Transformative Work

FANDOM: Sonic the Hedgehog

Chaos Control

Copyright © 2023 Melissa Irene Burrowes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the Author.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations depicted in this story are fictitious.



Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43

Chapter 1 - Dr. Ivo Robotnik

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
-Horace, Odes (I.11), 23 b.C.

Dr. Ivo Robotnik walked briskly down the hallway, lamenting the societal protocols that forced him out of his laboratory to teach the nation's military elite about quantum mechanics. He wanted to be left to his scheming.

Then again this meeting was a necessary, if tedious step forward in his master plan. He glanced briefly out the window as he walked, which looked out onto the sunshine-graced gardens surrounding the military headquarters. It was a rare spot of trees and grass in otherwise tall and bustling Central City, the capital of the United Federation. The spectre of his reflection gazed faintly back at him from the glass, like a shadowy memory ever-distant from the outer world.

Dr. Robotnik, 40, had dark-brown hair he kept neatly trimmed and combed back, a lean physique, and blue eyes that in their hue might have recalled a sunlit lake or pond if they hadn't been so filled with arrogance. Perhaps the most notable thing about him was his mustache. It was full and lent maturity to handsome features otherwise youthful for his age. He wore a knee-length black coat trimmed with burgundy, which seemed to swing behind him like a cape as he reached the conference room's door.

Vehement debate could be heard within, and he slowed his pace.

"I can't believe you're bringing that freak into this." Major Howard Westwood, one of the unimportant members.

"He's a scientific genius, and his technology also helped us enormously in several military operations," responded the smooth voice of Commander Towers.

"That Dr. Robotnik is a madman."

"Maybe. But he's useful to us."

Robotnik frowned but pushed into the room as Westwood continued caviling, completely unaware of his target's presence. "He's self-aggrandizing, egotistical, not to mention obsessed with his machines..."

"...with good reason," Robotnik spoke over him, and the shocked captain spun around in his chair, "Human beings are unreliable and stupid, and I care very little about them."

Robotnik smirked with indulgence at Major Westwood's uncomfortable grimace. It was indeed a matter of who was useful, that was what he had learnt years ago; with calculating deliberation he had striven and succeeded in making himself indispensable to the present government administration. He had the rare privilege to say what he wanted, when he wanted - and so long as he did not offend certain individuals in particular, the rest were forced to respect him to a given degree no matter what he said.

One of the people to avoid offending was Commander Towers, the United Federation's top military general. He was 65, with pale green eyes and hair turned white, unfailingly attired in decorated military garb, and an impeccable service record. There was rumor he held even more power than President Michaels, the duly elected leader of the nation, but it was one of those things mentioned surreptitiously, or that could be read once and never again - effectively affirming it.

The military was designated the Guardian Units of the Nations. The acronym spelled out G.U.N., which Towers always pointed out gleefully like a clever pun. Robotnik personally thought it was tacky, and Towers' viewpoint childish, but he kept quiet. It was an inconsequential topic where he felt it unnecessary to draw further attention to idiocy, especially when it was from the commander. G.U.N. oversaw security of the entire planet after the Overland War united the five remaining independent countries into one behemoth government that was the United Federation.

"Dr. Robotnik," Commander Towers greeted him evenly, "you know why you've been called here."

"You'd like a rundown of possible causes for the energy pulse that struck Central City yesterday," the scientist affirmed. As he spoke, he scanned the people around the table and a new face caught his eye.

She was about 31, with shoulder-length brunette hair and brown eyes. Her formal Air Force attire was cut to her attractive figure, but he only regarded her fleetingly; she was merely one of the audience.

Commander Towers ran through the situation, most likely for the benefit of the others present, as Robotnik already knew all of it. "That energy pulse knocked out most of our power grid. We'd presume some sort of weapon, but..."

"I've been briefed," Robotnik interrupted, as he walked over to a bare wall to the side of the conference table, "The range of the effects don't correspond to a electromagnetic weapon."

"Exactly," Towers acknowledged, "but we're not sure what could have that sort of power. Complicating matters is shortly thereafter, a blue blur shot down the street straight through Station Square heading westward. It vanished into the woodland on the city outskirts, though not before half the populace saw it. Everyone has heard of it by now and there's only so much we can explain away as ball lightning or other natural phenomena. No one knows what it was, including us... That's where you come in, Doctor."

While the commander was speaking Robotnik had retrieved a small white orb from his coat pocket and pressed a button on the high-tech gloves he wore. The small orb lifted out two rotors and flew from his hand to hover before the wall; at another button, it projected a map of Central City together with a side column of several statistical bar graphs. Robotnik gestured to the graphs.

"All indicators display signs of that so-called blue blur being an organic life form," he explained tersely. "That said it's definitely not human, nor a member of the known animal kingdom."

The information apparently took a moment to sink into Towers. "Are you saying it's an extraterrestrial?"

"As you can see from this reading, there was a time rift produced by the light barrier being broken, with slight ripples in subatomic particle wavelengths still detectable. This is what caused the power outage. Gentlemen, this thing travelled through time, not from outer space."

"Through time?" exclaimed another irrelevant person, an Air Force captain known as Antoine.

He'd have to explain it like kindergarten. "Think of speed as a spectrum, intertwined with light. When you approach the speed of light, time slows down. Everything seems to move forward slowly. If you were to reach the actual speed of light, time equals zero. There is no time. So if you surpass that light-speed, time becomes less than zero. It becomes a negative number."

Westwood spoke up again. "That's impossible. Matter can't travel faster than light..."

"People have a tendency to claim something is impossible merely because they haven't been able to do it yet," Robotnik added, turning back to the projection. "The technology might be outside mankind's purview at present, but it can be developed, and something out there has already done so."

"You're talking a lot of shit."

It was mumbled, but the scientist heard it and eyed him sideways. "When did you become an expert in physics, Private?"

"Major," he corrected furiously.

"Nobody cares!" Robotnik shouted back at him.

The outburst immediately silenced Westwood and everyone around the conference table. In a softer tone laced with poison, Robotnik outlined:

"Nobody cares about your feeble accomplishments. Nobody cares about how much you do or strive for because in the end, Major, people are expendable. That's humanity's dark little secret. So unless you have something intelligent to add, a feat I hypothesize you're incapable of...don't try."

Westwood shivered a bit at his emphatic tone. Satisfied he had disconcerted him and hushed the rest, Robotnik's eyes shot back to the military commander.

"What produced the energy surge was an organic life form. But it's something that can move way faster than anything we've seen," said the scientist.

"An unknown creature holding untold power," Towers mused.

The idea was tantalizing to Robotnik too, though he knew better than to say anything.

"If it's on our soil, it's our property," declared Towers, "It must be secured, and the secrets of its power harnessed. Live or dead, whatever is easiest. If we assign a squadron to search the woods..."

"If you send in half the army, you'll scare it off," Robotnik suddenly interjected, scowling. "You hunt by being crafty, not visible."

"Do you think you can track it easier?" Towers asked.

"Yes," Robotnik answered forthrightly. "I'm better equipped for this in the long run with my drones...and it saves the trouble of delivering the specimen to me."

Towers thought it over for a long moment, and Robotnik began to wonder if he would question his unexplained adamancy; however, the commander gave a sharp nod of approval.

"Very well, Doctor. You will capture the creature."

Robotnik smiled slightly. His scheme was going according to plan.

After the meeting, Towers told Robotnik to come to his office. Another annoyance, the scientist thought; nonetheless, he knew declining would not be wise.

While the commander poured out a drink, he spoke. "Dr. Robotnik, you get a lot of private criticism for your opinions on human shortcomings."

"Let people say as they please. They always validate my points," Robotnik replied.

"In many ways I share your views," Towers swirled his drink around in the glass. "The three biggest topics occupying the masses right now are the blue blur that flashed through Station Square, an uncatchable jewel thief, and the scores of yesterday's baseball semifinals. What was the ancient proverb about being able to rule people solely by bread and circuses?" He said this spitefully.

Robotnik agreed with this. "Society would be far better ordered if it were mechanized."

"Either that, or return everything to nature."

"That would be chaos, commander. The one positive mankind has achieved is technological progress."

"All bringing me to your task, which is no small one," said Towers. "It directly aligns with the project you're working on for G.U.N. of developing a new power source. Acquiring this animal can aid in that."

A statement of the obvious. Robotnik reminded himself to overlook the stupidity, focusing instead on the grey uniform with the star-line of high rank, and the name badge that read Cmdr. Towers.

Robotnik wondered what the commander's first name was, as he was never referred to by it; his curiosity could have been satisfied by a quiet database search, but there were more pressing issues and such a trivial matter always fell by the wayside. At that moment, a feminine voice made both men turn to the door. "Sir?"

It was the brunette lady from the meeting. Towers waved her over.

"Dr. Ivo Robotnik, may I present to you the beautiful Agent Rouge Stone," he introduced her.

She was more attractive up close, Robotnik thought, than at the distance of her seat at the conference table. Stone smiled and extended her hand to him in greeting, which he shook with cold courtesy.

"She will work alongside you as your assistant," Towers announced.

Damn it, thought Robotnik. "I don't need an assistant," he started to protest.

"Nevertheless, you will have one. If the creature is this powerful, it behooves us to have two people working together on this." With that the commander dismissed them both by saying, "Doctor I'll see you later; Agent Stone I'll speak with you alone."

When Robotnik walked out of the office, Stone faced Towers who was quick and to the point.

"'re looking especially beautiful today," he said, looking at her with a steady gaze.

Stone ignored his comment. "Anything else you wanted to discuss?" she asked.

"President Michaels is depending on you, Agent Stone," Towers replied, "Your mission is the reason we've assigned you as Dr. Robotnik's assistant."

Stone gave a sharp nod. "It's such a shame G.U.N.'s most talented scientist might be plotting treason."

Towers sighed. "Of course everyone has their Achilles' heel. For as antisocial as he is in most respects, he's somewhat of a womanizer. Finding out whatever he's up to shouldn't be difficult, for you... You're our most gorgeous female agent," he added with a smile.

"The nation has my loyalty," Stone replied evenly, with a salute.

She stepped out into the hallway and found Robotnik standing there still trying to figure out what to do about this imposed turn of events. He looked her up and down once, as if evaluating her. "Of all the intolerable things I have to deal with. I guess I'll just have to account for inept meddling in my research."

Stone narrowed her eyes at her reluctant new partner. "You needn't worry," she said icily. "I won't interfere with your experiments."

She spun around and walked away. Robotnik scowled, half-to-himself, at the new factor imposing itself in his schemes.

World domination has only so much of a margin for error.

Chapter 2 - The Hedgehog

Later that day, Robotnik was alone in his laboratory studying the readings displayed on the computer monitors before him. Trailing across a map of Central City, and into the depths of nearby Poloy Forest, was a subatomic force called chaos energy.

He knew what it was, and had omitted mention of it to the military overseers intentionally; it was the same enigma he had researched for years, and it still brought forth a memory that waited, vengefully, with the tempting promise of attainment - the seizure of glorious power. The time-warp creature emitted this energy reliably, he noticed, which was the main reason he wanted purview over the hunt. He always made sure any potential asset or hindrance to his goals was not overlooked.

"Compare the recorded energy levels, Cubot," he ordered, directing his voice to a device on the desk beside him. It was a small gold cube, with a bright green light that flashed as it stated:

"Levels fluctuate to the 1-point-thousandth with minimal variance. Readings surpass those documented at the Ark by 20 percent."

Seclusion in his laboratory, with only his computers as company, was Robotnik's preferred environment. Technology offered an assurance of purpose that fellow human beings could not. There was beauty in precision, in predictability; they worked like clockwork, with mindless obedience, electronically reading the lines of code they were given by him and following their cypher-like instructions with the utmost diligence. These were the extension of the first rudimentary catapults and mills wrought in man's search for a more efficient way of life, having only advanced further under Science's auspices and promising to advance still further. In Robotnik's view, it was the closest to perfection mankind's feeble attempts could produce.

A knock at the laboratory door broke through his thoughts; he walked over and opened it to find Stone there.

"It's you," he observed flatly.

"Yes," she replied, ignoring his skeptical reaction, "Agent Rouge Stone, reporting for duty."

"Oh, that's right. Well do me a favor and stay out of the way." He waved her off. "I work better by myself."

"We were assigned to work together, remember?" she prodded. "Like it or not, we're stuck doing so until this project is up."

That's true, lamentably, Robotnik thought, stepping aside to let her enter. He couldn't help but cast a glance at her figure as she strolled in with a feline gait. Maybe it won't be too bad, as long as she doesn't get overly involved in my research.

Robotnik returned to his computers, while Stone surveyed the laboratory. It was a tight room not much bigger than a studio apartment, with the lights perpetually kept dim, and despite being crowded with items was neat. Interspersing with a spotless array of tools and schematic diagrams was a range of high-tech computers and scientific instruments, all very orderly. Where Robotnik sat was at a main desk with large computer monitors, calling to mind somehow the helm of a ship; the entire left wall was dominated by smaller monitors, and opposite this was a shelf bearing stacked drones.

These drones, Stone realized, were the infamous ones that were Robotnik's trademark - large white ovoid devices with two propellers, which she understood were equipped with ultra-modern weaponry. She knew they were one of the military's greatest assets, and his personal pride and joy. On a side table was one of the drones, which he evidently was fixing.

Also here were a small refrigerator, a cot, and a low bookshelf; there was little reason to leave the laboratory unless one wanted the openness absent within its walls. A side door led to the adjoining garage.

Her eyes fell upon an array of diplomas on the wall above the refrigerator. "Oh, you've got your diplomas up."

"I have five PhDs." He sounded bored.

Stone walked over to them, followed by a small, floating orb-like device with an antenna. She gave it a sideways look.

Robotnik did not glance up from his work. "Don't mind Orbot. He's picky about those diplomas; he wants people to look and not touch, so beware."

She read out the majors. "Nuclear Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Quantum Physics, Theoretical Physics, and...Biology?" She turned back to him curiously. "What the fuck?"

He did not explain the oddity. "It helped being an overachiever..." he said instead, "and with the government's backing I was able to enter university at a younger age than most. In any case, it's overrated. I knew more than most of the professors."

He pushed the office chair backwards from the desk, and allowed it to drift around on its wheels till he faced her.

"I know enough about your qualifications already," Robotnik mentioned bluntly. "Master's in Physics, with a concentration in Aerodynamics. Served as an Air Force pilot, including brief combat experience during the Overland War. Most of your work, however, has been in military intelligence."

Stone tipped her head. "So you did your homework, is that it?"

"Doctor, we've got a video for you to see," interjected the high-pitched cube on the desk. It caught Stone's attention instantly, and Robotnik glanced casually over to it while still addressing her.

"I've had my drones scouring Poloy Forest in a ten-mile radius from where the chaos energy spike was last detected. They were able to get film footage and preliminary biological readings of the creature."

"So fast?"

"Yes. My drones are very reliable," said Robotnik simply. "Do you want to see the tape?"

He gestured to the monitors lining the left wall. Each one had a different display of numbers and graphs. One in the center, at his motion, began to play back a film. It showed a blue streak of light racing through the forest path; at one moment it stopped atop a large rock, but it was a flicker of a single frame that could be missed in a blink.

"Pause and amplify," Robotnik stated.

The computers did so, revealing the nature of the light streak.

It was a hedgehog. An unusually large hedgehog, which stood up on its hind paws, but a hedgehog nonetheless. Its face and belly were a cream color fur, while its quills were a light shade of blue. As the image honed in further, they could see the creature was wearing small white gloves and red-and-white shoes uniquely fitted for its paws.

Next to the frozen image, a breakdown of other information was being tallied: readings of the animal's heart rate, skeletal structure, and - most important to Robotnik - chaos energy levels.

"Only about half what I'd need," he whispered to himself.

"Half of what?" she questioned.

"Data...half the data I need," he lied. "We'll have plenty of time to supplement our info as we proceed."

"I wonder how it ended up wearing those little shoes. It couldn't possibly have put them on itself, could it?"

Stone glanced at Robotnik, who was presently tapping away at the computer keyboard, as if oblivious to her.

"So what's our plan?" she prodded.

"Right now? Study from afar," answered Robotnik, "First we learn more about what we're after, monitor its patterns and reactions to its environment. Then we'll set out on our safari."

"I didn't know you were a big-game hunter," teased Stone.

"No, I'm a scientist. An effective one," Robotnik added. "To fully comprehend anything, you have to study it from multiple angles. That's the only way not to be blindsided."

"Do you factor in luck?"

"I'm willing to place my bets."

Now the orb, which had been silent, piped up. "The trick to gambling is only playing when you can win."

The cube on the desk responded in its high pitch. "Or when you're willing to lose."

"When would someone be willing to lose?" the orb rotated towards the cube, seemingly pursuing the matter, "That's illogical."

"When the game is illogical," answered the cube.

Stone observed the cube studiously. "Umm..." she began.

Robotnik spoke first. "Some time ago I designed this digital assistant, which I should get around to fixing. It has a broken voice chip...and if you ask me the CPU is fried too."

"Want fried chicken in a ten mile radius?" the chipmunk sounding device lit up again.

"No, Cubot." He leant over to it. "Off," he added, and with a beep the light on the device went dark.

He watched her turn quizzically then to the orb, which was still lingering around her.

"Orbot was designed afterwards," Robotnik answered her unspoken question.

The orb now lit up. "I'm the perfected Cubot."

"That's not exactly an accomplishment," Robotnik answered it.

"They've got personality, I see," Stone noted.

The scientist patted Orbot. "Now, Agent Stone, don't insult them that way."

"Do you know what all of this equipment does?"

"I programmed all of it," he answered.

"That's extraordinary," she said, genuinely impressed.

"Naturally," replied Robotnik.

Stone had by now concluded without a doubt that modesty was not Robotnik's strength, if he had any conception of the virtue. She spoke tolerantly. "Though for being one of G.U.N.'s most important scientists, no one really knows what you're working on."

"It's meant to be that way," he replied, "Most of my work is highly classified. Up to recently, I've been tasked with developing a new power source for the government. The energy in question is related to space-time; very tricky to isolate and produce, but easy to detect. Which brings us to our present task of capturing this time-hopping life form," Robotnik went on. "I've been tracking the creature. It appears to release minute levels of radiation with its movements. These fluxes in time-space wavelengths can be traced by my series of drones, effectively telling us where it's been and how long ago within a respectable margin of error. Probably all beyond your knowledge."

"Chaos energy?" she stated, with a hint of offense.

"You know about it, then," he noted, raising his eyebrows. "Remarkable."

Stone still sounded peeved. "Why would it be, Dr. Robotnik?"

"Allow me to clarify. In a sequentially ranked hierarchy, based on level of critical importance, the disparity between us is too vast to quantify."

"You think I'm basic," she translated.

"I think everyone's basic," he specified. "It's a question of relativity. The problem with being extremely smart is that everyone else looks extremely dumb."

"...and you're full of yourself, too," she snapped.

Robotnik's eyes narrowed, as if weighing her derision.

Stone went further. "You know, it's true then what people say about you. You're a conceited narcissist."

"That's semantically redundant," Robotnik answered indifferently.

"Semantics," the orb now stated. "Noun. The linguistic study of meaning in words."

"Now we don't have to drive it home, Orbot," Robotnik said, with an almost indulgent smile and sideways glance towards Stone.

"You know what? Forget it. I'm over this shit," she countered, and turning on her heel left the laboratory.

He was alone again in the coveted peace of solitude.

Not long thereafter Robotnik stepped outside. There was a breeze playing amidst the tree-foliage; the laboratory building was situated at a point between Central City and Poloy Forest, and hence lent a unique balance of urban and rural accordingly modern yet isolated enough to suit him.

Stone's voice reached his ears. "With all respect, it's impossible."

She was on her cell phone. She looked frustrated, and Robotnik, with mild curiosity, hesitated at a distance to listen.

"You can't seriously expect me to succeed with this!" She was silent for a moment, then she added, "Of course, but..."

Her voice trailed at some interruption on the other line. At last she answered, tersely. "Fine."

She hung up, and then noticed Robotnik. Brief worry flickered in her eyes only to be instantly hidden away. Robotnik easily discerned she had not intended for him to hear the conversation, and she now wondered how much he had heard; for his part he was displeased at not having heard more, if it was so privy a matter.

"Agent Stone," he addressed her, curtly, "We've got several accounts of animals in nearby areas being released inexplicably from captivity. Everything from farm chickens getting out of their coop to wild game from snares."

"So?" she asked, not seeing the relevance.

"All started about a day ago," Robotnik elaborated, "and one farmer saw a flash of blue speed across their property thereafter. Since it hasn't been preying on what it releases, it seems our hedgehog time-traveller is something of a chronic animal rescuer."

"Then it has sentiment," Stone realized.

"Yes, doesn't it? We might be able to use that."

Robotnik had a glint in his eyes. Stone shifted uneasily; she did not reply anything, though, as she brushed past him and hurried away.

When his assistant had left, Robotnik returned to his laboratory. He took special care to lock the door behind him, securing it before turning towards the monitors lining the side wall.

At a mere motion of his hand, the display of each screen shifted to sections of a world map, with the image altogether comprising a giant chart of the entire planet.

He smiled slightly to himself.

Stone was debating how to proceed with her assignment as she drove home that afternoon. Getting the vainglorious Dr. Robotnik to view her as a colleague was more difficult - and more frustrating - than she had imagined it would be. Then again maybe half of it was her cursing the unfortunate contrast of her coworker.

Why did someone so egomaniacal have to be so good-looking?

Her residence was a small house that was, like the laboratory, located near the Poloy Forest wildlife preserve, though it was farther from the city and nestled quaintly in a rural bend somewhere between the trees and a narrow creek. Her commute to and from work therefore consisted of a long drive skirting the woodland.

The forest was vast. Pine woodland tapered out to hilly meadowland in the center, and merged with dense foliage and quicksand-rife terrain before reaching the dam at Azure Lake. The further she drove from Central City, the more wildlife ventured into view; warning signs for deer dotted the road.

She had never actually seen any wildlife in the middle of the road though, only tarrying on the edge of the street, so when she saw a blue steak of light racing past she immediately stopped the car.

Stone stared in amazement as the little animal stood in the center of the road, staring back at her.

It's the hedgehog, she realized.

Curiosity drew her to step out of the car and walk towards the creature, and when it braced itself to run she spoke instinctually.

"Don't leave," Stone said, keeping her voice soft and nonthreatening. She knew there was no way the animal could understand her, but the attempt at communication appeared to lessen its fear of her. She kept her movements toward it ginger. "I know you've come a long way... I just want to see you. My name's Rouge."

The hedgehog appeared to embolden. "I'm Sonic."

She stared at it incredulously. "You... can talk?"

Without saying another word, the hedgehog ran off into the bushes in a streak of light.

Surprised beyond measure, Stone turned and walked back to her car.

Chapter 3 - Obligations

It was only the second day they had been working together, and Dr. Robotnik had already officially decided Agent Stone was a bother. She asked annoying questions, pried impertinently into his activities, and wanted – horror of horrors – to socialize.

What made it objectively worse was what Robotnik had thought would have made it better: how damned attractive she was. He could not humor her with the purpose of exploring where it might get him because he would end up having to see her again here. His relationships were transient, and he preferred them that way.

Then again the socializing, or lack thereof, was oftentimes contentious. It became bickering as her cheerful personality collided with his reserved one. So when Commander Towers arrived that day at the laboratory, with an oppressive buoyancy in his demeanor, Robotnik had to silently remind himself how the privileged liberties accorded him did not include saying 'fuck you' to the United Federation's most powerful military man.

"Dr. Robotnik and Agent Stone," smiled Towers, "How have you been getting along?"

They shot each other a glance of dislike, which went wholly disregarded by Towers.

The commander went on, "I came by to see how the hedgehog hunt is proceeding."

"You've reviewed my preliminary reports, I imagine," said Robotnik, to which Towers nodded affirmatively as the scientist continued, "Optimistically I'd project we'll have the creature by the end of the week."

"I'm glad to hear it," noted Towers, "As I've said before, you're welcome to as much backup as you require."

"I have already determined that will be unnecessary," Robotnik replied quickly. The last thing he needed was a squadron of soldiers intruding on his research.

"I know. We've got the two of you and your drones," added the commander, "Catching it is still imperative. Do you know how long we've been after a source for large levels of chaos energy?"

"Years," answered Robotnik, bored.

"Years," affirmed Towers. "It's why you've been assigned to developing a means to produce chaos energy, up till now. But you know all this already."

G.U.N.'s interest rivalled his own. Robotnik had set out privately to find a such a power source for his world takeover plans and had already determined where to get it – no doubt G.U.N. would want it too, so he kept it secret – when the blue hedgehog appeared in this timeline. Robotnik's fascination with the time-travelling animal, and insistence on tracking it, was hence both a scientific curiosity at it being a living conduit of chaos energy and a desire to hoard all potential batteries. The creature did not have the amount of energy he needed, but he would just as soon keep its power for himself anyway.

Agent Stone remained silent throughout their conversation; she kept her thoughts to herself as she analyzed the two men. She noticed Robotnik's pensiveness, as did the commander.

"Doctor is something on your mind?" Towers dragged Robotnik back into the present conversation.

"No... not at all, Commander," he replied.

"Anyway," Towers said, "as you know the anniversary of G.U.N.'s forming is tomorrow. We're having a three-day national celebration with a parade down Station Square. What would you say about taking a day from your work to go?"

"I didn't know I had the choice," Robotnik said mildly.

Stone shot him a surprised look at his boldness, but Towers laughed it off good-naturedly. "Of course you're permitted a choice," smiled the commander, "After all Doctor – you're one of my most useful people."

Robotnik returned the smile awkwardly.

When the commander left them, Robotnik glanced at Stone; she shrugged her shoulders.

"We had best get on with our work," she said.

At least we can agree on something, thought Robotnik, who was just annoyed about tomorrow's coming waste of time.

He had no desire to go to the events, but he knew the commander expected at least a brief appearance. Robotnik always bore in mind the formulaic rule of human society: usefulness was predominant, ingratiation bolstered perceived use. To dance shrewdly around these was genius, for the inability to keep up appearances could often be a deadly affair.

Central City had been hewn forth by the regime's magnificence, but Robotnik knew better. The paint was already fading, its vibrancy slowly being lost to time. Everywhere were billboards and posters, the only truly new things there, triumphing G.U.N.'s military might, benevolence, and protection of the nation. Meanwhile people scurried along the sidewalks like timid creatures, speaking little and ever-mindful of their watchful 'protectors'.

Today however they were lining the streets near Station Square, the midpoint of the great city, for the parade that was the highlight of the national holiday. There were soldiers saluting as they marched, booming national music, and an enormous amount of weaponry.

And an equal amount of idolatry, scowled Robotnik to himself, as he stood as a spectator along the front rows.

Military parades were many of the things he despised about human beings wrapped up into one mess. They were noisy, unproductive gatherings; the streets were crowded with people clamoring and cheering in obligation, and everyone had to stay standing. Most aggravating was how it pulled him away from his laboratory for an exhausting duration of hours.

When I finally take over the world, I'm not going to do this shit, he thought with boredom, watching a flock of uniformed schoolchildren with flags that followed, with perfect symbolism, the lines of strutting, goose-stepping soldiers. There are far more effective ways to remind the people of the power held over them.

He was mulling over the asininity of people and imagining how much better he could run things when who should show up beside him but Agent Rouge Stone.

"Greetings Dr. Robotnik. It's a fine day for a parade isn't it?"

"I'm surprised you're a spectator and not a participant," answered Robotnik, "with your Air Force and military intelligence roles I'd think you'd have a vaunted position in the procession."

"Not this time," said Stone, "they switch the marchers around every now and then to give the new recruits some practice."

The truth was G.U.N. wanted her close to him. She served them better on the sidelines of the parade and hence on the frontlines of their investigation. Stone began to feel self-conscious. If Robotnik was as smart as he claimed and as the government acknowledged him to be, could he see through this ploy?

If he did, he did not make it known. Robotnik gave no clue to having any suspicions about her or any desire for long conversations unless they were of scientific nature. Stone opted for small-talk.

"Look at the turnout here. They're cheering like their lives depended on it."

"That's because it does," Robotnik responded dryly.

"What do you mean by that remark?" she asked.

"Agent Stone, you are fully versed in Federation protocol, as am I... What would happen to these simpletons if they did not show up, or gave an excuse which would be proven as a lie to avoid this civic duty?"

"There is always a penalty for disobedience, Doctor. Not attending is considered disobedience and disrespect to our laws."

"Indeed. They don't have much freedom to decide whether or not to participate," said Robotnik, "in contrast I voluntarily contribute my time and intellect to the Federation's endeavors."

"Yes I know. You assisted with your technological prowess in countless military campaigns during the Overland War. I've done my homework too, Dr. Robotnik," replied Stone, "...and what did it make you? An embusqué who parlayed his science degrees into a safe role during the draft where you could play video games all day."

Robotnik, far from being annoyed, appeared interested in the turn of the conversation. The corners of his mustache twitched as he gave a slight smile. "If you call maneuvering the country's most state-of-the-art drones to eliminate enemy combatants mere video games."

"It was still behind the safety of your monitor screens," Stone persisted.

"And a smarter move than risking one's life in the meaningless pursuit of trying to prove yourself."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Women weren't part of the draft," he pointed out.

"I didn't have to be drafted," she said tautly. "Or isn't national pride reason enough for you?"

He didn't appear to answer this. Instead he turned to the parade; passing before them now were giant missiles, bedecked with ribbons and flanked by prancing cavalry horses that looked miniscule in comparison. Robotnik gestured towards the impressive sight.

"My, what a big-ass missile. How strong and mighty our rulers are. You could probably blow up half the moon with that."

"You didn't answer my question, Doctor," Stone pressed.

Glancing askance at her, Robotnik's blue eyes were now alight with mischief. Somehow, Stone had never stopped to notice how spirited they could be till now. "Have you ever wondered how the country was years ago? We know more about the ancient past than we do the last few centuries," he remarked.

"Does it matter, however the world was before the United Federation came into being?" she confronted him.

"No, but it's interesting. In many ways, from ancient records we can see humans have always been the same."

Stone was still trying to figure out if there was implicit meaning in this when Robotnik added with affectation:

"You know, I'm bored. As I have been permitted a choice by our illustrious leadership, I shall return to the laboratory and fine-tune my strategy to catch that hedgehog. It looks like it's going to rain."

He did not get far before one of the G.U.N. soldiers stopped him. As Stone watched from a distance, Robotnik produced his ID from his coat pocket; a few curt words were exchanged, and then the soldier saluted and let him go.

Dr. Robotnik was very secretive about his plan, and Agent Stone started worrying about it, but the next day he called her without fanfare to the wildlife sanctuary outside Central City. She arrived to find him laying things out in a forest clearing.

Some of the ovular drones had been hollowed out to form cages, except for one with its full weaponry that hovered like a sentry at the edge of the trees. Within the cages were small woodland creatures like squirrels, rabbits, and songbirds, all of which looked dismal at their plight.

"I have the perfect set-up here," Robotnik declared, "If this creature does have a penchant for rescuing other trapped animals, then what better bait?"

Stone glanced warily at him. "Where did you get all these animals?"

"I had my drones catch wildlife from the forest."

"You realize this is a preserve and that's poaching."

He flicked out the government ID, holding it up to her, and she rolled her eyes.

"Sometimes I think that you think you can get away with anything," she said.

"Our little blue pest will be here soon, so let's hide," he answered, ignoring her remark, "We'll be able to observe from the camera hidden up in that tree, and collect data."

Stone glanced up at the foliage, but could not see anything – it was evidently well-camouflaged. She reluctantly followed Robotnik back to the monitors in the laboratory. It was only a short walk to the building, which was technically in an area outlying the wildlife preserve.

They did not have to wait long for the blue hedgehog to show up. He appeared like a flash in the clearing center, evaluated the predicament of the other animals, and then took action.

While the little animal dashed from one oval cage to the other, releasing the wildlife trapped within, the two humans watched from the camera. Stone appeared uneasy, but Robotnik could care less. He gazed incredulously at the statistics reflected on the equipment before him.

Miles per hour...miles per second...

"Let's see if he's faster than bullets," he decided.

"Wait...!" Stone exclaimed.

Too late, Robotnik thought indifferently, as he pushed the button.

The only thing too late were the bullets. As soon as they were shot at their target, the animal seemed to detect them and spun evasively around. They all struck the trees and rocks harmlessly, and the speedy hedgehog then focused its attention on the weaponized drone. The blue streak spun about it, and within a matter of seconds leapt away as the contrivance shattered into pieces.

At once, the hedgehog was suddenly directly in front of the camera. His bright black eyes peered intelligently into the lens, and Robotnik pulled back from the monitor screen out of surprise.

"Hey – Sonic here!" the animal greeted brightly. "I don't know who you are, but if you can hear this, you gotta do something about these eggs. They're a real danger to the wildlife."

Then, as swiftly, the blue animal had zipped away into the woodland.

Stone stared at the monitor, letting out a shaky breath as if it had been held all this time. Dr. Robotnik, however, was laughing. If there was one thing he enjoyed, it was a challenge – and real challenges were few and far for him.

"This will be fun," he smirked.

Chapter 4Chapter 4 - Caffé Latte

The next day, Robotnik stepped out of the laboratory into the bright sunshine, trying to sort out the mathematical equations occupying his mind.

It was the end of springtime. The blossoms of the city's flowering trees had already been shed for summer's foliage, though the temperature fluctuated wildly by day; the chilly mornings were competing with gradually increasing warmth. Presently the weather suited itself for a walk, so he decided to head for the corner coffee shop. The laboratory was a short stroll away from Mean Bean Café; a cozy little establishment that looked straight out of some budget, made-for-TV flick with a saccharine ambiance and obligatory meet-cutes, none of which he wanted. He wanted coffee.

He coincided with Rouge Stone at the door.

"Fancy meeting you here," she remarked, trying to feign gratification at their meeting, "I rarely see you outside of the lab."

He returned her strained demeanor with a more outright reluctance. "I needed to think some equations through."

Robotnik opened the door to the coffee shop for Stone to enter. "Ladies first," he said.

She walked ahead of him and went up to the clerk. "I'd like a cappuccino, please."

As she paid and moved to the side, Stone glanced at her coworker. He had retrieved his tablet and was intently examining what looked like data charts.

When it was his turn to order, Robotnik gave the cashier a cursory glance. "I'll have a latte with steamed goat milk. Not cow's milk – goat's milk. And don't try to substitute it with any of that synthetic soy stuff."

When the lady left to get the coffee, Stone turned to Robotnik with a slight frown. He had resumed reviewing the charts on the tablet screen. "Are you always this demanding?"

"Are you always this bothersome?" he retorted without looking up from his work.

Stone prodded, "Instead of being so nasty all the time, maybe you could try being nice once in a while."

Robotnik only chortled at this, as if she had said something particularly childish. "Why? No one appreciates it."

He was still tapping away at the tablet. She snuck a glance at what he now had on the screen; they were circuit schematics of some kind, which wound their lines intricately across the blueprint displayed there as if it were a bohemian design.

Stone mitigated her animosity somewhat. He was her coworker, till the hedgehog was trapped at least, and she had her assignment to do. There was a very defined reason she was sent to work on this project, and since that meant having to deal with him, as unbearable as he was, she would have to find a way to assuage her tendency towards retort.

"We did get off on the wrong foot," she admitted.

"Well, you did, maybe," Robotnik replied without much concern.

He wasn't going to make this easy.

The cashier came with the two cups of coffee at that point. Robotnik took a sip of the coffee and, apparently finding it to his liking, continued poking away at the tablet without saying anything.

He was half alert to Stone, whether she would return immediately or remain here at the coffee shop. He did not wish to socialize with anyone; the peculiarities of interaction were something tedious to him unless he had a precise reason for it, and right now he saw no such reason. He would sooner be alone.

When Robotnik saw Stone was lingering here, and perhaps worse, appeared to be weighing different topics to converse about, he decided he would take his computer tablet and coffee and head back to the laboratory. It was an unfortunate trait of people, he speculated, that upon seeing another human being immersed in important work of some nature they always felt the need to talk with that individual. And the latter fellow, who would have much rather finished his labor uninterrupted, must then be obliged by societal protocol to entertain the idiocy of the first.

Seeing him leaving, she straightaway decided to follow. He realized with disdain as they meandered back that she had no intention of leaving him to his silent productive work.

At least she's pretty, came the recurring reflection as he tried to find some positive detail about his predicament. The natural elegance of the schematic contours he was designing, however, held an attraction all their own.

"Do you think catching this blue hedgehog will be easy?" asked Stone.

"It's too early for such speculation. But as we don't necessarily have to catch it alive, there's that going for us."

Stone seemed uncomfortable at this statement, which Robotnik found interesting.

"Part of me cares about that critter," Stone confided, "If it really catapulted through time, it's probably scared. It doesn't look like a malicious animal, and yet we're trying to kill it."

Robotnik dismissed her reservations easily. "Typical human nature, where we profess to care but it's not genuine. In the end we'll invariably put any pretense of 'caring' for others aside for our own benefit."

"Why would you believe such a thing?"

"It's our job to secure this creature and uncover the source of its power. Besides, it's an invasive species."

"You never did explain why you got one of your PhDs in Biology."

"I see no need for having to explain my motives," Robotnik dismissed.

"Someone who's constantly discoursing about the superiority of machines over man must have a reason for taking up the study of life," continued his assistant.

"You said it yourself – the study of life. That includes every organism, not just humans...and yes, my technology is far superior." He still hadn't given elucidation to the apparent incongruity.

Stone, however, abandoned this issue momentarily. "Sure it is...until you forget to charge it. Actually I'm really surprised you rely so much on technology. Like those gloves you're always wearing. What if one day the batteries die?"

The idea amused Robotnik. "I always keep everything charged and well-maintained."

"That happens when you least expect and right when you need it most."

They got all the way back still bickering over this nonsense, thought Robotnik. They were settling themselves to work when someone else showed up.

"Hello Lieutenant," greeted Stone.

"Hello people," an annoying voice reached Robotnik, who turned from the computers to see the aforementioned lieutenant walk into the laboratory.

"Just my luck," Robotnik complained, realizing his chances of getting anything done today were minimal.

Lieutenant Colin Snively was yet another bothersome person. He was roughly twenty-eight, with ash-grey eyes. He always had his hair shaved down to stubs so it was impossible to tell what color it was, though Robotnik had once recalled the lieutenant showing off a photograph of a successful fishing trip, where he had left his hair rather long to reveal it as a very light brown. Rumor held Snively had risen rapidly in military rank because of nepotism, but he never spoke about any relatives and Robotnik could not have cared less.

Predisposed to indolence, he occasionally showed up to obtrude in Robotnik's work instead of occupying himself with whatever he was actually supposed to be doing as a military lieutenant. Whenever Robotnik tried to tell him off, he responded with apparent misinterpretation and an unintelligence so pronounced the scientist half-wondered if it was feigned. So Robotnik took Snively as one might take mid-day rain, like an unavoidable nuisance to be withstood with forbearance, and spoke with extra judiciousness around him just in case.

"Heard you two are now working together," Snively chatted, "Dr. Robotnik with a real live assistant! Never thought I'd see the day. How you coping, Agent Stone?"

"It is what it is," she admitted, with somewhat of a glance towards her coworker.

"Exactly," Robotnik agreed hastily with her. "Now I have work to do, which doesn't entail busybodies."

Snively was perpetually to the contrary. "Glad we don't have any of those around," he said, and then started a conversation about some tangential triviality.

Robotnik turned back to working on his computers, futile though the endeavor was with Snively's incessant monologuing as a backdrop.

Patience. He's an average human. Be patient with idiots.

"Agent Stone, tell Snively to go away or I'll pull up his internet search history," Robotnik spoke up finally.

"Oh yeah... reminds me!" recalled Snively, "I'm going to be opening a blog."

Stone encouraged him, to Robotnik's chagrin. "Really? What about?"

"Mostly about my life and goings-on. I got a lot of shit happening lately. Like just yesterday I bought a new fishing reel..."

He kept rattling on like a parakeet. Meanwhile, Robotnik tried not to respond with the fed up ferocity of a cat.

Why? Why do people feel the need for this mindless chitchat? Why can't they realize no one else gives a shit about their kids or their mortgage or what they ate for breakfast?

"Opening a private blog's kind of expensive," said Snively at last. "Worth it though. I'm going to be what they call an influencer."

"Heaven help the world," scowled Robotnik, "As if the lemmings needed to be stupider."

"Now you know about computers..." continued Snively.

"Statements of the obvious are unnecessary but appreciated," Robotnik interjected.

" maybe you can help me with this thing called search engine something-or-other. You know, that tech-geek thing that helps you get on the front page when folks search for stuff."

"SEO," specified Robotnik. Unexpectedly, he swiveled the chair around towards Snively. "Yes, actually I can help you with that. When you get your blog up and running, give me the address."


Snively stepped out of the office, and Robotnik turned back to his computer snickering.

His assistant observed him diligently. "You're planning a trick, aren't you?"

"Me? Whatever gave you that idea, Agent Stone?" asked Robotnik innocently. "I'm just happy I got rid of that pest for now."

Right when he was about to finally type something on the computer, the laboratory suddenly went pitch black.

"It's one of those days," sighed Robotnik.

Orbot and Cubot, who ran on battery power, summarized the situation. "Main system offline. Improper shutdown of network drives. Insufficient electricity," delineated Orbot.

"Looks like there's a big blackout," chimed in Cubot.

Stone could not help but quip, "The infallibility of technology, Doctor?"

Robotnik gave her an annoyed look, but addressed the computers instead. "Orbot, auxiliary power."

Orbot beeped, and in a moment all the computers in the laboratory flickered back on, rebooting themselves in tandem.

" got a flashlight in here?" Snively's voice was heard again; Robotnik could make out the lieutenant's silhouette in the darkness, re-entering the laboratory.

The figure lurched suddenly. There was a thud and exclamation as Snively tripped over something and fell to the floor.

"Careful with my equipment," snapped Robotnik.

"Are you ok?" Stone asked; Snively was rubbing his leg.

"He'll live," Robotnik instantly dismissed, before Snively could answer.

Stone turned to the scientist sarcastically. "So you're a physician too?"

Robotnik had patent disinterest. "As a biologist I can tell if there's a mortal wound relative to the position of internal organs. I'm more inquiring of the fact you, as a soldier, cannot."

"There's such a thing as being nice," emphasized Stone.

"Yes, I suppose societal protocol would indicate some blatant lie to fool the injured party into feeling someone gives a damn about their individual suffering," Robotnik snapped back.

"How can you possibly be so..." Stone began to say.

"" Robotnik countered. "It's genetics."

"Never mind the flashlight," Snively broke in, "Any one of you got an ice pack?"

Orbot broke in, "Doctor, preliminary radar readings indicate the present power outage was caused by an electromagnetic pulse."

Robotnik abandoned the squabble with his assistant instantly and turned to the computers, his attention captured. "Compare to the time rift two days ago," he ordered.

"Chaos energy wavelengths are 98 percent equivalent," stated Cubot.

"The energy was emitted from two distinct locations," added Orbot, as a map was pulled up onto the computer screens.

Robotnik fell silent at this, and Stone was the one who voiced the logical deduction:

"We might have more time travellers, then."

Chapter 5 - The Meeting

The blackout had once again thrown the populace and the leadership into something of disarray as the last rays of sun fell on the city. Towers, hearing of the possibility more creatures had come through to their timeline, had his men on the lookout and called Dr. Robotnik and Agent Stone to an emergency briefing.

When the scientist and his assistant arrived, they found Captain Antoine already there. Antoine, like Stone, had served as an Air Force pilot during the Overland War; a defector from Spagonia prior to that land's conquest, he was highly decorated for his service to the United Federation and known to be a big supporter of G.U.N.'s rulership who would call out anyone daring to object to regulations. It was said he had worked as an archeologist back in Spagonia before the wartime draft sought all able-bodied men with piloting experience; Robotnik had checked one day out of curiosity and confirmed this employment history in Antoine's classified record.

Within minutes of having arrived at Towers' office, Snively appeared as well. He stood at attention to the side of the room.

"All right Doctor, what have you got for us," Towers asked Robotnik once everyone expected was present.

"To be brief," explained Robotnik, "the first creature is elusive and crafty. Stone and I are developing a new strategy to capture it. Our information is still insufficient to tell the best method with the newest arrivals."

He continued speaking, seeing as Towers answered nothing.

"Two portals opened. One to the left of Station Square, the other closer to the woodland. At this point we know they weren't hedgehogs; my drones picked up bipedal paw-prints that look like red fox tracks leading away from the vicinity. I'm still investigating what traversed the second portal, but none of my preliminary readings indicate it was anything larger than a small animal."

"Do they have the same chaos energy levels as the blue hedgehog?"

"It's early Commander, but at this time they don't seem to. My hypothesis is if they shared these qualities, my equipment would have detected it by now."

"Does this look like a recurring thing? Should we be on high alert for a large number of creatures coming through from the future?" Towers said, the latter words spoken through gritted teeth.

Stone interjected. "At this moment we have no indications of any further time warps."

She noticed Robotnik appeared annoyed; perhaps he was a bit displeased she was stealing his thunder. But this was meant to be a joint presentation.

Towers nodded and turned to Antoine, "What say you, Captain?"

"Well, the squadron I command is ready to render assistance to the honorable Doctor if he so requires it," replied Antoine.

Robotnik spoke up, "No need to call me honorable, it's sufficient and more accurate to call me genius. And assistance will be unnecessary."

Stone could see this was a surety with him; any offer of aid, however well-intentioned, was viewed as interference. She wondered if it was part of an attempt to conceal treasonous activities, or his peremptoriness that made him avoid other humans. Having been made to interact with him these past weeks, and so far gotten nowhere, she was starting to believe it was the latter.

Towers then faced Snively.

"I expect you remember the orders I gave you this morning, Lieutenant."

"Yes, Commander," Snively responded, "very specific orders to track down traitors who plot against our societal regulations."

"Let's hope you don't blunder it," snapped Towers. "With how random these blackouts have occurred we've been hearing of unrest in the city. I want it suppressed before it turns into an uprising."

"Yes Sir," said Snively stoically.

The commander then proceeded to speak on his plans to brief the president on the unfolding events, but reiterated the importance of capturing whomever or whatever came through the portals.

In particular, it was still the hedgehog he – and Robotnik – wanted most. The unnatural speed of the animal and its chaos energy levels were intriguing, and perhaps ironically made the blue hedgehog easiest to track.

After the meeting was over, Dr. Robotnik and Agent Stone stepped out to the hallway.

"I've got an idea," Robotnik schemed. "If I update my drones so they can shoot at the hedgehog with laser beams..."

It immediately elicited a protest from his assistant. "First bullets, now lasers. Why do we have to shoot it at all? Can't we dart it with a tranquilizer instead?"

"Stone, it's faster than bullets. It stands to reason it would be faster than darts as well," Robotnik explained. "All that aside Commander Towers expects a more thorough examination of the specimen's internal biology. I think shooting it outright is more efficient...if we want to be honest with ourselves, and not pretend the leadership cares if this affair is conducted humanely or not."

The way he said it was almost derisive, and Stone disliked it entirely. She allowed Robotnik to hurry ahead and leave her behind.

When Stone went out to the sidewalk, her irascible colleague was nowhere to be found, but she noticed Snively getting into a vehicle parked ahead of hers.

When Snively looked up towards her, he clumsily hit his head on the arch of the car entrance. "Ow!" He rubbed his head. "How'd that get there?"

Stone was unimpressed. "Snively, you can drop the act. Robotnik's not here now, and I know you're playing dumb."

The response to this was close to a narrow-eyed sneer. "If you play dumb, you live," responded Snively demurely, "You know the good doctor's days are already numbered when they appoint someone like you to spy on him. People are useful here, never invaluable."

She wasn't going to question how he knew of her mission. She knew how he knew. Snively was aware of every intricate move that happened in the upper echelon. Stone and he had studied together as cadets; although they had each parlayed their individual strengths or clout into different military roles, they kept a good rapport, and his modesty and fear in G.U.N.'s shadow were two absolutes throughout her acquaintanceship with him. Fear was different than respect, however; the regime had never allotted any kindness to Snively, and Stone knew it.

"We technically work in tandem, don't we?" Stone pointed out, "You're really the one the commander has put in charge of traitors."

"Dr. Robotnik is a special case," replied Snively, and changed the topic. "By the way do you know what Captain Antoine is up to? He seemed in a big hurry leaving here, talking on the phone about printing something and very hush-hush."

"He must have lots to do for G.U.N.," reasoned Stone. "Doesn't he also do volunteer work for his block committee?"

"He's very dedicated to the nation," affirmed Snively, "Probably one of the most loyal men here. Anyway I'll see you around, Agent Stone."

"Lieutenant Snively," she replied, nodding her head as a farewell.

Meanwhile, Robotnik had headed directly back to the laboratory. All through the presentation, he had kept his cool despite a flashing notification light, which started up in the wrist screen of the high-tech gloves he always wore, and he felt a desperation to return.

He had set his computers to search the government's databases for something, a highly classified item of value that in the spirit of movie macguffins would lead him to an item of even greater value. This had been several months ago, and the effort had gone nowhere until today.

When he walked into the laboratory, shutting and bolting the door behind him, Orbot and Cubot lit up immediately. "Orbot, Cubot, I'll reprogram you both if this is a false alarm," Robotnik prodded.

Orbot responded first. "Target located in warehouse, classified under B level secrecy. One of the artifacts studied at the Ark."

"Likelihood of match to ancient texts evaluated at 97 percent," Cubot added.

Robotnik spoke sharply. "Bring up photographs."

Top-secret pictures displayed on the laboratory's computer screens, and Robotnik peered at the small gold item they focused on.

A ring.

"You found it," Robotnik murmured.

Chapter 6 - Thieves' Haven

Spring Yard, whilst having been named at one point in its history for pristine Victorian gardens, had devolved over the years into Central City's seediest district. Daytime saw it as crime-rampant, blighted by vice of every style. At nightfall it became a dazzling display of neon lights and gaudy array, which spoke to an ambiance of licentious entertainments and underworld secrets.

The interior of Babylon Nightclub there had the same sort of decadent neon lighting, alongside glittering furnishings and crystalline decor that captured the glow. It had a liquor bar running along the back, and to the side was a dance floor with music blaring. The nightclub was always crowded. Half the people there were looking for fast cash and the other half were willing to pay, provided whatever job they required was done tactfully. The remainder were just there to have a good time, an ambiance giving suitable cover to the undercurrent of illegalities.

