(A/N): So at this point I find that I'm elongating the story on purpose. I really don't want to let go. You could call it padding the story out to a ridiculous degree, but goddamn I find myself wanting to put in so much more detail than I planned initially. It just can't be helped.
Long story short, this is NOT the final chapter. I honestly don't know how much longer I can hold this out before inevitably bringing this silliness to an end. If the next chapter isn't the final one, then something has glitched terribly. I hope you don't mind reading for a bit longer. I'd keep this document private until adding maybe another 5,000 words as to wrap up the story AT LONG LAST. But I sort of want to share it with you, and I have no self control. So please forgive me, and I hope you enjoy this chapter!
In that moment, it started to feel as though my organs were dampening, churning until they were made of proper cream. Every cavity in my body became swollen, swallowed by fire, and this time it wasn't at the mercy of the Chaos Emerald. It was shock. Pure, natural, completely human shock. The sensation was strong enough to overtake my eyes and blot my surroundings with strange pixels. It all became a dream. I stared at my grandfather with this newly brewed form of intensity, completely unmoving. Not even catching my breath was worth breaking free from the trance.
The G.U.N. soldiers choreographed themselves in a way that was not unlike a group of dangerous statuettes, their weapons pointed towards us though carefully minding the space where I stood. Each barrel of every pistol was aimed directly at Shadow the Hedgehog. I briefly turned to him and noticed the red sniper spots moving in a flurry around his torso and head, steady yet somehow like scattered fireflies. Now panic was stirring lightly.
My grandfather glared back towards us before smiling shortly, genuinely, in a way that reminded me despite his threats, he was indeed my family. I almost entirely forgot his statements about being ready to kill Shadow, and instead gawked on in uncertainty. His entire stance softened dramatically after locking eyes with me for the first time that night.
With tension heavy enough to burn holes in the ozone layer, he finally reached out in my direction. "Rachel, you have no idea how worried I've been about you! What a relief that you're alright."
I stared back, unable to be muster up anything that could hint mutual satisfaction. I had no reason to be happy that he was here.
He was my grandfather, right?
He was the one who had shared his personal stories with me on the sanctity of a living room sofa. He was the one who I visited nearly every weekend so my siblings and I could enjoy his company. He'd lost a great deal, and he wanted to protect me just like he would with anyone he loved. There was something dreadfully wrong happening here if I was actually questioning the trust I'd placed him; this man whom I'd known my entire life, over the trust I'd placed in Shadow who I'd known for a mere few months via captivity.
"You have nothing to be afraid of. You're safe now."
I found myself shaking my head disbelievingly. Safe? Safe from what exactly? His side of the beach was the one filled with weaponry. I didn't want to go with him at all. I couldn't just do that. This wasn't the side of him I wanted to see. No, I wanted to stay by Shadow. So long as I was by him they wouldn't dare shoot. So I refused to move.
He ignored me and beckoned with one gloved finger. His smile was crisp as ever. "Come over this way now, I want you away from him right now. Especially while he is being arrested."
My eyes went wild. Arrested?!
"We won't let him harm you anymore. It's going to be okay."
I didn't respond to him, and instead broke eye contact and once again gaped back towards Shadow, who had long since released my arms and was instead knotting his fists. He made no effort to take the Emerald away from me this time. He made no effort to take...well...any sort of action, really. It couldn't have been that he was afraid.
Do something, I willed silently. Make them all go away, Shadow. Do it now. I know you can.
I couldn't believe this was even up for debate. That I was thinking, albeit poorly, of all the possible outcomes to this situation rather than just a single, logical one. I was really having trouble choosing between my grandfather and Shadow the Hedgehog. Boy had time really done its damage.
Disregarding that, this all seemed so incredibly off on its own. My grandfather could kill Shadow if he wanted to at any given second. He had the means, and he certainly had the temper. But the same could be said the other way around. Why wasn't Shadow running away? Or teleporting somewhere far away? Why wasn't he taking the Chaos Emerald away and using its power to blast these morons to tiny bite size morsels? He was going to fight back, wasn't he? He had every reason to. Better yet, why wasn't he taking me with him, or refusing to let me go?
All these questions dropped like stones as soon as Shadow's voice crept up on me, eerily. As if it were an icy poltergeist.
"Go," he said. I was almost certain I'd been the only one who heard it. A tremor sliced down my spine. Rather than take a step away obediently, I took one closer to the hedgehog. "What?" My words were a wispy teeter-totter. I'd definitely heard him, but I couldn't process it.
"I said go," he repeated, this time with tripled ferocity. I side-stepped ever so slightly just to get a better look at his face. Nothing he said would sink in.
"You belong with him, not me," he continued hastily. His eyes were bright with rage. What he was saying was almost incomprehensible.
I could only imagine how much this scenario, and these words, were a huge kick to his pride. I knew he wasn't about to soften himself up for my sake. Especially for my sake. If anything, he probably wanted to use his frustration to his advantage. As if it would frighten me right into submission like it had before. But his antics had just about numbed me at this point. It wasn't working.
Now all eyes were on me. They were waiting, all of them, with clear impatience for me to make my first and final move. But in my heart, I knew no matter what I chose, I'd ultimately be betraying someone. How could I possibly turn my back on my grandfather and toss his love and empathy to the wolves, for someone that was his, and previously my sworn enemy? Especially when he'd tried so hard to find me even while death stood jingling bells on his doorstep. But how could I leave Shadow to arrest and possible execution after all the times he'd protected me when he could've easily left me to die? And now, after I'd denied him the Chaos Emerald. When he admitted to loving me too. Was that not important? What about when he'd sacrificed himself on more than one occasion, for my sake? How was that fair?
