The Epic Adventure
By K. M. Hollar
Copyright info: Sonic, Tails and all related characters copyrighted to Sega. Talon and all other fan characters copyrighted to NetRaptor.
Sonic was restless.
There was nothing new about that--his friends and neighbors would have worried about him had he acted content--but today he was more restless than usual.
He stood at the southern window of Knothole's community hut (conveniently near the cooler vent), and watched the sun slip from sight beyond the trees to the right. The blue hedgehog's eyes closed part way, and he watched the southern horizon, one foot tapping idly.
An attractive female squirrel approached and stood beside him, following his gaze into the fading southern sky. After a moment she slipped her small hand into his big one and asked, "What's the matter, Sonic?"
The hedgehog didn't answer for a moment, his narrowed eyes still fixed on the horizon. Then he said quietly, "I can't get Mecha out of my head."
A month earlier, Sonic and Metal Sonic had had a run-in while both were attacking a monster that had dared them to do so.
"What about him?"
"Well," Sonic said, "he said to keep my eyes open and watch the Floating Island and the southern cities. We don't have any contact with the bands down there. I have no idea what Mecha meant, but ..." he turned and looked at Sally, who returned his gaze. "Sal, I've gotta figure out what he meant." He brushed past her and walked away, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. He was going stir crazy with no Robotropolis to burn his energy.
The blue hedgehog crossed the room to a bookcase and took a rolled paper from the top shelf. This he carried to a table and spread out. Sally walked up and looked at it.
It was one of the maps Sonic had picked up during his 'exile' the winter before. It showed cities, towns and roads that were too far south for the Freedom Fighters to know much about. Sonic placed his hands on the table and leaned over the map, studying it closely. After a while he drew Sally's attention with a single muttered word. "Humans!"
He tapped a large meeting of roads with a forefinger--it was the only large city on the whole map. "This city is populated mainly by humans. Sapphire City. Population eighty thousand. Warm climate. Mountains all around, some so high as to have snow year round ... like the Ice Cap range, up here." Sonic's voice was sharp and robot-like as he rapped out the facts. "Mobians welcome. No reservations necessary. Open during business hours."
"No, their office." Sonic stood and turned toward the window, chewing his upper lip thoughtfully. "Humans. You know, I've heard about the big Overlander settlements. Some people hate 'em and some have no prob."
Sally saw the glint in his eyes and felt her heart sink. "You've got that itch again."
"Oh no, Sal," Sonic said innocently. "The powder took care of that."
She gave him a squint that was smaller than a smile. "Ha."
He looked out the window again. "It's a big city. You know, Robotnik saw to it that he slaughtered his own kind during the Great War ... that's why there aren't any Overlanders around here anymore. So, if I were a mad scientist who wanted to be a dictator, I would try to wipe out my kind--they'd have the most chances of stopping me--and take their city along the way. After all, I HAVE lost MY captured city ..."
Sally felt a chill run down her back. Sonic had a point.
The hedgehog leaned his elbows on the window frame, but continued to speak aloud. "I could take Tails and run down there ... It'd be just like old times. I can't bear to be around here, anyway, with Knux gone and nothing to do. Maybe if I get into some good old-fashioned trouble I'd feel better."
"Go ahead," Sally replied. "Take a couple weeks and make a vacation of it. I can hold down the fort here."
He turned and smiled at her, then dashed for the door.
* * *
The young golden furred fox pulled his head out of the bi-plane's engine housing and looked up at the hedgehog. His fur was matted with grease and oil, and he looked happy. "No, 'fraid I can't," Tails said with regret, shaking his head. "I've almost got the Tornado working and I can't leave it. Where you going?"
Sonic's spines drooped. "You DON'T want to come?" he asked in disbelief. "I was thinking it'd be just like old times ... you and me ..."
"Where you going?" Tails repeated.
"Sapphire City," Sonic replied glumly. "About a hundred and twenty miles from here. You sure you don't want to come?"
"Positive," Tails replied with a half-grin. "I've got stuff to do. I can do stuff on my own now."
Sonic flinched inwardly. He didn't want to have his sidekick grow up and away from him. It hurt. He turned away to hide the pained, betrayed look he knew he was wearing. "Okay, suit yourself," he said, trying to sound cheerful and failing miserably. "I'm leaving tonight. See you in a few weeks." He vaulted over the junkyard fence and was gone.
Tails knew he had hurt his friend's feelings and was sorry. Well, he would give Sonic a two-day head-start, and then surprise him by showing up in the repaired Tornado. Sonic had given up all hope of it ever flying again--Tails would show him!
* * *
It was far from its usual territory. The guardian had broken up with the Freedom Fighters a month before over a misunderstanding that had flared up into an all-out war. Knuckles and Sonic remained edgy toward each other, and tonight Knuckles had decided that a change of scenery was in order. But that was not the only reason for the move.
Knuckles had been out exploring the Marble Garden ruins the previous day. One of the island's five inhabitants, a young anteater named Talon (of whom Knuckles was fond) had reported seeing a sort of shrine or alter, covered with vines and crumbled with age. It looked as if it had been used for holding the Master Emerald. This had caught Knuckles' attention. He had known for some time that the Master Emerald had not always been enthroned in Hidden Palace, far beneath the ground. It had been moved there for protection after the disaster that had closed the the elegant Palace to all but the Guardian. What that disaster was Knuckles was not sure, but he knew it had led directly to the disappearance of his ancestors.
After a lengthy search of the area Talon had indicated (it was heavily overgrown with brush and vines), Knuckles at last located the shrine. It was built like a small pyramid, forty feet tall, with a flat top. In this area was a low stone pedestal with an indented top, obviously made for seating the gigantic gem. It had once had a roof of some kind--there were the stumps of support pillars around the top of the shrine--but it had crumbled long ago. The edges of the pyramid were flanked with what had been elaborate fountains, with the higher bowls pouring into the lower ones, but the water had long since dried up. As Knuckles examined the stonework and carvings, something dawned on him. The elements alone had not wrecked this place. It had been destroyed. Many of the stone walls were blackened, as if burned. In the grass around the foot of the pyramid Knuckles found pillars--obelisks--that he guessed had encircled the pyramid from a distance. Each had been cracked and thrown down by some terrific force. Perhaps from a war ...?
Despite the carnage the area seemed to have suffered, Knuckles decided to return the Master Emerald to its original pedestal. It would be easier to direct the island that way, with a clear view of the sky and horizon.
This was why the island was so far from familiar ground that fateful evening. If something went wrong, Knuckles had no wish for his former friends to learn of it.
Moving the Master Emerald about was not a task to be taken lightly, as it weighed close to a ton and was an awkward shape to lift. But Knuckles and the Chaotix managed to lift it from its bed in Hidden Palace, lug it through a teleporter (which set them down on top of the pyramid), roll it to the dent and shove it in. The gem settled into the groove as easily as a door into a frame, obviously made for it. It had a kind of elegance sitting there in the weathered stone, the sky overhead ...
It made Knuckles nervous.
So unprotected, so vulnerable to attack ... it had been stolen once. The horror of the memory returned to him as he stood there looking at the gem.
Which was why the next evening, as Sonic made tracks for Sapphire City, Knuckles sat a few steps down from the top of the pyramid, back to his precious Emerald and face to the sunset. He had promised himself to let the Master Emerald stay put for a week, then return it to Hidden Palace. His friends had worked too hard to move it back so soon. Until then, he would stand guard over it ...
His red head nodded, dreadlocks drooping. He dozed for a moment, then shook himself awake. There was a breeze in his face. It would drift the island over the mainland, if it hadn't already. He needed to secure the stationary-hover mechanisms ... he drooped again. In a minute. He would do it in a minute.
He was awakened by a boom like the firing of a cannon and a colossal crack and smash of breaking glass. He leaped to his feet and whirled. Most of the twilight was gone and the breeze had grown to a respectable wind, but Knuckles could care less about his environment. His stunned eyes were fixed on what was left of the Master Emerald; a fractured shell, shards sprinkling the ground. There wasn't much left of it. To the right of the shattered gem a shadowy creature stood in silence.
It was vaguely humanoid in form--two arms, two legs, a head. But its head was oval-shaped with two--horns? Feelers?--protruding from the back and extending down to its waist. It had no face to speak of, but had two large green gem-like eyes, without pupils or lids. It was perhaps five feet tall.
"Hey!" Knuckles yelled, leaping up on the platform with it. "Did you do that?"
As he drew closer, he saw that its body was translucent; he could see through it in places. Its skin was rippling and wavering in the breeze like water. Or WAS it water? It had no insides, save a blob between its eyes that was probably its brain. Bubbles rose inside its feet and arms, as if it were carbonated. It was weird, and it had smashed the Master Emerald. Knuckles swung at it.
His blow was blocked by an out-flung arm; his fist splashed through it. The other arm dealt him a smack to the shoulder and chest that sent him flying.
Knuckles bounced and rolled down the hundred steps of the pyramid to the ground. He righted himself at the bottom, bruised and furious. "All right, that's it!" he raged, charging back up the stairs. He arrived in time to see the thing melt into a large puddle, then seep through the cracks in the brick and vanish.
Suddenly, from all around him, Knuckles felt the island groan and tremble. Its support was gone, and the super emeralds alone could not keep it airborne for long. They were going to crash. Another thought came to him, one that chilled his blood; ten to one the wind had pushed them over the coast, as well. If the island hit the ground, it would splinter and kill everyone on and under it.
The echidna threw himself to his hands and knees, gathering up the shattered pieces of the Master Emerald. Maybe he could rebuild it before the reserve power was used up. He tossed the pieces randomly into the shell, and they immediately fused in. By the time the guardian had picked up every piece in sight, only a quarter had been replaced. "Where's the rest?" he panted, looking about frantically. He leaped from the pyramid and searched about on the ground, but in the darkness could find nothing. Again the island shifted beneath his feet, like a kite when the wind has died. It wouldn't be long now--
He returned to the top of the shrine, genuinely afraid. If only there was enough left of the emerald to steer the island! He lifted a fragment that he landed on the pedestal, held it out at arm's length westward, and waited.
The island shifted imperceptibly and began to drift west. But it began to descend as well, like a balloon with little helium left. Knuckles bit his lip, feeling the dizzy sensation of dropping in an elevator. If only he could make it out to sea--if only he were not above the mainland as his instincts told him he was--the island dropped faster, faster. Knuckles felt as if his feet would lift from the ground. "C'mon, move, baby, move!"
The distant silvery line of the ocean on the horizon was rising. If he could just make it--falling, falling--
With a shock that sent the echidna to his knees and swayed every tree in the forests, the Floating Island touched down--in the water. A tremendous tidal wave swept away from the base, then swept back with a thunderous boom of breakers. The island rocked slightly from end to end, and then was still.
Relieved, Knuckles stood, tossed the fragments into the shell of the Master Emerald, then turned for a look at his distance from the coast. He stiffened and drew a sharp breath in shock.
The coastline was not five hundred feet from the edge of the island. He could see the mountains, trees and rocks there, and the high cliffs along the beach, their tops on level with him. Even now, the base of the island probably rested on the continental shelf.
He had escaped instant death by perhaps two seconds.
Chapter 2: Encountering Humans
That fateful night had just begun.
The region the Floating Island had been overshadowing when the emerald exploded was none other than Sapphire Bay, which adjoined the city on it's coast. The island had traveled a good eight miles during its descent, and had landed near the sub-tropical forested area known as the Mystic Ruins. The ruins of a great (but extinct) civilization were buried somewhere deep in the jungle, hence the name. The jungle also sheltered a few scattered Mobians, some of whom frequented the city by means of the train station on the cliffs. But most kept largely to themselves.
One of these was a cat named Big.
He was curled in a furry ball on his bed, eyes closed. He batted an ear at a resounding boom in the distance as a million tons of rock hit the ocean, but did not awaken. The bed was built of rough wood, sheltered by a framework of the same, with palm fronds laid across the top as a roof. The back wall was provided by a huge hollow tree stump, broken off twenty feet above the ground. Nailed onto this and extending out to form a sort of wall on the right was a carefully constructed rack with three fishing poles resting in it. Set neatly at the foot of the rack was a tackle box.
