Disclaimer: No. Ugh, so many plot bunnies, so little time. Characters are coming together, and battles are on the horizon.

Chapter 4

I Don't Think We're on Third Earth Anymore…

Snarf was a relatively simple creature. He like food, warmth, naps in the sunshine, listening to Master talk about tech ideas. He also liked sitting in Master's lap and being scratched between the ears.

He also liked chili dogs. Like, a lot. Something about meat sauce, cheese, bread, and what Sonic called a hot dog all coming together was just…right.

There were many things he didn't like as well. He didn't like baths, large bugs, or spiky floors. He didn't like being too hot or too cold. He also didn't like purple-faced bad guys who tried to skewer Master, even if Master had been a bit of a dingaling that day. He also didn't like Tygra being snarky with Master, though he liked Tygra himself well enough.

He also didn't like it when Master was upset like he was now.

"It doesn't make any sense. How did we end up here? We've seen other planets in the sky, but none of the astronomers have ever heard of Mo-buss." Tilting his head back to look at Master, Snarf licked his lips free of the sauce.

"Mobius. And I've done interplanetary travel, so trust me when I say no matter how nuts it sounds, it's possible." Sonic had been true to his word and gotten him something to eat – namely a fresh chili dog. The hedgehog was a nice guy; he'd even cut it into bite-sized pieces and put it in a bowl so he didn't have to try to tear it apart himself. He was pacing back and forth in the room, footsteps fast.

It had taken another two hours for the rest of the cats to rouse themselves, and it had been quite interesting to see the kittens lumber into the room like they'd been spun around for an hour and expected to walk a straight line. Wobbling, tripping, they'd finally clambered onto Master's bed. Both of them were shaky, perhaps remnants of the shock of nearly killing those lizards and going through that horrible hole. At any rate, both of them had bundled up against him, Kat wedging himself between the lion and Tygra's side as the tiger stood by the mattress. Kit had no compunctions about simply crawling into Master's lap and going back to sleep, leaning on his front like he was a pillow. Snarf didn't blame her; Master was comfy and nice, and never shoved one off while they were taking a nap unless lives were at stake. He was absently stroking her head, watching the hedgehog.

Cheetara had gotten her mobility back as quickly as Tygra. She spoke little, but the woodchuck woman that had escorted her in holding her elbow chattered to her. "…And don't you worry honey, I'll find some hot cocoa. Nothing is quite so nice as hot cocoa when you're shivery. Oh, and a blanket, that'll help. Wilykit seems snug as she is," she added. Cheetara smiled, and Master averted his gaze, looking a little pink. The cheetah settled herself at the foot of his bed and the woodchuck scuttled back out of the room.

Snarf wondered for a minute why everyone congregated in Master's room. Things like that had been happening more often lately. Hm.

It got really crowded when Panthro woke up and stuck his head in the door. "Everybody else is seeing these weird creatures too, right?" At their nods, he'd sat down on the floor and buried his face in one paw. "I'll let you know when my head stops spinning." The Mobians had brought them up to speed – even Kit, who was grumpy at Master nudging her awake.

"You've got methods of space travel?" Tygra asked, watching Sonic with skepticism. The hedgehog missed the element of disbelief.

"Naw, I stopped an alien machine from vaporizing the planet and the resulting implosion blew me halfway across the galaxy. There's some space travel stuff on Mobius, but nothing real fancy yet. Well, Overlanders have some, but still, nothing super-duper sophisticated." Tygra stared as if he wasn't sure whether Sonic was joking or not. Snarf couldn't quite understand all the big words. The hedgehog paused, chewing his lip. "But…with Warp Rings anything's possible. Or Star Posts, maybe. Alternate dimensions, other planets, past and future…seriously, they're dangerous if you amp up the energy in them. Maybe that's what it was."

Master was watching the blue hedgehog bob back and forth. "Do they turn black and smell bad?"

Sonic frowned. "No…the rings are golden and kind of pretty, actually. Warp rings are constructed to transport people large distances. They take a lot of energy if you're going really far. But if it looked black and creepy, that's not normal."

