Chapter 4: The Leader of TORNADO
While the residential district of the Sector 7 Slums was small, it was the local bar and grille within that made it one of the most popular destinations in the lower world of Megapolis. Scores of Mobians and Humans living in the slums would make their way to this place of respite after a long, exhausting day full of menial work.
The building was a medium-sized, two-storey brick complex with walnut-brown wood panelling on its sides and the roof. Its construction made the building distinctive amongst the shoddy built and crumbling structures and corrugated metal shelters that dotted the district. The entrance consisted of two wooden double-hinged saloon doors, with a metal shutter behind them barring access into the bar proper during closing hours. The front facade of the restaurant was brightly lit from the glowing neon sign just above the entrance. It read “Vanilla’s Haven.”
This simple bar nestled in the pockets of the slum was made famous for two things: the delicious, mouth-watering food and drink and the gorgeous, big-hearted, optimistic and gentle barmaid serving them up.
That very same barmaid was leading her old childhood friend away from the busy streets and through an alleyway between her bar and a neighbouring house towards the establishment’s rear entrance.
Clutching the paper bag tightly, Cream felt skittish as she glanced to and fro, her eyes and senses alert for any sort of movement. Her nerves were frazzled, as her impromptu meeting with Miles – Tails as he now called himself – threw her off schedule. She now had to race to get everything set up for the opening dinner rush, while at the same time sneaking Tails in and keeping him hidden until the time was right.
As they found themselves in front of a steel door with a pair of locks at the rear end of the bar, Tails called out to her. “You okay?” he asked.
Cream jumped and nearly dropped the bag of sundries at the sound of the fox’s roughened voice. Her reflexes – honed through years of martial arts training – kicked in and she steadied herself before anything fell out of the bag. “Y-Yeah,” she replied, twisting back to look at him. “I’m just… a bit behind, that’s all.” She turned back to the door, shifted the large brown bag to her other arm and fished through her jacket pocket for the keys.
‘I have to make sure Miles – I mean Tails – is out of the way until after today’s rush,’ she planned as she produced the keys from her pocket. Her nose wrinkled at the thought of his friend’s preferred name. ‘Once things die down, I’ll bring him down, introduce him to the team, tell them his story and mention how he’s interested in working with us. Hopefully, that’ll be enough to convince them…’ She picked out a key from the keyring and inserted it into the first lock. As she twisted it and heard the tumblers fall into place, her mind continued to wander. ‘I just hope that Bark hasn’t spotted me –‘
“Hey! Cream!” A deep, rough voice boomed out, once again startling the rabbit. It came from the entrance to the alleyway. “Are you back there?”
Ice filled Cream’s veins and she almost dropped the grocery bag. “Oh no…” she muttered, as she looked at Tails with pinched eyebrows. The fox produced a perplexed stare in return.
Letting out a frustrated breath, she called out to the voice. “Yeah Bark! It’s me!” she hollered, praying to the Goddess that he didn’t notice her companion.
“Oh, OK,” she heard in response. Relief swam through the rabbit’s body, but it was only temporary as the voice returned. “Hey, waitaminute! I saw some guy following you to the back just now! And why’re you going in through there anyway? Also, you’re running late and, from the day I met you years ago, you’ve always been an on-schedule kinda girl, so what’s going on?”
‘Oh crud,’ her mind raced as she began to panic. ‘He noticed.’ “Um, well Bark?” she replied sheepishly. “Um… W-well… The thing is… It’s a bit… Um… Complicated?”
“What the hell?” she heard him grumble loudly. “OK, now you got me curious, I’m coming over there!”
Cream’s eyes widened as she heard footsteps lumbering towards her. She fumbled with the second lock, shakily selecting and inserting the key before unlocking the door. Before she could open it and usher Tails in, ‘Bark’ arrived.
He was a massive polar bear with coarse, yellow-white fur. He wore a worn, brown leather vest which was opened up to expose his broad, barrel chest. On his legs were baggy, green war fatigue trousers covered with pockets of all shapes and sizes and jet-black combat boots on his large feet. Covering his waist and the abdominal area was a large steel band that had ribbons of ammunition wrapped around it. His left hand, which could easily cover the rabbit’s face with, was covered with a simple, fingerless leather glove. His right arm, from the elbow down, was missing and was replaced with an unusual prosthetic; a stout, metallic cylindrical weapon with six, snub-nosed barrels. This Gun-Arm was directly fused to his arm and connected to his nervous system, which allowed him to fire on command via his synapses. The ammunition wrapped around the metal band on his waist fed into the peculiar weapon.
