Biggs saw them off as Tails and the others entered the reactor through a low-height maintenance corridor. Crawling through the cramped space, the group soon emerged at the highest point of the refinery. The layout was exactly the same as No.1’s. The stairwells to their right curled around and down the massive refinement structure towards the extraction pump chamber at the bottom. Eyeing the top of the structure, Tails could see the elevator going up to the RINGTEK plant.
“So, how do we get down from here?” Cream asked beside him.
Bark pointed to a set of large, two-foot-wide pipes. They sloped downwards towards the bottom of the refinery. “Hey, why not use these to get down?” he questioned.
“This’ll work,” Tails said, investigating the pipes. “But it’s gonna be a one-way trip.”
Bark shrugged. “That’s no big deal,” he said. “Jessie’s given us instructions on how to get out of here anyway. Coupled with all the work that we did, we shouldn’t have any trouble getting in and out of here.”
‘That remains to be seen,’ Tails thought as they slid down the pipe and landed near the door leading into the extraction chamber. Upon landing, Bark opened the satchel and, with Cream to guide him, began installing the signal boosters. They travelled up to the top of the refinery, where the elevator was located and then made their way down to the chamber entrance.
As the two worked, Tails’ enhanced senses picked up the sounds of servos whirring amid the dull hum of the refinery machines. He tentatively placed a hand on his sword hilt, keen eyes searching for anything out of the ordinary. ‘Something else is here…’ Tails soon halted in place at the bottom, near the doorway to the extraction pump chamber. “Guys,” he said, keeping his voice low as Bark installed the last booster for the room. “We’re not alone.”
Bark turned around, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Don’t tell me…” he started, growling.
A loud, screeching hiss erupted over the din of the refinery. Four Robians suddenly emerged from various nooks and crannies and surrounded the group. The fox recognized the two squirrels; he had seen those back at Reactor No. 1. They were flanked by two boars, each with gleaming, pointed tusks and thick, rust-coloured armoured plating adorning their bulky frames.
Tails heard another metallic growl from behind him. Spinning around, he came face to face with three more Robians – canines, each with sharp claws, streamlined bodies and glittering, curved fangs. Their stubby ears stood up, spike-like atop their triangular heads. The seven robots surrounded the three Mobians, trapping them in a pincer formation.
Tails, Cream and Bark faced the horde with their backs to each other as they waited for the snarling mechanical creatures to strike. The fox resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the situation. ‘Pinned in again? The Goddess must really want to screw with us today,’ he thought. He suddenly jutted his head upwards, the sounds of claws grappling the wall ringing in his ears, which then flattened. ‘Great, now there are more of them coming from above!’
Bark levelled his Gun-Arm at a squirrel, a savage grin on his snout. “The three of us, armed with magic and explosives, against seven Robians? I like these odds,” he said.
The fox glanced at the bear beside him for a moment. “Did you count the ones on the walls?” he replied, before turning his steely gaze back upwards. “There are about another six or seven of ‘em crawling down to us.”
“Shit!” the bear swore, his smirk instantly turning into a scowl.
“Do you think we can take them all on?” Cream asked the fox beside her as the Robians started to close in on them.
“Honestly, no,” the fox replied, his hand sliding up to the Lightning Emerald on the Buster Sword. “But if all goes to plan, then we shouldn’t have to.” He extracted energy from the Emerald and held a charge in his hand. “Bark on my signal, spray those guys behind us with gunfire. Cream, you and I will take out the three dog-bots and clear a path. Bark, you then drop a grenade in front of the door before following us through.”
Bark’s eye sidled to Tails. “And what’s that going to do?” he asked gruffly.
“We’ll go from taking on fourteen to taking on… about six, if my calculations are correct,” the fox replied, spell charge in hand.
“And what if you’re not?” Bark countered as the Robians stilled. They were ready to strike. “I can barely handle the four in front of me and if those guys above drop unexpectedly, we’ll be in trouble.”
“Worry about that when it happens. Cream,” He addressed the rabbit on his left. “Get ready.”
The brawler nodded, drawing blue energy out of her Ice Emerald and cradling it in her hand.
One of the canine Robians let out a piercing, metallic howl, serving as a signal to the others to converge on the three Mobians.
