CHAPTER 18 - Last One Out
If there was one thing Ziro had learned in the field, it was that having your cover blown could mean the difference between a hero’s welcome and a spear in your neck...or in this case, a sudden kick to the head.
Unfortunately, the Liwan towering over them was tragically convinced that the Mech Mice were here to harm the slaves, not save them. And he had a menacing pair of heavy, mechanical legs that he wasn’t afraid to use. In one mighty leap, he launched himself down at his declared ‘intruders’.
Before the Liwan could land a knock-out blow, Demo lunged forward and managed to catch one of the bionic feet, throwing him off balance, crashing to the ground.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Ziro shouted as the Liwan pulled himself up off the floor. “We’re here to help!” Completely ignoring Ziro, the Liwan launched himself straight at Demos chest. Using his defensive training, Demo expertly absorbed the hit, rolling backwards and using his legs to thrust his attacker off. For all the skill of the move, it was poorly aimed as the Liwan’s body flew directly into the stacked bombs. The pile toppled. Everyone cringed as the bricks clattered loudly against the metal floor, completely exposing the squad to the entire factory. The element of surprise was officially gone.
“Oh crumbs,” Demo said sheepishly.
Shouts rang out from all across the factory as Liwans left their posts to join their comrade in attacking the Mech Mice intruders.
Colonel Black got a certain twinkle in his eyes. “Roll up your sleeves, boys. There’s going to be some black eyes.” The seasoned soldier rushed forward and snatched up a length of discarded chain from the floor. He charged at a couple of attacking Liwans.
“Stand down!” both Liwans said in unison.
“Stand down yourselves,” Black replied, spinning around with surprising speed. The chain whipped across the attackers shins, knocking both clear off their feet.
Inspired by the Colonel, Streak rushed at another Liwan and attempted a karate kick in his gut. Instead, the Liwan blocked the kick with his robotic arm. Streak ricocheted off. Before the Liwan could get to where Streak landed, Demo came barreling into the fight. He landed a vicious uppercut punch to the Liwan’s chin that lifted him clear off his feet.
Ziro side-stepped his own attacker and elbowed him in the back of the neck. Then grabbing the mouse’s tail, he dove into the path of another Liwan, tripping him with it.
Despite the squad’s early success, the sheer number of Liwans bearing down on them made it clear that they wouldn’t be keeping this advantage much longer. Demo was really the only one who could match the cybernetic mice’s strength. As he exchanged punches and generally tossed opponents into one another, Streak took up position behind him, plunking the Liwans in the head with whatever loose parts he could find lying around.
“There’s no quit in them,” Black said admiringly, keeping his group of attackers at bay with his swinging his length of chain. “They keep coming back like robots.”
Nightshade was still furiously working on his wrist communicator, seemingly oblivious to the battle raging around him.
“Shade! We could use you about now,” Ziro yelled while snatching up a loose plank of wood. He turned to face the imposing figure of a Liwan with a pair of menacing pincher arms mounted on his back. Dodging the first arm, he spun passed the second and cracked the plank over the Liwan’s head. The rather heavyset brown mouse shook off the hit easily, then surprised Ziro by simply belly flopping on top of the young commander. Ziro was quick, however, managing to scramble out of Liwan’s death grip. He hopped on the heavy mouse’s back and gripped him in a headlock.
“A little help!” Ziro shouted to Nightshade again.
“Almost..,” Nightshade said, holding up a claw. “If you could try and hold your subject still, I need to intercept his helmet signal.”
“Wha-?” Ziro gasped. Hold the Liwan still? He was holding on for life! The chubby mouse flailed all four arms about wildly, trying to strip Ziro off his back. All the thrashing kept bashing Ziro’s chin against the Liwan’s metal helmet.
“And.... we’ve got it,” Nightshade said. “Be right back.”
“Right... hmph... no problem,” Ziro managed to say between head bangs. Unable to shake Ziro, the Liwan took the next best approach - he fell on him. The big mouse landed on Ziro with all his weight which would have certainly crushed him if not for the reinforced armor. Even so, the impact knocked the wind out of him.
The Liwan rolled off and got back up, dragging Ziro by his tail he lifted him up, letting him dangle like a ragdoll.
“Attaaaaaack!” a small voice yelled out over the battle sounds. Ziro twirled around until he caught sight of the tiny pup who had just spoken. He gasped, recognizing the two feisty brothers from Liwa.
“Take that!” one of the pups yelled, hurling his tiny spear at the Liwan holding Ziro. But another Liwan stepped in front of the throw, plucking the spear out of the air with his mechanized arm, and snapping it easily like the twig it was.
“Don’t let ‘em take you alive, Ziro!” Toli shouted bravely, as he kicked and scratched at the knees of the Liwan. There was no letup in these boys.
