Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Train Troubles



Cream

A small crowd had congregated at the Train Graveyard station as Cream, Bark, Tails, Biggs, Wedge and Jessie arrived to take the train to the Plate. Approaching the gathering, Cream spotted Johnny – the red-haired regular at her bar – in the centre of it all. He was wearing a white, grease-smudged shirt, a faded black, leather vest, a pair of fashionably torn blue jeans and worn travelling shoes. Next to him was a small pack that was filled with all his valuables. 

He stared forlornly into the crowd that gathered around him. “Guess this is it, everybody,” he said to them, his voice sombre. “It’s time I left. I’m heading far away… but when I come back here, I’ll be a better man! I promise!”

The crowd, a mix of Humans and Mobians cheered at the redhead’s declaration. A badger – whom Cream also recognized as Johnny’s closest friend – stepped up to him. He raised his bowed head to him. “Johnny, do you really have to go?” he asked, his eyes welling with unshed tears. “What about your mom and dad? What about me? Who’s gonna be my drinking buddy from now on?”

Johnny scoffed at the mention of his parents. “They wanted me gone long ago,” he said bitterly. “Always said I’d never amount to anything, but I’m gonna prove them wrong! And,” he clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder, smiling broadly at him. “You’ll be fine, man. You’ll have to do the drinking for the both of us, but when I get back, you’ll be the first to know all of my tales! I swear!”

The badger sniffed and started to rub his eyes with the back of his arm. “I-I ain’t cryin’ man,” he said, his voice wavering. “Just-Just something in my eye, that’s all…”

Smiling wistfully, Johnny picked up his pack and started to head into the train car when he spotted Tails and the members of TORNADO just behind the crowd. His smile brightened at the sight of the rabbit. “Cream!” he called to her, waving. 

Cream’s jaw dropped in surprise at the sight of her regular customer. She approached, with the others following closely behind. “Johnny! You’re seriously leaving?!” she said, shocked. “I thought you told your mom whatever to get a rise out of her! I didn’t think you were serious?!” 

“No, he’s serious alright,” Johnny’s badger friend cut in, his face looking glum. “After we all listened in on your conversation between you and the merc last night, he got real quiet, you know? This was probably on his mind from time, but you two talking probably spurred him on-” He paused, his eyes widening and he clapped his palms onto his mouth. “Oooh… I don’t think… I was supposed to mention that… Heh heh,” he muttered through covered fingers.

The brawler could feel the heat of her blush going down her cheeks and across her neck. She scowled indignantly at the crowd, who in turn glared at Johnny’s friend. 

The badger looked down to the ground, abashed. “Oops… Sorry?”

“Cream, I can’t stay here and live my life in this dump, drinking myself to death,” Johnny said suddenly, catching everyone’s attention. “I gotta do something worthwhile in my life while I still have time to do so. I mean, look at him!” he pointed to Tails. “He joined SOLDIER, just like he said he would! If he can do something amazing like that, then damn right I can do the same!” He gathered his stuff and headed for one of the cars near the back of the engine. “This ain’t goodbye! I’ll be back! And you, childhood friend!” he shouted out to the two-tailed fox. “You make sure you take care of Cream! You promised, right?!”

Cream watched as Tails nodded, his eyes steely. “Yeah,” he said.

Johnny smiled heartily and flashed a thumbs-up as he climbed into the passenger car. Soon enough, the train whistle blared out. “11:40 train to Sector 4! Last call for boarding!” the red-dressed conductor yelled out.

“And that’s our cue,” Bark said, tapping his foot impatiently. “Let’s get on.” They hustled to the car at the front of the train and boarded it. Once onboard, the bear motioned Biggs, Wedge and Jessie to his side. “Hum, looks like this ain’t a private car,” he whispered. “So split up and act casual.”

The three nodded. Manoeuvring around passengers, Biggs opened the car door and ushered his teammates through before shutting it behind him. Those same passengers turned and caught sight of Bark’s Gun-Arm and Tails’ massive sword. Nervously, they began to disperse to the next cars, putting themselves as far away from the dangerous-looking individuals as possible. 

Soon enough, the car was empty, save for a homeless canary bird wrapped in a ratty blanket at the back of the warmly-lit passenger car and a black-haired Human wearing a burgundy suit, a white, starched shirt and a matching burgundy tie with polished black shoes. An embossed Kintobor pin was attached to his lapel. He sat, reading the daily news until he heard the sounds of people shuffling past him. The Human dropped his paper, looked around the near-empty car until he saw the three Mobians. He gave a disdainful sniff. “… Hmph, hoodlums again,” he muttered out loud. He turned to a new page of the periodical and then raised it in front of him to hide from view. “Don’t I just have all the luck on Mobius?”

Bark eyed the man in the suit, hearing his words. His good hand clenched into a fist, which shook with anger. Before Cream could grab his arm to stop him, the bear sauntered up to the Human hidden behind his papers. “Hey,” he said harshly. “You say something about us?”

The man drew the newspaper closer to his face, hoping that the Mobian would get the message and leave him alone. His actions only increased Bark’s ire. “Yo, I said, did you say something about us?!” he growled as he tore the paper away from the now-terrified Human. Relishing the look of fear in the man’s eyes, Bark sneered at him before exaggeratedly looking around the train car. “Well, well, look at that,” he whistled sarcastically. “Car’s gone empty all of a sudden… Now, I wonder why?”

The red-suited man trembled in his seat, his lip quivering as he tried to say something. Summoning up all his courage, he looked Bark dead in the eye. “It’s… It’s empty… b-because of g-g-guys like you!” he sputtered out, his voice high and squeaky.

Bark suddenly slammed his fist onto the seat beside the man, causing him to tuck his head in between his knees. Despite his fear, his mouth didn’t stop moving. “You’ve… you’ve seen the news, right?” he spat out. “TORNADO says there’ll be more bombings! Only devoted Kintobor employees like me would go to the top plate on a day like today!”

The bear’s eyes narrowed. “You work for Kintobor?” he asked, levelling his gun at the executive’s head and pressing a barrel against his temple. 

Feeling the cold metal against his head, the Kintobor employee trembled harder. “I’m not going to stoop to violence… and I’m not giving you my seat either!” he whimpered loudly, his voice rising in pitch as he cowered in fear.

‘OK, that’s enough!’ Moving quickly, lest Bark pulled the trigger, Cream quickly went up to the bear and grabbed his shoulder. “Bark, stop it!” she said, glaring disapprovingly at him.

The bear cast a sidelong glance at the rabbit, his brows furrowing deeply. “Fine,” he huffed, pulling his arm back. He leaned in close to the snivelling Human. “You’re fucking lucky she was here to stop me, you piece of shit,” he said in an undertone before rising and heading back, with Cream right behind.

Tails watched apathetically at the exchange. “You done?” he asked the bear when he returned. 

Bark bared his teeth at the fox, growling. “Why the hell are you always so calm?” he said through gritted teeth. “Are you some kind of robot or something?” The fox ignored his comment.

A moment later, the passenger car rattled suddenly as the couplers between the cars snapped into place, linking them to one another. “Looks like they just finished connecting the cars,” Cream said, looking around. “We’re on our way.” 

The engine hissed and the train began to move. “So, we’re on the train,” Tails said to Bark as he fingered the lone Fire Emerald inserted into his new piece of armour. “Tell me what’s our current situation, and what’s our next target?” 

Bark chortled at the fox’s attitude. “Heh, well aren’t you the consummate professional?” he said sarcastically, before dropping his voice to a whisper. “Alright, listen. So the original plan was that we’d coast to Sector 4, get off the train and sneak into the reactor through the under-Plate system, as we discussed last night. But on the morning news, it was announced that Kintobor had upgraded their sensor arrays for all the upper plate ID checkpoints-”

“Which they’re really proud of,” Cream cut it, her hands on her hips.

“Apparently, this upgrade can spot even the most convincing of counterfeits,” Bark continued. “So we can’t use our fake IDs anymore.”

“Good morning and welcome to the Megapolis Lines,” the intercom buzzed out, cutting into Bark’s speech. “You are currently riding the Magenta Express Line to the upper plate. Our next stop is the Sector 4 Financial District station. The arrival time will be 11:55 am.”

Cream glanced at the digital clock above them. The time read 11:45 am. “So that means we have about three minutes until we reach the checkpoint,” she said.

“Exactly,” Bark said. “So the new plan is that we jump off the train before we hit that point and then find a way to the reactor through the plate’s underside. According to the data Biggs swiped from No. 1, we can use the maintenance walkways and ducts by the security checkpoint to bust our way in instead.”

“OK,” the fox said, pushing off from the wall. “So what should we do in the meantime?”

Bark rolled his eyes. “The hell do I care what you do?” he said, exasperated. “Just sit down and shut the hell up!”

“Sorry,” Tails replied, not sounding sorry at all. “I got this thing against sitting down in trains.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Bark groaned, throwing his arms into the air. “Just do whatever you want!” He stepped away and took a seat near the still trembling Kintobor employee. 

Taking that as her cue, Cream traversed down the nearly empty car to the rail monitor screen. “Hey Tails,” she called out. “Come over here! Let’s look at the map monitor together.”

Nodding, Tails advanced up the car. As she watched the fox approach her, Cream thought she heard the whinging of the trembling Human Bark terrorized. But as she strained her ears, she instead heard his breathless exclamations. “Oh man, oh man…” he mumbled to himself elatedly. “I’m gonna brag to everyone at work about this!”

Suddenly, the fox’s sinewy and lithe form filled her vision. He looked down at her and the fighter felt transfixed by his electric blue gaze. ‘So intense…’ Snapping out of her trance, she looked coyly at him. “Hmm…” she said with a finger tapping her chin. “Have you seen this already?  Well, that’s OK.” She turned back towards the monitor but craned her head to look at the fox from the corner of her eye, a sly smile on her lips. “Come a little closer, I promise I won’t bite.” She had to give her friend credit for keeping a straight face.

What she didn’t expect was for Tails to sidle closer to her, their bodies almost touching. He extended his arm, his hand nearly brushing against the rabbit’s cheek and touched the capacitive screen to activate the unit. He noticed her eyes were still on him. “What?” he asked.

Flustered, Cream hastily turned her head back towards the monitor. “N-nothing,” she said as she brought up the rail map.

At that moment, the lights on the train car started flashing red and the intercom emitted a shrill beeping noise. An error message appeared on the rail monitor. The rabbit jumped back in surprise. “What? That’s odd…” she said to Tails. “The upper plate checkpoint was supposed to be further-”

“Attention all passengers!” a booming, female voice spoke from the intercom. “Type A Security Alert! Unidentified passengers have been confirmed! A search of all cars will be conducted!” 

The intercom repeated its message as Cream looked around, her eyes wide. “What’s happening?” she said, perplexed.

Tails’ eyes darkened, his eyebrows lowered. “I’ve got a good idea…” he started before the door leading into the next car suddenly opened, revealing a wide-eyed Jessie. 

“Guys! We’re in trouble,” she said, alarmed. “I’ll explain later, but you gotta hurry into the next car!” 

Her eyes darted away from Cream and Tails, which the fighter noticed. ‘She’s hiding something…’ 

Bark stood up, his teeth bared in a mixture of rage and apprehension. “Jessie! What the hell-”

“Look, we don’t have time for this!” the brunette shouted, turning around. “Just get in here before they force it closed and lock it!” She braced herself against the door, holding it in place. “Hurry!”

“Motherfucker,” Bark hissed to himself, hurrying up to the door. “Someone blew it…”

“Unidentified passengers located in Car #1. Preparing to-” The intercom was cut off as it was destroyed from a hail of bullets coming from Bark’s Gun-Arm.

“Shut it!” he snarled, before wheeling on the other two Mobians. “Let’s get moving!”

The three dashed into the next car, with Jessie right behind them. The door forced itself shut and two, thick steel bars slid into place horizontally from the middle, barring access to the previous car. “Car #1 Locked Down. Upgrading to Warning Level #2,” the intercom in the next car announced. “Scanning for unidentified passengers…”

 As soon as they entered the car, Bark rounded on Jessie. “Again, what the hell’s going on here, Jess?!” he shouted. 

The brunette looked down and away from the bear. “Look,” she said, hesitantly. “I think I screwed up, OK? I’m sorry…”

“What!?” he roared, spittle flecking from his mouth. “Whaddya mean, ‘I screwed up?!”

“Bark, you can yell at her later!” Tails’ calm and collected voice interrupted the ursine’s tirade. He had to shout over the sirens. “For now, let’s get the hell out of here!”

“Fine,” he responded, looking away from the Human before giving her the last word. “Jess, this ain’t no joke, you hear? I want an explanation as to how you messed this up.” 

Wordlessly, she headed to the end of the next car where Biggs and Wedge were waiting. The raven-haired man waved them down. “Hurry up yo!” he shouted amid the panicked commuters trying to make sense of what was going on. 

“Yeah! They’re gonna lock the door!” Wedge added, holding the door to the next car open.

“Unidentified passengers located in Car #2, prepare for lockdown.”

“Run!” Jessie yelled.

The group hurried to the end of the car, pushing past the other passengers in their mad dash to the end. They barely scraped through as the door behind them locked into place. “Car #2 locked down. Upgrading to Warning Level #3,” the robotic voice from the speaker announced. A moment later, another message blared through. “Error: ID storage overload. Purging data from Cars 1 and 2 and resuming search once purge is complete.”

Jessie heaved a sigh before facing her leader. “OK, you want an explanation? Then listen up!” she said crossly. “This train is running the older KI Sec-Type-A security system. Once it detects an illegal ID, the system automatically locks down all of the cars until it reaches the station, where Kintobor guards will be waiting. But due to a flaw in the system though, it locks down each car after a 15 second period. So, by moving up to the back of the train, car by car, we can exploit that flaw and continue with the mission without any hassle.” 

“That doesn’t explain how the fake ID was identified?” Cream said, looking at Jessie. She turned her head away and didn’t respond. 

“Purge Complete. Unidentified Passengers: Moving to the back of the train. Currently tracking location.” 

“Shit! The second wave has started! Come on!” Jessie yelled, spinning around and running down the train. A rooster suddenly blocked her path. Without missing a beat, the woman slowed down, bent over and threw an uppercut. Her fist connected with his solar plexus and knocked the wind out of him. He dropped to the train floor like a sack of stones amid the screams from the other passengers mingling with the blaring alarms. Jessie hopped over the downed avian and followed Biggs and Wedge into the next car. Cream, Bark and Tails were hot on their heels.

“Car #3 Locked Down. Upgrading to Warning Level 4.”

“Keep running!” Tails yelled over the klaxons as the six sped through to the last car. He and Bark pushed through the throng, while Cream effortlessly vaulted over bodies. She passed by Johnny, who was perched on top of his seat and fearfully watched her and the others shoot by him. The group dove into the last car just as the door shut.

“Car #4 Locked Down! Upgrading to Maximum Security Alert!”

Bark grinned. “Alright! We made it!” he exclaimed, trudging up the aisle to the very back of the train where Biggs Jessie and Wedge were waiting. 

Jessie handed the bear a satchel, which he secured tightly onto his back. “There are twelve potions, three ethers and three phoenix downs in there, along with some grenades and extra ammunition,” she called over the sirens. Her voice was almost mechanical and devoid of the usual charm she exuded. Cream also noted that the woman was avoiding both her eyes, as well as Tails’. “I’ll carry the rest of the supplies, as well as the bombs. We’re about two and a half minutes to the checkpoint. If you check the map, there should be a large duct that leads to the plate underside just in front of the sensor array.” She nodded to Wedge, who forced open the door leading out into the tunnel.

“OK,” Bark replied stoically. He turned to the fox and rabbit behind him. “Alright you two, we’re jumping first,” he said to them. “Biggs and the others will follow after us. They’ll guide us to the reactor. Afterwards, they’ll rendezvous with us back at the hideout.”

“Boss, hurry up,” Biggs urged, keeping an eye on his watch. “You guys gotta jump in, like, sixty seconds!”

Cream nodded, her lips pressed into a tight line. “Alright then, I’ll go first,” she said, ignoring the lump in her throat. “Should be no problem.” ‘Yeah, after all, I’m just jumping out of a high-speed train…’ She made her way to the exit, the rushing wind blowing through her hair and ears. She gulped at the sight and then took a glance at her friend, standing behind her. “Scary… huh?” she said to Tails, a hesitant smile crossing her lips.

Tails shook his head and cocked an eyebrow at her. “Too late to be saying that now,” he said. He then frowned. “Why’d you come along anyways?”

The fighter’s eyes widened. ‘Of all the time to ask…’ “Well I came because…” she started, before trailing off into her mind. ‘I came because I want to be -’

“Hey! There ain’t no time for that!” Bark yelled, interrupting Cream’s thoughts. “Jump!”

“Alright, alright, I’m going!” Cream relented, rolling her eyes. She stood at the doorway, glancing back at the two-tailed fox. “Watch closely Tails, I’m gonna jump!” With that, she leaped off, her face in a determined scowl. She rolled on the track upon landing and then flipped back onto her feet.


Jessie

Tails approached the door, glancing back at Bark. “You don’t care if I go first?” he asked. 

Bark cast a hardened look at the mercenary. “A leader always stays ‘til the end,” he replied in an almost sagely tone. “Look, don’t worry about me, just jump off! And don’t get your twin-tailed ass hurt either! This is only the beginning!”

Tails nodded, his eyes flicking over to Jessie for a brief moment before jumping off himself. The woman felt a chill down her spine. 

Bark then stood in front of the car door. He looked at each of the humans with an unreadable expression on his face. “Later! You guys take care of the rest!” he said before jumping off as well. 

Jessie poked her head out to see the bear tuck into an ungainly roll and land with a crouch. She heaved a deep sigh. “OK you two, let’s go,” she said wearily. 

Biggs clapped a hand on her shoulder, which surprised her. “Hey, it’s not your fault,” he said, flashing a roguish grin. “Sides, even with this hiccup, we’re still in the clear! So chin up!” Wedge, beside him, nodded in agreement.

Thanks, guys,’ “Alright then boys, let’s do this!” the brunette said, jumping off the train, the other two following right behind her.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 11

Chapter 11: Emeralds – A Primer



Cosmo

Cosmo let out a loud, shuddering gasp as her eyes snapped open. Bolting upright and looking around wildly, she soon realized that she was at home, in her bed. “A dream,” she whispered as she took several deep breaths to calm herself from the jolt that roused her. “Just… just another dream.”

The flower girl wiped away strands of green hair from her sweat-drenched brow with the back of her hand. She turned to the bedside table, next to the simple, metal-framed bed she slept on, and read the time on the alarm clock that sat upon it. It read 8:22 am. “Ugh… five hours?” she groaned softly as she shifted the covers off of her body and slid towards the edge of the bed. “I feel like I barely slept…” 

Cosmo rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and then stepped onto the cool, oaken hardwood floor. She wore a thin, white nightgown with spaghetti straps that hung loosely on her frame and fell just below her knees. As she brought her arms up and arched her back into a deep stretch, she recalled the events that transpired on the previous night. Visiting the broken pipe in Sector 8, the visions and voices, the reactor explosion and finally…

‘A fox with two tails…’ she thought, turning on the light in her room and heading towards an antiquated mirror hanging on the wall opposite her bed. She stared at her bleary-eyed reflection. She had light circles underneath her eyes, her lips were dry and her hair was undone from the hastily-bundled upbraid she tied up before flopping into the bed. Shaking her hair, she saw the long, bright green tresses flow down to the middle of her back. The rosebuds on either side of her head were closed up. Sucking her teeth at her appearance reflected on the mirror’s surface, she picked up a brush on top of an aged, five-drawer dresser nearby and started to comb out the tangles in her hair. 