The night deepened, the stars burning down with unearthly light. The cat slept without moving, perhaps twitching an ear or tail-tip once in a while. He had nothing to fear in his home, and his enormous size discouraged all possible attackers, anyway.
The sky began to lose its blackness and fade toward blue, and a fresh breeze stirred the warm air. For the first time there came movement from the shelter, and from under the bed hopped a frog.
It was a large frog, but dwarfed beside the cat above it. It sat for a moment, yellow bulging eyes gazing at the world, unblinking, front toes turned in. Then it hopped down the slight hill to the stream that flowed below.
Unexpectedly the waters of the stream bulged and flowed uphill onto the bank. It formed into a huge water drop and rose into the air, solidifying into the same creature who had attacked Knuckles. The frog faced it, goggly-eyed, and croaked curiously.
The creature returned to a puddle, oozed forward and surrounded the frog. It held it for a few moments, who kicked and struggled. The water released it, flowed back into the stream and vanished. The poor frog sat still, bewildered. From its hind end protruded a tail, where one had not existed since its tadpole days.
Up in the shelter, the cat's yellow eyes opened. He sat up and stretched. His fur was a violet blue with black tiger-stripes, and his furry chest was white. He yawned and pulled on his sandals, size 25, and stood. "Froggy?" he called, looking about in the pre dawn gloom. His voice was very low, to match his size. His cat-eyes spotted the frog near the stream, still dazed. "Froggy," Big called, "you're looking kinda weird, buddy."
The frog turned and hopped rapidly up the hill toward Big, but leaped past him, grabbed a yellow jewel off a hook on the rod rack and swallowed it. "Hey," Big protested. "You just swallowed my lucky charm!" Froggy was not about to stop there. He jumped away down the hill and disappeared in the direction of the beach.
By this time, it had occurred to Big that his friend was not well. The cat scrambled up to the rack, selected his favorite pole and three lures, then set out after the truant frog, calling, "Don't worry Froggy, I'm coming!"
* * *
The young fox turned his head and looked at the city in the distance. Time to see if they had an airport. He picked up his radio and said, "Skyfox to tower, Skyfox to tower, come in, please."
After a moment of static, a reply crackled, "Tower to Skyfox. We have you on radar. What is your destination?"
"Requesting clearance to land."
"Are you Mobian?"
Strange question. "Yes."
"I'm sorry, but you can't land here. Proceed to the airstrip in Mystic Ruins, 107 North, 255 West. Tower out."
"Rats," Tails muttered. "Where the heck is 'Mystic Ruins'? I knew all humans were jerks."
He flew on, navigating for 107N, 255W. His spirits were deflated. He had not expected discrimination. At least he still had enough fuel to get him there.
The city slid by below, houses, freeways and more. Tails saw that a large amount of the buildings were built several miles inland, on a sort of mountain range a mile from the coast. He also noticed an odd highway built among the tops of the skyscrapers. "What a cool place," Tails thought. "Maybe one day we can make Mobitropolis look like that."
Another hour of flight left Sapphire City behind. The countryside became rolling and hilly, stretching up toward the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Tails couldn't see anything that looked like a 'Mystic Ruins', but began to notice the trees below were becoming more and more tangled, and the air smelled green. Perhaps it was a jungle.
"Skyfox to Mystic Ruins, come in, please," he said into his radio. If they wouldn't clear him here, he didn't know what he would do. His fuel gauge was closer to empty than he liked.
"Mystic Ruins to Skyfox. Destination?"
"Requesting clearance to land."
There was a brief pause, then, "Clearance granted. I'll open up the strip for you."
Tails checked his coordinence and realized he was too far inland. He cruised toward the coast. The coastline was broken into jagged cliffs and looked dangerous. There was a slow train winding its way over the mountain, and in an open area on top of a cliff was a station. A little beyond that was a landing strip that extended out over the ocean.
Tails circled twice and landed, taxiing to a stop before the single small hanger at the end. As he cut the engines and unbuckled himself, a human exited the hanger and strode out to meet him. Tails watched him suspiciously. The man was about five and a half feet tall and dressed in faded jeans and a denim jacket. He had black hair and black eyes, and a piercing, no-nonsense look about him. Tails received the impression that if this human were a Mobian he would be a fox.
The human didn't bat an eye at Tails' fur, and shook his hand. "I'm Mac. Welcome to my airstrip. Nice plane." His sharp eyes fixed on the Tornado. He walked around it slowly, examining it from all angles.
"I'm Tails," the fox said warily. "This is the Tornado's first flight in about five years."
Mac whistled, kicked a tire and looked into the cockpit. "She been in storage?"
"Oh really." The man looked at the fox. "Just get her out of the shop?"
"I rebuilt her, if that's what you mean."
Mac's eyebrows lifted. "You don't say. You must be quite the mechanic."
"Sort of," Tails replied. "Why wouldn't they let me land at the airport?"
Mac shrugged and walked toward the hanger. Tails followed. "Because," Mac said over his shoulder, "they only handle big jets. If they handled smaller craft, it would slow them down--it's a small airport. They asked for your nationality so as to let me know there was a Mobian coming in a bi-plane."
"Oh." Tails still felt as if he had been redirected because he wasn't human.
Abruptly the man turned and looked at the young fox. "You gonna refuel?"
Tails realized he had no human currency with him. "Will you take Mobiads?"
"Not here. They're useless. You from up north or something?"
Tails nodded and looked back at his plane. What would he do without fuel?
He must have looked downhearted, for Mac relented a little. "Look kid," he said, "I've got a couple planes in there that need some work. If you'll get them to fly, I'll fill your plane for free."
"Cool!" Tails exclaimed, his spirits lifting with a rush. "Sure thing!"
* * *
With considerable forethought (for him), he first checked in with the customs office and exchanged his money for the currency they used, then made his way to Sunset Resort, a gorgeous hotel on the beach. Their rooms were expensive, but clean and ritzy, and they had a special for Mobians. Sonic checked in, then headed down to the beach.
The area he was staying in, he learned quickly, was called Station Square. The reason for this was the train station catacorner from Sunset Resort. This and more he learned from talking to passersby.
It was odd seeing and talking to humans. They were polite and even friendly. Nobody seemed a bit startled at seeing a blue hedgehog in red sneakers. Sonic was more surprised at them than the other way around. He had always imagined humans would be like Robotnik and Snively--always looking for a way to exploit and hurt others--but they were not. There were tall ones and short ones, young and old, boys and girls, friendly and no so friendly.
Sonic spent the morning amusing himself in this fashion, then went in search of lunch. The sun had grown quite hot, and there was a mild breeze coming off the mainland. Time to explore Station Square.
The hedgehog gnawed a chili dog as he wandered about the square, looking at the cars, people and buildings. His sense of culture-shock was mild, as he had not forgotten Robotropolis, but it was much different being in a city that was actually inhabited. Diagonal from the hotel was the train station, and across from the hotel was a small elevator-lift that customers used to enter an indoors amusement park called Twinkle Park. Next door to that was a 10-story building with a closed garage-type door. Both led to mysterious places, and both were closed. On the forth side of the square was the ocean, with a dock leading from the pavement out over it.
Around 2 PM, the humid heat grew too great for Sonic, and he retired to the air-conditioned hotel. Bored, he sat on a chair in the lobby for a few minutes, wondering if there was anything to do. Maybe he should ask around to see if anyone had seen Robotnik or hostile robots. After all, he was here on a mission, not a vacation ...
The clerk in the receptionist booth noticed him and called, "Can I help you, sir?"
"Is there anything to do around here?" Sonic responded.
"Why, yes," the clerk said, pointing to the elevators. "Take the lift to the top floor. That's our chao playroom."
"Chao?" Sonic asked curiously, rising to his feet. "What's a chao?"
The clerk smiled. "You've never seen one? You'll be occupied for the rest of the day, then."
Sonic stepped out of the elevator and found himself in a single room that took up most of the top floor. A skylight shed a large patch of sunshine on a grove of real coconut palms in a real planter. In one corner was an elaborate fountain in a wide, shallow pool. Scattered about the room were human children and chao. Sonic curiously approached a little girl who was holding one of the creatures.
The chao was about eight inches tall. It had an onion-shaped head with a point on the top, and a soft, pudgy body. It was a light blue. The little girl noticed Sonic looking at her and held the chao up for him to see. "This is Patricia," she told him. "She's a girl. Wanna hold her?"
"Uh, sure." Sonic gingerly took the chao, afraid of hurting it, and at the same time afraid to hold it close for fear of looking like a sissy. The creature looked at him with big blue eyes and made a purring sound. "She likes you," the girl said, giggling.
Sonic's first impulse was to drop the chao and run for it, but the girl said, "Hold her for a minute. I'm going to get a coconut. Pat loves coconuts." Reluctantly, he obeyed, and was startled to feel the chao snuggle its soft head under his chin and sigh blissfully.
The clerk had been right; Sonic spent the rest of the day in the chao playroom, feeding Patricia, and teaching her to walk and swim. She had hatched only a few days before. The girl, who seemed to own the chao, was named Mary and was staying in the floor above Sonic's with her parents and two older brothers.
By the time night fell and the chao were put to bed for the night, Sonic and Mary were friends. As he rose the elevator back down to the lobby, he thought, "Humans aren't as bad as I had 'em figured for."
Chapter 3: Clamor, sirens wailing
Sonic, although amused all afternoon, had spent it mostly without moving. His pent-up energy was clamoring for release; he wouldn't be able to sleep until he had exercised a bit. At least, that was the excuse he gave himself for stepped out into Station Square under the glare of the streetlights.
Nothing of consequence followed during Sonic's two-hour run, other than he ran sideways on storefronts to avoid cars and encountered the Speed Police on the freeway. He managed to shake the sirens and flashing lights by ducking into a fast-food restaurant and eating dinner as the motorcycles screamed by.
Thus refueled and feeling frisky, he made his way back to Station Square, running along the tops and fronts of the buildings. He arrived on top of the ten-story garage-door building facing the Sunset Resort, drew a deep breath of the cool night air and exclaimed, "Oh yeah, this is great!"
As he stood on the roof, gazing at the swarming cars and pedestrians in the square below (a late train had arrived), sirens and the screech of tires on pavement reached his ears. He rushed the the far side of the building and looked down. Had the Speed Police tracked him down? No, these were ordinary squad cars, all of which were going somewhere in a hurry. Cool, maybe it was a bank robbery or some other crime they had in big cites. Sonic vaulted from the roof, dropped to a soft grass margin below, and sprinted after the cars.
The police had parked in a semicircle about the front of City Hall two blocks from Station Square as Sonic jogged up. A helicopter hovered overhead, searchlight trained on the scene. Sonic could see the humans dressed in black and white uniforms kneeling behind their cars, rifles aimed at ... something. "We have you surrounded!" an officer shouted. Sonic craned his neck, but was too short to see over the cars. If there was a shoot-out he would miss it! Thinking quickly, he leaped lightly to the roof of a squad car and watched from there.
A creature was standing in the courtyard of City Hall. It was about five feet tall and built much heavier than a human. It had no face, but had two large green eyes which gave it an alien appearance. It was a liquid blue and shimmered in the searchlight.
"Ready men, fire!" the officer ordered. Sonic flinched at the sudden reports of the guns, but kept his eyes on the monster. Its skin rippled as the bullets struck it, but it otherwise seemed oblivious to the attack. A second later, the spent shot fell from its chest and arms and plinked to the sidewalk.
"Our weapons are useless!" the officer shouted, sounding afraid for the first time. "All personnel, fall back! Retreat!" They fled, and were followed a few minutes later by the helicopter, leaving Sonic alone with the Thing. "These cops are smarter than SWAT-bots, anyway," Sonic muttered to himself. He fixed his attention on the monster. "Okay, mister invincible, it's you and me now!" He jumped from the car and circled the creature.
Although it had ignored the police, it seemed threatened by Sonic. It whirled to face him as he circled, then lashed at him with an arm. The arm extended ten feet and nearly caught Sonic, but he ducked. "Tricky, aren't we?" he taunted. He zipped in close, curled into a spin and struck its head.
