"Oh no! DON'T TOUCH THAT LEVER!"
He had to move.
He had to move fast.
Knuckles thrust the Air Necklace between his teeth.
The shuttle's open door howled at him.
Eyes squeezed shut. Exhale through the nostrils. Giant hands flew up to cover his entire face.
He was dragged into the abyss.
'What's this?' he thought. 'Can't fly or climb.'
'Oh yeah. Need an atmosphere to glide.'
Nothing he couldn't handle. Couldn't risk exposing his eyes to see where he was going anyway.
'I could just float. Hope I don't die.'
Invisible flecks of rock sliced through his naked skin.
No big deal. He could recover from that quickly enough.
Out of sight asteroids like clouds rolled through the omnipresent sky, bashing into each other.
'Insignificant' he thought.
The shattered Controller's cry of fear drawing him on was the only thing that mattered.
'Steady. Control the breath.'
Six, seven, eight, nine, and ten.
A sip of air from the necklace.
'Don't hold it in! Exhale quickly!'
A tightness pinched at his lungs briefly, but slipped away as he breathed.
'It worked. Good. Count to ten again.'
Some kind of current was pulling everything in one direction, that much he could tell.
He could sense the shards of the Master Emerald all drifting that way. There seemed to be faint traces of Chaos energy at the source of the pull, distinct from the weeping of the Emeralds. Whatever it was, the same current was taking him closer to where he needed to be, and it was stronger than the gentle push of breath seeping through his gloves. His hastily devised plan was to use that alone for propulsion as he felt out each shard's location in the void, collecting them blindly with a free hand one at a time until either the gems were all together again or the necklace ran out of air, and then praying that the shuttle turned around to pick him back up.
New plan: stay conscious long enough to figure out what he was floating towards, then pray it was a safe spot to pass out in.
He should have yanked Tails out here with him, regardless of the fact that the fox had no assistance from a breathing apparatus. Tails would know how space worked, use some gadget like those Jet Anklets to get to the Master Emerald pieces or help him move around. What did the kid say about stuff like this?
Was it Tails that told him a lot about space travel?
No, no that wasn't right. He heard it from someone else.
Maybe it was Vector the Crocodile, one of the guys he ran into when Eggman took over the-
"What makes those yellow things so important anyway? I mean, if they are so hard to fix and all."
The tall, round human at his side was still focused on the window that spanned the wall in front of them. The window was a marvelous device, showing them views of the Launch Base Zone from many different angles, as opposed to just one angle like normal windows. There was a series of buttons under the glass, where the man's long fingers seemed to wreath wildly in an effort to press as many in sequence as possible, somehow altering what the window could show them.
"Those yellow things are barrier generators." his new friend replied. "They ensure that the portions of the Death Egg not protected by the main outer structure are not open to the vacuum of space."
Little besides the persistent tapping of buttons filled the air for a precious moment.
"Eye-voh, what is a vacuum?"
The sound of tapping finally stopped, replaced by an irritated sigh.
"My name is pronounced 'ee-voh', as in 'eat', not as in 'I am', Knuckle." Ivo corrected, making sure to stress the use of Knuckles' nickname, which earlier had been established as something only the Flickies were allowed to use, as the small birds couldn't really chirp out the whole word.
"A vacuum is an absence- in this case of air pressure, as there is no air in space. Outside of the planet's atmosphere it is impossible to breathe or even to hold one's breath, or more problematic for me, impossible to move without a means of propulsion. You see my machines would be sucked out of the Death Egg if the barrier generators didn't create a wall around the exposed sections because of the difference in air pressure outside from that of the atmosphere inside."
Knuckles wanted to say something about being referred to by his proper name, but was too busy trying to wrap his mind around this information as Ivo continued speaking.
"That being said, once the Death Egg's artificial gravity is fully functional, it will be possible to sustain a thin atmosphere around the ENTIRE STATION and allow normal movement to be made outside the main structure. Although accomplishing that would require having enough gas around the gravity field that the exterior pressure is close to that of the interior pressure, otherwise the robots will still get sucked into space. A tricky process, prone to miscalculations. In an emergency situation it is better to completely enclose the station and prevent such mishaps. Now IF ONLY we could repair these accursed generators..."
The Echidna's confusion didn't really abate. He gathered however that vacuums were bad and atmospheres were good.
