What If ... it were all just an ACT?

(The double What If.)

Packbell is copyrighted by Bookshire Draftwood. Spark is copyrighted by Ace Castle. Slasher, Serena, etc. copyrighted by K. M. Hollar. All other characters copyrighted by Sega.

by K. M. Hollar

_______________________________________________________________________

Sonic stood silently, watching the SWAT-bot patrol pass by. They missed the motionless form in the shadows, clanked around a corner and vanished. Still wary, Sonic stepped away from the wall, scanning up and down the street. All seemed quiet. He began walking, stalking along, eyes and ears on full alert.

Suddenly something struck him on the top of the head, knocking him down. It had come from above. Startled and dazed, he started to scramble to his feet--and stopped, two huge, razor-sharp spikes only inches from his eyes. They were connected to a heavy fist, a massive arm--his eyes travelled up, finally meeting the green, glowing crescents that were the eyes of Robo Knux.

The robot was crouched over him like a panther, its deadly knuclaws in his face, robotic body tense. "Hello, Sonic," he growled. "Nice day for the robotizer, eh?"

"CUT!"

The robot turned away, and Sonic propped himself up on one elbow, looking toward the group that had appeared out of nowhere. "What's wrong?" the hedgehog demanded. "We were gonna do this scene all the way through!"

"Yeah," Robo Knux added, climbing to his feet. "It was proceeding fine!"

Slasher the winged velociraptor stepped forward, megaphone in one hand. (She hardly ever used it.) "I said what I meant and meant what I said. R.K., that act was good, but you stumbled as you hit the ground. That takes away from the image of the invincible killer."

Robo Knux heaved a deep sigh, then turned and extended a hand to Sonic. "You okay?"

"Sure, I'm fine." Sonic took his hand and climbed to his feet. "Thanks."

Slasher walked back to the cameras and peered through them one by one. "Hey Spike," she called to their cameraman, a purple porcupine. "Move this one over a tad and use it for the close shots-- camera 18 has a literal bug in it."

At that moment a figure hurried out of the streets and up to Slasher. He carried several sheets of paper in one hand. "Slasher," he said to her, "Metal Sonic needs information on this scene's lighting right away."

She took the papers from him and rifled through them. "Is this all, Packbell?"

"Well, no. Robotnik said that the robotizer is all set up for the next scene."

"Good. Tell him to stand by, and get the SWAT-bots ready." The big raptor stared after him as he left. "Being a director is fifty jobs too many," she muttered. Then she turned back to the others. "Quiet on the set! Sonic, R.K., are you in position?"

This time the scene went smoothly. It ended with Sonic being dragged away by an escort of SWAT-bots, Robo Knux patrolling. When cut was called it was a relief to all. It had been a fast-paced morning.

"Lunch break," Slasher called. She pulled off her visor and shook her head as Sonic walked up to her. "Hey Slash, how's it going?"

She looked at him. "Oh, okay. We're a bit behind schedule, but I think we can catch up. I'm wiped."

"I thought you slept last night."

"Last night? Oh no. I was making last-minute changes to the schedule."

"The night before?"

"Special effects with Mecha."

"The night before that?"

"Gosh, let me see. Me and Knuckles and Packbell programmed the SWAT-bots for the scene we shot today."

"Man, Slash, you're gonna drop if you don't rest sometime."

"I know. I'm getting there. I promise I'll sleep tonight. Let's get some lunch."

* * *

Sonic grabbed the usual for himself, found Serena and sat down to eat with her. They were a few blocks from the set--a few streets made up to resemble the fictional city of 'Robotropolis'--at an out- door fastfood joint. Serena hadn't bothered to change out of her costume, and so was dressed in loose jeans, a ragged T-shirt, and half her body clad in metal. The metal was fake, of course, but it really looked as if she had been robotized. She looked up as her older brother sat down across from her, then chuckled. They both had chilidogs for lunch.

They exchanged information about life on the separate sets, then lapsed into silence. The strenuous pace of the past week and a half left them exhausted between shoots. It was good just to be together and listen to the quiet.

The clanking of metal feet on cement drew their attention. It was Metal Sonic approaching. He drew out a chair and sat down at their table. They watched him as he leaned his head back and his red eyes momentarily flicked off; he too was weary in a mechanical sort of way. After a moment his eyes came back on and he said, "Greetings, how goes it on set?"

They told him briefly.

He leaned forward and rested his metal elbows on the table. "The screenplay is well-written and Slasher is a good director, but special lighting effects are a bit difficult for one to handle. I wish Robo Knuckles had not been cast; he is a wizard with computers."

"What are you trying to do?" Serena asked.

Mecha looked at her. "You can't do big pyrotechnic effects on set. It gets dangerous. When Sonic goes hyper in the robotizer there is a big explosion. I am preparing to set up the necessary lights, and we will go in during post-production and matt in the flames." He sighed at the thought. "Perhaps I can get his assistance between shoots."

* * *

"Claude, you're needed at Set fifteen right away! They're waiting for you!"

The green hedgehog leaped to his feet. "Blast it all, I'm late again! Tell them I'm coming, Packbell."

The android leaped on his hoverbike and roared off, and was followed by the hedgehog named Claude on another. "Shouldn't have had that last milkshake," he growled through his teeth. "I'm late every time--"

He slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt outside the building that housed Set 15. He raced up the steps and through the swinging doors. An attendant handed him a belt with a knife and sheath on it. He buckled it on as he ran and burst onto the set ready to go.

Cameras, lights and equipment took up most of the room; the only place with any open floorspace was the narrow area in front of the control panel and around the robotizer. Everyone glared at him as he rushed in and took his position at the controls. "Slowpoke," Sonic hissed from off stage.

"I couldn't help it," Spark hissed back. "My watch stopped!"

"Quiet on the set!" Slasher called. "Take three. Ready, and action!"

The scene went smoothly. The SWAT-bots dragged in a bruised Sonic (he had spent an hour in make-up) and threw him into the robotizer. Spark was joined by Robo Knux in gloating over their victim, then activating the machine. The robotizer had been modified to give every impression of running, but was not. Sonic went through his paces inside the machine, then at an outside signal from Slasher, screamed his lines and became hyper. The lighting effects Metal Sonic had complained about went into effect, the robot overseeing them. One couldn't put a spotlight on Hyper Sonic, for his glow blended with the beam and turned him into a bright patch. So all the lights were dimmed slightly and hidden flashbulbs in the machinery went off. It wasn't very impressive at the time, but after it had gone through SPFX it would be a sight to see.

