Copyright notice: Sonic and other characters copyrighted by Sega. Jay, Robin, Hunter, Roofern and other characters copyrighted by K. M. Hollar.
By K. M. Hollar
The setting sun shown through the haze surrounding Robotropolis and gleamed dully on the Ultra SWAT-bot's metal body. It was cradling its blaster rifle in its hands, red eyes scanning the street. The lone sentry looked imposing enough for an entire squadron of regular SWAT- bots.
There was a faint rustle behind the robot. It started to turn, lifting its gun as it did so. But something crashed into its midsection, knocking it over backward onto the pavement. Whatever had hit it landed on its head, crushing it in. The robot sparked a little, then went off- line.
Sonic the Hedgehog stood up, dusting his gloved hands off against his sides. He looked around warily, for SWAT-bots were common in that sector. He saw and heard nothing. His gaze shifted to the high barbed- wire fence about thirty feet away. It was fully eight feet high, and the spike-studded wire at the top gleamed red in the fading light. Sonic figured he could climb it, but the razor-wire would be a problem. Oh well, he thought. His hands strayed to his waist and his fingers tightened around his invisible belt. He let go and started forward. He wouldn't use the belt just yet.
He advanced to the foot of the fence and again peered around. Everything was quiet and deserted. Was it just his imagination, or was it TOO quiet? Almost ominous. Sonic shook his head, then looked up at the fence. His hands went to his belt again. This time he crossed his wrists against the front of the belt, then snapped them across its jewel-studded surface and around behind him. His dark blue (which had made him nearly invisible in the failing light) changed suddenly to a glowing, pulsing light, alternating many colors. He stepped forward, then leaped straight up in the air. He went up nine feet, cleared the top of the fence and came down lightly on the far side. Quickly he rubbed one hand over the belt, de-charging himself. His glow faded back out.
Sonic stood there, crouched a little, looking and listening once more, almost fearfully. This was the one time he didn't want any robots around to chase him. The mission was too serious. No movement or sound of any kind. Quietly he started forward at an easy lope, looking around.
Robotnik and Packbell had been constructing a new line of power generators. These didn't burn fossil fuels like the other factories. These were nuclear. And nuclear power plants in Robotropolis was bad news. If Robotnik lived up to his usual track record of absolutely no safety precautions, then the city and surrounding countryside would have radioactive pollution inside of a month. It would eventually spread to the Great Forest, killing everyone like some disease epidemic.
And the only time the generators could safely be taken out was now. If any earlier, then it would be a simple matter to rebuild the ruins. Any later and the freedom fighters would run the risk of causing a nuclear meltdown. So it had to be done NOW. And this is why Sonic was exercising more than the usual caution. His life and the lives of his friends depended on his success this night.
The skeleton of the main plant and its outlying buildings came into view, outlined starkly against the orange and red sky. Sonic paused just outside the biggest building, one hand on a mental beam, for another look around. The stillness was almost uncanny. It was beginning to get on his nerves. He had been in traps before, and usually would have been challenged by now. But his searching senses told him nothing. Wishing he had brought an area scanner, he ventured into the maze of metal beams and struts that made up the base of the building.
Walking delicately so as not to make any unnecessary sound, Sonic wove his way over the cement, keeping an eye out for hanging rebar or exposed wires. They had a way of sneaking up on you in the darkness. He couldn't help looking around constantly, especially behind him. It was too much like a trap to be one.
But he reached the central fuel station unmolested. Jumpier than a cricket on a hot skillet, but definitely there. The pump was a giant fuel cylinder, six feet high and surrounded with pipes of all shapes and sizes. Sonic deftly edged his way in among them, glad for a little cover. The noise of the pump made him nervous, though; he couldn't listen for approaching footsteps. He glanced all around the structure again, then, almost satisfied that nobody was around, detached the charges from his belt. It would take a moment of concentration to get them set up. Then he could get out of there with all the speed he could muster.
Somehow though, he couldn't seem to focus on what he was doing. He kept seeing things move out of the corners of his eyes, but nothing was there when he peered around. The twilight was playing tricks on him. It was also making his adrenaline rush. Sweating, he gritted his teeth and told himself he wouldn't look up again until the charges and detonator were set.
His hands moving expertly, Sonic clipped the round explosives on the surface of the pump two feet apart. But in the growing darkness he was having trouble attaching the detonator. It just wouldn't--quite-- stay--
No sound, no warning of any kind. A hand clamped down on the spikes on the back of his head and yanked his head back. Sonic gasped and dropped the charge in his hands, then started to struggle. The cold snout of a blaster pistol nosed against his ribs, and an equally cold voice said, "Don't move, Sssonic."
"Mecha!" Sonic said, his heart beginning to race.
"Yes," the robot replied without moving his hand or the gun. "Put your hands on your head--slowly. If you have a weapon, drop it."
Sonic slowly raised his hands. Mecha Sonic holstered his gun, but retained his grip on Sonic's quills as he stepped over to the generator, pulled off the charges and pocketed them. Then he said, "Hedgehog, it would be wise of you not to struggle. I am inclined to kill you right here for trying this."
Sonic felt a cold terror run over him. He was _captured_!
Mecha spoke into his all-robot intercom, calling what sounded like an army of SWAT-bots. Sonic stared around as robot after robot appeared, stepping out from behind metal beams, or coming on-line from the cover of stacked construction material. The place was literally swarming with robots; a trap. It was all a trap, set by Mecha Sonic. And of course, like the fool I am, Sonic thought, I walked right into it.
He found himself thinking of his friends. When would they find out what happened? What would they do? How would Serena take it? What would happen to the freedom fighters without him? Almost despairing, he let his enemy lead him out of the skeleton building and out into the open. As they did several floodlights came on, bathing the area in harsh unnatural light. Sonic, blinking and squinting, saw the SWAT-bots pouring into the enclosed area from all corners of Robotropolis. There were hundreds of them. Sonic watched them with a sinking heart. "I'm doomed," he thought.
And indeed he might have been, if the robots hadn't gotten so eager. Some of the U-SWATs pressed forward, wanting a glimpse of 'Priority Hedgehog.' They jostled against Mecha, who in turn stumbled against Sonic. The robot was too annoyed to notice the faint chink he made against Sonic's hip, but Sonic did. He glanced down and suddenly remembered his belt. One of the emeralds had grated against the robot, temporarily activating it. Sonic's color turned a little, a very little less blue, then faded out. Suddenly all his confidence returned. He regained his composure and stood waiting. He would have a chance to break free, he was sure. All he had to do was wait.
The SWAT-bots kept milling around like a bunch of little kids, watching 'Priority Hedgehog.' Mecha seemed irritated and muttered, "I told Packbell not to give them artificial intelligence ... I told him it would only be trouble ... " Sonic slyly looked over his shoulder at his distracted captor. Metal Sonic wasn't as alert as he should have been; the other robots kept transmitting questions to him, and trying to answer and watch Sonic at the same time frustrated him.
It was during on of these intervals Sonic went into action.
He carefully lowered his hands, crossed them against the front of his belt, and rapidly pulled them back. The emeralds blazed into effect, pouring their power into Sonic's body. The energy had a negative effect on Mecha, however, who was still holding him. The robot let go and leaped back, favoring his electrocuted hand. Sonic charged away with a laugh and darted into the ranks of SWAT-bots.
Now, something strange was taking place. Sonic's furious light blended with, or matched perfectly, the light from the floodlights. So, to the robots, he had taken on an indefinite form. No lines, no shadows, only a vague motion through their midst. They spun, trying to follow him with their crosshairs and only succeeding in blasting each other. In the bedlam, no one noticed the patch of light vault over the fence and disappear into the dark city streets.
"What do you mean, you got caught and had to abort?" Sally demanded.
"Sal, I had to. Mecha was there, and--"
"But Sonic, you should have been able to plant the charges anyhow!"
The brown squirrel stepped back and collapsed into a chair. Her face registered shock. She, Slasher and Bookshire had spent two weeks planning and timing the mission. Sonic should have been able to get in, set the charge and get out with no problems. The freedom fighters had been confident that if there was any trouble, Sonic should be able to buck it long enough to finish. But no. Here he was in Sally's hut, thirty minutes gone, mission failed.
"Sally, it wasn't like usual. Mecha had set a trap--"
"Sonic," Sally interrupted, "do you realize that because you failed, we could all die? It will take weeks for their guard to go down again, and by the time we can arrange a new mission the plant will be up and running."
Sonic stood there a moment. He knew exactly how serious it was, but the memory of Mecha put him on the defensive. "Sal, it wasn't my fault! Mecha knew I was coming. He almost--"
Sally lifted a hand. "Sonic, it doesn't matter." She was nearly crying with disappointment. "Go find Slash and tell her I need her." She turned away from him. Sonic watched her helplessly, then turned on his heel and walked outside.
It was a warm, mid-June night. The kind of night all the crickets are going full blast, and the fireflies flash like scattered neon lights. Sonic hardly noticed. His mind was in a turmoil of humiliation, fear and anger. Anger at Metal Sonic for making him fail, anger at himself for failing, anger at Robotnik for installing nuclear power plants. How could this happen? Had he really doomed them all to die of radiation diseases?
He strode through the village, not really caring where he went, eyes burning dangerously. He felt as if he would break down and cry. Or he needed to fight somebody. Or maybe he needed to run and run and run and get it out of his system. Or maybe just find Slasher. She would understand, and maybe they could salvage the mission somehow. At this thought his quick, determined stride faltered and slowed. He had nearly reached the woods on the far side of Knothole. Noticing this for the first time, he turned and headed back up the line of huts toward Slasher's.
He was halfway there when somebody behind him said, "Sonie has a lot on his mind tonight, hasn't he?"
Sonic gritted his teeth and kept walking.
"Whassamatter, Sonic? Meet a SWAT-bot you couldn't race?"
Just go away, Sonic thought. I can't put up with your nagging tonight.
But like all jealous rivals, Spike did not. He stayed right behind Sonic, an obnoxious sneer on his face. Torturing the hedgehog was one of his favorite pastimes.
"Oh, I know what's eating you. You blew that mission you had."
Sonic felt the resentment rising, but fought it, trying not to answer. A sharp retort was what Spike wanted.
The porcupine continued. "I guess it was just too tough for Mister Macho. I heard you. You let Metal Sonic win ..."
Sonic whirled around. "Spike, I'm not in the mood for this. Just leave me alone, okay?"
He turned and kept walking, but Spike was undaunted. "Whoa, touchy touchy. What's your problem?"
You, Sonic thought.
"I'm not the one who doomed all the freedom fighters to die in nuclear holocaust. I'm not the one who's all speed and no--"
"Shut up!" Sonic snarled, turning to face his rival. "Just shut up! I don't want to hear it!"
He whirled and ran the last twenty feet to Slasher's hut, but couldn't avoid hearing Spike's parting shot: "Couldn't take it, could you? Ha! Hyper-Wimp!"
Sonic burst into Slasher's hut, fury incarnate. He slammed the door and leaned back against it, panting. It took him a full thirty seconds to notice Slasher and Knuckles seated at the smallish table, open books in various positions before them. Knux didn't stir from what he was reading, but Slasher looked up with a start. "Sonic! What's wrong?"
He strode across the room and flopped on the thread-bare sofa before answering. "Spike," he said, eyes blazing. "He was needling me again." Slasher jumped up, opened the door and looked out, but the street was empty. "He's gone, Slash," Sonic said. "He knows you'd scold him for it."
Slasher walked over to him. "What was he saying this time?"
Sonic looked up at her dully, the fire dying out of his eyes. He waved her closer, and whispered in her ear, "I botched up my mission."
Slasher pulled away sharply. "You didn't."
Sonic looked away and nodded.
The big velociraptor stood and looked at him a moment, then sank down on the couch beside him. "How?" was all she said. Sonic told her briefly what had happened, his voice lowered so Knux wouldn't hear. "Well," she said when he finished, "I wouldn't say it was your fault. Mecha must have gotten wind of our attack. How did Sally take it?"
"She sent me to get you."
"Oh. That bad, huh? Stay here, I guess. You can work with him, if you want," she finished, jerking her head in Knuckles's direction. "I'll be back in a little bit."
Sonic stayed on the sofa a few minutes after she left, eyes fixed unseeingly on the door. He was awakened by Knuckles mumbling, "Oh, good grief ... I don't believe it."
"What?" Sonic asked, glad for the interruption in his apocalyptic thoughts. Knux glanced up. "Oh, hi Sonic. Have you ever studied the history of the Floating Island? Blow your mind, man."
Sonic sat down at the table. It was stacked with books; some new and shiny, others old and worn, but most opened to some strategic spot. Knuckles was reading from an especially large volume with great interest.
"Hey Sonic, remember those guys we've been studying?"
"You mean YOU'VE been studying."
"The time--uh--shredders or cutters or something."
"What you said."
"Well, did you know they originated in the year A.D. 800? That's a long time ago, man."
"Yeah. No kidding."
"Know what else? Here, read this part right here." Knuckles slid the heavy book across the table to Sonic and pointed at a few paragraphs. Sonic scanned them without interest. A few words caught and registered. "Manufactured the Master emerald ... Mount Titan ... Floating Island ... Little Planet saved ..."
"Wow," said Sonic disinterestedly.
Knuckles looked up at him, sensing Sonic's mind was elsewhere. "Whassamatter, buddy?"
"Oh, nothing, Knux."
"You want to help me study?"
"You sure? You and Serena are next up, ya know."
"I know. I just don't feel like it tonight."
Knuckles shrugged and returned his attention to the book. After a moment, Sonic got up and walked out.
The peace and quiet of the nearby woods seemed to draw him. Sonic wasn't one for much night wandering, but this night he was so distracted he needed a change. He wouldn't be able to sleep for a while, anyway. He strode into the woods.
The stillness of the night was soothing to his troubled mind. He walked through the trees, trying not to make as much noise as 'an army of robot centipedes', as Slasher said. He was doing better, although the crunching of his feet sounded out of place and unnaturally loud.
He walked for a long time, not really caring where he went or how late it was getting. The dark under the trees was brightened a bit by moonlight spilling through the leaves overhead, creating weird patterns of light and dark on the ground and brush.
At last his progress was checked as he came up against a huge boulder set in the trees. After a moment he recognized it as one of the huge granite slabs that ringed the lake, around three miles from Knothole. He hadn't come very far, after all. After a moment of consideration, he climbed the huge rock and sat on top of it.
The moon was high overhead. Little Planet was just rising in the east; a rare sight, as it was hardly ever in the present aside from it's yearly appearance over Never Lake, further north. Sonic watched it, head in his hands. Idly he thought how much he wished he could use the time stones there to come back to today and do it all over again. Make it right.
Little Planet had risen half a fist above the horizon when Sonic heard the sound. It sounded like laser fire at first, then dropped to a low, steady hum. Startled, Sonic jumped to his feet. Was it a robot attack? Had they discovered Knothole? What was happening? He turned toward the village, but the sound wasn't coming from there. No, it was around the boulder somewhere.
He slid off the rock and stood quiet, listening. The sound seemed to come from the far side of the rock. Warily he crept around the boulder's rough side, body tensed to run at a moment's notice. Carefully he leaned against the rock's side and peered around it. But instead of the robots he expected to see, all he saw was a faint blue glow lighting up the trees. It was coming from the side of the boulder.
Curious, Sonic stepped into the open. He saw what looked like a brilliant blue thread running vertically across the rock. The hum seemed to be coming from it. Sonic stood there, transfixed, as the hum got louder and the thread widened into a three foot indigo crack. A rift. A chilly wind gusted out, whipping his face and filling him with a strange, joyous apprehension. What was this?
A dark figure appeared out of nowhere, leaping though the crevasse. Sonic jumped back, startled. The person was shorter than he was, but with his eyes dazzled by the blue light he couldn't see his face. The figure turned and pointed at the blue rip, which closed up and vanished instantly. Then he stood still, crouched a little, one arm held before him.
Sonic blinked, shook his head and looked again. Was this a dream? No, the figure was still there. As Sonic's eyes adjusted to the dark, he was able to make out what the figure was. A short, lightly built echidna, like Knuckles. He appeared to be a dark red all over, like Knux, but with shorter hair. There was something glowing on his wrist, like a screen of some sort. As Sonic noticed this, he also noticed the belt around the stranger's waist. It was studded with many strange contraptions, some of which held blinking red and green lights. An oddly shaped gun hung at his hip.
