Phase One: 'Number Nine'
Darkness. Sally Acorn awoke to the world again, one sense at a time. The chemical stench and the faint taste of blood in her mouth told her she was still alive. The chafing restraints that bound her ankles and wrists to the table she lay on made her question just how fortunate she was. Her hearing returned to her next, the beeps and quiet hum of computers and equipment were all around her, wherever she was. Sally blinked, and the sterile, irritating glow of the lamp above her brought her back to reality.
No, those weren't lamps, they were eyes. The glowing gaze of the strange Mobian that had attacked her was upon her again, with the same curious look from before. He seemed as though he wanted to speak, but before either of them could say anything he walked away and began working with a control console on a nearby wall. Sally strained to be able to pan her head to see him, but there was no need; a large monitor deployed from the ceiling, and the grinning, corpulent visage of Dr. Ivo Robotnik made her situation very clear.
Before he even finished laughing at her, the words 'DR. ROBOTNIK SPEAKING' began flashing at the bottom of the image, a vain and almost comically pompous message that would have made her roll her eyes at him, if she weren't so afraid it would make her already terrible headache any worse. “Well, well. My dear Princess Sally, it is, as usual, good to have you as a guest.”
“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes regardless, involuntarily. “Spare me the gloating, Robotnik. What is all this? How did you even find me?”
“Ah! A picture is worth a thousand words, my dear.” The bald Overlander disappeared from the monitor, replaced with a still image from a security camera robot. It clearly showed part of her foot, retreating around a corner. Robotnik's voice spoke over the image. “One of my camera drones picked up this little bit of footage earlier this afternoon, and there's only one irritating little fur-ball I know of that wears blue boots.”
“Ugh.” The princess sighed in disgust at being found in such an obvious and stupid way. “Sonic is going to-”
“SONIC,” Robotnik's face returned to the monitor as he loudly interrupted. “is not here, princess!” The monitor lowered further, slowly, until it was almost pressed to her nose. “While you have been so covertly observing my troops, I have also been observing yours; most notably your complete lack of them. You are acting alone on your mission, and that means Sonic and your other little friends don't know you've been captured, don't know where you've been taken, and don't know how to rescue you!!” He accented each 'don't' heavily, almost spitting the word at her. “Nine! You know what to do from here. I'll check back in on our little science project later. Good-bye, princess!” The monitor and his sneering face retracted quickly, almost slamming back into the ceiling as it disappeared behind its protective panel.
Sally was alone again, in silence. Alone, save for the strange green fox that now sat at a nearby desk. Periodically, he would input some sort of command at the computer on his desk, and a whirling device would deploy from beneath the table she lay on and bathe her in light as it whirred along a track. He would nod a little or tilt his head, and take a glance at her, then repeat the procedure. Eventually, the silence became too much for her to take. Trying to talk to the strange figure was better than laying there letting it do whatever it was doing. “Can you speak?”
“Yes.” The fox looked up at her, expectantly for a moment.
Sally found herself surprised at the response. It was short, but very polite, rather than terse. His voice wasn't mechanical at all, and he was surprisingly soft-spoken. It begged the next obvious question. “Are you a machine?”
The fox paused briefly, apparently to consider the question and his answer. “Yes. In as much as anyone is. We are all machines, electrochemical in nature.” He stared at her confused expression. “Ah, it is more likely you mean to ask me if I am inorganic, in which case the answer becomes 'no'. I am fully organic.” Another device shone on her as it slid past and the fox's computer beeped. “As are you, according to the scans. That is good; any roboticized limbs or cybernetic implants could have potentially complicated the procedures.” His voice, while it had inflection and changed tones, was noticeably lacking in any emotion. He was very mechanical, despite his claim, but Sally was nonetheless inclined to believe him.
Since he seemed to be her only source of information on her situation, Sally continued to quietly ask him questions. “What is your name?”
“I do not understand your question.”
This response took her aback a bit. “Your... your name.” Sally overcame the pain in her neck and head to turn to look at him better. “What are you called?”