Instantly the creature's shape dissolved into a wide puddle on the ground. It oozed rapidly to the opposite side of the courtyard and re-solidified into its former shape. "So, you're made of water?" Sonic said, watching. "Well, I'll be darned! That's cool! Not cool enough, though." He darted in for another strike, but was met with a slap that sent him reeling. He recovered his wits and balance, leaped high in the air and shot himself like a blue missile at the monster. Again he struck it, and again it melted. This time it oozed toward the street. "Hey, where ya going, ya big drip?" Sonic challenged, following it.
The water composing the monster poured over the asphalt, then gushed into a sewer grating and was gone.
Sonic stepped to the edge of the grating and stood looking down into it. For the first time the area was completely silent--no cars, no yelling, nothing but a quiet drip dripping from far below the grating. That THING was in the sewers somewhere ...
The hush was broken by a harsh, triumphant voice from a nearby rooftop. "You know nothing, fool! It's Chaos, the god of destruction!"
Sonic recognized the voice and whirled, but the speaker had retreated from sight.
Chapter 4: Culture Shock
Tails awoke, sat up and rubbed his eyes. He had worked late on Mac's planes, and in exchange the human had set up a cot for him in the corner of the hanger. Even now Tails' eyes fell on the gray biplane (his current project), and he sprang out of bed, eager to get to work again.
Both of the engines were strange prototypes that could run on both liquid fuel and an outside power source. Mac said he had bought them dirt-cheap from a retired inventor, but claimed he wasn't enough of a mechanic to get the planes in working order. Tails was intrigued with the engine designs, seeing at once that the 'outside power source' was a chaos emerald. The knob in the center of the propellers was insulated for this purpose.
The gray bi-plane was in the worst shape of the two. Tails was sure he could fly it, but many of the engine parts were dirty or worn out. Its emerald power converter was in the best condition of the two, however. The red and white plane had an engine in fair shape, but the converter appeared to have caught fire at one time, and the cockpit controls were rusted over. Both planes could fly in a pinch, but ...
"Hey kid," Mac called.
Tails poked his head out of the gray plane's cockpit. "Yeah?"
"I just got a call from my sister in Sapphire City. I have to go out there for a few days to watch my nephews. I'm gonna leave you to watch the hanger."
Tails straightened and stared at him. "Really? But you don't even know me!"
"Oh yeah I do," Mac said, folding his arms. "I ran an identity check on your pilot license. You're a member of the Knothole Freedom Fighters and a friend of the infamous Sonic the Hedgehog. I'd say you've got the qualifications to watch an airplane hanger for a few days."
Tails blinked. Was it really that easy to find all about somebody? "Okay," he said slowly. "Can I fly your planes while you're gone?"
"If you can get them in the air, I don't care what you do," said Mac as he picked up a duffelbag from the corner and slung it over his shoulder. "I'll expect you to still be around when I get back."
"I wouldn't run away!" Tails said indignantly.
"See that you don't," Mac said with a wink, and strode out the door.
Tails watched him vanish in the direction of the train station (which was just visible from the hanger windows), then flew to his bag, unzipped it and dug around. At the very bottom was a cloth-wrapped object he had brought from home with special permission--the village's blue chaos emerald.
* * *
As dawn brightened the sky, a culture-shocked echidna sat on a bench and stared about numbly.
Knuckles had entered the city at four o' clock that morning to search for the pieces of the Master Emerald with the aid of an instinct he brought with him.
He had spent the last 24 hours training himself to find fragments by instinct alone. He had always been able to sense power sources; he could, for instance, tell by standing anywhere in Lava Reef exactly where Hidden Palace was. He could feel, in a way, the power radiating from the stones therein. But now he had a real use for this ability; he needed it to track down Master Emerald shards. To sharpen this, he had had his friends on the Island hide a fragment for him to find. At first locating it was very difficult, but it grew easier as his sensitivity increased. Confident he would find the missing fragments, he took a knapsack and glided toward Sapphire City.
But now, as he sat on the bench, he wondered what insanity had kept him from taking the train. He was weary from his two-hour glide and had no idea where he was. He sensed the presence of a few pieces in the area, but at present was too tired and bewildered to find them. His culture-shock was staggering. Here he was, an echidna used to a largely uninhabited island in the sky. All of a sudden he was in the midst of a bustling city, cars whizzing by on the road before him, walled in by hundreds of buildings, surrounded by humans!
Early as it was, there were perhaps three people within view, and the cars were a minute apart, but it overwhelmed Knuckles just the same. There were no Mobians in sight--just humans. His prejudice against them was as great as Sonic's was; he assumed all humans were evil from long association with Robotnik. Perhaps they would leave him alone if he ignored them. He had better get moving before he was questioned--his fatigue would probably wear off, anyway.
The crimson echidna stood and turned his head from side to side. He could hear a faint ringing in his head; an emerald piece was making it. It seemed to be coming from somewhere to his left. He slung his empty knapsack over his shoulder and walked slowly along the road, watching and listening. It was getting fainter now: he had passed it. He doubled back. It seemed to be coming from the area before a grocery store. He walked up to it. Closer, but no cigar. It was off to his right now. He turned and walked. The ring grew louder, but his way was blocked by an eight-story office building. He circled it and walked on, but soon returned to the building's foot. Was it INSIDE the building somewhere? Would a human have picked it up? No ... maybe it was on the roof. Yes, that was it. It must be on the roof. He jumped at the cement wall, dug in his knuclaws and started up.
Several people heard the noisy grating and scratching of his climbing and exited the building. Some called for him to come down, but he ignored them. What did they know? It wasn't until he had nearly reached the roof that he happened to glance down and realized that his claws had torn dark holes in the plaster all the way up. Too late to worry about that now--though maybe next time he would take the elevator.
The emerald fragment was six inches long and lying in plain sight. The echidna put it in his sack and took a bearing on the next one from his new vantage point. His task wasn't so hard, his hopes were rising, and the effects of his prolonged flight were wearing off. He could get something to eat, later, too.
The next shard was smaller than the last, and its sound was much softer. Knuckles pinpointed its location by gliding in ever-shrinking circles--it was in an alley. He dropped into it and found to his disgust that the sound was coming from a dumpster. The dumpster was nearly full, and it took a bit of digging to unearth the shard. It was hardly as big as his thumb, and if not for the energy coming off it he would have thought it was a piece of broken glass. So much for 'easy'.
The sun slowly rose over the mountains as Knuckles hunted. A breeze from the ocean freshened the air, and the sky brightened. Cars filled the streets and pedestrians became more numerous. Knuckles did his best to pay them no attention, but as his work wore on him he began to wonder what food was available in a city of humans.
By eight o' clock the echidna had found five fragments and could detect no more pieces in the area, so he rewarded himself with donuts and coffee, eaten in the sanctuary of a rooftop above the highway. As he sipped his coffee--a rare treat for him--he noticed a small silver bi-plane in the distance, smoke trailing it its wake. At first he thought it was a stunt plane, but decided otherwise when the plane went into a nosedive and vanished from sight behind the cityscape. "Hope the pilot's okay," he thought indifferently.
Chapter 5: Together again
Sonic was lying in a deck chair near the hotel's pool, wondering idly if the chao playroom was open yet, when the hum of an airplane reached his ears. Lazily he opened his eyes and looked about. A gray biplane was just coming into sight around the corner of the hotel, smoke pouring from the engines. Sonic sat up and watched. He had flown malfunctioning biplanes and remembered the helpless terror of careening earthward. The engines sputtered and coughed, the plane tilted, and Sonic glimpsed the pilot. "What? TAILS?" he exclaimed aloud, leaping to his feet. He lifted a hand and cried, "Watch out--you're gonna crash!" even though there was no way Tails would hear him.
The plane swerved toward the coast in a last-ditch effort to land. It vanished from sight behind the corner of the hotel, and there came a distant crash. Sonic flinched, spines leaping erect and falling limp again. "Oh Tails," he muttered, and made for the beach at an alarmed run.
The plane had come to earth on a tiny peninsula a good distance away from the Sunset Resort. Sonic paused for a moment, scanning the coast for the quickest way to reach his friend. A dash along the beach would force him to detour around the wharf and docks further down, and he would have to walk--he shuddered at the thought--through the crowds of tourists there. A short distance away was a wooden boardwalk and floating bridge that connected several small islands with the beach, the last of which was twenty or thirty feet from the end of the peninsula. Sonic made for it, sand spraying from his flying feet.
The hedgehog was so concerned with getting to his friend as quickly as possible that he did not see the tall black fin knifing through the water a short way off the coast. Once on the floating bridge, however, he DID notice when a killer whale--twenty-five feet long from snout to flukes--leaped out of the water, passed right over him and plunged into the water on the other side of the bridge. The waves from the splash passed under the bridge, tossing it up and down and Sonic to his hands and knees. "Stupid fish," he muttered under his breath as he continued running.
He came to the first island, turned right and was on the next boardwalk. The whale, who had vanished for a moment, suddenly reappeared at Sonic's heels, smashing the wooden boardwalk with its black and white head, pale jaws wide. It gained on him with each massive leap, tearing the boardwalk to splinters. Sonic ran without daring to look back, half afraid and half angry at the beast. Why was it doing this? Was it trying to eat him?
A sharp turn in the boardwalk. Sonic's small size and agility allowed him to take it almost without slowing; the orca, on the other hand, was forced to swerve wide, unable to keep up with its land-borne prey. Sonic leaped off the dock, splashed down in the shallows and threw himself ashore on the peninsula, seeing in his head nature videos where orcas came up on shore to grab baby seals. He whirled about and stood, but the defeated orca's dorsal fin was just vanishing underwater. Good riddance.
Sonic now sprinted to the fallen biplane. The nose was crumpled and smoke rose in a thin plume from the engine, but it wasn't damaged too badly. Sonic stood on tiptoe and peered into the cockpit. It was empty.
After a frantic search, Sonic found his sidekick lying under the tail section. The fox must have leaped clear at the last second and the plane had nearly landed on him. Tails was just beginning to come around.
Tails groaned and sat up, rubbing his head. It took a moment for his eyes to refocus, but when they did, he found himself staring at a pair of red sneakers. Slowly he looked up. There stood Sonic, one hand extended to help him up. The hedgehog flashed a smile. Tails returned one of his own, took Sonic's hand and stood.
* * *
A short distance away from the peninsula, underwater, floated a pair of large, lidless green eyes, without a body to frame them. Chaos was made of water and when in the sea had no need of form. The orca had already departed for deeper waters. It had tried to carry out its strange order to devour the blue hedgehog, but had failed--the hedgehog could move much faster than its usual prey, and it had found itself outmatched. Chaos had thanked it for the attempt and sent it on its way. Now he watched the hedgehog and fox with cold hatred. Obviously they had sided with his enemies. Chaos would confront Sonic himself once he was stronger.
* * *
Tails rummaged around in the cockpit of the wrecked plane, produced a tool kit and set to work removing the propeller. Sonic watched him, one eyebrow lifted. "What are you doing?"
"Taking the converter off," Tails replied promptly. "It was the engine that caught fire, not the converter. I can still use it."
"For using a revolutionary new power source!" the fox exclaimed, pulling off the hub and showing Sonic what was inside.
"Whoa!" he hedgehog exclaimed in surprise. "A chaos emerald! You bring that from home?"
"Straight up," Tails replied proudly. "If I can get this prototype to work in a plane, it'll make our Tornado look like a paper airplane. It'll be the fastest biplane in the galaxy!"
By now Tails was up to his elbows in the engine, unfastening wires and unscrewing bolts. He finally emerged, smudged and greasy, holding a gizmo that looked like a glorified coffeepot. "There," he said triumphantly. "Let's go back to the airstrip in the Mystic Ruins. That's where I've been working."
The hedgehog and fox set out at a trot along the peninsula. Sonic pointed to the splinters floating in the water and told of the mysteriously hostile killer whale. "You don't see nothing like THAT at Seaworld," he added.
In return, Tails told Sonic of his flight to Sapphire City and how he was redirected to the Mystic Ruins. He told about Mac letting him take care of the hanger and airstrip. "He was really nice," Tails concluded. "I always thought humans were jerks."
"I guess not," Sonic replied with a shrug. "Everyone I've met at the hotel so far have been cool. Oh yeah ... except for the monster I saw last night."