Snarf nibbled at a piece of hot dog and licked his claws. "We saw a gold thingy before that, though," he said idly, ears perking forward.

Sally glanced at him, but Sonic stopped moving. "Really? Pretty, shimmery?"

"Yeah." Snarf rubbed his clean claws through his face fur to clean it better of the strange, meaty sauce Sonic called "chili." Lovely stuff. "And we saw someone through it, too. He was white with dark eyes. He had yellow irises, though. They were pretty."

"Did he have a creepy cape on? Little glasses on his nose?" Sonic stooped, and Snarf appreciated that; only Master had ever bent over to talk to him, and this was kind of nice.

"Yeah. He just stared at us and then the ring went dark and vanished. Then the whole place smelled funny. And when the black ring appeared we saw Mumm-Ra, so I guess he met up with that weird guy."

Sonic appeared to be about to reply, but Tygra interrupted. "Can you understand him?" he asked, pointing at Snarf. Master too looked stunned, and Snarf looked up at the spiny blue creature.

"Hey, he's right. How can you understand me?" He'd been nattering at this guy all this time and he hadn't realized it. Wow, when Snarf was hungry he was slow.

Sonic tapped his ear. "I've got an alien transmitter in my brain. Fused with my nervous system, so now I get to listen to non-bipeds talk too. But my bizarre ability aside, it sounds like Doctor Finitevus."

Kat was hanging on to Tygra's arm. "Who's that? Why was he looking at us?"

"Crazy dude who used to be a part of echidna society but got souped up on Emerald energy and started using black magic. He builds Warp Rings that run off Chaos Energy, but unfortunately he also happens to have gone nuts and evil, hence the magic." Sonic shrugged. "We're still not sure on all the details. People around here are kind of weird."

"He'd get along with Mumm-Ra." Cheetara had been listening carefully, and Sally tilted her head, sitting in one of the bedside chairs. "Would he help evil incarnate?"

"I dunno. He likes to think he's some brilliant guy who sees the big picture, but he's just a nutty bad guy." Sonic, it seemed, worked in black and white. Snarf was liking this guy more and more. "Anybody who kills off half a clan of dingoes just because of their 'tainted' technology is a bad guy. If Nicole would get here we might be able to call up Knux, see if he's heard anything from Finitevus."

Master mouthed, "Knux?" to his brother, but Tygra shook his head. "Why would he have been watching us? He was spying on us earlier that day."

Sonic managed to stop pacing again, tapping his foot. "I don't know. Maybe he didn't mean to. We don't know what he's up to since his last appearance. And again, see 'crazy' comment."

On the word "appearance," something rather astonishing happened. Right in the middle of the room, a brown lynx clothed in a simple purple gown materialized in a flash of green light. "Sonic, I love to help, really, but I can't always come at the drop of a – oh. Hello."

Snarf was too full to flip out properly, but Kat had puffed up in shock, and Master had jumped a little, nearly dislodging Kit. The other three cats didn't move too much, but surprise reflected in their faces. "Ah. Greetings. My name is Nicole. I am an AI nanite construct and steward of New Mobotropolis. Um…" she paused, looking around. "It's a little crowded in here."

Sonic had been pacing in a five foot space. "Huh? Oh. Yeah. Nicole, we're thinking Finitevus is behind this, and wanted to give Knuckles a call. I hate to bother you, but since you used to be Sally's communicator and all…"

"Not at all. Let me just check and see if he has a transmitter on him. If he does, I can bring up a hologram image." Her eyes went completely green, and she grew still and silent. Snarf stared at her openly.

"What the heck is an AI?" Master asked this, looking uneasy at the sight of her blank green eyes.

"Artificial intelligence. Good ole Nicole is technically a robot, but she's got a personality and everything." At this, Master looked intrigued.

"A robot? But she looks normal. And she talked like she was surprised."

Sally responded this time, watching the dark-haired lynx continue in silence. "That body is constructed out of very tiny robots, microscopic. Not that you could tell if you touched her; she's totally real in so many ways. She's been our friend for years, and she's developed far beyond her original programming."

