Chapter 30: A Hidden Agenda
Knuckles lay awake in his bed. He stared at the ceiling of his tiny apartment with his arms splayed out. From the corner of his eye, he could see through the slats on his window shade that the sky outside was lightening. Dawn approached.
He turned to his side and looked at the clock on his bedside table. “6:30 in the morning,” he groaned to himself. “Felt like I only had an hour of sleep…” He rolled back onto his back and his eyes trailed back to the ceiling. They glazed over as he once again recalled the events that occurred nearly six hours ago.
‘I should be happy,’ he thought, watching as thin rays of sunlight illuminated the dust motes floating around. ‘We eliminated the rebels, reclaimed the Ancient and we delivered her to the Company… so, why do I feel so unsettled?’
‘Is it because you feel guilty for all those people and Mobians you killed in the process?’ his inner voice questioned immediately.
The echidna turned over to his side and brooded over this thought. He had killed many over the course of his ten year career as a member of the Chaotix. His methodical approach and taciturn demeanor enabled him to become the youngest leader in the team’s history. Through it all, he never felt any guilt or remorse for his targets.
‘You never had to deal with collateral damage on this scale, did you?’ his conscience told him. ‘Or… do you feel guilty because of something else?’ The thought only caused him to tighten his jaw.
Before he could delve deeper into his quandaries, he heard the familiar chirp of his cell phone go off next to his alarm clock. Pushing himself up into a sitting position, he flipped the phone open and answered without looking to see who called. “What is it?”
“Well, good mornin’ to you too, sunshine,” Vector chimed from the other line. “Look, that fight at Sector 7 really did a number on us. We need to talk about personnel. Now.”
Knuckles ran a hand through his dreads and suppressed a groan. ‘Just what I need, more work problems…’ “…Can this wait until later in the morning?” he asked, growing irritated.
“Well, I wish I could,” The crocodile responded nonchalantly. “But I really needed to let you know that we had a Eureka moment with Julie.” Knuckles drew in a sharp breath suddenly as Vector went on, “I’m recommending that we promote her to Field Agent. I think she’ll do well.”
“…Alright,” the echidna said, collecting himself and staring out of the window towards the brightening sky, the gears in his mind turning wildly. “Have everyone in the briefing room in an hour. We’ll discuss it then.” He ended the call, threw off the covers and got out of the bed.
The studio apartment was as sparsely furnished as his office was. Besides the bed and the nightstand next to it, the one room flat had a small kitchenette, a table and a single chair. There was a wardrobe on the wall opposite the window. Behind the bed was a tiny washroom with a stand-up shower and a sink, which Knuckles went into first.
Refreshed, he turned on the lights in his flat, opened the wardrobe and put on his uniform. After pulling on his gloves, he dialed a number on his handset which answered on the first ring “Prepare my SkyTrans,” he instructed, striding to the door and grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl on the table as he passed it. He shut the lights off as he left.
From his apartment in Sector 3, it took half an hour by air to reach the Kintobor Building, a massive, egg-shaped skyscraper standing at the centre of Megapolis. The mirrored windows along the building’s facade reflected the polluted, smoke-grey sky. Knuckles didn’t wait for his SkyTrans to land on the pad at the base of the building; he opened the door as it approached the landing zone and jumped out. He fanned out his dreadlocks and caught a draft, which kept him aloft. Stretching his arms out in front of him, he glided down to the ground, landed in a crouch, stood up and then entered the building’s vestibule in one fluid motion.
He pulled out his identification card and scanned it on the security terminal. The terminal beeped and the automated turnstile doors swung open. Knuckles passed through them and into an open foyer spanning three stories. It had clean, modern lines and pops of silver, gold and royal blue colour that offsetted against the cold, concrete grey walls. There were two sets of stairs on the left and right ends of the foyer leading up to the second level. They were arranged in an eye-catching, angular manner and were covered with a plush navy carpet runner. Automated escalators on either side allowed for quick travel between the three floors. All around the massive space were various examples of RINGTEK applications, including vehicles, small electronics and appliances. Flat paneled Tele-Crate screens arranged on the walls of each floor showed videos of various Kintobor tech in use. At the centre of the first floor was an information and security kiosk, its edges illuminated in a bright violet light for easy visibility. Directly behind it was a large sign that was illuminated with spotlights on the bottom. The sign read “Welcome to Kintobor.”