"Rachel, come now," my grandfather insisted. His friendliness was rapidly fading. Persistence surfaced.
"Go, Rachel." Shadow's hissed.
So I started to move. Fighting my own weight, I slowly, reluctantly, began walking towards my grandfather as the men kept a close eye on Shadow, to make sure he didn't act on possessive impulse. It's what they all wanted. Who was I to fight that?
Fight it! Stop! What are you doing?!
Every footstep I left in my wake was folded over by sand and breeze. It was erasing the evidence, painting it like I'd never been near Shadow at all. Quite poetic, really. Waves were rolling in further. I forced myself to glare straight ahead, while internally begging Shadow to shake up this bitter formula and take action.
Turn back! You can't just leave him behind! You can't let this happen!
I pulled the Chaos Emerald out from beneath the crook of my arm and inspected it closely, but only as an excuse to occupy my eyes. With it, I was spared from looking at the now beaming Commander. His proud nature revolted me, and I could see it in my reflection. I was convinced of nothing, stained with flecks of worry and fear. Somewhere deep in that brightly speckled eye, was also a hint of fury.
Once I was surrounded by the soldiers, I turned on my heel to face Shadow again.
Seeing him stand alone while I stood by my grandfather and these men with their guns made me sink backwards even further. There was something not right. This wasn't the atmosphere I wanted to breed from. Guns, and hate, grudges and revenge. My grandfather's excuses for loathing Shadow were so old. They had nothing to do with me. I wanted no part of it. It wasn't who I wanted to be.
I found Shadow already staring intently in my direction. It soured the pit of my stomach. I gawked back, pleading with my eyes for him to escape while he still had the chance. I didn't want him to lose, especially to the likes of G.U.N. And I certainly didn't want it to be at the hands of my own grandfather. I could no longer tell who I was rooting for, and instead wished all these men here would disappear. That way it could be just him and I again on this beach now cloaked in haunting darkness, with nothing but the water at our ankles to charm us with its innocent and quiet company.
It wasn't easy to appear void of all emotion. Maintaining my composure was like balancing fruit on a needlepoint; unsafe, leaving a tender core to fall over with only the smallest gust of wind.
Rachel's eyes were vast pools of chemical bubbling bright as ever. Through them, I could see and almost feel the capacity of everything she was feeling. Her thoughts were of their own universe. Some I was unable to read, others were in foreign code. But knowing her, I knew overall how torn she must've felt, and how she probably wanted to say something smart and applicable. Something that would change all our minds or reform our opinions of one another. All of this reality completely coincided with that perfect world she'd embedded in her mind. But her power was lacking, her influence barely there. She could only watch helplessly as Abraham Tower stepped forward with a sickening smirk and nudged her back behind him. Her body, and the Chaos Emerald, barely poked out from behind his pale frame.
"You don't know how long I've waited for this. Day and night...how I've imagined this moment. Now it's come, and your time is up. You've had this coming for a long time." His chin lifted. "Shadow. Surrender yourself now. You'd be a nothing less of a fool to do otherwise."
My frown deepened. "Of course." My focus moved from Rachel's and matched with his. "Only a fool would run away from something he's too afraid to understand. A fool, and a coward. But saying that might be getting a bit too personal. Wouldn't you say so too?"
The old man's thinning mouth fell apart. My words trampled his before they could emerge. "I'm not running away, Abraham. Unlike you, I have my dignity. And unlike you, I understand my enemy perfectly. I have nothing to fear."
And it was true. To me, this man was like a lump of styrofoam. But I'd continue to play his game. I wouldn't hurt him knowing Rachel was present, and I was disgusted that he would even think to do the same to me.
The Commander's teeth ground against one another. "You're wrong about that, you demon. You'll never understand the weight of all that you took from me. You can't. Your mind wasn't programmed that way. You don't have a heart to be broken, because you're nothing but a broken experiment."
My arms shifted and crossed over my chest. I wasn't the least bit offended by his petty remarks, even if they did conflict with the years of pain I spent grieving Maria's death. "So then, why don't you enlighten me and tell me what it is I'm missing?" My eyes mindlessly flickered back to Rachel.
"I'll be happy to enlighten you with a pair of handcuffs and a prison cell."
Two soldiers then began advancing me. One was swinging a metal slink around his index finger, the other stood close by with his gun cocked.
Rachel tugged at Abraham. "Grandpa, wait!" Though he was quick to shove her back and hushed her pleas persistently. "Don't interfere, Rachel. We're doing what's safest for all of us. Surely you understand that."
Rachel looked at me, inhaling deeply. "But..."
The soldier quickly took hold of my wrists like those few square inches of fur were their own weapons of mass destruction in dire need of restraint. He was unable to close the cuff around my inhibitor ring, and instead transferred it a little farther down.
Rachel gasped. I'd stopped looking her way altogether.
He fastened the cuff, maneuvering one arm closer to the other in order to complete the binding. I started to call forth the Chaos Energy. Discluding Tower, I lacked the conscience to not show these idiots what I was capable of. It was my only defense, and even then I was terribly drained of it. Who knew what would happen now. My eyes narrowed.
Rachel yanked away from her grandfather completely.
And then, the ground rumbled and sent flits of pebbles drumming like marbles all around. The soldier pulled his grip away in shock. He and his counterpart gravitated back towards the others, all of them whisking their heads every which way. Abraham Tower held his hands apart to keep balanced, while Rachel crouched and protected the Emerald in the tight space between her thighs and stomach.