“Stand down!” both Liwans commanded in unison, shoving the pups aside roughly. Tal cracked his head against one of the bombs and went down hard.
Ziro shook with rage, but his struggles only managed to spin him helplessly by his tail. As he spun, he watched with surprise as Nightshade finally returned to his aid... with blaster raised, aimed indiscriminately at him, the Liwans, the bombs.
“No ‘Shade! The bombs! Don’t fire!” Ziro shouted.
Too late. Nightshade pulled the trigger. Both Liwans fell limp to the ground.
Ziro scrambled to his feet and looked about the room as, one by one, every Liwan within range of Nightshades blaster collapsed in heaps.
“What’d you just do?” Ziro asked, realizing that no plasma had ever shot from Nightshade’s blaster.
“Overloaded the system,” Nightshade said simply, patting his blaster. “The heavy signal activity jamming our communications was coming to and from the Liwan helmets. Once I isolated the signal frequency, I set my blaster’s audible to inject an impossible sequence of - ”
“Yeah, yeah,” Streak interrupted, clearly troubled by the sight of the motionless Liwan laying at his feet. “But are they... dead?”
“No, but I suspect their helmet’s mind-control functions are.”
“Mind control... That would explain a few things,” Black said tapping the darkened lights on one of the Liwan helmets. The Liwan let out a groan, then started to sit up. Everyone took a step back.
“Who are you?” the Liwan asked looking confused. His left eye visor was shattered off.
Ziro hurried over and addressed the Liwan. “We’re Mech Mice. We’re here to rescue you.”
“Where’s my family? Are they safe?” the confused mouse continued, looking around with his exposed eye.
“Slow down,” Ziro said. “The Liwan village is fine. I’m sure we’ll get you back to your family. What’s you name?”
The mouse took a deep breath. “My name is Gibb. Gibb Barkin.”
Hearing the Liwan’s voice, Toli looked up from his attempts to help his dizzy brother sit up. “Dad? Is... is that you?” He let go of Tal and scrambled over to join Ziro.
The big mouse blinked and squinted at the pup who was pressing in at him for a closer look.
“It is you, Dad!” Toli exclaimed, jumping up and down. “Tal, we found him! We found him! It’s us, Dad! Tal and Toli.”
The little pup threw himself around his father’s neck and then raced back over to his brother to help bring him into the joyful reunion.
Ziro smiled and offered a paw to Tal’s father, but something suddenly snapped in the Liwan and he immediately reached up to grab his helmet. “Get this off me,” the Liwan said, tugging on the device. “Get it off!” His voice sounded panicked now. Even with the strength of his robotic arm, the helmet didn’t budge; it was attached firmly to the neck collar.
“Calm down. We can help. Streak, give me a hand here,” Ziro said reaching out carefully. As he did, the lights on the crest of the helmet began to blink, slowly at first, then faster.
“Hurry!” the Liwan said, “It’s getting louder! It’s aghhhh!”
“I think I’ve got it. Just hold still,” Ziro tried to calm the mouse while he and Streak were fumbling to loosen what looked to be a latch.
“Allow me, Commander,” Nightshade said, handing off his blaster to Streak. As he did, the Liwan’s eye flickered. Faster than anyone could react, his robotic arm’s shot forward grabbed Nightshade by the throat.
“Stand down!” the Liwan demanded, his eye suddenly blank.
“The blaster!” Nightshade struggled to say to Streak. But before Streak could raise it, the Liwan’s arm flashed across and knocked Streak down, sending the blaster skittering far out of reach.
Whatever Nightshade’s blaster had accomplished was only temporary. The helmets had rebooted and the Mech Mice were now completely trapped. Even Demo was incapacitated now; held in the vice-like grip of a Liwan’s pincher arms.
“Take them for processing,” Tal’s father said, turning to carry Nightshade away.
“Nobody’s going anywhere!” a squeaky voice shouted. Nightshade looked up to see Tal and Toli struggling together to lift the lost blaster. Toli pulled the trigger and the silent signal blanked their father’s helmet. He dropped Nightshade and collapsed.
“Boys! Here!” Nightshade said reaching a hand out to the pups. They tossed the blaster as hard as they could. Rearmed with the blaster, Nightshade made quick work of the rest of the Liwan slaves while the two pups rushed to their father’s aid.
As their father awoke, Toli took out a pocketknife and jabbed it into the joint where the helmet met the collar. Electricity sparked out from the collar, shocking the pup. He fell backward as the collar lock released, dropping open from around their father’s neck. Tal pulled the helmet off and both boys looked into their father’s eyes for the first time.
“Am I...?” Gibb asked, feeling around his uncovered head. He stopped to squint up at the the two beaming faces above him. “Are you...?”