Sonic described the weird water-beast, throwing emphasis on the fact that HE had defeated it when the police couldn't.
By this time the two had made it back to Station Square. "I'll have to show you the chao," Sonic said as they walked through the hotel lobby to reach the street. "They're like a cross between a cat, a teddy bear and a baby. Maybe later, though."
"Cool." Tails thought they sounded wimpy and wondered how Sonic had swallowed his ego enough to notice them.
Neither had yet been inside the train station, and found it a bustling place with concession stands, a gift shop and rows and rows of benches for waiting. The roof was made of glass to let in sunlight, and the train tracks ran in one giant doorway and out the other into a covered glass tunnel.
Sonic bought tickets for them on the next train, which was due in twenty minutes. "Twenty minutes!" he complained to Tails as they walked away from the ticket booth. "That's half a lifetime! What am I gonna DO until then?"
"Let's look at the gift shop," Tails suggested sensibly.
The shop was small but jam-packed with everything under the sun, from toys to T-shirts to pencils to shoes. Sonic wasn't interested in the toy rack, as Tails was. He was drawn to the expensive specialty shoes under the counter. One of these was a pair of blue sneakers with a white strap--the same make as his--but embedded in the heels were what looked like large yellow taillights. According to the tag, they made you run faster. "Excuse me," he said to the clerk, "do you have these in red?"
"Red, green and blue," the clerk replied.
"Cool," Sonic said, but noticed the price tag for the first time. 250 bucks. The clerk must have seen his enthusiasm fade, for he commented, "Expensive, aren't they?"
"Just a little," Sonic agreed. "Can you hold a red pair for me, size eight and a half? I can scrape up some cash somewhere."
"Okay," the clerk said, punching it into the computer. Then he hesitated and looked at the hedgehog. "Are you the hedgehog who battled that monster last night?"
"News travels fast," Sonic said, grinning. "Sure am. I'm Sonic."
Now it was the clerk's turn to grin. "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle! No wonder you're interested in those shoes. Nice to meet you, sir."
"Ditto," Sonic replied good-naturedly. "I'll probably be back in a day or two." He turned to go and nearly tripped over Tails, who was standing unnoticed at his elbow.
Sonic regained his balance and apologized, but Tails didn't seem to notice. He was staring at the specialty cabinet. "Sonic, look at those!" he murmured, pointing. Sonic looked. A few spaces down from the speed-shoes were what at first looked like bizarre watches; two rectangular things with vents on them, and with long, thin straps like watchbands. "They're jet anklets," Tails half-whispered. "Strap 'em on you shoes and they shoot you forward. Imagine how fast I could fly!" There was one small problem--they cost four hundred dollars, almost twice as much as Sonic's.
The two left the gift shop and sat on a bench, wondering where they could earn some money. Neither had come up with any ideas when in the distance, a train whistle shrieked. "Know what's the most exciting sounds in the world?" Sonic asked.
Tails, who was inhaling the aroma of hot french fries from the food stand, replied, "Breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner is served."
"No, no," Sonic said with a smirk. "Train whistles, plane engines and anchor chains."
The train whizzed into the station with a roar and clatter. The engine pulled out into the tunnel, and the doors to the passenger cars were slid open. A handful of people got off-not many people rode the train at ten o'clock in the morning. Sonic and Tails entered, had their tickets punched and sat down.
After an endless wait--fifteen minutes--the engine gave a deafening whistle, the cars jerked, and they were off. The two gazed out the windows as they passed through the glass tunnel. "Look!" Sonic said suddenly, pointing. "There's a casino! Right next door to the Sunset Resort!"
Tails looked. Sure enough, taking an entire cul-de-sac was a brightly painted, towering casino--it was probably a mass of neon lights at night. "Oh no, Sonic," Tails said. "We only have a little money as it is. I know how those things are. Once we get started there's no stopping!"
"Aw c'mon," Sonic said with his don't-be-a-wimp voice. "We went to that other casino when we were just pups--we didn't know how to act. This is different. Besides, there's things to do besides slot machines." He settled into the padded seat as the train rounded a bend and the casino was blocked from view. "Maybe we can check it out later. Maybe win enough to get those shoes!"
"Maybe," Tails said darkly, stowing his power converter under his seat and pulling his tails into his lap.
* * *
No sooner had the train pulled out of the station than another customer entered the gift shop; a six-foot tall purple cat with yellow eyes and fishing pole over one shoulder. The cat gazed at the rack of graphite rods for a moment, then approached the counter. "Hello Big, what can I do for you?" the clerk asked.
"Can I have some crickets, Bob?" Big asked. "Froggy don't like my lure."
The clerk lifted a Styrofoam box from beneath the counter and pulled out a lantern-like cage of crawling, chirping crickets. "What's the matter?" the clerk (Bob) asked as Big dug into the moneybag hanging from his belt. "I thought you caught that frog ages ago."
The cat handed him a few soft bills and said, "I did, but Froggy ran away. He's in a pond in that building across the street." He sighed and shook his head, long ears drooping. "I donno what I'm gonna do."
"Well, good luck," Bob said, handing him the crickets, "and catch a few big ones along the way."
"Thanks," Big said, and padded out.
Chapter 6: E-102 Gamma
Miles distant, in a fortress hidden deep in the Mystic Forest, a robotic creature in a construction chamber came to life.
The first thing its visual circuitry registered was the room directly in front of it. A large, circular room with railing around the hole in the center. Automatically its head swivelled to the left. More of the room and a large glass tube containing a burly blue robot with red eyes. Its head swivelled to the right. Another tube, but with a heavily-built silver hedgehog inside.
"Ah, it works!" exclaimed a coarse voice. "Look at me!"
The robot's head tilted downward slightly, bringing the round figure of a mustached human into view. "You are E-102 Gamma," the human said with a motion to the robot's chest. He gestured to himself. "I am your master, Dr. Robotnik. You now obey only me."
These two commands were dutifully registered in the robot's computer. Self unit = E-102 "Gamma". Master registration = Dr. Robotnik. "Yes, Dr. Robotnik," the robot droned.
Robotnik began to pace up and down as Gamma watched and listened. "You are one of the elite E-series, built to obey me. You have the ability to learn and program yourself with minimal input from me." That was why Robotnik was telling the robot all this--it was easier than programming it manually. "Your body design is basic, yes, but your brain is a special creation of my own. If you turn out successfully, the world may see more of your kind."If you turn out successfully, the world may see more of your kind." Robotnik walked away. "Take a look around, Gamma. Move about."
The robot stepped out of the pillar of construction machinery surrounding it and stood a moment. It was an ugly thing to the casual observer. Its body was short and round, its head little more than a flat panel on top. It had two moveable lenses in its head for eyes. Mounted on its head was a small tag laser. On its red-painted chest, above and to the left of the sign '102', was a thick headlight. Its right arm tapered in hydraulic sections to a fairly articulate hand. Its left arm was somewhat bulkier, and instead of a hand it bore a blaster cannon. Its long legs bend backward in the knees like a bird's, and its long black 'feet' were equipped with wheels in the backs.
Gamma began to slowly stroll about the room, computer taking in how it felt to move and what the limits of balance were. After a few minutes he was quite good at walking and did not stagger or bump into things. Mission accomplished. He swivelled his head about until his visual sensors located his master in the corner. He approached Robotnik and stopped before him.
Satisfied that Gamma worked properly, Robotnik pressed a button on the wall to open a sliding door to their left. "This leads to the training course," he explained gruffly. "You are to shoot all the targets as quickly and accurately as your programming allows. Your big brother, E-101 Beta, is in there practicing. You are not as advanced as Beta, but you'll do fine."
Gamma turned, bumped into the wall, backed up and made it through the door successfully.
Robotnik strode to the computer terminal in the corner to view Gamma's progress through the eyes of the video cameras inside the course. As he did so, a soft, loathing voice said, "Yes master, no master, as you wish master. The E-series sickens me."
The small, lightly-built blue robot advanced to the edge of the terminal and leaned one arm on the edge of the control panel. Robotnik did not even give him a glance. "So you've said time and again, Mecha."
The robot hedgehog fixed his black and crimson eyes on the screens. "They are so stupid. Their body design is so ..."
Robotnik flashed Mecha a dark look.
The robot knew he was treading on thin ice. The quickest way to land on Robotnik's blacklist was to insult his projects, particularly new ones. But Mecha was jealous of these mass-produced newcomers--they had the size, strength and weaponry he lacked--and so never missed a chance to point out their few shortcomings.
"And they have PILOTS!" This last was the bitterest shot of them all. Mecha had no pilot animal in his hull to give him personality and reflexes. He deeply resented every other robot that did, particularly if it gave signs of outdoing him.
"You're being a pain," Robotnik told him. "I've put too much effort into you to remodel you so quickly. Activate the Sonic doll machinery. Beta deactivated it with a chance shot."
The blue robot strode away furiously, whining and grumbling to himself, "I wish they were using the REAL hedgehog for target practice. Why must _I_ contribute to the training of these primitive ..." he searched his databanks for a suitable term. "... adding machines! Oh, if only they would do something deserving of punishment so I might rend them limb from limb!" He wrenched the levers down and slapped the power button on the control console, then retreated sullenly to his quarters in the arena below.
* * *
E-102 Gamma found himself in a simple series of rooms with targets that popped up on poles as he drew near. The 'targets', were red echidna-dolls and orange fox-dolls. He swept them with his tag laser. In his eyes, these tagged targets were now circled by orange 3D boxes. Automatically his left arm lifted, aimed and fired, hitting each with pre-programmed accuracy. The dolls disintegrated in puffs of sawdust.
The course also taxed his maneuverability. He was forced to jump over boxes, duck through narrow openings and walk a narrow ledge over a deep pit. His confidence increased with each overcome obstacle. He was learning.
Without warning a target dissolved to his right before he could tag it. This did not make sense. He stopped and looked about, trying to understand.
Then from behind a large crate stepped another robot like himself. It was slightly bigger, bore rocket cannons on both arms, and was painted black with white trim. The two scanned each other. "E-101," Gamma noted. "Beta." His superior. He stood aside respectfully for Beta to pass. Beta did so, eyes fixed on this newcomer as he passed. Another of the E-series. "Welcome, E-102," Beta said in his flat monotone, then walked away to continue with the course.
Gamma went on his way and found all the targets already blown up. He proceeded until he entered a vast room with a slider arm across one wall. Dangling from it was a blue hedgehog doll. Gamma tagged it and shot it, but it did not blow up. Instead the arm began to slowly move the doll along the wall. Gamma walked closer, tagged and shot the doll again, but with more difficulty. He shot it once more before it finally dropped from the arm and hit the floor with a thump.
* * *
"Well done, Gamma," Robotnik said as the robot exited the training course. "You surprise me. Well, we'll see what you're really made of." He beckoned to his creation and led the way down the stairs into the arena in the center of the room. Gamma had a bit of trouble navigating the steps with his long feet--they were not meant for it--but he managed to reach the bottom still erect.
"The Egg Carrier is a magnificent vessel that needs a good crew," Robotnik announced to Gamma; and someone else. Gamma looked about and saw E-101 Beta standing quietly in the corner, listening. "Therefore," the human said, dwarfed between the two tall robots, "I am pitting the two of your against each other. Personally, I am placing my bets on Beta, but I own Gamma at least a fair chance. Whoever loses their feet first loses the match." Then Robotnik flew up the stairs and leaned over the railing to watch.
"Loses their feet? What does that mean?" Gamma wondered. Perhaps it meant shoot at Beta's feet.
Beta had already stepped forward and swept Gamma with his tag laser. He knew that all he must do to win was knock his opponent over. He aimed and fired.
Gamma was sweeping Beta's feet, trying to lock on target, when his laser struck the oncoming rocket. It locked and he fired instantly, thanks to the defensive reflexes of the creature in his hull. The missile exploded in mid-air. Gamma made note of that; rockets could be detonated before they reached their target.
The robots circled like boxers in a ring, each trying for a lock. Gamma secured his first and fired. His weaker cannon fired a projectile too small to be targeted, although Beta tried to. It struck the black robot's left ankle and sent him sprawling.
