Chapter 8: Random Encounters
Jessie blew a strand of hair away from her face as she cobbled together an explosive to use on the collapsed wall blocking their way out. The force of the explosion from Reactor #1 caused the facades of the unused emergency exit to crumble around TORNADO. Some portions had already caved in, causing the group to sidle around or crawl underneath the rubble.
Bark and the other two members of the team sat in silence as she worked, their faces contorted in a myriad of emotions. Behind them, Tails leaned on a wall, his face the picture of a mercenary – cold, stoic and calm.
Biggs was the first to break the silence. “Hey Jess, you sure this won’t kill us all?” he said in a half-hearted attempt to make a joke, his voice echoing around the sunken passage.
“Shut it, Biggs!” Bark seethed. “Keep your voice down or the whole fucking place will collapse on us!”
“Sheesh, sorry I tried to lighten the mood,” the Human relented in a much quieter tone, rolling his eyes. The group settled into silence once more until he piped up again, this time in a more sombre voice. “Guess that means Mobius will keep on living… at least, a little while longer.”
“Yeah,” Wedge said, gripping his rifle in his sweaty hands, his eyes downcast and his shoulders hunched over.
Bark said nothing. He stared at his remaining hand instead as it trembled. While he was initially elated at the prospect of striking a blow against Kintobor, the heady rush of endorphins soon wore off and left him feeling a gut-wrenching weight deep in the pit of his stomach. ‘What on Mobius have we done?’ he reflected, lost in thought. ‘How many people died from the-’
His musings were snapped when Jessie stood up after she placed the bomb on a weak spot on the wall. “Guys! Stand back!” she called, putting some distance between herself and the device. The others followed suit.
The device detonated after a ten-second count, blowing a hole in the wall and clearing the way to Sector 8. The explosion caused the already weakened passageway to collapse. Tails ran out first, followed by Bark, Biggs and Jessie. Wedge brought up the rear just as the corridor came down behind him. He bent over and panted loudly as he clutched a stitch in his chest. The portly man soon made his way to the rest of the crew after he had caught his breath.
The three Humans and two Mobians emerged in a small clearing in Sector 8’s upper plate, a short distance away from the entertainment district. Bark motioned for them to huddle up as he silenced his earlier thoughts back in the passageway. “OK, now let’s get the hell out of here,” he said, keeping his voice low. “The rendezvous point is at the Sector 8 station, just beyond the theatre district. Thanks to the chaos we caused, security will be all over the place.” Bark paused and looked around, spotting multiple paths leading to the streets. “If we move as a group, we’re bound to look suspicious,” he continued. “These back alleys around us should take us out to different areas of the street, so split up and get to the train. Move out!”
The group scattered in different directions. Biggs and Jessie ran in the same direction down an alleyway. The woman cut left while Biggs continued onward and rounded another corner to the main street. Wedge took a passage next to them leading to another section of the street. He slowed down as he approached the mouth of the alleyway and then ducked his head and stuck his hands in his pockets, walking onto the road and acting as nonchalant as possible. Bark spun around and strode up a staircase behind him that led up and over to the theatre.
Midway up, Tails called out. “H-hey!”
The bear turned back around to face the fox and cast a hardened look at him. “If it’s about your money, save it until we’re back at the hideout.” He trundled back up the stairs and left the mercenary to his own devices.
Tails sighed, watching the retreating bear as he turned the corner. ‘So much for ditching them here and now, I’ll have to wait til we’re back in the slums.’ Seeing no other options available to him, the fox decided to take the same path that Bark did. He climbed up the stairs and winded around a four-story tall building whose exterior was pockmarked with debris from the exploding reactor, before stopping at a juncture.
To his left was a ladder leading up to the roof. Another stairwell leading down to street level stood in front of him. ‘I could probably get to the station faster if I go across the rooftops and fire escapes,’ Tails pondered as he explored his options. ‘But if I were a bettin’ fox, I’m sure they would have SkyTranses covering the air and they’d spot me pretty easily jumping from roof to roof. No, I better stick to street level.’ Breathing deeply through his nose, his decision made, Tails descended the stairs to ground level. Touching down on the paved surface, he found himself in another narrow corridor leading out towards the theatre. Passing a large transmission pipe that was leaking out Energen, he strode out and calmly assessed the scene in front of him.
The aftershock from the reactor explosion created upheaval around the district. Cars were overturned and signs mounted on the walls were knocked down, its pieces scattered along the asphalt. Chunks of concrete and brick that were blown off from buildings littered the streets and blocked passage to parts of the district. The theatre next to him suffered severe structural damage; the lights had been blown off and the sign that read ‘Look-a-Like’ was on the verge of falling to the ground below. Scores of Mobians and Humans hurried to the sites of the blockages to assist rescue workers, while others shoved and pushed their way towards the train stations in a desperate attempt to escape. Tails watched them pass as he surreptitiously walked down the street.
A grunt elicited from a woman nearby caught his attention. It was followed by the sound of something soft hitting the ground and rolling towards him. The object stopped by his boot and Tails peered down to look. “Flowers?” he mumbled, tilting his head curiously at the rounded woven basket.