Master didn't seem to quite understand – neither did he, but then, he never understood this technology stuff – but he watched Nicole with new eyes as she blinked and suddenly light poured from them, bright and clear and red. In the beam a form appeared and wavered translucently before them.

He looked rather like the white figure Snarf had seen, only he wore no clothes but gloves and what Sonic called "shoes." He was scarlet, with purples eyes and a white crescent looping across his chest. But his arms were crossed, and his crooked tail was stiff with fury. "This had better be important, Blue."

Sonic cocked an eyebrow. "Really, Red? What's got your air necklace in a knot?" The red figure had a stance that reminded Snarf of Tygra when he wasn't about to be persuaded on anything.

"An attack on Julie-Su and two drainings of the Master Emerald's power in one day, that's what! I come back from trashing Finitevus' work in Sandopolis to find Julie-Su on the ground like she's been shot-!"

Sally covered her mouth, eyes wide over her fingers. Sonic's tan muzzle had gone white. "She was fine, thank heaven, but she was freaking out and babbling about Finitevus and some bat monster that blasted her into next week when they charged the rings! As if that weren't enough, he already stole energy from the Emerald on his own earlier! The whole island shook this time, he took so much!" Color had returned to Sonic's face, and Knuckles finally paused, fur on end and panting for breath.

"Well…" Sonic said delicately, glancing around the room, "I suppose that answers the question of how you guys got here. Evil echidna doctor plus warp technology."

Knuckles squinted. "How who got where?"

"We got alien cat people. They're about twice our height and have never heard of Chaos Emeralds or Robotnik or anything." The hologram stared; apparently its subject couldn't see into the room. Nicole could form an image of him through his transmitter though, so that was kind of cool. If weird.

"Are they friendly?"

"Sure seem to be. They landed two days ago and they just woke up after being out of it. We think a Warp Ring brought them here, only it was all twisted and creepy and dark. At least, that's what I think. They saw Finitevus before getting pulled in, and a few hours later they saw some dude called 'Mumm-Ra' who's been after them. Apparently they both use the same kind of evil powers; think Doc Gruesome would team up with a guy like that?" Sonic asked. Knuckles buried his chin in one large hand, as if calculating.

"It wouldn't surprise me. If he can shape shift, it was probably him with Finitevus. He wanted to charge up more rings, and when Julie-Su didn't move he blasted her."

Sonic frowned, and Sally spoke up this time. "'More rings?' That sounds bad."

Knuckles snorted. "With all due respect, 'bad' is an understatement. If Finitevus has a ton of superpowered rings, there's no telling what he'll do with them. Julie-Su said Finitevus was talking about finding someone and sending his friend's forces after whoever they were looking for."

Snarf's ears lifted at that. He looked away from the red being to the cats listening intently. "If it was Mumm-Ra, that'll be us he's after. And if he used rings to bring us here and come here himself, he can use them to bring Grune and the others," Cheetara said softly, glancing at Panthro, who interlocked his fingers and set them before his face, calculating.

"You're right. And I'm sure he find us eventually; if he's already bringing in forces, he's a step ahead of the game."

Master might have said, "Like always," but Snarf was never sure afterward. He swished his tail through the air. Master raised his voice a little when he spoke again. "We can't stay here. We'll put you guys in danger. Mumm-Ra destroyed our kingdom, and I don't think he'd mind wiping out a republic to get rid of us."

Sonic scoffed. "As if he could. And danger is something we are well acquainted with. Heck, it probably thinks me and it are going steady and talking engagement. Point is, you guys are in no condition to fight right now. You have no route home, unless you've got some kind of dimension-warping device. And you've got no friends other than us, alien cat people."

Snarf thought this all made a lot of sense. Tygra was listening with his head tilted, and Snarf recognized him weighing his options. Master looked uncomfortable. "We don't have any way to repay you for your help as it is. The least we can do is make sure Mumm-Ra doesn't attack. He wiped out all of Thundera in one attack – he's not somebody to take lightly."