"I don't believe it!" Robotnik exclaimed from above. He descended the stairs as Beta climbed dejectedly to his feet. Robotnik ignored him and faced Gamma. "I didn't think you had what it takes! You have permission to come aboard the Egg Carrier."
Beta thrust his way between Gamma and Robotnik like a dog pleading for attention. "What?" Robotnik questioned in surprise. "You want to come, too?"
Beta sidestepped a little to block Gamma completely from view and nodded his whole body. He knew quite well what happened to robots Robotnik had no use for.
"Oh, all right," said Robotnik, throwing up his hands. "I guess we could always use a spare set of parts. Mecha!"
The blue robot appeared from his quarters in a sulky slouch. "Yes sir."
"Take these two to the Egg Carrier," Robotnik said, checking his watch. "I have a train to meet in fifteen minutes."
Mecha gave the E-series a withering look. "Of course, sir."
"Oh, and Mecha," Robotnik said over his shoulder as he started up the stairs, "you may have Beta to remodel as you wish."
Gamma knew little about the small blue robot before him, but he knew he didn't like the predatory way Mecha gazed at Beta.
Chapter 7: Enemies old and new
A hedgehog and a fox disembarked from the train and found themselves on a high wooden platform. To their right were a flight of wooden stairs leading to the ground below. Sonic sniffed as they trotted down the steps. The air was thick with humidity and the odor of green leaves and muddy water. At the foot of the train station there was a wide dirt area that sloped in a gentle hill to meet the high cliffs roundabout. Standing at the foot of the stairs was a human dressed in khaki shorts, boots and pith helmet. Strapped to his back was a fully-outfitted pack. He looked ready to charge off into the forest and explore, and yet stood where he was, looking downcast.
"Hey man," Sonic said in greeting. "What's up?"
The man looked at him, faintly startled at being addressed in such a way by a Mobian, than said, "I wanted to be part of the first expedition that went into the jungle. They're looking for the lost ruins. But I get lost easy, so they left me here."
"Too bad," Sonic said, trying not to sound as disinterested as he felt. "Nice talkin' to ya. C'mon, Tails."
As they walked off under the raised tracks, Sonic said softly, "He can't even carry a compass? What idiots humans must be!"
"I feel sorry for him," Tails said with a small shrug. "He looks so friendless ..." He looked ahead and changed the subject. "The airstrip is up here." The fox led the way toward a flat-topped hill with stone steps built into its side. "See, the hanger and strip are off on that side," Tails explained as they trotted up the steps, "and over here is a big flat space for parking extra planes."
As they stepped onto the flat, they were greeted by a rough voice chuckling, "Well well, if it isn't my old friends, Sonic and Tails!"
The two whipped about to see a small round hovercraft with huge engines and side extensions rise into the air from below the cliffs. Leering at the two through the spotless windshield was a short, fat, bald human with a gigantic mustache. He had gained considerable weight since they had last seen him, and his belly gave him the odd shape of an egg (pointy end up) with arms. "Hey look," Sonic said scornfully. "It's a giant talking egg!"
"Silence!" their enemy barked.
"Like we take orders from you," Sonic sneered. "Whaddya want, ya big loser?"
"I want any chaos emeralds you have," the human replied. "I have big plans for them."
"Coming from you, those are the worst kind," Tails said, taking his friend's cue and acting scornful. He had already laid his energy converter and precious emerald safely out of sight back down the stairs.
"Hand them over, or else," Robotnik warned, revving his craft's engines.
"Or else what, Eggman?" Sonic challenged, stepped between his enemy and Tails.
"Or else I'll take them from you the hard way!" Robotnik yelled, swooping forward.
Sonic and Tails fled in opposite directions and spun to face Robotnik's attack. The doctor pulled up, circled out from the cliff's edge, then hovered for an ominous second. There came a series of flashes from the nose of the ship, then a whoosh as several missiles appeared and streaked for their targets. "Fly, Tails!" Sonic hollered as he dodged sideways and back. The rockets struck the ground with an explosion of earth and flame. Sonic ducked through the curtain of falling debris to make sure Tails was unhurt. Yes, the fox was hovering fifteen feet from the ground, making faces at Robotnik. "Way to go, little bro!" Sonic cheered, then gasped and yelped, "Duck!"
The ship swooped in like a giant hornet, two spinning drills emerging from the side-wings. Tails squeaked and dropped like a stone, barely escaping one of the metal bits. The Egg Hornet swerved toward Sonic (who leaped backward), drills ripping into the ground. The hedgehog's blood was quite warm by this time, as was his temper at seeing Tails nearly dismembered. He leaped into the air, somer-saulting over and over, whirling spines becoming a dangerous weapon. He hurled himself into the exposed engine intake on the right wing's top panel, spines splitting wires and plugs before he bounced off at an angle. When he recovered his feet, he saw that the right wing was smoking and the drill bit no longer turning. "Try that again, Eggman!" he taunted as the Egg Hornet roared away into the air.
"Yeah, chicken!" Tails added from across the arena, then flapped his arms and cackled like a hen. He had regained his nerve at seeing the Hornet's weakness.
Robotnik, ego affected by their taunts, grimly took another dive at Sonic, moving so fast the hedgehog almost didn't sidestep soon enough. Sonic tore into the left wing with a fierce yell. Tails, seeing the end was near and not wanting to be left out, ducked in low and struck the rocket launcher with his tails by spinning in a circle like an ice skater.
The Egg Hornet took to the air one last time, then slowed and shuddered. Robotnik pulled a lever in the cockpit, and all the outer equipment loosed and fell from their places with a metallic crash. Sonic and Tails looked on smugly as the round, defenseless hovercraft beneath sputtered and jolted against the ground, almost falling, but not quite.
"He's defeated," Tails thought, already anticipating work on his biplanes. "He'll leave in a minute. I'll take the emerald and converter to the hanger now, while Sonic sees him off." The fox darted away down the steps, picked up the emerald in one hand and the converter in the other, then trotted up toward the hanger.
"Tails, lookout!" Sonic yelled. Tails turned, startled, just in time to have the blue stone snatched from his hand by a mechanical clamp extended from Robotnik's ship. It retracted and places its prize in its master's hand. He laughed triumphantly and stood in his seat, waving the emerald aloft. "Aha! The first of the emeralds!"
"Give that back!" Tails cried furiously, moving as if to attack, but Sonic grabbed his arm and held him still.
"A wise move," Robotnik chuckled. "You shall see the crux of my plans. Chaos, come forth!"
"Chaos?" Sonic exclaimed, remembering the name from the previous evening.
A large wet patch appeared in the soil near Robotnik's craft. This grew wetter and wetter until a large, deep puddle had seeped out of the ground, then rose, moulded itself and congealed into a humanoid figure with featureless green eyes. "That's the monster I saw last night!" Sonic said in surprise.
"M--monster?" Tails stammered, staring at the thing and shrinking behind his hero.
Robotnik threw the blue gem at the beast. It turned and caught it with one hand. There was a brilliant flash and glow from that arm. When it faded, Chaos' left arm had grown and thickened, a heavy cartilaginous skeleton within the arm and fingers. Embedded in the cartilage in the back of his wrist was the blue emerald.
"Yes!" Robotnik said in delight, feasting his eyes on Chaos 1. "It's just as the stone tablets predicted! Chaos' strength increases every time I feed him a chaos emerald! When his strength is perfected, he will be invincible ... and work for ME! With his power I will destroy Sapphire City and construct Robotropolis the second ... and he will take care of all resistance efforts for me." This last was aimed with a nasty grin at Sonic.
Sonic stepped forward, intending to attack this fragile water creature and show "Eggman" that it wasn't so powerful, but Robotnik said, "Come, Chaos, lets find some more emeralds!" He threw something at the ground, which exploded in thick white smoke. When it cleared five minutes later, Robotnik and the monster were gone.
Chapter 8: Exploration
Knuckles stood in the bright sun on the roof of the train depot in Station Square. His hunt for emerald shards had brought him this far. Unfortunately, the signal he was receiving was so faint he couldn't locate the source; it must be very low.
With a sigh he glided off the roof, circled and dropped to the pavement in the square. What a job. Now the sound was even fainter. Maybe inside the station?
The echidna trotted up the steps, pushed open the door and strode in. There were only a few humans about, and the train tracks were empty. Good--he liked it better empty.
He cocked his head and listened for a long moment. Little change. The fragment could be anywhere, and of any size.
Knuckles turned, startled. Behind him stood a human in a clerk's uniform. One hand was in his pocked, and the other held a Pepsi. "Lookin' to catch a train?"
"Er, no," Knuckles replied edgily. He was ill at ease among humans. "I was just ... looking around."
"Tourist, eh?" the clerk remarked good-naturedly. "We don't get many Mobians through here. It's a shame, really. I grew up with Mobians and like 'em better'n most humans 'round here."
"Wow," Knuckles replied. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Ask away. It's my job to help people."
"Well ..." the echidna drew a nervous breath. "Have you seen any green things--like glass--laying around?"
The clerk thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Can't say that I have. You break something?"
"Sort of," Knuckles replied, dropping his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to let the world know the Master emerald was broken.
The clerk seemed to sense the echidna's discomfort, for he stopped asking questions. "Why don't you come over to the gift shop sometime?" he asked. "I've got a list of free tour brochures you could use." He took a drink of his soda. "Well, I'd better be getting back to work. Nice talking to you."
Knuckles watched him suspiciously as the human walked back to the gift shop in the corner. Why was he so friendly? What was his motive? Surely he couldn't be kind for kindness's sake ...
After a few minutes the crimson echidna wandered into the giftshop, one ear tuned to the emerald hum. No change. Discouraged and stumped, he drifted about, looking idly at the displays and racks of items without really seeing them. He found a brochure, flipped through it, put it back, took it out again and glanced into the glass display case under the counter.
His eyes locked on a pair of shiny trinkets near the end. After a second of staring, he moved closer. They weren't trinkets; they were steel knuckles. A loop of steel was welded to long, broad double claws, thick and sharply-bladed. Shovel-claws for Mobians, the tag read. $150.
Knuckles had seventy dollars worth of cash with him (he had the sense to leave home reasonable financed), but where in the world he could get another eighty? The longer he looked at the claws the worse he wanted them. Not that his natural claws didn't work quite well, but ...
It wasn't until he was standing outside in the square that he looked at the brochure again. The word 'Casino' leaped out at him. A casino, one black from where he stood. Dangerous dangerous, that's what casinos were. Good thing it didn't open until that evening; he would have time to talk himself out of the shovel-claws. He didn't really need them, anyway, he told himself.
* * *
Tails sat on the doorstep of the hanger, ears drooping, head in his hands. The converter lay beside him where he had dropped it. His chaos emerald had been stolen. He couldn't work on the biplanes. He was on the verge of tears.
After a while there came the patter of sneakers on the stone stairway below, and a blue hedgehog came jogging up. "This place is cool!" Sonic exclaimed, seating himself beside his sidekick and pretending to ignore Tails's brimming eyes. "There's a bunch of explorer-dudes down there. They sent a whole 'nother party out into the woods, but they haven't come back yet. These guys are really worried about 'em. Then they kept pointing to this mountain down the coast and saying it hadn't been there a few days ago. I figured they're nuts--I mean, mountains don't just up and walk around. Oh, and there's this one cave that's so windy it almost lifts you off your feet. A big tunnel goes straight up. No telling where it goes."
Sonic paused for breath and glanced at Tails to see if his chatter had helped any. Not much. He sighed and put an arm around the young fox's shoulders. "Ah Tails ... we'll find another emerald."
Tails broke down completely and sobbed into Sonic's shoulder. "No we won't! There's no way we'll ever find another one! Now my planes won't work, and all because Robotnik has that monster!"
Sonic held him and patted him comfortingly on the back until the sobs subsided to sniffles. "Lighten up, kiddo," he said gently as Tails dried his eyes and wiped his nose. "Look, this area is supposed to radiate a weird energy, like all the emeralds are here somewhere. One of the explorers showed me. It makes compasses wacky and does weird things to Geiger counters. That's why ol Eggman's here instead of off harassing the Freedom Fighters. He knows they're here."
Tails looked up at his friend, glassy-eyed, but trying bravely to smile. "I guess," he sniffed, "I guess we can try to beat Eggman to them, huh?"
