Gerald Kintobor sipped on the dark amber liquid from the tumbler he held in his hand as he settled his weary frame into the plush chair in his office on the Kintobor Egg Building’s 70th Floor. Rolling up to the opulent desk adorned with screens, he picked up and opened the first of many folders brought to him by his aide, Monica. As he attempted to peruse through its contents, grey eyes behind the mirrored pince-nez kept flicking between the sheets of paper in his hand and the phone on his desk.
Aware that he was distracted, he sighed deeply and tore his eyes away from the phone towards the documents from the Science Department. It appeared to be a status report on a specimen that was acquired three weeks ago, followed by a ‘Request For Experimentation’ form. The president sniffed. “Nagus and his playthings…” he muttered as he signed the approval papers without going over the full details and closed the folder.
As he reached for the next file, his phone started ringing. His moustache twitching in anticipation, he quickly pressed the speakerphone icon on the receiver. “Speak,” he said out loud as he grasped a thick, leather-bound portfolio. It read ‘Earnings Forecast for Q2 – Post-Bombing’.
“Mr. President, we’ve just received notice of a security incident on the train leaving the Sector 7 station in the Slums, heading towards Sector 4,” a deep and measured voice responded on the other line. “The train, in fact, has not reached the checkpoint, but it appears that an unauthorized individual triggered its internal alarm systems.”
‘Sector 4 huh?’ “Well, has the culprit been identified?” he asked in a matter-of-fact tone. “Has the train been put on lockdown, at least?”
“Unfortunately… no,” the voice on the other line said hesitantly. “T-the train is running on the older security systems. Whoever these guys are, they knew of the flaw in the lockdown procedure. It-it looks like they jumped.”
‘Interesting… and quite cunning too,’ Gerald thought as he mulled over the man’s words on the other line. He twisted the end of his silvery-grey ‘stache. ‘Using the underplate system to infiltrate the reactors. I will need to address this in the future.’
He then leaned forward, his elbow resting against the desk and his chin propped on top of his fist. ‘That reminds me,’ he continued mentally. ‘That SOLDIER escaped on a train leading to Sector 7. It may have been a coincidence that he chose that particular one, but now this new incident introduces a new element. Something that I may have overlooked-’
“S-sir?” the man on the other line cut into his thoughts.
Gerald’s lips curled into a sneer as he came to a revelation. He bit back the growl in his voice and instead responded in a neutral tone. “Monitor the remaining routes leading up to the Plate and report back to me if any other anomalies arise,” he said. Hearing the voice on the other line acknowledge his request, the president ended the call. He then pressed a button on the speed dial – this one was labelled ‘Public Safety.’
The phone rang twice before he heard an answer. “Mr. President,” a gravelly, baritone voice dripping with sarcasm responded on the other line. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Kodos, I want you to increase Robian security in Reactors #4 and #5,” he said, biting his tongue afterward to prevent himself from spewing invectives at the Mobian on the other end. “It seems our recent troublemakers may be targeting one of those two next. Also, call back all of the E-Series units in both reactors; they’re more costly to replace than those savages. Monitor the Robian activity and report back to me immediately if a skirmish breaks out.”
“Why?” came the blunt response.
“I want to meet them in person,” Kintobor growled, his teeth gnashing. “And deliver to them a gift. I shall contact you again with details when I am en route. Also…” He then paused and held in a sigh, hating himself for what he was about to say next. “Inform the workers in both of the reactors and plants in Sectors 4 and 5 that their shifts have been called off and that they can go home. They’ll be paid for their time.”
“Fine,” Kodos said dismissively after a pause. “Anything else?”
The Human’s spectacled eyes loomed darkly over the speakerphone. He imagined the smug and self-important Mobian on the other side. ‘This filthy, mongrel scum needs to learn his place!’ he thought crossly, his fist tightening and trembling with suppressed rage. ‘He still dares to address me in such a manner?! After yesterday, he should feel lucky that he hasn’t been roboticized!’
There had been many times before then that he wanted to go through with it, but he always stayed his hand. While he hated Kodos, he still made him an executive within the company because he recognized his talents for war. The Mobian was a brilliant military tactician. It was he who led the Kintobor armies to countless victories during the Great War, fifteen years ago. It was he who had sacked Mobotropolis and razed the city to the ground. And it was he that helped depose the Mobian monarchy that acted as a check to his company’s ever-growing power.
