CHAPTER 16 - Guardian in the Deep
The hive turned out to be easier to find than quills on a porcupine. As a matter of fact, it looked like one too.
A series of black smoke stacks jutted out from a rocky landscape, belching thick smoke skyward from somewhere deep within their bellies. As the team neared the unusual monoliths, Ziro couldn’t help but wonder how something this big had gone undiscovered by the Burrow for so long. It would seem hard to miss, yet here it was surrounded by an open patch of jagged rocks and spattering of spindly trees that looked dead.
“No visible entries,” Nightshade deducted, having scanned the fortress with his binoculars. “How do we find our way inside?”
“I’ll tell you how we do it,” Black grunted impatiently. Without warning, he kicked the sap bucket out from Ziro’s grasp. It flew through the air and landed with a cracking crash, bouncing along the stony ground and spilling its sticky red goop all over. When at last the bucket came to a rolling stop, the eyes of the miniature drone inside flashed to life. In seconds, the critter scurried desperately to freedom, making a beeline for the black hive.
“That’s called using your instincts,” Black explained to Ziro, “You should try it sometime. Now are we going to follow that thing or not?”
Ziro shook his head with admiration. He had to hand it to the old shrew, his techniques weren’t exactly protocol, but they were effective. He waved Demo, Streak and Nightshade forward and started after the speedy little beetle as it weaved through the rugged terrain between them and the massive hive. Only a few hundred tails further they came to the gaping mouth of a ravenous cavern. The drone disappeared into the shadows of the cave.
“Clever,” Nightshade said, “A subterranean entrance.”
“Well, I guess this is it then. If anyone wants to back out, now would be the time.” Ziro offered. “There’s bound to be a whole lot of bugs in there and chances are, we won’t come out alive.”
As expected nobody accepted the offer.
“Nah,” Demo explained, “Squishing bugs is as good a way to die as any.”
“As ready as ever, Chief,” Streak replied “As far as I can tell, Mission One is still incomplete.”
Nightshade nodded in silent agreement.
Ziro smiled, “Ears up mice!”
“Ears up,” they grunted in unison. Even Black got caught up in the moment and joined the chant. It brought back good memories of the old days. He smiled to himself. It felt good to be part of a squad again. Even if it was a bunch of misfits. He was back in action.
With that, the squad of five disappeared into the belly of the beast.
The throat of the cave was wet and dark, the mice had to activate their field lights to keep from tripping over the uneven ground. Step by nervous step they made their way deeper and deeper into the underground, blasters at the ready. The beetle guide had long since disappeared in the darkness. They were navigating on Black’s instincts now. Each time the tunnel branched off, the squad would defer to Black. He sniffed the air and waved them onward in one direction or another.
“How do you know where you’re going?” Streak ventured to ask.
Black grunted. “Easy. I always take the high road.”
“Because in my experience, boy, if you want answers, you always go to the top.”
They must have been nearly a thousand tails deep into the tunnel when they came upon an eerie sight none of them would ever come to forget. At first, the tunnel walls started to take on a ghostly appearance, glowing dimly in the darkness as they approached. It was a spotted effect at first, but the further they went the more the splashes of color began to merge together until nearly all parts of the tunnel seemed to be made of some phantom material.
Ziro placed his paw against one of the walls, half expecting his reach to pass right through the ghostly walls. It was only stone. Ziro was confused.
“It appears to be blaster plasma,” Nightshade explained. “The marks of a recent firefight. They haven’t faded completely yet.”
“Wow,” Streak remarked, “must have been an insane fight to plaster the walls with that many shots.”
“Do you think it was Alpha?” Demo wondered.
“More than likely,” Ziro deduced. “The question now is, what they were fighting?”
A loud clicking sound echoed through the cavern. It was impossible to tell if it came from ahead or behind them. Frightened, the mice gathered into formation and continued cautiously down the neon coated hall. Glancing nervously over his shoulder Streak followed the squad deeper into the hive. It was a mistake he would almost regret.
“Watch your step!” Ziro shouted, grabbing hold of his pack before the young mouse could slip over the ledge of a large hole in the ground. It was easy to miss in the odd lighting of the tunnel.
“Thanks, Chief,” Streak gasped as he watched a few loose pebbles tumble down into the pit. “I owe you one.”
“Look alive everyone, this place is riddled with holes, and who knows what may lie inside them,” Ziro explained as he looked ahead. Sure enough, the walls and floor were punctured in more than a dozen places at least.
“Commander,” Nightshade said, pointing to a lifeless lump on the floor ahead of them.
“I see it,” Ziro replied, but recognizing the shape immediately, he wished he hadn’t.
Lying in the center of the tunnel, surrounded by a particularly dense coat of plasma were three blackened mice corpses wearing Mech Mice battle gear, one of them torn completely in half. Streak gasped and covered his eyes.