‘The uniform… and the sword on his back… they look exactly like his… I never thought to ask him back then if it was one of a kind or not. It could just be a random coincidence that the fox has the exact same sword… but still…’ 

As she reflected on the mysterious stranger, she separated her hair into three bunches and neatly tied them into a large braid. She then placed a bright, red elastic hairband at the bottom end to keep it in place. Finally, she reached for the pink ribbon that was folded up on the dresser next to where the hairbrush lay, wrapped it around the base of her braid and tied it into a bow. 

Cosmo checked herself over but then noticed that something was off about her appearance. Peering at her reflection closely, her blue eyes widened as she realized what was missing. “Oh! Wow, I can’t believe I forgot about these!” she said, resisting the urge to smack herself on the forehead. “Sheesh, get a grip, Cosmo.” 

She closed her eyes and felt the buds on either side of her head start to rustle. A second later, she opened her eyes and she saw in her reflection two, blood-red roses in full bloom. Smiling, she shut off the light and opened the curtains in her room to let in what little light passed through the open sections of the Plate above her. “Good morning, Sector 5,” she whispered, a pensive look on her face. Turning away from the window, she disrobed, pulled on a clean duplicate of the dress she wore yesterday and then set about her morning routine. Entering the bathroom next door and turning on the tap, Cosmo let herself get lost in her thoughts amidst the monotonous tasks of getting ready for the day. 

Man, what a weird dream… Hooded men, bright green eyes and that two-tailed fox… It feels like someone or something is trying to get a message to me, but whatever that message is, it’s coming in pieces. And whatever pieces I do get, I can barely understand them.

Cosmo washed her face and patted it dry on the towel hung near the sink. As she shut off the water, she gripped the taps tightly as a forlorn feeling washed over her. ‘I wish mom was still here to tell me what all of this means…’ Snapping herself out of her funk, the flower girl opened the door and bounded down the stairs to the kitchen to see her mother preparing breakfast. 

She was a woodchuck in her late forties with auburn brown fur and shoulder-length chestnut hair tied into a high ponytail. Turning to face Cosmo, she wore a simple off-white, floor-length dress and a forest-green apron. Her lips perked upwards. “Good morning, sweetheart,” she said warmly.

“Morning Mom!” Cosmo replied playfully, beaming at the older Mobian. “I hope I didn’t wake you when I got home early this morning?”

The woodchuck shut off the stove and drew near the green-haired girl. “No, but I couldn’t fall asleep anyway until I knew you were home,” she said, her smile dropping slightly. She tenderly placed her hands on Cosmo’s cheeks and cupped them, concerned hazel eyes looking into the flower girl’s own crystal blue. “Are you OK dear?” she asked her, a tinge of worry in her voice. “I-I hope you weren’t anywhere near that explosion?”

‘Sorry, mom…’ “Nope, I was on the Sector 3 plate,” she lied effortlessly, doing her very best to hide her guilt. “It took forever to get on a train home – what’s usually a half hour’s trip took me almost three!” She pouted, hoping it would help sell the lie further. “I would have called you but-” 

Her mother’s stern look cut her off mid-sentence. “But nothing,” she said plainly. “You should have called – what if something happened to you? What if-” she halted, looking away from Cosmo. She sighed and then tenderly looked back at Cosmo’s face. Her hands lingered on the flower girl’s cheek and she leaned into their warmth.

“Never mind, at least you’re home safe and that’s all that matters,” her mother finally said, her hands sliding off. She then entered the kitchen and returned with a plate of sunny-side-up eggs, two slices of bread topped with fresh fruit and a small bowl of oatmeal. “Eat up,” she said, setting the dishes on the well-used wooden kitchen table. “You know what I always say: Breakfast is –“

“The most important meal of the day, yeah mom, I know,” Cosmo finished, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Picking out a fork, a knife and a spoon from the cutlery drawer on the opposite side of the wall, she took a seat in her favourite of the three chairs surrounding the little table – the one facing the window overlooking the vast and beautiful garden that she tended to- and began to eat, her mind still preoccupied with the dream. 

‘It’s how it ended that’s getting to me; I saw myself falling through the roof of the church and into the flower bed. Could that mean something?’ she paused, her finger tapping her chin in thought while chewing her food. Her mother returned to the table and placed a glass of orange juice near her. ‘I guess I know where I’m going to be today.

Cosmo wolfed down the rest of her meal and swigged down her glass of orange juice. “Mom, I’m heading to the church!” she called, rising from her seat. “I probably won’t be back until the end of the day. I’ll take yesterday’s leftovers with me.”

Her mother closed her eyes and shook her head in exasperation. ”Alright Cosmo,” she said wearily. “Just make sure you’re safe out there, OK? And try to be home early, please?” 

The flower girl shot her mother a cheeky grin and kissed her on the cheek as she passed her by. She headed to the fridge, took out her uneaten dinner from the previous night and packed it into an insulated lunchbox. Grabbing her basket and her retractable staff from the table near the front door, she yelled out a goodbye, opened the door and then left for the church.


????

Tails opened his eyes. 

Instead of seeing the room that was loaned to him since his arrival at Vanilla’s Haven, he saw a vast expanse of white space. The fox blinked and scanned the expansive and endless void for a moment until he made a logical conclusion. ‘I must still be asleep,’ he thought. 

“Hey,” a voice called out from behind him. It echoed lightly within the expanse

Startled, the fox whirled around and grasped for his sword only to find that it wasn’t on his back. Eyes narrowed, he warily faced the newcomer. It was wearing a black robe and hood that shrouded its features, save for its feet and hands. It wore a pair of white gloves and red and white sneakers. The figure was only a few feet shorter than he was and its voice, though it sounded young and muffled by the garments it wore, was slightly familiar to him. 

“Do you know what you’re doing here?” the shadow asked. “Do you know… who you really are?”

“…Of course I know who I am,” Tails said, his own voice echoing throughout the space. “I’m Tails, a former member of SOLDIER. I quit them and became a mercenary.”

The figure leaned forward and tilted its head to the side as if it were scrutinizing the fox. “So, you say you know who you are and what you’re doing,” it said. “But is this really what you should be doing; fooling around and taking the odd job here and there?” Straightening up, he raised a gloved hand, pointing a finger at the warrior. “The problems you have right now are serious. Much more serious than you’ve let yourself believe. They won’t go away just by thinking about them, nor can you change anything by just sitting back and looking at it.” 

Before he could ask, an intense pain erupted inside the Tails’ mind. He screamed out and dropped to his knees as he clutched his head with both hands, thrashing about in an attempt to relieve his suffering. “What… What do… you…? What are you talking about!?” he said, gritting his teeth in agony.

The figure dropped his hand. Instantly, Tails felt the pain stop, as if his head was released from a tight vice. “Below you. Look into it and tell me what you see,” the shadow instructed.

Still on his knees, the fox looked down and saw a reflection of himself, with eyes closed and body still. Tails felt the hairs on his neck stand up as his doppelganger started to open its eyes. The right eye was his usual electric blue, but with silver and gold flecks dancing around the iris. The iris of the left eye however was a harsh, light green, the pupil a slit instead of a round shape. The eye stared back at Tails with malice. “What is this?” he questioned, feeling an unnatural tingle going down his spine.

“Something that you should have known and that you should have realized,” the voice said cryptically. “What you might be feeling now is the realization that the worst thing imaginable has happened.”

“What’s happened?” Tails asked, looking back at the hooded person and his patience nearing its breaking point. “Tell me, WHAT’S HAPPENED?!” As he shouted, the white space around him started to disintegrate, leaving behind nothing but darkness. 

As the degradation inched closer and closer to the two, the wraith-like being brought up a gloved digit to its lips and motioned the warrior to be silent. “The worst has happened,” he repeated. 

“It started moving.”

Before Tails could open his mouth, the darkness swallowed him whole. The last sound he heard before blacking out was a loud thump…


Tails

Tails jolted awake to the sound of a fist pounding the door. He was back at Vanilla’s Haven, in the room Cream loaned him. “Wake up foxy! Meet downstairs at the bar, it’s go time!” Bark’s voice called out from behind the room door. 

Getting up, the fox shook the cobwebs out of his head and wiped the cold sweat off his brow. ‘Man, what a dream,’ he thought as he headed into the washroom to refresh himself. Returning to the room, he pulled on his SOLDIER uniform, strapped on his armour and headed downstairs to the bar which was abuzz with activity.

Biggs, Wedge and Jessie had just departed as the Ex-SOLDIER walked in. Bark was sitting at one of the tables with a grizzled-looking hound. The two were speaking in low tones over papers that were scattered all over the surface. Cream did a once-over of the bar to ensure that things were locked and secured tightly. Hope sat at the bar counter with some paper and a box of crayons. 

Seeing that everything was in order, she picked up a carafe filled with coffee and walked up to a table on the far end of the bar where a woman was sitting with a mug in her hand. Tails recognized the Human as Cream’s next-door neighbour.

“Thanks for taking care of Hope on such short notice,” the rabbit said to the woman apologetically. She refilled her coffee and placed two packets of cream on the table. “I mean, what with the fiasco going on between the two of you and Johnny-”

The thin, auburn-haired woman shook her head. ”No, no, it’s alright,” she cut in, her voice a high, nasally tone that made Tails feel slightly uncomfortable. “It gives me something else to think about besides the fact that my troublemaking son is leaving home… It’s a good distraction.” 

Cream took her hand, patted it gently and shot her a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, everything will work out,” she said optimistically, turning around to return the coffee pot to the percolator. The woman smiled ruefully at her retreating figure and then stared forlornly into the steaming mug of black liquid.

In the midst of the conversation, Tails retrieved his sword and sheathed it. He approached the bartender and snatched a piece of toast from a plate that she set on the bar counter in front of her. “Oh, good morning Tails!” she said, turning and smiling at him. “I was just talking to the neighbour. The person we usually ask to watch Hope is feeling ill, but Johnny’s mother stepped up and agreed to help, thank goodness.” She tucked a strand of hair behind one of her long ears. “So… I trust you slept well?”

“Yeah, I slept alright.” Tails said as he took a bite out of the toasted bread. Smirking, he added, “But if I was next to you, I’d probably sleep a lot better.”

Cream’s eyebrows shot straight up in shock. “Um… I-I don’t know what you mean,” she stammered, turning her reddening face away from the fox, who let out a chuckle at her expense. Composing herself and the blush receding, Cream looked back at the fox, her eyes alight with determination. “Tails, I’m going with you today,” she said, her mouth set in a grim line. “It’s all hands on deck for the mission since Kintobor is probably gonna throw everything at us. And before you argue,” she cut in, seeing his mouth open. “I’ll be fine. Besides, I want to see the fruits of my training. I want to know if I’ve done enough to really stick it to them, you know?”

Closing his mouth, Tails nodded. “Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. He looked over her shoulder towards Bark and the hound sitting with him. “Who’s that guy he’s talking to?” he asked. 

“Oh, that’s the Weapon Shop owner from down the street,” Cream replied, inspecting her gloves as she spoke. “That reminds me; Bark wanted to talk to you about something. You should probably see what it’s about.”

Finishing the light breakfast and wiping the crumbs off of his muzzle, Tails headed over to the table where the polar bear and the hound were sitting. “Bark,” he said, crossing his arms. “You wanted to see me about something?”

Bark raised his hand and motioned him to wait. “OK, so we’ll see you in a few,” he said to the hound, who got up from his seat, shook the bear’s hand with a toothy grin and then left. The bear then turned to the mercenary, his lips set into a tight line. “Today, we’re hitting the No. 5 Energen Reactor and RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant,” he said. “As we predicted, Kintobor has upgraded their security to make things harder for people to get up and down the Plate. We have a workaround for it, so I’ll fill you in on the full details once we get on the train.” 

He paused, took off his hat and placed it on the table. His eyes on the red and white cap, he then ran his hand through his long, yellow-white hair before exhaling loudly. 

Tails surmised that there was something else he wanted to say. “Spit it out, Bark,” he addressed sharply. “You didn’t ask for me just to state the obvious, so what’s up?”

“Alright, look,” the polar bear started, sounding incredibly uncomfortable. “Before the next mission… there’s something I wanna ask you.”

“Go on?”

The bear started to squirm in his seat.  “I, uh… I don’t know how to use Emeralds!” he blurted out, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “I mean – I’m not stupid, I know what they are and all, I just never found a use for ‘em.” 

The fox cocked an eyebrow at his employer. “Is that so?” he said casually. “So, how have you been-”

“Look,” Bark cut in through gritted teeth. “I’ll give back the one you found yesterday at No. 1… but just teach me more about them, alright? We got time? I’m sure it won’t take long…” 

Tails mulled over Bark’s request. ‘Well… as I always say, the more you know, the better your chances of survival…’ “…Fine, I’ll go over it with you,” he said resignedly. He twisted back towards Cream, who watched the conversation whilst nibbling idly on a piece of toast. “Hey Cream, come over here,” he called. “I dunno what you know, but a refresher wouldn’t hurt, right?” 

“R-right,” she said, coming over to the table. Tails noted the hesitance in her voice but paid it no mind as the three Mobians crowded around the table. 

Tails extracted the two hexagonal green gems from the linked slots near the base of his sword and placed them on the table, side by side. They glimmered in the warm, yellow lighting above. The fox stared down at them as he collected his thoughts and he suddenly saw a flash of white across his vision. Closing his eyes and rubbing them with his thumb and forefinger, he saw an image form beneath the lids. A flash of silver spines, the licks of red-orange flames and a cruel, pale green eye with a slitted pupil.

His eyes snapped open and he could feel his heart pounding inside of his chest. ‘I… I must still be a little tired,’ he reasoned. He looked up and saw Bark and Cream looking at him; the former had a perplexed expression, while the latter gazed on with concern. “I’m fine,” he told them, clearing his throat and launching into his explanation. “I’ll be brief since we’re on a time crunch, so try to keep up.”

“As you probably already know, Emeralds are created when Energen condenses to the point of crystallization. This process usually takes years to accomplish naturally, though, with the advent of the Energen Reactors and RINGTEK plants, they’ve become more of a byproduct of the refinement and manufacturing process than anything else.”

“Now as for the types of Emeralds, there are five of them, each a different colour: Green, Yellow, Red, Blue and Purple,” Tails pointed to the two Emeralds on the table. “Green ones are Magic Emeralds. They’re the most common and abundant types of Emeralds you’ll find. Each Green Emerald has its own unique magic associated with it. For example,” he pointed to the Ice Emerald. “If you look closely into this Ice Emerald, you can see tiny crystals inside of it. The same goes for all Emeralds you’ll find; in fact, you can see its effect most of the time by just looking at it.” 

“So then,” Bark interrupted, pulling out the Emerald he swiped from Tails at the No.1 Reactor and placing it on the table beside the other two. “What’s this one do? All I see is some kinda green light inside of it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it does? Pun not intended, of course.”

“…That one’s a Restore Emerald, it allows you to cast Cure magic to heal wounds,” Tails replied, gazing flatly at the bear’s lack of witticism.  “It’s much more effective than using Potions, but you want to be careful not to depend on it too much. Trying to summon up more Mana than you have will lead to a condition called ‘Mana Fatigue.’ It’s when one feels exhausted due to magic overuse. You don’t ever want that to happen while you’re in the thick of battle, so try to be conservative with your magic. Only use it when you need to. If it ever comes to the point where you’re burnt out and there’s trouble, drinking a phial of Ether will replenish your Mana. Ether’s will also temporarily relieve Mana Fatigue, but the best cure is rest.” 

Tails looked past Cream’s shoulder to the tele-crate on the wall which noted the time. ’10:00 am. Based on what Bark and Jessie said last night, we’re taking the 11:40 train on the Magenta Line to upper Sector 4. I’ll also have to account for the time we’ll spend at that weapon shop too…’ “We’ll go over the remaining four types of Emeralds very briefly and then I’ll explain how to equip and use them. Shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes.”

Watching them nod their heads at him, Tails continued. “So, yellow represents the Ability type. Ability Emeralds bestows specialized skills when equipped and tapped into. So, with a Steal Emerald, for example, it will give you knowledge on the arts of thievery. The only downsides are that Abilities have a bit of a windup time since you have to tap into the Emerald in order to use it. Secondly, to keep using these Abilities, you’ll have to keep the Emerald equipped at all times, so it can affect your configurations.” 

“Next are the Red Emeralds, which represent Summon magic. This type of magic is much more powerful than normal magic used with Green Emeralds. Summon Emeralds call forth the entity locked within them to aid you in battle. Calling forth these creatures requires a tremendous amount of Mana, so expect to feel gassed afterwards. This type of magic is best suited for extreme measures.”

“Fourth on the list are blue or Support Emeralds. These can only be equipped onto linked Emerald slots on weapons and armour; placing them in single slots will do nothing. Equipping a Blue Emerald in conjunction with a Green, Yellow or Red Emerald will bestow supportive effects – either passive or active – to the linked Emerald. For instance, equipping a Green Emerald in a linked slot with the active supportive Emerald, All, you can use multi-target types of magic instead of single-target spells. The main drawback is that its strength is proportional to the number of targets. The same idea goes for restorative magic too, so it might be wise to gauge the situation first before using area of effect spells.”

“Most active Support Emeralds have a cooldown period before they can be reapplied to spells, summons or Abilities, so it’s something to be aware of. Passive supports, like Elemental, have no cooldown periods. When linked to elemental magic, the Elemental passive bestows a weapon with an elemental attack or an armour with an elemental defence. Another example is Counter Support, which counters an enemy’s attacks with the paired Emerald.”

“The last type, Purple, belongs to a catch-all category called Independent Passive. Independent Passive Emeralds can increase your physical or mental capabilities, bolster your stamina or Mana reserves, or grant passive abilities such as detecting ambushes from behind or protecting a vulnerable ally. They can’t be linked with anything and you can’t interact with them like the other four. You just set it and forget it. You two with me so far?”

Cream nodded with rapt attention, while Bark did the same, albeit uncertain. 

“OK, so to equip Emeralds, you’ll notice that most weapons and armour have small holes built into them designed for Emerald use – those are called slots. Looks to me like both of your weapons have a single slot to equip Emeralds, so take one from the table and equip them.”

Cream picked up the Lightning Emerald and installed it into the slot on her glove, located on the top of her hand. Bark inserted the Ice Emerald into the slot on the left side of his Gun-Arm.

Tails gave her a small smile. “Good,” he said, sounding pleased. “Now, how do you guys feel?”

Bark hesitantly put a finger on the gem and suddenly jolted backwards as if he received a shock. “Woah, this is awesome!” he said excitedly. “I can feel the power… and something else too?” He closed his eyes and his brows scrunched together. “I feel… a little weaker? What the hell?”

“So do I,” Cream parroted the bear’s sentiments.

Tails scoffed and placed a hand on his hip. “Well that’s the thing,” he said to the two, a smug smile on his lips. “There’s always a catch when it comes to obtaining great power and equipping an Emerald is no different. Magic and Summon Emeralds both enhance your magical output for effective spellcasting. To do that, however, it draws and converts some of your own physical strength. That’s why you feel a bit weaker when you equip one.” 

He saw Bark’s snout twist with confusion, and so he reworded his statement. “Simply put, right now you’re stronger mentally but weaker physically. In a sense, equipping Emeralds is kinda like holding a double-edged sword. It’s a bad idea to overload yourself with lots of Magic and Summon Emeralds, but if you mess around and combine them with the other three types, you’ll find the perfect setup suitable to your fighting style.”

