CHAPTER TWO – Living the dream
Ziro was dead. Again. It was the second time this week and it was only Wednesday. The whole thing was starting to get on his nerves.
The worst part was knowing it wasn’t a trial run, they were being graded today. Colonel Black had recently returned to the Academy to oversee the training of Elite Guards. If Ziro’s squad miraculously managed to impress him this week, they’d be one step closer to becoming Elites. Unfortunately, today’s blunders had pretty much sealed their fate as grunts. Wrapped in the blanket of death's darkness Ziro replayed his failure over and over until…
Wurp. Wurp. Wuuuurp.
An ear-splitting siren broke through the darkness. It was a horrid, over-amplified sound designed to wake the dead out of digital slumber. Ziro couldn’t ignore it if he wanted to. Startled, he awoke with a gasp and fumbled with the darkened visor that blocked his sight. It would take a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the familiar but dimly lit space around him. Even before he could see anything, he knew exactly where he was.
It was the simulation room – a massive underground cavern used as a digital training facility for Mech Mice guards. Here they could practice battle tactics in the safety of the Academy Burrow without concern for enemy spies.
Each of the mice were reclined and harnessed in egg-shaped pods which circled the perimeter of the room. There were five pods in all (one for each squad member), each one connected to the central computer through an intricate network of root-like cables which wound across the floor to the center of the room.
Near the hub a pair of white rats wearing lab coats, thick glasses and black gloves monitored a tower of blinking lights and digital screens. Brothers Enzo and Axel were mirror images of each other, right down to the black spots on opposite ears. They were the creative brains behind the battle simulator and only left their work in the underground cavern when necessary. From the looks of their scraggly fur, it hadn't been necessary in quite some time.
A flashing red light over Ziro’s pod alerted the two rats to his re-entry. In long, lanky steps, they moved with synchronized steps toward the awakening Commander.
Enzo was the first to speak in a heavy accent, “Ello, Commandee. Ow was you mar-shon?”
By ‘mar-shon’ the rat meant ‘mission’. Over time, Ziro had grown accustomed to the lab rats’ sloppy butchery of the Colonial language which was spoken by all civilized mice. To be fair, Axel and Enzo had limited communication with the outside world. They were so wrapped up in their work here, their linguistic skills were naturally not as finely tuned as most.
“I died,” Ziro simply stated. What else was there to say? He liked the lab mice, even considered them friends, but today he wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat. He stood to leave as soon as the pod lock was disengaged.
“Remeem-ber, you’ll be a leettle doozy at first,” Axel warned. “Doon’t moof so fast-lee.”
Ziro didn’t listen. He tossed his visor onto the empty seat and stepped out of the pod anyway. With over 200 simulation trainings under his belt, he knew the drill. His body had become accustomed to re-entry. It was like waking up from a dream…in this case, a very bad one.
The lab rats exchanged knowing glances then looked back at Ziro. Both were eagerly twiddling their paws together in front of themselves like giddy schoolboys. It was as if they were expecting Ziro to say something else.
“What?” Ziro asked, feeling awkward.
“Excuses us, but deed you appen to no-teese…” Enzo started to say before his brother excitedly interrupted and finished his sentence for him.
“…the leetle upgrade we’s mades? Mmmm?”
Ziro shook his head without giving much thought to the question. He really didn’t care about any simulation upgrades. He had bigger things on his mind…like trying to figure out how to beat Nitro next time.
“Saps,” Axel finally declared triumphantly, “We made de sap on de treez!”
“Sap? Wow…yeah that’s…uh…that’s great,” Ziro answered nonchalantly. “You guys are really living the dream down here, aren’t ya.”
“Indeeds,” Enzo said with a smile. “But what ‘bouts you, Commandee?”
“What about me?” Ziro wondered aloud. Still lost in his own thoughts.
“Are you…leeving the dreams?”
The question caught him off guard. Ziro thought about the question for a moment. Was he living his dream? As a pup he had always imagined himself being a brave commander and leading his troops into battle against the forces of evil.
