CHAPTER 12 - Pestilence
If evil made a sound, this was it. The hum grew steadily louder with each passing second, haunting the ears with its eerie tone then boring its way into Ziro’s skull and threatening to drive the mouse insane. At times he felt the ground itself tremble in anticipation of what was to come. Every instinct told him to run but he froze. Then darkness filled the air.
Ziro turned his fearful eyes skyward and watched as a swarm of enormous flying beetles roared overhead. The squad covered their ears and exchanged nervous glances as they waited for the airborne threat to pass by, but it never did. The deafening roar of the intruders wings stayed near. Too near.
Peering through the treeline, Ziro observed the swarm had come to a hovering stop just above the open field near the Liwan village. By quick count, there appeared to be twenty-five, maybe thirty of the huge beetles.
“No legs,” Nightshade observed. “Must be some kind of mutant breed.”
Until Nightshade had said it, Ziro hadn’t even noticed the missing legs. He’d been too unsettled by the sound and size of the monstrosities to pay any mind to the smaller details. Nightshade had a knack for that sort of thing, it was one of the reasons Ziro loved having him on the team. Without missing a beat, Nightshade activated his visor camera and began capturing valuable footage of the hovering beasts.
All at once, the humming stopped as the beetles retracted their wings in near unison and dropped clumsily out of the air. It was an awkward way to land. They crashed to the earth with little regard for where they landed. Some fell around the perimeter of the town in the tall soft grass, but others landed squarely on Liwan huts - splintering and collapsing them beneath their weight. For the briefest of moments, they remained still and quiet. Then, an all too familiar noise broke the silence.
Click. Click-whir, click-click.
Like a long forgotten echo, the sound from last night’s close encounter made Ziro’s ears turn. He watched intently as six long articulated legs extended from the bellies of the creatures, three on each side, and elevated the bodies up from the ground. When the process was complete, each creature was twice as tall as an average mouse and as long as they were tall. But it wasn’t their size that was most disturbing, it was what they were made of. Riveted exoskeletons of black iron plates shielded their bodies like thick battle armor. It was clear these were no insects, they were mechanical drones of some kind.
Before anyone could utter a word, red eyes glowing with a devilish light appeared just above what looked to be a pair of automatic blasters jutting sharply out of the beetle’s face.
“We have our demons,” Ziro muttered to himself, recognizing the slanted red eyes as the very same he’d been watched by the other night.
“What are they?” Streak whispered to Magenta as he eyed the new arrivals.
Magenta was baffled. She shook her head and watched for a minute more in wide-eyed disbelief as the robotic insects surrounded the village and began to tighten in on it with mechanical precision. “I’ve seen a lot of weird creatures in the colonies, kid, but nothing like this. I thought the Liwans shunned technology.”
“They do,” Nightshade confirmed, “I’m pretty sure these aren’t Liwan-made.”
“Well, if they’re not Liwan, what are they doing here?” Streak asked. It was the question on every one's mind.
In unison, the black monstrosities stood upright on their back two legs. For a moment, they froze in place like a circle of gargoyles surrounding the village staring into the village. Ziro could sense thoughts being processed behind their flashing red eyes. The drones surveyed the scene before them, randomly twitching their antenna from time to time. When they were sure the coast was clear they dropped on all six legs and lumbered toward the massive barrels on the village outskirts. Like clockwork, the first five arrived at the same time and extended a long, sharp, crystal needle from their snouts puncturing the barrels. The tubes darkened as red sap drained from the barrels and into the drones body. When the first five were finished, another five took their place draining the sap reserves. Five at a time, the drones tapped the barrels until they were dry.
“Why, those little sap-suckers,” Demo growled, “they’re nothing but a bunch of thieves. Huh, I ought ta...”
“No!” Ziro commanded, “We don’t do anything.”
“But they’re robbing the Liwans blind, right before our eyes. What kind of heroes stand by while his friend gets robbed?” Demo asked.
“Recon units, that’s who,” Ziro sighed, he wanted more than anything to jump in and save the day, but Black’s orders had been crystal clear. “We were sent here to observe, not engage. Black said we could only fire if fired upon.”
“No wonder the Liwans left their buckets filled to overflowing,” Nightshade said. “They must have known these pests were coming to raid them. It will give them a second harvest to draw from.”
