The Tornado MKII kicked up a cloud of sand as Tails put the plane down with some haste. Sonic jumped out as soon as his windshield opened.
“You two okay?” he asked, nodding to Nickel and Silver.
“That was amazing!” cried Nickel, eyes wide as he punched the air. Silver quickly hushed him. Their psychokinesis enveloped half of the plane’s hull, gaseous traces consistently trailing off it to be instantly lost to dissipate into the air. Like magnets, Silver and Nickel clung to the craft without any noticeable wind resistance and with noticeable ease. With similar ease they drifted to the ground, and slightly clumsily found their footing on the ground.
Once grounded, Silver exclaimed, “That was reckless, Sonic! You nearly got us killed!”
“No I didn’t,” said Sonic, feigning a ruffled demeanor. Switching to straight sarcasm, he said, “Tails would never let us get hit by anything less than a backyard-built stinger with a top speed of less than a 200k, wouldn’t’ya Tails?”
Tails popped out of the cockpit and, twin tails whirring, glided down for a soft landing. Angrily, he replied, “Are you talking about Kerikot – you’re talking about Kerikot aren’t you!”
“Are you ever serious!?” demanded Silver.
“Where are we?” cut in Nickel.
“Old coal-powered station,” said Tails, looking up at the red brick and steel amongst which they had landed. It looked classically abandoned. Swaths of power lines matted in the sand and crumbling concrete where they had been left to collapse. An old railway lay half-buried in the sand nearby. Cement tanks and rusting, skeletal vehicles dotted the area. The building itself looked mostly intact, four or five massive exhaust pillars towering over the three-storey, flat-roofed factory itself. Tails continued, “There used to be a man-made water source around here but it’s all dried up now. Now” – Tails pivoted away from the view to face Sonic, “what are we doing here?”
“We need to find a way into the city,” said Sonic, rubbing his chin in thought. He looked at Nickel and Silver, the latter of which clearly had a bone to pick, “What do you guys think?”
Expression black, Silver shouted, “What do I think? That we,” he indicated himself and Nickel, “are getting out of here!”
“Silver!” protested Nickel, “They helped us when it didn’t matter much to them!”
“No they didn’t! They just want another magic emerald to add to their collection. This has nothing to do with us!”
Showing more spirit than Sonic had yet seen in him, Nickel rallied to their defense, “Silver! What would Mum and Dad say if they heard you! We’re indebted to Sonic and Tails! They’re our friends!”
“They’re not our friends and they’d say to get back home as quick as possible!” spat Silver hotly, “I’m not putting us in danger over something as ridiculous as this!” Standing straight, he glared at Sonic and Tails, “We’re not like you and we don’t want any part in some… elite black-ops!”
Calmly, Sonic corrected him, “Since nobody’s given us orders, technically it’s just straight up vigilantism.”
“Even better!” cried Silver. “Because messing around in someone else’s country is the quickest way to get back home!”
“You don’t know how to get back home, Silver,” Sonic replied, charm in his eye as he stirred Silver up for his own entertainment, “Who are you going to go to? Where are you going to go!?”
Sonic noticed Tails perk his ears, then fly atop his plane. Silver did not, and continued ranting.
“I don’t know! But not putting myself in a position to be killed sounds obvious!”
“What’s up, Tails?” Sonic asked, ignoring Silver to the hedgehog’s obvious displeasure.
“I don’t know… but I think we should get inside.”
Sonic jumped aboard the plane and followed Tails’ eyeline. He could hear the rumble himself now. He leapt back down, rolling past Silver, and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”
“What, why!?” exclaimed Silver, infuriated Sonic had turned his back on him, “Where are you going?”
“To find a vantage point, we got company.”
Nickel pulled him around to face the direction of the city. A bloom of upturned sand signalled incoming heavy vehicles in their direction.
“Oh, great!” Silver rounded on Sonic, “If they’re here to arrest us it’s your fault!”
A little way away, Tails kept up with Sonic. “What was that about?” he asked when safely out of Silver’s earshot.
“Yeah. He’s not like Knuckles is he? It’s actually just kinda funny when he throws a tantrum…”
“It won’t be when he hurls you into a brick wall…”
“We’ll work it out. Go hide the Tornado, better yet, stay inside it incase things get ugly.”
Tails nodded and turned on his heel. He passed first Nickel, who jogged after Sonic, disgust still lingering on his face at his brother’s behaviour, and then Silver, whom Tails gave a wide berth.