“Using magic is easy; just place your hand on it and concentrate on drawing the energy out. The knowledge locked within the Emerald will assist you with accumulating and shaping the magic with your Mana. Once you’re ready, call the spell to fire it off. Everyone has their own unique style for using magic, so how you use it is up to you. For Commands, tapping into it will allow you to use them. To use Active Supports, place your hand on it first and then slide it over the linked slot to the other Emerald before using it. Doing so will add the effect of the Support Emerald to the linked Emerald,” Tails paused to let the information sink into the two Mobian’s heads before reaching the end of his tutorial. “Place the Emeralds back on the table.”

The two removed the gems from their slots and did as instructed. “Now, one last thing,” Tails said, pointing to the three gems sitting side by side. “When equipped into slots, Emeralds synergize with your body. So as you grow stronger, they grow stronger too. Eventually, they’ll grow enough to grant access to new spells and abilities, while reducing cooldown periods and Mana consumption. When they reach the apex of their growth, they are said to be Mastered. A Mastered Emerald grants the user full access to its power, while providing a wealth of additional bonuses, or so I’m told.” 

Tails paused in his explanation suddenly and he crossed his arms. ‘Come to think of it, I’ve never Mastered an Emerald as of yet…’ he mentally admitted, his brow scrunched together. Noting both that time was short and that Cream and Bark were staring at him, he pushed the thought out of his mind. “So, when an Emerald is Mastered, a chunk of it breaks off and creates a fresh duplicate of the original that can be used and grown all over again. And that’s my lecture,” the fox concluded, taking a breath. “That’s all I can teach you, the rest comes with practice. Honestly, it’s not that tough once you get the hang of it.”

Cream blinked a few times, before nodding slowly in understanding. “I think I get it,” she said, a grin slowly creeping up on her face. “At least, I understand this more than I did before. Thanks, Tails!”

Bark’s scowl said otherwise. “What the hell is all this ‘It’s not that tough’ crap?” he said, levelling a glare at the Ex-SOLDIER. He threw his head back and groaned loudly. “Shi—–t! I’m freaking clueless…,” he said, shaking his head as he left the table for the door. “…Anyway, it’s about time to shove off. We’re heading to the weapons shop down the street. That guy I was talking to has some stuff ready for today’s operation – he’s one of us, don’t worry,” he added, noticing the fox’s skeptical gaze. 

Turning his attention away from Tails, he approached his daughter sitting on the stool by the bar counter. “Now Hope, Daddy has to go out and save the world, alright?” he said to her gently. “So you make sure you’re a good girl to Mrs. Marino and don’t cause trouble for her, otherwise I won’t bring back any ice cream. Do you understand?”

The child perked up at the mention of the frozen sweet. “I promise that I’ll be really, really good, Papa!” she chirped happily. 

“And keep an eye on the store too, kiddo,” Cream added in winking as she followed Bark to the door. Tails inserted the Ice and Lighting Emeralds back into the Buster Sword and shoved the Restore Emerald into his pocket. He waved lazily at the little girl before joining the others.

“Okay! Good Luck!” the girl said cheerfully before returning to her drawing.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Of Promises and Payments



Tails

“Agh! What the hell are you doing?! Just butt out!”

An otter sitting on a pipe near a fenced-off area near the checkpoint to Sector 6 fell to the dirt at the sight of Tails’ greatsword pointing at him. The fox raised an eyebrow at the strange fellow who was cowering in terror. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said, sheathing the blade. “I heard some noise back here. Thought it was a Robian.”

The otter soon calmed down, picked himself up and brushed the dried earth off of his rear end and legs. His coat was a rich, dark brown with a circle of white fur around his left eye. He wore a simple green vest and a pair of black jeans with black and orange sneakers. He faced the fox and glared darkly at him. “Sheesh,” he muttered. “Here I am, sitting by myself in my special spot and you just barge in here with the intent to murder! Geez, man…”

“Wait,” Tails said, holding up a hand to interrupt. “What do you mean, a ‘special spot’?”

The Mobian’s face went from fuming to smiling in an instant. “Yeah!” he exclaimed happily. “This place here is my special spot! It’s amazing! I mean, look what’s beyond there!” 

Curious, Tails looked through the fence the otter was pointing at. His head then started tilting back and his vision was filled by the titanic support pillar that balanced the load of the entire Sector 7 Plate. It was a colossal 75-by-75 meter concrete structure that extended from the ground level and into an insert on the plate’s underside 100 meters up. Right next to it was a smaller, steel tower with various cables going into the pillar.

Though his face portrayed indifference, Tails was inwardly awed at the sight. ‘I’ve passed by this thing multiple times… but I’ve never stopped to take a good look at this thing,’ he thought as he observed the steel tower and the cables that connected it to the support pillar. Those cables must be used to monitor the integrity of the pillar, probably to make sure it remains intact… Wish I could take a closer look at this thing…

The otter grinned. “A sight to see, huh?” he said, his rough and energetic pitch catching the fox’s attention. Tails saw the otter’s face fall a moment afterwards. “Y’know, there was a bombing up top,” he said, crestfallen. “If this pillar should come down, the whole plate’ll fall on us and everyone here will be toast… but what the hell am I worried about?” A grin returned to his face. “No point in doing that now, huh? Chances of this thing falling are moot, in my opinion!” 

‘Well… He seems upbeat, at least…’ Tails thought to himself. He turned around but craned his head back to address the otter. “Listen, I gotta go,” he said. “You should get home where it’s safe.”

The otter scoffed. “Ah, don’t worry about me. As long as I’m in my special, wonderful place, I’ll be alright,” he said. “Oh yeah, my name’s Pacchi. My nan named me that cuz of the white patch on my eye. You’re welcome to come here anytime.” He flashed a salute from his left hand and then turned back to stare at the pillar.

Seeing that no danger was present, Tails walked away from the pillar-obsessed Pacchi’s special spot and towards the residential district. Bark and his crew were waiting for him at the entrance gate. As he loped towards them, he saw the bear cross his arms, his face contorted into a scowl. “Yo, what the hell were you doing just now?” he asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Tails suppressed a sigh. ‘Still overly paranoid.’ “Thought I heard a Robian over there,” he responded, pointing to the fenced-off pillar access behind him. “Turns out that it was only Pacchi.”

The steely look Bark gave him softened slightly as he let out an exasperated chuckle. “Oh, you finally met that guy?” he said, wearily. “Yeah, he’s a weird one – totally and completely obsessed with the pillar, but he’s a decent fella. Anyways, come on y’all!”

Passing through the gate, the group entered the district and wound their way through the narrow streets towards the bar. Though it was the middle of the night, the district was alive with activity. Neighbours were milling about with one another on the streets and Tails could pick up their worry-filled conversations about the events that occurred on the Plate. Children, roused from their slumber, were out on the streets wondering what the commotion was about and why the adults were looking extremely concerned. The nervous chatter was juxtaposed by the loud and raucous noise coming from Vanilla’s Haven at the end of the main thoroughfare.

As they neared the bar, Bark pressed a tiny switch on the side of his Gun-Arm. Tails heard a sharp click and he watched as the bear removed the ammunition that fed into the prosthetic. From one of his side pockets, he then pulled out a long clip with a blue band around the base and inserted it into the feed. Tails looked at him quizzically. “What are you doing?” he asked as the group finally stopped at the entrance to the bar. From the boisterous commotion coming from Cream’s establishment, it sounded like she had a full house tonight. 

“It’s closing time,” the polar bear replied cryptically. He strode up the steps and burst through the saloon doors. He then pointed his gun upwards and opened fire at the ceiling. The explosive sounds of gunshots startled the patrons and they started to depart in droves, leaving their uneaten food and drink behind. Bark chased the rest of the stragglers outside and eventually tossed out a drunkenly protesting, red-headed man with his good arm. “You heard me! It’s one in the friggin’ morning! We’re closed for the night, so GET OUT!” he yelled, stomping down the stairs. He let Biggs, Wedge and Jessie pass him before he stood at the bottom of the stoop, blocking access to the bar. 

‘Hmm… blanks. Now that’s a way to clear out a room,” Tails mused as he walked up to the bar. He was soon accosted by the redheaded drunk, who stood up and shambled towards the warrior. 

“Hey… Heeeeey! If it ishn’t the childhood fren!” he said, his voice slurred from heavy drinking. “Um… Why… Why’d they throw ush out? We wash having funnnn…”

A badger came up to the man’s side and put his arm around his shoulder. “OK Johnny, it’s time to go home,” he said, hoisting him up before turning to the fox. An apologetic half-smile crossed his face. “Sorry about that. After news of the explosion broke out, everyone started to panic… That is until Cream announced that all drinks were half-off…” he sighed. “Say what you will about the state of affairs, but alcohol lets us forget that we live in a shithole, at least for a little while.” He turned towards the house next to the bar; a structure constructed using part of a mobile home and scraps of metal and brick. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take this guy home. His parents’ll be furious, but still.” He departed with his drunk friend in tow.

“Hey, foxy! Get off your slow movin’ ass! You’re going in, aren’t cha?” Bark said harshly. He moved out of the way so that the fox could go through. Tails shot him a withering glare as he strode past him, pushed the saloon doors open and entered the bar.


Cream

“Papa Bear!”

Cream looked up from the sink as Hope bounded up to Tails, her eyes closed and a wide, joyous smile stretched across her lips. Before she could call out to her, the tiny girl then launched herself into the fox’s chest and hugged the startled Mobian tightly. 

“H-Hey!” Tails cried out. 

Hope stiffened. She lifted her head out of his chest and her crystal blue stared into his own glowing, electric blue. Embarrassed, she abruptly let go and dashed away to hide in a nook next to the bar counter. 

Cream watched the exchange and let out a gentle sigh as she opened the flip-top portion of the bar counter. She then walked to the little girl’s hiding place and bent down, smiling at her. “Hey Hope, aren’t you going to say hello to Tails?” she asked. 

Hope squeaked and nodded, her face a shade of fiery red.

Gathering the little girl in her arms, the fighter approached Tails. “Welcome home,” she said. Hope glanced at Tails for a moment and then buried her head into the crook of Cream’s neck, which caused the rabbit to giggle. “It looks like everything went well,” she said, as she placed the girl back down onto the floor. The little Human promptly hid behind the taller Mobian’s legs. Cream then shot Tails a stern look. “Did you fight with Bark?” she asked, her hands on her hips.

Tails gave a sidelong glance to the wall where the pinball machines lay. “…He started it,” he said after a long pause. 

The bartender huffed and crossed her arms. “I figured that was the case,” she said, exasperated. “Bark’s always pushing people around and you,” she emphasized this by pointing a finger at him. “Have been getting into fights ever since we were little.” She paused, her hard expression softening. “I was worried.”

Tails looked back at his childhood friend and shrugged. “No need to. I’m fine,” he said with an air of nonchalance. He then did a once-over on himself. “…Well, a little banged up, but yeah, I’m fine.”

Cream let out a laugh. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” she responded. Her eyes spotted something sticking out of the fox’s side pocket. “Hey Tails, what’s that in your pocket?”

“Oh, this?” Tails said, reaching back and pulling out a pair of thin envelopes. He handed one over to her. “Here, open it.”

The rabbit gave her friend an odd look as she tentatively opened the paper to reveal its contents. Her eyes widened. “Flowers?” she said, a dreamy look in her eyes as she held the yellow daffodil in her hand. “Aw, how nice! You almost never see them here in the slums.” She looked down and tenderly caressed the soft petals with her fingertips. “But…” she started, glancing back at him with a tiny smile dancing on her lips. “A flower for me, Tails? Oh, aren’t you suave?” 

Tails tried to look indifferent, but Cream couldn’t miss the upward quirk of his lips. “No big,” he said, scoffing. “It’s the least I can do, considering all that you’ve done for me lately.”

Cream brought the daffodil up to her nose. “Thank you Tails, it smells wonderful,” she chimed. She turned around to the counter and quickly looked for a vessel to put it in. “I’d really love to fill this place with flowers… I think it’d make a nice touch. Don’t you think so?” When she didn’t hear him respond, she turned back around to see the warrior kneeling in front of Hope. 

“Here,” he said, handing over the other flower in the package to the little girl. “A little something… for putting up with me these last few weeks… and as a thank you for letting me stay here.” 

Her receding blush brightening once again, Hope clutched the white flower towards her chest and blinked shyly at Tails. Wordlessly, she scampered away and hid behind Cream’s legs. She peeked back at the fox for a moment before ducking behind them once more, her cheeks now a deep shade of crimson. 

The rabbit’s heart swelled with joy at the exchange. ‘I never knew he was good with kids,’ she thought as she watched Tails rise up. ‘It seems like Hope’s taken a shine to him, at last.’ “Sorry Tails, Hope’s a little shy,” she said.

Tails shrugged in response as he unsheathed his sword, walked to a nondescript corner of the bar and placed it against the wall. He then took a seat at a table near the one Biggs, Wedge and Jessie occupied. 

Cream’s eyes lingered on the sword for a moment. He had put it at that same spot every single time he returned to the bar after finishing his rounds for the day for the last three weeks. As she stared at the battle-scarred blade, she felt old and hazy memories bubble to the surface. She also felt a prickling sensation both on the scar that lined her abdomen and on a second, smaller scar on the back of her head, next to the base of her right ear. Cream forced herself to stow down feelings of regret and hatred while resisting the habitual urge to touch the scar on her head. She instead hoisted Hope up into her arms, placed her on a barstool and then returned to the back of the counter.

Biggs stood up from his seat, approached the counter and asked for three shots of what he called ‘The Good Stuff.’ Grateful for the distraction, Cream giggled mirthfully as she pulled down a bottle of Downundian Whiskey from the top of the shelf. She then lined three shot glasses on a tray and expertly poured three, precise 1oz drams in each glass, taking care to ensure that not a single drop of the amber liquid was spilled. The task completed, she returned the bottle to the shelf and slid the tray over to Biggs. 

Grinning, the raven-haired man downed one of the shots and took the other two to his table. Cream then turned to the sink opposite of the bar counter to begin washing up for the night, idly listening to the conversation behind her while she worked.

“Heeeey! Tails!” Biggs exclaimed loudly. Cream stifled a chuckle as she imagined the man’s trademark grin plastered all over his face. His speech was starting to slur and his face was slowly turning red – clear cut signs that the whisky was doing its job. “Here, have a drink to celebrate, huh?” He held out the shot glass filled with amber-brown liquid. “It’s the good stuff: snatched from Downunda! It’ll grow hair on your chest, kid!” He paused. “Well… more hair than you have right now, I mean… Anyways, here, have one!”

Tails opened his mouth to speak in what Cream expected to be a refusal.  Instead, she heard him say, “You know what, that’s not a bad idea.” The bartender spun around to see the fox pluck the glass from the Human’s hand and down it in one go. He swallowed and relished the drink. “Ahh… not bad,” he said, flipping the glass upside down and slamming it onto the table. “It could be stronger though.”

“Yeah!” The black-garbed man hollered jubilantly, getting up and pumping his arms in the air. “Yo, you really are a badass! That shit’s just over 80% alcohol and you downed it like nothing! Still,” he calmed down, settling back into the chair once more. “You’re only a rookie in this operation, see? So, y’know, you should listen to what I tell ya.” He lolled his head backward for a moment and stared at the ceiling before it snapped back to Tails. “Oh! Hic… Um… don’t tell Bark what I just told you, alright?”

Tails gave him a flat stare. “Yeah, sure,” he said, his brows lowering into a scowl.

“Hey, aren’t you hungry?” Jessie asked him from across the table. “I mean, all that fighting and running around must’ve worked up an appetite, huh? I’ve eaten three platefuls of food and I’m STILL famished…”

“Yeah, me too,” Wedge chimed in between mouthfuls of the last portions of what was today’s special. “Mmm… Cream’s cooking is the greatest. Hey, Tails, I gotta tell you,” he faced the warrior. “Cream always lets me taste her cooking; it’s probably the reason why I’m all roly-poly. But still, this bar’s famous because of the food and drink here.” He then returned to his eating.

Tails cocked an eyebrow. “… I’ll get something later,” he muttered as he pushed the chair back and stood up. He headed over to the saloon doors when they slammed open as Bark strode in.

Hope’s face brightened at the sight of the bear. “Papa Bear!” she cried as she hopped off of the stool and ran towards her father.

Bark’s grizzled frown morphed into a wide and playful grin of his own as he knelt down with his arms spread open. “Hope! I’m home, little cub!” he said as the little girl flung herself into his arms and nuzzled her face into the soft fur on his chest. The bear soon hefted the little girl onto his right shoulder and straightened up. It was then that he noticed the flower clutched in her tiny hands. “Hey, where’d you get the flower from?” he asked gently.

“Tails gave it to me,” she said, smiling at her father’s bemused look.

“Oh…” he said. He looked at Tails with an unreadable expression on his face before turning back to his adoptive daughter. “Did you thank him?” he questioned.

Hope’s cheeks turned a shade of bright pink as she looked back at the warrior. “… Thank you Tails,” she said before taking her father’s cap and hiding her face behind it. 

Bark burst into laughter. “Hah hah hah! Aww, don’t be shy kiddo,” he said in between guffaws. Reining his laughter in, he took his hat back and replaced it on his head. 

Cream crossed over the bar counter and cleared her throat to catch her leader’s attention. “You alright Bark?” she asked.

“Just great!” he responded, a triumphant grin plastered all over his muzzle. He walked towards the pinball machine at the far end of the establishment. Holding his daughter steady on his shoulder with his Gun-Arm, he bent over slightly, passed his hand underneath the machine and flipped a switch. “Alright, everyone! Get down here, we’re starting the meeting!” he said, pressing the right and left flipper buttons twice and then pulling the plunger back three times.

The floor beneath him, along with the pinball machine, began to descend into a secret area beneath the bar. The three Humans got up and followed their leader, hopping down into the opening. Cream heard someone then reactivate the secret elevator to bring the lift back up. The platform meshed perfectly with the bar’s hardwood flooring and concealed the hideout beneath it once more.

As she watched Tails approach the pinball machine, Cream called out to him. “Hey Tails, why don’t you come sit here for a bit before going down?” she said, jerking her head towards the seat in front of the counter. “I’ll even make you something to drink? How ‘bout it?’ 

The fox halted in his tracks, walked back to the bar and took the aforementioned seat. He placed his elbows on the counter and propped his chin on steepled hands. “Really? You got anything stronger than that stuff you got from Downunda?” he asked teasingly.

The rabbit gave him a wicked smile. “Oh, something even stronger, huh?” she said. “Then I have the perfect drink for you.” She turned to the shelf behind her and started pulling five specific bottles down, setting them on the counter. “I’ve been meaning to mix this one for a long time, but no one’s been willing to try it.” She then brought out nine jiggers, a chilled cocktail glass and a shaker from underneath the bar. Lining up the shot glasses into a row, she placed a scoop of ice into the shaker and started mixing Tails’ drink.

Cream started by pouring out some Christmas Island Brandy into the first shot glass. She then expertly flipped the bottle into the air with her right hand while grabbing the one labelled Icicle Town Vodka with her left. Deftly, she began pouring three shots of the clear liquid as the bottle of brandy sailed down towards the surface of the bar. Upon pouring the third shot, she extended her right hand and delicately caught and balanced the bottom of the brown bottle with her pinky. Slipping it and the vodka back onto the counter, she moved onto the Mercian Absinthe. Swinging the bottle up and around with flair, Cream took a shot glass, flung it upwards and caught it, the bottle’s neck fitting neatly into the glass. Gracefully, she rotated both bottle and glass 180 degrees, placed it on the table and lifted the bottle. The measure was filled to the brim with bright, green liquid. She repeated this a second time and followed up with a shot and a half of the Station Square No.1 Gin. 

