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As the guerilla war against Robotnik and his mechanized legions drags on with no end in sight, the burdens of leadership begin to take their toll on Princess Sally. When an all-too-routine sabotage mission encounters an unexpected complication, she finds herself alone in Robotropolis, where she undertakes a harrowing journey that brings her face-to-face with her most terrifying adversary, a cunning and ruthless being that threatens her very soul. Content Rating: T (Violence, mild language, and dark thematic elements) Disclaimer: This thread is for story updates only. A discussion thread, which also features a set of appendices detailing this story's setting, can be found here: The Princess and the Demon Chapter I: Song in Shadow Sunset. A decade ago, the sky would have been awash in a dazzling array of blues and violets, their cool hues intermingling with the fading orange and gold embers of Mobius’ sun in a dance that had inspired countless minds over the course of history. The dance was at once fragile and immortal, fading after only an hour or so yet always restored to life the next evening, each revival bringing with it subtle new movements that left the end of that day unique. It was a testament to the pure, elegant strength of nature that these daily occurrences remained moving, inviting those who witnessed them to lay down the duties and sophistications of society, if for only a moment, and enjoy simple beauty. Even as a small child, Princess Sally had loved watching sunsets, had felt the brush of their power. On days when he was not burdened down with his duties, her father would often take her out to the palace balcony to watch the wondrous dance in the evening sky. He would set her on his shoulder as they looked out over the expanse of their kingdom, their home. Sometimes they talked; sometimes they remained silent, content to simply be with one another. On evenings when her father was busy, Sally would at times still go to the balcony alone to gaze out at the horizon. The sunsets were most comforting on bad days in particular. Whatever had happened, whether a scrape on the leg or an argument with Sonic or her father receiving upsetting news that she wished she could understand, Sally could take solace in the sunsets. They always appeared, no matter what. The events of the day could not change them. Nor could they change her life. Whatever happened, she would always be with Daddy, always live in a beautiful palace, always be best friends with Sonic, always be safe. These things were as sure as the setting of the sun appearing in the evening sky. Now, no glimpse of the sun could be found. The last echoes of the multicolored dance had here been long since silenced, their eternal cycle of revival snuffed out. Across the rest of Mobius, the cycle continued unabated, the brilliant tapestry of the sky shifting and changing as it ever had. But here the reign of the sun had been usurped, the light of the great star overthrown and cast down. The sky had a new lord now, a thing of smoke and fumes, one that endlessly stretched the ghostly fingers of its black hand outward, so that with each passing hour more of the world was befouled by its taint. Again and again, the downcast starlight attempted to end its exile, to break through the fastness of its enemy and be reunited with the world below. Yet no ray could breach the dark veil that lay enshrouded above Robotropolis. Though divorced from all heavenly light, the city was not beholden to absolute, perpetual night. Here and there, the dim, pale glows of lamps and spotlights could be seen, providing some small measure of sanctuary against the blackness threatening to engulf everything nearby. Yet they offered no warmth, no comfort, their hues sickly and cold. Far worse were the gouts of flame that tore through the air in mechanically precise intervals, bursting from towering smokestacks and open waste pits. The columns of fire rose roaring with tremendous force, the surrounding air trembling and distorting in their wake. Almost blinding in their intensity, the crimson torrents issued forth tsunamis of searing heat that lay waste to everything around them. Near the furnaces of Robotropolis, no life could endure. Yet as they rose in all their terrible might, the flames dared challenge the usurping lord of the sky, the veil of smog smothering the city. Against that impenetrable fastness, even they were as insignificant, stinging insects to be crushed under heel. The fires were swallowed up, their light quenched without as much as a shift in the fumes they strove to pierce. The luminance cast forth by the fixtures and fires brought into dismaying clarity the state of their surroundings. Enormous steel structures stretched beyond the eye’s reach in every direction, some only a single story, others towering dozens of meters into the air. All were jagged and angular in their construction, products of geometrically precise designs that factored in not elegance and aesthetic, but efficiency and output. They ranged from power stations to factories, computer mainframes to waste disposal centers. Like organs in a body, each was crafted with a singular purpose, working in mechanical unison with the others to form the massive organism that was Robotropolis. Yet if the city bore any similarity to life, it was out of twisted mockery, of parody, for its streets harbored none of their own. Shuttles and surveillance drones flew through the empty air, weaving birdlike between buildings and bridges. Small mechanical creatures, failed experiments constructed and cast away over the years, scurried and clambered like rodents along walls and through crevices. A thin layer of dust and ash covered most surfaces like moss. To witness Robotropolis was to look upon something alien, a place so perverted and mechanized that it seemed otherworldly, as though some colossal giant had snatched the city from a planet equally metallic and lifeless and hurled it across the stars toward an unsuspecting Mobius. Yet the city had not always been so. Once, it had been filled with verdant gardens and flowing fountains, whitewashed buildings that curved in gentle slopes. Great trees dotted the landscape, their soaring branches blooming with flower and shading the carefully crafted terraces and parks below. Arching wooden bridges spanned bubbling streams that meandered to and fro, their clear waters filled with fish dazzling in color. In orderly rows lay houses masterfully hewn from rough stone into intricate, unique shapes, their interiors lined with wooden panels and ceramic tiles. Above them towered the Ministry building, a monumental ziggurat of eight levels. Flights of stairs ascending to the peak lined each of its sides, flanked by gardens along the walls. Most magnificent of all was the royal palace, a pair of interwoven stone towers that gently curved ever upward, one culminating in a dome that housed the glittering throne room, the other in an arched bell tower used to signal the arrival of holidays and festivals. The palace was situated upon a network of bowl-shaped terraces, down which cascaded a series of shimmering waterfalls that merged with the river below. Mobotropolis, the city had been christened, The Jewel of Mobius. For Sally and millions of others, it had been far more. It had been home. Tattered remnants of this former glory could still be glimpsed in the outlying reaches of the city. Here, an old boarded up restaurant sitting between a pair of watch towers. There, the shattered stone walls of what was once someone’s house, lying in a crumbled heap amidst charred ashes that had perhaps been furniture. Shards of playground equipment covered in rust, strewn tangled about outside a weapons plant. A child’s toy, coated with dust, lying where it had been dropped years ago as the robotic police force suddenly turned on all that lived... “Yo, Sal! Hedgehog to Sal! Ya read me?” Sally snapped out of her reverie, annoyed at the interruption. “What?” She looked over at Sonic, the source of her newfound frustration. The two were lying prone on the roof of a three story warehouse overlooking one of the city’s many computer hubs, a small squat cylindrical building surrounded by an electric fence. “You were starin’ off inta space. Just two minutes ‘til Bunnie’s supposed ta give us the signal.” Only two minutes? Sally frowned. That was absurd. She had been keeping track of time, despite her musings, and they still had nearly a quarter of an hour before the signal was due. She glanced down at the chronometer counting down on her wrist, its red digital digits shifting to indicate exactly one minute and forty-six seconds remained. Oh. The squirrel closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to regain focus. “Sorry. It’s just…this place. It still gets to me sometimes.” Sonic offered a gentle smile, his tone softening