Antoine had gone off on patrol, Bunnie was somewhere in the one section of Mobotropolis that could be called a shopping district, and Rotor was…wherever he was. Sonic didn’t know much about Rotor’s job, and apparently he wasn’t the only one. The “group” was down to just him and his Big Sis.
Today was a busy day; Sonic’s ears were firmly flattened against his skull. No way was he gonna try keep them manually plugged all day, or however long Sally planned on walking around the city with him. His parents were with the rest of their squad, doing something Sonic hadn’t gotten the details of.
He was clinging to the edge of one of the many stone flower beds installed throughout Mobotropolis; normally, Sally would hold him up, but she needed both hands free for this task--ostensibly. From what little Sonic understood of Earth magic, hand gestures were recommended but not mandatory. Something about focus.
Both hands hovered over the flowers, willing them to grow a couple inches, writhe about, change colour--anything to indicate that Sally’s powers existed.
One stalk bent slightly, then snapped back; that was it.
Sally groaned. “I hear the guys over in Mercia can create whole forests in an instant…”
“Amy went to Mercia a week ago. Do they have any phones?”
“I don’t think so. They’re not too fond of modern technology--what’s Amy doing over there by herself?”
Sonic hopped off the side of the flower bed. “We’ve got a cousin over there, Rob ‘o the Hedge--Amy met him a couple years ago and she really likes him. I don’t know him that well.”
Rob ‘o the Hedge…that name was familiar, but Sally couldn’t recall why at the moment. Something about an archery contest that had been held about a year back?
“So why didn’t you go with her and become more familiar with him?”
“I just didn’t wanna go back to Mercia. It’s really boring over there--nothing to look at and they don’t let you do anything. And there’s no kids our age living there.”
The two resumed their walk down the street, Sonic’s hand firmly in Sally’s; the wind was picking up a bit and chilling the already-cool air, prompting them to huddle together as the people around them adjusted their coats and scarves. Autumn tended to be very cold in this neck of the woods, but neither Sally nor Sonic bothered dressing for it, as the sun was usually still out. Few things were more frustrating than simultaneous freezing and frying.
The idea was to join Bunnie over in the shopping district and see if the selection had at all improved--though chances were, they’d know before they made it there. Sally had a bit of money on her; technically she didn’t need it, but it felt better to pay for what she wanted, and for whatever caught Sonic’s eye.
Their trek took them very close to Castle Acorn, where a crowd of people had gathered along one of the iron fences. If Sonic sat on Sally’s shoulders, he could see over their heads, but Sally couldn’t, so they began looking around for something to stand on. They already knew what the crowd was watching: the soldiers preparing for a march.
Sonic could see his father somewhere in the line of soldiers, all in full uniform and most of them loading their guns with blanks. Tristian’s gun was leaned against his leg, and it looked like he was trying to clean his glasses instead. Somewhere just within the boundaries of Sonic’s vision was his mom, impatiently tapping her foot and glowering at the captain. At least, Sonic assumed he was the captain; his uniform was different, more elaborate.
Nowhere within the boundaries of the gate did Sonic see Antoine or any members of his squad; it was probably safe to say that they were posted elsewhere.
“Looks like they won’t be doing anything for a while,” Sally said. “You wanna get going?”
Tristian thought he’d caught a glimpse of his son hopping off some glorified lawn decoration, but at this distance with his glasses off, he couldn’t tell for sure. But, there weren’t that many kids in the city whose fur was that shade of blue.
His fellow soldiers shifted their weight, fidgeted, glowered at the captain--for some reason there was always a lot of lollygagging involved with parade preparations. After they loaded their guns, they had to wait for the captain to finish making inspections…and that could take hours. Tristian wasn’t even sure why they’d be marching today--federal holiday, or something. He had no interest in it and only went along because it was required of him; he didn’t sign up to stomp around Mobotropolis and wave his gun around.
The impatience intensified until Tristian finally decided to walk out of line and talk to Len. It would be his last chance for a proper conversation with her before the parade began; the next several hours would be spent trudging through Mobotropolis, in-between trucks and the band.
“Hey, you seen Jules anywhere?”
“Not since we left this morning, no.”
Neither Sonic nor Sally saw Bunnie out in the open, where they’d usually find her if that trip had been a bust. But who could tell with this many people around? There’d been thick crowds just about everywhere the pair went; most likely trying to get their errands done before the roads were closed off.
“No sign of her?”
“Nope. Do you wanna sit down for a bit?”
Sonic shrugged. He wasn’t tired, but Sally might be; he followed her to a nearby bench and pulled himself up to sit beside her.