Into this establishment strolled Dr. Robotnik, who headed straight towards the bar. He was not a regular, but he was not unknown there either. He would show up on occasion for a drink, or when he had some business where discretion was key, then disappear for weeks on end before returning with the nonchalance of a stray tomcat. Those who often frequented the nightclub knew him as one of relatively high position yet dubious means, motives as questionable as they were secret, and character both suave and businesslike, so he fit right in.

The bartender, a burly sort, came over as soon as he sat down. "Doctor. What can I get you?"

"My usual," Robotnik replied, "Whiskey Sour with egg white."

At least here they had never gotten his order wrong. He half-watched the bartender cracking an egg over the liquor, nimbly trapping the yolk between the shells, and proceeding to shake the mixture into a frothy meringue. When he returned with the drink, Robotnik pushed a couple of folded bills towards him.

"Keep the change. I'm looking for someone who can do a job for me," he said.

"You're in the right place," replied the bartender with a wry smile. "We have a lot of skillful people around here. What kind of job?"

"Theft," he answered boldly.

The bartender's Cheshire smile only got wider. "Around here we call it a relocation of assets," he corrected, and stepped away.

Robotnik took a sip of the silky beverage and observed the bartender as he drew another man away from the dance floor and spoke to him at length. Mere moments later, the bartender returned to his post and the other man came to where Robotnik was waiting.

He wore a wide-brimmed fedora that, paired with the tan trench coat he had on, would have given him the distinct air of some hard-bitten character from a film noir, but the fedora was just too oversized for him to pull it off. He introduced himself as Nack.

"Nack. Is that a first name or a last name?" inquired Robotnik.

"Just Nack," he replied.

Robotnik doubted that was his real name, anyway.

"How should I call you?" asked Nack.

"Shadow," he responded, unwilling to let the mystery be apportioned by solely one side in this business, especially when secrecy in the task required was necessity.

"It won't exactly be me doing the job," Nack went on to explain. "It'll be my associate."

"I presume a person of skill," Robotnik posed.

"You know the jewel heists all over the tabloids lately? That's our racket. Banks, museums, jewelry stores. You name it, we'll get it." Nack had salesmanship, Robotnik granted him that. "What kind of asset you want?"

"A ring," revealed Robotnik. "This is an extremely old artifact. It's being held in a top security vault in one of G.U.N.s warehouses. I can provide the floorplans; the intricacies I'll leave to you."

Nack became disquieted. "That's risky."

"High risk for high reward," countered Robotnik, without missing a beat.

"Messing with G.U.N. is worse than messing with La Cosa Nostra," Nack said, his voice dropping low enough that Robotnik had to strain to hear over the loud music. "I knew a guy who'd spread dirt about G.U.N. He was passing out pamphlets saying their top brass were doing all sorts of fucked up shit. Within three days they picked him up. Never heard of the guy again."

"These are hard times," Robotnik replied casually.

"One day later they raided a place a block from here. They arrested a bunch of other folks who apparently helped the first guy print his pamphlets. No explanation on how G.U.N. knew to go there, or any charges. Never heard of them again."

"Hard times," the scientist reiterated. "Then again I don't think either one of us can recall times having been different?"

Nack gave a small, pensive shake of his head, a reluctant acknowledgement. "I never shirk cash," he said at last. "Neither does my associate. But something like this won't come cheap."

"I'm not looking for cheap; I'm looking for results and discretion. How much?"

"Half a million."

"Done," replied Robotnik.

Nack looked faintly surprised at his composed certainty.

"Half now," added Robotnik, "wired to your bank account within twenty-four hours. The other half when you deliver the item."

The concept of having to rely on human beings for anything was distasteful to him, but he would not risk using his own technology to infiltrate the compound. It would be too easy for the government to trace back to him. At least Nack seemed like a person with mercenary tendencies; his motives were hence open and unpretentious. It was the closest thing to reliability Robotnik could find in human beings.

This was the toughest assignment she had to date, save some of her official work. G.U.N.'s warehouses were fortified arsenals. No one, to her knowledge, had successfully intruded upon them and lived.

Then again, none of those people had been her.

Rouge Stone – government operative by day, jewel thief by night.

Actually, she fancied herself a treasure hunter, because if half the world could find benign, palatable ways of describing the indescribable then she could too. Stone watched the guards at the entry and simultaneously eyed the e-mail message from Nack displayed on her cell phone screen.

She did not know who Shadow was, except that he was willing to pay exorbitantly for this ring. So long as he paid, she did not care.

Scouting out the place before the burglary was without doubt one of the more boring aspects of the assignment, but necessary.

This definitely beats having to deal with that unbearable Dr. Robotnik anyway, she thought to herself.

It was neither here nor there. She had a job to do in his lab, which was the reason she had been placed as his assistant. And that job was secondary compared to this.

Stone analyzed the high security of the building's exterior, reflecting on how much worse the interior would be. She started to wonder about the nature of this ring, and why G.U.N. possessed it. She presumed at first it had been some diplomatic gift to one of the nation's dignitaries, which for the appearance of propriety had been handed over to the government coffers. But treasury possessions of that kind were not top-secret, nor housed in the same building as heavy weaponry. The ring had some military importance.

Nack said Shadow would send her maps of the interior by tomorrow, which he would get to her via e-mail. It was already very late at night, after all. As she thought about this, her phone sounded.

She glanced swiftly at the screen. "That was quick," she mumbled to herself.

Stone opened the message. It was from a nondescript e-mail, a string of letters and numbers that might have easily been marked as spam yet had just as easily gone unnoticed by the spam filter, likely intended to cloak the true address somehow. Whomever this Shadow was, he had apparently some knowledge of how to circumvent computer systems. The maps he had sent as e-mail attachments were official ones, and as Stone reviewed them she sporadically eyed the military fortification before her to envision the setting. The more she perused the maps, the more she admitted to herself that getting in and out undetected would be extremely difficult.

Stone hated when she had to involve another party in her work, because it meant splitting the bounty yet again, but in this case it was necessary. She would need a man on the inside. A soldier like her, but who had access to the premises, and who could be bought somehow.

She knew exactly who might be interested.

I just need the right time to approach him...

As Stone drove home, her thoughts drifted back and forth between this, the blue hedgehog she had briefly met, and the conversations with Robotnik. The exhaustion of the long day was finally settling on her.

She had reached her house and was unlocking the door when she heard a clatter in the back.

The property was isolated from most other residences and cozily nested amidst the forest, so her first thought was that a wild animal had come searching for food. When she heard low conversation, however, her body tensed.

She instinctively put her hand on the pistol fastened to her hip belt and walked behind the house, stepping lightly. Motion caught her eye.

"All right, who's there?" she called out.

The first thing she noticed was the blue flash at the corner of her vision. Then she spied a red fox standing in plain view. It looked like an average red fox were it not for the fact it stood on its hind paws, and had two tails.

"Amazing," the fox marveled, in perfect command of speech, "to think an extinct species was able to communicate like we do!"

The fox then seemed to remember something, and flattened his ears at the blue hedgehog, Sonic. "Now we've done it. They know about us."

"Chill Tails," Sonic replied, zipping over to stand beside him, "so what if they know about us? Besides, I met this human earlier."

"Exactly what I mean," the fox snarled back, "the more things we do here, the more ways we could change the future! What else have you done here, Sonic?"

"Umm..." Stone was trying to reason through all this.

"This is my little brother Tails," Sonic cheerily introduced the two-tailed fox to her, without answering.

"Tails?" questioned Stone.

"Miles Prower. Tails is my nickname," the fox dipped his head in greeting.

"Wait. So how did you two get here?" Stone blurted out. "I know you travelled through time, but..."

"You know that?" Sonic's ears lifted alertly.

"What exactly are you?" Stone asked.

"I'm a hedgehog and he's a fox."

"Technically Sonic, you're an honorary fox, because you were raised by us foxes in our village," specified Miles.

Stone interjected, "Yes, but you're not average hedgehogs and foxes. For one thing, animals don't talk."

"Yeah right," scoffed Sonic.

"No, it makes sense she'd think that," Miles yapped at him. "In this prehistoric time our ancestors lived in burrows. And since you've already apparently interacted with this human," he lingered a bit accusatorily on this, "we may as well be open about our situation."

The fox turned towards Agent Stone.

"We're from three-thousand years into the future. Sonic travelled here by accident, and I came to retrieve him. We need to get back to our timeline," he added emphatically.

Stone found it fascinating how easily she had befriended these animals, who had readily decided to trust her. If Robotnik and the rest of G.U.N. discovered she had them here...

Robotnik and G.U.N.! She remembered; the United Federation wanted these animals, live or dead. She and Robotnik had been assigned to trap them. Yet these were obviously intelligent creatures, more fearful of the consequences of inadvertent time travel than cognizant of any direct peril to themselves. She felt bad for them.

She noticed, too, they all looked rather gaunt.

"What have you been eating since you got here?" Stone asked.

"I've been swiping meat from this restaurant grill," Sonic admitted. "I'm way too fast for them to see me, but I feel bad there's no way I can give them anything in return."

Never mind that, thought Stone, who was secretly impressed by the idea of these speedy thefts.

"The way they cook the meat is delicious," Sonic added. "I think they're called chili dogs?"

"I have some chili dogs here I can heat up," Stone recalled, deciding in that instant to help them. "Why don't you come into my house? We can discuss it some more over food."

Chapter 7 - Explanations

Before long, the group of three were all sitting around eating and talking, as if the animals were invited guests. Nevermind it was past midnight already, though this was no issue for these nocturnal creatures, and Stone, enrapt by the turn of events, was too wide awake at this point to get to sleep.

"How exactly did you travel to the past by accident?" asked Stone.

"We've kinda got a war going on in the future," Sonic explained.

"We've only recently got over a war in this time, too," Stone said, recalling the Overland War. "I guess world peace is a fantasy dream."

Miles, however, snarled at him. "Sonic, don't say so much about the war!"

"Why not?" demanded Sonic.

"That's a major world event," insisted Miles.

"A major world event that's going to happen a zillion years from now."

"Three millennia, Sonic."

"All cool, Tails. Anyway I accidentally wandered into an area of the great forest controlled by our enemies, called Marble Zone. It's full of white marble rocks and quicksand..."

"That sounds like an area of Poloy Forest," Stone interjected.

"I found this strange ring around the time they found me. I tried to run away but somehow I ended up here." Sonic turned with displeasure to Miles. "Is that vague enough?"

"That artifact apparently had traces of unstable chaos energy that boosted your own charge," said Miles. "Remember, you can run past the sound barrier because your body is somehow naturally charged with chaos energy."

Agent Stone silently recalled Robotnik's explanation to Commander Towers and G.U.N.'s generals, of speed's connection with light and time.

"I saw what happened from afar, made a time portal and came to get him," added the fox.

"Is it that easy?" remarked Stone.

"I once built a television set out of paper clips and a toothpick," said Miles, with pride. "Now I've got to open a return portal so we can go home."

Miles was apparently an expert with technology – Robotnik's skill without his uppity attitude, thought Stone – and having advanced scientific knowledge of the future, opening a portal to return to their timeline was simply a matter of having necessary equipment and power to do so.

"Travelling to the future should be easier than travelling to the past, shouldn't it?" asked Agent Stone.

"Generally speaking. The first step is turning on a viewing screen," explained Miles. "We'd be able to essentially see into the future, but not travel through it. I started running some tests as soon as I arrived."

Sonic the hedgehog lifted his ears. "How's it going?"

"Not so good."

Sonic then flattened one ear.

"We need more power," Miles lamented, pulling the tablet-like screen out of his bag, "...chaos energy, to be precise...there's not enough of it here in the past, not even to get this to turn on. Somehow I'd thought there would be. In our time you can even find it in the soil, and the level increases in the daytime because of interaction with strong sunlight..."

"Fast explanation, Tails," said Sonic, who had no patience.

"Without high levels of chaos energy, we're stranded. Indefinitely." Miles ended with a growl.

"Tails...we have to get back. We don't belong here."

"Yes and if we stay in the past, anything could happen. We could change the future somehow. Who knows if we erase our own existence. Time travel and distortion is still a nascent field of study... I've discussed this before."

He had, though the implications remained jarring.

"There is also something else I found..." continued the fox. "Even though it's not even close to the amounts we need, there's still a slight presence of natural chaos energy in the atmosphere. It's showing up as a faint electromagnetism, very similar to radio wavelengths but more randomized."

Miles waved a paw in the air as he explained.

"These wavelengths are morphing into a descending pattern, becoming less and less chaotic, till eventually they'll reach an equilibrium..."

"Fast," Sonic interrupted again.

"It's like a clock ticking down."

"Ticking down?" Agent Stone questioned. "To what?"

"I don't know for sure, right now. My tentative, preliminary theory as to why it's happening though, is..." Miles started to say, then halted and eyed Sonic. "You want the fast explanation?"

"Yeah," said the hedgehog.

"I think the earth has two possible destinies."

Sonic lifted his ears again, and even Stone took interest.

"Perhaps one is time's original path and the other is due to our interference," elaborated Miles. "It's possible our presence has or will accidentally shift something at a crossroad; because whatever-it-is hasn't happened yet from our vantage point in time, we aren't permitted to see the result, but the wavelengths reflect it. It could be something huge or something minor. This is all my hypothesis...there's no way for us to understand. Yet," he added as a qualifier.

Miles produced a small clock from his bag. It showcased a digital reading:

4363 hours remaining

As they watched, the figure ticked down to 4362.

"I have this clock set to track the receding pattern of the wavelength," said Miles. "When it counts down to zero, it means the planet's natural chaos energy would have reached a point of equilibrium. That's a little less than six months."

"You do realize I don't get shit of this, Tails," pointed out Sonic. Stone was thoughtful.

Miles yapped, "Maybe we'll find out more along the way. But the important thing right now is to stay hidden and not interact any more than necessary with the past."

Stone agreed, and extended an invitation for them to stay in her house seeing as they had nowhere else to go. They looked grateful for a place to hide till they could get back to their timeline.

She warned them, however, that her coworker knew of their presence and wanted to catch them. It was the only thing she told them about Robotnik.

All of which went in one ear and out the other for Sonic the hedgehog, who zipped mischievously out the back door into the woods the next morning, his craving for adventure outweighing everything else.

Once Miles realized Sonic had snuck away, he set off looking for him. His older brother was easy to track here because of his chaos energy; it was much easier even than in their time, where the natural chaos energy of the environment made his unique levels blend in. Miles found Sonic not far away observing what looked like some kind of gray edifice at a distance.

"Sonic there you are!" Miles yapped, but Sonic did not give him a chance to say more before leading him off adamantly.

"You gotta see this place I found. I'm calling it Scrap Zone," said Sonic. "It's full of metal scraps...and something worse."

Sonic and Miles drew closer towards the building. It was a run-down place, with fortifications and metal strewn across its asphalt grounds. The only thing new about the building was the large door, which looked impenetrable; a sign here read something about top security clearance, but it was worn. It was encircled by rusty, collapsed wire fencing topped with thorny barbed wire, with yet another old sign labelling it military property. Behind the building, pipes were pumping chemicals into the river, turning the water a murky violet. The woods here were very quiet; there did not seem to be a soul around besides the two of them, imbuing an eerie feeling into the abandoned scene.

"It's polluting the forest river," Sonic scowled. "There doesn't seem to be any way in to stop it."

Miles angled an ear. "Remember that we shouldn't mess with anything here in the past. Bursting into this old place to save the river is messing with something."

"I guess," Sonic relented.

When they turned away from the mysterious building and padded off down the forest trail, Sonic spoke again. "We both know we're not being totally honest with Rouge."

"What more is there to say? You ran way too fast with that charged ring and its unstable chaos energy interacted with your own, hurtling you into the past."

"Tails, there was writing where I got the ring from, backing up the bird armada's legend." Sonic halted and faced him. "You remember – the one that said I would someday destroy the world?"

Miles recalled the prophecy and recited it back:

" 'One of azure quills and lightning speed
From future to past to alight the flame...
For this light shall alter his decision
Aligning time's weave at the final hour
So destroying the world.' "

"What I saw there said all that," Sonic asserted, "and the writing looked old. So old, pieces of the rock had been crumbling away."

"If it was so old how could you read it?" Miles challenged.

"How can we communicate with these humans at all?" Sonic countered. "We're speaking in the same tongue."

"We built off their ancient technology," Miles contemplated. "Perhaps our speech patterns subtly developed through the same thinking patterns, and..."

"Tails," Sonic interrupted, "it's all good. Really."

He looked dismal; his ears drooped sadly, and his brother laid a paw on his shoulder.

"Look," Miles insisted, "the less people know about the future the better. Humans are primitive creatures; they might get frightened. If you're prophesied to destroy the world, then it might be our actions here that do it. It could be a domino effect. The point is, the sooner we get back the better. poking around while we're in the past!"

Sonic seemed to cheer up sneakily. "No promises for that!"

"Sonic!" growled Miles.

There was a rustle in the bracken behind them, but neither paid heed as they returned to Stone's house.

Chapter 8 - Of Lasers and Drones

Over the next few days Robotnik devoted his attention to updating the weaponry on his drone series. If bullets were too slow against Sonic, for evidently that was the animal's name, then photon rays were logically the next weapon to try. Lasers were beams of light, and Sonic could not outrun light; or if he did happen to, he would be thrown back in time again.

Robotnik had determined there was little chance of this occurring. It seemed Sonic's natural power levels were not, in and of themselves, strong enough for that. That hedgehog is as good as caught, he reveled, prematurely.

He had trapped more of the forest wildlife, only this time he maintained the flight capacity of the drone carrying them. This ovoid hovering cage, then, lingered in a new woodland clearing with its cargo of sparrows. Ten drones with laser weaponry lay in the bracken, and one trail camera was placed in a nearby tree. Not far away, in the laboratory, Robotnik watched and orchestrated it all from his large computer monitors.

He could easily track when Sonic was coming by a sharp, sudden rise in chaos energy. Mere seconds later, Sonic appeared in the clearing and tackled the flying cage to release the sparrows.

As he did, the weaponized drones lifted out from the bushes to surround Sonic.

Robotnik was snickering. "Right where I want you."

The little animal, however, raced away as the lasers were fired, only to circle back and weave around the beams as if deliberately toying with them. He was accurately estimating when the drones would shoot, Robotnik realized, by how they moved. Though the laser itself was light-speed, the drones themselves were not equally fast.

This lasted for at least a whole exasperating minute. Just as unexpectedly, Sonic seemed to tire of this and went on the offensive. He bounced off the drones, destroying each in turn, while Robotnik tried hopelessly to hit the speedy blue target.

"Stand still, you miserable hedgehog!" Robotnik muttered, clenching his teeth.

Instead, Sonic zigzagged around the clearing, and the two remaining drones ended up shooting their lasers at each other. They exploded into pieces.

From the laboratory, a frustrated Robotnik slammed his hands down on the desk. "No! Damn it!"

Sonic zipped over to stand before the camera. "You're still too slow," Sonic noted, and fled into the foliage.

The scientist left the laboratory immediately for the site. When he got there, he could see the remnants of his drones strewn about, jagged white pieces not unlike broken shells amidst the grass. He kicked one of the metal shards in annoyance, silently cursing how effortlessly the little animal could have so easily triumphed against his ploy – and how he had not factored in the drones themselves being too slow.

Robotnik heard rustling in the bushes behind him, but when he turned there was nothing there.

He knew it was Sonic. The hedgehog was observing him, in the same way Robotnik observed. It was a clever creature, Robotnik analyzed; aside from its speaking ability, only an animal with reason would lie in wait to study its enemy.

Then again, it was still an animal. For someone of his intellect, success against it was a question of when, not if.

But it has been over two weeks, came a nagging thought. Some part of him worried he might come to be consumed with the hunt, as Captain Ahab after the white whale. It just sounded quaint, though, to say Dr. Robotnik after the blue hedgehog, so with a smirk he decided to pretend for the moment at having no knowledge of Sonic's whereabouts and strolled back to the laboratory without acknowledging his observer's presence.

He found Agent Stone waiting for him outside the building.

In days of late she seemed cagey, and even more leery than usual when it came to hunting Sonic. For his part he could not have cared less, but it did cause him to have suspicions of her. Somehow he could imagine her feeding the damned thing on the sly.

"We may have to accept the hedgehog is impossible to catch," said Stone, all-too-eagerly.

"Impossible for average intellect," retorted Robotnik sourly. "Alas, my only secret weapon against that speedy creature is presently under development. No matter. I can devise endless new methods towards..."

"Secret weapon?" Stone let her words settle.

He gestured to her to follow him. They walked into the garage adjoining the laboratory, and Robotnik pulled a tarp off the large center contrivance to reveal a modernistic aircraft.

The transport had the same scent of new leather and interior finish of an undriven car, as well as the ovoid shape that was a hallmark of all his designs. It was white with red accents, along with thin yellow-and-black hazard stripes on either side marking where the glass visor could retract and extend, like a convertible's roof, over the cockpit.

"It's a prototype hovercraft designed for flight at high speeds." Robotnik explained, "It can accelerate to Mach speeds in less than three seconds and muffles the sonic boom produced; the concept is it could be flown near populated areas with minimal auditory disturbance. Unfortunately it burns through every power supply quite rapidly. If I had a reliable way to power it, catching that pesky hedgehog would be easier."

His assistant studied the craft. "G.U.N. must have high hopes for this."

"Eventually," he shrugged. "Right now the commander is more interested in that time-travelling animal. For that matter, so am I."

Stone said nothing as he covered the aircraft again.

"Of course," Robotnik added, matter-of-factly, "the other two animals who came through the time portal are also of interest."

"Two? There was only one other, besides Sonic."

Stone's words caught short as soon as she had spoken them. He was now watching her thoughtfully and she seemed to weigh whether she had said too much.

"There were two," Robotnik reiterated. "If you recall, my equipment detected portal energy spikes in two different locations at once. My technology is reliable, unlike humans."

Stone knew by now disputing it with him would go nowhere. His narcissism would never accept the possibility of error, and when he did he waved it off as a human flaw. Robotnik for his part was becoming ever more suspicious of Stone.

She was fed up with this. In her view, it went nowhere. "Weren't you going out somewhere to plot your newest dastardly scheme?"

"Yes I was," replied Robotnik.

"And anyway," continued Stone, "as I am your assistant, I guess I ought to come along."

"I guess you should," Robotnik relented.

The slightest discomfort surrounded him at this; he would much rather be alone. She noticed it with keen satisfaction. If he disliked her company and took pains to make that known, then she would impose it on him. Their superior wanted them to work together. So, damn it, they would work together by force.

They set out walking from the laboratory, both carrying equipment. Some of the ovoid drones trailed after Robotnik, as if they were his personal squadron of bodyguards or pack of hunting hounds; it had been unnerving to Stone at first, but gradually she got used to their presence.

Out here, the world seemed peaceful and time appeared plentiful. Early sunlight filtered in through the trees, dappling the ground with leafy patterns, and flower petals cascaded to the dew-tipped grass in a light breeze. It was as if the forest took a more leisurely outlook upon the seasons, whereas the city had already transitioned into summer. Eventually they reached a small clearing where large tree branches overhung like a canopy; the crackle of their own motions through the grass, the joyous twitter of sparrows, and the ephemeral whistling flight of mourning doves were the only sounds in this tranquil thicket.

"Looks decent enough," determined Robotnik. He was scanning the surroundings with some sort of infrared technology from his gloves, and Stone watched with curiosity. "Well, well – we have traces of chaos energy here, too. Looks like the hedgehog has been by here recently."

"How much technology do you have in those gloves?" Stone wondered aloud.

"Controls for my drones. Infrared scanners. Built in electrical defense." Robotnik was visibly proud; discussing his inventions was at least one surefire way to get him to talk. "I'm also developing a way to bring up a force field..."

"Hold on...electrical defense?" she interrupted.

He made a quick motion of his wrist. A bright electrical arc leapt from one finger to the other, snapping its presence audibly in the manner of a cattle prod.

"All generated with chaos energy," he explained easily. "It's the portable power source of the future."

"Yes, you did say G.U.N. had you trying to develop a power source for high levels of chaos energy," Stone recalled.

Robotnik ignored the comment and they resumed setting up his equipment in relative silence.

"Let's get back... I forgot something at the lab," he said afterwards.

When they returned to the laboratory, the scientist began rummaging around for something. "I was sure I had left a paper with mathematical notations on my desk," he half muttered to himself.

Stone glanced around the room and noticed some papers sticking halfway out from under the bed blankets of the cot to the side of the room.

"Could it be those?" she asked.

"Exactly those!" he exclaimed happily.

He walked over and quickly pulled them out from underneath the blankets. As he looked them over, Stone decided to ask him a question that had been lingering on her mind:

"Do you live at the laboratory?"

Robotnik looked directly at her and answered simply, "Yes."

He went back to perusing the math figures without elaborating.

She was rather surprised, in part because neither Towers or any of the military leaders had ever briefed her about that point. Somehow the notion of Dr. Robotnik being alone with solely his work as company twenty-four hours made her feel oddly sorry for him.

"Doctor..." she began. He lifted his hand for her silence.

"Time to get back to the equipment," he interrupted.

They walked back to where they had left all the gadgets without saying anything and as they arrived, they heard a noise in the bushes.

"Listen," he told her, as he pointed in a general direction.

His attention had snapped to a point in the nearby bracken; as they watched the leaves, a fox poked its head out tentatively.

Elation lit in Robotnik's eyes, and Stone cringed with worry.

"It's only a fox," she claimed.

"Incorrect, my hastily assertoric assistant. According to these readings, it's one of those future animals," he responded, and turned the drones' weaponry towards Miles.

"Let's see if this one's faster than bullets too," grinned Robotnik, to Stone's horror, as he pressed a button on his gloves.

The instant the drones fired, a blue light shot out of the underbrush, whipping around to knock the bullets off-path as Miles fled. This done, it spun swiftly upward to tackle the drones immediately into pieces. Robotnik made a futile attempt – he knew it was futile, but human frustration required outlet too – to lash at the high-speed creature zipping around him with the electrical arc of his gloves, with the anticipated result of failure; Robotnik lost his footing and tripped sideways onto the grass. The blue light dashed away, in the direction the two-tailed fox had gone.

"That blasted hedgehog!" Robotnik cried indignantly.

"Doctor, are you all right?" asked Stone, rushing to help him up.

"Did you see which direction the hedgehog went?" he demanded.

", I wanted to make sure you were ok," admitted Stone.

He bit back a caustic retort.

"I must remember," he said, as if to himself. "Average human mental capacity. They can't help themselves."

The sympathy Stone had felt towards him dissipated immediately.

"Well now Agent Stone, we've been put back a week in tracking that animal but, as always, my technology can correct your mistake," said Robotnik.

"My mistake?" she countered with affront.

Robotnik disregarded her, instead poking quickly at the controls on his glove as the drones, responding instantly, spread out flying in different directions. "The time for talking is over. It's time to push buttons. I'll have my drones search a twenty-mile radius around the preserve. Those animals run fast, but they won't have run far."

"Do you need me for this?" asked Stone, "All this hunting has worn me out."

"Well, Agent Stone, perhaps it is advisable that we resume tomorrow... The sun will set in a couple of hours and the animal will most likely seek some sort of shelter."

"Good. We call it a day then. See you tomorrow Doctor," she said this as she walked away quickly lest he changed his mind.

The scientist replied nothing. He picked up his tablet and walked in the opposite direction.

It was late afternoon by the time Sonic and Miles meandered down the forest path back to Stone's residence.

"You sure he's playing a game?" Miles yapped skeptically.

"He's not moving fast enough to make it anything but a game," Sonic replied, "He's got to know that by now. It's all in fun..."

Miles had angled an ear off to one direction. "Do you hear something?"

Sonic stood on tiptoe and tried to pinpoint it. It sounded like a very low rumble, fading and pulsing at intervals in the manner of a purr.

"I don't know," he said. "Kinda like a growl?"

To which the fox swished both his tails. "We'd better get back. I don't know what it is and it sounds far away, but it makes me uneasy."

The two of them had reached the house by the time they could tell the sound was following, coming gradually closer, and it was hard to tell from what direction.

Sonic realized the purring was behind him at the same instant he spied something that glowed eerily within the nearby bushes. It took a moment for him to realize what it was.

The elliptical pupils of two eyes.

Without warning another animal leapt out to attack, claws and fangs bared alike and with a battle-screech like wildfire.

Chapter 9 - Blaze the cat

Sonic darted aside, the assailant's claws like daggers against his shoulder. His swiftness caught his enemy off-guard as they lost their balance, and in the slowed timeframe of his high speed he could perceive them better.

She was a cat. She dressed in a robe and wore a wide gold necklace, all in a style reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian. Her fur was a pale lavender, except for her white paws, and her face and plumed tail held the delicate features of an Angora.

The cat twisted her body to right herself, landing on four paws before lifting herself up again on her hind legs to stand as they did. She kept a ready battle stance, claws out, yet Sonic's rapidity had surprised her and placed her squarely on the defensive.

"Who are you?" she hissed.

"Who are you?" Sonic demanded back.

The cat flattened her ears, but before any more could be said Miles hurried over. Now outnumbered, she kept a wary eye on both of them.

"My name is Sonic. This is Tails."

"I'm Blaze."

Miles meanwhile, had scanned her with his device. His eyes widened.

"What year are you from?" asked the fox.

"Five thousand years from our current point in time," the cat replied.

"We're from three thousand years." Miles was alert. "You're from even further into the future than we are!"

Her claws sheathed, but she was still regarding them quizzically, as Sonic and Miles did her. In particular the latter were wondering about the robe she wore; it was a deep purple color that complemented her lavender fur, and seemed woven of silk.

"Did you get caught in some fabric?" Sonic finally voiced their question.

"These are my clothes," explained Blaze.

Miles flattened one ear. "It looks kind of primitive, like the offense!" he hurried to add. "It's just humans only wore that stuff to keep themselves from freezing to death, because they were born without fur – poor things – like Sonic has to wear shoes because his speed could hurt his paws."

Blaze purred. "In the far future I'm from, everyone wears clothes."

Miles seemed to nearly choke at the thought. "Our civilization is going to regress."

Sonic was more curious about the outcome of the war. "What happens to the bird armada?"

"They were no match for the cat army," Blaze squinted.

"So cats end up ruling the world?" Sonic asked skeptically.

"End up? Since the dawn of time, this planet has been under feline rule," meowed Blaze adamantly. "Throughout history, lesser animals have revered and served us. In return, we grace them with our sacred presence."

At that moment, the door opened. Agent Stone stood there with surprise over her face as she looked at the three animals; when neither of them spoke, she did.

"...and you must be the third critter." For once I'd like that Dr. Robotnik to be wrong about something, Stone thought.

"Hello, human," said Blaze nonchalantly.

"Well...come in, quickly. Before someone sees the three of you," decided Stone, and the hedgehog, the fox, and the cat padded in and continued their conversation in the parlor.

"Why did you travel here, Blaze?" asked Miles.

The cat lashed her tail. "In my time, an oracle foretold our world would be destroyed by a blue bolt of lightning. I was chosen to travel to the past, figure out what it refers to, and stop it."

A blue bolt of lightning. Sonic fidgeted from one paw to the other; it seemed he could not find escape from the prophecy of doom pursuing him across time.

Blaze was rather somber as she added, "The oracle also foretold I would never return."

None of the animals responded. Stone broke the disconcerted silence. "You must be hungry. Would you like something to eat?"

Blaze licked her lips hopefully. "What sort of food do you eat here?"

Sonic chimed in. "Have you tried a chili dog? They're really good!"

There was suddenly a knock on the door. Stone glanced over.

"Oh no," she muttered, "It's Dr. Robotnik."

"Who?" Sonic questioned.

"My coworker."

"Is he the guy with all those flying eggs?"

This took a moment for Stone to interpret. "They're drones."

"They look like eggs."

"Yes, that's him. You'd all better hide," she said and the hedgehog, the fox, and the cat darted in different directions.

Stone opened the door to find Robotnik standing there patiently. "Doctor! What a surprise." She feigned a smile.

"Yes, Agent Stone, what a surprise indeed." He did not dwell upon the pleasantries. "Have you perchance seen that hedgehog? Or any of the other animals?"


"My drones tracked them here."

"That's impossible," she replied, hesitantly.

Robotnik was undeterred. "Maybe they got into the house without you realizing."

"There's no way. There are no animals here," she assured.

There was a crashing noise heard in the kitchen.

Stone thought quickly. "Oh yes...except for a cat."

"A cat?" he remarked with surprise.

"I feed a stray cat."

While she said this, he leant to glance over her shoulder – at the same instant that Blaze peeked out with curiosity. He studied the feline, who watched him fearlessly back. From Blaze's position, you could not see more than her head and paws, yet this was enough to catch his attention.

"A lavender cat," Robotnik specified.

Stone blurted out the sole excuse she could come up with. "See, now she got into some food coloring. I was trying to bake a cake. I left it unattended."

Robotnik gave her an incredulous look, and she realized how piteously ridiculous what she said had sounded.

"I'm never wrong," was all the scientist replied, though unusually mild, as he turned around and left.

Stone closed the door, worried. She watched him from the window curtains as he walked away.

The little animals all emerged from their hiding places. "Is Eggman gone?" asked Sonic, who had apparently been the one to dash into the kitchen.

"For now, yes," she replied.

"I don't trust that human," declared Blaze the cat, "there's something leery about him. And what's more, there's something leery about you..." She turned to address Stone. "You like him."

"Like him?" Stone jumped to disavow. "Definitely not! He's obnoxious and egotistical and I have to spend hours every day stuck in the laboratory with him..."

"And you like him," meowed Blaze. "It's subtle...but I can see it."

"Fascinating!" Miles lifted his ears, "perhaps we'll be able to observe the courtship ritual of this extinct species. I should begin taking notes for Science. When is the human mating season?"

Stone shook her head. "Unbelievable," she muttered, and left it at that.

The atmosphere kept uneasy; the idea Robotnik could have so quickly tracked the time-travellers to their hideaway disconcerted Agent Stone, and the animals, being perceptive by nature, sensed this from her even if they did not fully comprehend the extent of the danger they were in. Part of Stone wondered if Robotnik might go to Commander Towers and accuse her of hiding their quarry. What she had going for her was that she doubted anyone would take the idea as little more than absurdity, which allayed her fears somewhat. At the same time she chided herself for the empathy preventing her from turning the animals in, but convinced herself that the more important mission was Robotnik's possible treason, not catching the animals.

Miles the fox spent the entirety of the afternoon sifting through Stone's small library of books, with a focus on any that dealt with science and history. She at first thought it was purely curiosity over mankind's progress – he had stated his interest in their "extinct species culture" after all – but she soon discovered it was a bit more than that; he was searching for any possible source of chaos energy available to them in this age, towards his endless attempt to power a homebound time portal.

"You're probably out of luck," said Stone, when he explained this, "In fact one of the things my coworker's trying to develop for the government is a high-level chaos energy power source. He hasn't had any luck."

"This is such a prehistoric time," yapped Miles. "I'm hoping that your society has the building blocks already but they've been overlooked. Like having rocks and wood available even though you haven't invented the catapult yet."

"Speaking of cats," Sonic zipped over, his speed making him almost appear out of thin air, "I've looked all over this den and I can't find Blaze."

"If she's not here, she probably went out to the woods. I keep telling everyone we shouldn't venture out, and everyone keeps doing it anyway," Miles complained. "We're going to mess up the time-space continuum."

Sonic was gone in another flash. Stone was starting to get so accustomed to the darting hedgehog she scarcely batted an eye anymore. She resumed her chat with Miles.

"Not that this should dissuade you," Stone analyzed, "all of you should get home. However if human society has the building blocks, so to speak, for a high-level chaos energy generator...and you invent it before mankind does, won't that itself change history?"

Miles weighed the matter. "I don't know. I need to research that some more to figure out the possibilities," he admitted. "But right now staying in the past is the worst option."

Meanwhile, Sonic the hedgehog had run into the woods to see if he could locate Blaze. He soon found the cat on a rise overlooking the meadowland. Here, the pines tapered away to the vast and verdant expanse, which stretched for miles.

"Hey Blaze! There you are. I was wondering where you'd gone off to," greeted Sonic.

"I'm around. Went out to prowl," replied Blaze.

She was gazing out at the land pensively; when she angled an ear towards Sonic but did not say more, he spoke again.

"These meadows are known as Green Hills to us. That farthest slope, rising above the others, we call Hill Top."

"It's beautiful," she mewed, rather with wistfulness.

"The meadow looks the same as it does in our time," added Sonic.

"In the far future," Blaze revealed, "it gets destroyed in the great battle between the cats and the birds, before I was born. I'd never seen such beautiful landscape in person."

"That's a shame," Sonic lamented, his ears drooping. "And there's no other wild place like this?"

"They still have them, but very far from where I lived," said Blaze. "I was the eldest of the litter, so I was kept close to the palace."

"Wait, are you a leader of some kind?"

"I was a princess, first in line for the throne."

"But why send you, if they'd foretold you'd never return?"

"A sacrifice of some kind was deemed necessary, to show we were worthy for our world to survive...I put myself forward for the mission. This was a chance to do something important to help the tribe. It was that or watching a thousand get pushed into a volcano far from here to see if that'd make a difference to the planet's fate."

Sonic thought about this. "Man, we really get vicious in the future, don't we?"

The response by Blaze was a twitch of her tail, and she changed the topic.

"...I first spied you near Scrap Zone. I think that's what you called the building with the old signs and the chemicals."

"Yeah, you never explained why you attacked us."

Blaze hissed. "They sent me back in time to find the cause of the world's destruction and stop it. I expected a monster of some kind, maybe...I never expected to find a hedgehog and a fox who are as stranded as I."

"You thought we're the cause?" His words were a frail attempt at a lie.

"It's so obvious it's you," she gave a ffftt, "you're the only blue bolt of lightning I've seen."

"Well can't argue that," Sonic said sheepishly.

Sonic and Blaze did not notice the weaponized drone hovering, a few paces away, ensconced by the bracken.

Watching them from the camera, Dr. Robotnik smiled bitterly.

At last – at last! – he had them in his sights. They were unaware, and being unaware they would never be able to escape in time.

"I admire your fortitude," Sonic was saying, "but... carrying the entire world on your shoulders?"

"Whether it's right or wrong, I can't really say. What I do know is if we don't take chances, the future will remain exactly as it is. And right now we only have prophecies foretelling doom." Blaze seemed suddenly thoughtful. "I'd never seen a hedgehog, till I met you. I'd only heard of them. Is the rest of your family fast like you?"

"Tails is my little brother."

"He's a fox though."

"The foxes raised me. They found me drowning in the river when I was a hoglet. During the great war the bird armada destroyed the ancient canyon holding back the waters. From what I learnt later the hedgehog village had been at the foot of that canyon. They intended to eliminate all of us." Sonic became briefly quiet. "...I don't remember my biological family at all."

The drone aimed at Sonic...locked on...and Robotnik, his finger held over the button, hesitated.

Sonic continued speaking with Blaze, oblivious to his imminent death:

"Time doesn't stop for us. All we can do is live the moment before the moment passes. If we don't accept what's right in front of us, we'll always be too late. Other times you find there was never enough time to start with."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, Blaze! I guess that's just why I try to take each day as it comes and enjoy the daily adventure." Sonic added a little more cheerfully:

"Kind of like those games with Eggman! I don't even know who he is, but I enjoy playing with him."

It was not even naïveté. It was innocence.

And all Robotnik could do was gaze blankly at the cold monitor screen, feeling suddenly as bereft as he had felt so many years ago, awash in memories that never ceased their pain, struggling at the hopelessness when his eyes watered at that one – jealously guarded, resolutely denied – truth of emotion.

By the time he had composed himself, Sonic ran off.

Robotnik let him go.

Chapter 10 - Eggman's Lair

Robotnik spent the rest of the next day in a fouler mood than usual, which he took out on his two digital assistants Orbot and Cubot. They were as patient as he had programmed them to be, and pretending he had something uncritically listening to him complain soon eased the stress of his conflicted mind. He then turned the one-sided conversation towards a renewed focus on his goals.

Whether Sonic lived or died might at once frustrate or appease his superiors, yet neither did anything for his secret ambitions – and it was the fulfillment of these ambitions that mattered to him.

"It's evident this long-distance hedgehog hunt is going nowhere," Robotnik finally said. "I've got to figure out a way to lure him into the open."

"You have a magnificent plan, your sneakiness," Cubot stated in its chipmunk tone.

"I haven't thought of the plan yet," the scientist pointed out.

A light on Orbot was flashing. "Searching conventional wisdom banks for topical advice... 'The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.' 'Slow and steady wins the race.' 'Nobody likes a whiner.' "

"I'm surrounded by defective circuitry," mumbled Robotnik.

He typed away at the keyboard, and continued speaking to Orbot and Cubot:

"The bottom line is getting a reliable source of chaos energy. That's what this boils down to. When I have enough to achieve my goal of global conquest," he added airily, "every one of the world's dimwitted dunces will bow to my intellect. I have plenty of time."

At this point Agent Stone walked in, narrowly missing his statement. "Good morning, Doctor," she said obliviously.

Stone had forgotten the incident at her house, but her colleague had not. Robotnik turned sideways in the office chair and asked, "How did the cake come?"

"What cake? I don't know how to bake," Stone answered without thinking.

"The lavender cake," he pursued, with a vindicated smile.

"Oh...that cake!" Stone realized, and hurried to say, "It got messed up. Why I say I don't know how to bake."

"I imagine hiding hedgehogs is easier," Robotnik replied.

She tensed perceptibly. Robotnik was amusing himself immensely with this.

"Look," Stone answered blisteringly, "why don't we focus on trying to catch Sonic?"

He acquiesced. "I've been meaning to go walking and scout out the forest today for the best place to lay a new trap. We don't want any of the wildlife that's not a target getting caught in the traps if we can avoid it – unless of course I find it's convenient to my schemes."

"Such a conservationist," scowled Stone.

"Lately the easiest way to lure that damned hedgehog out of hiding is to, in fact, use the local wildlife. Oh I forgot, what's his name now?" Robotnik questioned rhetorically. "Sonic?"

"He did call himself that," she pointed out. "You can review your film footage from the trail cameras."

"Yes, quite," Robotnik affirmed, "But it merely amuses me how swiftly the average human will take to calling things by a name and succumb to the illusions of emotional attachment."

From the desk, the cube chimed in. "Would you like a list of the fifty most popular names in the United Federation?"

"Not now, Cubot," replied Robotnik.

"You were saying...?" prodded Stone, with a gesture towards the little computer.

"That's not a name," Robotnik professed, "it's an abbreviation. Robotnik's Cube."

Agent Stone eyed him with doubt but did not continue the quarrel.

The day stretched on with its usual monotony. Around lunch hour Robotnik, who as usual had zero desire to socialize, made sure Stone had gone off in a different direction than he before he made his way over to the corner coffee shop.

Little did he know that right outside the laboratory window, two watchful little animals had listened to every word said that morning. Sonic the hedgehog and Miles the fox waited patiently until Robotnik and Stone left, and then they circled around to enter the building. Miles unlocked the door with relative ease, and Sonic boldly zipped inside.

"Kinda dark in here," opined Sonic.

"I wonder if we're doing well, sneaking into Eggman's lair," the fox wondered aloud.

"Course we are," Sonic insisted. "In any case, didn't you hear what he said earlier? Something about a global takeover?"

"We should still be as silent as we can," Miles said dubiously.

"Come on, Tails. You're not still worrying about us affecting the future and all that?"

"Yeah," affirmed Miles, "No one has ever travelled back in time, to my knowledge, before us. We don't know what could happen."

Sonic was not worried at all. "We can't harm anything by poking around. Especially if we're quick."

The animals split up to search the laboratory. Sonic shook himself, and a loose quill fell off. "Shedding season already," he remarked.

Miles opened the door to the small refrigerator. "Ooh! Pudding!"

"Aren't we supposed to be silent?"

"Sorry Sonic," the fox yapped, though he was now eating the pudding.

When Orbot, detecting their motion, flew off the table to hover before Sonic, it made the blue hedgehog nearly jump with surprise. Cubot lit up.

Sonic tensed himself, but he did not attack. "Tails? Help?"

The fox padded up and scanned them with the device in his paws. "They're like the flying eggs," he determined.

"We're Dr. Robotnik's digital assistants," the orb stated. "Orbot. SA-55."

The cube added, "Cubot. Salad-something."

Orbot turned towards Cubot. "How can you not have your serial number in your memory bank?"

"It got transferred somehow into RAM," responded the cube.

Sonic's eyes darted from one squabbling computer to the other, then he interjected, "Why don't I just continue what I'm doing here and let you two dumb-bots sort this out?"

"Good idea. Go about your work," Cubot answered.

Miles had hopped onto the chair and was poking away at Robotnik's computer. Sonic appeared beside the chair and peeked up. "Tails. Whatcha find?"

"Eggman's got a whole private network set up here," yapped Miles.

"An Eggnet," Sonic named it.

Miles had alert ears. "This is pretty advanced for a human. It looks like something our animal civilization would have come up with."

The monitors on the left wall flashed on, altogether displaying the giant world map; Sonic and Miles were awestruck by it, as well as at the figures that tallied up military bases and munitions stockpiles by locale.

"So he really is planning to take over the world," remarked Sonic. "We oughta stop him."

"Except we don't know how things played out in the past," said Miles. "Again, it'd be interfering in history. In any case, could he really take over the planet? He's one man."

"...with a bunch of flying eggs," Sonic insisted. "Ambition like that, leading to warfare in a time of peace, is never good. It reminds me of the bird armada."

Miles flattened his ears, recoiling at the recollection.

"What else does he have on there?" Sonic prodded.

Miles resumed poking at the computer. "Scientific reports. Schematic technical files. Research databases. Music playlists. Hey, what's this?"

He brought up what seemed to be a draft design of a flag. A globe with a diplomatic sash draped across was the centerpiece, framed by a jagged border not unlike a circular saw and with two construction cranes flanking it. Two sheet-metal screws crisscrossed on the very top of the banner. At the bottom was a round logo, but it was hard for the animals at first glance to determine whether it depicted the front of a vehicle with a wide grille or a face with a huge grin.

"I guess Eggman's fond of the industrial motif," Miles debated.

"It needs hedgehogs," declared Sonic.

Orbot hovered over. "The doctor requested a reminder to modify the imperial flag by removing the screws at the top, as it inadvertently draws an unfortunate but accurate symbolism of screwing over the world."

Sonic piped up. "Tell him to replace them with hedgehogs."

Miles suddenly angled one ear to the entrance. Sonic ran out of the laboratory, then returned as swiftly.

"We gotta go. Eggman's coming back. Rouge is with him."

The fox hopped down from the chair and, clutching what was left of his snack, spun his tails about and flew after Sonic as the hedgehog ran out again.

Shortly thereafter, Robotnik walked in with Stone.

"Meeting you at the coffee shop is getting to be a recurring bother," he was saying to Stone.

"For both of us," she countered.

He opened the refrigerator door, and then paused quizzically.

"Where's the pudding?"

"The fox took it," Cubot stated.

"The fox took it?" echoed Robotnik.

Orbot chimed in. "Intruders breached the lair."

"You mean lab, not lair," corrected Robotnik.

Orbot continued, ignoring it. "A large hedgehog and a two tailed red fox, both bipedal and with speaking ability. All data indicates they are the targets of your current project."

Robotnik was annoyed. "Damn those critters, getting into my lair – I mean lab – confound it, Orbot."

Stone tipped her head sideways. "Why would they come into the laboratory?"

Robotnik scowled, "Apparently because I have pudding. At least I used to."

He evaluated the laboratory quickly and then his sight fell upon the computer, still open to the flag design.

"They got into my computer network?" he exclaimed, aghast.

"Reminder that screwing over the world should be replaced with hedgehogs," added Cubot.

"I'll screw over the world if I damn well please," Robotnik snapped.

Stone gave a double-take. "I'm sorry – what?"

Robotnik quickly closed the flag image on the screen. "Agent Stone, don't you have something productive to do while I concern myself with this disaster? Here." He handed her a stapled document. "If you could review these figures..."

"You're awfully eager for me not to see what's on the computer," she pointed out.

"Drat," he muttered under his breath, adding, "That's ludicrous! It's just those pesky animals might've deleted something, and now I have to assess the damage. Hasn't that stray cat you feed ever waltzed over a laptop?"

"Stray cat...? Oh yes, the cat," his assistant remembered, awkwardly.

Robotnik seemed not to have noticed her inelegant recovery. He had caught sight of an unusual shimmer on the floor, and bent down to see.

It was a light-blue hedgehog quill.

"What did you find, Doctor?" Stone asked.

"Something worth analysis," Robotnik considered.

As soon as she stepped away to analyze the figures, he examined the blue quill with the scanner in his glove. On the computer screens, tables with percentages were drawn up, including graphs of chaos energy levels literally off the charts.

He studied the quill with fascination.

With this kind of power, he thought, a glint in his eyes, my machines can finally reach their full potential.

For a day and a half, Dr. Ivo Robotnik worked tirelessly on modifications to the hovercraft he had designed.

"You see Stone," he explained animatedly, "the amount of chaos energy in the hedgehog quill should be sufficient to power my craft without being swiftly depleted. All readings point to the quill's chaos energy qualities as having long duration, comparable to the extensive half-lives of types of radioactive material."

"So you mean that natural quill is a better battery than anything technology can come up with," Stone said evenly.

She noticed his spark of irritation. "...has come up with to date," Robotnik corrected her.

That sunny present morning he took the hovercraft out for a test flight. He buckled himself in, and as he put on flight goggles he noticed his assistant watching him with disapproval in her eyes.

Robotnik grinned. "Aren't you going to wish me happy hunting?"

"No," she answered tersely.

"How very contemptuous, Agent Stone."

"Do you have any experience piloting mach force aircraft?"

"I built the damn thing," replied the scientist.

She persisted. "Engineering skills are different than piloting skills, Dr. Robotnik."

"I have a good insurance policy," he replied indifferently and, snapping back a lever, the hovercraft flew off in a mere second with an almost soundless streak of light and swish of wind.

Time and space took on perceptibly different qualities when one travelled this fast. He would never admit he did not have full command of his own invention immediately, but it was like any novelty; observations were necessary to determine what worked well versus what worked poorly, and for Robotnik his natural tendency to make logical deductions fast from the results of experiments effortlessly served as key. He perfected his maneuvering of the hovercraft within half-an-hour.

Then there was a new sort of fun to come with having objectively mastered the contrivance, which was the sheer experience of speed. The initial blur of forest surroundings – wherein Robotnik relied on the crash-detection and autopilot he had built into the hovercraft – eventually altered for his appreciation in the same way one's eyes adjusted to darkness, and he could see the beauty hidden to this timeframe. The beat of a flying bird's wings, the bounding run of deer, leaves being carried by the uptick of wind, all played out before him like a film in slow motion.

