Beyond the machine city walls, grey and windswept plains radiated out from Metropolis like necrotic flesh round a wound gone bad. A blasted expanse, empty of all but the most rudimentary life. The badniks scoured away anything larger than insects, to swell their own ranks; hard grays of radiation and heavy metal pollution dealt with whatever remained, right down to the microbes themselves. Barren earth lay naked beneath the stars' pinpoint glow, save a few blades of phthisic, azure scrubgrass, sickly clinging to the poisoned soil.
Blades became clumps, and clumps became fields, as the barren Robotropolitan plain stretched southwards, into the frigid, mesa-strewn veldt of the Blue Ridge Zone. The heat and light of Metropolis' furious industry kept the chill sting of the moonless night away from the city and its dead surroundings; but out here, in the wild lands of Mobius, the darkness bit hard. Reptilian dragodons slumbered in the Zone's twisting rivers, torpid beneath the icy waters; raptor hawks crouched silent and watchful, feathers braced against the cold in their spiretop eyries.
Atop one of the higher promontories, thin puffs of white breath eased their way upwards into the starry blackness. It was a peaceful night, tonight; the tranquil gloom punctured only occasionally by some creaking, rumbling emission from the flame-blackened structure behind the lone figure. After the chaos and the battles, the action and the danger of the last few days, this quiet seemed profoundly strange to him. He wasn't sure he liked it. Gave him too much time to think, and nothing in his mind made sense.
Shadow the Hedgehog. That was what they told him his name was. He had no reason to trust them, the machine or the bat; but he had nothing else to call himself, so why not this? And in the last few days, he had grown to… not to trust them, but at least to accept that their goals were coincident for the immediate future; that it was in all their best interests to stick together, to fight together, and to prevent each other from getting killed. And wasn't that the same thing, or better? Trusting someone - expecting them to help you just because they said they would - was an absurdity. Far better that it was all business; that your allies helped you simply out of self-interest. That he could understand. The other trios, in the battle yesterday – the bee, the croc, and the chameleon; the cat, the hedgehog, and the rabbit – spouting off about the "super power of teamwork"; fools, the lot of them. And that other group; the echidna, the fox, and the Faker – !
The hedgehog levered himself up from the boulder he'd been sitting on, gloved hand pinching the charcoal fur of his forehead. 'Faker'? Where had that come from? A flash of some vague half-image flitted through his mind, gone again before he could come close to capturing it. There was a memory of a memory of… a challenge, a race maybe, but no more. Less vivid – thankfully – than that one other word which seemed to mean something to him.
'Maria'. Even as it formed grudgingly in his mind, Shadow suppressed a shiver at the ghosts of grief and loss which seemed to haunt that name. Why did he know it? And what did it mean? Nothing made sense; nothing at all.
It was, then, with some relief that Shadow's ears picked up a new sound, approaching from behind him. The noise he'd been out here waiting for throughout the last two hours. A regular lockstep of hiss squelch hiss squelch, as powerful strides hefted heavy feet one after the other across the rime-coated loam of the mesa. Finally. Jumping down from his rocky perch, Shadow turned to face his one partner in crime for this crazed venture on which they now embarked.
The starlight picked out hard lines and abrupt edges of a reflective chassis; it would be a difficult task indeed, even in the dead of night, to mistake the hulking, angular form for exactly what it was: a heavily weaponised killing machine. Pinpoint crimson eyes topped a towering form which stomped towards Shadow with all the grace of a bipedal tank. A razor-sharp four-digit claw appended one of its swinging, tungsten-clad arms; the opposite limb ended in what appeared to be a blowtorch, tip still glowing a mellow orange from the heat of recent activity. E-123 Omega – final member of the most over-engineered series of war androids on the planet – lurched to a stop in front of Shadow. Apparently sensing the hedgehog's gaze on its unusual limb configuration, the robot rotated the blowtorch out of position. A storm of silver shards crowded out of its wrist, replacing the tool with a mirror image of the claw on its other arm.
"You're finished then?" Shadow asked, keeping his voice low. In the cold air, sounds could carry for miles, especially if a listener had ears as good as his own. The hedgehog didn't expect that they would have been followed; but circumspection came naturally to him.
"MODIFICATIONS TO THE VESSEL REACTOR HAVE BEEN COMPLETED." Omega responded, a monotonous, robotic foghorn blasting out across the mesa. Discretion did not come naturally to a machine whose weight was two thirds ammunition.
