Out of all seventy floors in the Kintobor Company Headquarters, the 53rd was the plainest looking of the lot. To the outside eye, the space consisted of three rows of windowless offices going from one side of the floor to the other. The offices, each uniform in size, were equipped with a desk and chair situated in the direct centre. What made this space unique was the array of display panels mounted on the walls of each room. Each panel monitored the vital signs of a cadre of Robians. Fourteen of these transformed Mobians were either patrolling the uninhabited areas of the Slums or guarding the hearts of the Energen Reactors powering the city.
A lone occupant in one such room had dozed off in boredom, his feet propped up on the desk as he snored loudly. A black and yellow-striped bee standing just over three feet tall, the Mobian wore an orange vest over a black jumpsuit with white and orange boots and white gloves with black trim on the cuffs. On his head was a black bomber’s helmet – modified for his antennae to stick out – with red trim around the edges and a pair of orange goggles on top. Pinned onto his vest was a small enamel pin; a stylized, yellow ‘C’ over top a broad red ‘X’ with a black outline.
He had only fallen asleep moments ago when one of the panels on the wall started glowing red, the vital signs of three of the Robians flatlined, followed by four more a minute later. A klaxon blared out when half the unit was destroyed, startling the bee into wakefulness and causing him to fall off his seat in a panic. Rubbing his head and muttering out curses, he opened a golden eye towards the offending panel before staring at it in surprise, fully awakened at this point. “Oh shit,” he mumbled to himself.
Picking himself up, he flew up to the offending panel. The gossamer wings on his back buzzed at a high frequency and allowed him to stay aloft indefinitely. He hastily pulled out a personal handset and pressed a digit preprogrammed with a phone number. Floating in front of the red-coloured panel, he heard two dial tones before he got an answer. Not waiting for a greeting, the insect started talking at an alarmingly fast rate.
“Boss, boss, boss! You won’t believe what’s going on?! It’s crazy! Insane! Robians dropping like flies for some reason!” he chattered, streams of high-pitched words falling out of his mouth like water spilt from a glass, his loud voice overpowering the blaring alarms. “Here I am, sitting at this desk, minding my own business and monitoring Robian activity like you told me to when all of a sudden, BOOM! Robians! Seven of em-Wait, no thirteen. Wait, wait,” he paused, taking a closer look at the panel and watching final Robian’s vitals abruptly go offline. “Nope, the whole unit’s dead. D-E-A-D, dead! Like completely finished, dead! Stick a fork in ‘em, they’re done dead! Gone to the great junkyard in the sky d-”
“Charmy! ENOUGH!” a male voice bellowed out from the handset, cutting off the bee mid-sentence. “I get it! They’re dead! Now, cut the alarms off first and then speak.”
Charmy Beeson pulled the phone away from his ear and scowled at it, before placing it back on and speaking. “Jeez boss, no need to be so loud about it,” he replied, annoyed. He flew back to the desk, opened a drawer and extracted a tablet. Activating it, he swiped a finger on the monitoring dashboard and then tapped an icon that looked like a bell. A prompt appeared, asking to acknowledge all alarms. The bee tapped the button marked ‘YES.’ A moment later, the alarms went silent. The insect then brought the handset back to his ear after placing the tablet back on the table.
“Now, can you tell me, calmly, what’s going on?” the voice on the other line said exasperatedly.
“So anyway, yeah, a whole unit of Robians was offed and-”
“Oh! Right, details,” the bee said, catching himself. He peered at the display in front of him, reading the location. “Hum, so, like, the unit assigned to the No.5 Reactor’s been completely wiped out, while the ones at No.4 are untouched.” He grinned. “Hey! That means they went for the No.5!”
“Hmph, as I thought they would,” the male on the phone said in a self-satisfied tone. “Good work, Charmy.”
Charmy’s grin grew even wider at the mention of praise. “No problem boss!” he said cheerfully, doing a victory loop-de-loop in the air. “Now, can I get out of here?” The moment the insect said those words, he swore he could feel the scowling glare coming from his superior.
