." Sonic and A.P. eyed each other. It sounded suspiciously like there was a badnik maker somewhere. So of course, Sonic asked the first question on his mind: "Is it legal to time warp down here?"

A silence descended over the platform as everyone turned and stared at Sonic. Sonic and A.P. looked around questioningly, then at Blaze. Blaze was staring at them as well. "Uh-oh," Sonic muttered to the parrot on his shoulder. "Must not be."

The uncomfortable quiet was broken as the subway whizzed into the station. Blaze grabbed Sonic's arm, and in the general confusion of the disembarking workers managed to draw them onto the subway without being trampled. The car was dirty and smudged, and smelled of sweat and grime. Blaze crowded them over in one corner. "Warping ain't allowed down here," he told them in a low voice. "Why not?" Sonic demanded. "Shh!" Blaze hissed. "Because, our time stone is missing, that's why. No warpin' allowed until we get it back."

"But ain't that the reason you wanted me to come?"

"To help get rid of the robots, yes."

"No! Don't you understand? The robots ain't gonna be gone unless I can warp. There's a hidden generator somewhere in the past, and if I destroy it the robots'll vanish. But if not, then Robotnik will take over Quartz Quadrant, no questions asked."

Blaze smirked. "Right. Since when do you guys know how to do that? You aren't Time Rippers."

"How do you know?" Sonic asked. "I've done a fair share of warping already. Hey, if you don't want me to save this place, that's your business." Irked, he turned and faced the window. The crimson echidna said nothing for a few minutes, thinking. Then, as the subway doors closed and the car began to move, he said, "Okay, you can warp if you want to." His voice was barely audible, as if he hated to say it. Sonic turned back around. "Good. Got enough room down here for a good run?" Blaze shook his head. Then reached up and ran one hand through his hair. "Well, you could warp in the subway tunnels, I guess. But the trains are only ten minutes apart, so you'd better be able to warp under that." Sonic nodded ascent. "Oh, that's no problem. My maximum is five minutes."

Blaze gave him a thumbs-up. "Good. And hey, good luck." ________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 8

The Sunken City--Adventures of Serena underwater ________________________________________________________________________

The little motorboat nosed through the water, leaving a path of white foam in it's wake. "Where're we going?" Serena called over the noise of the outboard moter. Christy (she wouldn't tell Serena her last name) was sitting in the bow, hands on the steering wheel. "The middle of the Sunken City," she called. "The note was from our communications specialist. He said they'd found the location of our time stone; or at least, he's pretty sure. We get to retrieve it."

"So why do you need me?"

"Because we need someone who has time warped. And you have."

"Not on my own, I haven't!"

"Oh, that doesn't matter. See, once you've warped, you can get close to the stone without repelling it. You will have to carry it on your own. That's why we need you--I can search out the stone, but I can't bring it back."

The otter picked up her pack from the floor beside her and handed it back to Serena. "Get out my location tracker. Tell me when we're at longitude 20 degrees south, latitude 162 degrees west." Serena dug around in the bag until she found a little box with a flip-up screen, like a lap-top computer. She opened it. The lower half was covered with buttons, and the upper half was the scratched, dirty screen. It showed a bunch of green criss-cross lines, with bright green outlines at the borders. But no markings of any kind. "How do you read this thing?" she called to Christy.

"Press the button marked 'location.'"

After a brief search Serena found it. Part of the word had been worn away, so it said 'loca.' She pressed it. The screen lit up brightly for a few seconds, then faded back in. This time there was a little dot in one corner of the map, and the lines all had numbers beside them.

"I think we're almost there." She handed the tracker to Christy, who took it and set it on the dash. "Almost," the otter said. She cut the throttle to half, then a third. A moment later she stopped the boat altogether. "Close enough," she remarked. "We can swim the difference."

The otter got up, moved to the rear of the craft in three steps (we're talking small boat), grabbed a metal thing in a pile of rope and tossed it overboard. "Anchor," she said shortly. She bent over the stack of equipment. "Okay," she said to Serena, "we won't use wetsuits on a salvage operation. Just the basic stuff. Here, put on the oxygen tank first." Christy handed the heavy metal cilander to Serena, who took it and clumsily strapped it on. Christy attached the mouthpiece to it, but didn't open it. Next she handed her the mask and flippers. Both looked well used, but reliable. Serena put them on.

"I feel like a weird duck," Serena said, flapping the rubber fins against the bottom of the boat. Christy was skillfully donning her own equipment. "Oh, you get used to it," she said. "And it's not a bit clumsy once you're in the water."

A few minutes later, they were ready for the plunge. Almost. The sleek otter paused, dug into her pack again and produced a shiny white box. In it were two tiny curved pieces of plastic. She handed one to Serena, who stared at it. "What's this, gum?"

Christy shook her head. "No, no, don't try to chew it. It's an earpiece."

"What for?"

"Underwater communication."

"How?"

"I show you. Put it in your ear, like this. Not too far, but enough so that it doesn't fall out. Like so."

Serena obeyed, working the piece of plastic into her ear. "Now what?" she said.

"It works like this," Christy's voice said in her ear. Serena stared at her. Her lips hadn't moved. "Like how?" Serena asked curiously. Again, Christy's lips made no movement, but her voice said, "It's the earpiece. It allows us to communicate telepathically. Very handy for divers." Feeling awkward, Serena said aloud, "But how? How do you do it?"

"Think it. Think it clearly."

Serena tried. "Okay, uh, am I doing it?"

Christy nodded. "Yes, yes. Very good. It's not that difficult, really. Now, ready for a swim?"

* * *

The young hedgehog plunged into the water. The cold was a shock, making her gasp involuntarily, inhaling oxygen through her mouthpiece. The light all around was green and blue, streaked with yellow shafts of light. The boat, a few feet above, cast a dim shadow through the water. Looking down, she could see what appeared to be ancient buildings below, on the ocean floor, now nearly lost in a bed of kelp. A school of bright orange fish darted through the waving ribbons of seaweed and out of sight. Further off, everything faded into aquamarine blue.

"Wow," Serena thought. "This is cool, Christy." The otter was about six feet away, adjusting a flipper. "I know it is," she replied. "My daughter Kate and I come out here regularly, although not quite this far. C'mon." The otter kicked out and began swimming away and down. Serena followed, reveling in the feeling of power and control the fins gave her. Christy, a natural swimmer even without the gear, streamlined and sleek, led the way toward the ocean floor. As they dove, Serena could feel the pressure on her ears increasing. "Hey Christy, my ears hurt," she complained. The otter didn't stop or turn, but replied, "Yes, they might for a while. But after about fifteen minutes you'll get used to it. That's how a diver measures their depth without machines--their ears. The ocean isn't very deep here, luckily. Keep going."

The water began to feel colder as they neared the barnacle-studded buildings. Fish swam in and out of the empty doors and windows, and a short, ferny growth was everywhere. It reminded Serena of a strange, anti-gravity city; people moving in and out, landscaping done in seaweed green. Christy interrupted her thoughts with, "Don't get too close to the ruins. There's a lot of white-tipped sharks that live down there."

"But aren't sharks saltwater--uh--fish, animals, uh ..."

"Fish. And yes, most sharks are. But there are some freshwater sharks. Only like, three species survive on Mobius, but because of our fresh-water ocean we have more. Don't ask me why. And some of them are really mean, so we try to steer clear of them."

They swam along above the buildings, Christy leading. Serena looked every which way but ahead, enjoying the ease of swimming and the bizarre world around her. Occasional beams of light filtered through the moving surface above, picking out bright spots on the ocean floor. Only one thing dampened Serena's spirits--the fact that Sonic couldn't enjoy it, too. She wondered where he was and what he was doing. And boy, was she glad this wasn't the future--because then she would know.

As they went along, the landscape below them began to change. The seaweed shrank to small patches, and the number of fish decreased. The buildings began to look newer and not as dilapidated. Some of them had fancy designs carved into their walls. After a while, the seaweed and fish vanished altogether, and below them became a silent, abandoned city.

"Wow," Serena said, or thought, into the earpiece. "What's with this place? Does somebody come down here and take care of it?"

"No," Christy replied. "Have you heard about how time passes over some places on Little Planet, leaving them untouched? You're looking at the Sunken City right after it sank."

"You're kidding me."

"Nope. We have just traveled twenty years back in time without a warp."

"Cool!"

"I know. We should be nearing the time stone. Let's get a little farther into the warp before we look for it."

They swam for another five minutes. The Christy said, "Okay, let's swim to that tall building over there--the clocktower. That'll be our rendezvous."

"What do you mean--we're gonna split up?"

"Of course. Our earpieces have a range of two miles, which should be about right. Find the newest looking place you can. If you start to see fish and seaweed, you've gone too far."

"Sorta like the warmer, colder game, huh?"

"Right. Well, here we are. I'll go over that way, and you can go this way. Don't be afraid to go everywhere--the buildings are safe. You ready?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, let's go!"

The brown otter turned and swam away and down. Serena watched her a moment, then turned and swam her own way.

The brick buildings loomed up out of the dim ocean floor. Serena dove toward them, feeling a sense of adventure quickening her limbs. "Cool, an abandoned city no one has seen in years!" she thought. "I wish Sonic were here. He would love this."

She came to the first building and opened the door with a queer feeling--it wasn't rotted or even struck in the frame. It was dark inside, but the windows--which still had glass in them--let in enough light to see by. The structure seemed to have been a large house at one time, but was now empty. Whoever had lived there had taken their belongings and evacuated long ago. Serena swam through, feeling as if she were trespassing. A twinge of grief tugged at her heart. Who had lived there? How had they felt as they fled their homes? And how long ago had that been?"

"Hey Christy," Serena called with her mind. "You there?" After a moment, Christy replied, "Yeah, I'm here." Her voice sounded tinny though the earpiece, as if they were quite a distance apart. "You find something?"

"No, just checking in. Do you know how all this sank?"

"Yeah. There's quite a story behind it, but the basics are this. It didn't sink--it was flooded. Quartz Quadrant, fifteen miles from here, is a big mine. They tunneled into a huge underground river and had to dam it up. They dug an outlet leading to the ocean--in case of overflow. Well, about twenty years ago, something happened down there--hit an artesian well or something. Anyway, all the water in a huge lake (and the river) got blasted out into the ocean, which was pretty small back then. The water rose about two feet an hour, which gave the inhabitants of the city a chance to flee to higher ground. Nobody was killed when the city drowned, but everyone lost their homes. Once the flooding stopped, they built another city further inland, and named it the Sunken City in honor of the other one."

"Wow," Serena said. "Why did the lake get blasted out in the first place?"

"Nobody knows. There's kind of a mystery over the whole thing, because nobody really knows what happened or why."

* * *

An hour passed. Serena and Christy explored the underwater metropolis slowly and thoroughly, but without luck. No time stone. Serena was getting tired. The brick buildings were beginning to look the same, and her legs ached from the constant strain of paddling through the water. She complained to Christy, who agreed it was time for a break. "I've got three more houses on this block, then we'll head for the boat," she promised.

Serena swam back to the clocktower they had started from and waited, standing on the paved ocean floor. She couldn't see Christy anywhere. A bit lonesome, she turned her back to the ocean and gazed idly at the fancy stonework around the doorway of the building. It was carved in fantastic figures and shapes with letters here and there. The constantly shifting light seemed to make them move.

A shadow fell over her, darkening the pattern. Thinking it was her guide, Serena turned and looked up. What she saw made her heart turn over in her chest with sudden terror. It looked like a shark at first, but it had four flippers instead of two, and a thin, snaky tail. It's head looked like an alligator's--long, narrow, and full of teeth. It was a dark green color with light stripes on it's back and a white underbelly. It was more than twenty feet long.

The thing was slowly circling the building, it's black, lifeless eyes fixed on her. Serena thought of things she had read about sharks. They circled you a few times, checking you out, then closed in for the kill. Was this thing a shark of some sort? She didn't think she had been acting hurt, but the thing seemed interested anyhow. She pressed herself against the cold brick wall and called, "Christy, are you there?"

"I'm here."

"I've, uh, got a problem."

"What? Get caught on something?"

"No, there's uh, something here. It's circling me."

"A shark?"

"I donno--it doesn't look like one--"

"Are you moving?"

"No, I'm standing against the clocktower wall. The shark-thing is circling it."

"It must think you're hurt. Listen, I want you to go inside the tower. It should leave right afterward."

Serena turned and twisted the doorknob, but the door wouldn't budge. It was locked. "Christy, the door's locked and it's still here."

"Bummer. Now, I want you to swim to one of the other buildings and go inside. Swim normal speed--not too fast, not too slow. It might follow you, but it shouldn't attack. Once it sees you're not injured, it will probably leave. Okay?"

"O-o-okay."