He, therefore, stowed away his hatred – if only for a moment – and answered Kodos’ request. “Ask your informant to send another one of his men back down to the Sector 7 Slums,” he ordered, again stowing his anger against Kodos. “Preferably, one that won’t be beaten up by a girl.”
“Yes,” the president answered, fingers drumming on the desk. “If my suspicions are correct, the terrorist’s home base is in that sorry hovel. However, we need to be 100% sure of this before we retaliate. See that this is done.” He paused and then gave his final statement, with every word punctuated. “And do not fail me.”
Ending the call before the Mobian could respond, the president interlaced his fingers together, a contemplative look on his face. After a few moments, he pulled out his handset from within his suit jacket pocket and dialled a number. He received an answer after the first ring. “Ready my transport,” he said to the individual on the other line as he began to collect the remaining files in his arms. “We leave in thirty minutes.”
“Good, everything’s going as planned.”
Tails and Cream rejoined Bark further up the tunnel, who flashed a grin at the two. “Sure, we hit a snag with the ID card thing and whatever, but we’re cool,” he said, facing the direction the train was travelling in. “Biggs, Wedge and Jessie are ahead getting things ready for us, so let’s move it and meet up with them!”
The fox crossed his arms. “OK, sounds good,” he said. “Just keep your guard up ‘til we reach the Sector 5 reactor.”
Bark cast an annoyed glance at the mercenary. “Hell, I know that!” he spat, jogging up the tunnel.
Cream let out an exasperated sigh. “Oh, here we go again,” she muttered to herself, following the bear with Tails by her side. Trekking up the tunnel, she felt the fur on the nape of her neck raise. “Tails,” she whispered, leaning in close to the fox. “I get the feeling we’re being followed.”
Tails nodded at her. “Yeah, I hear something too,” he said. “Doesn’t sound like a Robian though? It’s more… organic rather than robotic.” He then looked at Bark, who was a few feet ahead of him. “Yo, head’s up, we’re being followed,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“What do you mean ‘we’re being followed?” the bear asked loudly, causing the two behind him to flinch. “Is it Kintobor?!”
“Bark!” Cream hissed, her eyes narrowing. “Keep your voice-” she was interrupted by the sounds of gurgling and snarling near her. “-down.” ‘Oh, crud.’
“An ambush!” Tails yelled, drawing his sword as six creatures emerged out of the shadows; three in front and three behind, effectively pinning them down. Each creature consisted of two pairs of bony, stick-like legs connected to a grotesque black and purple, three-foot-long conical body, its back end tapering off into a thick, curling two-foot-long tail. On top of its ‘head’ had two pairs of yellow eyes arranged in a horizontal line. Below the eyes was a large, circular mouth containing rows of sharp, pointed teeth, each five inches long. They hissed loudly at their next meal, their sharp legs clicking hard on the track surface.
Cream glanced to her left side and saw the fox grit his teeth in annoyance. “We’re outnumbered and we can’t linger around,” he said to Bark and Cream, who stood at the ready. “There’s no telling if another train’s gonna come our way, so we have to get outta here, fast!” Assessing the situation, the fox placed a hand on the Fire Emerald in his new armour. Sheathing his sword, he drew reddish-orange energy out of the gem. “FIRE!” he called, pushing his palms out.
The magic shot forth from his hands as a sunset-coloured beam and impacted the closest monster in front of him, causing it to burst into flames. It shrieked loudly, swivelling around in an attempt to put out the flames. The two other creatures beside it recoiled as the bright light caused by the flames affected their sensitive eyesight.
The fox smirked. “Magic works best on these guys,” he called, his sword slashing at the other two weakened monsters. “Let’s make quick work of these things!”
As Bark turned to unleash a hail of bullets on the other two blinded monsters, Cream faced the three Mutates blocking their path forward and settled into a fighting stance. ‘No problem, I’ll handle this.’ She placed her left hand on the jewel embedded into the slot on her right fist and concentrated as Tails instructed her to, drawing out blue energy. She formed it into a ball, cupped it with both hands and placed them by her side, pouring in more Mana to strengthen it.
One of the three Mutates snarled, its limited intelligence suggesting to the two beside it that the rabbit was the most vulnerable. The three monsters bound over to the rabbit in an attempt to overtake her and rend her flesh.
Cream gritted her teeth and steeled herself as they approached. Once in range, she pushed her hands out and called “ICE!” The ice ball launched as a projectile and hit the lead creature, the energy spreading out over its body and freezing it in place. The two Mutates directly behind it tripped over their frozen comrade’s outstretched legs which caused them to stumble.