as he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I hear you. I miss home too. But ya gotta stay focused while we’re out here. You know that as well as I do.” “Better, on most days.” Sally managed a grin and the two shared a soft laugh, their thoughts briefly turning toward past missions together, the scores of trials and triumphs, narrow escapes and bitter losses, that had come to define so much of their young lives. They remained quiet after that, Sonic watching the countdown silently approach zero, Sally turning her eyes once more toward their objective. Between the hub below and the fence encompassing it was a courtyard; every few seconds, its dull metallic surface was broken by a faint blue shimmer that quickly moved from one end to the next, the only sign that the building was protected by an alarm grid. Supplementing the grid were two rotating security cameras, as well as half a dozen SWATbots patrolling outside the fence. All in all, the hub was lightly defended, as it did little more than help funnel data between two much larger facilities. If NICOLE’s analysis was correct, however, it held a critical weakness, one that made the building the target of the night’s raid. The countdown reached its terminus. A moment later, the building beneath the two Freedom Fighters shook slightly. Perhaps a kilometer away, the night was torn asunder by an explosion, a luminous lance that soared above the surrounding cityscape. The brilliant beacon was a shimmering mixture of oranges and golds, its gradient tapestry interwoven with the blues and violets of chemical smoke. For a moment, the light was as a glimpse of the sunsets of old, the multicolored radiance a remnant of what once was that dared reach out and reclaim its home. Yet within seconds the light faded to waning embers, replaced with the pale, cold glow of searchlights as blaring alarm klaxons filled the air. The SWATbots patrolling outside the hub turned and raced off toward the source of the anomaly. “Man, Rote’s outdone himself with the ol’ firecrackers this time!” Sonic chuckled, the warmth in his voice coming through even amidst the screech of alarms. Sally nodded, wishing she could share her friend’s enthusiasm. Rotor’s craftsmanship was indeed impressive, the walrus at times seeming as much an artisan as he was an engineer. But even he could do only so much with their limited resources. These explosives generated a great deal of noise and light, but lacked enough heat or force to inflict any significant damage. This rendered them useful only as distractions. Nuisances, not genuine threats. If only- Sally’s thoughts were cut off as the alarms were joined by a growing droning sound. Squirrel and hedgehog pressed themselves flat against the warehouse roof as a squadron of gunships thundered overhead, wheeling to circle the site of the blast like some hideous flock of carrion. They would find no prey, however. Bunnie was long gone, headed to the rendezvous point on the outskirts of the city. Her task was complete. For Sonic and Sally, clambering to their feet after hours of waiting, the night’s endeavor was only just beginning. The couple turned to one another, each extending a hand that moved to touch and dance about the other in a series of quick gestures that bore the fluidity of years of practice. The handshake was an old one, created what seemed a lifetime ago by two small children who had not the slightest inkling of wars or coups. It was a bastion of familiarity in these terrible times, an artifact of lost innocence and an emblem of a friendship that had survived the fall of a world into ruin. Equally old and meaningful were the words that followed, a simple phrase that had come to underscore so much of their struggle for freedom from the tyranny befouling their former home. Five small words that carried with them no small amount of courage, an unshakeable confidence shared by those who spoke them. “Let’s do it to it!” The actions performed next were nearly as familiar. She, unwinding the coil of rope and lowering it over the rooftop edge, her hands swift and sure. He, tying the rope’s end to a fixture, threading back and forth to weave a knot steadfast and strong. Then they descended, the champion going before his princess, gliding soundlessly into the murk below. How many times before had they done this? Descended into the mouth of oblivion on some daring venture, some fool’s errand, hoping to thwart the tireless machinations of their great enemy, dreaming to purge that festering blight and bring healing to a dead land? Dozens? Hundreds? It was uncertain, the memories a blur of breathless tension and fearful adrenaline. There were moments that stood etched out in stark clarity, tangible triumphs and dismal defeats. The destruction of a foundry punctuated by a narrow escape, her arms wrapped around his body as he outraced tongues of flame. The loss of a gentle mentor known for years, his arms wrapped around her body as she wept tears of grief. Yet most of their raids, though dark and deadly, were strangely unremarkable. They had become routine. Routine! The thought struck Sally as both ludicrous and terrifying. How could such acts, journeys into a twisted, alien realm that had only moments before overwhelmed her with its very visage, bear any semblance to the mundane? The answer, sadly, was too clear for any hope of escape into the refuge of uncertainty. They had changed. Years of enormous hardship had taken their toll on the people of Knothole, leaving scars deep and beyond healing. None had truly escaped the death of Mobotropolis, the hideous tide of mechanization that had consumed the city. The Freedom Fighters were themselves constructs, children tempered by the loss of all they had ever known, by years of hiding in evil’s shadow, until they were forged into combatants, colder, harder, capable of fighting to reclaim all that once was. Such a goal could never be realized. Even if Mobotropolis was rebuilt, restored to all of its former beauty and glory, its people freed, its enemies utterly destroyed…the world would not, could not, return to the way it was. Memory would linger. Through it, the pains and hurts would endure, the taint of the usurper never truly cleansed until all who witnessed it returned to dust. Even if… She, Sonic, and the other Freedom Fighters would be hailed as saviors, the great heroes of the age, but what then? They, who had grown up orphaned, cut off from society, without so much as a formal education, would be expected to acclimate. Live by a set of norms that would never truly be their own, however much they yearned for them to be. It was a bitter irony, that they should be denied even in triumph that which they had fought so long for. Worse still, she herself, sole heir to the throne, would be expected to lead, to rule. To govern a society she could never again truly be a part of, to be the protector of a peace she would never know. A queen was a paragon of all that was good, the embodiment of what one should strive for. A queen was kind, not critical, governed by courage, not fear. A healer, not a fighter. Young girls would look upon her with awe and wonder, at night whispering to their innermost selves, “I wish I was like Queen Sally.” And what would they be idolizing? A wall. A shell of smiles and hugs and waves surrounding a broken woman old before her years, a relic from another age unable to banish the fears haunting her mind. The real Sally would never be a queen, merely a dressed up imitation trying in vain to match her forbearers. Even if… Stop it, Sally ordered herself as she angrily clamped down on her thoughts. That was despair talking, a viperous nest of fears unallied with even the faintest whisper of reason, more poisonous than any of the sickly fumes eclipsing the sky above. It had become increasingly problematic as of late, a whisper of malice breathing ruin into the edges of her mind when she dropped her guard. She hated it. Perhaps this raid would help. Another victory, another blow struck against the usurper. A reminder that their cause was not hopeless, that they were that much closer to winning this war. Yes, tonight’s triumph would help. The two Freedom Fighters completed their descent and dropped to the ground. Perhaps a hundred open meters separated the fence ahead from the warehouse shadow in which they stood. A hundred meters without cover, of breathless vulnerability. A passing security drone would spot them in an instant, turning painstakingly planned actions into frantic attempts to survive the next few minutes. Stratagems would crumple into instinct, hope engulfed by terror. A mere hundred meters, yet so much hinged upon them… Then a gloved hand wrapped itself around her shoulder, its warmth permeating through the fabric, evaporating the unease in her heart. She turned to her best friend and smiled, gratefully allowing him to sweep her up into his arms. She