The creature swam by again, watching her. It swam slowly, lazily, like a sea cow or a whale. Like it was only curious. Serena waited until it had disappeared around the building, then kicked out and began swimming. The closest structure was a sort of low brick bunker, about thirty feet away. She tried not to go too fast, but her heart was pounding so hard she couldn't tell if she was swimming normally or not.

She covered the first ten feet with no trouble. The creature only turned and slowly swam after her, about as fast as she was. She could feel it's cold eyes boaring into her back.

Serena glanced back at it in time to see it's pale jaws open and it's body twist as it dove at her. She gasped and dodged down and backward. The creature's big body swept over her, darkening the area with it's shadow. The current it created sucked her along with it for an instant, then a motion from one of it's passing flippers blew her backward like a leaf in the wind. Dizzily she righted herself and swam like crazy toward the building. The creature, ahead and above, whirled around for another try, it's black eyes seeking her out. It dove at her again. She swerved, and the monster missed her again. Only ten feet to the bunker. Five. She flung open the door and dove into the comforting darkness.

The building was small--only one door and a little window. The thing couldn't get in. She turned, thinking to close the door, only to see the thing sweep by, then turn and try to thrust it's head through the doorway. Serena screamed aloud in a cloud of bubbles and backed away from the snapping jaws. They made a sharp clack-clack as it shook it's head back and forth, trying to force it's way in. A few seconds later the narrow jaws withdrew and closed on the door outside. It ripped the hinges out with a jerk of it's head and crunched the wood in it's teeth. A moment later, finding it tasteless, it dropped the door. Serena could see it's shadow swimming around and around the building.

"Christy I made it but it's trying to eat me!" If they had been out of the water, Serena's voice would have been frantic with terror. As it was, her thoughts were pretty hysterical.

"Are you sure?"

"Am I sure? It's tried three times and ripped off the door, and you ask if I'm sure?"

"Where's the shark?"

"It's not a shark, and it's circling the building I'm in. Oh no, it's coming back--it's at the door again! It's gonna break down the front wall! Oh Christy, please do something!" The monster tried to drive it's enormous head through the opening, thrashing and churning up a cloud of mud with it's lashing flippers. Serena huddled up against the opposite wall, nearly delirious with terror.

Christy was swimming for them as fast as she could go, shooting like a dark arrow through the water. In a few minutes she reached the tower building. Then all she could do was stop and stare in horror.

The monster was swimming around and around the building Serena was in, jaws working, striking the walls with it's short tail. The front wall was crushed inward dangerously, and what remained of the door lay around the entry in splinters. Christy realized what the thing was: a Kronosaurus, thought to have been exterminated from Little Planet's oceans. She had never seen one, but knew they were usually unpredictable and dangerous. They could swim very fast--up to fifty miles an hour--and no one had ever survived an attack.

"Serena!" Christy called through the earpiece. "Are you there?"

"Sort of," came the tremulous reply.

"Are you hurt?"

"Not yet."

"Listen, I'm going to try to get it's attention. When it leaves, go to a larger building. Okay?"

Serena didn't answer. The kronosaurus had dove at the doorway again, trying to drive it's way inside. Christy could see the wall slowly crushing inward under the beast's assault. Time was short, and she had no weapon. All she could do was watch helplessly.

Suddenly there was a metallic *whisk*. A silver object flashed through the water from behind the tower, leaving a thin trail of bubbles. It hit the monster's flank. The beast pulled out of the building with a high-pitched shriek, jaws sprung wide in fury. There was another whisk, and another silver dart cut through the water; straight into the beast's mouth. The monster jerked spasmodically, snapping it's jaws shut. Then it's thick body twisted around, and it screamed away in the direction of deeper water.

Christy turned to see who had fired the darts. There, hovering in the blue expanse near the surface, was her daughter, Kate. The young otter was holding a harpoon gun in one hand and staring in the direction the beast had gone. Then she turned. "Mom!" she said, using her own earpiece. "Mom! Are you okay?" "I'm fine, honey. It's poor Serena I'm worried about." The two otters turned and swam down toward the damaged building. Kate waited outside while her mother cautiously entered the structure.

Serena was curled up in one corner, arms wrapped around her head. "Serena!" Christy called. "It's okay. It's gone." Slowly the young hedgehog uncurled and looked up. "Is it?" she asked fearfully.

"Yes. C'mon, lets get you out of here before it caves in." Serena managed to swim out with Christy. In shock, she barely said hi to Kate, and could only stare around in fearful apprehension.

Kate had come in her own little boat, so the two otters carried Serena up to it. They broke the surface together, and Serena clawed wildly at her mask, pulling it off. Then she simply gasped down the fresh air and looked up at the sun. The divers hauled her up into the boat and helped her out of her equipment. Then she simply flopped down in the floor of the boat and closed her eyes. She was only vaguely aware of the two otter talking about her. She barely noticed when Christy asked Kate why she had come out when she had told her to stay at home. A brief explanation ensued.

But all Serena could think of were those gigantic jaws snapping at her, the sound of the beast smashing the walls, and it's horrible, water-piercing scream. She stared up at the sky, thinking of all the reasons she would never go swimming again as long as she lived. But as she lay there, listening to the slap of the waves against the side of the boat and the two otters talking, something tingled at the back of her mind. Something about that little room she had been in seemed odd. What had it been? Something about the bulging front wall ...

She sat up suddenly, flipped her wet bangs out of her hair and declared, "I know where the time stone is." The two otters turned. "What?" Christy demanded. "Where?" Serena stood up and pointed to the water. "It was in the building. In the front wall. I saw it. The thing knocked it out."

"Well, we have to go get it."

"No way. I'm stayin' here, where it's safe."

"But you're the only one who can get near it."

Serena looked down, terror uncoiling in her stomach like a cobra. She swallowed once, thought fleetingly of her brother in bad future, then said, "I--I guess I can go down there one more time. But then I'm gettin' outta here. I'm gonna find Sonic."

Fifteen minutes later they were back in the boat, blue time stone under wraps. Serena was a little more relaxed, but exhausted. Not caring she was soaking wet, she curled up in the stern of the little motorboat and slept. She didn't awaken until they pulled into the dock thirty minutes later. Getting up and taking the stone to the mayor of the Sunken City was one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do, but she did it. She was rewarded with a big dinner and a full night in a real bed. By then she was so tired she couldn't even think coherently; which was a good thing, in a way. She couldn't stay up late worrying about Sonic.

For indeed, Sonic's night was not nearly as peaceful as Serena's was.

_________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 9

Sonic plays a role in history

_________________________________________________________________________

It was four o' clock in the afternoon. For the Quartz Quadrant it was business as usual. Only Blaze knew of the situation underground, and he didn't know much.

The underground plant turned out to be a gigantic natural cavern, full of green crystals and formations. It reminded Sonic of Lava Reef, in a way. It had the same mechanical, semi-dangerous feel to it. Sonic and A.P. walked along one of the footpaths for a while, looking around.

"You know, I don't see any robots," A.P. remarked. Sonic nodded. "Yeah. They must be used further back in the mine. Well, you wanna head back to the subway and--you know?" (He couldn't mention warping for fear of being overheard by one of the numerous workers.) The bird's crest lifted. "Yeah!" he said.

A few minutes later found them back at the subway station. It was recessed into the wall in a small cave of it's own. Sonic approached one of the mine supervisors, who was stationed there. "Excuse me, when is the next subway due?" he asked courteously. The mole looked at his watch. "Another eight minutes," he replied. Sonic thanked him and walked on. "Wow," A.P. commented, "I didn't know you could talk without using slang." "Oh, shut up," Sonic told him. "There was no reason to be rude, and besides, I don't want that guard to be suspicious of anything."

The waited until no one was looking, then slipped into the tunnel. "Which way does the next train come from?" Sonic asked, inhaling the small of dirty grease and exhaust. The bird shrugged his green wings. "I have no idea," he said. "I've never been here before in my life." Sonic scanned up and down the tunnel. "Let's go the way our train went," he said decidedly. "That way we should have a little more time between trains. Get on, little bird, and let's fly!"

Two seconds later found Sonic tearing down the tunnel in the middle of the tracks, the green parrot on his shoulder. The passage went around a very long left turn, then leveled out in a long, dim stretch. Sonic's speed increased rapidly; he became a blue flash shooting down the tracks.

Suddenly A.P. cried, "What's that?" The tunnel all around was vibrating, humming. And way down the tunnel, a tiny light came into view. It took a second for them to realize what it was--another subway coming the opposite direction. "Augh! Sonic go back go back!" A.P. shrieked. "No!" Sonic yelled back. "We'll warp before we hit it!"

Bright blue sparks began to fly off Sonic's speeding feet. "We're not going fast enough!" A.P. cried, eyes on the approaching train. "Check!" Sonic replied, pushing himself to go faster.

The subway was hurtling down on them like a maniacal beast, it's one headlight like an eye in the darkness. It's terrible roar filled the corridor, drowning out all other sound. Sonic's heart quavered just a little at the sight of it--and then he hit the sound barrier. He thrust himself through it, blue sparks flying off from head to toe. Less than fifty feet left between them and the train. Forty. Thirty. Warp, warp! Sonic thought, fear beginning to overcome his determination. The train was before them, drawing ever closer like a close-up in a movie. A.P. screamed piercingly and drove his sharp claws into Sonic's shoulder. The pain seemed to hurl Sonic forward. Ten feet, five! Sonic gave a cry of terror and leaped into the air--

Bright yellow light surrounded them, hurling them upward. An instant later, the light changed to white, then faded into their surroundings.

It was another bizarre track, like then one they had run in Amusement Central. Except the track was surrounded completely by water. In the distance they could see an enormous city towering into the sky. It seemed to be built on a waterfall, for water gushed from below the buildings and into the ocean around them. Three tiny floating islands hovered around it, each one sporting a towering, dome-topped building.

"Are--are we dead?" A.P. queried fearfully. "I don't think so," Sonic panted. "I think we warped at the last second."

"I sure hope you're right."

"Me too. This must be way-far future. Cool."

"Let's get started. We should ace this one in no time."

The track had a total of five little spaceships guarding it. They were scouts and moved fast, and all of them had to be destroyed before they escaped. The first track they had run, one had nearly escaped, and only A.P.'s nerve-shattering shriek had stopped it.

Sonic leaped over a pool of water in the road and grabbed the first UFO. His weight dragged it down, and he smashed it against the ground. It blew up quite satisfactorily, but Sonic was already headed for the next one. He went into a spindash, knocked it from it's position and crunched it as well. The third one he pulled into the water where it shorted out.

A.P. had taken care of the other two by landing lightly on each one, prying open a panel in the top, and snipping the wires with his beak. They both exploded in mid-air.

The green parrot landed on Sonic's shoulder, very pleased with himself. Sonic dusted off his hands and chuckled. "Between the two of us, those things don't stand a chance."

"Which is good."

"I know. Oh, here comes the time stone."

A glittering pale green gem came floating down out of the sky, twirling slowly. Sonic held out his hands, and the little stone landed in them gently. "All right!" Sonic shouted, holding the stone above his head. Then, as the world began to fade away into a yellow negative, he yelled, "Hang on, bird! We're beamin'!"

* * *

As time stabilized around them again, Sonic muttered, "Well A.P., I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." A.P. glanced at him with one eye. "I don't think we're in our century anymore, Dorothy."

They were standing on the shore of an underground river. The water was a solid faint greenish color and moved sluggishly, lazily. The ceiling, high above their heads, was studded with long stalactites, like mis-matched fangs. A few dim lights hung from them, providing enough light to see by, but not much else.

"Is this Quartz Quadrant?" Sonic asked, looking around. "If so, this must be the past. It would be more developed in the future, with more people." Indeed, they were alone in the cavern, their voices echoing. "Well, heck. We need to get back to the future and give Blaze the stone." A.P.'s crest flattened. "You know what? If this is the past, then there ain't no subway tunnels to warp in." Sonic looked at him worriedly. "You're right, little bird. I'll bet we'll have to get out of the mine to warp again." "Yeah," A.P added, "and we're pretty deep in the mine, without a map, no subway, no directions. It'll take hours ... days, maybe!"

"Man, I hope not. I don't want to spend a night underground with no food." Sonic started walking along the riverbank. "I did once, you know."

With the green parrot on his shoulder, the blue hedgehog made his way alongside the green river. A.P. asked him when he had spent a night without food, and Sonic told him about his and Tails's stay in the Lava Reef mines. How much it was like this crystal mine, except without the blistering heat.

After what seemed like hours of walking, they came to a place where the river had been dammed, forming a large, pale lake. Sonic walked out on the dam. On one side the water, almost level with the top of the dam, stretched away down it's channel. On the other side, the rocky side of the dam dropped down to another cavern, many feet below. There was what looked like a canal under construction in one of the rock walls, and a smaller tunnel facing it on the opposite side. A few more dim lights brightened the area enough to see.