Bark turned around and fired at the disoriented Mutates. A few stray shots struck the yellow eyeballs, eliciting unholy cries of pain from them. Satisfied, he turned around to see Tails finish off the last monster with a cleave. “Alright, that should be good enough! Let’s get the hell out of here!” he yelled out, beckoning to the two of them. Taking advantage of the chaos, the threesome escaped up the winding tunnel until they could no longer hear the cacophony coming from the monsters. Their progress, however, was halted when they arrived at the checkpoint.
A large array of sensors lined the walls, ceiling and track of the next 100 feet in front of them. Green, crisscrossing beams of light filled the entire corridor, leaving barely any space for even the most skilled of contortionists to move through.
The warrior shook his head at the sight in front of them. “Well, there’s the checkpoint, we can’t go further,” he said, peering through the beams and scoffing at them. “After coming this far, only an amateur’d get caught now.”
Cream shivered at the sight of the array. She never thought twice about the checkpoint system during the few trips she made topside. Now, as she watched the penetrative beams from outside of the trains, she felt violated. She resisted the urge to wrap her arms around herself and instead approached Bark. She took out a thickly folded piece of paper from the polar bear’s satchel. Walking back to Tails, she opened it up to reveal a map and scanned its contents. “Jessie and the others were probably just here recently,” she said. “The duct leading to the Plate underside should be right beside us-”
“Hey! I think I found it!” Bark said, cutting Cream off. He pointed to a spot on the left wall. The dim lighting from the checkpoint security beams illuminated a thin piece of reflecting tape on a section of the wall. Below the tape was a recessed handle, which the bear grasped and pulled. A hatch opened, revealing an entrance that led to the Plate underside. Bark peered down and grimaced as he looked down into the narrow shaft. “Damn, that looks kinda small… We have to squeeze into that to get under the Plate?” he moaned.
Folding up the map and walking up to Bark’s side, Cream looked down, paying close attention to the sides. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything down here that will get us stuck,” she observed.
Tails also glanced down briefly, before turning to the bear. “All part of the mission, right Bark?” he said, smirking.
Bark groaned. “Ah alright,” he resigned, shuddering at the drop. “But man, that thing gives me the chills…”
The fox entered the shaft first and climbed down the ladder. “It’s clear!” he soon shouted.
Cream immediately scampered down the ladder and landed lightly on the perforated walkway. She flashed him a bright smile, before turning to Bark. He hesitated slightly before following along, squeezing his large frame into the hatch and slowly making his way down.
As he neared the bottom, the bear’s hand accidentally slipped from the rung. Yelping, he dropped to the walkway and landed hard on his feet, the heavy boots making a loud, clanging noise on the metal floor that reverberated throughout the shaft. He grinned sheepishly at the dark glares emanating from his companions. “Heh, sorry,” he said, scratching the back of his head.
Tails rubbed his temples with a thumb and forefinger, his eyes closed in annoyance. “Keep it down, man!” he hissed irritably, moving up the corridor to the next hatch and opening it. “Let’s try not to bring too much attention to ourselves. There’s no telling what kind of nasties live down here.”
“You mean,” Cream started, a perturbed look on her face as the three climbed the next ladder down. “There are more Mutates here? Not just in the rail corridors?”
“Cream, where there’s a will, there’s a way,” The fox answered sagely, his voice stolid and business-like. “Mutates can live practically anywhere. Sides, if I were a bettin’ fox, I’d say we’ll run into more of those on the way to the Reactor.”
As they traversed the next several walkways, Cream could hear the rushing sounds of wind blowing nearby. The noise came from a partially opened hatch at the end. Opening the hatch, the group entered a wide-open area at the very bottom of the Plate. An assortment of platforms interconnected with catwalks spanned the underside of Sector 4. A hundred metres beneath them were the Sector 4 Slums.
Bark sidled up to the edge of the platform they were on and looked down. He let out a nervous gulp. “Shit, now that’s a drop,” he commented in a low voice as he backed away.
Tails looked around, his sharp eyes taking in every detail in the space. “So, where do we go from here?” he asked, his arms crossed.
The fighter scanned the map, while occasionally looking at her surroundings until she recognized where they were. “Here,” she said out loud, pointing to a spot on the paper. She trailed her finger horizontally to a duct that was hastily circled in red ink. “And here’s where we have to go.”
