26. Mercury Inferno Rising: Part 1
Mercury Inferno Rising
Sonic Heroes adapt
By K.M. Hollar and Jared Spurbeck
Copyright information: All the Sonic characters copyrighted by Sega and Archie. Other characters copyrighted by K.M. Hollar and Jared Spurbeck. This story copyrighted 2004 by K.M. Hollar and Jared Spurbeck. Destro copyrighted by Destro and used with permission. Hug a penguin.
This is fic 27 in a story continuity by K.M. Hollar. It builds on things established in other stories, and here is a brief explanation of things that might confuse the reader unfamilier with the world.
1) Shadow and Mekion are the same person. Shadow was revived after the ARK incident by his chao Nox, who then died. Shadow fell into the clutches of Metal Sonic, who converted half of Shadow's body into a robot in a process called mecha-fusion. Metal Sonic then renamed the resulting creature "Mekion". However, the Shadow-half is still Shadow, and the robot half is called Mekion. The two minds are continually at odds.
2) Metal Sonic long ago upgraded his mental hardware and gave himself a nanite brain, which functions like a real brain. Metal Sonic also invented a substance called biometal, which is an alloy with biological properties, for instance, elacticity and the potential for respiration.
3) Knuckles has married an echidna named Zephyer, after a long and rocky courtship and an experimental derobotizer. As of this story they have been married maybe six weeks.
4) The Chaotix are based on their personalities in Knuckles Chaotix. Thus forcing them into their roles in Sonic Heroes is a way to gently poke fun at Sonic Heroes. And Charmy is still 16 in this story--take that, Sega!
5) Chaos fields are an aura of chaos energy that radiate off most Mobians. It is maintained by the global chaos field, which in turn is maintained by the chaos emeralds. Some Mobians have stronger fields than others, and some have none at all. But you have to have a chaos field of some kind in order to manipulate the chaos emeralds.
Two shadows flitted down a darkened street, avoiding the streetlights. They moved from deep darkness to deep darkness, halting often to look and listen. The street was deserted at 3 AM, but they were cautious nonetheless.
The leader halted and so did his companion. For several minutes they stood on the sidewalk as if silently conversing, then they slipped across the street to a bank. It was locked and dark, but security cameras and laser sensors riddled the inside. The leader stepped to the doors, his glowing red eyes flicking on and reflecting in the glass. For several seconds he stood stock still, communicating with the computer network in the building, as his partner stood at his back and watched the street.
There was a click and the door unlocked. The cameras and lasers winked out, and the robot extended a hand and pushed open the door. He beckoned to his partner, who followed him in.
Metal Sonic strode through the bank's lobby as if he owned it, pushed open the swinging door behind the counter and walked to a door in the back. A black robot followed him. Once it had been a hedgehog, but the left half of his body was now dull black metal. He kept to the shadows of the room as Metal Sonic inserted a claw into the door's lock. The claw melted and reformed inside the lock, mimicking the shapes of the gears. Metal Sonic rotated his claw and the lock clicked open.
The door opened. "Come, Mekion," said Metal Sonic, slipping inside. "I disabled security here, too."
The android followed him without a sound, and they entered a room lined with safety deposit boxes. Metal Sonic walked to a shelf and took down a box. He picked the lock with his morph-claw and lifted the lid.
Inside was the red chaos emerald. Metal Sonic gazed at it for a moment, and one hand twitched as if he longed to touch it. But he knew that metal conducted chaos energy like electricity, and he would incinerate from the inside out. Instead, he held out the box to Mekion. The black hedgehog extended his right hand and lifted the gem, which glowed through the flesh, illuminating the bones. "I'd rather it was green," whispered Mekion.
Metal Sonic was still staring at the gem as if hypnotized. "Yes," he said slowly. He shook himself and seemed to awaken. "Yes. Let us depart."
They left the vault and came face to face with a security guard. They stared at each other for a long second, then the robots ran for the doors. "Halt!" yelled the guard, drawing his gun.
Mekion dove sideways into Metal Sonic, and the two hit the floor as the guard's automatic sprayed bullets at waist-level, shattering the windows. Metal Sonic leaped up, but was dragged down again by Mekion as the guard fired at the robot's silhouette against the light from the windows. Furious, Metal Sonic ignited the industrial laser in his wrist and slashed it across the room, burning through the ceiling, walls and counters in a long arc. The guard dove for the floor.
Metal Sonic rose and darted out the broken window, and Mekion followed him. As Mekion climbed over the broken glass, the guard rose and planted three bullets in the hedgehog's back.
Mekion hit the pavement face-first and tried to get up, but suddenly his body didn't work right. He couldn't breathe, and a hideous pain was spreading through him. "Master," the robot half of his brain said over the network, "Shadow has been injured."
Metal Sonic cursed and ran back. He lifted Mekion, slung him over his shoulders and raced up the street on foot. "Status report," he commanded.
"Shadow's status at 83% and dropping," Mekion replied. "Mekion status at 90% and dropping." Two of the bullets had punched through Mekion's organic side, piercing his right lung and shattering a rib. The third bullet had penetrated Mekion's metal side just below his shoulderblade, but the hole was already filling with a gelatinous nanite substance to repair the damaged metal. By comparison, the damage to the organic or "Shadow" side was much more horrific. He was losing blood rapidly, and his body convulsed in a racking cough.
"Don't cough," said Metal Sonic. "You will die quicker."
"Can't breathe," choked Mekion aloud, and mentally he added, "Blood is hindering respiratory operations. Shadow status is 64% and dropping."
Metal Sonic had never known fear. Uncertainty, yes, concern, yes. But genuine fear, never. He had long ago removed any programming that hinted at fear, believing it weakened his resolve when fighting. But he had reintroduced such a concept with the upgrading of his brain, and now, suddenly, Metal Sonic was terrified that Mekion might die. He observed this phenomenon and made a note to ponder it later--right now, he had to do something quick or his most brilliant creation would perish.
He ignited his jet and flew out of the street as a swarm of squad cars streamed toward the bank. He jumped three blocks and landed in an alley beside a nondescript office building. Mekion went into another coughing fit, the blood bubbling in his lungs. He was drowning. Metal Sonic jerked open the door and hurried into the darkness within. "Status report!"
"Shadow status 41% and dropping," came the reply. "Warning! Shadow status nearing critical! Mekion status is 67% and dropping."
The robot side was powered by the bioelectricity from the organic side. If Shadow died, Mekion would die, too.
Metal Sonic was running, not daring to use his jet indoors. He clattered down four flights of stairs, bolted down a hallway and through several high security doors that opened ahead of him. He watched through the network as Shadow's status drained away through the 30's, then entered the 20's. He felt the hedgehog's body relax as Shadow fainted from lack of oxygen. Mekion's signals began to weaken.
"Status report!" barked Metal Sonic, not because he needed one, but because he wanted Mekion to keep talking.
There was a long pause. "Shadow status ... 15% ... Mekion status ... 32% ... Master, help me."
Metal Sonic nearly responded with something positive and untrue, but checked himself. Only organic lifeforms would seek to reassure someone who was dying. He was too attached to Mekion--he should try to reverse this troubling emotion within himself. But the thought did not slow his footsteps or decrease his fear.
The final door opened, and Metal Sonic entered a high room with the walls covered in life support machines. In the center of the room was a glass pod connected to a vast conduit of tubes and wires. Metal Sonic commanded the lid to open and slid Mekion's limp body inside. The android lay in a crumpled heap inside, his organic eye closed and robot eye dimming.
Metal Sonic slammed the lid and issued commands to the computers with his wireless uplink. The pod sealed and began to fill with a greenish liquid containing both organic- and machine-healing nanites. Metal Sonic had never mixed the two before, but he was desperate enough to try it now.
The pod filled to the brim, and Mekion's buoyancy lifted him erect in the fluid. Metal Sonic stood with his nose-spike touching the glass and commanded, "Status report!"
There was no answer. Mekion's robot eye was extinguished, and his blood was tinting the fluid a vague brown.
Metal Sonic's fists clenched. "You are not permitted to die, that is a direct order! Now report your status!"
It came so weakly he hardly registered the signal. "Mekion ... 15% ... stable."
When nothing else came through, Metal Sonic said, "Shadow status?"
"Unknown," came the whisper after a long pause.
Metal Sonic consulted the nanite readouts. The organism was alive and being repaired, but it would take hundreds of hours. By comparison, the damage to the robot-half was inconsequential and would be repaired in thirty minutes.
Metal Sonic stared at Mekion for a long time through the glass. Now he had time to think about what had happened, he remembered Mekion knocking him down twice to protect him from bullets. At such close range, the bullets would have done as much damage to Metal Sonic as to Mekion. The First Law in action--Mekion could not allow Metal Sonic to come to harm. Loyalty was convenient, except at times like these, when it had unforeseen repercussions. And now Metal Sonic was staring into a stasis pod, feeling grief and remorse at having caused Mekion to come to harm.
Remorse? Mekion was an experiment! Metal Sonic should not have grown fond of him. Metal Sonic turned to leave and looked down at himself. He was covered in Mekion's drying blood. With a twinge of pity and revulsion he departed in search of some strong detergent.
On the floor of the pod, where it had fallen from Mekion's nerveless hand, lay the red chaos emerald, feeding its destructive power into the nanites.
* * *
Tails grinded a rail, jumped to a second one, slid down it and landed on his toes. He bowed, and Sonic clapped. "Good job, little bro! How're the shoes?"
Tails shifted his weight from foot to foot. He was wearing Sonic's old soapshoes, which Sonic had replaced with a flashier new pair. Their feet were almost the same size, and Tails was secretly thrilled at the chance to mimic his hero again.
"They're a little big," he admitted, "but I tied them real tight around the ankles. I thought grinding was really hard."
"Eh, you've got two tails for balance," said Sonic. He jumped up on a rail and grinded around the obstacle course, himself. The course had been a present for his birthday the previous year, and he used it so much that all the rails were polished and shiny. Tails followed him and they raced each other around the rails before Tails lost his balance and fell on his face. Chuckling, Sonic helped him up. "You okay?"
"Yeah," said Tails, spitting out sand. "I'll practice a lot while you're gone."
Sonic's eyes danced with mischief. "I can't wait to get down there. Remember last time we visited Rio del Fuego?"
"Yeah, Knuckles threatened you with death if you went near a Casino," Tails grinned. "We're both old enough to enter legally now."
"Not like that first time," said Sonic, leaning his elbows on a rail. "How old were you? Six?"
"I was nine at least."
"No, I think you were six, because I was fourteen."
"No, you were twelve."
"Whatever," said Sonic. "We were too young to be there, that's all that matters."
There was a moment of silence, and Tails tightened his soapshoes. Sonic side eyed him. "If you sneaked down after us, I wouldn't complain."
Tails looked up, ears pricked. "Is that an invitation?"
Sonic shrugged. "I'm just telling you I wouldn't mind. Sally might, though."
"I thought she was going down there to work."
"In theory," Sonic grinned. "It's a big conference for all of West Mobius's political mucky mucks, figuring out how to manage New Mobitropolis. The Mobians want to make it the capital again, and the humans don't want another Robotnik if they can help it."
"Yeah, he kind of fouled up the human image," said Tails. Neither he nor Sonic mentioned how their own perceptions of mankind had been skewed by Robotnik's cruelty, and it was only through interaction with ordinary people had they realized their prejudices were wrong.
"Anyway," said Sonic, "they hold it in Rio del Fuego for a reason. So the delegates can have some fun."
"You know," said Tails, "it's also a great place to assassinate them all."
Sonic stared at him. "Now that's morbid."
"Well, think about it," said Tails. "Casino places are hotspots of crime. Some guy could come in with a gun, and nobody would care until it was too late."
Sonic continued to stare. "You scare me sometimes."
"I read the newspaper," said Tails with a shrug. "And I build weapons as a hobby. I hear stories."
"Well, that's why I'm going," said Sonic, straightening up. "Nothing will happen to Sally if I'm there."
He walked out of the course, and Tails followed him. Knothole now had five streets, and Sonic followed one to its end where Sally's hut was located. The door was open, and Sally was inside, tidying up her hut. A packed suitcase stood beside her desk. Sonic looked in and whistled--he hadn't seen it so clean in months.
The squirrel turned and gave him a smile. "All ready, Sonic?"
"Yup," said Sonic, leaning against the door frame. "I hope you didn't pack too much. Traveling by Chaos Control is harder than it sounds."
"Everything I need is in that suitcase," said Sally. "It's more then two hundred miles to Rio del Fuego--you won't conk out, will you?"
"Naw," said Sonic with a wink at Tails. "I only conk out if I've jumped an ocean or two."
She looked him over. "You don't have a backpack or anything?"
"Sure. But there's no reason to carry it all over the place. I'll get it when you're ready."
Sally lifted her suitcase. "Well, I'm ready, so you'd better go get it."
Sonic zipped off as Sally locked her door and handed the key to Tails.
"Be careful of assassins," said Tails soberly.
Sally almost laughed, but caught herself at the look on his face. "I will. But why would anyone want to kill me?"
"You're the princess," said Tails, looking down. "And it's Rio del Fuego."
"You've been there before."
Sally hugged him. "I'll be careful, Tails. But I don't think much will happen. I've been in more dangerous places before." She opened one hand and showed Tails the scars across her palm and fingers, where she had grabbed Robo Knux's claws to keep from being impaled.
Tails eyes widened a fraction, then he smiled. "Just take on an assassin like you did Robo Knux."
Sally aimed a pretend karate chop at Tails's head, laughed and lifted her suitcase again. Sonic met her before she had walked five feet, his travel-stained backpack stuck among the quills on his back, and the green Chaos emerald in one hand.
"Sayonara, Tails," he said, taking Sally's hand. Then Sonic looked at the gem and said, "Chaos relocate." Sonic and Sally vanished in a sparkle of light.
Tails walked back to his workshop and glanced at his computer's screen. One new message. He opened it and read it, and instantly wished he had read it five minutes earlier, when Sonic was still within shouting distance.
* * *
Mekion awoke only once while inside the pod, and then because his master commanded it. Awakening inside of a stasis pod was difficult, because the life-supporting nanites in his lungs and bloodstream were programmed to keep him in a comatose state, but Mekion responded to Metal Sonic's prodding. Mekion's awakening dragged Shadow to the surface, too, and his robot eye flickered on.
Metal Sonic was standing on the other side of the glass, looking in.
"Greetings, Master," Mekion said drowsily through the network.
"Are you in pain?" asked Metal Sonic.
"No," said Mekion. He could hardly feel his organic half at all. He began swimming off into the void, but Metal Sonic's voice dragged him back.
"I must depart now, but I am leaving protection for you. This robot will keep away intruders while you recuperate. When you are repaired, the robot will relay your next orders."
"Yes..." Mekion was sinking back to sleep and barely heard his Master's voice. Metal Sonic said something else, but Mekion was already asleep again as the nanites resumed rebuilding him.
* * *
Rio del Fuego was a human colony near the equator, hot and tropical. It was built along the coast like Sapphire City, and its casinos and resorts were visible at night fifty miles away. It was highly popular with humans and Mobians alike, and had grown so much that its southern borders had nearly met those of Metrocard, a neighboring Mobian city.
Sonic and Sally arrived in a flash of light in a parking lot just inside the Rio del Fuego city limits. Sally exhaled. "Whew, we made it."
"I told you we would," said Sonic, looking at the signs and posters that covered the buildings around them. "Didn't even faze me. See, wasn't this better then taking the Cyclone again?"
"It sure was," said Sally. She pulled a map out of her vest pocket and unfolded it. "Okay, the conference is being held in the United Assembly building on the waterfront." She pointed to a circle on the map. "Can you get us there?"
"No prob," said Sonic, studying the map. He tossed his emerald up in the air, caught it and said, "Chaos relocate."
Their surroundings changed to a white sand beach crowded with sunbathers. People gasped and stared as the squirrel and hedgehog appeared.
"Whoops, too far," said Sonic. "I'm trying not to land in the middle of a road."
"Thanks for your consideration," said Sally. "That must be the UA building up there. Let's walk instead of teleporting."
"Fine with me." Sonic set off at a trot across the sand, carrying Sally's suitcase, and she followed him.
The casinos lined the waterfront with glittering, colorful shapes, patterened after everything from Roman coliseums to giant musical instruments. Sonic stared in particular at one building like a glass cube with a rollercoaster that looped in and out of it. "Wow, check that out, Sal," said Sonic, pointing. "What say we go in there?"
"Don't you think you'd be bored?" said Sally. "Those rollercoasters only go about sixty miles an hour."
"Oh yeah," said Sonic, losing interest at once. "Here's the UA building."
The UA building was built like a pyramid and decorated with lots of fake hieroglyphics. The parking lot was fenced with chain link, and guardian robots stood at the gates. The parking lot was filled with limousines.
"This is the place, all right," said Sonic, smirking. Sally walked to the gate and showed her ID to the guard robot, which scanned her and the card, then motioned for her to enter. As Sonic moved to follow her, the robot barred his way. "Hey, I'm with her," Sonic protested.
"He's with me," said Sally.
The robot grudgingly stepped aside, and Sonic entered the gate, glaring. "GUN's providing the security, I see."
"Hush," said Sally. "It's the best the humans have to offer, and no picking fights, understand?"
Sonic shrugged. "I wasn't picking a fight."
"I'm just warning you in advance." Sally led the way into the building, Sonic trailing and looking longingly at the casino and rollercoaster across the street.
Inside were more security guards who checked out Sally's ID and issued Sonic with a temporary ID, since he was Sally's escort. Then they were shown to their rooms on the third floor, which had a wide view of the ocean and slot machines on the landing.
"I like this place better and better," said Sonic.
"Yeah," said Sally, who was also pleased with their accommodations. "The first meeting is at two this afternoon. Why don't we check around and see what else is here?"
Sonic's eyes lit up. "Sounds good to me."
* * *
Knuckles was up in a tree on the Floating Island, sawing off diseased branches, when his communicator buzzed. He rested his saw on a branch, braced himself against the main trunk and pulled out his com.
"Knuckles? This is Tails."
Knuckles frowned--Tails never called him unless it was an emergency. "Okay, what's wrong with Sonic?"
"Nothing," said Tails. "I got this really weird email, and I don't know what to do. Sonic and Sally went to Rio del Fuego this morning and their com is out of range."
Knuckles wiped sweat from his forehead. "What's this email say?"
"It's from Robotnik. It says, "I have a secret weapon that I am going to use to destroy Mobius. Want to stop me? You have four days. But I'll bet you can't do it, ha ha! Signed, Eggman."
"Sounds like a joke to me," said Knuckles.
"I thought of that," said Tails, "so I traced it back through the network. It originated from a server in Central Mobius. You know how the Robotropolis servers were always EG-something? This one was EG-9309."
"No kidding." Knuckles set a foot on the half-sawed branch and broke it off. It crashed to the ground below, and Knuckles climbed to the next branch that needed pruning. "Well Tails, I don't know what to tell you. Why would Robotnik send you a dare like that? He always tries to sneak when he's got a new scheme."
"That's right." Tails sounded troubled. "But what if it's real? Shouldn't we try to check it out?"
"Sure." Knuckles hoisted his saw and notched the branch where he intended to cut it. "But count me out of this one."
"Why?" Tails was astonished. "Don't you want to stop Robotnik?"
"I think that message is a fake," said Knuckles flatly. "Besides, Zephyer and I just went through heck getting Talon adopted. I'm not wild about risking my neck again for a while."
"All right, then," said Tails. "But what should I do?"
"Get in touch with Sonic," said Knuckles. "And if you can't reach him, call up the Chaotix. I hear their detective business is taking off."
"I forgot about them. Thanks, Knux."
"Bye, Tails." Knuckles hung up and reattached his com to his belt. He resumed sawing, and thought about the email. Probably a prank from some fan of Sonic's. But it originated from a server like Robotnik's old ones... Could be a coincidence? No one had heard from Robotnik in a year, not since the ARK incident. Why this sudden email? And why sign it 'Eggman'? Robotnik never used his nickname.
Knuckles broke off the branch and climbed out of the tree, clinging to the bark with his knuclaws. He reached the ground and gathered up the branches, dragging them to a burn pile a safe distance from the trees. He didn't want to get involved, not this time. Barely a month had passed since Talon had come to live on the island for good, and two weeks before that, Knuckles had married Zephyer and they were still adjusting. On the whole, Knuckles's life had become much busier, and he just wanted to stay home.
* * *
Omega was angry. Angry beyond reason, so angry that his internal heat gauges reflected it. He was trapped in this hulking metal body with a life support system plugged into him, his consciousness redirected through the sensors of his metal body. And he was furious.
His visual scanners swept the room and his programming hammered at his brain, but he fought it. He didn't want a mission or objectives or information. He wanted to kill. Wantonly and without reason; kill everything that moved until this robot body was reduced to slag and his anger was exhausted.
