SOMEWHERE IN THE ZEBON REGION DEPLOY SQUAD #R59 TIME TO DETONATION: 8 MINUTES
Evening’s last light clung desperately to the horizon, unwilling to surrender day’s final breath into the choking grip of night. It was a colorful death. Red gave way to purple and finally to a deep indigo blue, framing the edges of the rugged terrain like an artist frames a masterpiece. Like clockwork, the ancient war between day and night continued on, but this battle belonged to the night.
Beneath the wounded sky a broad meadow stretched out wrapped in a thick forest of ironbark trees. All was still in the meadow. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath in honor of the sacred event. The moment passed and the battle was over. Night had won again.
Silently, a blackened silhouette of a lone field mouse cut across the embattled skyline with determined speed. Having reached the meadow’s edge, the mouse pressed tightly against an ironbark tree and listened. Like radars, his ears moved in search of any sound of danger. When he was certain the coast was clear, he raised his forearm to his face. A backlit screen appeared on his wrist, casting a blue glow over his features and displaying a countdown in big black digits. Seven minutes, twenty-one seconds remained; he was running late.
This was no ordinary field mouse. Dressed from claw to collar in black and green battle armor, he was a soldier for the Mech Mice Guard. It was his sworn duty to protect the citizens of the Colonies from invasion – no matter what the cost.
Ziro was a rugged, young mouse with broad shoulders, reddish fur and nerves of steel. He carried himself with a confidence that others often admired and followed. As a pup this ability had landed him and his schoolmates in trouble on more than one occasion – all in good fun, of course. Here, on the battlefield, things were different. This was no place for fun and games. War was a serious matter. One wrong move could get a good mouse killed – or worse yet, an entire squadron.
As commander of his squad, Ziro did not carry the weight of his responsibility lightly. If everything went as planned, today’s mission would prove once and for all that they were capable of being Elite Guards and not just another bunch of grunts. It was a chance to do something great, and become real heroes.
“Don’t blow it this time,” Ziro reminded himself.
Surveying the forest before him with a critical eye, Ziro carefully took in his surroundings. Just ahead spilling through the crooked tree line, an unnatural light seemed to emanate from a clearing not more than a few hundred tails from where he now stood.
“Bingo,” Ziro muttered to himself. He reached behind his back, retrieved a pair of sonic vision goggles from his pack and scanned the area ahead. Nothing showed up which meant they were alone. Satisfied, Ziro turned toward the meadow and waved his paws over his head. Seconds later, several black shapes of various sizes zigzagged their way across the meadow to where Ziro stood.
As always, Streak was the first to arrive.
“What took so long, Chief,” Streak asked, “I was beginning to think you were never going to signal.” Streak was the youngest on the team and by far the quickest mouse Ziro had ever met. The trouble was, he was also impatient. “Next time, why don’t you let me take point guard. I’ll cut our mission time in half.”
Ziro didn’t have time to answer; Lieutenant Lefty was the second to arrive. He was both the oldest, and newest member of the squad. As the oldest mouse he felt compelled to freely share his opinion. As the newest member, nobody paid him any mind.
“That’ll be the day,” Lefty said, in his usual growling voice. “You’ll cut our mission in half all right…by getting us killed!”
“Aw, you’re just sore because I can run circles around you,” said Streak.
“Listen, kid. You may be quick but you draw more attention than Demo. There’s more to life than being quick.”
Just then, a beastly mouse lumbered up to the group with booming footsteps and an even louder voice. His battle gear was entirely different than the other mice. For starters, he was fully enclosed in a heavily armored mechanical suit, which measured twice as tall as an average mouse.
“Did somebody call for me?” the big mouse boomed with a goofy smile.
“Pipe down,” Lefty scowled, “Do you want to broadcast our position to the entire field.”
“Sorry,” Demo said, “I thought you signaled the coast was clear, Chief.”
Ziro answered with commanding authority, striving to bring focus back to his team. “Even so, we’re not out of the woods yet. Better safe than dead. Remember, we’re a team, so let’s stop arguing and start acting like one.”
“Yeah, yeah, we know. So, what’s the status report?” asked Streak, anxious to get on with it. Ziro tried to keep cool.