"So... what exactly would happen if you got sucked into a vacuum?"
Ivo had returned to his rapid button pressing, but never the less gave the question some consideration.
"You'd probably have 10 or 15 seconds of time to think of a way out of your predicament. Until you pass out from oxygen starvation. After that, you won't care."
He thrust down the shame that choked him every time he thought about the days spent helping that criminal.
'I ain't the criminal. Crime don't pay.'
'Alertness pays. Could save your life one day.'
The Echidna was unsure how many cycles of quick breaths from the Air Necklace had gone by. His lungs were burning from the long periods of emptiness and he was starting to get dizzy. Eyes felt puffy for some reason. The moisture in his mouth was gone. In fact his entire body felt curiously dry despite the layer of water from his extensive swim in the pools beneath the Pyramid base prior to entering the shuttle. He had no idea how long he'd been floating like this or how much more time he had before the air ran out. It occurred to him that he could have thought this through a little better. At least he was getting closer to the source of that faint Chaos energy signal.
Suddenly his concentration was spoiled by the violent popping of his ears. The force tugging him along was slowly becoming much stronger. He could feel it- he was moving with the flow of sharp rocks now, approaching the hum of the Emeralds at increasing speed.
At that moment a particularly large stone smacked him hard across the skull, causing his Rings to be ripped out of his body. In those invaluable seconds of invincibility he pulled his hands off his face to let loose a piercing scream of pain.
'Wait a second.'
'I can hear myself screaming in space?'
He chanced to open his eyes. Between the flashes of stark white that clouded his vision after losing Rings he saw a black expanse dotted with sparks and streaks of orange under some gray mass that took up what should have been the sky. Stars and falling meteors, he realized, the latter being drawn what should have been downwards to a strange series of completely motionless bodies below the face of the Space Colony ARK.
Knuckles flailed like a creature possessed as the brief salvation of invincibility took its leave and his Ring vanished into the torrent of meteors below. He certainly didn't need to worry about something as trivial as breathing now!
The Echidna closed his eyes and focused.
Atmospheric reentry wasn't so bad. He just had to position his body so he faced the ground and the tiny meteors were hitting him in the back of the head instead of his face. Spread out limbs to create more air resistance. Catch the breeze with his dreadlocks. Just don't hit the ground- or whatever he was falling towards- at full speed.
Nothing to worry about.
Nothing at all.
A burning rock twice the size of his body shot passed his right arm.
A little warm from the sudden close encounter with that force called friction, something he had not expected to encounter out here, but none the worse for wear.
It didn't take him too long to find three Emerald pieces, which left six more to hunt down. They were all drawn to roughly the same area, a cluster of large objects synchronized to the movement of the much larger ARK, though they picked different places to land in. There was some sort of back ground signal that made pinpointing the pieces' exact location a difficult affair. He didn't think it was coming from the Chaos Emeralds on the ARK, although he was pretty close to the station now.
'Good thing too.' he thought. 'Guess my friends aren't going to turn around. I'll need to get inside myself.'
He sensed more Emeralds were down on the platform under the one he was currently standing on. It looked like one of the bigger asteroids synchronized around the ARK, but the part facing him looked like it had been subject to some kind of mining operation. A wide bowl was carved into the rock, surrounded by a man-made barricade around the edge. In addition to the numerous structures suspended in the air above it there was an endless hail of meteors plummeting towards the ground.
Not the safest place to look. Not that he had a choice.
The gravity was so weak on his current perch he could jump right off of it and glide to the next destination with relative ease. It was hard to breathe but the maneuverability was a blessing. Some fancy flying was in order to switch from the field pulling him towards the smaller asteroid to that of the one below.
It was strange to be gliding horizontally one moment and then, without changing direction, fall straight down nose first. He had a healthier amount of oxygen in his lungs now and a more level head, so he adjusted much faster. Dropping with the meteor shower brought him closer to the odd construction site.
The crater was filled with red dirt and machinery, numbered pads taking up each side. Bulldozers half buried in whatever work they were previously engaged in dotted the place. The frame of a tower stood in the center of the crater, built like steps at the base but the tallest section only consisted of four columns criss crossed by yellow beams. From one side of the tower was a thick gray cylindrical structure like a pipe that extended all the way to the barricade, on other three arches planted like the legs of a spider. The platforms floating above the tower climbed up to the ARK, passing through what looked like a set of storage sheds, long identical chrome boxes that were also ignoring the tug of gravity.