The room was quiet, the doors sealed shut. He paced around the perimeter, his heavy limbs moving with a swift grace. There were machines on the walls, and a stasis pod reared up in the center. The robot examined it, hating everything about himself--the hand that touched the glass, the various sensors he employed to sweep the pod, the reports they returned to his screen. Here lay a mecha-fused creature, alpha version, experimental, still damaged but repairing. Omega hated it immediately and drew back a clawed hand to rip open the pod's front, but his internal restraints checked him with an electrical shock. Negative. His orders were to protect that creature, not destroy it. Omega chafed, torn between lust for destruction, and fear of the pain that had halted him. The shock hit again, striking the helpless body of the living creature inside him, making it cry out in pain. No, he would obey and leave the fused mecha alone, for now.
He paced around and around the room, his balance and awareness growing as the creature within him grew accustomed to his new body. His anger and hatred smoldered within him. He was E-123 Omega, last of the E-series robots. His body had been in storage for a long time, for it lacked a pilot. But Metal Sonic had located one, inserted it, and commanded it to protect his pet Mekion while Metal Sonic attended to other matters. Omega knew all this and resented it. He wanted to kill, destroy, hurt, take revenge for being imprisoned this way--both inside the robot, and inside this room. He possessed weapons that could bring the entire human military to its knees, and what was he ordered to do? To babysit a lifeless thing in a pod! It wasn't fair.
Tired of pacing, Omega planted himself against the wall and stared at nothing. He was wasting energy, and although his fusion core was powerful, there was no sense in burning energy that he could use to fire his weapons later. And he dearly wanted to fire his weapons--and watch some hostile object blow to atoms before him. For a long time he fantasized about destroying things, his pilot's vivid imagination adding color and texture to the images. He reveled in fire, gore and destruction as days passed and a thin layer of dust settled over his body.
At last he wearied of his fantasies and began thinking. He had a basic morality system that he grudgingly admitted should guide his actions- killing without reason wrong. There had to be some reason, even a thin, shaky one. He thought about it. Other then his vendetta against the world, he had no reason to destroy anything. He even had some objectives to accomplish. He thought about them with resentment- protect Mekion, relay orders when Mekion awakened, blah blah. Omega didn't care. He just wanted to destroy.
Aha! The reason for his anger was because he was trapped in this robot. One of Robotnik's robots. Therefore his grudge was against Robotnik and his minions, like Metal Sonic. Omega called an image of Metal Sonic to his internal screen and studied it. The one who had issued his orders and trapped him in this machine. Metal Sonic was therefore the enemy, and all his orders could be disregarded.
Omega's murderous red eyes focused on the stasis pod. Throwing out his orders meant he was free to waste this room and the pod's silent occupant. The Mecha-fusion project was Metal Sonic's, and could be destroyed first.
As Omega was sorting through his weapons and wondering which to use, his aural sensors detected a faint click at the outer door. He froze. An intruder? He listened as more clicks and scrapes echoed through the metal door. Definitely an intruder. An authorized visitor would have opened the door with a passcode at the entrance. Still, an intruder was more interesting then sitting in this empty room. Perhaps he would fake deactivation, then blast the intruder when they least suspected it. Yes, a fine plan. He would savor this moment of destruction.
Omega switched off his eye-lights and stood still, watching the door. It slid open with a pneumatic hiss, and a white bat slipped in. She was dressed in a tight black jumpsuit with gadgets strapped to her waist. She darted to one side and flattened herself to the wall, her eyes sweeping the room for cameras or turrets. She spotted Omega and stared at him for a long moment. When he remained motionless, she withdrew an object from her belt and scanned the room with it, sweeping it from side to side.
"No sensors," she breathed at last. "Perfect." She walked to the stasis pod and peered in. "Now to see what Eggman's new secret weapon is... something very expensive, no doubt..." Then she recognized the pod's occupant and gasped. For a long time she was perfectly still, staring. Omega watched her, computing the best angle to launch a rocket so as to destroy her and the pod together.
The bat examined the control console on the pod's base. The readout said, "Regeneration 97% complete." She squinted through the liquid at the black hedgehog. "Shadow," she whispered, "what's happened to you?" She returned her gaze to the console and tapped a button. The screen changed and asked if she wished to cancel the rebuilding process. She gazed at it for a while, biting her lower lip and looking at the pod's occupant, waging an inner war with herself. Then she selected 'yes', and followed the onscreen instructions to drain the pod.
Liquid gurgled through the pipes attached to the pod's base, and Mekion sank with it until he was lying against the glass. Suddenly he coughed and vomited nanite-liquid from his stomach and lungs. It was unpleasant, and Rouge watched with a revolted expression.
As Mekion recovered enough to sit up and blink through the glass, a valve opened in the pod's roof and soaked him in warm water, slicking down his black fur, and rolling off his metal. This was to wash the nanite residue from his fur, but Mekion didn't know this, and his robot eye glowed in shock and anger. First he had awakened to the pain and panic of choking on the nano-fluid, and now he was drenched again in front of some stranger who was staring at him. Then he was blasted by drying fans, which bent his spines and fur backwards.
It stank in the pod, and Mekion hoped he would be released before he had to suffer any more indignities. He glared at the bat outside the now fogged glass, and realized he recognized her. Rouge the bat. The name came from the depths of Shadow's memory with a struggle. He had never liked her, and she had upset him, used him, tormented him with questions he could not answer. What did she want?
As the glass fogged over, Mekion noticed a red light near his feet. The red chaos emerald. He picked it up and remembered how he got it--with his Master, robbing a bank, taking three bullets. Mekion touched his chest and found the wounds were nearly healed, but the fur growing over the wounds was white. His black dye was growing out, curse his white fur! He had to find more dye soon.
"Mekion." An unfamiliar voice spoke over the network. Mekion froze.
"E-123 Omega. I am going to destroy you."
The pod's glass canopy opened, and Mekion dove out, striking Rouge and knocking her down as a rocket tore through the pod, igniting the chemicals inside it. Omega fired the Gatling guns on both arms, strafing the room through the smoke.
"Run!" Mekion whispered, but his injured voice was inaudible over the roar of the flames and the rattle of the robot's weapons. Instead Mekion grabbed Rouge with his robot hand, pivoted and slid her across the floor toward the door. Then he leaped up and bolted toward Omega.
Mekion's primary training had been for stealth, but in the months since his first mission, his Master had re-taught him about combat. Shadow had been a fierce fighter, and after two sessions he remembered how to combine his speed and whirling spindash to destroy an opponent. And now that half of his spines were jagged metal blades, he could inflict more damage.
Mekion's first attack knocked Omega against the wall and left a foot-long gash in Omega's armor. Mekion's second rush was blocked by a blow from Omega's arm, which deflected Mekion and knocked him across the room. Mekion jumped up, and he and Omega were rushing to meet each other when Rouge yelled, "Stop it!" She leaped between them with a blue light in either hand, and both robots stopped dead, paralyzed.
Omega was struck dumb, but Mekion hissed, "What are you doing?"
"This is a magnetic force field," said Rouge, watching both of them. "It's for disabling robots. Now stop fighting." She flicked off her magnigens, and Mekion and Omega lurched and regained their balance.
"Come out in the hall," said Rouge, and the pair obeyed, leaving the smoky atmosphere just as the emergency sprinkling system kicked on to extinguish the remains of the pod.
As soon as they had reached breathable air, Rouge turned to face them. "You, robot. What were you saying during that fight?"
"Must destroy Robotnik's robots," growled Omega, crossing his massive arms. "Mekion is one of Robotnik's robots and must be destroyed."
"I swear allegiance to Metal Sonic only," whispered Mekion, glaring.
Rouge looked at him. "Are you Shadow?"
"I am Mekion now," he whispered. "But I remember you, Rouge. You were a spy. What are you doing here now?"
"I heard Robotnik has a new secret weapon he's been working on," said Rouge, watching both of them. "And I don't think you're it, Shadow."
He didn't answer, but his fingers clenched around the red gem in his right hand. As he did, the emerald's energy ignited the bio-nanites woven into his body, and he started to shake. Mekion stepped back and braced a hand against the wall for support.
Rouge held out a hand. "Robots shouldn't handle Chaos emeralds. Let me take that for you."
Mekion laid his ear back and bared his teeth. Rouge didn't venture closer. Instead she turned to Omega. "Why were you locked in that room with him?"
"To guard him," said Omega. "I am not wanted elsewhere."
"So why destroy him?"
"Because... I was never subdued by programming." For a second the vocal synthesizer took on a petulant tone, and Rouge realized she was not addressing a robot, but a creature built inside the robot to control it.
She looked hard into the narrow eye-strip that served as a face. "So you're a renegade. Would you help me work against Robotnik?"
Omega considered. "Are you offering me a chance to destroy things?"
"Only Robotnik's things."
"Then I will help you. But after Robotnik is destroyed, you must grant me a favor."
Rouge smiled. "Oh?"
"You must release me from this robot. I was inserted against my will."
Rouge looked Omega up and down. Here this four-hundred pound menace was bargaining with her. She wondered what kind of creature was inside it. "All right," she said. She turned to Mekion. "How about you, Shadow?"
He didn't answer. His fur was dark with sweat, and his natural eye was glazed. Rouge moved toward him, frowning. "Shadow, are you all right?"
"Stay away from me," he hissed, brandishing his robot claws.
She stopped. "All right, fine. Omega and I are going off to hunt Robotnik's secret weapon. Are you coming or not?"
Mekion gazed at her for a long moment, weighing this request against the three laws built into him. First, he must not allow harm to befall Metal Sonic, second, he must obey Metal Sonic in all things, and third, he was allowed to defend himself. Running off with Rouge and Omega interfered with none of these, but it left him uneasy. Hadn't his master told him something about orders for when he left the pod? He glanced at Omega and asked over the network, "Did Master issue me any instructions?"
Omega was silent.
Mekion repeated the question.
Omega snarled, "All orders have been disregarded. If there was a message for you, it was deleted."
Mekion sensed the anger and hatred radiating off Omega, and decided to remain connected to the network at all times in order to watch him.
"Well?" said Rouge, oblivious to the communication between the robots.
Mekion looked at her. "I will accompany you until instructions from my Master are received."
"Well, you don't have to be such an android about it," sniffed Rouge. "Come on, you two. I left all the doors open so exit will be easy."
* * *
Tails was scrolling through the phone directory, looking for the Chaotix's number in Rio del Fuego, when someone knocked at his door. "Come in," he called.
The door opened and Amy bounced in. "Tails! Come look who's here! Where's Sonic?"
"Sonic and Sally just left," said Tails, looking up. "Why? Who's here?"
"Come and see!" Amy darted outside, and the fox followed her, curious.
He saw a small group of people outside a hover transport, talking to a well dressed female rabbit who was smiling and gesturing. A movie star maybe?
A chao scampered out of the crowd and stood alone, looking around.
"Hello," said Tails.
It looked at him, then smiled. "Hi."
Before Tails could say anything else, a smaller rabbit pushed out of the crowd, ran to the chao and picked it up. As she did, Tails felt a wave of chaos energy strike him in the chest. Before he could make sense of this, the little rabbit walked up to him and shook his hand.
"Hi! I'm Cream and this is Monty. What's your name?"
"Tails," said the fox, at first surprised, then amused. "Do you have a chaos emerald or something?"
Cream exchanged glances with her chao. The chao said, "Your chaos field almost knocked him down.
"Oh," said Cream, looking apologetic. "I let it get out of control, I'm sorry. I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"No," said Tails, grinning.
At that point Amy Rose appeared, her pink spines flying around her face. "Tails, you've met Cream, how nice! She and her mom are touring West Mobius with a big group, doesn't that sound like fun?"
"Sure," said Tails, thinking how touring with Sonic was much more exciting. "Are they staying here long?"
"Oh no, just for today. They were having hovercar trouble and needed a mechanic."
Tails looked at Cream, thinking of her chaos field. She giggled nervously, understanding the look. "Well, I'll take a look. Nice meeting you, Cream."
"You too," she said, giggling again as Tails walked away.
"Tails is Sonic's best friend," said Amy. "But Sonic went down to Rio del Fuego with Sally this morning," she added with a wistful sigh.
Cream was watching Tails, stroking Monty. "He reminds me of Destro. But cuter."
"Tails is all right," said Amy, "but Sonic is much more handsome."
"We might go down to Rio del Fuego later on," said Cream, her strong ear standing up. "Maybe I'll get to see Sonic then!"
"I wish I could go with you," said Amy, stroking Monty. "Does he talk?"
"Yep. Monty, say hi to Amy."
"Hi to Amy," said the chao. "The chaos fields are very bright here."
"The what?" Said Amy.
"Yours is pink and blue," said Monty, "and Tails's is yellow and green and blue."
"What's he talking about?" asked Amy. "I hate it when people talk over my head."
"Chaos fields," said Cream. "You know, the energy that radiates off some people. I have a lot of it, but I'm training to control it.
"Like Chaos control?"
Cream looked puzzled. "Control chaos... chaos control... I guess so. Watch!" She shook her long ears and flapped them once. She shot five feet in the air and floated back down, her ears working as a parachute. "Isn't that neat?" She crowed. "I just learned to do that! But Monty doesn't like it."
"Cream!" Cream and Amy turned to see Cream's mother striding up to them, her ears looking angry. "What did I tell you about flying in front of strangers?"
"I was just showing Amy, mom," said Cream. When her mother looked stern, Cream hung her head. "I'm sorry, I forgot."
"It's okay," said Amy. "I asked her to."
"All right," said Eva, relaxing. "I just don't want her embarrassing herself. Or me." Then the other people walked up, and Amy was separated from the rabbits.
"I wish I could go traveling with them," she thought, looking at the hovercar with its foreign tags. "Maybe I could ask!" She ran off to find her mother.
* * *
The phone rang in a dingy office, and the startled crocodile behind the desk nearly fell out of his chair. He pulled the headphones off one ear and picked up the phone. "Chaotix detective agency, how may we be of service?"
"Vector? This is Tails."
Vector sat back in his chair and put his feet on the desk. "Hey Tails! How're things up in the woods?"
"Good. Listen, Sally and Sonic are down there for the political conference, and I need to talk to them. Could you get the number for Sonic's room?"
"Sorry kid," said Vector, switching radio stations on his walkman. "Security's tight at that place. The UA building is a fortress right now to protect all the delegates. No outside calls permitted."
"Rats." Tails sounded crestfallen. "There's something I've got to talk to Sonic about."
"I could see if I could catch him outside and tell him to call you."
"You think Sonic will go out?"
"Count on it, bucko. There's a casino right across the street."
Tails laughed. "Oh, duh! Of course he'll be out! Thank you. Can you have him call me by tonight?"
"I'll try." Vector checked his watch.
"Good," said Tails, "because if he doesn't, I'm flying down there myself."
"It's that important, eh?" What, somebody die?"
"Well..." Tails paused. "I got this email, and it sounds like a threat from Robotnik. I want to see what Sonic thinks of it."
"Oh really?" Vector straightened. "Care to forward it to my office? I'd like to check it out!"
"Sure Vector. What's your address?"
Vector gave it to him, then hung up and scribbled the assignment on a note pad. Then he got up and entered the back room. Just as he opened the door, a steel ninja star embedded itself in the frame an inch from his face. Vector jumped sideways. "Gahh! Espio!"
The purple chameleon was seated cross-legged on the floor, a box of ninja stars beside him and one in each hand. His eyes were closed and his breathing slow and rhythmic.
"Espio," said Vector. "Wake up, will you? We have an assignment."
Espio's eyes opened and he looked coldly at Vector. "I was almost in a trance that time, and you woke me up. Hope you're happy." He stood up and stretched.
Vector pulled the ninja star out of the door frame. "So you threw this at me in your sleep?"
"I was ALMOST in a trance. And I missed."
Vector checked the backside of the door and saw a shredded target taped to it with eight ninja stars stuck in the wood. "Espio, what'll our landlord think of this?"
"That's why I used the door," said Espio. "It's easier to replace than the wall. What's the assignment?"
Vector explained about Tails's phone call as Espio pulled the ninja stars out of the door and returned them to the box.
Espio grunted. "I take it he's not paying anything."
"Not exactly." Vector shrugged. "But it's not like we're swamped in work anyway."
"Let me go alone," said Espio. "I'll be quicker, and I can hide in plain sight. Tails wants Sonic to call him at home?"
"Alright. I'm gone. And don't let Charmy in here--he'll hurt himself."
The reptiles left the office. They had rented a two-room office on the cheap side of town, and all the buildings on the street were in need of a coat of paint and spray for termites, which infested every wooden building here in the tropics.
At the curb sat a strange-looking vehicle with an oversized bee and red armadillo bent over it. The vehicle had a long, pointed frame, skids instead of front wheels, and large, gaudy blue and yellow back wheels. The hood was open, and the old engine exposed.
"Want to take the bobsled?" asked Vector with a grin.
"Heck no," said Espio sourly. "I can travel faster on foot. See you." He darted off down the street, and Vector looked under the hood.
"How's it coming?"
"No good," said Mighty. "There's a reason that guy sold it so cheap. This engine is shot."
"It's all rusted," added Charmy from his perch on the runner. "We were betting somebody drove it off the bridge."
Vector's eyes narrowed. "Completely useless?"
"Totally," said Mighty.
Vector nodded. "Then take it out. I'll see if Knux will sell us a chaos engine."
Charmy snorted. "He'll never do that. He wants to get it patented first."
"Doesn't hurt to ask," said Vector.
Mighty reached in and lifted out the entire engine. He hoisted it above his head and carried it up on the sidewalk, where he set it down with a grunt. Vector and Charmy hardly paid attention, for they were accustomed to their friend's unusual strength. Vector kicked the bobsled's side, and the whole craft jumped. Curious, Vector knelt, grabbed the running board, and lifted the bobsled up on one wheel. It only weighed fifty pounds. "Huh," he said, letting the sled drop and bounce on its suspension. He glanced at Mighty and Charmy, who looked curious.
"Help me push this thing down the street to the hill," said Vector with a sudden grin. "Who says you need snow to go sledding?"
* * *
Sally sat at a table with two other Mobian politicians, trying to concentrate on the current speaker. He was a grey owl who read from his notes in a monotone, explaining about human/Mobian relations and how the reinstating of New Mobitropolis as capital would benefit everyone. This was a topic everyone there had come to debate, and Sally herself had prepared a lecture on it.
Her mind wandered. The owl's droning voice was putting her to sleep, and she had spent the afternoon discussing it with the Mobian senators anyway. She didn't expect much opposition--although humans and Mobians distrusted each other, each species was eager to open commerce, for each had exports valuable to the other. If nothing else, they were all willing to put aside their differences when there was money involved.
Sally tried to convince herself that she didn't mind, that she was interested in the government of West Mobius. But in her heart of hearts, she hated it. She was here as a figurehead--real executive power had been shifted from her to the senators, who had survived the coup and wanted nothing of the sort to ever happen again. Their conversation earlier had been full of hints that she had less power then she thought she did, and this conference would lay the groundwork for a revision of West Mobian government.
"I'm obsolete," Sally thought. "Sonic was right about human ideas taking over... humans are changing the world, and we Mobians can only sit on the sidelines and watch." It made her sad, and it seemed to her she was starting on a high hill between two worlds, one past, one future, both fraught with war and peril.
This melancholy mood hung over her as the owl finished and an hour-long recess was announced. Sally rose and followed the crowd out into the lobby, and it seemed to her that all the officials and politicians were slimy and scheming, willing to throw away their old world without qualm.
She found herself climbing the stairs toward her room. She wanted to escape the crowd and relax for a while. She arrived on the landing and saw Sonic in the corner, playing the slot machines with a roll of quarters in one hand. "Sonic?"
He glanced over his shoulder. "Hi Sal. You done already?"
"It's a recess. Have you won anything?" She walked up and watched the spinning images.
"Yeah, two bucks in dimes," said Sonic, watching the images as they ended on three random ones. "But I'm about to hit the jackpot, I can feel it."
Sally smiled, her melancholy lifting. Sonic always had that effect on her. He never gave up, even at something as pointless as a slot machine. "We have an hour. Let's visit that casino across the street."
Sonic looked up, eyes alight. "Really? You want to?" As soon as he looked away, the images landed on three cherries, and five dollars in small change poured into the slot. "Jackpot!" Sonic yelped, scooping it up. "Told you I had a feeling!"
"That's hardly a jackpot," said Sally. "I think you have a gambling problem."
"Me? Never!" Sonic automatically reached for the machine's lever, then checked himself. He grinned. "I'm obsessive-compulsive, that's all."
The two left the UA building, checking with the various guards, who told them to come back in an hour or a search party would go after them. Then they were out in the warm, tropical evening with the sun glittering orange on the ocean.
"Sonic, let's walk for a while," said Sally. "I don't want to go indoors again just yet."
"Okay," said Sonic. "How was the lecture? The guy's voice sounded like a vacuum-cleaner." They set off down the sidewalk toward the beach, surrounded by pedestrians headed both for the beach and the casinos. It was unnerving to be surrounded by humans who were twice as tall as Mobians, but the humans ignored them, and they ignored the humans.
"Boring," said Sally. "Which isn't a good sign at the start of a week-long conference. It's too early to tell, but I think they'll sign the trade agreements and start drafting some additional constitution documents. There's too much money involved to do anything else."
"Another reason to host it in Rio del Fuego," said Sonic. "I can see the Mobian politicians foaming at the mouth at the whiff of this much money."