I was the only one standing unfazed, even with the edge of the cuff cutting into me through every quake and shudder. I silently looked out towards the ocean, and waited.
It panned upwards from the water like a monster made of metal. Right where the moonlight left slivers of white, a weapon had broken through and was rising. Slowly. Menacingly. It seemed to go on forever.
It wasn't unlike it's predecessor. While the base of the machine was mostly sharp and blunt, the head was made up of intricate illusions and designs reminiscent of shattered glass, all painted along one obnoxiously large hemisphere. A spear protruded from the very center and was decorated by surrounding beams. Some of the metal paneling extended beyond the circle in a spidery fashion. Before long it had become tall enough to block out the moon completely, and when it had finished lifting, a final tremor shook the sand before settling it back into place as if nothing had occurred at all.
This was the Supernova Cannon.
Now that all had noticed this circuit board of beastly proportions, I prepared myself. Blame was getting ready to rear its ugly head.
"What is that thing?!" one man shouted, allowing his intimidating front to fall.
"It looks like some sort of giant gun!"
"That's because it is a giant gun! It's a bloody cannon!" another cried out.
A ripple of understanding came tumbling over. But in all honesty, it wasn't a difficult puzzle to solve in the first place. This had to be none other than the Eclipse Cannon's larger, nastier sister. And just as before, I had no doubt that its creator this time was also a Robotnik. Eggman must've not been finished throwing hijinks our way after all. Boy was this one grand.
But then I looked back to Shadow. We found ourselves staring at one another amidst the panic, and as always his face was mercilessly unreadable. He was taking in my reaction while having nothing but a stoic expression to offer in return. Somewhere deep down, my blood started to boil.
"Commander, that thing is aimed right at the city!"
"With that kind of force...if it hits even one building, that one will collapse and the rest will fall like dominoes!"
He knew about this...
"Who's in control of it?! Eggman?! But we all thought he disappeared a while ago! Where are Sonic and the others when we need them most?!"
It's why he tried forcing me to leave. He mentioned that Eggman had tampered with something underwater here. So all along he was playing a role in obliterating Station Square. He deceived me. And he threw around such a heavy word like love to get me to cooperate.
"Orders, commander?! What are we to do! Eggman gave us until midnight!"
"The hedgehog was clearly behind this also! He has to call it off! We can't waste any time!"
Except...no. Just wait a minute.
Shadow wouldn't ask me to just LEAVE if that were the case. He said to get as far away from here as possible. But there was no specification in that. What if I had gone back into the city? Where else would I have gone besides home? He wouldn't allow that if he meant for it to be destroyed.
This isn't adding up. He must've had something else planned. I bet he was going to stop the attack until G.U.N. showed up and interfered!
He wanted me out of here so he could successfully do away with it! He's not trying to hurt us like we all think. He knows better than that. His moral compass is thin but not non-existent. He knows not to do that to me or any of these innocent people! He's defied Eggman before and he's done it again!
But my grandfather's gruff voice cracked like a whip. "Lock on target, men!"
My hypotheses went up in smoke, while a gasp erupted from my throat. "What?!"
He's referring to Shadow. Shadow is his target.
This can't happen.
But it was like my exclamations didn't exist. They were all deafened deer caught in the headlights. Every man raised their guns once more and jutted them in Shadow's direction. And to my horror, he made no effort to even budge. I started to run towards him, but my grandfather held an arm out and trapped me in place. I caught myself looking back out at the cannon, where there were still the shadows of several boats sprinkled along the coastline. Since tonight was New Years Eve, a time-honored holiday, I knew they could only be boats full of-
"Stay back, Rachel. We're about to open gunfire and I won't let you get caught up in it."
My fingers were like hooks desperately grappling onto his sleeve. He'd gotten my attention this time. "No, grandpa! At least listen to him! Hear what he has to say!"
I could tell he was panicking. His arm was shaking violently, and yet somehow it was strong enough to keep me from surpassing him.
"Please, grandpa! He's not responsible! You can't do this! Stop it!"
Several fingers clapped against their respective triggers. Shadow glared back at them without a shred of vulnerability. But I wasn't convinced in the slightest. I wanted to believe he could sustain bullets. But he'd been severely weakened. Neither of us knew the truth, and it killed me.
Finally, I couldn't take it anymore.
With a swift toss, the Chaos Emerald went soaring through the air, over the soldiers' uniformed bodies, and closed in on Shadow. He reached up and caught it overhand, eyeing me with the most confusion I'd ever seen cross those peculiar scarlet irises.
I'd thrown it to him. I'd defied my grandfather. It was him I wanted to win.
"Shadow, the boats!" I hollered, pointing back towards the horizon. "Aim for the boats!"
In no time the command had registered. Using the boost of energy that swarmed within the Chaos Emerald's walls, the one I knew he quenched for desperately, Shadow launched his hand forward and out shot neon bolts of power.
They went scraping past the water, golden light bending in a manner like spilling ink. And, miraculously enough, they managed to pierce through one of the aforementioned boats far away from us and the rest of civilization. It did so flawlessly.
Immediately the boat exploded into a huge galaxy of fireworks.
One by one, via a colorful chain reaction.
Each boat was struck before bursting with a sea of flashing stars, setting the entire sky on fire.
It had worked. New Years Eve was officially on our side tonight.
He'd said something about a hunch.
The Commander, after clutching his chest and looking towards the Western edge of Station Square, like something on the other side of the city was the antidote to all of his problems, had himself transported elsewhere and brought several soldiers along with him as well. For what purpose, we were not told. No one understood his motives, but we were all too afraid to question a dying man's intentions either way. I was the only one willing to admit that it wasn't safe to mindlessly accept his judgement. Him being sick didn't automatically make him right.