Grinning at the fox, she grasped the necks of both bottles and began juggling them. The gin bounced artfully off of her left elbow and the absinthe spun lazily in the air above her head. Catching it and setting it and the gin onto the counter, she poured the contents of the final bottle into a measure – a shot of Chaoberry liqueur. Lining them up in order, she poured the contents of each jigger into the shaker, closed and shook the contents vigorously and strained the deep burgundy liquid into the cocktail glass. 

She slid it towards Tails, who caught and stared into the muddled, blood-red drink. He arched an eyebrow at her. “Pretty impressive moves there,” he said, his eyes sparkling with interest. “Do you do this with all your customers?”

“Only the very special ones,” Cream pipped, a mischievous and devilish look in her eyes. “Drink up… if you dare.”

Smirking, the fox took a healthy gulp of the dull red liquid. Instantly, he set the glass down hard on the counter and began coughing loudly. “Hack… What… What the hell is this?” he asked as Cream started laughing at him.

“Hah… That’s… Hah, hah… I call it an ‘Aunt Roberta’,” she said over fits of giggles. She took several breaths to calm herself before continuing. “A little drink that I came up with that’s got more of a kick than the whiskey from Downunda. I named it after a distant aunt of mine who was always sharp-tongued.” She cracked a large grin at the fox. “I’m glad to see that you’re enjoying it, Mr. Ex-SOLDIER.”

Tails narrowed his brows. “Bite me,” he responded hoarsely, annoyed that his quest for a good hard drink left him worse for wear. 

The rabbit only chortled in response. Settling down once more, she leaned in and placed her elbows onto the counter. She regarded the fox, concern filling her eyes. “You know, I’m glad you made it back safely,” she said.

Tails looked taken aback at her words. “What’s with you all of a sudden?” he replied, surprised. “That wasn’t even a hard job.” He took another swig of the potent cocktail – a little less than what he took the first time – and shuddered slightly as the stinging liquid went down his throat. 

Cream looked away from her close friend, her eyes downcast. “I guess not…” she said. “I mean, you were in SOLDIER, after all.” The two entered a comfortable silence as Tails kept drinking. “Make sure you get your pay from Bark,” Cream said eventually as the fox finished and set down his drink.

Tails nodded. “Yeah, I will,” he said “I’ll probably be going tonight after I get my money. I’ll need to find a different base of operations for my services. Can’t very well work out of the same place that a terrorist organization resides in, right?”

Cream stiffened at his words. She felt her veins turn to ice and her hand clenched tightly on the counter “Y-yeah, of course,” she said hesitantly, lowering her head. 

“But I’ll come and visit once in a while,” he added. 

Though Cream heard his words, they barely registered in her mind.  ‘It makes sense what he’s saying… but I wish he’d stay,’ the thought ran through her head. ‘Something’s not right here… The way he walks, the way he talks…  The confidence and the swagger? It’s all throwing me off here… and it reminds me of someone- 

“…eam? Cream?” she was startled by the fox’s voice. “Are you OK? You look like you zoned out for a second there,” he said, a light smile on his muzzle.

Cream blinked. “Y-yeah, no, I’m OK,” she replied a little too quickly. She brushed a stray strand of ivory hair away from her face. “It’s been a long night for all of us. I must’ve made more today than I have all this month – it’s gonna be a busy one for the ledgers tomorrow. Oh, speaking of which, you should go down now. Bark’s probably getting impatient.”

Tails hopped off of the stool, a withering smile crossing his lips. “You’re right,” he said. “Time to get this over with.”

“Hey, Tails?” Cream found herself blurting out as the fox left the bar and headed over to the pinball machine. He turned around to face her. “I know you asked me just now, but… Are you feeling alright?”

Tails’ eyebrow quirked up at her. “… Yeah, why?” he asked, nonplussed.

The fighter bit the inside of her cheek. “Oh, no reason,” she said, her smile a little too shaky. “You just look a little tired too, I guess.”

The fox returned a smile of his own as he went up to the pinball machine, hit the buttons on the sides and pulled the plunger three times to activate the lift and descended into the basement.

 As Cream watched him go down, she couldn’t shake off the dread she felt about him permanently leaving the bar. ‘There are too many questions and not enough time to answer them…’ she reflected as she began wiping down today’s detritus from the bar counter. ‘And if he leaves now… I fear that I’ll never be able to ask him again…


Tails

“Live from the studio in Sector 2, this is the Kintobor News Network,” the wide-screen tele-crate blared out as Tails got off the lift. “With your hosts, Scarlet Garcia and Moses Rye-Williams.”

Wedge got up from his seat at the square table in the middle of the room and pointed to the screen situated beside Jessie’s workstation. “Guys, guys! It’s starting!” he called out.

Bark ceased hitting a heavy bag at the opposite side of the room with Biggs holding it in place. Hope, sitting on a box and watching her father, hopped down and went with them out of curiosity. The three joined Wedge and Jessie and crowded around the TC, while Tails found a wall to lean on behind them.

“Hello, you’re watching KNN. I’m your host, Scarlet Garcia,” the brunette newscaster said to the cameras. 

Sitting beside her was a handsome, silver-furred lynx wearing a charcoal pinstripe suit, a light blue dress shirt and a muted, striped blue tie. “And I’m Moses Rye-Williams,” he said in a deep, modulated tone. “Tonight’s top news story: The explosion that rocked Megapolis, caused by terrorists blowing up the No.1 Energen Reactor and RINGTEK Plant just prior to midnight.”

Scarlet picked up from her co-anchor. “The terrorist group in question – TORNADO – has also released a video in the last fifteen minutes claiming responsibility for the attack. The video proclaimed that Energen is not an infinite source of energy and that RINGTEK is doing more harm for the environment than good. They also accused Kintobor Incorporated of misleading the public on the health risks of RINGTEK and ended with dire warnings that the attacks would continue should the city continue to depend on this valuable resource.  The president of Kintobor Incorporated, which is the parent company of this news station, held a press conference immediately after the attack and had this to say:”

The station then cut to a recording of the press conference. President Gerald Kintobor stood on a podium behind a minimalist, metallic lectern, its top lined with microphones. A banner displaying the company’s logo was draped on the wall behind him. The white-suited Human cleared his throat to catch the attention of the press.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the media, thank you for coming on such short notice,” he said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone. “I can confirm that the group that calls themselves TORNADO has carried out this attack on our great city. It is also expected that this group will continue its reign of terror upon the populace. However, I can assure you, good citizens of Megapolis, that there is nothing to fear.” His lips curled upwards into a winning smile. “I have just initiated measures that will help us root out these terrorists so we can bring them to justice. And,” he continued over the sounds of cheering and clapping. “And also, I have mobilized SOLDIER to protect our people against this senseless violence.” He paused, as the cheering grew louder. The recording ended and the broadcast cut back to the anchors.

“In other news,” Moses continued, shuffling his papers on the desk. “President Kintobor went on record to state that the current labour strike resulted in tonight’s terrible tragedy. He goes on to say that, and I quote: ‘The terrorists appear to have hacked the payroll system and have exploited a flaw which prevented payments from going through. We are working hard to correct this flaw and will ensure that everyone receives their pay plus interest.’”

Scarlet picked up from her co-anchor and continued to talk about other news stories related to the attack. At this point, the team heard enough and took this as a cue to move away from the TC. Bark and Biggs returned to the heavy bag, Hope returned to her spot, Wedge sat back down to papers splayed across a table and Jessie straightened up on her chair and faced the monitor, staring at the data streaming from the data stick Biggs recovered. 

A few moments later, the woman slammed her hand hard on the workbench next to her, covered in various electronic equipment. She stared at the screen, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Shit,” she muttered. Noticing that the room went silent, she swivelled the chair around and faced the group. She scratched the back of her head nervously. “Sorry,” she said quickly. “I think I know why the alarms went off when Tails mounted the bomb; it turns out that we neglected to disarm the tampering alarms before turning on the device and mounting it. It was a miscalculation on my part that caused it, but at least I know for next time.”

The fox pushed himself off the wall and continued into the hideout, which caught Wedge’s attention as he was nearest to him. “Hey, he’s here Boss,” he said to Bark. 

Bark stopped once more. “Finally!” he said, disgruntled at waiting. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you: Those tails of yours, that let you fly like that? Are they for real? And how the hell did you do that in the first place?”

The fox stopped in his tracks in front of the TC. ‘Well, that came out of nowhere…’ “…Yes, they’re real, I was born with them,” he responded after a brief silence. “And yes, I can fly. How, I can’t tell you. You’ll have to live with that.” After gauging Bark’s reaction, the fox eyed him critically. “I get the feeling you have another question you want to ask me. Care to share it?” he said cockily.

Scowling, Bark thought for a moment. “Yeah… One more,” he said curtly. “Anyone from SOLDIER fighting us today?”

Tails moved to the space in front of the tele-crate. He crossed his arms and shook his head. “None,” he said. “I’m positive.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” Bark responded, hitting the heavy bag once.

“I AM sure,” Tails retorted, gritting his teeth. “If there was anyone from SOLDIER at the reactor today, you wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

The members of TORNADO watched the exchange with bated breath as the tension between the two Mobians got thicker by the minute. The polar bear glared at the fox. “Don’t go thinking you’re the shit just because you were in SOLDIER,” he said, growling. 

The Ex-SOLDIER turned his back to Bark, processing what he said. ‘So, this is the thanks I get for saving him, huh? Some employer he is…’ he reflected, his folded arms hiding his clenched fists. He turned back around and was about to speak his mind, only to see Bark’s fist miss the punching bag, hitting Biggs instead. 

The force of the blow sent the Human flying into the wall. He crumpled to the ground like a sack of flour. “Did… anyone see that… truck that hit me?” he said, dazed.

Bark cringed as he heard the man hit the wall before rounding on Tails. “Yeah, you’re strong,” he said. “Probably all those guys in SOLDIER are.” He gave the fox a dirty look and raised his voice to a commanding level. ”But don’t forget your two-tailed ass is working for TORNADO now! Don’t get any ideas about hanging onto Kintobor, hear me?”

‘OK. That’s it.’ “Stayin’ with Kintobor?” Tails said, his voice seething with anger. “You asked me a question and I answered it… That’s all.” He walked up to the bear, stood on his tip-toes and used his tails to balance himself. He levelled his electric blue eyes with Bark’s reddish-brown orbs. “I’m going upstairs,” the fox hissed. “I want to talk about my money.” Righting himself onto the floor, he turned away and headed for the lift.

Cream suddenly hopped down into the hideout. She halted in front of the mercenary, panic flooding her face. “Tails, wait!” she said. “We can still-” 

“Ah, let him go Cream,” Bark interrupted, his lips curling into a sneer. “Looks like foxy here still misses the Kintobor.” 

Tails faced the bear again, his eyes blazing with anger. “Shut it!” he snapped, the room going dead silent as he spoke in a harsh tone. “Need I remind you that I’m a mercenary? I don’t work for you or Kintobor. I work for myself and I care for one thing and one thing only: my money. So, I suggest that we meet upstairs and you pay me. Now.” He turned back to the elevator, brushing past Cream as he did so and activating the lift.


Tails paced back and forth, waiting as patiently as he could for Bark to arrive and pay up so he could leave. He perked up as he saw the elevator descend, but frowned when he saw Cream coming back up instead of his employer. “What are you doing here? Where’s Bark,” Tails asked firmly. 

The rabbit ignored his question. “Tails, please,” She said, giving him her most imploring look. “I’m asking you to join us.”

“I’m sorry Cream…” Tails muttered, turning away from her. 

Cream sighed, frustrated at her friend’s attitude. “Look, Mobius is dying. Slowly, but-but surely it’s dying,” she said. “Someone has to do something about it and I know that –“ 

“Then let Bark and his buddies handle it,” Tails interrupted. He picked up his sword and strapped it to his back before making his way out of the bar. “Look, when Bark gets his act together, tell him to find me at the Wall Market. I’m out of here.”

“SO! You’re really leaving?!” she shouted out suddenly as Tails pushed on the saloon doors. “You’re just going to walk out and ignore your childhood friend?!”

Tails whipped around. “How can you say that!?” he said angrily, his calm and collected persona put aside. “ I’d never leave you alone! I just can’t stand Bark! He’s an asshole!”

Cream’s mouth parted open slightly at the fox’s words. She took a step towards him. “So, you didn’t forget then? Our promise?” she asked cryptically.

Tails took a step back. “Promise?” he whispered, his mind racing for information. All he got from it was static… and the sounds of a sinister laugh echoing inside his brain.

The fighter looked away to the floor. Her shoulders slumped and she let out a wistful sigh. “You forgot the promise?” she said, her voice laced with sadness, disappointment and a little incredulity. “Tails, it was seven years ago…”

Her words triggered something in Tails’ mind. He felt as though the floodgates within him opened and was suddenly awash in memories that drowned out the buzzing static within him. “…The Great Oak Stump,” he blurted out abruptly. 

Cream’s head shot up and she blinked at him. “You mean…” she said, trailing off, hope shining in her amber eyes.

“Seven years ago,” Tails continued, taking a step towards her. “I asked you to meet me by the Great Oak Stump, right by the well in the middle of Knothole. I remember it was a cold, winter’s night.” He paused, looking down to the floor in a rare show of embarrassment. “I… honestly thought you’d never come…”


Fourteen-year-old Miles Prower was freezing his tails off.

It was a cold and clear winter’s night in Knothole Village as he huddled at the edge of an oaken stump fifteen feet in diameter. He wrapped his two, bushy tails around him to keep warm. The trees that surrounded the town looked more like the skeletal arms of great beasts, rather than the beautiful foliage and knotted limbs that the hamlet was known for. The light from the full moon illuminated the towering figure of Mobius’ highest mountain in the distance.

The fox shuddered as waves of cold air hit him. He cursed himself for dressing inappropriately for the weather – a black t-shirt, blue shorts and a pair of red and white sneakers. He had no chance to grab his jacket before he could sneak out of his house. Glancing furtively at the house next to his own, he let out a deep sigh as his frustration mounted. 

“Where are you…” he whispered, burrowing deeper into the layers of fur keeping the cold out. He almost wanted to give up and go home.

His ears pricked as he heard the crunching sounds of gravel being stepped on behind him. He spun around to where the sounds originated from and spotted a figure approaching him from behind the elevated water well. The fox could barely make out the silhouette, but inwardly he hoped that it was the Mobian he was waiting for.

“Hey Miles,” it said, in a soft, sugary-sweet voice. “Sorry I’m late.”  The figure stepped out of the shadows and the moonlight revealed a young rabbit girl with ivory fur and patches of brown on her ears, head and around her eyes. She wore a thick brown winter coat over a subdued orange-coloured dress and matching brown winter boots. 

Miles shook his head. “It’s OK Cream,” he said, a ghost of a smile on his lips. 

The young girl walked over to the stump, hopped onto it and sat a few feet away from the two-tailed fox. The two entered an awkward silence as Miles tried to form the right words in his head. Eventually, the rabbit bit the bullet. “So Milles, you said you wanted to talk to me about something?” she asked politely.

The fox gulped, feeling a lump in his throat. He unwrapped his tails, turned towards her and gave her his most determined look. “Come this spring… I’m heading to Megapolis,” he said.

Cream shrugged, looking down and away from him. “All the boys are leaving town,” she said.

“No, but I’m not like those guys,” he said, his pre-pubescent voice cracking. “I’m not just gonna find a job, I’m gonna join SOLDIER!” He brought a clenched fist up to his face, looking at it. “I’m going to be the best there is… just like Nazo.”

Bringing a hand up to her mouth, Cream’s eyes widened. “Nazo… The great Nazo?” 

“Yeah,” Tails replied. The two then lapsed into a long silence.

“… Isn’t it hard to join SOLDIER?” the rabbit asked, glancing at Miles, who looked away at her gaze.

“I… might not be comin’ back to this town for a while.”

“Oh…” Cream said, her head bowed. “… Will you be in the newspapers if you do well?”

Miles shrugged, his voice hopeful, but unsure. “I’ll try to.” Silence permeated between the two teens once more.

Cream suddenly slid across the stump and moved closer to the two-tailed fox. She looked at him fiercely. “We should make a promise.”

The fox looked taken aback at her suggestion. “Huh?” he said, confused.

She looked away from him once again, a tinge of red dusting her cheeks. “Umm… if you get famous and… If I’m ever in a bind,” she began shyly. “You’ll come to rescue me, alright?”

Miles felt the heat rising in his cheeks. “W-what?” he stammered.

“Well, whenever I’m in trouble, my hero will rescue me,” she said, her face turning redder at every moment. “I want to experience that at least once in my life.”

“What?” the fox repeated, clearly not believing that this was happening.

Cream turned her head towards him. “Come on Miles!” she said, “Just promise me, please?” 

There was a pause, which Miles used to collect his thoughts. After a moment, he nodded. “Alright… I promise,” he said as a shooting star sailed above them, sealing the oath under the moonlit sky…


Tails frowned after recalling the memory of years gone by. “I’m sorry Cream,” he said to her. “I’m not a hero and I’m not famous. I…I can’t keep the promise.”

Cream moved closer to him, trying to look into his eyes. “But you got your childhood dream, didn’t you?” she asked. “You joined SOLDIER. So come on! You have to keep your promise…”

Before the mercenary could respond, he heard the lift ascend to bar level. After a moment, it raised with Bark in tow, his arms folded and his snout painted with annoyance. “Hold up a sec Tails,” he said gruffly. Stepping off the lift, he dug into his vest, pulled out a wad of cash held together by a money clip and tossed it to him. “Here’s your pay, as promised,” He turned his back to the fox, tapping his foot impatiently. ”Now get the hell out of here and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” 

Catching it easily, Tails fingered the bills and counted them in his head. ‘1,500, huh? Not bad.’ Instead of pocketing it, however, his eyes travelled to Cream. She was standing in between the two, chewing her lip as her eyes flicked between the fox and the bear. Tails took a moment to think about what she said, and about the promise they made all those years ago, before coming to a decision.

“Is this my pay?” he asked, looking at the money with feigned disdain. “Don’t make me laugh.”

Bark did a double-take. “What?!” he barked out, half-surprised and half-furious at the fox’s declaration. “Then you’ll –“ 

“If you got the next mission lined up for me, I’ll do it for double,” Tails interrupted, a smug smile crossing his lips.

The polar bear reeled back from the fox’s words. “What!?” he repeated, his eyes seeing red. He went to approach the mercenary, only to have Cream stop him mid-way.

“Hey, hey, it’s OK Bark,” she said, before speaking to him in an undertone that Tails could hear. “Look, I know we’re really hurting for help, but… you’ve seen first-hand what he’s capable of. We’re gonna need him if we’re to succeed.”

Bark sighed, rubbing his forehead with his palm. “Y’know, that money was supposed to be for Hope’s school fund…” he whispered, shaking his head.

Tails frowned, his enhanced hearing picking up their conversation. ‘That money was for Hope? I may be a mercenary, but I’m not that heartless.’ “Bark, I have a suggestion for you,” he said to the bear. When he got his attention, he flung the money clip back to him. 

Hastily catching it, Bark gave him a confused look. “What are you –“

“Call it insurance on your end,” Tails butted in again. “You keep the 1,500. If we succeed, you agree to pay that back to me plus another 3,000 on top. If I don’t perform to your standards during the next job, then you keep the money and I don’t get paid. Plain and simple as that.” He gave the polar bear a moment to let it sink in. “So, how about it?”

Bark crossed his arms and contemplated his offer. “This,” he eventually said, holding up the bills. “Plus another 1,750.”

