Chapter 5: Prelude
Three weeks later…
Silver and gold particles floated up from a broken Energen bypass pipe in one of the backstreet alleyways on the Sector 8 plate. The glowing material illuminated the figure of a green-haired flower girl with red blossoms on her head. She was staring deeply at the pipe fissure and watching the wisps float upwards and disperse into the air as nothingness.
As the flecks of white and yellow intermingled with each other, swirling about her like fireflies in the night sky, she could gradually hear a sound emanating directly from the particles themself. They were screams of agony, pain and suffering. It was as if a collective voice was crying out for any sort of release from the torment that they endured at that very moment. Though it started as nothing but a whisper to her, the longer she stood there, staring at the pipe, the more intense the screams became.
Knitting her brows, the woman placed her pale hand close to the pipe, almost touching it. The particles danced and curled around her splayed fingers in what looked to her like an embrace.
“Hey,” she whispered in soothing tones, not wanting to be overheard lest she be deemed crazy. “I’m back. Sorry I haven’t been this way for a while. I’ve… been avoiding you all for the last few weeks.” She paused, thinking about the moment back in the Sector 5 church. “But I’m here now and I’m ready. So long as the agreement stands – meaning I’ll listen and be present and you all don’t show me any weird things – then we’re good.”
She kneeled into a more comfortable position and continued to watch the sparks float about. After a few moments, she felt that she was ready to dive in. She closed her eyes and let her mind drift off as the wails echoed around her. She wasn’t worried that anyone else could hear the screams, for she knew for certain that she was the only one who could hear them. Nevertheless, the flower girl kept herself alert throughout her meditation, in case anyone unexpectedly tried to sneak up to her.
As she meditated and listened to the pained, collective voices, the image of the orange-furred Mobian with two tails kept appearing in her mind. The flower girl attempted to will the subject of her visions out of her mind, but it stayed in perpetuity, much to her annoyance. She instinctively rubbed the spot where the root entered her finger back in the church. ‘It’s been weeks since that day,‘ she thought distractedly, her brows furrowed into a scowl. ‘I’ve had visions like this one before, but never one so invasive.’
Amid her musings, the anguished cries emanating from the fissured metal in front of her had suddenly gone silent. Startled, the flower girl’s eyes flew open. In front of her, the particles stopped floating upwards and were suspended in front of her face. She suddenly heard a booming echo of a voice inside her head.
“COSMO,” it called out her name, sounding like the amalgamation of hundreds of thousands of different voices.
Cosmo’s eyes widened into saucers at the sight in front of her. The particulate matter then started to swirl and twist around her. Some bonded together to form words, symbols and even images, all of which were instructing her on things that she was unable to comprehend. As the matter danced around her, she felt her whole body quake. A cold chill crept down her back and though she wanted to free herself and move away, she felt paralyzed by the light show in front of her.
The wisps swirled around her faster and faster until finally they stopped in a burst of light and began floating upwards once again. Cosmo found herself able to move as she gulped lungfuls of air amid the sounds of screaming that returned to her ears. It was as if the events that had transpired moments ago had never happened.
The green-haired flower girl scrambled away from the pipe to the wall opposite it. Leaning against the cool brick and panting softly, she placed a clammy palm over her face, closed her eyes and processed what she saw. The image of the individual she saw in the previous vision – a two-tailed fox, she realized – was burned onto her retinas. On his back was a large weapon that looked strangely familiar. Several other figures surrounded him, though they were all hidden in shadow. One of the figures loomed above the rest. Its cruel and sickly green eyes were illuminated against its spectral form and looked right at her.
A flash of white light enveloped the image and caused Cosmo’s eyes to snap open. No shadows were in front of her, but only the pipe which had shown her the new visions. ‘They’re becoming stronger… More vivid… What does this all mean?’ she wondered fervently as she picked herself up from the ground.