"That's the spirit!" Sonic exclaimed, rising to his feet. "C'mon, I want to look at the windy cave again."
The cave was tall and dark, with a terrific inflow of air roaring up the shaft, like a natural vacuum cleaner. Sonic and Tails stood under the shaft, spines and tails whipping about in the wind. "Look at this!" Sonic shouted above the noise. He pointed. Tails saw a small stone platform in one corner with a stone post standing erect beside it. The two walked closer. Indented in the platform was a square hole, as if something were meant to fit in it. Engraved on the post was a funny-looking spiral, like the symbol of a hurricane. "Weird!" Tails hollered. "Let's go outside!"
As they emerged panting from the chamber, they were met by one of the khaki-clad humans. "Oh, hello," he said in surprise as they walked by. "What were you doing in there?"
"I was showing Tails here the windy cave," Sonic said obviously, jerking a thumb in the fox's direction. "What are you doing?"
"Oh," said the man, looking down, "I uh, found an artifact ..." He reached into the bag hanging from his belt and pulled out an object resembling a trophy. It had a square stone base, and instead of a statue, it had an oval-shaped glass dome on it. The glass was green, and inside it was a flat, paper-like cutout of the same hurricane symbol they had seen in the cave.
"Hey," Sonic said, staring, "doesn't that go to that thing in there?"
"Well," the human replied, "I think so, but I'm afraid of what will happen if I put it in."
The hedgehog nearly knocked him down in his haste to take the wind stone and tear into the cave. "Sorry!" he yelled over his shoulder. Tails, embarrassed, said, "He gets really enthusiastic sometimes. Sorry about that. We'll tell you what happens when we come back."
"Oh," replied the startled human. "Okay, thanks."
Tails entered the cave, intending to reprimand his friend for his rude behavior, but never got the chance. Sonic had just slipped the wind stone into its socket. Instantly the wind strengthened, ripping at their fur, dragging them toward the black shaft. Tails felt his feet leave the ground, gasped a ragged lungful of the speeding air about him, then was sucked into the mountain like a leaf.
Chapter 9: A Tornado
The Egg Carrier was docked in the bottom of a large valley deep in the jungle. The trees roundabout all but hid it from view, which was how Robotnik had planned it. The Final Egg ground base (also well hidden, all above-ground structures carefully closed up), was only a short walk from the landing pad.
A short blue robot led two tall, gangly machines toward the monstrous craft. E-102 Gamma swept the side with his visual sensors. It was so big his computer could not grasp what he was seeing. All he could tell was that it was painted a dark red. A good distance further off, through a stand of trees, Gamma saw what he thought was a copy of the Egg Carrier, parked in the same airfield, but undeployed and resting under a vast tarpaulin.
The ground was rough with roots, rocks and tall brush. Metal Sonic moved along quite easily, but Beta and Gamma slipped, stumbled or snagged on twigs. Once Gamma tipped completely over and clanked into Beta's side. Surprisingly, Beta stopped and pushed him erect. Another odd instinct of the creature within the robotic hull. Twice more during their trek Beta steadied Gamma. Mecha plodded on ahead of them, oblivious to their troubles.
At last they were clanking up the gangplank and into the cool, dim interior of the Egg Carrier's belly. Gamma looked about. They had entered a giant cargo hold, with crates and cannisters piled in rows as far as he could see. Directly ahead of them, across the paneled floor, was a steel staircase leading to a door near the ceiling. There was a mechanical hum of unseen fans.
Metal Sonic stopped and turned to face the two, his red eyes glowing like candles in the gloom. "102," he commanded, "go up to the subdeck and report to 103. He will show you to your tasks. 101," he said to Beta, voice dropping to a hungry purr, "you will come with me to the upper construction bay." He turned and walked away. As Beta moved to follow him, he shot one last look at Gamma, as if to say, "Goodbye, I am going to my doom." Gamma watched until they were out of sight among the cargo. He would never again see Beta in that shape.
The stairs were many and steep, but built for robots. Gamma managed them easily. He opened the door at the top and stepped through. Inside was yet another cargo hold, but smaller and with a higher ceiling the sun peeped through. Parked in neat rows were hundred of fighter-jets painted like sharks, green and white, fierce looking. Another E-series robot was standing off to the left, supervising a troop of droids working on a fighter.
Gamma approached. The other robot heard him and turned about. E-103. He was blue and white, and carried two blaster rifles instead of hands, but otherwise differed little in build from Gamma. "Greetings, 102," the blue robot said in his flat monotone. "I am 103, codenamed Delta."
"I am Gamma," the red robot replied.
"Gamma, then," Delta replied with a wave of a gun barrel. "Is Dr. Robotnik on board?"
"No. Metal Sonic brought self-unit and E-101 Beta here."
"Mecha-bot two," Delta said in a genuine tone of disgust. "His programming is faulty." It was the first time Gamma had heard anyone say anything against Mecha, and it would not be the last. The E-series cordially hated the blue robot as much as he hated them.
Delta turned back to the droids. "You may proceed about your duties, Gamma."
That did not compute. After a moment of blank incomprehension, Gamma said, "Self-unit has no duties. Please assign."
Delta swivelled his head about to look at Gamma. "Master did not connect you to the Egg Carrier mainframe? This must be remedied. Proceed to construction bay 4 and summon E-104 Epsilon. He will install the necessary hardware."
Thus the E-series welcomed their brother, last of all to board but certainly not least. And even as Gamma had programmed himself to respect Beta and wonder what Mecha would do to him, he programmed himself to like Delta. Delta had already done so and proceeded to take Gamma under his wing. It was important for Gamma to be fully trained by the time Master returned, or he would not last long.
* * *
The wind tunnel shot up at a steep angle, a roaring chimney if black rock. Sonic doubled into a spiked ball for protection, arms over his face. He struck the wall several times, bruising his head and knees, gasping for a meagre amount of air. He had no time to worry about Tails--or anything, for that matter. There was nothing but darkness, tumbling, wind like a wall, and being constantly beaten constantly by blowing particles.
Suddenly there was light; Sonic sensed it through his eyelids. Something struck him sharply on the right knee, and the wind abated and he hit the ground with a thump. He opened his eyes and saw a thick carpet of grass under his nose. Shaken, he slowly uncurled his bunched muscles and lifted his head. He was lying on a grassy ledge on the edge of a deep canyon. The wind was still blowing, but much softer than in the tunnel. Carefully he climbed to his feet--gee, his knee hurt! What had he hit? He could barely stand on his right leg--an ugly bruise was already forming under his fur.
"Tails!" he exclaimed suddenly. He was alone on the ledge; where was his sidekick? Surely he had to have come out of the tunnel--Sonic spun about to see the mouth of the monstrous tunnel, twenty feet across. Just inside it was a giant fan, pulling the air up through the tunnel, blades a blur. Sonic stared at it in horror. He must had caught his knee on it as he came through. But Tails--
At that instant an orange body shot out of the fan and slammed squarely into Sonic, throwing him to the grass. Tails groaned, "Ooh, I feel like I'm gonna barf!" He lifted his head and saw what he had landed on. "Oh, hi Sonic." He slid off and sat holding his side.
Sonic sat up and grinned. "Some fun, huh?"
Tails hung out his tongue in disgust and discomfort. "Not MY idea of a good trip. Did that hurt you as much as it hurt me?"
Sonic shook his head. "Naw, not much. I hit the fan." He pointed, and the fox looked. Tails' mouth dropped open. "Now I really WILL throw up."
Sonic showed him his knee and received the appropriate sympathy. "Serves you right for putting in that stone!"
The two looked about and discovered a narrow path leading gown from their ledge, along the jagged cliff face. Limping, the two set off to explore.
A sign was discovered, bearing the words "Windy Valley". "Original," Sonic commented, running a hand through his spines. He then discovered that his spines were practically standing on end from the wind, and spent a few minutes combing them down with his fingers.
As they hiked along the grassy trail, they saw that the valley was practically a wind-power center. There were windmills with helicopter-like rotors everywhere; built out over the narrow places in the canyon, extended from the walls, floating on hover-devices, all with blades turning in the wind. Only a few were turned vertically in the usual windmill fashion.
Sonic and Tails hiked along, marvelling and pointing out various items of interest to each other. The air was clear, the sun warm, colors brilliant, the wind fresh and wild like a living thing. It teased their hair and met them with surprise gusts as they rounded corners. It tossed leaves and dandelion fluff about like confetti, then went in to chase the windmill blades around and around.
After a bit the two came to a wide gap in the trail, as if a landslide had torn it away years ago. There had once been a wooden bridge extended across the gap, but it was broken and dangling at both ends, swaying in the wind.
"Gosh, wonder what did that," Sonic said, kicking at the support posts. The ropes were not old enough to have worn through.
"Maybe a rock fell on it," Tails suggested, looking up the cliff wall as if another might come bounding down at any moment.
"Could be," Sonic shrugged. "It probably happens all the time during storms. Fly me across."
"What do you say?"
"'Do it or else'?"
"Try it again, Eggman."
"Better." The fox spun his tails and rose into the air like a little helicopter. Sonic locked wrists with him, and Tails lifted him off his feet, carried him lightly across the gap, and set him down on the far side. Tails landed, himself, and the two walked on.
The canyon began to widen, the far wall veering away at an angle. The valley floor was hidden in low-lying clouds--no telling ho far below it was. The wind remained steady, just strong enough for them to lean into.
After a bit they began to see more and more gaps in the trail. "Does the wind get really strong here?" Sonic questioned as Tails airlifted him across a gap for the fourth time.
"Who knows," Tails replied. "It's starting to creep me out. I want to go back to Mystic Ruins."
A cloud dimmed the sun for a moment. The pair looked up and saw a vast, dark cloudbank billowing across the sky. "Uh-oh," Sonic remarked. "Looks like we're in for a storm."
That was the understatement of the year.
Within twenty minutes the entire sky was dark, and--even more ominously--the wind dropped. Sonic and Tails stood and gazed first at the sky, then at the valley. All the windmills had ceased turning. All colors had faded to dark greys and browns. Everything seemed to be holding its breath, waiting.
"Let's get out of here," Sonic said, voice loud in the stillness.
"Can we get back through the fan?" Tails asked worriedly.
The hedgehog shook his head. "I doubt it, but there's got to be another exit somewhere. Somebody maintains these fans."
They set off at a fast trot down the path, almost cowering beneath the threatening clouds.
Windy Valley was a micro-climate. Warm air from the ocean collided with cool air from the nearby mountains, and the canyon acted as a giant vacuum that sucked the volatile mixture right over it. The valley was known for its violent storms that built out of nothing and ripped through without warning.
The air was rapidly becoming humid and oppressive, and the two began to sweat and pant. "Sonic," Tails said between breaths, "you're green."
"So are you," Sonic replied. "Look, everything's green!"
The light had become a grass-green. washing everything in its sickly color. They paused for a moment and gazed about. Neither had ever seen a storm that turned everything green before. "What's up?" Sonic breathed, looking first at the motionless windmills above them, then at the sky.
Lightning flickered in the distance, then ripped across the sky above, crooked fingers of white that flashed, spread out and vanished a full second after they appeared. It was followed by a rolling growl of thunder that shook the earth beneath their feet. "We're sitting ducks up here," Sonic said, his hand closing on Tails'.
They began to jog through the weird green twilight, eyes scanning the cliff face for some hollow or crack they could use as shelter, but there were none.
Tails halted, pulling Sonic to a stop with him. "Listen," he whispered, ears pricked.
Sonic cocked his head, but could hear nothing. "What?"
"That!" Tails exclaimed. "It sounds like a train. Can't you hear it?"
Sonic listened again. Yes, now he could hear a distant roar. "What IS that?" he muttered. They could not see far ahead, as the cliff wall bulged out and blocked their view. "Stay here a second," Sonic said. "I'm gonna take a look around the bend."
"Be careful!" Tails implored. That sound frightened him without his knowing why.
Sonic advanced to the bend and peered around it. At once he started violently, the spines on his back leaping erect. He whirled and ran back to Tails, grabbed his hand and fled up the trail. "It's a tornado!" he cried.