“What was Aunt Bunnie looking for, anyway?”
“More books, I think. Different genres than what Beauregard usually sends her.”
People walked in and out of the stores, talking amongst themselves, checking their watches.
“When’s the parade gonna start?”
“They didn’t give me an exact time. Could be anywhere from three to five, depending on how long it takes the captain to finish looking everything over. They could be ready to move out right n--”
A deafening blast cut Sally’s sentence short, so loud that Sonic doubled over--it couldn’t have come from the soldiers, it was too close--
One of the taller buildings along the path to the shopping district was on fire. Thick black smoke billowed from the open windows, shards of glass and chunks of cement and wood raining down on the rapidly-dispersing crowds of people below. Another explosion followed the first, then another. Then another. No one could run away fast enough.
It took Sonic a moment to figure out where the noise had come from, but once he’d located it, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. Sally had little better luck, only being able to glance from the flames to the street and back again.
All her life she’d been told to run back to Castle Acorn if she was in danger, but the way back was clogged with panicking civilians and burning debris. There was no telling which buildings had bombs planted in them until they went off. The Castle might not even be safe--
Scattered in the living flood were tall figures clad entirely in black, firmly rooted to the ground no matter how many times they were bumped into and shoved. At this distance they looked like Royal Army soldiers, but they were all supposed to be near the Castle; the people around them began collapsing--
The screaming intensified as the people realized they were being shot at.
Some citizens in the district ran into the nearest store, others in the opposite direction of the chaos making its way towards them. Sally still couldn’t see Bunnie anywhere--surely she’d heard the explosions and found a place to hide--but if not, Sally wouldn’t be able to check--Sonic was just heavy enough to slow her down considerably; she couldn’t run against the tide without risking him being trampled--
In a second, her decision was made. Sally grabbed Sonic’s arm and bolted. The city limits were a long ways off.
Bunnie dropped the book she’d been considering buying and ran to the windows, alongside the other customers. “What in--”
Someone roughly yanked her away and pulled her into the back room, and shut the door when everyone was inside.
“Is that gunfire?!”
Antoine’s squad would hold off the enemy soldiers until Tristian’s had replaced the blanks in their weapons with live ammo. Wouldn’t take too long, the captain said.
The heat from the explosions was starting to reach the courtyard; it made it hard to focus on readying his gun. Antoine’s hand kept slipping, only steadying when he paused to wipe the sweat off his brow. He’d spent so much time in the target range, unloaded and reloaded his gun so many times that the motions had become completely natural. Now he was fumbling, in-between split-second glances upward.
No enemies. Not yet.
The barrel was securely locked into the gun and Antoine trained it ahead of him, eyes peeled for any movement that wasn’t part of the deluge of fleeing civilians. Tristian’s squad should’ve been here by now.
“What’s keeping zhem?”
“The other guys, or whoever’s attacking us?”
Antoine wasn’t familiar with the guard standing next to him; his dog tags read “Burke”. “Both, but I’m primarily worried about ze other guys.”
“They’ll be here in a second. And so will whoever’s going to be shooting at us. So stay focused.”
Easy for him to say.
A haze was starting to set in now.
Alarms blared throughout the palace, drilling into Rotor’s head until it was pounding. The computer carried out its functions with total indifference; the data transfer was nearly done.
Sir Charles frantically looked around the lab for anything he could barricade the door with--it was a small lab, there were only a handful of chairs that weren’t welded into the floor, the lock wouldn’t hold forever--
Somewhere in the distance, Antoine thought he could hear tanks.
It wouldn’t be long now. If there were tanks, the enemy soldiers couldn’t be too far behind. He just wished he could see--
A full second went by before Antoine realized that something had splashed onto his face. Dark and warm, with bits of something solid clinging to the fur. Burke couldn’t get off the ground now that his brains were exposed to the open air.
Antoine’s finger was on the trigger, and soldiers bearing an unknown insignia were emerging from their hiding places into his iron sights, but he couldn’t stop staring at Burke. Couldn’t stop shaking.
The store room was nearly pitch black, lit only by the tiny gaps between the door and the frame. Bunnie was clinging so tightly to the woman next to her, she swore the poor gal would break. Beside her was a young man wondering the same thing.
The sounds of the city coming down around them were still as ear-shattering as they’d been five minutes ago; there was no sign of it slowing down.
Everyone had done their best to hide themselves as much as the shelves in the room would allow, which wasn’t much. Their hopes lied in the strength of the locks on the door…the decades-old locks that went into place with a heavy, mechanical thud that could easily be heard over the din outside.