He left me, the Tower family, and a few unfortunate escorts to meander around a hospital while Travis received professional opinions from the one doctor insane enough to not evacuate the city. I was instructed to stay close to them, and protect them by any means necessary. The televisions showed nothing but dead static. Satellites were down. Cell phone signals non-existent. Even in the heart of the city, it felt as though we were miles deep in a dark, concrete countryside. Nothing to do or occupy ourselves with. The boredom and paranoia were a toxic mixture and it was near maddening.
We all felt the same quake run through the ground for a short second. It was rather subtle, no where near strong enough to send anything toppling over in the waiting room, despite it being caked with loose novelties. But our anxiety was still peaking with every passing minute. The smallest breeze would bounce us straight to our toes. It was nearing midnight, and our worries were only intensifying with every tick of the clock.
So when the floor shook and a scream erupted from Rachel's rather excitable mother, I threw down whatever dull catalog I'd been sifting through, tore out of the hospital entirely and stopped dead in the middle of the street outside. The cold, stuffy air greeted me with brutal impact. All was hauntingly quiet. I looked every which way but saw nothing that would explain the rumble. So I readied myself to run through the city and have a decent look about to be certain danger wasn't lurking just around some crooked traffic light.
Then a voice stopped me.
"Hey! Excuse me, Mr. Sonic, sir?"
I had my fists clenched, knees bent and ready to shatter the sound barrier in a string of blue light. My stance completely melted at the sound of this soft little coo. I whisked around and found myself staring down a short, round-faced girl with auburn ringlets for hair. It was the youngest of the twins if you counted in minutes. Emma Tower.
She seemed nervous, quiet except for the gentle swishing of twiddled thumbs. Oddly enough, no one was accompanying her. And she'd gotten out here extremely fast. No time to even throw on a jacket. I would've assumed no one knew she was out here, but these speculations dispersed when I saw her mother and another soldier hurrying to the window from inside the hospital, after gracelessly bumping past an abandoned receptionist's desk, and watching our interaction. The mother took a step towards the door, but the aforementioned soldier placed one hand on her shoulder. She ceased moving altogether after shooting him a very unconvinced glare.
When I looked back into the girl's big and childish eyes, she had already begun talking again.
"Mr. Sonic, I thought I'd let you know...I don't think you just let my sister get taken away by that other scary hedgehog. No matter what anyone says."
I puzzled instantly. As touching as this was, it really wasn't the appropriate time or place.
"Oh. Well, gee. Thanks kid. But if you haven't noticed, we might kind of sort of be in big trouble. So can we finish this later? I promise we'll have a proper chat then, if everything goes well. Now hurry back inside. It's best if you stay there."
She nodded. "Sure. I understand."
She began treading back towards the gray entry. But before getting far, her steps slowed and she whirled in my direction once again. "It's just...well everyone's mad at you except for me and my brother. I know he's not. We have twin telepathy and it tells me he believes in you too."
Twin telepathy...my inner wavelengths went spiraling. Believe in me?
"I hate to do this," I stated, "I really do. I don't mean to bolt right after you tell me the nicest thing I've heard all night. But we did lose sight of Eggman earlier, and trust me that's nowhere near as good as it sounds. I have to make sure he doesn't pull something while we have our backs turned. It's my responsibility. With it being so close to twelve, the stakes are only getting higher. I'm sure you get that."
I then waved her off. "You go back in now, and tell everyone to stay close together. I'm going to check through the city and make sure everything's alright. Possibly find my friends. They should be in a blue airplane. It'd make things a whole lot easier if we did this together."
Emma raised an eyebrow. "Do you think my sister is still involved in this?"
Yes. I had every reason to believe Rachel was involved. So long as she was missing, and so long as Shadow was hungrily sought after, she'd always be trapped in the eye of the hurricane. But my impatience was surfacing too quickly for me to respond genuinely. So I made an attempt to shoot back a very rushed We will find out soon enough. So I could finally be on my way.
But a blast sent pounding starlight into the skies overhead. In the west, where the sun had long since sunken beneath the red horizon.
Where the Commander had headed before leaving us here.
Every square mile of space above us was illuminated in colors that bloomed sparkling frenzies. Some barely peaked over the tops of skyscrapers, while others shot far up until they were barely grazing the atmosphere, sending their fiery rain down over a larger, wider radius. It felt big enough and loud enough to swallow us whole.
Emma gasped loudly, covering her ears and yet stifling an excited laugh as car alarms set off from all around. "Oh, fireworks! I didn't know they were still doing these! That's so cool!"
The thrill in her voice ebbed instantly, and became harder to here. "But it's not even midnight yet. Whoever set those off is celebrating way too early."
I screwed my eyes towards the display. There was an uncertainty I'd felt about this, and she'd voiced it perfectly for me. "I think whoever set those off isn't celebrating at all."
Just then, a streak of indigo clashed against the blinding view and soared straight for its core. The X Tornado, in a clunky silhouette form. Engines were spurring until they were inevitably drowned out by the deafening sounds of the fireworks. I didn't know if the pilot or passengers had seen me, but they clearly shared my suspicions about these fireworks if the first impulse they had was to go straight for it.
I then looked ahead and grimaced. "It's a cry for help."
I took off without a second glance back at Emma for validation. Not even to make sure she had re-entered the hospital safely. My mind was racing, my heart began to shrivel coldly.
I had a bad feeling about all of this. And how I hoped I was wrong.
