The sight of the evening sunlight turning the puffy clouds far beneath them the colour of champagne while the sky above transitioned through all the colours of dusk, from bright afternoon, to evening twilight, to starry night would have been beautiful if they were not so cramped.
The Tornado MKII was designed to be a fighter plane, unlike the original Tornado, which Tails had built with their long journeys in mind. GUN, however, saw little use in pulling space from the engine in order to allow for a more spacious interior. Nor did they invest in plush leather-bound seats. It was just as well Knuckles chose not to come – the gunner’s podium no longer had a seat underneath it. The plane was bigger, leaner and meaner. It flew quicker than before. They noticed less turbulence, too, though Tails was not so quick to highlight the pieces of engineering GUN had actually improved upon.
Though his first and dearest love may have been mechanical engineering, Tails’ prodigious skills extended well into the fields of computer science, software engineering, network designing and, of course, hacking.
“Sonic, you ever heard of CORE?” he asked somewhere over Soleanna. They could not see any of Mobius below, just the endless carpet of fluffy white. It was negative fifty outside, and both Tails and Sonic were as snug as they could get inside their cabins. Silver and Nickel seemed mostly protected from the temperature and wind pressure by their psychokinesis, but it didn’t stop them uttering the odd complaint, ‘it’s so cold!’ They could now all communicate since Tails had handed them spare wrist-comms.
Tails did not get an answer from Sonic, who was already using the wrist-comms with Silver and Nickel.
-“split with Spagonia was ages ago. At first they were really poor, but seriously, we should have kept them. Soleanna’s rich, basically everything they do is the best in the world. They are the most underrated underdogs of all time.”
“Yeah? I’m telling them about” –
“I know I can hear. Ever heard of CORE? C-O-R-E?”
“Um…” Sonic frowned. “No. Don’t think so.”
“Wow. They built this plane, but I had to dig deep into the software to get a hold of some leads. Except, on the web I can’t find hide nor hair of anybody called ‘Central Organisation for Robotic Experimentation’.”
“Are you gonna take a peep into that GUN leak of yours?”
“I’m already running the software but it’s going to take some time.”
“So it’s some GUN pet. Does it matter to us?”
“Yes… maybe. This plane isn’t based on my engineering, it’s based on Robotnik’s.”
“Wait!” said Silver in a tone of alarm. A particularly timely gust of turbulence buffeted the plane, but none of its occupants so much as blanched. They were used to the bumpiness by now. “That doesn’t mean he can track us or anything?”
“No, don’t be so stupid,” said Sonic derisively. “Course he can’t… right Tails?”
“Not any more than he usually can. I’ve pretty much already pulled out all systems and networks that would link us back to GUN, too, so they can’t see what we’re up to. Which is good because they’d probably cough up a lung. Anyway, it’s not us I’m worried about… it’s CORE. GUN’s meant to be against everything Robotnik stands for, including robotic warfare. It worries me that they’re developing technology based on Robotnik’s.”
“You probably didn’t forget Tails, but they weren’t the first to do it,” Sonic acrimoniously reminded him.
“No, but that was different.”
“But it’s what it’s used for, isn’t it?” said Nickel, fairly. “You said Robotnik’s a genius, that he puts his effort into building giant death-ships is his choice.”
“I know that. The Internet’s infrastructure all comes from Robotnik. Spagonia’s defense systems are all hijacked Robotnik equipment. I do what I do from studying badniks. It’s that CORE doesn’t officially exist anywhere and they’re meddling in Robotnik tech that worries me.”
“So they made this plane?” confirmed Sonic.
“Yeah. Just didn’t know if the name meant anything to you…”
“Maybe ask Espio? Or I guess Rouge or Shadow…”
“Pass. I’ll see if I can get a hold of Espio then.” Tails wriggled inside the dimly lit cockpit. He had removed his seatbelt and rolled over to be flat on his back. As soon as they had the chance he was installing better seats. He checked a screen to his right. They still had fifty minutes flight time left.
