Chapter 9: Aboard The Megapolis Express
“Tails never made it.”
Bark, Biggs and Jessie looked at Wedge, who suddenly spoke out and broke the long and tense silence that lingered over the group. He and the other members of TORNADO were sitting in a boxcar that they snuck onto before the last train of the night departed from the station. The portly Human sat hunched on a large, wooden crate with his shoulders slumped forward.
Biggs leaned on a wall near one of the sliding doors, his eyes downcast. “You think he was killed?” he asked aloud.
Bark, who sat crossed-arm on the other side of the car, scowled at the raven-haired man. “No way!” he lashed out. “A guy like that can definitely take care of himself!”
Jessie sat close to Biggs on a box covered with a blue tarp. Her face was sullen and ashy. She turned her head and looked wistfully in the direction opposite of the one the train was currently travelling on. “Tails,” she whispered, loud enough that even Bark could hear.
The bear clenched his fist tightly as he sat and ruminated about the Ex-SOLDIER. In the three weeks since he met him, Bark knew full well that the fox was a punctual sort of Mobian. He would always arrive at the bar he was staying in either a few minutes early or right on time – never late. ‘It’s bad for business,’ the bear recalled the mercenary saying once to Cream in a conversation he had overheard. ‘No one’s gonna offer a job to anyone who doesn’t respect their time.’
The sudden thought of the bartender caused Bark’s stomach to drop. ‘Shit, how am I gonna explain this to Cream?’ he wondered. ‘Should I lie and say he ditched us? Or be truthful and say he never made it back… Oh, man…’
The occupants in the boxcar had lapsed back into silence when they suddenly heard a thumping noise over the top of the train. Bark quizzically looked up at the ceiling for a moment, his finger flicking off the safety of his Gun-Arm. When he heard no further sounds after a few moments, he relaxed and let out a deep sigh. ‘Probably nothing,’ he thought.
“Say, you think,” Biggs started, trying to fill in the repressive stillness that fell over them once more. “Tails’ gonna fight to the end for TORNADO?”
Bark gave the Human a pointed look. “Why the hell are you asking me? Do I look like a mind-reader?” he replied acidly. He then thumped the box beside him hard with his Gun-Arm. “This is all screwed up…” he said exasperatedly before going quiet again.
“Hey Bark, what about our money?” Wedge asked a few minutes later.
Bark hit the box again with his artificial arm, not in anger but because he forgot one, small detail. “Uh… sorry guys, got nothing for ya…” he replied sheepishly.
The Human gave him a flat stare. “Ahhh…” he groaned, shaking his head in frustration.
A moment later, the thumping sounds returned and the boxcar door suddenly began to rattle. Alarmed, Bark stood up and motioned to Biggs and Wedge to ready their weapons. He flicked off the safety once more and pointed his arm at the door, which was shaking slightly in a combination of fear and panic. ‘Who’s out there?! Is it Kintobor?! Have they found out about us? Or did that fox lead them to us??‘
Soon enough, the door slid open. Roaring furiously, the bear unloaded a salvo of bullets against the would-be intruder, with his human counterparts following suit. The shots sailed out and ricocheted against the outer steel lattice structure of the main support pillar they circled around.
Once Bark and the others ceased fire, the individual who opened the door then grabbed the top lip of the open car and flipped inside of it. Bark saw a blur of orange, white and blue fly into the space and land in a flourish.
“Tails!” the three Humans exclaimed in surprise, their moods instantly brightening. Bark lowered his arm and stared, slack-jawed at the Ex-SOLDIER’s sudden appearance.
“Hey guys,” Tails said nonchalantly, rising from his crouched position and brushing himself off. “Looks like I’m a little late.”
Bark snapped out of his stupor. “Oh, thank the Godd-” he started, speaking without thinking. He caught himself, cleared his throat and then addressed the fox. “Ah…I-I mean, Y-You’re goddess-damned right you’re late!” he spluttered instead in a more forceful manner, his chest heaving as his initial shock wore off. “We’re sitting here, wondering where the hell you went and then you come waltzing in here outta nowhere and make a big scene of it all!”
Tails shrugged. “Well, I would’ve been here on time,” he said. “But I ran into some unexpected company on the way. And as for the entrance,” he let out a small, self-satisfied smile. “It’s no big deal. I do this all the time.”