“Now!” Tails hollered out as he and Cream launched their magical assault on the three Robians in front of the extraction chamber entrance. Bark then swept his arm from side to side and unleashed a hail of bullets to keep the four others from advancing.
The Lightning spell hit the left-most Robian who initiated the attack, sending sparks of electricity shooting through its body and leaving a dead shell behind. Cream’s Ice spell struck the torso of the one standing right next to the Robian Tails eliminated. The sudden, rapid drop in temperature caused the chest area to become brittle and reduced the structural integrity of the thick armour plating protecting the Robian’s interior mechanisms.
Tails, with his sword in hand, ran up and rammed the weapon right through the weakened armour. It pierced the mechanical heart pumping circulation fluid throughout its body, killing it instantly. Extracting the sword, the fox then turned to the lone Robian left defending the doorway, who was accosted by Cream. The brawler rushed up to the Robian, grabbed its arm and quickly performed a powerful, over-the-shoulder throw. The canine’s head hit the concrete flooring with such force that its neck snapped on impact. The rabbit released its arm and finished it off with a hard stomp to the head, before opening the door to the extraction chamber.
The fox raised an eyebrow, clearly impressed. ‘Short, sweet and to the point, I’ll take it.’ “Bark! Let’s mosey!” he called out to the bear, sheathing his sword and following Cream into the chamber.
Soon after the fox spoke, the seven Robians hopped off the walls and dropped in front of the polar bear. Startled, he halted his fire and did an about-face towards the chamber with the eleven robots hot on his heels. Bark hastily dug into the satchel, pulled out a grenade and tore the pin off with his teeth. As he approached the threshold, he dropped the explosive and dove headfirst into the chamber before it could detonate.
The blast engulfed four of the Robians – two squirrels and two canines – their mechanical shells blocking the entrance, leaving the remaining two boars, two squirrels and three canines to mercilessly tear through their comrades’ destroyed bodies to get to their targets. Bark scrambled up to his feet and hustled down the ladders, joining Cream and Tails at the end of one of the catwalks leading to the very bottom of the reactor. Pointing his gun in the direction of the blood-thirsty robots, he shot a glare at the two-tailed fox behind him. “Hey man! I thought you said six would remain!” he shouted.
Tails countered with a flat stare of his own. “I said ‘about six’ not ‘exactly six’!” he retorted, sword drawn.
“Guys, focus,” Cream said.
“So then, what do we do!?” Bark hollered, sweat starting to drip from his brow in consternation.
Tails quickly looked around his surroundings. There were a set of pipes running parallel underneath the perforated walkway on which they stood. At the other end was a T-junction that was made of a solid sheet of metal. He could feel the ambient heat radiating around him from the machinery within the pump chamber.
He smiled to himself as he put the information together in his mind. He then thrust a hand into his left pocket and extracted the All Emerald from within – a gift from the weapon shop owner in Sector 7. “I have an idea,” he said, removing the Ice Emerald from his weapon and inserting the blue gem in its place. The fox arched his head towards Cream. “Cream, charge an Ice spell,” he said to her. “On my mark, cast it on the floor of the T-junction in front of us. The surface there should freeze due to the moisture in the air. As the Robians rush in here, the ambient heating should start melting the ice enough to form some puddles.”
“Bark, charge up a Lightning spell. Aim at one of the big ones in the back. I’ll do the same for the ones in front.” He paused as he saw the bear’s worried expression. “You’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly as he placed his hand on the Blue Emerald, slid it over the link to the Lightning Emerald and extracted the yellow energy. Concentrating the magic between his palms, they soon coalesced into five small orbs hovering between his fingertips. “The moment they reach the puddles, we cast ‘em. If I’m right, the conductivity of the water and the metal plus the combined strength of our magic should overload their circuitry and render ‘em toast.”
“And if you’re not?” Cream asked as she prepared the Ice spell.
“Then at least they’ll be weakened enough for us to finish off easily-” he halted, pricking his ears and scowling at the sounds he heard. “Shit, they’re through! Cream, launch it!”
“ICE!” Cream called, launching the frozen orb towards the T-junction and forming a thin sheet of ice on its surface. Soon after the impact, the heat radiating from the pipes underneath the walkway started to melt the frozen layer.