“Silver, Nickel, how’re you holding up out there?”
They responded with ‘fine’, to which Tails replied sympathetically, “Only a little while longer now, guys, just keep holding on out there.”
“Can anybody use psychokinesis?” asked Sonic, suddenly.
Silver sneered with derision, and said, “Like we’re gonna tell you that.”
“Why not?” interrupted Nickel, sounding hurt on Sonic’s behalf.
“What do you… Nickel, we’re not even meant to be here!”
“Yeah, and we’d be dead without Sonic. We’d have no idea what the Rainbow emerald was, in fact we’d probably be in either be a Robotnik or GUN prison! Or worse…”
“By the looms…”
“Looms?” said Sonic, quickly grabbing onto the clue. “Your gloves?”
“And shoes,” supplied Nickel. “A kinetic loom is the only way to make cloth that conducts psychokinesis.”
“Well,” said Silver, carefully, as if still unsure if this conversation should even be taking place, “flesh is still ok. It just isn’t as strong. The cloth channels as well as conducts. Power depends on the quality of the cloth and the concentration of the wearer.”
“So, technically, I could” –
“No, you could not.” said Silver flatly.
“Fine, you don’t get to ride my plane.”
“Except it’s not your plane anymore,” pointed out Tails.
“Yeah it is, buddy. You crashed the old one and owe me new one.”
“You can’t even fly this one! But, look Sonic – that’s not all I want to talk about. I’ve checked the news – Shamar is going through what looks like an attempted coup. There’s no GUN forces on the ground to say but there’s no mention of Robotnik involvement.”
Silver, bewildered at Tails’ tone, said, “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Maybe for them,” explained Sonic, “but for us it kinda removes our license to do what we want, if you get what I mean.”
“This is like a political melting pot we don’t want to get sucked into.”
“Well, what’s going on, at least?” said Silver, “I thought you guys would just help anyway.”
“We would!” said Sonic, stoutly, “Just be a break from tradition, I guess.”
Tails said, “What’s going on is a group called the Erazors have seized the capitol… but haven’t issued a statement why yet. There don’t appear to be casualties. The military is acting like everything is fine… who are the Erazors?”
“At least it can’t be a coincidence. It’s definitely related to whatever problem Pylon has.”
“Shouldn’t the military be getting to work on getting their capitol back?” asked Nickel, blankly.
“It’s a little more complicated than that. Sorry, I keep forgetting you guys are two hundred years ahead. The short version is the military used to run Shamar. Now the Ra and a council are in charge. Then they got invaded in the Robotnik War, and the military claims it’s because they weren’t in charge to protect everyone. Sonic, I’m sending through to you an image of the woman running the show now.”
“Thanks – Oh!” Sonic cried out in disgust as he looked to the screen in his cabin, “Man, she’s like a living fossil!”
Shamar’s dominant species were desert cats. The decrepit anthrohuman woman on his screen was so old most of her fur had fallen out, except for patches around her collarbone and face. In the photo, taken in front of a hand-drawn antiquity-style map on Shamar she stood remarkably straight, defying her immense age. She wore a military uniform around her withered, skeletal frame. Her eyes, like her stature, disregarded her age, and pierced the camera like sharp, blue razors. The subtitle at the bottom of the page read,
“Admiral General Zia. Never heard of her.” Said Sonic.
“How can you be an Admiral and a General?” asked Silver.
“Immense narcissism,” Sonic deftly surmised. “Can’t be a leader without it. Alright… so this has nothing to do with Robotnik?”
“None at all.”
“But Pylon’s stuck in the capitol with a rebel group called the Erazors? Alright, fine, we just gotta get in and get out.”
“We’ll stand out something crazy, Sonic. In case you forgot, none of us are cats!”
“None of us were roboticised and we’ve snuck into dozens of Robotnik bases. We’ll be fine. She looks like a psycho anyway, we better take a look.”