It wasn't until he was falling by the tower itself that he realized it was all one huge mechanism filling the inside of the asteroid. In parts metal sheets replaced the earthy ground and a transparent floor allowed the hollow interior to be seen. Vast contraptions spouted fire through a cavern of steel, churning a stream of magma below. He thought immediately of the hot volcanic environment of Lava Reef in his own home.
'It's just like Angel Island but...'
At last the source of the background Chaos energy dawned on him. It was coming from the asteroids themselves. The objects synchronized to the ARK's movement were artificial, a recreation of the process that occurred on Angel Island using machines.
Tails had tried to explain things to him while they were in Eggman's base- what the human scientists were working on aboard the ARK, why the Doctor was so interested in the space colony, and most importantly what that thing in the silver case was for. Knuckles had been too relieved when Tails assured him the synthetic Chaos Emerald was going to be destroyed to worry about what experiments happened fifty years ago. Too relieved that no one was making more fake Emeralds or Chaos Rings to let the deeper implications trouble him. He failed to see what was going on here.
Somehow the scientists had replicated the gravity altering effects of the Master Emerald in these asteroids. They could have used Chaos Drives or other synthetic Chaos energy sources to make the platforms and boxes float. The same way the Master Emerald levitated Angel Island. He knew that it could be reversed too, that the same force that repelled gravity could be used to strengthen it. Ivo had told him about how the Death Egg could create its own atmosphere using artificial gravity. That was what the machine inside the asteroid was doing, generating its own gravitational pull. That was why the meteors were drawn towards it.
The architect of the ARK had created a web of pushing and pulling planetoids by applying Chaos energy's effects on gravity. It must be the reason they followed the space station's movement while all the other rocks bounced around aimlessly.
'How could they have known?' he wondered. 'Did they come to Angel Island before I was born?'
Even as Knuckles landed on one of the numbered pads his mind raced with the implications of this idea. Eggman was supposed to be the first outsider to set foot on his home. Sonic said so- not a soul on Earth had ever seen the Floating Island except as a shadow in the clouds or a picture in a story book before the Death Egg fell. In his life time no intruders had ever come and gone until that point. The Echidna never thought about anyone visiting the place prior to his becoming guardian.
'Were they there when... when it ended? Would they know what happened to my family?'
'Don't let it hitcha. Move.'
He was torn from his thoughts by the sight of a meteor hurdling towards him. Within a hair of being smashed by the exploding rock he jumped to the side, watching the red and black shrapnel go flying.
Knuckles sighed at letting himself become distracted with such thoughts..
It wasn't his concern right now. All that mattered was finding the rest of the Emerald pieces.
By good fortune he was close to some Rings. It would be much safer to replenish his supply. Then it was time to start hunting.
Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a familiar purple shape. Another turn for his luck. Hopping into the air, and once again enjoying the greater height he could jump here, Knuckles glided over to another numbered pad across the stony red sand box. The detector lit up eagerly as he landed in front of it. It was a simple monitor that hovered in the air a little above his head, a rotating dish situated over the screen and a short keyboard under it. He'd encountered these devices all over the place on his adventure, always in areas patrolled by G.U.N. robots, who he suspected were responsible for putting them there. Their purpose seemed to be gathering information about the locations they were planted in. Thanks to the security organization's confidence in the Echidna he happened to know the access codes necessary to wrangle hints out of them.
The monitor pinged as he tapped the keys gingerly.
'I wonder what the military is doing on this rock anyway. Whatever, just tell me where I need to look...'
Only a vague clue again. Apparently these computers weren't the best when it came to communicating with each other. It seemed to know what the Master Emerald pieces were and where they had fallen but gave the most oblique form of directions. Clearly they weren't intended to locate his gems. Somebody had probably hacked the detectors to carry out that function as best they could to profit from their assistance. Either Eggman or that bat-girl...
Thinking of his rival gave pause for a cry of disgust as he turned to go find the first Emerald. He didn't enjoy having that thief on his mind. She gave him too many feelings he couldn't understand.
Finding three more pieces didn't take too long. Meteors continued being a hazard, but as long as he was moving he was fine. He even came across a neat pair of sunglasses after poking around the central tower for a while. Not a bad haul.
