I tend to feel Sonic stories ought to have a 'version of reality' explanation attached to them, there's so many variations of canon. This one is a sequel to another fic of mine which started out in the world of SatAM and since I was always disappointed that Knuckles never made it into that series, was my attempt to 'introduce' him. There are references to that story in this but nothing which requires superhuman feats of recall ;-) I don't, as a rule, 'do' sequels so this is something on an experiment. I will not take offence it it doesn't work...
Spy-eye bots swarmed from Robotropolis in rank after rank, spreading out across the sky.
Sonic and Sally crouched in the scrubby cover a mile or so from the city and stared.
"So I guess we can take it that Robuttnik is still alive and well then," Sonic muttered.
Sally sighed, not even bothering to answer.
After seeing Robotnik's ship disappear in flames over the edge of Angel Island, they'd all had more cause than usual to hope that this time, it really was the end. As it turned out, they'd barely been back in Knothole long enough to think about mounting an expedition to the city to investigate, before the flocks of bots had started to emerge.
"Why is he turning them out so fast?" Sonic asked. "Where are they going if they're not looking for us?"
"I don't know," Sally said. "But there's too many of them, one of them's bound to look this way sooner or later. We need to go."
"Ready ten minutes ago," Sonic grinned. His optimism was seldom dented for long, and he stood up, grasped Sally's hand and bounded forward into a run.
Back at Knothole the mood was sombre. Even the few days peace had been enough to get people hoping.
Matters were not improved by the fact that the waves of bots continued to emerge for the next week. No one dared venture out of the forest, and most stayed close to Knothole itself, afraid of being cut off.
Sally was the exception, regularly making trips to the edge of the forest. When Sonic challenged her she only looked thoughtful.
"Not one of them has come inside the forest searching," she pointed out, as they paused in the fringes of the forest. The leaves were well into their autumn colours and crunched underfoot as the two paced the perimeter together. "They're making everyone jumpy and they're keeping us holed up here, but they're not searching the forest."
Sonic frowned. "I hadn't noticed."
Sally smiled, slightly tiredly. "You surprise me."
"So what are they looking for?"
"I don't know." Sally continued to look upwards through the half-bare branches. "But I think I can guess, and it's nothing on the ground."
"Angel Island again?" Sonic asked.
Sally nodded slowly. "What else makes sense?" She bit her lip and balled her fists. "And there's nothing we can do. No way we can even get a warning to Knuckles. If Robotnik can't find him with that lot, we've got no chance."
"If Robotnik can't find him with that lot then it's not a problem," Sonic pointed out.
Sally was not reassured, but she was right in saying there was very little they could do. She stationed a watch to look out for any change in the pattern of the bots' activity, and had to be satisfied with that.
Robotnik stamped into the control room, bots working at the illuminated consoles scattered before him, and Snively jumped so high he nearly missed his seat on the way down.
"Well?" Robotnik asked.
"Nothing yet, sir," Snively quavered.
"No sighting whatsoever?"
"No, sir. Nothing on visual or infrared. We are continuing the search pattern."
Robotnik picked up a handful of recent printouts from where the were balanced on to of a console and flicked through them.
"What are these?" His voice had adopted the dangerously calm tone Snively had come to associate with an imminent explosion. Frantically he searched his memory for anything in the report that might be put down to his fault.
"Yes, sir..." Snively dabbed his brow. "We always lose a certain amount... We... We suspect hedgehog activity, sir."
Robotnik raised his eyebrows. "Do we?"
He sat down in his large central chairs surrounded by machiens and monitors. Snively trailed after him.
"Tell me, Snively, have you read these reports?"
"Yes, sir?" Snivelly answered uncertainly.
"Have you?" Robotnik tapped the arms of his chair, his tone chillingly pleasant. "Then explain to me, dear nephew, how it is that the hedgehog suddenly has the capability to attack my machines in the middle of the Western Ocean."
Snively gulped and gaped, suddenly breathless.
Robotnik shoved the papers at him, almost bowling him over. "The coordinates, you imbecile! Where were they 'lost' -- Did you even look?"
Robotnik moved from the chair deceptively quickly and dragged Snively to his feet and shoved him towards the bank of consoles.
"Plot them, you fool. Do it now. All the losses there have been."