A faint laugh attracted their attention. Knuckles had chuckled. "The day Sonic doesn't take something with some banter is the day he's cracked and about to kill someone. Whoever you are, we can handle whatever this nut throws. He's already made an enemy of me by attacking Julie-Su and teaming up with Finitevus. If you're against him too, you're friends in my book."

Sonic wiped an imaginary tear. "So much love in this room. My heart's touched. Red, why don't you guard the Emerald for a while and let Julie-Su and the others go hog wild in Sandopolis. You've got a better chance of beating the snot out of this dude, since he and Finitevus will probably end up using the Emerald to charge more rings later. Funny thing, villains are predictable like that."

"Fine. If we hear anything we'll let you know. Be on your guard."

"Always." The hologram faded and Nicole blinked, eyes returning to normal and suddenly looking less ethereal. She looked around again at the stuffed room.

"If they are going to be staying with us for some time, shall I convert the infirmary into something more livable?" she asked. Sonic shrugged and looked at Sally, who waved her on. "All right. Don't be afraid, everyone, this will only take a minute."

Kat watched as her paws glowed green, looking around in fascination. "What will?"

Snarf shrieked; the floor under him moved, warping like mud, and he jumped onto the bed and into Master's lap next to Kit. "Earthquake! Mudslide! Quicksand! ZOMBIES! AGHHHH!"

"Nanites," Sonic said helpfully. He didn't appear at all perturbed as the ground shimmied and swirled under his feet, nor when the walls suddenly began to draw away from them and shift in color. Kit had her arms around Master's neck, eyes huge, and Master looked somewhere between amazed and freaked out, standing up in a hurry and lifting Kit with him, Snarf himself clutched against his side. Cheetara jumped away from the wall and Panthro shifted to get away from it. Kat hopped up and held on to Tygra, head swiveling from side to side like a top.

Only Tygra watched as if unaffected. Everything was lengthening and heightening, and after about a minute of looking like mush, the walls and floor and ceiling all realigned and settled into ordinary forms. Nicole looked around and beamed. "I think it looks nice."

The kittens, Panthro, and Master were all gaping; what had previously been a small infirmary room had morphed into what looked like a sitting room with red walls and smooth floors. It was three times as big as the little rooms they'd been put in for recovery, and the door at the front was metal, windows open to the air and sunlight. As they watched, Nicole put a paw to her chin, debating mentally. "Hm. White furniture would go well, but it gets stained easily. And fur shows up on it. Hm…"

Snarf yowled again when two small, dark, kitten-sized armchairs appeared next to him. Smacking it with his tail, he bawled, "How is she doing that!"

"Nanites. The teeny-tiny robots. Our whole city is built up of them," Sonic explained, grinning when Kat unglued himself from Tygra to poke the plush chair.

"As I am berated for constantly," Nicole said lowly. She snapped her fingers and a matching sofa appeared, making Panthro jump. "Would you prefer individual chairs or another couch?"

"Neither. Thank you for the offer, but we're not staying." Tygra's voice was not cold, but neither was it warm. The gratitude was sincere, but Sonic looked up at him, stance obstinate.

"What part of me and danger dating and you guys being stuck did you not get?" Tygra looked down at him and Snarf had to admire Sonic for standing his ground; Tygra could be imposing, unlike his own lovable master.

"What part of Mumm-Ra being our problem are you not getting? Besides, if what you say is true, all we have to do is find a Warp Ring or whatever it is and use it to go home. There are problems there, and if we stay here there's no one at home to stop Mumm-Ra from wreaking havoc," he added pointedly.

"Is going back immediately such a good idea?" Master asked. He let Kit down, as she too wanted to observe the chair made from tiny robots that looked soft and comfortable. "It sounds like Mumm-Ra is here. Would he follow us back, or would he just try to drag us back to Mobius? If he did it once, I guess he can do it again. Not sure why he'd want us here, unless it's just to keep us from finding the stones."