They were getting larger, faster. I hadn't fully grasped the weight of what I'd done until the whole of winter suddenly felt like a scorching bonfire.
The fireworks weren't setting off in a timed manner like they were designed to. They were bursting like bombs of fantasy. Jets of light shot higher, closing in. Bits of red, green, and cobalt blue. I tried blocking out the absurdity of the noise, but my ears rang regardless, and when the lights actually managed to ride the water and fall like sparklers onto the hem of the beach, the soldiers began to run. This had become hazardous.
"Fall back, men! Fall back!"
The boats had already been set aflame by the swarm of smoke and gunpowder. The water acted like a mirror reduced to melting, sizzling beneath a glittering storm. These bright bullets were traveling farther out until their shapes were no longer distinctive, combusting and raining down as colorful polka dots. It didn't take long for the heat to catch up with us. It was like a giant explosive fireplace. I found myself ducking as a huge cone of light soared over me. Had I not done so, it would've taken my molten head along with it after having disintegrated into the palm trees.
One soldier cried out in horror when a streak not unlike the one I'd dodged knocked into him and burned through his uniform. The fabric made a sickening sound as it fizzled away, and the one he emitted was even more frightening. While crawling on hands and knees, minding more of the ricocheting fire show, I grabbed onto the sand as if I was in danger of falling off the planet, and slowly, carefully, made my way to Shadow.
I expected him to be waiting for me and ready to go. After all, that's why I had done this. It was our last chance to escape. Sonic was in Station Square, so I intended for the fireworks to catch his attention so he'd notice this catastrophe from afar. That way he would come to investigate, then handle whatever he needed to while I got Shadow away from here, where no one could hurt him or take him away. Nobody seemed to realize how much they misunderstood his intent. He'd harnessed the power of Chaos. He had the power of an Ultimate Life Form. He would be untouchable; no one would dare lock him up. That's all I wanted for him. Even if it meant losing a hindrance like me in the process. It's what he deserved.
But when I looked up to see him, I found him hunched over and groaning as if in pain.
I squinted towards him. Pillows of smoke came tumbling in and made seeing all the more difficult. The noises were dying down, but I still had to yell so that my voice would carry even ten feet in from of me.
He didn't respond, and instead clumsily dropped the Chaos Emerald and grabbed his head with both hands, turning down and grimacing sourly. I could hear the hisses coming out of him. His eyes were fastened shut.
I clawed my way closer, only able to grunt his name over and over, occasionally pausing as to avoid getting smoldered by oncoming fire. But the smoke only seemed to thicken. His form was starting to blur. I moved quicker in desperation.
By then his body was only a jagged black marking amidst the fog. Through focusing, I could feel my eyes burn and then water. But through the mess of gray and hazy glows, I noticed another form was fading into view. A large, bulky, humanoid figure.
Huge gusts of wind blew in and forced the smoke to disperse just enough so that I could see below the human's bust. He was wielding a large rifle, and took no time to point it directly at Shadow.
"I got him, sir!" the frantic soldier called to no one. "I'll handle it for you! I'll be the one to finish the job!"
Every inch of me froze, before I inevitably burst forward in panic. My thoughts and actions were now totally parallel.
A soldier was going to shoot Shadow. It was happening right now. No. There was no way I could allow that to happen.
How can I know if Shadow would be able to deflect a single bullet? Especially in the state he's in? I've never seen it happen myself.
I jumped to my feet and flung my body in front of Shadow's, hugging him tightly with all the strength I had left in me. The electricity was now boiling over, with the Chaos Emerald's ever expanding wave-lengths being strong enough to turn my stomach over and over.
Could he, at the very least, sustain this type of injury? I mean, he didn't handle getting stabbed very well. I don't know if getting shot would be better or worse.
A sickening sound reminiscent to that of a whip cracked against the lukewarm air. My eyes fluttered. I felt myself jolt forward just a bit from some sort of small, yet powerful impact. All I heard was static.
Shadow is the Ultimate Life Form. One might think he could take care of himself. What if he doesn't need me?
Though there's no explanation for what's happening to him now. Clearly he's in distress, and in no shape to deal with these guys.
Then the stinging started. A deep, raw sort of burn that felt like it was coming from within my shoulder and pulsating outwards. Everything was suddenly bombarded with dizzying filters. I couldn't keep up with what was a product of my own mind, and what was actually happening.
He was breathing so hard just a moment ago, but now it stopped. Does this mean he's feeling better?
Also...why am I hurting so much?
A hot, thick sort of wetness soaked its way through my sleeve. The fireworks became a tycoon of monstrous carnival colors, the audio of the beach distant and phantom-like. I slumped into Shadow. The energy of Chaos burned between us. It was the only thing I could cling to; the only thing that reminded me I was still alive and breathing, albeit lightly. It was all ebbing at an uneasy rate.
Is Shadow alright?
Am I alright?
Will Sonic be coming?
What's going to happen to the city? To the rest of the world? What about Grandpa?
Are we going to make it out okay?
Are we going to make it out alive?
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pinpoint why my body had reacted the way it did after launching a set of Chaos Spears. It was this heavy pinch that left me sore in my muscles. Hot coals had formed in every joint, my senses became caught up, briefly, in a storm of disillusion. But how? I hadn't done anything differently from before. There wasn't much about the environment that could influence the effect Chaos had on me. But perhaps, that was because it actually originated from a corresponding person.
A person who was now collapsing her entire weight against me like she'd forgotten how to stand.
I could feel my body's aches rapidly lifting and replacing themselves with a charged impulse. My strengths were returning, multiplying, and I was able to finally focus again even with all the fireworks detonating beyond the floor of the ocean.