“Is that...?” Streak started to ask, not wanting to finish the thought.
“Alpha,” Black answered. “Or at least what’s left of them.”
It was impossible to tell who was who from what little remained of the mice. Ziro could only hope that Magenta hadn’t been one of the casualties of war. The squad split up and searched the remains for any personal effects in attempts of identifying the unfortunate souls. Something silver glistened near one of the bodies - a knife. Ziro silently prayed it wasn’t what he thought it was, but the closer he got the more his worst fears were confirmed. There, on the side of the blade, running up the spine was a vine of flowers etched into the stainless steel.
Tears formed in Ziro’s eyes and a lump the size of his heart began to form in his throat. He couldn’t think. Everything went numb.
With trembling paws, he lifted the knife from the rubble.
“Oh Magenta,” he whispered. Even though she had abandoned them back in Liwa, Ziro wanted desperately to believe things would be different someday.
“Whatcha got there, Chief...” Streak asked as he approached Ziro. No answer was needed. Ziro just held the knife up and everyone knew.
“Oh, no,” Demo said sadly. “Not Mags.”
She was never officially a member of the squad, but every one of them felt the same way. Like they’d lost one of their own. Only this time, it wasn’t a simulation...or a transfer to another squad...it was death.
“Looks like she put up a fight before it was over,” Nightshade noticed, lifting a large black metallic leg from the ground. It was nearly as tall as he was. Whatever it was that had attacked the Alpha squad was not a small creature.
“Sir,” Demo called out from one of the nearby corpses. “There’s a hologram record on this wrist communicator dated one hour ago.”
“Play it,” Black insisted. Demo pressed a button on the communicator and Ragtail’s last communication was projected just above his limp wrist. He was standing in the darkness of the tunnel trying his best to remain calm as an intense battle raged in the tunnel behind him. Flashes of blaster fire lit up the scene, silhouetting the squad member like a strobe light in a night club.
“This is Ragtail of Alpha squad to Burrow Command. We are under attack, and heavily wounded. Our enemy is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Like some kind of massive robot. We can’t hold it off much longer. I repeat...under heavy attack. We need reinforcements. Our coordinates are...”
The poor mouse never got a chance to finish his report. The communication died when a giant multi-segmented creature rose out of the ground behind him and took him down. The only thing visible on the screen before it went black was a pair of pincher jaws clicking loudly and two bright red eyes. Then, silence.
Everyone stood in stunned silence until the clicking sound repeated in the tunnels around them, this time closer than before.
“We can’t stay here,” Black insisted. “They died an honorable death, but it’s one we will share if we don’t keep moving.”
Ziro nodded. He knew the Colonel was right. There would be time to mourn their friends, but now was not the time. He tucked Magenta’s blade into his boot and raised his blaster. It was time to fight.
But even before they could take another step, a pair of massive red eyes rose out of one of the holes in the ground a few dozen tails ahead of where they stood, hovering in the darkness like some kind of invisible predator. It spotted the intruders and roared a furious mechanical groan that would forever be etched in the ears of those who heard it.
“Fire everything you’ve got!” Ziro shouted out of sheer desperation, but his command was drowned out by the blasters of his squad already targeted on the beast. The slithering metal creature moved quickly, dodging the plasma fire easily by winding itself around the circumference of the tunnel. It was long, black, covered in legs and approaching quickly. No matter how many shots they fired it always seemed to find away to avoid them. Ziro had never seen anything like it.
For now, the squad’s blaster shots kept the enemy on the move, but they wouldn’t keep it away for long. Eventually they would overheat and they would be sitting ducks.
“Hey Demo, what do you got for me?” Ziro shouted frantically.
“Way ahead of you,” the big mouse replied. “Everybody down!” With the press of a button Demo launched two mini-rockets at the beast. A twisting trail of blue light drifted behind the warheads as they closed in on the demonic centipede. The creature howled at the sight, curled back around the ceiling and disappeared into one of the holes before the rockets exploded against the tunnel wall. The impact of the explosion shook the entire tunnel and caused bits of dirt and rock to fall on everyone.
The squad steadied themselves as the rumbling subsided.
“Man, that bug is quick,” Demo griped.
“Yeah well, let’s not try that again,” Streak explained. “Unless we want to bring the whole place down on ourselves.”
“You got a better plan?”
There was not going to be time to formulate another plan. The ugly head of the creature shot out from a hole directly above Ziro barring two quivering pincher fangs on either side of what must have been it’s mouth. A glowing orange liquid was rushing up from deep within it’s throat.
“Run!” Ziro yelled as he dove to one side.
An instant later, a beam of orange light spewed from its mouth, barely missing the scattering mice and splattering the tunnel behind them with an orange goo that quickly erupted into flame. The goo spread across the floor bringing the fire with it, blocking off any potential escape path behind them.