His piercing, reddish-brown eyes swept the scene in front of him, his eyebrows knitted in confusion. He readjusted the reversed red and white ball cap on his head and rubbed his snout as he addressed the rabbit. “Cream, what the hell is goin’ on here?” he asked, perplexed. “You’re running late, your jacket buttons are ripped off and to top it all off, you bring home some weird stranger? Who is this guy anyway?” he gestured towards the two-tailed fox.
Cream stifled an exasperated groan. ‘Of all the days that this had to happen, it had to be the one where I ran out of greens for tonight’s special…’ “Well,” she began casually, clearing her throat and sweeping a stray strand of ivory hair away from her face, “Some creep was following me home from Sector 6 and was looking to try something. So, I lured him into an alleyway and made him rethink his current life choices.” She glanced at Tails, before continuing her story. “And then, by a strange coincidence, I ran into one of my oldest friends from back in my village. Seeing an opportunity to catch up, I brought him back here to chat while I get things ready.”Mentally, she added, ‘I was going to introduce you to him later tonight when things got less busy, but…’
Cream watched the expression on the bear’s muzzle shift from suspicious to curious as she spoke. Feeling brave and hoping that Bark wouldn’t cause too much trouble, she continued. “Bark, this is Mi – Um, Tails and he works as a mercenary. I was gonna-”
Bark’s eyebrows shot up at the mention of his title. Eyeing the smaller Mobian, he sniggered and then suddenly burst out laughing, cutting Cream off. “A merc?” he blurted out in between gruff chuckles. “Him? Ah hah hah, that’s a good one Cream!” He turned his back to the fox, who was glowering dangerously at the one-armed bear.
“I mean, look at him, even the SWORD’S bigger than he is!” he howled mirthfully, tears streaming from his eyes. After a while, he calmed down, straightened up and grinned at the rabbit. “Look, seriously speaking, I refuse to believe that this kid’s a mercenary-“
Cream brought a hand to her lips as she saw sharp, cold steel rest against the bear’s throat. She hadn’t even seen Tails move. ‘Twenty minutes ago, he could barely walk… and now… he’s swinging that thing like he’s done so his entire life…’
Bark gazed downwards to see the broad edge of Tails’ impossibly large sword lightly touching his neck. Bark tried not to gulp as he felt the edge against his jugular. One twitch and his head would have flown off.
“Finish that sentence,” Tails dared the larger Mobian in a quiet, commanding tone, glowing eyes glaring menacingly at the bear. Despite his visible exhaustion, he held the blade levelly and without so much as a tremor.
Seeing that things were about to escalate, Cream crept up and tentatively extended her hand towards Tails. She placed it gently on his shoulder and looked placatingly at him. “Tails, please stop?” she implored.
The two-tailed fox cast a sidelong glance to his old friend, snorted and then eased off. He moved the blade away from the polar bear’s neck and sheathed it in a single motion. He then crossed his arms and glared at the offending polar bear.
“Hmph, you’re pretty good, aren’t you,” Bark said coldly, rubbing his throat where the sword had been against previously. “But then again, it’s not every day that a member of Kintobor’s special police force poses as a mercenary to infiltrate my group!” He jumped back and pointed his Gun-Arm at the fox, who, again, unsheathed his blade and settled into a fighting stance.”There’s no way I’ll let you live to tell your SOLDIER buddies ‘bout us back at Kintobor! And Cream, how could you do this to us?” he glanced incredulously to the rabbit beside him, who returned a bewildered look as a response. “How could you let the enemy into our base?! Ah, never mind that! I’ll take care of him and then you and I are gonna have a chat!” Turning his head back towards the fox, he pointed his gun-arm at him.
‘No, no! This isn’t how this was supposed to go!’ Cream thought, watching the bear tense his arm muscles, as though he was squeezing a ball in his non-existent paw. Without a second thought, she stepped in between them. “STOP IT!” she shouted, bringing her arms up between the two in an attempt to stop them from fighting.