“My designation is 'Nine'.” Nine answered succinctly.
“I... see.” Sally returned to staring at the ceiling. Perhaps volunteering something about herself would make things go a little more smoothly. “... my name is Sally.”
There was a short, awkward pause. “That is incorrect.” Nine finally replied, “Your designation is 'Ten'.
“That is incorrect.” He repeated, exactly the same as before. “Your designation is 'Ten'.
“What are you talking about?” She tried to sit up, momentarily forgetting her restraints, which painfully reminded her of their presence.
“I am talking about your designation.” Nine remained completely unaffected by the conversation, speaking to her as he worked. He showed neither the irritation of someone frustrated with the discussion, or the bemusement of someone playing a confusing joke. He was serious, but calm and quiet, never interrupting his work.
Sally, on the other had, had had enough. “What are you doing?” She demanded.
“Presently, I am discussing your designation with you.” He noted politely. He seemed to sense her growing irritation, and volunteered more information. “Prior to that, I was conducting some basic scans of your body with the aid of the glowing machine you have periodically seen passing by you. I have since concluded the scans.”
It was only then, at the mention of body scans, that Sally took in her surroundings. She was in a lab, but not like the robotics labs she'd seen before. This was clearly a medical facility, and that revelation had very frightening connotations for her. “Why am I here? Why am I restrained?” Nervousness crept into her voice.
“You are here because I brought you here, under orders from Father.” Nine slowly scooted his seat away from the desk and stood, quietly walking to her side as he explained. “As for your restraints, they are in place to prevent you from moving too much during the scans. Since the scans have concluded for the moment, I may remove your restraints, if you wish. Would you like for me to remove them?” He quirked his head to one side, expressionless.
“You want to remove the-” Sally paused. What was wrong with this person? What 'father'? Why was he letting her go, knowing they were enemies? “Yes...” She glanced aside. Why think about it if he was giving her a chance to escape? “Yes, I would like that. Please do.”
Nine pressed the release button on the table's console and immediately, the restraints on the captured ground squirrel's ankles and wrists unlocked and vanished into panels inside the table.
Sally immediately kicked him across the face as hard as she could, hoping to knock him out long enough to flee. Satisfied at his stagger and subsequent slide out of view behind the table, she leapt off it, ignoring the pain in her freed limbs, and was quickly stopped at the locked door of the lab. She quickly tried the first codes that came to mind; old pass-codes that Robotnik had been known to use before, but all were rejected. Remembering seeing Nicole laying on the desk, she turned to recover the computer, only to come face to face with Nine once more, totally unharmed.
“Do you require assistance? The pass-code for this door is eight-five-eight-three.” He made no move against her, no attempt at retaliation and showed no sign of anger at having been kicked in the head moments before.
Shocked at his silent and instant recovery, Sally took a nervous step backwards, bumping into the door. Never taking her eyes off him, the princess felt for the keypad and slowly entered the code. Her eyes went wide at the soft metallic swish of it accepting the code and opening behind her. “Wh... but... Nine?” This would force her to re-evaluate the unnerving Mobian. “Why are you helping me escape?” Her voice was quiet, now, and confused. Could Robotnik be playing a mind game with her? It wasn't his style, why bother?
“Oh.” Nine answered as if the thought had never occurred to him. “Are you attempting to escape? That is against the rules. I am sorry, but Father specifically told me not to allow you to escape. Please refrain from escaping.”
“But...” Sally stopped, trying to understand what was going on. Nothing he said made any sense at all. “All right, let's try it this way. Nine, who is your father?”
“Doctor Julian Ivo Robotnik.”
“Doctor Julian Ivo Robotnik.”
“No, I mean... how is that possible?” Sally's plan of escape moved to the back of her mind. Something was very wrong here, and she still needed to retrieve Nicole before she could leave. “You're a Mobian, right? He's not.”