It took a few seconds for Sonic to take all this in. The stranger stood motionless the whole time, eyes and other hand on the thing on his wrist. Sonic ventured, "Uh, hi."
"Don't talk to me," the stranger snapped. Sonic stepped back, rebuffed. "Boy, what a grouch," he thought. His first instinct was to turn and walk away, but curiosity kept him rooted to the spot. The voice had betrayed the person's age; he was just a kid, about Tails's age. Who was he, and what was that blue rip-thing?
After a moment the kid shook his hair out of his face and straightened up. "Sorry," he said, "but you should never interrupt a Time Ripper while they're confirming their coordinence." He extended a hand. "Hi. My name's Jay."
Slightly stunned, Sonic took his hand and shook it. "Hi, I'm Sonic. Did you say you're a Time Ripper?"
"Oh man. One of my friends has been studying about you."
Jay cocked his head to one side. "Oh really? That's nice. Have you?"
"N--no. I'm next, though."
"Oh. Well, now you can say you've met one in person. Hey, did you say your name was Sonic? As in, Sonic the Hedgehog?"
Jay's eyes lit up. "Boy, that was easy! I was supposed to come and find you!"
"We need your help, that's why."
"Yeah. Us T.R.s. You're the only person in the history that can help us."
Jay turned, drew his gun and pointed it at the rock. The gun clicked feebly. He gulped and smiled weakly. "Oops. I forgot to set it on recharge. Sorry. We'll have to wait a few minutes."
He sat down on the ground and folded his legs Indian-style. Sonic sat down facing him. "Aren't you a little young to be a Time Ripper?" he ventured, marveling at the name as he spoke it. Jay looked at him. "Well, aren't YOU a little young to be a Freedom Fighter?" Sonic had to admit he had a point there.
Jay looked down at the gun in his arms. "I am young, kinda," he said. "But my dad and older brother are T.R.s, and I helped them for a while. I've only been a full-fledged 'Ripper about a month; I had to win my equipment." He lifted his arms and proudly surveyed the decked- out belt around his waist. "It wasn't easy, but I did it."
As he moved a stray beam of moonlight touched his chest, revealing the mark. Sonic stared at it. "Hey," he said, pointing.
"What?" Jay asked, looking around, then down at himself. "Do I got a bug on me or something?"
"No ... you have a white crescent on your chest."
"Knuckles has that same mark."
"No kidding. Is he a 'Ripper?"
"Uh, no. He's the Guardian of the Floating Island."
Jay leaned forward, eyes wide. "The Floating Island? It exists? It's really real?"
"Oh gosh ... he's not crazy, then! Man, you gotta come with me." Jay jumped to his feet. "The gun's about charged. Okay, Dad said to be sure I warned you. First, you won't be able to see in the rip. You won't even be able to see me, but you have to hold my hand as hard as you can and never let go." He sucked in a breath. "Second, as soon as we get out of the rip, you have to be perfectly quiet. The Enemy is everywhere, and they want to intercept us and kill us and keep us from getting home." He gasped again. "Understand?"
Sonic nodded, suddenly unsure as to how much he wanted to do this. He turned toward Knothole. "But my friends ..."
"Oh, they'll never know you were gone. I'll bring you back to the instant we left. Now come ON. They'll be worried about me."
Jay whirled and fired his gun at the rock. There was the sound Sonic had heard before--the laser blast, then low hum that made the air vibrate. At first nothing seemed to have happened. Sonic looked closer at the rock, curious, and noticed the thin blue thread running down the rock's face. After a moment it widened into a three-foot crack with jagged edges. The expanse beyond it was a deep blue, shimmering and shifting. Sonic looked down at the kid incredulously. "You mean we just jump in, no special gear or anything?"
Jay gave him a superior look. "Sure. The rip won't hurt you--it's part of the fourth dimension, for crying out loud. We already live in it; it just takes a little skill to navigate. C'mon, before it closes."
Jay grabbed Sonic's hand and pulled him toward the blue light. Sonic gripped his hand back, fear of the unknown knotting his stomach, like how one feels at the top of a roller coaster. Jay shouted something like, "Here we go," and the warp closed in.
Sonic felt as if he had went blind. He could feel Jay's grip on his hand and wrist and the force of travelling forward at great speed, but he could see nothing. Nothing but the sparkling blue expanse, like moving inside a diamond. There was sound, something like a tremendous wind, so loud it was almost silent. Sonic was out of control, unable to see, move or think. He couldn't even see Jay, even though he was only a foot or so to the right. It was not fun.
But the warp didn't last long. After another moment he felt Jay tug him sideways and down. He automatically looked in that direction. To his relief there was a break in the endless blue; a brilliant white patch. They sank toward it, and Jay called faintly, "And we're out!"
The next moment they plunged into the light, leaving the rip behind. But instead of light, Sonic's bewildered eyes registered only darkness. His feet touched solid ground, allowing him to stand. It was deathly silent after the noise of the warp. Suddenly afraid he was alone, he reached out and said, "Jay?" His hand intercepted the other's arm, which pulled away. "Don't talk to me," came the snapped reply.
We must be somewhere, Sonic thought, relaxing a little.
Slowly his eyes adjusted. He wasn't blind--just messed up. Still dazzled by the warp, it took a little time to realize it wasn't pitch dark. It was evening; in the woods. He looked around. Was it the Great Forest? It had to be. But--it was different, somehow. The trees were tall, arching into the cornflower-blue sky overhead. The woods were older, hardly any saplings or undergrowth. Was this the future?
The setting sun slanted through the trees in deep red beams. Sonic shook his head a little, then turned and looked at Jay. The echidna was adjusting his instruments again, eyes on the screen at his wrist. In the increased light, Sonic could see the kid's hands bore the knuckle-spikes Knuckles's did, although considerably smaller. His overall color was closer to magenta that solid red. His hair was cropped short and stuck up a bit in front. The dirty white sneakers on his feet looked a little too big, and the laces were knotted in several places, as if they had broken.
Jay straightened up, looked around the woods, then up at Sonic. "Well, we're here."
Sonic nodded, puzzled. "Uh-huh, but where is 'here'? The future?"
"Oh no. This is the past from your time. 800 to be exact."
The year 800. Why did that date ring a bell?
"But these woods are bigger than ours. Sure this ain't the future?"
"Nope. If it was, I'd get my rear kicked out of the Time Rippers for inaccuracy."
A short pause. Jay looked around again, drew a deep breath and dropped his voice to a whisper. "We'd better get outta here. The Enemy is everywhere, you know." He started off into the trees at a lope. Sonic followed uneasily.
"Whaddya mean, the Enemy?"
Jay looked at him and pressed a finger to his lips. "Shh, not so loud. The Enemy. They call themselves the Time Terrorists--a spoof on our name. They want to destroy and rule."
"But who are they?"
"They have representative from most species. Allies are everywhere."
Sonic swallowed and clenched one hand tightly around his emerald belt. This didn't sound so good.
Jay kept his eyes fixed on the forest ahead, but muttered to Sonic, "You think your Dr. Robotnik and Packbell are bad? The Enemy makes them look about as scary as Barney is compared to a charging Tyrannosaurus Rex."
"I hope you're exaggerating."
This REALLY didn't sound good.
"What do you need me for?"
"Shh. Because you have experience with--" Jay hesitated, looked around at the darkening woods, then moved closer to Sonic. "The power emeralds," he finished in a whisper.
Sonic pulled away and looked at him, confused. "But Knux, the guy with the crescent, he knows how to use 'em better'n I can. I'm just a rookie, still."
Jay looked down, then up at Sonic. "You don't understand. We can't use somebody from our family clan. It would disrupt the Spacetime Continuum or something. Besides, Dad said I was to bring back Sonic the Hedgehog, nobody else."
They kept walking. The sun had settled completely now, and the sky was the deep blue-green color of evening. Sonic noticed they were heading south, toward what would eventually become Robotropolis. He poked Jay in the ribs. "Hey kid, when do we get out of the woods?"
"You know, hit the plains."
Jay looked at him like he was crazy. "Plains? What plains? The whole valley is forested."
Sonic shut up, trying to figure that one out. Trees grew and spread, he knew. But if this was the past, the Great Forest should be the Small Woods, if they existed at all. Part of him kept assuming it was the future, but no, Jay had said it was the past. The year 800. Why did that date seem so familiar? He couldn't quite put his finger on it ...
"Are you scared?"
"Who, me? Naw. I just can't figure out how the trees fit, is all."
"What about 'em?"
"In my time the forest is smaller, and most of the valley is flat plains."
Jay shrugged, unconcerned. "Give it a rest, pal. My time and your time are separated by two and a half millennium. Anything could happen 'tween now and then."
They lapsed into silence again. Suddenly Jay stopped walking and grabbed Sonic's arm. "Listen." Sonic did, and heard nothing but the chirping of the birds in the trees overhead.
Jay pointed, his breath beginning to come fast and noisy with fear. "A jet-speeder. It's coming this way."
"Only the Enemy uses jet-speeders. Run!"
The echidna whirled and ran. Sonic followed, heart beginning to race. It must be pretty awful if it scared a tough kid like Jay so badly. It was almost like how he feared Metal Sonic, back home. He thought of his own episode earlier in Robotropolis. His friends had basically called him a coward for running for his life. So what was he doing now?
The thought sobered him, squelching out the fear. The wound to his pride and courage was still fresh. Anger at himself welled up to the surface, drowning out the fact that maybe they SHOULD run. After all, he was still wearing his emerald belt. No fear!
He caught up to Jay in three steps, grabbed him by the arm and dove to the ground behind a fallen log. Jay tried to pull away, but Sonic pushed him down. "Take it from an expert, Jay, don't run from the enemy. They might not even know we're here. Be quiet and maybe they'll go on by."
Jay shook his head, eyes wide, but Sonic clamped his hand down over his mouth and hissed, "Shh." And the two lay still in the bushes, panting quietly and listening.
The jet-speeder's engine had a high-frequency whine that announced it's presence in advance. It was a few minutes before the lower hum reached their ears as well. Jay was lying propped up on his elbows. At first Sonic thought he was just panting hard, but after a moment saw he was hyperventilating; trembling in absolute terror. "They'll find us," he whimpered. "They're gonna kill us--"
"Shh!" Sonic snarled.
At that instant the speeder's engines rose to a roar and bore down on them. It was closer than Sonic had thought; it's easy hum was disorienting. A harsh, nasal voice called, "Halt Time Ripper surrender or die!"
Jay looked at Sonic and whispered, "They got a lock on my equipment!"
Sonic looked back helplessly. Maybe they should have run. The speeder's engines cut to an idle, then stopped. It was only a few feet away from where they sat. They heard the sound of two heavy feet stepping down onto the forest floor, then walk slowly in their direction.
"Get up," the harsh voice snapped. Jay and Sonic looked at each other helplessly, then slowly climbed to their feet.
Their captor was a grey wolf. He wore black leather boots, a black leather jacket, a spiked collar around his neck, and a black belt with a golden buckle on it. He held a sort of blaster pistol in one hand. He sneered at them as they stood up, showing his white fangs. "Well well well," he said, training his gun on them. "What have we here? I believe I've found a couple of scared rabbits, hidin' here in the bushes."
Sonic tossed a sideways glance at Jay. Jay was staring at the wolf, a horrified expression on his face. "Not Roofern, oh please not Roofern," he murmured.
The wolf grinned at him nastily. "Nice to see you, too." The sneer faded from his face. He raised one rough paw and pointed at Jay. "Hey, I know you. You're Mike's kid, aincha?" Jay swallowed and said nothing. Roofern slowly smiled. "I'll bet he'd give anything to keep you from gettin' hurt." He gripped the gun with both hands. "Good thing for you, kid, I'm in a good mood. You know what we do to Time Rippers, don't you?" Sonic looked at Jay, who didn't answer. The wolf bared his teeth. "Take off your gear and hand it over, kid."
Jay didn't move.
Instantly Roofern squeezed the trigger. A blue laserbolt struck through the air and hit Jay, knocking him over backward. He curled up in pain, instinctively clutching at his chest.
Sonic stared at him, then up at the wolf. "Hey!" he yelped. "You can't do that!"
The wolf gave him a look that said 'drop dead' and growled, "Help me take him in and you might live to see tomorrow. Or you can leave. Ha, you could fight me for him, too. What's it gonna be?"
Sonic looked down at the youngster at his feet, who looked as if he were going fast. He looked up at Roofern. Walk away, help or fight. Suddenly, in his mind, he saw the wolf as Metal Sonic and Jay as Tails. His decision would be set in stone then; it would be no different now.
A white fury gripped him, igniting his eyes with fire. Without a sound or warning of any kind, he bounded over the log and tackled the wolf.
Roofern was off guard, expecting Sonic to walk away. The scuffle was brief, but fierce. Sonic didn't hang around with Knuckles and Slasher without learning a few things. He worked the wolf over, both fists going like pistons. At last the wolf dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Sonic stepped over to Jay, hot with battle but deathly afraid of what he would find. He knelt beside the red echidna, noticing how he was curled in the fetal position. His eyes were closed. Hesitantly Sonic touched him. He was still breathing, thankfully. Sonic pulled away one of his hands away for a look at the wound. To his surprise, there was nothing--not even a mark. Slowly it dawned on him; it had been a stunner the wolf carried, not a blaster. Jay was fine, simply unconscious.
Sonic sat there and looked at him, thinking. He glanced over his shoulder at the fallen wolf. He really didn't want to be around when he woke up, but without Jay, he had no idea where they were supposed to go. Well, they needed to get away from Roofern, anyway.
Sonic carefully picked up Jay in his arms and moved about twenty feet into the woods. He knew the wolf would probably leave without checking the immediate area--SWAT-bot sentries did. They assumed that if you were gone when they woke up, you were long gone.
Sonic sat down with his back to a tree and held Jay in his lap, mildly worried. The blaster had been fully charged, and a powerful stun blast would knock you out for a long time.
Sonic glanced up at the sky. It was now twilight, the point when stars start to appear. Sonic looked down at Jay and ran a hand over his short hair. Sonic knew it had been his fault Jay had been shot. If they had run they might have escaped. He smiled a little. Funny. Here he was in history with someone the historians would write about. He supposed everything that had happened, and would happen, were already set in stone elsewhere. Somebody, somewhere, knew how everything would turn out. That was a thought.
The twilight slowly faded, and the shadows lengthened and grew in strength beneath the trees. Jay was still asleep, his breathing deep and even. Sonic leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes. His night had started long ago, and he was tired. As he sat there, he heard the jet-speeder's engines come on and roar away eastward. The wolf was gone, at least. He closed his eyes again.
The forest was filled with night sounds. A pair of gleaming eyes looked at the queer twosome beneath the tree, then vanished. Nightbirds called back and forth. Crickets chirped. Sonic dozed, legs folded and Jay's head resting on his lap.
Suddenly the forest fell silent. It was so odd Sonic jerked awake and looked around. What was happening? His darkness-sharpened eyes made out nothing unusual. He sat still a few minutes, looking and listening. Had the wolf come back? Why had it got so quiet all of a sudden?
Then he heard it. A very low, almost inaudible rumbling. The ground quivered a little, and the trees swayed slightly. An earthquake. It was over in another second, but it jarred Sonic's memory. Earthquake. Time Rippers. The Floating Island. The year eight hundred. Something flashed in the back of his mind, but he couldn't quite get it. How did all those tie together? What was going to happen?
The sounds of the night started up again, as if someone had turned on the sound effects. The quake was over, and all was as it should be. But Sonic was sitting up, staring straight ahead, thinking hard. Just another second, he was sure, and it would all fall together. A moment more ...
A sudden sound, like a laser bolt. It was so loud and out of place Sonic almost jumped out of his skin. He gasped and looked in all directions at once. An attack? No, a time rip forming. It was only ten feet away, on a tree stump. In the darkness the blue thread shown like a hot coal. Sonic shielded his eyes as it widened, filling the woods with ultraviolet light. A figure appeared, leaping lightly out of the rip and landing on his feet. He didn't stop to adjust his instruments, as Jay did, but strode forward. The rip closed, and in the sudden silence the stranger demanded, "Who are you?"
He stood over Sonic, his arms folded. Sonic could hear him panting. The blue hedgehog looked up and replied cheekily, "The name's Bond. James Bond."