Having drunk their fill the drones rotated in synchronized movements until they faced out toward the treeline. The squad ducked low as the beetles scanned the forest rim for movement. Determining the forest to be clear of danger, the beetles raised their outer wings to reveal a row of circular lumps down each side in their spines.
Ziro fixed his gaze on the drones as ten black spheres ejected from the back of each, falling to the ground with a dull thud. Moments later, the spheres unfolded, transforming into smaller six-legged drones. The eyes of the drones flickered to life as if awakening for the first time, and as they did a curious thing happened. The eyes of the larger drones dimmed. It was almost as if an exchange of power had been passed between the two groups.
When all four hundred little eyes were lit, the mini-drones scurried across the field toward the treeline like ants on a picnic.
“Uh oh, I don’t like the look of that,” Demo said, as the horde of mechanical mites rushed toward them.
“Everybody back!” Ziro ordered, directing his team into full retreat. Keeping out of sight, the team disappeared into the deep woods and burrowed down between a mossy boulder and fallen tree limb. The small drones continued their advance, scuttling through the forest like some kind of black plague. Tiny legs moved with uncanny speed, scaling the ramps and carrying the drones straight to the buckets of sap the Liwans had left behind. Then, just as the larger bugs had done, the mites began draining the sap buckets dry with their own needle noses. They were after every last drop of sap the Liwans had harvested.
Nightshade nudged Ziro, pointing to the trail left behind by the mini drones. The markings definitely matched the ones they had found in the forest earlier. Ziro nodded a silent acknowledgement in return.
As all this was taking place, Magenta happened to spot a rope drop from one of the tree limbs a few dozen tails away. Moments later, a pair of small mice, wearing maple leaf ponchos slid silently down and landed on one of the spiraling ramps. They were no more than a couple of pups, one black with white spots and one chocolate brown, but even from this distance she recognized defiance in their eyes. She knew it all too well from her own childhood, they were determined to cause trouble.
“Ziro,” Magenta whispered, pointing out the pair of young mice. “I think you’d better see this.”
The two pups retrieved a pair of crude stone hatchets they had left atop the tree ramp. Then, scrambling down and dodging from tree to tree, the pups closed in on a trio of thieving drones who were already emptying a series of sap buckets nearby. When the moment was right, the young warriors pounced out from their hiding place and began smashing the bugs to pieces with impressive speed.
Before the first two drones knew what hit them they were reduced to nothing more than a pile of short circuiting components. The third bug had only enough time to fire a single stray shot from the blaster on his nose before he too was silenced by the pups hatchets. The two young mice slapped paws in celebration of their momentary victory. That’s when things began to go horribly wrong.
Somehow, every bot in the forest had sensed the attack. All eyes locked on the hatchet-bearing pups and rushed toward them. The younglings’ faces turned grim as a sudden awareness of what they had done set in. They were outnumbered.
“Treetops, Tal,” the black and white mouse shouted as the horde buzzed toward them. He took off in a rush toward the ramp they had dropped to.
“Not good,” Ziro muttered nervously. He wanted desperately to help but doing so would be a strict violation of orders. For the first time in his life the thought of being an Elite didn’t sound so awesome. It had never occurred to him that he might have to actually watch something like this unfold from the sidelines. And these poor victims were only pups.
“Toli! Don’t leave me,” the brown mouse squealed as he chased after his pal. A few steps later he tripped on a stone and tumbled to the ground. “Toli,” he shouted again helplessly.
The black and white mouse spun around but it was too late, a dozen of the wretched creatures were already blocking his path. Trembling, the brown pup got back on his feet and backed against a nearby tree with nowhere else to go. The beetles that surrounded him began hissing and jabbing forward with their needles. Tal swung his hatchet at them to keep the bugs at bay while he desperately searched for an escape. There was none to be found.
Demo couldn’t take it anymore, “Hey bug brains,” he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Chase this!”
Before Ziro could object, Demo used the strength of his mechanical suit to pick up small boulder the width of his shoulders and hurled it at the swarm. The stone hit the ground and rolled smack dab through the middle of the drones crunching a good number in its path. In unison, the beetles froze and began searching for the source of the new attack. Sensing his chance, young Toli made a mad dash safely through the swarm to the tree he had descended from earlier. Tal was already waiting for him at the base of the ramp.