Bark yelled in surprise and pointed his arm away from Cream towards a pile of trash on the wall opposite the bar’s back entrance. His arm still tensed, bullets spewed out from the weapon at a rapid rate, the cylindrical portion rotating with each shot fired. The shots tore through the refuse, shredding it into pieces and leaving smoking holes in the wall behind it. A second later, the gunner relaxed and the flow of bullets stopped. He turned his head towards the rabbit in fury.
“WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “I could have shot you just now! Are you out of your mi-”
“No, YOU’RE out of your mind!” Cream cut in, equally angry at the polar bear’s declarations. “Do you honestly think I’d bring Kintobor to our base of operations, which, for your information, is also MY home?! Which I’ve had the good grace to let you stay in, by the way? You seriously have some nerve! And one other thing you should know too,” she then jabbed a finger towards Tails. “HE left the army five years ago when they burnt down our hometown! He wants nothing to do with them any more than we do!” She then fell silent for a moment and took deep breaths to calm herself down. She then felt a stab of guilt course through her insides, which she attributed to the thought of her old home.
“I’ve already told him the gist of what we do and he’s agreed to listen to us.” Cream continued to Bark, her voice calm, but with a hint of annoyance in her tone. “I was going to talk to you later tonight after the rush, introduced you to him, explained his circumstances and everything, but…” She blew out a frustrated breath and put a thumb and two fingers to her temples. “I… I screwed up on that front, OK?”
The polar bear’s hardened gaze faltered at her words. Cream knew that if it was anyone else speaking to him, he would have ignored them, shoved them aside and resumed fighting. However, she also knew that Bark trusted her level head and sharp intuition far more than any other in his group. He wouldn’t be able to ignore what she said, especially given the severity of the upcoming mission.
His eyes moving to Tails, Bark stared at the former SOLDIER for a few more beats, until he snorted and lowered his weapon. “Fine, he can stay,” he said harshly to the rabbit while keeping the fox in his line of vision. “If he’s your ‘friend’ like you say, then I ain’t got no problems. But listen, you,” he spat at the fox, his teeth bared in dislike. “If you make any moves that expose you for the traitorous son of a bitch that you are, I’ll do that -” he pointed to the destroyed heap of garbage. “- To you. Are we clear?”
Tails returned the glare, his namesakes rising in a threatening manner. “Crystal,” he replied acidly. The fox then wrapped his tails around his waist and placed the sword on the disc attached to his back.
After a few moments of tense silence, the one-armed Mobian jerked his head, indicating for the SOLDIER to get out of here.
Sighing in relief that the fighting was over and done with, Cream called out to Tails. “Go up the stairwell on the left and head for the room down the hallway,” she said. “ I’ll bring something up for you to eat, you look like you haven’t had anything for days. There’s also a bed in there for you to sleep on. You should get some rest after you eat.”
Tails looked at her, his piercing gaze softening slightly as a form of acknowledgement and then made his way to the bar’s rear entrance.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Cream added just as Tails opened the door. “Once the evening rush is over and we close up shop, we’ll start talking about the job and your payment.” The words left a bitter taste in her mouth as she said them. She then looked at Bark, addressing him sharply. “By the way, when’s the mission starting?”
Bark was taken aback by her cutting tone but recovered quickly. “Well, phase one has just commenced, so in three weeks, we’ll make our move,” he replied, training his eyes on Cream instead of the former SOLDIER.
Tails looked at his would-be employer. “Fine,” he replied without expression, walking inside and upstairs as directed.
As soon as her friend entered the bar, Cream rounded on her teammate. “Bark, what the heck-,” she started, but stopped when the bear raised his hand, motioning her to stay silent.
“Hold on,” he whispered. “Wait a moment.”
After a few minutes, he dropped his arm and faced her, a sigh of relief escaping from his snout. “I once heard a rumour that SOLDIERS have some sorta heightened hearing or whatever,” he said, his voice still in a hushed tone. “So, keep your voice down.” He then removed his cap and ran his only hand through the thick forest of yellow-white hair underneath it before placing it back on his head. He let out a deep sigh. “Now, what are we gonna do about this?” he grumbled. “I still can’t believe you brought him… Gah, this is all screwed up.”