"Cut!" Slasher barked. "Good work, everyone. That performance was exceptional. Spark, you were late again."

Spark drooped and stared at the robotizer's controls. "I know, Slash. My watch stopped! Stupid thing--"

"Well, get it fixed. We're behind schedule, and we can't afford delays like this." The big raptor looked up at the studio clock. "Gotta run--the other studio is ready. Break, guys." She hurried out.

Sonic walked up to the other hedgehog, who was looking glum. "Don't feel bad, bro. It happens."

Spark looked at him. "Yeah, but not twice in two days!"

"Was your watch broke yesterday?"

"Well ..." Spark glanced around furtively, then rolled up the sleeves on his jacket. He was wearing three watches to a wrist, all running properly. "Not exactly."

Sonic snickered. "You'll get it in the neck if Slash finds out."

"I know. I CAN'T be late again!"

* * *

Two more scenes were shot during the afternoon. The last one involved some precise acting and tricky camera angles, so it was about six-thirty before work was over.

Sonic and Serena met again at the restaurant they had had lunch in. This time Knuckles and Spark joined them for dinner. They exchanged news as they ate. Knuckles complained good-naturedly about staying off-screen and helping with the equipment until his cameo appearance. The others assured him he wasn't missing much, and ribbed Spark for being late again.

Sonic was eating his usual chilidog, just listening to the other talk. Suddenly he set it down and held his stomach. Everyone looked at him, noticing how green he had become. "What's wrong?" Serena asked.

Sonic shook his head slowly. "Tastes funny," he said. Then he leaped to his feet and bolted in the direction of the bathrooms. Everyone watched him go, surprised.

He didn't return until some time later, white as a sheet and moving slowly. He sat down without a word. "Was it bad?" Serena asked. She had stopped eating when he had, as had everyone else.

He nodded. "Threw up just about everything from the past year. Whatever's in this--" he poked at the remains of the chilidog on his plate "--wasn't very good." He suddenly turned a shade paler and had to turn away from the food.

"Somebody get Slasher," Spark said, gazing intently at his younger brother. "He's really sick."

Knuckles jumped to his feet. "I'll go," he volunteered. Nobody said a word, and he took off like a scared rabbit.

She must have been nearby, for it was only a few minutes before the big raptor appeared, looking concerned. One look at Sonic's face told her all she needed to know.

Slasher took him in her arms, noticing grimly his violent shivering. She took one sniff at his chilidog, then snorted. "Fluoride," she growled. "Full of it."

"What's so bad about fluoride?" Spark asked.

"Plenty," Slasher said. "It's a poison in large amounts, second only to arsenic. Did you get it all out, Sonic?"

"I got everything out," he groaned. "I'm gonna start throwing up again--"

Slasher whirled and carried him away.

The others stared at each other. Poison? Someone had tried to poison Sonic? Why?

But that was just the beginning.

* * *

Sonic was sick most of the night and was allowed to sleep in the next morning. By that time everyone on the cast and crew knew what had happened, and no one knew who was responsible. Some thought it was a freak accident. This idea gained popularity--that is, until Serena found Metal Sonic.

As director, Slasher had worked feverishly to rearrange their filming schedule so Sonic's illness wouldn't interfere too much. The day's itinerary was handed out to all the people who would need it; Robotnik, Knuckles, Sally and Metal Sonic. Mecha was the only one who did not appear as usual that morning. Packbell reported that no one had seen him since the night before.

Instantly suspicions were aroused. Had Mecha poisoned Sonic then hidden out? A search was organized. Everyone able entered the sets and studios, looking for any place a robot might hide. Robo Knux was the only one who was less than enthusiastic. "Mecha would never do something like that!" he insisted over and over. "He would never try to kill a friend!" But nobody listened to him.

By chance Serena passed by Set 15 where they had been filming the day before. Nobody would check on set there, would they?

She stepped into the big room. Equipment still cluttered up the area like large weeds in a garden; three more scenes would be shot with the robotizer. She carefully wove her way through the darkened room, stepping over cables and around props, thinking of what a good hiding place this could be. She made it about halfway around the room before she heard it.

"Serena ... over here ..." A drawn-out gasp, Mecha's voice. It came from a dark corner.

"Mecha?" she called uncertainly.

"Help me, please ... I can't move ..."

Serena picked her way in the direction of the voice. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure," came the hoarse reply. "I just can't move--"

She found him. He was lying flat on his back with his head turned a little to one side. His red pupils were very dim. She knelt beside him. His engines were making a strange, low whining sound. "I have lost all motion ability," he wheezed to her. "It is with greatest difficulty I can speak at all."

"Is there anything I can do?" she asked anxiously.

"Yes. Go for help. I am injured. Please hurry--I have been here all night."

At first nobody believed that Mecha was innocent, but Knuckles, Spark and Robotnik came anyway.

The three actors set to work clearing a path through the equipment while Robotnik went straight to the robot. "Metal Sonic," they heard him say, "what in the world did you do to yourself?"

"I do not know," came the weak reply. "Can I be repaired?"

"Knuckles, come here a moment," Robotnik called concernedly. The echidna left the others and bounded over to the fallen robot. Spark and Serena could hear them talking in low voices, but couldn't make out what was being said.

"He couldn't have done anything to Sonic," Spark murmured to his sister. "He's been down all night."

"Did somebody do something to him, too?" Serena asked quietly.

"Maybe."

"Why?"

They were interrupted by Mecha wailing, "No! Please don't do that!"

They walked up into time to hear Knuckles say, "Mecha, it's the only way to fix you. We HAVE to reset your computer system. All the circuits are jammed."

"Any unsaved information will be lost!" Mecha said. "I cannot risk that! I will lose everything I have been working on!"

Robotnik broke in, "We'll make backup copies before we do that, Mecha. You won't lose anything."

"But Doc," Knuckles protested, "his entire system is locked up! How can we run backup if it won't run?"

"The main computer can handle it," Robotnik replied confidently. He turned to the robot. "Relax, Mecha. We'll take care of everything."

Serena and Spark watched in silence as the two mechanics lifted the robot by the arms and legs and carried him out. As soon as they had left, Serena said, "Let's poke around. Maybe we'll figure out what happened to him."