“No, you’re confined to Robian Monitoring until further notice,” Charmy’s boss said icily. “I’m not willing to put you back on the field just yet after the mess you made on your last extraction mission. Unless, of course, you want to be roboticized instead?”
The bee gulped. “N-No way man! Anything but that!” he said rapidly. “But Knuc-”
“Then remain here and wait things out until another crisis puts your transgressions out of the President’s mind,” the male said slowly, ending the call before Charmy could continue.
The bee glared darkly at the handset before sulkily hovering back to the desk in the centre of the room and sitting in the chair with his arms crossed. “Great.”
Sitting in an office three floors above Charmy’s position, Knuckles placed his handset on the desk after speaking with the bee and leaned back in his chair. He was an echidna with crimson fur and long, flowing dreadlocks. He wore a navy blue blazer, worn loosely to expose his bare chest. Beneath the jacket was the barest hint of a white, crescent moon birthmark, its arc pointing toward the ground. His legs were covered in navy-blue slacks and on his feet were a pair of fighter’s sneakers that clashed against the professional-looking suit. They were red with a yellow stripe across its width and green cuffs that hugged the leg, just below the calf. On top of each shoe, from the tip to the tongue, was a thick, riveted steel plate.
Sighing deeply, – partly from the insect’s antics and partly from general annoyance – he turned his violet-blue eyes towards the clock on the desktop phone. He waited exactly thirty seconds and then picked up the receiver. He pressed a button that was labelled ‘Kodos.’
Answering almost immediately, the gruff Mobian on the other line spoke. “Whaddya want, runt?”
‘And it starts…’ “As instructed, we’ve upped the security protocols in the reactors, informed the workers of their cancelled shifts and disabled the mechanoids,” the echidna spoke, ignoring the jibe and resisting the urge to grind his teeth. “The Robian unit assigned to Reactor No.5 ambushed a set of intruders earlier, but they were destroyed. Likely, it’s that terrorist group with the SOLDER in their ranks. I’ve reactivated the sentry units within the reactor.” He paused, allowing the words to digest in his superior’s mind. “The president should be notified of this.”
“And since when the hell do you give ME orders?” Kodos sneered.
Knuckles closed his eyes in frustration. ‘No wonder everyone hates working with you.’ “I never gave orders,” he replied stoically. “I’m only relaying information to you. What you do with it is not my problem.”
The Mobian on the other line snorted. “Whatever,” he muttered. “I’ll speak with the President after this. Meanwhile, send two of your men down to the Sector 7 Slums and get them to meet my contact. The passphrase is the same as before. Get whatever info he has and then report back to me.” He paused. “Also, go do the usual; make the rounds, find our priority target, yadda, yadda, yadda.” He paused. “Oh and get me some goddamned results this time! And don’t send a screw-up like that buzzing, chattering annoyance of yours!”
“Understood,” Knuckles replied, hanging up the phone. He took several calming breaths and forced both red-furred fists underneath his desk to stop clenching tightly. After a few moments, he picked up the handset on his desk with a stilled hand, scrolled through the contacts list and selected a number. He heard three dial tones before he got an answer.
“Yeah?” a rough and gravelly voice answered on the other line.
“Vector, get Mighty and head to the Sector 7 Slums,” the echidna said. “It’s time once again to meet our informant. The passphrase is the same as the last time.”
“Ugh, not that one again! If I have to say that phrase one more time-”
“Just do it, Vector.”
He heard a huff from the other line. “Fine, fine, we’ll get to it, Knux,” he said. The line went dead.
Scrolling through the contacts list once more, the echidna selected another number. He got an answer just after he pressed the handset to his ear.
“Nack,” the echidna said. “It’s your turn this month. Meet me in the briefing room in fifteen minutes.”
“Right, see ya there.”