rested her head against his chest, heard the pace of his heart quicken as his body tensed. Her arms tightened across his back. An intake of breath. Then he began to run. A hundred meters of fear and vulnerability vanished in an instant. The entire crossing took only two, perhaps three, seconds, but it was enough for Sally to savor. The world around her lost its focus, its potency, becoming a blur. The only visible constant was the one holding her, his cocky smile betraying the wellspring of confidence that resided at his very core. It was during those moments, when he ran with her in his arms, when everything else ceased to be, that a rare peace came over Sally. The walls of her soul were lowered, allowing the exhausted, suffocating girl within to draw life-giving breath. She heard not even the faintest echo of the shadowy whispers that had beset her for so long, that she had built those horrible walls to withstand. Fears spawned from seeing her world devoured by an unending mechanized night. Loneliness gnawing at the void the loss of her father had left, the scars of time’s passage not quite covering the rawness underneath. Doubts about her worthiness as a leader, her ability to truly be the unshakable pillar of strength so many needed and sought in her out of trust in blood. All of them were silenced. In their stead, a rising melody began to flow through the edges of her mind. Wordless, it was swift and erratic, seeming a barely controlled chaos ever on the verge of discord. Here, a note struck too soon by eagerness. There, a moment of hesitation and faltering, almost imperceptible as the sound shifted to shroud its shame. Yet beyond the roughness there lay power, a strength maintaining cohesion and ushering the music ever forward. It grew in volume, cascading deeper and deeper until all of Sally was awash in the melody. Its notes rippled through her thoughts, sifting out embedded anxieties and carrying them away like so much detritus, leaving behind calming reassurance. But then the music was challenged. Beyond Sally’s mind, a besieged bastion at last receiving relief, there existed a world of flesh and metal. A fallen world, choked by smoke and shadow, in which drops of blood and sweat mixed with ashen dirt as the flesh was beset again and again in its struggle to check the metal’s spread. As the body holding her own came to a halt, that terrible world was suddenly brought back into focus. As she left his arms and stood on her own, the whispers begin to build again. Fears. Loneliness. Doubts. All of them threatened to renew their assault and ravage her mind, now naked before them. Instinct, touched by traces of panic, demanded the walls be raised again immediately, that everything be shut out, that the mission could not afford her acting in a compromised state. Only cold, dispassionate logic could withstand the world around her. Yet the melody remained, flowing around her and acting as a bulwark against the renewed torrent of bile. Bitterness lanced against it with a terrible fury, only to be deflected, leaving her unscathed. Reminders of countless failings were hurled with ruthless precision at her heart, yet all were splintered ere they reached their mark. With every blow the music weathered, however, it waned slightly. Slowly but surely, it was weakening, and Sally knew that Sonic was facing a similar assault of the soul as all the vile potency of Robotropolis renewed itself around them. For a single, agonizing moment, it seemed that his melody, flawed and rough as it was, would fail entirely, that both of them would be swept asunder by the noxious tide. Doubt would cripple them. Fear would poison their innermost hopes. Years old scars would burst, sending the dammed up pains of the past forth to drown them. Then Sally added her own voice to the melody. It was small and soft, lacking the raw passion and intensity that so defined the music of her dearest and oldest friend. Yet it held an equal strength. Where he bordered on chaos, she was careful precision. As he soared in crescendo, she was a soft backdrop, subtle and complex, ever shifting in her nuance. Her carefully calculated dance of notes touched where his faltered, seamlessly healing the gaps in the melody. Where she hesitated, his chorus held true. They were in absolute harmony, perfect counterpoints to one another. The music surged outward, overtaking the vicious onslaught. Even with all the terrible might of the surrounding world fueling them, the whispers of fear and doubt were as nothing before the melodious union. They were instantly purged from both minds, leaving only a calm as each healed the damage the other had suffered. Gradually, the melody faded in volume as Sally and Sonic, for now freed from the wars of the spirit, turned to the outward task they faced. Yet the music did not cease, instead forming the rhythm through which their bodies flowed from one motion to another. Running parallel to the fence just outside its base was a thick insulated cord fastened to the ground every two meters by metallic bolts. A few seconds of following the cord revealed that it was connected to a metallic box perhaps a third of a meter tall; save for an unlabeled panel screwed in at the top, it appeared featureless. “This what we’re after?” Sonic whispered uncertainly. The squirrel nodded, setting her backpack down before reaching into it and withdrawing a makeshift screwdriver. “It may not look like much, but this device regulates power to both the fence and the alarm grid behind it, making it my ticket in.” As Sally began deftly removing the screws holding the panel in place, Sonic gave a theatric sigh. “Alas, that to smash it would be of no avail, for the alarms would hinder any chance to prevail,” he bemoaned, his voice nearly compromised by the tremors of laughter threatening to escape his longsuffering tone. The princess looked up from her handiwork with a raised eyebrow. “Trying our hand at poetry again, are we?” she asked with a mix of mock suspicion and genuine curiosity. Sonic’s face tinged slightly at the question, his right hand nervously rubbing the spines behind his head. “Well…I ah...ya seemed ta like it back when we were in Lower Mobius a couple months ago. The idea of it, anyway. Did a bit of practice here and there since then. Just trying to…” His words drifted into silence, and Sally quickly returned her gaze to the panel, both to look away from Sonic’s blushing, sparing him further embarrassment, and to hide the warmth that could now be glimpsed on her own face. “I’m not sure any of the great Mobian bards ever used the word ‘smash’ in their works, though I must say that’s quite the improvement over last time,” she replied after a moment. She hesitated again, the humor in her voice shifting to sincere warmth. “…and it’s quite thoughtful of you. Thank you.” A quiet tinged with awkwardness filled the air as the last of the screws was removed and Sally detached the metal plate. Beneath it was a complex array of wires and circuitry, all of it so tangled and densely compacted that making sense of the components would take hours…for an organic. Reaching into an inner pocket of her vest, the princess withdrew her most valuable possession and flipped it open. “NICOLE,” Sally whispered, “Please scan for input slot. Maintain response volume at ten percent.” “Acknowledged, Sally,” the computer replied in a feminine tone equally soft, a green glow emitting from one of its sensors as it analyzed the device below. Only a few seconds passed before the sensor’s light narrowed into a tight beam aimed at a grooved cylindrical opening, an image of which was displayed on NICOLE’s screen. As the computer reported its success, Sally reached into her backpack and withdrew a bundle of adapter cables, all of them identical on one end. Using the display as a reference, she quickly located the appropriate one and connected NICOLE to the input slot. The image vanished as data began to stream across the computer’s screen. “Uplink…complete,” the computer dutifully reported. “No security measures in place. However, overt interference with power distribution will trigger an alert. Awaiting command, Sally.” “Figured as much,” the squirrel sighed before pausing in thought. “…you said overt interference. Could you trick the system? Mitigate the current of electricity so that it flows at a slower rate, then project a phantom current masquerading as the rest of the wattage? That would give the fence and alarm grid sufficient power to avoid setting off the contingency alarms, but not enough to actually function. Run simulation and report.” NICOLE made no reply, its lights dimming as every bit of the machine’s considerable processing power was delegated to analyzing yet another of the unorthodox stratagems conceived by its owner. As the device in her hand warmed a few degrees from the strain, Sally gazed up at the fence looming before her. Standing