A kick to the nearest door to gain entry proved unnecessary – it was wrought iron. At least it gave Silver something to vent on.
Suddenly encased in cyan light, the door violently crumpled once, twice, three time before shooting from its bearings to lie defeated in the dusty gloom of the factory’s innards.
Silver stormed through first, though Sonic noticed that the exercise had him work up an obvious sweat, and Nickel looked concerned.
“Well, hopefully they won’t notice,” murmured Sonic as they passed the dejected door. “Tails, hop back in the Tornado, keep that cloak up.”
Nickel and Silver continued to bicker as Sonic led the way up to the roof.
“What if these guys are cops? Or military! Here to arrest us! We were trespassing in their air-space… or something!”
“We have the Tornado, we can just fly away!... Or, Sonic?”
“Could that black hedgehog help us? The one on the Egg Carrier?”
“Shadow? GUN almost definitely know what’s going on in Shamar right now, whatever’s going on in Shamar. Unless it’s international security, by which I mean U.F national security, they won’t get involved. And Shadow definitely won’t just come because we asked for help if it’s not Robotnik.”
Falling back from Silver a little bit as they climbed the dark and musty stairs, lost in thought, Nickel said, “What… was he? Or is that wrong… he didn’t look right.”
Sonic replied, “He’s not. Shadow wasn’t ‘born’, exactly, he was engineered... by Robotnik’s grandfather, actually. Through a bunch of events that nobody’s really sure of Shadow wound up with the DNA of Black Doom, an alien looking to control the Master Emerald.” At Nickel’s preposterous look, and Silver’ black glare as even he turned around to check he’d heard that properly, Sonic said, “If that sounds bizarre now, imagine what we felt when they invaded the planet.”
Shocked at the bizarre story, Nickel said, “Uh… how’d you survive that!?”
“Mostly luck,” allowed Sonic, “Wasn’t really Team Sonic’s finest hour.”
“Why?” asked Nickel.
Grinning sheepishly, Sonic said, “I spent most of it unconscious! When I wasn’t I was getting beaten to a pulp.”
Nodding sourly, Sonic grumbled something unintelligible.
Looking like he regretted asking, Nickel shook his head. “So Shadow can shoot laser’s from his hands because of alien DNA. We’ll leave it there.”
They reached the roof. This time the door was of a reasonable thickness, and Sonic kicked it in before Silver had another chance to ‘vent’.
Keeping low, they scuttled to roof’s edge, and took shelter beside the bland boundary wall. But for a few roads, the flat white desert expanded from the abandoned station in every direction utterly without cultural disruption. Heat shimmered off the white sands. The blue sky was void of any clouds, as endless and without interruption as the empty terrain.
Such a perfect running day, thought Sonic. The sand would hurt his face, but with the wind behind him he’d slam the barrier in minutes here.
“Do you think they definitely know we’re here?” asked Nickel, drawing Sonic back from his imagination.
“Not sure.” Looking excited, Sonic continued happily with his advice, “But when you know nothing it’s best to just be really paranoid.”
Peeking over the edge of the wall they watched as three armoured vehicles rolled in. The weak gate that was the plants main entry, a chain gate that had long fallen into sullen disrepair, crumpled with little fight as the first truck steamrolled straight through. The three metal monstrosities stopped in the open area beneath their vantage point.
From somewhere hidden inside the Tornado MKII, Tails said, “Heat scans show twelve people in those vans. One of them either just got back from a marathon or he’s humungous.”
Tails had barely finished the sentence when the last armoured car’s back doors erupted open.
“That’s the biggest wolverine I’ve ever seen!” whispered Nickel with alarm, ducking under the wall.
“Hey, I know that guy,” said Sonic. He purposefully avoided the dirty glare Silver blasted him in response to the revelation. “Tails, it’s Ringo!”
“Gosh!” exclaimed Tails, “He’s alive! I assumed he’d never made it out of Bu Xi Tai… wait, that’s not normal, have you seen the size of him!?”
Sonic peered over the top of the roof again. He had not seen Ringo since he, Tails Knuckles and Amy had left the secret mountaintop somewhere in Chun-Nan, Master Shukun and the Bu Xi Tai academy. By the time of their departure, each of them had no desire ever to see Ringo again. For a long time Sonic doubted he ever would.