"RADIATION FLUX HAS BEEN CONSTRAINED TO LEVELS TOLERABLE FOR MEDIUM-TERM EXPOSURE. RECCOMENDATION: BEGIN IMMEDIATELY."
Shadow nodded, and in the same movement clicked his heels together, activating the mechanisms that wound their way through the treads of his red sneakers. Bright yellow light flared violently from the jets in their soles, defrosting twin patches of scrubgrass beneath his feet as he rose an inch into the air. Without another word, the hedgehog and the robot set off, towards the looming, fire-scarred structure half-embedded in the top of the mesa.
- - Unauthorized external access attempt detected - -
- - Attempting to authenticate access request - -
- - Command I.D.: E123 k97/23.0 - -
- - Timestamp: MY16.309 - 08.1.27 - -
- - Registry access: BIOS, Custom boot systems - -
- - Authorization: fgu94k/l12 "E-123 Omega" - -
- - Remote boot initiated - -
- - Weapons control system OFF
- - Primary motive servo-actuator control system OFF
- - Liquid metal CHAOS NANITE control system INACTIVE
- - Primary Orgone fusion turbines: 1/ OFF; 2/ OFF; 3/ OFF; 4/ OFF
- - Secondary Tesla power coil: ON (reduced efficiency 20%)
- - Attempting to disengage E-123 Omega from system link - - - - Failed; system reboot initiated; command access activated for E-123 Omega
- - Working…
- - …
- - Failed; system reboot initiated; command access activated for E-123 Omega
- - Initialising sensory input - -
It was the robotic equivalent of being woken up by having a bucket of icy water thrown in your face. Shadow could easily believe it, from the tics and twitches shuddering through its frame, that the machine was trying in vain to maintain the integrity of its system; fighting Omega all the way as the E-series robot dragged it back into consciousness. The struggle was to no avail; it would have no choice but to communicate with them. Once their enemy and now their prisoner, this robot was going to become something altogether more useful to the remnants of Team Dark: a collaborator.
Red, oval eyes flickered to life inside jet black sclera. Shadow and Omega's blue-tinted reflections vanished along the curve of sleek, metallic spikes as the machine awakened; inclining its head to gaze impassively at the two figures before it. Peripheral sensors blasted the surrounding area with radar, mapping out the precise geometry of the room it seemed to be inhabiting. Barely three meters across; smashed machinery everywhere; a claustrophobic, disordered space, dimly lit by a single – it analysed the spectral frequencies – 64 watt Eggman-built mercury/phosphor glowbulb. The floor sloped at a twenty-six degree angle to the horizontal; the ceiling was buckled, smashed pipes and wiring spilling from the overhead conduits. Less than half a second had passed since boot-up, and the robot had already begun a speed-interrogation of its own systems, the LIPS Eggman chip in its core processor calculating furiously. Twenty-nine hours had passed since it had shut itself down. Its limbs were immobilized; somehow; servo-actuators unresponsive, and mass signatures outside error bounds. Other systems checks…
Before its head even finished moving, with eyes fastened on E-123, it understood its situation far better than either of its erstwhile captors would have liked.
And it had already begun to plan.
Shadow spoke before either of the robots did.
"Metal Sonic. Omega and I have -"
"Identification: Black hedgehog. Height: one-point-zero-zero meters. Gravimetric weight: three-five-point-one-zero kilograms. Designation: Shadow the Hedgehog. Identification: E-series Eggman robot. Height: one-point-five-zero meters. Gravimetric weight: one-two-three-zero-point-five-one-two kilograms. Designation: E-123, codename Omega. No other units detected in immediate vicinity." The robot paused. "Unable to access global positioning network. Explain: location."
"NEGATIVE." Omega responded, red eyes staring back emotionlessly towards Metal Sonic's own. "THIS IS AN INTERROGATION. YOU WILL ANSWER OUR QUESTIONS. NOT THE REVERSE."
"Evaluation: Logical failure in unit E-123. This unit is not an information terminal. E-123 will respond or this unit will -"
"This is the Blue Ridge Zone," Shadow interrupted, pre-empting a robotic slanging match. "And this," he said, gesturing to the wrecked room around them. "Is your doing. We're inside a crashed Egg Fleet ship. One of the ones that you threw out of the sky yesterday, 'Metal Overlord'. The reactor's leaking; so no-one's going to interrupt us – or even detect that you're here – for a long time."
