CHAPTER 17 - A Sticky Situation
Happening again? Ziro found it hard to believe anyone had ever seen what he was seeing before.
The Liwan men were not merely captives, or even slaves. They were walking experiments.
Tight metal collars had been fitted around their necks. Out of the collars a metal plate extended up and over between their ears, ending in a wide diamond shape at the browline. Black lenses hung from either side, hiding their eyes. A row of red lights ran the length of the skull plate, rising and falling as some kind of level readout.
Most shocking of all were the “alterations” many of them had received. Some had mechanical arms or legs, others were fitted with larger, more unusual components extending from units attached to their backs. All worked steadily at their assigned tasks on the factory floor. Their unkempt fur was drenched in sweat and matted with globs of sticky red sap.
“Cybernetic slaves,” Nightshade solemnly observed.
Ziro rubbed his own arm, imagining the horror of having it replaced. Shuddering, he turned to Black, “You said you’ve seen this before? What exactly are we dealing with here, Colonel?”
“Verminion,” Black replied darkly. “I’d bet my tail on it.”
Demo scratched his head and said, “Uh... but...isn’t he dead?”
“Of course he’s dead. My squad, Venom, made sure of it when we got the chance,” Black said. “Almost forty seasons ago.”
Streak gawked. “Then how could he still be alive?” He quickly added, “I mean, ‘cause you killed him... Not ‘cause you’re both so old.”
The Colonel narrowed his eyes at the young mouse, scrunching his bushy eyebrows low.
“Evil never really dies,” Black replied, deep in thought. “It just takes new form. The meshing of mouse with machine was Verminion’s obsession. The remnant of the Dark Union seems to be continuing his twisted schemes.”
Ziro’s squad had learned about Verminion and the Dark Union at the Academy, but most mice considered it to be the stuff of spook stories. Legends of war - not real. Certainly not the living nightmare they were witnessing now.
“Commander,” Nightshade said. “I’ve got visuals on the transport beetles that passed us in the tunnel.” He pointed through the crates to a loading dock along the right wall of the room. A row of ten or more of the large flying beetle units stood in a neat line. One of the Liwan slaves was helping the recent arrivals back into their designated positions.
Once they were in place, the large beetle units began folding their legs to lower themselves to the ground. Their back wing shields raised to allow the smaller harvester units to methodically disengage from their compartments and exit; filing past the Liwan slave who scanned them for inventory count. After being counted, the units marched in line to a pump station that extracted their stolen sap.
When the process completed, Ziro’s squad watched in amazement as the harvester beetles set course for the Hive walls. Soon they were scaling up and across the weave of support beams on the walls and ceiling, sorting themselves into empty honeycomb shaped cells. Once settled, the bugs lights shut off. It was then that everyone realized that the entire ceiling was covered with hundreds of the hibernating bug bots.
Streak breathed out a low whistle. “I sure hope they take long naps.”
Ziro couldn’t agree more. But he couldn’t let that distract him. He looked out across the strange facility and turned to Nightshade. “What do you see in all this?”
The observant mouse cleared his throat and ran down the checklist of facts, motioning to supporting evidence. “Stolen sap. Heated vats. Precision temperature gauges and...” he pointed to the lettering painted on one of the nearby crates and read, “Boiling Chips. Crucial to prevent the sap from becoming superheated and boiling over. Operated by Liwan sap farmers. Implied alliance with ‘Dark Union’.” He nodded back to the insignia painted across the door lock. “It is my deduction that we are looking at a state-of-the-art sap refinery.”
“A sap refinery?” Colonel Black huffed. “Doesn’t sound like the kind of deal Vermion would be bothering with. I don’t get it.”
“Even evil’s got to eat,” Demo stated plainly. “And it goes great on walnut bread.”
“Whoa! Check that out, guys,” Streak said, pointing out to one of the glass pipes at the top of a vat. It was starting to glow a brilliant yellow. Golden liquid was slowly rising through it. A Liwan standing watch on a platform had noticed it too. He waved his arms to workers below, then hurried over and tapped on the glass, eyeing the contents carefully through his shaded goggles. Satisfied with what he’d seen, the mouse gripped a nozzle wheel and began turning it slowly. Steam sprayed around him as the yellow liquid sloshed it’s way down the length of pipe to where another group of workers waited.