From just beyond the door came the splintering of wood and shattering of glass, followed by orders to search the place.
Her grip around Sonic’s hand was so intense she was afraid she was hurting him, but she didn’t loosen it. She barely knew where she was running, it was so blurry around her; all the sounds she was hearing blended together into a cacophonic mess. Just an ambiguous, inescapable, never-ending roar--almost loud enough to drown out her thoughts of Bunnie, and of how Sally had left one of her best friends to her fate. Try as she might, she couldn’t justify it, and it was far too late to turn around.
They should’ve reached the city limits by now…
Someone much faster the Sally body-checked her in their panicked rush, and suddenly Sonic was gone. Her arm had jerked in a painful unnatural angle--not enough to break it, though it certainly felt like it did--and Sonic instantly vanished into the aether. As people slammed into her right and left, Sally frantically looked around for him, for any sign that he was still nearby, for any sign that he hadn’t immediately been crushed by the fleeing mass, any sign at all--
And she found herself being lifted a ways off the ground with her neck in the grip of a gloved hand, staring in wide-eyed horror at her reflection in a mirrored visor.
If he were so inclined, he would laugh. But even so, the corpses that littered the streets, still warm and bleeding--the terrified survivors thinking that they would be safe if they could make it past the borders--the ease with which his own soldiers captured the unorganized fools--it was all to pathetic to elicit or deserve laughter. Mobotropolis was supposed to be one of the finest remaining kingdoms on this side of Mobius, inhabited by the best the monarchy had to offer. There was supposed to be more resistance, more controlled efforts at evacuation. They shouldn’t have caught them completely off-guard.
Well…maybe they should. The Eggman Empire was very good at keeping secrets.
Other organizations would consider the design of Ivan Robotnik’s tank to be unorthodox, and for them, it legitimately would be. Before its deployment, there had been concerns about how well the vehicle could perform on the field, as it wasn’t so much a tank as a behemoth spawned from the fevered dreams of the most bloodthirsty warmongers currently employed under the Empire--not an inaccurate description of its conception. Ivan assured them that performance would not be an issue.
For the point of this fully-armored, one-story-tall, gun-choked monstrosity was not necessarily prolonged combat. It was capable of dishing it out, certainly, and its armour was thick enough to stop shells from ordinary tanks--firearms couldn’t even dent it--but combat was not its primary function, despite the abnormal amount of gun emplacements. At least, that wasn’t its primary function to Ivan.
Many people’s eyes are instantly drawn to things that stick out in a particularly unnatural way, Ivan explained, and this looming nightmare of military design was perfect for distracting the populace from more immediate dangers, such as the soldiers flanking the vehicle on either side. Of course not everyone would fall for it, hence why the soldiers would have to work quickly. It could easily deflect enemy fire and its guns fired shells wide enough in diameter to tear ordinary men in half, but it was incredibly slow, and not as maneuverable as the standard ranks that accompanied it. By admission of the designers, the ruse was more vital to it than its weapons.
And the strongest element of this ruse was the glass dome through which Ivan watched the carnage below. With a single button press, the dome would, in the space of a few seconds, be covered in layers of metal shielding; enemies would aim for the dome thinking that their bullets could reach Ivan. And even if his reflexes weren’t fast enough, the glass was not so easily shattered.
Ivan pressed the button to turn on the intercom. “Status.”
“We’re approaching Castle Acorn, sir. It seems that our men have taken out all but a few of the guardsmen posted at its front--but for every one we killed, we lost one of our own.”
“Who do you want to cover us as we enter the Castle--the organic soldiers, or the robots?”
“Whichever is immediately available.”
Bodies of both factions were scattered across and just beyond the front lawn of the Castle; the blood had settled into the cracks of the granite path leading to the front gate. Just before Ivan’s tank crushed the gate underneath its treads, the last Empire soldier already present lost the use of his head.
There was exactly one obstacle left between Ivan and the Castle: a bespectacled, cobalt-blue hedgehog. As expected, the first thing he aimed at was the dome, but there was no muzzle flash. It seemed that he’d spent his last bullet on that soldier.
The gate had been just wide enough to allow Ivan’s tank to pass, but not for his escort to do the same until he either cleared it or came to a complete stop. That hedgehog would have enough time to run inside the castle, or try to call for backup. For all the good it would do him.
The intercom light was switched on again. “Don’t waste any shells on him. Let our escort handle it.”
Ivan jerked his body away quickly and far away enough to avoid the--whatever it was that just crashed through the dome. He’d only taken his eyes off the hedgehog for a second, and it was all the bastard needed to severely damage the ruse.