"RADIATION INTENSITY MORE THAN SUFFICIENT TO DISABLE LIQUID METAL CAPABILITIES" Omega chimed in. That, more than anything, was why they had chosen this site as their impromptu prison. The quicksilver transformation that Metal Sonic had used on the Final Fortress… Shadow had no idea what it even was, let alone how to counter it, but Omega had assured him that the radioactivity spewing out of this crashed piscine ship would make it impossible for their captive to simply melt away. "YOUR PRIMARY REACTOR IS DISABLED. PROBABILITY OF ESCAPE: NEGLIGIBLE. ALSO NOTE THAT I HAVE WELDED YOU TO THE WALL."
Metal Sonic's head clanged against the steel bulkhead as he tried to swivel around. But Omega's words were if anything an understatement. The robotic hedgehog was more welded into the wall than onto it, the blue lacquer of its forearms melted to silver epoxy against the structure of the ship. The backs of its red boot-thrusters had received the same treatment, dark rivulets of charred metal fusing them to the wall. A furious, motorized whirr issued out from the actuators in Metal's knees, trying to wrench its legs free. E-123 levelled an arm at the robot; with a far less laboured whirring, the clawed hand reconfigured itself back into a fearsome looking blowtorch.
"ATTEMPTS AT MOTION ARE FUTILE, BUT I WILL GLADLY WELD YOU IN DEEPER IF YOU ARE INSUFFICIENTLY COMFORTABLE."
The struggling stopped. Metal Sonic stared back towards its captors, face as expressionless as always; yet somehow managing to convey that this was by no means a defeat for it – rather a temporary tactical disadvantage. It had, at least, apparently accepted that it wasn't going anywhere… for now.
"E-123: Mention: "Interrogation". Elaborate." it buzzed.
"Firstly, there are things we need to know." Shadow responded. "About what I am, about Eggman's plans, about… everything. And since the Chaotix let your creator escape, you are our best source of information on his databases. Secondly, in here we're keeping you from causing any more trouble outside. That faker…" (there it was again, that word – 'faker') "…that Sonic might be happy to just leave you to your own devices after you spent the last week trying to study and kill us, but not all of us are that stupid."
"Inquiry: You expect this unit to assist you. Diagnosis: Insanity."
"NONCOMPLIANCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED." Omega announced. "YOU WILL AID OUR ENQUIRIES OR YOU WILL BE DESTROYED."
"Alternatively…" Shadow added, a mild grin creeping its way across his peach muzzle. "We might decide to turn on the ship's hailing beacon. Robotnik may have gone to ground for now… but I'm sure the fat man would be very interested in recovering you when he gets the chance."
That was their real leverage. Robots had – or at least Omega reported that robots had – little fear of death, since they were neither alive, nor had subroutines for fear. But if there was anything that could unsettle an Eggman robot, it was the Eggman himself, when… displeased. And the Doctor doubtless didn't take kindly to the variety of high treason which Metal had spent the last few months committing.
"It's a question of who's prisoner you'd rather be, Metal Sonic. You can tell us what we want to know… or we can let the Eggman Empire know exactly where you are."
Metal's eyes glowed cherry red, as though trying to incinerate Shadow simply through the intensity of his glare. The bulkhead behind it creaked, as the robotic Sonic strained its arms in vain against the weldings once again. Omega simply responded by turning on his blowtorch; the harsh, blue plasma flame washing out all the other colours from their tiny, shattered compartment. The metallic groaning abruptly ceased.
"I'm glad we understand each other." Shadow said.
Three hours later, it was not going well.
In spite of threats, cajoling, and – least effective of all – actual physical violence, Metal Sonic proved a maddeningly taciturn prisoner. Every answer it gave was a half-truth, an evasion – when it gave any answer at all. As Shadow watched another magazine of Omega's bullets ping off the surface of Metal's already scorched and dented head-casing, he wondered once again how a robot based off that obnoxious motormouth Faker could wield silence so effectively. Only once the whine of E-123's spinning gun chambers had died down did Shadow unfolded his ears from the top of his head.
"Inquiry: E-123: Quite done? Suggestion: Alter trajectory of fire zero-point-zero-six meters down during next volley. Justification: This unit has an itch, right dorsal compressor."