Tygra gave Master a long look. "What do you recommend then?" he asked. Snarf bristled defensively at the nearly silent scorn. Master heard it as well and his ears dipped back, though whether it was in anger or hurt was hard to tell.

"I don't know. It would be great if we could leave right in front of Mumm-Ra so he would more inclined to follow us home and leave these guys alone. But we need a Warp Ring for that."

"It might help if you guys knew exactly how far you were from your planet. It sounds it would take a lot of energy to get back to it," Sally said. She'd said little throughout the discussion, but listened a great deal. Now she stood up and the chair she'd been sitting on vanished as Nicole fiddled with the nanites. "Whatever you may think of us, we assure you that we are very capable of defending ourselves against magic or technology. And the Republic of Acorn – and therefore the Freedom Fighters, as we call ourselves – has always stood against evil, whoever is committing it. If we can help you, we will. Besides, Finitevus has no love for us; he'll probably try to convince this Mumm-Ra to help him destroy us while he's trying to destroy you. For the time being, I think it only sensible that you stay with us and we assist each other in fending off these foes. We'll see what we can do about a Warp Ring home."

Sonic applauded and Sally gave him a look. "Careful Sal, your princess is showing."

"And what exactly are we supposed to do while we're here?" Cheetara spoke again, looking around the room. "Thundercats don't accept charity without being able to repay in some way."

Sonic scratched his head, ruffling his spines. "I dunno, whatever you want. We can always use help around the village, and scouts watching out for danger. And they're trying to rebuild Angel Island and the dingo settlements, so we're kind of short around here. Just don't sweat it, we'll figure something out."

Yes, Snarf decided he liked Sonic very much. He didn't seem to let anything faze him, and with such a cool head he was strangely calming. Tygra appeared reluctant – then again, he never trusted people as fast as Master did, though whether that was a flaw or not was questionable – but Master looked kind of happy. "Hey, if you guys want your weapons back, we'll return them."

"There'll be time for swinging around swords and sticks later," said a scolding voice. Miss Rosie had returned, and she had a basked under one arm and some sort of teapot in her other paw. Under the arm rest some clean, fluffy blankets. "Right now I've hot cocoa and mugs, and they haven't eaten yet. Shame on the doctor for not remembering that!"

"Ma'am, we need to get our weapons immediately. One of them is our only real defense against Mumm-Ra, and I'm surprised getting it back hasn't been more of an issue until now," Panthro said, giving Master a look. Master looked uncomfortable again, face reddening, and Snarf felt his fur puffing out, still under the protective arm against the lion's side.

"I did ask about them. Arguing with the people who saved our lives seemed unwise." Panthro shook his head and Snarf snorted.

"Everybody's always ragging on Master. I'm sick and tired of it. Big meanies." Sonic looked at him questioningly, but didn't respond to the statement.

"I'll go get them for you. Miss Rosie won't let you leave until you eat something." Sonic grinned when Panthro growled.

"I'll go with you. No offense, but our weapons are like extra limbs." But before he could move toward the hedgehog, Miss Rosie stepped in front of him, paws on her hips.

"Young man, you will plant your tail. You've been unconscious for two days and you're not moving until you get something in your stomach." It was a funny thing, the little woodchuck looking directly up at Panthro and shaking a finger at him when she was less than half his height. "You ought to know better with all those scars! You look like somebody who gets himself hurt quite often, and I'm not standing for it! When's the last time you ate a meal that had all your basic food groups?" Panthro was speechless, staring down at the tiny woman. Snarf got the feeling he didn't get chewed out much.

Master covered his mouth with a paw and Snarf was pleased to see him stifle laughter. But Rosie turned to him with a single finger raised in his direction as well. "And you! You look like you haven't been eating right for a month! Keep it up and your fur will grow in dull! I can see your ribs under your fur, all of you. That means you!" she added as Tygra's irises rolled. Sally buried her face in her hands in embarrassment as each of the cats got a word in turn. "And young cheetah, you're skin and bones. I know being thin is all the rage now, dearie, but I can see your hip bones all too well – and heaven only knows these kittens need nutrition so they don't stunt their growth."

