CHAPTER TWO - Living the dream
Ziro was dead. Again. It was the second time this week and it was only Wednesday. The whole thing was starting to get on his nerves.
The worst part was knowing General Black would be grading their performance today. Black had recently returned to the Academy to oversee the enlistment of the next generation of Elite Guards. If the Genesis squad miraculously managed to impress him this week, they’d be in. Unfortunately, today’s blunders had pretty much killed their chances. Wrapped in the blanket of death's darkness Ziro replayed his failure over and over until…
Wurp. Wurp. Wuuuurp.
An ear-splitting siren broke through the darkness. It was a horrid, over-amplified sound designed to wake the dead out of digital slumber. Ziro couldn’t ignore it if he wanted to. Startled, he awoke gasping for breath and fumbling with the darkened visor that blocked his sight. It would take a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the familiar but dimly lit space around him. Even before he could see anything, he knew exactly where he was.
It was the simulation room – a massive underground cavern used as a digital training facility for MechMice guards. Here they could practice their tactics in the safety of the Academy Burrow without concern for enemy spies.
Each of the mice were reclined and harnessed in egg-shaped pods which circled the perimeter of the room. In all, there were twenty pods connected to the central computer through an intricate network of root-like cables which wound across the floor to the center of the room.
Near the hub a pair of white rats wearing lab coats, thick glasses and black gloves monitored a tower of blinking lights and digital screens. Brothers Enzo and Axel were mirror images of each other, right down to the black spots on opposite ears. They were the creative brains behind the battle simulator and only left their work in the underground cavern when necessary. From the looks of their scraggly fur, it hadn't been necessary in quite some time.
A flashing red light over Ziro’s pod alerted the two rats to his re-entry. In long, lanky steps, they moved with uncanny synchronized steps toward the awakening Commander.
Enzo was the first to speak in a broken Eastland accent, “Ello, Commandee. Ow was you mar-shon?”
By ‘mar-shon’ the rat meant ‘mission’. Over time, Ziro had grown accustomed to the lab rats’ sloppy butchery of the Colonial language which was spoken by all civilized mice. To be fair, Axel and Enzo had limited communication with the outside world. They were so wrapped up in their work here, their linguistic skills were naturally not as finely tuned as most civilians.
“I died,” Ziro simply stated. What else was there to say? He liked the lab mice, even considered them friends, but today he wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat. He stood to leave as soon as the pod lock was disengaged.
“Remeem-ber, you’ll be a leettle doozy at first,” Axel warned. “Doon’t moof so fast-lee.”
Ziro didn’t listen. He tossed his visor onto the empty seat and stepped out of the pod anyway. With over 200 simulation trainings under his belt, he knew the drill. His body had become accustomed to re-entry. It was like waking up from a dream…in this case, a very bad one.
The lab rats exchanged knowing glances then looked back at Ziro. Both were eagerly twiddling their paws together in front of themselves like giddy schoolboys. It was as if they were expecting Ziro to say something else.
“What?” Ziro asked, feeling awkward.
“Excuses us, but deed you appen to no-teese…” Enzo started to say before his brother excitedly interrupted and finished his sentence for him.
“…the leetle upgrade we’s mades? Mmmm?”
Ziro shook his head without giving much thought to the question. He really didn’t care about any simulation upgrades. He had bigger things on his mind…like trying to figure out how to beat Nitro next time.
“Saps,” Axel finally declared triumphantly, “We made de sap on de treez!”
“Sap? Wow…yeah that’s…uh…that’s great,” Ziro answered nonchalantly. “You guys are really living the dream down here, aren’t ya.”
“Indeeds,” Enzo said with a smile. “But what ‘bouts you, Commandee?”
“What about me?” Ziro wondered aloud. Still lost in his own thoughts.
“Are you…leeving the dreams?”
The question caught him off guard. Ziro thought about the question for a moment. Was he living his dream? As a pup he had always imagined himself being a brave commander and leading his troops into battle against the forces of evil.
“Sure, I guess. I’m just a little behind schedule that’s all. I had planned on making Elite status last season. Being a grunt guard is fine, but it’s the Elites that get to see the real action. It’d be nice to know what I’m doing actually mattered.”
Enzo nodded his head and replied in an even, knowing voice, “You knows how long we’s been trying to put saps in de treez?”
Ziro almost rolled his eyes. He wasn’t the least bit interested in digital sap. “I dunno, a week?”
“Threes seasons,” Axel answered.
“You’ve been working on saps…er…I mean sap for three seasons?”
“Yups,” Enzo replied, “We gets it wrong many times. Fail is part of learning. See? Pay-sheents, Commandee. You squid will be Elite soons.”
“Yes…soons. Am sures of it!” Axel interjected.
“I’m glad somebody believes in us.”
The rats moved back to their consoles and busied themselves with the rest of their work. Ziro took a moment to view the rest of the pods occupied by the remainder of his squad. One was empty. Streak was gone.
“Poor kid,” Ziro thought to himself.
In a few moments the others would start to awake. They were all dressed alike in the same standard issue drab jumpsuits. An embroidered logo on their left chest pocket is what identified them as members of the Genesis squad. Ziro normally took pride in that logo. After all, he had designed it himself. But today he found little pleasure in seeing it…or his team. He needed space. Time to think. He marched toward the exit.