He was soon satisfied with this preliminary test-flight and was about to head back to the laboratory when two unusual creatures caught his eye.

Miles and Blaze were walking along the forest path when the wind was stirred up and something large flashed by them in a streak of light.

"What was that?" wondered Blaze.

"It moved almost as fast as Sonic," exclaimed Miles.

They ventured over a slope, where the hovercraft had paused at a distance, and could barely see the pilot before it flew off at extraordinary speed.

"Impossible," the fox yapped in astonishment, "The concept of a small hypersonic vehicle even surpasses our own technology. How can they have been so far advanced?"

"I guess we hardly knew anything about the past..." remarked Blaze. "Tails, where are you going?"

"Following it," said Miles determinedly. "I've got to find out how it works."

"Doesn't that change something? Us being from the future and all that?" Blaze questioned.

"This isn't changing the past," insisted Miles, "this is returning to the future something lost to history!"

They trailed after the mysterious transport. The scientist realized it, and kept track of them. Robotnik found it interesting that they presumably could have run faster on all fours, but they maintained their bipedal gait as if the wild behavior had become foreign. The fox at some point spun his two tails about to fly like a helicopter, and hence avoided having to clamber over the bracken, but it appeared he could only stay aloft for a short time before he was back to trekking across the forest floor.

Every so often, Robotnik would slow the hovercraft, long enough for the animals to catch a glimpse of it, then once again he was off drawing them along.

The fox flattened his ears. "Is he luring us like prey?"

"Humans can't be that clever," Blaze meowed.

"Yes, it's a sign of a higher mammal," Miles agreed, though doubt now played in his eyes. "I wonder what he's trying to do?"

Robotnik had halted in a clearing, adjusting something on the panel, plainly visible as Miles and Blaze crept forward.

Without warning an energy field closed about them, and they jumped when they were immediately encircled by a petite squadron of drones. Miles snarled and tried to break free of the barrier, whilst Blaze fluffed out her fur and hissed.

Robotnik laughed as he sprang out of the hovercraft to stand imperiously over the animals.

"You two," he declared, "are going to help me catch a certain fleet-footed hedgehog!"

Chapter 11 - The Chase

Sonic could not find Miles or Blaze, though he searched everywhere for them.

His first instinct was that maybe they had finally gone out to explore. Yet the more he looked for them, and found trace of neither, the more he began thinking something had happened to them. He then recalled Miles' insistence that they could possibly affect the future timeline by interacting with anything or anyone here, and started to seriously consider the grievous possibilities of tampering with the unknown.

Worry weighed upon him, so when he was suddenly confronted by three of the drones on the forest outskirts near the meadowland, it was more an annoyance than anything else. Curling into a ball, he hurled himself at the nearest one and decimated it in a spinning strike.

Suddenly a shadow fell over Sonic, and he tipped his head upward to see where it came from.

From his seat in the prototype hovercraft, Robotnik frowned at the blue-quilled animal. "If it isn't Sonic! I presume that's your name... you blasted little hedgehog."

Sonic squinted at him, but Robotnik went on, "At last I can personally meet the cause of so much of my high-tech equipment being destroyed."

"Whatever you say, Eggman."

"My name is Dr. Ivo Robotnik. The greatest scientific genius in the world," he introduced himself with a flourish.

Sonic was not impressed. "You've got all these flying eggs. You're even riding in an egg-mobile thing."

Robotnik glanced swiftly at the drones and the hovercraft he was in. "What's your point?"

"I hereby name you Eggman," declared the hedgehog.

"I'm the Eggman," Robotnik specified, his eyes narrowing. "Anyway, you're probably wondering where your girlfriend and little brother are."

He made a swift motion, expertly tapping some buttons on his glove, and two more of the egg-like drones were summoned on either side of the aircraft.

Sonic's heart plummeted. The drones held Miles and Blaze respectively in orb-like energy barriers. Blaze was struggling to escape, to no avail, while Miles had his paws pressed against the force field and was peering out at Sonic with worry.

Robotnik leant over to the one holding Miles and, with a couple more taps on his glove, deactivated the barrier and seized the fox in midair. Miles snarled and tried to bite him, but it only resulted in Robotnik holding the fox up by his tails over the ground.

"If you value their lives..." he began saying, only to be interrupted.

"Let him go, you egg-headed egomaniac!" Sonic snapped.

"At least you could let me finish my threat," Robotnik scowled, "I had a whole monologue planned."

He nonetheless promptly released Miles, who fell but instantly spun his tails to hover back up without even getting close to the ground. Miles flew over to Sonic's side and landed lightly.

"Tails, you ok?" asked Sonic.

"I'm fine, no thanks to him," the fox swished his tails towards the scientist, who was watching smugly.

That left Blaze, now meowing for help. Sonic tensed himself to leap, but Robotnik pointedly loomed a finger over one of the control buttons on his glove.

"One more step and she's a goner!" Robotnik baited.

Sonic baited back. "I overheard what you were planning in your lab. You have some conspiracy to take over this whole planet, don't you?"

The forthrightness of Sonic's statement completely took Robotnik aback, as well as the nerve-racking realization of his treasonous secret being found out, and he started laughing. It was partly of apprehension, but mostly of defiance.

"Yes," he admitted, his blue eyes glinting with a fierce light, "the world's greatest scientist...soon to be the world's greatest ruler!"

The distraction worked though, and before Robotnik realized what was happening Sonic had tackled the drone and released Blaze from captivity. The cat landed on all four paws.

Robotnik now poked a button on the dashboard of the aircraft, and Miles gave a loud yap:

"Look out!"

The laser narrowly missed as Sonic pulled them both out of the way and, in an attempt to lead Robotnik away from the others, he fled out towards the meadowland.

Sonic's first thought was that it would be easy. He dashed across the sunlit grass, without putting much thought into it, fully expecting to lose his pursuer along the way. He thought he had outrun the scientist, till he saw the hovercraft swerve and poise directly in front of him. Sonic skidded to a halt in shock.

"How is this possible?" the little animal's eyes were wide. "No one's ever caught up to me before!"

"You're an astonishing little creature," Robotnik sneered. "Can I give you one piece of advice? Don't run. It'll only hurt more if you do."

Sonic flattened his ears again and, bristling his quills, spun at the hovercraft. The tackle almost knocked Robotnik out of his seat, but he held fast to the controls.

Now he really ran. They both wove around the meadow, the wind carrying them. The two streaks of lights raced each other, lasers shot intermittently in a dangerous dance, at high speed through slowed time. Yet Sonic noticed how the beams were shot almost short, as if Robotnik was deliberately missing his target. Was he trying not to hit him for some reason? Or was he toying with his prey like a cat with a mouse?

When they reached the steep drop of a precipice, Sonic skidded, narrowly avoiding the edge and the sharp rocks below.

Robotnik positioned the aircraft in front of him again, hovering over the cliff-side, and lamented, "I thought you were the fastest thing alive. Maybe it's not worth going after something so slow."

Now Robotnik seemed to retreat, zooming past him back in the direction they had come. But Sonic wasn't about to let him go. The aggravation he had caused, let alone the offense, was enough for Sonic to chase after him with a vengeance.

"You can't lose me, Eggman!" Sonic called, darting after him.

Playing straight into my ploy, Robotnik thought with a smirk.

When they reached the edge of a pond, Sonic took a spinning jump towards Robotnik. However, he missed his target, and a floating branch was the sole thing that prevented him from falling into the water.

Sonic balanced unsteadily on the branch. A sense of terror seized him at the water lapping hungrily at his paws, and he glanced up as the scientist swerved the hovercraft to a halt over the pond.

Robotnik was exultant. "I've got you, hedgehog! I've got you at last!"

He fired a laser beam at the branch, which caused it to topple over. Sonic let out a surprised squeal as he crashed into the water.

Dr. Robotnik watched as Sonic floundered desperately, rather surprised at the animal's inability to swim. The hedgehog was tiring quickly and, with a last frantic attempt to gulp oxygen from the air, he vanished underwater.

When the scientist saw Sonic did not resurface, he pressed a button on the dashboard. The hovercraft extended a visor to seal off the driver's compartment, and lowered underwater like a submarine.

Moments later Robotnik had retrieved the unconscious, nearly drowned Sonic from the water.

Sonic stirred groggily, feeling the softness of where he lay. The last he remembered was the pursuit.

He bolted upright, finding himself in a cushioned cot in the laboratory. His eyes caught sight of Dr. Robotnik, sitting to the side, partially obscured by the shadows.

He looked downcast, and Sonic ventured to speak:


Robotnik turned, as if noticing for the first time Sonic there. "You were in pretty bad shape, Sonic. It's about time you wake up," he added, forcing his voice to sound sharp. "You should get out of here, before Commander Towers sees you here and thinks I caught you."

Sonic was questioning. "Well, I mean, does he want to talk to me...?"

"No." Robotnik replied dryly. "He wants me to run a litany of invasive exploratory procedures on you, anaesthesia optional."

"Way uncool," Sonic winced.

"It's one thing to threaten, but when you hurt somebody unnecessarily that's going too far."

"I agree...I mean, about the 'not hurting anyone' thing, not the whole 'threatening is ok' implication. Don't see how you align that with your claim of wanting to take over the world, though."

Robotnik eyed him sideways. "Shoo, hedgehog. You were never here, and we're enemies."

Sonic zipped over to stand in front of him, a happy look on the hedgehog's face. "Thanks, Doctor! You're not such a bad egg after all."

"Don't screw up my evil reputation," Robotnik snapped as the little animal darted off.

Chapter 12 - Friendship

For his part, Sonic had always inwardly felt alone in his rapidity, so it was joyful to him that he had finally discovered someone who could match his speed. Knowing now that Robotnik had no intention to really hurt him, the chasing and the puzzle-traps became fun. The blue hedgehog relished the races perhaps as much as Robotnik enjoyed matching wits with him.

Their games of tag were now more frequent and undeniably took on a friendly tone, though their play-acting at mortal hatred was upheld for the benefit of the commander.

Robotnik did wonder how long he could keep up the charade. Towers expected the animals to be captured or killed at some point. Nonetheless, he had learnt a lot about them merely by studying them in this manner. Sonic's high speed was a product of the chaos energy his cells naturally emitted. It was tied to his DNA, further analysis of the quill had shown, and apparently was an extremely recessive gene.

The others did not have chaos energy imbued in their cells like Sonic, yet they were still fascinating. From the brief scans he had taken of the fox, it seemed Miles could use his tails to fly because of unique muscles and bone structure comparable to a hummingbird. Robotnik assumed the cat, Blaze, might differ from a typical feline somehow, but he had not managed to get close enough to take a reading.

Sonic had large amounts of chaos energy, albeit not the immensity Robotnik sought for his private plans. Then again, Robotnik could very easily conjure up manners of enhancing the power, to his benefit and Sonic's detriment, but had determined – or convinced himself, though he would never admit it – this was impractical. It would be more efficient to keep pursuing the far greater power source he had spent years trying to get anyway, and which he hypothesized the speedy animal would eventually be essential to acquiring. He could see Sonic was drawn to nearby emissions of chaos energy. This could perhaps be exploited. In the meantime, he could continue trying to outwit and outrun little Sonic in what became an almost daily challenge.

Hidden behind some nearby bushes, the scientist peered out at his next plot. On a tree stump, a single plate had been laid out with a chili dog atop it.

Sonic eyed it suspiciously.

Robotnik and his assistant Stone tried not to let the leaves of their hiding-spot rustle as they watched the scene playing out.

"It's working!" an elated Robotnik rubbed his hands together with glee. "My sneaky, devious, underhanded scheme is working!"

"Do you ever hear yourself?" Stone asked.

Sonic, in a motion imperceptible by speed, swiped the food from the dish shortly before three drones appeared from a tree and fired laser beams at the dish. In another swish of movement, they had exploded into pieces, and Sonic appeared below the tree near the destroyed drones.

"Too easy," Sonic shrugged, munching on the chili dog.

Then he gave a surprised squeak as he was suddenly hoisted into the air by a net.

Robotnik sprang out from his hiding place, laughing. "When will you realize that it's useless to try and trip me up because I'm always ten steps ahead of you? All I had to connect was a network!"

"Yeah, I get it," Sonic flattened his ears.

"Genius one, hedgehog zero." He strolled around the net, relentlessly gloating. "I'll have to give myself a promotion!"

There was a sharp cracking sound, and before Robotnik realized what had happened he was yanked upwards himself; when the astonishment abated he found he was suspended in a net alongside the trapped hedgehog.

Now Sonic was laughing. "Yeah Eggman, you really are a genius. You ran into your own trap!"

"A minor setback. Irrelevant to my success."

The little animal curled into a ball and, spinning, tore through the bottom of the net and bounded onto the grass, landing lightly on his paws.

"See ya, Doc!" he added cheerily.

As Sonic raced off, Robotnik called out after him, "I still get to claim victory! I had you! You were trapped for over a minute! I won!"

Stone still stood near the bushes. "Maybe I ought to get you down from there," she offered.

"Wholly unnecessary," the scientist dismissed, tapping a few of the buttons on his glove. One of the drones hovered over and shot a laser which began burning through the rope.

"Not to be blatantly obvious, but if you cut the rope that way gravity will cause you to..."

Robotnik fell ungracefully to the ground in a heap. "Ow."

" on your head," Stone finished.

He cast an irritated look in her direction. He felt he was getting rather absentminded around her, for reasons he could not place, and it annoyed him. "The piteous realities of human error. Go do something somewhere, Agent Stone, while I finalize my next plan."

She shrugged her shoulders and walked away; he observed once again how her gait was as a sashaying walk of a cat. Very sexy, he thought.

When Robotnik returned some time later to the laboratory, he encountered Commander Towers.

The commander was pleasant as always, but Robotnik could tell something was on his mind. This was affirmed when Towers brought up the hedgehog:

"I thought we would have it by now. Instead, you've entered a request for additional funding..."

"It's been destroying much of my equipment," Robotnik justified.

"If I didn't know better," Towers added, "I might think you were deliberately stretching the chase out."

"Preposterous." Emphasizing the point, Robotnik shook a fist as if in defiant anger. "I hate that hedgehog!"

Commander Towers distrustfully regarded him for a moment, but then he turned away to the drones Robotnik had hovering on the clearing outskirts. "Why do you need two-hundred more drones, besides your state-of-the-art aircraft, to catch a single rodent?"

"Hedgehog," a different voice chimed in insistently.

Sonic! Robotnik shot a urgent glare towards the bushes behind him, and Sonic pulled his head back under the leafy branches with his typical swiftness.

Towers turned around, and Robotnik spoke quickly.

"Technically hedgehogs are a member of the Erinaceinae subfamily, not Rodentia," the scientist said, quite truthfully, all while hoping Sonic would have the sense to stay quiet.

"It looks like a rodent," was Towers' irreverent observation. "Couldn't you do better with some extra manpower to sweep the woods?"

"I don't need any inefficient human help. It's bad enough you saddled me with one assistant."

Towers went on without addressing this. "The creature's been taking the food bait you lay out. Why not lace it with poison?"

"Hedgehogs are naturally immune to most poisons, Commander."

"Very well," sighed the military commander wearily, "If you've analyzed that shooting it still has the highest probability of success, then proceed accordingly. I'll see to it your funding is increased to cover the extra equipment."

Did Towers have that authority? Robotnik knew better than to ask. When he had left, the scientist whipped back around to face the bushes. Sonic peeked out again.

"There's something I don't like about that guy," squeaked Sonic.

"You should have more sense not to attract attention," Robotnik chided. "I'm starting to think me shooting you doesn't have nearly as much probability as you getting yourself in trouble."

"You have bad aim," retorted Sonic.

When Sonic left, Robotnik returned to his work in the laboratory. He found Stone absent, realized it was lunch hour, and decided he had enough time to work on chaos energy calculations related to his world domination plans before she got back. He soon lost himself in the beat of music from his private playlists and the analysis of physics formulae.

So it was he was unaware when Stone wandered to the entrance.

He was dancing, oblivious to anyone present, whilst working on his research. She stifled a smile to see him. For as obnoxious as he could be sometimes, she could not deny she found him cute.

When he turned around, he barely caught an exclamation of surprise to see her. The devices, perfectly programmed, immediately detected it and shut all music to leave the room in silence.

He looked embarrassed, defensive even, but did not say a word. She did:

"I went down to the café for some coffee and brought you a latte...with steamed goat milk."

"You remembered that?" Robotnik seemed to question it almost to himself.

"Unless you don't want it..."

"Of course I want a latte," he snapped a little irritably. He took the cup from her, and then added, rather mumbled, "Thanks."

"Did... you just thank me?" she questioned.

He said nothing.

As he walked back to the computer keyboard with his coffee cup, Stone glanced at a paper he had been writing on. It was covered in handwritten scribbles; quantum physics formulas she recognized as pertaining to chaos energy, yet were here calculated towards an unknown purpose. Written inconspicuously on the top right corner, like a note to himself with the letters squished together almost illegibly, was something strange.

"AI RAM," she read it aloud.

"Interested in my side projects, Agent Stone?" There was an unusual, detectable tension from him, but he hid it well in his response.

"A little curious," she admitted. "You missed a point on this figure."

"What are you talking about?" Robotnik began to say, nearly snatching the paper back from her, yet when he reviewed the algebraic figures his defensive stance lessened.

Stone was adamant. "It's scientific notation. It'll change the equation drastically if you leave it like that."

"Yes...that's true." His tone was now milder, and an intrigued look had mellowed out the superiority in his eyes. "I'm surprised you caught it."

"Fuck it, I have a degree in physics too," she snapped. "So what are you working on here?"

"Those are a few calculations I was making towards improving flight of the Eggmobile." He gave an offhand gesture towards the direction of the hovercraft.

Stone interjected, "Eggmobile?"

"It's as good a name as any other," Robotnik replied.

"For a moment I thought it was for something else called AI RAM."

"I have many projects," he said ambiguously.

"Is it a computer system that runs on chaos energy?" Stone pursued.

"How very inquisitive you are. As I said, I have many projects. I don't discuss them all."

He was staunch, and Stone decided to let it go for the time being. But she mentally noted the mysterious code-name and his reluctance to discuss it at length; she wanted to know what he was up to.

"The reason I mentioned it," she said instead, "is the way you've formulated those equations doesn't seem to be for flight. Flight would do better this way..."

She took another paper and scribbled some figures down. Robotnik pretended he was not intrigued, yet he could not resist glancing over her shoulder. She handed him what she had written.

He looked over her new calculations dubiously. Stone remarked, "Far be it for me to know more than the government's most accomplished scientific genius."

"See now," said Robotnik, without condescension, "if you calculate it this way, Agent Stone, you still have to account for the conservation of mass."

"You'd get a more precise measurement by calculating that separately. As you know chaos energy itself exerts its own influence on mass at hypersonic speed, so both formulae still work."

He did not answer for a long moment as he studied the equations.

"You have above-average intellect," he said finally.

She eyed him distrustfully. "Is that supposed to be a compliment or an insult?"

Robotnik gazed at her, still marvelling.

"A compliment, Agent Stone. It's so rare for me to find someone who knows about this enough and actually enjoys discussing it."

From him, she realized, it was an extremely high compliment.

Chapter 13 - In-Ag

Robotnik and Stone found themselves tolerating each other a little better from that point on, with their relationship becoming more collegial. Nonetheless, Robotnik was still very cryptic, and Stone knew she would have more work to do if she wanted to get him to open up more to her.

In many ways Stone lamented how she had a job to do for G.U.N., gathering information that could incriminate him. They shared many commonalities, and it provided new frustrations upon the reality she had long since concluded to be a travesty of fate. He had no business being so good-looking when he was potentially plotting national treason.

Whatever he was up to, she was sure the mysterious, scribbled project note 'AI RAM' was central to it, and every day that passed found her getting more and more intrigued as to the secret.

Robotnik could tell she was fishing for information. Why, he could not tell; he supposed she was naturally inquisitive, but at least it made her more honest than Lieutenant Snively, the latter of whom he was convinced had nefarious intentions concealed in his ostensibly clueless pestering.

That particular afternoon Snively came by again with his usual annoyances, interrupting Robotnik who multitasked eating chocolate-chip cookies with writing up some new code for his drones, and his assistant Stone reviewing some statistics they had compiled. The concentration and detail that went into computer programming was something entirely disregarded by Snively; Robotnik was getting a headache and wanted him to stop chattering on.

"Ever notice how people talk stupidities even when they should know they're being stupid?" interrupted Robotnik.

"Like that political cartoon?" Snively inquired, overlooking the intended insinuation.

"What political cartoon?"

Snively laughed. "You've been cooped up in this lab too long, Doctor! Someone flew a private plane over Station Square dropping these leaflets. Most have been burnt already... I smuggled this one out."

He handed Robotnik the thin paper. It bore a caricature with a heading in bold letters, which the scientist read aloud.

"Entitled The Watchful Peacekeepers of the Acorn Kingdom...President Michaels as a chipmunk king hoarding acorns and G.U.N. as mindless drones with cameras and weapons, making the people bow down." Robotnik's initial snickering receded quickly. "Wait a second..."

"The commander's really incensed about the last half," said Snively.

"I should say so. They're insulting my drones."

Snively snatched the leaflet back from him. "Times like this it'd be great if we had a squadron of hovercrafts like what you've made as a prototype. No way their average planes would be able to outrun...outfly..." He then noticed what Robotnik was snacking on, whereupon Snively's eyes widened. "Is that a cookie?"

"No, it's a sub sandwich."

"Where'd you get a cookie?"

"I cache them away like Orbot and Cubot," replied Robotnik, still not looking over as he continued to eat.

Cubot lit up. "Actually, Doctor, don't forget that you've told us to block all tracking cookies."

"Yes, quite right," the scientist answered, glancing over at it. "No cookies for you."

The cube beeped in response.

"You're smart, keeping cookies," said Snively, "This situation with the wheat is gonna be a real doozy at the grocery store. I'm thinking about writing something on my blog reminding everyone it's for the good of society and the state," he added earnestly. "Incidentally, great work on getting my blog up on the web search know I'm in number one place?"

"That's to be expected," responded Robotnik, entirely nonchalant, "as I was the one who did the SEO work."

"What's going on with wheat?" Stone, who had heard nothing of the prior matter, broke in.

Robotnik waved his hand dismissively. "They said the wheat harvest wasn't plentiful enough so flour is soon going to be scarce. They're setting themselves up for a widespread famine because they didn't plant enough crops. Oh I forgot, we can't say it that way anymore. What's the proper way to say it now... an insufficiency of agrarian production?"

Snively immediately interrupted, with devout seriousness. "The commander has shortened it to In-Ag."

Robotnik shrugged indifferently. "That's partly to avoid reminding the populace they have an insufficiency of anything, and partly because the average human brain isn't astute enough to comprehend sesquipedalian sentences."

"Huh?" Snively said, confused.

"See," Robotnik gestured to him.

"Damn it," Stone realized, "I haven't been to the store in a few days. I bet all the bread is gone by now."

"You know, I don't know much about international stuff like wheat shipments," Snively addressed Robotnik, with a smile that could have been equally jocular or hostile, "But it sounded almost like you saw it as our leadership's fault."

Robotnik now glanced over at him, his voice completely at ease. "Not at all, Lieutenant. I was merely doing an analysis."

When Snively left, Robotnik remarked informally to Stone:

"The next thing will be food rationing. I give it a month."

"But if it's for the good of society..." Stone started to say.

He cut her off with a bitter laugh.

"Let me tell you about human society, Agent Stone. It's run like a machine by the regime in power, and the citizenry are like little cogs in the apparatus that are tossed aside once they serve no further use. Throughout time there's only been one difference between sociopolitical systems across the planet...who runs the machine."

His words – her entertainment of them – could be considered a kind of blasphemy against the state by their utterance, yet it was hard not succumb to his charm and zeal in the matter. There was something both beguiling and menacing about Robotnik, a dichotomy without appeasement.

"What are you proposing? Anarchy?"

"Anarchy? Hell no," he said, "civilization needs order. It's one of the few defining achievements of human progress."

Stone arbitrarily decided she had enough of listening to his brand of politics. "Whatever. I'll be right back. I'm getting fed up of how dark it is in here; I need a little sun."

"Go take in your organic requirement of solar radiation," Robotnik replied, disinterestedly waving her away.

As luck would have it, Snively had not left yet; he was getting into his vehicle when Stone called to him.

"Snively, wait."

As he glanced up, Stone got to the point. "I was wondering if you could help me with something."

Snively looked around and seeing nobody around, nodded his head and said, "Get in the car...let's go for a drive."

They drove away as Stone explained to Snively. "Listen... You know I have a hobby... and now I have a sizeable amount of money coming in as a result... as usual I am offering you 10 percent."

Snively glanced at her briefly and kept driving. Stone proceeded with her explanation.

"I need for you to let me have access to the military warehouse installation number 2."

Snively stopped the car by the side of the road and stared at her.

"Now Snively," she began, "You and I have known each for a very long time..."

Snively interrupted immediately, "I'm not judging you and I'm not shocked... I just want to remind you that if the Commander finds out, I will have to deny knowledge of it and there will be very little I could do to help you. Needless to say, he won't find out from me... I can use 10 percent of whatever."

"Thanks, Snively... I knew I could count on you."

Nothing more was said as he drove back within a block of where her own car was parked. Stone got out of the car in silence and Snively drove off.

When Agent Stone returned to the laboratory, her colleague was missing. She took advantage of Robotnik's absence to look again at some of his handwritten papers strewn about and the scribbled calculations there.

"It's chaos energy, but none of this tells me anything," Stone murmured to herself, "I wonder what AI RAM means."

She had not expected an answer at all, but Orbot detected her comment.

"AI is an acronym for Artificial Intelligence," stated Orbot. "RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory."

"Well, I knew that but..." Stone started saying.

Orbot was still talking. "Letters together can form different words. These words can be different in semantics. Together, they are the password. Running back again."

Finishing its statement, it beeped, like an audiotape having reached its end.

"The password?" she echoed. "Password for what?"

"For access to the debug interface and internal network," stated Orbot.

At last! she thought, a thrill racing through her. The internal network was Robotnik's private network, where all his secret files were kept.

At that moment, Robotnik returned. "Ah, you're back. I need your help over here, Stone. I have some calculations I want you to verify." he said as he waved her towards his desk.

"Yes, Doctor," she said, with one last glance at Orbot.

The government was counting on her to uncover what he was doing. It was imperative.

Chapter 14 - The Garden

If Towers only realized how insincere the 'hunt' had become, Robotnik mused as he watched Sonic frolic in the grass, the commander would no doubt join that envious group within G.U.N. routinely questioning his sanity and calling for his expulsion.

From their meeting place at the tree-line, they had raced to the area of Green Hills known to the animals as Hill Top for being the highest slope in the valley. The fox, Miles, was apparently becoming braver, as he had emerged to observe their game from a boulder on the hill.

Below, Sonic ducked when the Eggmobile shot its lasers, and darted off in a wide loop with Robotnik in pursuit.

Robotnik was snickering to himself. "That's right, Sonic. Run as fast as you can, right into my trap."

When Sonic rounded the hill, droves of Robotnik's egglike drones lifted into the air from the bracken in a semicircle around their target.

"Attack of the eggs!" squealed Sonic.

"Sonic, look out!" Miles yapped. He swooped down and snatched his brother in mid-air before Robotnik's drones could catch him in their force field.

The scientist watched as Miles, tails twirling in flight, held Sonic level with the Eggmobile. "So, the fox wants to get into the game?" Robotnik teased. "You're no match for me!"

"There's no way we're going to lose!" Miles countered.

"Yeah!" cheered Sonic.

The fox swung his body to hurl Sonic towards the hovercraft; Robotnik flinched back as the blue ball of quills bounced off the cockpit glass and the drones alternately like a high-speed pinball game.

Sonic faced Robotnik proudly. He had the same exultant way of a pet who had done some mischief, parading around with the broken shells of the drones like a dog who'd torn up a slipper. Robotnik tried not to laugh, but when this became nigh impossible for him he strove to imbue it with contempt befitting of his playfully embraced role as villain.

"I can't believe this!" he exclaimed, "I was supposed to beat you this time."

"Next time we'll beat you just the same! Hey, maybe we can get Blaze into this too," Sonic added, happily zipping around as Miles landed lightly beside him.

"Yes, regarding Blaze," replied Robotnik casually, "It's a bit cliché but well worth it for science."

They were staring blankly at him when they heard a train whistle in the distance.

Robotnik leant back expectantly in the Eggmobile. "Oh that must be the one o'clock express now. Right on schedule."

"No you didn't," Sonic growled.

"Yes I did," Robotnik grinned back.

Sonic darted off. Within a second he had returned, with Blaze. Blaze's fur was fluffed up with outrage as she faced Robotnik.

"Annoying egg!" she hissed, "I'll get even for you tying me up!"

"I think you beat your last record, Sonic," Robotnik noted casually, with a glance at a stopwatch.

"You're egg-asperating," Sonic gave a sharp little hiss. "You could've mentioned it earlier but no... You havta make it so I've got to pull her off the tracks so close to the train passing."

Dr. Robotnik waved the matter off. "Well, it goes without saying. Which is why I didn't say anything."

Miles flattened one ear skeptically. "That doesn't make sense."

The scientist smiled. "Trust me."

Miles then flattened both ears. "That really doesn't make sense!"

With an uninterested shrug, Robotnik zipped away in the Eggmobile and was gone in a flash of light. Sonic zipped after him.

Usually Sonic would give the Eggmobile a parting tackle, but this time he fell back to keep out of sight, whilst maintaining speed enough to not let the hypersonic hovercraft get far away. He followed undetected all the way to an area near Marble Zone, and was intrigued to see the Eggmobile rise at the bottom of a cliff and vanish over the top. Sonic kept up his pursuit, bouncing up the cliff-side.

He found the Eggmobile in a rocky alcove here, but Robotnik was nowhere to be found. An unusual energy hung in the air emitting a resonation of static across his quills, and drawing him closer to it almost magnetically.

Sonic decided to continue scaling the rock till he reached the top. Here he found the source of the strange energy; there was a force field that rippled, visible to the eye, across the top of a cove. Sonic gingerly crept below it.

He discovered a sort of oasis surrounded by high cliffs, tall enough to offer seclusion but open enough to permit sunlight. The ground here was blanketed with zoysia grass, its mossy carpet sloping into gentle hillocks that hugged the stone walls. There were two or three fruit trees, and a small waterfall cascaded gently down the rock face to pool at the bottom and then vanish into an underground creek.

Sonic located Robotnik relaxing beneath one of the trees as he ate lunch. The scientist, noticing his observer, was unable to hide surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Spying on you," Sonic replied.

"So I see." Annoyed terseness had returned to his voice.

Sonic wandered closer. "You know when you approach this cove by the clifftop, there's a strange energy field overhanging can't see it from down here."

"From higher up, it looks like water, so people think what's here is a lake," Robotnik explained. "I set up that barrier to keep people away from here. Unfortunately, because the concept requires a small bit of chaos energy, it apparently attracted you."

"What is this place?"

"I call it the Garden. It's a cove that nature decided to put here, and which I have claimed as my private picnic site."

"Looks like a great place to hang out," agreed Sonic.

"Don't tell any humans about this place," Robotnik pressed.

"Why not?" Sonic queried.

"Because humans are untrustworthy. They'll fuck up the place."

"You haven't fucked up the place."

"I'm intelligent."

Sonic rolled his eyes.

"I don't mind if you're here," Robotnik added, "any more than I care about any of the natural wildlife showing up of their own accord. Animals keep to their own affairs as a rule. But no bothersome humans."

"Fine," Sonic accepted, though it seemed to be with reluctance.

The reply evidently was satisfactory to Robotnik, who turned back to eating. Sonic meanwhile zipped to the water's edge and cupped some of it in his paws to drink. Robotnik watched him for a while before retrieving a tablet from the inside of his coat and typing something out.

Sonic noticed. "Taking notes?"

Robotnik was casual. "I'm still trying to decide if you're genealogically closer to the Spagonian Hedgehog or the Mazuri Hedgehog."

"You know Tails takes notes about you and Rouge."

"Is that so?"

"He says one of the positives about travelling into the past is getting to observe extinct species," explained Sonic.

"What's the future like?" asked Robotnik, setting aside the tablet. "Purely scientific curiosity. You're the first documented time-traveler, after all."

Sonic came over and sat next to him. "Well, there are no humans in the future. No one knows what happened to them. They just went extinct."

"What kinds of intelligent life exist? Although calling general humans intelligent is a gross misnomer," Robotnik added spitefully, "I know besides hedgehogs, there are foxes and cats in your time."

"Nighthawks. Badgers. Wolves."

"All nocturnal animals," he mused.

Sonic continued recounting, "We learned from what humans left behind. Their technology survived them."

"Of course," said Robotnik naturally.

"We've got radios and computers," said Sonic. "A lot of the tech uses chaos energy to work. Medicine is way more advanced in the future, too. You see that scanner Tails always carries? He improved an existing model. It can read everything from biological stuff to chemicals and landscape features."

"Sounds like it developed out of my own scanners," considered Robotnik.

"Who knows?" mused Sonic.

"What about daily life? I imagine your cities must rival our own."

"Actually, it's kinda peaceful – or oughta be. We send out hunting parties at dawn. We barter for what we'd like."

"Do you mean," exclaimed Robotnik, "that with all your scientific achievements you live in the manner of ancient civilizations?"

"Our time is rural," Sonic clarified, "You'd have to ask Blaze about what it's like further into the future. I heard the cats start farming fish and mice, and value shiny things."

Robotnik thought about all this as Sonic continued:

"The human city stayed standing, though it's pretty much an abandoned canyon. We named it Star Light, because the faded glass of the windows catches the nighttime star-shine."

"You did mention the daily life of the future ought to be peaceful. That implies it isn't."

"Did I say that?"

"Yes you did."

"You know, Tails would be flat-eared if he knew I was telling someone from the past so much about the future. He'd start on about paradoxes and time-space whatever."

"The time-space continuum is screwed already. This is my considered scientific analysis."

"Yeah, sure, Eggman."

"Out with it." A recollection of the conversation Robotnik had overheard months ago, between Sonic and Blaze, crossed his mind. "Is it the bird armada?"

Sonic stiffened. "How'd you know about them?"

"I know lots of things. You know that I know lots of things," added Robotnik.

"Yeah, it's the bird armada," Sonic admitted. "They're a large flock of nighthawk marauders who use the old technology for evil. They attack peaceful villages and take over the land for their roosts, and have terrorized the forest for countless years. It was because of them my home and family was destroyed...twice."

"You still have Miles," pointed out Robotnik.

"Yes," acknowledged Sonic, cheering up a bit. "But anyway, that's how I ended up here. They found out I was in the fox village – they'd been after me for a long time over some prophecy."

"That you'd destroy the world," Robotnik mentioned pensively.

"I figured I'd led them to us somehow. That morning I went exploring in Marble Zone, the part of the forest with all the quicksand near the lake. I found something there amidst all these crumbled stones. It was like this really old ring..."

"A ring?" Robotnik interrupted with interest.

"I don't know. It was a ring."

Robotnik grew silent.

"There was some sort of inscription there too saying something about the prophecy. But I doubt I can remember what," Sonic admitted, "Anyway, when the bird armada attacked, I was still holding the ring in my paw. I ran trying to lead them away from the village. But the ring started glowing, and I felt almost like a huge gust of wind on my back. Then suddenly everything looked was like a flash of light and blackness all at once..."

He hesitated and then added:

"I guess I ran too fast."

From Sonic those words held an almost somber quality.

"Do you still have this ring?" asked Robotnik tentatively.

"It disintegrated when I crossed into the past," Sonic answered.

Robotnik thought about this as he turned his attention away briefly to the quietude of the grotto, so isolated and so pristine. A breeze was rustling lightly through the tree leaves.

The scientist spoke up again. "It's too bad you're my sworn enemy, or I'd offer you and your speediness a chance to assist me in establishing the Robotnik Empire."

"You mean the Eggman Empire," corrected Sonic.

"Yes, why not?" decided Robotnik, "I like the sound of it."

"Well, like you said, we're sworn enemies. And I'm going to stop you from taking over the world, Eggman."

"Blasted hedgehog. You and your fluffy friends ought to return to the future already and get out of my way."

"I wish. In our time it was easy to get enough power for that, so Tails says," Sonic explained, "Apparently even the stones in the ground were charged with chaos energy. Now in the past, not so much."

"What you need is a large boost of chaos energy in order to open a time portal."


The little hedgehog's ears lifted, half-hoping Robotnik might be going to offer advice or analysis or circumspection on the matter. He, however, only gave a slight frown before glancing sideways at Sonic with the remark:

"It's getting late. I'd better return to the lab. And you'd better head off too, before anyone realizes we were chatting here as if we were friends."

During all this time Stone had returned to the laboratory. Everything was exceedingly still; a screensaver danced elaborately across the computer monitors, and the lights on Orbot and Cubot were dark.

Stepping gingerly over to the computer, Stone brought up the password prompt for Robotnik's private network. She watched Orbot and Cubot, but when they did not react she typed in the password, whispering it aloud to herself.



How can that be? Hadn't Orbot said it was the password?

Suddenly Orbot and Cubot lit up. Stone froze.

"Why are you trying to gain root access through the admin backdoor?" Orbot seemed to confront.

The two computers were evidently waiting for her input. "Dr. Robotnik has authorized me, as his assistant," she lied.

"That's fine then," said Cubot, "if you know the password."

Her heartbeat pounding, Stone turned back to the computer. If the password wasn't AI RAM exactly, then what was it?

"Artificial Intelligence," she said, typing it together.




"The coding for the password prompt works exceptionally well, as all Dr. Robotnik's programs do," Cubot stated.

"Could you tell me the password?"

"No," stated Orbot.

"Is the password AI RAM?"

Orbot ran through its programmed response.

"AI is an acronym for Artificial Intelligence. RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory. Letters together can form different words. These words can be different in semantics. Together, they are the password. Running back again."

The orb beeped at the end.

"But I typed in AI RAM already," Stone murmured.

Robotnik must have programmed in some secondary manner to gain access, in case he ever forgot the password, she thought.

"I need a hint," she told the orb and the cube.

"Did Pythagoras, or Euclid, or Archimedes need a hint?" answered Orbot.

"I can't believe he's having you compare him to ancient Greek geniuses," she groaned. "He's so stuck up."

"Dr. Robotnik is very smart. He programmed us."

She tried again.

"Robotnik," she typed in. He would be just the sort of person to have the password be his own name.


"I forgot the password," she relented.

Cubot chimed in. "How could you possibly forget that password?"

"Well, I did," she answered irritably.

Both Cubot and Orbot were silent.

"Don't tell me Dr. Robotnik hasn't ever considered the possibility he might forget something?"

"He takes precautions against his human shortcomings," stated Orbot.

"That's why he has us," added Cubot.

"Agent Stone, what are you doing?" Robotnik's sharp voice made her nearly leap. She spun around to see him standing sternly at the entrance, watching her with a frown.

For a moment they only stared at each other, a sense of peril overhanging darkly. "I...thought I'd forgotten something here," Stone voiced at last.

He did not glance away from her. "Orbot, login attempt audit."

"Four login attempts in the past 5 minutes. Four failed, zero successful. Would you like further event details?" came Orbot's prompt answer.

"Really, Agent Stone?" Robotnik shook his head with a tsk of disapproval.

"Dr. Robotnik," Stone confronted boldly, "you're hiding something."

"So are you," he retorted, unfazed.

Sudden, new worry flared up in Stone only to dissipate as swiftly. She met his fixed gaze. "If we both have been keeping secrets, why don't we admit them?"

Robotnik maintained his no-nonsense demeanor. "Because then they wouldn't be secrets anymore."

"You're incorrigible," she snapped, and without any further remark or justification pushed past him and out of the laboratory.

When Robotnik was sure Stone had gone, he settled himself down in front of his computers. With a few taps at the keyboard, he had entered the password to bring up his private network.

Robotnik steepled his hands together thoughtfully.

Chapter 15 - Birthdays

The day dawned sunny and cloudless, with dew shimmering on the leaves. For the middle of summer, the weather was surprisingly temperate, without the oppressive heat characteristic of the season.

Robotnik was up early, as usual. He was booting up his computers when a familiar blue hedgehog zipped in. Sonic was soon joined by Miles the fox. Robotnik did not react to their presence with anything more than a wary look.

"What's new, Eggman?" asked Sonic.

"I'm here. Dealing with you, apparently," he answered. He placed his wallet and IDs atop the table as he searched his coat for something.

"It's June 23."

"So it is," Robotnik affirmed, his tone full of boredom. "Already too long I've been hunting you."

Miles gave a happy yap. "By our calendar, it's Sonic's birthday."

"It's also Tuesday," responded Robotnik.

"That's it?" poked Sonic playfully. "Not even a congrats?"

"Considering as time-travelers, you're celebrating an event that has yet to occur," noted Robotnik casually.

He poked a button on Orbot and Cubot, both of which turned on. "Good morning, Doctor," said the orb.

"Average morning," Robotnik answered it.

Sonic twitched an ear. The little hedgehog then turned his attention to the items Robotnik was now returning to his coat pocket. Sonic grabbed one from the table in a swish of motion. "What's this?"

"That's an Identification Card, otherwise known as an ID card. It's something we humans need because the government can't remember who are its citizens. Give it back."

"Hey, it's got everything from your eye color to your height on here," noted Sonic. The two animals peered at the card.

"Wait," Miles yapped, and glanced with alert ears towards both Sonic and Robotnik, "you two have the same birthday!"

"Wow," Sonic remarked.

"Well, that's one of those things," Robotnik said with disinterest.

"Are you kidding? This is awesome!" Sonic replied.

"We can have a big party!" added Miles cheerfully.

"Such lesser-minded organisms, placing such excitement on frivolous entertainments like birthdays," came Robotnik's dismissal. "It's an inaccurate measurement of biological time as it is. If you calculate the date through an alternate planetary model or lunar cycles the date would fall on different days. As it stands they're an inconvenience."

"Oh I don't think so," insisted Miles, "it's fun."

At that point, Robotnik's cell phone rang. He glanced quickly towards the screen and stepped away as he answered the call, though he stopped long enough to grab the ID card back from Sonic.

"Commander Towers...?"

The scientist left without much fanfare.

"He doesn't seem to make a big deal out of it," Sonic commented.

"I wonder why?" mused Miles.

Orbot filled that void. "Having never had anybody celebrate it except once, nor any recollection of his progenitors, it follows Doctor Robotnik would have no interest in the common tradition."

There was a silence. "He didn't know his parents?" Miles echoed.

Sonic's ears drooped. He was greatly similar to him then, not solely in his ability to attain high speed in the Eggmobile. Both had been orphaned at infancy. Why had he never mentioned it to him? Though he could answer that question himself; Robotnik's cross nature and rejection of emotion would never deign to have such a personal conversation with an ostensible enemy.

Miles' eyes glinted. "You said his birthday was celebrated once. By whom?"

"You've got no authorization to know," stated Orbot.

"Can you tell us anything about it at all?"


"Damn computer...orb...thing."

Orbot beeped.

Miles observed Cubot. "What about you?"

The cube lit up. "I agree with Orbot. You're being too nosy."

"No matter," Sonic said, shaking his quills, "and anyway we've got stuff to do. Come on Tails."

Miles followed Sonic out, though he had a questioning look on his face.

They crossed with Robotnik, who was returning. "Leaving already? Good," he declared.

"We'll return," Sonic countered.

"And just when I thought I was rid of you. Anyway I'm going to be laying a trap for you today somewhere near the tree-line."

"What kind of a trap?"

"If I told you what it was, I wouldn't be able to trap you. That loses all the fun of my villainous trickery."

He walked away with a slightly sinister smile into the laboratory building, and Sonic turned to his younger brother.

"We gotta scheme about this. I'll meet you later back at Rouge's place," said Sonic, and ran off.

Later that day, after Agent Stone had left for the laboratory, Sonic and Miles returned to her house and went to find Blaze the cat.

They found Blaze sitting in a spot of sun. Her eyes were squinted against the light, and a low purr was rumbling in her throat.

"Did you know today is both my and Eggman's birthday?" Sonic exclaimed.

Blaze opened one eye to peer at him. "Congratulations. How old does that make Eggman in human years?"

"I don't know," Miles spoke up, "but he hasn't had his birthday celebrated in a long time. He's an orphan."

"We're going to throw a surprise party!" announced Sonic excitedly. "We'll get a cake...and party hats...and confetti..."

Blaze now lifted her ears, and opened both eyes with interest. "Will there be a gift box?"

"Oh, you bet! We'll definitely get a gift," said Sonic.

"Not a gift," corrected Blaze. "A gift box."

"Umm... Why?"

"I want a box."

"It's Eggman's birthday."

"Get him a box," purred Blaze.

"Blaze, I'm pretty sure he doesn't want a box."

The cat flattened her ears with disapproval. "All right. What do you think he'd like?"

Sonic and Miles now exchanged an uncertain glance.

"He's got everything he wants already. What he doesn't have, he makes," pointed out Miles.

Blaze began grooming her fur. "Why don't you ask Rouge...I think she's suspicious but only because she likes Eggman too much. That Dr. Robotnik and his pride of being an evil villain..."

"We know that's all a joke," Sonic declared.

She stopped grooming in mid-lick, and eyed him skeptically with her tongue partly out.

"He professes not to care about anyone," meowed the cat. "You know one of these days he'll have to choose what he wants."

She returned to grooming herself, drawing her paw across her face.

"I think he'll end up choosing ultimate power over his friendship with you. Then you'll really be enemies."

"I don't believe that," said Sonic.

"Believe it, or disbelieve it," answered Blaze, getting up and sauntering away, "that's how I see it playing out."

Blaze's opinion was only slightly worrying to Sonic. He was more concerned about the apparent inability to find a suitable gift for his enemy-slash-friend. Miles wandered off saying he would try to figure something out; meanwhile Sonic curled up outside, near the back entrance of the house, also trying to decide what would be best.

Nonetheless the brightness of the sun, the afternoon peace, and the breeze mellowing the otherwise warm summer day were all conducive for a naturally nocturnal creature's mid-day nap. Sonic fell asleep debating the conundrum.

Melancholy had cast its shadow over Robotnik for most of the day, though he never let it outwardly show. Birthdays reminded him of a time that had all the qualities of a dream, a false happiness. He needed peace; the peace usually found in lines of computer code and physics formulae, and which today was absent even there. So he decided the best thing was to take a break from his work and play chess against the only opponent savvy enough, he felt, to match his strategies in such a game of wit – namely, his computers.

"Rook to Queen's Bishop two," Robotnik stated.

On the screen, the pieces shifted, and then the computer made its countermove.

Cubot announced, "Checkmate."

"You cheated," Robotnik answered.

"Sore loser," the cube retorted.

The scientist eyed it sourly. "I built you, and I can as easily un-build you! I'll checkmate you, you pawn."

"I promise that I will let you win next time, Doctor."

"Maybe," Robotnik replied noncommittally.

He was taken off guard when he was suddenly tackled from behind.

He found Sonic facing him with flat ears. "What the hell was that for?" Robotnik demanded.

"I had a nightmare you had trapped the wild animals in the forest and my friends and zapped them," Sonic hissed.

Robotnik just stared at him for a moment, and then started laughing.

"Yes, that's a brilliant idea. I'll enslave them all to assist in capturing you," he added sarcastically. "You do realize that was a nightmare?"

Sonic scowled. "Yeah, but it still merited a tackle."

"Get out of here, you pesky hedgehog. I haven't finished plotting out my next scheme to catch you."

Sonic, to the contrary, hopped onto the table beside the computer. "So, Eggman, are you really serious when you say you want to take over the world?"


"Why can't everyone just live in peace?" Sonic posed. "Where I come from, some tribes were willing to do anything for power. It led everyone to grief."

"There will always be factions in society like that," dismissed Robotnik. "Yet another reason I don't care about people."

"I don't see how trying to take over helps."

"That's because a mere animal like you can't begin to comprehend the complete genius of my plans." Robotnik went on, "I don't need any sort of friends to do it either. The inferiority of human beings, compared to my glorious, reliable technology..."

"So long as you keep those flying eggs away from us critters," Sonic interjected.

Robotnik closed the chess program on the screen and began typing out some computer code. He did not respond one way or the other; Sonic piped up once more.

"It's better to live every moment, instead of dwelling in the past..."

"Who says I am?" Robotnik interrupted, a bit accusatorily.

"You have your mind on something," remarked Sonic. "Sometimes you seem sorrowful."

"It's easier not to dwell in the past when there's closure."

It was the sole answer the scientist gave him, said so soft as to be almost inaudible. He had not turned his eyes away from the computer screen and the code he was writing, as if in its transcription he sought a solution to a memory.

Sonic decided to speak again. "Every world has its end. I know that's kind of sad, but...that's why we've got to live life to the fullest in the time we have." The little animal tipped his head to one side. "At least, that's what I figure!"

"An unusual mantra for a creature that plays alongside the dimensional flow of time," the scientist countered.

"Maybe that's why I believe that." Sonic hesitated for a moment. "You've moved as fast as I. You can see it too, can't you? How the dimension of time is as fleeting as a radio wavelength or something."

Robotnik was pensive; Sonic continued:

"Then again, maybe I can't word it right. You're the science whiz. I just know what I see and feel."

"You know what I think, hedgehog? You're overthinking things."

"You're the one with the questions, Eggman."

As Sonic said this, he glimpsed something on one of the side screens that looked like a scanned page of a book. There was a photograph beside lines of small text of a bright spectacle, full of glistening lights and giant pavilions, and a large vertical ring with seats that stood high above the ground.

"What's that?" asked Sonic. "It looks like a giant party."

"Back in the day they used to be called by several names: carnivals, fairs, amusement parks, theme parks," Robotnik explained. "They had vendors selling food; rides like ferris wheels, carousels, and swings; all sorts of games with prizes; demonstrations..."

Sonic did not know what half of these things were. He was alert to the mention of food though. "Did they have chili dogs?"

"As a matter of fact they did. Chili dogs originated at carnivals," Robotnik replied.

"Sounds way cool," decided Sonic. "I like carnivals."

"They don't exist anymore."

This came like a surprise to Sonic. "Why not?"

"The government said something about extravagance."

"Aw...I wanted to see it. Have you ever gone to one?"

"No I never have. In fact the only reason I have this image is because I kept it from an old encyclopedia. Officially now, encyclopedias never existed, and neither did amusement parks." Robotnik seemed wistful. "I wish I had gotten to see one."

Without saying more, Sonic hopped off his perch and left in a flash of blue light.

The conversation had left Robotnik even more melancholic than he had started out; he knew it had not been Sonic's intent at all, but his sadness now weighed upon him anew.

Cubot lit up. "It will work out, Doctor."

Robotnik sighed.