Snively fumbled at the keyboards, made clumsy by confusion and fear. Eventually a map swam into focus, and the positions of the destroyed bots lit up. A clear trail of destruction. A clear path to follow.
"Excellent," Robotnik sat back, placated. "Our ever-so-conscientious Guardian, cannot have it both ways, you see. He cannot allow my observers to return with his location, but he cannot destroy them without leaving evidence of exactly that. Deploy the swatbots."
A hundred miles away and two miles up, Knuckles twisted in the air and landed a punch on the nearest hoverbot. Chaos energy flowed through him and the blow cracked the machine from end to end. It fell towards the slopes below, and Knuckles dropped with it, kicking out with both feet as he landed on another craft, sending that one dropping as well. Somewhere just above, another bot was breaking from the first wave and flying towards the peaks. Knuckles leapt again and soared after it.
He fell on it, clutching and yanked backwards, flipping the machine and himself through a clear 180 degrees before letting go. He recovered his balance in the air and flew on. The machine did not.
But the sky was thick with the invading craft, and although it was hard to pick out any clear emotion in the whirl of the Emerald's power, a part of Knuckles was apprehensive. Sheer weight of numbers meant that sooner or later one was likely to get past him.
A near miss from an unseen bot set him tumbling. Sky and grass blurred together for long seconds until he managed to pull up. He fought to maintain his concentration as he assessed the situation. The broken shapes littering the ground below outnumbered those still attacking, but there were far too many. They closed, reordering the scattered formations where Knuckles had ripped through them.
Then, rising over the hillside, came a second wave. Knuckles paused only a moment, in shocked despair before launching himself at the bots between him and those heading for the volcano's peaks.
He smashed through them easily, but every blow he landed was a delay as the new bots advanced on the volcano and the cave system of the Hidden Palace. There was no way around, there was no way through. Blocked and stymied by a seeming wall of bots, he could only watch as the second wave opened fire at the hillside and the very ground was split open.
The Master Emerald keened and shrieked in his awareness, at this violation, and Knuckles barely thought before reacting instinctively, using the Master's power to cast away the other seven Emeralds, scattering them to the strange dimension they occupied when not contained.
The feat took the last of his control and an explosion of Chaos energy split the ruined peak further. The nearest wave of bots were thrown in pieces against to the ground and Knuckles gasped and shuddered as though he'd been plunged into ice-water. He fell, unable to get his body to obey him, unable to turn the fall into a glide. He collided with one of the bots below, and clung on long enough to dissipate the worst of the force as he and the damaged bot hit the ground together.
Through blurry and grey-tinged vision he watched another wave of bots approach the shattered hillside. Uncertain of what he thought he could now do to prevent it, he clambered to his feet but staggered almost instantly as the ground trembled.
The flock of bots rose from the volcano's blasted caldera. At the centre of the formation, one of them bore the Master Emerald, clutched and held in metal talons, its light looking faded and weak in the bright sunshine. Knuckles fell to his knees again as the Island listed dangerously.
The remaining bots of the closer fleet had turned towards him. It crossed Knuckles' mind to simply hold his place and let them finish what they'd started. He had already failed. But the Master glowed dimly in the sky, and the Island trembled beneath his hands and both needed their Guardian.
He drew a shuddering breath, raised his clawed fists, and burrowed as hard and as fast as he could.
Distantly he heard blasts behind him, felt the vibration though the earth of the attackers and the Island's fall, but he concentrated on moving forward until he broke through into one of the tunnel systems. He recognised the spot as a linking tunnel running from the underground maze of Hidden Palace to the elaborate subterranean tombs of Sandopolis. Built for emergencies really, for times the Guardian needed to travel unseen. Bare cut rock lined it, evidence of long lost technology, no less impressive for the lack of dressed stone and smooth curves of the Hidden Palace chambers.
Thanking the foresight of his predecessors, Knuckles staggered away from the noise of the attackers until he ran out of breath and sank to the rough stone floor. He slowed his breathing and reached out for the Master in his mind. There was resistance. Cold metal yes, but something more. Resistance from the Master itself. It was in danger. The Chaos energy was needed there now to defend itself. The fact the energy was also needed to keep the Island in the air was of secondary, if any, importance.
But if the Island fell and the Guardian died, then the Emeralds would all be lost forever.
Knuckles knew this. His was the consciousness that the Master lacked, and he set his will against it and he drew the power to him.