“Dad!” the pups yelled in unison and threw their arms around their father’s neck, squeezing him tight.
Using the pups technique, Ziro, Streak, Black and Nightshade quickly moved throughout the ranks of the rebooted Liwans, removing their helmets. Soon the entire slave force was free.
“Ears up, everyone!” Ziro commanded. “We have to evacuate immediately. This place is not safe.”
Turning to Nightshade and Demo, he pointed towards the tunnel entrance doors. “We need that opened.” Nightshade hurried over to see what he could do with the control panel, while Demo kicked about at the sealed door, trying to see if there was any way to force it open.
Watching the effort, Gibb stepped forward carrying Tal and Toli. But before he could set his pups down to help, another Liwan pushed his way to the front. “Allow me, Mr. G,” the bigger mouse insisted. “The way I see it, a dad’s got to take care of his pups first. My, they sure turned out handsome, the two of them. Reminds me of two of my second cousins on my mother’s side...”
“Please,” Gibb said, interrupting the story. “The door. It’s all yours, Yaku.”
Yaku refocused himself, motioning for everyone to step back. He flexed his bionic arm and took aim, punching his metal fist directly through the center of the spiraled door. Gripping the small opening he’d created, Yaku tugged back the doorlock. Demo joined in, pulling with him until they’d widened it enough for a mouse to climb through.
“Who’s ready to leave?” Gibb shouted triumphantly to the rest of his fellow slaves.
No one had to be asked twice. Nightshade helped the two pups through, then climbed over and assisted the others as they began hopping through the hole and out into the darkened tunnel.
The escape was going smoothly, until a starfield of tiny red lights started appearing out of the darkness above them.
Demo looked up and groaned, “Oh crumbs!”
The red sky was falling now as disengaged beetles dropped from the lower charging cells, landing with ominous thuds against the factory floor. The mechanical menaces quickly locked on to the escaping mice and surged toward them.
“Go! Go! Go!” Ziro yelled, urging the last of the Liwans out as the beetles bore down.
Ziro’s squad instinctively formed a perimeter of defense to engage the enemy.
“We can’t let them get into the tunnel,” Black barked.
Ziro knew what the Colonel meant - the unarmed Liwans would be sitting ducks. He rushed to the door and shoved Gibb through, yelling his order to Nightshade, “Lead them to safety! We’ll buy you time!”
As soon as Gibb was clear of the door, Demo let go and the doorlock shut tightly, separating Nightshade and the Liwans from the factory. Ziro aimed his blaster at the control panel and fired. The plasma blast sent the circuitry up in smoke with a spray of sparks.
“Chief, how do we hold these things off?!” Streak called out, aiming his blaster nervously in preparation of the first beetle that got near enough. “One bad shot and this whole place will blow!”
The beetles already seemed aware of that threat too. Instead of attacking with their blasters, their back shells raised to reveal pairs of buzz saw-wielding arms.
Demo grabbed the first non-explosive items he could find near him (wooden crates) and heaved them out into the oncoming horde. Each crate would smash three or four of them; barely even slowing the advancing lines behind them as their saws chewed the wood easily.
“Look!” Black said, pointing clear across to the opposite side of the room. “Another door.” Sure enough, Black had spotted what appeared to be doors for an elevator shaft.
“Run for it?” Streak asked.
“Coming through,” Demo yelled, rushing headlong into the tide of oncoming beetles. Streak grabbed hold of Demo’s suit and swung himself up onto the shoulders as the heavy mouse pounded a path to the elevator doors for the squad to follow.
At the first opportunity, Streak leaped off Demo and raced ahead to the elevator, punching viciously at the elevator’s call button. “Come on! Come on! Why do these things always take so long?”
The doors were barely yawning open as the squad arrived. Streak pushed past the doors to reach the controls first. The others dove in behind him with Demo, still engaging the onslaught of approaching beetles, arriving last. That’s when the harsh reality hit everyone at the same time: there was no way the bulky XR suit was escaping through the elevator with them.
“Demo, get out! You gotta leave it!” Ziro yelled.
The big mouse looked pained, but there was no use arguing. Hitting the release control he jumped out of his beloved suit. It wobbled momentarily behind him then collapsed face down, a whisker’s width from the elevator. Streak slammed the ‘Door Close’ button as the beetles raced toward them. At the last possible moment, Demo reached out and activated the suit’s jump jets. The last thing Demo saw before the doors shut were the flames roasting a few unlucky beetles. A horrendous racket of clanging metal and squealing saws were heard through the shut doors.
“At least it went out with a fight,” Demo said, trying to keep his voice from cracking.
The battle sounds faded as the elevator lifted them away to safety... or something worse.