That was half the Emeralds. The last piece had fallen on a platform near the ARK itself. Thankfully he encountered no resistance in his search other than that of falling rocks. He was sure there was at least one G.U.N. robot in the area, but whatever it was doing it stayed out of his way. If his luck kept up maybe the same would be true of the next asteroid he checked out. There weren't any more pieces to find in this particular spot.
There was a rocket on one of the platforms below him. Although it only shot straight upwards, Knuckles was willing to bet the trajectory could be altered to make it carry him away from the magma filled planetoid. The gravity here was definitely too strong to make just jumping away feasible.
The Echidna hopped down from one hovering stepping stone to another in a hurry to finish his quest, unprepared for the snaking tentacles and hot streams of lime colored light.
Knuckles collapsed on his back, dizzy, Rings disappearing again. Violet eyes shot open looking furiously for the attacker. What the guardian saw looming over him made his heart explode in shock and horror, mouth trembling in a failed effort to scream.
He wasn't in space outside the ARK any more.
He was by the Old Shrine on Angel Island again.
It had fallen into the ocean.
It all happened so fast.
He couldn't hear anything, just Ivo crying in terror beside him, as a living wall of water thrashed around their bodies. Knuckles was helpless as the beast's tendrils strangled him, helpless as its green eyes shifted hungrily to the six Chaos Emeralds around the Master Emerald, helpless as those eyes shifted to stare at him vertically when three new ones opened on either side of its face.
Chaos 6 spread its hideous jaws wide to roar at the two mortals trapped in its coils.
Knuckles didn't think, he just moved. He raked the air frantically with his Shovel Claws, slashing at the apparition, trying to make it go away. There was the sound of metal cracking and he fell on his face mutely.
The sensation of a hot explosion washing over the back of his neck and the accompanying boom awakened the Echidna to where he actually was. Shakily he lifted his head up to see the red Chaos Drive drifting lazily down into a pile of crumbled machine parts. The imploded cranium, a large three-pronged thing with an all too familiar shape, bore the insignia he'd seen on many of the structures erected around the ARK.
He waited for the accelerated beating in his chest to slow down before getting up. The terrified voice of Ivo was gradually replaced by the urgent call of the broken Emerald.
Just a robot. A copy of the God of Destruction whose release he'd failed to prevent. The scientists had done more than build another Angel Island.
Head heavy with questions and memories of a half submerged city, he continued his descent, leaving the broken symbol of countless deaths behind.
Restoring the Master Emerald was all he needed to worry about right now.
He turned his head about, looking for the source of the signal ringing in the air.
They were close. He wondered why he didn't sense them earlier if there were more on the asteroid.
It felt really strong, like more than just one piece, more than three even. Knuckles stopped for a moment.
'Are they getting closer?' he thought, looking up.
The Echidna scowled as he realized the answer. High above the herd of meteors a slender black and white shape glided through the stars on membranous wings.
So she had the other half of the Emeralds.
"Bat-girl!" he spat between clinched teeth.
For once he was happy to let the frustrating phantom occupy his thoughts, letting the confusion and trepidation from encountering the mechanical Chaos subside, replaced by anger with his rival. She was really willing to dare the obstacles of this place to steal his Emeralds. Apparently no threat was great enough or means wicked enough to dissuade the miserable thief from trying to upset his mission. The bat just didn't care if it meant getting her hands on those gems.
'What a wretched fool', he reflected.
Like some featherless raven, grabbing shiny objects, oblivious to their true importance. Selfishly hoarding gems was her only desire. She didn't care who or what got in her way, she just destroyed it heartlessly.
There was a term for people like her. What was it? Something strange few people ever spoke...
Kleptomania. Yes, that was the word Ivo used to describe Sonic and Tails when he asked the human about their motives for stealing his Chaos Emeralds. A person who is driven to take items as if they belonged to them, regardless of how little value or utility they might have to that person. It fit the bat-girl's arrogant assumption of rightful possession and guiltless snatching of whatever took her fancy.
She was worse than Pachacamac.
The warlord at least knew the Emerald's real power. Pachacamac sought them to help defeat his enemies, to give his people strength. Something that would have helped others beside himself. Certainly the death of his wife contributed to his ruthless actions, as did his descent into greed and hate, but still he had selfless motivations as well. Pride in one's nation, wanting to see it expand and prosper.