perhaps half a dozen meters tall, the obstruction’s height more than quintupled her own, quashing any hopes of being vaulted over. She would have to climb. Yet even without searing streams of lethal energy writhing over every shard of the metallic fastness, the act would be dangerous. The metal links comprising the barrier were tightly interwoven, scarcely leaving room for purchase. Footholds were impossible altogether, leaving only her hands to support the full weight of her body and pack. To the untrained eye, the fence held no further defenses, for its summit lay bare, bereft of any tangled mass of barbed wire or rows of spikes jutting upward like sabers. Yet these omissions were predatory illusions, designed to lure intruders into hapless complacency. Each of the metallic links was honed to a fine edge, forming a tower of tiny blades. Any attempt to grasp them would result in the piercing of flesh and tendon, blood raining onto the ground below and cries of anguish filling the air above. “Never boring out here, is it?” Sonic murmured wryly, his eyes on the same structure. “Rarely so,” Sally whispered, her anxiety again abating at the sound of her friend’s voice. As she turned toward him, his admission moments earlier rose to the surface of her mind, casting ripples that refracted into shifting thoughts dyed with a myriad of emotions. It was true that she had long held an appreciation for poetry, that most subtle and nuanced manner of the arts. Among the handful of texts she owned was a volume of such works, a compilation spanning centuries, its yellowed leaflets preserving the distilled currents of a hundred souls long departed. Each poem was a gateway painstakingly carved with the instrument of language, through which the currents freely flowed into her own mind, bringing with them memories and emotions, images and musings, all of them as vibrant and real as they had been when first wrought into strokes of ink set upon a page. Together, they formed a shimmering tapestry heralding in joyous adulation the very spirit of her world. Yet that world had been rent asunder by unspeakable atrocity, and as the passage of years bestowed upon the young exile ever more understanding, the comfort offered by these glimpses into the past waned. For her wondrous culture, proud and fair, regal and beautiful, was no more. That which had over countless years been crafted was crushed under heel in a terrible instant. To the glories of old, no monument was left save a few tattered books salvaged from a mutilated ruin. How could such fragile assemblages of parchment possibly be enough to save what was on the verge of being lost forever to the mire of time? By themselves, they were woefully inadequate, for it was only through the touching of souls that their strength was made manifest. But through this coupling, culture was passed on. Through the gateways of art, the lifeblood of past generations flowed into new minds still alive and vibrant. Through the lives of those so touched, a world could be reborn. Sally felt the gentle stirrings of hope at the thought, yet as she studied Sonic they were met with uncertainty. Poetry was among the last things she would normally associate the hedgehog with. It was not that he was unintelligent; her friend was far more cunning than she suspected he gave himself credit for. Rather, his heart lacked patience. He was a being of action, ever in the moment, his mind seeming to analyze the world around him at a speed no less astonishing than that of his body. Matters of subtlety and introspection were something else entirely, and he appeared loath to dwell on them. Whatever interest he held in poetry was clearly for her sake. That he should so pursue a subject far beyond the realm of comfort and familiarity spoke greatly of his commitment to their budding relationship. It was a humbling thought, one answered by warm assurance, a certainty that the hedgehog’s venture could nonetheless awaken him to a new facet, unseen yet resplendent, of the cause they had long risked so much for. Assurance gave way to determination as an idea began to coalesce within her mind. “Uh, Sal?” “Mmm-hmm?” the princess murmured distractedly, her focus lingering on how to best approach the matter. “You’ve been starin’ at my face for over a minute,” Sonic noted, an inimitable grin spreading across his face. “See anything you like?” That got her attention. “I’m afraid not,” Sally replied dryly as she rummaged through the collection of playful jabs one invariably accumulated over a lifetime of knowing the wisecracking hedgehog. “I was just looking in vain once again for some shred of humility. I seem to suffer from this nagging delusion that I’ll see it one day.” “Maybe you should get that checked out. Poor eyesight is a terrible thing to live with,” Sonic shot back. “Oh, I agree. Hearing, on the other hand, I could manage without. At least then I could get a decent stretch of sleep without being subjected to that cacophony always coming from down by the bridge.” “Hey, don’t be slammin’ the beauty of rock, Sal.” “Is that what it is? My mistake. I had assumed it was two animals clawing one another to death…again and again and again.” “Some people just can’t appreciate the classics,” Sonic sighed, “Though I don’t see how you can’t sleep with all that poetry ya read. Whadda ya see in that stuff?” The flash of hurt that skimmed across Sally’s mind must have been betrayed in her expression, as Sonic’s smile vanished. “Whoa, sorry, Sal. I shouldn’t have brought that up.” He closed his eyes in frustration before softly muttering, “Probably shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.” Taking a deep breath, Sally took one of Sonic’s hands in her own. “No, I’m glad you did. Sonic, I…I’d like us to start reading poetry together. It wouldn’t have to be very often, just here and there. I’m already familiar with the poems in my book, and I think if I could help you understand them more, you’d start to enjoy it...” She trailed off, nervousness finally staying her tongue. Sonic said nothing, but the doubt in his eyes was clearly visible, leaving Sally to berate herself in silence. That approach had been foolish. Too blunt, too forward. Now her idea was on the verge of failing entirely. It would be best to lower the tension before trying again. “Oh come on, Sonic,” she continued after several moments of careful consideration, adopting a playful tone tinged with coquettishness. “How can a girl possibly resist someone versed in the fine arts? You could become a man of culture. We’ll start with poetry, then move on to ballads as we make our way to classical music. Perhaps some formal dancing lessons after that, maybe with a suit…” With each passing statement, Sonic’s expression became more pained, his skin blanching and eyes widening in horror, until at last he could stand no more and stuck his tongue out, a mock retching noise escaping his lips with great fervor. “If all that stuff was so important, you’d have fallen for Ant ages ago,” he glowered. At that, Sally found herself making a face mirroring Sonic’s, her confidence returning as both of them laughed quietly. With another glance at the fence before her, she reached into her pack and withdrew two long strips of thick white cloth of a soft texture that belied the durability of the fabric. Several layers of the material would, when properly wrapped, prove sufficient to protect her hands from the razor edges of the fence’s links, making the climb before her possible, if still difficult. She held her arms out as Sonic took the cloth and began gently wrapping it around each hand. As he carefully wove his shield around her, a stalwart barrier against which the daggers of the surrounding world could not avail, their shared melody began to build once more. The filth and corruption around them faded into insignificance, and as the seconds seemed to slow even time was made powerless. The harmonious song freed their minds from the shackles of the present, from the incessant demands of the now, and Sally found her awareness gently drifting into the then, the realm of memory in which emotions and events were crystallized, immortal and unchanging though they be shrouded ever more by time’s passing. The scene upon which her focus settled was yet to be so marred, its nuances remaining illuminated in perfect clarity. She sat on a bedside holding a book, its cover worn and pages yellowed with age. Beside her lay Tails, carefully tucked in yet still awake, his attentive face illuminated only by the pale shafts of moonlight gleaming through the hut window. The eyes of the young kit were wide as she continued the story, a lengthy tale that they had been reading for nearly a week. It was one of daring adventure and fantastic deeds, of fearless heroes facing vile monsters. The recounting was brought to life as she read it with dramatic intensity, her voice shifting