The roar grew louder and the funnel came into sight, a whirling pillar of destruction. It was probably forty feet across. It moved through the canyon parallel to the walls, sucking earth from the ground far below and ripping loose objects from the cliffs; bridges, rocks, chunks of trail, windmills, anything.
Sonic and Tails fled along ahead of it, trying to outrun it. On a straight stretch they might have made it, but the path curved and twisted along the cliff, and the highest speed Sonic achieved at a stretch was thirty miles an hour. The tornado was moving considerably faster than that.
Tails looked over his shoulder, squinting against the flying dust in the air. He saw the funnel not a stone's throw away, debris and dust whirling in its outer wall, the inner wall a transparent, delicate tube of water vapor. The suction tore at his face and body--the wind, no longer playful, had become a visible monster intent on swallowing them up. Tails clung to Sonic's hand as his feet were lifted off the ground, pulled toward the tornado. As long as he didn't let go--
But not even Sonic could fight the strength of the storm. "Don't let go! Don't let go!" the hedgehog cried hysterically as his feet left the path. Then they were whipped aloft and sucked into the twister, along with most of the trail they had been standing on.
Gravity did not exist. They were whipped around and around the funnel, ascending ever higher in the storm-darkness. The hideous roar of the twister was all about them, mingled with a thousand other sounds that did not belong to wind at all; the sound of voices talking or screaming, as the tornado used the debris in its funnel to create a symphony of discord.
Sonic slammed into something solid and clung to it. He pried his eyes open. It was an enormous section of cliff, suspended in the storm. Tails was nearby, clinging to the base of a windmill with one propeller, which was spinning crazily. Somehow they were both unhurt. They stared at each other helplessly, unable to lift a finger without flying off to their doom in the twister. Already they were doomed, for where would it drop them?
Sonic tilted his head back and looked up. Far, far up the center of the tornado was a speck of light. The walls of the tornado swirled around it, one nearby turning slowly, almost lazily, and the one beyond it whipping by at high speed. They were nearly in the center of the tornado.
The hedgehog's eyes dropped to the windmill again. It would probably fly wonderfully if torn loose from its moorings. Carefully he pried loose one hand--
--And was ripped free from his hold and smashed into the windmill's base. He clung to it mechanically as his senses righted themselves, the wind attempting to scour the spines from his body. Tails was a few feet away, eyes closed against the wind. Sonic drew a breath of powdered sand and rocked his weight against the windmill's base. It didn't budge. Tails was looking at him now. Sonic motioned upward with his head. Tails looked up at the top of the tornado, then at the windmill. Immediately he shifted his hold, inching up toward the one blade. He managed to hook one knee through the framework and looked at Sonic again.
Afterward they decided that a flying chunk of rock must have struck the base of the windmill. Neither saw it happen, but suddenly the windmill was free and flying about the tornado.
Both had little memory of what happened next. Perhaps they were stunned by the force of the blow. At any rate, the next time Sonic opened his eyes, they were flying out of the top of a cloud, blinded by the sun. Tails was still wedged in the framework of the windmill. The one propeller was still spinning, but was winding down. One blade did not provide enough lift to support them without the fury of the tornado; they slowed, tilted and began to drop. They were falling back into the storm!
"Bail out!" Sonic croaked, and let go without further thought.
Tails caught him by one leg as he began to fall. Sonic looked up to see the young fox's tails spinning, holding them aloft. "Going somewhere?" Tails asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
Chapter 10: Casinopolis
The flight back took an hour. The two were shell-shocked and exhausted, and didn't speak much. Tails simply parachuted them down until the familiar airstrip and train station appeared below them. "Let's go to the hanger," the fox suggested. "We can rest there."
So they did. The two slept the rest of the afternoon in the warm, safe hanger as their bodies recovered.
Sonic awoke late that afternoon, thirsty and sore all over. He sat up and looked about. He had slept on a pile of taps in the corner, and Tails had taken the cot. But the cot was empty, and Tails was tinkering with a tired-looking red and white bi-plane across the room. Sonic stretched and yawned. Tails's head appeared between the wings. "Hi there, sleeping beauty! It's about time you woke up."
Sonic climbed to his feet. "I'm parched."
"There's a water dispenser over there," Tails said, pointing.
Sonic limped up to it (his knee was stiff and aching), took a paper cup from the rack near it and drank like a camel, refilling the cup over and over. "There," he said, wiping his mouth and dropping the cup into a trashcan, "I feel like facing the world again! What say we go back to Sapphire City? We could eat and stay in the hotel tonight."
"Sure," Tails replied from behind the plane. "See if you can get some tickets for the evening train. I'll finish up here in a second."
Sonic left the hanger and trotted down the stone steps to the area where they had battled Robotnik, limping a little on his knee. The gear from the Egg Hornet was still scattered about, and parked nearby was the unpainted bi-plane Tails had crashed. It had been towed back while they had been in Windy Valley.
The hedgehog paused as he entered the flat. He was closer, at this point, to the windy cave than the station. What had happened to the cave? Was the fan still on? He trotted toward the cave.
The wind inside it, while blowing a bit, was obviously not pulled along by the fan. There were two reasons for this, he found. One was that the stone 'trophy' had been taken from the stone platform, which had turned off the fan. The other was shown by the debris and fan blades scattered about under the shaft. The tornado must have reached the fan high above and destroyed it.
The hedgehog kicked at the wooden blades in slight contempt. What was the fan for, anyway? To suck up hapless victims? His scuffing feet turned over a blade that had part of the center joint attached to it, and something red glinted in the darkness. What in the world ...? He knelt and turned the joint over. To his surprise, embedded in the wood was the red chaos emerald. He touched it cautiously--the red emerald had been known to become flamingly hot without the presence of the other emeralds. But the gem's smooth surface was cool to the touch. Did it power the fan? Wow, no wonder it was so strong! Tails would be so happy--now he could work on his bi-plane. Maybe their trip to the Windy Valley had not been for nothing after all.
Sonic pried the emerald free and carried it to the safety of the hanger, then headed for the train station.
Tails was already there, waiting for him on the platform. He suggested that they eat dinner in Station Square before going anywhere else, as he was starving. Sonic agreed, bought two round-trip tickets, and settled back to wait for the five o' clock train.
* * *
As the orange sun sank into the ocean, a crimson echidna sat in the Station Square diner, munching fruit salad and watching the door of the Casino, just a few doors down the street. It opened at five-thirty.
Knuckles had failed to talk himself out of the shovel claws, and was intent on winning enough cash to buy them. He also had another motive for going into the Casino--he had discovered that the emerald sound was coming from inside.
As he gazed out the window at the busy rush-hour traffic, a small figure caught his eye. A Mobian. He looked closer--was a relief to see a Mobian in the sea of humans. It was a girl hedgehog with pink fur and a red dress. He spines were very soft-looking and hung about her face like human hair. She was running along the sidewalk as if in a hurry to get somewhere, ducking through the crowd. Knuckles watched her idly. She ran to the hotel doors on his far left and disappeared inside. He shrugged and returned to his meal. It had been a good while since he had seen a hedgehog. He thought of Sonic with a twinge of regret. They had been estranged through a misunderstanding a couple months back, and Knuckles missed him in a quiet sort of way. Too bad Sonic wasn't here. He'd think Sapphire City was fun.
* * *
Sonic and Tails arrived in Station Square at quarter 'til six, famished. Sonic was all for heading to the Casino and eating there, but Tails changed his mind by pointing out how expensive food would be. So they ate in the hotel dining room (Tails reserved a room for himself, next door to Sonic's), receiving a discount for being guests. Then, full and rested, they headed for the Casino.
The first thing to strike them as they walked in were the lights. There were lights everywhere; along the walls, bordering the carpet, all over the slot machines and car tables. The main room was circular with a high ceiling. Steps led down to a center dais with a statue that reached almost to the ceiling. The carpet was a rich red with gold borders. Spread evenly around the room were the vast entertainment displays. To their left was a huge elaborate fountain built into the wall, then rows and rows of slot machines. To their right was a vault for storing cash winnings, with slot machines beyond it. On the other sides of the slot machines were odd-looking booths that Sonic and Tails couldn't see much of. Their view of the opposite wall was blocked by the statue's base. It was a gorgeous place that breathed of money.
The two began to walk along the path, footsteps muffled by the lush carpeting, ears full of the babble of voices and music, eyes full of the colors and sparkling lights. It was difficult to take in all at once.
After a bit they came to a booth built into the wall. Signs around it proclaimed it to be '3-D Card and Pinball'. "Hey, this looks like fun," Sonic said. He had always had a weakness for pinball. He would have stepped into the booth, but Tails tugged at his arm. "Let's see what else there is, then come back."
"Okay." Sonic stepped back to read the advertisement on the wall, and tripped over something on the floor. "What the heck?" he muttered, climbing to his feet. It was what looked like a giant metal arrow with a rope tied to a loop at one end.
Tails identified it. "It's an anchor."
They followed the rope upward with their eyes, then gasped in wonder.
The anchor was attached to a full-sized clipper ship with all the rigging, suspended thirty feet above their heads. A bit of moving about bright the pirate flag into view. There was also another ship, higher up. There was an entire second floor up there. "Oh man," Sonic exclaimed. "Oh man!"
They stood and stared at the ceiling until a human boy walked up to them, looked at them closely, then walked away, shaking his head. Sonic realized how odd they looked and elbowed Tails. "C'mon," he murmured, "they think we're nuts."
"Oh," said Tails said faintly, tearing his eyes away. "I guess we do look kind of silly, huh?"
But as soon as they walked away, a figure leaped from its perch on the statue's head and glided, arms outstretched, to the deck of the pirate ship. His red fur and white crescent was plainly visible from below.
Knuckles had not seen Sonic and Tails. He was exploring the Casino in his own way, climbing walls, dodging anamatrons, watching humans play at the gambling tables. He had already had a turn at the slot machines and earned ten cents. It wasn't much, but he had felt the lure of gambling creeping up on him, so he had left the games to look about a bit.
He could not pinpoint the emerald shard's location. It was in the building somewhere, he was sure of it--but where was a mystery. He had already checked all the trash bins and cigarette trays, with no luck. Now, as he climbed to a precarious perch in the rigging of the ship, he gazed down at the crowded lobby with dismay. There were so many people, so many places a little fragment could hide! It rather stifled him. At least he was alone up on this display.
"Hey you!" a harsh voice snapped.
Knuckles looked about and saw a man in a dark green uniform standing on the deck below.
"You aren't supposed to be up there! Get down or out you go!"
The echidna glided neatly to the wide balcony of the second floor and landed. The human climbed down after him. "Act up any more and you'll find yourself facing the Boss," the security guard growled. "Stay off the displays!"
"All right already!" Knuckles snapped. "I get the picture. I'll stay off."
It wasn't until the guard walked away, however, that the echidna noticed the Keep Off signs posted everywhere.
* * *
Sonic and Tails followed a short hall off the lobby and found themselves in a lower room, filled with just as many lights, but considerably more noise. It didn't take long to figure out that this was the kids' casino, where the parents dropped them off. Everywhere were kids, playing with the numerous displays and roaring arcade games, all talking at the top of their lungs.
"Hey Tails," Sonic shouted above the bedlam, "you could stay here while I go earn some cash."
"Okay," Tails hollered back, "I'll come find you in a couple hours."
Thus the two parted temporarily.
Tails walked up to the counter where all the prizes were kept, to buy some tokens. He knew how these things worked; every time he won a game it spat out tickets. You used the tickets to buy the prizes. The more games the more tickets, and the more tickets the better a prize you could buy. As the clerk counted out twenty tokens, the fox's sharp eyes roamed the prizes, searching for one he would like. There were many flashy, albeit cheap, toys under the counter. He looked at the back wall. There were bikes, skis, and other sports equipment. As he took his tokens, a glint caught his eyes. He looked harder, then gasped--mounted on a shelf was the white chaos emerald! His eyes flashed to the price--3000 tickets. They must have known what it was or it wouldn't be there. Tails made for the skeeball course at a run.
* * *
The evening passed in a whirl of colors and lights. Sonic immersed himself in the slot machine/card/pinball games. Luck was with him that night, for he earned more cash than he spent. It was addictive. Even after he had earned enough to buy his shoes and Tails' jet anklets, he kept going, telling himself that he would stop after the next round, and the next ...