Stepping through a Warp Ring was just like taking a normal step. Apart from the instant of smudged, iridescent colours and the acrid, saccharine smell of the harnessed Chaos energy (a concentrated version of the faint, sweet tincture of burning Magic Rings in the Tornado MKII) it was rather like stepping through nothing. It was the wall of humidity on the other end that made his head swim momentarily.
He had arrived on Angel Island barely a day after he had left and the Chaotix, the team Knuckles now contracted Angel Island’s protection to when he was absent, perhaps unsurprisingly, had not yet arrived.
Knuckles sighed as he surveyed the Master Emerald’s courtyard. Long grass and tortured vines slowly choked his civilization into rubble, but the Master Emerald floated majestically on its central marble plinth, rotating contently. Seven decrepit pillars made from the same white stone as the rest of the courtyard encircled it from a distance, their seven fares sadly absent. But he took comfort in the familiar scents and sounds, the colours and textures of the temples, his home, even of the flora that slowly reclaimed his culture and identity back into the stomach of the island.
He was eight years old when Robotnik came for the emeralds, asleep and content with the world in his candle-lit dorm, his favourite toys at the foot of his bed. His spiked gloves were on his stone bed-side table. He never slept without them again. It had been the last night he had ever seen another Echidna on Angel Island.
“At least you’re okay, old girl,” murmured Knuckles, approaching the emerald, pushing these morose thoughts away. The temple’s peak still towered above them, but to his back was his open-air sleeping quarters, a tent, a sleeping bag and a ring-powered lantern. Beyond that stretched possibly the greatest bedroom view of all time.
But Knuckles knew the wild and unique landscape of Angel Island as well as his own quills; its sprawling rainforest, bordering mountains and great lake, cupped on the very edge of the island like a floating dam. He could not see it from here, but a great waterfall appeared after days of substantial rainfall, creating a rainbow mist circling the bottom of the island. To his left and right, for there was no useful west or east in relation to anything upon Angel Island due to its constant slow rotation, were the two grand temples, perhaps half the size of the Master Temple, the quarters of the Pachamacac and the Guardian in the days of old. Out of an original seven temples only these three had survived the ages and Robotnik’s invasion, and then just barely. Nothing but rubble remained of the townships that housed the greater Echidna population. He could no longer enter the left Grand Temple, and the right required a hike to crest two-thirds of its stature.
It was the empty landing strip not far from the temples that had captured his attention. He had known the Chaotix to have been working for local detectives in Chilicual, not a three hours flight from Angel Island. So where were they?
But fatigue dripped from his limbs. He was hungry and exhausted. The Chaotix had only been summoned a day ago, they may still be in transit to Angel Island.
For now he would rest under the luminous green glow of his beloved emerald. If the Chaotix were not here by the time he awoke, he thought with some entertainment, he’d turn them into Chun-Nan noodles.
“Approaching restricted airspace,” said Tails, across the comms, “I’m activating cloaking and putting us down outside the city’s borders.”
Sonic checked his wrist-comm: it was 3pm. They had been travelling for nearly a full day. His legs itched for a run, even if it was in the inevitable sandstorm his speed would create.
Silver pointed out, “This place isn’t a warzone. Can’t we just say ‘can we have our friend back’, and go?”
Sonic replied, “We’ve learnt from experience people say ‘no’ way more than they say ‘yes’ when you’re asking for favours. In the end, it’s better just not ask in the first place. If you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar… well it’s only a cookie jar.”
“Just don’t get caught with your hand on the space-ship’s go button, hey Sonic?”
“It was only one empty skyscraper! Or was it two…”
Confused, Nickel said, “So… Shamar’s a cookie jar?”
“Sure! Anybody asks why we’re skulking around, we’re visiting! Not like this place is a warzone or anything” –
Tails suddenly belted, “INCOMING RPG! Evasive Maneuvers! Silver and Nickel HOLD ON!”