The figure lifted what appeared to be a gun and pointed it in Sonic's face. "Are you a 'Ripper or a 'Terrorist?"
"Neither. I'm a Freedom Fighter."
"A Freedom Fighter. Uh-uh." Some of the hostility drained from the stranger's voice, and he lowered the gun a little. "You wouldn't happen to be Sonic the Hedgehog, would you?"
"That's my name, don't wear it out."
The figure heaved a deep sigh of relief and holstered his gun. "Oh man, I'm glad I found you." He knelt beside them and touched Jay's face. "What happened to him?"
"Got shot with a stunner. Hey, who are you?"
The stranger looked up at him, then reached down, pulled something from his belt and clicked it on. A flashlight. Its beam illuminated their faces.
He was an echidna, and looked like an older version of Jay. He wore a purple headband, and his hair hung over it a little in front. He wore all the same gear Jay did, and bore the white crescent on his chest. His eyes were softer than Jay's. He was rather pale. He reached down and took Jay's hand.
"My name's Robin," he said softly. "I'm Jay's brother." He looked at Sonic. "You two were due back hours ago. We thought--I thought--" He choked on the words and stopped. Sonic watched him as he bowed his head and drew a long, shuddering breath. When he looked back up his eyes were glassy with tears. He gulped and said, "Sorry. It's just--" he paused. "Anyway, we need to get home. Dad was getting some of the others together to search when I left."
Robin gently picked up his brother and held him close, then said, "C'mon, uh, Sonic." Sonic slowly climbed to his feet, realizing one leg was asleep. He limped after Robin as the echidna strode away. As he did, he noticed a series of red flashes coming from the vicinity of Robin's feet. He looked closer and discovered the echidna had lights built into the heels of his shoes. They flickered on and off as he walked, like fireflies. "Cool," Sonic thought to himself. "I could use some of those."
Robin stopped before the tree stump he had come out of, drew his gun (which Sonic realized must ba a time gun) and fired it at the stump. As the rip appeared, Robin turned and said, "By the way, who shot him?"
"Some wolf Jay called Roo--Roofert or something."
Robin stared at him. "Roofern. Roofern chased you down and you escaped? Oh gosh ..."
By this time the rift had appeared, but instead of a blue interior, it was green. "Hey, what gives?" Sonic said, pointing at it. Robin clumsily holstered his gun before answering. "It's not a rip," he explained. "It's a teleporter. No skill required--just walk through it. C'mon." The echidna strode forward and vanished into the green light. Sonic hesitated a second, then followed.
It was like stepping into the outdoors after being inside. The surroundings changed drastically. Sonic found himself standing in a large clearing in the woods. Robin was walking away from him, still carrying Jay. Sonic looked around. There was a small cluster of houses built off to one side, almost in the trees. The middle of the clearing was lit up by two big lights. There was a crowd of people standing around beneath them, talking.
Robin carried Jay up to the group. They were, he knew, the other Time Rippers. His father, Michal Echidna, had got them together to search for his missing son. Robin looked around. Nobody had noticed him. He slowly made his way through the group, looking for his father. He finally spotted him, standing off a little ways, talking quietly and furiously with another echidna and a red squirrel. "Uh, Dad," Robin began. The older echidna held up a hand without looking at him. Robin tuned into the conversation.
The other echidna was saying, "But Mike, if his machinery malfunctioned, he could be anywhere in the entire history of Mobius! How will we know where to start looking?"
"Not now, son. Now Dave, I know about that. If his gear is still operating, you should be able to lock onto it while you're in the time stream."
"And if we can't?"
"Then we hit every age of Mobius and search. But we have to find him!"
"Hold on, son."
"But Dad, I found him!"
"That's good, Rob, now--" He stopped, realizing what Robin had said. He whirled around. "What?"
Sonic was standing back from the group, watching. He had noticed all of them wore the instrument-laden belt and time gun. A few wore gadgets around their necks and strapped to their arms, as well. Time Rippers, all. The mood seemed to be tense and concerned. A search party, Robin had said.
Suddenly there was a shout. Sonic recognized Robin's voice as he called, "I found him, everybody! The search is off!"
Instantly all were talking loudly, asking questions and having them answered. Sonic folded his arms and watched, feeling left out. After all, hadn't he saved Jay? "No," his conscience replied. "If it hadn't been for you, Jay would have got home on time."
A doubt crept into his mind. What did they really need him for? Could he do what they asked? He had just failed a critical mission in his own time. What about one here? Would he fail them, too?
The group began to disperse and calm down, walking away in twos and threes. None of them noticed the blue hedgehog standing in the shadows. None but Robin, that is. As soon as he could he tore himself away from the others and walked up to Sonic. "Sorry," he said. "Come with me. Dad wants to meet you."
The house Robin led him to was relatively simple on the outside-- built of brick, a shingled roof, a few windows and a door. As they stepped onto the porch, Sonic asked, "This where you live?"
Robin nodded. "Uh-huh. It ain't much, but it's home." He opened the door, and they stepped inside.
The first thing Sonic noticed was the smell. It struck him in the face as he entered; the aroma of cooking food, polished wood and hickory smoke. He sniffed appreciatively, noticing the wood floors, walls and fixtures. This appeared to be the living room; a couch and two chairs sat across from an elegant stone fireplace. There was a brightly colored rag rug on the floor.
"Wow," Sonic said. "Nice place ya got here." Robin shrugged and nodded. "Yeah. come on." He walked toward another doorway, and Sonic followed.
It was the kitchen. Dinner was over, but the room was still warm and smelled heavenly. Sonic swallowed, suddenly hungry.
An older echidna was sitting at the table in the corner, eating from a plate before him. He wiped his mouth on a napkin and stood up. "You must be Sonic the Hedgehog," he said, extending a hand. Sonic nodded and took it. "Yes sir."
"I'm Michal Echidna," the stranger continued. "I'm Jay and Robins' father. Sit down--make yourself at home. Say, would you like something to eat?" Sonic gulped again and nodded. Mr. Echidna turned to Robin and said," Go tell your mother to fix our guest a plate." Robin nodded and walked out.
Sonic sat down at the table, and Mr.Echidna did the same. He was a head and a half taller than Sonic. His hair was cut short like his sons', and he wore a brown vest. Sonic noticed the white crescent on his chest. His face was kind, his eyes dark with a flash in them.
"Is Jay gonna be all right?" Sonic asked after a moment. Mr. Echidna nodded. "Yes. The stunner wore off long ago--he's asleep, now. Robin said something about Roofern doing it." He gazed at Sonic, waiting for an answer. Sonic held up both hands. "I didn't know his name; that's what Jay called him."
"Mm-hm. What happened?"
Sonic explained, the other listening intently.
When he finished, Mr. Echidna sat without a word, staring at the table, thinking. Sonic was about to ask him what he thought, but was startled as a plate appeared out of nowhere and set down in front of him. He looked up. Standing there was Mrs. Echidna. She was a few inches shorter than her husband and wore a shirt and slacks. She had the same, calm, kind expression Michal had. "Hello," she said to him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be talking to someone from the future. "Robin told me what happened. Thank you for saving Jay." Sonic noticed the catch in her voice--she had been worried, too.
She walked out of the room, and Sonic fixed his attention on the food before him. It was a slice of chicken pie--he didn't think he had ever tasted anything so wonderful in his life. The crust was light and flaky, the chicken shredded into fine fragments, soaked in the thick sauce; all still warm from the oven. Sonic ate as if he hadn't seen food in weeks.
By the time he finished and was aware of his surroundings again, Jay, Robin and their mother were all seated at the table. Jay was just shoveling the last few bites into his mouth; he hadn't had dinner yet, either. Sonic was surprised to see him. "Hi, Jay," he said. Jay looked up. "Hi, Sonic. I told you we should have run." The statement was so out of the blue it took Sonic by surprise, and he couldn't think of a good answer.
Mr. Echidna leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table. "Well Sonic, it's time you were told why you are here."
Sonic nodded, looking around at the family. "The thought HAD crossed my mind."
Mr. Echidna reached below the table and pulled up a roll of paper. He unfurled it and spread it on the table before them. Sonic leaned forward, looking at it. It was divided into squares by longitude and latitude, like a map, but instead of continents or land masses, all it had were dots and circles; some with numbers on them, others with strange names, still others with curved lines behind them. It made no sense to Sonic.
"Do you know what this is?"
"Uh, no sir. For all I know, it's a diagram of what happens when you drop ping-pong balls into a fan."
Jay and Robin snickered, but their parents looked deadly serious.
"It's a radar map of our solar system," Mr. Echidna told him. He indicated a very large circle. "That's our sun. This here is Seth, the closest planet to the sun, and here is Mobius."
Sonic followed along with interest. He had always liked astronomy.
Mr. Echidna continued. "See this smaller thing here?" An object resembling a moon, its trajectory traced back off the map. "This is an asteroid of some kind. It tends to disappear from time to time, but each time it shows up again, closer to Mobius's orbit. Each time, if it kept going, it would manage to hit us head-on. But each time it vanishes."
"What do you mean, vanishes?" Sonic interrupted.
"Vanishes, kaput, gone. Maybe shifts dimensions? We don't really know. Anyway, the trouble is, it reappeared less than a million miles away yesterday. Comin' straight at us. And since it just came out of its yearly cycle, there's no chance of it disappearing at the last minute. It'll hit Mobius."
Sonic stared around at the group as the news started to sink in. They all seemed calm, unconcerned. He gulped. "So, how do I fit into this?"
Michal looked around at all of them and sat up. "Well Sonic, it has been said you could use the power emeralds well. As of yet, we don't have the means for space travel, but if the rumors are true--" he looked hard at Sonic, "the emeralds make you invincible. Correct?"
Sonic nodded, puzzled. "Well, yeah. How did you know that?"
"Never mind. The point is, you are the only one who can--and will --save Mobius. You must fly into space and change the asteroid's course."
Sonic sat silently, pondering that one. After a moment he said, "Do you have a telescope or something? I'd like to see it."
The telescope was mounted on a tree stump in the woods, aimed at the sky. The surrounding trees were short; providing cover, but allowing a clear view of the heavens. Mr. Echidna (followed by Robin--Jay had been sent to bed), adjusted the telescope's lens filter a moment, then moved aside. "There," he said to Sonic with a glance toward the unusually bright star above. "Have at it."
Sonic stepped up to the telescope, noticing its' considerable size. He crouched and looked through the eyepiece.
And then he gasped. That was no asteroid. Asteroids didn't have brown land and a deep blue ocean. Asteroids, he realized, would not shift dimensions regularly.
An asteroid it wasn't. He was looking at Little Planet.
Sonic lay curled up on the couch in the living room, a warm blanket around his shoulders. He was tired, but unable to sleep. His mind was freewheeling. Little Planet! How was he supposed to save it AND Mobius? He remembered seeing it rise back in his own time. He had always taken its existence for granted, but now technical questions filled his head. How did it stay in orbit without its' gravity effecting Mobius? How close was it, exactly? How did its' time-warping effect it? And how in the heck could he check its' onward rush through space?
The year 800. It kept nagging at the back of his mind like a sesame seed in his teeth. What happened in the year eight hundred? Knuckles! That book he had had Sonic read! Hadn't it said something about something happening in the year 800? What had it been? But try as he might, he couldn't quite think of it.
A faint rumble, like a train far away. He wasn't aware of when it had began, but it had been going on for a while now. Sonic sat up abruptly. It was almost inaudible once he sat up, but still there, on the lowest end of his hearing range. Like in the woods, earlier. Another earthquake?"
The underground thunder continued. After a moment the house trembled, swayed a little. Then it died away, and silence returned. Sonic sat where he was. Another earthquake. This was not normal. The Great Forest didn't have earthquakes.
Sonic got up and padded to the window, one hand playing with the belt at his waist. The little village was quiet. The tremor had been too slight to be noticed by anyone else. He looked up at the patch of sky, visible through the treetops. Maybe Little Planet was causing it. He didn't know much about gravity fields, but maybe the two planets were effecting each other, somehow. Mobius had sure pitched a fit when it exited the separate spacetime, last winter. With a mild shock Sonic realized ' last winter' was way in the future. It hadn't happened yet.
He walked back to the couch and lay down. Why did he have to be the one to save the world? Bitterly he thought of his failed mission-- he sure had failed when it came to saving his friends. "It sure would be nice," he thought, "if I could just go back to the future and read up on the history of Little Planet. It would help if I had the faintest idea how to do this."
His eyes slowly closed. His thoughts were finally slowing down to where he could relax. As he sank into the soft layers of an exhausted sleep, the nagging feeling came again. Earthquake. Floating Island. Little Planet. Knuckles. "So he's not crazy!" Power emeralds. With an effort Sonic shoved it all to the bottom of his mind. It would simmer and cook there, sending up tantalizing whiffs of ideas, driving him crazy. "Tomorrow," he thought. "I'll worry about it tomorrow."
Morning dawned dim and overcast. Sonic was treated like one of the family as they ate breakfast together. But, even with the light-hearted banter that went on, Sonic was worried. It showed in how quiet he was in conversation lulls, and in the unnatural gleam in his eyes.
He perked up, however, when Mr. Echidna said, "Well guys, here's the plan for today." Jay and Robin sat up and leaned forward, waiting eagerly. Noticing them, Sonic did the same.
"We're going over to Richard's."
Jay and Robin groaned and slumped back in their chairs. "Dad," Jay whined, "why do we have to go there? Uncle Richard is nuts, and our cousins aren't much better." "Hey," said his father sternly, "you're out of line. Richard may seem deranged, but he's still my brother. As for your cousins, they are--" he cleared his throat and glanced at his wife, "--a bit out of control. But I want you boys to be on your best behavior. No fights this time. Understand?" The two brothers nodded.
Mr. Echidna turned to Sonic. "Now son, you may be from a different time, but since you are alone here, I am responsible for you. So the same goes for you. No high-jinks today. And by the way, don't tell anyone you're from the future. It might get back to the Enemy." Sonic nodded. He had never met anyone like this family--and he wished he had a dad like Michal Echidna.
As it turned out, the Time Rippers wore their gear at all times. Travelling was dangerous; even more so than is was in Sonic's time. This was made apparent when Mr. Echidna passed out pistols to his sons and Sonic. Sonic examined his with curiosity. It didn't fire lasers like the ones he was used to--instead, it fired bullets. Mr. Echidna handed out belts of ammunition, and they all donned them without question. This was routine.
Sonic clipped the gun holster to the emerald belt as he usually did, forgetting it was invisible to the others. His mind on Little Planet, he didn't notice when Jay gestured to him and whispered to Robin. After a moment the two approached him. "Hey, what gives?" Robin said, motioning to Sonic's gun. Sonic looked down. "Huh?"
"What's your gun attached to?"
"Oh! Sorry, I forgot to tell you." Sonic unclasped the emerald belt and held it up. The two stared at it as he explained. "One of my friends gave it to me. It becomes visible when I unhook it."
Jay motioned to the stones. "What are those?"
A silence descended over the room over the room as Jay and Robin stared at him. Then Robin turned and yelled, "Hey Dad, come here a minute!"
Mr. Echidna walked in, fastening a sort of utility belt to his waist. "What's up, boys?" Jay and Robin both started to tell him at the same time, then argued over who got to go first. Their father broke them up as it was about to come to blows, then turned to Sonic. "What's this they're trying to tell me about?"
Sonic held up the jeweled belt for him to see. "I forgot to tell you about my emerald belt. These are super emeralds from my time."
"They didn't work. I can't believe they didn't work!" Sonic was mumbling. Jay looked back at him. "You say something?"
Mr. Echidna looked back at him. "The emeralds must just not work outside their time, Sonic. Don't be surprised."
"It's just hard to believe--that's all."
The four of them were humming quietly through the woods on hoverboards. Each was about three inches thick, three to four feet long, and made of plastic. They were all painted dull greens and browns to help them blend in with the forest. They had no visible machinery, and looked like boogyboards the the casual observer. Once turned on, they hovered two to five feet above the ground. If you were daring, you could ride them standing up, but the group rode them sitting down, legs folded, hands on either side, grasping the steering controls on the ends.
"How come we don't have hoverboards in our time?" Sonic asked Jay, who was ahead of him.
"I donno. Ask Dad."
Sonic pulled ahead, enjoying the total control he had over the craft. "Mr. Echidna, we don't have hoverboards in my time. Why not?"