Knuckles' luck was not as good as Sonic's. He lost thirty-five of his seventy dollars at the roulette table. Embarrassed and discouraged, he stalked up to a slot machine and kicked it. To his surprise, out of the slot poured coins in handfuls, bucketfuls.
As it turned out, two hundred dollar's worth had been bestowed upon him. He placed it in the vault proudly, secretly glad he wouldn't have to gamble any more. It made him uncomfortable, somehow.
Tails played games like a maniac. He soon found which machines gave the most tickets, how many points gave how many tickets, etc. He wore tickets draped around his neck, carried wads in his palms, leaving two fingers free to manipulate game controls, everywhere he could possibly carry some.
Finally his watch beeped. 8:00. Time to take a break and find Sonic. First the young fox sat down and counted tickets. He had so many this took half an hour, counting by twos as fast as he could, but finally found that he had 3048 tickets. Not bad!
Tails swung by the counter as casually as a walking ticket display could and heaped them on it. "I have three thousand forty-eight tickets," he told the girl behind the counter.
"Wow," she said, eyeing the pile, "you worked hard tonight!" She took the tickets and put them in a basket on a scale. The screen blinked and read, '3045'. Close enough. "What would you like?" she asked.
Trying to sound casual and bored, Tails pointed to the chaos emerald. "That big white diamond."
She raised an eyebrow at him, but shrugged and took the emerald from its shelf, put it in a bag and gave it to him. Tails took it, fingers clumsy with excitement. He did it! He had won an emerald! He turned to leave, and as an afterthought turned back. "Can I have a soda?" He paid for it and departed, sucking at the straw thirstily. Now to have Sonic.
The hedgehog was immersed in a 3-D pinball game when Tails finally found him. "Sonic!" he said in greeting.
Sonic cocked an ear but didn't turn. He was wearing the headpiece strapped across his eyes and both hands gripped the flipper controls. "Hiya little bro. What's up?"
"Fine! I won the white emerald!"
Sonic's head turned toward Tails that time in surprise, and he lifted the headpiece from one eye. "You're kidding."
"Nope! Spent all night doing it! How have you done?"
Sonic replaced the headpiece. "Got seven hundred in the vault," he replied, jerking the paddle controls, "and another hundred scattered among the card tables."
"Cool! Is that enough?"
"Think so. You ready to go?"
"Yeah. I'm bushed, and the noise is getting on my nerves."
"Okay, just a minute."
* * *
As Sonic claimed his money, Knuckles climbed up on the base of the brass statue in the middle of the room. Now that he had enough cash to buy the shovel claws, he was after the emerald fragment. He cocked his head as he stood on the base. It was definitely louder here. He examined the top of the base, turned up nothing, and began to look at the statue itself. There was a large crack in one of its feet, and--was it just the light, or was something glowing inside?
* * *
Sonic and Tails were just stepping out the doors into the warm, quiet night, when from behind them came a colossal cracking sound. The two whirled and looked through the glass doors to see the brass statue crack, crumble and fall into a huge pile of rubble
on the high base.
* * *
Silence descended on the casino as every eye focused on the wreckage. Knuckles stood in the midst of the rubble, visible to everyone. He hadn't known it would break when he tried to widen the crack a bit. Now he stood, hotly embarrassed, face cherry red, wishing he could melt through the floor.
Security guards converged on the scene.
* * *
"Hey, isn't that Knuckles?" Sonic asked, squinting. "I think it is!"
Tails stood beside him, trying to see, the emerald forgotten in one hand.
There was a sudden whirr and a hot rush of exhaust, and the two were knocked off the pavement into the street. The gem went flying from Tails' hand. The two righted themselves in bewilderment, and found themselves facing Robotnik, sitting smugly in his little hovercraft.
Tails realized his hands were empty and spied the white emerald lying on the pavement a few yards away. "The chaos emerald!" the exclaimed, diving for it. Sonic followed him, afraid Robotnik would see the emerald.
But alas, they were too late. The hovercraft zipped between Sonic, Tails and the emerald. The two nearly smacked into the metal hull. As they caught themselves, Robotnik roared, "Oh no you don't!" A purple gas sprayed from the vents in the front of the hovercraft, giving the hedgehog and fox a lungful. At the same time, a tiny beam appeared from the belly of the craft and sucked up the emerald.
"I feel funny," Tails murmured, reeling to the curb and sitting down. Sonic remained standing, watching Robotnik defiantly through dimming eyes. "Eggman," he groaned, then toppled slowly to the ground. In a moment, Sonic and Tails were both snoring heavily.
"Fools," Robotnik laughed at them. "Fortunately for you it was merely sleeping gas and not one of my compounds! I have a date in the hotel ... sleep well!"
Chapter 11: Knuckles and Tikal
Knuckles was clapped in handcuffs and dragged by burly guards through a small side door, down a surprisingly dingy hall and into a spacious, luxurious office with a roulette table in the corner.
A human dressed in a black suit and tie was seated at the desk, reading a paper which he laid face-down as they entered. He stood. He was tall, had shiny black hair, black eyes and a hooked nose. His features could have been chiseled out of stone for all the emotion they displayed. Knuckles felt himself shrink under the glare of the glittering eyes.
One of the guards barked out Knuckles' crime. The man listened, motionless and expressionless, gazing always at the echidna. "What should we do with him, boss?" the guard finished.
Knuckles half expected the Boss to suggest something like a long walk off a short pier. Instead, the man deliberately reseated himself, waved a hand and drawled, "Throw him in the trash."
The garbage chute was long, dark and slippery. After a fast slide and a short drop, Knuckles found himself on a heap of trash; rotten food, greasy paper, empty cups, old beer cans and other nasty things. The smell was remarkable in it's potency.
Knuckles slid off the heap and looked about. He stood in a vast circular room full of garbage, chutes entering it every few feet. On the far wall was a large closed door, probably where trucks hauled away the rubbish. Here and there were a few weak light bulbs, and around them clustered every species of fly and gnat ever invented. There seemed to be no way out.
"That guy was a crime lord if I ever saw one," Knuckles said into the thick air. "I wonder if I'm supposed to die down here." He had too much fight in him for that--he would dig out through a wall.
Suddenly it dawned on him--the emerald sound was very loud down here. Of course--it was in the trash like everything else! The statue must be directly overhead. Almost laughing, he moved toward the sound, kicked aside a thin layer of trash and picked up a green chunk as big as his fist.
As his fingers curled around it, a small pink ball of light appeared out of nowhere and flew right into his face. Thinking it was a firefly of some kind, he swatted at it. Then the light dazzled him, and he shielded his eyes.
Just like that he was no longer in the casino. He was standing on a high green wall under a blue, cloudless sky. Blinking and bewildered, he stared about him. Before him, towering into the sky, was a huge step-pyramid with large carven stairs running down it's four sides. To the left and right of it were other stone buildings, but they were not as impressive as the pyramid. Here and there burned great fires, screened by trees. Around the great paved foot of the pyramid were echidnas, running to and fro, frantically busy.
"I'm in the past!" Knuckles exclaimed. This was his people in their prime, as they had been a thousand years ago. Was it a dream? Could they see him? He climbed down the wall to find out.
As he neared the hurrying echidnas, he saw they were not just civilians; these were warriors, strong and heavily built, decorated with white warpaint that set off their red or magenta fur. Some wore belts or necklaces of jewels and gold. All carried some weapon--spears, bows and quivers of arrows, swords. To his shock, some even carried firearms. The technology of gunpowder had not been lost, it seemed.
They could see him. They glared at him, sneered or bared their fangs. One advanced up to him--a warrior not much older than himself--and punched him in the chest with the butt of his spear. Knuckles, unprepared, stumbled backward, gasping. The warrior laughed. "Where's your armor? Are you afraid to join your betters, or are you too young to leave mama?"
Breath or no breath, that was an insult. Knuckles landed an uppercut that knocked the warrior to the pavement.
Instantly a ring of onlookers formed around them. The warrior leaped to his feet, spear in hand. "Prepare to defend yourself!"
"I'm gonna give it to you, jerk!" Knuckles snarled, and the fight was on.
Knuckles had not had such a battle since Hyper Sonic. The young warrior had all of his peers watching and a reputation to maintain. Knuckles had only his honor and possibly his hide to worry about. But Knuckles won anyway.
He stood over the young warrior, spear in hand, the head poised just over the warrior's chest. A hush fell over the onlooking crowd. Should he kill this upstart to show them he was one of them? He glanced at the wall of eyes and realized what he was doing--he was making a name for himself among his own ancestors. How foolish could he be?
Knuckles drove the spear into the ground at the warrior's side and turned away. The echidnas parted respectfully to let him pass.
Knuckles stalked away toward the far side of the pyramid, wiping a bit of blood from his lip as he went. Echidnas were every bit as argumentative as himself. No wonder they were all warriors.
Abruptly a thought came to him. Were they preparing for a battle? Was that why all the warriors were about? He stopped and looked about him. Yes, those fires were burning on altars--pre-war sacrifices. Obviously they had stopped worshipping the One God and worshipped the god of snakes and chaos. Was the the civilization that had vanished? Maybe he could find out.
A few more minutes of walking brought him to a park-like area leading to the front of the pyramid. Standing off at a distance were two echidnas, dressed quite differently from the warriors. They seemed to be talking. Knuckles approached, at once cautious and curious.
It was a young girl echidna, and a tall, old chief. The chief had a long scar that ran down the side of his face, and was decked with elaborate jewelry and furs. He wore a ceremonial mask, but this was shoved back on his head. His face glistened with sweat--it was hot under all those clothes. The girl was dressed in the skirt-and-jewel-bedecked blouse of a princess, and wore a blue gem in a band around her forehead. She was not very old--perhaps twelve or thirteen. She was speaking earnestly as Knuckles approached.
"Father, killing and stealing isn't right! It will never lead to peace! They are our brothers!"
The chief replied gruffly, "You are a young girl, Tikal. What do you know of affairs of state? It is our born right to access the palace and all it contains. The guardians have no right to hoard it from us. They think that we are outsiders, just because they have the Island and we don't."
"But father," Tikal said, clasping her hands together, "we have no right to invade their holy grounds. Can't you just talk to the guardian?"
Knuckles watched and listened to this, pondering. What time period was this? What was going on?
He blinked and looked around. The ancient afternoon had faded away, and he was standing on the sidewalk in front of the casino. In one hand he held the Master emerald shard. Had it been a dream? And if it had, how had he gotten out of the basement?
His train of thought was interrupted as he noticed two figures lying asleep on the asphalt. "Sonic?" he exclaimed, trotting toward them. Sonic was lying with his head pillowed against the curb, and Tails was lying beside him, curled up in the gutter. Both were snoring softly.
Knuckles thought of the bar he had seen inside the casino and felt immediate disgust. Were they passed-out drunk? He had never thought it of them! He whirled on his heel and stalked toward the hotel.
As an afterthought he detoured and climbed the wide back stairs that led to the train station. He needed to return to his island and put the fragments back in the Master emerald, but before then, he had a little present to buy himself.
The gift shop was still open, although it would close in an hour. A different clerk sat behind the counter, head bent over a novel. He looked up as Knuckles approached. "Good evening. What can I do for you?"
Knuckles tapped the glass case. "I'd like to buy the shovel claws." He watched with anticipation as the man pulled them from behind the counter, tore off the alarm beeper and rang it up. Knuckles paid for them proudly, took them and trotted out to the street.
The claws fit neatly over his knuclaws, the straps lashing across his palms. He cinched them tight, walked out to the beach and dug in the sand. Boy howdy, were these handy! In four seconds flat he had excavated a three foot hole and struck the water under the sand. He kicked dirt back over his hole and swung his fists a few times. This would be fun!
He had left his knapsack with his emeralds in the hotel behind the counter for safekeeping. He walked back to the hotel, shoved open the doors--
--and froze. Walking toward the elevators was the round, squat figure of Dr. Robotnik. Knuckles had not seen him in several years, but there was no mistaking that walk.
Something glinted in Robotnik's fist. Knuckles blinked; it must be one of the Master emerald fragments. No doubt the doctor had gotten wind of the Floating Island's crash and was after the shards, just like last time.
End of Part 1