Wolverines were large for anthrohumans, some standing shoulder-height with humans. Ringo looked nearly bigger than the truck in which he rode. Sonic estimated his height at nine feet, his black, often matted fur adding to his substantial bulk. His physique was just as abnormal as his height – huge muscles clung swollen from his massive bones. Like all canine anthrohumans, his protruding muzzle housed numerous sharp teeth – in his case his incisors protruded past his bottom lip. They made him look more animal than anthrohuman.
“So?” shot Silver, “Who is he?”
“A scumbag we met when we trained with Master Shukun.”
“Doesn’t matter, Ringo’s bad news” –
“I don’t think we’re done with the reunions yet, Sonic. More people are getting out of the vans… look, you’re not gonna like this…”
A voice so deep it seemed to tremor their building rose from below. It sounded nothing like the voice Ringo once possessed.
“I KNOW YOU’RE THERE. I KNOW YOU’RE HERE FOR THE POOL.”
“Pool? Shouldn’t you at least buy me a drink first?” called down Sonic, gesturing for Silver and Nickel to keep low.
“COME DOWN. YOU WON’T BE HARMED.”
“Sounds convincing,” said Sonic, nodding. Before anyone could stop him, he got to his feet and vaulted onto the wall.
High enough and on a narrow enough ledge to induce vertigo in toughest of stomachs, it wasn’t the ten guns aimed straight at his face that stunned him still. It was the one gun, the face of the owner concealed by a tattered, wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat. The dark purple fur and tangle of hair was unmistakable.
From below, Nickel thought he saw Sonic tremble once.
“Sonic, what’s” –
Nickel never finished his sentence. A blast of wind knocked both he and Silver onto their backs. By the time they had recovered, Sonic was gone.
“BRING HIM DOWN!” roared the wolverine.
“Sonic, wait!” Nickel stopped as the building began to shake.
Sonic had already torn down the side of the building, hard, sharp quills ripping a distinct trail of ruined brick as he skidded down the wall in the blink of an eye. By the time he hit the bottom the first shots had been fired.
Nickel and Silver flew to the top of the wall in time to hear a massive BANG, louder than that of the flinching gunshots, and see one of the armoured trucks topple over.
“Whoa.” said Nickel as it crashed to the tune of shouting gunmen. They were all feral cats.
“Why is he attacking?” hissed Silver, eyes wide and halfway to panicking, “What is he doing?”
Faster than the eye could track, the gunmen flew away. A sickening THUNK would precede (and sometimes seem to follow) a furry body flying through the air to land heavily in the sand nearby. The giant wolverine could not keep up, and pivoted weightily. Sonic might have thought him too big, or just too much trouble, because he left Ringo alone.
Finally, just one gunmen remained standing. This time Sonic moved a little slower. Pivoting to dodge the one shot he fired so fast it stirred the sand into a miniature whirlwind, Sonic charged the remaining gunmen. Airbourne, the gunman’s hat falling loose from her head and gun from her hand, they flew back to the foot of the main building, momentarily of out Ringo’s reach.
“Aha!” yelled Sonic, triumphantly knees straddling the now defenseless opponent. He had just raised one fist when he paused. “Been waiting a long time for you to turn up, Jackie!”
Jackie swiped her long, wild hair out of her wise so she could aim with her smaller, hand-sized weapon. “Likewise, kiddo!” She fired, the shot going off near Sonic’s ear where minutes before his head had been.
This was all proving too much for Silver.
“Does everybody he know actually want him dead?” cried Silver from above, waving his arms emphatically. “Is there like a line!? Do they have a mascot!? Is there some kind of leaderb”- Silver’s tantrum finally undid him. Midway through stamping a foot he slipped. Before Nickel could catch him he had already fallen, only catching himself with his psychokinesis halfway down.
The ground tremored, and many things happened at once.
Sonic turned in time to duck the majority of Ringo’s first swipe, but was unable to recover before Ringo’s second, foul-smelling paw caught up with him.
Jackie’s recovered her long sniper, aimed for a split second and fired straight up.
“NO!” screamed Nickel, in time for a cloaked, metal wing to not-so-gently catch him around the middle, pulling him into the air.
Sonic’s quills cut into Ringo’s palm, so sharp they drew blood. Stuck in his fist like a child might hold a doll, he struggled with all his strength. Ringo gave no indication of pain, though Sonic’s quills must have certainly been causing him some, and walked back towards to the trucks
Even uglier up close, he held Sonic close to his face.
“YOU’VE HAD THIS COMING, HEDGEHOG.”
Quicker than his speed belied, Ringo smashed Sonic bodily into the toppled truck, crushing both of them.