Ending the call, Knuckles tucked the phone in his pants pocket, stood up and walked around his desk towards the left wall where a black and grey, electronically locked storage cabinet resided. Aside from the cabinet, the rest of the office space itself was stark and spartan in design, consisting only of a modern, glass-top desk with a black wheeled chair and two, black stationary chairs for visitors. On the desk were an inbox, several pens and a black notebook that lined the left side of the desk, all neatly arranged. On the right was his company-issued laptop, its lid closed. The walls were bare and painted dark grey to match the building’s muted and machine-like aesthetic.
The echidna approached the cabinet and pulled out a keycard from his inside coat pocket. He swiped it through the reader on the door. “Keycard Identified,” a computerized, female voice spoke out of the circular lock. “Access Granted.”
The lock clicked and the echidna opened the doors. The inside of the cabinet was as sparse as his office, the only contents being a polished black .45 calibre handgun, several clips of ammunition and a pair of well-cared-for white gloves. He took out the sidearm and inserted them into the shoulder holster within his jacket and then placed three clips Into his pocket. He then turned to the gloves.
Each of the cuffed, five-fingered gloves were equipped with a pair of thick, three-inch long curved spikes on the top of the padded knuckles. The echidna’s eyes harrowed at the sight. He took the right glove in his hand and folded over the cuff to reveal words sown with golden thread on the inside: ‘The Servers are the Seven.’ Memories, both happy and painful, soon flooded his mind.
The gloves were once a source of pride, a gift to commemorate his Guardianship. Now, they served as a reminder. A reminder of all that he lost, of what he had to throw away to survive and of what he still had to do to redeem himself.
Knuckles realized with a start that he was lingering. ‘Why am I thinking about the past now?’ he wondered as he slipped on the gloves, feeling the supple material conform to his bare hands. ‘What’s done is done. All I can do is move forward.’
Shutting the cabinet, the echidna strode out of his office towards the briefing room, the sliding door behind him closing with a soft hiss.
Tails came to on top of a rusted, segmented walkway high above a pool of golden-silver Energen. With eyes going in and out of focus, the fox observed his surroundings. ‘This isn’t the No. 5?’ he mused, noting the crumbling walls and the outdated technology keeping the plant in operation. ‘But the place looks familiar… It almost looks like-’
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud and horrifying wail coming from directly in front of him. He tilted his head towards the end of the walkway and his eyes widened at the source of the anguish.
It was Cream Rabbelocke, at fifteen years old. She was wearing hiking boots, brown climbing shorts, a brown traveller’s vest over top of a white button-down crop top, a pair of leather gloves and a wide-brimmed hat. She was kneeling beside the body of a dead female rabbit, impaled through the chest by a six-foot-long katana. The sight brought a chill down the fox’s spine.
Cream cradled the rabbit’s head, bringing it up and allowing Tails to get a better look at her. She was an almost exact, older doppelganger of Cream, with the only difference being that she had auburn hair.
‘I-I remember that woman…’ Tails thought as his memories stirred. His pulse started to quicken as he finally realized where he was. ‘That’s Cream’s mother, Vanilla! So then, this must be the Mount Mobius Energen Reactor back in Knothole, five years ago!’
A sudden, choked sob caused Tails to break out of his thoughts. Cream tenderly stroked her mother’s stilled and lifeless face. “M-mama?” she whispered, loud enough that Tails could hear with his enhanced senses. “How c-could he do this? That-that monster…” The fox watched as his friend balled her fists tightly, rage beginning to consume her mind, her body and her soul. Tiny silver bolts of electricity started to crackle around her, as though responding to her emotions. “You rest mama,” she said quietly, stifling another sob. “I’ll put a stop to this. I’ll make that murderer pay for what he’s done!!”
Rising to her feet, she let out a wrathful howl, something that Tails could never have seen in the normally demure and soft-spoken rabbit. She glared hatefully at the weapon sticking out of her mother’s back. Gripping the sword hilt and clenching her teeth, she pulled mightily. The weight of the weapon caused her arm to tremble as she extracted it from her mother’s body with a squelch, blood oozing out of the wound. Turning away from her, Cream faced the doorway leading deeper into the reactor, the orifice torn apart by the very Mobian she vowed to kill.