"No need for that."

The two hedgehogs jumped and looked up. Robo Knux was standing in the shadows, his green eyes shining. He stepped forward. "I know what happened."

"What?" Spark asked. "Show us."

The red robot knelt and touched a thick cable on the floor. "See this?"

They nodded.

"This cable was unplugged. Mecha was putting it away." He stood and moved toward the wall. "Look here."

They followed him.

He pointed at the floor. Another cable had been cut and a wire strung between the two. "This other cable was connected. When Metal Sonic lifted this cable, the other cable directed its current through the wire, up the cable and into his body." He faced them directly. "Someone rigged this, deliberately intending to electrocute him to death. I'm not exactly sure how he survived."

"But who would do something like that?" Serena asked, privately thinking how odd it was for Robo Knux to show up so suddenly.

The robot shook his head, making his dreadlocks sway. "I don't know, but I will be on the alert. Anyone, even I, may be the next victim." He whirled and stalked out.

Serena sideyed Spark. They were thinking the same thing; how suspicious.

* * *

Days of hard work followed. Metal Sonic was repaired. He had lost some of his saved data, but fortunately had copies of it in the main computers. Two days later he was back in his place, hard at it.

Sonic recovered and resumed acting. He was very wary about everything he ate, but was not assaulted again.

Slasher kept a nervous eye on the production calender. Only 20 days left, and more than half the movie left to film. The schedule was bumped up, and the last possible scenes were filmed. They could do no more in Mobitropolis--the other sets needed to be set up, requiring a week's work. So the entire crew packed up and moved out to Knothole for their on-location filming.

Sally, the second-in-command, had been working frantically to get the village ready in time. To the others' surprise, she had succeeded. Everything was in place, all the props and equipment cataloged, actors ready. The morning was spent setting up, and all was ready for filming by that afternoon.

They set to work with a vengeance. The opening shots of the movie would take place in Knothole. By that evening they had two complete scenes filmed. Both were simply plot and character development and required good acting.

By the time six o' clock rolled around everyone was bushed. Sonic in particular was tired, as one of the scenes had required him to come tearing in at top speed, which he ended up doing about ten times. In spite of this, he let Tails talk him into going fishing on the river after dinner.

It was nice to watch the brown water flow by, see the sunset drench the sky in color and listen to Tails's chatter. The young fox had been working as had as the rest of them but at a slower pace, as his was not a main role. He had missed Sonic and was glad to be with him again. As they talked, an uneasy thought entered Sonic's head; what if whoever was sabotaging the film attacked Tails?

The fish weren't biting, and after half an hour they gave up and headed back to Knothole. As they went, Sonic told his sidekick what had happened to him and Metal Sonic. Tails sobered. The hedgehog finished with, "Be careful, little bro. I'd hate it if something happened to you."

The fox nodded. "I will. I'll keep an eye out for anything suspicious, too ..." he trailed off, gazing at something further down the trail. Suddenly he yelled, "Knux!" and broke into a run. Not seeing anything in the twilight, Sonic followed him.

Twenty feet later they came upon Knuckles. The echidna was lying face-down on the path, the remains of a broken glass bottle scattered around his head. The two knelt beside him. They immediately saw the large bloody welt on the back of Knuckles's head. Tails looked at Sonic. "This? Is THIS what's been going on?"

Sonic swallowed and nodded. "Yeah. Go get help, lil' bro. I'll stay here with him."

Tails took off in light-footed fear.

Sonic brushed the bits of glass off his friend's back and neck, then rolled him over and shook him. "Knux! Can you hear me?"

After a moment the echidna stirred and began to come to. He opened his eyes and gazed dully up at Sonic. The hedgehog helped him sit up. "Are you okay?"

Knux gingerly touched the back of his head and looked at the red on his fingers. "Well, I guess ... gosh, what happened?" He looked around, taking in the broken glass on the ground around them.

"Looks like you got clobbered with a coke bottle," Sonic said, pointing to the intact bottle-neck a few feet away. He reached over to pick it up, but Knux stopped him. "Don't touch it. It might have fingerprints."

"Who did this? Did you see anything?"

"Well," said the echidna slowly, "I was walking out to find you and Tails ... I heard a sound behind me, but before I had a chance to look around there was a smash. Then I was waking up here."

Again the two looked around, but by that time it was too dark to see any tracks.

A shout drew their attention, and Sally and Slasher approached with lights. Knuckles was taken in and his head bandaged--it was not serious. Later, Slasher and Sonic had a brief private conference.

"He told me he didn't see anything," Slasher said quietly, green eyes fixed on some place in the distance.

"That's what he told me," Sonic agreed. "So what's the deal? The cops find anything?"

The raptor shook her head. "Not a thing. No footprints, no fingerprints on the bottle, nothing. Knux might as well have been knocked out by a ghost."

Shortly afterward the village retired for the night. Sonic lay in his bunk, thinking. Who would be next? Who did it? Why hadn't Knuckles's attacker left any evidence behind? His eyes began to close as his sleepiness took full hold. His last thought before sleep came was, "Maybe it was a robot."

* * *

By the next morning, everyone knew what had happened to Knuckles. Serena worried about it all morning, fearful that she might be next. Had she not been a decent actor, this would have messed up her performance in the three scenes shot that morning. As it was, she remained under control until the lunch break.

Sonic, looking high and low for his sister and not finding her, finally located her in her hut. The door was locked, and he could hear her crying inside. "Sis?" he called, concerned. "Whassamatter?"

The crying stopped, and a moment later the door opened. "Oh, hi Sonic." Her eyes were red.

"What're you crying crying about?"

She shrugged. "Nothing."

He saw through her. "Scared?"

"Well ... yeah."

He took her hand. "C'mon. Me'n Mecha are gonna have lunch. Wanna come?"

She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. "Oh ... okay."

Metal Sonic was waiting for them at a picnic table in the shade of a big sycamore tree. He did not actually eat; he used things like lunch breaks for maintenance and refueling. He was meticulously rubbing oil into his right elbow as the hedgehogs sat down. He looked up. "Greetings. Was Spark coming?"

Sonic shrugged. "Maybe, if he has time. For some reason he forgot to memorize the script for scene fifty-three, and he's cramming it over lunch."