The other looked at him with a kindly expression. "But don't you have other hovercraft?"
"Oh sure, hoverbikes and stuff--I never seen a hoverboard before, though."
"Hmm. Maybe they got outlawed or something. Or maybe the blueprints were destroyed. Anything might happen. And by the way, you can call me Michal."
Sonic dropped back to fly with Jay and Robin. "Your dad sure is nice," he told them. They both exchanged a grin and didn't answer. "So," he began again, "why is your uncle nuts?"
"Because," Jay said, leaning toward him incredulously, "he thinks he can make an island fly. Isn't that dumb?"
Sonic pulled away, surprised and amused at the same time. "Yeah," he said, "really stupid. But hey, there's a Floating Island in my time, so maybe he's not as crazy as you think."
Robin swung his board closer to him. "You're kidding. Really?"
"Sure. Been there."
"Cool," Sonic corrected.
It took three hours of flight to reach their destination. They had to leave the forest and take a pass through the mountains to reach the ocean. Sonic had been through the mountains before, but was pretty sure the pass wasn't there in his time. Well, neither was the forest. Earthquakes. Small forest. Knuckles. Floating Island. "Enough!" Sonic told himself. That infernal connecting of ideas never seemed to get anywhere, and only infuriated him. But somehow, he sensed it was pertinent to the matter at hand--
They exited the pass, a steep-walled canyon. The mountains fell away suddenly, and there, stretching into infinity and sparkling as if strewn with diamonds, was the ocean. Of course! If you were going to construct a floating island, you would have to float it in the ocean first. Sonic's mind spasmed--in his head he saw that history book, the text leaping out at him. In the year 800, Knux's ancestors had constructed the Floating Island and manufactured the power emeralds. Was this the answer to saving Little Planet? The Floating Island? Maybe ...
The others, unaware of Sonic's two hundred-watt brainwave, were slowing down. He followed their lead. Michal waved them forward, and they pulled their hoverbikes up to his. "Okay boys, you know what to do," he said to his sons. He turned to Sonic. "And you don't, so I'll tell you. We leave our boards and go down to the coast on foot. It's commonly known here that if you come on foot you are friendly. And act natural, please."
Sonic nodded. "No problem. I'm cool."
Michal looked him over. "Yes, you are at that. C'mon, guys."
He turned and began walking downhill. Jay, Robin and Sonic fell into step behind him.
The clouds overhead were breaking up, and it looked like it would be a nice day. A faint breeze was coming off the ocean, cool and fresh. Well, at least that hadn't changed. Sonic felt as if he could be hiking out with Knux to see the Floating Island, instead of Knux's ancestors. Except the trees were different. These were all spruce and evergreen; in his time they were oak, cottonwood and sycamore. He felt that nagging idea resurface, and forced it back down. "No," he told himself angrily. "I've got enough to worry about without that, too."
"Do you think we'll get to see the island?" Sonic asked Robin and Jay. They both shrugged, not interested. Sonic looked out at the ocean through the trees. Where would it be? He didn't remember any place suitable from his time, but reminded himself that things might be different here.
The coast drew nearer. The sun brightened as the clouds burned off, shining down in patches through the branches. No one said a word. Mr. Echidna seemed to be enjoying the walk, but Jay and Robin both slouched along, neither wanting to go any further. Sonic watched all three of them with amusement. The two boys would straighten up and act cheerful when their father would look back at them, but as soon as he looked away they resumed their bad-attitude swagger.
At last they came to a gap in the trees. The ground fell away in a steep granite cliff, affording a clear view of the coast. The four stopped and looked around. Suddenly Jay said, "Oh great." They all looked at him.
Jay shoved his hands in his pockets and looked disgusted. "They got Sydney out." He pointed into the trees below, where the roof of a low building could be seen.
Robin drooped and looked at his father. "Dad, can't we just go home? I don't want to be around when Syd's out."
"Sorry boys, but we've come this far. You'll be okay."
"Who's Sydney?" Sonic asked curiously.
Jay looked at him, head down and jaw thrust out. "Sydney's their struthiomimus," he mumbled. "He's as much of a jerk as they are."
"St-ru-thee-o-mimus," Robin said. "You know, a dinosaur."
"An ostrich dinosaur," Jay corrected.
They both began to strut around, bobbing and jerking their heads as they walked. Robin approached Sonic. "And Syd kicks," he growled. "Like this." He lashed out with one foot, missing Sonic's stomach by an inch. Sonic jumped back. "Hey!"
"Stop it, boys," Michal said. They did at once, but both still looked sulky.
A narrow path had been cut across the cliff, leading down. They followed it in single file. Robin kept staring in the direction of the half-visible house. "I don't see Syd," he said to his brother. "You sure they have him out?"
"I'm sure, Rob. I saw his evil little head through the trees."
"Who was riding him?"
"I couldn't see."
"What if he was just loose?"
"I don't even want to think about it."
Sonic listened to them quietly, wondering. Why were they so nervous?
They made it down the cliff face and halfway to the house before anything happened. Then they all heard fast, heavy footfalls coming in their direction. They stopped and gazed toward it. "Uh oh," Robin said. "Guess who?"
Out of the trees ahead of them jumped a large, long-legged dinosaur. It towered up at seven feet tall, its long, thin neck curved and head cocked. It moved toward them slowly, head bobbing with each step, just as Jay and Robin had done. Sonic noticed the halter around its face and the short lead rope hanging loose. It bore a small saddle on its' high back, but it had no rider.
"Great," Michal said. "Boys, spread out and move slowly. See if you can grab his halter." The three echidnas moved forward, but Sonic stood where he was. The dinosaur was a dark dappled green, but his long neck faded into rusty orange, ending at a nearly yellow head. His hind feet were yellow, tapering to orange, and ending in the green at his knees. The sharply clawed forearms here held up and forward next to the light yellow chest. It looked like a great, brightly colored ostrich.
Sydney was watching the echidnas warily. It let them get within five feet, then backed away jerkily. Jay looked back at Sonic and snarled, "C'mon and help! If he gets away we'll never catch him again!"
"I thought you hated him already," Sonic thought. But he moved forward, watching the small, narrow head.
Now the dinosaur stopped, looking at the newcomer. Apparently it had never seen a hedgehog before. It ducked its' head nervously, maroon eyes fixed on Sonic. Sonic stood still, watching its' eyes. Funny, he could he could read them as he could Slasher's. It was frightened and excited, uncertain around strangers. "It's okay, Syd," Sonic murmured to it, advancing slowly. "Come'ere, boy. I'm not gonna hurt you." The high head lowered to just above eye level, one large eye fixed steadily on him. Sonic didn't notice when Jay and Robin motioned to each other to back away. He was too intent on what he was doing.
The halter rope was temptingly close. Slowly, carefully, Sonic lifted his hand. The dinosaur stood still, giving no signal it saw. It's head was down, its' eyes big. But as his hand neared the rope, another glint appeared. Rebellion. The slim body stiffened. Sonic's hand touched the end of the rope.
The dinosaur's head moved so fast Sonic was caught unprepared. There was a hollow clapping sound as its' beak-like jaws closed on his hand. Then it danced away, mouth open in a savage hiss. Sonic grabbed his hand and nursed it. "It bit me!" he yelled. "Stupid idiot dinosaur!"
Suddenly, from the other side of the wary struthiomimus, came a shrill war-whoop. Sydney jumped, head high, then whirled and ran. Sonic furious at the creature's nerve, followed.
The beast only ran a few rods, then slowed down, head turning this way and that. Sonic caught up to it, grabbed the halter rope, then swung up into the saddle. The creature threw its' head back, slender mouth open in outrage. Sonic yanked on the rope, pulling its' head around. "Don't you ever, ever do that again," he growled. Sydney hissed in reply, sounding like a big cat.
Sonic kicked out with one foot to turn the dinosaur, then got it walking back toward the others. It obeyed a rider's commands well enough, even if it disliked them.
Jay, Robin and Michal stared as Sonic returned on Sydney's back. But standing with them was another echidna, probably the one who had frightened Sydney. He was tall and skinny, with hard, cold eyes. He wore a pair of tattered jeans and faded black sneakers. He too looked surprised to see Sonic on the dinosaur's back. As Sonic pulled up, the echidna walked up and yanked the lead rope out of his hand. "What do you think you're doing?" he yelped. His voice was high and whiny, like a buzz saw. "That's MY dino. Get off, twerp."
Sonic slid off, favoring his bitten hand. The skinny echidna watched him with a sneer. "Whassamatta? Aw, did Syd bitecha? Poor baby!"
The echidna mounted the dinosaur, kicked it viciously into a run and disappeared into the trees. Sonic watched him go, holding his hurt hand. He looked at Mr. Echidna. "Who the heck was that?"
Michal replied quietly, "That was Brian, my oldest nephew. Are you okay?"
Sonic showed them his hand, which, although it bore a red mark, wasn't bleeding.
"You're lucky he didn't kick you," Robin said. "He kicked me once. Gosh, I thought he'd killed me! But he only broke my leg."
"Sure. He's done worse to other people."
"Brian's ruined him," Michal said. "He had a quiet, gentle disposition when they bought him."
A few more minute's walk brought them to a wide open clearing. The house was set in the middle. It was built of stone with a tile roof, and looked neglected. Tall weeds had grown up around the porch and windows, and one front window had been broken out and patched with cardboard and duct tape. Sonic looked around in disgust. It LOOKED like it could be a breeding place for jerks.
Mr. Echidna knocked on the front door. Sonic noticed it had a bullethole for a peephole. After a moment, it opened a crack. A single eye looked out at them. Michal smiled down at it and said, "Hi, Amanda. Are your mom and dad home?"
The door thumped shut, and they heard a shrill voice call, "Mooom! Uncle Mike's here!" A second later the door swung open wide. As they stepped inside, Sonic saw the little girl echidna standing shyly behind the door, one thumb stuck in her mouth. She stared up at him with big eyes. "That's Amanda," Jay told him. "Hi, Mandie!" She didn't answer him.
The front room had trash and dirt all over it. Mr. Echidna kept going, looking into all the rooms for his sister-in-law. He finally found her. She was sprawled on a couch in the back bedroom, watching television. She didn't look up, but said, "Richard's working on the island, Mike."
The four silently picked their way out of the messy house. As soon as they stepped outside, Jay said, "What a dump. No wonder Uncle Richard's building an island; he can't stand his house!" His father silenced him with a stern look.
"Are we going down to the island, now?" Robin asked. Mr. Echidna nodded. "Yeah, we might as well. Come on."
They walked out of the clearing in the direction of the beach. Jay fell back to walk beside Sonic. "See why we complained about coming?" he murmured. Sonic nodded. "No kidding. I don't think even Robotnik lives like that."
"Mandie's my favorite of all of them. Too bad Aunt Marge is such a bum."
"Yeah. Is your uncle like that?"
"No, he's a worker. But he never has time for his family, Dad says. That's why Brian and Chester are such creeps."
"Yeah. Brian's nineteen, and Chester's sixteen. They hate each other, but they do everything together. I can't stand either of 'em, but Robin says Chester ain't too bad if he's by himself."
"Those guys would never make it into the freedom fighters."
"Or the Time Rippers."
They were interrupted by a shrill yell. Sydney the struthiomimus appeared out of nowhere, travelling at a dead run. He had two riders now, but that was all Sonic had time to see. The four were forced to dive from the trail as the dinosaur swept past. As it vanished behind them, there came a burst of raucous laughter from its riders.
The group picked themselves up. Michal seemed unfazed, but Robin and Jay were seething. "They're a menace!" Robin snarled breathlessly.
"Jerks!" Jay agreed. He looked at his father pleadingly. "Can I shoot at 'em if they come around again? Please?"
"No! Are you crazy?" Mike was mad, too. "I can't believe those boys. Deliberately trying to run us down!"
Sonic was a bit worked up himself, but said nothing.
Suddenly a sinister rumbling filled the woods. The trees swayed. "Earthquake," Mr. Echidna said. "Steady, boys." Jay and Robin, seeing their father didn't seem to be worried, remained calm and stood still, working on balance. Sonic stood with them, a vacant look on his face. Another earthquake. That made three. Quakes. Knux's book had said something about that--or had it? What could cause earthquakes, aside from Little Planet? Oh, why hadn't he paid more attention to that book?
The trembling subsided slowly. Sonic looked at the echidnas. "You guys have quakes often?"
They looked at each other. "Well," said Michal, "they started a couple months ago, but we didn't have them before that." Sonic groaned and closed his eyes, lifting a hand to his forehead.
"What's wrong?" Jay questioned. "Headache?"
"No, I'm trying to remember--something like--"
He was interrupted as Robin said, "Oh great, here comes Sydney again." They stepped off the path, giving the dinosaur plenty of room. He came at them at a dead run again, but this time was pulled up. He slid to a stop in front of them, slender head tossing in protest of the harsh pull on his delicate mouth. Sonic recognized the skinny echidna with the worn jeans in the saddle, but had never seen the smaller one seated behind him.
There was no time for questions, however. Brian yelped, "Uncle Mike, the Enemy's comin' down from the pass!"
"I donno--ten or twenty, and half of 'em's on jet speeders!"
"Oh great," Michal said, looking at his sons and Sonic. "How far is the island?"
"The island? Whaddya wanna know for?" The shorter one interrupted him. "It's a couple miles up the coast, by the peninsula." His voice was lower and smoother than his brothers'. Michal nodded. "Okay, close enough. Dismount, you two."
Mr. Echidna drew his gun, looked around quickly, then fired it at the ground. Sonic, not yet used to the peculiarities of time guns, was momentarily startled to see the glowing rift open in the trail. Like the night before, it was green instead of blue. A teleporter.
"Brian, Chester," Michal barked, "turn Sydney loose and jump through. You'll be at your dad's island. Hurry!" Brian, the tall one, jumped through without a thought, but his brother hesitated. "What about Mom and 'Manda?" he asked worriedly. "Will the Enemy hurt them?"
Jay and Robin looked at their father, who shook his head. "No. Their quarrel is with me. Now hurry up!" Chester reluctantly obeyed. Jay was next. Robin scared off the lingering struthiomimus before taking the plunge, then it was Sonic's turn.
He stood next to the rip and looked into it. He would have preferred walking though one instead of falling though it. "How long a drop?" he asked nervously. Michal was staring up the path, watching the ridge through the treetops. "Uh--a couple feet. Hurry, I don't want them to find the rip!"
Suddenly there came a terrifying, howling roar. It made Sonic get the feeling he was being tracked, pursued, with no escape. It was a fearsome sound of doom. His heart skipped several beats in a row. Apparently Mr. Echidna was as startled as Sonic was. He grabbed the hedgehog's arm and threw both of them into the rip.
As he had said, it was a drop of about four feet. They landed on their feet, staggered, then regained their balance. Sonic looked around. Then he stared.
Floating Island! Man, what had happened to it? There was hardly anything growing--it was all bare rock and dirt. Stream channels had been dug, but there was no water as of yet. The mountain range in the center was only an assortment of piled rock. An island under construction, clearly.
The sound of the teleporter closing drew Sonic's attention back to the matter at hand. Jay and Robin were standing motionless beside their father. All three of them were staring toward the mainland in the distance, separated from them by a broad strip of blue ocean. Sonic looked too, but saw nothing of interest. "Hey Michal," he said, "what made that sound?" The echidna turned his head and gave Sonic a look that said "Drop it," but he wasn't quick enough. Jay and Robin also turned. "Sound? What sound?" they demanded. Sonic imitated it for them, his flesh crawling at the memory. Jay looked puzzled, but his brother identified it. A look of horror crossed his face. "Dad, he said slowly, turning to face him, "was it Hunter?"
Michal nodded. "Yes Rob, it was Hunter."
Now Jay paled. "Hunter was with the enemy?"
"Who the heck is Hunter?" Sonic asked, feeling left out. Michal gazed at him steadily. "Hunter is another dinosaur. A nanotyrannus."
"What kind is a nano-ty-rannus?"
"Its like a tyrannosaurus rex, except about four times smaller. It's the Shetland pony version." Michal drew a breath. "He belongs to Roofern. Roofern was dissatisfied with how dumb he was, and worked with him until he is nearly sentient. Hunter can now speak, after a fashion. But he never hesitates to shred a prisoner."
"You mean, he's like, smart?"
Michal looked back at the coastline. "Roofern must be angry about you fending him off, Sonic. Hunter is used mainly in raids and warfare."