Sonic felt his stomach rise to his throat as Tails flung the plane into a dazzling corkscrew. Through his windscreen he saw the rocket, streamers of white smoke seared into the sky in spirals behindit, whizz past metres from his head. The whole plane shook as Tails leveled them and spun the other way. Nickel and Silver were screaming with the whiplash.
“Sonic, why did you say anything!?”
“Just put me on the ground! Why are they firing!?”
“They shouldn’t be able to see us!” Tails threw another sharp barrel roll and dove like falcon to the ground, “I was cloaked physically and to radar!”
Sonic dismissed that Tails was more worried why his equipment had failed than why they were being attacked.
Upside-down they streaked towards the ground at close the speed of sound. Through the shaking windscreen, Sonic craned his neck up to look at the city. Shamar City, and within it the mini-city the Pyramid Kingdom, Shamar’s capital, was a green and blue jewel in the middle of the flat orange desert. Built upon the mighty river Le’n a large expanse of lower-class communities existed in dusty shambles upon white-orange sand, surrounding the mega-city at the epicenter. The Pyramid Kingdom was easily the most noticeable infrastructure, a palace of grand, domed buildings surrounded by a pale white wall the size of the city’s CBD. An entire river, itself precious to Shamarite culture, diverted around it to imitate a moat before resuming its flow to the coast. Four bridges connected the city across the monumental 500m width of the river, evenly spread around the circular wall. Outside it, dozens of sky-scrapers shone bright white in the sun, the highways and bridges of a modern city springing up within poverty and traditional mud-brick housing. Tropical greenery replaced sand, the massive river cutting through the city before winding its way south and out of his sight. Where the thriving city blurred into the dusty poverty not yet lifted from dreary and endless pauperism by the prosperous economic boom, these mud-brick houses buried or towered over each other like poorly laid children’s blocks, all constructed to no visible plan.
Sonic saw no smoke or any sign of conflict. But he saw no traffic either.
Then Tails flipped the aircraft.
“I’ve got nothing more on radar… I think we’re OK. Sonic, what now?”
“Um…” Sonic thought quickly. The situation on the ground was obviously dangerous, whoever now ran Shamar didn’t want any visitors – and live fire was a bit extreme. They obviously were not in the mood to talk. He had two options: one, put them down, leave the Tornado MKII in stealth mode and try and infiltrate from the ground. This seemed an unlikely option, with just him and Tails maybe but Silver and Nickel had likely never done any such thing, and their desire to even be in the country instead of on the hunt for the emeralds perhaps may not have matched theirs. The second option was to flee the Pyramid Kingdom’s borders and find somewhere nearby where they could plan this out with more finesse.
Sonic shook his head, and said, “Tails, this isn’t gonna work, take us out of the city, we’re not coming in by air…”
“You got it. Searching for a destination now.”
Barely more than twenty metres from the ground at any time, Tails pulled the plane to the north west and rocketed forwards.
Redfreid’s infamous team currently consisted of five humans and one anthrohuman. Shadow did not believe they were as elite as they made out to be – after all, their success had mainly been during the Robotnik War. The playing field was much different now. They were too loud, too large. And too young.
“That boy cannot be more than a few years out of the academy,” muttered Shadow, glaring red hot embers into the back of Waltz’ sandy-haired head. In his hands he held a tablet he had a moment before been perusing.
“Physiologically, you’re only, what, sixteen?” replied Rouge. Her eyes were shut and her ears plugged with the soft rubber pellets she generally carried around. Her magnificent hearing meant that even through these, she could hear Shadow clear as day.
The jet they rode, piloted by Redfreid’s Mouse and Nuka, was one of the fastest in the fleet. It was also considerably noisy on the inside, more than enough to irritate Rouge’s ears. They sat at the rear of the plane, Redfreid and his team sitting in rows in front of them. Major Redfreid himself and Pea were both humongous humans – in fact Pea was like some kind of white mirror of his boss and both nearly bulged out of their seats.
“Genetically, I’m the most advanced organism alive. And I don’t age like you…” he paused as searched for the right word, “mortals.”