Mecha shook his head. "I don't envy him. All I and Robo Knux must do is scan the page and we retain the information forever."

They talked as Sonic and Serena ate. Of course conversation turned to the assaults made on them and Knuckles. "Yes," Metal Sonic said, red eyes brightening a few watts, "I checked the studio before I entered. There was no one there. Whoever rigged the cables had done so beforehand and departed."

"Same with me," Sonic said. "Anybody could have poisoned me. But who, and why?"

"I've heard that this film is gonna make a lotta money," Serena put in. "People are already anticipating it. Maybe there's somebody out there who wants us to blow it and scrap the whole thing."

Sonic and Mecha gazed at her.

Sonic tapped his chin. "You might have a point there, 'Rena. Well, if that's the case, we'd better be on the lookout for somebody who ain't supposed to be here."

"Agreed," said the robot. "I will watch for anything suspicious. What say we meet over lunch every day and compare notes?"

"Sounds good to me," Serena said, relieved. "Maybe we can catch whoever it is."

"Yeah," Sonic said enthusiastically. "And maybe--"

He was interrupted by a whistle blowing, signifying the end of the lunch hour. The three scrambled to clear the table and get to the filming location.

* * *

The scene was the one where Knuckles appeared briefly; coming out of the woods suddenly to warn Sonic of danger in Robotropolis. The cameras were in place, the actors ready, and, "Action!" Slasher commanded.

Robotnik was watching from off-camera, arms folded, eyes on the equipment on the far side of the shot. One of the big lights wasn't working correctly--there must be a short in the wiring. As he gazed at it and absent-mindedly fingered his mustache, he heard a faint creak in the machinery of the mounted camera above him. He paid it no mind. The supports were always creaking and squeaking ... he needed to get after them with some grease ...

There came a shout from Spike, who was operating that particular camera, then a crash of metal. Robotnik leaped to one side with remarkable speed, just as the entire support frame fell apart. Everyone turned in shock as Slasher yelled, "CUT!!"

Spike had been thrown clear, landed on his feet and was back in an instant, grabbing at the camera and shutting it off. No one was hurt, although if Robotnik had stayed where he was the entire 500 lb. rig would have landed on him. Needless to say, this put a crimp in the day's plans as the whole unit was rebuilt. Thus it was discovered that someone had deliberately removed the bolt that supported the main joint.

After the scene was filmed correctly and the crew moved to the next one, Knuckles mentioned in passing that he had seen Robo Knux tinkering with the rig shortly before filming. This was met with outrage and suspicion. Slasher was immediately informed. Her rather cool reply was, "I can't very well kick him out of the production at this point, and besides, there is no real proof he did ANYTHING. Show me solid proof and I'll do something."

Upon questioning, the robot denied even going near the equipment.

* * *

An night fell and the inhabitants of Knothole settled down for the night, Sonic, Serena and Tails gathered in the shadows beneath a fir tree. Serena and Tails were nervous.

"Sonic," Serena whispered, "if Robo Knux is the one doing this--"

"We're all dead meat!" Tails finished. "Who knows what he'll do next!"

Sonic hushed them with a wave of his hand. "Shh. Let's think about this. Something's wrong with this picture--" he trailed off and gazed absently at the ground.

"What?" his sister demanded. "Robo Knux could have done it all--"

"It wasn't Robo Knux," he interrupted.

The two stared at him.

"What?" tails exclaimed. "How do you know?"

Sonic shook his head. "I don't know how I know--I just do. Call it intuition. Something tells me that somebody else is in charge and they're trying to frame R.K."

"That's a long shot, bro," Serena murmured skeptically.

"Yeah," Tails added. "There's no proof he's innocent ..."

"And none that he's guilty, either," Sonic interjected. He sighed and glanced up at the darkening sky. "Well, it's getting late; we'd better go to bed. Just think about it, you two, and in the morning we'll compare notes with Mecha."

The three separated and went to their cabins. Tails had the furthest to walk, as he had been temporarily relocated to the other end of the village.

The young fox was nearly there when his big ears caught a sound behind him in the darkness. He turned. Nothing but the rows of huts. He resumed walking, assuming it had been his imagination. Another sound, like a loud footstep. Again he looked back, beginning to feel nervous. Still nothing. He broke into a run, not wanting to have anything to do with danger.

Something leaped out of the shadows in front of him. It was dressed all in black and wore a veil, hiding its face. Tails slid to a stop, gasping, automatically reaching back to wind his tails together. Seeing this, the black figure leaped at him in furious silence, grabbed him by the arms and held him still. The young fox saw the glint of a knife's blade in the darkness. He found his tongue where it was locked between his teeth and began to yell for help.

Lights came on, doors opened, voices shouted questions. Tails's assailant released him and ran for the woods like a rabbit. Tails found himself sitting on the grass, gazing blankly at the one piece of evidence the crook had left thus far:

The gleaming knife.

* * *

It was Spark's knife.

Not the prop he used in the film, mind you--his personal six-inch dagger he carried in case he ever needed to cut something. The distinctive 'S.H.' was burned permanently into the ivory handle. Whoever had attacked Tails had dropped it in his hurry to escape.

Spark's first reaction was shock, then anger. He claimed that he had misplaced his knife the day before and loudly denied attacking Tails.

At any rate, it was a long time before anyone went to bed that night.

* * *

"I didn't do it, Sonic. Ya gotta believe me!" Spark said urgently.

The two were on their way to the first shoot of the day. Sonic walked with his lips tight and eyes fixed straight ahead. Spark jogged along beside him, pleading.

"I LIKE Tails, for crying out loud! Somebody did this to make me look bad. Sonic--yo, Sonic, you listening?"

Sonic gave him an icy sideways glance. "Spark, somebody jumped Tails and they were using YOUR knife. What am I supposed to think?"

"Well, _I_ know it wasn't me. Have you talked to Tails this morning?"

"Not yet."

"I have."

Sonic gave his brother another cold look. "Yeah?"

"Sonic," Spark's serious gaze was intensified by the black fur around his eyes, "he showed me how the guy grabbed him. He said he was bigger than me, and he handled the knife different."

"How would Tails know how you use a knife?" The blue hedgehog's attitude was beginning to defrost.

"Oh yeah. I've been showing him how to whittle. The kid knows, bro. Ask him."