And here we go…’ Tails thought, inwardly smiling. ‘Either I convinced him that I’m the best man for the job, or he’s desperate.’ “2,600,” The fox countered.

“1,900!”

“2,200.”

“2,000!”

“Done,” Tails said with a cocky smile on his face.

Cream approached the fox and beamed at him. “Thanks, Tails,” she said.

“Well, if you’re done, we got work to do,” Bark groused as he returned to the pinball machine. “Gotta go over the plans for the next operation. We start bright and early in the morning, so get down here and pull your weight, merc, because I’m paying you good money for this!”


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 9

Chapter 9: Aboard The Megapolis Express



Bark

“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.


Tails

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.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Random Encounters



Bark

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

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.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Escape



Tails

The Guard Scorpion stampeded across the platform and attempted to run down the Ex-SOLDIER and the TORNADO leader. Narrowly diving out of the way and tucking into a roll, Bark righted himself and unloaded a volley of bullets as he bellowed loudly at the mechaniloid. His shots pinged harmlessly off of the substantial armour covering the Scorpion’s vital components. The Roboguardian skidded to a halt and turned around before spreading its arms outwards to activate its head-mounted scope. A wide, yellow beam projecting from the small device swept the area in front of it. 

Bark ceased fire and started to hastily back away from the mech. The beam moved faster than he could and it soon tagged his foot. “Oh shit!” he cursed loudly as he stumbled backwards and landed on his rear.

“Target acquired,” a neutral, mechanical voice announced in monotone. The scope shut off and the Scorpion resumed its operation. Using the data captured from the various antennae on its head, the Guard Scorpion processed the information and executed its first attack routine. Raising its arms up and forward, it aimed its Vulcan cannons at the bear. 

Tails watched as Bark froze in place, his eyes glued on the high-powered machine guns pointing right at him. Moving on instinct, the warrior ran up to the bear, grabbed the back of his vest by the collar and leaped away from the mech just as it opened fire. The shots ricocheted loudly off of the steel platform. 

Landing on the floor ungraciously, Bark opened his shut eyes and turned his head to see the fox standing in front of him and preparing to cast a spell at the guardian. “Thanks,” the bear said, breathing heavily as he picked himself up off the floor.

“Don’t mention it,” the fox replied tersely as he shot his palms out and called “BOLT!”

The Lightning spell struck the Guard Scorpion dead-on, the electrical energy causing the machine to stumble as its directional systems were disrupted. Running up to it after launching the magic attack, Tails unsheathed his sword, leaped up and cut open the flexible polymer shielding surrounding the joint on its right arm to expose its internal wiring inside. Landing next to the mech, he started to move away from the guardian as it righted itself but was caught by the head-mounted scope’s beam.

“Target acquired,” the machine repeated before executing its second attack routine. The Scorpion bent forward and extended its prehensile tail, thrusting it several times at the Ex-SOLDIER. Tails weaved around each strike but still ended up getting one of his namesakes nicked as the large, spike-ended extremity whizzed past. The barrage continued until the Guard Scorpion pulled back and moved away from the Mobian. It then opened its exhaust and intake ports, to which Tails surmised that it had issues with overheating. 

The fox used that opportunity to charge up another Lightning spell and aimed for the section he cut open. Firing it off, he witnessed the electrical attack enter the arm and travel throughout its body, causing substantial damage to the Roboguardian and disabling it once more. 

Just as he was about to charge another spell, Tails dropped to a knee as he suddenly felt exhausted. ‘Damnit, I must still not be at 100% yet,’ he thought angrily as he took several deep breaths. ‘Six spells in and I’m already feeling burnt out. Taking stock of his current situation, Tails guessed that he had three or four more casts before he would run out of magic. ‘That Lightning spell was effective, but not enough to take it down… I need access to something more vital…’ He skimmed his eyes over the robot as it discharged the electrical energy through a grounding circuit and rebooted its systems. His eyes finally landed on the cameras mounted beneath the bulletproof glass on its torso. “Bingo,” he muttered to himself, an idea beginning to form in his mind.

Bark rushed up to the downed Mobian, his arm raised and ready to provide covering fire against the Scorpion, which now stood erect. “You alright?!” he hollered at the two-tailed fox behind him. 

The fox groaned as he rose from the ground and settled back into a fighting stance. “Yeah,” he responded. “But we need to finish this fast. I’m nearly at my limit with magic.” He paused as the bot stomped forwards and extended its tail. Tails and Bark jumped away to avoid being impaled by the spike-tipped end.

“Limit?! Ain’t you some sorta big-time SOLDIER?!” the bear hollered as he fired retaliatory shots at the Scorpion’s joint casings. “I ain’t paying for you to tell me this shit?!”

“No, you’re paying me to ensure that we win and get out of here alive,” Tails retorted, attacking from the Scorpion’s left side. Sensing that the swordsman was more of a threat, the Scorpion rotated its body to face the fox and shot point-blank in his direction before following up with a sweep from its tail. 

Tails dodged the shots and then flipped over the tail, but he wasn’t prepared for the mech to swipe at him with the back of its arm. The fox only just got his blade up in time to protect himself as the guardian’s appendage slammed into him, sending him flying in Bark’s direction. He bounced off the floor once, rolled and then landed into a crouch, his brows narrowed into a scowl and eyes flared with rage. “That was a lucky shot, you bastard,” he snarled, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. “Definitely won’t happen again.”

Bark halted his assault and flanked Tails as he staggered upwards once more. “Listen up Bark!” the fox yelled out over the sounds of raining bullets. “Remember how we dealt with those Robians earlier? We’re gonna do the same thing!” Tails began preparing an Ice spell and palmed the magic orb in his left hand. “I’ll go in and bait it into raising its arms. Once it does, concentrate your fire on those camera lenses on its chest after I launch my Ice spell. Then, I’ll short-circuit the son of a bitch. That should finish it off.”

Bark ceased fire and looked at him skeptically. “Uh, you sure this is gonna work?” he asked, an eyebrow raised at the fox.

“Trust me, I did the math,” Tails countered hotly as he poured more Mana into the spell in his hand. “It’s gonna work.”

“Alright, if you say so…” the bear trailed off before glancing back at the Scorpion. “Oh shit! Heads up, it’s using that targeting scope-thingy again!”

No sooner did he say so, the mech loomed in front of them and activated the scope on its head. Before the beam could even land on the two, however, a grenade suddenly landed on the back of its head and bounced once before exploding. The shockwave took out the array of sensors mounted on its head and damaged the targeting scope.

Half-blinded by the loss of its environmental instruments, the Scorpion diverted all of the remaining power in its head unit to its head-mounted scope to continue its assault. The destroyed sensors retained just enough information to allow the Scorpion to deduce the origin of the grenade; the walkway just above it. Hopping backward, its six legs crashing thunderously on the platform, it pointed its cameras upward and saw Jessie. The woman was crouched on the walkway above, her hand frantically digging into her pack to produce another grenade. Reacting, the Scorpion rushed towards and crashed into the wall, which caused the walkway above to shake violently. 

The Human stumbled backwards and got her foot caught in a grate. “Ungh, dammit! I’m stuck!” she called out as she attempted to wrench her leg free. She watched as the Scorpion stepped backwards and pointed the Vulcan cannons towards her. 

Tails reabsorbed the Ice spell as the mech aimed to kill the brunette and then hastily charged and fired off a Lightning spell. The Scorpion staggered, its legs stumbling about once more as the magic struck at it from behind. Recovering quickly, it turned around and barreled its way towards the two Mobians while swinging its tail wildly.

Bark and Tails leapt out of the way once more, but the erratic movements of the tail spike managed to slice the fox’s shoulder open as he rolled past the Scorpion. He swore, hissing in pain as his blood intermingled with the fur on his arm. “Listen, Bark, we gotta do this hard and fast,” he called out to the bear across from him as he prepared another Ice spell, his teeth gritted from the creeping exhaustion he felt through his taxed body. “Wait for the signal and then go!”

The mechaniloid skidded to a halt, turned back around and activated the Search Scope once more. The polar bear circled around and kept his distance while Tails stayed put as the yellow beam landed on him. He held the orb of bluish-white magic once again in his left palm and waited for the right moment to strike. 

“Target acquired,” the mechanical voice spoke. It raised its arms and pointed its Vulcan cannons once more at the fox, whose eyes flashed at the sight of its exposed cameras. 

“Bark! Do it now!” Tails shouted, just before the Scorpion could attack. He pushed his arm out and called “ICE!” as he barely scraped through the resulting machine gunfire. The spell shot out and hit the glass casing around its eyes, causing it to cool rapidly.

The bear halted in place, aimed at the iced spot and then fired upon it, his eyes blazing with anger. The shots easily shattered the weakened glass, damaging the lenses and tearing a hole large enough to expose the delicate components beneath it.

Finally, Tails pushed himself to draw out Lightning energy once again. With the strain of magical overuse present on his muzzle, he cast the spell. The Lightning beam travelled a direct path into the exposed area and straight through to its core systems. The magic damaged the unprotected electrical components inside them and caused a systems crash within the Scorpion. The large mechaniloid shuddered and then collapsed onto the platform, the undamaged lens on its chest dimming from bright green to black.

Breathlessly, the two fighters looked at each other for a brief moment before smiling and then bursting out in laughter; Bark threw his head back both in elation and relief, while Tails let out a low and satisfied chuckle. Even Jessie weakly laughed as she continued to pry her foot out from the grate. 

Soon enough, the laughter subsided. Bark looked back at the fox and jerked his head towards the bomb. “Alright merc, turn this thing on and let’s get the hell out of here,” he said, grinning at the fox.

Tails sheathed his sword and made a beeline for the bomb. He suddenly paused in mid-step though as his hearing picked up a peculiar sound coming from the Roboguardian they defeated. The servo motors within it were whirring into motion. The fox’s jaw tightened as he realized what was happening. “Shit,” he muttered to himself, before turning back to Bark. “Watch out! It’s not over yet!”

The polar bear opened his snout to speak but was interrupted by the reactivation of the Guard Scorpion. Running on an auxiliary RINGTEK-powered engine, it stood up shakily and its remaining eye was gleaming in the dimly lit space. It then tucked and locked its arms into its sides before raising its tail above its head. The tip opened up in three sections and exposed a stout nozzle. The machine then started to shudder violently as it stood in place.

Bark raised a puzzled eyebrow at the odd behaviour of the Scorpion. “What the hell is it doing?” he asked the warrior, before shaking his head to clear his confusion and glaring at the mech. “Ah screw what it’s doing! We got no time for this!” he yelled, lining his Gun-Arm up at the hole in the Scorpion’s chest. “Happy trails, you piece of shit!”

Tails watched the machine’s erratic movements with equal curiosity for a brief moment before suddenly making another realization. ‘That thing’s not acting strangely, it’s baiting us into thinking that it’s weakened!’ “Bark! No!” he called out, drawing his sword and running to the bear as fast as his legs could take him. “Don’t shoot! Attack while its tail’s up and it’s gonna counterattack with its laser!”

Tails’ words fell on deaf ears as Bark had already fired a volley at the components in its chest. As the bullets tore through the hole in its torso, the Guard Scorpion stilled itself momentarily before firing a focused, white-blue energy beam from the nozzle at the end of its tail. Sweeping the tail around the platform, the Scorpion’s energy ray made its way towards Bark, who stared helplessly at the approach of his demise for the second time.

The two-tailed fox roared as he pushed his weary body and mind beyond its limits. A golden aura started to radiate from his body, with tiny bolts of silver electricity crackling and arcing all around him. In his frantic dash towards the bear, he dimly noticed that his tails had started to rotate. As they spun faster, his feet touched ground less and less until he was fully airborne, his two tails spinning rapidly like a pair of helicopter blades. 

Now moving faster than he would have on two feet, Tails flew towards Bark, grabbed him by the collar once again and threw him away from the Scorpion’s energy beam. The fox then twisted his body so that his spinning tails faced the ground. The movement caused him to launch upwards vertically until he was high above the mech.

At the apex of his flight, the fox stopped spinning his tails and briefly hovered in zero-G. He held his sword in a two-handed grip behind him and then plummeted towards the machine, his weapon blazing with ethereal gold and silver energy. Tails let out another mighty roar and brought the Buster Sword down on the machine. The blade sliced through the Scorpion from its head to its six, clawed legs and the fox landed in a crouch just in front of it.

Rubbing his head as he got up after being tossed for the second time, Bark gaped as Tails rose up and walked calmly towards him, his unnaturally blue eyes burning brightly in the dim light. The Guard Scorpion stood frozen in place for a moment until both halves toppled away from each other and crashed into the platform loudly, the mechaniloid being cleanly cut through by the fox’s enormous weapon. The glow from the remaining camera eye on its chest fizzled out permanently and signalled its complete and total deactivation. 

Tails faced the robotic remains, pumped his left fist up, spun his sword twice and sheathed it, placing it on the magnetic disc on his back. He struck a pose as he did so. “Game over,” he said, a small, tired smile crossing his lips.

The polar bear looked at him with awe. “Holy shit, that was amazing! How’d you-“ he started before Tails lifted a hand to interrupt.

“Look, there’s no time,” the fox cut in, running over to the bomb placed on the reactor core. He pressed the green button near the LCD and initiated the detonation sequence. The screen flashed once and then returned a timer. Ten minutes to detonation. 

Tails rounded back to the bear. “We have to get out of here, now!” he said.

Bark snapped out of his revelry and then met Tails’ insistent look with a grim expression of his own. “Yeah, but we got a problem,” he said, looking at the wall where the Roboguardian crashed into after Jessie blew up its head sensors. The dent it made in the wall had also destroyed their only way back up. “Didn’t notice this till now, but the ladder’s totalled. How the hell are we gonna get up now?”

Tails eyed the display. Nine minutes and 45 seconds remained. Drawing his sword, he jogged up to Bark and stuck out his other arm. “Grab on and hold tight,” he commanded.

Raising an eyebrow, Bark clamped his hand tightly around the fox’s wrist. Tails then bent his knees and jumped, his Energen enhancements allowing him and the bear to launch high into the air. Spinning his namesakes at the top of his jump, the fox propelled himself and Bark over the catwalk where Jessie lay. Tails dropped the bear, landed and then helped Jessie free her foot from the grate.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, rubbing her ankle. She pulled out four Potion vials and handed them to the Mobians. “We have no time to wrap the wounds, but the Potions should help until we get out of here.”

Bark guzzled down both his restoratives while Tails poured one onto his shoulder and injured tail before downing the other. Once finished, they broke into a run with Jessie following closely behind.

The Human checked her wristwatch as they moved. “I’ve set my watch to synchronize with the bomb, looks like we have about eight minutes and thirty seconds left!” 

“And with the time we wasted fighting that ‘bot, I’ll bet that security forces had time to call in reinforcements. We’ll have to break through them.” Tails responded, reaching the next ladder going up. He motioned Bark to go first before stopping Jessie. “Do you have an Ether in that pack of yours? I’m gonna need one of them.” 

Jessie nodded and then pulled out another thin phial full of red liquid. Handing it to Tails, he broke the cap and swallowed the contents before following Jessie and Bark up the ladder. As he ascended, the fox felt a sudden rush of energy welling up inside him, signalling that the Mana reserves in his body were partially replenished. ‘Perfect,’ he thought, as his ears started picking up sounds from beyond the door leading out of the conversion chamber. ‘And not a moment too soon.’ “Security’s caught up to us! Prepare for an ambush!” He yelled out, drawing his sword as he stepped off the ladder.

As if on cue, three more Squirrel Robians dropped from above and landed on the catwalk leading out of the chamber. They were flanked by three MP’s, their rifles drawn and cocked. Tails leaped up and spun his tails as fast as he could, rocketing over the Robians before landing in front of the startled grunts. He threw three quick, consecutive slashes to the three MP’s, slaying them as he then turned his attention to the Squirrel Robians.

Bark rushed up to the closest bot like a berserker. Ducking and weaving around its swipes, he used his Gun-Arm as a melee weapon to bash in its skull several times to disorient it, before picking it up and flinging it over the walkway. Jessie, meanwhile, pulled out her pistol and lined up a shot as the second Robian made its way to her, screeching savagely. Those cries ended however when the woman placed a well-aimed bullet right through its glass-silicate eyes and into its positronic brain.

“Woo! Nice shot Jess!” Bark commented as Tails finished off the last Robian by cutting it in half horizontally and then impaling the sword into its head as its body landed on the ground. “That was a one in a million-”

“Keep your guard up!” Tails ordered, cutting the bear short. His heightened senses picked out the sounds of more claws skittering along the walls. He started to charge a Lightning spell. “We’re not out of this yet!”

As soon as he finished speaking, three more Robians suddenly appeared, each scaling the walls below the catwalk the two Mobians and Human stood on. The robots jumped off to face them. Without wasting any time, Tails launched the spell at the closest Robian, frying it and leaving a dead husk in its wake. He then stabbed the second one just as it touched the ground. Flinging its remains over the walkway, Tails then charged a quick Ice spell and fired it at the final Robian. The spell cooled the third Squirrel’s exterior enough for Bark and Jessie’s bullets to finish it off. Without pausing to rest, the three exited the chamber and into the refinery.

“Time!” Bark yelled to Jessie as they bolted to the staircases leading up to the elevator.

“Five minutes, fifteen seconds!” She answered.

We’re not gonna make it…’ The fox thought. ‘Unless…’ “Hold on, stop here,” he said to the two while drawing out his weapon. Both of them looked at the fox with puzzled curiosity. “Jessie, grab hold of the hilt, Bark take my hand,” he instructed “We’ll cut about two minutes if I fly us to the elevator. Now, quit gawking and grab on!”

Bark and Jessie hastily took their positions. Tails crouched, jumped up with his two charges in tow and then spun his namesakes. The fox gritted his teeth as he strained to fly them past the six flights of stairs leading to the lift.

As they travelled upwards, Jessie noticed that the refinery path was covered with grunts running towards the main pump chamber. Fearing that they would try to disarm the bomb, she dug into her pack and extracted her last grenade. Pulling the pin with her teeth, she dropped it towards the entrance leading into the reactor’s heart. 

Tails landed on the platform by the lift just as an explosion, followed by the sounds of agonized screaming echoed through the refinery. The three clambered into the elevator car and Jessie frantically pushed the ‘Up’ button in an attempt to get the car moving before the remaining soldiers caught wise to their whereabouts. The doors closed soon enough and the car ascended upwards, granting its occupants a much-needed opportunity to catch their breath. 


Crouched behind a crate full of RINGTEK rings and armed with a rifle procured from an MP he incapacitated during his escape, Biggs trained the iron sights on the elevator leading down into the reactor, waiting and watching for his teammates to return. When he saw the lights indicating that the elevator was in motion, he put his finger on the trigger and took a long, deep breath to steady himself.

The lift stopped and the doors opened, revealing Bark, Tails and Jessie. Grinning, the man hopped out of his hiding spot, flashing a salute. “Yo, what took you guys so long?” he joked, wiggling his eyebrows up and down. Noticing the withering looks they were giving him, he relented. “Alright then, let’s go!”

The lift doors closed once more and descended back down to the refinement plant. “We better hurry,” Bark said, his brows furrowing as he cocked his weapon. “We’re about to have company. Jesse, how much time’s left?”

Jessie ran up to the control panel, opened the sheet of paper with the codes on it and plastered it against the wall so she could read it. She then checked her watch. “We got less than three minutes,” she said, hammering away at the controls to reopen the doors that shut when the alarms went off. It only took her a moment before she cracked the code and the first door opened. “I got this one! Biggs, help Tails and Bark while I get the second one,” she yelled as the elevator doors opened up, revealing a contingent of Kintobor MP’s who piled out and opened fire at the TORNADO operatives. 