The bat-girl? The hole in the moon told her story.
She was just an animal, beyond forgiveness or mercy. He would kill her himself to put this game to rest. The promise he made at Wild Canyon- that she would either give up the Emeralds or die- was going to be fulfilled. His word was his bond.
Suddenly he heard a taunting voice and swore he saw a wagging finger.
"That's no good, Knucklehead!" said a young Sonic, grinning from the shadow of a since lost Sky Sanctuary, dismissing his suggestion to kill Eggman.
"You shouldn't hurt anybody if there's another way!"
The guardian put his head in his hands.
He didn't need Sonic telling him what to do. He didn't need to be reminded that he failed to prevent the Sanctuary's destruction.
He looked up to see Tikal standing in the hedgehog's place, surrounded by the burning ruins of Pachacamac's folly. Her eyes were pleading.
"Don't repeat your people's mistakes Knuckles! Please don't choose bloodshed!"
No! He couldn't look at her right now, another reminder of his failure to protect the Master Emerald.
He didn't need these visions haunting him now. Not even a visit from another Echidna, a sight he would have relished at any other time. But when he turned away, there stood yet again the watery form of Chaos- his predecessor, and a grim warning of what the Pillar's defender could become.
Knuckles sank to his knees, telling the ghosts to go away.
This was a decision he had made on his own.
Other voices were not going to sway the guardian from his objective. The bat-girl had already chosen her fate. She was a danger not just to the Controller but to the planet itself as long as she was alive. He'd never seen her do anything to convince him otherwise.
The guardian stood up again. He told himself the issue was already decided.
Independent since his first breath. His word was his bond.
He would end this now.
"Eliminate the thieves Knuckles!" Ivo hissed. "You know it is your duty..."
His eyes and his feet followed the bat towards the tall central structure.
She landed gracefully on one of the... yellow barrier generators... and seemed to wait for him to catch up.
Knuckles took to the air.
The guardian fell on the opposite end of the beam, regarding his opponent from a distance. She stood with a relaxed attitude, looking almost bored.
"Long time no see treasure hunter. Did you find MY Emeralds?"
That might have made him laugh if his tolerance hadn't reached its limit. Such arrogance, declaring whatever she laid eyes on as her property.
Diplomacy was a waste of time with this woman. There was no choice but to fight.
Without pity he rushed forward with claws swinging. She evaded with an agile flip, flapping away towards the middle of their battle ground. The hatch to the magma pool under the floor was shut now, he noted.
Knuckles hopped down from the generator to meet her on the ground. The bat dropped gently in front of him, lips pursed.
"Very well, if that's how you wanna play, I'll take it from you!"
They exchanged blows and words in a vicious melee. For the second time he took note to grab some Rings while he had the chance; that robot left him empty. His fists were relentless, but she blocked each punch, returning them with high-heeled kicks. It wasn't until she tried to use her wings to an advantage and fly did he land an uppercut that knocked her own Rings out. Before she recovered he delivered another fiery punch, sending the bat skidding over the metal floor.
She gave an angry cry before getting up and then quickly smacking down again in a Hip Drop that shook the entire tower. Knuckles was thrown by the tremors and fell backwards, leaving him open to another attack. The bat ran in his direction intent on getting vengeance, but suddenly they were both lifted into the air by a scalding updraft.
The hatch had opened, shaken loose by her attack. Molten rock bubbled beneath them.
He tried to turn the situation in his favor and glide head long into her, but the witch summoned up some sort of inky pulse that sent him reeling.
"Black Wave!" she cried, turning in the air as she directed the malovent force to bend space around her adversary.
Energy manipulation, a basic martial skill, more the stuff of parlor tricks than real combat. Apparently she was that good at it.
Knuckles careened through the air without control, blundering into a force field he hadn't notice before. He growled in shock upon making contact with the translucent barrier, dropping unto one of the support beams.
'When she knocked open that hatch down there, it must have activated the barrier generators.' he concluded, pushing himself to his feet with a grunt.
In the air above he could see Rouge smirking, negotiating the warm air currents gracefully on her dark wings. She navigated across the structure to locate a cluster of nearby Rings and clung to the surface precariously, reaching to collect them.