"You won't hear me complaining," Kat stated, catching the smell of the strange beverage the woman was calling cocoa. Snarf had never smelled anything like it, but it too was likely delicious if that rich, deep, sugary odor was anything to judge by. The kitten was still prodding and plucking at the chair. "This is made of robots? Cool…"

Sonic used the opportunity to slip out the door. "I'll get the weapons. Make a mug for Snarf. He'd like to try it too I'll bet." He grinned and bounded away, door sliding shut after him.

Oh yes, this hedgehog was a really nice guy. Master seemed to agree.

Hope barged in, door clanging, sending out a painful noise around the room. "I got it! I GOT IT!"

Shadow didn't immediately look up. "I need a screwdriver. If you've got one on you, that would be perfect."

Omega was sitting in front of the hedgehog in the middle of the training room, and he turned his head to face the blond girl as she fished in the pouch of the belt around her waist. "What size?"

"Three-quarters. Omega's arm is a little loose." Disregarding every safety rule ever, she tossed it to him as he examined the limb(1). Shadow caught it without looking and began twisting it against the loose bolt in Omega's elbow.

"To date, Shadow is the only one who has hit me hard enough to jar my hull. What were you saying, Hope?" It kind of weird how the robot acted so very human sometimes. Sure, he kind of had a one-track mind, but then so did Shadow. Hope blinked, trying to remember her news.

"Oh! Remember that weird energy signature a couple days ago? You know, where you wanted to go check it out and Commander Towers said no, not without the proper notifications and the secretary was off that day so we couldn't file them and I couldn't get the papers done because Shadow doesn't bother remembering his unit ID so I had to go look it up in the computer system and Rouge said it was her day off too and she wasn't going to check on anything like that unless there was a gem behind it and then you needed to recalibrate-"

"Hope." Shadow finished with the bolt and trotted to her, giving her back the screwdriver. "Yes, we remember it. And?"

She grinned, realizing she still had a little oil on her face from where she'd been working on a G.U.N. patrol bot. "I got clearance! Team Dark can go on its next mission!"

Shadow rarely smiled or showed any indication of happiness. But there was no way to describe his face other than pleased, and Omega got to his feet immediately, raising his clawed hands into the air. "Huzzah! Another chance to use my upgraded blaster!" Hope crossed her arms in a very satisfied fashion.

"You guys have been cooped up here for almost a month since that whole weird emerald hunt didn't work out. I don't think the training rooms can take it anymore," she added meekly, peeping around the room and noticing all the new claw and skid marks on the walls and floor from where the two had been sparring. The last mission's non-success – never call it failure unless you were asking Rouge to pound you – had been nonverbally punished. "Oh, and guess what? I even convinced Commander Towers to let you take an emerald, Shadow, in case of emergency. Just don't lose it or my goose is cooked."

This time he did smile, when made his eyes look a lot warmer. It was always a treat to see him actually show a sign of joy, and Hope nearly skipped to Omega, tugging at his robotic arm. "Come on, Rouge is meeting us in briefing room four." The robot followed her peaceably, Shadow darting ahead with smooth, swift steps.

Rouge did indeed meet them in the briefing room, looking slick and well-groomed as ever. "Hey Hope, Omega. You look happy, handsome. I guess you heard you're getting an emerald on this mission." Of the three, Hope wasn't sure whether she liked Omega or Rouge less. She liked Shadow best, of course, but Omega scared her when he was fighting and talking about destroying things. But Rouge…Rouge had this weird talent for knowing things she shouldn't, and while she could be nice she had a tendency to dig into the most painful part of a person's heart and twist it to her advantage. And she didn't like the idea of Rouge trying to hook up with Shadow. She had a thing for an echidna, but she was always flirting with Shadow. True, he'd never really paid any attention, but he was her friend, and Hope knew he'd been through some hard things in the past. The last thing she wanted was for him to actually start to like Rouge as more than a friend and then get hurt.