The brothers were on better terms after this, and began acting out the first scene of the day with enthusiasm. It was a fun scene, too--Sonic walking aimlessly through the woods, suddenly challenged by Spark, a scuffle and the hedgehogs part ways.

"Action!" Slasher barked.

The cameras began rolling, focusing on Sonic as he wandered into view, kicking dirt and not paying attention to anything, least of all the nearby cameras and watchful director. Right on cue Spark leaped out of the bushes, his shiny, fake movie-knife clenched in his good hand. "Hiya Sonic," he hissed through his teeth, doing a good job of looking fierce. "Do you know who I am?"

Sonic was about to reply, but Slasher interrupted him with, "CUT!"

The two hedgehogs looked at their director in disappointment. "What'd we do?" Spark called.

The big raptor strode over to the number 9 camera Spike was piloting. They exchanged a few words in low voices, then Slasher stepped back, plainly angry. Her green eyes were dark. "Someone removed the film from all the cameras," she growled. She pulled off her visor and slapped it on the ground. "That does it! I'm bringing in extra security!"

Spike the porcupine was even more peeved than she was. He turned on Robo Knux, who was on his knees with Robotnik, fixing a dismantled microphone. "You!" he yelled, pointed at the robot. "YOU did this! I saw you playing with the cameras this morning--"

The robot stared at him. "Me? I was positioning them, as I am accustomed to doing."

"See?" Spike snarled, turning to the others. "He had the opportunity! Kick him off the crew!"

This was followed by a rather vicious mob scene in which the camera crew turned on the hapless robot and dragged him off the set.

Afterward, as Metal Sonic helped him tend to his damaged parts, Slasher warned him quietly to stay away from the rigging until the scenes he was to perform in. "It's not that I think you're responsible for all the mischief going on," she said apologetically, "but I don't want any more riots." Robo Knux's feelings (and pride) were hurt by the entire episode, but he promised to keep away from the equipment.

Extra security guards were brought in later that day. Sonic and Serena watched them patrolling during lunch. "That might be kinda fun," Sonic said. "You know, walking around and looking important. You know what job I wouldn't want, though?"

Serena swallowed. "A sewer cleaner?"

Sonic shook his head with a grin. "Nope. I wouldn't want to be the kind of person that shoots people, blows them up and sends them home so they can hang themselves."

His sister stared at him. "What kind of person does that?"

"A photographer. Ha! Get it?"

* * *

The extra security guards seemed to help, for three days passed with no actors hurt or equipment tampered with. Everyone settled down and were able to concentrate on their work. Robo Knux was still viewed with veiled suspicion, but he obeyed Slasher's instructions and no one had cause to accuse him of anything.

On the fourth day the saboteur struck again.

Only a week and a half left to film, and everyone was feeling the pressure. They all worked long hours, rising early and retiring late. But slowly the work was paying off. Only one more segment left to film: the finale. Slasher, moving her crew like chess pieces, sent everyone not required back to Mobitropolis to prepare for the last round.

Sonic, Robo Knux and Spark were the only actors still needed in Knothole, so Knuckles, Serena, Robotnik, Metal Sonic and Tails trekked back to the city.

They had just settled into their rooms when somebody on the camera crew mentioned that some adjustments had been made on the robotizer (an emergency case had come up, and it had been used to save a damaged limb) and had not been reset yet. Knuckles, who hadn't had a chance to mess with a computer in weeks, jumped at the chance. Serena, bored, offered to go along and help. Knuckles shrugged. "I don't care-- I could use the help, 'specially if Doc don't show up on time."

Soundstage 15 had been cleared of most of the camera equipment, save a pole or two in the corner. The robotizer towered up in the center, a glass tube that fed into the rounded machinery cover in the ceiling. Knuckles went straight to the controls, fired up and computers and went over the machine's readouts. "Ah ha," Serena heard him say, "It's still set to 'full operation' instead of 'scan only'. Why do you suppose they left it on that?"

"Dangerous?" the hedgehog asked.

The echidna nodded without turning. "Mm-hmm. If somebody got in it'd robotize 'em for real."

For several minutes the only sound was Knuckles's fingers clicking on the keyboard and an occasional beep from the computers. Finally he said, "C'mere 'Rena, I wanna show you this."

He retracted the glass tube, stepped under the robotizer's lens and looked up. Serena moved up and stood beside him, listening wonderingly as he explained each part.

After a moment she interrupted him. "Is that wire supposed to be loose?"

He glanced at her, startled, then up at the machinery again. "Where?"

"Right there--the red one in the bunch of wires tied together."

He saw it and his brow furrowed. "Uh-oh, somebody's been messing with this. Can you get me a chair?"

"Sure." She dragged one over for him. He grabbed a pair of wirecutters and needle-nosed pliers, stepped up on the chair and went to work.

Several minutes later he dropped his arms with a sigh, getting the blood flowing again. "There, that should do it." He put his hands on his hips and gazed up into the machinery. "'Rena, would you mind helping me test this thing?"

She shrugged. "Sure. What do you need me to do?"

He climbed off the chair and pushed it out of the way. "Stand under the beam and let me scan you. I need to make sure I hooked that wire up right."

"Okay," she replied, confident in the echidna's abilities.

Knuckles walked over to the control panel and stood with his back to the hedgehog, configuring the robotizer for a test fire. Serena stood patiently, keeping an eye on the big milky-white lens above her. Thus she noticed immediately when the heavy glass tube began to slowly slide downward. "Uh, Knux," she called uncertainly.

"Mm?" he grunted, absorbed in what he was doing.

"What's going on?"

"Almost ... ready ..." he replied absently, eyes on one of the screens.

The tube continued to lower with an ominous steadiness.

Suddenly Serena thought, 'What if it's been sabotaged?' "Knux!" she yelled. "The tube's coming down!"

For the first time he whirled and saw. He turned back to the controls, froze, hammered on the keyboard, then turned back and yelled in horror, "'Rena, it overrode all my commands--it's on 'full operation' again!"

Then the tube locked into place, cutting off most outside sound. Serena began to panic as the yellow lens flickered on. "Knux, get me out of here!"

Through the glass she could see him working frantically at the control panel. Then he cried, "Hold on, I've gotta get help!" and he raced from the room.

The yellow beam beat down on the hedgehog's head with hot ferocity. She crushed herself to one side, getting as far out of the beam as possible, hyperventilating and beginning to cry. Why didn't Knux come back? How long had he been gone? She looked down at her hands in dread--they said it started at your fingertips--this is what happened in the film, not real life!