Chapter 16 - The Joy of Carnivals

Robotnik did not know what to expect when he was called to Stone's place, with inexplicable secrecy surrounding it, and was grumbling at once about what his coworker had to discuss that could not wait till the next workday and the likewise improper placement of weekends that always postponed errands. Stone ushered him into her house without any clarification, and when they stepped into the parlor Sonic, Miles, and Blaze sprang out from hiding.

"Happy Birthday!" cried Stone and the animals all at once.

This was met with a look of sheer skepticism from Robotnik, and followed by a vindicated snap of his fingers.

"Look at that! I was right, Agent are hiding those blasted critters in your house. More validation of my supreme intellect."

"Yes, yes; anyway," dismissed Stone, "They found out you and Sonic have your birthdays today so we all decided to pitch in for a party."

"We brought Orbot and Cubot so they could celebrate too," added Sonic cheerily.

The scientist seemed unconvinced, but his attention drew itself to his computers. Orbot hovered off to the side, while Cubot was placed atop an end-table here and 'wearing' a birthday hat.

Robotnik uncovered the little cube. "That hat's too big for you, Cubot."

Cubot beeped in reply.

"In any case," stated Robotnik without much enthusiasm, "as the socially expected mandate of marking our progression towards mortality has been fulfilled, I'll take Orbot and Cubot and head back to the laboratory now."

"Oh how bleak you always are," said Stone, "You'll miss the birthday cake."

It was a beautifully crafted cake, with vanilla frosting trimmed with chocolate. Robotnik took one look at it and turned knowingly towards Stone.

"I know you couldn't have baked this."

"I bought it," she answered.

"With the ongoing wheat shortage?" Robotnik asked slyly.

She returned his mischief in the form of a smile. "Don't ask so much."

"I'll take Orbot and Cubot and a piece of black-market cake back to the laboratory," Robotnik qualified.

Sonic the hedgehog piped up, "Then you'll miss the carnival."

This was enough to make Robotnik have a double-take. Sonic zipped towards the backyard mischievously, with the others tagging along, and Robotnik followed curiously.

When they reached the backyard, a stretch of well-kept grass and flowering bushes that melded seamlessly with the outlying woods, Robotnik was in veritable shock at what he saw. Stone addressed Orbot:

"Orbot, play music that had been used in carnivals."

A joyful old melody sprang forth from the orb, something straddling the military pomp of present-day with the gaiety of yesteryear.

It was makeshift, but the intent was evident. A row of incandescent lights had been aligned in series, powered by one of Sonic's quills, while elaborate red-and-white ornamentation bedecked small booths, all framing a center 'stage' of a wood plank. Everything had the faintest semblance of la belle époque, or tried to; gilded decorations imbued with nostalgia for that halcyon time of wonder and progress none of them had ever experienced.

Robotnik stared at them, truly surprised. "You...tried to get me a present?"

For a moment, sentiment shimmered in his eyes; it was brief and he quickly succeeded in hiding his emotions again, but they all saw that glimpse into his sentiment.

"A hedgehog's gotta do what a hedgehog's gotta do," Sonic zipped in front of Robotnik happily. "We weren't gonna let you miss out on the day! We've got games and spectacles. We've even got a chili dog stand."

"Minus the chili dogs," added Stone.

To which Sonic turned to her, his eyes wide. "We've got no chili dogs?"

"There's no more bread. And no one knows when it'll be back because of the wheat situation."

"Oh man, this is like a bad dream."

"Have some pudding," Miles offered.

"Let's get going, everyone!" said Stone excitedly.

Sonic got up on a huge rock and began his announcement:

"Ladies and gentlemen, critters of all ages, we have great pleasure to present...the ferocious feline queen, Blaze the cat!"

The cat posed dramatically, and gestured with a paw to a wooden hoop they had crafted out of dry branches.

"I need a volunteer from the audience to light up this ring with fire," Blaze meowed.

"Now wait a second..." Stone began to say.

"I'll do it," offered Robotnik eagerly.

"Ivo!" Stone protested.

Using the electricity from his gloves, Robotnik held the arc over the hoop till it was set aflame, and then he sat down at an approving purr from the cat.

"Ivo she's going to get burned," said Stone with worry.

He was poking at the tablet he now held. "No she won't."

At a drumroll from Orbot, the cat leapt through the fiery hoop. She twirled about in several tricks, culminating in holding the branches, now consumed with fire, in her paws as if they were not aflame.

Stone was genuinely astounded. "Seriously. How is she doing that?" she whispered to Robotnik.

"According to my scans..." answered Robotnik, "her fur is fireproof."

Stone turned to him with befuddlement as Robotnik explained further.

"It seems the high levels of chaos energy radiation in the future affects all life in some fashion. It's apparently made hedgehogs ultra-fast, altered the skeletal structure of foxes to be light and cartilaginous, and produced a natural immunity to fire in cats. Presumably the differences in effects center on each species' unique genetic code. I wonder why there's so much radiation then..." He glanced at Stone with a question. "Have they ever told you?"

"No," answered Stone pensively, "they just assumed the planet was naturally like that. Actually they acted surprised when they found a lack of radioactivity in our time. It's what's keeping them from going home."

Scientific inquisitiveness piqued, Robotnik made a mental note to ask the animals further about it at some point.

"Hey, Sonic!" shouted Miles, "I wanna try the cotton candy."

"Cotton candy is just caramelized sugar whipped at high speed," explained Stone.

"Is that really all it is?" Blaze asked.

"According to Orbot and Cubot," said Stone, glancing at the two little computers, both of which flashed in recognition.

"I can handle it, easily" added Sonic happily, as he proceeded to spin a stick in the sugar mixture, turning it into a blur. He then held up the result.

"Wow, that's bigger than I expected." he said surprised.

"It's like a cloud on a stick!" exclaimed Miles.

The fox was the first to taste it and proclaimed it airy and delicate, with a slight crispness to it and profoundly sweet.

After everyone tried some, the group followed Sonic towards an empty box.

"Step right up and win a prize," squeaked Sonic, "Throw a coin into the box, and..."

"A box!" meowed Blaze delightedly.

"Not for you," grunted Sonic, as the cat hopped in it.

"Mine," declared Blaze, flattening her ears and crouching low so that she peered out. "Shoo."

"Can't we share it?" Miles yapped diplomatically. "I want a turn sitting in the box too."

"...ok, so we don't have a game," complained Sonic. "Sorry about that, Eggman."

"All you've done is more than enough," replied Robotnik, adding spuriously, "If it mattered, and if I cared, I'd object about the unfairness of it anyway. It's your birthday too, remember, and I didn't get you anything."

"We haven't ridden the roller coaster," replied Sonic cheerily. "A big chase across Green Hills! Maybe we can add even more excitement to it than usual. What about running through Star Light? They got all these wide paths..."

Robotnik halted the latter part of Sonic's plan immediately. "The one area we can't race through is Central City. It'll mean trouble for both of us. Not that I can't find more ingenious ways of making trouble for you alone on the meadow. To start with... I've completed my impenetrable force field." He seemed quite proud of this.

"No one can get through it, either!" the cube's chipmunk voice chimed in.

Robotnik looked over towards the device on the table, exasperated. "You're a special kind of idiot, Cubot."

"Yay! I'm special!" the cube answered.

This elicited a slight smile from Robotnik and he tried to hide his reaction, but Stone saw it.

"Deep down, you crave human companionship," she pointed out.

He eyed her with mingled annoyance and dubiousness for a moment, as if weighing a retort, before he opted to respond succinctly:

"No I don't."

The cube lit up again. "Yes you do," it said.

"Shut up, Cubot," Robotnik snapped, and the device silenced itself.

Sonic was the picture of alertness. "Force field huh? Should be interesting. Not that I can't beat you despite it!"

The little animal zipped away; Robotnik hurried to follow but briefly hesitated to face his assistant.

"Don't think this means anything, Agent Stone," he maintained.

"Of course not, Doctor," Stone replied, with a small smile.

Miles watched them go. He was glad his brother had found unlikely acquaintanceship here, but personally he still had inexplicable unease with the fact that it should not even be happening; all this should not even be happening; they were trespassers in time.

On a sudden recollection Miles glanced at the clock he carried, the hours remaining there ticking down time like a sieve. He had to find out what it meant – he was sure it meant something – and he had the foreboding feeling he would learn its secret only when time itself divulged it.

Chapter 17 - Galvanic Charge

"I can't believe this, people!" exclaimed Snively as he burst into the laboratory.

Robotnik couldn't believe Snively was here again disturbing the peace and quiet, but he consoled himself in that it had been almost a whole week since last intrusion. His assistant Stone looked up curiously from where she had been helping him map out Sonic's movements around the forest.

"What's going on, Snively?" asked Stone as the lieutenant came over, shaking three or four papers he held in astonishment.

"You remember how my blog was first on the web search list?" said Snively. "Yesterday I looked and I was off the list. Like, totally off the list. I wrote the search site to find out what gives and they said I'd been penalized."

"No?" exclaimed Robotnik affectedly.

"They say someone's been spamming links of my website everywhere," Snively went on, "Plus all this computer jargon I don't get about 301 redirects and PBN backlinks and..." he squinted at the print-out, tipping the paper sideways like it would help in comprehension, "what does this hat tactics?"

Robotnik did not miss a beat. "It means they didn't like the picture you posted of you wearing that dumb hat."

"Bummer. I like that hat."

"Anyway," Stone interjected, her angry eyes darting towards Robotnik, "I'm sure the mess will get cleared up for you. Don't you think, Doctor?"

"Oh, I don't know," replied Robotnik, shaking his head somberly. "It will take a lot of work to delete all those shady links."

Stone raised an eyebrow at him.

Snively looked worried. "Hey, but you can do it right? I mean, you're really smart..."

"Well, yes. I am a genius."

The scientist turned back to his work without saying any more, though he now had a satisfied smile. Stone assured, "He'll fix it for you. We just have to deal with this hedgehog situation right now."

Snively peered at the monitors. "You still haven't caught the varmint?"

"Not yet." Terseness lay upon Robotnik's words.

"Maybe you can track it somehow?"

What do you think I've been doing? Robotnik thought to himself.

Snively continued, "That's just a thought though because I couldn't begin to wrap my mind around all the scientific studies you two do. Your research is impressive."

Robotnik was annoyed. "Thank you, sycophant. Your admiration is inevitable."

The lieutenant turned jovially towards him. "What'd you say?"

"Thank you, Snively. Your interest is admirable," the scientist, still at his work, said instead.

These words held a blatant sarcasm, yet it went totally undetected by their target. Agent Stone eyed Robotnik, but she said nothing till Snively had walked away.

It was Robotnik who spoke first though. "Sometimes I feel, what's the point in quarreling with idiots."

"You know, not everyone is out to get something," she prodded.

"Yes they are. If they aren't, then they're out to keep what they've got already," Robotnik answered. "Case in point. Snively just wants his damn blog back in the search engine."

"His blog only got knocked off because of your spamming," Stone pointed out.

"It wouldn't have ranked to begin with," discounted Robotnik. "In any case I did get it first in the algorithm for a day. The web engineers just realized what was going on when they stopped bullshitting and checked on their program. Inept, inefficient humans... Incidentally, Agent Stone, you're still trying to get into my computer system?"

"How do you know that?"

"Orbot and Cubot told me."

"Computerized snitches," Stone said to the orb and cube, which both beeped in recognition.

Robotnik did not look worried at all. "Good luck trying to get in. It's impossible. I've devised a foolproof barrier. Only a genius like myself can get into my network."

"Blah, blah, blah," she retorted pettily. "Keep putting yourself on a pedestal; it'll only make your fall of failure that much grander!"

She said this with a mind to step away, but her heel caught on a cable stretching across the floor from the computers, and she lurched unexpectedly – and ironically – with a gasp.

The reaction was immediate, instinctively reaching out to catch her by the arm; when they regained their balance Robotnik found he was accidentally face-to-face with Stone. Their bodies close, with almost galvanic charge alight between them. The amber pools of her eyes, the outline of her lips, the restraint in her breath – and the realization his own breathing had faltered the same as hers – the sensuousness of that sustained moment enough to bring over him the unexpected warmth of arousal.

And he pulled gently away.

She appeared flustered, yet found words. "Thanks for breaking my fall."

"It's nothing to thank about." He was incorrigibly terse. "Next thing you know, there'll be a report about an unsafe work environment. Who left this cable lying around anyway?"

"You did, Doctor," stated the cube on the desk.

"Oh, shut up, Cubot," snapped Robotnik.

Stone whirled around self-consciously, without any other remark, and left the laboratory. When she had gone, Robotnik sat down on the office chair trying to regain control of instinct.

Orbot hovered over. "I have done a preliminary statistical evaluation and determined that you and Agent Rouge Stone have a ninety-nine percent compatibility rate."

"You're two of a kind," chimed in Cubot's chipmunk voice.

"That's preposterous," Robotnik turned back to his computer monitors.

"Would you like the break-down of areas analyzed?" Orbot persisted.


"How about possible ideas for dates, recommended based on both your and her interests?"

"Stop trying to play matchmaker," added Robotnik.

This quieted Orbot, and the scientist went back to his work.

It was about an hour later that he received an e-mail, and as he glanced at the phone screen a grin spread on his face.

"Exactly what I've been waiting for. They're as expedited as they should be for half-a-million. But I'm not about to gamble meeting someone unknown in person." Robotnik turned to the little cube on his desk. "Cubot – trace the sender of this message."

Cubot flashed a couple of times before stating in its high-pitched tone, "The sender is using a VPN."

This was met with a small smile; he had gained access to the major ones long ago. "Now trace through the VPN service."

The information appeared on the screen shortly, and Robotnik took one look at it and gave a genuinely surprised laugh.

No – I won't say anything yet, he decided mischievously, as he typed out his reply to the e-mail and hit 'send' with a flourish.

The clock was striking four when Robotnik set out in the Eggmobile to search for the animals. He knew they would be somewhere in the forest, and in all honesty he felt more like chasing them around amongst the sheltering trees than on the meadowland today. The weather had been fickle all day; nature could not decide whether it wanted rain or sunshine, so it had settled displeasingly on clouds. They hung across the sky like a grey canopy, morose and ominous, and as lightning moved faster than both he and Sonic did the scientist figured it was better not to be on such flat, open terrain till the clouds dispersed.

Sonic, Miles, and Blaze were padding down the wooded path, immersed in a conversation. Robotnik slowed the hovercraft when he caught up to them and, curiosity outweighing his original intention of an ambush, kept to the trees and bracken to avoid being seen.

"We need more power," the fox Miles was saying. "It was possible, Sonic, for you to travel back in time because your natural energy combined with the ring's at top speed...and as far as the time warps that Blaze and I used to get here, in the future it's easy to generate the massive energy levels necessary to open a portal. It's not a matter of the technology; I can build that. We simply don't have those levels of power readily available here in the past."

"Tails," said Sonic, "if we don't have any way to open a portal, then we're stranded."

"Not to worry!" yapped Miles, "Blaze and I have been looking into possible energy sources, and I think we've come up with an answer."

"Best of all," Blaze meowed, "we think it's hidden somewhere in this forest."

Sonic became alert. "What?"

"The chaos emerald," Miles said.

At these words, Robotnik hesitated. It was the first time in years he had heard anyone say those words, known to him through years of quiet research and the faintness of childhood memories. He listened intently.

"Legend tells of an emerald imbued with chaos energy, a force greater than any yet known," explained the fox. "They say it can turn thoughts into power and warp the time-space continuum. It's said the jewel was created at the planet's birth by a misalignment somewhere in time and destiny."

"There is more," Blaze purred, "A legend passed down from my ancestors. When the heartfelt wishes of love and friendship unite, the emerald's full power will emerge...the paradox of chaos control. Then time will at last realign completely, and the emerald will vanish."

"I've heard that myth too," Miles affirmed. "However, even by itself, the emerald contains ultimate power. It can be used as a terrible weapon in the wrong paws, but we don't have to worry about that. By harnessing it briefly, we should easily be able to open a portal and get back to our timeline."

Robotnik knew all of this already; years of studying the ancient lore in archeological literature made listening to them explain the legend akin to hearing a story one knew by heart. Nonetheless, the concept of holding that kind of power in his hands never ceased to tantalize him, and he quickly realized an easy way to accomplish his goals.

Sonic was now considering, "Then if our being here is the misalignment, would that put things right again?"

"We certainly can't stay here, and risk changing the future..." Miles began to say, as Robotnik flew the hovercraft out into the open.

The animals jumped, frizzed in anticipation, then their fur lay flat. "Relax. It's only Eggman," announced Sonic.

Robotnik ignored the slight. "Sonic, what if I were to help you get this emerald."

"You want to help us?" Sonic echoed.

"Think about it. My brain... your speed..." he turned to the fox, and tried to find a compliment, "his...umm..."

Miles flattened his ears.

"Yeah," Sonic said leerily, "I'm kinda questioning if we can trust a self-proclaimed evil genius who wants to take over the world."

"You don't really think I'd betray you, do you?" asked Robotnik innocently.


"What reason would I possibly have?"

"The way your eyes light up every time we say ultimate power."

Robotnik grinned at this, yet he maintained, "You're being cynical."

"Maybe, but I doubt it," dismissed Sonic.

"A pity, though it'll only make it more challenging for yourselves. You see," the scientist paused, "I probably know more about the Labyrinth than you do."

He flew the Eggmobile away, and was gone in a streak of light. The animals now exchanged uneasy glances.

"Tails," Sonic asked gingerly, "what's the Labyrinth?"

Chapter 18 - The Gala

Nightfall brought with it the crisply cold breeze of an approaching autumn, which the trees had already begun to dress for in colorful array. At midnight sharp Dr. Robotnik headed to the agreed-upon meeting place. It was an elegant function at the presidential palace, commemorating the six-month anniversary of the United Federation's victory in the Overland War.

The presidential palace was in the middle of Central City a block away from G.U.N.'s headquarters; it was a white marble edifice of two stories, with Tuscan columns and gilded doors of the finest mahogany. Two national flags flanked the entryway, above which was a wide balcony that was the traditional setting of inaugural photographs, its pristine luxury standing in contrast to the fading newness of the surrounding city. Oak trees, tall and wide enough to tower over the building, lent shade and natural beauty to the grounds.

The interior was even more luxurious. Baroque ceilings and crystalline chandeliers adorned even the most inconsequential of foyers, and were at their most extravagant within the president's office. It was an iconic space with red carpeting and huge windows of bulletproof glass leading out onto the inaugural balcony. Soldiers from G.U.N. were always present in the office as guards. The danger of an assassin or a possible coup d'état could never be overstated.

Then again, President Michaels was not the kind to inspire such dislike in and of himself. He was of a mild character, the sort of politician who had genuinely gone into politics thinking he could be of some benefit, still thought to do his best in that regard, and felt he was reasonably successful in this, but for all intents had failed miserably. Leaders, in business or politics, were only as advised about the true state of their charges as they fought to be; Michaels knew very little about what happened outside of the pretty golden world that was the presidential palace, and relied for outer knowledge upon the few he trusted implicitly. Most of all he trusted Commander Towers, who had shown both bravery in battle during the Overland War and allegiance through longtime service to the nation.

The courage and sacrifice of all the nation's military were being celebrated tonight. Towers was the president's guest of honor, to be awarded the United Federation's highest medal of valor, so it followed that everyone of certain rank who had participated in the battle alongside him should attend.

Robotnik cared little for these events. Networking was a chore to him, and were it not for the insistence of Commander Towers himself he would have rather spent the night working on inventions in his laboratory.

At least it's a good meeting spot, he figured, looking over the well-dressed crowd and how they mingled, in idle talk of topics no one truly cared for and with civilities none of them truly meant.

He had told his contact to announce herself as his guest, and they would let her in. They had a peculiar passcode, a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, to recognize each other. All cloak-and-dagger, but the surreptitiousness of their business demanded as much. This ballroom was, on its face, the worst possible location to conduct their business. The presidential palace was essentially the government's heart, and they would be trading a top-secret item stolen from the government's warehouses. Ironically that also made this the best possible place; no one would think they would dare do such a thing in plain view. It was the kind of brazenness thought up only by a fool or a genius.

His thoughts were broken when Towers walked over. "Doctor, so good of you to come."

"Not at all, Commander; I wouldn't miss it," Robotnik replied. "Congratulations on the medal."

"Now, you don't fool me," said Towers genially, "You're here by obligation. I know you generally dislike attending social events. In all honesty, I find them boring myself."

Robotnik saw no need to sugarcoat the matter speaking with him. "Of course it does take time away from my work..."

"The hunt is still unsuccessful, I take it?" Towers interjected.

"Unfortunately," Robotnik replied, trying to inject otherwise-absent frustration into the word. "At least we're gathering plenty of new information about that hedgehog. We'll trap it sooner or later."

"Preferably sooner. I was reviewing your scientific reports and an observation of yours caught my eye," Towers mentioned. "One of your reports stated the animal is unable to swim."

"From analysis of the animal's behavior, I hypothesize it's more a deep-seated psychological fear of drowning," explained the scientist. "Most hedgehogs can swim. Then again this is not a typical hedgehog, by any standard."

"It's simple then," reasoned Towers. "Focus your attention on traps near the water. Perhaps something akin to beaver snares. When it gets caught, it'll drown."

"I don't know if it would necessarily..." Robotnik began, but Towers interrupted him. There was a thorn within the commander's tone.

"You've been after that animal for almost five months now. I am a patient man, Doctor, but patience has its limits."

Robotnik called his bluff. "We're looking at a sapient creature, with the evasiveness of a wild animal and powers previously in the realm of the theoretical. Do you think anyone else would be better qualified to trap it?" he added, aware his knowledge automatically made him the most qualified.

"Not at all," Towers responded. "That's why I placed you in charge of the endeavor. Humor me by trying an aquatic strategy this time."

"Very well," Robotnik relented.

Actually, he thought as Towers left, it might be interesting to see Sonic contend with an underwater enemy. I bet I can get the upper hand on him this round. All for science, of course.

The event proceeded with speeches and praise. President Michaels first addressed the wheat shortage – In-Ag, as they properly called it – and how the government was doing all it could to mitigate it, but everyone would need to sacrifice for the good of the state. What a very eloquent way of announcing the installment of food rationing, reflected Robotnik, noting silently it had come sooner than his prediction of a month.

Then the president's speech turned to the main event as he lauded the award recipient.

"...Commander Towers, whose peerless actions brought about not only the end of the Overland War but the conquest of our enemies' lands. You're a national hero."

There was applause and sanctioned photographs as President Michaels presented the medal to Towers. Robotnik joined in the petty protocol, although he kept searching the room for the real reason of his attendance.

When the attentions of the crowd dispersed again into their little groups and orchestral music flooded the ballroom for couples to dance, Robotnik at last caught sight of his contact.

He walked over to a table off near the edges of the ballroom. Here she waited, sipping from a goblet and watching the dancers in a daydream. On her finger, Robotnik could see the gold glint of the stolen ring.

"Agent Stone."

Stone glanced up, rather surprised to see him, but her only greeting was a bald statement. "You were invited too, I see."

"All of G.U.N.'s efforts are being celebrated, especially those who participated in the war front. It just so happens I'm part of that, whether people are happy about it or not." Robotnik regarded her without any measure of disdain. "Mind if I join you?"

"I'm here on business, Doctor."

"As it happens, so am I," he replied.

"Really, I can't imagine you'd spend fleeting time on such a commonplace thing as socializing," Stone countered.

Despite all the vitriol she put into the statement, Robotnik was not dissuaded. "Reminds me of that line by Shakespeare; Lysander's discourse on the nature of love. What was it now? 'Swift as a shadow...' " he let his voice taper off.

He could see assimilation as it crept over her, and she completed the stanza, " '...short as any dream.' "

He smiled, at once charming and arrogant.

"I never expected you were the buyer," Stone dropped her voice to a whisper.

Robotnik lifted her hand with the ring, examining it, then looked from the precious item to her.

"Would you care to dance?" he asked, nonchalantly. "You interrupted my dance before in the laboratory. I may as well finish it here, with you."

The request was completely unexpected to Stone, yet before she could protest he was already leading her to the center of the ballroom.

They continued their conversation as they danced, and spoke softly so that no one outside the two of them could hear. Their terse words were charged as if with electricity. "What is it you want, Dr. Robotnik?" Stone demanded.

"Call me Ivo. We're more alike than I had imagined, so we may as well get on a first-name basis."

"We're not alike at all."

"On the contrary, right now you've aided me, a covert conspirator against the government, by stealing a top-secret artifact from the military. We're both 'most wanted' across the globe right now...if they realize it's us, of course."

"What exactly do you want the ring for?"


"It doesn't look powerful."

"Itself it isn't. If they knew what it was, they would have used it already instead of keeping it locked up so many years like an antique," Robotnik explained. "It's a the embodiment of chaos."

"Planning to open Pandora's Box?"

"I'm planning world domination," he answered matter-of-factly.

"Oh please," she scoffed. "Like you're a villain from some motion picture."

"Humanity is irrational. They want something one day; the next, they despise it. Better that I lay out the planet's new government and make them all serve me. A world run by technology, which I oversee, will function more effectively. If I find my own human fallacies prevent my logical ordering of the planet, I'll program a computer algorithm to delegate the whole undertaking."

"It's diabolical," she hissed.

"Thank you," he grinned.

"How can you possibly think you can win?"

Robotnik didn't answer this. He twirled her around on the dance floor, and they met, face-to-face.

The music had faded to a close as if in the distance. She could only gaze into his blue eyes, which gazed back into hers, with the realization that maybe, despite all his arrogance and ambitions...she was falling in love with him.

Stone did not realize when he had slipped the ring from her finger.

Neither of them stayed longer to mingle and eat. Stone was still trying to sort the shock in her mind, and Robotnik would not trifle himself unnecessarily with human socializing unless there was something to be gained from it. They left the venue together, though, walking outside to the cold night breeze side-by-side.

"You know what I don't get?" Stone questioned. "How you got ahold of half-a-million dollars to pay me and my associates."

"Nothing a bit of crowdfunding and unauthorized computer wire transfers can't whip up," replied Robotnik.

She eyed him incredulously.

"On the world wide web," he elaborated, "no one really knows if that donation went to third-world children or the corner drug dealer...and if you have fifty bank accounts in far-flung places, it's surprisingly hard to keep track of all of them."

Stone lifted her eyebrows. "I'm appalled, you wannabe supervillain."

"Declared the thief self-righteously," Robotnik rejoined.

She opened her mouth to answer, but she ended up laughing.

"Maybe we do have something in common: our gall. I'll see you at our honest day-job tomorrow, Ivo."

As honest as pretending to hunt a hedgehog can ever be, Robotnik thought as he watched her sashaying off.

Miles spent a long time researching the Labyrinth before he called Sonic and Blaze to explain what he found out.

"Apparently Eggman is right about the Labyrinth," said Miles. "It's an ancient temple and tomb found deep in the woodland here, past Marble Zone and near Azure Lake. The ruins are seen as an archeological wonder, but they're off limits to the public."

"Why?" Sonic asked.

"No visible way in," Miles replied. "Plus they say the Labyrinth is cursed."

"And we're supposed to brave the curse," deduced Blaze.

"The idea of a curse might have been devised to keep tomb raiders away. Ancient texts say the chaos emerald was sealed away in its depths," added Miles.

"To me it sounds like a good adventure. I'm game," Sonic decided. "What do we know about unsealing the emerald?"

"That's the interesting part," Miles said, swishing his tails. "In order to unlock the emerald, you must bring the ring."

"The ring?" echoed Sonic.

"The same ring that boosted your chaos energy enough to surpass light speed."

Sonic let out a frustrated grunt. "Ok. We're screwed then. That disintegrated when I came through the time warp."

The fox however was undaunted. "The ring from the future disintegrated. That same ring still exists in the past. We just have to find it."

Blaze alerted her ears. "Was it a small gold ring with strange carvings inside?"

"That sounds about right."

"I saw that!" Blaze exclaimed, "it was in the house." She hurried off to the place where she had seen it, searched for it, and then relented, "At least it was here..."

Miles considered, "Maybe you saw some other jewelry. Rouge does have a lot of shiny trinkets."

Blaze was adamant. "No, it was the ring. I'm sure of it. It was unique, and she hadn't kept it with her other pieces of jewelry."

Sonic chimed in with agreement. "I think it might have been here too. Remember I sensed something in the house yesterday? But I couldn't figure out what it was so I went out for a run..."

"But why would Rouge have it?" Miles posed.

"I don't know, but everything's easy then," declared Sonic. "She's a reasonable human. If she has the ring, we can just ask to borrow it..."

Precisely then, Rouge Stone walked in through the door, a bounce in her step. "What's up guys? Having a late-night meeting?"

"Sort of," said Miles. "We were wondering if you have a special gold ring, with carvings on the inside."

She stared nonplussed at them.

Miles went on, "We need the ring. With that, we'll be able to get the chaos emerald and go home."

"Umm. A ring..." Stone prevaricated. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"But I was sure I saw it here," Blaze wondered.

The animals exchanged uncertain glances. At last Stone relented, "I sold it to Dr. Robotnik."

"You gave it to Eggman?" Sonic's eyes grew wide.

"I mean, he did pay me," Stone shrugged.

"Ok. New plan," Sonic turned to the others.

Blaze let out a hiss. "We go to his lair, kick his butt, and if all else fails ask him nicely."

The fox squinted. "You mean go to his lair, ask him nicely, and if all else fails kick his butt."

"That too," purred the cat.

"Guys, we're getting ahead of ourselves." Sonic realized as he said this how unlike him it was, but he was getting rather fed up with the whole matter. "Let's just go tomorrow morning and see what he has to say."

Chapter 19 - Chaos Theory

The next morning was beautiful, with bright sun and sparse white clouds. Robotnik was planning to head out onto the meadowland in the Eggmobile around afternoon, to see if he could corner Sonic – so far the little blue hedgehog had won the past three games, and Robotnik was determined to have him lose the next – but he would spend the beginning part of the day finishing up some scientific reports. He was working on this at the main computer when he suddenly perceived there were others in the laboratory.

He turned around to see three pairs of wide eyes looking up at him intently. These belonged respectively to a hedgehog, a fox, and a cat.

"Hey Egg," greeted Sonic.

"Snooping as usual, I see," Robotnik responded flatly.

Sonic got to the point. "Look, we need this ring and Rouge said she gave it to you."

"It's a small gold ring with carvings on the inside," Miles added helpfully.

"I know what you're referring to," Robotnik affirmed, elaborating, "It's quite an ancient trinket. Rumor says it unseals a mysterious jewel."

Sonic nodded. "Yeah, that's exactly the one. Can we have it? then we'll head on our way."

Robotnik leant back in his chair and regarded the little blue hedgehog with amusement. "Why would I hand it over to my sworn enemy?"

"Come on Eggman," Sonic persisted. "We have to use that ring to get the emerald to go home."

"What an unfortunate impasse. You three want the chaos emerald. As it happens, so do I."

The animals all looked at each other.

Sonic spoke dryly. "I thought he was annoying when he was just trying to destroy us."

"Your doom is coming, I assure you," Robotnik said matter-of-factly.

Blaze the cat twitched her tail. "Are we done with the niceties now?"

"Well..." Sonic started to say.

"Give us the ring or else," growled Blaze.

"You're taking my lines," complained Robotnik. "I'm the evil villain so extortion is my department, not the other way around."

"Who says we can't be vicious?" Blaze demanded.

"I do," responded Robotnik. "In your case you just end up looking cute."

"That's it. Let me bite him," hissed Blaze.

Miles held her back. "No. He's got a point – ow!" he yelped when Blaze's fangs latched onto his ear.

"Threats in this case are fun but pointless," Robotnik went on, indifferent to the squabble. "In any event the ring isn't here."

Blaze's response was to hiss at him.

"You can even search the lab," he added generously, "I don't have the ring with me."

Sonic zipped around the room, searching everywhere and then reappearing in the center.

"Hate to admit it, but Eggman's not lying about that. I can't find it anywhere here. I found this way cool shiny thing, though."

Sonic poked at a small laser pointer he held, and a red dot appeared on the ground. It drew Blaze's ire away all at once as her feline eyes began following the light reflexively, almost as if instinctually she wanted to chase it.

Robotnik watched circumspectly. "Now that you've satisfied your curiosity, and your penchant for theft, I presume you'll be off."

"Not quite," Miles spoke up, "We still need the chaos emerald. So we've got to have the ring. Which it's our understanding was stolen to begin with, so..."

"Yeah," agreed Sonic, shutting off the laser pointer. "Fess up; where is it?"

Instead of divulging this information, the scientist replied rather with forbearance.

"You critters woke up one day and decided the emerald was the solution to all your problems. I've been after that same emerald for two decades now and I'm not going to abandon my longtime plans for world conquest just so you get a first-class ticket home."

"But what you want is so self-serving," insisted Sonic.

Robotnik's eyes opened wide. "What you want isn't?"

"Our being here threatens the future, doesn't it?"

"The future hasn't happened yet," responded the scientist evenly.

The statement made Sonic hesitate upon the very logic of their presence, but Robotnik continued speaking. "You know what they say, the anticipation of the end is worse than the end itself. Now, my spikey blue arch-nemesis, I have work to attend to. As much as this amuses me, I'll have to pester you and your cohorts later." He waved his hand to send them away.

Miles' tails were swishing; he would not let the matter go. "Scientifically, Doctor Eggman, you cannot claim that's logical. The nature of time travel postulates there is such a thing as the future, just as there is past and present."

Robotnik met this challenge with almost gleeful readiness. "The physics of time are part of an interconnected web of speed, space, and mass that has about as many quantum certainties as uncertainties. Many eminent scientists, myself naturally included, have already determined and devised numerous formulas in the attempt to calculate it. It's called relativity."

"Which simply states time overlaps, dimensionally. The fact fourth-dimensional travel was achieved validates the existence of a future, even if its through simple time dilation standards," Miles argued the point.

"Tails," Sonic poked at his little brother.

"Wait a sec. I'm having a science fight," Miles yapped, and turned back to Robotnik. His tails still lashed to and fro as he persisted, "This further means that according to statistical probability, the longer we stay here the more chance we have to endanger that existent future."

"Allow me to educate your unsophisticated brains about a mathematical construct known as chaos theory," responded Robotnik calmly, launching into an entwined lecture. "One action, however infinitesimal, can provoke an enormous chain of effects. This effect is multiplied the farther back you go. For example, it's said a drop of water can raise the volume of an ocean. Crushing a single flower could resonate through the food chain to cause famine millennia later. Your existence in the present timeline even shifts the movement of air molecules. It's the mathematical certainty of uncertainty found in everything from the galaxies to the atoms. The amount of corollary effects of time displacement then, are about as innumerable as the parallel dimensions you – by the nature of time travel – may have shifted through."

"Granted, but..." Miles tried to figure out an answer.

"If your actions were going to change what you know as the future, they did already. Theoretically," Robotnik added as a modifier.

The fox considered this. "Ok," he relented, "Yeah. You win. I have a headache now."

"You're welcome," replied Robotnik.

The animals, seeing as they were getting nowhere, decided to leave when Robotnik turned back to his computers. They crossed wordlessly with Agent Stone as she walked in.

She glanced at her coworker. "Did you give them the ring?"

"Of course not," answered Robotnik.

"Poor critters," she said sympathetically.

"What 'poor critters'? They stole my laser pointer."

She leant on the back of his chair, over his shoulder. He caught a slight whiff of her perfume; a floral fragrance, briefly distracting him from his work. "So how exactly do you plan to take over the world?" she asked.

"You take me seriously now," he observed, turning back around towards her. "That, my dear Rouge, is all part of my master plan, which no one is privy to but myself."

"And Orbot and Cubot," Stone pointed out, rather disdainfully.

"Their loyalty is assured."

"I just don't see how, if you hate people so much, you can expect to rule over them."

"Industriously," he said.

"That's no answer," she countered.

"Best of all," Robotnik continued, "they won't have to think anymore. As the supreme emperor, I can do the thinking for them." He said this last with a mischievous grin.

She persisted in her opposition. "Till a band of freedom fighters decides they've had enough of Emperor Ivo Robotnik."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that! I have machines of all kinds, marvelous machines, that can do things you would not believe."

Stone shook her head. "How can someone so pessimistic about the human condition be so optimistic about his chances."

She spun about and left the laboratory, right as the clock began beeping the passage of another hour.

Up to a certain point Robotnik felt sorry she had gone. He could not determine what it was exactly, but it was like the subtle spark of electricity at the dance, which he had felt as she had, though neither would admit as much. It went round and round in his mind, ever-present in their interactions. Sexual attraction, no doubt, was part of it. Yet there was more to it, somehow.

He wished he could confide in her.

Chapter 20 - Fishy Situation

Agent Stone returned to the laboratory later to find Robotnik diligently working on something. She glanced at the device he was tinkering with – some sort of remote control – and then at an electrical schematic he had sketched out on the computer screen.

"Toy piranhas?" Stone said dubiously.

"I call them Chompers," replied Robotnik casually.

"Sonic's not going to be happy with this one," she pointed out.

"I should hope not," he chuckled sneakily. "By the way, if you see that pesky hedgehog around, tell him I say hi and I'm waiting to ambush him at the bridge."

To which Stone groaned. "Give it up, Ivo, everybody can see you're just playing tag."

Robotnik glanced up from his task. "My dear Rouge, you fail to appreciate the finer points in undermining one's enemy."

"Ivo, Sonic's genuinely afraid of drowning," she protested.

"Well, you may give the credit of this scheme to Commander Towers. He thinks Sonic can't match with an underwater foe and I'm inclined to agree. So, as a good evil scientist that I am," he announced, snapping the completed remote control shut, "I'm going to test the theory and see what happens. Pass me that screwdriver."

"I just want to make it known that I staunchly disagree with this plot, whether it be your idea or the Commander's," she said, handing him the tool.

"Noted and disregarded. If you have any further objections, we can discuss them over lunch," Robotnik retorted.

She gave him a disbelieving look, but it quickly turned into a smile.

They walked out together to Mean Bean Café, leaving the completed remote control out beside the computer keyboard. As they strolled down the sidewalk, Robotnik was going on about his usual prattle. "You know what I love about machines? They follow their programming. They do what they're told."

"Yes, Ivo," replied Stone, who was just happy he was finally opening up to her.

Following lunch, Dr. Robotnik decided to head out to hunt Sonic again with his newest invention. There was a lake with a small bridge along Green Hills' outskirts, one of the few areas with such a manmade fixture. It was not far from the main road through the wildlife preserve and was generally used as a photo site for tourists, keeping them away from the interior meadows where Sonic typically played, but on this quiet holiday weekend outsiders were barred from entry to Poloy Forest altogether.

This is the perfect spot and perfect time, reasoned Robotnik, for my little test of Sonic's evasion.

Agent Stone accompanied him as he took the remote-controlled piranhas out to the lake. She only infrequently attended these charades of pursuit; Robotnik knew her present interest in viewing was merely concern for Sonic's welfare.

Sonic showed up quickly, as he was apt to do, and stood tauntingly on the bridge railing to face Robotnik. The scientist spied Miles the fox partially hidden near the reeds along the shore.

"Level one," announced Robotnik.

The piranhas jumped upwards like trout, snapping their jaws. Sonic raced to and fro on the bridge, occasionally bouncing on the fish in a spinning ball to decimate them as they jumped to his height.

Sonic squeaked playfully. "Boing. Boing. Boing."

"Level two," Robotnik declared.

Three of his drones then flew out from the forest and shot lasers at the hedgehog. Sonic dodged them easily, and destroyed two out of the three, but it was enough of a distraction for the little animal to be seized from behind by one of the leaping piranhas. It clamped his quills in its jaws, pulling him off the bridge into the lake.

Robotnik's intent had been to desist once he had gotten Sonic into the water and release him near the shore – to face his triumphant gloating. Yet when he tried to maneuver the fish to the side, he discovered the controls unresponsive. They pulled down to the lakebed instead, and whilst he struggled with the controls, Sonic struggled to break free.

Stone whipped around towards Robotnik. "Let him go!"

"The controls aren't responding," he growled back at her.

Seeing what was transpiring, Miles leapt into the water. The fox tugged at the piranha's jaws, trying to no avail to release Sonic from its grip.

Robotnik then remembered the remaining drone still hovering over the bridge. Abandoning the remote control, he turned to the buttons on his glove; the drone shot a laser at the piranha underwater, breaking it apart to free Sonic.

Miles hauled a soaked, annoyed Sonic out of the water as Robotnik hurried over to meet them.

"And here I thought you'd become fish food," the scientist smirked.

"I cry foul," Sonic snapped.

Miles gave a yap. "Look at the bright side. You had to face your fears of getting wet. Maybe even overcame them a little."

"Overcame?" Sonic echoed. "Are you serious? They've all been magnified tenfold!"

He started to race away, but as an afterthought looped back and, curling into a ball, tackled Robotnik into the lake.

"Till next time, Eggman!" Sonic squeaked and zipped off.

Miles, spinning his tails, flew after his brother as a drenched Robotnik shouted, "I'll get you next time, you blasted hedgehog!"

He was pulling himself out of the water as Stone came over to him.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Why wouldn't I be?" he responded tersely.

"Irritable as ever," she observed. "I guess that's a good sign."

Robotnik and Stone made their way back to the laboratory, the former intermittently muttering about the illogic of his machines malfunctioning and the fact he was soaking wet due to "that damned blue pincushion".

"I guess your machines aren't so reliable after all," commented Stone as they entered the building.

"No... it just means some unreliable human tampered with them." He gave her an appraising look.

Stone stared back. " thinking I did?"

"No. You were with me at lunch. It had to be someone who came in here during that time." He turned to the cube and orb on the desk. "Orbot, Cubot...was anyone here while I was out?"

"Available memory was assigned to other tasks," Orbot answered.

Robotnik eyed them with doubt. "Like what?"

Cubot answered first. "I was processing data set 86-A, as per your instructions."

Orbot answered second. "I was making sure Cubot processed data set 86-A, as per your instructions."

"Oh yes, I'd forgotten about that," Robotnik dismissed.

"I'm not going to ask," Stone decided.

Robotnik remained dissatisfied. "This still calls into question the security of the laboratory. Just because I left my work unattended..."

Cubot lit up. "Analysis indicates you ought to be more cautious about leaving things lying around," it stated.

He glanced over at Cubot. "When I want your opinion, I'll give you one."

Cubot beeped in acknowledgement.

"Orbot," said Robotnik, now turning from the cube to the orb, "scan the surroundings. Look for any recent anomalies that would indicate recent entry into this room by anyone other than myself and Agent Stone."

Orbot rotated a complete 360 degrees, then beeped before stating:

"Scan complete. No anomalies present."

"Dr. Robotnik, couldn't you have made an error when you were working on..." Stone began saying.

She faltered when he eyed her skeptically.

"Remember you are human," she persisted, undeterred.

Robotnik gazed upwards to the ceiling. "Lamentable realities."

"Actually the whole thing is fishy if you ask me, and I'm not talking about your toy piranhas," Stone went on. "It just looks as if it wasn't a mistake; someone wanted to ensure Sonic drowned."

"I've given up on humanity. They're all stupid," Robotnik replied simply. "Well Agent Stone, its already past 2 o'clock and your work hours are up. So shoo. I'll reexamine these controls and figure out what malfunctioned."

After Stone left for the day, Dr. Robotnik poured himself a glass of water and set to taking apart the remote control to determine what had gone wrong. He was comparing the circuitry to the schematic displayed on his computer screen when Lieutenant Snively and Major Westwood showed up.

"Dr. Robotnik," announced Snively, "Commander Towers requires you to report to his office at fifteen-hundred hours."

"Requires?" Robotnik scoffed.

As he said this, he turned sharply to face Westwood. The way they stood, one on either side of him, so he could not face them both at once, gave the allusion of an interrogation.

"Did he perchance say why?"

"He said the message was only for your ears," replied Snively, causing Robotnik's attention to snap back towards him.

It was at that instant Westwood reached over and poured the contents of a small packet into the drink. A white powder dissolved imperceptibly in the liquid. By the time Robotnik turned back to him, he had not even a semblance of having moved.

"It's a priority," Snively declared forcefully.

"Oh, fine. Tell the Commander I'll be there just as soon as I'm done with my work," Robotnik answered, attempting to wave him away.

Snively gave a sneering smile, though his voice tempered itself somewhat. "I have a deep and insightful question about that. I just need to remember what it was."

"You disappoint me, Snively," responded Robotnik.

"Not as much as you have been disappointing our leadership," Westwood commented, as Robotnik took the glass to drink from it. "Guess you're not perfect at everything, if you haven't been doing your job."

He had placed the glass at his lips, but at this he lowered it without drinking. "...opined the simpleton," came Robotnik's caustic retort.

Westwood did not answer directly. "You've taken an awful long time to catch that hedgehog critter."

"Conducting field experiments takes time," Robotnik countered. He still held his drink, and briefly drummed his fingers impatiently against the vessel. "I'm a scientist, and meddling with the unknown is my job."

"So long as you keep to what's been officially sanctioned," Westwood replied.

"Our leadership has enough to deal with, what with the challenge of In-Ag," added Snively.

On the desk, Cubot lit up. "Doctor, do you think they're abbreviating all reference to the famine to further a corrupt agenda?" the cube stated.

"I really must get Cubot fixed," Robotnik waved the computer's statement off mildly, though he had the semblance of a grin.

"Do so," said Westwood, brusque.

Without further discourse on the matter, Snively and Westwood left.

Robotnik, finally, drank from the glass.

Chapter 21 - Scopolamine

Sonic came in shortly after the soldiers left, the blue streak shooting in to appear beside Robotnik's chair. The scientist gave him an uninterested glance.

Sonic glanced back at the door. "Who were those two?"

"Tweedledee and Tweedledum," replied Robotnik, as he put his glass down with a grimace. "God, I don't remember this drink tasting this bad."

"So when we planning our next race?" Sonic prodded happily.

"So much enthusiasm," Robotnik said. "One could mistakenly think I'm not out to kill you."

Sonic zipped from one side of his chair to the other. "You're definitely out to annoy me, hiding that ring."

"The ring's mine. So is the emerald."

"But you haven't gone to get the emerald yet," Sonic responded. "You know, I've been wondering about the Labyrinth."

Robotnik sole response was smiling and laughing cryptically.

Sonic flattened his ears. "All right, Eggman. What are you up to now?"

Robotnik's blue eyes glinted. "Sonic, you little pest! You don't even see my scheme. Soon, ultimate power will be within my grasp. And I shall be invincible!"

Sonic crossed his arms. "Ha! I may not know what your plan is, but it's never going to work."

The scientist dismissed this with a wave. "Keep wondering about the Labyrinth, hedgehog. You'll find out about it in good time..."

As he spoke, his heart unexpectedly leapt ahead in tachycardia so severe it could be felt as a tremor throughout his body. Sonic noticed.

"Are you ok, Doc? You don't look well."

The thought occurred to Robotnik to check his drink. He pressed a couple of buttons on one of his gloves and ran the infrared scanner over the glass. He then glanced at the chemical breakdown listing itself on the computer screen.

"Scopolamine," he recognized.

"What?" Sonic queried.

Robotnik did not elaborate. In very low doses scopolamine was used to treat motion sickness. In higher does it had a more nefarious street reputation as either an ostensible truth serum or sedating drug. He was feeling far too ill already to explain all these things.

"Suffice to say I'm going to pass out," he responded dourly.

The effects could be discerned in how the entire laboratory slanted sideways when he rose from his chair, yet Robotnik forced himself forwards. He stumbled, but managed to reach the cot on the far side of the laboratory. His vision had duplicated strangely as he fell onto the bed. Where Sonic stood were now two blue hedgehogs, watching with equal worry in their eyes.

"Bring help..." the scientist said, hoarsely, "Both of you."

The two Sonics looked dubious, but they dashed off accordingly.

This left Robotnik alone, and he suddenly cursed his lack of forethought in sending Sonic away. Everything spun around him like a carousel. He shut his eyes against it only for the sense of vertigo to follow him, persistently, into the darkness.

"...find what Mephiles wants, and we're out of here."

Had Snively and Westwood returned? He opened his eyes and thought he could make them out near the computers, Snively being the speaker. When the images of the soldiers merged and morphed incoherently into that of two crowing and fighting roosters, however, he decided it was all a product of his drugged imagination and he did not wish to deal with it.

Robotnik could not recall anymore how he had happened to this state. Throughout that half-conscious twilight he still envisioned Snively and Westwood were there, in the furthest reaches of the laboratory, although he encountered no clarity of meaning in their sentences anymore. Every once in awhile he heard the name Mephiles spoken by Snively's voice in some context, the foreign lilt of it seeming to attract the attention of his delirious mind. It held a soft, conspicuous tone at once meaningful and meaningless. He felt inclined to close his eyes again, yet found no relief in the action.

Somehow he perceived a clock ticking in nothingness, amidst a swirl of fragile pink petals reminiscent of cascading cherry blossoms; at some point this was distorted into gemlike translucency, with the hands now spinning counterclockwise. These fitful hallucinations competed with growing drowsiness, till unconsciousness overtook him at last.

The next Robotnik knew, Stone was sitting beside him on the cot trying to rouse him. Sonic was also here, peeking up from the floor at him. The noxious effects were still like a fog, but they were already waning enough for him to be certain that neither she nor Sonic were a mirage.

"It's ok – Ivo," Stone was assuring. "It's me."

He gazed a bit dazedly at her. "I don't think I've ever told you how beautiful you are."

Stone, unfazed, laid a hand on his forehead. "Oh, now I know it must be some strong stuff."

"He's soft-boiled," declared Sonic.

"No I'm not," answered Robotnik, fighting to reorient himself, "I just have a bad headache...and you're aggravating it, hedgehog."

The jibe had raised the blood pressure just enough, though, to return color to his complexion; nonetheless he stayed lying down for a long moment to let his swirling thoughts settle. He was sure everything experienced during the stupor had been hallucinations, yet the recollection of one such figment nagged incessantly at him.

"Do you know if Snively and Westwood returned?"

"There was no one here except you when Sonic and I arrived," Stone answered.

Sonic, who had swiftly spun about the laboratory, noted however, "Someone was definitely digging through your lair."

"What about Orbot and Cubot? Wouldn't they have detected..." Stone began saying.

Robotnik interrupted her, "They were being too chatty so I decided to shut them off. Yet another human error of judgement!" He then recalled something else, and inquired, "What time is it?"

"About three-thirty," she replied.

"Damn it," he muttered. "Towers wanted me at his office for some reason half-an-hour ago."

Robotnik got up from the bed, but he swayed a bit on his feet. Stone held him by his shoulders.

"Are you well enough?" she asked with concern.

"I'm perfectly fine," he answered with a straight face. "I feel like I've been crushed by an elephant, but I'm sure I won't collapse from the migraine till I return here."