Taking cover, Biggs and Bark traded shots with the soldiers while Tails covered Jessie while she worked, using the massive sword as a shield. He placed a hand on the Lightning Emerald and prepared another charge while he defended the brunette. Working furiously, Jessie entered the last few keystrokes and listened as the code registered and the door opened. “Guys! It’s open! Hurry! There are only sixty seconds left!” she yelled.

Tails held the Lightning charge in his hand while Biggs and Bark backed away towards the entrance. As soon as they cleared the second door with Jessie, the mercenary launched the spell at the door panel leading to the elevator, shorting it out and closing the door on the soldiers before running out himself.

Wedge spotted his teammates emerging from the reactor. Waving to them, he opened the emergency exit to Sector 8 and stood by the door. Biggs led the pack, followed by Bark and Jessie running side by side and Tails bringing up the rear. As they reached the T-junction on the walkway and swerved to the right, Jessie lost her footing, stumbled and fell flat onto her face. Tails stopped by her side, helped her up and together they escaped just as the bomb detonated.

The CPU on the main bomb located in the conversion chamber executed a command at the 30-second mark, sending a signal up from the high powered transmitter, through the cleverly hidden signal boosters and up to the router that was already connected to the secondary explosive Biggs mounted in the RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant. Now synchronized, the bombs detonated in unison as the countdown hit zero.  The resulting blasts ignited the Energen and the RINGTEK, setting off a chain reaction that travelled upwards through the reactor and out of the top of the enormous exhaust stack, spewing out a ring of fire that illuminated the city and the night sky.


President Kintobor

“Sir, we have a situation!”

An administrative secretary shouted out loud as she breathlessly scrambled up the stairs to the 70th floor of Kintobor’s main headquarters, located in the centre of the city. At the top of her ascent, the woman adjusted her knee-length pencil skirt and glasses, both askew in her haste, before striding forward to the man standing next to the opulent desk at the far side of the circular room. He was looking out of the reinforced, floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows that arched upwards and met at the centre above, forming a dome. The design allowed anyone on the floor an unrestricted, 360-degree view of the entire city. 

From behind a pair of tinted, thick-lensed pince-nez, President Kintobor observed the damage wrought from the reactor explosion. He wore a snow-white coat over wizened shoulders and black slacks over polished, black shoes. His lips underneath a thick, bushy grey moustache tightened into a thin line, his long, hooked nose wrinkled and the hands behind his back balled into fists as he watched a secondary explosion erupt from the top of the reactor’s stack. “Yes, I can see it right now, Monica,” he said, his reedy voice laced with anger. “Have you any information about the perpetrators?”

Snapping to attention, Monica opened the leather-bound organizer she carried with her, cleared her throat and spoke. “At approximately 2300 hours at Sector 1 station, two soldiers were incapacitated after investigating the late train entering the station. According to their statements, the usual crowds they see on a daily basis at that time did not exit the cars; they were empty, save for two Humans, a woman and a man. One of the soldiers was able to radio for backup before being knocked out. Three MP’s responded to the call but were killed in action; two with severe laceration and the third charred black from a magic attack. We initially suspected that one of the assailants was armed with a sword and Emeralds to cause that kind of damage.” 

“Hmm… and how come we were not aware of their movements?” the elderly man asked as he stroked his moustache in thought. 

“It seems that after that initial assault, all of Reactor #1’s security systems had been hacked,” Monica reported, flipping through her handwritten notes. “Whoever broke into the security systems was very good at what they were doing,” she continued. “Disabled communications, the motion and thermal sensors set the security cameras on a feedback loop and then further disrupted things to mask their presence.”

“Well, that is regrettable,” Kintobor commented acidly. “So, we have no way to identify who is responsible then?

The attendant cast her gaze towards the floor and tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. “Um… Not exactly, Mr. President,” she said hesitantly. “The Chaotix have recovered – ”

“Oh, they’ve recovered something hm?” Kintobor interrupted derisively, his lip curled up into a sneer. “As good little lap dogs should. Now, if they put as much focus into bringing us our missing crown jewel as they do with all their assignments, then they’d be more deserving of a proper reward.” He scoffed and turned away from the carnage towards the secretary. “Well then, let’s see what have they ‘recovered’?”

She then produced a data stick from her organizer and handed it to the President. He took the stick, walked over to his desk and inserted it into his computer. Once loaded, he opened the single file that resided in the device. He then hunched over the desk and watched the recording, the light from the screen reflecting on his squat, bald and wrinkled head. Once the video finished playing, he looked back at the woman, his eyebrows scrunched together, his annoyance visible. “Is this all they got?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. President,” the woman replied.

President Kintobor straightened up, his back creaking from the movement. He stroked his moustache in thought for a moment and then picked up the phone beside him. He pressed the button marked ‘Security’ on the speed dial and only had to wait a moment before he received an answer. “Send additional troops to Sectors 1 and 8,” he said. “They are to look for anyone wearing a SOLDIER uniform and a large weapon on their back. Find him and bring him in alive, if possible.” 

He ended the call and then pressed a second button labelled ‘IT.’ “Is the new ID Security Scan software update ready for deployment?” he asked as soon as the call connected. “Good. Have it installed immediately on the upper plate checkpoints on the Magenta Line. I want them all operational before the first trains leave their stations in the morning.” 

Hanging up the phone, he then turned his attention to Monica. “Go to PR and tell them I want a press conference set up in the next 30 minutes,” he said. “Then, I want you to contact Kodos and have him brought here. I want an explanation as to why this happened on his watch.” He paused, turning back towards the firestorm that was Reactor #1. “Mention to him if he’s not here in the next 10 minutes, I’ll have him Roboticized and taken apart for the Weapons Development department to use.”

The secretary acknowledged her superior’s request and hurried off down the stairs to her task.

As his aide left, Kintobor picked up the receiver and pressed the button marked ‘Operations.’ “This is Kintobor,” he said on receiving an answer. “Go to each of the seven remaining reactors and install a secondary, silent alarm in the tamper-proof circuit. If the tamper-proof is disabled for any reason, get that circuit to relay a signal directly to me.” He paused, listening to the response before furrowing his brows and clenching his teeth in rage. “I don’t care how you do it, just do it!” he yelled at the unfortunate soul on the other line, spittle escaping from his mouth. “I want a solution by first light, or I’ll have you Roboticized! I don’t care if you’re Human! Now get it done!”

Slamming the receiver back on its cradle, the president stood up and ambled back to the window facing No.1, his body illuminated in the orange glow coming from the flames sprouting out of its remains. As he surveyed the carnage, his mind reeled back to a figure that stood out in the security footage he just reviewed.

A two-tailed fox with unnaturally glowing blue eyes.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Bombing Mission



Cream

It’s after 11,’ Cream noted, glancing at the clock above the flat-panelled tele-crate screen mounted on the wall next to her. It was another packed night at Vanilla’s Haven. The bartender kept her mind off of the dangerous mission Tails and the others were on by serving food and drink while making small talk to customers both familiar and new. 

One of her regulars, a man with long, auburn swept-back hair, wearing an unopened black leather vest, a thin, white t-shirt and faded black jeans waved her over. He shot a lopsided grin at her. “Hey gorgeous, can I get another round?” he called, waggling his eyebrows.

Cream rolled her eyes at his antics, shook her head and smiled at him. “Johnny, you still haven’t paid your previous tab! I’m cutting you off!” she said, turning away from him. She continued working, serving up drinks and warmed food to salivating customers while keeping the pouting Human in the corner of her eye. After letting him stew for a few moments, she slid a bottle of a particular lager down his way.

The man easily caught the bottle in his hand. He beamed heartily at the barmaid. “Aw, thanks Cream! I promise I’ll pay ya back tomorrow, first thing!” he shouted gleefully over the crowd. He took a pull from the bottle, relished the smooth taste and then continued his conversation with the patron sitting beside him. “So anyway, I was saying…”


Cream turned away from the conversation and was about to queue the next customer at the counter when she heard a sweet, child-like voice call her name. She raised her hand to indicate that she’ll be right back and headed to the back hallway leading upstairs. 

Sitting on the bottom step was Hope, wearing a set of pink pyjamas that were a size too small and clutching a ratty, brown teddy bear with a missing right arm tightly around her. The little girl looked up to the taller Mobian in front of her. “I can’t sleep,” she said plainly.

The rabbit kneeled to Hope’s level and looked softly at her. “I know sweetie,” she replied, her lips curled into a gentle smile. “You’re worried about your daddy and the others too, huh?” She then stood up and hoisted the little girl into her arms. “Tell you what; I’ll let you stay up tonight so you can wait for them. Once they’re back though, you have to go straight to bed, okay?” 

“Okay!” 

Cream chuckled as she brought Hope back to the bar area. Placing her on a stool behind the bar, she looked at her in the eye. “Now, I want you to stay here and keep an eye out for anyone suspicious,” she said in mock seriousness. “If you can’t go to sleep, then I’ll put you to work!”

The little girl beamed brightly. “You got it!” she exclaimed, eager to help out.

Grinning brightly, Cream turned back to the crowd. “Alright everyone, listen up!” She hollered, catching everyone’s attention. “Hope here is gonna be keeping an eye on you guys, so you all better be on your best behaviour, understand?” She pointed at the little girl sitting behind the counter on the stool, scouring the crowds with a steely gaze and watching for troublemakers.

Stricken with mock fear, Johnny stood up from his stool and looked at Hope, clasping his hands in front of his face. “Oh, please Hope,” he pleaded, a hint of amusement gleaming in his eyes. “We’ll be really, really good, honest we will.” He arched back to his fellow patrons. “Right guys?”

A chorus of cheers, acknowledgements and shouts of “We promise!” answered back. 

Hope blushed at all the attention. “OK,” she said bashfully. 

Another raucous cheer broke out and Cream had to bite her lip hard to prevent herself from cracking up. She returned to the counter and apologized to her patiently amused customer for the wait.

Suddenly, the program on the tele-crate was interrupted by a large ‘Breaking News’ banner that flashed across the screen, catching the attention of those nearest to it. A zebra called out to the barmaid. “Hey! Can you turn it up for a sec?!”

Hastily grabbing the remote on the liquor shelf, Cream pumped the volume up to its maximum. The near-deafening crowds quieted to a hum as the brunette newscaster spoke.

“This is Scarlet Garcia, reporting from the Kintobor News Network desk in the Sector 2 studio,” the woman sitting behind the news desk said. “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a breaking news update: We have reports of an incident at the Sector 1 Train Station this evening. Just after 11:00 pm, several assailants attacked the security detail guarding the station. Whether this has any relation to the ongoing labour dispute is not currently known, but we will provide an update on the situation as this story develops.” The screen then returned to its normal broadcast.

Cream felt her fists tighten reflexively at the news as the bar returned to its normal, boisterous din. ‘So, it’s started,’ she thought, slamming a glass down on the counter harder than she expected. She huffed loudly as a crack formed down the middle of the glass. Giving an apologetic wave to her current customer, the rabbit kneeled to the shelf underneath the counter to replace the cracked cup. Picking out another highball glass, Cream dropped her bartending facade and took several deep, shuddering breaths. Though she hid it well by keeping everyone’s spirits up, deep down she was worried about the team and Tails.
‘Come back safely… and don’t you all die on me,’ she prayed as she rose from the floor and set the glass gently on the counter. “Sorry for the wait!” she said once again to the patron on the other side of the counter and flashed a winsome smile at him. “So, what’ll it be?”


Tails

Sticking to the shadows, TORNADO made their way through the winding passages leading into the reactor, stealthily dispatching the lightly manned security detail along the way. They moved quickly and efficiently, mowing down each Kintobor grunt one by one with sheer numbers. Tails trailed behind, picking off the soldiers the group ignored in their mad dash through the passage. 

You got to give it to them,’ the two-tailed fox observed as TORNADO progressed through the last of the security checkpoints. ‘Despite their amateurism, they seem to know what they’re doing. Colour me impressed.’

The team soon emerged onto the wide catwalks leading into the plant interior. Suspended a hundred meters above the slums, the walkways connected the main entrance from Sector 1 to an emergency exit leading to Sector 8, with another catwalk in the middle running perpendicularly into the reactor proper. The reactor itself, a towering mass of metal, was physically separated from the plates. 

Biggs and Bark made a right at the T-junction and hurried into the reactor entrance. Wedge ran to the opposite end to secure the emergency exit leading into Sector 8, hiding in an alcove. Jessie and Tails brought up the rear. “Go blow this place to hell!” Wedge shouted as they passed him by. 

As soon as the fox was through, the woman slammed a button on the nearby wall. A steel door slid into place with a hiss, preventing access from the oncoming security forces that were likely to follow. 

Once inside, the three TORNADO members caught their breath. Tails crossed his arms and leaned against a wall, eyeing his charges as they recovered.  Soon enough, Bark straightened up from his bent position, his massive chest heaving up and down. “OK, the easy part’s done,” he said, rolling his shoulders. “Biggs, go enter the codes.”

“You got it, boss!” With a grin, Biggs strode up to the first set of security doors at the far end of the room. Hastily pulling out and unfolding a sheet of paper, the man scanned over the codes before inputting them into a control panel next to the door.

While this was going on, Tails surveyed his surroundings. The interior was stark and industrial, with thick metal panels covering the floors and walls covered with reinforced concrete. The hallways were filled with an adequate amount of lighting necessary for workers to traverse through. Exposed pipes crisscrossing along the walls and ceilings made the space feel narrower than it was. The fox’s eyes then landed on the Human manipulating the door controls, muttering to himself as he did so.

His gaze was broken by his employer, who walked into his line of sight. “Is this your first time in a reactor?” Bark asked, eyeing him warily.

“No, I’ve been in plenty before. I did work for Kintobor, you know,” the fox replied candidly, running a gloved hand through the fur on his head.

Gritting his teeth at the mere mention of the company, the polar bear continued. “Well, I’m sure you know what these things do then. Energen isn’t just a convenient, cheap energy source; it’s the source of all life on Mobius. And these bastards keep sucking it all up with their weird machines and converting them into RINGTEK-”

“Look, I’m not here for a lecture,” Tails cut him off, turning his head away from the bear and raising his hand dismissively. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Fed up with his lack of understanding, Bark snapped at the mercenary, pointing his Gun-Arm at him. “Fine then, I’ve had it with you and your attitude!” he shouted, spittle flecking from his mouth. “You wanna get this over with?! Then do your damn job and lead us to the bottom of the complex! And I’ll be right behind you with a bullet ready to blow your brains out if you try anything stupid!”

“Alright! Code deciphered!” Biggs shouted triumphantly as the security door loudly rattled open. Turning to the others, his face went chalk white at the scene in front of him. “Um… I miss something here?”

“Oh shut it Biggs, and give that here,” Jessie snapped, snatching the piece of paper from his hand. “You’re too slow! And boss?” She said, turning to Bark. “We need to focus; don’t you remember what’s at stake here?”

Bark broke his gaze from Tails at her words. “Hmph, yeah,” he muttered, lowering his weapon before turning his attention again to the fox. “Alright then merc, you lead the way once Jessie breaks through the next set of doors.”

“Fine,” Tails responded, his fingers gripping his folded arms tightly. He had to force himself to keep his cool as he was about ready to pick a fight with the obnoxious bear to set him straight. He took a few deep breaths to relax as Bark and the others headed to the next set of doors barring access to the Reactor and the Manufacturing Plant before following them. Inwardly though, he was a little impressed at Bark’s focus. ‘Huh, despite his temper and his paranoia, at least he has his priorities straight.

Jessie hurried towards the access panel for the second set of security doors. Without hesitation, she riffed open the sheet she swiped from Biggs, pasted it against the wall and started punching the codes listed on them. “Thank the Goddess we were able to get these codes from our sources,” she called back to the group, trying to clear the tense air. “A lot of people lost their lives to get us these, so we can’t let their sacrifice be in vain.” It took only moments before she cracked the code and the doors opened. ”Code deciphered,” she announced.

Biggs walked up to her with his hand held out, his lips set in a grim line as opposed to his perpetual grin. ”Ok, I’m up,” he said. “Hand me the bomb and the signal relays and I’ll head into the manufacturing plant.”

The woman dug into her satchel and handed him several objects; several small, black antennas, wireless, RINGTEK-powered signal boosting boxes to connect each antenna to and a bulkier package which was wrapped in brown paper. “Here they are,” she said, piling them into a smaller bag Biggs brought with him. “Install the signal boosters as you go along the corridors; remember that the max radius of each is 75 feet, so keep an eye on your supply and your distance. Once you set the bomb, make sure it connects both to the signal relays and this router here.” She pulled out a thin rectangular box with a slim profile, mounted it inconspicuously near a stack of crates and switched it on. The device gave off a low hum that matched the din of the reactor. Turning around, Jessie looked at Biggs with concern flooding her features. “Look, be careful with this stuff, it’s all delicate. And… take care of yourself too.”

Biggs raised an eyebrow at her, his lips curling upwards once more. “Yeah, yeah, I won’t forget,” he waved nonchalantly. “And am I not careful as it is?”

Jessie shoved him playfully and beamed at him. “Oh shut up and get going,” she said, amused. “Oh, and don’t forget to use that data device I gave you too!”

The man nodded. “Yeah, I won’t forget! Good luck!” he replied before heading down the corridor into the manufacturing area. He turned the corner and disappeared.

“You two done?” Bark asked Jessie, who stood by the lift going down into the reactor. His eyes were set in a determined scowl and he tapped his foot impatiently. “Let’s get going.”

Appearing slightly mortified, the brunette stepped up to the lift and pressed the call button. The door slid open a few seconds later and the trio climbed aboard. Jessie then pressed the switch leading to the lower level. The lift doors slid shut with a clunk and the car began its descent towards the bottom level.

It was here that Bark decided to give Tails another chance to understand the significance behind this mission and its implications for the future. “Look man,” he addressed the mercenary. “All I was saying before was that sooner or later, these reactors will suck out ALL the life force that’s keeping this planet alive. Once that happens, it’s the end of all of us.”

Tails shrugged off his words and then crossed his arms. “It’s not my problem,” he retorted.

The polar bear slammed his left fist against the car, rattling it. “For fuck’s sake Tails, the planet is dying!” he roared angrily, his whole frame shaking with rage. 

“And I’m telling you that the only thing we should be worried about is finishin’ this job before this place is overrun by Robians and Roboguards,” Tails responded coolly, leaning against the wall and closing his eyes. ‘Well, I was wrong about his priorities,’ he reflected. ‘Too concerned about saving the planet and less concerned about staying alive… Either he’s cocky or he’s an idiot-

“Hey, d-do you think that Robians are really gonna be here?” Jessie asked, cutting through the fox’s thoughts. 

Tails opened an eye, which glowed brightly in the dim lighting of the elevator car. “Positive,” he responded, grateful for the change of subject. “You guys may have reduced the security detail here down to its bare minimum, but the reactor’s here are their stomping grounds. Robians don’t get paid and don’t need breaks. Guarding secure, classified locations like these and prowling the Mutate-infested areas within the slums are their only functions in life now. We’ll definitely encounter at least one.” 

As he finished speaking, the elevator stopped. The panel on the side of the elevator displayed the words ‘Refinery And Transfer’ and the doors opened to reveal a vast, cavernous area littered with pipes of all different sizes running around the space. Some went upwards into the Manufacturing Plant, but many of them went out of the sides of the concrete walls in the distance. All of the transmission pipes originated from the refinery; a massive industrial plant that stood several stories high.