“Oh, now that’s cool,” Demo shouted as he raised his blaster to the retreating bug overhead.
“Blast it! We’re cut off!” Black said angrily. “Commander, finish that bug off before it finishes us!”
“How?” Ziro panted, looking out at the countless holes in front of them. “It could come up anywhere. By the time we see it, it’s too late to get a clear shot!”
“Then everyone target a hole and maybe one of us gets lucky.”
“Aw crumbs!” Streak moaned. “My blaster’s overheated!”
Ziro glanced down at his own blaster - it’s temperature gauge was nearly red as well. They wouldn’t have many shots remaining. He turned to Demo. “What do you have left?”
Demo lifted his suit’s forearm and checked the inventory read-out, “One missile, two proxy mines, and... five impact grenades. But the three second delay is too slow for catching up with that speed demon.”
“Speed demon, huh?” Streak said. He dropped his disabled blaster and looked to Demo. “Toss me one of those grenades, buddy. I think I have a way to beat it.”
“Just one?” Demo asked, tossing it over.
“Wait, Streak! Don’t rush into anything...” Ziro began to protest. But the scratching noises coming from the holes stole everyone’s attention away. The creature was coming back.
“You gotta trust me, Chief.” Streak said urgently, waiting for his commander’s approval. “I can do this.”
Ziro looked over at the younger mouse. Eager as he was, Streak was still waiting for his orders this time. Hard as it was, Ziro instinctively knew he could trust him.
“We’ll cover you,” Ziro said, nodding his approval.
Streak didn’t waste any time bolting out across the holes to the other side.
“You heard him,” Black shouted. The squad raised their blasters and targeted random holes in every direction.
A second later the creature erupted from the hole Nightshade had guessed at. The slender mouse managed to get off a single shot before the fiery stream chased him off. If not for the spray of fire, Nightshade’s shot might have found it’s mark. Instead, the plasma evaporated in the stream. Before any of the others could score shots of their own, the beast was gone. Surprisingly, so was Streak.
“Buddy!” Demo yelled in a panic. “Where are you?”
The only sound was the crackling fire and distant scratching of metallic legs on rock. The creature was coming back.
“Re-target!” Ziro commanded, though he was admittedly as worried as Demo. Where did Streak get off to?
A light rain of dust fell from the holes above them. Blasters retrained on the ceiling openings. Something was going on up there.
Suddenly a voice shouted from above. “Whoa! Take cover! Take cover!” A split second later Ziro watched in surprise through his Blaster’s crosshairs as Streak came flying out of his targeted hole at record speed.
“GET DOWN!” Streak screamed, racing past Demo and Ziro to the ground.
The angry head of the beast came roaring out of the tunnel hot on Streak’s tail, it’s mouth glowing hotter than ever before. The molten goo rushed up and out at the mice. But the moment it reached top of the throat, something flashed behind the robotic beasts eyes. Then the entire length of the beast burst into flame and exploded in spectacular fashion.
Chunks of rock and dirt crumbled down around the defenseless mice. As quickly as it started, it ended; with think clouds of dust choking out the flames, leaving any survivors in total darkness.
“Everyone... kak... alright?” Ziro managed to cough out.
Beams of light from each member’s field lights began dancing faintly through the settling dust as they started picking themselves up. One by one the others checked in.
“Affirmative. No major damage here.”
“BOOM! ha ha! Now THAT’S making use of the juice!”
“Thanks, big guy. All good here, Chief.”
Ziro sighed in relief to hear his team’s voices. Until he remembered the Colonel.
“Colonel?” Ziro called out in the shadows and rubble. “Are you alright, Colonel?” He stumbled forward over a rock and swept the floor with his light, searching for any sign of the shrew. The others quickly quieted down and aided in the search. All was silent but for the occasional trickle of debris settling. Then they heard it, a muffled moan.
“Over here,” Ziro called out to the others as he scrambled toward the groan. His light soon flashed across a pair of sharp fangs and dim red eyes causing him to nearly jumped out of his fur. On second look, he saw the wisps of smoke rising from the charred, disembodied head. It was clearly dead. At least he thought so until it groaned again.
“Uuuuuuh. My head,” the head seemed to say. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Colonel?” Ziro asked tentatively.
“No, I’m a talking, disembodied bug head,” the voice growled back. “For squeaking out loud, of course it’s me! Now will somebody get this blasted tin can off of me?”
Demo strode quickly over to the metal head and, using his XR suit’s strength, lifted the head rather easily. While the others rushed in to help Colonel Black up, Demo tossed the damaged head aside, banging it loudly against a rock.
“Careful you big oaf!,” Black growled, his voice in it’s full, unaltered glory. “It’ll make a fine trophy for my desk, if you don’t completely destroy it first.” He brushed the dust from his classic Elite jumpsuit and frowned at the discovery of a new hole in it’s sleeve. He sighed contentedly. It felt good to be in action again...to have marks and scars to show for it.