She never quite gotten the courage to ask very much about this illustrious Maria that Shadow had thought she was last year. All she knew was that Shadow carried her memory like Rouge would carry a diamond.

Abraham Tower stood at the front of the room, in front of several fold out chairs. Other than a map pinned to the wall and the green Chaos Emerald resting on a desk behind him, the room was stark and empty, shadowy in the corners where the lights were off to save energy. "Good morning, Team Dark. Have a seat."

She sat down and Shadow seated himself next to her, crossing arms as he was wont to do. Rouge rested herself next to him, shoulder brushing his. Omega squashed himself into the chair on the end. "I trust Hope told you about the energy signature two days ago, didn't she?"

Hope tried not to blush. She'd been a little excitable, it being her first day watching G.U.N.'s scanners. When the meter started blipping she'd yelped in surprise and honed in, examining the energy measurements. Similar to Warp Ring technology on the Floating Island, she'd been unable to label the strange way it shifted and swelled before dipping out of existence. It didn't work like Chaos Energy, either.

It was creepy. Something was wrong with it. It had made her mad as a hornet when the other soldiers brushed it off as some Chaos Energy when she knew it wasn't. If they'd thought Robotnik was behind it they would have been down there in half an hour, tops. At least Team Dark was heading out now.

If Commander Towers ever stopped talking about protocol and what not.

"We've received no calls for aid from New Mobotropolis, but given what happened recently with the Iron Dominion it doesn't seem like overkill to send in one of our top teams to check on the area." Hope would have snorted if it wouldn't have been so rude. The whole fiasco with the Iron Queen and the Four Clans had gone over in complete silence, and only now that Sonic and the others had saved the day did they know what had happened. It made her a little sick when she first found out; how many times had she sworn she would protect the Mobians who had looked after her for so long and so kindly and failed? How many times had she been on the sidelines and let them get hurt?

Shadow glanced at her, as if he knew what she was thinking. She blinked a little hard and kept her gaze fixed ahead. Whatever it was, Team Dark could handle it. She just hoped two days wasn't too long. G.U.N. was stretched thin, but if the Mobians needed help, she wanted to give it this time.

"It's a reconnaissance mission, though I'm obviously permitting you to use force if something's amiss. The emerald is to be protected at all costs." At this the Commander picked up the gem and handed it to Shadow. Rouge's eyes followed it for a mere second before returning them to the Commander.

"Anything else we should do while we're down there? I have a hard time believing this is just a friendly check-up call."

Commander Tower gazed at her before closing his mismatched eyes. "Unfortunately, you are correct. There are other reasons I want you to scout out the area." He turned then to the map pinned to the board. It was hand drawn, a rough sketch of the Republic of Acorn and its surrounding areas. "We've been informed that there may more Chaos Emeralds within the boundaries of the Republic. If they are under the control of the royal family, that's all well and good. But Rouge, you for one know there are less savory characters in the area who also control emeralds." She smiled.

"Mammoth Mogul. And the violet emerald was stolen by Geoffrey St. John, I hear. Are we to see if we can recover it if the opportunity arises?" The Commander didn't quite answer but gestured to the map once.

"The emeralds were last spotted in these areas. This map was not printed off the computers because we don't want to risk this information getting leaked. No civilian life is to be endangered; if there are chances to get the gems, good. If not, check up on the Republic and get out safely. I expect reports from each of you," he added sternly, eying Shadow in particular. The hedgehog had a tendency to let Rouge handle the paperwork, but he was good enough at what he did that nobody usually cared. Still, after that last venture after a Sol Emerald – whatever it was – they wanted better data. Rouge's report had been terse and odd, and left a lot out.

The hedgehog shrugged a shoulder, idly looking over the emerald. It made his eyes glow green. "When do we set out?"

"Immediately. If you notice anything odd, report it immediately. Hope will be on the scanners watching for any more aberrations in the area." Commander Tower turned to Omega. "You behave. No firing unless given express permission or one of your teammates is in dire peril."

Omega glowered, crossing his arms much like Shadow had. "Killjoy."

"It's getting extremely crowded in this compound."