Nickel saw all this as he grabbed ahold of the cloaked plane with his psychokinesis. A second after he did, Tails throttled into the sky.
“SILVER!” screamed Nickel. The giant wolverine was fast becoming nothing but a black dot. Tails, what are you doing!? We have the Tornado, we can save them!”
“The shots fired weren’t bullets. They were darts intended to tranquilise targets. Silver’s ok! I don’t know why, but they wanted us alive.”
“So?” cried Nickel. Resistant to the power of the wind even as Tails accelerated higher, he crawled to the cockpit. Unable to see Tails, he looking straight into a camera nearby, “Why are we leaving them?”
“Because we wanted a way into the Pyramid Kingdom. I think Sonic just found one.”
Moonlight signaled no difference in the severity of the humidity.
The sweat in his fur was uncomfortable to say the least, but beneath his skin the buzz of readied adrenaline gripped him like taut string.
The fallout of Redfried’s expectedly successful operation would benefit theirs – emptying Scythe City hopefully to the point a two-man elite force could breach the city undetected and retrieve the emerald. To their knowledge the Black Fleet had not yet discovered it, as the energy signature originated within a land-locked and sparsely populated area of jungle near the small island’s centre. The difficult part would be getting past the densely populated, and fortified, coastal perimeter.
Rouge appeared in high spirits as she guided their small dinghy, a black streamlined machine engineered for silence, towards the distant yellow glow on the horizon. He knew why: this wasn’t the police state of White Acropolis, the dangerous Robotnik Empire or even their own boss, but primitive, uneducated, impulsive pirates. They weren’t even trying to breach a major settlement, and, if all went to plan, there would be no risks of volatile MagnoThermals here. They were children in a sandbox.
“Redfried just may have gotten the rotten end of the bargain,” Shadow said, tasting salt as he exposed his mouth.
“We can say that after we’ve done the tricky part,” replied Rouge, her tone still cheery.
They approached from the south, to a part of the island least populated. By now corvettes and frigates flew high above their heads, three to six fiery blue spots in the distance signaling their presence. In front the island’s jagged mountains thrust upwards, its rainforest separating clusters of compounds and searchlights.
They turned into a darkened cove away from the brightness of the rest of the island. The silence of their boat was marvellous. As they approached the white shore and a wall of rainforest, Shadow allowed himself a brief moment of relaxation. So far so good. What the Pirates had in brute strength they lacked in finesse – sure their radars could probably see them, but they were not a military like that of GUN or Robotnik. They would be spotted, one ping amongst a thousand, but not distinguished. Identification would happen eye-to-eye, and both Shadow and Rouge were skilled at remaining unseen if they so wished.
“There’s our dock,” said Rouge, lessening the throttle lightly.
“So this is the tricky part?”
“Unless he turns on us. Then that’ll be the tricky part.”
An adult human male sat on the dock. Thin, lanky, alone, young. Probably itching to get away from his macho, war-drunk homeland.
“He is your contact, right?” confirmed Shadow as they approached, quietly cutting through the slight tide. “That’s who Intelligence got you?”
“No. He is Intelligence.” said Rouge, quietly.
Shadow shot her a quick glare to check she wasn’t joking. She didn’t seem worried, but she didn’t look amused either.
“Why not, we only work for the best-funded military in the world. Who else should we select to put our plans together but our enemy’s street urchins?”
He silenced himself as the man, with proximity now seeming closer to a boy, threw a line to them. Rouge caught it and pulled them in. The dock stank of seaweed, the wood looked close to rotten.
In their own raspy tongue, Rouge exchanged quick words. She flapped both wings once and glided ashore, sea spray tickling her ankles. The boy replied, pointing towards the island and indicating several directions. His scratchy and sparse facial hair made him look unkempt, even more than his smell. At least he looked like a low-life easily paid off with notions of asylum or money.
With his and Rouge’s exchange over, he lithely hopped into the boat as soon as Shadow disembarked and sped off in the direction of open water.
“Did ‘Intelligence’ share how we’re getting off with the rock?” asked Shadow as the boy turned to silhouette, then melted into the horizon. The beach was completely empty but for them.
“Oh they left that out of the briefing, did they? I know how much you love surprises.”
She took a running jump into the air and arced towards the forest canopy. The small mic in his ear came alive.
“But you’re meant to be the greatest life form ever conceived, I’m sure you’ll think of something. Else I’ll just have to fly off and leave you here.”
