CHAPTER 7 - Dead Ends
There were only two things Ziro knew for sure at this point: he was going to throw up, and he wasn’t going to look cool doing it.
The way the WURM rattled and squealed as it traversed along the rails made Ziro think twice about his choice to become an Elite Guard. Like a rickety roller coaster, the dubious transport jostled its passengers left and right with each wildly twisting turn of the track. Every so often the tunnel dropped downward, turning Ziro’s stomach against him.
Clutching his armrests and gritting his teeth, Ziro took stock of his crew. Demo was busy at the controls, monitoring the sonar display to ensure the track was clear of obstacles and flipping the occasional switch. The big guy was clearly just glad to be piloting something real for a change – even if its tech was a hair outdated. Nightshade traveled in a tranquil, sleep-like state, seemingly unaware of the chaos around him. It was one of the things Ziro appreciated most about Shade, he was calm under pressure - ever the eye of the hurricane. Streak, on the other hand, was a storm chaser; a thrill seeker. The energetic youth spun his chair in circles as they rattled along, making the most out of the wild ride. There’s something wrong with that kid, Ziro thought.
Then there was Magenta - the wild card. He didn’t know much about her time with the Alpha squad, but anyone that had a falling out with Nitro was okay in his book. Currently, she was cleaning her blaster, making sure it was in proper working order. When she finished she sat back, and stared at Ziro. Her dark eyes were intimidating. It made him nervous, almost as if she could sense his insecurity. The bemused smirk on her face seemed to say, ‘face it, kid, you’re in over your head.’
Ziro dismissed the thought and turned his attention back to the cockpit portholes. The tunnel ahead streamed past in a dizzying blur of amber light. At one point, it opened unexpectedly into a broad underground cavern. The track clung to the ceiling for a short distance, weaving between formations of stalactites and dodging giant pillars of rock. Then, the rail dropped nearly straight down falling nearly three-hundred tails before leveling out alongside the cavern walls. The outer rings, which encased the WURM containers, rotated to accommodate the new alignment. No longer were the tracks overhead, they were running parallel to the cavern walls. The WURM followed the contour of the cavern walls until the tunnel swallowed them up again.
Ziro caught his breath and ventured another glance at Magenta. Her eyes were still fixated on him.
“What?” he asked. Obviously something was on her mind. Magenta shrugged casually and continued to analyze him.
“It’s not nice to stare, you know,” Ziro said, trying to lighten the mood between them.
“I don’t do ’nice’,” Magenta replied, narrowing her eyes slightly. Still, she kept watching Ziro as if she expected him to do something besides quiver and clutch his chair.
Ziro tried to ignore her, but you can only sit for so long with somebody glaring at you before it gets on your nerves. He couldn’t tell if she was just playing with him, or trying to annoy him on purpose. Either way, he’d had enough.
“Would you stop staring at me,” Ziro begged. “It’s freaking me out.”
“Is that a command?” Magenta asked, raising a curious eyebrow.
“It could be,” he said awkwardly. He hadn’t meant to pull rank on her, but it seemed to work. Magenta nodded, mock-saluted and smiled coyly before looking away.
Funny thing was, now that she was no longer looking at him, all Ziro could think about was how to get her attention again. After all, he knew the rest of his team like the back of his hand. As it stood now, there was just a big question mark hanging over her head when he looked at her. Sure, he knew her history with the Alpha’s, but that was only through the rumor mill. He cleared his throat and tried to reengage the conversation.
“Ehem. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t apologize,” she replied coolly. She wasn’t rude, just distant. Like she was keeping herself at arms length from the team.
The WURM car jostled a bit more as it banked to the right. Ziro regained his composure and attempted again.
“So, I was thinking. As long as we’re going to be on the squad together we should probably, you know, get to know a bit about each other.”
Magenta eyed him curiously, raised an eyebrow and said nothing.
“Okay, I’ll go first.” Ziro said. Realizing she wasn’t interested in offering information. But before he could start, Magenta interrupted him with her own detailed interpretation of him.
“Allow me,” she started. “You’re the young commander of a budding Elite squad in training. You’ve got tons of heart, but your instincts…well…stink. Can’t even keep a team together. If you were perfectly honest with yourself (which you rarely are) you’d tell yourself to quit while you were behind. Despite the fact that they are loyal to a fault, you know your squad mates have thought about it a dozen times in the last week too. Shoot, you’ve even had a few quit on you already. If you listened, you’d tell yourself that underdogs don’t win in real life. But you don’t quit, and do you know why?”