"IT WILL BE ARMOUR PIERCING ROUNDS NEXT TIME, MEATBAG-COPY" Omega rumbled. The two robots had been trading insults – and occasionally showers of bullets – for the last five minutes, with no input from Shadow at all. The hedgehog was leaning nonchalantly against the opposite bulkhead, simply watching the exchange unfold. As far as the black hedgehog could tell, "meatbag-copy" was becoming Omega's preferred epithet. It seemed to be one of the few phrases that could actually get under Metal Sonic's tantalum skin: reminding the robot that it was designed off its worst enemy.
"Evaluation: Logical failure in unit E-123. Enemy zero-zero-one, designation: Sonic the Hedgehog, is clearly of inferior design to this unit. Justification: Biological components; vulnerability to blunt force trauma; vulnerability to low velocity rounds; requires constant input of oxygen water carbohydrate-based sustenance; full list of design flaws has excessive filesize to relate via audio. Only possible conclusion: Sonic the Hedgehog a copy of this unit. Additional: designation 'meatbag-copy' equally applicable to black hedgehog."
Even with his ears still ringing from the noise of Omega's trigger-happiness, the triangles on Shadow's brow pricked up at that.
"What do you mean, 'equally applicable'?" he demanded. "Am I a copy? Of what?"
That was Shadow's greatest uncertainty – and, indeed his greatest fear. When he, Omega, and Rouge had destroyed the Egg Albatross at Bullet Station - fighting the very robot in front of them now, disguised as Robotnik - the weapons that had tumbled out of the smashed blimp were… him. Lifeless, mangled robots, spilling blue fluid and sparks onto the striated rocks of Rail Canyon… but no less identical to Shadow than his own reflection. Rouge had woken him up from one of their storage pods, in one of Eggman's bases. But… he didn't feel like a robot. He needed to eat, needed to sleep; he got angry and sad and tired (not that he would ever admit it). Then again, how would he know if his emotions were really the same things as Rouge's, as Sonic's; as anyone's? Was he more like Omega than them? What was he!?
Metal Sonic's eyes strobed bright and dim reds, as the robot watched the fear and confusion play itself across Shadow's face. It seemed, more than anything, to be laughing at him.
"Information: This unit has its own blueprints on file. This unit has audio / visual / chemenvironmental records for every moment since its creation: Metal Sonic, activated LY307.208, Metallic Madness facility, Miracle Planet. Additional: This unit observed interactions between Shadow the Hedgehog and enemies zero-zero-one Sonic the Hedgehog, zero-zero-two Miles Prower, include other biologicals; at location: Final Fortress. Conclusion: biologicals store memory files: Shadow the Hedgehog. Converse: Shadow the Hedgehog: no stored memory files on Shadow the Hedgehog. You have no understanding of your purpose or utility. Your allies cannot or will not tell you what they know. Inquiry: Status: What is it like when everyone around you knows more about you than you do? Prediction: Uncertainty. Heightened anxiety. Insomnia. Inability to trust. Difficulty at forming interpersonal-"
Still leaning against the bulkhead until Metal Sonic started its tirade, Shadow had pushed off the metal surface. Twin flashes of cyan light blinked in the shattered cabin as the hedgehog vanished and instantly reappeared on the other side, eyes burning, hand around the android hedgehog's neck, fingers crackling with sanguine chaos force. "Shut up, shut up, you robotic bastard, or I'll…"
Metal Sonic simply looked at him, its black-red pupils twitching fractionally as the machine dispassionately analysed the contours of its assaulter's expression.
And then, with a whir of motors followed by a resounding crack, Metal headbutted the Ultimate Lifeform square in the face.
Shadow crumpled backwards from the impact, landing in a heap of arms and legs and spines on the broken floor beneath Metal Sonic. Omega was there in a split second, primary gunbarrels pressed right up against the robot silver-blue skullplate. Shadow turned over, green blood streaming from his forehead and the black oval of his nose, along with a deep, vertical gash in his muzzle, where Metal's own razor-sharp horn had slashed a furrow through the skin. With a strangled "Damnit!", there was another turquoise flash of chaos control; the black hedgehog vanished from in between the robots, not reappearing this time. But the sound of loud retching and curses from the deck above left little uncertainty over where he'd gone.
Metal turned his head to face Omega, a smear of Shadow's green blood trickling down the outside of his eye socket. "Demonstration: Accomplished: Increased vulnerability to blunt force trauma. Biological components equates inferior design."
Well, that only took me a year to write. ;)
Actually, it only took me a DAY. The 12 months preceding that have been quite lazy.
But anyway, here I am again, spewing rubbish into the intertubes! Does anyone even remember my profile? We can only hope not. _