“Nazo… SOLDIER… Energen… Kintobor… Everything!” Cream yelled out, her voice growing louder and more vengeful as she spat out the words. “I hate them! I hate them all!” She then stormed into the next room.
Tails reached a hand out in an attempt to stop her, his mouth opening to form words. However, before he could even utter a syllable, a blinding pain shot out from his head, consuming him. In his throes of agony, he could hear a voice call out to him.
“…es… M…les… Miles!”
“Miles! Miles, wake up!”
Tails’ eyes flicked open. He was back at No. 5. “It’s Tails…” he groaned out as he pushed himself off of the floor.
“Hey, man! Get a hold of yourself!” Bark hollered out irritably. “I ain’t paying you to fuck around here!”
“Shut it Bark,” the fox muttered, getting to his knees. He looked up to see Cream, who was doing her best to mask her concern for him.
“You OK?” She asked. Tails nodded in response as he got to his feet.
The fox opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t find the words he wanted to say. He scrunched up his eyebrows, trying to force out the question that was in the furthest corners of his mind since he saw her again in that alleyway over three weeks ago, only to reappear now after he saw that flash from the past.
‘What happened to you after Knothole?’
Instead, he closed his mouth and shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, taking a deep breath to steady himself. “Come on.” Walking up to the reactor controls, he extended an open hand to her. “Let’s get this over with and get out of here.”
Wordlessly, the brawler handed him the device. Recalling the instructions Jessie gave them, the fox connected the grey cable to the port and pressed the yellow button on the explosive’s control board, just below the blue and green buttons. On the RINGTEK-powered LCD screen, he saw the words ‘INITIATING ANTI-TAMPER DEVICE.’ scroll across the screen a few times, indicating that the program was running. A moment later, Cream and Tails heard a soft click as the tampering alarm relays disengaged. The LCD screen displayed the words ‘TAMPERING DISABLED.”
Smiling in satisfaction, Tails extended the high-powered transmitter antennas, mounted the box onto the extraction pump’s main control panel and pressed the blue button to initiate the main unit start-up and connection sequences. After a minute, the screen displayed the words ‘BOOT COMPLETE. RECEIVER READY.’ He finally pressed the green button afterwards to arm the device. The screen flashed twice, before a message scrawled on the screen: ‘SYSTEM ARMED. AWAITING TRANSMITTER CONNECTION.’
Tails turned around and nodded at Bark, who grinned in response. “Alright, let’s head for the manufacturing plant,” the bear ordered.
The Ex-SOLDIER turned around to follow Cream and Bark. Had he not been so focused solely on getting out of the reactor, he would have noticed the tell-tale click of another relay on the extraction pump’s control board being energized.
Exiting the elevator leading to the refinery, the three Mobians stopped off at the T-juncture to install the device router before heading into the RINGTEK Manufacturing Plant. The journey back up from the pump room and through the refinery was met with little resistance – something Tails felt suspicious about as he took point. Bark and Cream were right behind him, mounting the signal relays for the second bomb.
‘Coming back through here was too easy,’ he thought, a hand gripped on his weapon’s hilt as the three stole through the corridors. ‘Despite us taking out all those Robians when we got in and the few small automations on our way back up here, I can’t imagine that those would be the only line of defence in the reactor, not after last night.’ He observed the manufacturing floor through plate glass windows lining the corridor leading to the control room; the machines were shut down and no new RINGTEK was being produced. ‘And from the looks of it, there’s nobody up here in this part of the plant either. The lack of bodies is probably the result of Biggs and Jessie’s machinations with the union, but there should still be a skeleton crew working here, at the very least. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about all this…’
As they approached the Plant control room, Tails decided to voice his concerns. “Does something – anything – about this seem… off to any of you?” he asked, angling his head back.