"Well," said A.P., "this looks friendly. And abandoned." Sonic shrugged, nearly throwing the parrot off his shoulder. "I sure wish we could get outta here. C'mon, bird, let's get down there."

A.P. fluttered off and down. "Will you stop calling me 'bird'?" he squawked.

"That's what you are, ain't it?"

"Yeah, but how would you feel if I called you 'hedgehog' all the time, huh? Would you like that?"

"Well, no."

"See? Call me by my name!"

Sonic climbed down the rocky slope, A.P. fluttering behind him. After looking at the unfinished canal a few minutes and finding it went all the way through (a breeze came through it), they started into the tunnel in the facing wall.

After an hour of following it, they agreed that subways would be a definite plus.

Other passages criss-crossed it at intervals, it forked several times, twisted around sharp corners, was too low in some places and too narrow in others, and the lighting was bad all the way. By the first hour, they were hopelessly lost, though neither of them would admit it.

"When did Blaze say the mine closed?" Sonic asked during a brief halt. He was leaning against the wall wearily, A.P. perched on a rock outcropping a few feet away. The bird shook his head. "I don't think he said. Sometime after dark." Sonic glanced at his watch. "It's six-thirty now. It pry closed at five, which would explain why we haven't met anybody. Boy, I could use a chili dog and a milkshake right about now." A.P. nodded. "Yeah, a bunch of millet and an apple sounds pretty good." He looked down. "But I don't suppose we'll get anything until morning," he said dully.

They kept going. They finally got somewhere, but only after another two hours.

They stepped out of the tunnel into a high ceilinged-cavern the size of a gymnasium. Several sets of metal pipes ran out of the wall in various places, snaked across the uneven ceiling and fed into sort of a controller box. Sonic walked up to it. "I wonder what this is," he muttered, not caring if A.P. answered or not. He swung open a panel in the front. Inside were all sorts of buttons and dials. He stared at them uncomprehendingly, his brain too tired to work much anymore. A.P. looked too, but said nothing. Sonic closed the box and leaned against it. "I gotta have some sleep, A.P.," he said incoherently. He walked across the room to where two big pillars of stone had fused into the wall side by side, forming a little crevice in the floor and wall. Sonic lay down in a hollow in the cold stone, dizzy with exhaustion. The parrot found a perch on a formation a little way up and tucked his head under his wing. In thirty seconds flat they were both sound asleep.

The night deepened. The mine was still, the only noise being the occasional drip-drip here and there. Hours passed. Sonic and A.P. could have been carved out of the stone on which they slept for all they moved. Neither of them heard the soft footsteps as a figure stole into the room. He looked around, but didn't notice the two figures partly hidden in the dark corner. After a moment, he crossed the room and vanished into a tunnel on the far side.

Fifteen minutes later the person reappeared. This time he was marching someone with him at gunpoint--a little kid, hands on his head, gag tied around his face, eyes big with terror. The two walked into the center of the room and stopped. The bigger echidna pulled the gag off the smaller one's face and said quietly, "You can out your hands down." The little echidna whirled around chest heaving. "Why are you doing this, mister?" he asked, his voice loud and shrill. "Because," the other replied, "your father intends to put the subway through, and he won't listen to me."

"Are you going to--going to--"

"No, no, don't be ridiculous. At the very worst, the Floating Island could stand another inhabitant. All you have to do is cooperate, and nobody gets hurt, see?"

The two didn't notice the tiny movement in the far corner of the room. Sonic's eyes had snapped open at the first word spoken. He had rolled over and was watching with his body pressed flat behind a low rise in the floor. As they talked, he realized what he was witnessing--the kidnapping of Blaze! With straining ears and a thundering heart he listened to every word they said.

"You're gonna be in trouble when Dad finds out," young Blaze threatened. The Guardian sort of smiled and said, "Right, kid." The way he spoke, moved and tilted his head reminded Sonic of Knuckles. He could easily believe this was Knux's dad. He wondered if Knuckles knew anything about this, and decided not to tell him if he didn't. He wouldn't want to know if his own father had done the like.

The bigger echidna took Blaze by the arm and led him toward another tunnel, uncocked gun held aloft merely to threaten. Sonic watched them as they disappeared into it, then jumped to his feet and whispered, "A.P.! Birdface! Wake up, man!" The parrot above him sleepily pulled his head out from under his wing and looked around. His red crest was mussed and out of order, Sonic noticed. "What, Sonic?" he asked, giving a small yawn. "Shh!" Sonic hissed. "The Guardian and Blaze just came through!" A.P.'s crest flared high as he snapped to attention. "What? Are you sure?"

"Yeah! They went in that passage over there! Let's follow 'em!"

A.P. jumped off his rock and landed on Sonic's shoulder. "I'm game. You sure? You weren't dreaming?"

"No! It scared me so bad I should have woke up!"

Sonic slunk across the room and into the tunnel, heart in his throat. He could hear voices up ahead, and quietly stole toward them. Knuckles's father and Blaze were walking slowly down the passage, young Blaze alternately pleading and threatening. He was making so much noise it drowned out Sonic's footsteps. They had gone far enough for Sonic to figure out they were heading for the river dam, when A.P. whispered, "Sonic, stop. I need to tell you something."

Sonic stepped behind a bend in the tunnel. "What?"

"Sonic, how did Blaze say he was rescued?"

"Uh, well, he said the lights went out, and somebody carried him out of the mine."

"Sonic, that's us!"

"What? You're kidding me, right?"

"No, I'm not. Remember, the only time his rescuer spoke to him was to ask directions to get out. That could only be us, because we couldn't tell our way out of here from a hole in the ground, ha ha."

Sonic stared at the bird, a queer feeling rippling through his stomach. He knew what was going to happen, but was unsure as to how to pull it off. "I'm glad I'm not God," he whispered. "How do we take out the lights, and how the heck are we supposed to get him out?"

A.P. waved a wing toward the room they had left. "That control box had one for the lights. I could turn 'em off."

"But how're we supposed to see?"

"Man, you must have been really tired. Didn't you see the old infra-red goggles in there?"

"No."

"C'mon, let's go back."

As it turned out, cutting power to the lights took two minutes to initiate, giving them enough time to cut the power and head back for the Guardian and Blaze before it all went off. Sonic found the night-vision goggles heavy and cumbersome, but useable. After a short, hushed argument, they agreed to let A.P. disguise his voice and ask Blaze for directions out of the mine. Otherwise--what was the point?

Sonic threw the light switch. The lights dimmed abruptly as their power began to drain. Sonic donned the goggles without turning them on, let A.P. jump on his shoulder, then whirled and tore down the tunnel after the two echidnas.

Now they knew the way, it didn't take very long to catch up. The Guardian and Blaze had just entered the room with the dam as one wall, and the half-finished canal. Blaze was looking up at the lights apprehensively. "The lights are going off," he said worriedly. "We'd better get outta here." "Yes," the Guardian agreed. "I have a teleporter right over--"

Sonic picked up a rock and threw it into the room. It hit the floor with a chink and rattled noisily to a stop. The two echidnas whirled around and looked, the Guardian with his gun at the ready. Sonic crouched in the darkness behind a flowstone formation, breathlessly waiting.

"What was that?" the Guardian snarled. "Did you do that, Blaze?"

Blaze shook his head. "No. Ha, I'll bet it's Dad! He'll catch you, and you're gonna be in trou-ble."

"No! That can't hap--"

At that instant the lights winked out. Complete darkness settled over the mine--dark so thick it made no difference whether your eyes were open or closed. A total lack of light.

Sonic clicked on the goggles. The world snapped into view again in shades of green. Blaze and his kidnapper were standing stock still, staring around into the darkness. Sonic moved forward, feeling A.P. blindly clutch at his shoulder. "I can't see, remember," the bird whispered. "I know," Sonic whispered back. Suddenly bold, he strode up to the two echidnas, shoved the guardian away and grabbed Blaze's hand. "Hey!" he said. "Who is that?" Sonic didn't answer him. He glanced in the direction of the Guardian, who was standing a few feet away, half crouched, looking like a rabid animal. Suddenly afraid, Sonic broke into a run, pulling Blaze along behind him.

They ran until they came to the room Sonic and A.P. had slept in. Sonic stopped and poked A.P. The parrot, realizing it was time for his part, barked, "What's the fastest way out of the mine?" Sonic jumped. The bird was doing an exact impression of Robotnik's deep voice. Blaze was panting, staring blindly into the darkness. "Uh, take the big tunnel and follow it straight on up. Who are you?" A.P. didn't answer. Sonic looked around, selected the 'big tunnel' and took off again.

As they got moving again, there was a sound like a lion's roar behind them, and then the sound of rocks smashing. The Guardian, showing the temper Knuckles had inherited, was splintering the rocks of the dam like firewood. Unreasoning fear took over, and Sonic ran as only he could, dragging Blaze along with him.

They were forced to stop momentarily. Sonic took a corner too sharply and knocked Blaze into the wall. The young echidna reeled back, groaned and fell to the floor. Sonic stooped over him and muttered, "Out like a light. Just like he remembers. I'm gonna hafta carry him."

"Shh!" A.P. hissed suddenly. Sonic shushed, and his ears caught the faint sound of rushing water. "The dam broke," he muttered. "Oh gosh, if the water catches us down here--" He snatched up Blaze's limp body in both arms and took off again.

It was a long, hard run. Blaze was heavy, A.P. fluttered his wings for balance at every turn, and the roar of the water grew steadily louder. Sonic's breath came in hard, sharp gasps, and he wished desperately he had brought his emerald belt.

But at last he stumbled out into the main building at the surface. Light! Noise! Bright floodlights, people milling about, all stopping and turning to stare. A search party, he found out later. Sonic dropped to his knees and laid Blaze down on the ground, then sat there and drew breath after steady breath into his tortured lungs. He didn't notice when A.P. hopped off his shoulder, nor did he notice when several echidnas gathered around him and Blaze, talking loudly and furiously.

One echidna knelt down beside Blaze and gathered him tenderly into his arms. He looked at Blaze, then gazed up at Sonic. Sonic returned the look, suddenly realizing what a dangerous position he was in. Here was Blaze's father, ready with a million questions. If Blaze were told--

Sonic leaned forward. "Listen mister, don't tell him about me, okay?"

"Why not?"

"It's really important. If he finds out it'll change history ... Please don't tell him, please?"

The echidna seemed about to say something, but Blaze stirred in his arms and he glanced down at him. "Good grief!" Sonic gasped. He stumbled to his feet and ducked through the surrounding crowd, shouting for A.P.

The parrot swooped down and landed on his shoulder, and Sonic fled the building.

"Wait! Somebody stop that kid!" Blaze's father yelled, climbing to his feet, still holding his son. In the resulting confusion, it was some minutes before he got to the door and stepped outside. He was just in time to see a blue comet streak along the ground two hundred feet away, then flash up into the sky and vanish. He sighed. "One of the Time Rippers," he muttered. At that moment little Blaze opened his eyes. "D-dad?" he whimpered.

"Blaze! Son, are you all right?"

"Yeah, Dad ... boy, do I have something to tell you ... " ______________________________________________________________________

Chapter 10

Bad news and the Stardust Speedway ______________________________________________________________________

Sonic and A.P. arrived back in the present outside the mines. It was dark, and the stars shown brightly overhead. "Oh gosh," Sonic gasped. "I still gotta give the stone to Blaze. I donno if I can do it; this is like being in the Twilight Zone!"

"I know," A.P. agreed. "Oh, and Sonic, you still have those goggles."

"What?" Sonic reached up and felt the infra-red goggles on his forehead where he had shoved them as he exited the mine. He pulled them off and dropped them on the ground as if they had been red hot. A.P. stared down at them. "Hey, you're not gonna just leave them there, are you?"

Sonic gulped and nodded. "Yeah. Let Blaze figure out where they came from. I'm too weirded out right now to care."

* * *

Forty-five minutes later found A.P. and Sonic jogging down a wide gravel road, away from the Quartz Quadrant. Sonic was staring straight ahead, dazed. A.P. flew beside him. They had found Blaze and had given him the stone. Sonic told him they hadn't found the badnik maker, but to use the stone and find it himself. When he had asked them what was wrong, Sonic had said he had seen some things in the past that had really freaked him out. He refused all offers of hospitality, and was now heading out as fast as was safe.

* * *

Morning found the two still on the road. They had stopped and passed the remainder of the night sleeping in a grove of trees, and were on their way by dawn. Sonic seemed a little more relaxed, A.P. was relieved to see, even if he didn't once mention the night's activities. He talked only of where they were going, and of Serena.

At about eight o' clock they passed through a small town. The two stopped, ate breakfast there and rested a while. A.P. exchanged news with some other birds in the restaurant, and told Sonic what he had learned when they resumed traveling.