A call interrupted him. "Uncle Mike! Uncle Mike, over here!" The four turned. It was Chester. He ran up to them, out of breath as if he'd been running. "Dad said c'mon. Said they might see you from the shoreward side."
Michal nodded and started forward. "Good point. Come on, boys."
They began walking across the barren island. Aside from a clump of grass here and there, there was nothing to break up the monotonous earth tones. Sonic felt disillusioned. What a wreck. Robin, on the other hand, walking beside him, seemed to be in awe. "Wow," Sonic heard him murmur under his breath. "What a place! Sure'd be neat to live here ..." Robin glanced at Sonic and fell silent. Jay and Michal, on the other hand, seemed neutral.
Sonic looked at Chester. For the first time he had a chance to size him up. The echidna was built like his brother Brian, and would probably end up just as tall. He wore his hair as Knuckles did--in long dreadlocks. His arms were muscular and his hands calloused, as though he worked hard with them. He wore a faded black T-shirt and denim shorts, and kept his eyes on the ground. He probably WAS a nice kid when his brother wasn't around.
The island looked like it had been roughed out in pencil sketches, and was waiting for the artistic paintbrush to be applied. The terrain was basically the same as Sonic remembered. Only the trees and streams were missing, and all the boulders were rough with sharp edges. They needed a few centuries to soften them.
Few words were said as they picked their way across the Floating Island. Sonic was thinking. Had the power emeralds been constructed? The chaos emeralds were probably around (they were very ancient), but what about the supers and the Master? Probably not, if his belt didn't work. He dropped one hand and touched the invisible jewels. They made his fingers tingle pleasantly. Well, at least they still had SOME power left. Wait a minute. How much, exactly? Like, maybe, enough to ...?
Sonic shook his head, fighting the rising excitement. "No, no way," he told himself. "You don't have the slightest idea how to fly an island. You'd wreck, sure as shooting." But what if he didn't? History was already written, he knew. Floating Island had survived. What would happen if he flew the island and succeeded? Was that why he was here?
He plodded along with the others, feeling his feet go weightless with adrenaline, wanting to shatter the sound barrier within seconds, as he did when excited. Was this the answer to the question that plagued him? Perhaps. No, there was still the problem of the earthquakes. The answer surged forward in his mind, struggled, then faded away, leaving only frustration in it's wake. Arrgh! He wanted to scream, his excitement dimming. Why couldn't he remember? Had he somehow forgotten in the ongoing adventures?
Another mile was covered as Sonic wrestled with his thoughts. The mid-day sun beat down on the group's heads, sapping their strength and increasing their thirst. It was like walking through a desert with no chance to rest.
At last Chester turned aside to follow a thin trail. They followed in single file. Panting and sweaty, Sonic looked up the trail. It snaked up a rocky hill and disappeared into sort of a cave in the rocks. They climbed up to it, anticipating the shade and how good it would feel.
The 'cave' turned out to be a slab of stone laid across the tops of two others, like a makeshift Stonehenge. There was a roughly hewn stone bench that ran the length of one side. It was hard, but it was cool and a place to rest. They all sat down. Chester moved to the rear of the structure and lifted a flat stone to reveal a keg of water set in the ground. He dipped a cup of water for himself, then offered some to the others. They gladly accepted. As the cold water hit Sonic's throat, he wondered how they got it to taste so sweet. Then he realized how thirsty he was. At that moment he wouldn't have traded that cave or that water for the world.
As they let the life drain back into them, Jay asked, "Hey Chester, where's Uncle Richard?"
The echidna shrugged. "I donno. He said to bring you here. He'll pry be here in a minute." A brief silence. Then, "Where's Brian?" "He's with Dad. I think they were trying to see where the Enemy was."
Another silence, longer this time. Chester had something on his mind. "Uncle Mike, do you think Hunter'll hurt Sydney?" Michal slowly shook his head. "I don't know. Roofern might do anything when he finds we escaped. But it's not likely. Sydney can outrun anything alive."
At that moment, the struthiomimus was standing perfectly still, a rope around his slender neck and a strong hand on his halter. His dark eyes were wide and frightened. They sought out the Predator.
The nanotyrannus was walking slowly through the gang of Time Terrorists, Roofern the wolf on his back. Hunter was a dark red-brown above that faded in tiger-stripes to the creamy white of his lower jaw and belly. His yellow eyes were as yellow as egg yolks. They burned with the same cool ferocity Roofern's did. Often the square head would turn in the direction of the struthiomimus, and the tyrannosaur would chew his bit hungrily.
A scout rode in on a jet-speeder. He was a golden jackal with with big ears and a pointed snout. He skidded to a stop a few feet from Hunter, looked up at Roofern and saluted.
"Well?" the wolf snapped.
"No sign of them, sir," the jackal replied nervously. Hunter looked at him with one eye and growled. His rider did the same.
"Did Michal make a time rip?"
"Well sir, our scans detected radiation, but we think it was a teleporter--not a rip."
Roofern cursed, his ears flattening to his head. "That means we bleeping lost the whole bleeping-bleep group!" he snarled. His gaze sought out the struthiomimus. "And all we have to show for this bleeping morning is one bleeping dinosaur!" What he said next is necessary to put down, but it involved cursing the Time Rippers in general, and the lost targets in particular.
At last he calmed down and gave the command to head out. As the bunch fell into formation, Roofern called four of his henchmen to him and said, "Hang back. When we reach the top of the pass, break off and form an ambush in the canyon. I'll join you shortly afterward. It's just a hunch, but I think they'll go back the way they came."
The crunching of footsteps on the trail outside announced the arrival of the architect of the Floating Island. The group stood up to meet him.
Richard Echidna and Brian were dusty, hot and tired from the hike. At first all they could do was sit down on the bench, say a weary "hi" and ask for water. Sonic had already met Brian and decided he didn't like him, so he focused his attention on Richard.
He was shorter and slightly stockier than Michal. His hair was thick, though short. He wore no gloves, so Sonic could see his hands were tough and strong, as Chester's were. He wore a light green sweat- stained T-shirt and worn, dirty jeans. Jay was right; Richard was a worker. His eyes were closed as he leaned back against the cool wall.
It took a little time for them to get their strength back. Then Mr. Echidna introduced Sonic. Richard shook his hand politely and fired questions at his brother with his eyes. In response, Michal had his sons and nephews go outside for a few minutes. Sonic was left inside with the two echidnas.
In as few words as possible, the Time Ripper informed his brother about the approaching 'asteroid' and of Sonic really being from the future. Richard listened quietly, his fingertips pressed together, eyes fixed vacantly on the ground. When Michal finished, he looked up and said, "What do I need to do?"
Mr. Echidna leaned forward. "We need the chaos emeralds. It's the only way I know that will work."
The stocky echidna rose to his feet and clasped his hands behind his back. Clearly he didn't like the sound of that. He stared out the entrance for a time, then turned back. "Mike, I know you think you've got this covered. But I need the emeralds desperately right now. They're the only thing keeping the island afloat, and until I can get the transfer crystals working--" "That must be the super emeralds," Sonic thought. "--I can't spare them." He looked at Sonic. "Sorry, kid. I just can't do it."
Sonic stood up, too. "But mister, if Little Planet hits Mobius we're gonna be blown to kingdom come. I've GOT to have those emeralds!"
Michal and Richard both looked at him oddly. "Little Planet?"
Sonic realized he'd slipped. "Oh ... uh ... I meant the asteroid."
Michal put a hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. "You know more than you'll tell us, don't you?"
"Is the asteroid called 'Little Planet' in your time?"
He nodded again.
"You want to save it, don't you?"
Another nod. Michal looked at his brother. "This kid would make an excellent 'Ripper. He's trying to do what he knows history says."
That nagging feeling always popped up at strange times. Do what history says? That book--the other night at home. Knuckles studying. The Floating Island was constructed in the year 800, along with the power emeralds. Oh, but what else had the book said? Those earthquakes! What ...?
A faint memory. Watching an old documentary a long time ago on earthquakes and their causes ... so close ... it was ... it was ... The word wouldn't come. He couldn't remember. But he was sure of one thing-- the chaos emeralds had nothing to do with saving Mobius.
Mr. Echidna had watched the concentration on his face, then the frustration. Sonic looked up at him, then at Richard Echidna. "I don't need the emeralds," he told him. "Keep 'em. There's another way."
"What is it?"
He wilted. "I--I donno. I can't remember, exactly. But I've almost got it."
Richard looked out the entry. "Maybe it'll come to you if you walk around a bit. Would you like a tour? I've got rest stops all over the island, so it won't be too bad." Sonic agreed, and they all set out.
The hike WAS fun, but Sonic could think of little other than what he couldn't remember. He was so close! Even so, he was interested to learn a few things about the Floating Island.
Each mini-climate was specifically designed. Sandopolis, for example, was meant to be a desert. Richard had shipped in several thousand cubic tons of sand and filled on-sixth of the island with it. It was on the south side of the island, to be sure it would be hot. On the other side of that was miles and miles of what would eventually be grasslands. The east side of the island would be coniferous and mountainous. The north side had a lot of rock, and would be a mix of many different plants. The west side would be lush tropical jungle. River channels had been specifically dug so no water would leave the island; instead it would flow into bogs that could be drained mechanically.
They grouped into another shelter for a break. Everyone looked tired but Richard and Robin. Richard was showing off his project and enjoying it; he wasn't tired. As for Robin, he was taken with the idea of a floating, self-sufficient island, and was starry eyed. He could easily imagine all the vegetation and water, and acted like he'd been given a glimpse of heaven. His uncle was thrilled. Brian and Chester had never liked the island.
They sat and talked over lunch. "The idea is," Richard said, "someone has to live here and take care of the island--be a ... a ... a guardian, I guess. I'd sort of like to keep the island in the family." He looked at Robin. "Why don't you be the first, Rob?" Robin looked surprised. He touched his chest. "Me? I--uh--" he glanced at his dad and brother. "I--I can't. I'm a Time Ripper." The way he said it made it sound as if he wished exactly the opposite. Sonic's eyes fell on the white crescent on his chest. Knuckles bore that mark. Brian and Chester did not, although their father did. He felt a smile playing at his lips. "Ten to one," he thought, "him or Jay'll be the first guardian."
Conversation drifted, but Robin sat where he was, staring into space. It was plain to see he was seriously considering the offer. Sonic watched him until Richard asked Jay, "So, you still doing that artwork of yours?"
Instantly all eyes were on Jay. He smiled sheepishly and stared at his hands in his lap. "Well, yeah," he muttered. He looked up as his uncle continued, "I'm going to build a settlement west of Sandopolis, near the water inlet. It will be all smooth, grey stone; how about painting me a mural or two?"
Jay looked up at him thoughtfully. "What kind of mural?/"
"Oh, anything you like. Why not paint it like hyrogliphics--you know those Egyptian pictures?"
Jay looked down again. "I'll have to think of something," he murmured, but his eyes were dancing almost as much as his brother's. Clearly he would love to.
Suddenly Sonic thought of something. His adventure on the Floating Island with Tails; they had come across the remains of an ancient mural, which prophesied how he and Tails would join Knuckles and save the island from Robotnik. It had been destroyed, but he had a flake of stone from it he treasured above purest gold; in an ancient language it said "Sonic." Had it really been not so much of a prophecy than an eyewitness account ...? Sonic shivered. HIS eyewitness account, retold in drawings by Jay. "Cool," he thought. "I'll have to make sure I tell Jay all about that."
The sun began to sink toward the west. Sonic, Jay, Robin and Mr. Echidna said goodbye and teleported back to the mainland. They picked up their hoverboards from their places in the woods, and began the long flight back into the valley.
The group was quiet. Each member had something on his mind and didn't say much. They neared the pass in the mountains without incident.
High up in the rocks, a sentry let out a low whistle. Instantly five pistols appeared in the trees, their owners crouching behind bushes and tree trunks. A pair of nostrils flared, yellow eyes narrowed. There was the faint sound of teeth against a metal bit, then silence.
Unsuspecting, the four hummed into the narrow, tree-filled canyon. As they entered Sonic noticed the total silence, but thought nothing of it. He wasn't very experienced in guerrilla warfare.
Suddenly there came the same terrifying roar\scream that had frightened them only hours before. It echoed off the rock walls, then died away in yells and gunfire.
Only his position at the rear saved him. Sonic leaped off his hoverboard and fled for the woods, nearly senseless with terror. He made it halfway up the side of the ravine, then slowed and looked back. No! Michal, Jay and Robin were surrounded, their hands in the air. A huge dinosaur (at least, it looked huge in the evening light) stood on the outskirts, watching like a hawk, a figure on it's back shouting orders.
Rage replaced Sonic's fear. That was the wolf who had intercepted him and Jay! Well, he wasn't going to win THIS time, either.
Sonic charged back down the slope with all the speed he could muster; teeth clenched, arms pumping, eyes like fire. Like a blue lightning bolt he dashed out of the trees and charged head-first into the group of thugs. They went flying like so many SWAT-bots. The little tyrannosaur danced back, startled, and the Time Rippers were momentarily free. "Run!" he shouted at them. "I'll hold 'em off ya! Get outta here!" The echidnas broke into a run, and Sonic faced the Time Terrorists alone.
Hunter, seeing the prisoners escaping, started after them, but Sonic stood in his path. Not caring the eight-foot high dinosaur could tear him limb from limb, he stuck his thumbs in his ears and jeered. "Nah nah, stupid dinosaur! Betcha can't catch me!" Hunter charged, fangs bared. Sonic darted into the woods then out again, keeping an eye on the four thugs.
"Get him!" Roofern was screaming from Hunter's saddle. "I want him alive, but get him!" Sonic tore across the trail, leaping over the fallen henchmen. To his surprise, so did the nanotyrannus. He could hear it clipping its teeth together, sounding like a steel trap. He glanced over his shoulder as he entered the trees again. The dinosaur was furious; flecks of foam and saliva dripped from its mouth and covered its lower jaw.
Sonic returned his gaze to the front, but not soon enough. He never saw the tree branch, but it caught him right between the eyes. There was a white explosion in his head. He hit the ground flat on his back, out cold.
Darkness. Pain in my head. Laying on my side--hands bound behind me, can feel the ropes on my wrists. Something hard against my back--a tree? Headache. Voices a short distance away. Fire crackling?
He opened his eyes, then wished he hadn't. He was laying where he'd been dropped. Ten feet away was a big, blazing campfire. The Enemy were seated around it, drinking from bottles and laughing drunkenly. The woods were dark all around--it must be night, now. Oh, how his head hurt. He was thirsty, too, but not about to beg anything from THEM. "Drinking," he thought in disgust. "What low-lifers."
Sonic lifted his head a little. Only his hands were bound. Maybe if he wiggled enough he could sit up. It took a while to get his feet under him, but at last he was sitting up with his back to the tree. The movement made his head throb even more, but it subsided after a few minutes.
The voice came from a few feet away. He looked around, then gasped in surprise. It was Jay. He was standing against another tree, roped to it cruelly in such a way he could neither sit down or stand properly. He was slumped against the trunk, eyes fixed dully on Sonic. He had a big cut on the side of his head that had bled down the side of his face and stained his hair. One eye was blackened, and his lower lip was swollen and bloodstained.
Sonic tugged at his bonds helplessly. He couldn't pull free. His heart ached for his friend. Those jerks--beating up a little kid! How did they catch him, and where were the others? Had they been gunned down? Had Hunter attacked them?
Motion in the trees to this left. He looked around. It sounded like an animal moving around. Hunter? No, too light. More like-- The creature stepped between him and the fire. He recognized the long, graceful legs. Sydney. The struthiomimus wore hobbles around his ankles and still carried the saddle, but seemed to be in good shape. He stooped and brought his small head down to eye level with Sonic. After a moment of calm eye contact, the dinosaur whispered, "Give ropes. You ride, we run."
Surprised, Sonic turned and let the dinosaur see his bonds. Sydney could talk? Cool! He felt it's warm hands on his, then heard a soft tearing sound. The ropes went limp. Sonic pulled his hands free and rubbed his numb wrists. Sydney turned sideways and hissed, "Get on."
"No," Sonic replied softly. "Must get Jay. He's hurt."
Sonic stumbled over to his friend, half afraid of some sound that would alert the Enemy. There were a lot of them; probably the band that had come down the ridge that morning. They were making a lot of noise, celebrating the success of their raid.