She paused a moment. Ziro found himself shaking his head in captivated response even though it was his own story she was telling.
“…because you’ve wanted to be an Elite all your life and the only thing you’ve wanted more was to beat your brother who (by the way) just happens to be the best Elite Guard commanders in the entire Academy. Sure, he’s a grade-A jerk, but he’s really good and that bothers you. So, you do the best you can to NOT be like him. After all, being like him wouldn’t be enough…you have to be better than him to prove anything. Still, no matter how hard you try; you can’t seem to get a break. Then, one day, you magically find yourself on a little pet mission for the Colonel himself. Your big chance is here, but you’re frightened out of your fur, with no clue how you got here and a thousand reasons to doubt yourself. That’s when reality hits you…”
Again, she pauses. She lets the unfinished statement hang in the air like a half-painted wall. Ziro could tell she is baiting him, but try as he might he can’t resist the urge to ask.
“Wh…what is it?” he ventures to ask. Magenta smiles, motions him to lean in closer and half-whispers the answer.
“You don’t even know who you really are.” With that, she leaned back with a content smile and asked, “How did I do?”
Ziro was stunned. She had nailed it, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Close enough, I guess,” he said.
Magenta rolled her eyes and went back to cleaning her blaster a second time. Ziro had an idea.
“Well, since I went first…it’s your turn,” Ziro said.
“My turn?” Magenta asked.
“Yeah, what do I need to know about you?” Ziro asked. He had tricked her. Magenta looked almost impressed. She had underestimated Ziro’s persistence.
“There’s only one thing you need to know about me,” she offered.
“Survival,” Magenta said.
Ziro was lost. “What do you mean?”
“Out there, there’s no room for being nice or making friends. Nice mice get killed. I survive.”
An awkward amount of time passed in silence between them. All the while, Ziro was left with more questions about her than answers. Despite her tough exterior, Magenta was an extraordinary mouse just trying to survive in a world that had not been kind to her.
“Well, you got one thing right,” Ziro said. “I’m not like my brother. Trust me.”
“I believe you,” she replied firmly. “But I don’t trust anyone.”
An alarm sounded from the control panel, interrupting their conversation. Demo’s ears went pale.
“Crumb, that’s bad,” Demo groaned. From the look on Demo’s face things weren’t just bad – they were downright dire. It took a lot to rattle the big mouse, this had him shook up real good.
Ziro’s training took over and he shifting into commander mode. “Status report,” Ziro ordered. The tone of his voice impressed even himself.
“Sonar is detecting a slight gap in the track ahead,” Demo said urgently.
“How slight?” Ziro asked, trying to assess the situation.
“About thirty tails,” Demo responded. He pointed to the screen where a sonic map was being displayed of the terrain ahead. The tunnel widened just as the rail line disappeared. Magenta didn’t look happy, “You call that slight? Don’t they maintain these tracks?”
“Apparently not this one,” Ziro decided, his worst nightmare was coming true. Now, more than ever, he wanted to hurl.
Nightshade had awakened from his slumber and began analyzing the situation, “It appears there has been some kind of cave in. A sink hole perhaps.”
“Well, whatever it is,” Demo determined. “It ain’t going to make for a soft landing! Hang tight, everyone.”
Demo pulled a lever and the transport jolted violently. A shower of sparks trailed behind the WURM as the brakes engaged and clamped down on the rail. The squealing WURM echoed through the tunnel as it approached the inevitable end of the line. Everyone held their breath, eyes glued to the portholes ahead as the transport slowed.
“We’re going to make it. We’re going to make it,” Ziro said, laughing nervously. But his laughter faded almost immediately when he realized they weren’t slowing nearly as quickly as he had hoped. “Oh crumbs, we aren’t going to make it.”
“Hold on to your tails, everyone,” Demo bellowed over the screaming rail. “We’re going over!” The last hundred tails of track slid by in slow motion as they inched their way toward the gap. Ziro held his breath and clinched his eyes. Demo groaned as he pulled on the lever with all his might in a futile attempt to accomplish the impossible. For the first time on the ride, Streak looked genuinely frightened. With wide eyes he screamed as the WURM edged over the final stretch of rail and toppled downward hanging over the void of a massive sinkhole.
For a short while, they dangled in place. The cabin faced straight down into the abyss, suspended by the weight of the cargo hold behind them. Below them, through the portholes, the team could see a glistening surface reflecting in the WURM’s headlights. The squealing of the rails stopped and all fell silent. For the moment, they had escaped death.