The bear scowled and kissed his teeth. “Tch, you’re full of shit,” he said angrily. “Don’t give a damn about no one but yourself, while everyone else was-” his eyes went wide like saucers and he clapped a hand over his snout before he could finish his sentence, to which the fox smirked in response.
“Hmm… sounds like you were worried about me!” he said, arching an eyebrow in amusement.
Bark stood there at a loss for words. He opened and closed his mouth a few times as he struggled to find a witty retort. Clenching his teeth, he soon gave up and growled at the mercenary. “That’s coming out of your paycheck, hot stuff!” he spat. Shaking off his embarrassment, he moved to a door leading to the passenger cars. “Alright everybody, get up!” he ordered. “We’re moving out, follow me!” The door slid open with a rattle and he walked out, inwardly relieved that he wouldn’t have to face Cream with bad news.
Wedge got up from his spot and smiled widely at the fox. “Hey Tails, you were so awesome back there,” he said in passing as he followed Bark.
Biggs stopped in front of the fox and scratched the back of his head. “Heh heh… Tails!” he said sheepishly. “We’ll do even better next time!” He left as well, the door sliding shut and leaving the fox alone with Jessie.
The brunette approached the freight car door, which was still open from Tails’ dramatic entrance. “Be careful, I’ll shut this,” she said, sliding it closed and locking it. She turned to Tails and then raised her eyebrows at his appearance in the dim light of the train car. “Oh, Tails! Your face is pitch black!” she remarked, bringing a hand to his face.
The fox caught Jessie’s hand before it reached his muzzle. He glared sharply at her. “Don’t,” he said, his voice steely.
The woman chuckled softly as she gently extricated her hand from his grip. “At ease, Ex-SOLDIER,” she said as she wiped the soot from the train exhaust off of his cheek. “I’m just cleaning up your face. I’m not about to break the Taboo.” She then stepped back and smiled at her handiwork. “There! All done!” Turning around, she made her way to the door leading to the next train car. As she laid a hand on the door handle, she twisted around to face the fox one more time. “Thanks again for helping me back at the reactor,” she said before her cheeks started to redden. “It’s a damn shame you’re not Human, I think you’d be my type.” She slipped through the door before Tails could react. It closed behind her with an audible click.
Blinking at the odd exchange, Tails used the solitude to give himself a few moments to rest. He rolled the shoulder of his sword arm and stretched his arms, torso and legs to keep them limber – the constant activity and strain started to make them feel sore. He then pulled out his sword and inspected it. There were only a few nicks and scratches on the broad blade, but no major wear and tear on it. ‘I’ll have to get it sharpened and cleaned eventually,’ he observed, testing the edge with an ungloved finger. ‘It’ll hold for now, though.’
Putting the weapon on the magnetic disk on his back, he pulled on his glove and then focused on the two folded, rectangular sheets of parchment paper in his side pocket. Extracting them, he saw that there were no crumples or creases on it; the flower girl who wrapped it certainly knew what she was doing. ‘Who was she?’ he wondered as he gently stuffed the envelopes back into his pocket and headed for the exit. ‘Why do I have this strange feeling that our paths will cross again? And why the hell am I looking forward to it??’
Tails followed TORNADO past the freight cars and into the passenger cars. No matter how hard he tried, the image of the flower girl just wouldn’t leave his mind and it was starting to bother him slightly. When he finally caught up with Bark and his crew, his thoughts were finally broken by the sound of a soft, female voice blaring through the train’s intercom system:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for riding the Megapolis Railway Magenta Express Line, brought to you by Kintobor Power Incorporated. This is the last train leaving Sector 8: Theatre District. Our final destination is Sector 7: Train Graveyard. Transfers to the Gold Line are available. The expected time of arrival is 12:45 PM, Megapolis Standard Time.”
Dragged out of his thoughts, Tails watched as Bark waltzed up the aisle and plop down into a seat next to a badger wearing an expensive, Kintobor-branded business suit. The Mobian, startled by the polar bear’s presence, got out of his seat and headed to the next car down. “This is why I hate the last train,” the fox heard him grumble as he left.