Two dirt-caked boots suddenly entered his field of vision and stopped right in front of the basket. Tails’ eyes trailed up the slender legs and past the flowing white dress with the scoop neckline that came down to her shins with points at its hem. They travelled over the patchy, brown leather satchel that sat up against her narrow waist with a wide, silver-buckled belt wrapped around it, and the unopened, forest green coat that came up to her midriff. His eyes finally stopped at her face.
She had delicate, pale-peach features that were framed by bright, chartreuse-green bangs. Her thick and wavy hair was arranged into a ponytail braid with a pale pink ribbon tied around the base. Atop her head were a pair of ruby-red rose ornaments that were in full bloom. She had a rounded bump where her nose should have been; a fact that didn’t bother the fox in the slightest.
When their eyes met, Tails saw her crystal blue orbs widen into saucers, her pretty pink lips parting into an O shape. He then noticed her eyes go from his face to the hilt of his sword and then back again.
“I-I’m sorry,” the Mobian suddenly stammered out as she knelt down to pick up the basket of flowers, her pale, peach-coloured cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Some panicked idiot ran into me and I dropped my basket…” She stood up, brushed some of the lingering dust off of her dress and stared at the fox once more. “Um… do you know what happened here?” she asked, her voice soft and sweet to the fox’s ears. She placed her hands behind her back and started shuffling from side to side, her eyes downcast. “I was on this street, minding my own business when the reactor exploded and rocked the whole Sector.”
Tails felt something stir in his mind as he listened to her speak. Something about her felt familiar to him and he couldn’t help but think that he had seen her or heard her voice before. Try as he might, however, he couldn’t remember ever meeting her before tonight. He knew that he had to continue onwards, but a part of him wanted to stay and talk with her. ‘But… why?’ he wondered, an unsettling feeling bubbling in the pit of his stomach. ‘Why do I want to stay for?’
He was startled back into reality when the woman leaned towards him, her head tilted to the side and her brows creased with worry. “Are you alright?” she asked. “You kinda zoned out there for a second?”
“It’s nothing,” Tails replied, blinking rapidly. He swept a hand over the bangs on his forehead as he racked his brain for something to say. “…but I was wondering,” he paused, his eyes going to the basket of flowers in her hand. “I’ve never seen flowers here in Megapolis, not since I got here at least?”
The Mobian pulled back, her lips curling up into a tiny smile. “Oh these?” she said, pointing to the yellow and white flowers that were carefully cut and arranged into her basket. “Do you like them? They’re only a mobium each?”
Tails nodded and pulled out some paper bills from his back pocket; the spoils from the various odd jobs he had completed in the three weeks before tonight’s operation. As he pulled a single mobium out of the wad in his hand, he was suddenly struck with a thought. “Can I get two?” he asked, handing her a second bill.
The woman beamed merrily as she took the money. Tails watched as the flower girl knelt down and pulled out two square sheets of brown parchment paper from her satchel. She then carefully selected two flowers from her collection; one yellow, the other, white. Placing the paper on the pavement, she neatly arranged the flowers and then folded up each sheet of paper to make a thin envelope.
Standing up, she handed him the two sheets. “So you can put them in your pocket,” she said, watching the fox’s puzzled face. Her work done, she turned around, flashed him one last smile and then briskly walked away.
Tails arched an eyebrow as he watched the flower girl turn the corner at the end of the street. He then spun around and made his way through to an unobstructed boulevard that led to the train stations. ‘That was strange,’ he thought, his brows furrowing into a deep scowl. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met her before… so why do I get the feeling that I know her?’ He stopped to peer up at a large, Gothic-styled analog clock. The time read 12:06 am. ‘According to the briefing, the train leaves in 7 minutes… better hustle.’
After jogging half of the block, he emerged onto a large, stone bridge. He spied the station entrance located at the other end. Tails slowed his pace back to a walk but kept his sense alert.
Suddenly, he heard a voice call out forcefully from behind him. “Hey! You there!”
Tails halted just as he began to cross the bridge. He gnashed his teeth. “Perfect, just what I need…” he groused softly to himself. “Kintobor soldiers…” He waited until they got close to him and then turned around.
Two MP’s, with their rifles drawn out, approached the fox. The one on his left was a short and thin Human with wiry muscles. The second on his right was a large and heavy-set brown bear, its snout poking out of the mask that obscured the soldier’s eyes.
The former SOLDIER threw them a bored look. “What?” he asked roughly.
“We’ve received reports that an individual with a distinct weapon was involved in the bombing attack,” the smaller soldier answered in a clipped tone. “Given that huge sword on your back, we’re going to have to ask that you disarm and come with us to answer some questions about your whereabouts in the last hour.” He and his partner raised their rifles at the warrior. “That wasn’t a request by the way.”
The fox rolled his eyes at them. “You guys sure are original,” he said dryly as he raised his hands. “But honestly, I don’t really have the time for this.” Before the guard could blink, the warrior rushed up, drew his sword and cold-cocked the larger of the two in the muzzle with the flat of his blade before rounding on the Human. He followed up with a quick, horizontal slash, which nicked the Human’s arm and forced him to drop his weapon. Tails used the momentum of his swing to execute a side kick to his opponent’s gut, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling to the ground.