“Sure, I guess. I’m just a little behind schedule that’s all. I had planned on making Elite status last season. Being a grunt guard is fine, but it’s the Elites that get to see the real action. All I do is patrol the halls. It’d be nice to know what I’m doing actually mattered.”
Enzo nodded his head and replied in an even, knowing voice, “You knows how long we’s been trying to put saps in de treez?”
Ziro almost rolled his eyes. He wasn’t the least bit interested in virtual sap. “I dunno, a week?”
“Threes seasons,” Axel answered.
“You’ve been working on saps…er…I mean sap for three seasons?”
“Yups,” Enzo replied, “We gets it wrong many times. Fail is part of learning. See? Pay-sheents, Commandee. You squid will be Elite soons.”
“Yes…soons. Am sures of it!” Axel interjected.
“I’m glad somebody believes in us.”
The rats moved back to their consoles and busied themselves with the rest of their work. Ziro took a moment to view the rest of the pods occupied by the remainder of his squad. One was empty. Streak was gone already.
“Poor kid,” Ziro thought to himself.
In a few moments the others would start to wake. They were all dressed alike in the same standard issue drab jumpsuits. “Squad R59” was embroidered on their left chest pocket, identified them as members of the same team. It reminded Ziro they still hadn’t achieved enough Victory Points to upgrade to a squad name of their own. He sighed and turned away. He needed space. Time to think. He marched toward the exit.
“Tell the others to meet in the mess hole, will ya,” Ziro asked Enzo and Axel as he passed by. They nodded in reply. Already they were firing furiously away at their keyboards, probably coding something really exciting… like fungal spores.
Ziro, Demo, Nightshade and Streak sat hunched over a long table; heads hung low, spirits crushed. Demo was the only one actually eating the bowl full of slop the galley staff was pawning as ‘food’ today. More of the canned Grub Industries slop they'd been serving for years. Ziro hated the stuff. The happy grub cartoon character on the label made him want to punch something. Demo was already on his third bowl, guzzling it down quicker than a rodent twice his size. The others watched in stunned silence.
“You know, I really thought we had that one,” Demo said between sloppy mouthfuls. “I was really feeling it, man. We were this close…inches away and then…WHAMMO!”
The powerful mouse pounded the table loudly with his fist for effect and in the process startled half the room with the sound. An overweight chef behind the counter shot a warning look at the squad then continued serving her slop to a long line of customers. Already there were nearly a hundred mice lining the tables of the mess hole, hundreds more would be on their way as soon as the next round of trials ended.
“What happened?” Streak asked, trying to catch up with the others. Having been eliminated first in the mission, he was anxious to hear how things ended up.
“Nitro happened, as usual,” Ziro replied, trying to hide the frustration in his voice. “He doesn’t miss a beat, does he?”
Just then, Lefty approached the table and offered his advice. He always sounded like he was growling when he spoke.
“It wasn’t Nitro…it was us,” Lefty said. “The one thing we don’t need is to pass blame on other mice.” He could have meant it as a constructive observation, but there was more than a hint of confrontation in his tone.
“Oh c’mon,” Streak groaned, “you aren’t actually going to give that guy a pass on this, are ya?”
Lefty snorted, ignored Streak, and turned his attention to Ziro.
“Can I have a word with you, Commander,” Lefty asked.
Ziro could tell from the look in Lefty’s eyes, that the news wasn’t good. He’d seen it before – too many times.
“Of course,” Ziro answered, “What is it?”
Lefty had expected to make the announcement in private, but he figured the rest of the team would find out soon enough. So, he went ahead anyway.
“I’ve been approved for a transfer to the Talon squad,” he said bluntly. “They were looking for a Lieutenant and…well…I couldn’t really afford to pass up the chance to, you know, improve my Merit score.”
Ziro felt like he’d just been gutted. Another team member was bailing on him. He’d only filled the position a moon ago. He was speechless.
“Look, it’s nothing personal,” Lefty started.
“Yeah, right,” Demo groaned.
“No, seriously. I was probably holding you guys back. I’m sorry…I just gotta look out for myself. I can’t afford another loss or…”
“No apology necessary,” Ziro said. “If you don’t feel you fit here, I wouldn’t want you on the team anyway.”