“Bark,” Cream started, fingers pinching the bridge between her tightly shut eyes. She felt the beginnings of a headache drum through her forehead. “I know this looks bad, but,” she opened her eyes and looked into the bear’s reddish-brown orbs. “If you’re serious about going through with this, I’d feel more comfortable knowing that he’s got your back, as well as the others. Think about it: he’ll be a great asset to the mission since he’s worked with them before and all. Plus, you saw how good he is for yourself, didn’t you?”
Bark rubbed the spot on his neck where the shorter warrior’s blade once laid. “Yeah okay, I admit he’s good,” he responded grudgingly. “But, c’mon Cream, are you really sure you can trust him? Considering…” he trailed off, his eyes trained not at her face but her ear.
“Of course!” She hissed hotly, knowing what he was talking about. “You think my memory’s messed up that bad?!”
“No, no, It’s… That’s not what I mean,” the bear stumbled, arms raised in a placating manner. “I’m… I’m just worried about you, that’s all. But seriously though, he’s-he’s pretty damn good. I have to agree with you on that.”
“Right,” Cream continued, flashing a small, but brightening smile, thankful for the change in subject. “See, if we’re going to take down Kintobor and save Mobius, he’s our best bet to do so. Please, won’t you at least consider that angle when talking to him tonight?”
Bark listened to her words, processing them carefully and then let out a weary groan. “Fine, you win, I’ll consider it,” he conceded. “We’ll talk more about this after closing. I’ll head to the front and open up for ya.” At that, he started walking away towards the bar’s front entrance. He stopped at the mouth of the alleyway and turned around, a sheepish look on his muzzle. “Um, hey Cream?” he said, hesitating, his eyes downcast. “I’m… Well, I’m…”
The rabbit fighter shook her head. “Bark, it’s OK,” she replied, smiling once again. “I forgive you.”
Bark returned the grin. “Well then, you better get going, you got a bar to open, don’t cha?” he responded, turning back around and bounding down the alleyway to the front.
Satisfied, Cream took up her groceries and entered the bar. As she closed the door and looked up the stairwell, she swore she could see wisps of white and orange fur escaping her vision from the doorway on the second level. Her hand automatically rose to the back of her head, her finger tracing a jagged scar underneath her hair that went from the bottom of her right ear to the base of her skull as she realized what had just happened.
‘He heard it all.’
Tails awoke to the sounds of a gentle rapping on the door in the room he was sleeping in. “Tails?” came Cream’s voice from the other side. “Sorry to wake you, but could you please come downstairs? I’ve closed up shop. We’re ready to talk.”
“Sure, I’ll be there in a bit,” he groaned. Hearing her walk away, he lay in the dark space and stared at the ceiling above.
“Man, I sure lucked out,” he whispered to himself, the beginnings of a half-smile forming on his muzzle. “A place to stay and an upcoming job… Well, I better not keep my would-be employers waiting.”
He sat up on the hard mattress and stretched, feeling better than he had in years. He felt the strength course through his body as he flexed his fingers and the muscles on his arms. He sensed that he had somewhat of a basic handle on his acute senses, given how he was able to both listen in on Cream and Bark’s conversation earlier in the afternoon and tune out the loud, raucous crowd below while he slept. He stood up and turned on the lamp on the nightstand, shielding his eyes from the sudden burst of warm light that flooded the room. After waiting for his eyes to adjust, he pulled on the pauldron and his arm guard and then picked up his sword.
The green gems nestled into the hexagonal slots shone in the dim, yellow light in the room and caught the fox’s eye. Holding the sword aloft, he stared at the Emeralds as a fuzzy memory bubbled to the surface.
He vaguely remembered sitting at a desk in a room similar to the one he was in right now, pouring over several textbooks and writing notes on a legal pad. Someone from behind chuckled, which caused him to jump out of his seat.
“Still studying? Jeez, Tails, like you don’t know enough about Emeralds as it is!” the figure behind him chortled, its voice a ghostly echo in his mind. “Tell ya what though; instead of pouring over the books, why not show me what you can do?”