“From what I can tell, the last artifact is just up ahead. We’ve only got six minutes left so let’s make them count. I don’t think I need to remind you of the importance of our success. If we don’t get there first it’s game over for everyone. Got it?” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s move out!”
The three soldiers followed their leader through the underbrush on constant lookout for any sign of trouble. The blue light grew brighter as they reached a small clearing in the woods. As the forest thinned, a single orb-shaped gem could be seen ahead. It hovered just above eye level spilling its curious light across the scene and elongating the shadows of various stones that were strewn about the ground.
“There it is,” Ziro said, “the last artifact.”
“Too easy,” Streak replied confidently, eyeing the floating stone with eager claws.
“Precisely what I was thinking,” a steady but unexpected voice replied from behind Streak’s shoulder.
The sudden arrival of the phantom voice made Streak jump with fright. With the reflex of a jackrabbit he spun around and fired his blaster at the invisible intruder. His shot singed a gaping hole in a nearby tree, causing it to tumble directly back at Streak. He dove for cover to avoid getting buried under the collapsing tree. It landed with an earth rumbling, THWOOSH!
Lefty groaned, shaking his head at Streak’s folly.
“Ah, there you are, Nightshade,” Ziro replied, unshaken by the new arrival. A sleek, dark mouse appeared out of nowhere as his cloaking device deactivated. It was Nightshade, the fifth and final member of the squad. He was a master of stealth and a student of war. Nightshade bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement of his Chief.
“I hate it when he sneaks up like that,” Streak muttered, stood up and brushed himself off. He wrinkled his snout in disgust when he realized his paws were covered in a thick, sticky slime. “Oh come on, slug trail? Really?”
Demo did a poor job disguising his laughter. Already, Streak’s ears were turning red with embarrassment. Ziro grimaced, and tossed the young mouse a hanky to clean up with.
Nightshade didn’t even crack a smile. He often failed to find the humor in situations like this. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly; it’s just that he preferred logic to laughter. He rarely spoke unless there was something important to say. Already he had analyzed the facts of their circumstance and had come up with more than a few concerns of his own. It was time to speak his mind.
“Pardon the disruption, but I fail to see the logic in the placement of this final artifact. Why would the enemy leave it out in the open? Without protection?”
“I agree,” said Lefty. “Something ain’t right, here. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Bones, shmones. You guys worry too much,” Streak said, trying to save face after the embarrassing slime incident. “Look. We don’t have time to over think this. I'll can be there and back in no time. Watch!”
Without orders, the overzealous Streak zipped out into the open in hopes of redeeming himself. Streak was nearly within grasp of the stone before Ziro had time to call out a warning.
“Streak, wait! It could be a…”
All at once, a beam of light shot out from one of the stones on the ground and dissolved Streak right on the spot. There was nothing left of the reckless mouse. He had disappeared completely.
“…a trap,” Nightshade observed.
“Crumbs,” Demo griped. “We were having such a good day too.”
Ziro looked to Nightshade as he usually did when he wanted advice. Nightshade didn’t notice, he was too busy analyzing the situation and typing on his wrist computer. A sound wave danced across the screen.
“Interesting. I’m detecting a high level of ultrasonic waves coming from the area. It seems to be centered on those stones,” Nightshade observed aloud.
“Which means what exactly?” Ziro asked.
“It means those are sentry stones, and they are watching our movements.”
“That’s creepy,” Demo said. “Well, unless any of you knows how ta make yourself invisible...I suggest we blow the things up.” With a push of a button, he activated an entire arsenal of weapons on each arm and across the shoulders of his XR Heavy Suit. When he was finished, he looked like a swiss army knife of firepower.
“Why does everything revolve around blowing stuff up, for you?” Lefty asked, shaking his head.
“I dunno, what else am I supposed to do with all these explosives?”
“Nobody is going to blow anything up. The artifact is too close, we might damage it,” Ziro explained.
“Oh, right.” Demo groaned with more than a hint of disappointment in his voice. With a few more clicks, the weapons folded away.
“Actually,” Nightshade announced, rather unexpectedly, “I think Demo may be onto something!”
“I am?” Demo said, looking as puzzled as the other two.