"How optimistic of you," Stone replied dubiously. "I'd ask who you suspect could've done this, but knowing you, you were probably typing computer code or something and totally oblivious."

"They were chaos energy graphs," he countered, "And right now I'm not sure who did this. It still needs to be analyzed."

"Some days you sound like Tails," Sonic piped up.

"Don't humor yourselves," the scientist responded to the hedgehog. It struck him suddenly that he had – reluctantly, perhaps – trusted Sonic to go find help. Well, but Sonic is a critter, he justified it to himself, though not to his satisfaction. It's like having to send the Lassie dog for help. Not like I seriously trust anyone. What else could I have done? And I was half-drugged at that point too.

In any event Robotnik left the laboratory without further conversation and, when Sonic had also run off, Stone turned her attention towards finding out who could have spiked the drink.

She dialed her business associate on her cell phone. He answered promptly.

"Yo, this Nack."

"This is Rouge."

"Hey beautiful, what can I do for you today?"

"Nack, who did you sell the scopolamine to?"

"No one!"

"Nack, you weasel. I know you've got a side stint selling this shit. Someone's used it on Robotnik to get into his lab, and I want to know who."

"What the hell? I don't know about that. Why are you so sure it's me?"

"You're the only one in Central City who has a supply of this, other than the government."

"Rouge, I swear it on my next commission. No one's bought any in the past three months."

"You think I'm batty enough to believe that?"

"Hey, you think I wouldn't tell you? I'd admit it, if only to see what'd end up happening to the guy who did that to the Doc. I'd be taking bets down at the club about who'd beat him up first – Dr. Robotnik or you. Everyone can see you're hot for each other a mile away."

She might have thought he was lying, were it not for the entreating quality of his adamancy. If it wasn't Nack though then it had to have been someone with access to the government's supply.

There was only one logical explanation she saw, then, and it only made her wonder more.

The halls of G.U.N.'s military headquarters always seemed so austere, Robotnik thought, the same perilous prestige of a courtroom. His steps could be heard echoing across the tile as he walked down the expansive corridor and reached Commander Towers' office.

He found Towers immersed in a telephone conversation. The military commander did not even acknowledge Robotnik's presence.

"You didn't?" Then, after a reasonable silence, "Well, why didn't you ask him?"

Robotnik stayed at the entrance, watching how the blood rose to Towers' face at whatever was responded on the other line.

"You imbeciles!" Towers slammed down the phone. Lamenting to himself, he then added, "How stupid can people be?"

Robotnik had a serious demeanor. "I've been telling you that for years."

Towers stared blankly at the scientist for about a minute; he stared back with expectance, and finally spoke again.

"You wanted to see me?"

"Uh...yes. I had, but it's a moot point now. Forget it."

"I was late because someone drugged my drink in the laboratory," informed Robotnik. "Scopolamine, according to my scanners. It appears whoever was responsible searched the lab... I was hallucinating through the ordeal, but I thought Major Westwood and Lieutenant Snively were present."

Towers picked up a pen and wrote something on a sheet of paper. "Duly noted," was his curt reply. "Have you told anyone else?"

"Only Agent Stone," replied Robotnik, evaluating the military commander briefly. "She found me when I was still under the effects."

"Very well," Towers said, "have her come see me."

As Robotnik made his way back to the field laboratory he reviewed the transpired events in his usual analytical way, and the more he did, the more troubling he found them. He was targeted, likely by the same person responsible for sabotaging the remote-controlled piranhas. However, possible reasons why abounded – everything from his illegal machinations to his top-secret scientific work – so pinning down the most probable was impossible. Towers' nonchalance of the whole matter was also greatly unsettling. It called keenly to a primordial fear of Robotnik's, wherein the caprice of those in power would move swifter than his plan for global takeover. He knew his perceived usefulness, like that of every human, was a fleeting thing; he might extend it in their eyes through intellect and astuteness, but sooner or later he would outlive it. He knew terribly well what awaited when he did.

Sadness entangled with frustration, and he was trying to determine his next move in this unpleasant game of strategy when he walked into the laboratory. He found his assistant Agent Stone reviewing some of his mathematical figures.

"Rouge – Towers wants to see you," he said as he sat down. "You know he didn't even seem surprised about what had happened to me."

"Ivo, you're a brilliant scientist...that's why there are many people who want to steal your inventions." Stone lingered on this for a moment. "I'm proud to work with you."

"What are you after, Rouge?"

The question surprised her. "I'm not after anything."

"No one shows so much kindness for another person without wanting something in return."

"I wanted to cheer you up."

He averted his eyes.

"He probably has a lot on his mind," added Stone. "I'm sure he doesn't diminish what happened to you."

Robotnik shook his head, as if trying to dispel his concerns. "I think Towers is upset Sonic hasn't been trapped yet. As I keep explaining, it's a simple matter of time. That's all it is – time."

Stone shrugged. "Right, but no matter how you spin it you still haven't managed to catch him. And we both know you don't intend to."

"Don't bank on that," he replied quickly, "I just see fit to study him in the field for the present. If you're implying I have any sympathy towards the plight of that hedgehog..."

"I said nothing either way," Stone said demurely.

Robotnik responded nothing to this, feeling no less morose. His assistant went on, "I'd better get over to the commander's office. It's late; I'll see you tomorrow Ivo."

When Stone entered Towers' office, she found the military commander shuffling through some paperwork.

"Commander Towers?"

He glanced at her. "Sit down, darling Rouge," he said pointing to a chair directly before his desk, "Dr. Robotnik says his drink was drugged with what he determined to be scopolamine, and you found him."

Stone remained standing and said, "He was unconscious on the cot when I arrived. The laboratory looked overturned."

"How did you happen by there?"

"I had forgotten some papers at the lab."

During this debriefing the intercom lit up; Towers pressed a button on it before inquiring, "What is it?"

"Lieutenant Snively and Major Westwood are here, Commander," was the response ushered forth.

"Have them wait till I send for them," Towers replied.

He turned back to Stone and said:

"Although scopolamine's psychedelic effects mean it's doubtful either of them were present, all allegations of this nature must be taken seriously."

Stone was surprised. "You don't know then, who is responsible?"

Towers studied her before countering her question with another. "Who do you think is responsible, Agent Stone?"

There was a long moment where she did not reply.

"Go on," he prompted.

"I presumed the president had ordered it," Stone answered honestly.

Towers leant back. "We would have no need to search his laboratory. We have you for that."

She nodded briskly.

Towers rose from his desk and walked around behind her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and began moving down her arms, massaging as he progressed.

"Please stop, Commander..." she began.

He interrupted her. "Rouge, sweetheart... You and I are perfect for each other. I can give you anything you want; ask for anything and its yours. Just say you will come to me when I call for you... You are a treasure to have and looking at you makes my body tremble with desire."

Stone took two steps away from him and said, "Commander... My answer is no. I don't love you, nor do I have any interest in a sex affair with you."

"It doesn't matter to me whether or not you love me. I don't love you either, but the sight of you brings out my basic instincts," Towers replied straightforwardly.

"No," she repeated.

"You do realize that I could take you by force? Nobody would dare question me or believe you if you said it wasn't consensual?"

"Do you have a selective memory, commander? Have you forgotten that I have also been trained in combat tactics and know various ways to kill. We both share an instinct for sex, but I have a belief in revenge, which I would dutifully carry out when you least expect it."

She stood there, staring at him, awaiting a reply but he said nothing. His demeanor stiffened a bit and he dismissed her:

"You may leave now, Agent Stone. Until further notice."

When Stone had left, he pressed a button on the intercom. "You may send them in."

Shortly thereafter, Snively and Westwood walked into the office and saluted. Towers spoke tersely.

"Don't let Robotnik out of your sight. Watch him like a hawk. I want to know his every move, and report to me directly! Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

Chapter 22 - Shifting Priorities

Early in the morning, Agent Rouge Stone walked to the grocery store that had been assigned to the people in her residential area.

Ever since the food rationing had started, people were forbidden to go to their store of preference; the justification being that it created more equality among the masses if everyone got the same amount of products, and the only way to control that was to assign a permanent store. The only way anyone could be serviced at a different store would be for them to move to a different neighborhood and then get government documentation reassigning them to another servicing post.

Ivo called it "bureaucracy at its finest" in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. To his assistant, Stone, it was an annoyance.

It was customary that she be permitted ahead of the line, being part of the upper-level military, so her surprise was unimaginable when the guard stopped her from surpassing a very long line of grim faced people waiting for their turn to be let in the door.

"Sorry miss," the guard addressed her, " you need to go to the end of the line."

She pulled out her military identification card and showed it to him.

"I have been assigned preference, soldier...just as you have," she countered.

"My sincere apology, Agent Stone," he said looking from the ID to her, "but you have been stricken from the list of privilege."

She stared at him in a temporary state of shock, and then found her voice. "By whose orders?" she asked.

"Commander Towers," the guard answered, and then added, "Please step to the back before you cause a riot."

Stone was still trying to process this new turn of events as she dutifully made her way to the end of the long line of people. It was approximately six yards long and moving very slowly. Then she saw Dr. Robotnik.

"What are you doing here, Ivo? Don't you get your ration of food delivered to the laboratory?"

"Occasionally I come around to behold the magnificence of equality wrought by our leadership," Robotnik said affectedly.

Stone held her tongue.

At that moment, the guard appeared at the grocery store's door. "No more bread. Supply has run out."

He slammed the door shut without any more of an explanation.

The people, having been through this scene many times previously, and knowing that protests would simply end with jail time, began to disperse in disappointed acceptance, except for a dumbfounded Rouge Stone.

"All out?" she questioned, aghast, "How can you be all out?"

Robotnik looked unfazed. "Ah, the lowly masses can only aspire to the grandeur of generosity shown by our leaders! It takes a genius, like myself, to realize what's actually going on." The scientist gave a sly little smile. "Anyway I have work to return to: plotting my newest hedgehog eradication scheme, determining how best to retrieve my chaos emerald, and opening more splogs."


"Spam blogs. Blogs full of spam."

"Why do you need blogs full of...nevermind," Stone decided in a hurry, "Look, you have the ring. If that unlocks the gem, and the gem is somehow what you need to take over the world, why don't you go get it already?"

"Patience dear Rouge," said Robotnik. "All at the proper time."

The rest of the day transpired without any event of note, and felt extraordinarily quiet considering all that had been happening of late. Routine tracing of chaos energy, mapping out Sonic's movements around Poloy Forest like one might a wolf with a radio collar; it could be followed all the way to Stone's house.

For the purposes of their reports, Robotnik claimed Sonic might be going underground to some den and thus shielding the trail even from the acuity of his drones, and as Towers had only layman's knowledge of how to read the formulae and measurements himself the scientist's crafted explanation was accepted. It was a gesture Stone remained grateful for, yet she could not comprehend exactly why Robotnik would do it other than for a friendship he vehemently denied having with the little hedgehog.

Later that evening, Stone had left Robotnik at the laboratory working late as usual, and rushed to an obscure spot in Station Square, the park area located at the center of town. She had promised Nack to meet him there, as he had something to discuss in private with her. She arrived first, and sat on a bench thinking about the day's events.

The fact her name had been stripped off the list of preferred services was more than annoying to her; it made her rethink the road the government was traversing.

"All this because I rejected Towers sexual advances." She mumbled to herself, "...maybe all those dissidents who oppose the regime are correct after all."

She was so deep in her thoughts that she didnt even see when Nack arrived.

"Hey girl," he said, placing his hand on her shoulder, "You dreaming about the Doc again?"

Stone was startled momentarily and jumped up before she realized who it was. "Oh Nack! I'm sorry... No...I was thinking about everything that has happened today... You know what Towers did? He stripped me of privileged credentials!"

"Yeah, I heard about that...word is all around that he's using his position to get some bed action...he's really pissed that you said no."

"Well, anyway," Stone sighed and said, "What did you want to chat with me about?"

"Rouge baby... You know I always want someone to know where I'm know... In case something happens..." his voice trailed off.

Stone's eyes opened wide. "What are you up to now, Nack?"

He looked at her with a serious look usually reserved for solemn moments; Stone knew when Nack stopped joking, there was a big deal ahead.

"I'm meeting a group that has sprung out of the army. They're part of a dissent group and there's business afoot."

"That sounds extremely dangerous," Stone replied, "please reconsider this..."

"Everything has some form of danger or risk," was the answer.

She felt a sudden chill and briefly trembled.

"Nack...don't could be a trap. You're like a brother to me..." her voice cracked, filled with emotion. Nack took hold of her and embraced her.

"Yes Rouge. You are family. My sister in spirit and for always," he said, "but you know I've been doing this sort of business for many years. There's money in it."

Stone stepped back, wiped tears from her cheeks and said, "Please be careful Nack."

Nack nodded, and turning around walked away into the night.

Stone stood there for a while thinking, until the night air grew chillier; and she became aware of her tiredness. Pulling her jacket tightly around her body, she ran to her car and drove home.

She scarcely noticed the men in a black van that had parked a block down, who had watched her meeting with binoculars, started their vehicle as soon as she did hers, and kept low-key distance as they followed.

Nightfall near the laboratory found the surroundings still; that is, till the leaves shook in a gale as Sonic the hedgehog raced by and halted at the building.

Sonic tackled the window lightly a couple of times, then zipped to the locked entrance. "Yo, Eggman!"

Sonic heard Robotnik grumbling inside the laboratory, but shortly thereafter the door opened and the scientist appeared wearing a smoking-jacket and looking quite peeved.

"It's two in the morning, hedgehog; what do you want?"

"There's this dark van with some guys in G.U.N. uniform outside of Rouge's place. They look fishy. Tails, Blaze and I offered to beat them up but Rouge said not unless they try anything..."

Robotnik yawned, and fishing one of his gloves from a pocket, poked at a couple of buttons; a small detachment of three or four drones lifted from the roof of the laboratory and flew off in the direction of Stone's house.

Sonic watched them recede into the night. "Do you always have those eggs ready to fly?"

"They take turns on guard duty," Robotnik responded with boredom. "Now if there's nothing else, I'm going back to bed."

"Seriously? The night is young."

"Humans, unlike hedgehogs, are mostly diurnal by nature. Another one of our flaws."

Sonic's ears pricked up with an idea. "So if we run into the city real late like around now, would there be less people around? I still like the idea of playing tag on those winding streets..."

"You run into the city at your own risk. I'm not following you there. Good night hedgehog; I'm going to eliminate you in the morning."

So saying, Robotnik went back into the laboratory, and Sonic zipped with his usual liveliness back to Stone's house.

Chapter 23 - A Past Wrought of Secrets

The next few weeks passed uneventfully, and the scopolamine incident was pushed aside.

That particular day Stone had gone off on her lunch break early, and had not yet returned to the laboratory. Robotnik had a penchant for his noontime cup of coffee, so he walked to the corner café as he customarily did to get his drink.

The clerk at the counter had a look on her face that Robotnik surmised to be either sleepy or bored. Nevertheless, he figured if she was standing there, she was obliged to do her job.

"I'll have a medium sized latte," he ordered, adding, "with steamed goat's milk."

"I'm sorry sir... There is no goat's milk anymore. I could add synthetic creamer if you don't have any sensitivities or allergies to synthetic foods, do you?" she said this last statement with a wide eyed look practically begging for understanding.

"What do you mean, you have no goat's milk?" Robotnik questioned angrily.

"In-Ag. The goats are fed on wheat grain..." she explained.

"...and because there's no wheat, there are fewer goats, ergo no goat's milk. Hogwash! Feed the goats barley," snapped Robotnik.

"I'm sorry, sir..." stammered the cashier. Robotnik interrupted her.

"I don't blame you. You're a feeble little pawn in a broken system. I blame the dimwitted miser who decided it was a good idea to have a wheat shortage."

His words had already drawn the attention of the burly soldier standing guard on the side. The soldier walked over to Robotnik menacingly, his eyes hard as steel. "Mister, I need to see your identification."

"It's Doctor," the scientist retorted, visibly annoyed as he whipped out the ID card.

The soldier looked it over and his demeanor instantly became more pleasant.

"Oh, Dr. Robotnik! My apologies," he said, handing it back, "we can never be too careful. As someone of your esteem knows, enemies of state can be insidious in undermining authority..."

"Yes, yes, long live our glorious leadership. I want my goat's milk latte," replied Robotnik, turning back to the flustered cashier.

The cashier was visibly tired; she placed her hand on her forehead and said, "Sir... I truly apologize. I have no way of getting goat's milk, or cow's milk for that matter... It is all being replaced by powdered milk."

"Well then," relented the scientist, "Give me the coffee black with two lumps of sugar."

"I'm sorry sir, we don't have sugar anymore either. They've confiscated the farmland to make way for new wheat crops..."

Robotnik suppressed a smile. "Sugarcane grows in the tropics, a climate inhospitable to wheat. Our rulers truly are a gift to the nation, to be able to make plants grow wherever they decree. ...again, not your doing."

The cashier left to get the coffee, which promised to be far too bitter for his epicurean taste. Meanwhile, Robotnik found himself thinking about his assistant Stone.

His thoughts wandered to her a little too frequently for his liking. He wondered where she was right now.

Agent Stone returned to the laboratory when Dr. Robotnik had already left on lunch.

Good, she thought, as she brought up the password portal on his computers.

It had become a staple every couple of days to try her luck at cracking the code, whenever Robotnik was absent. She silently envied his apparent ease of password-hacking in gaining access to those bank accounts, though at the same time she knew it was merely him telling his computers to run through all combinations till they gained access. Doing it manually was an aggravating trial and error.

Picking the lock on a vault is easier than this shit, she thought, from experience.

"What is AI RAM?" she asked, turning to Orbot.

"AI is an acronym for Artificial Intelligence. RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory. Letters together can form different words. These words can be different in semantics. Together, they are the password. Running back again." Orbot ended with its sharp beep.

"It's not AI RAM. Yet you say it is." Stone looked back at the password prompt and the input caret flashing with expectance.

"AI RAM... Air A.M... Like Air or Airline?"






"Biology," she decided, with certainty.


Stone mulled this over for a bit. "What is the strongest type of password?"

Orbot answered, "One that you will always remember, but no one else can guess."

As cryptic as ever, thought Stone. "Can you give me a hint?"

"Did Pythagoras, or Euclid, or Archimedes need a hint?"

"Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes. P, E, A." Stone realized she was grasping at straws. "Pea?"


"What made you think that was the password?" Cubot piped up.

"I forgot the password," she said evenly.

"How could you possibly forget that password?" Cubot countered.

The significance Cubot's scripted reply must have had to Robotnik was lost on her.

She drew in a breath and held herself steady. "What does AI RAM refer to?" she asked once more.

"AI is an acronym for Artificial Intelligence. RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory. Letters together can form different words. These words can be different in semantics. Together, they are the password. Running back again."

"Do you mean anagrams?"

"Together they are the password. Running back again," restated Orbot.

"I need some sort of a hint."

"Did Pythagoras, or Euclid, or Archimedes need a hint?"

"Again with the ancient Greeks," she scowled.

Orbot beeped again. A new thought occurred to Stone.

"Orbot, how do you say the phrase 'running back again' in ancient Greek?"

"Palindromos," stated Orbot.

Stone slowly realized.

Turning back to the keyboard she now typed the palindrome, airam spelled backwards, and read it aloud:


The pointer cursor swirled for a long moment. She had begun to think it had frozen, when at last it opened access to the network.

She could barely hold back an ecstatic cheer. Laid bare at last were his machinations; not solely his plan for world domination, but his steps to achieve it, and Stone could now begin to appreciate the sinister elegance of it all.

"How can one man be orchestrating another world war... from backstage?"

With delicate intricacy, like the precision of his technology, he had gained access to computer servers around the globe. As she was marvelling over this, her attention was torn away from the data displayed on the main screen to something on the left side one.

A looped film played here, while beside it the audio wavelength was being analyzed by the computer. There was also something else open – a photograph in black and white.

Her attention was first drawn to the man in the film, and how much he looked like Dr. Robotnik. There was a resemblance in the features, especially around the nose and eyes. Yet the man in the film looked haggard and bruised, sitting wearily in a chair, with the mere act of lifting his head seemingly an effort.

It took a moment for Stone to notice he was bound by chains to the chair.

He was speaking to someone off-screen. "Do you think you will triumph now that I gave you what you wanted? You have all the answers you sought and no wisdom to accompany it. All of you will be destroyed, along with your beloved planet Earth as you know it. That's...all I have to say."

A man spoke off-screen. It was indistinctly captured by the microphone, so it could have been anyone, however the word itself could be heard.


There was the sharp sound of a rifle about to fire, and then – the tape rewound. The computer seemed to be reviewing the single word 'Ready' isolating it from the audio and tracing the rise and fall of its wave.

Stone's eyes were drawn to the photograph. It was the same man in the film, only uninjured and happy, posing with two children in what was evidently a family picture. There was a girl of about 15, and a boy who could not have been older than 5.

"My God," she whispered. "Who was this...?"

"He was my grandfather – Dr. Gerald Robotnik."

She turned to find her coworker standing at the doorway. Robotnik's expression was despondent, devoid of any arrogance; it was such a contrast from his typical demeanor that she only gazed at him in wordless wonderment.

Without saying more, he walked over and silently switched off the computer playing back the film. He turned to do the same with the other screen bearing the photograph, but instead he lingered, as if he had become lost in a memory.

Stone spoke up, self-consciously. "I'm sorry, Ivo. I didn't mean..."

She would have said to pry, but stopped herself. That's what she had been doing, hadn't it? Her unease was eclipsed strangely by guilt.

He gave a small, nearly imperceptible, shake of his head. "No... I...would like to tell you." Robotnik looked back up at her. "It's not right that no one knows. They hid it from the world."

He told her the whole history, which she listened to without interruption.

"I was too young to remember my parents when they passed away," recounted Robotnik. "My older sister Maria and I were raised by our grandfather. He worked as a professor at the University of Westopolis but his discoveries in the field of quantum physics, in particular an unknown form of natural radiation he named chaos energy, caught the eye of many in power.

"He was approached by the government requesting he research the effects of chaos energy upon DNA. It had the capacity to be either an elixir of youth or a weapon stronger than the atomic bomb. They billed it as a way to extend the human lifespan. Mankind had tasted the fruit of knowledge, now they wanted the fruit of life as well. My grandfather initially said no. He believed neither immortality, nor mass death, should be viewed as a plaything.

"His views changed when Maria fell ill. They said she had developed a rare, incurable disease. It tipped the scale for my grandfather, and he agreed to work for them if by so doing he could help Maria and find a cure for thousands more. From then on, we lived at a classified military base, codenamed the Ark. Much of the early research conducted there centered on exposing animals to the radiation – in particular hedgehogs of all things – and on studying the energy levels detected within this ancient ring."

He produced the gold ring from his coat pocket. It glinted faintly in the dim laboratory lights.

"Then that's why G.U.N. had that ring in a top-secret warehouse," Stone realized.

"The whole chaos energy project was more than top secret," Robotnik said. "It was a force so powerful and dangerous that the research had been sanctioned quietly; rumor held not even the president knew about it. But science is a constant; politics is a variable. Human desires are as fickle as the moon's sway over the ocean. When the tide shifted, so did the official stance, and everything and everyone was swept away."

His words were tinged by melancholy.

"One day the military burst into the Ark to erase every trace of the project, from documents to witnesses. My sister was shot in front of me. My grandfather...I never saw again. My family – the only friends I ever had – gone, in a matter of moments... They told me it was rogue soldiers attacking the base...a terrible uprising had been quelled that day...that I could make my family proud by serving the nation as my grandfather had. Yet it made no sense. It was like a mathematical equation with an incorrect answer. For many years my tormented mind questioned how it was I alone had been spared. Until one day, I decided to solve the equation myself. I hacked into the military databases...and I found my answer."

Stone said nothing. Silence had overtaken the small laboratory for a moment, and he seemed distant as he continued his tale.

"As a child, I looked up to my grandfather because of all the great things he accomplished in his life. He was my hero, and I wanted to be a great scientist like him," Robotnik reminisced. "He dedicated his life to making the world better for humanity, the government promised him a chance to do that, and in the end they killed him to keep a lie. My sister never even had the disease; they lied about that as well, and she became collateral damage. They spared me because they had never seen a child with such a high IQ."

A sour note now crept into his voice:

"They planned to indoctrinate me. They thought they could use me, like they had used my family. I decided to use them." Embittered darkness swirled in his eyes. "I examined the inefficiency of a world where brawn trumped brain and I decided to use technology to resolve that inefficiency. I would wrest power from those illogical governments, by any means necessary, and establish my own empire. Humans are treacherous and irrational; throughout history, they let kingdoms and councils decide who lives and dies frivolously. They go about their daily lives with self-righteous hypocrisy and don't care about the pain of their fellow man until – lo and behold! – it happens to them. For that, I'll surround myself with objects of my own making, who will do what they're programmed to do, will never act irrational, will never pretend to care because they can't care anyway..."

His voice shook, and he turned away from her towards the image, frozen in time, of his grandfather and sister on the screen. When he spoke again, his voice was softer:

"They were the last two human beings I cared about...and when they died, so did my faith in humanity."

Stone walked over to stand beside him. "Even if you believe everyone is against you, know that I'll always remain by your side. Remember that."

Robotnik drew his gaze from the photograph, and their eyes met. There was a strange tension in the moment for both, where he and she realized how close they stood to one another, their eyes lingering on each other's as if there were words not yet spoken or a passion unrevealed. It was electrifying, and yet...

As swiftly as it had happened, that moment was lost fleetingly when he forced his eyes from hers.

"I'm sure," he replied, bitter and cynical as ever.

Chapter 24 - A Present Woven of Lies

Nothing was mentioned about the divulgence the next day, but Agent Stone thought about it. She knew she ought to press Dr. Robotnik more as to the finer details of his world takeover scheme and inform G.U.N. straightaway, but she could see he was overly pensive too.

Some part of her did not wish to ask more. Vulnerability did not come easy to Robotnik. He kept strictly to his work, and seemed in a hurry when he went out to pursue Sonic in the afternoon.

He did not appear to begrudge her gaining access to his computer network at all. In fact she was certain she could sign back in unopposed, sift through all his secret data herself, and piece together the technicalities of his plans; however it seemed a chore not worth the effort. At least that was what she convinced herself.

Regardless Stone still had to report back to the commander, yet she found it hard to align her duty with these revelations. She was not naïve enough to believe G.U.N. did not torture or execute its prisoners, but she had the impression such ill treatment was reserved for great threats to the nation. Deceiving otherwise loyal citizens, only to discard them in obscurity at the end of their usefulness to the government, and orchestrating a massacre of their own people...

She shook her head to herself as she walked down the hall to Commander Towers' office. It was too outlandish to be true.

Robotnik had to be wrong.

Yet the film of his grandfather's execution remained as a query to her, and Stone was pondering if she ought to mention it to the commander when she almost bumped into Lieutenant Snively.

"Stone," greeted Snively, "just who I was looking for." Before she had a chance to respond, Snively added, "I've been watching, more than once, Dr. Robotnik set the hedgehog free."

"If you tell the commander," said Stone, "I'll tell him how you helped me steal the ring."

Snively hesitated.

"You told me yourself, Snively..." Stone added, "He knows I'm the thief and he's overlooking it because the president wants me to spy on Robotnik, and that's more use to him at the moment. But he doesn't know anything about you."

"He'll be happy to hear what I saw. He won't care about anything I've done."

"You know him better than I," Stone demurred.

The statement appeared to make Snively waver. Stone waited patiently, letting silence stir the void, till the lieutenant spoke up.

"I guess you really care about Dr. Robotnik, huh?"

Her body tensed.

"You're going to all these lengths to save his hide," Snively added.

"I have a mission, and that's to find out everything I can about his world domination plot. Emotions don't play a part in it." As she said this, she realized just how much like the scientist she sounded, and how poorly the attempt came across on her part. "If you get him in hot water over this we'll never find out the full extent of his plans."

"Could be true. Then again, could not be true. You're a good couple for each other though. You're both smart enough to know what to keep secret."

This was cryptic enough for her to question. "Such as?"

Snively was matter-of-fact in reply. "Never confide what you fear greatest or value most. Those will be the first things used against you."

Stone thought about this and Snively added, "I guess I can overlook Robotnik's antics for the sake of a greater good. But if he keeps on like that, the commander won't be happy. And I'm not going to keep secrets then, one way or the other."

"Must be easy for you," said Stone a bit wistfully, "having your uncle as your commanding officer."

Snively, however, was somber. "It's not so easy when you never get any of the credit."

"Towers is expecting me," she said simply as she walked around him and headed to the commander's office.

Stone walked in to see Towers polishing a pistol. He looked up at her, and glanced slowly downwards, undressing her with his eyes as she saluted him.

"Agent Stone... As you're aware, President Michaels has been on a diplomatic voyage to Spagonia this past week, but he would like a personal meeting with you about the Robotnik situation when he gets back," said the commander, adding with an almost amused smile, "He'd like to know if you've had any luck dealing with that maniacal scientist."

Stone disliked Towers' disparagement of her coworker. It was certainly not the first time she had heard him referred to by others in such terms, but she could see now Robotnik's eccentricities and aloofness were a product of inner hurt. If he had a hatred of humanity, it was due to what he saw as betrayal by human society.

"I've managed to get into his computers," admitted Stone.

"You have, now?" Towers' eyes shot towards her with a glint.

"There's nothing of interest there."

Why she immediately lied, she scarcely knew herself. Perhaps it was out of spite for how she saw them treating Robotnik, using his scientific skills yet demeaning him behind his back. As soon as the words had left her mouth she feared retribution, should Towers realize it was an untruth; he did not appear to detect it, prompting her to speak again.

"I think he's changed the password already," Stone compounded the fantasy she found herself weaving.

"What did you see on his network?"

"Generic world maps, the design of a flag. He has a large selection of music playlists," she added, to a chuckle from Towers as he resumed maintenance on the handgun.

"Nothing more?"

"He had old childhood photographs as well." Stone thought for a moment before venturing to ask, "What can you tell me about the military base codenamed the Ark?"

"It was the site of a terrible tragedy. Rogue soldiers tried to take it over and slaughtered most who were stationed there."

"What were they after?"

"Why do you ask, Agent Stone?" Towers was still examining the pistol.

"Dr. Robotnik used to live at the Ark as a child, didn't he? Was that how he became orphaned?"

"Yes," responded Towers, "His grandfather and sister both died amidst the insurrection on-site."

Stone went silent. "His grandfather died on-site?"

The commander glanced up slowly towards her.

Stone felt sudden unease, the kind that came on the heels of a possible miscalculation. She ignored the feeling obstinately and spoke again.

"He lost his whole family and believes the government is at fault."

"It doesn't detract from his treasonous aspirations," Towers scoffed. "He's insane."

A tiny spark of indignation flared in Stone. "But Commander, in many ways...he's justified."

He snapped the pistol cartridge suddenly, making her nearly jump.

His voice softened, though his eyes remained harsh. "Don't feel bad for him if you do. No tragedy is worth letting the world burn in fire," he paused, "or turning enemy to the state."

A shiver of fear ran down her spine.

At that moment, Lieutenant Snively appeared at the door. He saluted the commander and remained at taut attention till Towers beckoned him forward wordlessly.

"That will be all for now Agent Stone," Towers dismissed her, his demeanor a total return to pleasantness.

As she stepped out of the office, Stone reviewed the conversation with Commander Towers over in her mind, and was so deep in thought that she hardly realized when her phone rang.

It was Dr. Robotnik.

"Agent Stone," he began, getting to the point, "I know it's rather late, but I was hoping you could return to the lab. I wanted to discuss something with you in person."

"What about?" she asked.

"The triumph of technology," replied Robotnik enigmatically, and hung up.

Chapter 25 - A Future Hewn of Flame

Agent Rouge Stone arrived at the laboratory to find Dr. Robotnik working on his computers.

In the shadowy semidarkness of the room, the glare from the monitor screens gave an almost eerie light to Robotnik's features. As always, he seemed consumed by his analyses, lost in distant calculations that inevitably took on sinister undertones from their purpose being withheld. When he saw her, however, this semblance diminished into gentility.

"You know for a moment, I imagined you wouldn't be interested in hearing what I had to say."

"I said I'd be by your side. I meant it," replied Stone. While she said this, her eyes glided to the monitors and the world maps they displayed.

Robotnik stood from the office chair. "I wonder how reliable you are."

It was uttered as a thought expressed subconsciously. Stone stopped herself from answering.

"As you know," Robotnik began, "my computer programs elegantly surpass the average. They are a thing of genius."

She started to interject, but the scientist continued undaunted.

"Modern mankind has embraced a digital society. Not to the full degree I'd like them to, but still. However, there's one thing left for such a society to survive."

"And what would that be?" asked Stone.

"Sufficient cybersecurity," Robotnik replied bluntly. "Over the course of the last few years, I was able to gain access to all the computer networks that allow current society to function."

Such a lofty claim took a moment for Stone to process. "How?"

"Have you ever heard of something called a digital handshake? It's a simple transfer of data allowing computers to communicate. It tells a system that the address it's about to send an e-mail to, for instance, is the intended recipient."

Stone thought this over as Robotnik elaborated:

"Essentially, my sophisticated computers tricked their poorly programmed ones. All they had to do was intercept and emulate the code to be granted access. Occasionally networks are linked by monopolies too, speeding up the process. For instance, few realize the space satellites used for broadcasting are shared by television networks, and there are only a handful of satellite providers globally; take over the satellite providers' computers, and you can effectively knock out all TV across the planet. Many video streaming services share hosting providers. Now extend that premise to banking systems, transportation – pretty much everything with a digital presence – and re-consolidate them all under me."

He had a small smile now.

"World conquest begins online. Again, people think something is impossible just because they haven't been able to do it yet. They fail to realize just how simple it is."

"So by taking over the computers," Stone realized, "you could potentially destroy the world economy."

"This is where the chaos emerald comes in," Robotnik affirmed. "It's an energy source great enough to power computer servers on a global scale. In one fell swoop, I'll control all the world's infrastructure: banking, electricity, water, telecommunications, transportation, military silos. Shutting them all at once will throw the planet into chaos. Then I shall appear on prime-time and make my demands." He said it so easily.

"And you think the government will bow to you?" Stone remarked disbelievingly, "They'll put a bounty on your head."

"They'll refuse of course, because humans are dumb. So I shoot off a few of their missiles and obliterate some nonessential but impressive targets. Bear in mind the people are starving by now due to commerce and banking at a standstill, and with no distraction from their woes because I control mass entertainment as well. At least half of the populace will support giving in to my demands, if they feel they have a better chance of being fed that way."

"They'll say it's bullshit," countered Stone.

Robotnik spoke casually. "There's a fine line between bullshit and manure. The only difference is whether you can get people to give you money for it."

She eyed him. "What do you mean?"

"For people to willingly be conquered," Robotnik explained, maintaining his suavity, "you need to offer them an advantage; some way they could supposedly benefit from a coup d'état. Which is something the current administration does not do for them, not even now. It's the difference between having to draft soldiers or sitting back as the populace pick up arms themselves."

Stone was now silent as she pondered this, and Robotnik spoke on wistfully.

"They say long ago, before either of us were born, this was a beautiful country. It was like that for many years. People believed it would be like that forever."

"You truly believe taking over can bring that back?" said Stone skeptically.

"The current government has done more damage in the past few years than my ingenious, worthwhile, well-executed plans could ever do."

"Ivo, neither of us really know what it was like before we were born. Neither of us remember it. There's nothing to emulate...the history books are all new and have very little written about the nation's past."

"So we write our own future," he replied.

He spun around with a wave, and the computers responded by laying out a hologram before them both. It shimmered ethereal, like a gray apparition; a small rendering of a large and futuresque city, and standing as its centerpiece an ovoid skyscraper that towered as a great wonder above even the tallest buildings.

"It looks like an egg," remarked Stone.

"You can thank Sonic for that one. I had difficulty deciding on the architecture; so why not bring in something new. A new fashion for a new age," added Robotnik.

It most certainly would have to be a new age, what with the almost otherworldly beautiful design. Stone could see familiarity in it though, particularly the rise of the land. "Is this Central City?"

"Yes – a projection of what it would look like in the future under my dominion. It will become the planetary capital."

Gesturing to the ovoid building like an urban planner outlining an ambitious project, he explained further:

"I'll consolidate most of the government offices here, with plenty of space for computer servers, information distribution, high court and correctional facilities somewhere on the middle floors, and most importantly power generation. By this time I should have taken most if not all of the planet, so it'll be far easier to defend a single fortress from unruly people than several interspersed centers of command."

He was as enthusiastic discussing his schemes as he was his inventions, an almost childlike enthrallment imagining management of his envisioned conquest in the manner of a strategic game. Stone listened as attentively she could, the grayness of the future becoming clearer and darker in his painting.

"I'll dispense with the inefficiency of human capacities and institute my computer algorithms to govern. All public order will be handled by specially programmed drones. Likewise, entertainment for the masses shall be generated through machine code or, when applicable, public spectacle of dissenters' fates – because no longer will they be hidden away from sight; my empire will be quite open on that point. Human usefulness will be measured through service in the new factories and production centers – they'll be around about here. In the tradition of all great dictators I intend to rename Central City after myself – Robotropolis – it has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you say? It will be a world of precision and control."

Her eyes drifted away from the city to where Poloy Forest would be located, only to find the woods absent.

"Where is Green Hills?"

"One must account for population growth."

"Sonic won't like that."

He gave a slight chuckle, and with a wave dismissed the hologram into nothingness. "Sonic is a little animal from another time who shouldn't even be here."

"In his time, the meadowland was there," she observed.

He studied her briefly. "That could mean anything, Agent Stone."

"It could also mean you're destined to fail."

"An effort must be made," declared Robotnik optimistically.

"Except... It's a dystopia," Stone replied.

"Maybe it's what the people deserve. You can't tell me we don't already live in one," Robotnik asserted. "If dystopia is a given in human nature, then I may as well be in charge."

"Who programs the computers, Dr. Robotnik?"

He stiffened noticeably. Stone shook her head.

"Why reveal so much to me?" she said instead.

He was quiet for a long while, as if contemplating the question. "I suppose I feel you're someone who can appreciate my vision," he responded, at last.

Somehow they had come towards each other again. It was like magnetism drew them together, an insatiable pull that only got stronger the longer they spent in each others' presence. Desire lingered in the air like an electrical charge. They were so close, so damned close.

"I can understand your reasons, Ivo. But trying to take over... It's insanity."

"They say Aristotle claimed a touch of insanity is present in all genius."

"Suppose you succeed," she pursued. "It'll change the world drastically."

"Ever notice how changing the world is always said like a positive, except when someone means it? The system refuses to change," he answered, "So we'll change the system."

"Not like this. It will cause war and ravage the nation. It will set everything ablaze." Her eyes drifted unconsciously to his lips and she forced them back to his eyes. His gazed back, deep into hers, almost enraptured.

"Do you really want to see the world burn in fire?" she murmured.

"From where I'm standing," he whispered back, "it already is."

Unexpectedly Snively walked in. The moment ended as quickly as if the current had been cut.

"Hey people," Snively intoned obliviously, "What were the two of you talking about?"

Dr. Robotnik turned to him, entirely casual in his reply. "We were discussing science stuff. Way above your pay grade, dimwit."

"What the fuck do you want, Snively?" snapped Stone.

Snively seemed to retreat slightly. "Whoa, what are you – in a bad mood?"

"Fuck you," Stone answered, and stepped away to review some irrelevant paperwork off to the side.

"Get to the point of your visit Snively," said Robotnik with impatience.

"Well..." said Snively, "I'm here because the Commander would like another update on how the hunt for the creature is going." Yet as he said this, he glanced with suspicion from Robotnik to Stone.

"Tell him he'll have it by tomorrow morning," replied Robotnik, "and if there's nothing else, we're extremely busy; so go away."

When Snively had gone, for once without loitering, Stone glanced again at Robotnik. He was back to gazing at the maps on the computer screen pensively, almost crestfallen.

"Ivo..." she began to say.

"No," he cut her off, "on second thought, you're right. Maybe my vision of the future is too much a fantasy for anyone else to understand."

He sounded distant again, the old cynicism now returning to berate himself for having shared. She once more felt sorry for him. It superceded the main, duplicitous reason she had been placed as his assistant somehow; she had all the information she needed of his conspiracy, spoken from his own mouth, yet to think of betraying Robotnik to the authorities she was assailed by waves of sudden guilt.

Maybe she should tell him instead. Maybe she should admit she was sent as a spy.

"Ivo, I..." her voice trailed.

"What?" He looked up from the maps.

She started to search for words, and could come up with none suitable. At the same time her mind fought itself, the chaos of her sympathies towards him colliding with the controlled reason of her duty. There was so much more she wanted, needed, to say to him.

And the clock struck another hour.

"Nothing. It's...nothing," said Stone at last, and left.

Chapter 26 - Decisions

Distance prevailed in their interactions again, to the point Stone began to question why she had not pretended to go along with Robotnik's fervor towards conquest. Certainly that would have been the cleverest course of action, considering she was supposed to get as much information out of the otherwise reserved scientist as she could, but then again maybe her reluctance to do it was because she had been trying to dissuade him from making a mistake.

Perhaps the greater question, she reflected, was why she cared so much?

They had become closer companions in the months they had been working together than either of them would have foreseen. Stone realized she had become unused to the bitter brusqueness of forced socializing that tempered her very first conversations with Robotnik, and which had returned in an almost regretful way.

Commander Towers was the last person she hoped to see, but she found herself at headquarters walking down the grand hall towards his office. When she reached it, she found Towers was absent and sitting at his desk instead was Lieutenant Snively.

Usually jovial, his present bearing seemed so different from the outward appearance he kept up. Snively spun a pistol on the desk aimlessly like one might a bottle, his thoughts kept closely to himself, the picture of sadness.

"Are you all right, Snively?" asked Stone.

Snively bolted up at attention immediately, but when he saw her alone he relaxed somewhat.

"No," he said, dismally. Then, with a bit more concern, he added, "The commander is out giving orders to Major Westwood and a small detachment of soldiers. Please don't tell him I was sitting at his desk..."

She gave a little shake of her head, tacit assurance as she walked in. "Have you ever stopped to think this is not worth it? That G.U.N.'s regime is not going to give us all it promised?"

He considered her words silently. "I don't know."

"I'm starting to think Ivo's right," sighed Stone.

"You have to keep your wits about you," Snively advised, "don't let your personal feelings cloud your judgement."

"I can think for myself. I know I have a mission," she insisted. "However...I think...I am falling in love with him."

Snively gave a shrug; he had predicted it, after all. "He claims he doesn't love anyone back though."

"I wonder if he's at the lab," Stone thought aloud.

Snively of course knew the answer to this. "Dr. Robotnik went to the Babylon Nightclub in Spring Yard."

"I think I'm going to go talk with him..." she decided.

"No...Stone, wait."

He sounded so concerned Stone lingered.

"Sometime between today and tomorrow," Snively told her, "men will go to the Spring Yard district to kill Nack, and kidnap you."

Stone stared at him in shock. "Who will?"

"I can't say that."


"I can't say that either." Fear tempered Snively's willingness to say more. "Stay out of Spring Yard."

"I have to warn Nack."

"If you go you'll be in danger..."

"You know he's like my brother. Why even tell me, if you don't expect me to warn him?" Stone interjected.

Snively hesitated briefly; his voice was soft and subdued. "You know how I've always felt about you."

Gentleness returned to her gaze, and with it a genuinely apologetic tone. "But I don't feel the same way about you."

"I know. Who's the one letting his feelings cloud his judgement...?" The forced attempt at humor faltered, and Snively looked directly at her with urgency and a worried whisper:

"Please don't go to Spring Yard."

"Thanks for warning me...Colin."

He was pensive as she hurried away.

Stone quickly left G.U.N.'s headquarters for her car parked along the sidewalk. She sat down in the driver's seat, pulled out her phone and dialed Nack's number.

It rang countless times and finally Nack's voice was heard against a backdrop of blaring music. "Yo! Who this?"

"Nack! It's Rouge... Listen to me. I've got bonafide information that you're targeted for assassination. Hide, bro!"

"Rouge baby...that you? ...I can't hear you honey, there's too much noise... Chat later sis."

With that, he hung up.

"No...! Nack!" Stone exclaimed.

I've got to get over there, she thought, as she turned the key in the ignition and headed in the direction of Spring Yard.

Dr. Robotnik was certain about many things, but his relationship with Agent Stone was not among them.

He felt conflicted with the fact he had confided so much in Stone to begin with; now her rejection of his plans, while a possibility he had anticipated, felt like something of a injury. What he had confessed to her was enough to be accused before a court of conspiring to commit treason if she wanted to do him harm. She had no evidence, but the regime seldom needed evidence to accuse those it felt were a threat. At the same time the fact he had even sought to confide in her meant, to a certain level, he regarded her as far more trustworthy than the average human being. This he did, though he remained loathe to admit it to himself.

He needed a drink, the old remedy of wine, women and song, he decided; one of those times he felt throwing himself into the vice and hedonism of the human condition might dispel his worries. Besides, he had business reasons to go to the seedy side of the city anyway, so when he walked into Babylon Nightclub that neon-lit night he resolved to get the business taken care of and to relax.

He sat down at a corner table and glancing across the room he saw Nack. He waved him over, and Nack walked quickly towards him.

"Hey Doc," Nack greeted, "What brings you here this fine evening? Business or pleasure?"

"Both actually," Robotnik replied, "Business first."

"Well, you're talking to the right person," Nack said with a grin, "Whatcha need?"

Robotnik dropped his voice, and Nack leant closer to hear him. "Not a typical acquisition of assets. I need a tomb raider type. The item I want is deep in a...lets call it, a perilous archeological wonder. Expertise in ancient architecture is beneficial. Willingness to deliver the precious artifact in question is mandatory. And above all, he must be someone with tact."

"Turns out there's someone like that here tonight," noted Nack.

"Oh?" remarked Robotnik.

"The head of the local underground movement," elaborated Nack, "He's been looking for a way to make fast cash quietly. If anyone would be interested in this job, it'd be him."

Nack led him over to the bar counter, where a man was waiting. The minute they saw each other, neither Robotnik nor he could hide their surprise.

Robotnik knew Captain Antoine as a staunch supporter of G.U.N.'s regime, and would have outwardly disliked him if he had not viewed him as yet another person of mediocre intellect. Antoine's presence here spoke more to his character, if it was to be regarded as honest and not a trap. Robotnik shot a quick glance towards Nack with doubt.

"He's cool," Nack assured.

As Nack stepped away, Robotnik sat at the bar as well, but he remained dubious of Antoine despite Nack's assurances. Antoine, for whom the initial astonishment was beginning to mitigate, seemed compelled to speak.

"You make no secret, Doctor, that you at the very least disagree with some of our leadership's decisions. In our current society, that is courage indeed."

"Captain Antoine as head of the underground. I was not expecting that. But I was expecting not to expect something, so it doesn't count," Robotnik dismissed it just as swiftly.

"I had been a secret-agent for Spagonia," Antoine explained, "sent to pretend to be a defector and funnel information back during the war; when the United Federation succeeded in capturing my nation I was trapped on the wrong side."

Robotnik was polite but direct. "So you were hoping for a world run by the Spagonian Secret Police instead of the United Federation's G.U.N."

"Well," relented Antoine, "Spagonia wasn't as free as it had been, in the years leading up to its conquest. But G.U.N. takes the cake." He took a sip of his drink. "I guess it doesn't matter now. At this point liberating Spagonia and the United Federation's not even a matter of separating the nations at this point. Someone will rise to unite the planet again. World government has already been shown to be possible; it's too enticing for mankind. All we can look for now is the difference between a despot or a kind king."

"Unfortunate," said Robotnik, without meaning it in the slightest.

"But neither of us came here to discuss politics per se," Antoine added apologetically, "My movement needs capital, and from what Nack tells me you can provide it."

"For assistance in a paltry matter." Robotnik eyed him sideways. "So paltry it need not be mentioned outside of this conversation."

"I wouldn't disappoint you on that," Antoine assured. "I will never talk."

Robotnik looked skeptical but continued, "I need you to get a large emerald, once revered by a prehistoric civilization, said to be concealed within the surrounding area..."

"The chaos emerald?" Antoine's eyes opened wide.

"You've heard of it?"

"I know a bit of the myth. The gemstone is said to contain ultimate power."

"Now, we both despise the current regime," said Robotnik, becoming emboldened enough to offer a tidbit of insight in the spirit of manipulation. "I was thinking about harnessing the emerald's chaos energy against those tyrants. Of course someone would have to retrieve it..."

Antoine was listening diligently, nodding once or twice, and Robotnik added:

"One-hundred-thousand, and the knowledge you'd be instrumental in knocking G.U.N. off their high horse." And placing me in power, but technicalities... Robotnik thought slyly.

"That could be possible. They'd never expect it," reasoned Antoine. "Where is the emerald?"

"Do you know the Labyrinth, the ancient pyramid cordoned off on the far side of the Poloy Forest wildlife preserve? The chaos emerald is in the heart of the Labyrinth."

The moment Robotnik spoke the latter words, Antoine seemed to pale slightly.

"I'm sorry, I'll have to decline."

"Oh?" remarked Robotnik. "I can offer you an extra..."

"No amount of money can make me enter the Labyrinth willingly. It's entering your own grave." Antoine was absolute in this. "They say its cursed."

"That's an old legend," Robotnik diminished.

"Maybe," conceded Antoine, shifting uneasily. "But I do know anyone who goes in, never comes out. The only reason the regime hasn't torn the place down is because, for all they disavow the existence of the spiritual, even they subconsciously fear what will happen."

It was not the reply Robotnik had hoped for.

"If you're sure the emerald is in the Labyrinth, then I say look for something else. There's got to be another way to topple G.U.N.," insisted Antoine.

"The emerald is the only thing I know of with that level of chaos energy." Well, maybe Sonic comes close, but more technicalities... thought Robotnik, as he went on smoothly, "If you know of another power source similar, I'd be very interested to hear about it."

"I wish I did," replied Antoine. He shook Robotnik's hand. "Either way, we have a common wish for the people of our planet to be free, and that makes us allies. I wish you luck, Dr. Robotnik."

As soon as he stepped away, Robotnik turned to the bartender. "Get me the usual."

He needed a drink. He was starting to worry he was becoming too careless with revealing his plans to people and accomplishing nothing in return. It felt like either answer or mockery when he ended up face-to-face with Stone.

"This is yet another reason why I need to become dictator," he said matter-of-factly. "I'll have my computers monitor all street cameras and alert me when people I'm trying to avoid are in the vicinity."

"As you will, Dr. Robotnik," replied Stone sarcastically. "Was that Antoine just now?"