They walked in silence for a moment, enjoying the evening and being unimportant among the traffic. The lights were igniting on the buildings, casting a bright, carnival-esque glow into the twilight. Six blocks away, the River of Fire would be becoming visible as the bioluminescent waterbugs that lived in the river emerged to enjoy the night. Sonic was considering taking Sally to see it when he glanced back and felt the spines on his back rise. He stopped. "Sally, someone's following us."
"What?" Sally looked back, but saw no one unusual.
Sonic touched her arm. "Keep walking. He ducked behind that parked car when we stopped."
"An assassin?" said Sally, half-worried and half-joking.
"You never know," said Sonic. "Maybe he wants my autograph."
They reached a parking lot and moved off the sidewalk, watching the other pedestrians. "I should have brought a weapon," murmured Sally.
"You did," said Sonic. "Me. Monster robots are no match for me, so why should some second-rate thug matter?"
A featureless shape slipped into the parking lot and sidled alongside a car, its body blending with the red paint. "Yo, chameleon," said Sonic. "You want something with us?"
The chameleon froze, and its yellow eyes blinked at them. Defeated, it shaded to purple and stepped toward them.
"Espio!" Sonic and Sally exclaimed at once.
He grinned. "Guilty as charged. You must be really observant--usually nobody notices me."
"I'm Sal's bodyguard," said Sonic, looking important. "It's my job to notice suspicious lizards."
"Why were you following us?" asked Sally.
Espio nodded at Sonic. "Tails called, he wants you to call him before tomorrow."
"That's IT?" Sonic looked incredulous. "You hunted us down for that? I thought you had a detective business to worry about."
"That's why Tails called us," said Espio. "He got an email from Robotnik that has his tails in a knot."
Sally raised an eyebrow. "Email? Since when does Robotnik email the Freedom Fighters?"
"You got me." Espio turned to leave. "Message delivered, mission accomplished. See you guys." His skin blended with the pavement and cars, and he slipped away like a ghost.
"Well," said Sonic. "Looks like I'd better find a phone."
* * *
Metrocard was twenty miles southeast of Rio del Fuego. It was a Mobian city that hosted many large industries and businesses. When Mobitropolis fell, the surviving tycoons merely moved south and continued business, and Metrocard, then a backwoods town, had grown overnight into a sprawling metropolis, fueling the economy that enabled Rio del Fuego to exist.
One of Rouge's contacts had told her that Dr. Robotnik had bought twelve thousand shares in an experimental energy industry called RedStar, and had tried to purchase the corporation itself. The board of directors objected, but Robotnik was still their prime shareholder, and it sent ripples of nervousness throughout Metrocard.
Furthermore, Robotnik had leased a storage warehouse, and Rouge's contact had seen robots unloading three enormous crates from a truck there. This was where Rouge was taking them now.
"Left," she called to Omega. The robot had extended the wheels in its feet and was rolling through the Metrocard streets with Rouge and Shadow on its broad shoulder-plates. Each shoulder had a metal ridge on the end like a handle, and the hedgehog and bat rode while holding onto these.
Omega was cooperative so far; Rouge had promised him hours of wanton destruction if they stole whatever was inside the warehouse. But Shadow worried her. He had not spoken since they had left the underground compound, and he clutched the red chaos emerald as if it was his source of life. His face was streaked with sweat, and his good eye was glazed and unblinking.
Rouge kept watching him, because he reminded her of someone with Mobian Distemper--listlessness, low fever, runny nose and eyes. Shadow's nose was dry, but his eye had watered so much that dried tears had caked in the black fur on his face. He was not crying, though--he was zoned out, lost in his own world. He tended to do that back on the ARK, she remembered, especially when upset. She thought of the readout on the pod--97% regenerated. Maybe he was in pain.
"Right," she said to Omega, and the robot turned at an intersection. Shadow shifted his weight to keep his balance without the least change of expression. "Shadow, what are you thinking about?" she asked.
He gave no sign he had heard her. Maybe she should address him as Mekion, for that was the name he had given her. "Mekion?" He still gave no indication he heard her.
Mekion didn't understand illness. He had never been ill as Shadow, and once he became Mekion, he associated things like exhaustion and fatigue with his mortal half and thought nothing of it. But this new state concerned him. His entire body, Shadow and Mekion both, were overheated and uncomfortable, as if he had an overloaded fusion core inside him. He searched Shadow's mind for a biological explanation, and discovered the memories that Shadow had worked so hard for were fading.
It was as if his past life was burning to ashes by the fire inside him, and he couldn't stop it. Shadow was distressed and tried to preserve the most important ones in Mekion's databanks, but Mekion refused.
"I did not approve of your quest for memories in the first place," snarled Mekion. "Memories affect your obedience of the Master and give you strange ideas. It is better to submit to my rule."
"But these memories are important!" Shadow shot back. "What about Maria and the .. that place I was in ... I've already lost the name. You have to let me record the little left to me before they're all gone."
"I have the account Robo Knux gave you," said Mekion. "It is enough."
As Shadow watched his memories fade, Mekion watched Shadow's vital signs. This extreme heat would kill Shadow if allowed to persist. Perhaps submersion in cold water would help. Mekion sent a transmission to his Master. "I have emerged from the pod, but the unit Omega refuses to issue any instructions. Please transmit. Also, I am experiencing a strange physical condition, perhaps a reaction to the nanites. Please analyze the following data and inform me of the best course of action."
He transmitted it and realized Omega was pulling to a halt before a fenced warehouse.
"Omega, can you fly over this fence?" asked Rouge.
The robot glanced at the fence, then slashed through the wire with his claws. As he stepped through the hole, Rouge said, "I didn't want to leave a trail, Omega."
"Affirmative," said Omega. "Leaving a trail will lead to a battle with security personnel."
Rouge gave an exasperated sigh and slid off his shoulder. "You two stay here. I'm going to check for cameras." She pulled a gadget from a hip pocket and jogged up around the warehouse. Omega and Mekion watched her in silence. The sun was setting and their street was shadowed by the surrounding buildings. Mekion liked it; there had been too much daylight movement for his tastes. Darkness was his element.
Rouge returned, a dark figure with a white head and hands. "One videocamera, now jammed," she announced. "Come on."
Mekion jumped off Omega, and the robots followed the bat to the warehouse. Rouge inserted a lockpick into the door's lock and fiddled with it. Mekion watched and thought of Metal Sonic's biomorph hull, which had picked the bank's locks with such ease. To his dismay, his memory of that was fading, too. What was wrong with him?
The door opened and the three slipped inside. Mekion looked around at the darkness in glee, which turned to disgust when Rouge snapped the lights on. They saw three crates the size of boxcars in a row down the center of the warehouse. Rouge pulled out a scanner, but she had forgotten who was with her. Omega and Mekion both scanned the container and announced, "Robot parts."
"Worthless consumer models," added Omega.
Rouge pointed at the next crate. "That one?"
"Assemblers," said Omega and Mekion in unison.
Rouge pointed at the last one. "And that?"
"Robots," said Omega and Mekion. Rouge scanned the crates herself, frowning. The robots were all standard Robotnik-manufacture--no secret weapons. Why were these robots stored here? Was he planning an invasion?
Rouge studied her scanner, troubled. She had seen what Robotnik was capable of when she worked with him on the ARK. Was he planning another bid for world domination? There were thirty robots in the last crate, and parts and assemblers for thirty more. Sixty robots wasn't many, but there might be more hidden across Metrocard, waiting for activation ...
"Omega," said Rouge, walking toward the door, "destroy all three crates."
"Affirmative!" said the robot, his arms opening up and folding back to reveal monstrous gun barrels. Rouge and Mekion left the warehouse as Omega wasted the interior.
Rouge watched the fire illuminate the warehouse's interior, but Mekion moved off and stood staring into space. Rouge glanced at him. "Shadow, what's wrong?"
She didn't think he would answer, but he surprised her. "Sirens. I doubt you jammed the camera as well as you thought."
Rouge swore and looked at the fire inside the warehouse. "Omega!"
Mekion shook his head. "He can't hear you." Through the network he said, "Omega, ceasefire. The authorities are on the way and we must escape."
The shooting stopped and Omega stepped outside, a green shield flickering in a bubble around him. "Enemies approaching?" he said, bouncing up and down. "Fight imminent! Destruction! Annihilation! I will burn them all!"
Mekion looked at Rouge. "I suggest we evacuate."
The bat looked up the street, where she could hear the wail of sirens, then looked at Omega, who was itching for a fight. "No! Those aren't Robotnik's robots! This is the wrong enemy, understand Omega?"
"All enemies are the same to me," said the robot. "Do not hinder me or I will destroy you."
Rouge looked to Mekion for help, but the hedgehog had slipped away and was ghosting down the street on his hoverskates. Her team was dissolving. She ground her teeth and bolted after Mekion as the police turned the corner and screamed down upon the burning warehouse.
* * *
Tails was packing a duffelbag when his phone rang. He snatched it up. "Hello?"
"Heya little bro," said Sonic's voice.
"Sonic! The Chaotix found you?"
Tails sat in his desk chair and flipped on his computer screen. He read the letter to Sonic, and added the information about the server name. He concluded, "What do you think?"
Sonic was silent a long moment. "Well gee, Tails. It sounds like a joke, but it's also exactly like Robotnik's sense of humor. What if he meant for us to disregard it as a joke, and then afterward he demonized us by saying that we knew about his scheme, and didn't interfere?"
Tails's ears flattened. "He could do that?"
"First rule of combat, little bro. Know thine enemy. Don't forget about the ARK fiasco."
Tails stared at his screen. "Here Knuckles told me it was a fake and to forget about it."
"He would. Who else have you told about this?"
"You, Knuckles and the Chaotix. Vector had me send the email to him."
"Good thinking. I'll give them a call after this and see if they know anything. Hey ... by the way ..." Sonic lowered his voice. "Rio del Fuego has a really nice airport."
Tails glanced at his packed duffelbag and grinned. "It does, huh? How about places to stay?"
"There's a room reserved for you at the Grand Longhorn a block from the airport." Sonic was grinning, too. "I'm one step ahead of you, kiddo."
"Don't tell Sally."
"Mum's the word. Was there anything else?"
"Nope. Look for me sometime tomorrow night about one."
"One? Gee whiz. Okay. Peace out, Tails."
"Bye, Sonic!" Tails hung up, feeling better than he had in days. Once he was down south with Sonic and the Chaotix, they could pool their knowledge and figure out if Robotnik really was behind the mysterious email.
* * *
"Great," said Espio. "More non-paying work."
Vector, Mighty and Charmy were seated around the desk in the main office, computer printouts lying all over the desk and floor. Espio entered, fresh from tracking Sonic and Sally, and found the whole team hard at work researching the 'Robotnik' threat after a phonecall from Sonic.
"Non-paying, maybe," said Vector, "but profitable. Check this out, Espio. Seems ol' Doc is playing the stock market now."
Espio took the proffered paper and studied it. His eyes narrowed. "RedStar, eh? What's that?"
"Energy company," said Charmy. "They're working on a series of plasma-based products and Robotnik wants to buy them out."
"Can't be bothered to do his own research anymore, eh?" said Espio, growing interested despite himself. He pulled up a chair. "What else?"
"After the ARK threat, he was banned from owning property in the human colonies," said Mighty. "So we've been looking at other cities and countries, trying to track him."
"Not yet. He's covered his tracks pretty well this time around."
"Heck, nobody is that slippery," said Espio, grabbing the computer's screen and swivelling it to face him. "Let me look, and somebody work on something that pays actual money. At this rate we won't have the rent paid for two months in a row."
The others rolled their eyes, but Charmy shuffled off and pulled a file from a cabinet in the corner. He worked on its contents as the others researched Robotnik and his doings.
* * *
As Sonic and Sally returned to the conference, and Rouge and Shadow fled the police, and the Chaotix worked on their mysterious case, other things were happening in other parts of Mobius.
Metal Sonic emerged from a testing simulation, his skin flowing together and hardening back into its original shape. His new body had a battlemode setting in which the fluid biometal composing him reconfigured itself into armor. He was putting this mode through extensive testing, and a whole new world of possibilities had opened to Metal Sonic. His biometal could take on any shape if he possessed the information for it.
Metal Sonic remained in his armored form for novelty's sake, and strode through the underground corridors of the Egg Tower, another of Robotnik's bases. He left the shielded interior and stepped out into the night to check for transmissions.
He emerged on a balcony built into the solid rock of a mountain. He leaned on the railing and looked down at the plain below his rocky fortress ... the secret airfield where his fleet was amassing. The Egg Tower had been long empty when he moved in, and he found it highly useful. However, he had placed his best technology and computers on the Annhiliator, the flagship.
His transmission check ended--there were two. One was a declaration of war upon Robotnik and Metal Sonic by E-123 Omega. Metal Sonic found this amusing. Let Omega rage and storm all he wanted. In the end, Metal Sonic would destroy him ... Omega was expendable. All the E-series were.
The second transmission sobered Metal Sonic. A message from Mekion with an attached file of status readouts. Mekion requested instructions and advice on his strange condition. Metal Sonic ran the data through his own databanks and the base computers, pacing in a circle under the stars. Mekion was suffering from a fever of 105 F, and of course Mekion saw no need to let Shadow rest. Metal Sonic noted that he needed to teach Mekion to give Shadow a break once in a while. As for instructions ...
The ones Metal Sonic had in mind were less interesting than what Mekion was currently doing. Metal Sonic decided that Mekion should continue his current quest and transmit updates once a day. They might prove entertaining.
But the fever concerned Metal Sonic. He examined Mekion's data again, and found no sign of illness or injury. Mekion was simply feverish for no reason. Perhaps a poison or a virus? An allergic reaction to the nanites was possible, too. Sometimes an organism's immune system viewed nanites as hostile bodies and tried to eliminate them. Mekion already had nanites packed into him, though, because they composed the metal half of him and maintained the link between organism and machine. Why should his body reject more? Metal Sonic thought of mixing the machine- and bio-healing nanites in the pod, and felt the equivalent of his heart sinking. Maybe that was it. Mekion had a chest full of metal shards, and it was making him ill.
Metal Sonic composed a transmission and sent it. As he did, he realized he was worrying about Mekion. Not again. He had wasted too many cycles fretting about Mekion's welfare--what was Mekion to him, anyway? Mekion was an experiment, and Shadow was even less important.
Metal Sonic whirled and strode back indoors, angry at himself. He had been hurt by Mekion once already, when Mekion violated orders and aided Sonic. It infuriated Metal Sonic that he had allowed Mekion to hurt him, and Metal Sonic hated himself for feeling hurt. The capacity for feeling had come with his upgraded brain. He now had the potential for false hope, a degree of illogical thinking, and the ability to care about things.
Metal Sonic didn't want to care about Mekion, because caring led to pain in the end. Mekion would betray him again, even with his increased control over Shadow. Such a betrayal would send Mekion into the depths of anguish as his two minds vied with each other, and Metal Sonic would feel grief and pain over being betrayed. Perhaps he should kill Mekion and end the struggle.
Metal Sonic courted this thought for a moment before discarding it. Killing Mekion would cause Metal Sonic more pain than being betrayed by him, and besides, Mekion had been expensive in terms of research and construction. Killing him was foolish and illogical.
But Metal Sonic still foresaw agony for both of them, and he steeled himself for it. His master plan was already in motion. There was no stopping now.
* * *
Rouge and Mekion watched from a rooftop as Omega battled the police, using their own vehicles as cover. Three cars lay overturned and burning, illuminating the battle in red and orange.
"Should we let them destroy him?" said Rouge.
Mekion shrugged. "He is a rogue unit. You were the one who persuaded him to leave the base."
Rouge bit her lip and watched Omega. If only he wasn't so aggressive! "Is there any way to control an E-series?"
Mekion stared straight ahead and didn't answer.
Rouge poked him. "Shadow ..."
"Yes," he said, his whisper hardly audible over the firefight below. "They are organism-based and disciplined by electric shock."
"Hmm." Rouge thought of her magnigens and wondered if paralysis was enough to control Omega. "Shadow, can you still Chaos Control?"
He didn't answer. She poked him again, and he bared his teeth. "Stop that."
"I asked you a question."
He glared at her, his halved face adding to his ferocity. "Using it shuts down Mekion because of the power surge."
She had forced him to admit his weakness. No wonder he hadn't wanted to answer her. "We have to get Omega out of here somehow. He'll fight until he's destroyed."
"That's what he wants," said Mekion, the corner of his mouth curling in a smile.
"What if I helped you?" said Rouge. "I could support you if we warped down, grabbed him and warped out."
A bullet pinged off the shingles to their left, and they ducked.
"Well, something must be done," said Mekion. "Where do you wish me to take us?"
Rouge looked around, thinking it was safer if they left Metrocard altogether. "Rio del Fuego is twenty miles north of here. Could you take us there?"
"Yes." Mekion rose and said, "Support my left arm." The bat gripped his robot am, and Mekion held up the red chaos emerald. "Chaos relocate."
They vanished from the roof and reappeared beside Omega. Rouge felt Mekion sag and saw the robot eye was out, but Shadow's real eye looked at her grimly. She held him up and grabbed Omega's arm with her other hand. Shadow teleported again, and their surroundings shifted to a lawn behind a large house.
The sudden silence was a shock after the roar of the firefight. Omega collapsed to the grass, knocked out by the surge of chaos energy. Rouge held up Mekion, and Shadow was forced to lean on her, half paralyzed as he was. His metal was hot to the touch--he was burning with fever.
"Shadow," said Rouge, "does Mekion control you?"
With his robot half offline, Shadow was relieved of the constant filtering and tyranny of his other mind, and realized how tired he was. "Yes," he whispered. "His control over me was strengthened too much. I need to rest, but he won't let me."
"I'll make him let you," said Rouge. "We can hide out somewhere for a day or two."
"Don't ask me to Chaos Control again," said Shadow. "This is inconvenient and embarrassing. Make Sonic transport you, but I'm not doing this again." He had the uncomfortable sense that Rouge liked holding him, and he had no intention of giving her another opportunity.
Mekion returned to life, and he straightened and moved away from the bat. At the same time Omega stirred and his eyes lit up. Rouge pulled out a magnigen and rested her finger on the power switch. "Omega, enough. No more fighting the police."
"I will fight when it suits me," snarled the robot, climbing to his feet.
"No you won't," said Rouge. "Our deal was that you would only destroy Robotnik's robots."
"I will destroy what I please."
Rouge flicked on the magnigen and pointed it at Omega, who froze. "If I have to paralyze you forever, I will. Now straighten up."
She flicked off the magnigen, and Omega stirred. "I should kill you for that."
Rouge paralyzed him again. "What did you say?"
She turned it off, and Omega growled, "I will only destroy Robotnik's robots."
"Good." Rouge looked around for Shadow and saw him at the far end of the yard, peering into the street. "And now," she muttered, "Mekion needs to rest."
* * *
The sun rose the next day and found Sally embroiled in meetings, Sonic wasting money in the neighboring casino, the Chaotix still researching Robotnik, and Tails enroute in the Cyclone, still far north of Sapphire City. Rouge dipped into her extravagant cash reserves and rented an apartment above one of the casinos, and told Mekion to rest.
When she found him pacing a little later, she turned her magnigens on him and left them pointed at him for three hours, keeping Mekion paralyzed so Shadow could rest. When she checked him later, Shadow was sound asleep. Rouge took the red chaos emerald from his hand and tucked it into a pocket on her belt. She thought it was unhealthy for a cyborg to carry it around all the time, and besides, she was a better caretaker for a jewel that size.
She took it back to her room, took a jeweler's glass from among her things and examined the chaos emerald with it. It was flawless and without a scratch, despite the long years of wear and tear. She polished it with a cloth, admiring its red glow. It was like a ruby instead of an emerald. Were they called emeralds collectively, but were different types of jewels? She would have to cut the gem to see, and the last thing she wanted to do was to harm a chaos emerald.
And she wanted more. As Rouge handled the red emerald, she thought of the beauty and power of the rest, and suddenly she wanted them. Forget snooping through Robotnik's things, forget the various governments lined up to pay her for stealing his project. She wanted the chaos emeralds, and she wanted them all.
Now she knew why Shadow never parted with this jewel. She hated to put it down, herself. She turned it over and over, stroking it and rubbing her face against it to feel its warmth. Rouge might flirt with males, but gems were her first love and took precedence over everything else.
Carrying the emerald in one hand, the bat set up her computer to check her contact network for any word of the chaos emeralds.
* * *
Late that afternoon, a tour group stepped off the train in the Mystic Ruins forest, southeast of Sapphire City. The group was armed with insect repellent and cameras, and had come for the first of their two scheduled visits to the Mystic Ruins. Tonight they would sleep in the lodge, and first thing in the morning they would go hiking with a naturalist to admire the flora and fauna. Among the tourists were Eva, Cream the rabbit, and Amy Rose.
Amy had been allowed to go on the grounds that such a trip was educational, and after all, she would be fifteen in two months. She was old enough to look after herself, wasn't she?
Cream ran toward the wall of trees, and Amy pelted after her. "Wait up! You run too fast!"
Cream looked back, her fawn-colored fur reflecting the afternoon sun. "I'm trying to run as fast as Daddy! I might be able to use my chaos field to do it. Look at these trees!" The rabbit and the hedgehog peered into the shadows of the rainforest and breathed the aroma of wet leaves.