Rouge snickered, eyes still shut. “Didn’t stop you developing near-complete amnesia. Last time I checked that was quite a rarity for us ordinary folk.”
“Now come on, how bad is it?”
Shadow glanced at the tablet.
“You haven’t read it?” he asked, the disapproval in his voice equal to his disbelief.
With unbridled sarcasm she replied, “I skimmed it, then this… strange hammering started pounding away inside my skull.”
“Ok, I’m kidding. And I’m familiar with the contact.”
Neither Shadow or Rouge had been involved in developing the mission. It was simple enough emerald grab. Land in their one friendly port near their target’s position. Their friendly port’s location was both convenient in that it was so close to their intended target, and inconvenient in that the island for which they were destined also comprised Luoi-dom – roughly translated into Scythe City. A powerful fort controlled by the Black Fleet. Drawing unwanted attention from the brigs stationed there could be deadly.
They would part ways with Redfreid and his team upon landing and take a bribed fishing vessel to the coast of Scythe City. Shadow accepted his and Rouge’s deployment – their ties to Redfreid and his band of deranged cyborgs he did not.
“They are actually good soldiers, you know.” said Rouge, noting Shadow’s passive-aggressive glare into the backs of the other passenger’s heads. Frenzy’s red head, standing as tall as Redfreid or Pea, was directly in front of them beside the younger Waltz. Mouse and Nuka piloted the aircraft.
“Sure they are. Where else do we get the cannon fodder?” said Shadow, now again looking at Waltz.
Rouge leant over slightly, “They’re here to take out Torrent.”
Shadow’s eyes widened in surprise momentarily. Lieutenant Torrent? He was right-hand man to the Captain of the Black Fleet itself, Captain Jaggers.
That was a big hit.
“How did you know that?”
“Hon, I know everything. Turns out Torrent’s sold a couple hundred tonnes too many Roedigo bombs.”
Shadow settled back in his seat.
“I’ve stepped on his toes before.”
“Well, Mr. Toryung got to go shopping for a new arm afterwards. So in the end I suppose he did.”
“So it was you in Lao Cai-dom?” She cracked open one eye to gauge his reaction.
Shadow replied smugly, “Classified.”
“Uh-huh. Too bad then; if Redfreid does his job you’ll never get that reunion.”
Shadow mused, “If they’re successful, it would certainly cause enough of a stir to potentially empty Scythe City.” He drummed his fingers once his armrest, looking again at the back of Redfreid’s head again. “Not bad…”
“I’m sure they feel better with your approval.”
“I feel better with my approval.”
“More to you, then. I need to get some sleep.”
“No. One more thing.”
Rouge sighed, but gestured for him to continue.
“I was informed a short while ago that the Commander… there’s whispers that the Generals are moving for a spill.”
“I know. The Commander is probably packing his boxes as we speak.”
Shadow was startled. “You think he won’t retain the votes?”
“Shadow – he let Robotnik get away! He saved your life, something we’re all grateful for, but he failed to act. The Generals were furious, we’ll never have Robotnik in that position again. Right on our doorstep with a rail gun in his face. Eulfinger is under enormous pressure as well for allowing Robotnik to enter UF territory in the first place – so if the votes don’t get him… the President will.”
Shadow felt numb. The Commander had gone to great personal lengths to gain Shadow’s trust and eventually contract him to GUN. He had also kept Shadow, his background, and his abilities confidential from most of the Generals.
Rouge noticed Shadow’s anxious face through thin slits.
“What’s with the face? He’s a good long run” –
“No, you don’t understand…” Shadow could not continue any further. He could comprehend leaving GUN; he’d never been reliant on the organisation or overly trusting of them, either. It was a convenient platform from which to operate, essentially. But a GUN Commander wielded substantial power. If the Commander lost power, and was replaced by another that suddenly saw Shadow as a threat…
Shadow’s eyes flicked to the back of Redfried’s head once more.
Maybe the time had come to think more about allies.