He ducked low and sprinted to the canopy himself. He was quickly enveloped in heavy underbrush, colourful smells and curious noises from all directions bombarding his senses. The incline began almost immediately.
“Last I knew Pirates did not have wings. That’s why they built flying boats.”
“That explode without much effort. Last known energy signature 3km north by north west. Two fellows on a path 200m from you.”
Shadow had spotted their erratic torchlight already and altered his course carefully in their direction. He could hear drunken laughter and slurred shouts.
“You know, Kintobor helped invent MagnoThermal tech…”
“The crazy one, or…?”
He leapt from the underbrush to pounce on the two drunkards. He kicked one in the head, punched the other in the kneecaps and took him out with an elbow to the eye socket on his way down. They went down as if tranquilised. Shadow kept going, back up to speed in seconds.
The incline began slowly, but within minutes of leaving the shore they were already climbing the mountain. The slope was treacherously wet, but Shadow was not a clumsy human. He rapidly ascended the sharp inclines, purposefully avoiding ditches of mud and difficult routes. His exceptional night vision allowed him to move without a burdening torchlight.
“I believe the Black Fleet received the tech in exchange for Gerald’s asylum. But he only spent a short time here before GUN came for him anyway, shipped him back up the ARK to continue on my cousin.”
Rouge responded in an even tone, “I didn’t know that. Do you think he tried to look for you?”
“Maybe. But maybe he couldn’t get off the Indopelago without fear of being recaptured. Or maybe he was already going insane after losing it all. I was thinking… he probably never even got a chance to visit Maria’s grave.”
Her name still opened that deep wound a crack whenever he heard it, said it, thought it, but less than before.
“He was a smart man, Shadow. He would have mourned in his own way, and its evident he redirected his energy into doing what he thought was right. Which it was.”
Shadow very nearly tripped. Icily, he reminded her, “What was right? The Eclipse Cannon was designed to kill innocent people.”
“For GUN, it was. I don’t know if he knew that. But in the end, the Eclipse Cannon reminded the world of GUN’s dangers. The risk of the Eclipse Cannon led to GUN reviewing its entire policy position, formal apologies, a restructure of the entire corporation away from military involvement and into diplomacy. It was madness to treat Project Terios as superior to Project Shadow, as if winning a war over territory was more important than building genetic immunity to dozens of diseases. You could not have come at a better time.”
“After the Robotnik war, many people, myself included, saw GUN as the world’s saviour. The Eclipse Cannon, and to a select few, Project Shadow and Terios, reminded us all that GUN has been too powerful for too long. Kintobor could have been great, instead now he is forgotten, and through tragic coincidence his lineage as mad as he was when he died.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
He could hear curiosity in her voice, and even slight sadism. As if she expected the wrong answer.
Carefully, he replied, “I sometimes wonder what Kintobor would think if he could see me now. I aid the military that destroyed our lives, to save a world that would condemn me,” he smiled at the incongruity, “irony at its best. But the reason I’m here is because of GUN’s direction – towards peace rather than conflict. As you concede, the direction adopted after the Eclipse Cannon. I had to reconcile with GUN, in order to move forward.” He looked up as he ran, searching for a silhouette in the sky. He challenged her, “Treasure Hunter, I remember a time when you were only here for the Chaos emeralds?”
“Well, we are here to recover an emerald.”
“Well then focus on that and stop prattling over world history.”
“Roger. Then you’ll be happy to know we’ve reached a small compound. Nothing interesting. Three males, two on the ground, one in an office. Oh look, rare exotic animals.”
He glanced up through the trees as Rouge’s silhouette dipped below the trees in a purposeful beeline.
Narrowing his focus back into the mission, he growled, “Rouge, what are you doing?”
He reached the compound. Barbwire fencing surrounded crates for shipping, a large truck, an office building and a siren. He spindashed into the fence and stalked the first male on the ground.
“Male in the office is down. My my my, how did you get this?”
“Rouge, keep to the mission. Why are we here?”
“I found you a present. C’mon, let’s keep moving.”
The first male already lying at his feet, Shadow sighed aggravatedly as Rouge loudly swept into the sky. The second guard gasped and ran for the siren. He made it two feet before Shadow charged him, driving into the moist soil head-first.
“Keep up, you’re falling behind.”
He quickly checked for remaining guards Rouge may have missed from the air. Of course, there weren’t any.
With Rouge rapidly gaining distance, he spindashed forwards and through the opposite fence.