Knuckles crossed the polished, marble floor, passed the stairwell leading to the second floor and made his way to the elevator bank at the end. With his back towards a mint green, three wheeled pick-up truck, Knuckles pressed a button and entered an empty car. He scanned his card on the elevator access card reader and pressed the button labelled 50. The doors closed and the elevator shot upward. Within ten seconds, it stopped at the 50th floor and Knuckles got off. He traversed down the plain-looking hallway, hung a right past his office and opened the first door on his left. The plaque on the outside read “Briefing Room.”
As the echidna expected, the rest of the Chaotix were already in attendance. Vector, Charmy and Nack sat at the far end of the long conference table. Charmy and Vector both had bruises on their bodies. Vector’s right arm, burned from his skirmish, was wrapped tightly with gauze. Nack wore a sling around his right arm and his right wrist was encased in a cast.
Next to Nack was Mighty, the bright lighting reflected off of his polished, maroon carapace. His jacket was rumpled and his dark eyes were downcast and unfocused. ‘It looks like he had to drag himself here,’ Knuckles judged, his eyes moving to the rest of the team.
Leaning against the wall across from Mighty was a chameleon with purple skin, a yellow horn and sharp amber-coloured eyes. Around his wrists were black armbands. Twenty small, triangular knives were inserted into slots around each band. He too wore the standard navy blazer and slacks, a ridge of three black spines poking out from the back of the jacket. He coiled and uncoiled his tail unconsciously as he surveyed the room. “Knuckles,” he intoned, dipping his head into a bow.
“Espio,” the echidna responded with a nod of his own. He then turned his attention to the final three members in the room.
Sitting beside Mighty was Ray, a flying squirrel with beach-blonde fur, a tan muzzle, beady black eyes, small triangular ears and a long bushy tail. Like Charmy, he wore a black jumpsuit with folds of reinforced fabric that fitted over the webbed skin between his arms and waist. He cracked a hesitant smile at Knuckles, who did not return it.
On Knuckles’ left was Honey, the team’s computer ace. Wearing an identical blazer and slacks as the men, she was a light orange cat with a peach muzzle and narrowed dark brown eyes that stared at the laptop that sat on the conference room table. Her long, thick black hair was tied into two ponytails with a pair of elaborate, white lace hair barrettes. On her wrists were a pair of black, spike-studded bracelets. She reclined back in her chair, her whiskers twitching as she typed something on the computer. The fingers on her right hand were restlessly drumming the armrest and her lips were twisted into a frown as she waited for the meeting to begin. ‘Probably working on some new code,’ Knuckles assumed as he moved to the last member of the team.
The final figure was the one that Knuckles’ gaze lingered on the longest. Like him, she was an echidna. She had rose-pink coloured fur, a beige muzzle and dreadlocks with lilac tipped bangs. She wore the same navy trousers, but opted to wear a figure-hugging short sleeved dress shirt with the collar unbuttoned instead of the standard blazer. Her violet hued eyes met his quizzically, to which he averted quickly.
‘Time to get this started, I suppose…’ Clearing his throat, Knuckles addressed the room. “First of all, I’d like to congratulate Nack, Vector and Charmy on a job well done. Additional credit goes to Mighty, for without his contacts in the underworld, we would not have been able to pinpoint the location of TORNADO’s base of operations.”
Silence filled the room. Ray and Charmy shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Mighty cracked his knuckles audibly under the table. The pink-hued echidna looked down and away from her superior. Undaunted by the sombre atmosphere, Knuckles continued. “Be that as it may, TORNADO has done a number on some of our operatives. One of which will be out of commission for a few weeks.” His eyes trailed to Nack, who returned a petulant look of his own.