“We made it,” Streaked squeaked in disbelief, feeling lucky to be alive. “We didn’t fall.” There was a groan behind them and the cabin lurched forward another ten tails.
“Nobody move,” Ziro commanded.
“I’m not moving, I’m not moving,” Streak said.
Another moment passed in silence.
“Now what?” Demo asked.
“Well, we can’t hang around here forever,” Magenta finally pointed out. “This thing is a deathtrap.”
Right on cue, the cargo hold groaned behind them, as if to let them know it couldn’t hold on much longer. “Demo, how far do you think that pond is below us?” Magenta asked.
“Just over a hundred tails, why?”
“Too far to jump?”
Nightshade frowned. “I wouldn’t’ advise it. We don’t know how deep the pond is, or what lies beneath it.”
“Either way, we’re dead,” Magenta said, stating the obvious.
“Magenta’s right,” Ziro said, “We can’t stay in here. But we can’t just jump either. If we can lower ourselves down maybe we can swing to the side or something.”
“I’ve got plenty of rope over here,” Streak said, pointing to a container of climbing gear that was latched to the side of the cabin.
“Good,” Ziro said. “Now, to do this we’re going to have to work together, as a team. No quick movements…or we all go down, got it?”
Under Ziro’s command, Magenta shot out one of the porthole windows and attached the rope to one of the chairs, lowering it out of the window and down toward the water below. Streak, the youngest and lightest of them all, was chosen to go first. In a twitch, he slung his blaster over his back and shimmied down the rope.
He reached the end of the rope a good five tails above the watery surface below. Just ahead he spotted a ledge of mud, where the water met the edge of the sinkhole. It looked large enough for the entire team to stand on. He pulled a beacon from his belt, lit it and tossed it to the ledge. Then, swinging ever so gently he dropped to the ledge.
“All clear,” he shouted up to the rest of the team.
Magenta went next, sliding gracefully down the rope to safety.
“So far, so good,” Ziro sighed. “You’re next Shade.”
Like a shadow, Nightshade disappeared into the dark abyss. He was with the others in record time. It was Ziro’s turn to go. He swallowed hard as he took hold of the rope.
“I’ll be right behind you,” Demo said, instilling confidence in his teammate.
Ziro lowered himself out into the open air. He was surprised how warm it was out here. There was no breeze at all, nothing to slow him from his descent. Paw over paw, he started down the rope. He was more than halfway when there was another groan from the cargo transport, and a second lurch dropped the WURM and the rope further over the edge. Ziro lost his grip in the process and fell thirty tails into the icy cold water.
Seconds later he emerged, gasping for air and treading water. The water tasted awful, a bitter concoction that smelled of sulfur. He was an expert swimmer, but in full battle gear it was slow going. He made it to the ledge and Nightshade hoisted him up.
“You okay, Commander?” Nightshade asked.
Ziro nodded, and promptly threw up onto Magenta’s boots. His stomach had finally had enough.
“Not cool,” Magenta griped, as Ziro wiped his mouth and tried to apologize. At least now his stomach wasn’t queasy anymore.
With Ziro safely ashore, the others shouted their encouragement to Demo high above. Demo unlatched himself from his chair and crawled toward the porthole. As his weight shifted, so too did the balance of the WURM. There was a slow grinding noise and a loud THUD as the cargo container gave up its last grip on the railing.
“Oh crumbs,” Demo said, as the WURM toppled out and down toward its watery grave below. “Demo!” Streak screamed in horror.
Ziro and the team watched helplessly from the ledge below, as the WURM dropped, end over end, with their beloved friend still trapped inside. With an ear splitting impact, the WURM splashed into the black pool below. The waves from impact sloshed up onto the ledge where the rest of the squad stood in stunned disbelief at what they had just witnessed.
Time passed slowly. The surface of the water sparkled from the WURM’s emergency beacons. But even as the waves began to calm, Ziro’s instincts began to seethe.
“I’m going in,” he said boldly. Ziro hurried to lighten his load. He unstrapped his belt and removed his boots, but before he could dive in, Nightshade took him by the arm.
“Wait,” Nightshade said, his ears alert.
“What are you kidding me, my friend is drowning and you want me to just leave him…”
“He’s my friend too,” Nightshade reminded Ziro, “but there’s something out there. Something in the water. Listen.”
Half a twitch later, Nightshade’s suspicions proved to be true. Streak was the first to spot the movement.