Bark trundled up and looked over Cream’s shoulder. “Doesn’t look too far?” he said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. As he raised his head up and to the side to investigate the path, his eyes went wide like saucers. “Uh, don’t look now,” he started, flicking the safety off on his Gun-Arm. “But we got company!”
Cream tore her eyes away from the sheet and turned in Bark’s direction. In front of her were a trio of Mutates. A pair of large insects with green-plated exoskeletons, yellow underbellies and sharp, sickle-like front claws slithered up to the group. A loud buzzing noise came out of their long needle noses. Behind them was a mutated pufferfish, its top half covered in smooth, deep blue scales while rows of spines lined its white undersides. A pair of long, webbed fins on either side of its body flapped continuously and kept the odd, fish-like creature airborne. Its mouth was lined with serrated teeth and its ruby eyes glared hungrily at the trio of Mobians.
The fighter’s fingers fumbled as she hastily folded up the map and tucked it into the waistband of her leather skirt. Beside her, Tails faced the Mutates with his sword drawn and a wry smile on his face. “Ah, damn. If you guys took on my bet, I’d be 200 mobium richer,” he said.
“Quit bein’ a smartass!” Bark grunted as he fired on the insect to his left. The bullets barely penetrated its thick exoskeleton as it slithered up and slashed at him with its claws. Ceasing fire, the bear backed away as the claw grazed the protective bands around his waist. As he fell on his rear, he pointed his arm and fired at point-blank range. The insect flew back to the ground, its tubelike mouth was snapped off and what was left of its face was mangled and bloody. It twitched a few times and then lay still.
Cream saw the first insect go down from the corner of her eye. The second was upon her in an instant, both claws raised and slashing downwards. The fighter nimbly dodged to her left at the last moment and countered with two punches and a hook. The three strikes hit the thin upper limb connecting its claw to its body. The appendage snapped loudly, but the creature ceased to relent. Spinning around, it expelled a thick, stringy substance at Cream, who was slow to react. The silk spun around her, binding her limbs and causing her to fall to the ground. Cream forced herself not to panic though and instead drew more magic from the Ice Emerald on her wrist. As the insect continued to cocoon her, she tore an arm free from the strands, thrust her palm outward and called “ICE!”
The ball of frozen energy shot out and struck the insect, freezing it on contact. Tails soon rushed over to help, swinging his sword and shearing the monster’s head and torso off of its body. The top half slid off and landed with a dull thunk on the platform. The fox turned and dashed over to Cream. “Don’t worry,” he said as he started to pull the threads off of her body. “I’ll getcha outta here.”
Before Tails got half of the silk off of her, Cream watched with shock as a string of large, blue bubbles struck her friend from behind. Tails’ eyes flared widely with surprise before they abruptly closed. He slumped forward and the brawler could hear him snoring softly. ‘He’s asleep!’ she thought, alarmed.
“Tails! Wake up!” she yelled, shaking him with her free hand as the pufferfish Mutate the fox battled with earlier flew towards them, its jaws snapping eagerly for its next meal.
Gunfire erupted from the fighter’s left side, the bullets tearing through the floating Mutate’s body as it neared the two Mobians. It shrieked loudly as it fell to the ground. Cream saw Bark lumber up to the pufferfish from behind her. He aimed down at it and fired another salvo to finish it off. He turned back to the rabbit and flashed a triumphant grin. “Well, that takes care of that!” he said.
Relieved, Cream started to remove the rest of the threads from her body. Bark came up to her and extended a hand, which she gratefully took. The bear pulled her up and the two then turned their attention to Tails, who stood with his body slumped, head down and sword pointed to the platform. Cream regarded the slumbering fox with concern. She placed a hand on his shoulder and shook him a little roughly. “C’mon, get up!” she said.
His only response was a snore.
The rabbit sighed and looked over to Bark, whose grin grew deeper. “Can I hit him?” he asked excitedly, his hand tightening into a fist. “I’m never gonna get another opportunity to smack him in his self-important face! C’moooon, lemme do it?!”
Cream stared at him flatly, her brows furrowed. “No!” she growled fiercely. “I know you two don’t like each other, but him falling asleep doesn’t give you an excuse to resort to violence!”
“Hey guys!” a voice called out before Bark could make a retort. Cream looked to her left and she smiled. It was Wedge.