I brought one hand up and clamped on Rachel's shoulder. My eyes screwed down towards her, darting quickly to the soldier standing nearby. He held a rifle in unsteady hands. Eyes wide and watery. With cautious footing he stepped away, shaking his head over and over.
That's when I realized Rachel wasn't responding to my grip. In fact, our current of energy was non-existent. Dead. She was only falling more and more instead of picking herself up. It was a struggle to keep her from completely sprawling across the sand.
I moved my hand away and inspected it closely, my heart rate doubling. The threads were soaked in richly dark blood.
My eyes flickered back towards the soldier's weapon. A faint vine of smoke hovered from the barrel.
He shot her.
My demeanor fell completely. I pried Rachel off of me and studied her closely. She wasn't moving. Her eyes were closed. I couldn't even find it in me to hold still long enough so that I could detect breathing. But she was getting colder, and that made me frantic. I couldn't collect my thoughts neatly. Every action I took was mismatched with a noise of distress, all unorganized and out of sync.
I didn't stop and try to revive her with a shove or name call. I didn't yell to anyone for help. The lights were dying into obsurity, the cold water slowing and sloshing against our ankles like teeth made of ice. I felt myself fall into a very dark place, as I scooped Rachel into my arms and made sure that the Chaos Emerald wasn't let go of in the process. She moved unnaturally. She was stone. A sharp knot grew in my chest. She couldn't be dead. She just couldn't be.
Some soldiers were making their way through the distance, moving like ghosts of a war from long ago. The explosions had finished, and all that remained were a few persistent flames, the settling sand, and clouds of water that fell in glittery packs back towards the ocean. The hysteria was over just as soon as it had began. The men were done squabbling like mindless infants. Nothing but silence was left in the smoking aftermath.
And the only blood that had spilt was that of Rachel Tower.
I was shaking now. Shaking as more people collected around us curiously, all suddenly freezing on spot when they realized what had happened since the last pop of fire.
And there was the soldier, who had been the one to shoot her. He sauntered backwards clumsily and turned away in horror. He knew his career had just disintegrated before his very eyes. He'd ended the life of someone important in more ways than one.
I doubled over her, knelt down, and allowed her legs to touch the ground. My breathing was choppy but quiet. I felt my hatred sting viciously like hellfire. Nothing would've satisfied me more than to rip every last one of these men to shreds, starting with the one to murder this girl.
But I wouldn't leave Rachel for an instant. I wanted to be there when she woke up. Because she would. She most definitely would.
The Commander was making his way toward us, his footsteps heavier and slower than that of his youthful, inexperienced army. He called Rachel's name, but it sounded so far off, and I could barely distinguish it over my own swelling nausea.
When I was able to feel his presence closing in, I realized what I had to do. I took the Chaos Emerald and raised it above my head with one buckling arm.
I had to get out of here before I lost my mind. And I wasn't going to leave her behind.
The command was quick, and far too rushed. I tried to envision Rachel's home. It was where I'd found her after our time apart. It was where she should be right now. Undisturbed. Warm and dry. Alive.
My thoughts lost themselves when I felt the spidery hand of Commander Tower grip me by the arm right as an orb of white swallowed us whole.
He went along with us.
As I pushed past the cluster of trees that paved my way to Station Square's only beach, I couldn't help but notice the dramatic shift in atmosphere. A dense, silvery cloud welcomed me right away, along with a peculiar odor that was doused across the area. Once my feet went from crunching through dead leaves to pounding against sand, I suddenly couldn't remember if this was indeed a beach or a battlefield.
The first thing I noticed were the G.U.N. soldiers. No Commander. No Commander's granddaughter. Just young to middle-aged soldiers, all with fallen helmets so that their identities were made more apparent. Most of them were doubled over and panting, a few even heaving dryly. Some were equipped with guns, others had abandoned said weaponry to slowly slip away into the water without attention or care. As soon as I'd cleared my way and stood but mere feet from them, they transitioned their focus from their own selves to me.
The second thing I noticed was the monstrous motherload of a cannon placed right smack in the middle of the ocean. Large was an understatement. This beast was so monumental I almost whistled in surprise. Some sort of knee-jerk reaction sent my eyes scurrying all over the metal paneling in search of Eggman's logo. After all, who else would set something so threatening as this right here, pointed directly towards the city with only minutes to spare before midnight?
Though I didn't find any stamp, I did notice that this cannon's design was oddly familiar. The memory took no time to make its way back to me.
Eclipse Cannon. A name sour enough to leave cobwebs on my tongue. This was just like the same weapon as before except fueled with a pool of testosterone, and set up for a different assault. Also, thankfully enough, it had not a single mutated lizard attached to it. But now wasn't the time to count blessings.
If this Eclipse Cannon Reloaded was wired to go off, it'd undoubtedly be firing very soon. I had to figure out how to disarm it, and fast.
"Look over there! It's him!"
I paused and gazed blankly off to the side. A man with a dark beard pointed towards me, eyes narrowed.
"The evil hedgehog from before! He's come back! Someone get him!"
No one seemed nearly as convinced as he did. I stared back at him dumbfounded.
"Evil hedgehog? Are you talking about Shadow?" Because of course, who else. Humans still had trouble telling me apart from the other giant hedgehogs they encountered on rare instances. Mind boggling.
The man's finger dropped limply. His strong and intense character crumbled. "W-Wait...your voice. I know that voice. Are you...Sonic?!"
I stifled an agitated sigh. Once my name was said out loud, more of the soldiers raised their heads and began shouting it in relief.