"Well," he said as he flew beside Sonic, "it seems Little Planet is just about back under control. Lower Mundane has it's stone, and so does Amusement Central. The Sunken City had its retrieved by a newcomer-- a girl hedgehog."

Sonic glanced at him. "Serena?"

"Sounded like it. She went scuba diving with a couple others and got it out of the ocean."

Sonic sighed. "Yeah, she's like me, all right. Busy, busy."

"Yeah," A.P. continued. "Electronics and Stardust Speedway had their's returned by the Time Rippers."

"Whoa," Sonic interrupted. "What are those?"

"Well," A.P. said, his crest rising, "Electronics is a sort of factory where a bunch of people are trying out different ways to manufacture tons of electricity cheaply. And I've already told you about Stardust--it's a big city with a floating racetrack in the middle."

They went along in silence a moment. Then Sonic said, "But that's only six. Where's the seventh stone?"

The parrot shook his bright head. "Nobody knows. Rumor has it Robotnik installed it into the aluminum jerk, but no one knows for sure."

Sonic frowned. "I'll bet he did. It'd be just like him. So I have to chase down Mecha and--"

A shadow crossed the path ahead of them. Sonic broke off, looked up, then stopped walking abruptly. Wheeling overhead were three golden eagles, all looking down at them. "Good morning!" Sonic called.

"Yeah, it's them," one of the eagles said to the others.

"I told you it was!" another one squawked.

The huge birds swept down and landed on the road around them. Sonic recognized one of them. "Goldie!" he said in surprise. The eagle cocked her head and looked at him with one eye. "Hi," she said cheerlessly. Sonic looked around at the other eagles, who seemed crestfallen. "What's the matter?" he asked. Goldie turned away as one of the others stepped forward. "I am Swiftwing," he said. "We have some bad news." Suddenly fearful, Sonic stared at him. "What?" he inquired. Swiftwing looked at the ground, then up at Sonic. "Serena Hedgehog has been captured by Metal Sonic."

Sonic felt a sickening dread wash over him and his knees went weak. "When?" he asked faintly. Swiftwing looked toward Goldie and said quietly, "Two hours ago. Her eagle was shot out from under her. She was captured, and Metal Sonic told her wounded carrier to tell Sonic to meet him at the Stardust Speedway this evening at sunset." Sonic looked over at A.P. and gulped. "Well, I guess I'll be there, then. Were you guys sent to take me there?" All three eagles bobbed their heads. Without a word Sonic went to Goldie and climbed on her back.

A moment later they were in the air. As they headed northwest, Sonic remembered Goldie had said Serena had been riding Windspeed, her son. He leaned forward and whispered in Goldie's ear, "It was Windspeed, wasn't it?" "Yes," the eagle replied tonelessly. "He may never fly again. They shot him in his wings."

* * *

Serena stood before Robotnik, Metal Sonic beside her. She was chained hand and foot, but she stood erect, head thrown back defiantly. Robotnik sneered down at her from the shelter of his hovercraft. "So nice to see you again, Ser-e-na," he purred. "How did you manage to escape?" She said nothing. Robotnik gazed at her. "Hmm. It must have involved Sonic." After a short pause, he said, "Mecha, bring her and get in. We must be at the Stardust Speedway before noon."

The robot obeyed. Serena glanced around helplessly at the open field before allowing Metal Sonic shove her in the ship. There was no help way out in the middle of nowhere, which is why they had shot down Windspeed out here. As long as she lived, she would never, never forgive Robotnik for shooting the eagle and leaving him for dead.

Reluctantly she climbed in and sat down in a corner of the tiny hovercraft. Mecha entered and stood behind Robotnik's chair, hands at his sides. As Robotnik started the craft's engines, he said, "Why are you so sullen, hedgehog? Mecha has been good to you." Incredulously she looked down at the bruises on her arms from the robot's iron grip. He had been good to her?

"Besides," Robotnik continued, "I am taking you to be re-united with your brother. What do you say to that?"

"I say you're a liar," Serena retorted.

Robotnik chuckled. "And so I am. But you are indeed to be released ... if."

"If what?" Serena ventured apprehensively.

"If," Robotnik said, "he wins the race."

* * *

Hours passed on both sides. The eagles carried Sonic to the Electronics factory where they picked up Jay, then headed for Stardust.

"I hate them!" Jay called to Sonic from astride Swiftwing. "What good can come of meeting them at the Speedway? Something's up."

"I know," Sonic called back. "I hope they haven't done anything to Serena, 'cause if they have ..."

"I heard she helped retrieve a stone."

"Yeah, I heard that, too, but I don't know anything else."

"Too bad. I'd like to know how she did it. How many stones did you find?"

"Two."

"What cities?"

"Amusement Central and--" he hated to even say the name "--Quartz Quadrant."

"I only got one--the one at Electronics. Robin got the ones for Lower Mundane and Stardust. Have you ever been to Stardust?"

"No. Is it cool?"

"No man, it's way past cool. You can't believe the Speedway until you see it--especially at night."

* * *

The city of Stardust turned out to be a sprawling metropolis, five times bigger than Lower Mundane. It's power plants were the only source of pollution on Little Planet, but even they were clean and well maintained compared to the ones in Robotropolis. A.P., it turned out, lived in the suburbs where they had big trees especially for the bird inhabitants. He stopped off there and told the others he would catch them later at the Speedway.

After a few more minutes of flying, the Stardust Speedway came into sight. It was smack in the center of the city, and looked like a roller coaster suspended in mid-air a hundred feet off the ground. It looked to Sonic like a huge snake twisted and coiled into fantastic shapes, frozen and flattened. "How does it stay up?" Sonic called to Jay. The eagles were flying in single file with Swiftwing in the lead. Jay turned his head and called back, "There are a bunch of powerful anti-gravity generators below it. They hold it up, but gravity is normal on top of the track."

The birds flew over the Speedway and circled. "Sonic leaned over Goldie's broad wing, looking down. The track was huge--there were four miles of it, all woven and interlaced. "Is Robotnik there yet?" Sonic asked his mount. She cocked her head and looked down. "Yes," she said after a moment. "His hovercraft is parked at the starting line. I see him and Metal Sonic ... "

"Is Serena there?"

"I don't see her."

Sonic peered down, straining his eyes, but he couldn't even see the hovercraft. "Eagle eyes," he muttered. "Can we go down? I want to find out what they want."

Goldie chirped to the other eagles, then dipped a wing and began to drop. "If I get shot it's your fault," she growled to Sonic. He didn't answer. He was stretched up against her neck, watching the floating track rising up to meet them. After a moment he saw the little ship parked on the track with two figures standing beside it.

* * *

Mecha and Robotnik watched the approaching eagle uncertainly. Metal Sonic raised his hand, aiming his wrist laser, but Robotnik slapped it down. "No," he growled. "No killing until tonight. If you shoot another eagle they'll turn on us." Mecha looked at him, his eyes glittering angrily. After a second they faded, and he returned his attention to the sky.

* * *

Goldie swooped down and landed on the track thirty feet from the hovercraft. Sonic slid off and stood beside her, looking up the track. "Stay here," he murmured. He turned and called, "Dr. Robotnik, I presume?" Robotnik only waved him forward. Sonic started forward cautiously, eyes on Metal Sonic's red ones. He decided ten feet was close enough. "Okay, what's the deal?" he demanded, folding his arms.

Robotnik motioned to Mecha, who turned, reached inside the hovercraft and pulled out Serena. She had her hands bound behind her, but otherwise seemed unhurt. Mecha dragged her out into the open and shoved her to her knees. She shook her mussed hair out of her eyes and sat up. For the first time she saw Sonic. "Sonic!" she cried. "'Rena!" he said. He started forward, but Mecha trained his wrist laser on her and snapped, "Not another step closer or she dies."

Sonic stopped.

Robotnik chuckled. "Well Hedgehog, it seems I have the upper hand."

"Let her go, you slimeball!"

"Certainly, but--"

"But what?"

"You must win."

"Win? Win what?"

The doctor turned and waved an arm toward the track stretching into the distance and curving above them. "Tonight at sunset, you and Metal Sonic will race over the Speedway. No rules; anything goes. Whoever reaches the finish gate first wins the prize: your sister's life." He turned to face Sonic. "How about it?"

Sonic's head was down, jaw thrust out, gazing into Serena's frightened face. After a moment he looked up, his eyes dangerously bright. "What's the catch?"

"Catch?"

"With you, there's always a catch."

"Ah, yes. The catch. Mecha, show him."

The robot stood erect and threw his head and shoulders back. A bright red glow shown through his engine intake and shot through the seams in his arms and legs. His eyes completely red and pupils no longer visible, he looked at Sonic triumphantly. "I am the catch," he gloated. "The red time stone contains more power than the chaos emerald I had, and Little Planet gives it even more. You will never defeat me! Ah ha ha ha!"

* * *

Sonic sat with his back against a tree, knees drawn up to his chin, arms wrapped around. His eyes were fixed intently on the Stardust Speedway, towering into the sky above. He was sitting in a park a short distance from the base of the track, a glum look on his face. He didn't stir as Jay walked around him, talking quietly and furiously. Swiftwing and the other eagle had left, and only Goldie remained. She was sitting in a tree a short distance away, preening her feathers as if nothing were wrong.

"Nothing could be worse than this, Sonic! I mean, Mecha will be out for your blood! And with the red time stone in his Tesla coil, he might do anything!" Jay paused for a breath.

Sonic said softly, "But there's no other way, is there?"

Jay turned and looked up at the Speedway above them, running his hand through his short hair. "No," he sighed. "There really isn't. I wish there was, though ... Hey! I could rip time and skip back to where they kidnapped her and stop it!"

Sonic pulled his eyes away from the track and looked at the fiery little echidna dully. "No Jay. They would kill you, and I would still be here, wondering what to do."

Jay looked down. "Yeah," he said slowly, dragging the word out. "Ain't nothin' we can do, I guess ... except cheer you on tonight."

Sonic lowered his head and studied the grass. "I just hope I'm up to it. Like you said, Mecha might try anything."

* * *

Serena was sitting in Robotnik's hovercraft, forehead resting on her knees, hands still bound behind her. She didn't move or make a sound; it looked as if she were asleep. But she wasn't, not by a long shot. Her ears were open and straining to catch every word her captures said. They were discussing the night's activities.

"S-Son-the hedgehog seemed upset about the condition of the prisoner."

"Yes, perhaps, but that is natural."

"Why no killing until tonight? It seems best we kill her now, then take care of Son--the hedgehog when he comes this evening."

"Ah, but that is where you are in error, my robot friend. He will demand to see her before the race, and of course we must oblige him. Otherwise he may balk."

"But why? He's our enemy, isn't he?"

"Yes. And I intend to trick him into a false sense of security. It is on the race course the deed must be done. Here is what you must do..."

Their voices dropped to a murmur, and try as she might, Serena couldn't make out the rest.

* * *

The sun reached it's peak and began it's westward swing. Sonic had reluctantly accepted lunch, but refused dinner, unable to eat. Robin had arrived from another part of Stardust. At Sonic's request, he was able to provide hologram schematics of the race course. Sonic studied them for a long time.

"I'm worried about him," Jay told his older brother privately. "He's not acting like himself. All he wants to do is look at the Speedway."

"Sure," Robin replied quietly. "He wants to be sure of winning. His sister's life is at stake. If he loses, it would probably mean the end for both of them. I would act the same way if it were you instead of Serena."

"Ain't there anything we can do?"

"Isn't, and no. Nothing, except try to help him get ready."

"I wish Mom and Dad were here."

"I know. So do I."

Sonic couldn't think of anything he wanted more than his emerald belt. He could almost feel it's smooth weight around his waist, and wistfully thought of how easily Hyper Sonic could win. He considered blowing his ever-present whistle for Slasher, but decided it would be a waste of effort. She would get gravity sickness coming, and she wouldn't know to bring his belt, anyway.

As the bottom of the red disk of the sun touched the horizon, Sonic mounted Goldie and headed for the Stardust Speedway.

______________________________________________________________________

Chapter 11

The Race

______________________________________________________________________

Serena was bound hand and foot to a large metal post behind the finish line. She was nearly sick with dread; many plans had been laid for Sonic's death. She only hoped Sonic was wise enough to outwit his two enemies. Otherwise ...

The start and finish line were both barricaded. For the starting line, a huge door in a ten-foot frame would snap open, allowing the racers to pass through in their own good time. The finish line was a door almost exactly like it, except it stayed open until the racers had entered, then closed behind them. Serena was tied next to this door. She didn't dare struggle, for beyond the post to her back was empty space--fifty feet of it.