“In light of this, I’m promoting our newest recruit, Julie-Su, to Field Agent,” he instructed, catching sight of the woman’s surprised reaction out of the corner of his eyes. He angled his head towards Honey. “Honey, she’ll be partnering with you for field training. Once she’s ready, she’ll be assigned temporarily to your team. Is that clear?”
The cat tore her gaze from the screen in front of her and gave Knuckles a sidelong glance. She shrugged and then said in a casual, airy tone, “Yeah, no problem.”
Accepting that response, the Chaotix leader continued. “Moving on, while we can confirm that the human members of the group have been eliminated, I have not received any reports about the Mobians. So Vector, Charmy and Ray” he hailed the three Mobians at the end of the table. “Monitor chatter throughout the city. If you get any verification that they are somehow alive, bring the news to me immediately.”
Charmy grinned. “I’m cool with that!” he exclaimed, his cheerful demeanor putting a dent in the dour setting. “So long as I don’t have to go back to Robian Monitoring…”
“Keep up that attitude and you will,” Knuckles deadpanned and he saw that the mood in the room lifted slightly. Espio and Ray cracked a smile. Julie-Su stifled a giggle. Honey scoffed lightly and her frown softened. Vector and Nack looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Mighty’s expression, however, was still stoic. His head was bowed and his eyes stared unfocused on the conference table.
“As you all know, we have also succeeded in capturing our number one target,” Knuckles resumed once the group settled down. “Despite our continued successes, the President has been hounding us for results on the Ancient file. Last night was our final chance; we were to retrieve her by night’s end or be Roboticized.” He paused, allowing the gravity of his words to sink in. “Fortunately, unlike before, tracking and predicting her movements have been much easier the moment our target became in league with the EX-SOLDIER. I was able to intercept and retrieve her without a struggle. And now that we’ve accomplished our primary objective, we can proceed with the usual business of maintaining the company’s interests. The first being the retrieval and elimination of our primary informant in the Slums.”
He then faced the last two Mobians in the room. “Mighty, Espio, you’ll return to the beat,” Knuckles instructed. “Gather recon from the usual places and root Don Corneo out from any of his hiding spots. You are authorized to use whatever means necessary to retrieve him. However, use your judgement wisely as you do so.”
Espio acknowledged the order with a curt bow of the head. Mighty gave Knuckles a blank look. “Understood,” he said softly, his black eyes dull and unfocused.
“Alright, you have your orders,” Knuckles said, his way of ending the meeting. As the Mobians rose from their seats, the echidna advanced on Mighty before he could get up. “Stay here, we need to talk,” he whispered into his ear.
As soon as the room emptied, Mighty furiously slammed his hands on the table, his vast strength causing a crack to form horizontally across the surface. “How can we just go on and ‘protect the company’s interests’ when people are dying?!” he seethed angrily, before turning his glare towards the echidna. ” They dropped a section of the city onto another section of the city!! How can we justify that much death?! We may have dirtied our hands from time to time, but this is just too damn much!!” He gripped the sides of his head and his teeth clenched tightly. “How long are we going to stand by and watch this, Knux? How. Long?”
Knuckles took a seat and waited for a few moments after the armadillo vented his frustrations. “…You’re letting your emotions get the better of you, Mighty,” he finally said in a cool tone. “Vector has told me of the comments you made during your last sortie. I understand your disgruntlement – hell, I sympathize with you, but this is the line of work that we are in. The line of work that you chose to be in. Success means that we live for another day. Failure means either the Roboticizer or death.” He folded his arms and softened his gaze at him. “But if you want out of this, if this is too hard, then just say so. I won’t hold it against you.”
Mighty glowered defiantly at him for a few moments and then turned away, his eyes focused on the door instead. “…No,” he spat. “…I’m staying. Someone needs to be the moral compass of this team… Might as well be me.”
“Good,” Knuckles said, a smile creeping up on his lips. Leaning back, he pulled out his handset and checked the time. ‘Shit, I’m gonna be late…‘ He stood up and motioned to the door. “Alright, get going then, Might. Find Corneo and bring him back to us. And the costs to replace the table will be coming out of your pay.”