"You know he's really a dissident right?"

"So Nack told me."

When the bartender returned with his drink, the whiskey with the egg-white meringue, Robotnik took it wordlessly and had a large swallow before continuing.

"I came here to meet a contact willing to go into the Labyrinth for a price. Alas, even my deeply expressed wish to reinstate freedom for the people could not prevail upon the conscientious yet cowardly Captain Antoine."

"Freedom for the people," Stone scowled. "What you really want is revenge."

"My dictatorship is better than their dictatorship," he waved off the matter. "In any event I now have to find another stupid to dupe into going to retrieve my emerald."

"You don't need someone to dupe. You need someone mercenary."

"Mercenary helps too, yes."

"I'll go," declared Stone.

Robotnik turned to her with total surprise. "What?"

"You heard me," Stone said bravely, "Same price you were willing to pay. I go in and bring out the gem. My specialty is jewels after all."

Robotnik stiffened. "No. I can't possibly let you. Not you."


Robotnik hesitated and then answered with conviction:

"I'll never be able to explain the inexplicable disappearance of my assistant."

"I oughta smack you," she seethed. "Look, I'm here to find Nack. It's really urgent. Have you seen him?"

"I think he went outside," the scientist answered nonchalantly.

Stone left abruptly without farewell of any kind.

Robotnik sat at the bar counter with his drink for a time, mulling over what he ought to do next, before deciding that he had no patience for revelry and conquests tonight after all. Something was nagging at him incessantly, and that something was someone: Rouge Stone.

He decided with resigned reluctance that perhaps he ought to go talk with her again. The path of the conversation was fluid at this point; he merely wanted to talk with her in the hope it could put his concerns to rest.

It was because of this Robotnik stepped outside in time to see a group of masked men dragging a struggling, gagged Stone into the alley behind the nightclub.

Chapter 27 - The Alleyway

Obsidian shadows loomed on either side of that narrow and squalid path like a gauntlet, cloaking Dr. Robotnik in his black coat with the crimson trim as he strolled casually down its menacing foyer. He had nonchalance like a stray cat on patrol, with the same sharp eyes of the ratcatcher.

The faint glow of violet neon illuminated the alley just enough for him to see the four figures at the end. Exactly who he had been hunting for: Agent Stone, struggling in outnumbered desperation, and three rats who held her.

The men wore masks to hide their features. They were burly in physique and rough in comportment, with pistols they aimed directly at the captive Stone; perhaps with suitable irony, one might remark that these men were of the sort you would not care to meet in a dark alley at night. None of them seemed to have realized about the new person who had entered into the scene, however, and who studied them with cold clarity.

Average asininity, evaluated the scientist, brutal yet brainless. I'll have some fun with this.

Robotnik cleared his throat with intent, drawing their attention immediately, and their drawn guns were quickly redirected at him.

"Excuse me. My name is Dr. Robotnik," he spoke calmly, adding as he gestured to Stone, "and that is my assistant. I'd thank you to keep your hands off her."

"Really?" replied one of the men, brandishing his pistol like a sword. His voice was familiar. "I think you're in the wrong part of town, Doc."

Robotnik smiled, in a way almost daring him. "On the contrary, I'm sure you're in the wrong part of town."

There was a sudden flare of light from his glove, a snap of electricity like the sonic crack of a whip, and Robotnik struck out – contacting the gun as he pushed it aside.

The reaction was instant. The man jolted back with an agonized scream. Gunfire exploded sideways, his hand clenching against the metal as he crumpled to the ground. Taken by surprise, the remaining two attackers scrambled against this unexpected threat; Stone saw her opportunity to break free, lashing about to kick one and slam the other's head into the wall behind her.

Robotnik had knocked the gun out of his opponent's hand; without taking his eyes away, he pressed several buttons quickly on his glove in sequence.

When it did not appear to produce anything, his enemy started chuckling.

"For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction," said Robotnik, seemingly indifferent.

Without warning the man thrust out with a knife just as Robotnik pressed another button. A shimmering force field was brought up instantly, blocking the stabbing with a glittering shield. It was like a wall; as the blade struck against it, the force of energy repelled the hit as if in retribution, and the man collapsed backwards in a heap.

As if on cue, lasers fired out of the sky, and when the assailants looked up they saw a flock of white: a squadron of drones swooping to defend their inventor like an airborne cavalry. The thugs were so surprised, they abandoned the fight and ran off with the drones in pursuit as Robotnik laughed at the sight.

As this scene was unfolding, Stone noticed a motion across the street. She squinted her eyes a bit in the glow of the nighttime lights, and noticed a parked car and a sudden glint of a rifle.

"Get down!" cried Stone, pulling Robotnik to the asphalt.

They flattened themselves as bullets tore closely over their heads; piercing, cracking noises like fireworks, with a trailing whoosh of wind, splintered the air.

They were scarcely aware of when the car drove off with its tires screeching, but they were then alone in the alley.

Robotnik whirled around towards Stone. "Why did you try to pull me down, damn it!? You could have been killed," he snapped.

"I could ask the same thing," she retorted, suddenly aware her feelings might have revealed themselves in that split second. "Why did you save me?"

He gave a little scoff under his breath, and glanced at her with a gaze that was illegible; there was one flicker of something – what it was, she could not tell – but then it hid itself away in the icy blue depths and no emotion reciprocated therein.

"Because saving you didn't get in the way of my plans," he responded bluntly.

There was a moment where they merely faced each other, and nothing more was said.

"How very efficient on your part," murmured Stone.

Robotnik frowned, and fidgeted somewhat. "Well I would say those words..." he ventured, "you know... those words I can't seem to say."

Stone watched him, bored. "Thank you?"

"That's it. Now if you'll excuse me," he said as he stood up; Stone however, was looking around.

"Where's Nack?" she asked.

"Nack?" Robotnik echoed.

"Yes, Nack!" Stone said desperately, "They were after him. That's why I came to the nightclub."

He helped her to her feet and she hurried down the alleyway searching for Nack, with Robotnik following close behind.

The path stretched indeterminately into darkness, where even the neon of the streets faded away and scarce moonlight took the advantage, reflecting feebly on windowless brick walls and scraps of long-forgotten litter. This place was as isolated as it was dingy, apart from all but the loudest sounds of the street.

When Robotnik and Stone reached the end of the alley they saw a figure lying motionless on the pavement, a pool of blood forming underneath the body. It was Nack.

"Nack!" screamed Stone. "Oh my God... Nack!"

Chapter 28 - Seize the Time

Nack Snyper was apparently his full name.

Waiting for word outside the operating theatre was sheer anguish for Stone. Selecting one of the plush armchairs in the corner of the waiting room, she sat here miserably and kept to her vortex of thoughts.

Robotnik was sifting through the magazines laid out on the coffee table; he spent about half an hour before tiring of them and then went to the coffee machine. There were only about three synthetic creamer packets left here, which he eyed with disdain.

"How can they not have goat's milk?"

Stone snapped to attention. "Nack's in surgery right now and you're worried about fucking goat's milk!"

He glanced over to her, blankly inoffensive. She shuddered and brought her forehead down to her hands. "I'm sorry...I'm overwrought," said Stone.

When she stayed dismally quiet, Robotnik walked over to her. He spoke gently.

"You won't know his condition for certain until the surgeons return. Till then it's hopeless to stress about it."

"Hopelessly human," replied Stone.

To this he said nothing.

"You saw his injury..." Stone looked straight at him. "You once said you could tell, as a biologist, if a wound was mortal."

Robotnik faced her steadily. "You don't really want me to answer that about him, do you?"

He spoke it in the manner of a statement, and it took her a moment to answer him.

"No," she replied quietly.

Just then the surgeons emerged to speak with Stone, but by now she already anticipated their announcement to a certain level: how the patient was conscious but in poor condition, how the internal injuries were severe, how they could do no more than they had done.

Robotnik knew something else, which they surely knew as well but had omitted saying. A mere inch to the bullet's entry had sealed both the destructiveness and Nack's fate. But the detail would not have consoled her; there was no comfort in the knowledge. He lingered back and let Stone go in to see Nack alone.

Stone walked in to see Nack lying in bed; she sat beside him.

"Oh Nack...I tried to warn you. On the phone. Snively told me someone was gunning for you..."

"It's not your fault baby..." Nack responded weakly, "I kind of...knew this would happen someday."

Stone expected some remark on the rivalry of business competitors, perhaps hoped for a light-hearted comment as to getting one of his own associates to pay them a visit; she did not expect the confession that followed.

"I had a job for G.U.N.," Nack revealed, "Anyone who expressed anti-government views I'd lead them along, then rat them out... They'd place them under surveillance and eventually bring them in...make them disappear... In return I kept my side hustle."

"That's how our racket stayed in business for so long?" Stone inquired with surprise, "I thought they didn't know..."

"The black market is overlooked, not unseen," Nack told her, "They see everything here. Everything."

He went on, though it seemed an effort for him to speak:

"When I wouldn't turn you in, I served no more use to them..."

"Me?" The shock escaped her lips.

"You're wanted..." warned Nack, "They're watching you and the Doc."

"Nack you need to save your strength," Stone protested, but he was adamant.

"You've got to tell Dr. Robotnik. He's got a destiny ahead of him...something big...and you're part of that, Rouge. You mean something to him..."

To this she shook her head. "Robotnik doesn't care about anyone."

"Rouge... you got a good thing with him," insisted Nack, "If only you both would realize, you...need to seize your time together..."

A shadowy thought occurred to Stone. "Did you know the thug who shot you?"

"Maybe... Maybe not... It was dark. I shot back at him... I know I grazed his left arm but whoever it was, that's not important. He was sent...the hit was ordered by one person..."

"Ordered by whom?" asked Stone.

When he only coughed, Stone held his hand tightly.

"Who ordered the hit, Nack?"

"It's better...better that you don't know."

"What? Why?"

"Don't try to go against the system. The game is rigged. You'll lose...lose care about." Nack's warning broke off in a futile gasp for breath. He was shivering. "Everyone does in the end."

"Who was it, Nack?" Stone urged.

He whispered, inaudible to all but her, "It was Mephiles..."

He never got to finish the name.

She stepped outside followed by Robotnik. By now, nighttime had descended and a thin, cold rain was falling over the city. Clouds hung drearily over the skyscrapers like a shroud, their portentous forms obscuring even the stars' flickers of solace.

Stone had tears streaking down her face as he embraced her. "What are my answers, Ivo?"

"I don't know. I don't even know mine."

Even in commiseration, he kept aloof distance. She could no longer tell if his portrayals of lack of emotion or even subtle resentment were genuine, or whether his true feelings remained hidden away entrusted not even to himself. Stone then recalled his assertions that expressions of sympathy were merely societal protocol, and at the same time found herself justifying and importuning and railing:

"You don't understand! He was the only family I had. He was like a brother to me! Like my brother who I lost in the war..."

Her voice trailed away and she fought to steady it.

"That's why I signed up. I vowed I'd shoot down every one of the bastards. Every other soldier was there because of the draft. I wanted to be."

Robotnik said nothing. He still observed her with emotionlessness; Stone briefly let the patter of rainfall fill the silence before she spoke again.

"My brother knew I liked diamonds and always said he'd get me one someday. He was saving the pay from his service for it, yet he died before he ever could. Maybe that's why I always felt all the world's gems were mine. It wasn't right he could never afford what he wanted to do. Maybe I could preserve his memory somehow if I just...took them."

She gave a defeated shake of her head.

"But it won't bring him back. Nothing will. And now Nack..."

Her voice cut off, breaking.

"Life's not fair."

"Did you think it was?" he replied.

She just blinked at him.

Robotnik was icily direct. "You're the one who's lying... to yourself. You don't want to accept the truth. All your dreams have been shattered, haven't they? Dreams were meant to be broken. Life is like that. Take it from somebody who knows. Whenever you reach too high, life smacks you down. Humanity smacks you down."

"Not yet," she whispered, "I still have one dream left."

She met his blue eyes, blinking back her tears:

"And so do you."

They stood, together in loneliness, under the dark night's pouring rain; yet her words could not dispel the inexorable torment of his embittered soul, and as he turned quietly and walked away somewhere in the distance a clock tower was striking ten.

Chapter 29 - Luxury

It had been a week from Nack's death that Commander Towers summoned both Robotnik and Stone. It was another routine update on the hedgehog hunt, he claimed, which meant another grueling discussion into why they had not shot it yet.

Neither Robotnik nor Stone had any desire to meet with him. The events of the past few days were still weighing enormously on them, and being summoned to Towers' office for his usual inquiries and complaints was draining. If they would have left them in solitude for the two of them to study the animals at their pace and in the manner they had deemed most fit, Robotnik would have been happier for it, and even Stone was coming to cherish his viewpoint on the productivity of isolation. But Towers wished to see them, and would hear nothing towards a reprieve of the creatures either.

This time was different in that they were called to his private residence, a place neither Robotnik nor Stone had ever been.

Towers lived within a gated area known as "the compound." It was secure from the eyes of the masses, as befitting the planet's most powerful man, and thus spoken about in whispers because it remained a mystery to the general population. No one but G.U.N.'s highest ranking members had ever been behind those high concrete walls that surrounded the collection of residences, a fortress guarding a golden secret.

Somehow the opulence of the commander's mansion, rivalled only by the presidential one, increased in contrast with the growing impoverishment of society outside. It was sheer majesty in Renaissance villa style, stretching across picturesque gardens to be nearly twice the length of the far-more-publicized presidential abode; a fountain etched with gold adorned the landscape, pouring crystalline water that followed two serpentine paths into streams winding about the flowering grounds.

When Robotnik and Stone arrived at the compound gates, they introduced themselves to the guards, who verified their identities.

"Yes, Doctor," the guard said, "Commander Towers is expecting you both."

He let them pass and after they had walked a couple of yards up the walkway, they saw Snively. He was humming a tune obliquely to himself. The instant he saw them, he stopped to chat.

"Bingo! Just who I hoped to run into," smiled Snively. "I wanted to give you an update. They caught the guy responsible for those damned fly-by political cartoons; you remember...? The king chipmunk...?"

"Who was it?" asked Robotnik impatiently.



"I was put in charge of the interrogation. The commander says I did very well."

"I don't know if I'm more surprised that Antoine was the dissident, or that you were the interrogator."

"He confessed."

"I'm sure he did."

"He named you, Doctor," said Snively, and then added as he turned towards Stone, "that could also implicate Agent Stone, because who knows if she's aware of your machinations."

Both Robotnik and Stone stared at him in silence, emotionless as ever.

Snively laughed and said, "Oh, you've got nothing to worry about. The moment Commander Towers heard it, he struck it from the official record. People will say lots of things to save themselves. You're both very useful right now."

"The precision of syntax," remarked Robotnik, his statement going unacknowledged by the lieutenant.

"That said," added Snively, "if there were further evidence of conspiring, I'm sure it won't be taken so lightheartedly." He was speaking primarily to Robotnik.

"Presuming we were anything less than loyal to the regime," Robotnik dismissed.

"Presuming," echoed Snively. "Well, let me show you to the commander."

Snively walked ahead, leading the way. As soon as he was out of hearing range, Robotnik confided to Stone, "I have come to a conclusion about Snively. He's either very stupid or unusually sly. I am still drawing an analysis of which is the most accurate."

"We trained together as cadets," Stone replied, "He's not stupid."

"Well then, Rouge, he wouldn't be the sort of fellow one can trust."

"Ivo, I truly see Snively as another victim of the system. He's typically disrespected by Towers and one would think that his being the commander's nephew would get him some sort of privilege, but it's the reverse."

Robotnik thought this over and then answered, "Perhaps... but I do want to observe him a bit more before we take him into confidence. We shouldn't be too trusting."

They arrived at the front door; Snively opened it and led them to the formal dining room where he announced their arrival to Towers.

"Greetings to you Doctor Robotnik and Agent Stone," said Towers in a seemingly happy mood, "wonderful that you could partake of our bounty" then he added, "Good for you Snively, you didn't get lost bringing them in."

Snively simply saluted and left.

There was a smell of food that permeated the room, a delicious aroma that enticed their appetites. The first thing they noticed was the basket of fresh bread buns on Towers' table, enough to surpass the government's imposed ration for at least twenty people. It was the centerpiece of a great feast, with everything from pies, dairy cream, wine, and several varieties of meat.

Robotnik heard a small gasp escape Stone. Her voice was an excited whisper. "Ivo! I haven't seen so much food in... Look! They've even got meat!"

"Indeed," Robotnik answered, then speaking in a louder voice to Towers remarked, "I see there are still some cows or goats left, judging by the availability of meat."

"Why...yes..." stammered Towers briefly, "Unfortunately the majority of the livestock had to be destroyed so there isn't enough product to distribute to the masses."

"Well that's alright," said Robotnik jovially, "At least you milked them before you sent them to slaughter."

"Ivo!" Stone elbowed him gently, her whisper now desperate. "Don't say anything! We get to eat!"

"If you weren't so useful to me, Doctor," remarked Towers almost benignly, "I'd question your motives."

The commander turned and led them over to the dining table. Robotnik took advantage of this and whispered back to Stone, "My dear Rouge, the moment was too good to resist."

Mischief danced in his eyes, and Stone smiled. It was times like these that made her love him even more.

As they sat down to eat, Towers faced the couple, saying:

"By now you must have heard of Captain Antoine."

"Lieutenant Snively informed us, Sir," affirmed Stone.

"He proved very useful - before he expired, of course," he replied casually.

"Got to watch those expiration dates," said Robotnik with a deadpan demeanor.

"To think, one of G.U.N.'s finest pilots, spreading propaganda against the state," Towers shook his head as he continued, "Foolhardiness is a plague on the masses. Too bad we can't snap our fingers and have the planet start with a clean slate."

"Like I've said, Commander, the answer is technology," Robotnik grinned. He saw Stone out of the corner of his eye giving him a dubious look.

"I know you think so, Doctor, though I must admit I personally have my doubts," said Towers, "it hasn't helped with catching that animal for one."

"Oh, it's only a matter of time," Robotnik asserted, yet Towers was less convinced.

"I'm sending in some troops to assist with combing the forest."

"Commander, I protest..." interrupted Robotnik.

"My mind is made up Doctor," said Towers, "This is not a topic for discussion."

Robotnik and Stone looked at each other but said nothing; it was evident to Stone that Robotnik was irate but suppressing it. Throughout all the time they had been working together, she had been observant and now noticed how he had a slight frown and was developing a pink hue around his ears. This only happened when the scientist was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. It was during these situations that Stone would encourage him to take a break and clear his mind so that perhaps a solution would come forth. Robotnik would have none of it. He preferred to sit and stew over the matter.

Meanwhile, Towers spoke and spoke; developing a monologue that basically stated a firm hand is what would ultimately prevail in catching the fast little monster that was roaming their city. After they had been there about two hours, the food and drink had been consumed and Towers felt satisfied that his monologue had been properly listened to, the couple said thank-you to their host and left the mansion.

Both the scientist and his assistant spoke very little until they had exited the property gates and were out of earshot of the guards.

"That egotistical idiot!" said Robotnik, "his only intent is to cause more chaos."

"Don't let it get to you, Ivo," replied Stone, trying to comfort him, "You always find a way around his plans."

"Well, that's true... His ego is no match for my genius mind," Robotnik considered.

Stone noticed him happier after that and soon they were discussing how to circumvent Towers' plot.

As they walked down the street looking for Stone's car, they crossed paths with one of Towers preferred assistants, Major Westwood.

"Well... Doctor Robotnik and Agent Stone... I trust you both had a good meal and a satisfying conversation with the commander?"

"Yes" Robotnik replied, "It is always enlightening to speak with the commander and see how his mind functions."

Westwood seemed to be thinking over Robotnik's statement but before he could say anything more, Stone noticed he had an injury.

"How did you get that?" she asked him, pointing to the bandage about Westwood's upper left arm.

"Shot myself by accident."

"Kind of an awkward angle, isn't it."

"My apologies to you both," Westwood said while ignoring the comment, "I have a meeting scheduled with Commander Towers."

He hurried off and as Stone watched him go, an almost brooding frown crossed her face, followed by furious realization.

"He's the one who murdered Nack!" she exclaimed, and without forethought immediately headed after Westwood.

"Rouge, wait!" Robotnik caught ahold of her arm, and Stone was suddenly spun around till her back was against the wall.

"Let go of me," Stone said with vitriol, "I want that asshole to suffer for what he did..."

"Think this through," Robotnik countered, "if Westwood was the killer it was a G.U.N. operation; it was sanctioned by the government! You act on impulse and you'll die too. Why do you think I bide my time, smiling to those assholes and waiting for my revenge?"

"I don't believe it," she said glancing downwards.

"I'm just giving you advice. It's not like it could throw a wrench in my schemes," replied Robotnik.

Stone's posture slackened as she accepted the logic of his words, yet her brown eyes still flashed with a challenge.

"If you don't care, then why does it matter to you what I do?"

"It's just advice, nothing more. Don't think it's based on affection of any kind," he added adamantly. "My machines are everything to me. They're diligent, relentless; unquestioningly furthering my master plot to establish order in this chaotic excuse of a civilization... My plans are everything to me."

"So you've said," Stone affirmed.

"And I'd choose ultimate power over human sentiment in a millisecond," Robotnik insisted. "I don't care about any human being – I don't care! In fact I won't care if you leave right now, and..."

"Is that why you still have me pinned to the wall?" she retorted.

Robotnik realized that somehow they had ended up in each other's arms. He released her and without saying anything more, they both walked in silence towards the car and drove away.

The following days were a trial. An entire team of soldiers combed the woodland, with military dogs, bulky vehicles, and total lack of subtlety. Dr. Robotnik still led the project, with the men reporting to him; however, it remained a deviation from the analytical methods he preferred and for him, who despised people, an utter frustration to deal with so many "inept, brutish ignoramuses".

Naturally, they never found Sonic, Miles, or Blaze. The animals were all sequestered in Agent Stone's house, and hid there for an entire week to Sonic the hedgehog's utter despair. Robotnik pointed to their absence as evidence that such a bombastic technique did not work; they ought to return to more subdued hunting with the hovercraft and drones; besides for all they knew, they had now frightened the creature so much that it was anyone's guess now when it would reemerge for him to get a good shot at it. So, reluctantly, G.U.N. pulled back their troops and left the hedgehog hunt again to Robotnik's closer attempts at success.

Sonic was grateful to stretch his legs again. There was only so much satisfaction that zooming from one end of the house to the other could attain. The first thing Sonic did when the coast was clear was race Robotnik with delight across Green Hills, all the way to Hill Top and back.

Chapter 30 - The Lightning Storm

The night was cold. It was also wet, dark, and windy; a night to retreat to the seclusion of one's domicile, not to be trudging through the woods as Dr. Ivo Robotnik found himself doing.

Really he had no reason to go out in that horrid weather, save for Science. To test modifications to his chaos energy force field when applied to the Eggmobile, pitting his invention against the daggers of raindrops at hypersonic speed. At culmination, it was a failure: not only did the force field falter over such a large radius, but the minutiae of subatomic interactions attracted lightning.

It was a worthwhile experiment though, Robotnik reasoned as he pushed adamantly through the mud and bracken.

He knew where he was heading. The hovercraft might have been temporarily damaged but the geo-location system he had designed was perfectly operational. It led him, with pedestrian slowness, straight to a small house outside of Poloy Forest, which he knew – hoped – would be welcoming.

He knocked on the door; Rouge Stone opened it.

Standing in the rain, Robotnik imagined how utterly bedraggled he must look, like a drenched alley cat. He debated what to say, some falsity perhaps, or meritless exposition, till finally he opted for frankness despite its piteous cliché:

"I didn't know where else to go."

"Well, come in. Ivo you're soaking wet."

He stepped in as she shut the door.

"The Eggmobile was hit with a lightning bolt and it overloaded the modulator," Robotnik explained as he removed his coat. "It's grounded, if you'll pardon the electrical pun, till I get it fixed. I had to walk all the way from where I managed to land it and the lab is several miles away..."

He surveyed the interior of the house; it was dry and comfortable, but murkiness pervaded with all the lights shut and the night rainstorm raging outside making it hard to see.

"It's damned dark here," Robotnik noted.

"The power's already been cut for the night," explained Stone.

"Oh I forgot. Since yesterday the citizenry are only granted electric power in the daytime. What was it – because of the wheat shortage, there's no longer enough of the grain straw they use as biofuel?"

"In that regard you're lucky to be living on-site at a government laboratory. Electricity twenty-four-seven."

"Where are the critters?"

"Huddling in the back room away from the windows. Neither Sonic nor Blaze like water, and Tails doesn't like thunder."

"Perfect time to ambush them," decided Robotnik.

"Ivo!" Stone chided.

"I'm kidding." In truth he looked concerned about something, and spoke as if he was trying to distract himself. He gazed out the window at the rainfall, which lashed down on the earth like an unrelenting punishment. As they watched, the rain became heavier, pelting the windowpane as lightning illuminated the room briefly in white.

"The storm isn't going to let up. It looks like you're stranded here," Stone observed.

Robotnik glanced at her.

"You can sleep on the sofa," she added.

"...oh." Robotnik gave a shake of his head as if expressing exasperation, but he still returned to gazing contemplatively out the window.

"Is something wrong?" she asked, genuinely.

"It's not important."

"Good. Then you can tell me."

"I think I left Orbot and Cubot on. I hope they don't lose charge..."

He broke off with a small sneeze. Stone noticed he was shivering somewhat. "How far did you walk in the rain? You look like you're going to catch cold."

"I'm fine," Robotnik said tersely.

"Let me fix you a cup of coffee. ...Yes I have goat's milk," she said before he could protest. "I got it through the underground black-market," she added with a happy smile.

Stone left for the kitchen, and Robotnik watched from afar. He could see her brewing coffee with one of the cloth strainers. He let his gaze follow the contours of her body, slowly, from the top of her head; downwards to her legs and finally observed her delicate movements as she poured the coffee into cups. When she returned with the cups he took one sip and then lingered, studying the swirl of cream atop the beverage with evaluation. Finally he looked up at her almost admiring.

"And you claim you don't know how to prepare food; this is better than the café!"

It was not his usual brand of dry sarcasm; it was a legitimate compliment.

"Thank you," she simply answered.

He realized he regarded her a bit too long, a bit too fondly, and he wrenched his eyes away.

"How long do you think you can keep this up, Dr. Robotnik?"

Her words were delicate as cashmere, almost too pacific to hear. He looked back towards her with a quizzical expression. "What?"

"Playing like you want to take over the world when you haven't done a thing towards it," replied Stone.

Robotnik narrowed his eyes. "I've done a lot towards it."

"All behind the scenes," Stone maintained.

"The current government controls the entire world. That makes it both easy to take over and difficult. One wrong step and there will be nowhere left to run." he replied.

"You want revenge for what happened to your family. But get revenge on the person who deserves it. All of humanity isn't bad."

"What makes you think it's just revenge?" Robotnik insisted. "Maybe I like the idea of power."

"I know you better than you think."

"...what color is my heart?"

"Come on, Ivo."

He glanced at her a little tolerantly; her voice tapered, and at last she responded, "I don't see a heart."

"Exactly," he replied softly.

Her eyes narrowed at him. "For all you say human beings are untrustworthy and unreliable, I see through you. And for all you claim to be a genius mastermind, I've got one hypothesis you haven't thought of. You're trying to convince yourself that no one gives a damn, because you're worried about being hurt again. One day you might realize that people do care about you, and maybe even that you care too...!"

It was the same electricity between them, only this time Robotnik did not pull away from it. He put the coffee cup down and took hers away, setting it down beside his. He let the magnetism draw him in, allowed himself to bring her close, and his lips pressed lightly against hers.

He surprised himself when she reciprocated, and he kissed again, deeper and passionately; it came with a rush of energy, and when his kisses dropped to her neck she responded by pressing her body closer to his. That electrifying charge between them had built up from having resisted it for so long, and now the release was welcomed by both. His senses had heightened to every detail: the warmth of her soft skin, the faint fragrance of her perfume, the way his caresses traced her figure, all beckoning him onward – and again, he held himself back.

"Maybe we should stop," he smiled at her.

Instead, she fondled his crotch gently, and the electricity sizzled into lightning. "We've barely hit Mach One," she whispered, her breath light on his ear.

A delightful delirium had overtaken him. Familiar sensations of ecstasy and pleasure. There was something about Rouge Stone in particular, something enticing yet inexplicable that he felt towards her; it was more a wish for nearness, as opposed to the merely carnal yearning for any other woman he had been with, and he could not comprehend it. Even now his distrusting, unsentimental logic refused to accept all possibilities. Hastily Robotnik labelled it unusually strong sexual attraction, nothing more, and he abandoned the already difficult task of reason to the impulses of desire.

With no other words said, they gave in to the passion of the moment.

Chapter 31 - Storm's End

There was a peacefulness in their solitude, the birds twittering the storm's end outside, and the sunlight that streamed in warmly through the curtains. Robotnik drowsily opened his eyes, and saw Stone still asleep beside him. Her face was serene and he felt a momentary tug at his heart.

He had always been one to indulge in sensual pleasures as a momentary bliss, enjoying physical intimacy completely yet keeping himself immune to any emotional intimacy that might otherwise entwine with it. With Stone though he found himself at a loss to place his feelings, and he would not even entertain the notion of them surpassing mere sexual desire.

Up to a certain point, he had hoped being with her would put his confusion to rest. Yet it hadn't. If anything the conflict in his mind had increased irrepressibly.

He lay there for a while, thinking and eventually she woke up. She smiled at him and glanced at the window saying, "Looks like the sun's up already."

"Apparently," was his curt answer.

He tipped over in her direction and studying her face asked, "If you were the wealthiest person in the world, what would you do?"

"I already feel like the wealthiest person in the world. I met you."

Her reply flummoxed Robotnik for a perceptible moment, and Stone couldn't help but notice how statements like this were steadfastly a conundrum to him. He continued to inwardly doubt such words, the concept of genuine affection still being something he traumatically pushed away.

"Now...seriously," he said.

"I mean it," she insisted, "but if you want a more material response...get a big collection of fine jewelry. I love anything shiny." She glanced sideways at him and turned the question around. "What about you?"

"Buy the world. Far easier than having to take it over by force."

"Don't give me that. Other than those schemes of grandeur, you must have other aspirations."

"Maybe open a theme park." He considered his envisioned scenario with a bit of amusement. "Robotnik-land. No... Eggman-land."

At that very moment there was a recognizable swish of wind and light past the bedroom, enough to startle both of them into recollection.

"Oh no!" Stone realized. "I forgot! The critters..."

It was too late; the little blue hedgehog, who had initially run past the door, had spun about after noticing them and returned to appear in front of the couple.

Sonic's ears were alert. "Eggman and Rouge! You together?"

Stone shifted a bit, pulling the blanket that already covered them both up to her neck.

Robotnik faced him squarely, almost as if with defiance. "Yes, Sonic. We got together."

"Wait. Blaze should see this!" Sonic's eyes brightened with an idea.

Robotnik added, "Actually I've got to get going..."

"Be back soon, don't go anywhere," Sonic grinned, and zipped out of the room.

Stone cried, "Sonic!" Unable to call him back, she reached futilely for an article of clothing. "If we hurry..."

Robotnik, however, made no attempt. He lay back with a displeased grimace. "We're not going to outrun the speed of sound."

Sonic instantly returned carrying Blaze, who he placed on the floor. Blaze took one look, flattened her ears and hissed. "I knew it! She was in bed with the enemy all along."

"Happy? Are you done gawking at us?" demanded Robotnik.

Miles, having heard Blaze's hiss, poked his head into the room.

"Anyway," relented Blaze, lightening up with a lick of her paw, "Now we get to start making a nest for when you have babies!"

"What?" both Robotnik and Stone exclaimed, with unintended unanimity.

"Blaze, don't disturb them," Miles chided. "It's obvious the species behavior of humans, during their mating season, displays an aversion to acknowledging their reproductive relationship during outward social interaction. Perhaps it's an evolutionary defense mechanism to safeguard offspring from possible predators."

"Ok, enough," snapped Robotnik. "I'm not going to let us both be psychoanalyzed by a two-tailed fox."

Miles continued pedantically, gesturing towards them with his paw. "Note the natural protectiveness of the male towards his mate."

Robotnik just stared directly at Miles, trying to remind himself for a moment who between them actually had the PhD in Biology.

Stone was adamant. "Look, our personal relationship is our business, and wanting to keep it to ourselves has nothing to do with natural behavior or whatever. We're simply more inclined to privacy...I mean..." she turned hopefully towards her companion, "Explain it to them, Ivo."

Robotnik gave a tiny shrug. "Actually I'm not going to dispute this one."

Stone had a double-take. "'re not? Why?"

"Because scientifically he's probably right," Robotnik answered with apathy.

Sonic stretched. "Yeah, you know what? Let's leave 'em alone. We can tease Eggman some more over breakfast."

"It's not teasing. I want to help with the nest," Blaze countered, but the animals scampered out of the room.

It left Robotnik alone with Stone again, but their prior peace had been lost. They showered and dressed pretty much in silence.

"Are you staying for breakfast?" Stone asked quietly.

"...I'd better not," Robotnik replied. "I'll get a head start back to the lab. You can meet me there."

"They don't mean any malice by what they said, you know," she remarked about the animals.

"It has nothing to do with them." He sounded caustic, but what he had said was true. In reality it was not anything the animals had done, but the concept of staying longer here, at least presently, somehow insinuated more about his relationship with her than he could accept. "We just have a lot pending at the lab."

He could not hide his reasons from her, though. If he did not say it aloud now, it was only by tact; his mantra was the same.

Nothing has changed. I don't care about any human being.

It might have hurt, if Stone was not of her character. She had decided last night, however, that she wouldn't allow herself to suffer over it. She cared about him, that much she knew, and even if their relationship would be short-lived she would savor it while it was. There was always that idealistic dream on the outskirts of her thoughts, hoping he would someday acknowledge the flaws of his worldview, but if he never did then Stone would not have presumed anything either.

Robotnik realized she had read his thoughts, and the precipice of embarrassment swiftly prompted a return to his reserved façade. Of course he didn't care about anyone. To that end, he shouldn't – didn't – care what she or anyone else felt. Right?

The digital alarm clock on the nightstand beeped the onset of the next hour, startling them both back into the present.

"What about tonight?" she whispered to him.

He seemed to think it over for a long moment, before he then leant over and kissed her.

"I'll come by tonight," he whispered back.

Chapter 32 - Honesty and Revelations

The trio of animals were walking through the forest. The trees were tipped with the colors of early autumn and all the woodland creatures were making preparations for nature's long sleep of winter.

"I like autumn," purred Blaze, "the climate is nice and there's plenty of prey to be found. Even now in the past, it seems."

"Yeah, it's really peaceful too," agreed Miles.

Sonic evaluated this. "You know, we haven't seen Eggman in awhile."

"That's a good thing, right?"

"I think he's up to something. I'm gonna check up on him!" Sonic announced, and sped away.

Sonic arrived at Robotnik's laboratory quickly – as always. Robotnik was typing up one of his scientific reports.

Orbot lit up. "Hedgehog alert. Priority one."

Robotnik glanced down at Sonic, who looked back up at him. "So nice of you to drop by, hedgehog, I do love surprises. Now why are you here?" he added suspiciously.

"To find out what you're doing," answered Sonic bluntly.

"I'm here plotting my evil schemes."

"I'm bored. Let's play tag."

"When you least expect it, my worthy arch-nemesis. Right now I've got to finish my..."

Robotnik's phone beeped then. He looked at the phone and noticed Rouge Stone's name.

Sonic gave a squeak. "What's up?"

"Looks like Rouge is not coming in today... I'll text her back that it's ok to take the day off." No sooner had he replied to the text than another one came in.

"Hope everything is going smoothly at the lab," he read aloud, then added, "Of course it is, I'm quite capable."

He typed the reply and then an unexpected third text from Stone came in.

This time, a smile came over his face, though he tried unsuccessfully to hide it; without reading her text out loud, he cryptically tapped out some reply and turned back to the computer.

"What'd she say?" Sonic pried.

"None of your business," Robotnik answered tersely.

"Look, not to sound like Blaze here, but why don't you admit already you have feelings for Rouge outside of, you know, mating season?" Sonic twitched an ear.

"Go away," said Robotnik.

"Admit it," poked Sonic.

"I don't care about any human beings. And I don't have feelings for her any more than I have sympathy for you. If it came down to it, I'm perfectly willing to let you or anyone else be obliterated if it meant getting power."

"Some people might believe that bullshit but I don't," Sonic answered, "and Rouge certainly doesn't either."

"Enough of this topic," dismissed Robotnik, "Later today, I shall reveal my most brilliant plan to date to eliminate you, hedgehog. My plan is simple in its genius..."

Sonic interrupted him nonchalantly. "Whatever it is, Eggman, I'm going to scramble it as usual."

"Curse you, Sonic! Not only do you foil my plans, but you foil my speeches as well!"

At that moment they heard someone coming; Robotnik jerked his head as a sign for Sonic to go. The little blue hedgehog zipped behind some of the computer equipment to hide, precisely as Commander Towers walked in.

"Dr. Robotnik. I wanted to know how the hunt is coming along."

"It's going very well. I think my drones are close to finding the hedgehog's nest site. You've seen my reports."

"I've seen reports but not results," Towers replied tersely. "You have not been able to provide me with a synthetic source of high-level chaos energy, despite your years of research. You have not been able to trap those animals either. If you cannot fulfill any service to the nation, your role is no longer tenable."

His words were threatening in their unspoken meaning. Robotnik felt oddly sick to his stomach. "Surely scientific study is always a service? The creatures are wily, Commander," he justified, "Sometimes they'll seek safety near civilian areas, where the only thing we can do is study them from afar."

"Dr. Robotnik," said Towers, "let me make the matter easier for you. I don't care what you have to do, where you have to go, who you have to hurt. The hedgehog must be caught and killed. It is a matter of extreme national interest and you have my complete authorization. Do you understand?"

Robotnik understood, but that didn't make Towers' order less astounding. However he knew the concept of authority within G.U.N. and especially the concept of punishment for disobedience. "Yes, Commander," replied Robotnik with sangfroid, "perfectly."

"Very good, Doctor. I hope to hear of your success soon. should be hoping dearly for your success soon."

Then Towers left, without another word.

"I still say there's something about that guy I don't like," squeaked Sonic, zipping out from hiding.

"You and me both," admitted Robotnik. "You'd better think fast, hedgehog, before I've really got to put you in danger."

Sonic was entirely cheerful and oblivious. "I was built for speed and born for danger! See you on Green Hills, Eggman."

The hedgehog raced out of the laboratory in a swish of light. Robotnik tapped his fingers against the desk, considering the exchange of words that had occurred, and realizing his usefulness to G.U.N. in the commander's eyes was eroding swiftly.

Once again, he wondered what Towers' first name was. Once again, he dismissed it as inconsequential.

The reason Stone had taken the day off was to think through some things.

It was difficult not to admire him. Robotnik had remarkable intelligence and looks to match, yet most importantly he had a softer side, which he concealed from the rest of the world and had come to divulge only to her. What started as petty animosity had grown into genuine affection, at least on her part.

But that's not why they sent me, she thought.

Seduction was a weapon, and Robotnik was G.U.N.'s target. Stone imagined the government coming to take him for treason, her standing by watching in complicity, and his hurt blue eyes telling her he was right about humanity all along. She realized then she could not live with that image seared into reality.

Stone decided to go to the laboratory despite what she had said. When she showed up, Robotnik glanced up curiously.

"Rouge, I thought you weren't coming in today."

"I wasn't." Stone sighed. This admission wasn't going to be easy. "Ivo, I have to tell you something."

"It can wait till I finish writing this code."

"No it can't!" Stone was so adamant she surprised herself. Robotnik looked up at her expectantly.

Now she really was locked into the situation. She had to admit it. That's why she had driven over here – to reveal she had been working as a spy in his laboratory all along.

He'll see it as betrayal, she thought darkly. How else could he take it?

Stone finally spoke, "G.U.N. knows about your aspirations to overthrow the government and eventually take over the world."

"Presumably they know only what they tortured out of Antoine," replied Robotnik.

"They know way more than that."

His thoughts stayed unreadable, and she went on.

"They've known for a long time and honestly they're worried because they're unsure what they can do to stop you, if it came down to it. They know someone with your ingenuity and patience could pull it off. They don't want to lose a scientist of your caliber, but at the same time they don't want to take chances. So the president told me to spy on back on what you were doing..."

Stone's voice faded, and grew soft.

"That's why you ended up with an assistant."

"Agent've been spying on me?"

There was a hint of injury. No doubt an emotion he would have wished to hide. Stone tried to say something, anything, in an attempt to allay the matter, but found the words could not be formulated and so remained silent.

"Was that what made it so easy for you to get the ring out of G.U.N.'s vault?" Robotnik prompted.

"No, I really am a cat-burglar," Stone admitted, "No one knows that except for my associates...and you. The commander knows, but he's overlooking it because he feels my espionage work is valuable. You're absolutely right when you say we'd both be considered criminals in the government's eyes."

"Regardless. Why admit you were sent as a spy?"

"I guess I suddenly felt guilty about it. I...I don't know why."

He held her hands in his. The motion was almost tentative, delicate; she did not expect it, least of all when her face flushed with warmth. Robotnik, in turn, gazed directly into her eyes, and said:

"How fickle human emotions are."

With that, he turned back to his work.

Stone merely looked at him for a moment, and then perplexity flared into irritation. "That's it? That's the only thing you have to say? I should have kept my mouth shut," she snapped. "You arrogant...egotistical..."

He raised a finger. "You forgot diabolical. I rather liked that one."

With a sharp motion, and no response, Stone turned on her heels and walked out of the laboratory.

"I think you love her."

Robotnik turned towards Cubot. "Who told you that?" he demanded.

"Blaze," answered the cube.

"Well, I don't. Love is a synonym for caring, and I don't care about any human being. Remove Blaze's statement from your database."

Cubot beeped in acknowledgement.

Orbot lit up. "Love. An emotional status too vague and varied in its definition. Would you like the dictionary classification?"

"No Orbot, you've already answered as I wanted you to," Robotnik replied.

Robotnik sat thinking about Stone's admission, and then decided to go after her.

He found her beneath one of the trees outside, and approached her.

"Well Agent Stone, by admitting your mission to me, it appears you're now a conspirator."

"Wasn't I already?"

He put his arm around her shoulders.

"I want to show you something," he said.

Robotnik led Stone into the Garden to find all the animals hanging around. Blaze was curled up napping on a cliff ledge, Tails was playing in the water, whilst Sonic zipped back and forth happily.

The scientist looked annoyed as he walked over and sat underneath one of the trees. Sonic came over.

"I told you not to tell anyone about this place."

"You told me not to tell any humans about this place," Sonic corrected.

"Fair enough," Robotnik relented.

"You brought Rouge," Sonic pointed out.

"She doesn't count," replied Robotnik.

Stone sat down on the grass next to him, wholly unfazed. "I take it that's a compliment?"

Miles the fox now cheerfully scampered over, shaking his fur dry. "Do you have pudding?"

Robotnik, bored, handed him a pudding cup.

Miles took the pudding happily and then went to his bag. He glanced at the clock timer:

48 hours remaining

"Hmm," he said enigmatically, settling down to eat. Then as if on second thought he showed it to Robotnik.

"See this?"

"That is a timer," said Robotnik.

"I know that," yapped the fox, "I made it."

"Good for you," Robotnik answered with indifference.

"It's counting down a strange, descending pattern in the planet's natural chaos energy wavelengths. It'll hit zero when the wavelength stabilizes," explained Miles. "My hypothesis is, it may be tied somehow to a crossroad brought about by our voyage through time."

"So?" asked Robotnik.

"This is another reason you should give us the ring so we can get the chaos emerald and go home."

"I already gave you pudding. Go away."

"We don't know what will happen in the world when it hits zero."

"Would you like my scientific opinion?"

"We'd like the ring."

"You're not getting the ring. You'll get either my genius analysis or nothing."

"Fine. What's your analysis?" relented Miles.

"It's hopeless," declared Robotnik. "Whatever it means has already happened. That's how time works."

"Some genius analysis. We still need that ring. There's only two days left."

When Miles walked off a distance to where Sonic was poking at one of the tree fruits, Stone spoke. "Ivo, why don't you give the critters the ring?"

"Because," delineated Robotnik, "they'll use it to get the chaos emerald, and the emerald is mine. We've discussed this before, dear Rouge."

"There's no way to share the emerald's power with them?" she persisted.

"I'm not about to risk it. They may have experience opening time portals, but in this age that's still very much a theoretical business. For all I know it will diminish the emerald's energy."

"Then go get the emerald already."

He laughed at this. She was being serious, though.

"You don't want to go into the Labyrinth yourself," said Stone. "You don't want me to go either. How come you don't send your drones in?"

Robotnik's eyes widened as if what she had proposed was a scandal. "I'm not going to risk my babies."

"Forget I asked," she scowled. "Look, the president wants me to give him a briefing tomorrow on what I've observed of you. I intend to tell him you don't pose much of a threat. It'll lessen their surveillance."

"Excellent. Then I can proceed with my scheme."


"I have no intention of halting my world domination plans. You know that very well."

In the midst of this, Blaze the cat had awoken and leapt down from her perch on the cliff-side. "Hello, untrustworthy humans," she meowed, padding indifferently up to them.

Robotnik addressed the feline. "I see you find this place suitable for catnaps?" he observed.

"It's too cold up on the rock." Blaze climbed onto Robotnik's lap and started purring, kneading his leg as if she were a house-cat.

"Ow, ow, ow," complained Robotnik, the claws sharp through the fabric. "Get off me!"

"Warrrmth," trilled Blaze, coiling herself up into a ball of lavender fur.

"Now that you're distracted, I'm going to check up on what Sonic and Miles are doing," Stone said, as she got up.

"You can't leave me here with a cat on my lap!" Robotnik called after her.

Stone did, however. Robotnik eyed Blaze, who flipped upside-down and looked back up at him.

The cat spoke first. "Rouge cares about you, and you care deeply about her."

Robotnik scoffed at this. "How many times must I remind you foolish, instinctual animals that I care about no one?"

"You're a liar," meowed Blaze.

"On the contrary. I'm honest," Robotnik retorted.

"An honest villain," purred Blaze. "That's new."

He hesitated now, as if second-guessing his answer. Blaze, evidently satisfied with his loss of words, hopped off his lap.

Stone's words still echoed in Robotnik's mind when he returned to the laboratory.

He went straight to the Eggmobile and opened the glove compartment. Within was a small, egg-shaped container; he opened this in turn to reveal the ancient gold ring.

Even possessing the ring this long there were several reasons he could not, immediately, go to retrieve the chaos emerald. The first was indubitably the Labyrinth itself. He had sent his drones to scan the interior and had secretly breached part of it already. Robotnik therefore knew much of the Labyrinth, enough to know it was not a gauntlet he wished to attempt lest he had no other choice; the pathway had to be cleared, and he would rather someone else do so.

Of course, finding a willing pawn would itself be a feat, and even if some seeker of fortune could be found and paid Robotnik would never trust him enough for such a task as retrieving the emerald. Human beings were treacherous creatures.

So perhaps I should leverage that, he decided.

Removing the ring from its container, Robotnik placed it beside the computer keyboard in plain view. A new scheme had written itself for him, as elegant as it was artful.

A ploy worthy of my species' one redeeming grace – ingenuity, he thought slyly, as he left the laboratory forthwith.

The next morning Robotnik woke at about five-thirty to find the ring gone, and so he made straight for Stone's house.

The day was dawning later and later with the coming autumn, the sun's first rays only starting to peak in shades of cream and crimson when he arrived at his destination. Robotnik had only to knock on the door once before she opened it, and he spoke without introduction whatsoever.

"Where's the ring?" Robotnik demanded indignantly.

"What have you done with Sonic and the other animals?" Stone countered.

He blinked with effected surprise. "They're missing?"

"You know they are."

"To be truthful, dear Rouge, I have no idea where your faunal friends are," Robotnik replied casually. "If I had captured them, don't you think I'd be experimenting on them about now?"

"Unfortunately," she acknowledged with a little scowl. "But if you didn't take them, where have they gone?"

"Probably the same place my ring is." Silently, inwardly, Robotnik was cheering with triumph:

This is perfect! My plan is coming together.

Chapter 33 - The Labyrinth

Trees grew densely here in Marble Zone, in a manner more evocative of a jungle than a forest. Their sturdy roots sank deep into the soil, not even hinting at the omnipresent danger of quicksand in these parts, as ivy clambered around their trunks parasitically.

Three little animals, creatures of the future, picked their way through this undergrowth: Sonic, Miles, and Blaze. As they walked, they could now see the white rocks strewn across this land in the future were relics of a human civilization. The columns and cornerstones of ancient edifices lay amidst the bracken, decimated but still distinguishable, mere hints at a past glory eventually to be forgotten and overtaken by nature's wildness.

The quicksand proved avoidable by Miles' scanner, which he held in his paw and used to map out the safest route through the woods. Nonetheless they treaded gingerly till the trees fanned out and encircled as centerpiece an ancient building, of exotic architecture harkening indistinctly to both Egyptian and Mayan. The pyramidal structure was hewn of golden sandstone, and the outside was covered in ivy vines.

Sonic marveled at it. "Who built this place anyway?"

"Ancient humans," replied Miles, "Legend says they revered the emerald's power and worshipped it, so when their ruler died they converted the temple to a tomb and sealed the gem away alongside him. They thought the emerald could return him to life."

"What happened?"

"No one knows. They all vanished."

"The curse maybe?" prodded Blaze.

"There's no curse," Miles yapped.

They wandered closer, circling the structure, till they found an unusual inscription. Vines had draped over it. All around the writing were carvings on small blocks depicting phases of the moon.

Miles read out the inscription:

"I run, and none can flee. I am watched, but never seen. When long I bring boredom, when short I bring fear."

"What does that mean? I got nothing," said Sonic.

"The answer is time," meowed Blaze.

She pawed at the blocks in the order of the moon's progression, and the stone rumbled away to reveal an entryway.

It was a very wide corridor. Vines pushed their way tenaciously through cracks in the ceiling, somehow surviving inside the sealed temple. Along the vast hallway, several paces one from the other, were grotesque statues of griffins, which stood with sightless eyes as guardians of the path. The animals stepped tentatively inside, marvelling at both the ancient architecture and the spaciousness.

"This doesn't look so bad," Sonic decided prematurely.

Suddenly the entrance shut behind them with a rumble of stone, leaving them in pitch darkness.

Outside, Dr. Robotnik had watched them disappear into the ruins. He flew the Eggmobile to hover near the now-sealed doorway bearing the riddle.

"...and the time is now," he said to himself, with a slight smirk.