The unnatural metallic screams from the Robians grew more intense as they hurtled through the door and down towards the threesome. Tails gritted his teeth. “Bark, start charging!” he said.
Wide-eyed, the polar bear brought a hand to his armour and touched the Emerald nestled in its slot, tapping into its power. He then tried to form it into a ball just as Tails did, but the charge collapsed and formed into an aura that covered his fist instead. “Tails! What do I do?!” he hollered, panic laced in his voice.
“Don’t fight it!” Tails said, injecting more Mana into the orbs in front of him. “I told you, everyone has their own unique style! Just relax and let the Emerald guide you!” The Robians soon arrived on the same level the three Mobians were on. “Get ready!” Tails called out.
The fox heard Bark let out a deep, calming breath to settle his nerves. From the corner of his eye, Tails saw the bear’s left arm stretch back like he was preparing to throw a ball, the aura on his hand now crackling with electrical energy. Bark trained his eyes on one of the heavily armoured boars at the back of the pack as though he was aiming his right arm at it.
The seven robotic creatures continued their dash, propelled by the all-consuming command to eliminate all intruders engraved into their positronic brains. They soon neared the iced T-junction, which now pooled slightly.
“Now!” Tails yelled and then called “BOLT!” The orbs shot out into beams of electricity, each one aimed at six of the incoming enemies.
Hearing the cue, Bark brought his left foot forward, swung his left arm as if he was serving up an underhand pitch and called “BOLT!” The aura exploded and sent out a jagged, arcing bolt of lightning out of his fist. The bolt struck the boar in the back, sending jolts of electricity through its armoured body. At the same time, the Robian in front touched the melting pool of ice just as Tails’ lightning spell struck which, coupled with their close proximity to one another, increased the conductivity and effectiveness of the electrical attacks against them.
Tails watched with a smirk on his lips as the bodies fell in front of him. ‘Just as planned.’ However, as he counted the downed robots, his smile flattened into a neutral line and then settled into a frown. ‘Wait a minute: two boars, two squirrels and two canines… one’s missing?’ “I count six bodies,” he said to the two TORNADO members behind him, reaching back for his sword as he spoke.
Suddenly, the third canine dropped down from above almost soundlessly and landed in front of Cream. The metallic beast lunged at her. She barely avoided being impaled, but one of the claws tore a deep gash on her left oblique, red blood streaming from the wound.
Tails and Bark whipped around to see Cream being attacked. The bear raised his Gun-Arm and tried to get a clean shot without catching the brawler in the crossfire. After a few moments, he dropped his arm and spat. “Shit, I can’t get a look!” he said to the fox beside him, frustrated.
Tails gnashed his teeth as he observed the situation, Buster Sword at the ready. ‘Gunning it down won’t work; they’re moving too fast and Cream could be the one shot instead. Magic’s no good either because she could also get caught in the blowback. I need to wait for an opening before I can help out.’
The rabbit hissed out in pain as the canine scored another hit, this time on her thigh. Biting her tongue to prevent herself from crying out, she pushed through the pain and continued to evade the canine’s swift strikes. The Robian suddenly reared its right claw back, as though to lunge at her; this gave her the opportunity she was looking for. Timing it, Cream stepped to the side of the narrow catwalk just as the canine blew past her. She then grabbed its arm and used its own momentum to throw it over the walkway.
Its claws flailing wildly, the Robian managed to clutch the bottom edge of the walkway. Grasping the walkway with both hands it propelled itself upwards and onto the rail, only to meet Cream winding up for a punch.
Her eyes were focused and her mouth was set in a determined line, despite the pain she felt from her wounds. She reared back, torso twisting to the right and focused her inner energy – her Ki – into her right fist. As soon as the Robian was exactly where she wanted it to be, she inhaled deeply and let out a loud kiai as she struck it hard in the stomach. The force of the blow created a crater in its metallic skin and sent it a good ten feet back. The canine let out a defeated howl as it plummeted into the raw Energen pool below, the corrosive liquid dissolving it in moments. The fighter then took a knee, the pain she felt from the inflicted wounds now becoming unbearable.
She craned her head to the side to see Tails running up to her, his face tightening in alarm. He knelt down to her, dislodged the Green Emerald in his armour and replaced it with another one from his pocket. Tapping into it, he drew out pale green energy, extended his palm and called out the spell, “Cure.”