Bark glared at the departing Mobian’s back. Tails couldn’t see his face but he surmised that the bear wanted to give the badger a piece of his mind. Thinking better of it, Bark leaned back on his seat as the door shut behind the suit and tipped his hat to cover his eyes. Biggs, Wedge and Jessie maneuvered around the car and took up positions at its front, middle and rear. Tails leaned up against a pole near the back of the car and listened in on the conversations between passengers.
“You see the headlines on KNN?” A bald Human wearing a rumpled suit said to a hare wearing a short-sleeved button-up shirt and khakis, about three seats ahead of the fox. His voice was just above a whisper, but Tails was easily able to pick it up from where he stood. “The terrorists who bombed the No. 1 Energen Reactor are said to be based in the slums…”
The hare nodded. “Yeah… blowing up an Energen Reactor AND a RINGTEK plant? Geez, they must’ve had some serious balls to pull that stunt off,” he replied.
“Mmm. Indeed,” the bald man said crossing his arms and closing his eyes in thought. “They must have a calculating leader. I wonder what they’ll do next?”
“Hey!” Tails turned his head to the sound of Bark’s voice. “Stop standing around like a damn kid,” he said, giving him a flat look and then tilting the red hat over his eyes once more. Tails glared at the bear and didn’t move from his spot – partly out of spite and partly to see if he could dig up more information that could eventually score him a new job.
With the Bombing Mission more or less completed, the fox knew that he needed to secure more work. Making it as one of Megapolis’ top mercenaries was going to take a lot more than the few jobs he recently pulled. He also realized that he would need to set up his own base of operations, along with ways and means for others to contact him for his services. ‘Plus, I can’t keep imposing on Cream’s hospitality,‘ he thought as he mentally made a list of things to do when he got back to the Sector 7 Slums. ‘While I know she wouldn’t mind me staying, sharing an address with a terrorist organization may make things complicated… No, I should leave tonight. Maybe I’ll head for the Wall Market in Sector 6?‘
“Psst, hey Tails,” Biggs suddenly whispered to him and interrupted his thoughts. The fox’s bright blue eyes spied him sitting in a seat at the midpoint of the passenger car. He motioned the fox over.
Tails straightened up and meandered to the grinning Human. “So, I’ve been wanting your professional opinion on this for a while now,” he said the fox in a conspiratorial tone. “But what did you think of our plan to induce a labour strike? Pretty nifty, eh?
“…Enlighten me,” Tails deadpanned as he crossed his arms. “I wasn’t privy to the details when I signed on for this. Whatever I knew, it was provided on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.'”
“Well, it was pretty awesome, let me tell you!” Biggs continued, completely missing the sarcasm in Tails’ voice. “To put it simply, Jessie and I found a backdoor to the payroll departments of both the security detail and maintenance workers for each reactor. Using that backdoor, we were able to stop payments going through for the last three weeks, while pulling personal information for the most incendiary and vocal members of both unions. Then, using those addresses, I sent anonymous notes saying that the company doesn’t care, that they’ll dismantle their union and all kinds of other stuff. Long story short, they revolted and started a strike. They only had a small crew of non-unionized soldiers and maintenance workers to watch the place, making it easy for us to do our thing. Pretty cool huh?”
Tails narrowed his eyes at Biggs. “Yeah, cool,” he said coldly. “But now that you’ve played your hand, Kintobor will have no trouble connecting the strikes with the bombing. They’ll likely end the disputes, find and fix that backdoor and increase the fortifications for each reactor tenfold. I doubt that this ploy will work again.” Though he spoke harshly, in truth, Tails was impressed with the detail they put in to make the whole plan work.
To the fox’s disbelief, Biggs’ grin grew even wider. “Aha, now, here is where this comes into play,” he said, extracting a black data stick from his back pocket – the same one Jessie handed to him at the split in the Reactor. “With the data I pulled from the RINGTEK plant’s central computer, Jess and I should be able to construct a map of the underplate system of the city. And that means better ways to sneak in and out of each of the reactors.” Biggs leaned back and placed his hands behind his head. “Anyways,” he continued, his voice taking on a more serious edge. “It looks like the train hasn’t switched to the advanced security mode yet. I’m sure that’ll change by tomorrow. It’ll be another wrinkle in our operations, but I think we’ll get by alright.”