Cream looked at the chao in her arms. "What do you see, Monty?"
Monty was looking at the chaos field, which he saw as a colored mist hanging in the air. "Quiet," he said. "And pretty thin. Not like Knothole."
"I wish I could see chaos fields," said Amy. "Want to go in a little way?"
The girls stepped into the trees and walked about twenty feet. The leaves blocked out the sun, and there was little undergrowth. The ground was muddy and uneven with roots. Birds made a racket overhead.
Amy shivered. "I remember this place. Robotnik had a base in here somewhere. Let's go back, I don't like it."
The pair retreated to the lodge and ate dinner, Amy recounting her adventure on the Egg Carrier. None of them paid any attention when a small plane flew by overhead, bound for Rio del Fuego in the south.
Tails had stopped to refuel in the Mobian airstrip in the Mystic Ruins and spent half an hour talking to the human who owned it, with whom Tails had made friends. Tails looked at Mac's new planes, paid him for the fuel, and continued on his flight south. The fox was happy and carefree. He had a vacation with Sonic ahead of him, and he was flying over new territory with only an email to trouble him. And shucks, the email might be a hoax after all. He watched the sun set over the ocean to his right, and adjusted his goggles. He wasn't tired at all--he was too excited to be tired.
Rouge made Shadow rest all day, then saw that he ate a good dinner. His fever was down, and he already looked better. Mekion was infuriated and tried to maul her twice, but afterward, when Rouge had put Shadow to bed again with Mekion frozen, Shadow thanked her. The more she was around him, the more Rouge recognized the division between Mekion and Shadow, and was growing used to the switches between them. Shadow was cold and distant, as he had been on the ARK, and Mekion was all fury and aggression. Together, the black hedgehog was a dangerous, unpredictable individual.
On the other side of the city, Sally was standing on the beach and laughing as Sonic ran up and down on the edge of the surf, a plume of water in his wake. A crowd had assembled to watch, and it goaded Sonic to try even crazier stunts. He was moving so fast that he ran across the top of the water, skidded off the top of a wave, did a flip in midair and splashed down in a spin. The crowd applauded as Sonic coasted to shore on the breakers and shook himself.
"More?" he asked Sally. She was laughing too hard to answer, and nodded. Sonic shot off again, feeling the warm wind drying his fur. He was delighted that he had made Sally laugh. She had been in meetings all day, and after the last one, she had been so sober and depressed that Sonic was afraid of her. She had transformed into a stranger--a politician with the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was in that mental cage she was building for herself, and Sonic hated to see the change. So he urged her to come outside, and entertained her with the best daredevil stunts he could think of. When she laughed she forgot her worries, and was back to being the Sally he knew.
Sonic ran all over the waves again, then dove across them and body surfed down the length of a wave, just avoiding its crest. The crowd ohhed and ahhed, clapping, Sally among them. Sonic performed until it was completely dark, then returned to Sally, dripping wet and feeling well exercised. Sally slid her hand into his damp glove, and they walked down the beach together.
"You crack me up, Sonic," said Sally.
He grinned. "That's the idea. You looked really stressed today."
"I was really stressed today." Sally sighed. "Humans and Mobians just don't get along well. There were some debates today that almost came to blows, and I had to bend over backwards to keep the conference from ending then and there."
"Gee whiz, what about?"
"Money. It's always about money. I hate to see what happens when we get to freedom and rights policies."
Sonic snickered. "Let me guess. Nobody wants another species to have the same rights as themselves, right?"
"Right." Sally smiled at him. "You make it sound so simple."
He grinned. "Things don't have to be difficult, Sal. That's why I like things condensed, summarized and fast as possible."
"You would. Want to go get dinner?"
"You bet! I'm starved."
The hedgehog and squirrel crossed the beach to the street again. As they walked, Sonic pointed to a machine ten feet high, shaped like a diamond with a darkened lens set into the top. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence and had Warning: High Voltage signs on it. "Hey Sal, what's that thing?"
Sally looked at it. "Oh, that's one of the old shield generators. They used it to protect Rio del Fuego from the biotics during the war."
"Do you think it still works?" said Sonic, walking up to the fence and looking at the machine through the wire.
Sally shrugged. "Probably. Look how polished it is--they probably maintain it with city funds. There's a whole bunch of them along the coast."
"In case of another biotic invasion, eh?" said Sonic, grinning. He stepped away from the fence and took Sally's hand again, and they resumed walking across the sand toward the city lights.
They were strolling along the sidewalk, looking for a place to eat that they hadn't tried yet, when Sonic stopped and touched Sally's arm. "Sal, look over there. Across the street. Who is that?"
Sally looked and saw a black hedgehog standing on a street corner, watching them. One of his eyes glowed red. "Mekion?" she breathed, staring.
"Yeah," said Sonic, also staring. Mekion returned their gaze. "What's he doing here?" muttered Sonic. "I wonder if Metal Sonic's around."
Mekion continued to stare at them.
"I'm gonna go talk to him," said Sonic. "Stay here, Sal. It's just for a second."
"Sonic, be careful," Sally whispered. "Remember what he said about killing you?"
"Like I could forget," said Sonic. "Be right back." He dashed across the street and spoke to the black hedgehog. They talked for a moment, and Sally watched like a hawk for any untoward movements. Thus she saw when a white bat glided down from somewhere above with a gun-shaped object and approached Sonic from behind.
"Sonic, look out!" Sally yelled.
Sonic turned, saw Rouge and darted up the pavement, and Mekion was after him in a flash. Sonic slowed to look back, and Mekion grabbed him. Before Sonic could struggle, Rouge ran up and thrust the object in her hand against his head. Sonic collapsed to the pavement. There was a flash of something red in Mekion's hand, then all three of them vanished in a sparkle of light.
Sally stood with her mouth open, stunned. They had kidnapped Sonic! Why? She spun and ran for the UA building, a thousand plans spinning through her mind, but the best one involved her chaos energy tracker. It was her pet secret and currently locked up in a desk in Knothole. It would show her Sonic's exact location, and any other large concentration of chaos energy. Unfortunately, she was a long way from Knothole and had no way of teleporting back.
As she flashed her ID card at the guard at the entrance, Sally couldn't help but see the grim humor of the situation. It wasn't every day that the bodyguard of a politician was kidnapped.
* * *
Tails landed at the Rio del Fuego airport, rented space in a hangar for the Cyclone, then checked into the hotel room that Sonic had reserved for him. He picked up a map at the front desk, then ventured out into the brightly-lit night to find the UA building.
He doubted he could get in without a pass, but Sonic would be waiting for him. The fox trotted down the sidewalk, admiring the colors and designs of the buildings, and noticing that there were a lot of people out at one in the morning. Did this city ever sleep?
Probably not. As he came into sight of the UA building, he saw the police cars parked outside, lights flashing. His heart sank.
As he drew nearer, he saw Sally talking to a human officer, who was taking notes. Sally looked all right--just angry and scared. Sonic was nowhere in sight. Tails's heart began to race. Sonic had either done something, or something bad had happened to him. He walked up and stood listening to Sally's testimony. She was describing a black hedgehog, half robot, and a white bat with a stunner.
"Shadow and Rouge!" Tails exclaimed. Sally and the policeman whirled.
"Tails!" said Sally. "What are you doing here?"
"Sonic invited me," said Tails. "Shadow and Rouge kidnapped him?"
"Who's Rouge?" asked Sally.
"She was involved in the ARK business," said Tails. "This is nuts! Why take Sonic?"
"Let me finish with Miss Acorn first, please," said the officer. "Then I'll ask you a few questions, all right?"
"All right." Tails glanced at his watch. He had been in Rio del Fuego half an hour, and was already embroiled in an adventure. He leaned against the side of the car and wondered why Shadow and Rouge would kidnap Sonic. For his chaos emerald? To hand him over to Robotnik? Or Metal Sonic? Tails listened to the rest of Sally's story and thought hard. Could this have something to do with that email? A secret weapon ... what if they needed Sonic for it?
Tails felt sick. He never had to rescue Sonic before, not like this. But Sonic was resourceful--maybe he could escape.
The policeman was finished with Sally, and he turned to Tails. "Could you identify this Rouge the bat if you saw her again?"
"Heck yeah," said Tails.
"Would you mind coming to the station with me? If we can get a photo ID, it'll be easier to catch the kidnappers."
"I'll come, too," said Sally. "I wouldn't be able to sleep now, anyway." She spared a smile for Tails as they climbed into the squadcar, and he smiled back.
"Here we go again, huh?"
She nodded. "You said it."
* * *
Sonic awoke with a throbbing headache. He was lying on carpet with his arms and feet tied together in front of him, and he was blindfolded. He lifted his head, trying to see, but the blindfold was so tight there were no chinks. He pricked up his ears and listened. He could hear the distant hum of an air conditioner, and smelled the faint odor of soap and perfume. Was he in somebody's house? He moved his arms and legs, but they were held with electronic bindings and he couldn't budge them.
"Anybody there?" he said. His voice reverberated back at him from the four walls--it was a small room.
He heard a whirr of gyros, and a robotic voice said, "Affirmative."
Sonic twisted to face the voice. It wasn't Mekion, and it sounded big. "Who are you?"
"I am unit E-123 Omega. My instructions are to kill you if you attempt to escape. Preferably without damaging the carpet."
"Well, I can't escape when I'm hog-tied like this," said Sonic. "Why the blindfold?"
"Insurance." Omega sounded amused, if such a thing was possible in a robot. "The less you see of Rouge and her things, the better. She likes her privacy, but they had to put you somewhere."
So he was in Rouge's room. That explained the perfume. Sonic suddenly wanted to look around, just because Rouge didn't want him to. "Where's Rouge and Shadow?"
"Rouge is attending to Mekion and consulting her contacts. She will return in ten minutes."
"Why does Mekion need attending to?"
"He is ill."
"Ill? With what?" Sonic hadn't noticed anything wrong with Mekion in their brief encounter, other than he had dyed his fur black.
"We don't know. But he is recovering."
Sonic heard Omega's electronic whirr and clank as he moved. He remembered the E-series--a short-lived line of units that were too smart for their own good. Mostly flicky pilots. "Are you a flicky?" he asked.
Omega's movements stopped. "What?"
"Your internal pilot," said Sonic. "The E-series used flickies, so is that what you are?"
Omega didn't answer for a long moment, then said quietly, "My programming prevents me from accessing that information. It would break my mind-machine interface. But I am probably a flicky, if that is what the other E-series contained."
Sonic rested his head on the floor. His headache was subsiding, as was his fear. This situation was far too interesting. Shadow and Rouge had an E-series robot with them, and it talked like it had freewill. "What do you guys want me for?" he asked. "Kidnapping me is pretty drastic, don't you think?"
"That is not my affair," replied Omega. "I am merely here to guard you. It is a pity you are not trying to escape. I would enjoy destroying you."
Sonic tensed. He had forgotten that he was holding a conversation with a killing machine.
He heard a door open and a draft of air touched his face, along with a burst of perfume. "Is he awake?" Rouge's voice asked.
"Affirmative," said Omega. "And he is curious."
Sonic heard footsteps on the carpet, and the squeak of a chair as she sat down. "Good evening, Sonic."
"Ditto, Rouge," said Sonic, turning his blindfolded head toward her voice. "Kind of rude to keep me tied up like this, isn't it?"
"I know how fast you are," said Rouge with a touch of a smile. "This is safest for now."
"Okay, fine, you have the upper hand. Why am I here?"
A creak as Rouge leaned back. "My sources tell me you have some unusual talents relating to the chaos emeralds."
"I can do everything Shadow can," said Sonic. "Big whoop."
"Ah, but you can do one thing he can't. You can Chaos See."
Sonic became still. "No."
"I won't do that. Not for you or anybody."
Rouge sighed. "Don't make me threaten you, Sonic."
"There's nothing you can say that's as bad as Chaos Sight," said Sonic through his teeth. He remembered looking into the future and seeing things he wished he had not, and how the visions had haunted his nightmares for months afterward.
"You don't have to look very hard, you know," said Rouge. "All I need is for you to locate the other chaos emeralds."
Sonic laughed. "All I have to do! Must I remind you what happened last time you and Shadow had all the emeralds?"
"This has nothing to do with Shadow," said Rouge. "I want them for my private collection."
"Even better!" said Sonic, grinning. "You'll try to use them, and bang! Another emerging world power. You'd like that, wouldn't you Rouge?"
She didn't answer for a long moment. "Shadow is sick with a fever. I've been caring for him, because otherwise Mekion would kill him. You wouldn't want me to stop, would you?"
"So now you're reduced to threatening," said Sonic. "I expected something more original, Rouge. Say whatever you like--Chaos Sight is more horrible than anything you can think of."
She rose from her chair. "All right then. I'm going to bed. See if you're a little more sensible in the morning. Omega, watch him."
Sonic heard her leave and shut the door behind her. He rested his head on the carpet and exhaled. "I won't do it, Omega."
"Yes you will," said Omega. "Because if you don't, she'll let Mekion persuade you. And you don't want that."
"I would kill you quickly. But he will kill you slowly, one wound at a time. Mekion has a touch of the sadistic in his nature."
"Oh." Sonic thought about this, and resolved not to cooperate, no matter what they did to him. He wasn't afraid of them, anyway.
* * *
The next morning, the Chaotix were suddenly bombarded with paying clients.
First, the Rio del Fuego police phoned at seven AM, and a groggy Vector answered, glad that he had one cup of coffee inside of him. As the sergeant told him about the kidnapping of Sonic Hedgehog, Vector sat up straight, eyes widening. The Chaotix fielded a lot of kidnapping cases, but this was Sonic!
The crocodile ran down to the station, collected copies of witness interviews and evidence, and had it spread out on the desk when the rest of the team came in from their apartments across the street, carrying a box of donuts. Their eyes lit up when they saw Vector bent over the police files.
"A case?" said Mighty in delight.
"Kidnapping," said Vector. "I got it straight from Lawrence this morning. Guess who." He flicked them a photo of Sonic. The team stared at the picture for a long second, then Charmy blurted, "It was Sonic who was kidnapped?"
The donuts were inhaled as the detectives examined the evidence and testimonies, then Mighty and Espio went online to unearth everything they could about Rouge the bat. Vector got on the phone with the police detectives, and Charmy was left with nothing to do. He still wanted to help, so he organized the stuff on the desk, collected their research on Robotnik and filed it, then went out to collect the mail.
Their mailbox was one of many in a big steel box. Charmy buzzed up to it, unlocked the box marked 5260, and pulled out the waiting stack of junk mail. He sorted through it, making a pile of things to keep and a pile to throw away. There was Vector's new issue of Z-Mobians, which Charmy examined through the plastic bag. It looked like the beginning of the final story arc, with the good guys facing down a giant evil-looking robot squid. Maybe Vector would let him read it if he promised to wear gloves and not exhale on the pages.
There was Espio's Ninja Training By Mail newsletter, and an electronics magazine that Mighty would like. Oh, and Charmy's own videogame magazine with an enclosed demo disk! He did a midair flip of delight, then discarded the credit card offers, contest announcements, and flyers about various casino events.
As he neared the bottom of the stack, he realized there was a little box in there. He pulled it out and looked at it, wondering if Vector had ordered a new CD. It was featureless, the postmark said Sapphire City, and it was addressed to the Chaotix. Charmy shrugged, put it in the keeper stack, and dumped the junk mail in a nearby dumpster. Then he grabbed the good stuff and buzzed back up to the office.
Nobody looked up as the bee entered. He set the mail on the desk and said, "Anybody order anything lately?"
Everyone shook their heads. Charmy slid the box toward Vector. "This came in the mail this morning. Think it's a bomb?"
Vector had been scribbling on a notepad, but he stopped and picked up the box. "Huh," he said, turning it over and reading the front. "No return address." He rattled it. "Too small to be a bomb, Charmy." He grabbed a pair of scissors and slit the tape along the side. He opened the top flap, and a communicator slid into his hand.
Vector blinked. "Okay, this is weird. Guys, look."
Espio and Mighty looked up from the computer. "The heck?" said Mighty. The armadillo walked up and took the com. "This is a nice one! Look, see this node? It utilizes the human satellites. This puts Knuckles's long range units to total shame."
Now Espio took it and looked at it. "Who would send us a communicator this expensive?"
The four looked at each other a second, then Vector said, "What frequency is it set to?"
Mighty checked the dial. "Looks like 1060-92. And the dial's locked."
They looked at each other again as the implications dawned on them. Someone wanted to talk to them. Mighty handed the com to Vector, who flicked it on, cleared his throat and said, "Anybody there?"
"Is this the Chaotix Detective Agency?" replied a voice. It sounded like someone speaking through a synthesizer--impossible to recognize.
"Yes," said Vector, raising an eyebrow. "Vector speaking."
"Great," said the voice. "I wish to remain anonymous at this time. I have an unusual case for you, but I will pay handsomely."
Vector glanced at the others. If they took this case, they might have to neglect others already in progress. But they also needed the money. "How much?"
"Ten grand. For each of you."
Vector jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair, jaw hanging open. The others were staring at the communicator as if it had turned to gold. "Ten grand," said Vector hoarsely. "Ten thousand mobiads. For each of us. Forty thousand. Right?"
"Correct," said the voice. "Do we have a deal?"
Vector swallowed and looked at his team, who were nodding. "Deal. What's the case?"
He righted his chair and sat down again as the voice said, "There are four items I need collected and brought to me. They are rare and difficult to obtain, but I will help you as much as I can."
An eccentric collector? Vector looked at his team, who were listening. "This is legal, right? I'm not smuggling drugs or stolen property."
"No, no, this has all been bought and paid for," snorted the Client. "The first thing I need is a plastic cannister, and you will pick it up at the Ocean Palace casino." When Vector said nothing, the Client added, "Are you leaving now?"
"Oh, right, sure," said Vector, standing up. He covered the receiver and said, "You guys keep working. I'll be right back." They nodded and the crocodile left, clipping the communicator to his belt.
* * *
Amy Rose and Cream the rabbit trooped along with their tour group, keeping to the middle of the path and avoiding the touch of wet leaves. It had rained the previous night, and although it was only 9 AM, it was already hot and sticky. But despite the jungle's atmosphere, the hike was fascinating. They had already seen a slug the size of a shoe, and a nesting hornbill inside a tree cavity.
"This is so exciting!" said Cream. "I wish Daddy and Destro could have come!"
"I wish Sonic was here," sighed Amy. "He'd have made it so exciting. Did you know that there's some ruins back in here somewhere?"
"Ruins of what?" asked Cream, all ears.
"A pyramid and stuff," said Amy. "Sonic actually went inside it. He said he got lost, but it was really cool. There's a giant snake in there."
"A snake?" squealed Cream. "I hate snakes! Do you know what they eat?"
"Mice and rabb--" Amy stopped and looked sheepish.
Cream nodded. "See?"
They walked on and listened to their guide tell them about the hundreds of inches of rainfall a year that the forest received. The trail sloped downhill, and they reached a wide, muddy stream with a plank bridge over it. As the group crossed, Amy stopped in the middle and looked for fish. The water was solid brown and full of leaves, and she noticed a tiny red and white ball floating down the current.
"Hey Cream, look!" said Amy. "A bobber!"
"A what?" said Cream, turning.
"It's something you fish with," said Amy. "Wait--look--it's going back upstream!" The floater began to snake away through the water. Amy stepped back to the bank and followed it, Cream behind her.
They rounded a bend and found a purple cat sitting in the weeds, reeling in his line with a tacklebox open beside him. Seated, he was taller than Amy and Cream together. He looked up as they approached. "Hello," he said in a deep voice that matched his size. "Where'd you come from?"
"We're with a tour group," said Cream, eyeing the cat's rod. "Are you lost?"
"I live here," said the cat. "My name's Big. What's yours?"
"Amy, and this is Cream," said the hedgehog. "Have you caught anything?"
"Not yet," said Big. "That's a nice chao you've got there. Can I pet him?"
"Sure," said Cream, holding out Monty, who grinned. The cat rubbed Monty's head. "I'd like to have a chao. But Froggy will do for now. Froggy!"
At Big's call a smooth green frog emerged from the water and hopped up on the bank. Amy and Cream leaped back with squeals of revulsion, but Big reached down and stroked the frog's head with the same gentleness he had shown the chao. Monty looked hard at the frog--he could see that it radiated chaos energy.
"Froggy's been my pal for ages," said Big with a smile. "Even when that nasty Chaos monster got him. Huh, Froggy?"
The frog croaked, its throat ballooning out.
"Does he understand you?" asked Cream.
"Yep." Big pulled in his line and began changing lures. "Nice meeting you. You'd better go back to your group. You don't want to get lost."
"Right," said Amy. "Come on, Cream."
"Nice meeting you, Mr. Big," said Cream. As she looked back, she saw a black shape leap out of the trees behind Big. She gasped. Big's head turned, and he jumped to his feet.
The thing pounced on Froggy and held the kicking frog in one hand. Then it sprang straight at Cream. She shrieked as its hand hit her in the chest, knocking her down. It yanked Monty out of her hands, who squeaked in fright and pain.