“Well then,” the Colonel said once he had straightened his hat, “What are we waiting for?”
It didn’t take long for the squad to determine that they wouldn’t be completing their journey through the upper tunnel. The site of the centi-beast’s explosion was completely caved in, creating an impassible wall. Their only option was to retrace their steps back to the last fork and seek entrance to the Hive from one of the lower tunnels. To their surprise and great relief, this path was unguarded.
Nightshade worked quickly from the front as scout, allowing the squad to move through the winding tunnel at a near-jogging pace. It almost came as a surprise when he finally signaled for them to stop and shut off their field lights. The soft red glow of another light lit the tunnel up ahead.
Sliding silently forward, Nightshade slowly moved in for a closer look at what enemy forces awaited them up around the bend. Soon he was out of sight of the squad.
Everyone held their breath, waiting for Nightshade’s signal.
Ziro’s communicator blipped. “All clear. We appear to have reached a door-lock.”
The team moved quickly to join Nightshade. The circular, black metal door was sealed in a tight spiral. A single light hung from the ceiling, bathing them all in red.
“No detectible access panel,” Nightshade said, tracing the edges with his field light. “This may prove difficult to crack.”
“Want me to blast it?” Demo asked.
Streak looked at him sideways, “And bring another tunnel down on us? No thanks.”
“There’s got to be a way in,” Ziro said. “Perhaps a trigger, or scanner, or -”
“A microphone,” Nightshade said triumphantly. “Look!”
To the untrained eye it was only a tiny hole left from a missing rivet. But Nightshade knew his tech.
“So, what?” Streak asked, “Are we supposed to say a secret password or something?”
“Huh, good luck speaking beetle,” Demo said.
“Demo is correct,” Nightshade added thoughtfully, “This door is likely keyed to recognize an auditory signal they are capable of emitting.”
An idea suddenly hit Ziro. He felt a bit foolish, but he felt compelled to try. Stepping forward nearer the microphone he cleared his throat and began to hum.
The others caught on quickly and joined in - even the Colonel. Try as they might, none of their efforts triggered any response from the door.
“I remember it being a bit lower, Chief,” Demo said. “Kinda like this.” He took a deep breath.
A low tone started to swell in the tunnel, reverberating all around them. Immediately the red light above them began to blink on and off.
“Don’t stop,” Ziro encouraged. “Keep it up, Demo. I think you’ve nailed it!”
“Uh Chief,” Demo said, his face pale. “That’s not me.”
Even as he spoke, the sound was growing louder. The light was flickering faster now - then suddenly went black.
“Up against the walls!” Ziro commanded, and not a moment too soon.
The door-lock spun open just as a trio of flying beetles stormed up. They zipped past the entrance so fast they never noticed the Mech Mice squad plastered awkwardly against the tunnel walls. As soon as they were by, Ziro made a mad dash for the door.
“Move! Move!” he commanded. Streak was naturally the first through, dragging the Colonel with him. Demo lumbered through behind Nightshade. They had both barely cleared the doorway when, without warning, the doors began spiraling closed. There was no time to second guess. Ziro launched himself into a flying dive, narrowly making it through the center before it snapped shut.
He rolled to a stop and quickly scrambled over to where the squad was taking cover behind a stack of crates.
“That was too close,” Ziro said between breaths. He glanced around at their new, dimly lit surroundings.
Metal beams connecting in a honeycomb pattern, formed a massive domed room that disappeared into shadows high above them. Sounds of busy machinery echoed off the barren walls.
“‘Shade. Get me eyes on what’s out there,” Ziro directed.
Nightshade nodded, and disappeared around the crates. With his cloaking enabled, he could get the best view.
“Commander,” Nightshade’s voice whispered across the communicator. “I... it’s... you’re going to need see this yourselves.”
Colonel Black and Ziro exchanged worried stares. Nightshade was not one to get rattled easily. Ziro checked his blaster, then motioned the others to follow as he carefully led them over to Nightshade’s position. When they arrived, they all found themselves lowering their weapons and staring in disbelief at the sight.
Except for a few bright lights stationed on poles, most of the cavernous room was lit by fires set beneath three giant copper vats, some fifteen or twenty tails high. Gears and pistons cranked and pumped in rhythmic time. Steam hissed from the tangle of pipes weaving their ways between vats and out to the far reaches of the room, occasionally dripping a sticky, brown liquid. And crawling over and around it all was the familiar forms of the mechanical beetles.
But that wasn’t what captured their attention the most. No. Every squad member’s eye instead was fixed on the stooped creatures moving slowly among the enemy bugs... Mice. Liwan mice. At least, if they could still be called that.
“No,” Colonel Black said quietly in stunned disbelief. “It’s happening again.”