“Nope,” Bark responded nonchalantly. “Stand aside.” He pushed past the fox, opened the control room door and barged in loudly, his weapon cocked and ready. After sweeping the room several times, he relaxed. “OK, the coast is clear!” he said, a grin plastered on his snout. “Biggs and Jessie did real good on this! There’s practically no one here!”
“That’s what Tails is saying, Bark,” Cream said, her eyes narrowed to slits. “As we made our way here, I was also thinking the same thing; it’s too quiet, there’s too little resistance. I’m sure our guys did wonderfully, but everything seems to be lining up too well in my opinion. We should be cautious.” Tails nodded in agreement.
Bark looked at the two of them with a grimace. “Man, why’re you guys acting like such pessimists!?” he grumbled, setting the satchel down and extracting the second bomb from within. “Kintobor’s probably scared shitless cuz of yesterday’s attack. Maybe they shut down their shit to ‘reevaluate their security’ or whatever? Sides, I’m sure they wouldn’t expect back-to-back explosions happening less than a day apart anyway…” he trailed off.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Tails shot back, his arms crossed, a dark look crossing his face. “Everything that’s happened since we got in – from the Robians to the lack of people and security forces – screams ‘Trap’. I should’ve seen the signs earlier.” He brought a hand to his chin and scratched it, his blue eyes closed in thought. “The problem is, I can’t seem to figure out Kintobor’s endgame here. Why go through the trouble of letting us infiltrate the reactor-”
Bark growled loudly as he levelled a glare at the fox. “To hell with ‘why!’” he spat, cutting the fox off, his tightly balled fist shaking. “What do you suggest we do, then genius?” Sarcasm was now dripping from his voice. “If this IS a trap, the front door’s the only way out. Unless you wanna jump from the catwalks and pray to the Goddess we survive a hundred-meter drop to the slums below?”
“And we can’t go back either,” Cream added, her brows creased. “By the time we get back to the access way in the refinery, the whole place will be under.”
Tails sighed, his shoulders sagging in frustration. “Guess that leaves the front door as our only option,” he said, turning his head to Bark and giving him a level stare. “Bark, if we get out of this scot-free, I want more money.” He walked up to the control console. “Hand the bomb over so we can get the hell outta here.”
“Before we do that, we should deactivate the security doors leading out of here,” Cream said. “The three override switches should be somewhere in this room. All we have to do is press them at the same time.”
Tails nodded. “Alright then, let’s look for these switches,” he said.
“Hey, are these it?” Bark chimed in gruffly, pointing to a group of levers on the wall opposite the control room’s entrance. His brows were knitted and his earlier bravado, Tails noted, was muted and more reserved.
‘It’s a little too late to realize that we’re screwed, Bark,’ the fox mused as he sidled up to the bear’s side, Cream right beside him. He angled his head towards the rabbit, who nodded. “Seems like this is it,” he said. “Cream, take the middle. Bark, you and I have the ends.”
The trio moved to their respective stations. Cream breathed slowly to steady herself. “I’ll count us down,” she announced, grasping the switch. “We probably have to be really precise with this, so take deep breaths and focus! We can do this!”
“3… 2… 1… Now!”
Three clicks echoed out in the room all at the same time. The intercom buzzed to life a short moment after. “Security system is overridden for one hour. Opening blast doors.”
In the distance, Tails could hear the grinding noise of the steel-plated security doors sliding open. He smirked. “Seems like that did the trick,” he said, moving towards the main console.
Bark handed the fox the explosive, which he affixed to the console’s underside. He extended the antenna and pressed the blue button on the unit to initiate the device. The fox mentally crossed his fingers as the control board searched for a wireless connection. A short time later, a message was scrawled on the display: ‘CONNECTION ESTABLISHED. PRESS BUTTON TO ARM.’
The trio breathed a collective sigh of relief. ‘Thank the Goddess that Jessie knows what she’s doing,’ Tails mused as he pressed the green button to arm the explosive.
‘TEN MINUTES TO DETONATION.’