Jay's eyes were closed, his breathing faint. Sonic touched the tightly drawn ropes and looked at Sydney. The dinosaur lowered his small head and sniffed. "He not good," it said. "I cut ropes. "It grabbed the first rope and clawed at it. After a moment of doing this it snapped, worn through. The ropes went loose, and Jay fell forward into Sonic's arms.
The hedgehog laid him down him down on the ground and rubbed his chafed shoulders and legs. "I'm so sorry," Sonic whispered. "I thought I gave you guys enough of a head start ..." He looked up at Sydney. "Are there any more prisoners?"
"No," the dinosaur replied quietly. "You and him only ones."
"Any talk of killing?"
"Yes, much talk. They kill you, keep him. Hunter want eat you."
Sonic thought of the nanotyrannus's sharp teeth and shivered. "But no talk of killing anyone else? They kill any more Time Rippers?"
The dinosaur put his head to one side. "They want kill all Time Rip-pers."
"No, I meant Mr. Echidna and Robin. What about them?"
"Oh. They escape."
Sonic felt relieved. "Good. That's good."
Jay opened his eyes and stared glassily at Sonic. "So thirsty," he murmured. Sonic nodded. "I know. I am too."
Jay closed his eyes again. "I feel terrible. They'll be mad if they find out we've been untied."
"Where do you hurt at?"
"Everywhere. They punched me out. Can--can we get out of here?"
Sonic looked up at Sydney, who was listening. "Where's Hunter?"
"He on other side of fire. They tie him up; he want eat me. They let him go at sunup. If we want leave, we go now."
He extended one hobbled foot. Sonic reached out and undid the buckles, and the struthiomimus stepped out of them. He lowered his head and licked at one ankle as Sonic pulled Jay to a sitting position.
Jay looked up at the dinosaur. "Syd talks?" he said dully. "They must have hurt my head worse than I thought." Sonic grabbed his hand. "Jay, are you strong enough to sit in the saddle?"
The echidna shrugged. "I guess." He looked down at his belt and time gun. "Wonder why they they didn't take my stuff."
Punch drunk, Sonic thought. He looked up at Sydney. "Can you crouch down? I can't lift him into the saddle."
The dinosaur promptly crouched, his long legs folding beneath him. Sonic pulled Jay onto Sydney's back, the exertion making his head pound. He finally got him sitting up, though slumped forward. Sonic climbed on behind him and grabbed the reins. "Okay Syd," he said. The struthiomimus stood up, head turned, watching his riders. "Where we go?" he asked.
"Do you know where some water is?"
"Yes. We cross many stream. I go to one."
The dinosaur began to move slowly, as if he were simply stretching his legs. The partying riff-raff never noticed as their prisoners simply rode out. Only Hunter, bedded down under a pine tree with plenty of food and water, heard the struthiomimus leaving. He lifted his heavy head and growled to himself, "They no go far. Come morning I run them down. I kill." He licked his chops in anticipation and lay down again.
The noise and firelight died out behind them to be replaced by the quiet of the night woods. Sydney wanted to run, but Sonic begged him not to--it hurt his head. So they moved slowly through the indigo and black woods. After a while Sydney said, "I sorry I bite you, Sonic. I think you be like Bri-an." Sonic patted his neck. "That's okay. It was just a nip."
They walked along in silence. Then Jay murmured, "Sonic, I'm--I'm awful sore. I think I'm dying." Sonic leaned around him and looked into his face, concerned. "Are you hurt inside?"
"No. Just my face--and my head--and my arms, and my legs--"
"I don't think you'll die." Sonic wrapped his arms around him and felt him relax. "You're just beat up."
A bit later they reached a stream. Sydney stopped at the edge, ducked his head and long neck and lapped at the water. Sonic slid off with Jay, and they lay down side by side and drank to their heart's content. It was quite a picture they made together in the starlight--the long-legged struthiomimus with his head down, and the two small figures beside him, drinking and ducking their heads.
Jay washed the dried blood from his face and hair, resting himself. Sonic pushed his face under the water and let it cool the bruise on his forehead.
At last they remounted Sydney and rode on. All three were refreshed, and Jay and Sonic felt 100% better. Sydney began to trot as they talked. "How'd you get caught?" Sonic asked Jay.
Jay turned his head. "We all ran like you said, but it would've been suicide to try to run through the entire canyon. So Dad had us climb up the side and out, where we could hide. I looked back in time to see you brain yourself on a branch. Hunter was right behind you, and I just knew he'd chew you up and spit you out. So I went back. The thugs grabbed me, but I got to see when they dragged you out of the woods. Hunter hadn't touched you, but he sure wanted to. He was snarling and snapping, and Roofern was having a hard time with him. They put me on somebody's speeder and you on somebody elses, and headed into the valley. They joined the others, made camp, uh, beat me up, then started drinking. I--I think that's when you woke up."
"Are we in the valley now?"
"Do you know how to get home?"
"I'm not sure. I think our village is further north."
They fell silent. Only the chirping of crickets and a myriad other insects disturbed the stillness. Sonic thought of home. Life in the Freedom Fighters would be mild after this. He thought of his failed mission for the first time in a long time. It was trivial compared to the one he was faced with now.
He thought of Slasher. She was more civilized than these dinosaurs--educated--but still so much like them. He wondered if they had velociraptors here. Wild ones? Scary thought.
He thought of early days in Mobitropolis with his uncle, back before the robotizer. Before Robotnik. Of reading fascinating books of other lands and times, some true and some not.
He thought of the period of time he had thought geology was the ultimate in coolness. He thought of all the fancy terms he had memorized--continental plates, subduction zones, continental drift.
It struck him. The shifting of the plates caused earthquakes, right? But there was something else that did, too. Subduction zones, where one continental plate was forced below the other. The melted rock working its way up to the surface again, floating like in a lava lamp, causing--
Volcano! That was it! The missing puzzle piece! The history book appeared in his head, so close he could read every word, clear as crystal. "The volcano erupted, burying the valley in six feet of hot ash. Everything was destroyed ..." Uh oh.
Sonic poked Jay in the back. "Where's Mount Titan?"
The echidna pointed northward. "It's up in the Snow Cap range. Why?"
From Snow Cap to Ice Cap. Interesting.
Sonic grabbed his arm. "It's a volcano. It's gonna erupt and blow away the whole valley!"
Jay twisted around and looked at him in disbelief. "You're kidding. How do you know?"
"I'm from the future, remember? Man, it all makes sense now!" Everything was falling into place. "Our forest is smaller because this one got wiped out, and still hadn't recovered completely. The earthquakes are being made by the mountain! A volcano always makes tons of quakes before it erupts. And the Floating Island--"
It hit him. Suddenly he had a plan for saving Little Planet. He looked up at the sky and picked out the super-bright star. "And now I know what to do," he finished.
Roofern stood aghast, staring at the place he had left Jay and Sonic. Sydney's hobbles lay on the ground, bearing witness to how they had escaped. He stared around through misty, early-morning woods, hoping faintly to see them but knowing he wouldn't. He spun around. The others were sprawled on the ground in various positions, hung over.
"Get up!" he screamed. "They escaped!"
Nobody moved. Roofern threatened, pled and swore, but to no avail. At last, with one last expletive, the wolf in black ran to his dinosaur, untied him and swung up onto his back. Hunter rose to his feet and yawned cavernously. "Bareback?" he asked.
"Yes," Roofern snarled. "No time to saddle up. Get moving!" He clapped his heels into the tyrannosaur's sides and they were off, heading into the dawn twilight.
Sonic and Jay were both dozing in the saddle, more than a little tired. Sydney had dropped to a slow walk. He too was weary.
As morning approached, a mist filled the forest, rising from the ground. Sonic roused himself, stretched and looked around. Morning. On impulse he twisted in the saddle and looked toward the Ice Cap--or Snow Cap--mountains. A thin plume of white steam was rising into the morning air from one of the peaks. He felt his heart catch in his throat with fear. "What day was it, Knux?" he muttered. He didn't remember a date.
Jay groaned and sat up. "Whadja say, Sonic?" he yawned.
"Look," Sonic replied. "Steam from the volcano."
Jay jerked around, eyes wide. "What? Where?" he spotted it, and his mouth fell open. "Oh my gosh," he muttered. "I thought I was dreaming." He groped for his communicator. It was hung neatly at his belt. He flicked it on.
"Dad, are you there?" he said. He released the talk button, eyes fixed on that plume of steam. "Please be on this frequency," he muttered. "After a moment of nothing but static, he tried again. "If anyone is on this frequency, please respond." More static. Jay looked at Sonic. "We've got to evacuate. Do you know what day?"
"No. But it's soon."
A voice squawked through the communicator. "Jay? Is that you?"
"Robin! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine! What about you? Where are you'n Sonic?"
"We escaped from the Enemy on Sydney. Listen to me, Rob. Mount Titan is a volcano, and it's gonna erupt."
"What did you say?"
"Get Dad. Look toward the Snow Cap range. There's a bunch of steam or something."
Apparently Robin did. "Oh my gosh. Dad!" The radio went staticy.
After a few minutes Mr. Echidna's voice came on the radio. "Jay, are you there?"
"Yeah. See the volcano?"
"Yes, I do. Listen to me, son." His voice was deadly serious. "We are at home. We are going to evacuate the village. We're going to location blue. Can you get there from where you are?"
"How do you know it's a volcano?"
"It's what Sonic couldn't remember. He read it in a history book-- Mount Titan is gonna erupt and wipe out the whole valley!"
Staticy silence. "I see. Does he know what day?"
"No, but he says soon."
"Soon." A heavy sigh. "Son, I want you and Sonic at location blue by the time we get there. Are you and Sonic in good condition?"
"Well ..." Jay looked at Sonic. "I think so," he lied.
"Good. When it erupts we'll only have ten minute's warning at the most. I want you both clear when that happens. You read me?"
"Yeah, Dad. We'll be there."
"Good. Over and out."
Jay clicked off the comm and returned it to his belt. "What's location blue?" Sonic asked. Jay pointed to the coastal mountains rising above them. "It's our bomb shelter near the beach," he explained. "It's built back underground in a cliff. We only use it in emergencies."
Sydney, who had been standing quiet this whole time, suddenly gave a start and stared to the left. "Hunter," he said shortly. "Hold on. I need run."
"Hunter? Where?" But the struthiomimus was already in motion. The two grabbed ahold of the saddlehorn and leaned forward as he began to run. His gate was choppy at first, then became smooth and steady, like flying.
The nanotyrannus's roar announced he had seen them. Sonic and Jay looked back. Hunter was there, invisible in the mist-filled woods, but coming. They could hear his snorting over the thud of Sydney's feet. Sonic touched Sydney's reins. "Can we make it to the pass?" he called, hoping Hunter wouldn't hear and make for it ahead of them. "Perhaps," the dinosaur said shortly. "He rested. I not. If he lose trail, we make it. If not ..."
"How long can you run?"
"Maybe five minute."
Sonic looked back. Hunter was not in sight yet, but could be heard plainly. "I'll decoy again," Sonic thought. "That'll give them a chance to get over the pass. And this time I'll keep my eyes open for phantom tree branches."
The chase continued. Sydney ran easily, dodging trees and jumping logs and rocks. The morning fog obscured their pursuer from sight, but their mount knew how far away he was. Hunter had great stamina, like a hound dog. He would keep going until he had tasted the blood of his quarry.
The struthiomimus began to snort and pant, his head coming up a bit. Sonic knew it was time for him to act. "I'm gonna decoy again," he said in Jay's ear. Jay looked back at him. "You're crazy! Remember what happened last time?"
"Yes, and this time I'll be more careful. Hunter wants me. You'll make it easier without me. Keep straight on--I'll meet you at location blue."
Sonic tossed his leg over the side of the saddle and faced left. After a second's hesitation he jumped. He landed on the balls of his feet, rolled forward a few feet to break his momentum, then leaped up, ready to go.
Hunter was running with his head down, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt. He didn't notice Sonic and swept past him, intent on Sydney. Sonic stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The tyrannosaur's head came up and he slowed, bewildered. Roofern kicked him to keep him moving, but the whistle came again, along with a shout. "Hey slowpoke! I hear you got a minus-minus one hundred on your I\Q test!" The voice was recognized and answered with a horrible snarl. Despite his rider's protests, the nanotyrannus wheeled and charged after Sonic.
Sonic broke into the slow run he used to taunt SWAT-bots. Hunter followed close on his heels, snapping his slavering jaws. Sonic let him get close, then jumped to one side and stopped dead. The tyrannosaur shot past him, slowed, turned and came back. Again Sonic ran. Without warning he again stopped, letting his pursuer overshoot. It was a dangerous game, and he only dared do it a few times. Then he leveled out and left Hunter in the dust. As soon as he was sure he had lost him, he slowed and doubled back.
The tyrannosaur was following his trail, head down, nose near the ground. Roofern could rage, scream and kick all he wanted--his mount payed no attention. The tyrannosaur had the bit in his teeth and would do as he wished. "Fox hunt," Sonic muttered to himself. "Which of us is smarter? We'll have to see." Deliberately he ran ahead and crossed his old trail, then circled around again to see what the dinosaur would do. Hunter, upon reaching the cross trail, snorted and began to follow it instead. "Cool," Sonic thought. "I'll lead HIM a merry chase!"
The sun rose into the sky, lighting the valley and burning away the mists. Sonic left hours of trail in a few minutes, then jumped into a stream, ran up it a couple miles, then left it for the pass.
Roofern and Hunter reached the end of the line at the stream, where the running water blotted out all further scent. There they found a message scratched in the dirt:
"You don't mess with a guy who jogs at the speed of sound. WARNING: Mount Titan is a volcano. Take it from me--get out of the valley, or you'll be killed. Sonic."
Roofern turned and gazed into the northwestern sky. His eyes found the plume of steam--now dark, tainted with ash. "Hunter," he muttered. "That's not what it looks like. It's a hoax of some kind. Let's get back to camp."
Panting, soaking wet and glowing with success, Sonic made it through the mountain canyon. To his surprise, Jay and Sydney were waiting for him at the bottom. He saw relief in their eyes and he jogged up. "You made it," Jay said.
"'Course I made it. I gave Hunter a run for his money."
"Did they follow you?"
"Nah. I ran in the middle of a stream most of the way up here."
"I wondered why you're all wet. Don't be so sure about Hunter. He can track a bird through the sky on a cloudy day."
"I left 'em a note about the volcano. I think Roofern will break off the search."
"Hope so. Hey, get on. We need to get to the caves."
'Location blue' was located in a series of stone cliffs, facing southwest--directly away from the volcano. Each doorway or window was carefully screened with brush, giving the impression of an impregnable rock fortress. The ground sloped up to meet the foot of the cliffs, making it an excellent defence position, as well. As they rode along the thin trail up to the entrance, Jay said, "In case of a siege was have a water channel leading out to the ocean. The great part is, the only way to get to it is by teleporter. We control all access."
"Halt! Who goes?" A sentry. Sonic looked all around, but couldn't see him. Jay held up his right hand. "It's Jay Echidna and Sonic Hedgehog. We request admittance."
"Jay! So glad to see you." There was a rattling of brush, and a wolf stepped out of the bushes before the stone wall. At first Sonic thought of Roofern, but this wolf was different. His fur was grey and brown with white markings around his eyes. He wore khaki shorts and shirt and a pair of hiking boots. He carried an imposing-looking gun and ammunition belt. He seemed friendly. "Your dad sent word about what happened. Come on in. Their caravan teleporter is due in another ten minutes."
They dismounted from Sydney. The wolf, who introduced himself as Brutus, parted the brush for them. They stepped through, and into the cool darkness of the entry cave. Sonic stared around at the rough walls, breathing in the damp fragrance of the hideout. Jay paused behind him and called, "Can you take care of Syd for us? We wouldn't be here if not for him."
"Sure, kid," came the reply from outside. Jay touched Sonic's arm. "Follow me. Let's go to the supply room and get something to eat." At the mention of food Sonic's stomach growled. He hadn't eaten since ... sometime yesterday.
They walked through the dim hallways together. Everything was slightly damp and cold, but the air was relatively fresh. Obviously it was properly ventilated. "This place was a sort of family project," Jay said, touching the wall briefly. "When I was little all of us Echidnas got together and decided we needed a place to go in case the Enemy attacked or something. This place was suggested, 'cause it already had a few tunnels. Everybody who could dig pitched in. It took five years, I think, to get it finished. But once we did, it made the best hideout of all. There's enough room for our entire colony, and more besides."