She watched the sun sink below the horizon. As soon as it vanished the race would start, she knew. As she stood there, she noticed the broad shape of an eagle rising toward the track from below. This was probably the eagle Sonic had ridden earlier. It flew up into the dimming sky above, then wheeled and swooped toward her. She looked up at it piteously. She could just see Sonic's face peeking over the bird's wing. "Rena!" he shouted. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah!" she called back. "Just peachy! I'm having the time of my life down here!"

"Well, just hang on! I'm gonna win."

"Sonic, be careful. Mecha's planning on maiming you on the track somehow!"

"Don't worry, sis, I'll make it. Thanks for the info!"

The eagle and Sonic skimmed away toward the start. Serena watched them until they were out of sight, then glanced toward the sun. Only a few more minutes left. She turned her head and watched the finish gate. When it opened, the race will have begun.

* * *

Sonic slid off Goldie's back and cockily approached the starting line. Metal Sonic was already there, impatiently tapping one foot, Sonic-fashion. Robotnik was overhead in his hovercraft with the top down, watching cooly. "It's about time you got here, hedgehog," he said. Sonic would have sneered at him if Mecha hadn't been within striking distance. "I got here, didn't I? Let's get this thing over with."

Robotnik looked toward the sun, which was three-fourths gone. "Get ready," he barked. Sonic crouched, facing the gate. Mecha, ignoring him, revved his engines, firing up the blue light in his back. "Get set!" Robotnik called, one eye on the sun, the other on the racers. Sonic's body was taut as a drawn bowstring, ready to fire. Mecha's engines were humming steadily, easily, idling. They both waited.

"GO!"

The gate snapped open. Sonic leaped through and was gone. Mecha took a few seconds to accelerate, then shot after his rival. Robotnik watched them go with an evil smile, then clicked on his craft's engines and roared away over the track toward the finish line.

* * *

Goldie wheeled high overhead in the pale green evening sky, eyes on the track below. Jay and Robin were both on her back, perched somewhat precariously. "They're off!" she cried. The two Time Rippers leaned over opposite wings, peering down. They could see the track and the sparkling lights of the city, but they were too high to see the contestants.

"Who's ahead?" Jay asked, bouncing up and down on the bird's back with excitement.

"Sonic, but Mecha's coming up on him. Stop moving around--you'll fall off!"

"Can we get lower?" Robin asked irritably, glaring at his little brother.

"Sure," Goldie replied, cocking her wedge-shaped head. "Hang on!"

* * *

Sonic was tearing down the track, pushing two-fifty. All his pent-up tension and anger was pouring into his muscles and pounding feet. Mecha was only thirty feet behind and gaining. The track had guardrails only on the sharp turns and was six feet wide; there would be no passing without a struggle.

Sonic's speed was superior, but Mecha had the power of the red time stone on his side. Sonic didn't quite know what it could do, but remembered Knuckles's account of how it had shocked him the first time he touched it, and of it's constant heat. It had some sort of power, that was certain. The question was, what could Metal Sonic do with it?

The track dropped steeply toward the ground. Sonic curled into a blue ball and shot down it, using his momentum to shoot up the rise on the other side. He came out of his spin in time to whiz around a loop, take a sharp curve and travel a tight spiral almost to the ground, then up, up, up again into the darkening sky. He had the feeling he was running in space--the city lights shown and twinkled like the Milky Way, and the stars in the sky above were nearly as numerous as the city's. This was how the Stardust Speedway had earned it's name.

Sonic flung a glance over his shoulder. Mecha had fallen back fifty feet and stayed there, content to keep his distance.

* * *

Two miles gone, two to go. Sonic now faced a complicated assortment of loops, curves, twists and drops. He took them at a run, breath coming easily, looking back at Metal Sonic every chance he got. The robot had really begun to go, flying over the track, black eyes fixed on Sonic. It was the approaching area he intended to act in. As Sonic hit the first twist and loop, Mecha began to overload his power supply, drawing on the stone in his power core. He began to glow red as he had earlier, his eyes becoming completely red, pupils no longer visible.

His engines rose to a scream, and just like that Mecha's speed matched Sonic's. He leveled out, hands outstretched, feet no longer touching the track, shedding a blood-red light on the track below him. He began to cut down on the distance between himself and his rival like mad.

* * *

"Lookit Metal Sonic!" Jay exclaimed from Goldie's back. "Robin, look at him! That's weird!"

"I see," Robin said grimly. "That's wrong. That's cheating! Sonic's no match for that!"

"Aiee, look," their mount interrupted. "He's coming up on Sonic. Look, Sonic's letting him pass!"

"Smart kid," Robin said, eyes on the track below. "But look now! Mecha's slowing down! He's gonna make Sonic hit him!"

* * *

Metal Sonic had swerved around his namesake, nearly throwing Sonic from the track. Sonic's footsteps faltered as he saw the glowing robot, then resumed his pace. Mecha's red glow faded and he snapped erect, slowing, daring Sonic to hit him from behind. Sonic was forced to slow as well, fury burning within him.

Ahead was a steep drop with a twist in the middle. The two plunged down it, Sonic furiously, Mecha at a leisurely pace. Naturally, this resulted in Sonic catching the robot halfway down. As he came up behind he snarled, "Yield, you cretin!"

"Never!" was the solid reply.

Sonic tried to pass him anyway; he couldn't slow down now even if he wanted to. He dodged around the robot on the outside, dangerously close to the edge of the raceway. Mecha saw, and Mecha struck.

One sharp foot lashed out, catching Sonic in the shin. Sonic stumbled toward the edge for one heart-stopping second--he could see the city lights below--then curled into a ball and rolled into the middle of the track, behind Mecha. The robot laughed triumphantly and shot away down the course.

Sonic came out of his spin and kept going, trying to ignore the feeling of blood running down his leg. It didn't hurt yet and wouldn't until he stopped, but that didn't stop the bleeding. He kept going. Less than half a mile to go.

* * *

"What happened?" Jay and Robin asked Goldie simultaneously. She shook her brown head. "I think the robot kicked him, but I don't know where. He seems okay ... uh-oh. His leg's bleeding."

"Bad?"

"I can't tell. He's still going. Come on, Sonic!" This last was addressed at maximum volume to Sonic, fifty feet below on the track. He didn't acknowledge the call, but kept going, eyes fixed on the robot way ahead.

* * *

Mecha, a quarter of a mile ahead, slowed down and stopped, looking back. Sonic was coming, but at only half the speed he had been. The robot turned and beckoned to Robotnik in his hovercraft, who was floating a short distance away. The doctor swooped forward like the evil vulture he was, grinning maliciously. He hovered above the track, waiting for Sonic to arrive.

In another moment the hedgehog reached them. He was limping and breathing heavily, but the look on his face said he was far from beaten. "Greetings," Metal Sonic said cordially. "What happened to your leg, trip?" He snickered.

"Shut up," Sonic snapped, feeling a dull ache as the cool night air touched his wound. "This is a race, remember?"

"Good point," Robotnik said from above. "And now it's a race to the finish. Whoever loses, dies." The big glowing disk on the underside of his ship began to glow bright green. A second later a laser beam appeared, burning into the track, cutting off all retreat. "Go!" he snarled.

Metal Sonic took off with all the speed his rival had had. Sonic followed him, looking like a bird with a broken wing. Robotnik started after them, dragging the beam across the track, eyes fixed murderously on Sonic.

* * *

"No, no, it ain't fair!" Jay was crying. "The jerks! Sonic doesn't stand a chance now!"

"Shh!" Goldie hissed fiercely. "Can't you see? He's bluffing! He's letting them think it's worse than it is. I've seen too many mother birds do that to lead the predator away from their young to be fooled. It's exaggerated."

* * *

And so it was. Sonic knew he was taking a terrible risk, but if he could convince his enemies he was really hurt, Mecha might not try to win until it was too late. Even so, he ran after the robot with fear for his sister in his heart.

Metal Sonic glanced over his shoulder and slowed his killing pace, disappointed. Sonic wasn't even trying. It wouldn't be any fun to win if he couldn't look back and see Sonic's face. He let him get about thirty feet away before setting off at an easy pace, his body language calling Sonic a wimp up and down.

"Good," Sonic thought. "He's buying it."

The line continued, Sonic, Mecha and Robotnik, until the last furlong (160 feet). Then Sonic dropped the act and leaped forward, his speed like a thunderbolt. Metal Sonic didn't see him until he had been passed and left in the dust. With a ferocious roar the robot gave chase. Robotnik sped up as well, keeping up, rooting for Mecha all the way.

Sonic tore along the flat homestretch, heart dislocated and lodged in his throat. Metal Sonic was glowing red again, trying desperately to catch up, and horrors! he was. He was flying with his arms over his head; he wasn't going to wait until the end of the race to get Sonic. Robotnik was coming up right behind him. Sonic lifted his head and there, not fifty feet away, was the finish gate.

Suddenly, in his mind, Sonic had a flashback to the day before--had it really only been two days?--when he, Mecha and Serena had run through the meadow, a race for life. Sonic had lost that race ... would he lose this one?

The gap between the three of of them was narrowing. They were only twenty feet apart now, nearing the point where they would all collide. Sonic extended himself, leveled out, his feet a blur, the blue sparks of a time warp beginning to fly off his body. The gate loomed closer, larger than life--

Sonic dove through it. To his surprise, the door banged shut behind him--right in Metal Sonic's face. He heard the robot's outraged yell as he tried to completely decelerate in five feet, which, of course, he couldn't. He crashed into the iron door at three hundred MPH, splintering his metal hull on impact. He might have survived, even then, if not for the fact that Robotnik, still coming up, couldn't shut off his laser. The powerful beam struck the robot, blowing him to pieces. By the time Robotnik got the beam shut off, the infamous Metal Sonic was vanquished.

"NOO!" Robotnik cried, half-rising and peering over the side of his ship. "No! Oh-no! Not Mecha! NO-O-O!!!"

Sonic had skidded to halt, gasping with amazement--he had won! "'Rena," he panted, "I did it! I wo--" he turned. Serena wasn't there. Only the metal post remained, it's emptiness mocking him. Sonic turned all around, scanning up and down the track, bewildered.

Robotnik's hovercraft flew up and over the high finish gate. He snuffed out a red glow on the dash board, then stared at Sonic. He was glowering, livid with rage. "How dare you! I don't--"

"Where's Serena?!?" Sonic interrupted, a terrible suspicion dawning on him. "She was to be released!"

Robotnik's anger changed to calm satisfaction in an instant. "Ah yes. Serena. It's like this, Sonic; I really didn't think you would win. So ... "

"What did you do to her?" Sonic demanded, his voice nearing a scream, hands clenched at his sides.

Robotnik chuckled. "Simple. Do you know how high up we are?"

Suddenly sick, Sonic stepped to the edge of the track and looked down. The ground was in deep shadow, and he could see nothing. He turned back to face Robotnik. He felt numb, drained. No feeling. He sank down on the hard track, staring at nothing.

He didn't hear the whoosh and thump as Goldie arrived and landed. Jay and Robin slid off her back and walked up to Sonic. He didn't notice them at all. He just sat there, fighting total breakdown.

Jay sat down next to him and awkwardly put an arm around his shoulders. Robin remained standing, his eyes fixed on the post Serena had been tied to. Slowly he turned and and looked at Robotnik, who was still floating in his hovercraft, watching. "You," the echidna said quietly, tonelessly. "You shouldn't have done that, Doctor."

His hands moving almost too quickly to see, Robin unhooked his time gun from his belt and fired it at the hovercraft. The little ship jerked backward and shuddered, then shut down. "Hey!" Robotnik yelped in outrage. Robin and Goldie watched him cooly. "Where is the red time stone?" Robin asked, his voice cold.

"You'll never get it!" Robotnik snarled, trying desperately to start his ship again.

"Tell me," Robin insisted, "or this eagle will tear you apart, and I'm not kidding." Robotnik's head jerked up and he stared at Goldie, who looked as if she would start at a moment's notice.

After a long moment, Robotnik snapped, "It was in Mecha's power core, but I picked it up and teleported it to my base--you'll never find the base."

Goldie spread her wings and fluttered up onto the nearby finish gate, where she very purposefully sharpened her dark beak. Intimidated, Robotnik growled, "Okay, okay!" He twisted around in his seat and pointed across the light-studded city. "See the building that looks like me with the searchlights on it? That's it. Now let me go!"

Robin nodded and pressed a button on his time gun. Immediately the hovercraft's engines came on. Robotnik whirled around and roared off in the direction of the indicated building.

Sonic hadn't stirred through the whole conversation. He simply sat there, a hurt in his soul that matched the one in his leg. He couldn't speak, he couldn't cry--he felt nothing. Nothing but the horrible emptiness inside. Serena--dead! His only sibling in the world, murdered because of a stupid race.