"Serena!"

She barely heard over the amplified noise inside the tube. She turned to see Metal Sonic staring at her, aghast.

"Get me out!" she wailed.

The robot dashed to the control panel, took one look and came back to the tube. To Serena's surprise he crouched, wedged his metal fingers between the glass and the floor and heaved. There was a snap like something breaking, and the tube slid upward easily. Mecha held it open with one hand and pulled Serena out with the other, then let go and stepped back. The tube fell back down and crashed against the floor, the light inside still on.

Serena stood and stared at the machine, trembling, her flight adrenaline beginning to subside. "What happened?" Mecha asked with surprising gentleness. She explained tremulously, unable to look away from the robotizer. "Sabotage," she finished. "That's what it was."

The robot's red eyes shimmered in anger. "This criminal must be caught," he exclaimed. "This is simply too dangerous ..."

As the robotizer shut off, Knuckles returned with Robotnik. They both stopped and looked at Serena in surprise upon entering. Then Robotnik made a dive for the control panel, and Knuckles walked up to her and Metal Sonic. "Are you okay?" he asked, concerned.

She nodded. "Mecha opened the thing and got me out in time. If he hadn't ..." She trailed off, for there was little more to say.

Robotnik was the one to discover that not only has the robotizer been hot-wired to lower the glass tube (that was the reason for the loose wire), but a command had been entered that blocked all outside input, insuring the machine would run without interruptions.

Only a robot could give that particular kind of command.

* * *

Nightfall in Mobitropolis.

Sonic Hedgehog sat on a bench in the park, watching the sun set through the trees. It was the day after the robotizer incident, as it was called. Serena was pretty much recovered now, but she had been a regular basketcase when he arrived. And like before, Robo Knux had taken the blame; he admitted to playing with the robotizer before they left for Knothole, but denied hot-wiring it.

Sonic was stewing. There HAD to be a way to catch whoever it was ... WAS it Robo Knux? If so, why would he be trying to wreck the film? Had he actually meant for Serena to be robotized? Good ol' Mecha ... if not for him ...

He couldn't sit still. The hedgehog jumped to his feet and began to pace up and down. He was tired and nervous, afraid of what the next day might bring. They were working on the ending, for crying out loud! They needed every ounce of energy and focus ... and here was a major distraction.

As he paced he heard a sound off in the park somewhere. He paused and looked. A figure was moving through the trees twenty yards distant ... something about the way it moved showed it was a robot. Sonic squinted. Too bulky to be Metal Sonic--must be Robot Knux. Wondering if he could catch the robot off guard, he began to creep forward.

As he drew closer, he saw that the robot had seated himself on a bench and was staring silently into space. After a moment Robo Knux lowered his head and clutched it with both spiked hands, as if in pain. He made no sound, but rocked back and forth. Sonic watched him, half curious and half suspicious. Then the robot sat up again, stared straight ahead and said, "Sonic, I am not the one responsible."

He should have known--it was impossible to snake up on a robot. He stepped into the open and met Robo Knux's green gaze. "You're not, huh? Things sure seem to be pointed that way."

Robo Knux looked at him unflinchingly. "I'm being framed, Sonic. This last thing with the robotizer was clever, to say the least, but I did not do it."

Sonic folded his arms. "Why should I believe you? I just went through this with Spark."

The robot echidna looked away. "The only way to prove my innocence is to catch the real culprit." He looked at the skeptical hedgehog. "I have a plan. It is not very good and a thousand things could go wrong, but it is all I could come up with."

"Yeah?" Sonic said. "What is it?"

Robo Knux looked around to make sure they were alone, although he knew they were. He lowered his volume and said, "I have decided that there are only three things that could motivate someone to destroy this film--money, power or fame. I canceled out fame because everyone in this film is famous, or will be when it releases. Power is a possibility, but money is more practical. Someone could be getting paid a lot to sabotage the equipment."

"What's your point?"

"Anyone who has been bribed once can be bribed again. I say we post a message on the bulletin board in building three with an offer no one could resist if they will quit their antics."

Sonic was unmoved. "Uh-huh. How much?"

"Ten million."

The hedgehog's jaw dropped. "Ten MILLION? Gosh, even _I_ might fall for THAT much! Where're you gonna get ten million bucks?"

The robot gave him a cold smile. "I will counterfeit it."

"Won't you get in trouble?"

"Not if we destroy it afterward. I mean only to use it for bait."

"We gonna tell anybody else?"

"No. This must be kept between us or it will fail. Do I have your support?"

Sonic sighed. "I guess. When do we do it?"

"Night after next. Here in the park."

"I'll be here."

* * *

The next morning an orange sheet of paper appeared on the public bulletin board with this message: "If you are responsible for the sabotage of this movie, we are willing to pay you cash if you will stop. Sign below if you are willing."

It attracted quite a crowd, to say the least. Sonic and Robo Knux pretended to know nothing about it, and contributed several wild ideas about who could have posted it. They kept an eye peeled for anyone interested in signing in the space below the message, but no one did.

It was late afternoon before anything notable happened. Filming on scene 124 was to begin in twenty minutes, and everyone was doing last minute rehearsals and trying to keep calm.

Spark feinted with his knife, pretending to slash at Sonic. Sonic went through his leap backward, then came in low to grasp Spark's knife hand. They talked as they went through the motions of fighting. "Do you think somebody'll REALLY let themselves be bought off and quit?" Spark asked his brother as they fake-struggled back and forth.

Sonic shrugged. "I donno. It seems crazy, don't it? Hey, you're supposed to start socking me right here."

The green hedgehog did, coming within a fraction of an inch of his brother's face, who recoiled each time as if he had been struck.

"Who put up that note, anyway?" Spark continued, taking a pretend blow to the jaw, then letting Sonic make him drop the knife.

"Nobody seems to know," Sonic replied, grabbing up the knife. "There, that's the end of that part. Now, do you jump off the balcony or do I push you?"

"I slip and fall," Spark said, "and Robo Knux gets me at the bottom. I hope he doesn't try to for real ..."

Sonic cringed inwardly. It seemed everyone more than half believed that R.K. was guilty.