"How big is it, really?"
"It goes all through these cliffs and down into the mountain." They turned a corner and stepped into a dark room. A stream flowed along the floor and disappeared into a hole in the wall. Jay stooped down and pulled a sort of box out of the water. Sonic could see several more, all completely submerged.
Jay lugged it into the middle of the room, un-did the catches on the front and sides, then unscrewed the top. Inside were about fifty ready-made sandwiches. He pulled one out for himself and one for Sonic, then closed the box. They both sat down and dug in.
They were both hungry, and ate two sandwiches apiece. By the time they finished, they had both remembered they had been up most of the night. "Let's go to my room," Jay said wearily. "Me'n Robin share it, but you can have his bed. C'mon."
They slid the icebox back into the water and walked out. This time they had a little further to walk, as the sleeping quarters were located halfway up the cliff. So, after climbing what seemed like a million steps and walking for miles, Jay pushed open a door and they stepped into a room. The walls were rough and so was the floor, but there was a tiny window that let in brilliant daylight. There were two beds, neatly made. Jay flopped down on one, Sonic on the other, not even bothering to remove their shoes. In a moment they were both dead to the world.
Hours later, Sonic was awakened by a sudden thunderclap. He sat up, bleary-eyed, looking around and wondering where he was. Slowly it came back to him--he was with Jay in the hollowed-out cliffs. Jay was curled up on his bed, still asleep. Sonic stood up on the bed and looked out the window. Strange--it was clouded over and raining. No, it was too thick to be rain--snow? No, because the air wasn't cold. He thrust his hand out the window and caught some of it. Dirt--fine, grey, gritty dirt. A bolt of lightning struck across the sky, followed by a roll of thunder. This was no normal storm, he realized. That stuff coming down was volcanic ash. The volcano had erupted.
Sonic slid off the bed and quietly slipped out of the room. He didn't know where he was going, but he had to find somebody. As luck would have it, he bumped into Robin on his way down the stairs. "Sonic!" Robin said. "Glad you're up! I was just coming to get you. C'mon."
The echidna led him through the rock fortress. "Hey Robin," Sonic said. "Did the volcano erupt?"
Robin glanced at him. "You could say that. It hasn't really gotten big, though. It kind of poofed, and let off this big cloud of ash. The valley's still there."
"Kind of poofed," Sonic repeated. He walked in silence the rest of the way, thinking hard.
Robin finally stopped and opened a thick wooden door off the main hallway. Inside the large conference room was Mr. Echidna, several other Time Rippers, and Richard Echidna, architect of the Floating Island. They all fell silent as Sonic and Robin stepped in. No one spoke until they had both been seated. Then Mr. Echidna began.
"Sonic, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. The volcano's eruption has made it dangerous to even go outside. The asteroid, at this moment, is only a couple thousand miles away--closer than the moon. It is only a matter of hours before it hits Mobius." Michal pressed his fingertips together and looked keenly at Sonic. "We are open to any suggestions."
Sonic sat there, staring at the floor. He had only one idea, one plan for saving Little Planet. It was terribly dangerous, but there didn't seem to be any other choice. He looked up at the Time Rippers. "The volcano will erupt before the asteroid hits," he said quietly. "When it does, I have to be there." The group murmured, but Sonic held up one hand. They quieted, and he continued.
"If I can take the Floating Island and position it between the volcano and Little Planet, the force of the blast, uh--" his voice faltered "--will allow me to catch Little Planet and force it into a stable orbit." He dropped his eyes. It sounded impossible, even as he spoke it.
Everyone stared at him. "Sonic," Michal said softly, "that would destroy the island, AND YOU. If the volcano has enough force to destroy the valley, it will vaporize anything near it. Not to mention the asteroid is traveling at nearly eight thousand miles per hour, probably more."
Sonic looked up at him. "Have you ever heard the saying, 'it couldn't be done, but the darn fool didn't know it and did it anyway'? I can do it. I HAVE to do it. It's the only way."
Richard Echidna jumped to his feet. "If you think I'm gonna let you blow up my island, you're crazy! No absolute way!" Gruffly he dug into his pockets and pulled out a small glowing gem. He handed it to Sonic. "Here," he grumbled. "You'll need it to steer properly."
Sonic looked up at him questioningly. "Huh? You mean you WILL let me take the island?" The echidna looked away and didn't answer.
Sonic climbed to his feet. The gem in his hand was a miniature super emerald--the exact same one contained in his belt. Did this mean the belt would function now?
All outdoors was wild, raining dirt and rock from the black clouds overhead. The air was hot and smelled dusty. Lightning sparked and rippled through the sky, accompanied by constant thunder. Sonic stood on the center peak of the island, alone. He wore a battered helmet against the falling ash and cinders, and the red super emerald clenched in one hand. He had gotten there via teleporter. He felt grim, hard. He didn't want to think about saying goodbye to the band, or of how Michal had shaken his hand. Most likely he would hill himself with this fool stunt, but it was the only way.
He had never actually flown the Floating Island, but he had watched Knuckles do it. Carefully he placed the emerald on the surface of the rock, letting its energy flow into the island. Then he picked it up again and held it out in the direction he wanted to go. The island began to move. Carefully he moved the island up into the ash-filled sky, hoping he wouldn't get struck by lightning. He felt vulnerable, exposed on this rock and dirt island, with no trees to deflect the elements. How close was Little Planet, and--uh oh, he hadn't thought about this one-- what if it collided with Mobius at a different point? No, it had to come down here. History was already written. He would do it.
As he set his course for the distant Ice Cap range, another thought entered his head, curling his stomach into a cold knot. What about the future from his time? Did his own life go on, or did it vanish from history the instant he entered the rip with Jay? Would he succeed, but kill himself at the same time? It was possible.
A bolt of bright lightning struck the island a mile from the point where he stood. The crack of accompanying thunder was so loud Sonic saw stars. He winced. A little too close, that one. "I'm a lightening rod up here," he muttered.
It was nearly pitch black now, like midnight. Only the white, blue and pink flashes of lightning lit his way, allowing his see the ground and surroundings. Volcanic ash rained down in a grey curtain, coating the island with it. Sonic kept brushing it from his arms and face shield. The air smelled of sulfur. There were probably other gases, too, but he couldn't smell them. "If I don't die of lightning strike or vaporization, lung damage'll get me," he thought with grim humor.
He flew steadily through the dark clouds. The lightning continued, but the island was not struck again.
It wasn't until he entered Ice Cap that he began to notice the heat. It was in the clouds, the air. The ash began to feel like brimstone. His thoughts turned to his belt. No, he couldn't become Hyper until the island was in position--the uses of the emeralds canceled each other out. This meant he would take personal damage before than. Sonic swallowed and forced his thoughts away from THAT subject. Thinking about pain would only make it worse.
A series of flashes showed the volcano ahead. It had a small (or small from that distance) crack snaking down its side, facing the valley directly. White steam rose from it in clouds. Sonic gulped. In his time, there was hardly a shell left of Mount Titan. A hole had been blasted in the ridge. He had never thought about how it had been formed, before ... oh gosh, what an eruption!
Sonic turned and looked up at the sky. There. Now, if only Little Planet would come and the volcano would erupt at the same time! A lot to ask for. But hey, the impossible had happened before, right?
He pocketed the super emerald, then touched his belt. The jewels were warm and electric-feeling. Carefully, hesitantly, he crossed his wrists against the emeralds, then snapped them back.
Sonic stood there on the barren island, the grey, smothering ash pouring down all around, alone. An icy spike of fear wedged through his heart. His only hope of survival was not operational. If he couldn't become hyper--sandwiched between the volcano and Little Planet-- Well, his ironic, humorless mind said, at the very worst, the first five minutes might hurt.
"No!" he screamed into the storm. "I don't wanna die!" Sonic sank to his knees, his legs unable to support him any longer. He felt the soft, warm ash under him. "I've come this far ... to die!" he moaned. Suddenly angry, he unclipped the belt and held it out, intending to throw it as hard as he could. Let it burn with the rest of the island ...
Something caught his eye. He took the belt in his other hand and examined the stones. To his surprise, the red super emerald was missing. The one he had been using to fly the island with. How ...?
Relief washing over him, he pulled out the loose emerald and worked it into place beside the others. No wonder it didn't work--all seven had to be present!
Sonic whipped the belt around his waist again and leaped to his feet. Confidently he crossed his wrists against its front, then snapped them back. The power of the emeralds flooded into his body, changing his color to a living, pulsing rainbow. He pulled of the helmet and tossed it aside. Great! Now all he had to do was watch.
And wait. It was the waiting that drove people insane. The ash went on raining, the lightning kept flashing, the volcano kept smoking. Sonic cruised around the island twice at high speed, giving himself something to do. The ash had piled up to three feet thick in some places. "Now I know why there's so much jungle growth here," Sonic thought to himself, his glow like a floodlight in the darkness. "Volcanic ash is really fertile. And the island's buried in it!"
At long last there came a change.
The air began to quiver and tremble. The rumble was too low a frequency for Sonic's ears to register, but he could feel the vibration in his innards. Slowly it grew stronger, and he felt as if he would choke on the pressure. His enhanced vision swept the clouded sky. Little Planet was coming--it was there, but he couldn't see it. He considered going for a short flight--just to get clear of the ash, but decided against it. There was no guarantee he would be able to find the island again.
He swept over the soft, ashy ground to the volcano side of the island and looked down. Would the approaching body effect the volcano's eruption? He hoped it would. The smoke rising from the fissure was turning black, spurting up in hot clouds of grainy ash and cinders. Sonic backed away from the edge. It was going to be close--
He flew back up to the center peak of the island and looked up. It was coming--
He thought of something. From far, far away, nearly forgotten, a strange event forced its way into his head. Last winter--tracking down all the time stones--something odd happening--
Suddenly there was a great roar, as if the earth were splitting apart. Sonic whirled. The volcano! He saw an eerily illuminescent cloud billowing up above the edge of the island, followed by others, and the most horrible sounds he had ever heard. Rock groaning and bursting under pressure, a roaring shriek as volcanic content was spewed out of the ground, and the general rumbling of an 8.3 earthquake.
Superheated wind and debris struck the island's side and underpart, tearing off sections, blowing it into the sky like a leaf. Sonic dropped to the ground as the horrible blast swept over him. If not for his invincibility, he would have been liquefied in an instant. He he was not, and witnessed what no other living soul ever had.
He watched as rocks exploded, or turned red and melted like butter. He saw as falling cinders ripped holes in the ground and in the disintegrating rocks. He watched a bizarre sulfur rain pelt down, sending up yellow smoke with each drop. He saw boulders big as houses roll along in the wind like tumbleweeds.
But the best was yet to come.
Sonic lifted his glowing head. He was half buried in the hot, furiously raining ash. He leaped to his feet, shook himself off and looked around. The island was floating upward, driven by the force of the volcano's blast. He looked up into the darkened sky. The clouds were changing, shifting, billowing. Lightning raged constantly, the light almost solid.
Then, its presence celebrated by a fanfare of thunder, Little Planet showed its face through the clouds. Sonic stared up at it. It was HUGE! He had always thought that because of it's name, it was a tiny planet. And oh, it was--moon-sized. It looked nothing like it did in his time. The blue ocean was small and probably dead. The ground was bare and pock-marked. Things that had once been trees lay flat, killed by years of flying through sterile space.
It was pressing downward, but its speed was nowhere near eight thousand MPH. It fact, it was _slowing down still_. Its speed decreased as it neared the Floating Island. Why? It hit him like a ton of bricks--the power emeralds and the time stones repulsed each other, like opposing magnets. His invincibility and the super emeralds's power was conflicting with the time stones on Little Planet, above.
That wasn't all that was conflicting. Little Planet's gravity was like a force field, grinding down on Floating Island and Sonic. He saw the ground around him begin to crack and crumble under the strain. The island wouldn't last long against this.
Thinking quickly, HyperSonic hurled himself into the air and flew upward, daring the gravity field. "Stop," he growled up at the approaching object, "or I'll make you!" The wind, ash and forcefield tore at his invincible body, but he didn't care. He pressed onward, upward. He felt as if he were being crushed, tons of pressure exerted on every inch of his body. It _hurt_! He was supposed to be invulnerable! He slowed, uncertain. Little Planet continued to approach. He needed to keep going until Little Planet had stopped ... but could he?
Think nobly of his friends and squelching the question of his future, he resumed his struggle upward.
Mount Titan would continue to erupt for forty-eight hours, and periodically for months afterward. The valley and forest were indeed destroyed, along with many villages. The Time Rippers clocked the exact instant of the eruption, then skipped back to several hours before and offered escape to many. About one fourth refused and were killed.
Jay returned to the present, exhausted and worried. The volcano was still erupting, hiding Little Planet and the Floating Island from view in the clouds of ash and smoke. He stood on a sheltered hill near the beach, eyes on the volcano. A wind had sprang up and lifted the first raining cloud of ash, and the devastation was enormous. The valley looked like a black and white photograph. Trees covered the ground like combed fur, all the bark and leaves stripped from them. Lakes had been filled, trees buried. The river was clogged with debris and filled with a mudslide's remnants.
But Jay had eyes only for the volcano--or, rather, the cloud above it. Sonic was somewhere up there; dead or alive, nobody knew. Little Planet had not collided with Mobius--that much was certain, so that part had worked. But an unspoken condition of the mission had not been accomplished. Sonic had not yet come back alive.
He touched his time gun. He could go time travelling and see if he returned--no, doing that was off-limits, taboo. Too bad he hadn't learned how to make a teleporter yet, but maybe it was just as well. It would kill him to go to the island. If it would kill _him_, though, what about _Sonic_? Was his new-found friend dead?
A strange shape caught his eye. A rough, oblong shape was emerging from the ash cloud. Jay grabbed at the binoculars on his belt and lifted them to his eyes. Yes, it was the Floating Island, but it looked like it had been used as a missile target. A huge chunk had been blown out of one side and underside, and it looked scorched. Jay watched as it drifted away from the volcano and toward the ocean. Sonic must be driving it!
He whirled around and pelted down the beach, bursting with the news: Sonic was alive!
Or was he?
The island was simply drifting with the wind, moving along the coast. The cool breeze fanned the heated rock and ash, carrying away some of the volcanic energy. It seemed empty, wounded in one side, limping through the sky. In spite of this, the spectators on the ground assumed Sonic was in control. It was only when the wind changed and it began to move into the valley that they realized something was wrong.
The green teleporter opened and Mr. Echidna jumped out and looked around. He was instantly struck by the heat and general volcanic atmosphere of the place, but it wasn't so bad he couldn't stand it. He walked around a few minutes, speaking into the communicator on his wrist.
"It looks like the moon. Everything is in shades of grey. Rocks are splintered like firewood, and melted, too. What? No, I don't see Sonic anywhere. It's really hot, but not too bad, actually. Yeah, it's still floating level. Robin, you can come up, but Jay can't. I don't want him up here--it's too dangerous."
Michal clicked off the communicator, cupped his hands to his mouth and called, "Son-ic! Sonic, where are you?"
There was no answer but the howl of the wind.
A moment later Robin's teleporter appeared. He joined his father, and together they began to look for Sonic.
Their feet sank through the soft outer layer of ash, digging through to the hot layer beneath. Their footprints steamed. Their voices rang out in the emptiness, calling Sonic's name. Each time echoes mocked them. At one point Robin stopped wearily, looked back at the raging volcano and said, "Dad, where did the asteroid go?" Michal turned and looked. Little Planet had vanished. "I suppose it went back out into space," he said, his voice as tired as his son's.
They trudged all over Floating Island, but turned up nothing. Sonic was either dead or not there. They both stood and looked across the valley, feeling the intense heat on their faces and arms. Robin leaned against his father. "Dad, what'll happen if we never find him? Will we have to go to his time and tell them we killed him on accident?"
Michal put an arm around him. "I hope not, but we may have to. Poor kid ..." They stood still, each grieving inwardly for the blue hedgehog who had become like a brother and son.