“Tails?” Jessie’s voice cut in from the front of the car. She stood in front of a capacitive touch-screen monitor a few seats away from Bark. “You want to look at this with me? It’s a map of the Megapolis Rail System.”
Using this as an excuse to end the conversation with Biggs, the fox went to her, a puzzled look crossing his muzzle. Jessie chuckled at his expression. “I hear you haven’t been around the city in the last five years,” she said. “Things have changed on the railway since then, so I figured, why don’t I get you up to speed?” She touched the screen as he stopped behind her. An image of the city from a top-down perspective soon showed up. “Let’s look at it together. I’ll explain it to you.” She paused as the glow from the screen illuminated the faint freckles on her tanned, pretty face. “You know, I like this sort of stuff,” she continued, her hazel eyes focused on the image on the screen. “Bombs and monitors… you know, flashy stuff.”
“So, here we have an interactive model of Megapolis. It’s shown here at 1/10000 scale,” she began. “The top plate is about 100 meters above the ground.” She put her finger on the model and swiped up. The image rotated and now showed a cross-section of the city, with the upper plate, the massive central pillar and a set of thick concrete and steel pillars underneath the center of each plate.
“Let me guess,” Tails said, his hand stroking his chin. “The central structure holds the entire city up. And there are eight, smaller pillars located underneath each plate’s centre of gravity to balance the load.”
Jessie smiled at him. “That’s right! You really do know your stuff!” she said light-heartedly. “Here’s a little bit of trivia for you: did you know that each sector used to be a town? I think the names are in the old archives, but nobody here remembers them anymore. Numbered sectors made it easier. That’s the kind of place this is.”
She then tapped on a button on the bottom right marked ‘Rail.’ The city on screen transformed from a solid, three-dimensional object to an isometric wireframe model. The model showed the upper plate, the central pillar and the Slums underneath.
The upper plate had three sets of blue rings circling the city. Each ring was connected to one another at certain points, creating a web-like network that serviced all of Megapolis. The Slums, on the other hand, had a single, deep yellow circle that was the same diameter as the largest circle on the upper city. In between the two lines and spiralling up and down the central pillar, was a magenta line.
Jessie touched that line. “See this line around the central pillar? It was introduced about three years ago as a way to ease congestion along the Upper and Lower City routes. Normally, trains on the upper and lower cities would travel up or down the pillar and then go along the upper or lower lines. The problem was that the central pillar only allowed for two tracks for trains to go up or down. And they couldn’t add additional lines to the pillar without having to tear the whole thing down again.”
She tapped a button marked ‘Play’ near the top corner of the screen and Tails watched as the animation played, showing the transit system in motion. “So, Kintobor ended up isolating the pillar routes into a new line dedicated to moving people from the Slums to the city and vice versa. At the top and bottom, there’s a switch track that sends the train in its intended direction. Once they arrive, they can transfer to either the Blue or Gold lines to get to where they need to go.” Finally, she tapped an icon with a crosshair symbol on it. A yellow dot appeared on the magenta line, halfway down the central structure.
“Here’s where we are,” she said, pointing to the dot. “Right now, we’re just about halfway down the main support structure. At the centre of the pillar route, and at eight points around the Blue and Gold lines, there are ID Checkpoints –“
“An array of sensors, right?” Tails cut in, inspecting the map with mild curiosity.
The woman nodded. “Exactly. They check the identities and backgrounds of every passenger on the train by linking the data back to the central databank at Kintobor HQ.” She dropped her voice back down to a whisper, leaning in close to the fox. “Anyone can tell that we look suspicious, so we’re using fake IDs.”
All of a sudden, the car was bathed in a flashing red light and the intercom speakers emitted a shrill beeping noise. Jessie rolled her eyes. “Well, speak of the devil. That light means that we’ve entered the ID Security Check area,” she said. She then leaned in closely and whispered into his ear. “When the lights go off, you’ll never know what kind of creeps pop out.”