The first guard Tails had stunned staggered up to his feet. He drew out a baton from his belt and loomed over the shorter Mobian. “You got lucky, punk,” he growled menacingly. “C’mon, let’s see what you’re made of!”
“Well, someone’s brave,” Tails retorted as he bobbed around the bear’s wild swings. “If I weren’t already pissed at the sight of that uniform, I’d almost feel sorry for you.” The fox blocked a two-handed overhead swing with the flat of his blade and then wrapped his tails around the ursine’s legs. Yanking hard, he sent the bear sprawling to the ground before plunging the sword into his breastbone. The soldier gurgled for a few moments as he choked on his blood until he expired.
Wrenching the blade free, Tails turned to the bear’s partner, who was gingerly picking himself up from the ground. He was soon flanked by three more guards who heard the ruckus a distance away. Two were hogs wearing the standard blue uniform, while the third soldier was a hare wearing thick, orange body armour and hefted a six-cylinder grenade launcher. “Surrender!” one of the hogs called out as he and his comrades pointed their arms at the fox.
“You idiots!” the wiry MP shouted out, his hand applying pressure to the wound on his arm. “He’s hostile! Fire on him!”
Their hesitation allowed Tails to charge and launch a Lightning spell. The Human rolled out of the way as the magic sailed and struck one of the hogs behind him. He was thrown back from the electrical attack and he hit the ground, spasming violently until he lay still. The fox placed the flat of his blade in front of his body to protect himself from incoming shots as he ran up to the other remaining soldiers. The telltale sound of a grenade canister being fired caused Tails to jump instinctively.
The munition exploded behind him and the shockwave pushed the Ex-SOLDIER right into the path of the guards. He went into a shoulder roll, righted himself and stabbed the second hog in the stomach. Pulling his blade free, Tails turned to the grenadier and threw two slashes. The first scraped the hare’s armour horizontally, but the second diagonal slash severed his right leg. The hare’s howls were cut short when the fox lopped off his head as he toppled over.
Tails craned his head towards a billboard on one of the rooftops. The digital display noted the time: 12:11 am. “Shit, I gotta go,” Tails swore under his breath. He sheathed his sword and broke into a run across the long stone bridge leading to the station.
Suddenly, the same MP he injured before reappeared with five more grunts alongside him, all with their guns drawn. Brows knitted in equal parts annoyance and exasperation, Tails increased his pace as rifle bullets whizzed past him. Amidst the sounds of gunfire, Tails could pick out the MP activating the radio on his shoulder. “Hostile heading for the station! Cut him off!” he heard him yell.
From the station side of the bridge, Tails spotted four more guards emerge to block his access to the entrance. Cursing, the warrior halted at the midpoint of the bridge and settled into a defensive stance. ‘Great, I’m surrounded… and the train’s leaving any minute now-’
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a whistle in the distance. This was followed by sudden vibrations beneath his feet. His eyes then darted away from the incoming grunts and towards the edge of the bridge as a train thundered underneath where he stood and travelled into the tunnels leading down to the Slums. Tails quirked his lips into a smile at the sight of the last car descending downwards. ‘I have to time it just right,’ he thought as he slowly backed up to the edge. He angled himself in a way that the digital clock on the billboard above him was in his direct line of sight. The time read 12:12 am.
The soldiers edged their way up and formed a half-circle to corner the warrior. They all pointed their rifles at him, save for the one Tails wounded earlier. “OK, that’s as far as you go!” the man said, a wide, toothy grin forming on his masked face.
Tails reluctantly sheathed his sword, rolled his shoulders and threw a cocky look at the soldier addressing him. “Didn’t I already say that I don’t have time for you losers right now?” he asked in an offhand manner. “How ‘bout you all run home to your mommies and let me be on my way. It’s clear that you’re all way out of my league.” As he spoke, he eyed the time from his peripheral vision: 12:13 am. He then heard a train whistle go off in the distance. ‘Get ready…’
The man’s face went beet red. “Fuck off! You’re gonna pay for what you’ve done to my partner!” he spat, his shoulders bunching up. His jaw was clenched tightly and a vein was popping out from his neck. “Screw the President’s orders: Kill him!”
The fox hopped onto the bridge railing just as the soldiers fired, their bullets riddling the stonework with holes. Tails then started running on the narrow ledge back towards the theatre district. The soldiers continued firing, their shots trailing just behind the mercenary. As he ran across, he felt the vibrations beneath his feet grow stronger as the train approached. Tails jumped off just as the first few cars passed underneath him. He landed hard on his hands and knees and kept his head low to clear the tunnel going down to the Slums. His heart was pounding loudly against his chest as the train rattled along.
Tails smiled, thinking of the soldier he insulted. ‘I dunno about before when I met him on the bridge, but If I were a bettin’ fox, I’d say he’s extremely pissed off now. That made my day.’ As the train descended down the enormous main support pillar separating the upper and lower worlds, Tails started to make his way towards the freight cars at the back of the train. ‘Now, where are Bark and the others…’ he thought idly as he moved from car to car.