"Sonic! We're so glad to see you!" another one yelled. At the sound of this declaration, I could only fold my arms. This was all very routine to me. The scenario was a different flavor, sure, but nothing I was unaccustomed to.
"Oh, you don't understand how terrible it is! That cannon out there was planted by Eggman and the other hedgehog!"
"He was just here! And he took off with Ms. Rachel Tower!"
My ears twitched. Now this was definitely treading new territory.
"The Commander went with him also!"
"That hedgehog just disappeared into thin air! Took both Tower and his granddaughter away to who knows where!"
I mindlessly poked the edge of my mouth in curiosity. Exactly what kind of soap opera was this turning into?
"Do any of you know why he retreated?" I demanded, still altered by a touch of impatience. "Shadow I mean. He wasn't taking Rachel as a hostage again, was he? What kind of threats did he use?" I'd have that faker's head over this if my suspicions were confirmed. He wouldn't just be betraying Rachel. It'd be all of us getting fed to the wolves.
Then, a soldier emerged from behind a few others, head dipped in shame, eyes peeking towards me like a child prepared for scolding.
"No threats, Sonic, sir. I think he left...because...well...Ms. Tower was injured..." he said, before grabbing his head with both hands. "And regrettably, it was all my fault, too!"
I cocked a brow and stepped closer. "What do you mean?"
"I fired at her!" he blurted, which triggered a ripple of uneasiness through his comrades. "Accidentally! I'm so sorry! Honest! I was aiming for Shadow, but she jumped between us and took the bullet instead. Lost a lot of blood...He took off with her and Commander Tower grabbed them before they could-"
"Woah, hold on a minute. You mean to tell me Rachel was shot?!" I gasped, my eyes wide like dinner plates. I could have honestly struck this man for messing up on such a colossal level. But it wasn't entirely his fault. He panicked, and Rachel got in the way of what it was he intentionally tried to do, which was injure or possibly kill Shadow for good. She had wanted to protect Shadow, who in turn decided it'd be best to get her far away from this setting via manipulation of Chaos Control. For that, I could applaud him. Who were they to think violence in her presence was even remotely okay?
I sent another look towards the cannon. It didn't have any sort of timer, or indication of when it would launch, detonate, or whatever. This only made everything a bit more unsettling.
Then, from behind me, I could hear the familiar sound of a plane engine, and boy was it ever music to my ears. Upon turning my head, I found the X Tornado blazing through the sky like a rogue comet. It soared over the ocean before doubling backwards and descending lower until it barely scraped over the cannon, diving towards the water and then the edge of the beach.
Tails geared the plane to an angle that allowed me to see the activity inside. It happened too fast for me to follow accurately, but someone was quick to toss out a colorful set of jewels, and chase it with a nearly inaudible, "Sonic! Take these!"
The Chaos Emeralds hit the sand all at the same time, flashing upon reaching impact. I wasted no time and jetted towards them. My head felt close mathematic combustion just by the simple, but incredibly speedy counting to the number six.
This would've been the complete set except one. Just one was still missing.
And I think I knew where to find it.
I collected the jewels as fast as I could and set off into the sky.
Fading lights had never felt so slow before. The glow ebbed away after what one could easily mistake for eternity, and we were left in darkness. If Rachel hadn't been so pale I might not have been able to make out any part of her features. But I could see that she was still immobile, though a bit more glossy than before. And her mouth had broken a very thin seam to allow air.
Breathing. She was breathing.
All those visions from fifty years ago were muted instantly with that small, but significant reassurance. I could no longer see myself trapped in a capsule, watching someone close to me choke out a farewell from the other side, dampened by the blood of something fatal. Here, I had nothing separating me from this girl. She had her head in my lap, and I was watching carefully, closely, fingers idly twisting through the sprawled mass of her brown hair.
I could feel her vulnerable human flesh pressing against me, and there was no spark. It had gone. Now there was nothing to tell me that she was special or different. She was just another girl close to death. I found myself fighting back against a weird accumulation that began to sting my eyes. She couldn't respond, and I didn't know how much longer she could hold out.
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.
Please don't go.
There's so much that you still haven't seen.
From farther away, the Commander stood, disgruntled but still regaining himself quickly after his journey through time and space. I had barely acknowledged him, because he'd lost nearly all importance to me. He took a step in our direction, and at this, I shielded Rachel by pulling her closer. The animal in me surfaced.
He seemed so far gone. He didn't grasp what I was saying at all. He kept walking.
"I'm warning you, Tower. There's nothing stopping me from tearing you apart. Stay where you are, or else."
He still wasn't listening. Did he think that age and illness would keep me grounded? He was sorely mistaken.
"Tower!" I suddenly ripped Rachel upright and pulled her to my chest, arms wound around.
"I didn't intend..." he started before slowing his pace. My breathing stopped.
Then the Commander was on his knees.
It wasn't working. His sudden shift in emotion wasn't enough to bring my guard down. But every word was like a sweet drop of nectar. I hated this man, and it was tremendously satisfying to know that he was self-aware of how much of a mistake he'd made. No matter what the outcome was for Rachel, he'd remember this for the rest of his miserable life. It'd eat away at him forever.
"History has repeated itself..." he droned on. "And I-...I'm the one to blame for that. I'm the cause of everything." His hands ripped at his scalp. "Why, I'm the reason you bothered taking her in the first place!"
Even I was beginning to feel what might have been sympathy. But not quite. Just less hatred, and more disgust. Tower's mismatched eyes were like sunken rocks in his head. He reached out towards us with open hands, trembling terribly.