The portly man waved and hurried across the walkway. Stopping in front of the group, he turned a perplexed eye to Tails. “Oh, he got hit by one of those bubble things too?” he asked, his gravelly voice sounding amused. “Yeah, Biggs got a dose of those earlier. Luckily, I had a few of these smelling salts in handy.” He pulled out a thin, white packet that was lined with perforations from his back pocket. Wedge approached the fox, snapped the packet in half and put it under his nose.
Tails’ eyes shot open and he yelped out loud. He jumped back and raised his sword, his head swerving fervently and hackles raised as he searched for enemies.
“Easy there, hotshot,” Cream said in a placating manner, her hands raised in a non-threatening manner. Watching him calm down, she smiled mirthfully at him. “Good morning sleepyhead,” she joked, her eyes twinkling.
“Erg, bite me,” Tails groused, his face flushed with embarrassment. He stowed away his sword and turned to Wedge, cocking an eyebrow at the Human. “Thanks,” he said after a long pause, crossing his arms.
Wedge chuckled heartily. He crossed over the walkway and waved the three Mobians over. “Follow me, we’re almost there,” he said.
They traversed across catwalks and platforms while avoiding other Mutates, before finally reaching a ladder leading up to a large maintenance shaft. Wedge stopped beside the ladder. “The reactor’s up ahead,” he said. “Jessie’s just inside, finishin’ up with the explosives and stuff. Oh, and Bark?” he turned to his leader and gazed at him solemnly. “Go easy on her, OK?”
The bear didn’t respond, but Cream could see his eyebrows creasing as he ascended to the shaft.
The interior portion of the maintenance hatch branched off into two paths; one straight ahead and one to their left. They found Jessie sitting at the fork, sulking dejectedly, a set of packages lying beside her. “Hey,” she said, looking up at them. “I’m sorry you guys, The ID scan problem on the train was my fault.” Her eyes trailed over to Tails’. “I made your ID card special, Tails, that’s why it happened.” Breaking eye contact, she bowed her head and let out a deep sigh. “I put my heart out into making it, but I failed.”
Bark strode up to her and gently laid a paw on her shoulder. “Jess, it’s OK,” he said to her, his eyes softening. “Don’t blame yourself for it. The plan was to jump off anyway. We just had to do it earlier than scheduled.” He straightened himself up and smiled warmly at her. “Now, we have a job to do, so let’s get to it.”
Jessie’s lips curled upwards slightly as she stood up and dusted herself off. She motioned for Bark’s satchel and began stuffing the bomb components inside. “I finished assembling it moments before your arrival.” She paused, looking at each of them. “It operates a bit differently than the one we used yesterday; the bomb for the pump chamber is actually the secondary bomb. You’ll have to install signal boosters like before – I’ve circled optimal locations on the map for both the Plant and Reactor levels. Once you get to the bottom, make sure you install the grey cable first, then press the yellow button on the bomb console. It’ll execute a program that will disable any anti-tamper devices. When it’s done, arm the bomb as normal. The screen will show that it’s searching for a connection, which will be established once you mount the router and primary bomb. If you follow the points on the map, the bombs should be armed and synched with no issues.”
“You’re sure?” Bark asked as he took the pack, an eyebrow raised critically at her.
“I’m sure,” she replied, looking up and into his reddish-brown eyes. “I may have screwed up with the ID card, but there’s no way I could do so with the wireless network. Need I remind you that I was working in Security and IT before I joined?” She paused. “Oh, speaking of which, there should be a security override console within the Plant control room. If you throw the three switches inside simultaneously, you’ll be able to bypass security and open the doors. Much easier than inputting codes to force open locks. From there, you’ll head to another maintenance hatch in the Sector 5 exit to get back to the under-Plate and towards the railway. Just keep an eye on the map, and you’ll be fine.”
Bark chuckled softly. “Listen, Jess,” he said, shaking his head with amusement. “Aside from the events earlier, you did good, alright?”
Jessie smiled again and then led the three down the left path. At the end was a ladder going down another shaft that led to a lower level. “Biggs is waiting down there,” she said, stepping to the side. “He should have the access hatch leading to the reactor opened by now. Once he’s confirmed that you guys got in, we’ll head back to base.” She started to walk back to the juncture where the paths split but then turned around, a wistful look in her eyes. “And Tails?” she said to the fox. “Next time, I’ll give you something more decent. I’ll be back at the hideout working on it.”
“Sure thing,” Tails acquesised, a smile crossing his lips. Cream waved to her as she, Bark and Tails descended to the next floor.