As she dusted off her skirt, she contemplated leaving the sector, going back home and hiding under the covers of her bed until everything blew over. Before she could act on that impulse, she felt the locket bump up against her chest as she straightened up. The feeling of the cool metal against her skin, combined with the nauseous feeling she had in her stomach, triggered yet another memory.
“Listen, Stargirl-” the corners of Cosmo’s mouth turned upward sadly at the reminder of the endearing nickname. “- I-I don’t think you should be running away from these visions. No, I think now is the time that you should face them, head on y’know? That’s what I would do.”
She remembered that moment well: it was the last time that she saw her ex-boyfriend. They were in the middle of a heated argument at the church about her visions. He was the only person she had ever confided in about them. Cosmo wanted nothing to do with them and yet he tried in vain to convince her to see where they lead. Angrily, she told him to leave and he did just that… and never came back. That was five years ago.
Cosmo looked back at the leaking pipe, her hand clutching the pendant at her neck as she relived the painful moment. The silver and gold particles gently floated upwards. After a few moments of staring and thinking, she let out a long, dejected sigh. “Alright,” she conceded begrudgingly, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Alright Spikes, you win. I’ll see where these visions lead… No more running, I suppose.”
Decision made, she walked back to the pipe and picked up the worn, woven basket full of fresh, cut flowers that she had brought with her. Walking away from the pipe, she turned a corner and emerged out of the alleyway and into the entertainment district of Sector 8.
It was the busiest area of Megapolis, consisting of numerous nightclubs, bars, shopping malls and specialty stores. On the left side where Cosmo emerged was the Sector’s biggest draw; a massive, elegant theatre showcasing award-winning plays. The flower girl put a smile on her face and made sure that her hair blossoms were opened extra wide as the doors leading into the theatre opened up and released the latest crowd for the city’s enduring classical love story: “Look-a-Like.”
She watched as a particularly large throng of Mobians and Humans meandered in her direction. Many of them were couples, her favourite kind of customers. Cajoling them to buy flowers for their loved ones was one of the many things that made selling the flowers she grew worthwhile to her.
Cosmo beamed brilliantly at a middle-aged Human couple that she accosted. As she plied her trade, to the dismay of the older gentlemen, she dimly noted that the place she stood was, in fact, the first part of the omen she had seen moments ago. Reminding herself to uphold the promise she made to herself and Spikes, she stayed and waited for the inevitable to happen.
Wind ruffling through his fur as the passenger train he crouched on sped towards the Sector 1 station, Miles “Tails” Prower, Ex-SOLDIER turned mercenary for hire, reviewed the details of his first big gig in his mind: To aid in the destruction of Energen Reactor and RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant #1.
In the three weeks since Cream brought him to live at her bar, Tails had used the opportunity to rest. Once he recovered, he started doing the odd job here and there for the residents of the Sector 7 Slums as a mercenary, which helped him both regain his fighting form and increase his reputation. Whether it was taking care of invading Mutates, prowling Robians or even helping the locals with their problems, the fox felt both his strength and confidence grow with each passing day. Now, he felt more than ready for whatever obstacles lay ahead of him.
To his left and right, Tails could only see glimpses of industrial scenery as the train they were on sped towards its final destination. Craning his neck forward and fighting the wind resistance, he looked ahead to see Bark crouching down on the next car ahead of him, the dim, intermittent lighting obscuring his features.
Feeling that he was being watched, the bear’s head turned sharply behind him, his reddish-brown eyes glaring darkly at the fox. Tails met his gaze for a few beats before the other Mobian turned back around. Shrugging to himself, Tails looked back at the passing scenery. ‘Just because he hired me on doesn’t mean I have to like him,’ he thought to himself.
“Attention, attention. The train to Sector 1 – Energen Reactor & RINGTEK Processing Plant – has arrived at its final destination. All passengers please gather your belongings before exiting the cars. Thank you for riding the Megapolis Railway System, brought to you by Kintobor Incorporated. The time now is 11:00 pm, Megapolis Standard Time.”