"I want to hold my granddaughter," he insisted. "I want to be able to comfort her and protect her just as I did when she was a little girl."
One hand dropped. "When I told her the story of you."
My attentive ears flattened at this. I couldn't hold back a bothered growl. "What you told her was fiction, Tower. A fairytale. It was not my story. It was yours. So don't you dare speak of it as anything but."
Tower went silent at this. Finally, his other hand drooped down in defeat.
"I suppose. And what difference would it make? You saw to it that she endured that fairytale as you say. And now look at how far we've fallen! She's wounded because of me and is being...cradled by you. As much as I hate to watch this, I realize which of us is more safe. I can't be near her. How did I mess up so badly? As a man? As a grandfather?"
His voice was beginning to wither now, and at this I sighed. It was as if he was a misbehaved child, caught in the midst of an error and begging for forgiveness. No amount of pity on either part would save Rachel's life.
I finally looked away from him, reached down and began pulling at the zipper on Rachel's loose brown jacket. It was important that I saw the bullet wound, no matter how much it horrify me. I could feel my throat swelling already, but I had to see just how lethal it was.
As I thought, the shirt underneath was saturated in sticky red. It left markings on my gloves, which in turn smeared onto untouched areas as I tried tugging the jacket apart even farther. I began rolling the shirt up from the bottom, when I noticed something underneath the lagoon of blood.
The scar on her stomach that had been there prior. The scar that I had put there not too long ago. It was gone. Nothing was left behind.
I stopped moving and went instantly silent. At first, I tried to pretend it meant nothing, that there were more important things at stake here. But I couldn't dislodge my curiosity. This made no sense to me whatsoever.
Suddenly, the girl jolted in my arms, a thick gasp of air erupting from her. I whisked my head towards her face, relieved yet still unforgivably desperate for something miraculous.
"Rachel, are you-"
Her arms flew around me, and she interrupted me with a smoldering kiss.
A few moments earlier.
"I don't understand it." I said to the only person who would listen. That phantom from before was lingering nearby, coasting circles around me in this black void as she listened to my conscience sputter and complain. Here she had appeared before I managed to pass my own deathly threshold. Here, she accompanied me in limbo.
"Why did I do that?" I demanded, nails digging deep into my palms. "Why would I endanger myself for Shadow? Am I insane? Am I just desperate for attention? And why don't I know the answer to my own questions?!"
The voice sighed in a tone cool and smooth like milk.
"There's nothing left for me to tell you. You know why you did it. You just can't grasp it. You don't want to believe you'd do it at all, much less with the help of rational thought. But I made the same sacrifice, Rachel. We have our reasons. So if you're insane, then I'm no better. And there's nothing wiser that I can lend you."
I felt around for her for the umpteenth time. This torturous girl, disguised as the sprite from a wilted photograph.
The nerve she had being ambiguous, not feeding me the answers I quenched for.
Alien lights finally shone down and granted me a view of her. She looked exactly as I'd seen her in my grandfather's picture. Stained by different hues of brown, not really a person but rather a memory. I'd seen her a few chance times in dreams, and sometimes briefly when I closed my eyes. I'd dismissed the idea of her just being my imagination, or the product of madness. She seemed too smart, too calm, too independently spoken to be something conjured up from my own mind. She very much existed, in a space between worlds not seen by other mortal eyes. She felt real. And maybe in this instance, she was, as she was welcoming me alongside her in the world of those no longer alive. I'd gotten shot. Soon I'd be colored in brown too. Soon I'd only be a memory.
What tore me up the most about dying was not that I was young. Not that I had yet to experience the things that all humans were entitled to; love, adventure, happiness, action and fantasy. It was how I had such an unsatisfying lack of closure.
"However," she followed, "You aren't quite dead yet. That's the tricky part. You still have a chance to change your fate. A chance that I admit, I'm sort of jealous of."
I coiled in on myself and breathed heavily. Shutting my eyes made not a single bit of difference.
"What do I do?"
"Fight it. To survive, you must embrace that of which you've always feared."
"But I don't understand," I stated quickly. I couldn't help but hyperventilate softly. Her poetry was beginning to grind. "This isn't helping me. I don't know why I keep making it through so many instances where I should be dead. Especially now. This should be it."
"Because Shadow's energy is at its ripest," she responded. "Sixteen years has brought him to where he is now. It's him who's kept you functioning. How else do you think your markings disappeared from before?"
And now I was growing angry. This spirit may have been close with Shadow, but her painting him in all white colors was driving my crazy. She seemed to sense this, as if my head was a wide open window. Her breathing grew quiet, her eyes closed and she shook her head a few times.
"Look around you, Rachel."
"Notice how dark it all is."
I already had.
"Denial is ignorance, and ignorance is blindness."
"Your ignorance limits you. Your biases hinder you. Blindness. You are blind. And when you are blind, how can you know what separates light from shadow?"
Those words triggered something. It suddenly all melted away like drug-induced water color. Maria was the only thing my eyes held onto, her beautiful face beaming towards me, as senses returned and I felt myself being lifted. All the darkness turned into wet ink dribbling away. I moved vertically, past endless fields of starry fabric until she was minimized to a dot of amber before disappearing completely. An electricity was pulsating. Pressure returned. And before I could stop it, a bubble of oxygen forced its way out of my throat and back into the real world, yanking me along with it.
I found myself staring wide-eyed at Shadow the Hedgehog, who in turn mirrored my expression.
I took that short second to drink in his features, a series of flashbacks clicking like slides behind my eyes, and finally, I threw my arms around his neck and pulled him close.
I kissed him. Hard.
Chaos went to work immediately.