Silently, the armadillo stood and shuffled towards the door. The door swooshed open as he approached, but Mighty turned back, his nostrils flared and lip curled up into a sneer. “You know,” he said bitingly. “You asked all of us to make a promise to a very good friend of ours. And we kept it at your request.” He narrowed his eyes and cast a dark look at the echidna. “I just can’t believe that after all these years, you were the one who had to break it.” Mighty broke eye contact and left the room, the automatic door closing silently behind him.
Knuckles maintained his stoic composure, despite feeling taken aback by the harsh words that were now ringing through his skull. After what felt to him like hours, he got up, left the briefing room and made his way to his office. Closing the door, he put away his gloves and sidearm in the storage cabinet and then sat at his desk. He opened and powered up his laptop. When it was loaded, he opened a program and started typing absentmindedly. Next, he checked his handset, flicking through messages that he had already read in the morning. He then opened a notebook beside him and jotted a few, nonsensical lines.
He randomly performed these three actions, repeating them until he heard a faint, hissing noise from above. Knuckles then set his pen down on his desk and straightened up in his chair. “Hey Archy,” he called out.
A puff of thick, plum-coloured smoke suddenly appeared on his desk, right beside his laptop. When it evaporated, the echidna saw before him a bipedal fire ant. The stranger stood six inches tall and wore a brown fedora and a matching sleeveless leather jacket. His antenna waved out from two holes in the brim of his hat, which he tipped with one of his four arms as a greeting. His mandibles crinkled upwards into a smile. “Mornin’ Guardian,” he spoke in a voice much deeper than his small stature.
“Don’t call me that,” Knuckles growled, glowering darkly at the ant. “I don’t deserve-”
“OK, let’s skip the pity party, hm?” Archimedes cut in, crossing both pairs of arms and clacking his mandibles. “I only got enough juice to keep the jamming devices and camera feedback active for about five – maybe ten – minutes. Which reminds me,” he arched an eyebrow. “What kept you so long? I thought the code word Vector told you would have had you running here faster than a lightning’s flash?”
Knuckles snorted. “The last twenty-four hours have been… a challenge,” he retorted.
“The Plate fallin’?”
“And other things,” the echidna added, his eyes trailing away from the fire ant to the storage locker “…Kintobor played our hand.”
Archimedes’ eyes widened. “The girl, then?”
Knuckles didn’t answer, but clenched his fists tightly.
“I see,” the fire ant said, understandingly. “Well, let’s get down to why I’m here first.” He started pacing the desk. “I checked out those locations you gave me the last time I was here. All of them showed no trace of your people. However one of those tips led me to another place: a secluded compound in the forests near Westopoils.”
Knuckles cocked his head. “Westopolis? Isn’t that where-”
“-Where Mighty and Ray found Julie-Su? Yeah,” Archimedes finished. “I managed to poke around the place; it was deserted by the time I got there. Looked like they had to make a hasty exit and their clean-up crew did a shitty job. They took most of the important stuff, but I was able to find a few things.”
He stopped pacing, pointed towards the echidna’s desk and snapped his fingers. “Open the drawer,” he ordered.
Knuckles opened it to reveal a manilla folder that wasn’t there before. Placing it on the desk, he riffled through the pages and his lips tightened into a thin line. “Interesting,” he muttered.
“Interesting? More like shady,” Archimedes jibed sharply. “I bet that there’s the reason why Julie-Su has no memory of the last ten years.”
“…There’s a name here,” Knuckles said, his eyes hovering over a word on the page he was holding. “Twilight Cage? What does that mean?” He pinched the ridge between his eyes. “And why does it sound familiar?”
“There’s a location associated with that word on the following page,” the fire ant added. “It’s across the West Ocean, near Station Square. I’m planning to hit that next to see where it leads.”