"Hey!" exclaimed Amy, turning back. "Who are you? What do you think you're doing?"
It was a black hedgehog with red stripes along the tops of his spines, and hateful red eyes. He glared at them for a second, then dashed away into the brush. "Monty!" cried Cream. She leaped up and ran after the stranger.
"Cream, no!" Amy said, sprinting after her. Big snatched up his fishing pole and followed them.
* * *
Sonic awoke to the sensation of being lifted. "Whoa, what's going on?" he asked, cursing the blindfold.
Rouge's voice said, "We're moving you to the living room for questioning."
Sonic was laid down on the cushions of what felt like a couch. Above him, Mekion's voice whispered, "What about the blindfold?"
"Take it off. It doesn't matter now."
Sonic felt Mekion's metal hand on his face, then the blindfold was off. Sonic was in a bright room with the morning sun shining in, and for a few minutes he couldn't stand to open his eyes.
Gradually he grew accustomed to the light, and was able to look around. It was one of the plush apartments that some of the casinos sponsored, with expensive brass fixtures, white furniture, and windows looking toward the ocean and downtown. "Nice place you got here," said Sonic, struggling to sit up. He made it and sat slumped, his wrists and ankles tied together. Mekion and Rouge were sitting in chairs facing the couch, and behind them stood the hulking robot Omega, its red eyes fixed on Sonic. Sonic couldn't believe he had carried on a conversation with it.
Rouge looked just as Sonic remembered, but had exchanged her pink and white outfit for a tight purple jumpsuit covered in pockets. Mekion was sitting with both feet on the floor, as if ready to jump up any second. His robot half was clean and oiled, and his organic half looked strong and well-fed; not like the pitiful half-starved creature Sonic had met on the Floating Island. He wondered if Rouge had made up that story about Mekion being sick.
"Well," said Sonic, "the gang's all together. Now what?"
"Will you Chaos See for us?" asked Rouge.
"No," said Sonic.
Rouge nodded at Mekion, who rose to his feet. He walked up to Sonic and stood looking at him. "When we last met, Sonic," he hissed, "Shadow told you that I would try to kill you. And that you must kill me first."
Sonic nodded, watching the mismatched eyes. The robot eye was expressionless, but Shadow's eye gleamed with hatred.
"So," said Mekion, straightening. "Last night we met for the second time, and you did not follow Shadow's instructions. Why?"
Sonic looked at Rouge, wondering if they had rehearsed this. "I wasn't looking for a fight."
"I have Shadow under seventy-percent control. If you asked him for help again, he wouldn't give it."
Sonic shrugged again. "Okay."
"You don't care?"
"There's not much I can do about it, is there?"
Mekion smiled. "Of course not. Which means I could kill you slowly, and there would be no mercy." He grabbed Sonic's throat in his robot hand. "If you want to live, Chaos See."
Sonic sat perfectly still, feeling Mekion's claws pricking his skin, watching Rouge. She was looking on without expression. This had been planned.
"No," said Sonic.
Mekion tightened his grip, and Sonic felt the pressure build in his skull as his breath was cut off.
"Chaos See," said Mekion.
Sonic again looked at Rouge, who still looked bored. What was the cutoff point? When Mekion throttled him? Sonic twisted and tried break Mekion's grasp, but he couldn't do much with his hands tied.
"I will kill you," whispered Mekion. "It would please my Master very much indeed."
"Then kill me," gasped Sonic. "You'll never get the emeralds!"
As Sonic began to pass out, Rouge stood up. "Mekion, that's enough."
Mekion ignored her, staring at Sonic, watching him strangle.
"Mekion!" said Rouge, striding up to him and yanking him aside. Mekion lost his grip and dropped Sonic, who fell sideways and lay gasping.
Mekion glared at Rouge. "I wanted to see him die."
"Maybe later," said Rouge, ears flat with anger. "We need him too badly, and I don't need a murder on my record, okay?"
The black hedgehog shrugged and turned away.
* * *
Cream was in the lead, pursuing the black hedgehog. The young rabbit's fury had upset her control of her chaos field, and it stormed around her like a whirlwind, tearing at leaves and blasting dust from the ground with every step. She glimpsed her enemy through the trees, running hard and looking over his shoulder. He had no idea that Cream needed her chao the way a cripple needs crutches. Without Monty, Cream's presence destroyed electronics and hurt people. When she became upset, she had the potential to start earthquakes and avalanches.
Right now she didn't care. The land was sloping downward, the trees thickening, the ground becoming wetter. Cream sped up, drawing on her chaos field for energy, determined to catch the thief. Then what? Cream had no weapons except her aura, and she couldn't use that except in the most primitive way. All she could think to do was grab Monty and maybe the frog.
She entered a clearing, and saw the black hedgehog climbing into an aircraft patterned after a shark, small and sleek with hoverjets in the wings. Cream ran toward the jet with a cry, but the engines ignited and knocked her down in the backwash. "Monty!" she cried as the ship lifted into the sky. She was so close, and had lost him anyway! She watched it as it lifted above the trees and roared away. Then the rabbit collapsed on the ground, pulled an ear across her face and sobbed.
A moment later, Amy and Big trotted up, gasping for breath. They had heard the ship lift off, and knew why Cream was crying. They worked on catching their breaths and didn't speak. Amy patted Cream's shoulder. Cream looked up, tears in her eyes. "That mean black hedgehog! I almost caught him! I wish Destro was here, he'd have ripped him apart!" She was too angry to cry long.
Amy felt her fur pickle in Cream's furious aura, and backed away. "Where are we?"
"The Frog Forest," said Big, looking around. "We sure ran a long way."
Amy and Cream looked around and saw the trees had changed. They were smaller and covered in colorful fungi growths, and in the distance they could see gigantic mushrooms rising above the trees. "It's a mushroom forest!" exclaimed Amy. "Like on the Floating Island!"
"This is where I found Froggy," said Big. "With the other rainfrogs. Poor Froggy!"
Cream wiped her eyes. "Let's go back. I need to tell Mom what happened to Monty. Maybe we can call the police."
The three turned to retrace their steps, and froze. Sitting in their path was a frog the size of a dog. Its skin was deep purple with red spots, and its blue eyes had a hint of malice in them.
"Shh," said Big. "That's a poisonfrog. Don't disturb it."
"He's in our way!" said Amy. She stepped forward and waved her arms. "Go away! Shoo!"
The poisonfrog gave a screechy croak, and the air crackled with chaos energy. Clouds swept across the sky and began to pour a stinking hot rain. Amy and Cream shrieked. Big grabbed their hands and hurried away, ducking his head, until he found a mushroom big enough to shelter under. They huddled there, coughing and wiping the poisonous rain off their fur.
The mushroom above them was curling and withering, as was all the other fungi around them. "What a horrible, horrible frog!" exclaimed Amy. "Your frog is one of THOSE?"
"Froggy's a rainfrog, not a poisonfrog," said Big indignantly. "Poisonfrogs are wicked."
"You said it," said Cream. "At least the rain is stopping." The clouds were thinning and the downpour subsided to a sprinkle.
"Come on," said Big. "We have to wash off the poison or it'll eat your fur off." He stepped out from under the mushroom, and Cream and Amy followed, imagining the poison already eating at their skins.
* * *
Rouge unlocked the bindings from Sonic's wrists, and he sat up and stretched his aching arms. "Letting me go now, huh?"
"No," said Rouge. "You're going to Chaos See for me."
Sonic's eyes moved past her to Mekion, who was looking out the window with his back to them. "What if I refuse?"
"You don't have a choice," said Rouge. She pulled the red chaos emerald out of her belt and handed it to Sonic.
Sonic raised an eyebrow. "You have the red emerald?"
Rouge shrugged. "Just do it. Or I'll let Shadow strangle you for real."
Sonic rubbed his sore neck. It hurt to swallow, and he wanted to watch Mekion all the time lest Mekion attack him again. "Shadow didn't strangle me," said Sonic, raising his voice. "Only Mekion. Right, Shadow?"
The black hedgehog didn't move.
"Shut up and use the emerald," said Rouge. She laid a hand on his foot and said, "And if you teleport, I'm coming with you to punch you a couple of times."
Sonic gave her a fake smile. "I'll put us down in a police station. That'd take care of you, wouldn't it? Or will your currently greased government bail you out?"
She laid her ears back and glared.
Knowing he had the upper hand, Sonic added, "I might not be able to use the red emerald. Seeing isn't its power, so I'll have to dig for it. Try not to distract me." He glanced at Mekion and Omega, decided they were a safe distance away, and bent over the red emerald.
Sonic had only used the blue and green emeralds, and was familiar with their frequencies and primary powers. But the red emerald's power was different. For a long time Sonic could only find one power--destruction and fire. He tried to delve past it, but the destructive power was there all the way down. Sonic reached his limit and stopped. He didn't care to sink very deeply into a chaos emerald, because it gained too much control over him, and besides, this was the red emerald. It would devour him.
He withdrew and sank back against the couch, letting the emerald fall into his lap. He was drenched with sweat, and green sparks danced before his eyes.
Rouge leaned forward. "What did you see?"
"Nothing," said Sonic. "I couldn't find it. There's only fire all the way down." He looked up to see Rouge staring at him. "Let me try again from another angle." He turned the emerald on its side and gazed into the narrow facets.
The destruction was still there, but this time he squeezed past it and felt Chaos Control and Chaos Relocate. That was how Shadow used this emerald. Sonic squinted. Just beyond them was Chaos Sight, if he could only reach it--
It grabbed his mind and held him motionless, pouring images into his mind. Sonic forgot he was supposed to be hunting more emeralds. He saw a jumble of faces and locations--Amy Rose in a mushroom jungle, Sally on a city street, Tails flying over the ocean, Metal Sonic bent over a worktable, Knuckles's eyes behind a mask, a swarm of lights in the sky at night, Shadow standing alone, a twisted canyon with a river in the bottom, a crying chao, a smoking robot, Robotnik lying dead--
Sonic broke eye contact with the emerald and threw it across the room. Then he curled up and buried his face in his arms, panting.
"What did you see?" asked Rouge eagerly. "What was it, Sonic? I know you saw something."
Sonic slowly uncurled and lifted his head. "There's an emerald in some jungle full of mushrooms," he said.
Rouge brightened, then frowned. "That's all you saw?"
"Let's leave it at that," said Sonic. "I'm not totally sure about that location, either." He watched as Rouge raced to a drawer and pulled out a map. She unrolled it and examined it as Mekion picked up the red emerald. He cast a dark look at Sonic and moved up to look at Rouge's map.
Sonic tried not to think about what he had seen, but the image of Robotnik dead had shaken him. He knew he would see something bad, he knew it! It might be true and it might not--you couldn't tell with Chaos Sight--but something bad was coming. Those lights in the sky--
"Aha!" said Rouge, stabbing the map with a finger. "The Mystic Ruins forest has an area called the Mushroom Forest. It's the only place on Mobius where giant mushrooms grow."
"Negative," said Omega, who had been quiet until this point. "Research indicates another grove on the Floating Island."
Rouge waved a hand. "Whatever. Sonic, teleport us out."
He shook his head. "Not with that emerald. Make Shadow do it."
Rouge looked at Mekion, who folded his arms. "No. Make Sonic do it."
"Hey, I Chaos Saw for you," said Sonic. "Let me go, okay? I'm not going to ferry you around."
"We need you to see the other emeralds," said Rouge. "But because you need to save your strength ..." she faced Mekion. "You handle transportation."
He looked at her, and his robot fingers flexed as if he wanted to slash her. But he held up the emerald and said, "Very well."
Rouge unlocked the bindings on Sonic's feet as Mekion took a good look at the map. Then he placed his robot hand in Rouge's, who grabbed Omega, who grabbed Sonic. Then Mekion whispered, "Chaos relocate."
* * *
Tails sat in a chair in Sally's room, fingering the ID tag around his neck. Sally was on the phone, listening to the police chief's elaborate way of saying Sonic had not been located. Tails knew it by the way Sally looked--worried and irritated. Finally she hung up and sighed. "No luck, Tails. Shadow is listed as deceased, and apparently Rouge was in her apartment in Sapphire City last night."
Tails growled. "She's too smart for her own good."
"I'll try the Chaotix," said Sally, dialing. She listened to it ring, then winced as their answering machine picked up. She left a message saying she was following up on Sonic's case, then hung up and sat on her bed. "I'm afraid we're out of options."
"If only I'd thought to bring the tracker," said Tails. "Barring that, can you think of anything else?"
Sally leaned an elbow on the nightstand and thought. "The only other person who knows anything about the chaos emeralds is Knuckles."
Tails gave a hollow laugh. "Good luck getting him to help. He hasn't set foot on the mainland since the wedding, and I doubt he plans to."
"It's worth a try," said Sally, opening her bag and pulling out her communicator. She selected Knuckles's frequency, flipped it on and let it connect, the red 'connecting' light blinking off and on. "I hope he's there."
Tails gazed at the com. "You think he could find Sonic with the Master emerald?"
"I don't know." Sally looked thoughtful. "It seems plausible, though. Come on, Knuckles pick up!" They waited, and the light kept blinking.
* * *
Chimera the chao heard Knuckles's communicator click. He swiped it off its hook and carried it outside on the porch. "Hey Knuckles!" he yelled. "Somebody's on the com!"
"They can wait," said Knuckles. He and Zephyer were dressed in padded fencing gear with masks over their faces, and the emerald swords were in their hands. As Knuckles spoke, he lunged forward, Zephyer countered, and they whisked through a combination of thrusts and parries, Zephyer dancing and dodging with swift grace, and Knuckles slower but hitting harder.
Chimera watched them, rooting for Knuckles and secretly hoping one of them drew blood. Before the echidnas had invested in the fencing outfits, they had cut each other's arms during a match and blood was everywhere. Chimera had loved it.
Zephyer was tiring. They had been practicing for an hour, and she was slowing down. She gave ground until Knuckles had forced her over a line that was scratched in the grass, then they lowered their swords.
They lifted their masks and grinned at each other. "Good match," said Knuckles.
"Yeah," panted Zephyer. "You're too dang strong! Don't you get tired?"
"Of beating you? Never!" He stuck his green-bladed sword upright in the lawn, then walked up on the porch. "Are they still on the com, Chimera?"
"Yep," said the chao. "Must be important."
Knuckles took the com and flicked it on. "Yeah?"
* * *
Sally jumped as the com light changed from red to green, and Knuckles's voice came through. "Knuckles! Why didn't you answer sooner?"
"I was busy," he said. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes ..." Sally recounted the previous evening's kidnapping. "We were wondering if you could locate them by their chaos emerald."
Knuckles was silent a moment, digesting this information. "Rouge and Mekion. Not good, Sally. Mekion's probably under orders to kill Sonic, and who knows about Rouge. She's probably in this for the money."
"Thanks for sparing my feelings, Knuckles."
"No problem. You want me to track them?"
"If you can."
"It's worth a try. I've never used the Master Emerald that way, but I know it can track. Will you be at this frequency for a while?"
Sally checked her watch. "An hour."
"Great. I'll call you back. See you."
He signed off, and Sally and Tails looked at each other. "I hope it works," said Tails.
"I know," said Sally. "If not, I'm going to hunt down Rouge and take her apart with my bare hands."
Tails remembered Rouge on the ARK. "I'd help you."
* * *
The Ocean Palace casino had a waterpark as one of its attractions. The casino's main building was designed after a whale with upraised flukes, and a sparkling blue bay had been scooped out of the shoreline. Out in this bay were waterslides and other rides, and it was full of people who had come to visit their money.
Vector had visited the waterpark himself on weekends, when the weather was scorching. But right now he had a mission to accomplish. He stepped out on the wide deck overlooking the beach, found and isolated corner behind a potted philodendron, and unhooked the communicator from his belt. "This is Vector. I'm at the Ocean Palace casino. Where's this contact I'm supposed to meet?"
"Ah yes," said the Client. "Go to the second floor balcony. Drink a human-manufactured soda. He will find you."
Vector bought one of the humans' sweet fizzy drinks and rode the elevator to the second floor. His spirit of adventure was aroused--this was the kind of thing detectives did in books.
The balcony was deserted except for a couple sitting at a table in a corner, eating lunch. Vector strolled to the railing and looked down at the blue sea and multicolored milling people. He was listening for someone to step onto the balcony, but most of the people were out in the waterpark, not inside the casino. He sipped his drink. Too bad the others had to miss this.
When nothing happened for ten minutes, Vector's mind began to wander. Rouge the Bat was a mercenary treasure hunter, so why would she kidnap Sonic? He thought about the things they had dug up from online personnel files: Rouge was 26, unmarried, but had dated several millionaires. She had grown up in East Mobius, only daughter of a wealthy shipping agent. At 13 she had hopped a ship to West Mobius and taken up a shady life dealing in jewel heists, exchanges and study. She had studied for three years at MoTech, majoring in geology, but left a year before graduation. She was a bat of limited interests, and Vector couldn't see how Sonic factored into them.
He was chewing on the problem when a voice at his elbow said, "Nice view, huh?"
Vector looked around and saw a tapir standing beside him. He was a fat, friendly-looking fellow with a prehensile snout like an elephant's. He had a paper-wrapped package under one arm.
"Yeah, great view," said Vector. "Looking for someone?"
"Actually, I already found him," said the tapir. "This was purchased electronically, and I have instructions to deliver it to someone matching your description."
"Well, I'm here to pick it up," said Vector. "Thanks." He took the package and discovered it was very light for its size. "A plastic cannister?"
"A large-grade plastic pipe, actually," said the tapir. "Threaded at one end. My company makes them. Who are you, by the way?"
They swapped business cards. The tapir was Cafton Natter, assistant engineer. He glanced at Vector's card without expression. "Nice meeting you, Vector. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must return to work." He waddled off in the direction of the elevators.
Vector pulled out the communicator again. "Got the package."
"Good! Now you must do a little footwork. Northeast of Rio del Fuego, the Amile river flows through the Amile canyon. Built at the lower end of the canyon is the Rovieg weapons testing facility. A package awaits you there."
Vector nearly argued that visiting a weapon testing facility wasn't something you did without authorization, but swallowed his protest. Ten grand was ten grand. "All right. What do I do with the pipe?"
"Put it in a safe place. Once you have all four items, you will bring them to me. Now get going!"
* * *
Deep underground, in the heart of the Floating Island, was the Hidden Palace that housed the Master Emerald. Encircled by the seven lesser power stones, the Super Emeralds, the Master Emerald enabled the island to float and regulated the chaos emeralds. Knuckles had grown up protecting it and watching over it, and now Zephyer shared the job of Guardian with him.
"Should I help?" asked Zephyer, touching the Master Emerald with her fingertips.
"No, let me do it," said Knuckles, placing his hands flat on its top. "I don't want it to blow me up--when we both use it, it draws too much power."
Zephyer stepped back a pace and put her hands behind her back.
"Master Emerald," said Knuckles, "where are the chaos emeralds?"
The light inside the gem shifted and changed, and points of light revolved inside it. Knuckles watched, unblinking, and so did Zephyer. The images made no sense. Were the points of light the emeralds, or were the hazy dark patches?
"No good," muttered Knuckles. "I think it's showing where they are in relation to the chaos field."
"What color are we tracking?" asked Zephyer.
"Red." Knuckles squinted into the gem. "Master Emerald, show the location of the red chaos emerald in relation to physical space."
The green gem flickered and the previous image vanished, but nothing else happened.
"You confused it," said Zephyer. "Let me try, genius."
Knuckles folded his arms. "Go ahead, if you think you're so smart."
Zephyer touched the Master Emerald and said, "Master Emerald, track the red chaos emerald."
A single light zigzagged through the Master Emerald, sparkled around, and went out. Knuckles snorted with laughter. "It just tracked it across time for you. Probably the last hundred years."
"Well, what are we supposed to say?" said Zephyer, glaring. "Sheesh!" She whirled and stalked off among the super emeralds.
Knuckles tried to think of another way to phrase the command. "Master Emerald, show me the red chaos emerald."
A tiny bright image appeared inside the gem--four figures walking through a forest. One of them carried a bright point of light that was the emerald. Knuckles frowned and leaned closer. "Zeff, look at this."
"What, it did it?" She ran up and peered into the Master Emerald. They watched in silence as one of the figures broke away and ran from the group. The one holding the chaos emerald blinked away from the others, caught the escapee and blinked back.
"Shadow and Sonic," said Knuckles under his breath. "But where ARE they?" He and Zephyer stared at the background of the image, looking for landmarks. After a while the background changed from trees to giant mushrooms.
Zephyer inhaled. "Are they here?"
"No," said Knuckles "There's nowhere like that in Mushroom Hill. I wonder." He walked around the Master Emerald, looking at the image from all angles. "There's a place on the mainland where the Mushroom Hill mushrooms come from. I wonder if that's where they are."
"Better tell Sally quick," said Zephyer, watching the actions of the tiny figures. "Sonic tried to escape again and they're whaling on him."
The echidnas watched as Sonic was knocked down and flogged mercilessly. Then they appeared to tie him up.
"I'm going after them," said Knuckles suddenly.
Zephyer looked at him. "Good. Because if you weren't, I was taking the armor and going myself."