“What are you doing, Demo!” Ziro demanded.
“Bowling,” Demo said with a grin, “What does it look like?”
“But our orders were not to...” Ziro started, before Demo cut him off.
“Ease up, Black never said anything about throwing boulders, did he? He only said not to fire..” Demo paused and looked back at the enemy bugs; they had finally spotted him. Miniature guns began popping out of the backs of the beetles, firing red plasma blasts at the squad in retaliation. “...Unless fired upon!” His plan had worked. The squad was now under attack and free to engage.
“Now let’s kill us some beetles!” Demo shouted.
Ziro watched in shock for a twitch as Demo bolted recklessly into the fray. The armor of the XR suit flashed as it deflected the miniature blasters of the bugs. With his guns blazing, Demo took on the horde. Each time a bug was hit, it burst into a small explosion sending a plume of smoke skyward.
Shaking himself back into action, Ziro moved into command mode. “Let’s back him up, team! Don’t give them a clear shot!”
Nightshade moved deftly to flank Demo.
In impressive strategy, the drones started breaking into formations of five, moving to isolate and engage each of their attackers. One formation broke away to finish off the matter of the renegade Liwan pups.
Magenta steadied her blaster on a fallen log and took aim. She did her best to pick off bugs one a time splitting her shots between the pups’ battle and Demo’s, but with a sore shoulder her accuracy was less than perfect. Ziro and Streak joined in the battle, taking twice as many shots and hitting half as many as the wounded Magenta could. Soon, the drones were too close to the pups to shoot anymore.
“Somebody get those pups out of there!” she barked.
Streak didn’t have to be asked twice. He sprung into action rushing two levels up the tree ramp before he encountered the first batch of beetles. They spun around and started firing at Streak, sending him ducking for cover behind a cluster of barrels stacked near the tree. A bucket of sap directly over Streak’s head began swaying and dripping between Streak’s ears, covering his perfectly groomed fur in sticky red goo. Streak was furious. Arming his blaster, he spun out from the barrels firing five rounds at the drones. On his fifth shot he connected with one which exploded on impact. He hadn’t planned it but the blast resulted in an entire section of the ramp being blown to bits sending bugs flying everywhere.
A lone bug clung to the edge of the destroyed ramp scrambling to find its footing once more. Streak kicked it over the ledge and watched as the beetle tumbled down splashing into a bucket of sap hanging one level below.
Streak jumped across the gap and circled up another level of the ramp where he found the two pups leaping in desperation for the rope which was just out of reach.
“Hang tight, kiddos,” Streak said as he approached the frightened pair. “Name’s Streak, and I’m here to help you.”
The two said nothing, they huddled closely and trembled. They had never seen a mouse dressed like Streak before. Streak lowered his blaster in hopes of earning their trust. He extended his empty paws and leaned forward to help lift one of the two mice to the rope. As he did, Streak spotted a pair of red lights reflected in the pup’s eyes. He spun around just in time to find himself face to face with a drone perched atop a barrel. It raised it’s blaster and aimed square between his eyes. Streak saw the tip of the blaster glow red and then...BLAM! The drone exploded in place. He looked out across the forest and saw Magenta’s blaster raised over the fallen tree. She had saved him with one shot. Streak gasped in relief.
All at once the battlefield fell silent. The drones, responding to a silent signal turned in unison, retreated out of the forest, scurried across the field and climbed back up into their nesting holes in the backs of the larger drones. When they were all in place the eyes of the beetle carriers flickered to life once more, the black beasts beat their wings and took to the sky with a loud hum.
Just like that, as quickly as the trouble had come, it was gone.
“Well, that was weird,” Demo said bluntly, lowering his weapons and surveying the smouldering battlefield. Partial remains of bug bots were scattered across the forest floor. At his feet a loose head lay in the mud. The wires in its neck were still sparking and a dim light flickering behind its red eyes. Demo stomped on it for good measure. “So, did we win?”
Ziro stepped out from the ravine and eyed the scene with Nightshade and Magenta.
“Well, no one got killed...I’d say we’re getting better,” Ziro offered.