Damage, but not eliminate.
With his knife drawn, the hedgehog charged at the tank at full speed, and in one bound was running across its front, past the cannons and directly at Ivan. He was hunched over slightly, already drained from the firefight Ivan hadn’t been around to witness, but he was still determined to stop him.
Moments before the hedgehog could bury that knife in Ivan’s skull, he drew his gun.
So much blood from such a tiny little hole…the bullet must’ve gone straight through his heart.
“…Why aren’t we moving?”
“The robots clambered over our tank--I think they’re dragging his body out of the way--”
The dome was already open; Ivan simply stepped over the jagged remains. “Then we’ll exit now. Have some of our men stand by to make sure no one else tries climbing over.”
Warn the King, he said, before shoving Antoine through the front doors. In the time it took Antoine to regain his senses, it sounded like his squad mate had been shot.
The inside of the Castle was disturbingly quiet; he bounded down the hallways with his gun at the ready, and ducked into the first elevator he could see. He knew the code for the very top of the Castle, where the King would be, but he was shaking so badly he almost couldn’t punch it in. But he managed, and soon he was off.
Antoine slumped against a wall, and tried to calm down. Take deep breaths, he’d heard. Don’t think about what just happened. Focus on something positive, like the prospect of Sally and Bunnie and Rotor and Sonic making it out of this disaster alive. Direct all your attention to that, and not to your memories of the men and women around you dropping like flies, with their brains and skulls splattered on the walls behind them.
He clamped both hands over his mouth, and fought the rising urge to vomit. He was supposed to be prepared for this, dammit; had all those hours spent in training completely gone to waste?
The elevator shuddered to a stop; the moment the doors slid open, Antoine was gone.
“They’ve made it into the Castle.”
No blaring of sirens, no screaming and shouting. Just the King’s increasingly ragged breaths.
“…Why haven’t the alarms gone off?”
The cursor on the screen jittered about. “They seem to have been blocked. I--I don’t recognize the program…”
“We’ve been hacked?!”
The already-tiny room seemed to be slowly constricting its inhabitants--King Max, Queen Alicia, Prince Elias, Penelope, the visitors Sojourner and Sabre--threatening to erase all traces of them and beat the Empire soldiers to the punch. Or simply falter at some ambiguous point and wait for one of them to break and run outside through the front door, into the waiting hail of bullets.
With any luck, the Empire wouldn’t get the chance. There was a back door, partially hidden behind the office’s clutter, that lead to the underground. But it wasn’t totally safe; there were other entrances scattered around Mobotropolis, and they wouldn’t go unnoticed forever. An Empire soldier might uncover one, or watch a potential target vanish into a supposed dead end.
Sojourner took his eyes off the computer screen for a moment, and in the next, a worn page was shoved into his chest.
He turned it over and tried to get a good look at the complex details of the map.
“The door behind you leads to a series of underground tunnels. You’ll be able to return to the ship you arrived in if you take this route.” King Max pointed to one of the tunnel’s branches, rendered in decades-old ink. “Take Alicia and Elias and Penelope and run!”
Alicia stiffened. “Max--”
“Only one of us has to remain here to sort things out,” Max replied. “And I’d rather it be me. Go!”
Hesitantly, Sabre took Alicia’s forearm in his hand. “Come on, Your Highness. We won’t have much time.”
Max’s wife, son, and advisor all gave him one last pained glance before they and the two echidnas made the long descent down the stairwell preceding the tunnels. Max directed his attention back to the computer, and tried not to think that this might be the last time he’d see any of them.
He immediately recognized the voice as Antoine’s, as unnaturally high-pitched and loud and cracking as it was at that moment, strained through his erratic breathing--but he couldn’t relax. A quick peek underneath the door showed only Antoine’s boots, but the Empire soldiers would be smart enough not to stand directly in front of it.
Max drew his gun.
“Are you alone?”
“I won’t be for long! Let me in!”
One hand was on the doorknob, the other on the safety. His reflexes weren’t what they used to be; he’d have to be quick about it if--
Antoine ducked inside the room before the door was even a third of the way open. “The--the Empire soldiers are--”
“I know.” Max locked the door, and once again returned to the computer. “Give me a minute to shut down the…”
Click click click. Nothing.
Under normal circumstances, the elevators could be stopped whilst in use, though it was not advisable. You’d just scare the occupants, Chuck had explained years ago when he updated the system to allow for this function. Now there was an interloper in that system, mocking his frantic, pathetic attempts to prevent the Empire soldiers from using the elevator.