Control. Control, not Chaos. If the Master was to be recovered then he needed this now. He had never taken the power by force this way and when the energy wave broke over him it was painful in its intensity.
He writhed, fingers scrabbling against the rock, eyes squeezed shut. Fighting for control, however tenuous. The power flowed through him into the trembling ground and the Island's shuddering stopped, although the descent did not. Knuckles realised the best he would be able to do would be to get to the surface without it falling. If he could hold on that long.
The Island descended erratically, listing and weaving in a slow spin. Bots circled it. Some descending to the surface, others orbiting and watching. They all backed off as the Island approached the water. Scattering like wasps.
It struck the shallow water in a tidal wave of spray. The water and debris settled slowly and silence returned. The Island drifted slightly before settling aslant, half in half out of the waves, one half almost submerged, the other protruding high above, lakes suddenly transformed into dripping empty craters. Steam rose where the lava from the central volcano met the sea.
Knuckles shuddered his way back to conciousness, confused for a moment as the roar of the waves and the roar of the bots' engines blurred together. The realisation a moment later that he was lying past his neck in water sent him scrabbling further up the tunnel, heart pounding. The water did not appear to be rising however and he paused for a moment to take stock.
There was no longer any sense of motion. The Island had come to a stop. The water and the sharp slope of the tunnel told him how and why. Then there was the noise of the bots roaming through the tunnel system. Were they looking for a way out? Or looking for him? Surely they had no need for that – they'd taken the Master Emerald. He winced at the thought but it was true, so why were the bots still here?
Here and close, he suddenly realised as the stone of the tunnel wall began to shudder and give under some sort of tool.
He glanced swiftly from one direction to the other. They'd expect him to run uphill of course, where the Island was clear of the water. Maybe even to flee in panicky habit to the stripped and empty Emerald shrine. The other way, the tunnels led towards what had been the wastelands of the Island, the underground tombs of Sandopolis, and the edge of the Island.
Knuckles looked at the crumbling wall, then at the passageway sloping down into the water.
"Why do I think I'm going to regret this..."
He broke into a jog, splashing into the water, which soon became shoulder high. He kicked off from the floor and swam, head almost touching the roof. He didn't stop to listen for sounds of pursuit until he could see the point where the water level met the top of the tunnel.
The sounds were getting no closer, but weren't dying away either. Apparently the swatbots were not designed for venturing into the water. Knuckles trod water where he was for a few moments. The bots could afford to wait him out while they searched the rest of the Island.
He was moderately certain that he knew the way out and could reach it with one breath's worth of swimming, but he was uncertain what damage had been done in the fall. If the way was blocked...
A splash from behind him decided him – apparently the bots had decided to discover how waterproof their construction was after all.
Knuckles dived and kicked hard to propel himself through the tunnels. He smashed through a sealed doorway and was momentarily dragged along by the unexpected strength of the current that flowed through. He resisted the urge to gasp in surprise and concentrated furiously on remembering the way, in the confusingly tilted tunnel network.
He was starting to see spots by the time he found the spot he was seeking and it was almost with the last of his strength that he dug at the sandy earth, made heavy by the weight of water. He forced his way through and struggled through the narrow hole to find himself looking up at the underside of the Island, where it rested on the seafloor. Disoriented, he let out the last of his breath, and only the bubbles, clued him as to which way was up. He floundered to the surface and bobbed there, gasping for air, and merely hoping no bots would look in his direction.
Debris littered the surface of the water where the Island had crashed down and motionless, he must have been hard to spot amongst it, because nothing came after him. After a few moment's rest, he drew another long breath and dived again, swimming towards the far side of the bay.
Each time he surfaced for air it was on tenterhooks, able to do nothing more than hope he wasn't seen and the effort was becoming exhausting. By the time he reached the cliff and started to climb his arms and legs were trembling alarmingly. The cliffs were shadowed and his fur dark with saltwater and he was slightly more confident of not being seen now, but he had no strength left to smash his own holds in the rock and his progress was slow and faltering.
Concious thought contracted to the bare minimum required to think about the next handhold, whether that protrusion would support a foot while he jammed a fist in that crevice.
When he finally rolled over the top of the cliff, he wasn't even aware of crawling on hands and knees into a scrubby hollow beneath a low bush and passing out.