CHAPTER 19 – Friend or Fiend
Hearing elevator music on the way to your doom really messes with your mind.
With a loud hiss, the elevator doors slid open at the rear of the car. Ziro and the others turned quickly around and cautiously ventured into a darkened control room, lit by a scattering of dimly glowing buttons and dials. After a few steps, a line of soft floor lamps self- activated to illuminate a path to the center of the room. Thick coils of wires crisscrossed the floor ending in a tower of components and computer screens. “No bug bots,” Streak expressed with a sigh, “that’s good.”
The elevator doors shut behind them and Streak fired a round of plasma into the controls, disabling them. “That ought to keep them out for awhile. So, now that we’re alone…what’s the plan?” he asked boldly.
Black didn’t share the other’s optimism. “You’re never alone on enemy territory. I’ll bet my tail we’re being watched even now.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Ziro said decidedly, “Keep your ears up and spread out. Let’s see what we can learn about this place while we have the chance.”
This made Black smile - the kid had smarts.
The squad did as they were told, scanning the walls, floor and control panels for any new information about their enemy. At first, they didn’t find much beyond a few locked doors, leftover robotic limbs and a dozen or so empty grub cans. But it was what Ziro found lying on a large slanted desk that was the most helpful of all. It was here, a series of technical schematics and detailed blueprints for a variety of robotic creations were spread out. Ziro recognized a few designs immediately.
“Hey guys, check this out,” Ziro called out, drawing his squad over to the table. He studied the designs with great interest. According to the prints the large beetle transports were named Scarabs, the small harvesters were called Gleaners. In addition to these, there were some he hadn’t recognized at all; Octopods, Incognitos and Rhinotromps among others. Notes were hastily scribbled on the blueprints listing future enhancements to the designs and stamped in the corner was the number of units that had been approved for production.
Ziro began to read the orders aloud, “500 Octopods, 250 Skarabs. 1500 Gleaners…”
Demo whistled in response. “That’s an awful lot of bugs if you ask me. You still think the General is behind this?”
“Can you think of anyone else?” Black replied.
CLANK! CLANK! BUZZZ!
A series of loud metallic impacts and squealing saws resounded across the room from the elevator shaft. Everyone looked up in time to see the bulging imprints of the horde of bugs forcing their way through the elevator doors.
“Blast,” Demo groaned, “That didn’t take long. They’re coming through.”
“Positions everyone,” Ziro shouted. “If it’s a fight they want, we’ll be ready.” The squad took cover and targeted the elevator doors as the bugs continued their assault on the control room. It was only a matter of time before the swarm would spill in and overtake them. Despite overwhelming odds, the squad waited for the inevitable to occur.
All at once, a second door on the far side of the room slid open and a slender rat entered the scene. Instinctively the squad turned their weapons on the new arrival to defend themselves.
“Wait! Don’t shoots, Comandee,” the sudden stranger begged, frantically waving his scrawny paws in the air. The nervous white lab rat stepped into full light. Ziro recognized his long black rubber gloves and iconic goggles instantly. It was Enzo…or Axel…wearing a bizarre metal helmet.
“What are you doing here?” Ziro asked, somewhat baffled by the unexpected appearance of the eccentric scientist.
The white rat held up a claw, “One moments, me friends. I thinks I can disables the bugs.”
Ziro watched with keen interest as their friend rushed to a nearby terminal and frantically typed a sequence of commands into the computer. Within seconds, the lights flickered off and the pounding at the door subsided. For a moment everything was dark, then the power returned and all was still. The bugs were gone. The squad breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“I believes that shoulds do it,” said the rat.
“How did you do that?” Streak wondered in amazement.
“Powers failure,” the rat giggled, “it resets their memory.”
“Brilliant,” Ziro said hesitantly, still unsure of which rat he was talking to. “But how exactly did you know where to find us?”
“Yeah, and what’s with the creepy hat, Enzo?” Streak asked, the first to venture a guess as to which brother they were dealing with. A pair of lights flashed atop the rat’s helmet. For all practical purposes it looked little more than a metal gelatin mold connected to a nest of haphazard wires and bulbs.
“It’s Axel, actually, and it was you whos found me. My brother never leaves zee simulations room.” Axel explained with a friendly smile. “My apologies for the rude welcomes. I must admits I wasn’t expectings you to comes.”
“Expectings…er…expecting us?” Demo replied. “You mean this is your place?”
“Indeeds. You likes, yes?” Axel said, waving his paws around.
Ziro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But what about the army of bugs…and the Liwans? Do you mean to say all of them belong to…”
Axel raised his hand, somewhat sheepishly. “Me,” He chuckled. It was a warm and friendly chuckle; not at all like the kind you might expect an evil scientist to have. Ziro was completely caught off guard by the response. The rat he had once thought he knew so well had clearly gone beyond the boundaries of the Colony’s code of ethics. Mixing mice with machine was strictly forbidden.
“But…but…how could you?” Ziro asked.
“I have a dreams too, Comandee. My mechanical enhancements will save lives one day. The Liwans are a smalls but necessary part of the experimentals process. Out here, beyond the restrictions of the Colony rules, I have freedoms to explore my full potentials.”
“Power without limitations,” Black repeated with a frown, “That’s the Dark Union mantra. So you’re working for them now, is that it?”
What should have been an insult didn’t seem to bother Axel in the least. “Research comes with a price. It matters little to me who pays for it. I makes them sap booms… they gives me everything I needs.”
“Traitor,” Black spat. He was disgusted with the rat. Black had spent the majority of his career trying to eliminate the last vestiges of the Dark Union and here was one of their own openly aiding the enemy. It was enough to make him sick.
“You’re making a mistake, Axel,” Ziro reasoned, “The Dark Union can’t be trusted. Besides, Nightshade will be reporting our findings back to the Burrow. Soon, the entire Mech Mice army will be on your doorstep.”