Tails blinked rapidly as his mind returned to the present moment. “‘Show me… what you can do?’ Hmph…” the fox mused to himself over the memory. “Come to think of it… I haven’t even tried using magic yet…”
Deciding that Cream and Bark could wait a few more moments, Tails placed a hand on one of the Green Emeralds equipped onto the sword. He felt a surge of knowledge shoot through his body and into his brain when his palm made contact. It instructed him how to bring the magic into being. Removing his palm, he drew forth the energy from the Emerald and began to shape it with his Mana – the current of internal spiritual energy that exists and flows within all living things. He cupped his palm upwards and concentrated until a small orb of yellow-white light formed right in front of his eyes, further illuminating the room. The orb crackled and popped with electrical energy.
A sudden creak caused the fox to jerk his head towards the door in front of him, which opened a crack. The orb in his hand fluctuated in size as his attention shifted to the figure staring at him through the narrow opening. A single, baby-blue eye and strands of flaxen-yellow hair peeked out at the fox, who locked his electric blue at it. The figure squeaked, backed away and ran off. Tails could hear the pitter-patter of feet clamber down the stairs and into the bar proper. The fox suppressed a sigh as he closed his fist. The Lightning spell dissipated and he reabsorbed the Mana into his body. ‘Guess I should head down now,’ he thought, sheathing his weapon and striding down the hall and the stairs down to the main level.
The atmosphere inside of the bar was cozy and warm. With the booths, tables and stools placed around the floor there appeared to be seating available for up to fifty at a time. Tails guessed that the number of patrons in the bar greatly exceeded that capacity daily. The bar area consisted of a simple L-shaped ash countertop with a roughened finish and was complete with a flip-up portion at the end. Behind the counter were shelves stocked up with copious amounts of alcohol whose origins spanned the many regions of Mobius. A swivel door at the far end of the counter, opposite of the flip-up portion, led to the kitchen.
Sitting at one of the round tables were Bark and Cream. The polar bear wore an expression of distaste on his face while the fighter sat upright with her hands in her lap, her expression neutral and businesslike. Hidden behind the massive bear was a small human child wearing a sky blue dress with pale skin, bright blue eyes and golden hair; the very same child that spied him using magic. She buried her head deeper into Bark’s back at the sight of Tails, which the bear noticed. His upper lip curled up into a snarl. “You scarin’ my little cub?” he asked venomously.
Cream tapped Bark’s shoulder. “Bark! Be nice!” she admonished, glaring at him before turning her attention to Tails. “Sorry about that, he’s really overprotective of his daughter. That’s Hope by the way.” She angled over her seat to speak to the little girl, smiling warmly at her. “Hope, this is my friend Tails. Your daddy and I were hoping he could help us out with a little job.”
“Yeah,” Bark added. Though his tone softened when addressing his daughter, his eyes still glared daggers at the ex-SOLDIER. “This won’t take long, little one. Head back to your room and I’ll come read you a story.”
The girl tentatively circled her father to face him. She looked up at his face with big, expressive eyes. “You promise?” she asked softly.
“Uh-huh,” Bark replied, nodding. His eyes still never left Tails. “Now, get goin’”
Giving the fox a wide berth, the human girl travelled up the stairs to her room. Once they heard the door close with an audible click, Bark started to speak.
“Listen up, cuz I ain’t gonna repeat myself,” he started, folding his arms and reclining back on the chair. “Cream’s filled you in on the basics, but here’s the real deal: We’re an anti-Kintobor group known as TORNADO. I’m its leader and Cream here is second in command. There are three others; you’ll meet ‘em later, should you take this job. Our mission is to sabotage operations of the Energen Reactors and RINGTEK Manufacturing Plants that keep Megapolis powered up at the expense of Mobius’ life. You know about those, right?”
Tails scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I used to work for them, so I know what they are and what they do,” he said.
“And that’s why we want to bring you in,” Cream chimed in. She leaned forward, placed her elbows on the table and steepled her fingers together. “Your knowledge about the company’s major assets and your strength would be a huge asset to this mission. As we discussed before, the first phase has already started. The main ordeal will commence in three weeks, which gives you plenty of opportunities to prepare and assess what’s to come.”
“So, now that you know the details, what do you say?” Bark questioned, leaning forwards. “Are you interested in sticking it to Kintobor?”
Tails made a show of considering their request, but he already made his decision when he awoke. He sauntered forward and pulled up a chair. Unsheathing his sword and leaning it against the table, he sat down and faced the two TORNADO members. “Yeah, I’m interested,” he answered with cool indifference. “So, let’s talk business…”