The automated intercom voice caused Tails to snap out of his reprieve as Bark started yelling out orders to his three subordinates.
“Alright guys, this is it,” the polar bear roared, his voice almost drowned out by the rushing wind. “When security notices no one coming out of the train cars, take them out and head for the reactor entrance across the street. Security should be pretty lax tonight thanks to our efforts over the last few weeks, so let’s not waste this opportunity!”
The two security personnel on the platform, a grey feline and a Human, stood near the platform edge, bored out of their minds as the last train arrived at the station, signalling the end of their shift. Each wore the standard Kintobor Army Security Force uniform: Blue jumpsuits with protective coverings around the vital organs to reduce fatal injuries, polished black steel-toed boots and a belt holding a twenty-inch baton and a 9mm sidearm. On hand was a standard-issue military-grade semi-automatic rifle. A helmet equipped with a visor to protect the eyes completed the look. On the shoulders, they wore a patch with the letters KI in stylized typography.
The train’s automated systems activated the braking mechanisms upon entry to the station. The feline turned to the Human next to him. “Hey Jim,” the Mobian spoke up as the train came to a complete stop at the wall denoting the end of the line, the engine hissing loudly. “You hear anything new about the labour strike that’s been happening these last few weeks?”
“Naw Sam, nothing new. It’s a shitshow right now,” Jim responded as the doors slid open to let out passengers. “It sucks that we have to be here as part of the skeleton crew mandated in our collective bargaining agreement…” The human huffed loudly and rolled his shoulders. “…Know what, screw this; let’s go gather the other guys and go for drinks after the usuals come out, my treat. No need for us to be here any longer than we need to be, eh?”
“If you’re sure, buddy,” Sam the guard responded, smiling. “Hopefully you have enough cash on hand, seeing as we still haven’t been paid yet.” He turned his head towards the doors, expecting the few, familiar workers heading for the Reactor to exit the train as they do at this time every night.
However, no one came out.
Puzzled, Sam drew his baton and walked inside the car slowly to investigate, while Jim stayed outside, rifle raised and cocked. “See anything?” the Human called out.
“Negative, it’s just empty,” the Mobian responded. “Which is weird, why – what the! Hey, you! ACK!”
“Sam, Sam! What’s going on!?” Jim cried, pointing the rifle at the car entrance. Suddenly he watched as his partner was thrown out of the car, landing hard on the platform, unconscious. Arms shaking, Jim made his way to the car. “You in the car! Come out with your hands up!” he shouted.
Before he could make it to the entrance, a woman rushed out from her hiding spot between the engine and the first car and promptly delivered a hard kick to the guard’s side. Taken by surprise, he fell to the floor, dropping his rifle as he did so. He scrambled around for his radio, flicking the switch to turn it on when a black boot descended on his head, knocking him out.
The owner of the boot, a raven-haired man dressed in an olive drab tank top, black cargo pants and combat boots waltzed forward into the light of the train platform. Tugging at the red bandanna around his head, his brown eyes swept around the platform, landing on the woman next to him. “Nice kick, Jessie,” he whistled, voice full of mirth.
The brunette tucked a stray strand of wavy hair back and away from her pale face. She wore a blue, short-sleeved shirt with a set of steel mail covering her torso and shoulders and blue jeans. On her feet were brown, leather-covered steel-toed boots and on her back was a large satchel containing instruments used for hacking, additional ammunition, healing items and the bombs she designed specifically for the reactor. She too wore a headband similar to her teammate. “Thanks, Biggs,” she responded, her hazel eyes brightening as she gave him a small smile.
Turning away from him, she called out, “Alright! I think we’re good!”
A shorter, portly man appeared from the same car where Biggs exited. He wore a red bandanna, a faded, mustard-coloured shirt and blue overalls with red, plated boots. Clutching a stitch in his chest he panted, out of breath. “Phew… I’m glad that’s all over,” he said in a nasal tone.