The scene and resulting stunts went smoothly, with only six takes and Slasher's approval all around. They knocked off work at six-thirty and headed back to the restaurants for dinner. Sonic, Spark, Serena and Metal Sonic took a detour through building 3 to check the bulletin board. Their laughing and talking ceased abruptly as they caught sight of the scribbled note in strange handwriting on the orange paper. The four approached and silently read it.

"I want six and a half million. Take it or leave it."

* * *

Sonic and Robo Knux met later that evening, after the rest had gone to bed. Sonic was exhausted, as was shown by the dark circles under his eyes and the way his spikes drooped. But he and the robot discussed a reply anyway anyway and carefully wrote it beneath the saboteur's message. "We will give ten million dollars. Come to the north end of the pond in the park at midnight to receive it."

"And when he comes?" Sonic asked.

"We nail him," the robot replied grimly.

* * *

The next morning, yet another reply in unfamiliar handwriting had appeared. It was one word: "Agreed."

Again, many people read it and exclaimed over it. Knuckles said, "That crook must not be very bright. Doesn't he know that the entire police force will be camped out on the pond tonight?"

"Maybe not," Serena said. "Depends on who's trying to buy him out. They may actually do it."

"But this individual has committed serious crimes," Metal Sonic put in. "Why wouldn't they try to catch him?"

Sonic and Robo Knux cast each other a glance over the heads of the others. It was a good thing they were keeping this secret ...

* * *

But that night things did not go as planned.

Sonic and R.K. put the newly-printed money in a box and left it at the foot of a tree. Then they hid and waited for the saboteur to appear.

He never showed.

If not for watching in shifts, the two would have been unable to function the next day. Robo Knux showed little change--it did not matter to him if he slept or not--but Sonic was almost a walking zombie and snatched naps between scenes.

When the hedgehog and robot again met after hours, Robo Knux had a small gizmo in one hand. Quietly he explained to Sonic what it did as they crept to the park.

"This is a jammer. If a scanner is used to pick up our location, this puppy will jam the signal, rendering us invisible to radar. I have tested it and not even my scanners can overcome the jamming. You see, I detected a very faint signal last night. They saw us and stayed away. But tonight ..."

Sonic gave him a tired grin. "Here's hoping. I need some sleep."

They took up their vigil inside a clump of juniper bushes. These looked like a solid bunch, but had a small hollow in the center which made a great hiding-place. Robo Knux offered to watch the first hour. Sonic agreed, curled up in a sticker-less patch and fell asleep.

Ten o'clock came and went, then eleven, and finally midnight arrived. The night was still and cold, but the city lights illuminated the sky with a queer brilliance. The robot awakened his companion, who, although drugged with sleep, sat up and gazed around him. "Any time, now," the robot whispered, the lights in his eyes completely off. "The jamming signal is ready. When the red light on the side flashes, it is jamming a signal."

The two waited in silence. It being the beginning of fall, there was only an occasional cricket chirp now and then, and once in a while a katydid 'zipped'. The air was cold and Sonic's breath condensed faintly on the air. He shivered and hugged his knees to his chest, wishing he could sit closer to the robot for warmth, but knowing that R.K. produced little.

The minutes ticked by with little change; Sonic's eyelids drooped and fluttered open again ... he was determined to stay awake at all costs. But what if nothing happens? a small voice inside his head asked. The thought was discouraging--it meant another long day of sluggishness and fighting with the cottonballs in his brain.

He realized his was dozing with his eyes open and shook himself awake. Had the jammerbox blinked, or had his weary eyes deceived him? He gazed at it and watched the world swim before his eyes ... No wait, it HAD blinked! He touched the robot's arm, who nodded. The light began to flash regularly, blocking whatever signal was coming their way. The two watched it with breathless anticipation--suddenly Sonic was wide awake. Somebody was casing the park, making sure it was empty. Who? Would they come for the bait? Would the saboteur at last be revealed?

The light stopped flashing--the signal had shut off. Either they had been discovered or the signaller had decided the park was vacant. The two waited and watched with growing impatience, trying to hold absolutely still ...

Somewhere in the distance a twig snapped. The two looked out through the hedge at the pale package beneath the tree. When the suspect reached the bait it would be time to act. He was coming!

After a very long time and lone figure came into view. It was dressed from head to toe in black, and like Tails's attacker, wore a heavy veil over its face. It paused at the edge of the pond and looked around. After a moment it spotted the box and moved toward it.

Sonic glanced at Robo Knux. The robot was very quietly opening a panel on his chest, revealing a camera lens. They needed evidence, and intended to tape the entire scene.

As the figure knelt to retrieve the box, Sonic and Robo Knux stood and rushed out of the bushes. Robo Knux zoomed the camera in as the figure whipped around, getting a good shot of it. Then it turned to run. Sonic, knowing his chance had come, immediately broke into a sound-shattering run. He skipped straight across the pond at about 80 miles an hour, went into a spin and crashed into the figure's back. It gave a loud grunt at the impact, went flying and rolled across the wet grass. Sonic pounced on it, holding it down. They struggled--the stranger was strong! Had not Robo Knux showed up, he would have thrown Sonic off and beat it.

The two pinned the figure to the ground. It was panting but had not spoken, as if afraid they would recognize its voice. "Get a clear shot, R.K.," Sonic said. "I'm gonna lift the veil and see who this is."

At that their prisoner kicked and fought desperately.

"I'll use my stunner if you do not cooperate," Robo Knux warned.

The figure immediately calmed and lay still, head lifted slightly, watching Sonic with resigned rage.

Robo Knux turned the light in his eyes to maximum, shedding enough green light for them to see by. Sonic drew a deep breath, grabbed the edge of the veil and lifted.

The two drew back in shock. The face glaring back at them was not anyone they had suspected. It was as familiar to them as Serena's.

It was Knuckles.

"Okay, you got me," he snarled in unbridled fury. "Now take me to the cops or shoot me or whatever. I'm sick of this junk."

As they bound his hands behind his back and led him from the park, Sonic asked, "But why, Knux? Why'd you do it?"

The echidna shrugged with a stony carelessness they had never seen in him. "The same reason you caught me. Money."

* * *

They turned Knuckles in, though not without regret--he was one of Sonic's best friends. The loss was felt throughout the remaining four days of filming; the echidna was not there to help on the camera crew or bicker with Metal Sonic about the lighting. But there was no more mischief, either. No one could figure out why he had gone bad, and no one could quite picture him poisoning Sonic or attacking Tails. But there was the videotape Robo Knux had made, which banished all doubt.