Knuckles eyes were narrowed and teeth clenched. He removed his hands from the emerald and watched the image fade. "Nobody beats up Sonic but me!"
He whirled and stalked out, and Zephyer followed him.
* * *
"We're lost!" wailed Cream. "We're gonna wander around forever until we starve to death!"
Cream, Amy and Big had been walking for two hours, but lost their way among the mushrooms and stunted trees. They had seen no more poison frogs, but heard their screechy croak near water. Thus the three kept to high ground. They had washed off the stinking poison, but the smell remained in their fur, and the girls were miserable. Big didn't mind so much, and even the prospect of being lost didn't faze him.
"We won't starve," he told his companions. "I have my rod. I can catch fish for us."
"That's fine for you," said Amy. "Cream's a rabbit! She won't eat fish!"
"I could try it," said Cream miserably, her ears drooping. "Mom's gonna be so worried, and Monty's gone, and Mr. Big's poor frog!"
"Poor Froggy," said Big, hanging his head. "He has bad luck all the time."
It was noon and the hot sun was drawing moisture out of the ground in long streams of mist. Huge mushrooms towered overhead, shading the ground, allowing other mushrooms to spring up in the shade. The ground was thick with black mould, and in most places was covered in fine green moss. Their feet squished as they walked.
"I'm tired," said Amy. "Can we rest for a minute?"
"Sure," said Big. The three sat down under a wide pink mushroom and stretched their legs out on the moss. Cream stared at the ground, worrying about her chao, and Big examined his rod, fiddling with the lure. Only Amy kept her head up, gazing around the forest. Or swamp--it was more like a swamp then anything. There were strange, parasitic flowers everywhere; frequented by insects Amy had never seen. This was the jungle, and she had to be prepared for anything. If only she could remember which way was back!
A movement caught her eye. A giant frog hopped into view, dragging a hind leg.
"Big, Cream, look," said Amy, pointing. They did.
"Aww," said Big. "That's a rainfrog, and it's hurt." He got up and trotted out to it, the girls trailing behind.
The frog watched them approach, too weary to flee. Big crouched over it, murmuring, "Hold still, buddy, I won't hurt you." He touched its leg and lifted it, and Amy and Cream squealed in horror. A slimy black thing was attached to the green skin, and it was the size of a bowling ball.
"Leech," said Big. He grabbed it and pulled. The leech stretched--one foot, two feet, becoming skinnier and skinnier--Cream and Amy stared in revulsion--then the leech let go with a sucking sound. Blood oozed from the hole in the frog's leg, and Big killed the leech with the butt of his rod.
"There," he told the frog. "The nasty leech is gone. Now you can get strong again."
The frog appeared to understand him. It gave a weak croak, and the chaos field shifted. The sun vanished behind a bank of clouds, and it began to pour a gentle, soothing rain.
* * *
Sonic looked up. "It's raining again. I don't believe this place."
"Shut up and crawl," snarled Mekion. "Next time I'll break your legs."
Sonic's hands were tied behind him with the electronic bindings, and a cable was tied to them like a leash. Mekion held the other end of this, and was making certain that Sonic did not try to run off again. He had made Sonic crawl on his knees for the last hour, and Sonic was angry and rebellious. To a lesser degree, so were Rouge and Omega. Rouge was upset at the way Sonic was being treated, for although she was calculating, she was not cruel. Omega figured that Sonic would not tolerate such treatment forever.
The red emerald in Mekion's hand was glowing brighter and brighter, indicating that they were nearing another emerald. The rain pattered all around them, running off the mushroom caps and soaking the moss. Sonic ground his teeth as mud splattered up on him and soiled his knees. Shadow or not, Mekion would pay for this.
"Mekion," said Rouge quietly, "let him up. This is pointless." Mekion ignored her. Rouge looked at Omega, who returned her glance, and focused his red eyes on Mekion.
"Mekion," said Omega over the network. "If you are going to kill him, then kill him. But Rouge objects to torture."
"Rouge should have left me in the pod." Snarled Mekion. "If I want to torment my rival, that is my affair."
The red emerald flared scarlet. The group halted, Sonic panting. He was desperate enough to try a spindash to free himself, even though it would break his arms. If he could find the emerald first, he would be a match for Mekion. More then a match, because Mekion shorted out during a chaos teleport. He peered around through the rain, looking for a tell-tale glow. He saw something move, and focused on it. Then he stared. Looking at him from around a mushroom was Amy Rose, Cream the Rabbit and a purple cat Sonic remembered was named Big.
* * *
"That's Sonic!" exclaimed Cream. "They're making him crawl, how mean!"
"And there's the black hedgehog who took Monty and Froggy," said Amy. She picked up a dead mushroom stem and held it like a club. "Big, think we have a chance?"
Big was watching the group. "I'll manage the robot. You guys save Sonic and get Froggy and the chao." He reached over and uprooted a nearby mushroom. Holding it above him like an umbrella, he charged the enemy group.
"Intruders detected!" said Omega in delight. He loaded his weapon systems, but before he could fire, Big walloped him with the mushroom. Omega stumbled sideways and Big hit him again.
Cream and Amy attacked Mekion. Amy hit him across the head with her club so hard it broke in half. Undaunted, she picked up the pieces and kept hitting him. Cream simply grabbed his robot arm and tried to hurt him with her chaos field.
Stunned from the first blow, Mekion staggered backward, confused and hurting. Then he gripped the red emerald and drew on its power. He grabbed Amy by the shirt and slammed her into the ground, and threw off Cream as if she weighed nothing.
"Chaos control!" he hissed, and vanished.
Sonic leaped to his feet as Mekion dropped the cable, and ran at Rouge, who was drawing a pistol from her belt. He sprang at her, curled into a ball and knocked her flat. She screamed as his spines stuck her through her clothing. Before she could get up, he put a foot on her chest and said, "Untie me."
"Like that'll happen," snarled Rouge.
Sonic bent over her. "I'll stick you some more, and I don't think you'll like it."
"Fine!" She pressed a button on her wristlet, and Sonic felt the bindings loosen.
"Thanks," he said, pulling them off and throwing them into the bushes. Then he spun and ran to Amy and Cream. "Run you guys!" Run like crazy!" He grabbed their hands and bolted.
"Big!" Amy shrieked over her shoulder. The cat was arm-wrestling Omega, but at her shout he turned and hurried after them. Omega and Rouge fired a few shots after them, but the four were already gone.
Rouge swore, calling on her multi-cultural vocabulary. When she had calmed down a bit, she said, "Where's Shadow?"
"He used chaos control," said Omega. "He could be anywhere."
"Mekion!" called Rouge turning in a circle. "Where are you? Omega, can you detect him?"
"Affirmative." Omega pointed south. "He is twenty meters that way."
Rouge and Omega pushed between the mushrooms and came upon Mekion beside a brook. He was seated on his knees with a mud-stained orange chaos emerald in both hands, staring into it as if spellbound.
"Mekion?" said Rouge. He didn't stir, and she realized he was Chaos Seeing, locked into that peculiar trance Sonic had fallen into. She covered his eyes with one hand, and he jerked backwards, dropping the emerald. He cringed away from Rouge and sat holding his head, drawing deep breaths.
"Shadow?" She asked. "You can chaos see?"
"I found the emerald," snarled Mekion. "I tried to chaos relocate with it, but it didn't work."
Rouge glanced at Omega, who said nothing. She picked up the orange emerald and wiped the mud off it. It had been embedded in the stream bank.
"What did you see?" she couldn't help asking.
"Death," said Mekion, almost to himself. "Death for us all. And darkness. And betrayal." He seized the red emerald from where he had dropped it and clutched it to his chest. "Master, I will remain loyal," he hissed through his teeth. "I will not betray you into their hands, I swear it!"
"Did you see the location of any more emeralds, perchance?" said Rouge.
"Yes," whispered Mekion. "The violet one is in the bottom of a river canyon, beneath the train tracks."
"The Amile canyon?" said Rouge in surprise. "Great! Take us there!"
"Yes," said Mekion, "But not with the orange emerald." He shuddered and stroked the red emerald. It may have only been the rain, but Rouge thought he was sweating again--perhaps the fever had returned. She shook her head and supported his left side as he teleported them away.
* * *
"So what are you guys doing out here anyway?" asked Sonic. Amy kept trying to hold his hand, and he kept evading her.
"Oh, we were with a tour," said Cream. "Then we met Mr. Big, but that black hedgehog attacked us, and he stole my chao and Mr. Big's frog."
"What black hedgehog?" said Sonic, frowning and scratching his head to avoid Amy's hand.
"That black hedgehog making you crawl," said Cream. "But he must have got rid of Monty and Froggy or something."
"Shadow's been with me all morning," said Sonic. "When did he kidnap them?"
"How did Shadow survive, anyway?" asked Amy. "I thought he burned up outside the ARK."
"Long story," said Sonic. "What time did you see him?"
"Nine-thirty," said Amy. "The tour started at nine and we weren't on it very long."
"Yeah, that sounds right," said Big. He was walking behind them, licking a scratch on his arm that Omega had given him.
"Shadow was definitely with me," said Sonic, rubbing his neck. "Maybe it just looked like him."
"It was him," said Amy. "A black hedgehog with red stripes, and red and white hoverskates."
Sonic stopped and stared. "You saw him?"
"Yes," chorused the three.
"But that's impossible! Unless he teleported or something ... but I watched him the whole time, so ..." He looked at Amy. "Was he half-robot?"
"I don't think so," said Amy. "He looked just like he did on the ARK. All black. Hey, the guy who had you was half-robot, wasn't he? I saw his glowing eye."
"Yeah, Shadow is part robot now," said Sonic. "So is there some look-alike running around?"
"Sounds like it," said Cream. "Monty and Froggy weren't there. And he didn't have his jet."
"The jet he took off in. You didn't ride in it, did you?"
Sonic looked blank. "Uh, no. We used Chaos Relocate." He was suddenly anxious to return to civilization. "Look, we need to get out of here. Which way is Sapphire City?"
"We don't know," said Big. "We got lost."
"Man, you guys are hopeless!" said Sonic, throwing his hands in the air. "Look, see the sun? A little past noon. THAT way is west, and west is where the ocean is, and Sapphire City is at the ocean."
Amy gazed at him. "You're so smart."
Sonic rolled his eyes. "Here, hang on. I'm gonna blast us out of here." They joined hands in a line and Sonic began to run, towing them in a straight line through the mushrooms.
As he ran, he worried about this rumored other black hedgehog. A Shadow-imitation? A robot or a clone or something? And why would it take a frog and a chao? Last time that stupid frog was stolen, it had had Chaos's tail. And a chao ... chao could be used for anything. But Cream's chao ... he slowed to a stop, and the three looked at him, panting.
"Cream, what could your chao do?"
"Monty could see chaos fields," said Cream. "And he regulated mine."
Sonic frowned. "Not good, not good ..." He turned and kept running, with Cream clamoring, "What's not good, Mr. Sonic? That he could see chaos fields? Is that bad? Why won't you answer me?"
It was going to be a long trip.
* * *
The hallways were quiet and dark as the black hedgehog strode toward the labs. So very quiet ... no engine noise to trouble him, no computer networks relaying him information. That would all change, but for now, Mecha had work to do.
He pressed a button to open the door, and his black hedgehog disguise rippled into liquid silver, reforming into his own shape in its armored mode. Ahh, taking on various shapes was so amusing! He could do anything. Literally anything. He stepped into the lab and walked to a corner, where a five-foot freshwater aquarium was set up on a table. It was so clean it looked almost sterile, but he was taking no chances with the subject of such an important experiment.
Metal Sonic watched the frog swim inside its aquarium, to and fro, round and round. He raised a hand to tap the glass, and the frog dove to the bottom and hid in the artificial weeds. The last time he had handled this frog, he had no idea of its abilities. Before it had been only something his master wanted for his own nefarious purposes. But Metal Sonic was his own master now.
He entered the room next door, where a steel cage on a table housed a frightened blue chao. Metal Sonic clasped his hands behind his back and examined it.
His scans revealed nothing special--it was the same internally as all other chao he had studied. It stared at him with wide eyes, trembling. Metal Sonic watched it until it looked away, then said, "Greetings."
The chao backed up against the bars. "What're you going to do to me?"
"First, the introductions," said the robot. "I am Metal Sonic. Your name is?"
"Cheese," said the chao. "But I like Monty better."
"Monty, then," said Metal Sonic. "You have been brought here because you can see chaos fields. Are there any in this room?"
Monty's eyes darted around, but he didn't answer.
"You will not be harmed," said Metal Sonic, summoning every ounce of patience he possessed. He must be kind or the chao would die of fright. It had happened before. "I merely need someone who can analyze the action of various chaos fields, and you are more reliable than a machine." When Monty still didn't respond, Metal Sonic added, "You will be returned to your mistress when my project is complete."
"Really?" said Monty, perking up. "Okay. The field in this room is really faint, but it's jumping around. It's orange."
"Orange, hmm," said Metal Sonic. "Is there any radiating from my person?"
"Nope," said Monty. "You're not like that other robot."
Metal Sonic froze. "What other robot?"
"The red echidna one, Robo Knux, I think his name was. He had a whole chaos storm around him."
Metal Sonic clenched his fists. "He did? How did he use it? Could he empower himself?"
"No, he couldn't absorb it," said Monty, watching the robot's hands. "It only distorted until he went mad. Then I heard it backfired and burned him up."
Metal Sonic's hands relaxed. So, his rival's chaos experiments had failed. Good news.
"I do not wish to duplicate his mistakes," said Metal Sonic. "You must instruct me. You see, I do not want to absorb chaos. I want to control the chaos fields around me the way the rainfrog does."
"You want to control the weather?" asked Monty. "Why?"
Metal Sonic wanted to strangle him. Instead he told himself to have patience, and said, "I do not want to control the weather. This is merely an experiment to explore chaos fields and how they function."
"Oh," said Monty. "Okay then. What do I need to do?"
Metal Sonic opened the cage. "Come with me."
* * *
"Okay, why are we doing this, again?" said Espio, looking over the railing into the Amile canyon. It was a mile-long drop to the river, which looked like a green ribbon winding through the red rock walls.
"Forty grand, that's why," said Vector. "Come on, it's not much further."
Vector, Charmy and Espio were hiking along a trail that ran along the rim of the canyon. According to Mighty, who was manning the office and reading the map for them, the Rovieg facility was two miles ahead.
It was near noon, and the trees along the canyon rim were too short to cast much shade. However, all this did was make the reptiles and insect hyper and alert as their metabolisms sped up. Vector and Espio broke into a sprint every few minutes, and Charmy kept buzzing off to investigate flowers.
Espio picked up two sticks and twirled them in his fingers. "Ninja-trained lizards are the most dangerous fighters in hot climates."
"Good to hear that," said Vector. "I'll stick with boxing."
"Boxing isn't as fast as martial arts."
"Nope, but it'll knock 'em out just as cold."
Charmy buzzed over. "How close are we?"
Vector flicked on his headset. "Hey Mighty, we're opposite Setter's Rock. How much further?"
"A mile," came Mighty's voice. "Be careful, there might be live rounds around. The Client says to go to the front gate, right?"
"Good luck, and be careful, nitwit."
"Look who's talking," snickered Vector. "I'm not the one who scored a D on the detective registration test."
"Oh shut up."
Charmy dove over the edge of the canyon and reappeared five minutes later. "Guys, look down here. I've never seen train tracks like these before."
Vector and Espio looked over the edge of the canyon. Running along the canyon walls were cross-braced train tracks, and the rock was stained black from the exhaust of passing trains. There were three levels of tracks, one above the other, following the curve of the canyon out of sight.
"How long have those been there?" said Vector. "I never heard about any trains in the Amile canyon."
"Curious," said Espio, pressing his fingertips together. "Let's keep going."
They resumed jogging, and Vector said into his headset, "Hey Mighty, since when is there a railway down here?"
"Yeah, built into the canyon walls."
"Umm ... let me look it up." A few minutes passed, and the Chaotix trotted along in silence. Then Mighty said, "No mention of extensions to any of the railway systems. Maybe it's some kind of siding for the weapons place."
The canyon curved to the north, and their trail plunged down from the clifftop, following a steep slope that zigzagged down the canyon wall. The Chaotix followed it half a mile down, then came to a gate studded with barbed wire. A sign on it read, "WARNING: Property of the Rovieg Weapon Research and Testing Group. GUN's jurisdiction. Live ammunition inside. Do not enter without authorization." Beyond the fence, at the end of another half mile of winding dirt road, they could see the roofs and antennas of the facility.
"Great," said Espio. "How do we get through now?"
"I'm in their voicemail," said Mighty in Vector's headset. "They don't welcome visitors. They're not using the facility this month--financial problems, I'll bet. What's the Client say?"
Vector flipped on the communicator on his belt. "Hey mister, how're we supposed to get in?"
"Ah, yes, well," said the synthesized voice. "I'll have to let you in on a secret. Do you see the signs about the Rovieg group?"
"That's a code. It's actually under the control of Dr. Robotnik. All you will meet inside are robots."
"But it says it's under GUN's jurisdiction!"
"GUN uses it, too. They don't know it's Robotnik's."
"Then how do YOU know?"
"I make it my business to know," snapped the Client. "The package I need has been developed inside that facility, and I have had dealings with Dr. Robotnik. It has been paid for."
"That doesn't help us get inside," said Espio. "Or get out alive, either."
Charmy flew over the fence and investigated the locks. "I can't open these, guys. And I'm not Tails--I can't airlift you."
"So how do we get in?" Vector asked the Client impatiently.
"Use your brains," said the Client. "I hired you because I heard you used them occasionally."
"Nice," muttered Espio. He peered at the train tracks which stretched by a few yards below the level of the path. Slowly a smile stole across his face. "Hey guys ... I'll bet we could get in on the rails."
"Walk on them?" said Vector. "No thanks."
"Not walk," said Espio. "Remember those cool shoes Sonic got last summer?"
"No way," said Vector. "Don't tell me ..."
Espio climbed down to the tracks, ran and jumped on one of the rails, the grooves in his shoes fitting over it. He slid past the gate, jumping forward to increase his speed. "Come on, Vector! I know your boots have those reinforced arches!"
Vector muttered under his breath and climbed down to the rails. He jumped on them the way Espio had, nearly fell, and was caught by Charmy.
"I'll help you," said the bee. "Espio's been practicing at the skatepark."
"Why that no good lizard," muttered Vector. "On company time, no doubt."
"I wasn't supposed to tell anybody," said Charmy, holding up Vector as he slid along the rail past the gate. "But the bee sees all."
Once inside the gate, Vector jumped off the rail, climbed back to the trail and jogged after Espio, who was out of sight. Charmy flew after him. They saw no sign of further security until they reached the facility itself. It was a sprawling mass of buildings straddling the river, and in front of it was a terminal where the trains stopped. There was a row of cars on a siding off to the left, and a freight train in the terminal, engines idling.
Espio had abandoned the rail and was crouched behind a boulder, camouflaged, as Vector and Charmy trotted up. "What's going on?" asked Vector, crouching beside him.
"There's some robots loading stuff," said Espio. "Boxes and crates. There's a guard robot, too, see him? With the gun?"
"I knew this wouldn't be easy," growled Vector. He lifted the communicator. "Hey mister, the base is guarded. Where's the package?"
There was a moment of silence, then the client replied, "Avoid the guards at all costs. They're extremely dangerous. The package is in office 212 of the main building. There's an entrance in the terminal."
"What about the guards?"
"You have a chameleon with you, right? He can get by. Call me once you're inside."
Vector looked at Espio. "We're earning this money."
"You said it," said Espio. "My skin's worth a lot more than ten thousand measly mobiads. Charmy, keep a lookout while we sneak up there."
"Aye aye!" The bee saluted and flew off.
A concrete causeway connected the road with the terminal, and Vector and Espio sneaked up it while the guard was at the far end of the platform. They joined Charmy behind a set of metal barrels for a breather, then Espio led the way in sprinting through the terminal to the front entrance. The Chaotix made it indoors unscathed, and ducked into the office complex before any guards noticed them.
"One nice thing about robots," panted Espio. "They sure are dumb."
"You said it," said Charmy, wiping his forehead. "Let's find the package and scram."
The offices were laid out in a grid, and it took five minutes to find 212. The door was unlocked, and inside was an empty room with a cardboard box in one corner. It was two feet square, and Vector lifted it with a grunt. "Man, what's in this thing?"
"Too bad I'm not there," said Mighty in his headset. "You weakling."
"Shut up," said Vector. "Espio, grab the com and tell the Client we found the package."
Espio swiped the com from Vector's belt and said, "Sir, we have completed the mission."
"Good," said the Client. "There's one more thing I need you to do."
"There is some illegal machinery that must be destroyed. Do you three think you could do that?"
"Destroy?" said Espio, looking at Vector and Charmy in horror. "But that's vandalism!"
"It belongs to Dr. Robotnik," said the Client. "It's locked up, but I know the passcodes. If you don't destroy this machinery, Dr. Robotnik will have the upper hand in his next bid for world domination."
Espio looked at Vector and whispered, "You don't think this is Snively, do you?"
"I don't know," whispered Vector. "But let's take a look anyway."
"All right," said Espio into the com. "Tell us how to get there."