Nightshade focused his binoculars on the distant assembly, “Fascinating. Looks like metal molds; a six-sided design.”
As the liquid poured out of the pipes, a mouse stationed at each mold began stirring the contents with slotted paddles. A larger mouse with a tank mounted to his back stepped forward and squirted a blood-red liquid into the mixes. When the concoction had just about reached the tops of the molds, the first team of mice stepped back to let another team, wearing vapor masks and cooling tanks, rush forward and blast the sides of the molds with their frosty steam.
“Clear the way,” said one of the Liwans with a pair of high-arching pincher arms extending from his back. In their grip he was holding a round, metal object. Stepping forward, he slowly lowered the item onto the surface of the cooling liquid, then stepped back.
“Hey, why are they putting a beetle bot into the sap?” Demo said.
“It is curious,” Nightshade confirmed. “This may pose a much more serious problem.”
“I know. That’s gonna totally ruin the flavor.”
Nightshade ignored the comment and began feverishly typing on his communicator. He’d already guessed what would happen next.
“The molds are combining,” Ziro noted, watching as the Liwans worked crankshafts to rotate both molds until they faced each other, then slid on tracks to compress together. It took some effort and a few mice with special pry bar attachments to get the molds to separate. When they did, a large sap brick rolled out. The freezer mice blasted it again with a final round of chill. When they had finished, the liquid’s original golden color had dulled to the foggy amber. A red light blinked silently from within it’s core, giving the eerie effect of a heartbeat. A Liwan pointed a device at the light and it stopped beating.
“Hate to tell you, Big Guy, but that’s no snack,” Streak said to Demo.
“No,” Nightshade interjected, looking up from his calculations, “It’s a bomb.”
“Now that sounds more like Verminion,” Black said.
Streak glanced nervously at the brick stack he was crouched next to and leaned back.
“Whoa momma!” Demo exclaimed, suddenly much more interested in the bricks, “Exploding chow. How big a blast are we talking?”
“Records have shown that in some cases, entire trees have been known to explode when their sap was struck by lightning. I suspect, with refining, it’d be possible to enhance sap’s natural volatility three-fold... possibly more.”
Ziro did a quick count of bricks he could see stacked throughout the facility. “There must be at least a thousand of these stored in here.” Nobody wanted to ask what kind of damage that might translate to. Bottom-line, they were deadly.
Black furrowed his brow. “I only know two reasons to make this many bombs,” he said ominously. “Starting wars... and ending them.”
“We’ve got to warn Burrow Command,” Ziro said.
Black shook his head. “Hatchet can’t be trusted. I still have my suspicions about him. For all we know, he’s the one behind this operation.”
Ziro considered the dilemma then turned to Nightshade. “Then we need to reach someone we can trust. Any chance you could sneak a message straight to Axel and Enzo?”
“Bypassing the central switchboard? Hmmm... there’s a chance.” Nightshade replied. “One problem. All outgoing communications have been jammed ever since we got here.”
“Keep trying,” Ziro urged. “As for the rest of us, we need to find a way to shut this sweat shop down without blowing everyone up in the process.” He cast a warning look at Demo.
“Got it. No boom in the room. So what’s our plan?”
“Get down!” Nightshade hissed, dropping flat to the ground. No one had to ask why. By now, everyone could hear the growing hum coming from the tunnel door. A second later, the door spun open and a lone transport beetle flew in to join the others.
Peeking out from their hiding spot, Nightshade watched as the harvester units disembarked and marched to unload their stolen liquid, just as the previous arrivals had. But something about the way the Liwan inventory controller was acting caught his eye. When Nightshade glanced back to the transport beetle he noticed that two of it’s harvester units seemed to be stuck inside their compartments.
“Odd,” Nightshade said, zooming in with his binoculars on the peculiar malfunctioned units. “Those don’t look like...”
Before he could finish saying it, two furry brown balls suddenly sprouted arms and popped out of their holes, leaping away from the transport, flashing tiny spears. The Liwan mouse pups scampered quickly, finding a relatively safe hiding place behind a stack of cylindrical containers.
“Oh dear. Commander, I think we may have a serious problem,” Nightshade said, turning back to his squad. No one responded. It was as if they were temporarily frozen. That’s when he saw the flash of something big leaping impossibly high to atop the stack of bombs directly in front of them.
A deep, loud voice shouted down at them, “Intruders, stand down!”