“Look over there,” he shouted excitedly. “It’s…It’s Demo!”
Sure enough, the big mouse had surfaced and was already swimming toward the half sunk transport. How he had miraculously survived the horrifying wreck defied explanation. Everyone was so glad he was alive they didn’t even notice he was nursing a sore arm. Demo hoisted himself up onto the remains of the WURM and collapsed.
“Way to go, big guy!” Streak shouted at the mouse. “I knew you could do it!”
Lying on his back Demo raised his paw in a thumbs up signal. He was exhausted, but happy to be alive.
“If I never pilot a WURM again,” Demo said, between heavy gasps for breath, “it will be too soon.”
Ziro chuckled, it felt good to know Demo was in good spirits. Still, in the back of his mind he knew they had come within a whisker of losing him. There was no doubting it; this was not a game anymore.
All at once, a deep moan echoed through the sinkhole. It was a living sound that seemed to originate deep beneath the surface of the water. The moan reverberated up the sinkhole and echoed in a hauntingly angry tone.
“What was THAT?” Streak gawked.
“Whatever it was,” Nightshade said, “it doesn’t sound good.”
The team scanned the lake for any sign of life. Nothing appeared, but none of them could shake the feeling that they were being watched.
“Demo, are you okay? Can you make it to shore?” Ziro asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “Just a small cut.” The big mouse stood up and took stock of his injury. He had a deep gash on his forearm from the jagged edge of the shattered porthole. With proper treatment, it would heal. It would be his first real battle scar. The thought made him smile with pride.
Ziro shouted back, “See if you can make your way to the back of the cargo transport. It’s a shorter swim from there. And be quick about it, I think we’ve got company.”
Demo nodded and followed orders.
The big mouse stood up and started maneuvering his way toward the back of the transport. He’d only taken two steps when a pair of long, slimy tentacles shot out of the water and hovered over him. The blackish-green limbs swayed hypnotically like cobras before a strike. From where he stood, Ziro could see the undersides of the arm-like appendages were covered in thousands of smaller feelers that wiggled and reached out like boneless fingers in search of something to hold. They were reaching for Demo.
“Hey, keep your paws to yourself,” Demo demanded. He punched the creature as it slid past him. It recoiled in shock and retreated back into the water. “Hmph, that’ll teach him.”
But Demo was wrong. Moments later, the water around the transport began to bubble furiously.
“Get out of there, now,” Ziro commanded.
“Way ahead of you,” Demo replied, mid-leap toward the cargo car.
No sooner had he landed than the slimy tendrils made a second appearance, only this time there were five of them – and they were much bigger. The tentacles wrapped themselves around the front half of the WURM’s cabin and pulled it down toward the unknown depths of the black pool. Luckily, the two halves of the transport separated at the joint, leaving Demo bobbing atop the cargo hold. The monster had claimed half of its prize, but it wasn’t satisfied for long. Even before Demo could gain his footing, the water surrounding him began to churn again.
“Guess I shouldn’ta done that,” Demo said.
Nearly a dozen arms rose out of the darkness, blocking any hope of Demo’s escape. Each of the arms swayed in time to a silent tune and slowly closed in on their prey.
Magenta had seen enough, she opened fire on the creature with her blaster. Every shot was a direct hit, plastering the arms in neon blue plasma. Mere seconds after impact, the arms began to dissolve. An angry groan resounded from the deep.
“Take that,” she spat as the last of the arms sank back into the water. Demo looked relieved, but the moment was short lived. Without warning, a single larger arm rose up behind him. Magenta took the shot with deadly accuracy, but the limp limb fell across the transport and split it in two. In the chaos, Demo disappeared into the water once more.
“Demo, NO!” Ziro shouted again.
The water fell still. Nobody moved. All eyes were on the surface, where Demo was last seen. Everyone, hoping for a second miracle, but knowing it wasn’t likely to be fulfilled.
“He’s going to make it, right?” Streak asked in a rather quite voice. “I mean, he’s not… He can’t be…”
Ziro put his paw on Streak’s shoulder and nodded. There was nothing to be said.
The pool began to churn again, only this time the trail of bubbles began to wander ever so slowly toward the shore. The sight infuriated Ziro. This creature had caused them to crash, and had taken his friend. He loaded his weapon and targeted the line of bubbles waiting for a clear shot. The rest of the team followed suit.
“Come and get some, Pond Scum,” Ziro said, through clenched teeth