“Tell the others to meet in the mess hole, will ya,” Ziro asked Enzo and Axel as he passed by. They nodded in reply. Already they were firing furiously away at their keyboards, probably coding something really exciting… like fungal spores.
The entire Genesis squad sat hunched over a long table; heads hung low, spirits crushed. Demo was the only one actually eating the bowl full of slop the galley staff was pawning as ‘food’ today. He was already on his third bowl, guzzling it down quicker than a rodent twice his size. The others watched in stunned silence.
“You know, I really thought we had that one,” Demo said between sloppy mouthfuls. “I was really feeling it, man. We were this close…inches away from the final artifact and then. WHAMMO!”
The powerful mouse pounded the table loudly with his fist for effect and in the process startled half the room with the sound. An overweight chef behind the counter shot a warning look at the squad then continued serving his slop to a long line of customers. Already there were nearly a hundred mice lining the long tables of the mess hole, hundreds more would be on their way as soon as the next round of challenges ended.
“What happened?” Streak asked, trying to catch up with the others. Having been eliminated first in the mission, he was anxious to hear how things ended up.
“Nitro happened, as usual,” Magenta replied, her voice ripe with hatred for the mouse that had plagued their lives. “That guy doesn’t miss a beat, does he?”
Ziro tried to redirect their frustration.
“It wasn’t Nitro,” Ziro said, “It was us.”
“Oh common,” Magenta groaned, “you aren’t actually going to give this guy a pass are ya?”
“Look, I know we’re all disappointed with the loss, but we need to use this as a chance to improve our focus. I’ve been thinking about it and Nitro was right about one thing, we should have been watching our backs. We were off our game, that’s all.”
Magenta shook her head is disbelief. “Have we ever been ‘on’ our game?”
Ziro tried to form a response, but came up empty. He knew exactly how they felt. A depressed silence passed between the crew.
“This stinks. Name one thing he’s got that we don’t got,” Demo asked.
“The camera loves him,” Streak said, pointing to a poster advertisement for the MechMice Elite Squads on a nearby wall. It was supposed to be an inspiration to younger mice. A bright red slogan that read, ‘BE ELITE…SAVE THE COLONY!’ was etched across the top in bold, letters. Just below it, an animated hologram of Nitro moved in the frame. A well polished smile cut across his face.
“He gives me the creeps. Who does he think he is anyway?” Magenta spat.
“An Elite,” Ziro answered, somewhat to himself.
“Who cares what you call him…he’s still a jerk.”
“You can say that again,” said Demo, clinching his fists together. “we’ve got the guts but he steals the glory. When are we going to catch a break, Chief?”
“I…I dunno,” Ziro shrugged. His team needed inspiration, but he was out of ideas. “Look, at least we have each other. As long as we keep trying, what’s the worst that can happen.”
Nightshade had sat in silence the entire time, listening to the conversation unfold. Now, he cleared his throat and offered his own logical explanation for their failure.
“When a system isn’t working in its current form, it’s often wise to restructure how it is assembled.”
“What does that mean?” Demo asked.
Magenta interpreted for the team, “Are you saying they might break up the team?”
“In my estimation it is a definite probability,” Nightshade clarified.
Before anyone could respond to Nightshade’s new revelation, the stern and rather unpleasant voice of the General’s secretary squawked over the PA system with practiced monotony. Mildra’s words made Ziro’s fur stand on end.
“Commander Ziro please report to General Black’s Den…immediately.”
Suddenly, the entire mess hole went silent…dead silent. Every eye fell on Ziro. Few had ever been invited into the General’s Den and those that had, rarely came back. Ziro rubbed his whiskers and in a rather squeaky voice tried to make light of the situation.
“Ehem. It’s…it’s probably nothing. Perhaps he just wants to offer a few pointers or something, right guys?”
He looked to Magenta to back him up. Instead, she immediately turned away before her eyes betrayed what she really thought. Who was he kidding? There could be only one reason he was being asked to join the General. He was in deep trouble for their performance today.
“Well, we don’t want to keep the General waiting.”
Rising from the table, Ziro mustered his confidence and strode toward the exit. With each step, a crowd of mice parted to clear a path to the double doors for their unfortunate comrade. All eyes followed Ziro’s movement as he passed by. He pushed the door open and took one last glance over his shoulder at his team. He let the door close behind him and faced the long tunnel ahead alone.
As he went, a flood of questions rolled through his mind. What could General Black possibly want with him? As commander of the Genesis squad, he would ultimately take the blame for their failure. But what of his dream of becoming an Elite Guard, was that about to be over too? If Nightshade’s analysis was right, as was often the case, he might never lead his squad again.
With each passing paw step, Ziro’s concern grew and grew until at last he stood before the great circular door which led to the General’s Den. He pressed his paw against a control panel and waited. Shortly after, Mildra’s voice buzzed through a speaker in as drab a tone as ever.
“Uh…Commander Ziro here. I was asked to…”
“Yes,” Mildra interrupted. The circular door spiraled open spilling a harsh amber light into the Burrow tunnel. Ziro took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Will the Genesis squad be torn apart? Will Ziro's hopes of being an Elite Guard ever come true? Will Enzo and Axel ever be program fungal spores? Tune in next month for another exciting chapter in...MECH MICE!!!