Now it was Lefty’s turn to feel awkward.
“Do you need me to file the paperwork?” Ziro asked.
“No, I…uh…already have them,” Lefty held out a slip of paper to Ziro. He looked it over and made his mark on the line. It was done. Lefty was no longer a member of squad R59.
“Thanks,” Lefty said, realizing how backhanded it sounded only after the fact. “Who knows, maybe you guys will catch a break with someone better suited for your team.”
He turned away quickly before making the situation any more awkward than it already was. Once he was out of earshot, Streak was the first to speak up.
“Wow. I didn’t see that coming,” Streak said.
“Lefty left us?” Demo groaned. He sounded genuinely disappointed. “And just when I was finally starting to like the guy too.”
The team sat in a funk, not knowing what to say to each other. As commander, it was Ziro’s job to keep his team together. Lately, it had felt like they were falling apart quicker than he could keep up.
“Look, I know we’re all disappointed with our situation right now,” Ziro said, “but I can fix this. We need to use this as a chance to improve our focus. We were just off our game, that’s all.”
Streak shook his head is disbelief. “Have we ever been ‘on’ our game?”
Ziro tried to form a response, but came up empty. He knew exactly how they felt.
“This stinks. Name one thing Nitro’s got that we don’t got,” Demo asked.
“You mean, besides a bazillion Victory Points,” Streak said pointing to the digital leaderboard that hung on the mess hole wall. A dozen squad names were on display, but the top spot (as usual) was devoted to the Alpha Squad. As long as anyone could remember, it had been that way.
To the right of the leaderboard, a recorded poster displayed the week’s top earning squad. A hologram of Nitro and his team animated in the frame beneath the phrase, “BE ELITE…SAVE THE COLONIES!”
“He gives me the creeps. Who does he think he is anyway?” Streak spat.
“An Elite,” Ziro answered, somewhat to himself.
“Who cares what you call him…he’s still a jerk. I still can’t believe he’s your brother, Ziro.”
“Half-brother,” Ziro corrected.
“Either way I don’t know how you put up with him.”
“You can say that again,” said Demo, clinching his fists together. “we’ve got the guts but he steals the glory. When are we going to catch a break, Chief?”
“I…I dunno,” Ziro shrugged. His team needed inspiration, but he was out of ideas. “Look, at least we have each other. As long as we keep trying, what’s the worst that can happen?”
Nightshade had sat in silence the entire time, listening to the conversation unfold. Now, he cleared his throat and offered his own analysis for their failure.
“When a system isn’t working in its current form, it’s often wise to restructure how it is assembled.”
“Are you saying they might break up the team?” Demo asked.
“In my estimation it is a definite probability,” Nightshade clarified. “Especially since we’ve been unable to keep our team together, lately.”
It was true. Without a full squad, they would still be able to compete, but it would be difficult to keep up with the other teams. If they didn’t find a Lieutenant soon, they would find themselves at the bottom of the leaderboard.
A stern and rather unpleasant voice of the Colonel’s personal secretary squawked over the PA system with practiced monotony. Mildra’s words made Ziro’s fur stand on end.
“Commander Ziro please report to Colonel Black’s Den…immediately.”
Suddenly, the entire mess hole went silent, dead silent. Every eye fell on Ziro. Few had ever been invited into the Colonel’s Den and those that had, rarely came back. Ziro rubbed his whiskers and in a rather squeaky voice tried to make light of the situation.
“Ehem. It’s…it’s probably nothing. Perhaps he just wants to offer a few pointers or something, right guys?”
He looked to Demo to back him up. The big mouse stared down at his bowl before his eyes betrayed his thoughts. Who was he kidding? There could be only one reason he was being asked to join the Colonel. He was in deep trouble for their performance today.
“Well, we don’t want to keep the Colonel waiting.”
Rising from the table, Ziro mustered his confidence and strode toward the exit. With each step, a crowd of mice parted to clear a path to the double doors for their unfortunate comrade. All eyes followed Ziro’s movement as he passed by. He pushed the door open and took one last glance over his shoulder at his team. He let the door close behind him and faced the long tunnel ahead alone.