“Alright,” Knuckles said, his eyes still on the page he was reading. His hands were trembling. “In the meantime, I’ll have Honey do some hacking in the Kintobor servers. Perhaps she can find something there about this ‘Twilight Cage’…” He then let out a long, deep exhale of breath and his shoulders drooped tiredly. Here, in the cover of static, he could let his guard down. “Finally, Archy. We might have a lead. An actual solid lead to my clan-”
“Knuckles, how long are you gonna keep this up?” Archimedes asked all of a sudden. Startled, the echidna looked down to see the fire ant cross both pairs of his arms and level an admonishing glare at him. “This ‘corporate pawn’ act? You’re clearly out of it right now, I can see it in your face.” He unfolded an arm and adjusted his hat. “I know you’ve killed many over the years, but yesterday’s actions were just over-the-top. The Plate and the girl… Knux, you gotta do something?”
The echidna gritted his teeth. “First Mighty and now you?” he grumbled, placing the papers back into the folder and which he then stuffed into a briefcase next to his desk. “What is it with everyone today?”
“Knuckles, can’t you see?!” Archimedes reasoned, his arms spread imploringly. “Gerald was willing to drop a frigging Plate to eliminate six people! What’s to stop him from doing it again?! Can’t-”
“What can I do, Archimedes?!” Knuckles cut him off, uttering the fire-ant’s full name acidically. He rose up, his hands were placed atop his desk and his teeth were bared. “We are being watched at every turn! There are cameras and listening devices in my office and my home! I’m pretty sure that after this fiasco blows over, we’ll have monitors keeping a direct eye on us!” He sat down and breathed slowly in an attempt to calm himself down. “To the company, I’m just an orphaned echidna who rose through the ranks by being a highly unbiased assassin. To Kintobor, who deeply distrusts and fears all Mobians, I’m a threat.” His eyes locked onto the fire ant’s. “He doesn’t know what I am or what importance I hold within my clan. And it needs to stay that way for the foreseeable future until we can find my people and reclaim our home and its greatest treasure. So yes, we’re not making a move right now.”
Archimedes opened his mouth to counter, but closed it. “…Fair enough,” he said instead. He looked away, his mandibles clacking together in thought before he looked back to Knuckles. “…Still, you can’t just leave the girl here,” the ant started, speaking slowly to catch the echidna’s attention. “… If your hands are tied, what if, instead, you let those guys from TORNADO handle getting her out?”
Knuckles’ head turned sharply and he looked over the diminutive Mobian with a critical eye. Seeing that he got his attention, Archimedes continued. “…Dunno about you, but I get a strong feeling that they survived that fiasco at Sector 7. Call it ant’s intuition.” He then paced the length of the desk once again.
Knuckles’ eyes followed him, an eyebrow arching upwards as he thought about his friend’s suggestion. “… So what you’re saying is that I should cover up their deaths?” he inquired slowly.
“That, and aid them in some way when they eventually come up here,” Archimedes said, a wry smile on his face. “Something tells me – Ancient or no – that they’d fight tooth and nail to get her back.” The ant then looked at the time on Knuckles’ laptop. “Well, time’s up for now,” he said, adjusting his hat. “I’ll let you know through the usual channels when I’ve found something. I’ll see you soon. And think about what I said, hm?” He tipped his hat and then vanished in a puff of smoke.
Knuckles watch the place where the fire ant disappeared from for a few beats. Realizing that the jamming devices were about to shut off, he grudgingly returned to his laptop. In the midst of his aimless busywork, he noticed to his surprise that the screen displayed Nack’s dossier of Tails – the former Ex-SOLDIER aligned with TORNADO. As he heard the faint hiss shut off, he opened the file.
Perusing the contents, his mind then turned to the fox. ‘The sword, the demeanor, even that look of defiance… they’re all too similar to be just a coincidence,’ he pondered, a perturbed frown crossing his muzzle. ‘If the fates are inclined, he may also have inherited his propensity to survive catastrophic explosions…’
‘If that’s the case… If he’s alive… Perhaps I can use him to get Cosmo out?’
Opening the notebook next to him to scribble some notes, he heard himself mumble under his breath. “I’m gonna make sure I keep our promise to you, Sonic.”