Sonic, Miles, and Blaze walked tentatively down the dark corridors of the ancient ruins. Miles led the way, his catlike eyes shining in the dark.

"Look out!" called Sonic; there was a swish of motion, and the blue hedgehog tackled Miles, pushing him forward to avoid a fireball shot suddenly from the mouth of one of the griffin statues. The flames illuminated the dark hall in a brief burst, and left behind the sharp scent of sulfur.

"These ruins are booby trapped!" exclaimed Miles.

"We've got to be cautious as we proceed, then," Blaze hissed.

They walked gingerly down the path. Once or twice they narrowly sidestepped more fireballs, but for the most part they found no other traps. Portions of the path had soft light from luminescent multi-colored jewels piled sporadically along the corridor, and Miles speculated these must have great value to humans. None were the chaos emerald, though; there was no chaos energy from them that either Miles' scanner or Sonic's senses could detect.

At last the animals came to a crossroad with three archways.

"It looks like we have three possible paths," Miles said.

Sonic spoke up cheerily. "I'll check ahead."

"Sonic, maybe we ought to..." Blaze started to say, but he was gone in a streak of light. "...stick together." she finished dryly.

He returned in a short time.

"Looks like there are pinchy things," Sonic said vaguely.

Blaze flexed her claws. "I'm pinchy too, so we're evenly matched."

Miles swished his tails. "We can probably postulate that each route has some danger."

"Which is why we should..." Blaze began again.

Sonic zipped away down the second path. "Be right back!"

Blaze hissed loudly, the sibilant sound echoing off the corridor's high walls.

Sonic reappeared before them. "Nothing but a dead end."

Miles' eyes opened wide. "Something is dead? Where?"

"It drops steeply into a bottomless pit of water with more pinchies," Sonic added with a wince.

"Wait a minute!" Blaze called, as Sonic raced off yet again.

They only had to wait a few moments for him to return.

"You know what I think?" Sonic said.

"How could anyone possibly know what you think?" complained Blaze.

Sonic continued, "We should stick together."

There was a loud click of rock that resonated through the hall, followed by a faint rushing, gurgling noise.

Miles lifted his ears. "Did you hear that?"

"It sounded like...water," mewed Blaze.

They looked tentatively back down the path they had come.

When the torrent of water came distantly in view, reaching almost to the ceiling, Sonic hurtled down one of the paths. He wasn't even quite sure which he had taken.

He could run fast, but the others could not. Sonic dashed ahead, only to whirl around and dash back when he remembered the others would get left behind. In so doing, he as well as the others were yanked off their paws, carried away by the cataclysm.

Sonic managed to seize Blaze's paw, and he noticed Miles at a distance struggling to stay afloat as well. The walls reached higher, and fleetingly he could see stone blocks floating above the water; they looked sturdy enough to support their weight, a salvation from the depths.

He reached towards the nearest block, but his paw slipped on the water-spray coating the smooth stone; at the same time the flood increased, Blaze let out a caterwaul as he lost his grip on her as well, and waves crashed over his head as they were all hauled underwater instead by the merciless current.

The torrent, as if through a vacuum, pulled Sonic and the other animals down a wide passageway till they came out in a submerged, sealed-off chamber lined with metal spears. The water here, without outlet and still subject to the current's force, now swirled the captive travelers in an endless vortex. It made swimming near-impossible for those of them who knew how.

For Sonic, both unable to swim and deathly afraid of drowning, it was so much worse. The world had become a confusing disarray of spinning water and spikes and terror, his captured breath seeming to tick away like the seconds as he fought futilely to escape this ancient deathtrap.

There's nowhere to go, he realized, struggling to think with clarity while his mind raced against suffocation.

Amidst a turmoil of fright, his eyes caught sight of a block of stone in the wall – white marble rather than the Labyrinth's gold sandstone. In desperation he curled himself into a ball and, mustering as much strength as he could into the effort, threw himself against the block. It dislodged instantly.

The taste of dry, refreshing oxygen, musty yet welcome, hit his lungs; just as unexpectedly, the ground gave way under their paws, and suddenly they were all careening down a chute of water.

Right when Sonic started thinking the fall was endless, the waterfall deposited them with a splash into a pool hewn out of marble.

They all clambered out of the water and took in their new surroundings.

It looked like an ancient altar of some sort. A curved ring of blue glass, like a Mobius strip, encircled an hourglass with the sand poured out at the bottom. It stood within a casing of white marble, with words carved into the stone pedestal. Directly above the words was a small circular opening. It was Sonic who realized what they were looking at.

"This is exactly where I got the ring from!" he exclaimed. "Here's the strange inscription... hey, there's more written here than in our time. I guess it gets really worn out by the elements."

Sonic read it out:

"Here hides the jewel of eternity
Center of time's chaotic weave
Granted to the holder of the golden ring;
One of azure quills and lightning speed
From future to past to alight the flame
Of past to present to enemy and friend
For this light shall alter his decision
Aligning time's weave at the final hour
So destroying the world of beasts
To restore the world of men."

The animals were hushed for a moment at the ancient prophecy. Then Sonic shrugged:

"Yeah...I have no idea what any of that means. What happens if we put the ring back here where I got it from?" he added happily.

"Wait, Sonic..." Miles nearly yapped in panic, however Sonic was too fast – as always – and snapped the ring into the circular aperture.

The marble rumbled. The sand, as if by a vacuum, was drawn upwards within the hourglass.

The animals watched as if mesmerized, and when the hourglass had refilled, a second compartment was revealed in the stone, bringing forth a shimmering green gem.

It was the same hue as an emerald, though in the manner of the gold ring it shone with more magnificence.

"The chaos emerald," stated Miles.

"That's it?" Sonic felt a strange electricity on his quills, as strong as when he had traversed the time portal.

"Let's take it and get out of here," urged Blaze.

"Hold on..." Miles was studying the small device he held, "it looks like we might have to be cautious about removing the emerald..."

Before any more could be said, the jewel was snatched from its pedestal.

It was Robotnik, hovering above them in the Eggmobile, holding the emerald up in one hand as he regarded it. He could almost feel the power radiating from the mystical gem, as well as perceive the astonishment of the four animals below.

"Eggman?!" Sonic exclaimed.

Robotnik smiled slyly. "I was right to follow you. You took care of the traps, and led me right to what I wanted."

"We need that to get home!" Miles cried.

Sonic's quills bristled with irritation. "You don't know what you're doing, Eggman!"

"On the contrary," the scientist retorted, "It's the final stage of my brilliant master plan to take over the world! I'm hereby establishing the Robotnik Empire. You're welcome to menial positions in my new world order."

There was a shudder that ran through the cavern, followed by a loud cracking sound, and Sonic, Robotnik, and the others looked up at the now-collapsing ceiling.

"I knew the damn thing was booby trapped!" snarled Miles.

Robotnik shot a laser to burst open a wider part of the ceiling, and in an instant he flew the Eggmobile steeply out of the Labyrinth.

"He's seriously going to leave us?" Miles yapped.

"Tails! You fly Blaze out of here," Sonic said, "I'm going after Eggman."

He did not wait for the fox's reply. With a flash, Sonic bounded up the falling rocks, narrowly avoiding their jagged points in mid-air, till he reached the outer top of the pyramid and gave chase.

It took a moment for Robotnik to realize Sonic was tailing him.

"You want to play, hedgehog?" he laughed.

He shot the Eggmobile forward faster, and Sonic met his speed.

They wove through the trees, with the little animal pursuing the hovercraft tenaciously. When they rounded a creek Sonic launched himself at Robotnik, bouncing off the Eggmobile.

It took the scientist off-balance, and he hit the brakes so suddenly that the force pulled him backwards.

There was a moment where Robotnik struggled to collect his bearings, and then he noticed the emerald was gone.

Sonic, standing a short distance away from him, held the gemstone in his paws.

"My chaos emerald!" Robotnik shouted, with genuine outrage.

"Too slow!" Sonic called, and raced off.

Robotnik zoomed after him, yet the winding, high-speed chase only lasted a few seconds in the woodland before Sonic took a sharp turn at a slope and zipped into the city.

Robotnik lingered only for a second at the forest line. Evidently Sonic figured he would not pursue him into a populated area, without considering the variable now in play. Ultimate power, conquest and revenge – all his, and now to be lost so easily? The realization took away his prior amusement, leaving instead a cold resolution.

He lowered the goggles over his eyes and followed Sonic straight into Central City.

Chapter 34 - City Escape

Sonic ran all the way to a large park near Station Square in the middle of Central City. He halted here, hiding behind the foliage of an overgrown bush, and took the chance to finally examine the emerald.

The jewel was so large he had to hold it with both paws, though an adult human could probably hold it in one hand. The extreme levels of power could be perceived distinctly, though Miles had been right about it being more 'stable' than that of the ring; he had run here without any discernable fluctuation in it, and even now the emerald's energy somehow had intensity without wildness, a quality more controlled than chaotic.

It was a shock to Sonic when Robotnik hovered the Eggmobile before him.

"Eggman? You actually came into the city?" remarked Sonic.

"Time for a change of pace," sneered Robotnik. "Give me that chaos emerald, hedgehog."

"Gotta go fast!" Sonic countered, and took off down the street.

Robotnik pursued at the same velocity.

In one instant, two friends had become two enemies. Sonic raced through the streets in the dazzling glow of his top speed, Robotnik maneuvering the Eggmobile after him with the dexterity of a fighter pilot. Central City saw only two lines of blurred light and the catastrophe that followed in their wake. Sonic, for his part, could scarcely believe the sudden turn of events. No longer were the lasers shot short, like a game. They were now narrow misses, with many striking so close Sonic could feel the warmth nearly singeing his fur. The hunt was in earnest.

Whenever the laser missed its target, something else was struck. Sidewalks, the facades of buildings, parked and driving cars alike, all exploded in slow motion; the extent of the violence was barely perceptible at high speed, and Dr. Robotnik gave scant concern to any of it. His thoughts were consumed with the emerald. Robotnik had always imagined if his plans were thwarted it would be by the government, never by a time-travelling animal. In any event, he refused to surrender to either of them. If he could only get that emerald back, that capacitor of chaos energy, the world would be his.

He tried desperately to lock directly onto Sonic with the laser, but the little animal was too quick for him. Rather than dissuading the scientist, the near-strikes became tantalizing, and it was next to impossible to withhold elated, almost malicious laughter when Sonic futilely tried to duck underneath one of the parked cars.

"You can run, but you can't hide!" Robotnik called out.

He shot directly at the vehicle; Sonic darted back into the open as his hiding place began to be engulfed in the slowed, fiery explosion, and Robotnik took off after him again.

Meanwhile at the presidential office, Agent Stone was meeting with President Michaels.

"I'm glad to hear you think Dr. Robotnik isn't seriously planning anything," said Michaels, "though the way he's been acting seemed to indicate he was going to do something soon to further that outrageous scheme of his."

Stone shifted posture slightly. "Mr. President, I don't think he's a danger to national security. He's just embittered with the world."

"Embittered or not, anyone who aspires to seize power through violence is a menace. But I'll accept your report, Agent Stone. Keep me abreast if anything different happens..."

His words punctuated with a sound like thunder outside. From the wide windows, they could see when two streaks of light flew across the street, soon after which a fireball exploded on the lawn in front of the presidential palace.

Stone saw this, and realized all her persuasion and assurances of his innocence had smoldered away. The president was incensed.

"You can't claim that wasn't him and the hedgehog. What the hell does he think; that he can wreak havoc and cause us to cower from violence? The United Federation will never surrender to terrorists!"

"He isn't a terrorist," Stone contended.

The assertion only made the president turn sharply towards her.

"How can you possibly defend a madman who wants to take over the world?"

"He's not...bad."

Her protest sounded feeble. She glanced hopelessly back outside at the ensuing destruction.

President Michaels would hear none of it. "Dr. Robotnik is a threat to our nation's security. I want him detained."

"Sonic, I won't let you get away!" Robotnik shouted.

The blue hedgehog's untiring run had gone through every attempt at evasion, from zigzagging to doubling upon its tail. Sonic had learnt much from the foxes that had raised him; if this had been a chase of horses and hounds Robotnik had every conviction it would have been considered challenging sport, if not confounding failure.

However, Sonic was not a fox – he was a futuristic hedgehog, and it was not a chase of horses and hounds but of technology. As such, Robotnik hypothesized, his quarry's attempt at escape was but postponement of the inevitable triumph of his machines.

The chase was now taken vertically, through bounding up fire escapes and platforms, and Robotnik in the Eggmobile tried, in frustrating futility, to shoot them out from underneath Sonic before they reached the rooftops. They dove onto the top of a building and it was here, finally, one of the lasers hit their mark.

Sonic gasped and, tripping, lost hold of the emerald. It rolled across the roof and Robotnik swung the hovercraft around to seize it.

Getting back up onto his hind paws, the blue hedgehog turned towards his opponent. Robotnik batted the emerald from one hand to the other tauntingly, a mischievous grin across his face as he stared Sonic down. "Try again?" he mocked.

Sonic jumped up, curling into a ball, and launched himself at the Eggmobile. In their play-fights on the meadow, this tackle had done little more than rock the hovercraft from one side to the other. With his current ferocity, he cracked the glass of the window.

Sonic spun about and bounced again from the other side of the Eggmobile, ricocheting like a ping-pong ball at high-speed. He darted from one side to the other, a streak of blue light futilely trying to shake the hovercraft enough to knock the emerald out of Robotnik's grasp.

"Let go of that emerald!"

"It's mine, you blasted hedgehog!"

The panel flashed a red warning with damage to one of the rotors, and whilst Robotnik fought to regain control of the transport, one of Sonic's spinning tackles hurled against the aircraft so hard that it overturned vertically.

Robotnik tumbled out of the cockpit, catching hold by one arm of the side of the Eggmobile to halt what would have been a steep plummet to sure death.

He dangled perilously from the damaged hovercraft, and glared up at the hedgehog. Sonic balanced on the dashboard, trying hard to neither fall nor lose the emerald he now clutched in his paws.

Realization of how far they had gone now seemed to descend upon the little animal. Sonic looked somewhat guilty at having damaged the aircraft to such an extent of placing them both in danger, yet he swiftly evaluated their predicament.

"We have to leap to the building before this thing crashes," Sonic realized. "Eggman, I've got to pull you up."

"You can't while holding on to that emerald," pointed out Robotnik. "I've got one free hand; you can barely hold it in your two paws."

"That sounds like a trick," replied Sonic.

"Give me the emerald," Robotnik insisted.

Sonic hesitated. Robotnik did not.

Without warning he lashed out with the electric arc from his glove, contacting the animal's leg. The shock caused Sonic to let out a pained squeak and release his grip on the emerald – which Robotnik promptly snatched away.

A surge of vicious, victorious elation overtook him and Robotnik exclaimed gleefully:

"Game over!"

At that moment the aircraft started to spin wildly; the force of inertia pulled both scientist and hedgehog off, slamming them horizontally onto the top of the building, as the Eggmobile fell and exploded onto the street below.

The impact had been lessened for Robotnik. At the last moment he pressed a button on his glove, enveloping him in a force field. It cushioned his fall, but the same could not be said for Sonic, who was hurled against the concrete and landed without an outcry.

Robotnik stood unsteadily, wind whipping through his hair, and resolutely gripping the emerald. A defiant, cold laugh escaped him. "Well, Sonic! How do you like the agony of defeat?"

The little animal lay motionlessly. The smallest twinge of uncertainty subdued Robotnik's exultation, and he took a tentative step forward. "Sonic?"

No reply, not even a twitch of an ear.

Robotnik then glanced across the city at the smoldering plumes that raised themselves from the streets and over the skyscrapers, the distant peal of ambulances, and winced.

If you hurt somebody unnecessarily that's going too far. He recalled having made that assertion. Perhaps Sonic had been right of the irreconcilable nature of the statement alongside his world domination ambitions. But humanity itself had callously hurt him and his kinfolk long ago; wasn't it ironic justice?

Except he couldn't explain Sonic's injuries to himself that way – other than the speedy hedgehog having interfered with his goal. Triumph at having reclaimed the emerald and actually winning against Sonic dissipated into uneasy emotions. He honestly had never meant to severely hurt him.

Is he alive?

Before he could check or decide what to do, the building roof was at once encircled by helicopters, manned by stern-faced soldiers with glistening assault rifles. He could see the distinctive insignia of the United Federation's military, and their acronym G.U.N. in block lettering on the side of the helicopters.

They should have been on his side; he worked for the government after all. However their hostile expressions, no doubt related to the interspersed destruction across Central City, told Robotnik plainly one wrong move would see him shot nevertheless.

A tremor of fear at his present peril, and dark images of that sourest possible consequence of all to him – irrelevance through erasure, like was done to his family – was tamped down by resolve to speak coolly and craftily; if he had spent so many years devising his world domination schemes unnoticed, then he could talk his way out of anything. Maybe even get Sonic out of the mess I – no, that hedgehog himself made for stealing my emerald, Robotnik thought.

Everything was a blur. He wasn't quite sure what they had even said to him, but he found himself justifying his presence and actions. His voice held an unperturbed calm, probably much more than he felt.

"I work for G.U.N. myself in the scientific division. I was instructed by Commander Towers to secure this creature, by any means necessary."

The soldier frowned. "We haven't heard of any such operation."

"It was under Class A secrecy," the scientist explained.

"Who are you again?"

"Dr. Ivo Robotnik. My identification is in my coat pocket."

He did not dare lower his arms to produce it, allowing the soldiers instead to retrieve the card. The one looked it over, while the others kept their rifles trained on him. He tried not to fidget.

The soldier finally glanced up from the government ID, and noticed the emerald still clutched in Robotnik's gloved hand. "What's that?"

"My experiment." He realized uncomfortably he sounded defensive.

"We're going to have to confiscate that."

"Confiscate it? It's made of a highly unstable element! It needs to get back to my laboratory."

Like hell I went through all this to lose my chaos emerald to these dimwitted goons.

They looked dubious, but they took it away from him anyway. Robotnik, still held at gunpoint, was seething as he watched them gingerly handle the emerald.

"This is all rather embarrassing," Robotnik maintained, "Ask Commander Towers about all this. He'll vouch for me." I hope he'll vouch for me. "I'm simply following my orders."

"We're following ours," retorted the soldier, and with the muzzle of one of the rifles the scientist was nudged towards a helicopter.

Robotnik shot a quick glance back at the seemingly lifeless Sonic, able to see how they looped the noose of an animal control pole around the hedgehog's neck and pushed him into a cage.

Part of him cringed to see Sonic being treated like an unknown wild animal. The other part of him cringed at the thought of what he, in his capacity as a government scientist, might soon be expected to do to this wild animal.

Chapter 35 - Caged

Robotnik did not know how long he had been held here, in this sparse underground room somewhere in G.U.N.'s headquarters. They had questioned him extensively, whereupon he reiterated how he had been following Towers' orders, how the destruction had been deemed necessary to capture Sonic, and how the emerald was part of a scientific study of his. He went so far as to express outrage at being held incommunicado, and demanded to either speak to Towers or be charged with something already.

He knew the likelihood of either was minimal. He was now in the same precarious situation as all enemies of the state. It was among those many things spoken in hushed tones, known but never acknowledged by the populace, that their nation was not as free as they fancied nor as benevolent as they maintained. The longer they left him sitting alone there, the more his imagination plagued him with possibilities. More painful to him, however, was the thought of Sonic's unknown fate, which deep inside Robotnik could hold no one responsible for but himself.

When he saw Lieutenant Snively enter, he was fully expecting his circumstance to take a turn for the worst, and was presently surprised when the young soldier saluted.

"Doctor. The great Commander Towers has affirmed you were following his orders."

The great Commander. That's a new one. I should tell Orbot and Cubot to call me something like that when I succeed in becoming world emperor. "Yes, well, it's about time," Robotnik answered cholerically, standing up from the chair.

"He also sends his commendation at your successfully capturing the creature and wants you to determine the source of its power as soon as you can," Snively added. "We also cornered and trapped another one that ventured into Central City some hours later: a two tailed fox."

They've got Tails as well. "How are they?" He cursed the worry that might have been perceptive within his voice.

"The animals are alive."

Thank God, he thought.

Snively wasn't finished though. "We weren't sure if you were considering dissection or vivisection so we figured we'd leave it up to you."

Robotnik briefly stared at him, inwardly horrified, before recovering himself. "Yes...umm...leave it to me. Where are they?"

The black void of unconsciousness Sonic found himself in gradually waned, though a dull ache stubbornly held itself about his head. He could hear, distantly dreamlike, Miles' voice calling to him.

"Sonic! Wake up! Sonic...!"

"Tails?" Sonic answered groggily.

The hedgehog lifted his head. He could see the fox shift about in a metal cage, and he slowly realized he was trapped as well. "Sonic, you all right?" Miles was asking.

"I guess so," Sonic replied, looking around. "Where are we anyway?"

The room was rather dimly lit, with a desktop computer beside the doorway, a sink to the opposite side, as well as many cabinets. There was also a smooth metal table, and Sonic could somewhat make out a number of thin, shining silver instruments laid out there with a certain precision. The tart scent of chemicals and drugs overlapped unpleasantly in the air with that of some cleaner. For a hedgehog, who by species was naturally sensitive to strong smells, it was enough to bring a sickening taste into his mouth.

Miles explained, "The humans brought us to some kind of fortress. I think they've got something bad planned for us."

To this Sonic twitched an ear. "What makes you think that? Other than, you know, the cages and the torturous look of the place."

"They've been talking freely in front of us like we can't understand them. Either that or they don't care we can understand."

Sonic tried tackling the metal bars, but he could barely move around. "There's no way to gain momentum in this tiny cage."

"The bars are pretty sturdy besides," Miles yapped, "The cages seem to be unlocked by a latch atop the doors. It looks like both levers would have to be pushed in at once, but I can't reach it."

Sonic reached a paw through the bars and tried his luck at it. He succeeded only in straining the muscles of his arm. "No good," he gave a displeased grunt.

Miles tucked his paws under himself, wrapping his tails around on either side like blankets. "When you didn't return, and I heard about the destruction in the city, I went to find you. That's how they trapped me." Miles regarded his hedgehog brother with curiosity. "How'd they ever catch you?"

The recollection of the battle raced through Sonic's mind; how he had run off with the gem; how Robotnik had responded ferociously; how the winding chase culminated in a battle atop a tall building, somewhere in the middle of Central City, the discord over the emerald apparently birthing an unanticipated level of animosity in both of them. There was a point where his memories cut off, somewhere between being hurled from the Eggmobile and striking the concrete. He replayed the images over and over mutely, until finally he relented.


"Eggman?" Miles yapped.

Sonic sighed, a bit sadly. "Yeah, I guess he turned into a big-time villain after all."

They did not really speak much after that. Shortly thereafter the door opened, and in walked Dr. Robotnik.

He was wearing a white lab coat, and had traded his typical gloves with the drone controls for simple latex ones. They were so used to seeing him out in the field, with the black outfit with the burgundy trim, that his present attire looked unusually sterile and foreign to them.

Sonic faced him determinedly, clenching his paws into fists, as Miles bared his fangs in a snarl.

Robotnik pushed the door behind him shut, approached them wordlessly – and unlocked the cages. The animals crept out with visible suspicion.

Sonic's quills bristled. "So, Eggman, you've decided to have a change of heart? After you zapped me..."

"Keep your speech low," Robotnik interjected, "If they realize I'm helping you, we'll end up out of the frying pan and into the fire."

"Not an ideal situation for an egg," Sonic quipped.

To this he shot Sonic a withering look, and the hedgehog merely smirked in reply.

Robotnik decided not to pursue the squabble. "I'm going to need your help to get my emerald back."

"Your emerald?" scowled Miles.

"Our...emerald," the scientist forced himself to say, practically dragging out these words through clenched teeth.

The fox flattened his ears, but the hedgehog was still frizzed.

Robotnik groaned. "I'll never be able to live this down. Having to work with speedy pin-cushion and fluffy butt-copter."

"Think how we feel, having to work with a mustachioed mad scientist," retorted Sonic.

"Anyway. If you don't have the emerald anymore, where is it?" Miles asked.

Robotnik gave a sharp shake of his head. "They took it from me. I haven't found out where it is yet."

"It's far from here," Sonic stated.

"Sonic," Miles yapped, "how can you be so sure?"

"I dunno," Sonic admitted, "I can just pick up on it. Kinda like with the ring."

"No doubt due to the similarity of your energy charge," Robotnik dismissed. "Tell me something useful. If it's not nearby, where do you think it is?"

Sonic spoke assuredly. "Scrap zone."

"Something useful," Robotnik reiterated.

The blue hedgehog squinted at him, but obliged with an explanation. "It's this sinister looking building on the forest outskirts. The place is spewing all sort of toxic grime into the water. It's messing up the river for the wildlife."

" mean the Ark?" asked Robotnik.

"We call it Scrap zone," said Sonic.

"You call me Eggman," Robotnik pointed out. "The place you're describing is an old military base, codenamed the Ark. It's where my grandfather had been assigned to work on the project..." his voice trailed off.

The fox Miles filled the silence. "Why did they call it the Ark?"

"Because it could be used as an underground bunker in the case of nuclear disaster," elucidated Robotnik. "A sort of Noah's Ark where the planet could be repopulated from. When the threat of nuclear war diminished, and they decided they wanted to cancel the chaos energy project, the base was deactivated."

"Then someone has taken the place in secret." The fox had lifted his ears with realization. "If something is now being pumped into the river, that means the base is active."

"No problem!" Sonic decided. "We'll head to Scrap Zone, find out who's there and get back the emerald. While we're at it, maybe we can stop the chemicals poisoning the river too."

"All well and good, if we can get out of here first," replied Miles, "This place looks as twisty as the Labyrinth. Without the water," he leapt to assure when Sonic's eyes widened.

"You should have no trouble getting out." Robotnik had walked briskly over to the desktop computer. "Remember how you critters knocked out power across the city when you travelled here? I'm doing the same thing on a lesser scale. With the power out, all the guards will be disoriented, though your nocturnal eyes should be able to see fine." As he spoke, he was working on the computer, typing some code into the system. "The closest exit is down the corridor... turn left twice, then once to the right. There's an emergency exit door, which you should be able to tackle open. You'll probably have to make it there within five minutes. They have an emergency protocol to lock down the compound so if you're not out by the time they do, you'll be trapped."

"Five minutes? I can make it there before five seconds," Sonic squeaked.

"I'd better get a head start," yapped Miles.

Miles hurried off, yet Sonic lingered at the door. The hedgehog appeared a little dismal; Robotnik glanced up at him with a questioning look and, realizing the scientist knew he was caught in a debate, Sonic restrained uncertainty and spoke his mind.

"Sorry I wrecked the Eggmobile."

"I'm sorry for, you know, blasting you with all those lasers. I shouldn't try to incinerate you all the time."

Robotnik had replied almost tongue-in-cheek, yet he could not hide from Sonic a genuineness of regret at having gotten carried away in the city; the hedgehog's animal sense perceived the feeling, equal in strength to his own remorse.

At a few taps on the computer keyboard, the lights shut off. "Get the hell out of here, hedgehog," Robotnik whispered urgently.

Sonic zipped out into the hallway.

Chapter 36 - Traitor to the State

The lockdown on the headquarters had been lifted and Dr. Robotnik was gathering his things together to head for the laboratory when Commander Towers appeared, insistent upon seeing him.

Never had Robotnik seen such exigency upon him. It was an urgency almost bordering upon fury. "I heard from one of my men that we had two of the time-warp creatures here, and somehow they managed to escape the compound," began the commander.

"Yes," said Robotnik, "when I was going to work on the hedgehog, the damn thing tackled me, released the fox, and they both got away."

"Why do I think you're lying to me, Doctor."

Towers' outright reservation was unnerving to Robotnik, but the scientist did not deign to give any visible reaction.

Towers added, "I want those animals shot on sight."

Robotnik replied evenly. "Commander, I don't think we should be so hasty."

"There's no reason not to be," Towers responded immediately.

"Have you ever heard the story about the golden eggs?" Robotnik posed.

It made Towers hesitate, whereupon Robotnik continued:

"There was once a goose that laid an egg of pure gold every morning. The farmer, consumed with greed, killed the goose to collect all the eggs at once. However when he opened up the goose, he found no eggs inside...and now he had no goose either."

"What's your point, Doctor?"

"It's not smart to kill the hedgehog. We can learn more of its power by studying it alive."

Towers interjected, "The idea isn't to study its power. The idea, if you recall, was always to harness it."

"I'm as practical as you are, Commander," said Robotnik. "But to determine the best way to harness something, you have to study it first."

"We know how to harness it already," Towers dismissed. "The fact that its quills possess energy themselves means whether the creature is alive or dead is irrelevant."

"I've found the quills drop in energy levels after a while," Robotnik lied.

Towers was briefly silent. "Why did you not mention this earlier?"

"I wouldn't say if I wasn't sure," Robotnik countered. "Tests had to be run."

Towers' cold eyes seemed evaluating for a moment, yet Robotnik was steadfast. At last, the commander shrugged indifferently.

"If so, very well. It merely means the animal must be kept alive."

It was the reasoning Robotnik had hoped to draw forth. Why then did these words sound ominous from Towers, like the rattle before a viper's strike?

"On a more agreeable note," added Towers, "I saw you were able to procure or synthesize the chaos emerald."

They know what the jewel is, damn it, Robotnik realized.

"G.U.N.'s research into chaos energy has been going on for years, as you know," Towers went on, as if Robotnik had voiced his thoughts. "and the possible existence of such a jewel came up during the interrogation of Captain Antoine. We knew of the legend before that, but we never thought it true. How much power does the emerald contain?"

"Markedly less than I'd hoped," said the scientist. He was lying through his teeth. "I need to continue my experiments on it, so if you could return it to me..."

"Less than our target goal?" Towers interrupted him.

"Oh, absolutely."

"So you suspect it may have to be amplified somehow?"

"Potentially. Then again I'll be able to give you my full assessment on the matter once I have it back."

"In due course, Doctor. The chaos emerald might prove more useful to our operations elsewhere."

"Like where?"

"That's classified."

"But I have top security clearance, commander," Robotnik pointed out diplomatically.

"You have the clearance I grant you," Towers replied, impassive in his regard.

It silenced any further objection, for the moment.

When Towers left, Robotnik hurried to a computer. He had decided to finally look up Towers' given name. If he kept postponing doing so for its tediousness and frivolity, he never would. It was easy to bring up the database; he would satisfy his curiosity once and for all:

Commander Mephiles Towers.

So that was his full name. Where had he heard it before?

Stone had heard how Robotnik was released from detention, and was going to call him when she was summoned to Commander Towers' office. It was a matter of great importance, she had been informed, but it came with a brevity and solemnity she only remembered seeing of her superiors during the height of the war before some dangerous undertaking was to be ordered.

She encountered Towers standing behind his desk, looking up at the United Federation flag that adorned the wall. He seemed preoccupied by something, and when she walked in and saluted him he did not waste time in inconsequential conversation.

"I've received a new directive from the president," Towers told her. "Dr. Ivo Robotnik overstepped a line with the foray into Central City. The president has determined it can't be ignored. Especially while considering Dr. Robotnik's genuine aspirations to take over the world."

He hesitated briefly before his next words.

"You are to eliminate him."

"What?" Stone's heart momentarily stopped, and she stared aghast at the commander. "No... I couldn't do that."

"It's for the sake of the nation. Dr. Robotnik is a traitor."

"Without even a trial?" she demanded. "He barely trusts anyone and you're asking me to betray him."

"They're your orders, Agent Stone."

The blunt absoluteness of it astounded her. She turned her face away; after a moment Towers addressed her again, his voice now with an apologetic tone:

"I'm sorry. I know he means something to you..."

"How do you know that?" she asked bitterly.

"I am kept informed about the private lives of those assigned to work for me," Towers replied.

Stone turned to face him. "You ordered me to seduce him, but I cannot help falling in love."

"That is your flaw as a soldier, Agent Stone. As a military agent, one must always keep sentiment at bay."

She stared at him in silence, and he added:

"It has to be done. Like shooting a rabid beast. It's not something I wanted to have to be the one to tell you...but as soldiers we both know certain things are inescapable in the line of duty. His ambitions of world domination are not only treason against the United Federation; they endanger the very human ideal of global peace."

He was briefly quiet.

"The president has given his orders, Agent Stone. The future depends on this."

The future. The commander's words weighed on her, even after she had left G.U.N.'s headquarters and headed down the sidewalk. Stone did not know where she was going, really. She chose a path aimlessly, in the hope the cold wind and immaterial action of losing herself in the landscape could settle her mind.

She walked all the way to the park in the middle of Central City. The trees in this area, unlike those of the forest, had almost lost all their leaves already. The last of their autumn foliage was strewn across the winding trails, their vivid colors darkening into shades of brown and leaving smudges on the concrete as they faded forever into the past.

Her tormented thoughts swirled in eddies. Towers' cogent argument for Robotnik's sacrifice, as well as the duties falling upon her as a soldier of the United Federation, contrasting like ice and flame with the uniquely personal conflict of knowing Ivo as a friend and lover, of knowing his reasons for the otherwise outlandish assertions he made and the trauma he held hidden inside. These manifestations all lay on a balance, upon the shaky scales of Justice, which the administration would not pay heed to. Yet if Stone was to be executioner of their arbitrary judgement, she would not disregard this measurement. There was no equilibrium here. There was only chaos. Through chaos came strange lucidity, and she rendered her own judgement.

Let the future burn in fire. Let them both stand as traitors to the state. She loved him.

Even if he would never care about any human being.

She called Robotnik on her cell phone, having decided to tell him what was transpiring and how his life was in peril. She was met with a peal that was eventually, nerve-rackingly, silenced by duration and no one picking up the other line.

Stone muttered to herself, "Answer your phone, damn it."

After three tries at calling him, and thrice being directed to the answering machine, she gave up.

Stone headed to the presidential palace. If nothing else, she would reason with President Michaels, or try to. He had never struck her as bloodthirsty, nor inclined to make decisions pertaining to the life or death of others so flippantly.

She was granted immediate entry to the president's office, being his secret operative. Nonetheless, five of the stoic, trim-suited security guards stood protectively around the perimeter of his office in a semicircle, two more men than the usual. She surmised there must have been a threat against the president. Either this, or the administration did not trust her loyalty anymore.

Michaels greeted her pleasantly. "Agent Stone, how may I help you?"

"It's about Dr. Robotnik," began Stone.

His demeanor became more serious, dead set in finality. "There's nothing to discuss over that."

Her heart fell. He had ordered this. "But why?"

"Why? The destruction in Central City speaks volumes about it," Michaels asserted. "I don't give a damn if he was after some unknown species of animal that science has yet to study. I hardly think mounting one for the national museum is worth so much collateral damage in human lives."

"The museum...?" questioned Stone. "The hunt was top secret, wasn't it?"

"Top secret? Not at all. Presumably the concept was to learn about this strange creature and extend the knowledge we gain to the public."

All throughout the project it had been spoken of to us like a matter of national security. How can it be the president doesn't see it as classified? He's the one who made the designation. She shook away the oddness of this discrepancy. She was here for another reason.

"The point is Dr. Robotnik's life is going to be thrown away," Stone insisted.

"He threw his own life away."

"He's one of our nation's brightest scientists..."

"Who, on top of his lust for power, has affirmed his disregard for human life."

Stone sought a reply to this, but found none.

"Agent Stone," added the president, "at least fifty civilians were caught in the crossfire of his attack on Central City. There are twelve people still in hospital at this moment from that travesty. Twelve people with names and families."

Unexpectedly Stone remembered the hundreds of people and their families stationed at the Ark, killed and conveniently unseen, and then started to notice the hypocrisy of a determination of usefulness, to make embarrassing deaths be forgotten whilst morphing others into a banner for a cause, and how the determination was made politically. At the same time she was dimly aware of additional soldiers who filed into the office, and joined the others as stoic presidential guards.

Michaels persisted, "It's a miracle no one died. What he did could have amounted to manslaughter."

"Manslaughter means prison, not a death sentence," Stone protested futilely. "In any case, shouldn't a judge and jury decide his penalty? How can you be expecting me to assassinate him?"

President Michaels stared at her.

"I never ordered him killed."

She stared back, mystified.

"I want him locked in jail," he said. "Who told you I wanted him dead?"

Stone found her voice, though it was dry. "Towers said you'd given orders."

Michaels now, sharply, turned to the security guards surrounding the perimeter. They had become somewhat of a crowd all standing at attention, wholly committed to why they were sent here.

"Get Towers on the line," Michaels told them. "I want to know what he has to say."

His guards, though, were impassive. Without a word in response, one pulled out a pistol.

There was a gunshot; a cry cut short. Stone stared in incredulity at the now-lifeless body of the United Federation's president on the floor. Meanwhile the assassin spoke through a communicator:

"The President's office is secure, Commander."

Chapter 37 - Mephiles

Robotnik drove to the laboratory, his mind still reviewing the commander's full name as if some significance could be found in it.

Mephiles Towers. It was so familiar and yet unfamiliar.

He shook his head, as if trying to clear his thoughts. The most important thing was the chaos emerald, which he had to get back. Why the emerald had been taken to the Ark, and why the Ark as a military base had apparently been reactivated, he could only surmise. When old memories of the place rose hurtfully, he had to shove them away when the stress became too much.

Upon reaching the laboratory Robotnik hurried in to gather his equipment, intending to be as quick as possible. "Orbot, Cubot, I need you to..."

His voice trailed as he found Towers inside waiting for him. Besides Towers were also Snively and Westwood, and several other soldiers of lower rank, each one of them as stoic as if on duty.

He realized something was amiss.

The scientist nonetheless greeted them amicably. "Commander. What brings you here?"

"Dr. Robotnik," responded Towers, with impassivity.

Robotnik hesitated when the soldiers all lifted their rifles and pointed them at him. He glanced from them to Towers.

The commander was businesslike. "Your hostile actions against the nation end here. You are hereby a prisoner of G.U.N. and the United Federation."

"Are you charging me with anything?" Robotnik asked civilly.

Towers chuckled. "Come, Doctor, you're smarter than that."

They seized Robotnik roughly from behind, and began to haul him to the exit.

Orbot gave a harsh beep, like a pet detecting a threat to its master, and shot a sharp laser burst towards the nearest of the aggressors. This startled the G.U.N. soldiers only for an instant.

Westwood reacted fast, hurling Orbot violently against the wall as if he were batting a baseball; it slammed into the diplomas, and broke apart as it hit the ground. The orb sparked once and its light went dark.

From the desk Cubot gave two sharp beeps, as if it had detected Orbot had gone suddenly offline.

Robotnik cried out, "Orbot!"

It had been without forethought. He had not been able to hold back the exclamation, nor prevent a piercing feeling of dismay as he witnessed this. Snively looked on, visibly uncomfortable at the scene playing out. None of it escaped notice by Towers.

"Major!" Commander Towers barked.

At this order, Westwood made a sharp sideways motion with the stock of his rifle, and the little cube crashed into innumerable shards onto the laboratory floor – shut off permanently.

Dr. Robotnik flinched noticeably, as if he had been suddenly stabbed, but said nothing.

Towers strode around him haughtily. "You're finished, Robotnik! We've taken everything. Your lab, your drones, your funding! Let's see how big of a man you are without your silly little gizmos."

Robotnik was still gazing at the remnants of Orbot and Cubot, a bit mired in the moment; when Towers finished speaking, however, he glanced up calmly.

"Destroying scrap metal is a lot different than slaughtering people, isn't it...Mephiles?"

To this the military commander was left in shock, and the scientist went on, "You thought you'd tricked me into believing you had nothing to do with the attack upon the Ark years ago, didn't you?"

Towers' initial hesitation flowed naturally into a guarded question.

"How did you know I was involved?"

A hint of a smirk sparked across Robotnik's features, and he answered:

"Because you just told me."

Ever so slowly the appreciation of this strategic play sank into Towers, and a smile became visible upon the commander's face. Unexpected darkness now bared itself in the depths of once-impassive pale green eyes, as Towers spoke.

"Never underestimate a genius."

"So you participated in a massacre," Robotnik pursued, "all to hide some corrupt..."

"No," interrupted the military commander, "All to rewrite the future."

The response briefly left Robotnik wordless.

"Dr. Robotnik, as a man of science, you surely know the premise of natural selection," Towers began. "Survival of the fittest plays out in the natural environment. Mankind has become over-dependent on technology."

The idea was utter anathema to Robotnik, who opened his mouth to speak again but Towers stopped him.

"Now I can anticipate your reaction," the military commander interjected. "Technology has opened new doors for human civilization, but at what cost? Humans are growing genetically weak. That is the reason for humanity's frailties and foolishness. Out of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, we alone can no longer survive solely by claw or fang." He went on almost lecturing. "Notice how the dinosaurs went extinct. A disaster killed them all, except the crocodiles survived. Why? For all intentions they're great lizards too. But they were intelligent enough to seek shelter in the water and hardy enough to withstand it."

Robotnik had by now deduced what Towers was leading towards, yet his logical mind could not believe such a genocidal plot would be considered seriously. "What are you proposing?"

"A calamity, like in the day of the dinosaurs," Towers boldly explained. "The strongest survive. The weakest eliminated. The planet returns to its natural state. The selection begins anew."

"That's ludicrous!" Robotnik blurted out.

"You wish to control chaos. But chaos is not meant to be controlled. It must be unleashed into the world once and for all." Amusement crept into Towers' voice, of an almost sadistic quality. "In that the Robotnik family research helped enormously with my plans. You did each have different reasons... Gerald, with the idealistic wish to aid mankind and his ailing granddaughter... you, Ivo, for the lust of revenge. Likewise however... your usefulness has now reached its end."

Commander Mephiles Towers then leant forward and, with tailored cruelty, added:

"I wonder if you'll die trembling like your grandfather, or screaming like your sister?"

In that instant the whole world hushed, surpassing even the slowed time of sonic-speed, and suddenly all Robotnik's decades of fanciful daydreams – the endlessly entertaining notions of world domination, societal retribution, and ultimate power – decimated themselves entirely in that late realization of who was truly responsible.

"You scum..." Robotnik said, with tranquil menace, "You will see me destroy everything you value."

"You mean my dreams of reshaping the world? You're late, Doctor. They're already in motion."

Robotnik was unfazed. "Look at you, acting like you've got a chance to win."

"Just like your grandfather," Towers dismissed. "Gerald was recalcitrant at first when we asked how to modify the device at the Ark. It's the reason we had to cause his disappearance instead of...quickly eliminating him like the others." Robotnik tried to struggle free, but the soldiers held him back as Towers continued taunting, "The Chaos Energy Cannon can lock upon the human genome. By increasing the emerald's power with a secondary energy source, and through a series of satellite relays, the entire planet will be awash in its lethal beam."

"I will not allow you to defile my grandfather's legacy!" Robotnik snapped.

Towers ignored him. "Those in the Ark should be able to survive the disaster. From then on it will be an easy matter to select and eliminate flaws from the pool left, leaving only the superior human beings. A pity your lineage will be wiped out, Doctor. Intelligence is a rare trait."

At an imperious wave of his hand, Snively and Westwood pulled Robotnik out of the laboratory.

Chapter 38 - The Hideout

"Move, Doc," ordered Snively, pushing Robotnik ahead with his rifle. Two more soldiers accompanied with aimed weapons, ensuring no escape for their prisoner as they went outside.

He did not fight them now; he was not of an obstreperous sort, preferring to think through his actions, but he realized Towers' threats were not hollow and the time left was running acutely short. This was affirmed when they got to one of the military vehicles and Westwood, with arbitrary meanness, struck him in the stomach.

Robotnik fell forward, clenching his teeth in pain, yet the two men forcibly held him upright.

"That's for making me look laughable at the conference," Westwood sneered, "I'm going to enjoy seeing you beg to die."

Robotnik did not answer him. His mind raced. He saw no feasible way out of his dire situation, yet he had never admitted defeat before. Now, when at last he knew who was behind it all – even less.

There was a rustle from the bracken, of a strength somewhere in between the wind's flutter and an animal breaking its cover. A streak of blue light whisked about Robotnik and his captors in a gyre, too fast to be perceived with clarity; the soldiers exclaimed and yelped as they were suddenly pummeled to the ground by the indistinct, ricocheting force.

Robotnik was released in an instant. He nearly stumbled to the ground from the suddenness of this freedom, but he caught himself right as Sonic the hedgehog appeared alertly before him.

"Hey, Eggman. You ok?" Sonic asked.

Robotnik was flabbergasted. "You came back?"

Sonic answered, "They're not fighting fair, Eggman. They got you totally outnumbered."

"We're still outnumbered. Why would you risk your life coming back?"

"You have to leave."

"I'm not going anywhere," retorted Robotnik, "I don't need your help, hedgehog."

"Can we talk about this after I rescue you?"

"Rescue me? Like hell I'm getting rescued by my arch-nemesis."

There was a commotion at a distance of the other soldiers at the laboratory building, who were now coming to be aware of the ensuing escape. They burst out and fired upon their loose prisoner; the scientist leapt aside to flee, but Sonic ran directly towards them. The hedgehog knocked the rifles out of their hands and tackled them down in one whirl, to leave them like the first bunch who still lay stunned and groaning, before returning to Robotnik.

Sonic looked squarely up at him. "Experience has taught me that the best way to solve problems is to kick butt."

"Sonic says," replied Robotnik casually.

A larger contingent of soldiers now emerged in pursuit. The little blue hedgehog dashed into the woodlands of Marble Zone, and Robotnik without forethought followed his lead. He could not hope to keep pace with him at all, but he ran as fast as he could muster in the general direction.

It was the terrain, not the soldiers, that ensnared him.

Sonic darted ahead, then sped back shortly. "Oh yeah. You don't have the Eggmobile till you fix it, so you can't keep up."

By now, Robotnik was knee-deep in quicksand, arms crossed and an annoyed scowl on his face.

Sonic regarded him for a moment. "How did you ever end up in there?"

"One of the mysteries of science," Robotnik replied sarcastically. "Look, throw me a vine or something before the soldiers catch up."

"You finally admit you need my help," teased Sonic.

"No. I'm manipulating you into doing what I want, which happens to be helping me. There's a difference."

They jumped at the sounds of men and military vehicles pushing through the underbrush. Sonic darted away towards the noise and returned to Robotnik with a bored look.

"Any day now," Robotnik prodded.

Sonic looked unconcerned. "But the truck's only doing 80."

Suddenly the soldiers burst into the clearing, guns drawn. In a flash Sonic bounced off them easily, tackling their enemies at high speed, and when the truck lay decimated and the soldiers were all flat on the ground the streak of blue light reappeared before Robotnik. He held a rope in his paws.

"Look what I found in the truck," Sonic smiled cheerfully.

"I'm going to get so even for this next time I've got you on the run," snapped Robotnik, the quicksand up to his waist now.

He had to tip back to dislodge himself, but this done it was very easy for Sonic to pull him out from the pit.

The scientist was still scowling. "If it wasn't bad enough the turn of events, getting nearly captured by that confounded commander, and now I'm coated in all this mud..."

Sonic spun in speedy circles about him, whipping wind in a vortex, and when the little animal came to a halt the grit had been blown away and Robotnik's outfit was dry.

"Better than both a washing machine and dryer," Sonic declared.

"Show-off," retorted Robotnik.

Having evaded the soldiers' pursuit, at least for the time being, they proceeded on their way through the forest. Sonic took pains not to leave Robotnik behind, though restlessly tapping a hind paw on occasion.

"I'm waiting," Sonic prodded good-naturedly.

Robotnik realized that somehow Sonic had ended up leading the way. He would have disputed it, were it not for the fact that logically the animal could scout the path ahead better. "Where are you going, anyway?" he asked instead.

"Tails and Blaze are waiting for us at Hill Top," Sonic answered.

"Count me out of any rendezvous till I get supplies. That's why I had gone to the lab to begin with."

"You're not coming?"

"Of course I'm coming. I want that damn chaos emerald." Robotnik turned at a break in the path and Sonic, now curious, followed him.

They came to the bottom of a stone cliff with an unusually smooth face. Robotnik pressed some buttons on his glove in sequence, reading them out.

"Up – down – left – right...and two at once."

Suddenly the stone rumbled to the side and revealed a hidden passageway. "This better not be another submerged place like the Labyrinth," Sonic said dubiously.

"I built it in part of the ruins, yes," the scientist smiled.

Sonic gave an annoyed little sound somewhere in between a hiss and a grunt.

"I cleared out any traps here a long time ago," Robotnik elaborated, "and thankfully this area never collapsed like the main building."

They walked down a short, dark corridor, paved with the same golden sandstone of the Labyrinth, and he flipped a series of switches on the left side of the wall. Overhead lighting illuminated an expansive room, revealing modern comfort and amenities that had been worked into the ancient structure. The stone doorway sealed itself behind them.

"And I thought you only had one lair," Sonic squeaked.

Robotnik appeared proud of the place. "For power I use the water current from the spring running through the Labyrinth. Untraceable internet access, controlled climate, plus fifty of my weaponized drones – everything for about a year's worth of living off the radar, buying enough time for me to devise my next evil scheme. There's also a stash of pudding the fox hasn't found yet."

Sonic had dashed to the small refrigerator. "Can't believe you plan a year of living on the lam without packing a single chili dog."

"I never expected I'd have a tagalong hedgehog with a spicy tooth," complained Robotnik.

"How'd you ever build and stock this hideout?" asked Sonic, zipping back to him.

"Easily," he dismissed, as he sat down at an array of computers to the side and began booting them up. "Average human governments spend so much time squabbling over public finances that they forget to invest in suitable encryption for actually dispersing the funds. In between self-bestowed pay raises and mysteriously expensive pet projects, no one realized a portion was actually being wired elsewhere."

Sonic considered the irony. "So you used government money to prepare for when the government turned against you."

"Ever wonder where your tax dollars are going?" Robotnik asked rhetorically.

"That still doesn't explain why they're trying to get you, or why they want the chaos emerald," said Sonic. "Did they realize you'd let me go?"

Robotnik sighed. "Long ago, my grandfather had developed a device that could draw upon chaos energy, imbuing it into a living creature's DNA. The premise was to see if it would extend the lifespan. Towers had the function reversed."

"You mean that military guy who keeps thinking I'm a rodent?"

"He's going to use the emerald together with a modified version of my grandfather's device to obliterate mankind. Those idiots," added Robotnik, half-to-himself, "They'll destroy everything! How can I take over the world and build my empire if there is no world?"

"That's one way to look at it," Sonic remarked.

Robotnik had a small smile. "If my calculations are correct, and there is no reason to say this, because they always are..."

"Pfft," interrupted Sonic.