“A-Antoine…” He slowly turned to face the terrified soldier. “Is your gun still loaded?”
More clicks, heavier and mechanical. “Barely. Yours?”
“Full clip, but it’s my only one.”
The hum of computer monitor was the only other thing that could be heard in the office; its lifeless glow, not quite white or green, was painful to look at.
“…It’s completely locked up?”
Max shook his head. “Not necessarily. I can still access programs and documents; I just can’t seem to utilize any of them.”
“I didn’t hear anyone on the way here--have zhey locked zhemselves in zheir rooms, or evacuated--or--”
“I’m not sure.” As swiftly as he could manage, Max began checking as many programs as he could; even if they were frozen to an extent, there was still some information to be gleaned from them. Hopefully.
“It would take ze enemy some effort to break the locks in zhis place, right?”
“Some, yes. The doors are bulletproof and the locks are internal.”
“So--so whoever’s still in here should be safe?”
“What about ze roboticizer?” Antoine already knew why it would be a concern, but if the King was bringing it up in the middle of a file check--
“It’s been used.”
The light from the monitor was almost as cold as the room itself.
“Earlier today. Twice.”
Just beyond the front of the office, there came a faint sliding of automatic doors.
Any more of this and Len’s ears would be bleeding. But if she took her hands off her gun for even a moment, she’d be vulnerable; she had to find a place to hide if she was going to try and contact the rest of the squad.
The formation of stone flowerbeds led to a long, thick hedge backed by the fence separating the Castle garden from the street; Len ducked behind them and quickly made her way into the bush. Not a single grenade lobbed in her direction. Good.
In the small window of time she had before she was spotted, Len reached around and swiped her radio from her belt; one by one she tuned in to her fellow soldiers’ frequencies and called their names, silently begging for a response. Morrison. Allie. Ceri. Navid. Tristian.
Nothing but static.
Come to think of it…the whole squad had been unusually disorganized this part hour, hadn’t it? If Len could only get static…
Jammed airwaves. The bastards were smart.
It was tempting to wing the useless radio right at a flowerbed, but it might alert an enemy--and the signals might get un-jammed later. Best to wait.
There was no need to crane her neck up to check for enemy soldiers; she could hear them making their way past her, not quite marching, towards the Castle; Len scooted further into the hedge. Underneath the thick layers of leaves, it would be difficult to spot her, giving her a better chance to survey her surroundings without being shot; Len placed one finger on the trigger, and tried to get a good look at the source of the noise.
The Empire soldiers weren’t walking; they were herding what relatively few civilians they hadn’t killed into the Castle, past some gigantic, poorly-designed tank. For what purpose, Len didn’t know; all she was certain of in this moment in time was that she needed to find an alternate entrance.
“Let me go!”
Sonic had lost track of how many times he’d shouted that, and he imagined that his captors had as well. As always, they ignored him.
It was so stupid, the way he’d been caught. The instant his hand was no longer in Sally’s, he’d panicked and stopped dead in his tracks--afraid to run in case he tripped someone, afraid to stay still in case he got stepped on. Those few seconds were all the faceless men in black and dark gray needed to grab his arms and legs and lift him away into the chaos.
Things were somewhat quieter now, but only because no one was brave enough to speak up, at least not to the Empire soldiers. Sonic wasn’t sure if he was being brave or moronic, but he hadn’t been beaten up yet, so perhaps it was neither.
From the looks of the front doors, someone had gone in before them; Sonic didn’t want to think about who that “someone” was. All he wanted to know was why they needed to go into the Castle, especially if they were being led away from its residential areas.
Eventually they entered a room with all its lights shut off, and were ordered to sit down on the benches built into the walls--or on the ground if no space was available. Sonic was thrown onto the cold floor so roughly that he bounced a couple of times.
“Let’s make one thing clear,” one Empire soldier told the entire lot of them, all huddled together and trembling. “Our orders were to keep you alive if possible, but if you try to fight back, we will retaliate. And if you fight hard enough, we’ll shoot to kill. So keep your hands to yourselves.”
Their group of a hundred or so was completely still, except for Sonic, who was careful to stand up in a way that didn’t look like he was going to charge his much larger captors. He scanned the room, trying to find at least one familiar face--
Her arms were already outstretched, and his landing was a smooth one. Sally pulled him into an embrace, and her legs up to her chest--it wasn't much of a barrier between her lil’ bro and the Empire soldiers, but it was better than nothing.
“Oh yes, Princess Sally. I suppose you’re just as confused as everyone else here.”
The only response Sally could muster up was a glare.
“They’re still priming the machine. Be patient.”