A moment later, the screeching noise from the speakers stopped and the lighting returned to normal. “Phew… Finally, I thought it’d never end,” Jessie said, adjusting her headband. “At least that means we’re almost back now, that’s a relief.” She stared into the screen for a moment and then turned back to the fox, her eyes brightening. “Hey! I got an idea! For a reward, because you got us outta there alive, I mean,” she said, noticing his perplexed face. “How about… I make you a special, custom-made ID? I mean, I made you a generic one, but I feel that you deserve a proper ID; one that can get you through the city without any hassle? Whaddya say?”
Tails stroked his chin thoughtfully at her proposal. ‘An ID card… would make my life easier,‘ he reasoned. ‘I wouldn’t be limited to working solely in the Slums. And from the looks of it, Jessie’s good at what she does.’ “Alright, I’ll take you up on that offer,” he said, deciding to place his trust in the woman.
The brunette beamed. “OK then, I’ll put a lotta effort into it and make it with a BANG!” she said, exuberantly.
“Hey Tails,” Bark called out to him once again. This time, his tone was more measured. The fox arched his head to face the bear, who was now staring out of the window. He gazed out somberly at the city below. “Look at that, you can see the surface now. This part of the city doesn’t have proper day or night.” He looked up at the mass of steel above. “If that plate wasn’t there… we could see the sky.”
Tails walked over and looked out the same window. “A floating city,” he said. “Pretty unsettling scenery.”
The bear got out of his seat and stared bewilderedly at the Ex-SOLDIER. “Huh? I never expected to hear that from someone like you,” he said. “You’re just full of surprises.” He looked back through the window and his eyes hardened at the sight of the plate above. “The upper world… a city on a plate. It’s cuz of that fuckin’ ‘pizza’ that people underneath it are suffering!” he exclaimed, slamming a hand on the back of the seat. “And the city below is full of polluted air.”
“Meanwhile, those Energen Reactors suck up all the energy to create RINGTEK, which then gets tossed into the land below. Did you know that the metals they use to make them have started to leech into the water supply? They’re literally poisoning us,” he breathed a deep and weathered sigh at that fact and turned back into his seat. He tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. “It’s shit like this that makes living there nearly unbearable…”
“And then, to make things completely worse, we now have to deal with the Robians. We have to sit and watch our kind be transformed into soulless robots, only because our very existence offends a powerful Human. Now they’re down here, terrorizing everyone and killing indiscriminately, no matter who they are or what they look like…”
Tails listened intently to Bark’s speech. He rose from his spot and crossed his arms. “So, why doesn’t everyone move onto the plate then?” he asked.
Bark shrugged. “Dunno,” he said in a defeated and off-handed manner. “Maybe because they don’t have any money? Or maybe… because they love their land, no matter how polluted and terrible it gets.”
The fox nodded, looking back out the window. “I know,” he said. “No one lives in the Slums just because they want to. It’s like this train. It can’t run anywhere except where its rails take it.”
The train soon travelled down the last quarter of the central pillar. A switch track was activated at the pillar’s base and directed the train towards the Sector 7 station. The locomotive slowed down as it approached the platform and came to a stop just a few meters away from a dilapidated passenger car lying on its side, the shell slowly rusting away and revealing its interior. This, like several dozen other cars and broken, outdated locomotive engines, littered an expansive area between the train station and the edge of the city, stopping short of the high structural wall separating the city from the outside world.
The car doors opened and passengers began to disembark, all of them eager to return to their homes and loved ones. The members of TORNADO plus Tails were among those getting off and they blended in with the crowd to avoid being noticed by the guards. Once clear, Bark waved his Gun-Arm and pointed it to a secluded nook away from the platform. “Gather here, y’all!” he called.
The group formed a huddle around the polar bear. “Alright, the mission was a success,” Bark said, keeping his voice low. “But don’t y’all be complacent! Blowing up No.1 was the easy part, so you better not have been scared of that explosion,” he paused as a savage grin grew on his lips and a manic fire ignited in his eyes. “Because the next one’s gonna be bigger than that!” He broke the huddle and started for the residential district. “Meet back at the hideout! Move out!” he said.
The three humans followed suit, while Tails walked back at a leisurely pace. While he was starting to understand Bark’s motivations against Kintobor, he knew better than to get caught up within his and his group’s struggle. He was a mercenary, after all; money was all the motivation he needed. ‘Time to get paid and get outta here,’ he thought, smiling to himself.