At last a voice roused him. It was the high, clear, somewhat annoying voice of A.P. "Sonic!" he chirped, "I saw the whole thing! Great race!" He landed on Sonic's shoulder and looked into his face, puzzled. Sonic looked dully at the bright green bird and said nothing. "What's the matter?" the parrot questioned, looking around the circle of faces. Jay, nearby, said, "Shut up already, A.P. Don't you know about Serena?"

The bird cocked his head, curious. "No. What?"

"Robotnik shoved her off the track."

"Yeah, so?"

"So? Don't you get it? She's dead, you idiot!" The word cut to the core of Sonic's heart, and so did the reply, but in a different way.

Imitating Jay's voice, A.P. retorted, "Shut up already, Jay. She's alive, you idiot."

The whole group, including Sonic, jumped and stared at the parrot. "What?" they all gasped.

A.P. jumped off Sonic's shoulder and pattered to the edge of the track. "Don't you guys know about the anti-gravity generators below the track on the ground? I'd say she fell about five feet." The bird looked over the track into darkness and called, "Oh, 'Re-na! You can come out now."

He backed away from the edge. The group sat where they were, frozen in shocked amazement, as first one hand, then another, gripped the edge of the track. Serena pulled her head and shoulders into view. Her face was pale and dirty. She looked around uncertainly, almost fearfully. "Where's Sonic?" she murmured.

Sonic bounded to his feet and leaped over to her. "Right here, 'Rena." He pulled her up onto the Speedway with the rest of them, then hugged her. She hugged him back. A moment later she pulled away from him and said reproachfully, "Sonic, you're shaking like a leaf! Are you okay?" Sonic nodded, a lump in his throat, a wave of relief and joy washing over him. She looked at him, then at the others. A light was dawning on her face. "He told you I was dead, didn't he? Why that--that--" she stopped for want of the right word. She threw her arms around her brother once more. "Oh Sonic, we're back together again! You won't believe the stuff that's happened to me!"

After the two had gotten over their primary emotions, Serena was introduced to Jay and Goldie, and to A.P., whom she had already met. Then Goldie made two trips to the ground and back, carrying two passengers each time. Then the group headed away from the Speedway, toward Sonic's last stop on Little Planet.

Robotnik's Factory, called by most Metallic Madness.

_______________________________________________________________________

Chapter 12

Metallic Madness

_______________________________________________________________________

Sonic pulled off his shoe and bloodstained sock and made a face. "Lookit my leg. Gross." The unattended gash on his leg had bled and bled. It had stopped by that time, but a dark patch of dried blood ran all the way down his leg, into his shoe. Serena glanced at it and pretended to gag. "Blech, that's awful! What happened?"

The two hedgehogs and the Time Rippers (and the green parrot) were sitting in the lobby of a hospital. Robin had insisted they get Sonic's leg fixed up before heading for the Factory, and Sonic had agreed, though not without protest. Goldie had escorted them that far and then left, as the Factory was only a short walk from there.

Jay and Robin were sitting in a row of chairs across from the hedgehogs, watching. A tabby cat in a nurse's uniform approached Sonic. "Well, young man, it looks like you have a pretty good cut there."

Sonic nodded. "No kidding. I don't have any money; can I just get it, you know, cleaned up?"

The cat clicked her tongue. "Well, it seems you and your friends are strangers here. Mobians, perhaps? Yes. Children go for free, so it's no big deal. Come with me, please." Sonic stood up and smiled at his friends. "Be right back, guys."

They watched him as he followed the nurse into a back room. Serena sighed and slumped back in her chair. "Gosh, I'm tired," she complained. Jay yawned. "Yeah, I know what you mean. When can we go home, Rob?"

The older echidna looked down at him. "Not 'til we get the last time stone. You can, if you like."

Jay shook his head. "No, no, I'm not that tired."

Serena smiled at him. "You guys sound just like me'n Sonic. Think he'll be all right?"

Robin nodded. "Yeah. He finished the race on a hurt leg, so it can't be too bad."

A.P. hadn't said a word the whole time. He was sitting on the back of one of the chairs, one foot pulled into his feathers, eyes closed, dozing.

After a few minutes Sonic reappeared, a white bandage around his knee and upper shin. He walked out to his friends and sat down next to Serena. "Well guys," he said, looking around, "I guess we can start the second part of our quest." Robin and Jay nodded, but A.P. said nothing. He was a green featherball, his beak buried in his back. Sonic poked him. "Hey featherface," he said, "wake up. There's been a volcanic eruption and we have to evacuate." The bird's head shot up, his dark eyes big. "What? What did you say?"

"I said it's time to get a move on."

"Oh."

The group chuckled as they climbed to their feet. A.P. hopped onto Serena's head, and they hit the street together.

The city was alight with spotlights, streetlights and floodlights. Stardust was aptly named, they agreed. The group of five walked from dark to light and into dark again, talking back and forth. Serena explained how Robotnik had cut her free and shoved her off the track, thinking she would fall all the way to the ground. "Like A.P. said, I fell about five feet. I did the first thing I thought of--hid under the track. A.P. found me a few minutes later and told me to stay put until he gave the all clear."

Sonic looked at the parrot, who had shifted his perch to Jay's shoulder. "And boy, did I freak when she wasn't there." He grinned ruefully. "Joke's on me, I guess." Serena, walking next to him, slipped her hand into his. They had both been scared.

The Factory was built on the western outskirts of Stardust. Once an old, abandoned church, Robotnik had quietly remodeled it and changed it into an industrial thingamajig. It was modeled after himself, like the Death Egg and his old boss robots. Three spotlights were trained on it, highlighting it's grotesque features. As the intrepid five neared it, they could see the road led straight through the high metal fence and into the building beyond. It was shut up tight.

The group stood outside the locked gates, staring up at the hideous structure with distaste. "Looks like Robotnik built it," Sonic grumbled. He looked at his friends. "Do we climb the fence and risk personal damage, or look for another way in?"

Jay and Robin looked at each other. "Another way in, definitely." Jay poked A.P. on his shoulder. "Hey parrot, you live here. Know of an alternate route?"

The bird sighed, his red crest flattening. "I was hoping you wouldn't ask me that. Yeah. There's a broken place in the fence in back." He ruffled his feathers as they began walking. "I don't want to go in. I've been there before. It's not pretty."

"Yeah," said Serena, jerking a thumb up at the towering cement sculpture. "Ain't pretty at all."

It took them half an hour to circle the Factory and it's outlying buildings. As they neared the far side, they came to a place where the sidewalk spread out in every direction, a dull silver in the starlight. "What's this?" Sonic asked, thinking there was something familiar about it. The Time Rippers looked at each other and shrugged. They didn't know. After a moment of silence, Serena mumbled, "I know what this is. If we could walk far enough out on it, we'd come to the chain that holds Little Planet to Mobius."

"You mean we've gone in a complete circle?"

Robin grinned. "Sure. It IS a little planet."

"Yeah," Jay added. "It's a small world after all--"

"Hey! Don't sing that!"

"Okay, okay. Touch-y!"

A.P. fluttered over to Sonic's shoulder. "I don't want to be caught in the cross-fire," he explained.

A short search revealed the broken bars in the fence; Robotnik never fixed anything, if he could help it. They bent the bars out a little further, then crawled through the gap. From there, factory entrance was easy.

* * *

They were met by the loud, repetitive hiss-whirr-clank of big machines. The room they entered was packed wall-to-wall with generators, all running at a furious pace. The air was heavy with exhaust, the floor slick with spilled oil. The group hurriedly picked their way between the machines and to a door on the far side. They tumbled through it, half-choking on the foul air. Sonic, in the lead as always, was the first to make it through--so he saw it first and stopped short. The others fell against him, complained, looked at him, then followed his gaze.

The room they stood in had a high ceiling and two doors set in the facing wall. But the walls were not visible. They were covered with small steel cages, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. The cages all held small occupants; mostly birds, but also mice and rabbits. The prisoners had all been setting up a terrific noise, but now a silence fell over the room. Who were these newcomers?

After a moment of stunned quiet, A.P. said, "These are all waiting to be put into robots. I was in that cage over there. Hoo boy."

At that moment, a squawking parrot voice from one of the cages said, "Hey gang, look! It's A.P.! Hey there, A.P.!" The room resounded with the repeated greeting. After it had died down, the first parrot asked, "How'd you escape, A.P.? And who are these guys?"

The echidnas and hedgehogs were looking around, trying to spot the other parrot. They finally did by following A.P.'s gaze as he introduced them. From what they could see, the other parrot was a bright yellow with an orange crest. He stood next to his cage door, head cocking back and forth, his bright eyes taking in the group on the floor. As soon as A.P. had finished speaking, the other blurted, "Can you guys get us free?"

The group looked at each other. Why not?

A moment later, the hedgehogs and echidnas had split up and were standing before each wall. Robin was issuing commands. "Okay, everybody start at the top row and work your way down. On your mark, get set--"

"Wait!" A.P. chirped from atop a cage row. "I want to tell them something first. Hey guys," he said, addressing the prisoners, "Sonic there killed the aluminum jerk! Metal Sonic is dead!"

The resulting cheer shook the factory to it's foundations. And so did the next thing Robin said: "On your mark, get set, go!"

The four Mobians leaped at the cages, climbed up the fronts and began unlatching the doors. Birds and small animals poured out in showers, all shouting in glee. A.P. held open the exit door, allowing the captives to flee through the engine room and into the night beyond. It was like what happened when the door to Noah's Ark was opened.

In two minutes flat the room was empty, cage doors hanging open. Only the yellow parrot, A.P.'s friend, had stayed behind to thank his rescuers.

His name was Sparky. His yellow plumage and green tail were dirty and worn from living in the cage for so long, but his spirits were bright. After thanking them, he asked them why in the world they had come to Metallic Madness in the first place. Sonic explained about the time stone and Robotnik. Sparky listened with an effort, then said, "Heck, I know where the red stone is. It's in the middle of the factory, next room over. I can show you where it is, if I can hitch a ride. My wings are kind of weak--I haven't used them in three months, you see."

So they set out again. The two birds had a brief argument over which door to go through, and finally decided on the left one.

They entered the main construction room of the Factory. It was round with a high, domed ceiling. There were all sorts of strange machinery flanking the walls, and cables littered the floor. But what held their attention was the pedestal in the center of the room. On it, clutched in three metal claws, was the big red time stone.

"There it is," Sonic breathed. He started forward, but A.P. and Sparky, on either shoulder, dug their claws into him. He screeched to a stop, pawing at their feet. A.P., in a huff, fluttered off to Robin, but Sparky said cheerfully, "You didn't need to screech quite that loud. Insulted A.P., you did." Sonic rubbed his pierced shoulders and complained, "What'd you two do that for?" Sparky motioned with one wing. "Can't you see? There's laser beams guarding it."

Sonic turned to the others helplessly. They stepped forward. Sure enough, there were laser lenses set in a ring in the floor around the pedestal, all of them glowing red. They shot up to their receptors in the ceiling somewhere. Robin very cautiously approached the ring, studying the tiny, multiple lenses. Then he turned to the others and said, "Anybody got anything on 'em light can't shine through? These are just sensors, I think--they won't burn through anything in a hurry." Sonic and Serena shook their heads. They didn't have anything. Robin looked at his brother. "You got anything?"

"Just my gear, and I sure ain't gonna contribute IT to the cause."

"Well then, that leaves me, and I can't give anything. Let me see ..."

As Robin stood there thinking, Sonic said, "what would a sensor beam do? If it wouldn't hurtcha, and all it did was set off an alarm, I'd say jump through, grab the stone and head out."

Robin looked at him, one hand on his chin. "You have a point there." He dropped one hand to his time gun. "Go for it. If any hidden guns appear or something, me'n Jay'll hold 'em off to the end." Jay grinned at him and drew his gun.

Sonic let Sparky hop to the ground, then took a few running steps and leaped into the laser beams.

And he realized his mistake. Those weren't sensor beams--they were something far deadlier. The lasers hit him with their blinding heat as he passed through. Searing pain shot through his body. His back arched in mid-air, flinging his head back. He landed on one foot and collapsed to the floor at the foot of the pedestal, his body curled in the fetal position. "Sonic!" Serena shrieked. She would have leaped through the lasers to get to him, but Jay and Robin held her back. "Sonic!"

Sonic's body was flashing a white light, sort of like Hyper Sonic, but different. The pain was excruciating, but through it his mind screamed, "Get the stone. Get the stone and it might stop!" He slowly uncurled and pulled himself up against the pedestal, the pulsing light blinking faster. How high was the pedestal? It was at least two stories tall--he would never be able to climb it--the light was going faster, faster--

He stood all the way up, reached out and grabbed the stone, wrenching it from it's holder in a strength born of desperate pain. Then he turned and threw it at his friends. It skipped through the forcefield and landed at their feet. Sonic slid down against the pillar, both hands clutching at his chest, his light blinking so fast now it was nearly solid. He closed his eyes, grabbed at his head, heard himself moan ...