This prompted perhaps the most animated response she had seen from him. Nine's hands twitched, as if he were going to raise them to gesture, but stopped before he could begin.“Father gave me life. Although he is not biologically my father, he is still responsible for my creation. Therefore, by my definition, he is my father.” After a moment, he volunteered further, “I have no biological father. That is not to say that my biological father no longer exists, but rather that he never existed.”
Sally wasn't speaking to a Mobian after all, she realized. At least not in the conventional sense, if Nine was telling the truth. He was some sort of artificial being. Though this didn't change her caution towards him, it did evoke a sense of pity. Should she help him? Could she if she tried? She had to say something, at least. “Listen to me, Nine.” She pointed back into the room she'd just escaped from. “I need to get my computer from in there, and then I must get out of here. Do you understand? Once I make contact with my friends, we can come back together, and we may be able to help you, okay? But you have to let me leave, Nine.” She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, but thought better of touching him, lest he think she was moving to attack.
“I do not require assistance, Ten. Moreover, as I have said, you are not permitted to escape. If you attempt to do so, I will be required to return you to your restraints.” Though is tone was the least threatening possible, to Sally it was the most intimidating. “Will you comply?”
It was clear he could kill her easily if he had a reason to. He'd been polite so far, and surprisingly accommodating, considering the circumstances and the fact that she'd just kicked him in the face minutes before. Although she was trapped, it was a very permissive prison, and it was better to be able to find an escape route on her own than return to the table. Sally sighed a little, and nodded. “All right Nine. I'll comply. If I'm allowed to walk around the lab, I promise not to leave it, okay?”
“I do not understand. What is 'promise'?” Nine quirked his head at her, brows raised. There was a certain childlike innocence about him.
“A... promise...” Sally bit her lip gently, thinking. “That's a way of swearing that someone is being honest.” Never mind the fact that she wasn't being honest, he didn't need to know that part. “It's like swearing, or vowing that the person will do what they say they'll do. To assure you that they aren't being deceptive.”
“I see.” Nine nodded, satisfied with this explanation. “Are people usually deceptive? It would be more useful to always be honest, would it not? Why is a 'promise' necessitated, then?”
“To show trust.” Sally's heart sank a little, both out of guilt for lying about her promise, and out of the fact that she was standing in a hallway in a frightening medical lab in Robotropolis, bantering with a bizarre Mobian that she knew was working for her sworn enemy. At the same time, there was a certain calming effect in explaining things to him, like teaching a child.
“Interesting. Very well.” Nine nodded in acceptance of her offer. “Although Father specified that you were not to escape, he did not specifically say you were disallowed from walking around. I...” He paused, considering her lesson. “I promise that you will not be restrained. I do request, however, that you do not touch anything you do not understand, as there are some devices in this building that are dangerous and could cause you harm.”
“It's a deal.” Sally smiled faintly at him, happy to at least have some sort of working understanding with him, regardless of anything else. She had negotiated her freedom, even if he didn't realize it. Although sneaking out would likely be impossible without more door codes and a working knowledge of the building, all she had to do was find or assemble some sort of signal device or communicator and she would have a way to let Sonic and the others know what had happened. She still wasn't sure what Robotnik intended to do with her, but if Sonic and the others could help her escape before he had a chance to, it wouldn't matter.
“Are you hungry? I can get you your assigned meal now, if you wish.” Nine offered politely.
Sally considered it. Although she was loathe to eat anything in this creepy, sterile place for fear of it being part of some horrible experiment, her empty stomach was begging her to reconsider. “...Yes, please. I would like that, Nine.” If nothing else, it got him away from her for a few minutes so she could do some snooping.
Snooping was exactly what she did. The moment her curious captor left her sight, she stepped back inside the lab and went straight to the desk, retrieving Nicole and opening the computer. “Nicole...” she whispered. “Can you get a communication signal in here?”
Still in silent mode, the computer displayed a text-based answer.