The finished filming the final scene on the last day. Everything was cleaned up by six o' clock, and at six twenty-nine the entire production crew stood around Slasher, who had a digital watch and was counting down. There was a breathless silence as the big raptor said, "Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, six-thirty! We made it!" The air was split by the sudden cheer and hurrahs. "Half a cheer for finishing on time!" Tails shouted. The group enthusiastically yelled, "Hip hip hoo!" and punched their fists into the air.

Later, as they separated to go to the celebration they had planned, Serena asked Sonic, "What about Knux? What'll happen to him?"

The blue hedgehog knelt and tightened the white strap around his red sneaker. "Well, he'll get a few years in jail ... you know, for assault and battery, sabotage, that stuff. He's supposed to give a full confession tonight, and that's where I'm headed."

"You're not coming to the reception?"

"Maybe afterward. I--" He broke off suddenly, stood and finished quietly, "I'm one of the main witnesses."

"Oh." His sister gave him a sad, sympathetic look. "Too bad he did all that stuff ..."

Sonic nodded. "Yeah. Tell me about it."

* * *

Knuckles was seated at a small table in a small room, leaned back comfortably. Sonic entered and sat down across from him, beside the police questioner, a perky grey fox.

"You know your rights," the fox said. "Anything you say--"

"Will be used against me," the echidna interrupted. "Yeah, I know. And if I confess you lower the sentence, right?"

"More or less, yes."

Knuckles looked at Sonic, who was listening without a word. "Before pre-production even started, another movie company got wind of it and freaked. I guess because for a low-budget film, this one would make a lot of money and put Slasher's company on the map. So their agent approached me with the offer to pay me six point five million dollars if I'd trash the movie. I needed the money, and who wouldn't jump at six and a half million smackeroos? So I agreed.

"You were the first target, Sonic. I happened to know that if I put a certain amount of poison on your food, you'd eat it and die. But if I put on a lot your body would notice and you'd get sick. That was pretty easy." He spoke with calm indifference, as if poisoning a friend meant nothing to him.

"Shocking Mecha to death was a little more tricky--I couldn't actually tell of the voltage flowing through the cable would blow him up. It would have, I think, but I forgot about the surge protectors he had installed a couple months back. That's the only reason he pulled through. You may have noticed that I wanted to reset his system right there, but Doc stopped me. Mecha would have lost everything in his URAM." He sighed. "I couldn't kick too much or I would have given myself away.

"I did myself next to take the suspicion off me. I drank a coke in a glass bottle, washed off my fingerprints and carried it with my glove. When I got to the right place, I busted myself across the back of the head. My only worry was that I might not drop the bottleneck when I blacked out, but I did when I fell."

"That was why there was no evidence of an attack," Sonic said.

Knuckles nodded. "Yup, that's why. I wanted to have that big camera rig collapse next, 'cause we only had three. When we set up I took out the bolt. It was just luck that Doc happened to be standing under it. It would have nailed him, too, if he hadn't have dodged.

"Tails was next. I knew I would have to physically attack him, so I dressed all in black and wore a veil so he couldn't see who I was. I used Spark's knife--poor planning on my part. I hadn't really decided who to pin the crimes on at that point. It was a toss-up between Spark and R.K. But Spark defended himself too well, so I decided R.K. would have to do.

"I took the film out of the cameras right before filming started. It was easy to point at R.K., 'cause he had positioned the cameras earlier. That one was no big deal--it was easy to pull off. The one with Serena required a bit more planning."

Sonic's eyes darkened. He had been very upset about that one.

Knuckles cupped both hands behind his head and leaned back. "First I had to get her in there with the robotizer. No biggie--she volunteered. Next, I had to hot-wire the thing without her knowing it. So I left a wire loose as an excuse, and while I pretended to fix it, I really set it up to automatically lower the tube with no outside command. 'Rena didn't know the difference anyway. So when she got locked in the machine, it was easy to tell it to fire up, the block it so nobody could stop it. I know all those fancy-spancy commands. Then I ran out on the pretence of getting help, but it was really to keep help away until I was sure the machine was done and she was robotized." He pounded a fist on the table in sudden anger. "But that STUPID Metal Sonic saved her!"

Sonic stared at him. "Why? Why on Mobius would you do that? You LIKE Serena!"

Knuckles gazed back at him very coolly. "Have somebody wave several million bucks under YOUR nose and see what YOU do."

He looked up at the shadowy ceiling. "I had my next stunt all set up--I was gonna rig the pyrotechnics to backfire and torch everybody on the set. I know that would have killed some people, but I was getting desperate. It was that morning that your message showed up on the bulletin board. I wasn't looking forward to having a death count after my name, so I named my price when nobody was around. You guys upped the ante to ten, and I thought, 'Wow, I could use this!' So I agreed. But you and R.K. were hanging out in the park that night, so I skipped out. But the next night, when I scanned, I must have missed you or something. Anyhow, when I came out to get the money, you two jumped me. End of story." He looked expectantly at the fox, who had been furiously taking notes all the while. "Well? How's that?"

The cop nodded. "Good, Mr. Echidna. This should have a positive effect on your punishment."

As the fox led Knuckles from the room, the echidna paused beside Sonic's chair and slapped him on the back. His eyes had softened somewhat, and he almost looked as kindly as he had before. "Tell everybody I'm sorry, and not to fall for money--it's just not worth it. Send me a copy of the movie when it comes out on video."

Then he was gone. Sonic sat for a long while in the empty room, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

* * *

Sonic jerked awake and sat up in bed. A dream? It had all been a dream? He jumped up and ran to the window. Morning. Without even bothering to put on his shoes he burst out the door, tore through Knothole and up to Knuckles's hut. He calmed himself, drew a breath and opened the door a crack. The echidna was inside, asleep, flopped cross-wise across his bed. Yes, it had only been a dream--Knux hadn't went to jail!

As he walked back to his hut, Rotor met him with a dusty holodisk in one hand. "Hey Sonic, you really ought to watch this."

Sonic took it and looked at the blank cover. "What is it?"

"It's some movie about this hedgehog who finds out he has an evil brother, and this brother is teamed up with a really mean robot ... Sonic, are you listening?"

Sonic was staring into space as if he had not heard a word.

The End.