The pain vanished, the blinking light was gone. Sonic opened his eyes, feeling a tad queasy. What had happened? Gosh, he was awful close to the floor. He slowly climbed to his feet and looked up at his friends. Way, way up. The pillar was now ten stories tall, his friends about that. They were staring at him with open mouths, speechless. He looked down at himself, at the floor, up at the pillar, then at his friends. Had the world been magnified, or ...?

Suddenly Jay guffawed. He bent over and slapped his thigh, roaring with laughter. "Little Sonic!" he gasped. "Riot!" The two birds, Robin, Serena and Sonic all glared at him. Then Sonic realized what had happened.

"I've been SHRUNK?!?" he cried, noticing how small his voice sounded. "No!!"

"To about three inches," Jay cried, nearly hysterical. "That's the funniest thing I ever--"

Robin's mouth twisted into a smile now. "Well, you don't hafta worry about the lasers--you can just walk between them."

Sonic did, noticing how big the room was all of a sudden. To him, the lasers were all about three feet apart.

Serena stepped up to him and went down on her hands and knees, staring at him. She was the only one who hadn't laughed, but the glint in her eyes showed she was about to. "Sonic?" she whispered. He folded his arms and glared up at her. "What?"

"You know, I've always wanted a little brother. HA!" She fell back, holding her sides.

"It's not funny!" Sonic yelped, his voice shrill.

* * *

Sonic's passage through the shrink-rays had triggered a small security system. A red light began to blink on and off on Robotnik's big control desk. He didn't notice it for a few minutes, but at last it caught his eye. "Uh-oh," he muttered, looking up from a scouting report he had been reading. He pressed a button below the red light. It stopped flashing, and a blank monitor flickered on. The security camera showed Serena, two echidnas and two parrots standing around the time stone holder--except, they weren't really standing. They were staggering back and forth, carrying on as if they were dying of nerve gas or something.

Puzzled, Robotnik looked closer. What in the ...? Were they _laughing_? Why were they laughing in that disgusting manner? And what had disturbed the rays? He watched them, twisting and untwisting the end of his mustache, vaguely concerned. He had always thought the Freedom Fighters were crazy, but not insane. He hoped they wouldn't disturb the machinery...

A small movement caught his eye. A mouse? No, not a mouse--it was blue. As he looked at it, it occurred to him that he hadn't seen Sonic with the group. Could it be ...? Suddenly Robotnik realized why they were laughing. In fact, he had a nearly irresistible urge to join them in tasteless mirth. Sonic had been shrunk!

* * *

Down in the main room, the group was starting to calm down. A.P. and Sparky, who had gotten over their hilarity minutes ago, walked up to Sonic and stood looking at him.

"You guys are as big as the eagles," Sonic told them. "Hey A.P., you rode me all over Little Planet--now I can ride you."

The green parrot eyed him uneasily. "I donno, Sonic. What if the ray wears off?"

"That'd be great!"

"You might smash me."

"I doubt it."

"Hey," said Sparky, "I know. You can ride one of us, and we can sit on somebody's shoulder. How's that?"

"That'd work, I guess. I'd want to ride A.P., though ... you're kind of ... dirty."

"Yeah, you'd probably be better off with him."

The others finally got control of themselves and walked over. A.P. and Sparky explained Sonic's idea, and they readily agreed. Sonic climbed up between A.P.'s wings, finding the parrot a different shape and build than the eagles. A.P.'s body was harder, more compact, sleeker. Sonic reached up and rumpled the parrot's crest, which promptly flattened as the bird turned his head.

"Don't!" the parrot snapped. "I can hurt you, you know."

"If you could catch me."

"I doubt you could break the sound barrier at your current height."

A.P. fluttered up onto Serena's shoulder, Sonic clinging to him for dear life. "Gosh," the bird complained, "you feel like a bunch of mud stuck to my feathers."

"You'll get used to it. I got used to you."

"A bird on the shoulder is different than mud on your back."

"Says who? When did you ever have a bird on your shoulder, featherhead?"

"Hey," said Serena, cutting into their conversation. "No fighting, you two. Sonie, Robin was trying to talk to you."

"Ack! Don't call me 'Sonie!'"

"I'll call you whatever I want, and you can't do anything about it." She smiled sweetly.

Sonic ground his teeth and turned to look at Robin. He was only a few feet away, but it seemed like miles to Sonic. "Hey there," Robin said with a smile. He would probably smile every time he addressed little Sonic. "Hey yourself," Sonic returned, still ticked off.

"Now that we've got the last stone, do you think we should go home?"

"NO!" Sonic shouted, making A.P. and Serena jump. "Not until I get resized. I'd die if I had to spend the rest of my life like this!" Jay, standing somewhere behind his brother, snickered. Robin could only half-stifle his smirk. "Okay, okay. I guess Serena wouldn't want to be a big sister forever."

Serena tried to strangle her laugh and almost choked. Sonic glared at her. He wasn't enjoying these 'little' jokes.

Robin coughed into his hand, cleared his throat and said, "Anyway, what I was going to say is, why don't we look around this place and see if we can find an un-shrink ray. There has to be one someplace. Or maybe we can reverse the shrink rays themselves. Something, anyway."

Sonic's enthusiasm was small enough to avoid detection by modern science. "Fine. I'm not leaving here, understand, until I'm big again. Get it?"

"Got it."

"Good."

Fifteen minutes trek through the factory revealed it had four stories, a badnik production center, a control pad that required the seven time stones, and a weapon facility in a wing of it's own. No un- shrink ray. Sonic looked depressed, and the others were beginning to worry. What if they couldn't get him big again?

"Well, look at it this way," A.P. said to his little rider. "Birds will become a means of transportation."

"Right," Sonic said glumly. "And at my size, my friends will be my prime enemies. I'll have to quit the Freedom Fighters."

At last the group stopped for a meeting. "I guess we're stuck on this one," Robin remarked. "Sonic, there's nothin' we can do."

Sonic's sigh was audible to all. "I don't believe this. What an end to our adventures on Little Planet." He was feeling very sorry for himself.

Serena turned her head and looked at him. "Well Sonie, we could always ask Robotnik to unshrink you." Ignoring the 'Sonie' part, he looked up at her. "Are you serious?"

At that moment, Robotnik's deep voice filled the factory on a sort of public-address system. "Trust her, Sonic. She knows what's best for you." They all looked around, startled. Sonic yelled, "You jerk, there'd better be a way to make me big again!"

"Temper, temper. Well, _little_ creep, heh heh, there _is_ a way to unshrink you."

"How?"

"Ah-ah-ah. You must give me the stone first."

Sonic looked over at Robin, who was carrying it. The echidna shook his head, eyes flashing.

"Never!"

"Well then, I guess you'll be undersized for the rest of your short life."

Sonic absent-mindedly stroked A.P.'s back with one hand, looking at the others. They were looking at each other uncertainly. It was a problem. Then Jay yelled, "Fine, you got it! Where do we bring it?"

"Jay!" the others hissed, but Robin gave his younger brother a thumbs-up. Decoy.

"What's your name, kid?" Robotnik asked, slightly curious.

"None of yer beeswax!" Jay snapped irritably. Silence a moment. Then Robotnik said, "Go back to the room with the shrink-rays. I'll-- heh heh--meet you there."

* * *

At first, the only thing different about the room was that the pedestal was gone and the rays turned off. They trooped in confidently, but something about the silence warned them of danger. "Something's up," Sonic murmured to A.P. and Serena.

The door slammed shut behind them and locked, it's noise echoing. The lights dimmed a few watts, and one of the machines flanking the wall stirred and began to move. "Oh gosh," Sparky whispered from somebody's shoulder. The contraption rose into the air, humming. It was Robotnik's hovercraft, they saw, except it had two sets of flat blades encircling it vertically and horizontally. The doctor himself was inside, protected by the glass shield, leering at them. "Hello, Freedom Fighters," he said as the blades began to spin. "Like my new ship? It is very useful, to say the least. Oh, and before I destroy you, I would like to say this, Sonic. If you had touched the shrink rays again they would have reversed. But unfortunately, it's too late! Bwa ha ha ha!" He swung forward.

What happened next was sort of a blur to Sonic, because A.P. leaped off Serena's shoulder and into the air, where he flew around and around the room at fifty miles an hour, shrieking out advice at the top of his lungs. The parrot flew funny, sort of two wingbeats on one side, the two on the other, drifting up and down, occasionally turning all the way over. Sonic didn't know this was how loose parrots flew when they are inside; helps them steer. All he knew was that if the crazy bird didn't stop, he was going to fall off.

From what the parrot was saying, he gathered Robotnik was shooting stun lasers at his friends. He caught a glimpse of someone being hit and going down, but he didn't know who. He heard somebody yell, and A.P. stopped screaming. "What happened?" Sonic yelled, the bird's wings a green blur on either side. "They're all down," A.P. replied simply. "Sparky, too." Sonic felt a pain shoot through his heart and twist his stomach.

A bright flash lit up the air around them. A.P. gave a sudden, short squawk and plummeted toward the ground. Direct hit. Sonic had no idea as to how close they were to the ground, but leaped from the bird's back and hoped for the best. "Please A.P., don't break your neck," he thought. And then he hit the ground and blacked out.

* * *

He was dimly aware of intense pain, but managed to stay mostly unconscious until it had faded. Slowly he awoke. He was lying on his back on the floor of the big room. Funny, it wasn't as big as it had been. He sat up, rubbing his head. He must have landed on it. Man, he felt slow--

He caught sight of his friends and leaped to his feet. To his surprise, he was his normal height; he was un-shrunk! That must have been why it hurt so much while he was waking up. But his friends--

They were all lying on the floor in one corner. He bounded over to them, his fear for them competing with his joy over being big again. Were they dead?

A.P. was lying on his face on the floor next to Jay, his wings crumpled. Sonic picked him up, feeling the lightness of the little body. Was he alive? It didn't look like it, from the way his head and wings dangled. "A.P.," Sonic whispered. "Don't be dead--please." He felt the little chest, wondering how in the world he had ever managed to ride this creature. To his relief, he felt the fluttering, light pulse. The bird was alive, just unconscious.

Sonic gently put him down next to the wall, folding the green wings to the bird's sides. He turned to Serena. She roused a little when he shook her, but murmured, "Leeme lone--wanna sleep." It was the same with Robin, but Jay's eyes flicked open when Sonic touched him. "Sonic?" he whispered. "How'd you get big again?"

"I donno. We needta get outta here. Robotnik's in the corner, refueling or something. Can you make a teleporter with your gun like Rob can?"

"Yeah. I just learned."

"Good. Take the stone to wherever it goes in Stardust. I'm gonna stay here."

"What about the others?"

"Why do you think I'm staying?"

Sonic pulled the stone out of Robin's belt and handed it to Jay. The little echidna took it in one hand and cocked his gun with the other. "I'll take it back, then come and get you guys. How's that?"

"Fine! But I'm not leavin' 'till I mess up Robotnik's ship real good. Otherwise I'll always remember he made a boss I couldn't beat."

Jay fired his time gun at the wall. The thread appeared, and almost immediately widened into a shimmering green crack; time rips were blue, teleporters were green. Jay waved to Sonic, then leaped into the green light and vanished. The rip closed behind him, leaving Sonic with his stunned friends. The blue hedgehog rubbed his hands together and focused his attention on Robotnik's hovercraft.

Robotnik, his laser cannons nearly recharged, suddenly felt a sharp jolt and saw the horizontal blades in front of him turn a few inches. He twisted around in his seat, only to see Sonic, standing on the flat blades, hands on the glass, make a face at him and jump down out of sight. "Hey!" Ivo yelled. "I thought I killed you!" He looked down at his control panel to see which set of lasers had fired last. Argh, the shrink rays! Sonic hadn't been hurt, only un-shrunk. Cursing, Robotnik threw the hovercraft's engines into high gear and shot up toward the ceiling. He would get Sonic this time.

Robotnik was mad, Sonic could see. As the little craft revved it's engines and the blades started to spin, Sonic thought, "Better keep him away from the others. He might try to get them while they're down, just to be mean."

The hovercraft swooped down, blades flashing like teeth. Sonic dodged aside easily. Robotnik was out of practice! He had been a lot sharper before he took over Mobitropolis and hijacked the robotizer. "Gettin' old, Doc!" Sonic shouted gleefully. "Forget how to lose?"

"Hedgehog," Robotnik roared as he circled around for another try, "the only way you could possibly win would be to become Super Sonic, and you don't have the emeralds on you." True, Sonic didn't. But Sonic wasn't worried. Robotnik was too rusty.

The ship passed by again, missing by several feet. Sonic admitted he was a bit rusty, too. He should have discovered a weakness by now.