[Unable to acquire a signal. This facility is either heavily shielded, or something is interfering with the communication in the area, possibly both. I am able to use wireless access to the computer beside me to download some basic information on the building, however. It appears to be very high-security, although the immediate area around this room is relatively benign. Sneaking out will prove highly improbable.]
“Is there anywhere I could tie you in to the communication network at?”
[To attempt to 'piggyback' a signal out of the building? No, unfortunately. All communications to this building appear to be run from a direct wire connection to a neighboring structure, most likely to prevent exactly that.]
“Any ideas at all on how we can get out of here?”
[Your guess is as good as mine, Sally.] A small avatar of Nicole appeared on the screen, shrugging momentarily with a large question mark floating over it's head.
Indeed, there was one very helpful thing that just might be useful in escaping. “Nine...” Sally whispered, nodding as the realization dawned on her.
“Yes?” The emotionless, quiet voice of the bizarre green Mobian responded, right behind her.
Sally let out a stifled scream in surprise, and fluidly flipped Nicole shut on the desk as she turned to face him. “You... how did...” A few deep breaths calmed her down. “You... don't make a sound at all when you walk, do you?”
“No. I was designed not to.” He offered her a steaming tray of some unidentifiable meat and mashed vegetables with a fork sticking out of them. “Here is your meal.”
“Oh, that's right.” She'd almost forgotten in the moment, but the sight of food quickly reminded her what pretense she'd sent him off under. “Thank you, Nine. May I sit at your desk and eat?” She accepted the tray of food.
“You are welcome, and yes, you may.” Nine pulled out the desk chair for her. “Please, take your time. You may rest after your meal, until tomorrow.”
Sally took the first bite of her food; if this was what Robotnik ate every day, it was no wonder he was so irritated all the time. She ate it all the same. “Tell me more about yourself. I understand you're... different from me, but how, and why?”
“I am an artificial being, genetically engineered by Father to serve as a soldier. I will eventually be used in situations where a machine would be ineffective or undesirable, once I have proven myself to be stable.” He answered every question in his polite, but emotionless and factual manner.
It made a little more sense now, Sally reasoned. He was certainly capable of being a fearsome opponent, even if it wasn't Robotnik's usual style. He must have found some research from the Great War, when Mobotropolis was a hub of desperate research to develop ways to improve their chances of victory. Genetic engineering wouldn't have been out of the question, she guessed. “What do you mean about 'proving yourself stable?”
“I am the ninth in a series of experiments. My previous eight brothers gradually became mentally unstable and went berserk. They were terminated. I have been active the longest of any at almost one month, now, and I have showed no sign of the instability.”
“You're only a month old?” Sally was too hungry to interrupt her meal, but the story was as strange as it was intriguing, and she wanted him to explain more.
“Yes, chronologically speaking. I do not age in the same way that you do, however. I was created much as I am now, and will remain this way until I am terminated. You will be the first natural being to undergo this same genetic augmentation, but I am fully versed in the process that created me and I foresee no complications for you.
“...wait, hold on, what 'augmentation'?” Sally dropped her fork with a loud metallic clang. Robotnik's mention of a 'science project' suddenly entered her mind, and a feeling of dread washed over her. She wasn't hungry anymore.
“That is the nature of your presence here, Ten.” Nine addressed her as 'Ten' once more, a name the princess now understood with horror. “You are to be augmented and utilized to terminate one 'hedgehog', according to Father. He believes you would make an ideal choice against this individual, for reasons I do not understand.”
“No!” Sally dismissed the notion of subtlety and escape plans in light of this, she had to run. That is, if she could get out of her chair. Her limbs felt weighted and the room was beginning to spin. “No... you can't do... wh... what have you done to me...?” Her vision was fading to blackness.
Nine's calm voice echoed in her head as she strained to stay awake. “I added a sedative to your meal. You were visibly agitated, and would have had difficulty sleeping. Maintaining a proper amount of rest is essential to the experiment, and-”
Sally heard no more. Her too-heavy head hit the desk and she faded into unconsciousness for the second time that day.