Gun-Arm raised, Bark peeked out of the car to check their surroundings. He spied the pathway that snaked around the refinery and led further downwards towards the centre of the reactor’s operational control and their primary target – the main pump chamber. Seeing that the coast was clear, he motioned for Tails to take point while he brought up the rear. Jessie was sandwiched in between the two Mobians. She drew a high calibre pistol from her hip and held it steadily in her hand. 

They traversed several staircases and ladders as they winded down the path to the bottom of the reactor. Every now and then, they stopped as Jessie installed the signal relays required to link the bomb they would plant here to the one Biggs would install in the Manufacturing Plant. 

On the climb down the third ladder, Tails’ supernatural hearing started picking up sounds of mechanical rasping that would have otherwise been hidden amongst the industrial noises of the refinery. They soon approached the door leading into the main pump chamber, separated by a high, steel-cladded wall. The fox abruptly halted a few feet in front of the door. “I hear something coming,” he said, gripping the hilt of his Buster Sword. 

Bark swung his arm around wildly. “What do you mean?” he asked, aiming at nothing. “I don’t hear shit all. Quit trying to scare –“

With a screech sounding like nails on a chalkboard, three Squirrel Robians suddenly dropped from above and surrounded the three in a pincer formation, with two in front of Bark and Jessie and one in front of Tails. What were once normal Mobians were now merciless killing machines, their bodies given metallic form and their free will stripped through the roboticization process. Their lithe bodies were covered with chrome and gun-metal grey plating, they had wickedly curved claws on their hands and feet for gripping onto walls and for rending flesh and their segmented tails were round, bulbous and designed for bludgeoning.

The warrior drew his sword and stared down at the Robian in front of him. It hissed as it lashed its tail out at the fox. Tails ducked down to avoid the swipe, rolled forward to get in close and then threw three, wide sweeping slashes. The first two sliced off its arms and the third lopped off its head. The squirrel dropped to the floor and became motionless, sparks flying from the dismembered portions of its body. 

Tails turned around to see Bark and Jessie attempting to gun down the remaining two Robians. The polar bear roared, firing a volley at the first squirrel as it bore down on him. Its hide was thick enough to prevent his shots from penetrating. The Robian drew near and swung its tail hard, catching Bark on the stomach. He staggered backwards, winded, but not seriously injured due to the protective band around his waist. Claws raised, the squirrel let out a metallic shriek and bounded towards the vulnerable bear.

Upon seeing Bark being pushed back, Tails quickly placed a hand on the second green Emerald on his sword and drew blue energy out of it. Sheathing his sword, he shaped the magic with his Mana. The magic collapsed and formed a ball in front of his chest. Focused on the robot that was approaching the gunner, he then pushed his hands outward and called “ICE!”

A blue-white beam shot out from his hands, barely scraping the polar bear’s right shoulder, and hit its target. The magic showered the Robian with Ice energy, slowing it down its movements and giving Bark enough time to recover and avoid being slashed by its claws. Rolling out of the way and landing in a kneeled position, he pointed his arm and fired another salvo. This time, the bullets tore through the Robian’s body as Tails’ spell made its armour plating weak and brittle.

Seeing that Bark was able to handle himself, the fox turned his attention to the third Robian. The wild swings from the squirrel’s claws forced Jessie back until she hit a wall. Tails reacted, hurrying towards the woman as the Robian wrapped its tail around her waist. He swung the great blade upwards and cut the appendage just before it could squeeze and crush her. The warrior then followed up by wrapping his tails around the mechanical beast’s arms and pulled hard, ripping both of them out of their sockets. He then finished it by crushing its head with the flat side of the Buster Sword.

“W-What the hell was that?” Bark cursed. He winced and rubbed at his abdomen as he stood up. Nearby, Jessie wriggled out of the Squirrel Robian’s tail. Her eyes were as wide as saucers and she struggled to catch her breath.

“Trouble,” replied Tails, his eyes narrowing as he picked up the sounds of something skittering along the walls. “And there’s more of it coming!”

Two more Squirrel Robians jumped off and landed in front of them. The one closest to the three lashed out wildly and tore a gash in the polar bear’s left arm. Bark roared in pain and grabbed the robot on instinct. Forcing his Gun-Arm into its mouth, he pumped its insides full of lead and then threw its lifeless husk away from him. 

The Ex-SOLDIER then leapt over Bark and brought his sword behind him. At the apex of his jump, he swung it forward and cut the second Robian in two. Landing in a crouch, the fox’s eyes widened in alarm as his ears picked up the sounds of mechanical legs stomping up behind them. The unknown mechaniloid whirred and a hissing noise blared out. The two-tailed fox recognized what it was about to do. “Sweeper’s behind us, everybody duck!” he shouted, dropping to the floor.

Bark and Jessie hastily followed suit as bullets whizzed past them. Clenching her teeth, the brunette hastily dug into her satchel and produced a grenade from it. Pulling the pin out, she counted to three in her head before lobbing it in the vicinity of the Sweeper. The grenade landed right near its spiked feet and exploded, cutting its barrage short. Tails got up from his prone position, his hand holding a charge filled with yellow-white energy. He thrust the hand holding the magic outward and called “BOLT!”

The spell shot out of Tails’ palm, snaked into the Sweeper’s damaged legs and its rectangular shell. The lightning wreaked havoc on its internal systems, short-circuiting it and leaving it nothing more than a hunk of scrap in its wake.

Jessie got up first and she shivered at the sight of the mechanical remains. “Ugh, those things give me the creeps,” she muttered, staring at the Sweeper’s metallic grill. Letting out several shaky breaths, she turned to Tails and flashed a small smile at the Mobian. “Thanks. If it weren’t for you, we’d all probably be dead by now.”

The fox shrugged. “No problem,” he said coolly. “Just doing my job.” He looked around and piqued his ears, using his enhanced senses to scan for any more unwanted encounters. “I don’t hear or see anything coming our way,” he announced. “Now would be a good time to recuperate before we carry out the rest of the mission. More of ‘em will show up eventually, but we should be on our way out before they do.”

His left arm soaked with blood, Bark got up and walked over to Jessie. She stuck a hand into her satchel and pulled out some medical tape, along with a thin phial filled with blue liquid. The label ‘Potion’ was stamped on the side. 

Handing it over to the bear, he broke the top off and held it in place with his teeth. With a slow and practiced movement, Bark poured about half of the solution onto his wounded arm and hissed in pain as the liquid made contact. The antiseptic components of the Potion reacted with the blood and formed a paste that sealed the wound. Taking the phial out of his mouth, he downed the remaining contents and retched at the bitter taste before discarding it onto the ground. He then placed the medical tape through one of the barrels of his Gatling Gun and, using it as a dispenser, he bandaged his arm. Tossing the tape back to Jessie, he threw her a thumbs-up and grinned. “Yeah, we’re good to go!” he exclaimed.

Bark strode towards the entrance to the main pump chamber but stopped as he passed Tails. He arched his head and stared down at him. Tails half expected the bear to berate him once more, but to the fox’s surprise, Bark’s lips curled upward into a slight smile. “You ain’t half-bad Ex-SOLDIER,” he commented lightly. He opened the door leading onwards and beckoned the other two to follow, his lips now set in a tight line. “Alright, let’s move.”


Biggs

After splitting from the group with the second bomb, Biggs snuck past plant operators and light security detail as he headed for the main control room of the RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant. He paused from time to time to covertly install the signal boosters necessary to connect the bomb to the central router at the rendezvous point. Stealing through another corridor, he noticed the heavy use of security cameras, which were all reprogrammed thanks to the Mobian Ex-SOLDIER. Biggs smiled to himself, thinking about the hardened warrior. ‘It’s a damn good thing we have that guy on our side,’ he mused. ‘Without him, this mission would’ve gone south long ago.’ 

He soon found himself in front of the control room, its door wide open. He peeked inside and saw five figures. Three of them were Human; two dark-haired men and a blonde woman. The remaining two were Mobians; a canine with long flowing brown locks and a toad with a shock of black hair on his slippery head. Each wore the same uniform: a light blue, short sleeve work shirt, dark blue denim overalls with beige gloves tucked into the front pocket and dark brown work boots. 

Seeing a closet in the corner of the room that he could hide in, Biggs stealthily entered the room. Keeping himself low, he opened the closet door and tucked himself into it. His heart racing and praying that he wasn’t seen, he reopened the door a crack and stole a glance out of the window separating the control room from the main plant.

A litany of machines occupied the large room and all were used to forge RINGTEK batteries of all kinds and sizes. The TORNADO member watched as a thin, ionically charged grey ring was inserted into one of the moulds. The moulds varied in size, from large fuel cells for vehicles and heavy-duty machinery to tiny cells used for personal electronics. Biggs remembered from his research that the grey ring was made up of various metals that caused slow, powerful chemical reactions with the Energen once bonded. At the end of each ring and exposed outside of the hermetically sealed mould was a pin-like socket used to insert the RINGTEK into machinery to power it. 

Pipes from below the refinery transported Energen into the manufacturing plant, where various nozzles injected it into the moulds. Once filled, the moulds were then subjected to supercooled water flowing through a heat exchanger that crossed the doughnut-shaped die. The supercooled water caused the liquid Energen to harden and bond with the inner ring, creating a powerful, self-contained battery. Once cast, a mechanical arm extracted the rings and inserted them into specially designed containers to cool the rings further, increasing their durability. The fully cooled rings were then transferred to another department for testing and quality assurance. The entire process – from casting to cooling and transport – took less than a minute to complete.

Biggs stifled a sigh as he watched the RINGTEK being created. “All this technology helped to advance and modernize our world…” he mumbled to himself. “But the cost… it’s way too high.” Feeling that the time to act was close at hand, he then checked his wristwatch. The digital display noted the time as 11:29 pm. 

A minute passed and a loud buzzer emitted from a speaker in the wall. Biggs sat where he was and listened to the workers leaving for the break room, all of them complaining about the labour strike that has crippled production. When the last operator left and the door shut with an audible click, the man slowly got out of his hiding spot and quickly raced over to the main control console. Knowing that he only had exactly ten minutes before the workers returned, he quickly extracted a thin, rectangular data stick and inserted it into the terminal in front of him. The programming inside the stick automatically executed its preloaded subroutines. Biggs watched the monitor in front of him as the programming began discreetly searching for and downloading a wealth of critical data. 

Seeing that the operation was in process, Biggs then pulled out the explosive Jessie gave him. It was a carefully constructed rectangular box with an LCD and several coloured buttons – black, green and blue – underneath the screen. Peering underneath the console, he spotted an area where he could place the package without it being seen. After adhering it to the spot, he installed a thin antenna into a slot on its side and then pushed the black button. 

The LCD screen came to life and displayed the words ‘AWAITING CONNECTION’ in black lettering after a few seconds. Biggs crossed his fingers and then pressed the blue button, hoping to the Goddess that he spaced out the boosters enough. The screen flashed twice before returning a message: ‘CONNECTION OK! PRESS BUTTON TO ACTIVATE.’ 

Biggs exhaled loudly. “Oh man, I was worried there for a second,” he muttered, wiping sweat from the bridge of his nose. He then pressed the green button and activated the bomb. “Done,” he said, getting out from underneath the console and standing to look at the monitor in front of him. The words ‘Download Complete’ came up in a popup in the left-hand corner of the screen. ‘And so is this thing too.’ 

Pulling out the stick, he placed it in his pocket and looked at the time. It read 11:38 pm. “I got two minutes left,” he whispered to himself, pulling out his sidearm and adjusting his headband. “Time to blow this pop stand.” He crouched down again and slinked out of the room just before the buzzer rang for the end of break time.


Tails

After hopping over to another platform and climbing down another set of ladders, the three stopped at a wide walkway suspended above a glowing pool of raw Energen. At the very end of the path lay the extraction pump chamber; the heart of the reactor.

The entire apparatus consisted of an oblong, twelve-foot-tall pumping assembly that jutted out of the concrete wall. The main pump itself was massive, consisting of a four-foot-tall body and a giant, 2,000 horsepower motor that was anchored in place by several guy wires and hangars. An array of pipes, both thick and thin, sprouted out of the top of the pump assembly, the set spreading out like a web from the current level they were on up to the refinery plant on the next level above. On the bottom, a series of huge pipes led down from the machine and into the pool of gold and silver below. A large hand wheel in the centre of the structure operated the pair of enormous, eighteen-inch isolation valves that would halt the flow of liquid in an emergency. Next to it were the main controls for the entire structure.

Jessie handed Bark the second, much larger explosive from her pack and then stood by the ladder. “I’ll wait here,” she said to the two Mobians, her mouth set into a grim line as she watched for incoming enemies.

Bark nodded and motioned the fox to follow him. Tails started but paused when an object on the floor caught the corner of his eye. It was a tiny, brilliantly cut, hexagonal green jewel, similar to the ones installed into the slots of his Buster Sword. He walked towards it and picked it up. “An Emerald,” he said softly. Peering closely at the gem, Tails saw a soft and warm green light emanating from it, eliciting a smile from the mercenary. “Looks like Restore magic.” He was about to switch it out for the Ice Emerald on his sword when Bark lumbered up, his face contorted into a scowl.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked roughly, snatching the item out of Tails’ hand. Looking at it in confusion, he kissed his teeth loudly in annoyance and then pocketed the jewel. “C’mon man, we got a job to do here! Once we’re done here, this place is gonna be nothing more than a hunk of junk!” He held out the bomb and Jessie’s instructions to the fox. “Tails, you set the bomb.”

Tails raised an eyebrow, his glowing eyes staring coldly at the bear. “And why should I?” he questioned icily. “This is your show. I’m nothing more than an escort.”

Bark glowered wearily at the quizzical fox. “Just do the damn thing already,” he grumbled. “I wanna see if you’re willing to bite the hand that feeds you. If not, then I know where your true loyalties lie.”

The fox rolled his eyes. ‘Goddess-damned bastard doesn’t give me a break…‘ “Whatever, fine,” he huffed, snatching the package. He approached the mechanism with the polar bear behind him, his arms crossed as he watched him keenly. As Tails was about to place the bomb on the central console, he froze as a high-pitched buzz erupted in his head, like it was signalling him. Clutching his head with one hand, he suddenly heard a sharp, childlike voice speak out to him. 

“Watch out! Something’s off about this reactor!”

Bark watched the Mobian stop in place for a few moments and then shoved him out of his stupor with his gun. “What’s wrong?” he asked, glowering at him.

“Huh?” Tails blinked in confusion for a few moments as he returned to reality.

The impatient bear growled. “What’s wrong, Tails, hurry the hell up!” he demanded.

Tails shook his head and cleared his mind. “Yeah, sorry,” he apologized.  He set the charge against the central console on the reactor. The main unit consisted of a powerful explosive with a tiny control board mounted on it. Reading the instructions, Tails extended the two, flexible antennae on its side and then inserted a cable from the control board into the service port of the central console. He then pressed a black button on the top corner to initialize the bomb.

Drawing power from the central console, a small, rectangular LCD on the top left corner of the charge activated. Upon startup, the screen flashed the words ‘AWAITING CONNECTION’. Tails pressed the blue button as per the instructions and waited as the machine transmitted its signal through the boosters Jessie installed throughout their journey. The words ‘CONNECTION OK! SYNCHRONIZATION OK! PRESS BUTTON TO ACTIVATE,’ soon flashed on the screen, indicating that all was ready.  

Before Tails could push the green button to arm the device, a klaxon began to blare out loudly and strobe lights flashed red emergency beacons.

Bark furiously pressed his Gun-Arm against the fox’s head at that instant. “What the hell did you do?!” He bellowed. 

An intercom beat out the two-tailed fox before he could speak. “Warning! Unidentified tampering detected at main pump chamber!” the female voice announced. “Dispatching Roboguardian designate E-89 ‘Guard Scorpion’ to eliminate threats! Field shall be modified to accommodate!” 

The railing on the walkway suddenly detached and folded underneath it. Next, two thick steel plates slid out from the walls on either side of the chamber. Each plate was lined at the incoming edge with tapered tabs like gear teeth which meshed with strategically placed holes in the walkway to form a single, seamless platform. On the left-hand wall, a large, twenty-foot-tall by fifteen-foot wide panel slid open to reveal the Guard Scorpion.

Created to emulate the look of an actual scorpion, the red mechaniloid stepped out onto the platform on its six, segmented legs, each the size of a tree trunk. Atop its legs was a heavily plated, oblong torso. Concealed beneath the thick, bulletproof glass on its center was a set of large, mechanical lenses that acted as its eyes. Its head consisted of a round dome with several antennae jutting out from it and a small, pivoting rectangular scope, used by the guardian to obtain environmental and targeting data. In place of pincers were a pair of long, heavily plated crimson arms, each equipped with 20mm Vulcan cannons. By far, the most fearsome and intimidating part of its body was its tail; a segmented, flexible appendage with an enormous, diamond-like spike at its end. The joints of each leg, arm and tail segment, along with its torso, were covered with a flexible, black polymer shielding. The reflections from the gold and silver pool below cast an eerie glow against the polished steel as it leered menacingly at the two Mobians in front of it. 

The robotic monstrosity vented grey-yellow exhaust fumes out from various ports along its body, before moving towards the intruders, its legs stomping thunderously on the thick metal platform.

Bark turned his gun away from the fox and towards the Roboguardian. “OK, well there’s my question answered!” he yelled as Tails stood beside him, sword drawn. “Head’s up foxy, here it comes!”


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Prelude



Flower Girl

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.


Tails

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.


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: The Leader of TORNADO



Cream

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

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…”


Mobius VII – Book 1: Escape From The City – Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Price of Freedom



The SOLDIER

A storm was coming.

It was an event that happened rarely in the wastelands surrounding the massive industrial city of Megapolis. Dark clouds intermingled with the ashen, grey-yellow smog emitted from the metropolis’ eight towering reactors and the haze quickly blocked out the sun. 

Whatever organisms that eked a living on the barren lands started to burrow underground or find cover around the large rock formations in anticipation of the tempest to come. Even the larger Mutates – those creatures mutated by the radioactive runoff discharged from the city’s reactors – were forced to seek shelter once the first few claps of thunder erupted, shaking the earth itself. Despite their primitive intelligence, their basic, bestial instincts sensed that something was amiss.

This storm was unlike any before it.

The threatening air did not stop the blue, anthropomorphic hedgehog from slowly trudging towards Megapolis. He had long, sharp quills coming out of the back of his round head which swept down his back. He wore a dark blue vest and long, baggy wool trousers, held up with thick, brown suspenders. A steel plate covered in worn, black leather was fastened to the top of the trousers to protect the abdominal area. On his left shoulder was a black, battle-scarred leather pauldron and his left hand was covered with a well-worn white glove, soiled and cracked from prolonged use. His right shoulder was covered with a single steel studded pauldron and his upper arm was covered in tarnished, plate armour. An ornate steel gauntlet with a gold band and a red gemstone adorned his forearm.  He wore deep red sneakers with a broad, white stripe crossing the top. Each stripe ended with a gold buckle on the outer side of each shoe. 

The suspenders were bound together on his back by a flat, circular metal disk. Attached to the disk was an enormous, gun-metal grey broadsword, five feet long, with a single, ten-inch wide edge. The riveted handguard was adorned by swirling, golden designs. The base of the blade by the handguard had straight, angular etchings on either side. The sword had two holes bored into it, near the handguard. Inserted into each hole were two, brilliant green gems, with a linkage connecting them.

His clothes were riddled with holes and tears while the rest of his exposed body was covered in a litany of wounds and bruises that were slowly healing. The bottoms and the sides of his shoes were caked in a thin layer of dirt and blood. Wearisome as he was, he still pressed forward.