“Yes, we need to make ourselves invisible.”
“Of course,” said Demo, “Your cloaking device.”
“No! I can’t move when I’m cloaked, and even if I could, I’d still be detectable by the ultrasonic waves. It sees with sound, not sight.”
“So…how are we going to do it, then?” Lefty asked
“Science,” Nightshade stated. He pressed a few buttons on his wrist communicator and explained in more detail. “By loading the ultrasonic waves into our blasters we can reverse the signal which should allow us to walk right up to the artifact unnoticed.”
Nightshade held up his blaster and put it into sonic mode, then he took aim at the stones. All the while, he monitored his wrist readout and gauged the pattern of the wavelengths. His timing would have to be perfect in order to cancel the signal. When he sensed the time was right, he pressed his trigger. Nothing happened.
“That’s it?” Demo asked, clearly disappointed there hadn’t been a big blast.
Nightshade kept his focus and checked the readout on his wrist communicator. The waves had flat-lined.
“All clear,” Nightshade stated calmly.
“Well then, I suppose all that’s left to do is for one of us to walk out there and pick up the stone,” Ziro noted.
They all glanced to the place where their comrade, Streak, had been incinerated only moments earlier. If Nightshade’s theory was wrong, stepping out into the open meant the same fate awaited one of them as well.
“I’ll go,” Ziro decided, removing his backpack and retrieving a metal cylinder they had brought to contain the artifact. He checked his wrist communicator once more; three minutes, twenty seconds remained. If they wanted to survive this, they’d have to be quick.
“Be careful out there, Chief,” Demo said.
Step by nervous step, Ziro inched his way across the dangerous clearing toward the hovering gem. Everything was working perfectly. Then, with only a few paw steps to go, their brilliant plan ended with a blast.
A glowing streak of plasma singed the ground between Ziro and the gem. Ziro’s heart beat wildly at the near miss. Strange, Ziro thought to himself, the shot hadn’t come from the stones, it had come from behind.
“Step away from the artifact, or your squad is dead,” a cocky voice demanded from the edge of the clearing. Ziro didn’t have to look, he knew exactly who it belonged to.
“Nitro,” Ziro scowled. There was a short commotion behind him as a squadron of four mice surrounded the three remaining members of Ziro’s Squad at gunpoint.
“That’s right,” said a speckled mouse as he stepped out from the safety of the perimeter. His pinkish eyes glistened with childish delight at the situation before him. “You didn’t think you’d actually beat me this time, did you? Now drop your weapon and back away from the artifact.”
Ziro did as he was told and tried to calm himself. Nitro loved to bristle Ziro’s fur every chance he got. Nitro was commander of the Alphas, a team of Elites with a knack for snatching victory from under Ziro’s nose. In truth, they were everything Ziro wanted his squad to be. He might have admired them if they weren’t so annoying. It seemed, no matter how hard Ziro and his team tried, the Alphas were always one step ahead.
“The gem is ours, Nitro. We beat you fair and square,” Ziro tried to reason with them.
“On the contrary, you led us right to it. The way I figure, why do all the hard work when you can get grunts to do it for you.”
The Alphas laughed at Nitro’s derogatory joke. The pink-eyed commander waltzed across the clearing, closing the gap between himself and Ziro until his nose was right in Ziro’s ear.
“A little advice, Grub,” Nitro muttered, “always watch your back.”
Ziro was unshaken. Inside, he knew Nitro was right but he didn’t want to admit it. He had been so focused on finding the target, and scanning the area ahead, he had failed to even consider that they were being followed. It was a mistake he was already regretting.
Nitro stepped casually over to where the artifact hovered always keeping his blaster aimed steadily at Ziro’s chest. With his free paw, he took hold of the artifact. There was a slight hum as Nitro touched the gem and released it from its invisible perch mid-air. A beam of light extended from the surface of the stone, projecting a ring of symbols a paws width from the device. Ziro looked away, he couldn’t stand the sight of Nitro winning again.