The Client guided them out of the office complex and into one of the shooting ranges. From there they entered a weapons lab, a vast room filled with computers, racks of instruments, weapons and parts. In the rear of this room was a steel door with a keypad beside it. Espio punched in the numbers the client dictated, and the door hissed open. The Chaotix stepped inside, then stopped, their mouths falling open.
It was a long narrow room, and in two rows along the walls stood fifty stasis pods. "No way," said Espio into the com. "These are stasis pods! You want us to destroy stasis pods?"
"They're empty," said the Client. "Or they should be. They will be used for atrocities, much like those of the Black Claw's. The pods must be destroyed if Dr. Robotnik is to be stopped."
"Wh-what if something's in one of them?" said Charmy. "Do we destroy that?"
Espio repeated the question, and the Client said, "No. If any projects have begun, leave them alone. But destroy the rest."
The three ran from pod to pod, checking for occupants. All fifty were empty except for one, which was half-filled with a greenish liquid. Vector silently indicated the lid. There were gooey handprints on it where someone had opened the pod from the inside and climbed out. The three looked around the room with a chill of fear--the door out had been locked. They examined the room again, but there was no one there but themselves.
Espio lifted the com and cleared his throat. "Uh, sir, one of the pods has been used. And whatever was in it got out."
The Client was silent.
"Sir?" said Espio.
"Yes, uh, yes," said the Client. Even through the synthesizer they could hear his uneasiness. "Is there any sign of it?"
"Not that we've been able to find."
"Then it's already begun," said the Client. "Destroy or disable all the pods immediately. They must be beyond repair, understand?"
Espio and the others nodded. "But how do we do that?" asked Charmy. "These are made of metal!"
Vector shrugged. "Use your head, Charmy. This is a weapons place. What say we test some of the weapons in that lab back there?"
Espio and Charmy looked at each other and grinned.
* * *
Sonic slowed, looking around. "Wait a second. I got turned around somewhere."
"What?" said Amy. "Are we lost?" She squeezed Sonic's hand--she didn't care if they were lost or not, as long as Sonic was with her. She didn't see the spasm of annoyance that crossed his face.
"Lost?" squealed Cream. "I thought you knew where we were going!"
Sonic glanced around at them. Amy and Cream were flushed and panting from the run, but Big the Cat was doubled over, gasping. He was made for endurance, not speed, and the run had nearly killed him. Sonic decided to walk for a while. "No, we're not lost," he told the girls, tugging them forward. "I lost track of the direction in the trees, and we've been heading south instead of west."
"At least we're out of the swamp," said Amy. The trees around them were tall and green, covered with moss and trailing streamers of lichen, and there were no more mushrooms.
"If I could just get out of these trees," muttered Sonic. "Hey Big, you okay?"
"Yeah," the cat gasped. "Can we rest a minute?"
"Sure, stay here," said Sonic. "I'm going a little further. Maybe I can climb a tree."
"Don't get lost!" said Cream.
"I won't." Sonic trotted into the trees, glad to escape them for a few minutes.
At once the trees thinned and the light grew. Sonic found himself emerging from the forest at the rim of a canyon. He looked around, trying to remember where this was on a map, and how close they were to civilization. He peered down at the river, and saw the train tracks along the canyon wall. Well well. They must be closer than he thought. He picked up a rock and threw it out into the canyon, watching it descend slowly, almost lazily, before striking the river in a microscopic spurt of white.
Sonic's fur prickled with a surge of chaos energy. He shrank back into the trees as there was a sparkle of light, and Rouge, Mekion and Omega appeared twenty feet away from him. Rouge was supporting Mekion's arm, and he stood there with a disgusted look on his face. "We made it."
"I see," said Rouge, looking up and down the canyon. "Now where is the emerald?"
Sonic pricked up his ears.
"Down in the canyon bottom," whispered Mekion. "Near some sort of building. Omega, scan for it."
Omega's eyes flickered on, and his head turned. "Structures detected two miles east of here. Weapon testing facility. Hey! Scans show Dr. Robotnik's robots! I can destroy them all!" He did a few dancing steps as if longing to charge off, but restrained himself.
"Perfect," said Rouge. "Tell Mekion to hurry and wake up so we can go."
"Yes, yes," said Shadow, moving his head with difficulty. His one eye looked up and met Sonic's.
For a second they stared at each other. Then Sonic crouched low and slunk backward into the brush. Shadow gazed at the spot where he had been, and struggled between two impulses--one, to announce Sonic's presence, and two, say nothing.
He was divided between the two when Mekion reactivated and made the choice for him. "Sonic is over there."
"Sonic?" said Rouge in astonishment. "How did he get here so fast?"
"He is a swift runner," said Mekion in amusement. "No doubt he heard us discussing the emerald and will try to beat us to it."
"Maybe we should--" Rouge was interrupted as Omega launched a rocket with an ear-splitting roar. Rouge and Mekion flinched and spun around to see the rocket curving up toward a blue biplane flying over the canyon.
* * *
"Tails, that's a missile!" yelled Knuckles.
"I know!" Tails yelled back. The two were flying toward the mushroom forest in the Cyclone, and the flight had been uneventful until now.
"Tails!" Knuckles yelled again, watching the missile cut through the air in a white line, and seeing his life flash before his eyes. Tails was fumbling with the weapon controls--he hadn't expected a battle. The controls unlocked, and he targeted the rocket and squeezed the triggers.
The rocket exploded in midair ten feet from the Cyclone, and the biplane pitched and bucked so hard that Tails thought that they had been hit. A cloud of hot smoke enveloped them for a moment, then they were clear of it and still airborne, the Cyclone's engines sputtering.
Tails looked back at Knuckles and saw the echidna clinging to the sides of the cockpit, eyes wide and teeth clenched. "You okay?" Tails called.
"I'm never riding with you again," growled Knuckles.
Tails looked over the side of the plane, wondering what had fired at them, and glimpsed the sun shining on metal on the canyon rim. Black metal. "Look!" he exclaimed. "There's Rouge and Shadow! And some robot, too! That must be what fired at us."
Knuckles looked. "Where's Sonic?"
"I don't see him. Should I circle back?"
"No!" Knuckles stiffened. "Next time we might not be so lucky."
"He's not there, Tails! Don't go back!"
But Tails was already banking to the right, circling around.
"Tails, I'm going to kill you!"
"Don't try it in midair," said Tails, watching the canyon below them. "I doubt you could land this thing yourself."
* * *
Amy, Cream and Big looked up as Sonic rocketed out of the trees, panting. "We're right on top of some canyon," he said. "There's train tracks, follow them back to wherever they go. Shadow and those guys are on the rim, and Tails is in the biplane, and they're trying to shoot him down. I'm gonna stop 'em, so bye." He was gone in a whoosh of wind.
The three looked at each other. Then they got up and ran after him.
* * *
Sonic reached the rim just as Omega launched another rocket. Sonic waited long enough to see Tails blow it out of the air, then spindashed the robot from behind. Omega hit the ground and rolled toward the cliff's edge.
Sonic was backing up for another rush that would knock Omega over the edge, when Mekion hit him with a killer spindash.
The blow was so powerful that Sonic went flying off the cliff. He didn't realize he was falling until he landed on the crossbars of the train tracks. He lay there until his senses returned, then lifted his head, smelling the creosote in the wooden ties. Mekion dropped to the tracks twenty feet away, landed on his toes and crouched, watching Sonic.
Sonic stood up, glancing at the biplane overhead. He waved, and two figures waved back. Knuckles was in the plane? Something bad must have happened to have dragged him off the island.
Keeping an eye on Mekion, Sonic brushed himself off and decided that his scratches and bruises weren't serious. Mekion's spindash had hit him in the back, and Sonic's quills had protected him. Sonic looked up at the clifftop as Rouge flew off, looking angry. A second later Omega followed her on his jet. Cream and Amy were on his shoulders, and Big the Cat hung from the robot's feet. Omega thrashed, trying to knock them off, but the three only held tighter and pounded at his head with rocks.
Sonic laughed out loud as the robot flew over, into the canyon. Then Sonic looked at Mekion. "Why don't you teleport off and bug somebody else?"
"Because you will hunt the emerald as soon as I do," whispered Mekion.
"Right you are," said Sonic, peering up the train tracks. "They go to those buildings, don't they?"
Mekion said nothing.
Sonic tested one of his soapshoes on the rail. "See you." He leaped on the rail and sped down it, his shoes clicking on the track segments. Mekion leaped on the other rail and pursued.
* * *
"Oh yeah, leave it to Sonic to turn everything into a race," said Knuckles, watching from the plane. "Where are they going?"
"There's some factory up ahead," said Tails. "Where'd that robot go?"
"I don't see it anywhere."
"I wish I knew where it was--it might fire at us again. Page Sally and tell her we found Sonic."
Knuckles pulled out his long-range communicator, switched it to transmit to the human phone lines, and entered a message as they flew. Then he lifted his shovelclaws from the floor of the cockpit and strapped them on. He sensed a fight coming.
* * *
Omega had been just standing up when Amy and Cream had jumped on his shoulders, the one place he couldn't reach with his weapons. He ignited his jet to fly away anyway, when Big jumped and grabbed his feet. Omega's jet couldn't lift the extra weight, and he dropped into the canyon, snarling in rage. He positioned himself over the center of the river, meaning to drown them all.
Twenty feet from the water, another thought occurred to Omega. He was made of metal and would sink like a stone. And he wasn't sure he was waterproof. He switched directions and headed for the bank, but here in the canyon bottom there was no bank. The walls dropped straight into the river, with a few tumbled boulders at their bases.
With a digitized shriek he plunged into the water.
Big let go seconds before impact, and saved himself from being pulverized by Omega's quarter-ton frame. Cream and Amy were thrown off with shrill yells, and splashed into the water. Fortunately for them, they were so close to the edge that the water was shallow. Big touched bottom, waded forward and plucked the struggling girls from the current. As he set them on his shoulders, he said, "This isn't good. We can't get out of the river."
"Maybe we could float down until we get to the next train station," said Amy, coughing and wiping her eyes. "Ugh, my dress is ruined!"
Cream was shaking water out of her ears. "Hey, where's that robot?" They looked around for Omega.
Omega was floundering, unable to move properly and thus losing control of himself. His systems were indicating that his internal cavity was filling up, and in a few minutes he--the pilot--would drown. He couldn't make his body swim--it wanted to sink like lead. The bottom was sloped, and with every move he made, he was slipping into deeper and deeper water. He began to panic and thrash, pushing himself even further into the river, and the current tugged at him.
"Should we help him?" asked Amy. "He's going to drown."
"He's just a robot," said Big.
"Yeah," said Amy, "but he's like Gamma, and Gamma had a flicky inside him. What if this guy does, too?"
"Oh, we can't let it drown!" exclaimed Cream. "We have to help him!"
"How?" said Big. "My line isn't strong enough to pull him in."
"I know!" said Cream, flipping out her ears. "Maybe I can lift him!" She pulled her chaos field around her, flapped her ears and rose into the air. She flew out to Omega, who's body was shutting down in the deadly water. Cream grabbed one of the handles on his shoulder and pulled. He was too heavy for her to lift. She concentrated on pushing her chaos field out of herself and encircling the robot with it, and lifted again.
This time he moved. He was still incredibly heavy, but now within Cream's strength. She pulled him slowly out of the water, then carried him to a boulder that formed a shelf above the waterline. She dropped him there, then collapsed in exhaustion.
Big and Amy climbed up the rocks to her perch, and sat in the sun as Cream rested. Water was streaming from every chink and vent in Omega's body, and his eyes were flickering.
"Cream," said Amy, "could you fly us out of this canyon?"
"No," panted the rabbit. "He was so heavy! I could never fly all the way up there."
"Is the robot broken?" asked Big, watching Omega. "I don't like him. He's too mean."
"If I had a screwdriver I'd take out his pilot," said Amy, frowning. "Robotnik makes these robots, and it's cruel."
Omega was coughing and choking inside his metal hull, gasping for breath as the water drained away. His systems were temporarily shorted out, and he found himself opening his eyes in a dark place, smelling the odor of hot metal and oil. He was trapped with his limbs fastened into the robot's controls. "Help me!" he cried, his voice ringing inside the metal hull. "Somebody get me out of here!"
He could hear voices talking outside, and the rush of the river, but they couldn't hear him. What if he was trapped forever and the robot never reactivated? What if he starved to death in here? Alone and helpless, he began to cry, hating being inside the robot, and terrified of the dark. The longer he was disconnected from the robot, the more he could feel the punch of the metal pins that held him, and the pain of the clamps embedded in his skull. Memories of his past life began to ooze back into his mind, held at bay by the robot's semi-mind control.
Then Omega's systems flickered back on, and with a dizzy sense of disorientation, Omega was looking at the world through robot eyes again. His memories and discomfort faded away, and he turned his head, looking around. The rabbit, hedgehog and cat who had assaulted him were standing around him. As he moved, they all backed away.
"It's awake," said Amy. "Careful. This one's flicky might not be as nice as Gamma's."
Omega looked at her. "What do you want with me? And how was I pulled from the river?"
"I did it," said Cream. "I didn't want you to die."
Omega rose to his feet, relieved to find that his body worked properly again. "I will reward you by not destroying you."
The three Mobians exchanged glances. "Could you fly us out of the canyon, too?" asked Amy.
Omega considered it. "Well. I will expect you to return the favor in kind some day."
"Okay," said Amy. "We'll all help each other, right?"
"No," said Omega. "You are placing yourself in my debt. I will only help you because I must leave this canyon myself." He grabbed Cream and Amy in his massive hands, ignited his jet, and sprang for the canyon rim in a spurt of black smoke. He would have to return for Big, who took advantage of the wait by casting his line into the river.
* * *
"Well, that was a nasty job," said Espio, hefting his auto-rifle. "I don't think they can be repaired, do you?"
The room that had once held fifty stasis pods now only contained twisted heaps of smoking metal. Broken glass covered the floor an inch deep, running with foul-smelling fluid that had spurted from broken pipes.
The Chaotix had located a rocket launcher, which they had used to destroy half the pods. When they used up all the rockets, they moved on to the shrapnel grenades. These they threw into the room, then slammed the steel door shut and listened as pieces of metal embedded themselves in the walls. It was very dangerous and a lot of fun.
"Aren't we breaking a lot of laws?" asked Charmy.
Vector shrugged. "Whose laws? This is Robotnik's stuff."
"Can we take any of this?" asked Espio, caressing the barrel of his auto-rifle.
"Nope," said Vector. "Imagine explaining where we came by all these weapons. It's bad enough that we're here at all.
"Well, these pods are toast," said Charmy. "Let's get out of here."
Vector lifted the box the Client had requested, and the three sneaked out of the weapons laboratory.
The guard robots had been too far away to hear the sounds of carnage, but they were stationed at the entrance and exits. The Chaotix found their way blocked in every direction by armored plasma-rifle toting GUN robots. They ducked into an empty office. "How do we get out?" asked Charmy.
"We need a distraction," said Espio, rubbing his hands together. "I wonder if my shurikens will hurt robots?"
"I doubt it," said Vector. "But it'd definitely distract them. And be careful!"
"Right, chief." Espio saluted, changed colors to blend with the walls, and slipped out into the hallway.
Espio had twofold invisibility. He blended with his surroundings so well that he could not be seen until he moved. And being a reptile, his body was the same temperature as his environment, rendering him invisible to infrared scanners.
He crept up the hallway, watching for robots. There were two big ones at the front doors, watching the freight train leave the station. He circled them, hugging the walls, scheming. Then he pulled off his gloves, spread his bare hands on the walls and climbed up, the ridges of scales on his fingers acting like suction cups. At the ceiling was an air vent, which he hooked his tail through. Then he pulled a ninja star from a pouch on his belt and threw it at the robots.
It glanced off one robot's head with a sharp ching, and the two machines looked up, scanning for intruders. Espio crawled off along the ceiling, enjoying himself. "Hey, come and get me if you can!"
"Intruder!" the robots barked. "Surrender! You are trespassing on colony property and will be prosecuted!"
"You have to catch me first," muttered Espio, turning down a hallway that ran down the side of the building. As he went, he glanced back and saw Vector and Charmy sprint for the doors. Espio stopped and the robots ran by underneath him, assuming he was ahead of them. They would pursue their phantom prey until their programming reverted back to Guard mode, an hour from now.
Espio crawled back across the ceiling, enjoying himself. He wasn't allowed to wall-climb at work, because nobody wanted to clean footprints off the ceiling. He descended the front wall and slipped outside. Vector and Charmy were hurrying down the causeway, and Espio ran to join them.
There was a flash of light, and Espio collided with someone who had appeared out of thin air. They fell to the ground, and the stranger kicked out, knocking Espio off him. Espio landed on his feet in a defensive pose, his ninja training taking over. The other figure jumped up--a black hedgehog with ragged spines, half his body clad in metal. He glared at Espio with bared teeth, then darted around him, into the weapon facility. Espio nearly followed him, then realized how stupid such an action was. He dashed for the causeway instead.
* * *
Ten minutes earlier, Sonic and Shadow had flashed down the train tracks, side by side, neither wanting to fall behind. "Being a robot hasn't made you faster, has it, Shadow?" Sonic called. "Oh yeah, and aren't you supposed to try to kill me? Beating me in a race doesn't count, you know!"
Mekion didn't answer--his whispering voice couldn't compete with the wind and whisk of their shoes on the rails. He merely glared and ran forward up the rail, speeding up. His balance was superb. Sonic mimicked him, secretly wondering how Mekion could do that. Even back on the ARK, he had a poise and grace that Sonic would never possess.
The tracks followed a bend of the canyon wall in a long curve, and Sonic leaned into it, catching Mekion and passing him. Mekion's eyes flashed red, and Sonic heard his shoes clatter as he ran to catch up. Mekion pulled up alongside and flashed ahead, a black shape against the rock walls. Sonic grinned. Mekion had not conquered Shadow's competitive side, and there were a few good races in him yet. Sonic ran sideways, foot over foot like a figureskater, accelerating even more.
The tracks followed another long curve, cut through a tunnel, then descended toward the facility, which reared up in the distance like some technological fortress. Sonic and Mekion were again neck and neck, throwing scornful looks at each other as sparks sprayed from their rapidly-overheating shoes.
"I'll beat you!" Sonic yelled, flying down the grade, the rail shrieking under his soapshoes and the wind tearing at his ears.
"Ha," snarled Mekion. He sprinted forward, then suddenly straightened, staring. Sonic followed his gaze, and terror shot through him like a lightning bolt.
Leaving the terminal in the distance was a freight train with two engines and a long string of cars. It was chugging up the track toward them like a battering ram, inevitable and unstoppable.
Mekion and Sonic leaned back, trying to stop, but there was no friction on the rail and nothing to grab on to. Sonic glanced down at the river. It was only thirty feet below him--he could survive a fall, provided the water was deep enough.
He looked at Mekion to see the black hedgehog smile and hold up the red chaos emerald. Then Mekion spun and raced toward the oncoming train, glancing back at Sonic, daring him to follow.
Part of Sonic's mind screamed, "That's suicide!" But his ego snorted, "I can jump clear." And he poured on the speed, pursuing his rival. If Mekion could play chicken, then so could he.
They shot toward the oncoming train with terrifying speed, and it rushed to meet them. Mekion lifted his emerald-hand and disappeared ten feet from the train's cowcatcher. At the same time Sonic leaped off the rail, did a flip in midair, and plunged into the river.
"That was really stupid, hedgehog," Sonic told himself as he struck the rock bottom harder than he would have liked. He floundered to the surface, coughing and bruised, and looked up at the train rattling by overhead. The water cooled his hot feet, and he wondered how many miles he had taken off his soapshoes. At this rate he could cash in on the warranty in another month.
There was no bank, but a pile of boulders had been stacked under the terminal and buildings for support. Sonic swam down to it, working harder than usual because of his heavy waterlogged shoes. At least he reached the boulders and climbed up on one. As he sat there catching his breath, he remembered the reason he was racing Mekion in the first place. There was a chaos emerald down here somewhere.
Sonic slipped back into the water and began examining the waterline, wondering how Mekion knew, anyway. He had described the emerald's location as if he had seen it ... wait. Sonic paused and looked up at the tracks. Had Shadow learned to Chaos See? Sonic punched the water in frustration. Dang it! There went his advantage! Sonic would have to learn a new power to stay ahead.
He climbed up between two rocks and put his hand down on something sharp. Ouch! He whipped his hand away and looked. Then he grinned and lifted the chaos emerald out of the shallow water. It was lying pointed end up, and was as sharp as the day it was cut. He rinsed the mud off it. The violet emerald. He didn't remember what the violet one did, but he was sure he could teleport with it.
Sonic looked up as the drone of a plane reached his ears. The Cyclone was circling high overhead, out of reach of any rockets. He grinned. "Chaos relocate!"
It didn't work the way he had planned. The violet emerald emitted its power, but Sonic was on the wrong frequency, and he was swept into the water by a gust of hundred mile-an-hour wind. Coughing, he swam back to the rocks. Perhaps he should study this emerald a little before he tried to use it. He gazed into it, feeling for the frequencies and powers within it. Oh yes, he remembered this emerald. Wind and electricity were its specialties. He probed around inside it, looking for the ruling powers, and finally located them. With more care this time, he said, "Chaos relocate."