A sudden, cool breeze flowed through his quills and he stopped in place. His eyes closed as he relished the feeling of the wind behind him. He then felt a frenzied, restless urge coursing through his body and down to his legs. It was as if the wind gently pushing on his back was telling him to stop holding back and to let go of all inhibitions.

It was telling him to run.

Before he could act on this impulse though, he heard the crackling sound of thunder above him, followed by a weak moan coming from his left. His unnaturally glowing jade-green eyes turned away from the city looming in the distance and towards his companion, who he had wrapped his left arm around.

Supported by the hedgehog was a 21-year-old orange-furred fox. He stumbled about on weakened legs and was unable to support his own weight. He was clothed in a replica of his protector’s uniform, with slight differences. The zipper on the vest was down slightly, revealing tufts of white fur underneath. He wore a steel studded pauldron on his left shoulder, which was identical to the one the hedgehog wore. On his wrists were brown and grey gloves and on his left arm, from wrist to three quarters up his forearm, was a studded armlet to use as a guard. He wore brown, standard-issue combat leather boots. On the base of his left ear was a piercing; a single, silver hoop. 

His body was thin and his pointed, white muzzle was gaunt and sunken. His ears lay flat and his nose was dry as he staggered forward, his friend coaxing him onward. His irises were coloured an unnatural, electric blue, similarly to the green that the blue warrior sported. Dragging on the lifeless earth behind him as he ambled were two, large, bushy tails. Despite his general weakness, the fox was otherwise uninjured. He had no means to defend himself and was relying solely on the good graces of his friend to keep him safe.

Drool was slowly dripping out of his hung mouth and his eyes were staring unfocused on hard dirt beneath him. He let out another quiet moan as the second crack of thunder erupted from the sky. 

The hedgehog bent his head down to look at his friend, concern flooded his features. “You OK little buddy?” he asked softly, wiping the drool off of his lips with the back of his gauntleted hand. 

The fox only mewled in response and his grip on the hedgehog’s arm tightened.

The hedgehog didn’t know what to make of the answer. He shrugged and said cheerfully to the fox, attempting to change the subject, “Look over there! We’re almost at Megapolis! In another few miles, you and I will be safe and sound!” He chuckled to himself lightly. “Heh, heh… Miles. Get it? Cuz your name?”

The fox moaned again.

The warrior shook his head. “OK, I get it, it was a lame joke,” he chuckled. When he heard no further response from his companion, he let out a sigh. “Man, this trip did a number on you…” he mumbled under his breath.

As he trudged on with the fox in tow, the hedgehog barely repressed the frustrated and restless feeling he had inside him. If there was one thing he hated most of all, it was moving slowly. He desperately wanted to feel the wind rushing by him as he ran, but he knew that his usual, blistering pace would be too much for the two-tailed fox to handle. The warrior cursed at his annoyance. ‘I can’t be selfish,’ he thought as he half walked, half dragged his barely conscious companion through the darkening wastelands. ‘He needs my help to get better… After all, I dragged him into this mess in the first place.‘ 

His train of thought was broken as the rain started to fall in small, light droplets onto the duo. The hedgehog stopped to look upwards and frowned at the sky. “Well, this won’t do,” he muttered, looking around for shelter. 

He spotted a cave at the bottom of one of the ridges overlooking the city, straight and to the left of him slightly. “OK Tails,” he addressed the fox by name. “We’re gonna go to that cave over there and camp out til the rain stops,” he said, pointing towards the direction of the cave.

Tails said nothing at first but then nodded imperceptibly in agreement. 

The hedgehog smiled as he led him to the cavern. “Don’t worry little buddy,” he said as he guided him. “You’ll be alright. We’ll get to the city, find a doctor to help you get better.” He paused, grunting as he started going up an incline on the way. “And then after that, we’ll be on our way to fame and fortune! All you have to do is,” he continued as the rain started to pour harder, ” Just hang on for a couple more hours… OK?” 

His pace started to slow as the ground beneath him became muddy and slippery, making it harder for the invalid Tails to gain any traction. The spiny swordsman gritted his teeth and summoned up more strength to continue onward, his sneakers starting to make squelching sounds in the mud with every step. 


Tails started to slip further, causing the hedgehog to stumble himself and nearly lose his footing in the process. Against the now pounding rain, he looked ahead to see that the cave was less than a hundred feet away from where he was. The rain started coming down in sheets now. Lightning arced and flashed across the sky wickedly. Thunder boomed loudly in the hedgehog’s hyper-sensitive ears, causing him to flinch at the sound. 

After a herculean effort, the pair made it to the cave. As they entered its mouth for shelter, the swordsman suddenly heard something besides the falling rain and thunder. Kneeling down and honing his senses, he soon picked out the hum of hover engines and the heavy boots of Humans and Mobians tromping on the wet ground over the din of the storm. He picked out the hoarse voices of officers directing soldiers and the squelching sound of tank treads rolling and bipedal mechanoids stepping on the ever-saturating soil. His ears shot up like arrows and his eyes widened, realizing what this all meant.

“Damnit, they found us…” he whispered to himself. He hoisted up Tails, using as much of his remaining strength he could muster to drag the catatonic Mobian deeper into the cave. He concealed him behind a boulder, propped him up into a seated position and then kneeled down to his level to speak.

“Listen Tails,” he said to the fox, a sad smile crossing his muzzle. “Kintobor’s army has found us and it doesn’t look like they’ll be taking us alive either.” An exasperated scoff escaped his lips and his eyebrows lowered into a scowl. “If I were a bettin’ hog, I’d say that that crazy bat-crab bastard at Kintobor had something to do with this.” He pinched the bridge between his eyes and then drew out the enormous sword from his back. As he placed it on the ground beside him to inspect the weapon, he continued talking. “I want you to stay here and be safe. I’ll draw them away from here and hopefully catch ‘em by surprise at the same time.” He paused and then turned his head to the catatonic fox, whose eyes were misted over with confusion. 

The warrior placed a hand on the fox’s shoulder and the corners of his mouth turned upwards once more. “Hey, I made a promise to you, Miles ‘Tails’ Prower,” he said in a warm, caring tone. “I promised that I would get you to the city and help find a way to fix whatever the hell they did to you. Before we get there though, I gotta go take care of these losers first.” His smile grew into a grin as he stood up, placed the blade on the disk on his back and turned towards the mouth of the cave. “Hope they’re fast enough to catch me!” the warrior said cheerfully as he stretched and warmed up.  “Honestly, I could use a bit of a challenge right now.”

The bravado he portrayed belied the uncertain feeling he had in the pit of his stomach. As the storm began to lighten slightly, the sounds of the machines and of boots trampling the ground became more pronounced. The hedgehog ceased his stretching. ‘Oh, boy…’ the swordsman mused, his ears flattening as he listened on. ‘That’s a LOT of soldiers and mechs out there… and they’re all out for little ole’ us.’ He twisted his body back to the fox slumped on the ground, his head bowed to his chest. A sickening thought then crossed his mind: 

He could leave him there and run off. 

What made him feel worse was that he was considering it.

The warrior shook his head violently and pushed that thought away as far as he could. He would not abandon his friend, not after all he had done to keep him safe. ‘No more running,‘ he thought. ‘It’s time to end this, once and for all.” 

Waving farewell to the twin-tailed fox, the hedgehog turned back and strode out of the cave to face the crowds of soldiers, vehicles and mechs that awaited him. Outside, he bent down into a runner’s starting position, tensed up and then shot off like a bullet, a flash of steel and blue fur tearing through the rocky outcroppings. 

He soon zipped up to the top of a tall spire that overlooked the area. Keeping low to the ground so that he wouldn’t be detected, he scanned the horizon. From a few hundred feet away, he saw soldiers by the droves marching towards the ridge where Tails hid, each sporting coloured uniforms to denote their rank and status. Blue uniforms for grunts, green for platoon leaders, grey for sergeants and red for the higher-ups. They were flanked by tanks and ‘Sweepers’: bipedal machines with large spikes for feet, high-calibre machine guns for arms and small anti-personnel missiles hidden inside the elongated, rectangular body that was parallel to the ground. Attached to the back of the machines was a large motor that exuded greyish-yellow exhaust fumes. The ‘face’ of these machines consisted of a large intake grille with vertical slats of metal that opened and closed to make a frightening visage. The hedgehog squinted his eyes and saw – with his remarkably enhanced vision – a model number etched into the burnished metal on the robot’s side: E-25. 

He angled his head to the dark grey skies and saw several egg-shaped transporters above the soldiers, each held aloft with hover engines on either side of its body. On the undersides of each transporter were a pair of large, six-barrel rotary machine guns along with a searchlight that roved the ground below, the drizzling rainfall disclosing their location in the air. 

“Huh, they must be desperate if they’re bringing Sweepers and SkyTrans carriers into the fray,” the hedgehog muttered to himself, frowning at the sight.

He scanned the area between them and located a spot of flat, open earth on another ridge that overlooked the city. It was close to where he hid Tails but far enough that the army wouldn’t circle back and look for him. ‘Looks large enough that I can go to town on anyone who approaches, but small enough that I wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed,’ he thought to himself as he scrutinized the plain. ‘Looking at this closely, if I play my cards right, I might stand a chance here?’ 

Deep in the pit of his stomach, however, he didn’t believe that thought for a second.

The hedgehog stood up, drew his sword and held it with the gauntlet-covered arm. He took several deep breaths to ready himself. Then he flung himself off of the spire, slid down to the surface and then, with a sonic boom, dashed off to the top of the ridge. The shockwave ensured that he left a trail distinct enough for the army to notice. Without fail, the searchlights on the SkyTranses above picked the speeding hedgehog out and the soldiers and mechs began to give chase. 

The warrior soon reached the ridge and halted right at its edge, followed closely behind by the army. Soldiers lined up, cocked their machine guns and took aim. The Sweepers, tanks and SkyTranses followed suit and pointed weaponry of all sorts at the lone figure.

“You are surrounded!” the hedgehog heard a grunt shout out. “Turn yourself and the other subject over, or face destruction at the hands of the Kintobor Army!”

“Boy, oh boy,” the warrior said to himself as he smiled and shook his head. “The price of freedom is steep.” He closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the sword, just as the storm above began to gain strength once more. Lightning shot through the sky, illuminating everything for brief moments while thunder erupted, making it sound like the Goddess above was demanding that the bloodbath be started. The sky opened up and the heavy raindrops began splattering loudly on the helmets and metal bodies that surrounded him. 

Live with no regrets. Believe in yourself. And chase after the impossible,’ the hedgehog mentally recited to himself, a habit he picked up over the years. He then scoffed at the thought of the imposing army in front of him. ‘Yeah, this is definitely an impossible situation… But things like this never stopped me before. And ‘sides… I got something to fight for…

And then the warrior opened his eyes, which shone with an unholy light. A golden aura started to radiate from his body and tiny silver bolts of electricity crackled around him, mimicking the tempest above. His quills rose upward and he felt as though his entire body was supercharged for battle.

“Hey, assholes!” he yelled out for all to hear over the sounds of the strengthening tempest above. “I made a promise to somebody very important to me! And you guys should know that a SOLDIER’s word is his bond!”

And, as the last word was spoken, the self-declared SOLDIER threw his sword into the air and curled up into a ball, as any hedgehog would do in the face of danger.

The grunts were bewildered at the move, dropping their guard involuntarily. The general in one of the SkyTrans vehicles above who ordered his surrender actually smiled, thinking that he decided to give up. His face fell when he saw the curled-up rodent rapidly spinning in place on the ground. The hedgehog became nothing more than a gold-tinted blue, blurring ball with tiny, silver bolts of lightning arcing around him. The sword, thrown into the air, lazily reached the apex of its arc and started falling, gravity bringing the mass of metal hurtling to the land.

Just when the sword was about twenty feet from the ground, the hedgehog launched himself, the momentum of his spinning dash throwing him forward. He pushed off of the surface and launched himself into the air like a rubber ball hitting the floor, right into the path of his weapon. He then untucked his right arm and grabbed the sword at the hilt, while maintaining his supersonic rotation. This had the effect of turning the warrior into a spinning buzz saw of death as he flew forwards into the soldiers that were gawking at the sight. 

He struck at the same moment a lightning bolt crackled across the sky. The spinning attack mowed down an entire unit and sent body parts flying in all directions. He uncurled and jumped straight into the next horde, swinging the massive sword, cutting soldiers and mechs indiscriminately and pushing his battle-scarred body to its limits. The aura surrounding him ceased to disappear and instead glowed more intensely as he launched more spinning attacks, one after another. 

Flesh, bone, sinew and machinery flew as the hedgehog fought on. The relentless assault from the opposing army, however, dwindled his strength – slowly, but surely. Pushing himself beyond his limits was a gamble, but he had already admitted to himself back at the spire that he was in a losing fight. 

Amidst the orders being shouted out loudly, the hedgehog’s focus was on the battle at hand, with his prime objective being to take out anything and everything within his reach and to keep fighting on and on until either they gave up and left or he fell. 

Soon enough, he was barely able to hold the sword upright, but he willed himself to keep fighting. He hacked as bullets entered his body. He slashed even as explosions tore holes in his legs. He couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop.

He was going to protect that two-tailed fox who was like a little brother to him.

Even if it killed him.


Tails

Tails awoke alone in an unknown place with a severe throbbing sensation stabbing his head. 

Groaning and rubbing his eyes in the darkness, he groped around his surroundings. His hands eventually patted against the rock he was leaning against and he deduced he was in some sort of rocky cospe. He could not for the life of him remember how he ended up in that small nook with his back against a boulder in Goddess-knew where. However, he did recall a voice speaking to him, telling him to stay here while they dealt with something.

His headache suddenly intensified at the thought. Flashes of memories, from happy to grisly and everything in between, swept through his mind at a speed too fast to process. He turned his head and rested his cheek against the cool rock, his teeth gritted in pain as he was being bombarded with various mental images. He felt like a computer being booted up after a long time being shut down. The pain subsided after a few minutes, to his great relief. 

His face still against the rock, Tails opened an eye and caught a glimpse of light coming from the mouth of the cave. Startled, he tried standing up, only to stumble and fall flat on his face. Cursing softly underneath his breath, he forced himself onto his hands and knees and crawled out of the cavern and into the open badlands.

The first thing he noticed was the light rain that was drizzling down to the wet and muddied surface. Above him, faint rays of sunlight started to peer through storm clouds that began to clear up. Blinking from the contrast between darkness and light, he placed a hand on the muddied ground and leaned against the cave opening as he waited for his eyesight to adjust. 

And then suddenly, it sharpened. Everything around him started to come into greater detail. He could pick out the minute cracks in a rock formation several thousand feet away. He could see the tiny organisms crawling around a moss-filled boulder across from him through his peripheral vision. Colours and shapes, both known and unknown, were vividly pouring into his eyes and his mind was nearly overloaded while attempting to process all the information.

When he found himself able to manage his vision, the two-tailed fox was then bombarded with the smell of the clearing rain and the putrid breaths of Mutates lurking in their hideaways, followed by the scent of gunpowder and the strong, coppery odour of blood. This particular stench was greatest at the top of a nearby ridge. Tails turned his head towards it and perked his ears up in reflex.

As soon as he did this, he was able to hear creatures emerge from their burrows yards away from his current position. He could hear various animalistic and ambient sounds with extreme clarity. He then picked up the sound of feather-light breathing and a barely heard moan. Focusing on that particular noise only, the fox gritted his teeth and went to his hands and knees, crawling up the ridge.

As he reached the summit, Tails felt his muscles grow stronger, little by little as he moved closer to the scent. He now stood upright and stumbled slowly to the top where the smell of blood was overwhelming.

The outcropping of rock was stained red and dotted with blobs of shimmering gold and silver liquid. Tanks, hover transports and pieces of bipedal mechaniloids were scattered along the ridge, deep gashes and black-charred marks riddled all over their lifeless husks. Tails then saw the desiccated bodies of soldiers – both Mobian and Human –  lying on the wet earth with bronze bullet casings draped over their whole or dismembered bodies like garlands of flowers. The remains of a hover transport – a SkyTrans, Tails suddenly recalled – was teetering on the edge of the cliff. 

Tails shivered at the sight of the macabre scene. His eyes roved around before landing on the only body barely left breathing; a mangled blue hedgehog whose life force was streaming endlessly through a large hole blown into his chest, a hand clutched in a bone-breaking grip around the hilt of an impossibly massive sword. The fox recognized the uniform he wore as a standard-issue SOLDIER outfit. His shimmering jade-green eyes were starting to fade. 

The fox’s eyes widened at the sight and raced over to the body. In his haste, he stumbled over a dead body and slid on the bloody mud until he came to a stop. He crawled the rest of the way to the hedgehog’s side, his left cheek and face slathered with reddish-brown mud and gasping for breath. He searched the SOLDIER’s body in an effort to save him, but he realized it was a fool’s errand. 

He was too far gone.

The hedgehog chuckled upon seeing the fox before coughing up blood. He took several shallow breaths and then finally spoke. “For the… both of us…”

The fox blinked, processing what he heard. “The both of us?” he murmured, puzzled.

“Yep… that’s right,” the hedgehog replied, wheezing. Struggling, he raised his arm and placed it behind Tails’ head. “You gotta… You gotta…” 

“Live.”

The warrior embraced the fox at the last word, his hand dropping back into the mud a moment later. Tails rose, the hedgehog’s blood mixed in with the mud caked on his face and nodded in acknowledgement. 

Satisfied, the SOLDIER then raised the hilt of the sword, his right arm shaking with effort. “Take… the Buster Sword…” he said, offering it to the two-tailed fox. “Keep going… Keep flying high… For my sake and… for yours as well…”

“Believe in yourself… Cuz I’ve always believed in you… Little buddy…”

Tails took the sword at the end of the hilt with both hands. It was still warm. To his surprise, he found the weapon to be lighter than he thought it would be, despite its size. He looked down at it and then at its owner. Suddenly, like water bursting through a dam, the memories of the SOLDIER washed over him in a flash. He saw the battles, the laughter, the tears and the hardships that bonded them together. The fox felt a vice-like grip squeezing his heart as he finally remembered who the blue hedgehog was.

“I will… Sonic,” he said thickly through gritted teeth, addressing the SOLDIER by name for the first time as he gripped the hilt of the Buster Sword tightly in his hands.

Satisfied, Sonic then took his right hand off the hilt and it too joined his left on the wet ground. His breathing started to slow as his mouth opened once more to say a final thing that Tails almost didn’t hear:

“Take… care…”

He smiled one last time, his eyes glazing over as he passed away.

Tails watched on as the SOLDIER died. On seeing the glassy look in the hedgehog’s eyes, he felt the flames of rage and anger roil around in the pit of his stomach. He was angered that this SOLDIER died for him. And enraged at the faceless enemy who was responsible for the act.  

Kintobor Inc. 

He suddenly tilted his head back and screamed, loud and long as the rain continued to fall on his face. His screams tapered off as his throat became raw and his breathing ragged. Choking back sobs, Tails looked again at the dead hedgehog and though his face was frozen in a smile, he could still hear his voice in his mind…

“Tails, don’t stand still and waste time waiting for something to happen. If you want something really badly, you gotta move forward and chase after it, even if it’s impossible. It’s the only way to live without regret.”

The fox let the words wash over him as he looked towards the city on the horizon. He soon made up his mind: he would move forward and finish the journey that the both of them had started. He got up, using the Buster Sword as support and looked back to Sonic for what would be the final time.

“Thank you,” he softly said to his still body. “I won’t forget. Adios, Sonic the Hedgehog.”

He walked away from his deceased friend, never looking back as he did so.