'Figures' Knuckles thought. 'As long as she can afford to attack from a distance with that black wave, she can keep flying around over my head.'
Taking cover behind one of the columns, the Echidna quickly took stock of how many Rings were in his own corner, deciding two could play at this game. Drawing upon as much energy from those precious trinkets as he could, the gifted warrior called down a Thunder Arrow in the direction he guessed his enemy to be.
The crackle of electricity and curse of pain evidenced that he hit the mark. Hoping she was still stunned, he sank his knuckle spurs into the column and began scaling it, crawling around to get a look at her. The bat was standing on the yellow beam- all barrier generators, he realized- below him, clearly surprised by the sudden lightning bolt, her guard down.
Pushing off from the wall, Knuckles fell into a Drill Dive, spinning towards her with claws poised. The attempted sneak attack failed however, as she dodged at the last second and kicked him hard in the ribs.
Golden circles bounced through the air before vanishing. Now they were both Ringless again.
They stopped for a moment, panting from the intense exertion, chests heaving. The heat rising from the cauldron of liquid fire below was suffocating.
While the physical attacks halted the verbal barrage only grew more heated. They began to hurl insults back and forth, scarelessly bothering to take a breath. It seemed his rival lacked the sense to pull herself together when she had the opportunity, as the bat-girl began to advance in his direction, throwing out another idiotic statement of ownership-
A high-heeled boot slipped over the side of the narrow barrier generator and a slender body followed after it.
Her teal painted eyes fluttered open, then burst wide with shock.
She felt so light in his grasp. It didn't even strain him, hanging from the edge by one arm with another stretched down to hold her. Swinging his legs back onto the yellow floor and planting his feet took no effort.
His first instinct was to take her hand so the Master Emerald would be safe. He didn't lie about that. Yet at that moment she was in his power, caught, vulnerable.
He could reach down and snap her neck like a twig, if the mood struck him.
It would be the easiest thing in the world. Knuckles' hands could rend steel like paper. Her bones would be so soft in comparison. The bat-girl would be dead and he could take the Emeralds without struggle. Her poison on this world, a poison that broke half the moon, would be gone forever.
Knuckles felt the cold tendrils of Chaos trying to smother him to death the day he stood in front of the Old Shrine so long ago, and thought better of it.
Letting out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, Knuckles gently pulled the bat up and placed her down beside him. Despite it all, the weight of his mistakes was too heavy to take another life. What if doing that turned out to be a mistake too?
The woman pulled away with an almost offended cry, slipping out of his hand.
Their battle of words resumed immediately. It wasn't like he really expected anything else than ingratitude for the show of mercy, but he was getting fed up with hearing the thief's voice. Insulting a person after they save you from a lethal fall made little sense in his mind. He wished she would just shut up and fight so he could break her legs or something. Even if he wouldn't allow himself to kill her, the issue of the Emeralds still needed to be taken care of, which would mean beating them out of...
The bat-girl had tossed her portion of the shards onto the floor between them.
"-just take them! They stink like Echidnas do!"
'Argh! Fickle idiot!' Throwing the Emeralds around like they weren't standing over a burning pit, giving them up for such stupid reasons, mocking his race...
"If that's how you felt you should have just given them to me in the first place!" he growled, scooping up the precious gems with a gentleness that his massive hands seemed unsuited for.
'One, two, three, four, five, and six.'
That was all of them.
Anger evaporated, replaced by relief. Quickly he yanked out the three pieces shoved under the cuffs of each of his Hammer Gloves, placing them in the green pile, wrapping his arms around them all. The energy swam around him in a brilliant glow. He could feel it surging through his body. The pieces seemed to melt together in the growing light, shifting and reforming into a single gem. Weeping was replaced by the calm music of serenity as the Controller was restored. Knuckles almost felt like he was floating again when the voices in his head vanished at last. Green light retreated inward to reveal the Master Emerald completed, a warm jewel taking up the guardian's full embrace.
"Finally..." he sighed, patting its edges with care.
He glanced up at his rival. She jerked her head away with a "What?". Away from the Emerald.
His eyes shifted to the side, tired, thoughtful.
'Maybe she's not hopeless. Maybe the hedgehog was right all along.'
"I'm sorry... If I hurt you..." Knuckles muttered before departing with his sacred treasure.