He squinted sideways at Sonic, but continued, "...Towers hasn't fired the doomsday weapon yet because he doesn't have the extra power source he needs, or thinks he needs, to do it. He's under the impression that the chaos energy within the emerald needs to be amplified somehow. This presumably buys us enough time to get it back from him."

He would have asked Orbot and Cubot to run an evaluation of how long it might take, and then remembered he could no longer do so.

Losing them hurt more than he felt it ought to.

It's human illogic, he adamantly told himself, and trying to force away his brooding started typing something on the computer keyboards. G.U.N. were fools, to think they could confiscate his equipment easily when it was all tied to his network. He would bring the drones back at the laboratory online, he decided, and give the occupiers something to worry about.

Alas, he found he no longer had network access to the equipment there. "Those bastards locked me out of my own inventions," muttered Robotnik.

There was even more to concern him when a brief check of media websites showed new developments in the top story headlined, with journalistic alliteration, 'Downtown Devastation'.

Images of the destruction in Central City were juxtaposed neatly with the portrait on his government ID. There were words speaking of a rogue scientist, of his villainous plans for conquest and tyranny, of a reward for good citizens to come forth with information leading to this madman.

He pursed his lips together in a bitterly forced smile. "Well, I knew sooner or later they'd be after me." I never assumed this soon, though.

"So..." evaluated Sonic, "if your schemes are out in the open now, I guess they're pretty much shot down."

"Not yet." His optimism held firm, despite the evident hopelessness; perhaps more of an assuagement for himself at this point than true conviction. "I can always seek to restructure my plans, carry them out in this hidden fortress..."

"Does it work that way?" asked Sonic.

"It's one of the benefits of being a genius."

Oddly enough, he found himself thinking less and less of his plans for a glorious future empire. His thoughts had become darker, of Towers specifically and unpunished cruelties of the past. But he did not admit this.

He turned his attention towards contacting Stone. From the computers, Robotnik sent a text to her phone; Sonic watched him type out the message:

Rouge, are you all right? Towers is behind everything and is planning to launch an attack. I'm writing from an encrypted line.

When a message returned, Sonic lifted his ears in surprise.

Ivo, don't contact me anymore. I think it's best that we stop seeing each other.

Robotnik studied the message on the screen briefly, then addressed the computer. "Triangulate network signal."

From a side table rose a hologram of the globe; he walked over as it zoomed into a point marked in red, displaying data on a side chart of the distance and location...

"The Ark," he mused. "They have Rouge."

Chapter 39 - Sanctuary

The quietude of that sanctuary, inherent in seclusion from the outside and its being known solely to Robotnik and now Sonic, had come into a peculiar dalliance with unease. With Stone evidently a hostage, Robotnik once more felt the deficiency of time, as if the minutes borne by the clock had become scarce where they had once appeared plentiful. Perhaps their prior abundance had been an agreeable illusion.

The more perplexing matter to him was why he worried so much about her.

He pushed away this debate and kept his thoughts on the chaos emerald. That was his priority. With that he could take over, as he had planned; everything and everyone else was secondary to that emerald, he reminded himself.

"You sure the others are still waiting for you, Sonic?" asked Robotnik, removing the high-tech gloves and connecting them to a charging port.

"Course. They know I'm coming back," Sonic replied.

"Whenever you say you'll be back," countered Robotnik, "you usually return within half a second. It's approaching a quarter of an hour right now."

Sonic was undaunted. "They know I went to get you, so I'm being dragged down with a slow-mo."

"Touché," said Robotnik, eyeing him at an angle.

Suddenly there was a loud noise, distinctively the crumbling collapse of stone. A new window flashed open on the computer screens; Robotnik looked the message over swiftly and grimaced.

"The bastards," he grumbled.

Sonic peeked at the screen, where Robotnik had now opened up live security camera footage showing a troop of G.U.N. soldiers smashing their way into the lair. He could see Major Westwood leading them, the symbolic charge of a cavalry coming not to aid but to decimate. Another camera had a view of more soldiers milling about nearby.

"G.U.N. has my base surrounded," Robotnik growled.

The moment these soldiers knocked down the stone wall, they streamed into what was essentially the hideout's foyer. Westwood turned sharply to the men under his command.

"If you see that conniving scientist, shoot to kill. We've got too many prisoners already."

Their target, meanwhile, had a vastly different idea. Robotnik was typing away swiftly at his computer keyboard, an almost predatory glint in his eyes. Sonic glanced from the soldiers on the screen to Robotnik and back, as if trying to guess what he was up to.

"I'll take care of them now," Robotnik declared, "I developed an entire security system to protect this base, and my coding is impeccable."

Sonic was less enthusiastic. "Hate to break it to you, Eggman, but your toys are really easy to break."

He wanted to snap back at Sonic, but could not think of a retort off the top of his head. Instead, he poked a button in the keyboard.

Outside, where Westwood and his men were, one of the walls rumbled away to open a secret compartment.

They were faced with a war machine of imposing height, painted a midnight black, and flanked by armed drones. The giant contrivance had the abstract aspect of a canine, with mammoth jaws, and a single antenna atop from which Robotnik could control it remotely. A few of the soldiers shrank back involuntarily.

He relished their unsettlement. It had taken him over two years of secret work to devise this mechanized guard dog.

"I call it Cerberus, after the ancient Greek," he proudly explained.

"Egg Cerberus," designated Sonic instantly.

"Yes, Sonic," accepted Robotnik, as he inputted controls.

From a speaker he addressed the soldiers, granting a final opportunity for them to back down. "Westwood and company. I'd advise you to retreat. I don't think you want to be dinner for my pet."

They shot at it instead, but the bullets were ineffective.

Robotnik handled the otherwise bulky mechanism with the finesse he handled his drones during war, viewed like a deadly video game from the monitor screens. Seizing two of the men in its jaws, the Egg Cerberus flung them against the nearest wall and, whilst they lay stunned, the hellhound charged forward to crush the rest underneath in a new offensive. The soldiers tried to run out of the way to the perimeter edges, yet the drones here acted in tandem, having been programmed to reorient themselves and fire at motion in supporting the base's main defense.

For such an impressive set-up, however, it had its Achilles heel. Westwood realized it was the antenna on the guard dog's 'head'.

Westwood aimed and shot, striking the antenna squarely; the Egg Cerberus shook before it fell, crashing down harmlessly on its side.

The soldiers still had the drones to contend with, but they were able to dispatch these with alarming rapidity. From the inner sanctuary of the base, Robotnik watched this faltering fight playing out with grim knowledge the soldiers would be breaking through the door next.

"We have to leave," he relented.

"What about the base?" asked Sonic.

"My security system can only hold them off for so long," admitted Robotnik. He was already perusing the statistics the computers were returning, of losses and projections and probabilities. He had never anticipated such an onslaught so early.

He brought up a different window on the computer and typed out some code. They were succinct orders to run a program, one he had never truly expected to have to do, and he did it with the emotionless decision of logic like sacrificing a piece in chess, ever cognizant that the game was nearly lost but trying to fight it out till the end. He closed the command window to bare a timer, now running on the screen in bold red numbers, ticking down seconds from the starting value of five minutes. He figured five minutes would be enough time for him.

"Let's go," he said tautly.

Sonic flattened his ears. "Shouldn't we try to fight off these guys? They're gonna keep chasing us."

"They'll be gone after this. We'll end up with a whole new set of pesky soldiers on our tail, unfortunately, but we'll be rid of these." Robotnik said it with an unwavering surety.

"What the hell is that?" the little animal took notice of the timer.

"You ask a lot of questions, hedgehog. Come on."

Sonic obliged for once, and they hurried down a long side corridor.

The passageway led to a wide adjoining room, lit with violet light, where his drones were housed on racks along the walls, and to the far side a crevice in the cavern wall that led outside. He activated the drones via his gloves. They flew from their docks in formation before him, and he quickly inputted commands for the ovoid helicopters to follow them.

The blue hedgehog had been drawn to the crevice, and was first to dart into the open; he leapt onto a rock and stood on tiptoe as he gazed out to the beautiful, peaceful landscape of a familiar grotto. "This leads out to the Garden? You're kidding?"

"We need to get far away from the garden as well," insisted Robotnik. The irony. Of course a human being would end up destroying it. How regrettable it's me.

He nonetheless hesitated, but briefly, at the exit, and looked back upon the base.

So soon he had been made to place it into use, and so swiftly he would lose it. In many ways he wished he had spent more time there, if only to relish the tranquility of those ancient sandstone walls he had customized into modernity.

"Eggman?" Sonic had observed his preoccupation.

Time was short. He pushed away his pangs of regret as frivolous and hurried after Sonic.

Within the now forsaken base, the G.U.N. soldiers had gotten past Robotnik's technological security.

Major Howard Westwood reached the computer screen right as the self-destruct countdown hit zero.

Chapter 40 - Uncle

Sonic and Robotnik set off from what remained of the hidden base and headed out of the forest onto the meadowlands. The trek started out somewhat uneasy, with the terrain exposed as it was; there was always a looming concern of possible enemy attack, but Sonic was ever-assured he could beat anyone opposing them, Robotnik with his drones was no longer so defenseless, nor was there any sight of danger. Eventually their worries lessened as they made their way across the meadow and it became more of a leisurely stroll.

The weather for such a hike was beautiful anyway. The sun was brilliant and warm across the light-green slopes, the grass speckled with wildflowers blooming vibrantly in recognition of the light, and the sky still bright and cloudless when they arrived at Hill Top.

Robotnik could see Miles and Blaze congregating here, and as Sonic zoomed up to join them, he decided to send the drones ahead. He snickered to himself to see the tension that rippled among the small party as the ovoid flying machines encircled them.

"It's cool. There's a truce; he's with us," Sonic piped up, as Robotnik joined them.

"Yeah well, can he call the eggs off?" Miles growled, "I'd find it easier to trust him if I didn't think the damn things were about to attack."

The scientist obliged, and the drones flew back to hover in formation behind him. He smiled broadly.

"I can't believe you decided to bring Eggman into this," snarled Blaze, "Really, Sonic?"

"Look, we aren't strong enough to fight G.U.N. alone. Besides, he knows about Scrap Zone," Sonic added.

"Do you?" asked Blaze with skepticism.

"It's been many years, but I remember the Ark's inner layout," admitted Robotnik. "I can sketch it out for you."

"Having the base mapped out for us should make it easier to get the chaos emerald back," acknowledged Miles.

Blaze gave a distrustful meow. "Except for one tiny little insignificant detail. We get the emerald and he's just going to steal it again." She pointed a paw at him with accusation.

"Called out, damn it," Robotnik snapped his fingers in disdain.

"The point right now is simply to get the emerald back," Sonic pointed out. "We can fight over it after."

"The only reason we have to get it back to begin with is because of him," countered Blaze.

"Ultimate power is my language," Robotnik spoke up indifferently.

"You stole the emerald, and jeopardized our world... just so you could get 'ultimate power'? I ought to destroy you," she hissed.

Sonic's voice was wary. "That's pretty harsh."

The cat lashed her tail. "His actions imperil everything we know. I don't think he's trustworthy at all."

"Chill for a second. You're way too tense. Besides, there's a few things I owe him as well."

Blaze swiped at Sonic with unsheathed claws, but he easily zipped out of the way, and she let out a loud hiss.

Robotnik, for his part, watched with effected boredom. "Oh, what an interesting development. I wonder who will win – the cat or the hedgehog. If I'm lucky they take each other out. Then I'll only have to contend with the two-tailed fox when I reclaim my emerald."

Sonic and Blaze both eyed him sideways.

"Better idea, let's both beat up Eggman," Blaze meowed.

"We've got another situation, possibly as bad as the emerald," Sonic's quills bristled. "They caught Rouge."

There was a sudden exclamation of shock and outrage amongst the other animals.

"We've got to save her! She's been kind to let us stay in her den," yapped the fox.

"And she feeds us!" added the cat emphatically.

"Now that we have our priorities straightened out..." trailed Robotnik.

"It's unbelievable, to think we've got yet one more thing to worry about and without enough time," said Miles, retrieving the timer from his bag. "We're on our last hour."

Robotnik peered at the clock, which displayed:

59 minutes

"Again with the dratted clock." Robotnik looked annoyed. "It's evidently counting down to some shift in planetary alignment or something as insignificant to all but the superstitious."

"Or it's counting down to the destruction of the world," hissed Blaze, flattening her ears at Sonic.

"Who, me?" Sonic looked at her.

"Yes, you," Blaze hissed. "You and your wayward time-travelling. You started this."

"Damn it," protested Sonic, "maybe there's a reason we were all sent back in time, not to destroy the world but to save it!"

His words caused an uncertain silence.

"All right," said Miles simply, "theorizing just takes up more time. Let's get going."

Without further discussion they left Hill Top for the military base, proceeding almost single-file with the drones flying in a wide, protective circle around them.

Impatient Sonic was the one who would occasionally shift his position as they walked, darting first to the lead and then falling behind in less than the blink of an eye. At some point he appeared alongside Robotnik. "You know this is kinda like the games on Green Hills, only now we're playing on the same team. It's weird having Eggman on our side."

"Who said I'm on your side?" countered Robotnik.

Blaze the cat hissed at him.

"All well and good to liken this to our play-fights, but what happens if we lose," yapped Miles a bit negatively.

Robotnik, however, smiled at this. "It's not whether you win or lose. It's how you plot your revenge."

After having been captured, Agent Stone had been bound and taken to the Ark, where she was met by Lieutenant Snively. She felt a small sense of relief to find someone she knew.

"Snively what's going on?" Stone asked.

He merely motioned her forward wordlessly with his gun, unusually serious, and kept a no-nonsense veneer as he brought her before none other than Commander Towers. Stone maintained her composure, trying to evaluate her dire situation as best she could.

The commander produced from his pocket a shimmering green stone, so large and flawless a gem that Stone gazed at it with envy.

"I already have the chaos emerald."

"What do want it for?" countered Stone, "You were asking for the animal."

"True, except I learned a long time ago of the emerald and its supernatural powers, and the fact that Robotnik was attempting to find it as well," replied Towers.

"Is that why G.U.N. had him working on a new power source?" realized Stone, "...and why when the hedgehog showed up you willingly let him drop his research to hunt it? You were trying to get ahold of a strong chaos energy battery."

"From what Robotnik told me," said Towers, "the emerald is not enough by itself. It must be amplified somehow."

Stone held her tongue. She knew this was a lie. Robotnik had told her clearly how the emerald contained enough chaos energy to power global infrastructure and more. However, if Towers believed he still needed more power, it might buy enough time for her to escape.

Towers continued speaking, "That is the only delay and not even a great one. The way to amplify its power will come here, straight into G.U.N.'s fortress, willingly."

Stone cast her eyes away from him a bit melancholically.

"You can't think Dr. Robotnik will help you supercharge the gem," she said softly, "He won't try to rescue me. He wants the emerald."

Towers smiled and regarded her in a patronizing way. "We both know that, Agent Stone. Robotnik cares about as much for his one-night stands as he does human beings in general – which is not at all."

She shot him a look of raw spite. His remark left open more questions, though; if he did not intend for Robotnik to assist him, then how did he plan to amplify the emerald's power? And for what reason? Why was she even held here, if not intended as bait?

Towers perceptively answered the latter, "You're here because you can be useful to the surviving genetic pool...and to me."

"We've had this conversation before...the answer is still no," replied Stone sternly adding, "I wouldn't be with you if you were the last man on the planet."

His response was to kiss her forcefully; Stone, with her wrists still bound, kicked Towers in the groin with her knee, causing him to step back quickly. The commander angrily whipped out his handgun, as if planning to strike her with it, but then hesitated, and said:

"Consider your situation carefully, Agent Stone. There's less than twenty-four hours before doomsday."

During all this time Snively stood mutely at attention, but at this he spoke up ecstatically, "Then the world will be truly ours."

"Not ours," corrected Towers, "mine."

"But Uncle Mephiles..." Snively began.

Towers turned suddenly, pressing the pistol point-blank against his nephew's forehead. Snively stiffened visibly.

"You call me Commander or Sir," snarled Towers. "I'll consider one further lapse in your memory as insubordination, Snively. Insubordinate soldiers are useless to me." His voice turned darkly gentle.

"You know already what happens to those who are useless."

The smallest quiver of fear, unable to be hidden, emerged in Snively's reply.


Towers walked away, leaving Snively shaken though managing to internalize it in military fashion. He glanced over at Stone, who took advantage of the fact they were alone.

"Snively, please, you've got to let me go."

He studied her for a moment. She could see a level of uncertainty there, but then Snively gave a decided little shake of his head seemingly meant more for himself than as a response to her. "I hate my life," he was muttering as he walked away.

Stone's shoulders drooped.

Chapter 41 - The Ark

They were an eclectic raiding team – a hedgehog, a twin-tailed fox, a cat, and a genius scientist. From the underbrush they had a good view of the entrance to the military compound. The fencing had collapsed here, and in the attempt to preserve an outlook of the place being abandoned it had not been repaired; this allowed them to sneak onto the premises close enough to regard with mingled awe and dismay the strong iron door that seemed the only feasible way in. For all the attempt had been made by Towers and his forces to have the Ark appear disused, two burly soldiers now stood guarding this entrance, as firm in their duty and stance as if they were stationed at any outwardly active military base.

Robotnik held his drones back a distance behind the pine trees. They were hidden well, despite their white color. He lamented the fact the climate was turning cold yet there was no snow; if there had been, they would be perfectly camouflaged. He pulled the lapel of his coat up against the chilly wind and glanced at the animals. "Let's discuss how we're going to do this."

Sonic fidgeted. "Bad time to say this, but I don't actually have a plan. Tails, any ideas?"

The fox, Miles, analyzed the situation. "We have to find a weak spot in the defenses..."

Robotnik interjected, "I'll go in first and distract the military, allowing you, Sonic, to dash ahead into the base without being detected. The rest of you will serve as my backup."

Sonic regarded him with annoyance. "Who appointed you leader?"

"I appointed myself," he countered. "I'm the most qualified one here."

"Why don't we all be in charge?" Miles posed.

"No," answered the others in unison.

Miles was undaunted. "We need to work together. We can accomplish anything if we use teamwork and..."

Robotnik interjected again with exasperation. "Look, enough with the goody-goody spiel; the equation is the same no matter how you solve it. Emerald in building – I want emerald. We also have Rouge in there. And if I can make Towers suffer too for all this aggravation, so much the better."

"Always so selfish," Miles yapped.

"Yes, selfish," replied Robotnik, "I like selfish. It's practical."

Sonic piped up, with an unrelated question. "Where's Blaze?"

The squabble subsided as they all realized that the cat was missing. They spied her at a distance, sitting on all fours at the heels of two soldiers posted at the door. In her little purple robe, she gave the appearance of a lost pet, were it not for her lavender-tipped fur.

"Oh no," said Miles.

The soldiers glanced down as Blaze looked up at them with wide eyes. "Meow!"

"Fucking cat," snapped one, and tried to kick her. Blaze caterwauled and attacked with unsheathed claws.

The three other animals and the scientist watched from the bracken as she clawed at the soldiers. When one of the men tried to shoot the cat, though, the nature of the battle shifted drastically. With a cartwheel the cat leapt over his head, snatched the pistol out of his hand and, holding it steady with her forepaws, turned it against them with two aimed shots. Both soldiers collapsed lifelessly.

"That got really violent, really fast," observed Miles, hopping out from the bushes.

Blaze twitched her tail and shrugged. "Sometimes you need more firepower."

They turned their attention to the large doors. Sonic spun to tackle them, but they did not budge.

"Well, that didn't work," he observed, bouncing back onto the ground.

Miles had hurried to the card key lock beside the doors. He quickly connected the scanner device to it. "I can crack the code in two shakes of a fox tail," he declared.

"Or one shake each of two tails?" offered Sonic.

"Come on, let's hurry it up," prodded Robotnik.

"We're just lucky there are no security cameras around here, or we'd be screwed," mewed Blaze.

The thought caused them all, reflexively, to look up for any. They found one, to their dismay.

"They know we're here," Miles snarled, still poking at the lock.

"Then why haven't they tried to stop us yet?" Blaze meowed.

"Maybe they want us to get in," Robotnik figured.

Sonic flattened one ear quizzically. "Why would they want that? We're just gonna beat them up."

"Still requires analysis," said Robotnik. "It would entail the difficult task of attempting to comprehend the illogical reasoning of dimwits."

"You think everyone is stupid," Sonic pointed out.

"Their stupidity has been validated. They have no respect for science," justified Robotnik.

Miles had given up trying to crack the code electronically and was now swatting at the lock with a paw. The screen kept flashing 'Access Denied' in red. "I can do this...I won't give up!"

Somehow, it unlocked the doors.

An alarm began blaring, so loud it hurt the ears. The interior of the building that had opened up to them was a wide hallway, washed in red from the pulsing alarm lights, yet otherwise seemingly abandoned.

"I did it," Miles marveled, with unconcealed surprise.

"Way past cool, Tails," squeaked Sonic, as he darted in.

Following Sonic's lead, everybody rushed in. They ran unopposed down the corridor, but when they turned at a corner, a volley of gunfire assailed them as soldiers streamed out from the path ahead. Robotnik whipped around to see more soldiers spring out from somewhere behind to bar the exit.

"Ambush!" howled Miles.

"Attack!" hissed Blaze, as she leapt headlong towards one with unsheathed claws.

Sonic zoomed forward just as the men began to fire their weapons again; evidently they did not have taking them alive in mind. With a gesture, Robotnik brought up the energy barrier to shield them from the bullets, and his drones overhead fired back with their lasers.

Sonic tackled the enemy soldiers down. They were easily disoriented by the high-speed opponent flashing about them, on top of the drones' aerial assault and the cat screeching for blood. The battle was over faster than it started.

Further ahead they discovered another heavy iron door. Overhead the alarm continued ceaselessly blaring, though now a further notice was calling out:

"Intruder alert! Intruder alert! Security breach at Gate 3! Intruders along the north quadrant."

"That's going to bring all the rats out of their hole," hissed Blaze, flexing her claws in anticipation.

Sonic restlessly darted around as Miles poked at the electronic lock. "Can't you go a little faster, Tails?"

"I need more time," Miles said.

"Just whack it," meowed Blaze. "That worked last time."

"Blaze, this is a more sophisticated card key. Bypassing an electronic lock of this sort is a meticulous process."

Miles then added, simultaneous with an exasperated Robotnik:

"Unless we blow it up."

Moments later there was a tremendous explosion; the door was decimated, and they stood victoriously amidst the rubble.

"That's a time saver," yapped Miles.

Sonic piped up, "Speaking of time, it's running out. Though once I start moving, I don't need much time."

The siren was still pealing, its harsh noise echoing off the walls. When they reached an intersection, more G.U.N. soldiers raced to the offensive; Sonic nimbly dodged gunshots and knocked the soldiers to the ground as the drones, at Robotnik's command, dispatched them instantly.

One of the men, however, had been disarmed but not subdued. When he scrambled to retreat, Robotnik did not let him; the drones encircled and trapped him against a corner.

"He's unarmed, Eggman," Sonic pointed out.

"Where's the chaos emerald?" Robotnik demanded.

The captured soldier practically laughed in his face. "You think I'd tell you?"

With a couple of taps on his glove, three of the drones aimed their weapons point-blank at the enemy soldier.

"You will talk or you will scream," Robotnik replied dryly. The soldier winced at the assurance in his tone.

"Aren't we getting a little too carried away?" postulated Sonic, poking the scientist's leg with a paw.

"Sonic's right," said Miles. "Let him go."

"I agree with Eggman," Blaze meowed contrarily.

"Really, Blaze?" Miles flattened one ear as he faced the cat.

"All those in favor of letting the guy go with a stern warning, raise your paw," said Sonic, and everyone – including the soldier – except Robotnik and Blaze raised a hand. "Three against two. Majority rules."

"His drones didn't get to vote," Blaze meowed.

"Blaze," groaned Sonic, "they've got no paws."

"Discriminating against the eggs," hissed Blaze.

Robotnik shrugged and turned back with a wry smile, "I believe in establishing a dictatorship, so I won't be abiding by your opinions anyway."

"It's in the control room at the core," the soldier relented feebly.

"Hedgehog on the job!" Sonic exclaimed, and ran ahead.

"Sonic, please be careful," Blaze meowed as she and Miles followed.

Robotnik shouted after him as well, "We only get one try, so don't fail me!"

When the animals had run ahead, Robotnik hit the soldier over the head and having knocked him unconscious, ran after the little group.

Commander Towers burst into the Ark's communications hub, where his soldiers were monitoring security cameras within the base. His nephew Snively was here already and saluted him.

"Sir," said Snively, with noticeable tremulousness, "there are intruders...sector six, north quadrant."

Towers roughly pushed him aside, against the edge of the table, so hard he flinched. "Where are they heading?" the commander demanded furiously.

"The control room of the chaos energy cannon, sir," responded Snively promptly.

The first Towers saw on the monitors was a blue streak of light. It sped forward in a swish of wind, bouncing off and toppling any soldiers who attempted to bar its path. The blur headed resolutely towards the interior of the compound.

The next he saw were the two other animals, following behind. The light streak was undeniably clearing the path for them; nonetheless they were still able to fend off any armed enemies who remained in their way. They were accompanied and aided by a cluster of oval white drones.

"Impossible," Towers muttered, sitting down, "We confiscated them all at the lab..."

Then he spied one more infiltrator, directing these drones.

Towers was watching when Robotnik halted, pointedly, to look up directly into one of the security cameras. He grinned, almost as if daring, and with a quick motion to the buttons on his glove the camera's signal cut off instantly in a flash of light and static.

Towers frowned.

"Kill them all. Except for the blue hedgehog..." The commander then leant back in his chair. "He's still useful."

Chapter 42 - Countdown

Within the core of the Ark lay that imposing monument to the Robotnik family's scientific research: the chaos energy cannon. It was a laser, directed skyward, tall enough to tower over the men who stood at its base yet diminutive enough to not readily call to mind a doomsday weapon. The device was connected to an elaborate control panel, and in turn thick cables from this snaked across to a demarcation upon the floor, which was a low, flat sheet of some gray metal, unassuming in appearance and marked with a painted yellow x in the center. On the ceiling above this was a corresponding sheet of metal, but without the x.

Agent Stone was ushered in at gunpoint by Snively. They found Towers waiting for them alone beside the laser cannon. The wide room was barren and their voices echoed off the high walls; distant gunfire within the base spoke of combat to repel intruders.

Stone couldn't help but prod, "Sounds like you've got opposition, Towers."

The commander, though, seemed far from concerned.

"That, Agent Stone, is actually the approach of the last necessary piece to bring about my victory," Towers said. "I want you to witness something. I think you'll find it shocking."

He had scarcely spoken these words when a crash and explosion sounded from the side corridor, and a blue light raced in to halt at the far side of the room.

It was Sonic. His quills were pricked up as if the strong charge in the air had drawn his attention, and he did not even appear to notice the humans till Towers addressed him.

"Congratulations. You've reached the final zone. The final curtain call," he added.

Sonic stepped forward, caution making him slow his pace for once. "Aren't you the one who's really been after me all along?" As he asked this, he then caught sight of the chaos emerald, locked into place on the laser's control panel.

"My name is Commander Mephiles Towers," the man introduced himself, "And you...are the trigger."

The blue hedgehog dashed forward – and slammed into the air.

The energy field he ran into seemingly appeared from nowhere. It was a clear force that rippled faintly like the cloaking field once shielding Neutral Garden, yet this one physically trapped him on the platform. Though he darted from one end of the energy enclosure to the other, spinning into a ball to tackle the formless walls, it was to no avail. Pillars emerged from the perimeter, reminiscent of Tesla coils; they began to emit a harsh buzzing noise and took on a ghastly, glowing shade of violet.

Stone stared, aghast, at this as Towers indifferently adjusted a dial on the cannon controls.

"It seems I did in five seconds what took Dr. Robotnik five months," Towers derided. "Let me see if I understood his late grandfather's lecture about this equipment. If we reverse the polarity absorbs energy from living supercharge the emerald."

Beams like pulsing light encircled Sonic and pinned him helplessly, as if by restraints, till he could only struggle against them. Immobility would have been torment enough for a creature whose restless nature made remaining still for long a challenge, yet this discomfort was to become the backdrop. Some force like magnetism had drawn him upwards from the floor, till he was suspended in the center of the air.

Then the electricity switched on.

Searing pain shot through his body like a spear, and Sonic cried out. It was beyond a squeal. He was screaming in agony.

On the panel, the emerald began to glow a brighter hue as Commander Mephiles Towers watched Sonic's suffering with the faintest touch of amusement, as if the sight was a diversion.

"You'll kill him!" Stone cried out.

"Not before I've siphoned all the power I need," replied Towers, with dismissive ease.

Sonic could not hear them clearly. Everything was a blur to him, except pain – burning pain. Desperation to escape morphed into the terrified realization he could not. The electric current slashed down his spine like claws of fire, growing severer by the elapsing excruciation of seconds; the little animal's outcries, the lone outlet of relief, cut off forcibly into growls as his breath became something unattainable to be grasped at, and all of a sudden the supplicating question rose in his mind that how and why could the body endure such torture without being lost to the mercy of unconsciousness.

When Stone turned her gaze away, Towers seized her by her hair and forced her head back up roughly.

"No, I want you to see. Have it burned in your mind," threatened Towers, "because if you fail to cooperate, I'll see what happens when this extractor is used on a human being."

"Why are you doing this?" she demanded, "President Michaels is dead. You already control the world."

"Controlling the world isn't enough," Towers explained with impassioned fervor, "I wish to mold it! To unleash the flames of disaster on the inferior masses and allow ultimate life to rise from its ash. When that cannon goes off, Agent Stone, human beings become perfect. Have you never heard of eugenics?"

Chaos energy spiked. The magnitude of pain had worsened. Sonic was writhing in debilitating throes as his blood pounded in his ears. He could barely perceive anymore the presence of Commander Towers, Lieutenant Snively, and a sickened Agent Stone.

Robotnik had previously experienced war from a distance, behind the safety of computer screens, as distant commandant of his drones. Only once had he been amidst this storm of hell in person, in this very place years ago; back then he had been unable to defend himself or those he held dear. In many ways he was returning to settle scores.

They hurried to reach an archway, Robotnik's drones spreading out to end whatever impediment Sonic had not already cleared.

"Which way, Eggman," meowed Blaze.

"The room over there is the Ark's core," Robotnik said, gesturing.

Without warning, a laser shot over their heads and sent one of his drones crashing to the floor in a shattered heap of white metal.

It was the first of his squadron he had lost. Robotnik was incensed. "I'll make you pay for this," he snapped.

Yet as he spoke, the soldiers who had streamed out to repel them were joined by their own drones. Robotnik winced when he realized they were his from the laboratory, now under G.U.N.'s control.

Robotnik evaluated this. "I wonder if it's possible to be too much of a genius for my own good?"

A volley of bullets exploded at them. Miles yanked Robotnik narrowly out of the way, gunshots splintering across the ground where they previously stood like deadly rainfall.

"That was too close," the scientist gasped, pressing himself against the wall.

The fox flattened his ears.

Blaze gave a growl as she huddled at the other side of the corridor, trying to keep the soldiers at bay with gunfire. Robotnik noticed she had collected a small group of guns and switched to the next when one ran out of ammunition; he briefly wondered when she had picked up extras, but he was not about to stop and ask.

The drones traded laser-fire, like in a film depicting an intergalactic war. However, it soon became one-sided; Robotnik's drones appeared to be faltering, slowing becoming unresponsive and being easily shot down by the opponents.

Robotnik poked desperately at the buttons on his glove, but there was no response from the device. When he saw the tiny red dot flashing, his heart sank.

"Oh no... The power's going down!"

Miles turned sharply towards Robotnik; the scientist was still trying the buttons futilely.

"Doctor?" Miles prompted.

"The battery's gone dead!" Robotnik cursed.

The battle had turned very fast. Now they were losing. Blaze the cat whirled around towards Miles. "How much time is left?"

Miles showed her the display:

45 seconds remaining

"Forty-five seconds?" she screeched.

"Forget the clock," snapped Robotnik over the din, "It can't possibly be important in the long run!"

Inwardly, his thoughts were reeling.

We've lost control of the drones... Every line of defense is gone... I can't bring up the force field anymore... Damn it, right now all my technology is fit for the scrap heap...

"Shouldn't Sonic be back with the emerald by now?" wondered Miles.

"Someone ought to check," meowed Blaze.

An idea occurred to Robotnik. "Pass me that pistol," he called to Blaze.

The cat tossed him one of the weapons she held.

Robotnik took the advantage of surprise, striking one of the men squarely in his jaw. The soldier stumbled; Robotnik could see Miles out of the corner of his eye leap to attack. The others scrambled to shoot but he acted quicker, one of the soldiers giving a cut-off final outcry, the other's body jolting backwards as the gunshot hit its mark.

In the mêlée Blaze managed to dart ahead; she got close enough to the archway to barely peer in before the drones shot at her and she was forced to retreat.

Robotnik managed to knock down all the human soldiers before he ran out of ammunition. As the drones spun around to fire at him, he fell back to the relative safety of the wall. Blaze the cat was running desperately in a ball of fluffed-out fur; Miles spun his tails, swooping down from midair to snatch her away from the lasers, and they huddled beside the scientist.

"If we only knew where they're controlling the drones from," growled Miles.

"Probably the communications center. Too far from here," replied Robotnik. He glanced over at Blaze who was still catching her breath.

"I've got news. All of it is bad," she stated bluntly.

"Considering the statistical probability, it's to be expected," Robotnik replied.

"The emerald's hooked up to a control panel, and Sonic's been trapped by that Commander Towers fellow in what looks like an electrical cage," the cat explained.

Miles' eyes widened. "They caught Sonic?" he exclaimed.

An involuntary wince crossed Robotnik's features.

"Towers seems to be extracting energy from both the emerald and Sonic to power that doomsday cannon," Blaze continued urgently, "If he succeeds in launching the attack, guess what? Civilization gets destroyed. I could say I told you so, but I won't. Agent Stone is in there too..."

Robotnik could stand it no longer. He immediately broke away from them, Miles howling, "Doctor – wait!"

He did not turn back, not even once, instead ducking under the laser-fire and vanishing into the center control room; the twin-tailed fox glanced at the clock, which was ticking down its enigmatic finality—

15 seconds remaining

—and Miles, eyes widening, came to awestruck realization:

"I understand now."

Chapter 43 - Time's Alignment

The cavalcade of events transpired like clockwork. Sonic could not escape the cruel contrivance, his struggling and cries growing weaker, and Towers at that precise moment became bored with the entertainment of Stone observing in anguish.

"You're no longer useful, Agent Stone."

She felt a quiver of dismay as the commander turned to his nephew, Snively.

"Shoot her," ordered Towers.

Snively obediently pointed his gun at Stone, but their eyes met and he hesitated; it was long enough that Towers snapped at him with impatience. "Get on with it, you useless paperweight!"

Instead of doing so, Snively spoke. His voice had become suddenly cold, without a trace of fear.

"You don't give me enough credit...Mephiles."

Snively spun around to shoot Towers. The commander was faster, and a single gunshot rang out as Snively fell dead.

Stone took advantage of the distraction. She kicked Towers; he countered by pistol-whipping her in her ribs so strong she gasped and fell, but not before hitting a switch on the control panel.

The energy extractor shut off, and Sonic collapsed onto the floor, static still playing visibly about him on the ground. His strength had drained away from him.

The laser was now alight on standby, the first few fiery sparks intended to blaze away a world. Yet the commander abandoned the panel.

Stone hurried towards the injured Sonic, and knelt to hold him when Towers pointed his pistol at them both.

"You'll both drown in darkness," declared Towers.

Into this scene entered Dr. Robotnik, having raced ahead of the others. His eyes first fell on the glowing emerald, unattended, beckoning... the ultimate power his to take... and then he turned and saw Sonic, and Stone, and Towers – all, at the very moment the clock ticked down, and the last of time ran out.

Towers fired the pistol, right as Robotnik threw himself in the way.

Explosive pain ripped through his body, a force of incisive agony unlike any he had ever felt in his life, the boom of the gunshot still echoing in his ears – and Robotnik collapsed onto the floor.

"!" screamed Stone.

Towers could scarcely believe what had occurred. He lowered the gun. "How can it be?" he said, "Robotnik should've gone for the emerald!"

This second of surprise was enough for Sonic. A surge of an emotion took the little animal, be it of astonishment, or despair, or anger, and his strength returned to him in the same way; he bolted from Stone's arms, a blue streak of light swirling rapidly about Towers as a gale. Towers stumbled back disoriented and, reflexively trying to regain his balance, lay his hand on the emerald.

At once, all the extra energy drained from Sonic to overpower the gemstone, discharged violently.

An outcry caught in Towers' throat along with his breath, neither able to be released as the electrical shock gripped his hands into fists and thrust him backwards from the emerald. Static arced out like lightning in its wake and Sonic, astounded for once into motionlessness, watched his opponent amidst this deadly show of electricity and fire; how Towers was now the one who screamed, in mingled fright and agony, struggling to flee the flames that merged with him in the throes of an electrocution far too slow.

Yet seeing this horrific scene, Sonic was torn. Innocence died then as mercy and hatred warred. Towers drew savage glee from inflicting torment, had killed many without reason save sadism, and when time's retribution finally paid him alike with torment and death he met it with outright fear. If he had wished they drown in darkness, was it not poetic justice that he should burn in light?

A victor in this inner battle was never realized; the chaos energy cannon had become unsteady upon its pedestal, and came crashing down to end the fiery spectacle – the commander no longer stirred.

When Sonic looked up, he saw Blaze. The cat had apparently leapt up to the large apparatus to dislodge it, and she now stood where it had once been anchored, observing the smoldering aftermath below with a warrior's cold resolution.

Sonic leant wearily on the wall, for the first time feeling exhausted. Yet he strangely felt a weight had been lifted from him, as if something somewhere had fallen into place and there was now an equilibrium.

The whole thing had occurred and ended in less than a few seconds. Stone was drawing towards Robotnik's side when Sonic walked over. He saw the scientist move slightly, and the first instinct was one of relief.

Miles had come over as well, and scanned Robotnik with the device he held in his paws. As the display returned information, the fox's expression grew somber, and when Sonic appeared Miles drew him to the side.

"How is he?" Sonic asked.

Miles was brief. "He's badly hurt."

"He'll be all right, won't he?"

Yet Miles only cast his eyes down and said nothing.

Stone held him in her arms, desperately trying to apply pressure to the wound. Blood had pooled on the floor. "Ivo... we've got to stop the bleeding. If we can get to a medic...if we can..."

"Rouge. My dear Rouge."

There was a calmness in the whisper, a resignation of fate, and when he merely leant against her as if seeking some solace through her presence, she understood.

Sonic had immediately zipped over to their side. Robotnik was very pale, his breath coming shallow and ragged with weakness. When his eyes drifted to focus on Sonic, he swallowed once and managed to speak again:

"Sonic. You blasted little hedgehog."

But he said it with a small smile, tempered by the evident pain he was in.

"'ve got to be ok. I can't lose my arch-nemesis," Sonic added, an attempt at facetiousness. "I'd have no one to play tag with anymore."

He was trying to force himself to maintain his typical jovial attitude, yet it failed when the words caught in his throat. He could see Robotnik also knew the injuries were hopeless in their severity; awareness through intellect's curse.

"I promise one day we'll play tag again," Robotnik assured.

The little animal was quiet, and when he succeeded finally in bringing forth his voice, he returned a soft smile. "I know we will."

Stone could not find how to express herself. There was a sick tightness inside of her, disbelief mingling with a hollow pain that stung upon her eyes.

"Ivo, why did you get in the way?" her voice quivered.

Dr. Robotnik murmured, "I've finally found a human being I care about."

They were the last words on his lips as his breathing slowed, the pain ebbed away, and he died.

The world was very quiet. Sonic's ears drooped, his eyes closed in the futility of trying to force acceptance, having lost the one friend who could truly understand him. Stone was in mute anguish, her mind reeling around those last words; a dream that now, at once, had been decimated. In the midst of their grief, Blaze the cat, who had gone to retrieve something from the panel, now laid an item before them both.

Stone's sight fell upon the small, glittering emerald, a glint of misplaced beauty – and then all her emotions broke from her, like an hourglass shattering into a thousand shards.

"I never got to tell him I loved him," she realized.

Sonic lifted the emerald carefully from the ground, and held it in his paws for a moment.

"He...wanted it so much," he said.

Sonic and Stone both laid it on his heart together, and if no elegy would ever remember him but as a malefactor to the world, this final gesture would pay respect in private to the person they knew.

As if the jewel could somehow detect their sorrow, it suddenly shed its deep green for the purity of a diamond, sending forth a white illumination even greater than the sun.

They watched this entranced, and Miles looked from his scanner to the scene and back. Blaze's soft voice brought clarity:

"And when the wishes of love and friendship unite, the ultimate power shall emerge...chaos control."

All kept their post as if in vigil as the light washed over them, an unseen energy stirred up the wind, and when it receded – Robotnik drew a breath once again.

It culminated in him coughing uncontrollably, a return to the aches and mild discomforts that accompanied life; it took a long moment for the two mourners to process what had transpired.

Elated with realization, Sonic practically pounced on him in a big hug. "Eggy, you're alive!"

"Get off of me, you blasted hedgehog," Robotnik complained in between coughs.

Stone only gazed at him in shock. She was almost afraid to acknowledge what happened for fear of losing him again. It was when he glanced up at her that a smile graced her features, and she embraced him in a mixture of gratitude and relief.

The emerald had lost its lustre, having turned a dull gray, and when Robotnik tried to lift the gem, it crumbled into fine, sand-like dust to be carried off by the fading breeze.

"I guess..." she was wiping away tears, "now you'll have to find a new way to advance those schemes of world domination."

Yet his response was to sweep her towards him in a kiss, and she met him with the same heartfelt emotion.

"You're all the world I need," he whispered to her.

Miles had reached over to the floor, where the bullet now lay in the blood, as intact as if it had not been fired. He then scanned the scientist with his device; Robotnik's injury was fully healed, though his clothes were still torn where the bullet had passed through. "Remarkable," mused the fox, "it's as if the space-time surrounding the gunshot was warped, as if it both happened and didn't happen. Is that possible?"

"Cue Schrödinger's cat," said Robotnik, who now indulged for once in petting Sonic on the head. "I'm going to take it and run."

"I don't blame you," Stone smiled at him.

Suddenly the happy moment was interrupted. Soldiers appeared at the debris-strewn entrance to face them; Sonic, weak though he still was, bristled his quills in preparation, as the other animals tensed themselves for battle and the two humans clung to each other in a singular hopeless desire not to be separated again.

One of them stepped forward with a stern face; when his eyes fell on the burnt, lifeless body of Commander Towers, his harsh glare fixed upon the little group.

"Who killed him?" he demanded, tightening his grip on his rifle.

All looked tentatively at Blaze, who had technically been the one to put Towers out of his misery.

And Blaze the cat pointed at Robotnik.

"He did it."

The soldier stared at Robotnik for a moment, and then saluted him. The rest of the army saluted as well, and a cheer of celebration escaped those in the back.

"You have liberated the planet, Dr. Robotnik!" said the first soldier.

"Towers ruled tyrannously. We obeyed him out of fear for our lives," added another.

"The nation is leaderless," declared a third, "Our loyalty is yours."

Robotnik was in shock at the turn of events, but Stone immediately spoke up. "Rightly so. Dr. Robotnik put his life in peril to save our civilization from Commander Towers. It's fitting he should be our new leader."

The first of the soldiers gave a shout, "I pledge my undying loyalty to our leader and his new empire... Long Live Robotnik!"

This joyful cry was taken up by all present and Dr. Robotnik, his astonishment fading, now smiled at the thought. Meanwhile Sonic and Miles watched uncertainly.

Somehow it felt like some nuance of time had been set improperly.

A limousine was brought shortly thereafter to take them to the presidential palace; this comfort was welcome contrast considering how exhausted and bedraggled they all were from the battle. Robotnik was finally able to change his blood-soaked black coat for a red sweater.

The animals were for all intents and purposes honored guests, and sat openly with Robotnik and Stone. Throughout the ride Sonic was talkative.

"I still intend to stop you from ruling the world," added Sonic. "Too much power corrupts."

"I'll bring back chili dogs," Robotnik bribed.

Sonic was going to protest, only to instead respond noncommittally, "I gotta think about it."

"Sonic," declared Robotnik, "I hereby induct you into the Eggman Empire. But understand I still have to beat you a few more times at tag before we're even."

"Don't poke Green Hills and it's cool," replied Sonic.

"Thanks for reminding me. First order of business," Robotnik said jokingly, "I'm going to raze the meadows in the name of progress."

"Yeah, you know what? Count me as your first dissident, Eggman," Sonic retorted.

When they arrived at the presidential palace, the animals allowed themselves to fall back a small distance from the busy humans. Sonic looked at Blaze. "Don't you regret pointing at Eggman, just a little?"

"How so?" asked Blaze nonchalantly.

"Well, if you had admitted that you'd killed Towers, maybe the humans would be worshipping you now."

"What are you talking about? They already are." She squinted at him. "We cats prefer to rule in the shadows. It's always best to have a figurehead, like we did with the pharaohs of old. How else have our kind stayed in power so long, with all the coup d'états and revolts through time?"

As if making a point, Blaze sauntered over to Robotnik.

"Hello human. You owe me."

"Blaze you beautiful feline!" laughed Robotnik, "You're right; anything you want, just name it."

"Tuna every morning. A saucer of milk on the weekends. And somewhere to file my nails."

Sonic was trying to sort this out when he squeaked as Miles unexpectedly yanked a cluster of quills from his back. "Ow! What the hell, Tails?"

"I need at least three of your quills," Miles insisted. "With the chaos emerald gone, it's our only chance of getting enough power to open a portal! If I align them in series, maybe I can at least get the viewing screen to turn on..."

The fox retrieved the screen device from his bag, and Sonic scowled. "So long as you don't pluck me bald," the hedgehog complained.

The cat had wandered away to paw at a cable as soldiers prepared for a broadcasted announcement to the citizenry. Robotnik watched ambivalently; he should have been practically jumping for joy at his good fortune, yet he seemed brooding.

Stone noticed. "Something's definitely on your mind, Ivo."

"It was Towers at fault all along," Robotnik replied, "not humanity. All this time I misjudged both the world and what I wanted from it. And now I'm beginning to smart I am. Ruling a nation, let alone a world, takes more than intelligence. It takes wisdom."

From him, the words were astounding; but Stone saw a flaw in reasoning.

"Ivo," she explained, "as you are aware, all analysis is based on information. If the information is erroneous then the analysis will also be... You were correct based on the data you had... Now we have all the information that was missing, and taking that into consideration will undoubtedly change the outcome of the analysis and the conclusion."

Robotnik stared at her and said, "Then I am a genius."

"Yes, my darling Ivo," smiled Stone, "You are."

"Dear Rouge. You are indeed my most perfect companion," he said and kissed her.

They glanced over to see two of the soldiers holding up a large makeshift flag. It was a red banner emblazoned with the design he had on his computers: a globe with a diplomatic sash, two construction cranes flanking, and screws above the planet. "Is this the one?"

Robotnik considered it for a moment, and gave a small shake of his head. "Replace the screws with a hedgehog."

During this time, Miles had succeeded in getting the viewing screen to light up. His initial joy soon faded into dumbfounded horror however, and he watched the flickering images of the future aghast till the display fizzled and with a plume of smoke went dark.

Miles was in nearly catatonic shock as he laid the now smoldering, burnt-out screen aside.

"Well, do we get to go home now?" Sonic glanced at his little brother as he padded over. "...Tails?"

"Surprisingly," began Miles, "Eggman's empire will prosper. He and Rouge will be loved by their people and the Robotnik dynasty will stand for centuries."

"That's cool," said Sonic, who found it hard to believe. "So what's the problem?"

Miles spoke flatly. "We can't ever go back to our time."

Sonic stared momentarily at him. "Why not?"

"When we stopped human life from being destroyed, we altered history. In our original timeline...the future we know...the commander's plan had succeeded. All that was left was animal life, select species of which gradually evolved into what we are. That doesn't happen now. Our future no longer exists."

There was utter, unassailable silence. "If our timeline never came into being," Sonic ventured, " are we still here?"

"I don't know."

This was the first time he had ever heard Miles admit that, without any clause that he would find out, or was yet researching; it was an absolute, the unanswerable question as mystifying to himself as to Sonic.

Then Sonic recalled the Labyrinth's prophecy and the enigmatic ancient words inscribed in marble:

"Here hides the jewel of eternity
Center of time's chaotic weave
Granted to the holder of the golden ring;
One of azure quills and lightning speed
From future to past to alight the flame
Of past to present to enemy and friend
For this light shall alter his decision
Aligning time's weave at the final hour
So destroying the world of beasts
To restore the world of men."

What folly, what terrible folly! realized Sonic with dismay. To think it was his interaction with Eggman all along! He had come from the future and befriended him, had unknowingly presented Robotnik's past nature to him, all as the scientist professed to be an enemy despite being a friend. Sonic's actions had altered his worldview, allowing him to once more accept the veracity of intangible feelings shunned since the Ark's tragedy. The decision to be made had been Robotnik's, at what would have been his final hour of life.

And that decision had obliterated an entire civilization in favor of preserving another.

It was a domino effect, the mathematical certainty of uncertainty, the incredible intricacy of chaos theory. But the emerald – if it was indeed a product of time's misalignment – by it vanishing, did that not mean, then, they had actually made things right? Not right in their eyes, but right for the universe? Or multiverse?

It still did not explain their continued presence.

Yet trying to find detailed answers to these things, of the fine weave of light, speed, and space, of alternate dimensions of existence, and of the beautifully controlled chaos of time, was something far beyond mortal reasoning.

"...does Green Hills stay?" It was the only thing Sonic could think to say, a plea of sorts for some semblance of the natural world they'd known.

"Yes," answered Miles.

"Emperor," a soldier interrupted, "The nation is ready to hear you speak."

Robotnik stood before the video camera to make his public address. He glanced over towards Stone, who watched him with warmth in her eyes, and the three little animals Sonic, Miles, and Blaze.

A family. He had a family again.

Robotnik turned back to the camera as the light turned red, and spoke:

"I have an announcement to make..."

This was what he had schemed and striven towards for years. He could suddenly picture televisions across the globe with his image, radio broadcasts transmitting his words, the entire civilization of a planet gazing with awe and worry at the as-of-yet unknown person who addressed them. All this felt surreal, as impossible as a dream.

"President Michaels is dead. Commander Towers is dead. The United Federation, as we knew it, is dead."

The sudden thrill of reality coursed through him. Impossibility was a construct of disbelief.

"My name is Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the greatest scientific genius of all time. I am your new ruler."

chaos emerald sprite

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