“Tch, Wedge, stop being such a wuss,” Biggs retorted jokingly, a wild smile on his face. He moved towards the platform exit leading to the streets and the reactor entrance. “I’ll do recon and check if the coast’s clear,” he said, all business. “Once I give the signal, Jess can come up to hack into their system. Wedge, you and I are on lookout duty.”
Biggs ascended the stairwell and peeked out. Seeing no signs of life around, he whistled, giving the signal for the other two to come up.
Bark strode out from his hiding place on the train car as the other two Humans ran upstairs. Turning around, he looked up to the top of the train and motioned to the fox with his Gun-Arm, beckoning him to come down.
Tails executed a one-handed flip from the top of the train and landed neatly in a kneeled position, weapon in the opposite hand and his namesakes swishing about. His piercing, electric blue eyes looked at the bear, who was not amused at his flourish.
“C’mon merc, let’s get goin’,” Bark growled, gritting his teeth at the show-off. He spun around and bounded up the exit.
Tails rose from his kneeling position, put away his weapon and cracked his knuckles, ready to begin his task. Before he could take a step forward to follow the TORNADO leader, he heard the sounds of footsteps behind him. Two Kintobor soldiers, who answered the call from Jim’s radio, hurried to the north end of the platform and pointed their guns at the fox’s back. “Freeze!” the one on the left yelled out.
Tails slowly raised his arms and waited. The soldiers inched up to him until they were just right behind him. ‘Now.’ The Ex-SOLDIER then bent his knees and leapt backwards, arcing over their heads before the MP’s could even blink. Landing just behind them, Tails quickly drew his weapon and performed a sweeping, horizontal slash that eviscerated them from the waist down, killing them instantly. Using the momentum of the swing, Tails’ body spun around and faced away from the dead guards.
Placing his left hand on one of the Green Emeralds lodged into the slots of his sword, he drew yellow-white energy from it. Sheathing his weapon, he poured in Mana to shape the energy, which quickly formed an orb that appeared in front of his chest and between his palms. Pushing his hands outward, he called out “BOLT!”
A yellow-white beam shot out from Tails’ palms. It zig-zagged down the platform, arced around a stack of crates and struck the third guard who was cowering behind them. The impact sent high-voltage electricity shooting through the hapless grunt’s body and left a singed, blackened mess in its wake.
Smirking at the effect of his magical attack, Tails swiftly turned around and dashed towards the stairwell leading up to the street. Once there, he spotted the three Humans and Bark near the reactor’s entrance. The woman was hunched over a small, hand-held computer to which she was rapidly typing codes. The computer was connected to the door security controls.
Biggs and Wedge stood close by to her when the dark-haired man spotted the fox coming out of the station entrance. He waved his hand and his face split into a wide grin as he motioned Tails to come over. “Hey, welcome to the party!” he chortled, his tone friendly as the fox approached his side. “You’re from SOLDIER, aren’t you?” he asked, sizing up the slightly shorter swordsman. “I never expected to see a guy like you work with an organization like TORNADO.”
Tails crossed his arms and shrugged in response. He was uninterested in socializing with his charges.
Jessie paused from her work, looking back at the Mobian with wary eyes. “SOLDIER, aren’t they the enemy?” she asked Biggs.
Her comrade shook his head in response. “Nah, not this guy,” he said. “From what the boss told us, he used to be with them but then quit and is now one of us,” he said simply. Turning back to the fox, he kept talking. “You’re name is… Tails, right?”
The fox nodded robotically, his eyes trained on Jessie’s handheld console. His brows furrowed deeply at the sight of the code on the screen.
Another genuine smile broke out on the man’s face. “Awesome, this mission’ll be a piece of cake with you around, I’m thinking –“
Before he could finish, Tails interrupted, jerking his head towards the talkative man. “I don’t really care what you think,” he replied coldly. “And I haven’t joined up with your little ‘organization’ either. Once this job’s over, I’m out of here. For now, focus on the task at hand.”
Biggs’ grin evaporated instantly. He awkwardly returned to his watch, his pride hurt from the fox’s words.