Grune knew better than to complain too much about that lack of space, but he couldn't help but speak up; more and more lizards were pouring through the golden rings, and sometimes he wasn't sure if Mumm-Ra remembered little things like legroom. For all his cleverness, he forgot things like that.

Another lizard scrambled through the ring and it finally sputtered and closed. The white echidna straightened his glasses, opening a palm to catch the ring as it shrank. "That everyone?"

"Both squads. Have you figured out where they might be yet?" Grune asked. He let a paw rest on his mace as he examined the short being. The milk-white fur was an interesting thing in the dark of the building, and it was easy to catch sight of his baleful yellow eyes. Tails and scales slid around him, and Slithe crushed between two other lizards to reach him.

The doctor was an interesting little fellow. Fear of Mumm-Ra poured off him in a powerful scent, so Grune did not fear betrayal from him.

"No. Mobius has many countries and people, and they won't stand out too much. Of course, they may already be dead depending on whom they've met."

"One can only hope." Slithe hissed as one of the other lizards trod on his tail, backhanding the unfortunate klutz. "We'll send out our forces to find them, and you will spy through your rings here. Or so says Mumm-Ra. Though I don't quite trust you, pale one."

Grune looked around at the swaying, shifting heads, ignoring Slithe. He'd always been a pompous bag of wind, and he was interested by the fact that the echidna – Finitevus, was it? – seemed to agree with his personal sentiment, if his irritable stance was any indication. He merely pushed his glasses a little closer to his eyes, and slid another of those bizarre rings from his sleeve. "Understandable, but it doesn't matter, does it? Orders are orders. Take a ring with you. Envision this place again and it will be able to warp you."

Slithe narrowed his eyes at the thing suspiciously before extending his claws and accepting it as if it were some greasy item. "Very well." He whistled, beckoning to five of the surrounding lizards, who bundled around him uneasily. "Where will it take us?"

Finitevus touched the ring and it began to glow. "A place southwest of the Badlands. It should let you out on the border of what is called the Great Forest. Be careful; I warned you about the blue hedgehog and the city he lives in south of the forest. Hope your enemies haven't found them, as they are powerful and would no doubt aid them."

Slithe scoffed. "We will report back if we find anything. Let us know if the cats are found." The ring opened, glowing bright and beautiful as the other lizard backed away to let Slithe through with the other lizards in tow. When the last tail was through the portal shut and the ring vanished. Grune let out a breath.

"He's the most irritating creature you'll ever meet." Finitevus nodded.

"Quite. If he trusts me so little why did he agree to go through?"

"Because if Mumm-Ra speaks, everyone sits up and listens, even you." Grune noticed that the shorter figure was looking at him as if he were some new organism. "Though it's worth asking why you called him here."

"It was unintentional, I assure you. I only wanted to look into another world, and your foes the cats were first beings I saw." The golden irises were slits behind the dark eyelids. "You are a cat, are you not? Yet you work with lizards.I've seen no other cats work with them. Are you a traitor of some kind?"

Grune smiled, feeling his lip curve around his remaining saber tooth. "Power is a seductive lure. You'd know that, wouldn't you?" Finitevus' mouth crooked.

"I suppose. I'm not one to talk anyway. I hate the other echidnas. All their factions and hypocrisy." The echidna tugged his cloak around himself a little tighter to avoid the clumsy lizard feet as they ambled about, waiting for more orders from Mumm-Ra as he stalked around the other side of the dingy black room. "I'll admit your kind fascinate me. You're the size of the Overlanders but you have the hair of the animals, the Mobians. I'd like to study the others if they can be captured alive."

Grune felt laughter in the back of his throat. "The way the lizards are, you'll be lucky to get a corpse. Slithe has had roasted cat before, and he likes it. Little barbarian. I'll see about saving you a lion skin to analyze, doctor."

He didn't see Finitevus' face contort in disgust, or hear the uneasy way his voice lowered as he said, "How very generous."

1 – Don't throw screwdrivers, kids. Even if it's at a hedgehog with lightning reflexes.