Thirty feet away from where they stood, a pile of ash stirred, bulging upward. A hand emerged, pressing down, then brushing at the grey dirt. After a moment another appeared, clawing slowly
at the ground. Then Sonic thrust his head into the open, spat the grit from his mouth and drew a deep breath. He was still glowing, hyper Sonic, but most of his strength was gone. He couldn't even drag himself out of the ash. He lay back and closed his eyes, resting.
Robin turned his head, a motion catching the corner of his eye. "Dad! There he is!"
They both broke into a run. Sonic heard them and opened his eyes. "Oh, hi," he said as they ran up. The complete exhaustion showed in his eyes. "I can't get out ..." They grabbed his arms and pulled him out of the hot ash. They were ready with a million questions, but all Sonic said was, "It was awesome. Get me outta here ... I'll sleep for a week ..." Then he went off in a dead faint.
Sonic slept the sleep of a wary soldier for a day and a half, hardly stirring. It took him some time to resurface, as his sleep was so deep. He opened his eyes and stared blankly up at the ceiling for a while. He lay there for what seemed like a long time, faintly wondering why none of the Freedom Fighters had not wakened him. Slowly he remembered--the Time Rippers, the Floating Island, Little Planet. He must be in the shelter of the cliffs.
Luxuriously he stretched out. His entire body ached, every muscle strained. It was good just to lie still in the warm bed and listen to the wind outside the small window. He had done it; everything was safe, and he had survived.
After a bit he sat up and looked around. The room was similar to Jay's room, but smaller and with only one bed. It was probably in the same row, same cliff face. It was quiet. They must be letting him rest.
Slowly he swung his feet over the side of the bed. His body complained at the movement, and he winced and sat still. But he couldn't stay there very long. He was hungry. "You know," he said aloud to the four walls, "a hot shower would feel really good." Carefully he stood up, wishing he could move without using any muscles. Maybe slither along the floor or something.
A few minutes of snooping around turned up a bathroom adjoining his room. He turned on the shower and soaked himself, letting the water wash away the grit and grime the volcano had given him. After twenty minutes, warm as a steamed clam and feeling better, he turned off the water, dried, donned his shoes and was ready to go.
On his way out he checked Jay's room. It was empty, but there was a box of colored pencils and an open sketchpad on Jay's bed. Curious, Sonic stepped in and looked closer.
The pages were filled with sketches and drawings of animals, trees and people. There were a few pages where Jay had tried out ideas for the mural his uncle had requested, but each one had scribbled Xs or 'this stinks' across them. Sonic was surprised. He never would have guessed the kid was such an artist.
Still thinking of those drawings, Sonic started down the stairs. Funny, last time he had descended them, it was feeling uncertain and afraid. Now, it was over, and he was quietly victorious.
He was almost familiar with the fortress's layout, and made his way to the big meeting room where he had told the T.Rs of his plan.
He paused just outside the heavy oak door. It was open a crack, and he could hear someone speaking inside. He heard his name spoken and pricked up his ears. It sounded like a press conference.
"... and we would not be here today if not for him. While on an unrelated mission, he recalled the history of his own time and was able to warn us of the volcano's imminent eruption. At the present, we still have agents in the time stream, aiding those who would be rescued. The death toll is only a fraction of what it would have been without his warning."
It must be one of the Time Rippers--a spokesman. He made Sonic's action sound very heroic, but he didn't have all his fact straight. It hadn't been an 'unrelated mission' at all. Oh well, such is publicity. Sonic pushed open the door and stepped in.
Folding chairs were arranged in rows all the way across the room. Apparently every seat was taken, as there was a crowd of people standing around at the back of the room, listening. Sonic mingled with them, listening and trying to see who was speaking. At last he got a glimpse of him--he was a big grey squirrel, and wore the customary gear around his waist and arms. His voice was loud and clear, and carried all through the big room.
"Contrary to popular vote, we also extended aid to the enemy. They took out agent hostage in return, but he was rescued minutes before the eruption. Only very few accepted our assistance, or heeded our warnings. The war leader of our valley, Roofern, scorned our offers and is presumed dead. Hunter, the feared nanotyrannus, abandoned his master and fled to the Dark Mountains. His whereabouts are unknown, but we assume he will not be back in our parts for some time. The total casualties of the volcano so far are twenty-four ..."
Sonic felt a touch on his arm and turned. It was Jay. He wore his belt, but no gear. "Hi Sonic," he whispered. "Got a minute?"
"Sure," Sonic whispered back. "I've heard enough."
They stepped out into the dim hall, pulling the door to behind them. "How do you feel?" Jay asked.
"Oh, I'm all right, I guess. I'm kinda sore."
"Man, you looked awful when they brought you back. Had anything to eat yet?"
"No. Man, I'm starved!"
"Come on, then. We want to hear what happened up there."
Sonic smiled, remembering.
They dropped by a sort of kitchen. Sonic whipped himself up some chili dogs and wolfed them down while Jay waited. Then, feeling as if all were right with the world, he walked with Jay to the Echidna's private living quarters.
Robin greeted them as they entered. He was curled up in an armchair with a book in his lap. "Hey there, Sonic, feel better? Mom'n Dad are in there." He nodded toward a door. Jay opened it, and he and Sonic stepped inside.
The room was small, but comfortable. A bed was shoved into one corner, and several chairs took up the available space. Mr. and Mrs. Echidna were seated on a couch facing a television. Sonic recognized the voice coming out of it--they were watching the conference downstairs. They both looked up as Sonic and Jay entered. "Sonic!" Michal said, rising to his feet. "Glad you're up! Feeling okay? Sit down--we want to hear all about it."
Sonic sat down in one of the chairs. Robin came in and sat by Jay, and they waited.
Sonic began at the volcano and went on from there, reliving all he had seen. He began to sweat as he recalled fixing the belt, and how close he had come to throwing it away. He recounted the big eruption and how it had blown a chunk or two out of the island and knocked it into the sky. Then he told of Little Planet's titanic approach and flying at it.
"I broke through it's magnetic field. All the pressure stopped, but then something happened. It was like a bubble formed around it, locking in it's gravity and time and everything. It blasted me out of it's atmosphere like a cork from a bottle. I was going so fast I couldn't regain control of myself, and splatted back onto the Floating Island. I remember, just barely, laying there and watching Little Planet turn a bright blue color, then vanish. I think it time warped--it does it all the time in my time. Funny, now that I think about it--I was right above where a place called Never Lake is in my time. Little Planet shows up right above it every year, in the present. Now I know why." He looked at Robin and Mr. Echidna. "Thanks for pulling me out of the ash. I couldn't have got out on my own."
"Your welcome," they replied.
Another day passed. Sonic told Jay all about the mural in his time, the strange language and script, and of what it depicted. Jay listened intently, then sketched out the entire thing in his drawing pad. Sonic stared at it. It was the exact same as the one he and Tails had seen on the Floating Island.
"What about the weird language?" Jay asked. "Did you ever find out what it was?"
"Yeah. Slasher said it was Old Mobian."
"Aw heck, that's easy. We can ALL speak THAT. What did the mural say?"
"I don't know. It got destroyed before we could read it."
Jay snapped his fingers. "Rats. Well, maybe I'll just paint it somewhere else, too."
"How about the pyramid?"
"There's one in Sandopolis in my time."
"Cool. Maybe I'll put it there--when it gets built. And maybe I'll sort of subtitle the pictures."
"That would be good."
Robin decided he wanted to stay in the Time Rippers a while longer. "Uncle Richard can keep the island for a while," he said with a gleam in his eye, "but when I get older, I'd like to be the first official guardian."
Ownership of Sydney, the struthiomimus, was transferred to Jay. He had always secretly admired the dinosaur, and, now that the creature had saved his life, had an extra-special attachment for him. Sydney was pleased at the transfer, and so were most other people.
The Floating Island was not critically damaged, it was discovered. And the thick blanket of volcanic ash promised to be useful in growing the lush vegetation the island was known for. The only place it was not wanted was Sandopolis, the desert. Sonic took care of that. He became hyper, poured on the speed and raced in big circles, creating big whirlwinds that moved tons of ash anywhere he wanted them to. This took a while, but by the time he finished, Sandopolis was bare yellow sand again.
As Sonic came in from his work at Sandopolis, Robin met him with a piece of paper and a cassette tape in one hand.
"Hey Sonic," he said, almost shyly. "I--I wrote a poem for you. Well, not really a poem. More like a song. It's for you. A thanks for what you've done for us."
Sonic motioned to the tape. "It that it?"
"Yeah. I warped into the future and got a band we're friends with to play and record it." He held up the paper. "These are the words. C'mon and listen to it."
They did. Sonic was impressed with the rockin' tune, and then with the mellower, longer version. He listened to it several times, reading the words along with the music.
The title? Sonic Boom.
The setting sun shown through the haze surrounding Robotropolis, gleaming dully on the Ultra SWAT-bot's metal body. It was cradling its blaster rifle in its arms, red eyes scanning the street. The area was deserted and silent. The lone sentry looked imposing enough, though, for an entire squadron of regular SWAT-bots.
Sonic and Jay crouched on a flat rooftop in the red twilight, watching. "This is the mission I blew," Sonic explained, his voice barely above a whisper. "Watch."
They watched as Sonic's past self smashed the robot, then advanced to the fence and leaped over. "Man, I looked as nervous as I felt," Sonic whispered to Jay. "See Metal Sonic anywhere?"
"I want to see where he came from when he grabbed me."
Sonic carefully slid off the building and circled around to another. Jay followed him, staring around at the city in disgust. "I can't believe this was Mobitropolis," he whispered when they were concealed again."
"I know," Sonic replied. "Shh."
The other Sonic was hardly visible, standing among the maze of pipes that fed into the fuel station. Future-Sonic strained his eyes, looking for any movement. Where had Mecha come from?
Suddenly the half-light just behind past-Sonic rippled like water, and Metal Sonic appeared out of nowhere. He had a cloaking device! Why, that creep--
"Man, he's ugly," Jay whispered to Sonic. "Look at the way his eyes glow."
"I know. No body's as smart as Mecha, or more evil."
They watched in silence as past-Sonic was dragged into the open, the lights turned on and the reinforcements called. "How'd you escape?" Jay asked.
"Watch," Sonic replied.
Past-Sonic looked terrified for a moment, then was nearly knocked over. His expression instantly changed to one of cool confidence. Future-Sonic and Jay watched as past-Sonic became Hyper, dove through the robots (almost invisible in the floodlights,) then ducked into one of the streets.
Sonic looked at Jay. "When was the exact minute I entered the rip? When do I become present again?"
Jay looked at his wrist-computer and tapped a few buttons. "Nine- forty-six PM. We got almost an hour."
The hour crept by. Sonic left Jay several times and prowled around the area, enjoying being in his element again. It was all so familiar! He couldn't wait to get home and see his friends, but he had one loose end that needed tying up.
The SWAT-bots were driven from the area by an enraged Metal Sonic. By the time the hour was up, he was alone in the fenced construction area. "I'm present now," Sonic muttered to Jay. "Stay here until I get to that generator, then run for your life. It'll be the prettiest explosion you ever saw--take out this whole section. Maybe you should run now."
"Naw. I'll just make a time rip and go home when you get that far."
"In that case, bye, and thanks for the great time. Make sure you come around again."
"Oh," said Jay, "we'll meet again. I don't know when or where, but I'll be around." He grinned and gave Sonic a thumbs-up. "Go to it, my man."
Sonic slapped him on the back and grinned himself. "See ya in time."
Metal Sonic's hearing sensors caught the sound of footsteps running toward him. He spun around in time to see Sonic's whirling spikes hit him in the face. The robot hit the ground flat on his back and stared angrily up at his foe. Sonic stood over him, his eyes blazing. "We meet again, Mecha," he said cooly. "And this time I'm not afraid of you." Afraid? He had learned what fear was when he had discovered his belt didn't work. Even Metal Sonic's threat paled in comparison.
Deliberately Sonic struck his wrists across his belt to become hyper. "Give me the charges, Mecha," he said quietly. Metal Sonic's eyes lit up several watts, but he didn't move. Sonic bent down and touched the robot's chest. The energy in his body flooded into Mecha's hull. The robot began to struggle, his motions jerking with the shock. "Never!" he snarled. "You will die first, Sssonic!" He grabbed Sonic's shoulders, despite the pain, and flung him to the ground. A catfight broke out, both of them rolling over and over, snarling and hitting. Mecha was taking incredible damage, but he didn't care. Twice his internal computer signaled shut down, and each time he overrode it.
This resulted, naturally, in the robot shorting out and going dead. Sonic climbed to his feet, frisked Metal Sonic and discovered the charges and detonator.
Hyper Sonic flew to the generator. Before setting the charges, however, he watched as Jay ripped time, waved, then vanished as if he had never been.
The skyline was still lit by the explosion and resulting fire when Hyper Sonic tore into Knothole. He was tempted to shout his success to all, but knew the sleeping village would not take kindly to being awakened. He quietly decharged himself and walked to Sally's hut.
The lights were on inside. He remembered (how long ago it seemed!) that Slasher was in there, talking with Sal. He walked around it to reach the door, but stopped short at the sight of someone crouched in the shadows.
The figure was sitting under one of the windows, listening to what was being said inside and snickering to himself. Spike. "Hey," Sonic said, resentment rising. Spike stood up and stepped into the open. "Well well, if it ain't Sonic. Where you been? Bandaging your ego?" His words were like cold water in Sonic's face. He had been treated like a hero until he returned home--they all still thought him a failure.
What Sonic did next came as a surprise to himself and Spike, both. His hand doubled into a fist and his arm lashed out, catching the smirking porcupine right in the nose. Spike stumbled back and clutched at his face, shocked.
"That's what you get for eavesdropping," Sonic said coolly.
Spike looked at his hands. "You made my nose bleed, you jerk! Just wait--I'll tell everybody you messed up--" He whirled and charged into the darkness. Sonic smirked after him--he had set things right, and Spike would be seen as the liar he was, for once.
Sonic stepped up to the door of Sally's hut, drew a deep breath, then knocked. The talking inside ceased. A moment later Sally opened the door and looked out at him. "What do you want, Sonic?" she asked, her tone betraying how she still felt toward him.
He stepped forward. "Sal, I did it."
"Blew up the power plants."
She only looked at him. "It's a little late for jokes."
"I'm serious. Look toward the city--you can still see the light."
Reluctantly she stepped outside and looked. Her mouth fell open in amazement. "It is! Why did you--I mean, how--"
He smiled at her. "It's a long story, Sal. But I sure am glad to be home." He hugged her, then turned to find Slasher standing there. He threw his arms around her neck. "Oh Slash, you won't believe what happened to me! I've been gone for days--"
Briefly he told them of the Time Rippers, and of what had happened. Slasher listened, interested, but Sally looked skeptical. "You sure you didn't dream it?" she asked doubtfully.
"I'm sure," Sonic replied. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a cassette and two folded slips of paper. "I got these from their time," he explained. "Let's go in and I'll show 'em to ya. No, wait a minute." He paused, looking toward Slasher's hut, where he knew Knux was still reading. "Here, you guys look at this stuff. I want to talk to Knux. Be back in a Sonic second." And he was gone.
Knuckles was in the same position Sonic had last seen him in, still reading from the same huge dusty volume. Sonic moved up to him. "Still studying the Time Rippers?"
Knuckles jumped and looked up at him. "Don't do that! I didn't hear you come in. Yeah. What did you think I'd be doing?"
Sonic sat down across from him. "I just spent three days with them. I met your ancestors and put Little Planet into orbit."
Knuckles stared at him. "Yeah, right."
"I'm not kidding! Jay Echidna ripped time and took me back with him ..."
By the time he finished outlining his adventures he had Knuckles's full and undivided attention. "You're not kidding," Knux said when he finished. "How cool! And you just got back?"
"Yeah! Let's go down to Sally's. I left some stuff there I got from Jay and Robin."
As the door opened, Sonic and Knuckles were greeted by the opening strains of 'Sonic Boom.' Sally was listening to it, and Slasher was looking at the papers on the table. They both looked up as they walked in. "Where did you get these? Slasher asked Sonic. "Knuckles, look. This is the original plan for the mural Robotnik destroyed in Marble Gardens!"
Knuckles grabbed the paper. "It is! Every bit of it! Hey, this means we can repaint it! Gosh--"
The four stayed up long into the night, Sonic telling and re- telling his adventures and answering the questions. He was happy to do it. His missions, both past and present, had been completed successfully.
And as time grows short and morning nears, is this not a good place to end?