to assume the roles of knights and nobles, witches and warlocks. Standing beside her was Sonic, who acted out the events of the story with equal enthusiasm, his silent movements punctuated at times by the roar of a creature or the sound of clashing steel. Sincerity amply compensated for any lack of realism in their performances, and Tails remained enthralled for over an hour. At last, however, his eyes gradually drifted shut as the needs of the body gently set the pleasures of the heart aside for another evening. Sally smiled lovingly at the recollection before narrowing her thought further, turning her intent toward the story she had been reading, poring over what she knew of its history and meaning. Parallels began to emerge with her earlier musings; she drew upon these, carefully weaving together the threads of two disparate matters into a unified whole. Satisfied with the conclusion she had crafted, the princess withdrew from the world of memory, bringing with her the fruit of her journey so that it might be presented in triumph to the one before her. “Sonic, what do you think of the story we’ve been reading to Tails the past few nights?” she asked softly. “Ya mean Sir Samuel and the Seven Seals?” he frowned in confusion. “Mondo cool, as far as books go. Plenty of excitement and all, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve probably heard the story a dozen times now, but it still moves the ol’ feelings.” His tone became wistful as he continued, expression turning upward in a sad smile. “I remember Uncle Chuck getting choked up at certain parts back when he read it to me, even though he said he’d been reading it since he was a kid. Guess it’s a classic.” “Exactly. Sonic, that story was first written over five hundred years ago, yet the passage of time has claimed none of its potency. It remains powerful because it was deeply rooted in a culture dating back even further, a wonderful assemblage of traditions and ideals passed from one generation to the next that shaped countless aspects of life. Our culture. It’s such an important part of who we are. But now...” She gestured to their surroundings, the lifeless steel husks jutting in cold mockery from the ruins of their former home. “…that culture is on the verge of being lost forever. We’re the only ones left that can change that, that can pass things on until...” Words choked in her throat. “…until this can be undone.” As she spoke, her words enkindled a glittering light in Sonic’s eyes. “But to pass that culture on, we have to learn as much of it as we can, right? Including poetry. I hear ya Sal. Although…music’s a part of culture too, ya know. Seems to me that rock’s just as important as poetry. Just ‘cuz it’s newer doesn’t make it any worse.” At the comparison, Sally felt the emergence of a tendril of distaste, spawn of a shadow of arrogance that had long lain bound within the darker recesses of her heart, locked away in a vain attempt at confinement. From this suppressed prison, disdain sprung up with terrible speed, penetrating consciousness and discoloring her mind with its venom. Music? What he referred to was nothing of the sort. Music was elegant, a harmonious family of layers dancing around one another with grace and precision, intertwining to form arms that gently embraced the mind, freeing it from the mire of the surrounding world. Resting in this soft touch of notes and rhythms, the soul was carried into realms sublime and fantastic, some rich with history and ancient wonder, others flowing with powerful currents of emotion. All were glimpses into that evanescent, incomparable paradise that was beauty. ‘Rock’ was far removed from this tranquility, as barren desert from life-giving streams. No gentle embrace, it threatened to smother the mind with its chaotic discord, drowning efforts at even rudimentary thought. Yet as Sally stood before the event horizon of dismissal, on the verge of casting the suggestion into that chasm from whence no ray of thought could reemerge into the light of consideration, she gave pause. These words had been spoken by her dearest friend in sincerity. What right had she to so quickly toss them aside? After all, there clearly existed some basis for his belief, obscured from her though it was. Seeing but one recourse, she turned aside, clutching Sonic’s words tightly as she ventured once again into the world of memory. A far cry from her reminiscence of Tails’ bedside, the recollections she now touched were harsh and grating, a dozen instances of coarse noise flitting around her like a swarm of stinging insects. Steeling herself, she pressed forward, studying the noise for any deeper meaning, any semblance of cohesion. There it was. A faint shimmer of harmony glinting for a moment as it breached the surface of the turbulent sea of erratic beats. Before it could vanish beneath the currents, Sally seized it, scrambling atop the coherence and using it as a vantage point from which to gauge the surrounding noise. Gradually, parts of it began to coalesce, forming small islands of motif and melody. They remained isolated, with most of the sounds still seeming shrill and chaotic by her reckoning, but their very existence was enough. This was indeed music, borne of deliberate craftsmanship, questionable though it might seem. It was not some arbitrary array of arrangements, conjured up with no thought beyond the desire to satisfy the spontaneous caprices of the moment. There was design underlying the sounds. With such thought came intent, purpose. Meaning, the will to convey something more. Culture, then, could still be communicated through something as unlikely as rock, for the minds of those who wrought such music were as pervasively shaped by it as any. As Sally gradually uncovered the wisdom of Sonic’s words, the conceit that had spread through her mind was finally checked, its inky black tendrils pierced by radiant lances of understanding cast downward from her higher consciousness. These lances, refined and focused, were joined by a wellspring of unfettered love rising up from the utmost core of her soul. Where they met, brilliant beacons lit up, their rays refracting this way and that as they tore through veils of condescension and interwove with one another, forming a wall of light that suffered no ill thought. As the network of lights expanded, the arrogance within her mind was forced ever backward, until at last it was confined once more to its prison deep within her subconscious. Though not utterly purged from existence, it was at least subdued…for the time being. “You’re right, Sonic,” Sally finally replied after several long seconds of contemplation and conflict. “I may not understand your preferred forms of music, but that doesn’t make them any less a part of our culture.” “Yeah…about you not understandin’…” Sonic’s words were at first unusually uncertain but found their footing as he continued. “I agree ‘bout our culture needin’ to be saved ‘n’ all. An’ if me learnin’ poetry’s an important step toward that, couldn’t the same be said for you learnin’ rock? We could teach each other.” As Sally’s newfound understanding of rock as a legitimate and meaningful form of art had yet to blossom into full-blown, eager acceptance, the suggestion was met with an arched eyebrow. Yet after a moment she found herself nodding in agreement. Such a pursuit would, at one time, have doubtless been deemed far too lacking in dignity for one of her station, yet the notion of social propriety had long seemed increasingly irrelevant and absurd in the face of the dire circumstances she and her fellows had to contend with on a daily basis, despite Antoine’s insistences to the contrary. Moreover, it was only fair that, having asked of him, she give in return, especially if it helped achieve the same end. And if it meant that she simply had to spend more time alone with her now-more-than-best friend in situations that did not involve them being pursued or shot at, well… With the final tug of a knot, the hedgehog finished tying the strips of cloth around the princess’ hands, his handiwork leaving each with a fair degree of dexterity and surprising but welcome amount of comfort alongside the considerable protection afforded by the carefully layered white wrappings. Rather than withdrawing, Sonic shifted his own hands so that they were clasped in hers, their fingers intertwining as much as the fabric would allow. The two drew close to one another, silent, their shared melody washing through them as they basked in the contentment each found in the other. Though on the doorstep of a separation that would leave each alone and threatened by unnamable horrors, they allowed no cloud of fear to plague their minds, no tempest of anxiety to trouble their spirits. Theirs was the tranquility that can be found in the hearts of even the fiercest storms. Closing her eyes, Sally allowed herself to be wholly submersed in the