“Let’s hope the Liwans share our optimism,” Nightshade explained, “we’ve made quite a mess out of their harvest, I’m afraid.” He was right. Buckets and barrels were strewn all over the ground and there was sap spilled everywhere. In the end it was highly unlikely they had managed to save any of the harvest. If anything, their blasters had only managed to cause more damage than they had saved.
“Maybe they won’t notice,” Demo suggested.
Streak found his way back to the squad with the two pups following at a safe distance. Red sap matted his fur and dripping down his face. Upon first glance it looked every bit like blood.
“What happened to your head?” Magenta asked, her voice full of concern.
“I’m fine,” Streak said, momentarily enjoying the attention Magenta gave him. “It’s nothing really, just a sap wound.” He ran his claws through his fur to prove the point. His fur stood out every which direction. Magenta chuckled at the sight.
“You look like a hedgehog,” she laughed. Streak didn’t look to happy.
“Yeah, real funny,” he said dryly. “So what do we do with these two?” He asked, changing the subject and thumbing a claw back at Tal and Tomi behind him. “No sign of their parents yet and they aren’t exactly talking much at the moment.”
“Because you’re fur is probably freaking them out, Spike,” Magenta said.
“I’d like to see you try,” Streak said, trying to fix his fur a second time. It was no use, the sap continued to harden in his fur.
Magenta hunched down until she was at eye level with the two stray pups. She felt a kindred spirit with the little ones. She too had been forced to fend for herself as a child. She had started more fights than she would ever admit to, and had been in over her head more than once.
“You know, that was a very brave thing you two did.” She said. “Those bugs didn’t ever stand a chance. You had them running scared.”
“Are...” the smallest started to ask, “Are you here to take our sap too?”
The question caught Magenta off guard until she realized how much like the beetles they must look to these little ones. They had probably never seen blasters or mech suits until today. “Oh no, I’m a friend. This is just armor to help protect us, see. I’m a mouse like you. My name’s Magenta and these are my friends Ziro, Demo, Nightshade and...Streak. We wouldn’t dream of trying to steal sap from a couple of strong guys like you. We might get our heads bashed in.”
The little mouse started to chuckle.
“So, where are your parents, kids?” Streak asked, a little too boldly. The pups eyed him warily and started to clam up a bit. Magenta shot a look of death his way. Streak was confused. “What did I say?”
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Magenta offered. “He’s a bit of a dope. If you don’t want to tell us you don’t have to. You two are tough enough to handle this forest on your own. We just wanted to make sure you were safe, that’s all.”
Toli, the older of the two pups, puffed his chest out proudly. “That’s what I’ve been telling mom, but she doesn’t believe me. She doesn’t think we’re strong enough to fight the Pestilence on our own. But you guys think so, right?”
Before an answer could be given, rope vines dropped from the trees on all sides of the squad. Several dozen mice, all of them women, covered in mossy camouflage and armed with primitive spears, slid down to surround Ziro and his team. It was the Liwans and they didn’t look too happy.
Surrounded by Liwan spearheads, Ziro ordered his team to drop their weapons.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Streak whispered to Ziro as a particularly aggressive mouse jabbed at him with a stick. Being the shortest mouse on the squad, Streak generally looked up to everyone - but all of these mice were a full head taller than even Nightshade. Only Demo stood above the crowd and that was mostly because of his suit. Streak couldn’t help but feel intimidated. The last thing he wanted to do was release his weapon.
“Just do it. We didn’t come here to make enemies with them.” Ziro answered, dropping his weapon and raising his paws in surrender.
“Yeah well they aren’t exactly acting friendly either,” Streak replied, dropping his weapon.
Disarmed and completely at the mercy of the Liwan people, Ziro offered an introduction.
“My name is Ziro and this is my squad. We are Mech Mice Guards sent to investigate...”
A tall, slender mouse wearing a scarlet hooded cape stepped forward and cut Ziro off with her raised paw. Like the other Liwans she was a spotted mouse. Her face was half covered by a large black mark, the other half was white. Her glossy black eyes were keen and intelligent as she glanced over the squad.
“We know who you are,” she said with a mysteriously sombre voice, “we’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Then, she turned to her people, raised her arms skyward and shouted at the top of her lungs. “Behold, the Five have come at last!”