This deadly dance continued for another ten minutes. Sonic couldn't hit the hovercraft anywhere because of the spinning blades, and Robotnik just couldn't seem to catch Sonic off guard. Sonic was beginning to think maybe he couldn't lick this boss. If only those blades weren't spinning!

Completely focused on what he was doing, Sonic didn't notice the others. They had all awakened and were standing in the corner, watching. "Think we should help?" Serena whispered to Robin. He shook his head. "No, it might distract him. Heck, I wish I knew where Jay went."

"I know," A.P. said from Serena's shoulder. "How'd Sonic get big again?"

Sparky, on Robin's shoulder, shook his orange head. "I donno. Maybe it wore off."

A few more minutes passed. Neither Sonic nor Robotnik had scored a hit.

Then A.P. said, "Cover your ears, everybody. I'm gonna help Sonic." "No, don't do it!" Sparky whistled, but it was too late. The green parrot fluttered to the ground, drew a deep breath, and let out the badnik-killing, ear-piercing, nerve-jangling screech he was known for. It was bad enough outdoors--indoors it was unbelievable. Everyone clapped their hands to their ears, and across the room, Sonic dropped to the floor, arms wrapped around his head.

At that moment three things happened. Robotnik's ship sparked and backfired, and the blades ground to a halt, connectors blown. Second, a message appeared on Robotnik's screen that said, "Warning: Time Stone out of boundary. Danger of System Collapse." Third, the teleporter re- opened in the wall as Jay returned.

"Hurry guys," Jay said, panting slightly, all his instruments flashing. "We gotta get outta here. City security is coming to apprehend Robotnik. Somebody also said they're gonna disconnect the chain tonight, now all the stones have been returned. We gotta get back to Mobius-- last call!"

A.P. and Sparky looked at each other. They lived on Little Planet; they had no desire to go to Mobius. "Where does the Teleporter go?" Sparky asked.

"Oh, it'll put us down at the foot of the chain. You and A.P. can get off there. Now come on!"

Jay grabbed Robin's hand, and Robin grabbed Serena's. She hesitated, looking back at her brother, but was jerked behind the Time Rippers into the teleporter.

Sonic had leaped to his feet, eyes still on his enemy's ship. With glee he noticed the blades had stopped--broke down. "Good ol' A.P.," Sonic muttered. Robotnik was off guard, watching his control screen. Sonic stepped around to the back of the ship, aimed himself at the engines in the back, and spindashed into them. The ship jolted and Robotnik yelped. Sonic hit again and again, knowing it was the most vulnerable place on the craft.

Victory was announced as the hovercraft's engines died and the ship crashed to the ground. Smoked filled the cockpit, clouding the glass. "See ya later," Sonic sneered at Robotnik. He turned and headed back to the door and struggled with it, finding it jammed. Because of this, he didn't notice when Robotnik leaped from his ship, ran to one wall, opened a secret panel and vanished into the passage beyond.

Sonic tugged at the door furiously. He had seen Robotnik's ships in the pre-blowing-up stage before, and this one was a prime candidate. The smoke was pouring out of the engines and now-open cockpit, filling the room. Sonic began to cough. "Open!" he cried at the door. It didn't feel locked--just stuck in the frame somehow ... He set one foot against the frame and pulled. The door snapped open abruptly, sending him to the floor on his back. He quickly righted himself and dodged through it, one hand pressed against his nose and mouth.

He got through the cage room and was about to enter the engine room when he heard a voice call faintly, "Sonic!" It was back in the big room. He turned. "Who's there?" he yelled.

"Sonic?" It was Serena.

Sonic dashed back and peered into the smoke-clouded room. "'Rena, where are you?"

"Over here! Are you all right?"

"Not as long you're in there! The ship's gonna blow up!"

"Oh great! The teleporter closed! Where are you?"

"On the other side of the ship!"

She coughed. "I can't see anything!"

"Just follow my voice! 'Rena, 'Rena--"

She appeared through the smoke, coughing and looking scared. Sonic held out his hand to her. She took it as he cried, "Run!" As they turned the engines on the ship burst into flames. "It'll blow any second!" Sonic cried. "We've gotta get outta here!" They made it through the cage room, and then--

* * *

The Time Rippers and parrots were standing around the base of the chain, looking back, waiting for Sonic and Serena to appear. "Think Robotnik got 'em?" Jay whispered to Robin. Rob only shook his head. "I donno. I hope not. They'd better hurry, though, or--"

A crack, like lightning, interrupted him. It was accompanied by a flash, and followed by a tremendous explosion that blew out all the windows in the Robotnik-shaped building. "Uh-oh," A.P. said. "Trou-ble."

The four of them stood in silence as flames appeared in the lower windows, and dark smoke billowed into the sky. Lights began to appear around it, and sirens pierced the night air. "Were they blown up?" Jay asked fearfully. No one answered him because nobody knew.

Suddenly the pavement under their feet shifted and cracked. The chain shivered, chinking faintly. "Uh-oh, we'd better go," Robin said. Jay looked up at the chain, then back at the burning building. "But what about Sonic?"

"Jay, we gotta go now. We--I'll come back later and find out what happened." He swallowed, not looking forward to it. "C'mon, start climbing." With one last look at the flaming structure, the young echidna stepped up to the first gigantic link and scrambled up.

Robin looked at the two parrots. "Thanks for the help, you two. I'll be seeing you again--and if you hear anything about them, uh, tell me."

"Goodbye!" the two called as he began to climb after his little brother. The cement cracked a little more, rippling like water. The two birds took to the night sky and headed back toward the city. If they had waited just a few minutes longer, they would have seen the two approaching figures. But, in the darkness, they were missed.

* * *

Sonic was running as hard as he could, carrying Serena in his arms. She was covered in soot from head to toe, and her breath came in sobs. She had been caught in the shockwave blast. Sonic didn't know if she were injured or not, but was pretty sure she was in shock.

The sidewalk was breaking under his feet, shattering like glass. It wasn't like an earthquake; more like how glass breaks under pressure or extreme heat. Sonic ran, breath coming hard. A standing pole appeared out of nowhere as it fell into his path. Well, maybe the ground _was_ moving. He hurtled the pole and kept going. Serena was big and hard to carry-- "'Rena, are you okay? Can you hear me?" She groaned in reply. He kept running.

There was the chain, stretching up into the black sky like a metal Jacob's ladder. It looked even more dangerous by night than by day. Had Jay and Robin made it out already? He had no way of knowing. The pavement crunched under his red sneakers. Uh oh. The chain was breaking free. Better start climbing--now!

He stepped up to the first link, jumped to the top of it, caught Serena as he almost dropped her, jumped to the next one, wished for his emerald belt, jumped again--

"Sonic!" Serena's eyes were open. "Are we on the chain?"

"Yeah," he gasped.

"Let me down--you're gonna drop me!" He did, setting her feet solidly on one of the think links. "Follow me!" he commanded. "Don't look down! I'll help you with the gravity change--now go, before we're cut loose!"

The two hedgehogs raced up the chain like a couple of squirrels, alert to every vibration in the metal beneath their feet. Little Planet fell away below them, the cities stretching out like lighted maps. They had been to most of them, Sonic thought. He looked down at Serena. She was right behind him--he could hear her ragged panting. She seemed okay. The blast must not have hurt her very badly. "Hurry!" he gasped. "Faster!"

"If I could push the sound barrier, I would!"

Gravity change. Polarity in Sonic's brain reversed. He gasped and caught himself to keep from falling. He swung around so 'up' was Little Planet and 'down' was Mobius. Serena followed his lead, shaking her head to clear the sudden dizziness. Now he was below her. It was a switch to begin climbing down when he had been going up, but after a second he managed it. Serena was still moving, too, her breath still noisy. "Are you okay?" Sonic shouted up to her.

"Yeah! Great!" she replied. They kept going.

For a good five minutes nothing happened, and the two were half- lulled into thinking maybe they would get a chance to get down before the chain broke.

But it was not to be. The chain shivered up and down it's length, and there was a sharp crack from far-away Little Planet. "Go go go!" Sonic shouted frantically. The two began to nearly slide down the chain, hoping to cover the mile or so to the ground in the few seconds they had left. But they could still hear the cracking sound of the cement anchor splintering. Little Planet was breaking free.

Suddenly there was a metallic grinding from above, along with the sound of a clanking chain. They felt the chain go slack beneath them. Serena said flatly, "We're dead."

"No!" Sonic cried. "Jump on my back-- I can run a mile in ten seconds and less!" She flung herself onto his back, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and neck and yelled, "Go for it!"

Sonic began the most dangerous race of his life. Footing on the chain was treacherous at best, and in the dark it was nearly impossible. Serena's weight put him off balance, but he kept running stubbornly, knowing he'd rather have himself injured than both of them killed. The chain was beginning to fall beneath him; the metal road starting to slip away. But it was falling very slowly; the gravity of Little Planet had the end, and it was taking it's time about letting go.

And then the light of the rising moon shown down on him, gleaming off the settling chain, showing how far they were from the ground. At that moment they were above Never Lake. Sonic felt relieved. They weren't as far up as he'd feared. A few more seconds and the ground would be within jumping distance. A few more seconds ...

He leaped and sailed through the air. Had he judged right? Would he make it? Yes! His feet struck the ground. He fell almost all the way down with Serena on his back, but stood back up and let her slide off. "We're home!" he shouted, hearing his voice echo off the rocks around the lake.

Serena sank to the ground. "I don't belive it," she said faintly. "We made it!"

"Not only that--look!"

Little Planet, now hazy with distance and looking almost artificial, glowing like a moon itself, was moving, turning, rising into the starry sky. The two watched it silently as a faint blue mist began to surround it. The mist sparkled, as if made of thousands of diamonds-- or stardust. It grew in a cloud around Little Planet, growing in intensity and brightness. The planet quivered, turned a little--then vanished, leaving only a sparkling shadow behind. It was off again on it's time-traveling orbit around Mobius, not to be seen again for another year.

Sonic and Serena turned and looked at each other. It had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and they had had most of it together. They embraced wordlessly, glad to be alive and safe.

"Sonic!" They turned. It was Robin, running up to them. "You guys made it! Oh man, I'm so glad--"

"You and Jay are already here?"

"Yeah, we started a bit before you. I sent Jay home, but I had to see if you made it. What about the explosion?"

Serena glanced at Sonic. "Oh, we felt it, but we were out by then." The three looked up at the nearly invisible blue cloud in the sky above.

"Poor A.P. and Sparky," Serena said. "We didn't even get to say goodbye."

"I know. They pry think we're dead."

"Oh, I'm going back in a little while," Robin said. "I'll tell 'em for ya."

"Thanks, Rob. Thanks for everything, but we need to get home."

"Yeah, me too. It's been fun." He turned and fired his time gun at a rock. As the blue rip appeared, he said, "Se ya, Sonic, 'Rena."

"Are you gonna come back around sometime?" Sonic asked.

"Sure, you'll hear from me pretty soon. See ya in time." The red echidna turned away, stepped into the rip and vanished.

* * *

In Knothole a few days later, Slasher approached Sonic with a funny expression on her face. "Uh, Sonic, I need to show you something."

He looked up from what he was doing. "What, Slash?"

"I was reading one of the older history books--and I found this old letter in it."

"So?"

"It's addressed to you."

The big velociraptor handed him an envelope. He took it and pulled out a yellowed sheet of paper, unfolded it and stared at it.

To: Sonic and Serena Hedgehog, Knothole Village, Mobius

From: Robin Echidna, Floating Island, Mobius, yr 815

Dear Sonic and Serena,

Hi. I said I'd be in touch--I just didn't say how.

I went back to Little Planet like I said I would. A.P. and Sparky were glad for the news; said they'd wondered what'd happened to you, but never found out. All is well with them, and all is as it should be with Little Planet.

Jay was nearly frantic with worry when I got home, but like the macho kid he is, tried to say he was only worried about Little Planet. Don't you belive him?"

I did some research and found some things I thought you might like to know.

First, Windspeed recovered remarkably well from his injuries. In fact, once he matured, he competed in the famous eagle races on Little Planet, placing second four times and first twice.

Second, you might have wondered what happened to Knuckles's father. When he broke the dam and flooded the lower mine, he was swept out into the ocean (which, by the way, is the reason the Sunken City exists). He was rescued the next morning, and banished from Little Planet when he was found out. He may never have told his son this, so I don't recommend you doing so.

I am now the first Guardian of Floating Island, like Uncle Richard wanted me to. I am retired from the Time Rippers. Dad says I'll get soft, but ah, who cares? Island life is good--not as much stress and high adventure as being a Ripper. I have hung up my equipment, but not for good. I would still like to see you and the Freedom Fighters. Tell Serena I said hi.

Yours Truly,

Robin Echidna

THE END