moment, trusting in Sonic for protection as she savored its nuances, carefully distilling them into memories that she could draw strength from during the trials ahead. The feel of his hands beneath his textured gloves. The subtle, nigh imperceptible rhythm of his heartbeat. The soft, warm current of his breath, tinged ever so slightly with the fragrance of his last meal. A current that seemed to draw closer…and closer…with every passing moment… She smiled in anticipation. “Simulations complete, Sally,” NICOLE’s monotone, emotionless voice announced, intruding upon the silence as the sudden clap of thunder on a calm summer’s day, heralding the inexorable approach of forces unwelcomed. In that moment of tranquility’s breach, the melody faltered as all ‘round them the cold and gloomy structures of lifeless metal, wretched monuments to the depravity of the usurper, whose soulless treason and foul craft twisted and perverted the jewel of a world into a barren husk, a festering mockery of life, were unveiled once more with terrible intensity. Rolling her eyes, Sally leaned forward and planted a kiss on Sonic’s lips anyway, the soft touch, though brief, providing enough measure of comfort to calm her startled nerves as she steeled herself yet again against the alien but all too familiar surroundings. “Right. Back to business at hand,” she muttered, glancing down at the small computer. “Report, NICOLE.” “Analysis indicates that your hypothesis was valid, Sally. Decreasing the electrical current flow of the device in question by ninety-eight point seven zero two four percent will render nearby security measures effectively inoperable without triggering any contingency alarms,” the machine tonelessly droned. “However, to maintain a reduced current, this unit will need to remain connected to the port it is currently attached to.” The princess resisted the urge to slap her palm against her forehead as she inwardly cursed her shortsightedness. How could she have been so foolish? Of course NICOLE would have to be left behind for such a plan to work! Without the small computer, her task in the building before her would be far more difficult. Perhaps…no, it would not be impossible, she reassured herself as she hurriedly flew through the world of memory, quickly reviewing her experiences of hacking various computers throughout the fallen city. “Think you can pull this one off without NICOLE?” whispered Sonic, who, though not well versed in technical matters, clearly held similar reservations. “I…I think so,” Sally breathed, “It won’t be easy, though, and will doubtless take far longer than originally anticipated. Instead of a few minutes, we’re talking hours. Maybe even a day or two.” “Days?! Ya can’t stay in there that long!” Her smile bore a reassurance that she did not feel as she closed her pack and hefted it onto her shoulders. “I’ve got enough water and provisions in here to last for a few days. As for the increased risk of detection, security inside the building is pretty minimal according to the readouts we sliced last week. Once I gain access I should be fine.” “But what about getting out? Ya know I’m more than happy to play the ol’ distraction card, but even I can’t keep it up forever. And then there’s NICOLE. We can’t just leave her-” “It,” Sally automatically corrected. “Whatever. We can’t just leave it out here. But if I take it, those security measures go back up.” “Meaning I won’t be able to get out the same way I got in,” Sally nodded grimly. “I know. It just means I’ll have to get a little…creative. When we were staked out on top of that warehouse, I noticed a hatch on the roof of the hub. If I can get up there, I should be able to escape using that zipline launcher Rotor worked up.” Sonic crossed his arms and began tapping his foot, an absentminded gesture he often performed that betrayed his anxiety. It was usually brought upon by impatience, but the worry in his eyes suggested that was not the case this time. “I still don’t like it, Sal. Maybe we should just call this one off. Hit the hub some other time or just find another target.” The possibility was tempting, she had to admit. Journeying through Robotropolis was all the more miserable and terrifying when alone, and the prospect of spending days holed up by herself within the wretched city lay heavy on her heart. That alone was far from sufficient cause to abandon the mission, of course. They were at war, and certain actions had to be undertaken, however unpleasant. The chances of victory were poor enough without personal fears complicating things. But though she was no coward, neither was she foolhardy. The parameters of the raid had changed, rendering her carefully crafted plan useless. To proceed now was to cross the threshold of uncertainty, to burden herself with unnecessary risks atop the staggering weight of dangers already present. And for what? Success here would not win the war. At best, it would be only a minor triumph, an infinitesimal step on the impossibly long and arduous road to the ever waning flicker of hope that was true victory. But that was her path. Though it seemed to diminish day by day, hope of victory was not lost altogether. It could not be lost, not while she pressed forward. Not while she pushed herself beyond the meaningless illusions that were her limits. Not while she held the courage to give everything of herself so that others would not have to. “No. I have to do this,” Sally firmly stated, the fiery determination fueling her heart seeping into her words more than she intended, leaving them hard enough to cause Sonic to flinch and cease his tapping. Seeing his reaction, she softened her tone, taking one of his gloved hands in her own and managing a wry smile. “Hey, I thought I was supposed to be the voice of caution and restraint. You’re always taking risks like this.” Rather than giving a witty retort as she had expected, Sonic simply closed his eyes and sagged in resignation. “It…it’s not the same. When I go out there and take all those chances you’re always callin’ ‘crazy’, I’m by myself. I’m not puttin’ anyone else in harm’s way, so I can afford to push myself a little further. ‘Cause every bot that I toast or at least draw away is one that…that’s not aiming at…” His voice faltered into nothingness, leaving a somber silence lingering in the air. Sally made no attempt to hide the moisture welling up in her eyes as she saw mirrored in Sonic the same agonizing helplessness that had beset her so many times before. It was a feeling that Sonic himself engendered more often than not as his reckless heroics left him hurtling headlong into great peril far beyond her control. Beyond her aid. Beyond her reach. To knowingly inflict that very feeling upon her closest friend was heart-wrenching, and for the briefest of moments the temptation to simply give up and return home resurfaced. Yet it was stilled as quickly as it arose. For in war there could be no security, no comforting assurance that those who fought at one’s side were safe. What recourse was there? To force those one cared for to stay behind, to prevent them from joining in the conflict? None of the Freedom Fighters would settle for such a thing, least of all she and Sonic. To abandon the war entirely, to remain in hidden sanctuary and hope to wait out the storm? Sanctuary could not endure forever, not in the face of the tide of evil spreading ever outward from Robotropolis, a tide that would soon engulf all the world unless checked by those possessing the courage to strike at its festering heart. No. There was no recourse. Painful though it was, the helplessness that came with allowing others to put themselves at risk was a necessary evil, one that even Sonic must accept. Sally felt the coolness of tears running down her cheek fur and suddenly found herself locked in a tight embrace, desperately wishing that the logic coursing through her mind didn’t have to make such terrible sense, that she could just run away with Sonic and be free from this awful, awful war, that she would wake up and escape the nightmare that had been the last eleven years. As they held one another, her breathing gradually steadied, the despair threatening to overtake her replaced with calmness and conviction. Peace found her, covering her heart with a gentle touch as pure as newfallen snow. Even the sudden tramp of mechanized feet in the distance, heralding the return of the contingent of deadly SWATbots guarding the hub, could not threaten the peace filling Sally as she turned and ordered NICOLE to begin regulating power to the security emplacements surrounding the structure. It simply meant that it was now or never. As the shimmer of the alarm grid faded from the courtyard, Sally flashed a sincere grin. “I’ll be headed back home before you know it. We can start our lessons as soon as I return.” With that, she turned to the looming fence and began the climb. Scanning