With his left paw now occupied with the artifact, Nitro dropped his weapon and reached into the center of the translucent ring as if were actually there. It responded to his touch as he manipulated the projection with a series of clockwise and counter clockwise movements, entering the code that would deactivate the gem and secure his squad’s victory. Ziro watched the countdown on Nitro's wrist communicator; Ninety seconds remained. It was enough time to set things right, but he'd have to act quickly.
“Face it Ziro, you’ll never be one of the Elites. You just don’t have what it takes,” Nitro said smugly as he prepared for the final turn of the ring.
"Never count your victories before they're won,” Ziro muttered.
"That's very good advice," a bewildered Nitro replied. "You should have listened to your mother."
"You should have too!"
In a rush, Ziro raised his wrist and fired a grappling claw at the gem. It was a perfect shot, sending the prized artifact sailing through the air to the far edge of the clearing. Before his rival could react, Ziro’s hurled himself at his stunned opponent, knocking him to the ground.
“Nightshade…go silent!” Ziro shouted as Nitro reached for his weapon and scrambled to his feet. Nightshade released the trigger on his blaster and disappeared behind his cloaking device. Immediately, the stone sentries re-activated and honed in on two intruders. Nitro and Ziro retreated for cover as shots from the sentries fired wildly in every direction. In the chaos, two of Nitro’s mice were blasted into oblivion by the angry sentries.
Just outside the clearing, Lefty and Nightshade engaged in a fire fight with the remaining members of the Alpha squad while dodging shots from the sentries at the same time. Anxious to join in the action, Demo fired twenty impact grenades into the clearing in hopes of silencing the stones.
"Hit the deck!" Demo bellowed as he dove behind a moss covered boulder.
Both squads spotted the blinking canisters just in time and scattered like cockroaches. Seconds later, a massive blast lit up the night sky and rocked the forest. The stone sentries fell silent and bits of dirt rained down on the forest and a black curtain of smoke closed over the scene.
When at last the rumbling subsided, Ziro stood up, brushed himself off and bolted into the haze in a frantic search for the artifact. His only hope was that it was still nearby and could be disarmed. Visibility was extremely low - only a few tails at most. Then, a movement caught his eye. It was only a fuzzy silhouette, but it was coming at him with gun drawn.
Ziro raised his blaster and sighted his target.
"Hold fire, hold fire," the figure shouted as it broke through the smoke screen. It wasn't Nitro at all - it was Lefty.
"Oh Chief, am I glad its you," Lefty said, lowering his blaster in relief. "We found the artifact, but it's out of reach."
"Show me," Ziro commanded. The landscape was nothing like it was before the blast. They hadn't gone far before the ground dropped into a deep chasm. Apparently, the combined impact of the explosives had been powerful enough to crack the earth sending a massive rift across the center of what once was the clearing, dividing it in half.
"Over there," Lefty said. He pointed to a hazy blue glow on the far side of the rift. Sure enough, the artifact was nestled in a small crack along ridge.
"It's too far to jump," Lefty noted. "We'll have to go around..."
"No time, stand back," Ziro said with an authority in his own voice even he didn't recognize.
With a running start, Ziro launched himself out over the ledge and just barely caught hold of the edge of the rift.
Lefty was impressed. Not wanting to be outdone, he took a running leap. It was almost enough, but fell short of the mark. Screaming as he fell, Lefty reached out with a free paw and managed to catch hold of a tree root which jutted out from the side of the canyon.
"Way to go, chief," Lefty cheered. "Now get the artifact and finish this."
"Not before I help you," Ziro decided.
"What? Are you crazy?" Lefty complained. "We can still win this."
"Never leave a mouse behind," Ziro quoted from memory.
Only forty-five seconds remained, but it would be enough time if he hurried. It had to be. He rushed to where Lefty hung and reached down to help Lefty. Lefty took his commander’s paw and hoisted himself to safety.
"Thanks, now let's grab that artifact and get out of here,” Lefty said.
But they were too late. The sound of Nitro’s laughter caused Ziro to turn just in time to see the artifact secured in his opponent’s paw. Nitro targeted his blaster at Ziro’s chest and without a word took the shot.
A painful blast of electricity surged through Ziro’s limbs. The last thing he heard before everything went black was Nitro’s voice mocking him, reminding him of the one thing he wanted desperately to forget.
“Better luck next life…brother."