Sonic appeared on the nose of the Cyclone between the X-shaped wings. Tails and Knuckles jumped. "Hi guys!" Sonic called over the roar of the wind and engine. "What's up?"
"We came to rescue you!" Tails shouted. "Are you okay?"
"I'm great," said Sonic, holding up the violet emerald. "Look what I found!"
"How did you manage that?" said Knuckles, glaring.
Sonic winked. "Magic."
"Weren't you kidnapped by Shadow?" asked Tails.
Sonic shrugged. "Yeah, but it was no big deal. I was rescued by ... uh oh ..." Sonic peered over the wing. "Have you guys seen Amy, Cream and Big?"
"No," said Tails, glancing back at Knuckles. "Why, are they here?"
"I left them on the rim," said Sonic. "I hope Rouge and that trigger-happy robot didn't hurt them. I'm going back, guys. Follow if you want." He teleported away.
Tails looked at Knuckles. "At least he's okay."
Knuckles rolled his eyes. "When is he not? And here I thought he was in trouble. Big whoop. I'm going home after this."
Tails banked the plane and circled back toward the spot where they had first seen Sonic.
* * *
Froggy sat on a lump of cement in a tank of water, which was surrounded by a wire mesh fence. There was no way for the frog to escape his little prison, but at least he was outside in the fresh air, instead of indoors in a lab.
Metal Sonic stood beside the tank, inside the fence. The fence enclosed a circle ten feet in diameter, and the ten-gallon tank sat in the middle of the circle with the frog. They were in the field behind the airfield, miles from any prying eyes. Monty the chao sat beside him on the ground, watching the chaos field around them.
Metal Sonic said, "Monty, what does the chaos field look like now?"
"It's kind of a blue-green," said Monty. "It's very still."
Metal Sonic noted this, then stepped up to the tank and looked at Froggy. "Summon rain, frog."
The frog stared at him. Nothing happened.
"Summon rain!" Mecha snarled, clenching a fist.
The frog stared at him. Nothing happened.
Mecha looked at Monty. "Do you have any suggestions?"
Monty looked at the frog, sitting on the rock with his toes turned in. "Maybe you could ask him nicely."
Ask it nicely! Mecha felt more like shredding both of them. But he controlled himself with an effort and turned to the frog once more. "Please," he said quietly, "summon rain for us, because I would very much like to see how it is done."
Froggy croaked and shifted the chaos field. Overhead the sky suddenly filled with clouds, and Mecha sensed the humidity skyrocket. "Monty," he said, "what is the field doing?"
"That was cool," said Monty, grinning. "Froggy has a chaos field, you know? It's kind of a blue all the time. All of a sudden it turned purple and twisted into him, and it made the chaos field pull all the water in the air into a clump right above us."
A gentle rain showered down, plinking on Mecha's hull and pattering on the sidewalk. Monty opened his mouth and caught drops on his tongue. After a few minutes the rain subsided, and Mecha stood there, deep in thought. The colors must be the various chaos frequencies, and somehow one controlled the field by altering one's own frequencies.
"Monty," he said, "I am going to request that he does it again. This time I want you to watch closely and discover exactly what he does when he changes his chaos field resonance."
Monty looked confused. "Huh?"
Mecha reminded himself for the thousandth time to have patience. "What he does when he starts using his field."
Mecha turned to Froggy and said in his most polite voice, "That was fascinating, and I thank you. Would you mind doing it again, please?"
Froggy croaked again, and the clearing clouds drew together again and rain sprinkled down. Mecha looked at Monty.
Monty said, "It's kinda funny, but I think croaking helps him do it. He croaks, then the field pulls in."
Could it be that the field was manipulated by physical interaction? Mecha had never considered this. He stood there for a while as the rain stopped and the clouds drifted away. To control chaos, he had to feel it. He concentrated on his senses, feeling the sun's warmth on his biometal skin, the touch of a breeze on his face, the rainwater trickling down his body, the feeling of his fingers drumming on his crossed arms. One physically interacted with the chaos field.
He lifted a hand, swept it in a circle and clenched his hand into a fist, as if catching a fly. For an instant he felt something--an electrical twinge in his fingertips. Monty gasped. "Hey! The field turned red around your hand for a second!"
"It appears I have had a breakthrough," said Mecha. He looked at Froggy. "Perhaps a few more demonstrations are in order."
* * *
Sally's pager went off in the middle of her lecture. It meant either Sonic had been found or something bad had happened, and it shattered her concentration.
She forced herself to focus on her notes, and struggled through the remaining twenty minutes. Her lecture was on the finer points of human/Mobian interaction, and of how much damage they did to each other by continuing to ignore each other's economies. She touched on Dr. Robotnik's tyranny and of the damage he had done to Mobius's government, which they were now seeking to repair.
It was an important subject, but Sally knew that she had done a poor job of delivering the speech. The Mobian delegates listened raptly--she was one of their own, after all--but human after human rose and left the hall. Exactly what she didn't want to happen.
At last she left the podium to polite applause, and all but ran for the lobby, pulling her pager from her dress pocket. Confound these formal clothes--she couldn't wait to change back into ordinary boots and a vest.
The pager's message was Knuckles's number, with two words: "FND HM."
Alive? Dead? Injured? Did they see Mekion and Rouge? Sally's mind was seething with questions as she bolted to her room and snatched up her communicator. She clicked it on and waited for Knuckles to pick up. He did, and a roar of noise came from the speaker. They were in the biplane.
"Yeah?" came Knuckles's voice.
"Did you find him?"
"Did you find him!"
"Oh yeah! He's fine."
"Where are you?"
"Where are you!" Sally yelled.
"Over the Amile canyon," Knuckles shouted. "Look, I'll call you back, all right?"
"All right!" Sally turned off the com and sank onto her bed, exhausted. Sonic was fine. Nothing else mattered--not even her pathetic excuse for a lecture. She thought about it with a mental wince. She had done fine until the pager buzzed.
She got up and went to the window. It looked out at the ocean, and the beach was dotted with tourists. She rested her elbows on the sill and sighed. She had three more lectures to give over the course of the next week. If only Sonic would keep out of trouble! She didn't even know why he had been kidnapped. Well, once Sonic returned, he could fill them in on what had happened.
Sally brushed her hair and went downstairs to eat lunch on the veranda, wishing for Sonic's company.
* * *
The Chaotix reached the locked gate at the edge of the Rovieg property, and paused for breath. Vector set down the box and leaned against a post. "Whew! That wasn't so hard."
"Thanks to me," said Espio, grinning. "Those robots are still looking for me. Hey, is Shadow black and half metal?"
Charmy and Vector stared. "Uh ... yeah ... why?"
"I ran into him," said Espio, jerking a thumb at the facility. "He teleported into me. Then he ran off when he saw who he was messing with."
"If Shadow is here," said Charmy, "where's Sonic? And what about Rouge?"
"That answers one question," said Vector, pointing. "There's Rouge."
The bat was gliding in the wind over the terminal, circling as if seeking a landing spot.
"The crook," muttered Charmy. "Maybe they were coming to hijack the pods," said Espio. "And that's why we were supposed to destroy them."
Vector rubbed his chin. "Maybe. I don't like this." He flipped on his headset. "Hey Mighty, anything going on out here?"
"Going on?" came the armadillo's voice. "Like what, a police raid?"
"No. We just bumped into Shadow and Rouge and they're awfully interested in this place."
"No kidding? That doesn't bode well. Any sign of Sonic?"
"Nope. Maybe he got away."
"Wouldn't surprise me."
Charmy's antennae twitched, and he nudged Espio. "Do you hear something?"
"No," said Espio. "Like what?"
Charmy cocked his head, his antennae detecting vibrations in the air too slight for the ear to hear. "A rumbling ... is another train coming?"
They looked up the tracks, but nothing was visible on either set. The freight train was far away up the canyon.
"No," said Charmy slowly. He pointed at the buildings. "It's coming from there."
* * *
About the time the Chaotix reached the gate, Mekion opened a dented steel door and stood looking at the rows of broken stasis pods. The red emerald in his hand flamed as he clenched his fingers around it. The fever in his body rose two degrees, but he didn't notice. He stepped inside, shoes crunching on broken glass.
Stasis pods. Broken ones. He vaguely recognized them--hadn't he been in one once? His memory was hazy. He remembered something about Rouge and Omega, but every time he drew on the chaos emerald, it erased more of his mind. He knew Sonic now only as a spiteful rival who resisted questioning and who could grind a rail like nobody's business. The only other things left to him were the memories Mekion deemed important enough to record.
It was Mekion who swept the pods and felt a sense of loss. He relayed a transmission to his Master. "I have found a collection of stasis pods, newly destroyed. What is this place that contains both enemies, and Dr. Robotnik's machines?"
Perhaps his Master would relay a reply soon--his Master had been unavailable a lot lately.
Mekion turned to leave, and froze. Standing in the doorway were two enormous GUN robots, and behind them was Dr. Robotnik himself, staring. "What are you?" he hissed.
Mekion backed away. "I am Mekion. Mecha-fusion unit alpha."
Robotnik squinted. "Shadow? No--it's impossible."
Mekion said nothing and returned the human's stare. A round-bellied human with no hair on his head, but with a wide orange mustache. Mekion identified him as Robotnik, but Shadow had no recollection of him at all.
Robotnik seemed to recover, and pointed at the wrecked room. "Did you destroy these pods?"
"No," whispered Mekion. "And it is a pity, for it appears to have been amusing."
"Well Shadow, or whoever you are," said Robotnik, "you're trespassing. I'm afraid you're under arrest."
Mekion lowered his head. "Oh, I doubt that. If I were you, I'd run."
He went from a standstill to a sixty-mile an hour spindash and tore into one of the robot guards. The other fired at him and missed, and Mekion tore it apart next. Then he went after Robotnik, who was sprinting up the hallway. Robotnik ducked through a door and slammed it, and Mekion hit the door in a spin.
He backed up and hit it again and again, his metal spines tearing through the panelling. Five minutes later he crawled through the hole he had made, and continued to hunt Robotnik.
"Why am I doing this?" Shadow thought. "He is defenseless and pathetic."
"Fool," replied Mekion. "Master relayed a code patch while you were sleeping under Rouge's influence. Dr. Robotnik is the enemy and must be destroyed at all costs."
Shadow tried to stop himself, but Mekion was in control, running down hall after hall, eyes sweeping for any sign of movement. "This is pointless!" snarled Shadow. "It's not even a challenge!"
"We haven't caught him yet, have we?" replied Mekion. "Therefore a challenge is presented. You have killed humans before."
"I have? I don't remember." Shadow rode on the sidelines as Mekion did what he wanted. Shadow glanced at the log of the code patch, and saw that Mekion's control had been moved from 70% to 90%. Shadow was relegated to observer only--for all intents and purposes, he was Metal Shadow now.
* * *
Rouge landed on the roof of the terminal, panting. It was a long flight all the way down the canyon. She looked back and saw the streak of smoke from Omega's jets--he was flying after her. He must have disposed of those bratty kids.
She turned her attention to the terminal beneath her. There were several robot guards--Shadow must have teleported inside instead of tackling them. "Mekion," she reminded herself. "He's Mekion now." She folded her wings and fingered her magnigens, thinking of stunning the robots so she could get in. Mekion shouldn't be left alone. But why not? He was more than capable of handling himself.
The truth was, she didn't want him to get hurt. She smiled to herself. She had had many boyfriends, but no one intrigued her the way Shadow did. He was so introverted and brooding, and ignored all her advances--he was so hard to get! It made him appealing.
And he was more dangerous than ever with his duel personalities. Rouge knew he would kill her if she let her guard down, and it would be Mekion's doing, not Shadow's. But even Shadow was cold-blooded and ruthless, especially with that chaos emerald in his hand.
If he had gone into the buildings, that must be where he had seen the chaos emerald. Rouge pulled out a magnigen and prepared to tackle the guards down below, when a low rumbling reached her ears. She sat back on her heels and looked around. It sounded like machinery running. She squinted and saw a set of doors opening in the cliff face down beyond the facility. As she watched, a red aircraft taxied out, shaped like a hawk with outstretched wings.
Rouge gulped. It had to be one of Dr. Robotnik's ships. Was Dr. Robotnik here? She looked around for Omega and saw him flying toward her. Suddenly he changed course and flew for the airship. He had recognized it.
Rouge jumped off the terminal and ducked into the rocks beneath it. She couldn't fight a warship that size, but she would definitely watch.
* * *
Sonic materialized twenty feet above the clifftop, and landed with a thud. He glared at the violet emerald. He kept losing the chaos relocate frequency--the violet emerald was constantly shifting and changing, unlike any of the others, and he couldn't keep up with it. He missed the green emerald.
Sonic spun in a circle. "Hey Amy! Where are you guys?" The clifftop was covered in footprints, but was deserted. Where had they gone? He considered using Chaos Sight to find them, then decided against it. The violet emerald was so weird that anything might happen. He dashed along the cliffs, listening. Cream and Amy's voices were so shrill he ought to be able to hear them a mile away.
Above him, the biplane dipped its wings and flashed in the sun. As he glanced at it, Tails beckoned to him. Sonic teleported up on the plane. "What?"
"Sonic, look," said Tails. "Is that them on the train?"
Sonic squinted. The freight train was a mile up the canyon, and as it turned a corner, three figures became visible, sitting on the roof of a boxcar. Sonic grinned. "Looks like them, all right. Good eyes, little bro!"
"Hey," called Knuckles. "Look back. I think we've got company."
Sonic and Tails looked and saw a monstrous red plane rising out of the canyon, the air shimmering beneath it from its jets. "All right!" said Sonic. "I'm gonna go check it out. See you guys!" He vanished.
Knuckles unbuckled his seatbelt. "Sorry about this, Tails."
Tails looked alarmed. "What? What are you doing?"
"Your flying is making me airsick," said Knuckles. "I'm going to take my own chances." He jumped out of the plane and glided away down the canyon, toward the plane and the factory. Tails grinned and flew after him. Knuckles wasn't as big of a humbug as he pretended.
* * *
Vector, Espio and Charmy skated around the perimeter fence on the train track, and now stood watching the red jet fly. "I don't like this," said Vector.
"Why?" said Mighty in his headset. "What's wrong?"
"Some big red hawk-jet is out here flying around," said Vector. "I wonder if we triggered security."
"Or if Shadow did," muttered Espio.
"Right. Let's get out of here, pronto."
The three set off a jog up the road leading to the canyon's rim. "Bad news, guys," said Mighty. "It says here on dispatch that a bunch of GUN's security has been sent to deal with intruders at the Rovieg weapon testing group. Better make yourselves scarce, fast."
Vector repeated this information to his partners, and they began to run.
* * *
Shadow, Omega and Sonic reached the Hawk at the same time. Shadow teleported up on one wing and sat there, Mekion flickering back to life, as Sonic teleported onto the tail section. Omega, flying with all weapons loaded, saw them appear and for a second was astonished. Then he remembered that both hedgehogs could Chaos Control, and shrugged. He was attacking the Egg Hawk, and if they got in the way, it was their own fault.
The Hawk was the size of a private jet, but its back and wings were covered in energy cannons. It was unusual, and Sonic recognized the layout as exactly the same as the one used on the Egg Carrier. Definitely one of Robotnik's ships.
The cannons rotated, drew a bead on Mekion, Sonic and Omega, and fired. Sonic and Mekion sprang away, slipping and clattering on the fuselage. Mekion spindashed through four cannons in a row, and Sonic followed suit, destroying two on the right wing and flying off into space. No matter--he could teleport back up. But before he could, a rain of rockets struck the Hawk in a ball of flame.
Mekion was blasted clear and teleported himself to the ground. He landed with a thump, jumped up and stared at the Egg Hawk as Mekion struggled to remain online. A second later Sonic materialized on the roof of the weapon station, a hundred feet away. He landed harder than he meant to and crouched, panting.
A sound attracted Mekion's attention, and Sonic turned his head. The Cyclone was sweeping toward the Hawk like a swallow, and behind it, lower down, was Knuckles. Sonic grinned. With so many enemies, the Hawk was toast. It was quite a change from fighting Robotnik's robots all by himself.
Sonic glanced at Mekion, and saw his rival was watching the Cyclone with a cunning expression. Sonic's smile vanished. He clutched his own emerald, and teleported just as Mekion did.
* * *
Tails was targeting the Egg Hawk when Mekion appeared on the nose of the plane. An instant later Sonic appeared next to him and tackled him, knocking him off the plane. Tails peered over the side, startled. What was that all about?
* * *
The Egg Hawk banked and circled, and Knuckles saw it was headed straight for him. He dropped a little, and as its belly swept over him, he reached up and grabbed on. His shovelclaws screeched over the metal and lodged in a vent, and he hung on, the wind rushing over his body.
As the craft levelled out, Knuckles examined the underside. The fuel tank was five feet to his left, and a little behind him. He climbed sideways, sliding his claws into seams in the metal, until he reached the panel over the fuel tank. He braced his feet against the panelling, reared back, and drove his fist up into the plane. The metal crumpled like tin. He hit it again, and his steel claws punched through into the fuel tank. He pulled out his fist, and clear liquid sputtered out into the wind.
Knuckles let go and fell from the plane's belly. He rolled over in midair and glided for the canyon wall, grinning to himself. Ah, it felt good to destroy a monster machine again. Maybe he would hang around the mainland for a while.
* * *
Shadow tried to teleport over and over as he fell from the Cyclone, but the wind was knocked out of him, and Mekion had shorted out completely on that last jump. He couldn't focus.
He landed in the river with a terrific splash and dropped to the bottom like a stone. The sting of the cold water brought him to his senses, and he snarled, "Chaos relocate!" as bubbles streamed from his mouth.
He landed in the brush near the canyon's rim and lay there, coughing and soaking wet. Curse Mekion for being a robot! There had to be a way to install some chaos shielding. He dragged himself upright, gripping his emerald, and hissed, "Chaos relocate."
* * *
Up above, the Hawk's engines sputtered. It shuddered as Tails's missiles hit it, then began to trail black smoke. It rolled over in midair, slowly, almost lazily, and began a kamikaze dive toward the weapon factory.
Sonic's ears flattened. If the Hawk hit those buildings, there was so much ammunition inside that the explosion would kill every last one of them. "Chaos control!" he exclaimed, and time stopped. The Hawk hung in midair, smoke suspended behind it. Sonic couldn't teleport while in a timestop, but he did have time to think.
He looked at his violet emerald and thought of the wind he had accidently summoned. Then he remembered how on the ARK he had used a wind to hinder Shadow. He grinned. The emerald began to flicker as the timestop wore off, and Sonic swept a hand at the Hawk and said, "Chaos wind!"
The canyon was blasted with a gust of hurricane-force wind. The Hawk was knocked over and spun end over end down into the canyon, to crash into the river in a mass of smoke and fire. The Cyclone was sent tumbling, but pulled out of it as Tails regained control. Omega was knocked spinning, but recovered his balance and landed in the terminal.
"Nice work, Sonic."
Sonic turned to see Knuckles climbing up onto the canyon rim, his dreadlocks tangled by the wind. "Learning new chaos powers on the fly, are we?"
"Oh, I learned that one ages ago," said Sonic. "What're you doing out here?"
"Hunting you." Knuckles dusted off his hands, then combed his fingers through his dreadlocks. "Which was a waste of time, as usual."
"Hey, I found an emerald," said Sonic, holding it up. "And we wrecked one of Eggman's ships, so come on! It wasn't a complete waste of time."
Knuckles folded his arms. "We find you, and what're you doing? You're racing Shadow! Didn't look very urgent to me."
"Yeah, well," said Sonic sheepishly. "He started it."
"Why'd they kidnap you?"
"Rouge wanted me to Chaos See the emeralds for her." He punctuated this with a glare.
Knuckles grinned. "Doesn't sound like she's changed much."
"She hasn't. Although I think she has the hots for Shadow now, so you're off the hook."
Knuckles raised his eyebrows. "Shadow, now? I doubt that gets very far."
"Likewise." Sonic squinted toward the base. "Any sign of Shadow?"
"Nope," said Knuckles. "He probably teleported home for repairs or something. Was Robotnik in that red ship?"
"The cockpit was covered," said Sonic. "I'll bet it was a remote-control ship. Want to go inside that factory with me?"
"Wait," said Knuckles, looking over his shoulder. "Listen."
Sonic pricked up his ears. The drone of several engines reached him, carried on the wind. "Backup," said Sonic. "No problem, I can take 'em!"
Knuckles gave him a scornful look. "Do you really want the police after you again? I think Shadow's been a bad influence on you."
Sonic looked at him, nettled. "Okay, fine. I'll teleport us all back to Rio del Fuego. Happy now?"
Knuckles shrugged. "It's no skin off my nose if you go to jail again. I'm just warning you."
Sonic snorted. He grabbed Knuckles's arm and teleported them up on the Cyclone, then teleported the Cyclone to the Rio del Fuego airport. He planned to sneak out later and investigate the factory on his own, when the dust had settled.
However, as it turned out, the dust did not settle for quite a while.
End of part 1