the jagged bulwark for chinks in its razor mail, she found a gap of suitable size and carefully placed a hand inside the deadly maw. Ridge upon ridge of cold metal, each as sharp and potent as any cruel instrument of bloodletting forged in the days of old by barbarous warmongers in open furnaces beneath the moonlit winter sky, set against her fingers in predatory earnest, seeking to pierce and rend flesh and inflict upon her mind a blinding, all-consuming agony that would devour her every thought and forever eclipse any hope of comfort. Yet their ravenous fangs were blunted, their vicious onslaught splintered, for their malice could not avail against the anointment of protection encircling her hand, the steadfast ward of care covering her fingers. Guarded by her gifted shield, she found purchase even within that den of evil, binding it to her will so that it might betray its murderous architect and serve her by supporting her body in its pressing time of need. Then she did it again. And again. Higher and higher she clambered, with each new handhold weathering a fresh assault, the cloths protecting her suffering flurry after flurry of scars yet never yielding an opening to the enemy. But though uninjured, she was not wholly spared from the bitterness of pain. Unable to utilize footholds, she had to rely entirely on the strength of her arms to carry her weight. Chiseled by long years of labor and toil, her body was a capable instrument, one well-maintained and kept in fit condition. Yet the strain, worsened by the burden of her laden pack, was still considerable, squeezing out of her pores beads of sweat that matted the fur of her forehead and covered her fingers, threatening to loosen her grip and send her plunging to the ground below. Though only halfway through the ascent, she found herself drawing breath in short, ragged gasps. In each of her arms, there ignited an aching fire that burned more fiercely with every movement. The insistent pain demanded her full attention, leaving each passing thought blurrier and more difficult to muster. Concentration waned as higher mental faculties seemed to abandon her until she was overtaken by a mindless numbness as she inched forward, a humiliating baseness that mockingly scoffed at the intellect she so prided herself upon, at the foolish delusion that Princess Sally Acorn was anything more than a worthless mound of flesh being pushed to its very real limits. All the while, her senses were unimpaired, senses that continually sent urgent messages past the fires of immolating pain surrounding her mind. These dark tidings warned of marching footsteps growing ever louder, of the coming arrival of evil’s agents, bringers of death armed with terrible devices capable of annihilating her exposed form. Within moments they would be upon her, and all hope would be lost. She would perish. Leaderless, the Freedom Fighters would inevitably be crushed. All that she had ever loved, ever fought for, would be purged into nothingness as her world fell into eternal shadow. Not on my watch. Icy determination filled her veins, quelling the fires of pain as her mind reasserted its dominion over the rebellious shell that housed it. Her pain held no true meaning; it was merely a message, a signal that her body was strained at the moment. That was of no significance, for she had made it through far worse in the past and could therefore endure the current trial. She was uninjured, thus the pain was not indicative of any danger. Just…just a lack of comfort, one that would soon pass. Yes…the pain was meaningless. As she swung an arm upward toward the next opening, her eyes alighted on the tattered yet still resolute fabric guarding her hand. At the reminder of he who had wrapped it, still faithfully watching below, her fears of the oncoming foes were assuaged. They could not threaten her, not while the greatest champion Mobius had borne witness to in a thousand years stood before them undaunted. The peace she had felt earlier, driven to a deep recess within her heart as the climb intensified, reemerged, its warmth filling her once more and melting frozen resolve into life-giving waters that washed away the last vestiges of fear and pain. There occurred at that moment a curious thing. Though evil held sway over so much of the surrounding world, Sally felt a sense of rightness welling up inside her, as though being where she was just then was in accordance with some great plan ordained in the unfathomable reaches beyond the realm of time and space. She realized it was probably nothing, merely an inexplicable errant thought. But still…to think that she, bearer of great responsibility in tumultuous times, was despite all her failings and faults ultimately doing what she should do was comforting. She often wondered what her father would think of what she had become, but as she reached the top of that fence, exhausted, a tiny beacon of defiance in a twisted city of unending night, she knew beyond any shadow of doubt that he would have been proud of her. Really not the time for this, Sally-girl, she reminded herself as, blinking back tears, she swung her lower body up and over the wonderfully smooth top of the fence, rotating so that she was now poised to drop down to the other side. Taking a deep breath, she let go, curling into a ball as best she could and rolling to minimize the impact. It still knocked the wind out of her, and it was all she could do to press herself flat to the ground as she gulped lungfuls of air. She had made it. Not a moment too soon, it seemed. Even as she struggled to steady her breathing, the sound of her gasps, though seeming far too loud as to possess anything so much as remotely resembling the degree of subtlety befitting a covert situation involving the rapid approach of enemies, was suddenly dwarfed by a declaration as lifeless and metallic as the amalgamation of transistors it issued from. “Alert! Target Priority One has been sighted in Robotropolis Sector 7, Quadrant 3! All security units within adjacent sectors are required to assist in capture of tar-GZZZT!” The SWATbot’s words were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass and a burst of static that made Sally’s ears ring and spine tingle. Looking up from where she lay, she saw that the machine was convulsing uncontrollably, a glowing golden band jutting out from its shattered red visor. “Sheesh. You metalheads talk too much,” Sonic quipped as he gracefully danced around the crimson beams of searing lethal energy the five remaining machines began firing toward him from their wrist-mounted cannons. “After all, all talk and no play makes for a dull bot!” A second torrent hurtled at the hedgehog with equally unsuccessful results. “And dull is right. You guys are seriously boring tonight. Let’s fix that.” Weaving through the hail of fiery darts with an ease that Sally still found astonishing even after all these years, Sonic jumped atop one of the steel sentries even as he asked, “How about a game of tag?” Leaning forward, he began mockingly rapping with his fist on the visor of his unwilling mount. “I’ll let you guys figure out who’s ‘It’.” Without hesitation, the four machines not being ridden by a supernaturally agile Freedom Fighter opened fire once more on the hedgehog, only for their target to leap out of the way, leaving the guard he had been atop exposed to the assault. Though most of the bolts sailed harmlessly over the SWATbot’s head, one punched through its visor and clean through the back of its head, leaving a perfectly round hole from which smoke began to pour as the machine toppled to the ground. “Well whadda ya know, that’s correct! Now you’re getting into the spirit!” Sonic cheered, clearly enjoying himself despite the gravity of the situation. As usual. His reckless enthusiasm had often irked Sally, but now it caused her mouth to twinge upward in a small smile. She was still worried, of course. Watching one’s dearest friend come under fire had a tendency of instilling at least some minute degree of anxiety in most individuals, and she was no exception. Yet that fear was kept at bay, confined to a small part of her mind by confidence in his ability and the assurance that he was still following the plan. For all the chaos of Sonic’s actions, they remained within parameters that Sally, having set them herself, understood. Understanding did not quite equate to comfort, but in such situations it was the closest approximation she could reasonably expect to have. Moreover, she had to admit, if only to herself and not anyone else, least of all Sonic himself, that there was something inherently enjoyable about watching him in such moments. Witnessing the destruction of machines that were foremost among the instruments used to overthrow her civilization from within was rather cathartic, naturally, but it seemed that there was more to the sensation welling up within her than grim satisfaction. Joy? Pride? Hope? Perhaps it was a blend of all three that she felt, lying prone and motionless, watching the boundless confidence and exuberance that dwelt within Sonic’s spirit boldly proclaiming themselves in a fallen city that for more than ten long years had been starved of the laughter now flowing from his lips. “But what’s up with this ‘Target Priority One’ stuff?” he was saying, running headlong toward a SWATbot and delivering a jumping kick that, strengthened by the force of his momentum, sent it careening into another. “You guys used to call me ‘Hedgehog Priority One.’ You’re so impersonal these days! After all we’ve been through, I was sure our relationship was better than this.” He was answered by a salvo of bolts stemming from a new direction, where over two dozen recently arrived SWATbots, flanked by a pair of hovercraft, were marching toward him. “Hedgehog, Priority One!” the machines droned as they realigned their aim. “Now that’s more like it!” Sonic grinned. If he was put off in the slightest by the arrival of enemy reinforcements, he did an admirable job of concealing it. Darting through the now far more intense maelstrom, he reached the still convulsing form of the first SWATbot he had neutralized and withdrew the Power Ring lodged in its head. As he did so, the cannon beneath one of the two gunships began to glow with an almost blinding intensity. An instinctual cry of warning welled up in Sally’s throat, yet through sheer agonizing willpower she stayed her tongue. He knows what he’s doing, she tried to reassure herself. Taking action would in all probability accomplish naught save their own deaths. Her trust was rewarded as Sonic darted away an instant before the gunship’s charged blast struck the ground where he had been standing, creating a brilliant explosion that thundered in Sally’s ears and forced her to squeeze her eyes shut. For a split second, the surrounding air rose sharply in temperature and even behind closed lids her eyes began to water. When she opened her eyes a moment later, she found that the paralyzed SWATbot was gone, completely vaporized, while the ground within a two meter radius of the impact had been reduced to a smoldering crater. Sonic himself had been thrown to the ground perilously close to the fence, the Power Ring still clutched in his hand. Though he was on his feet once more in an instant, for the first time since the skirmish had begun the hedgehog looked worse for the wear. His body was caked with soot and sweat, his posture tense and his breathing heavy. Glancing behind him, Sonic must have seen the concern in Sally’s eyes. He winked and offered a grin that still bore the confidence his entire body had been brimming with seconds before. Raising the Power Ring high above his head, he whispered “Love ya, Sal.” I love you. He had spoken those beautiful words to her before, yet each time he breathed them they were welcomed by an opened heart that treasured each precious syllable with the tender care a mother gives her newborn. An observer somehow privy to the innermost chambers of her spirit might have found it odd that she would treat these three words, each worn to the point of being mundane after centuries of frequent use in common parlance, with such emotion. But Sally knew far better than to think them as being within the same spectrum as the ordinary. Individually their radiance was hidden, but together? Together they outshone the stars. Together they formed a discovery of incomparable worth, an epiphany that cast into perfect clarity the answers to innumerable questions she had long been asking in vain without even knowing. Together they made her spirit soar upward in a glowing dance toward the heavens that grew until it seemed to touch everything that was good that had ever existed and ever would exist in all of Creation. Joy, laughter, compassion, and so much more swirled around her as they joined in the resplendent celebration, and with her in the center of it all was love. She yearned for nothing more than to rush toward him, wrapping him in her arms and speaking those same wondrous words to him, at once whispering them in his ear with gentle grace and shouting them from atop the highest mountaintop in the world with utter abandon. And yet she could not. It seemed, in that moment, the most severe transgression ever committed in history that she should be barred from doing so. But, just or not, she was. She had a job to do, and as always duty came before her own desires, however deep they ran. And so she remained silent. She remained silent as the golden glow of the Power Ring Sonic held spread across his entire body, steadying his breathing and easing his posture as it filled his being with strength. She remained silent as the group of mechanized terrors before him opened fire once more, only to find him tearing through their ranks as he hurtled forward, the air behind him thundering with the clap of a sonic boom. And she remained silent as he sped out of sight, leading the entire contingent of foes away so that she might succeed at the task before her. When Sally was certain that the last of the SWATbots were gone, she clambered to her feet, undoing the cloth around her hands as she eyed the structure before her. There was still the matter of the pair of security cameras guarding the door, one on either side of the entrance, but experience had refined her ability to deal with such things down to an art. Mass production may have rendered the cameras all equally efficient, but it also left them all equally predictable. The emplacements in question were of a model that was entirely automated; due to the sheer number of cameras installed throughout the city, only those in high security areas were designed with separate monitoring SWATbots in mind, a setup that, though more thorough, was far more costly. Automated cameras such as these signaled an alarm if tampered with or if heat signatures were detected, the latter feature preventing the various forms of robots from setting off alarms themselves. However, the hardware for the thermal sensor package was rather heavy, limiting the speed at which the cameras could rotate. Though the presence of a second camera with a field of coverage overlapping that of the first helped compensate for this slow rotation rate, it ultimately left brief but very real blind windows that could be exploited. Doing so required preparation, of course, a combination of time, a hidden observation point, and technology that could triangulate the cameras’ fields of vision, but Sally had possessed access to all three whilst waiting atop the adjacent warehouse with Sonic. It was only a matter of pulling it off. She waited until the left camera had completed two-thirds of its outward arc, then, taking a deep breath, sprinted forward, crossing the span of the courtyard in a carefully memorized pattern that left her directly beneath the right camera, a permanent blind spot that allowed her to catch her breath. Once the camera was in the appropriate position, the squirrel quickly shuffled against the wall of the building and reached the door itself. With a full three seconds to spare, Sally deftly entered the keycode she had spied one of the maintenance robots using to gain access and dove into the doorway as the hatch hissed open. Safe for the moment, she turned around and gazed out at the distant surroundings beyond the fence, where she could just make out the flashes of light and echoes of yelled taunts that signified Sonic was still joyously eluding his pursuers, still surviving an assault that would have killed anyone else and doing so while laughing. A single tear drifted slowly down the cheek of the princess as she smiled sadly and whispered, “I love you too, Sonic Hedgehog.” For the thousandth time, Sally wondered how she could possibly ever be worthy of him. He was Sonic Hedgehog. Living legend. Champion of the free peoples of Mobius. Hero entrusted by fate with power that defied comprehension. And she...she was Sally. Leader by right of blood, not of merit. Prisoner to a host of fears and doubts. Tactician whose foolishness had already cost eight courageous men and women everything. With that, the walls around her heart arose once more as doubt set in again, the shared melody keeping it at bay for now nothing but a memory. Still, memory held some measure of power, and after a moment of concentration she was able to rekindle part of the peace she had felt earlier. She was alone in Robotropolis, cut off for the time being from all aid, yet the breath she had drawn while protected by the melody had been a deep one, enough to replenish her spirit for some time. As the entrance hatch slid shut, entombing her in darkness, Sally assured herself that the love she clung to, for Sonic, for Tails, and for her people, would grant her the strength to see this through to the end. It would have to.