Tails looked to his right where he saw Bark leaning against the wall barring access into the reactor proper. Once again, the two locked eyes – glaring reddish-brown meeting indifferent electric blue. The polar bear was still skeptical and he was well within his right to do so. The fox knew that he was an outsider; an unknown variable in their carefully crafted plans. He knew little of the full details of TORNADO’s plan, but it didn’t matter. A job was a job and he was going to do his part to make it happen.
Soon enough, Bark snorted, broke eye contact with the swordsman and pushed himself off of the wall. He turned to face Jessie. “Any luck?” he grumbled, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Almost… There!” she replied, triumphant. The security doors rattled open, revealing the entrance to the reactor.
Tails suddenly walked up to her, arm outstretched. “Wait,” he said to the woman and then pointed to her console. “Give it here.” He could hear Bark next to him toggle the safety off of his weapon. Tails, however, held up a hand to the bear. Still addressing Jessie, he asked, “Did you do anything about the additional security controls? What about thermal scanning? Communications? Masking? Did you take care of any of that?”
“N-No,” She answered, realizing the implications of his question. “I mean, I added a patch to jam communication lines and I disarmed the motion sensors, but that’s it.”
“Then hand it over,” Tails said coldly. Taking the console from her, he started inputting commands on it as the polar bear kept his gun trained on the swordsman. “Did you guys think it’d be that easy to get in with a skeleton crew working at the reactor?” he said while he typed. “If I were a bettin’ fox, I would think that they would add in extra security measures, just in case someone was crazy enough to do what we’re doing tonight.” He let out a smirk upon seeing the lines of code on the woman’s terminal. “And I was right.”
After a few moments of typing, he tossed the controller back to Jessie. “Done,” he said. “Cameras are on a feedback loop. Thermal sensors are down. I’ve masked our presence here by explaining that a training exercise is underway. Comms have also been utterly scrambled. And finally, I’ve bugged the code up in a way that it’ll take a long time to undo everything. And even if they do pull it off, it’ll be far too late.”
Jessie looked at the console, observed the code and then looked back at the fox with awe. “Wow, this is genius,” she said reverently, pocketing the machine after disconnecting it from the panel. She turned to her leader. “Boss… this guy is something else…”
Bark kept his arm trained on Tails for a moment longer and then dropped it. “…Good to see you’re worth every last mobium,” he spat. He walked up to the entrance and peered inside, scoping the premises, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, except a few guards in light-duty equipment. Satisfied, he turned around and addressed his team.
“OK, let’s go through it one last time,” he said quietly, steeling himself. “Our target’s the Energen Reactor and RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant #1. Jessie and I will sneak in, head to the main conversion chamber at the bottom of the plant and set the main bomb there.”
Biggs,” he addressed the raven-haired male. “You’re in charge of getting us to the lift. From there, you get to the manufacturing plant and set the secondary bomb at the main plant line. From our research, it should be easier to get there versus the reactor heart. Once you do, get back to the rendezvous point and stay out of sight until Jessie and I return.
Wedge,” he turned to the portly one. “Secure our exit. And as for the Ex-SOLDIER,” he said glancing at the fox from the corner of his eye. “You’re with me.”
Tails shrugged. “Sure,” he said.
“Alright then,” Bark exclaimed, a grin crossing his snout. “Move quickly and quietly, as we practiced. Let’s do this!”
With that, Biggs, Wedge and Jessie ran inside. Bark hung back and glared once again at the fox. “That was pretty impressive, what with the cameras and communications systems and all that shit,” he snarled, not sounding impressed at all. “But I still don’t trust you.” He then did an about-face and followed his team, leaving Tails to himself.
The fox gave him a hooded look, clearly annoyed at his attitude. ‘I wasn’t looking for you to trust me anyway. I’m just hoping you keep your end of the bargain when this is all over,’ he thought.
Tails glanced up at the enormous reactor for a brief moment, before entering and catching up with the others.