At this, Axel clasped his hands in giddy delight, as if he were merely playing a game of hide and seek with his friends and was about to reveal the brilliance of his new hiding place to them.
“Which is why I wear this hat,” Axel said confidently.
“What? So you can look as crazy as you sound when they haul you away?” Streak boasted.
“Somethings like that. Watch...” Axel pressed a button on a handheld remote and the wrist communicator on Ziro’s arm began to ring. It was the General calling. Ziro cautiously eyed the button, then pressed it...and a holographic image of the General soon stood before them. As Axel spoke, the holograph of the General mimicked Axel’s words, somehow being controlled by the funky helmet on Axel’s head.
“You sees...voice activateds. By controlling the communications...I control the movements of the entire Mech Mice forces...impressive, no? I’m afraids Nightshade’s message won’t makes it to the Burrow todays.”
Ziro was dismayed. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “How did you do that?”
“You forgets I has created manys of the communications tools your squids use. I simply intercept any signals necessaries to keep zee squids away from the Liwans. Whenevers the real General wanted recon to the north I would justs...”
“...change the mission order before it got to me,” Black deduced aloud. “I’ll bet you even changed my field reports to keep the General off your track as well. No wonder we didn’t have any squads up here to stop you. And all this time I thought the General was in on it…it was you all along.”
A light went on in Ziro’s head, “That would explain why my mission orders were erased back at Liwa too. It was you who sent the Alpha squad to arrest us...wasn’t it? Not the real General. You didn’t want us snooping around.”
Axel (and by proxy the holographic General) was quick to speak up, “Ding and ding. Right agains. It was quite funs, actuallies. Like a chess games, no?”
“Games?” Black growled, he had heard enough. “Your games are putting real mice in danger. Our best squad died out there tonight because of you...by one of your mechanical abominations no less.”
“An unfortunates, but necessary, casualty,” Axel explained without showing the slightest bit of emotion. He casually removed his quirky hat and set it aside. “I couldn’t haves the best squid…uh…how you puts it…snoopings around. After alls, they might have founds this…”
Axel approached a cylindrical pedestal behind the center console in the room and depressed a few buttons on the side of the device. The pedestal spun a quarter turn to the right and a small hatch opened in the top raising a cylindrical glass container from its center. A blinding blue light shone from the container forcing Ziro and the rest of his squad to look away. He had never seen the item before, but even so…he knew exactly what it was.
“A shard of starfall?” Ziro muttered in disbelief.
“Yes,” Axel beamed, his goggles protecting his vision from the extraordinary power of the light. “Said to contains the secrets of lifes and the universe within.”
“The stolen shard. After all these seasons, it’s finally resurfaced.” Black marveled at the sight. “That shard belonged to the Nee-wom tribe. Where did you find it?”
“Is only a smalls piece of the shard...mind yous...on loans froms my benefactors,” Axel said coldly. “With the power of the starfall, I can finally power my designs - all of my designs.”
“It will never work, Axel. You’re nothing but a villain,” Demo shouted.
“For now, perhaps. But one day, my designs will change the world. History will see me in a different light. One day, nots a villain…a visionary.”
Black had heard enough. “Why I ought ta…” he said, lowering his shoulders and preparing to lunge at Axel. The lanky scientist remained calm and in control, he didn’t even twitch a whisker. He simple raised the glass container and smiled devilishly.
“Ah, ah, ah, Colonels...I wouldn’ts try that if I was yous. We wouldn’t wants anything to accidentally happens to the shards, no?”
Black held his ground. Despite being outnumbered, he knew Axel held the upper paw in this battle. The shard was far too important to the Colony to put at risk.
With the press of a button on his remote Axel beckoned a trio of small spider-like robots, which popped out of the floor and scurried over between the squad and Axel. In no time flat, the spiders spun a web of sticky red goo around the four squad members, tying them together. When they were finished the three bugs returned to Axel’s side and awaited further instructions.
He set his remote down on a control panel and produced a miniscule bead of amberized sap from his lab pocket. He held it out for everyone to see and said simply,
“A demonstrations of what is to comes, yes?”
He casually tossed the tiny bead of sap at one of his own spider creatures and quickly ducked behind a control panel. The bead exploded on impact, erupting in smoke and fire and flinging smoldering chunks of the once loyal drone all over the room. The other two drones watched the catastrophe, but when it was over they dutifully turned their attention back toward Axel.
“Booms!” Axel chuckled at the destruction of his own robot. “Is fun, no? Imagines the General’s surprise whens we drops thousands of the larger booms on the Burrow tonight.”
Axel wore a mile wide grin that spoke volumes, revealing his true nature for what it was. He was losing his mind.
“You’re insane,” Ziro stated. “The Mech Mice are peace keepers, protectors of the shards.”
“No!” Axel shouted forcefully, raising his voice. “The colony is nothings more then a prisons to limit the shard’s true potentials. The real crimes is keepings such powers from being fully explored.”
Ziro couldn’t stand to see Axel like this. It didn’t seem right. He tried desperately to reason with the rat. “At what cost? Bombing the Burrow will destroy the Academy and kill innocent mice...our friends...your brother.”
Then, in something of a trance, Axel repeated a phrase Colonel Black had heard long ago.
“Sometimes, it is necessaries to kills the old ways, before a new order cans be resurrected.”
Then without so much as a grin he picked up his remote, pressed a button and nodded to the team.
“Booms voyage,” he said.
The remaining pair of spider-bots flared their fangs and scurried back toward Ziro and the team. The bites from their needle sharp incisors were only felt momentarily before the tranquilizing effects took place. The last thing Ziro saw before everything went dark was a frantic Axel scrambling for the door clutching the shard.