A blast of soft, green energy emitted from his hand and showered Cream’s body, the magic stopping the bleeding and closing up the wounds she suffered on her side and leg. The spell was strong enough to prevent scarring, but the fur around the cuts would have to regrow on its own.
Visibly relieved, Tails stood back up and faced Bark. “Hand me a Potion,” he commanded.
The bear fumbled in the satchel hanging from his body and extracted the vial of blue liquid, tossing it to the Ex-SOLDIER. Snatching it, Tails knelt back down, broke the top of the Potion vial off and handed it to Cream. She smiled at him gratefully. “Thanks… Tails,” she said breathlessly. She downed the medical concoction, her lips puckering from the bittersweet taste and then looked back at him with a question in her eyes. “Is… Is this what… fighting in SOLDIER… was like?”
“Yeah,” Tails said nonchalantly, standing up and lending a hand to the fighter. “You OK to stand?”
Cream gave a nod of her own as she clasped the hand and felt herself being lifted to her feet. She felt a rush of vertigo and stumbled slightly. Steadying herself, she doubled over and placed her hands on her knees to rest for a moment before slowly straightening up again. “I’m good,” she said, noticing the look of concern coming from her leader.
Satisfied that all was well, Bark’s face settled back into his normal, glowering look. “Those Kintobor bastards,” he growled angrily. His snarl transformed into a maddened grin. “I’m gonna feel real good about blowing this shit up!” He turned to the fox and the rabbit. “Let’s go get the rest of these boosters installed; Tails, you take point, Cream in the middle, I’ll take the rear.”
Tails nodded, taking his position at the fore after re-slotting the Ice Emerald back into his armour. Cream grabbed several signal boosters from Bark’s satchel and the group cautiously traipsed around the dead Robians and back up to the chamber’s entrance. As she and Bark set to work on installing the small, RINGTEK-powered devices, Cream saw a pained expression on Tails’ face from the corner of her eye. His muzzle was tightened and he looked as though he forced himself not to clench his fists. “Tails, are you OK?” she asked as she faced him, her brows knitted.
“I’m fine,” he grunted, shaking his head. He turned and started down the catwalk to the ladder leading to the main pump controls. “Let’s hurry up.”
Cream pursed her lips. ‘Something’s up with him,’ she thought as she and Bark followed the fox down to the very bottom of the reactor. The narrow walkway towards the main controls was illuminated in a silvery-gold light, which sent a chill down the rabbit’s spine. She chewed on her bottom lip as she forced away old and painful memories.
Bark stopped midway, extracted the bomb enclosure from the satchel and handed it to Cream. He looked at her with hard and determined eyes. Cream got the message from his stare: ‘It’s time.’ She nodded and then, with the bomb cradled under her arm, walked up to the controls.
Behind her, she heard Bark shove Tails with his metal arm. “Go set it,” he ordered. “Cream’ll keep an eye on you.”
She turned around to see Tails glare at the bear. “Still don’t trust me?” he growled.
“Being Cream’s good friend ain’t good enough for me,” Bark replied, his Gun-Arm pointed at Tails’ head. “Now get to it, we gotta get out of here.”
Scoffing, the fox started heading towards Cream when he stopped mid-way. He brought his hands to his head and clutched at the sides of his temples. He groaned as he doubled over in apparent pain.
Cream watched her friend drop to his knees, his fingers digging deep into his fur. “Tails! Tails!” she called out, running to his side with a panicked look on her face.
Tails looked up, eyes locked onto hers for a brief moment before he collapsed on the walkway and blacked out. The rabbit let out a stifled gasp as memories from years ago began flashing through her mind. She felt terror well up inside her and the scar that crossed her abdomen began to burn as the old feelings she stowed away forced their way up. Her hand automatically went to the second scar on the back of her left ear.
‘Those-Those eyes…’ she thought, her fingers trembling. ‘What-What is going on here?! Is my mind playing tricks on me? I-I must be seeing things…’ Despite her rationalizations, she knew deep down that what she saw was true.
Tails’ right eye was his normal, electric blue, with silver and gold flecks swimming about inside the iris.
His left was an evil shade of pale, glowing green with a slitted pupil.