CHAPTER SIX - Riding the WURM
Nothing could erase the smile from Ziro’s face, not even the gut-wrenching anticipation of being rocketed two hundred tails per second on one of the most rickety transports ever designed. This was a moment he would cherish forever – Squad R59 was being deployed.
For the fiftieth time today, Ziro loaded the Mission Objective screen on his wrist communicator. The screen lit up with the details of the his squad’s first mission. He couldn’t help but let his chest swell a bit as he read it one more time. It read:
MISSION: 1 SQUAD: R59 STATUS: TOP-SECRET OBJECTIVE: RECON LIWA REGION ORDERS: SCOUT AREA, OBSERVE AND REPORT DIRECTLY TO COL. BLACK. DO NOT ENGAGE. TRANSPORT: PLATFORM 99 AT 13:00 ACCESS Code: I-IIII-II-I
Ziro lowered his arm and spotted the rounded door to platform 99. Magenta was already waiting for them, her gun slung casually over her shoulder and an agitated look on her face.
"Please tell me this isn't your team," she said, looking over the squad.
"Actually," Ziro replied, "It's OUR team, Lieutenant."
Magenta shook her head in disbelief. Already she was regretting signing up for this job.
"Wow. The program really is running low on recruits."
Streak slipped in front of Ziro, anxious to be the first to introduce himself. "Hey, how’s it going, Maggy? I'm Streak, your new boyfriend," he said, leaning in a little too close and extending his paw for a paw shake.
Magenta pulled a knife out of thin air and pointed it at Streak's throat. "Not going to happen," she said, firmly. "And don't call me Maggy!"
"Gorgeous and dangerous... I like it," Streak replied, raising his eyebrow in return.
"You won't when you wake up with only one ear," she said, holding the knife steady.
"Okay, fine! I get the point," Streak said as he backed away. "Just trying to be friendly."
Ziro shook his head and apologized, "Sorry about Streak, he's...uh...a bit on the reckless side. Over confident too."
"Is that what you call it?" She asked. Ziro ignored the last comment and moved on with the introductions. "You remember Nightshade, of course. He's our Recon."
Nightshade bowed his head in respect.
"Right, the guy who stole my fight."
"A simple misunderstanding, I assure you," he explained.
Demo was the last to arrive; his pilot’s jumpsuit soaked in his own sweat from the long winding hike through the seemingly endless passageways that had led them here. He gasped as he arrived, clutching his side as he closed the final fifteen tails between him and the rest of the squad.
“I thought…we’d never…make it,” the big mouse panted. He covered his mouth and burped loudly. “Phew! Remind me not…to eat so much…before a mission…next time.” Ziro cleared his throat, "Ehem! And this is Demo. He's our..."
"Don't tell me," Magenta replied, "Boom boy."
"Big and loud, baby," Demo boasted. "That's my motto."
"I'm sure it is," Magenta said, sarcastically.
For a moment, Magenta looked like she wanted to shoot herself. She belonged on a real squad, not with a bunch of misfits. If she was going to make this work, she'd have to lay some serious ground rules.
"Okay boys, listen up. Despite my better judgement I'm going to go on this little recon mission of yours. We go up to Liwa and come right back. You guys can play the hero bit for awhile if you'd like. Collect your reward from the General and then I'm outta here, and you're on your own. Got it?"
Everyone except for Nightshade agreed. He wasn't a fan of Magenta.
"Good," She said, putting the knife back into her pocket.
"Well that settles it then," Ziro explained. “Behind these doors…our transport awaits…and our first mission begins.”
The new Elite Commander looked proudly over his squad.
“How many platforms are there anyway?” Streak wondered aloud.
“This is it,” Nightshade answered. Pointing to where the tunnel came to an abrupt end only a few dozen tails further ahead.
“Still, better last than never.” Ziro said as he reached for the door. He flipped open a hidden panel in the door revealing sixteen unmarked switches in four even rows. From bottom to top he toggled the appropriate switches in order.
First row: switch one. Second row: switch four. Third row: switch two. Fourth row: switch one.
A moment later, the mechanism that secured the door began to click. The door opened. The team stepped into a large but crowded room. The entire space was a cluttered maze of dusty crates and an odd assortment of supplies. Amidst the collection there were coils of ropes, a pile of rusty springs, reams of flypaper, barrels of tree sap, boxes of rivets, a few over sized gears, some metal tubing, several bags of expired food rations and a crate of greasy rags to name just a few items.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Magenta eyed Ziro with more than a hint of suspicion. She didn’t like being teased.
Ziro scratched his head in bewilderment, “No. This is the place, alright, I must have double checked the Colonel’s orders a dozen times.”
“What a dump. It doesn’t look like its been used in years,” Demo blurted out.
“More like ever,” Magenta snorted, as she slid her claw through a thick layer of dust which covered a wooden crate beside her. “What a waste of time.” She turned to leave.
“Wait!” Ziro replied fanatically, refusing to let his team give up. He raising his wrist communicator once more. “I’m sure there is an honest explanation. I’ll contact the Colonel and get things straightened out.”
“Commander,” Nightshade said in a hushed tone. “I hear something.” With ears up everyone listened to the faint sound of an electric sizzle, accompanied by the occasional metal clank of a tool. Somebody was working nearby.
“The source seems to be coming from the other side of these crates,” Nightshade added. Led by Ziro, the team wound their way through the heaping piles of cluttered junk. It was a much deeper room than it first appeared. Eventually, the mess thinned and gave way to an open platform alongside a massive tunnel which stretched into infinite darkness in either direction. Along the ceiling, a series of tunnel-sized harness rings hung from a singular rail. These were the connectors that allowed the diverse selection of modular transports to be deployed down the tunnel.
It was an ingenious system, really, devised by the Mole Guild as a means of delivering troops and supplies to the far corners of the Megiddo valley. Unfortunately, the container that had been chosen to carry Ziro’s squad was a far cry from the sleek new transports that were available to most.
A pair of iron-ribbed, cylindrical containers had already been connected inside their rings. There was nothing attractive about them. they had all the appeal of a pair of tin cans tipped on their side, punched with a few portholes for good measure. The Mech Mice insignia was flaking off on the side near an open hatch. Clearly, this particular transport was more than a few seasons old. Demo wasn’t impressed.
“Ugh…WURMS,” he muttered, “of all the transports in the world we get stuck with a WURM. They should have scrapped these things seasons ago.” Streak looked confused, “What’s a worm?”
“Technically they are U.R.M.S,” Nightshade answered pointing to a ID number imprinted on the side of the vehicle. The markings were almost completely faded away with age but Streak could just make them out. It read: URMS-23. “It stands for Underground Rodent Mobilization Sleds. But the entire system is so old they have a reputation of being …shall we say…less than stable.”
“Stable?” Demo snorted, “They’re a bunch of death traps, that’s what they are. Hence the W.”
“What does the W stand for?” Streak asked.
“Wretched, Wacked, Wonky…” Magenta explained, “depends who you ask.” Demo smiled and gave his opinion, “or there’s my favorite, What-A-Piece-Of-…” Before he could finish his description, a grimy mole popped up from beneath the transport and hoisted himself onto the loading platform. With a broad, jovial smile, he raised his miner’s helmet and blinked at the new arrivals. He was a star nosed mole with enormous paws and brownish black fur.
“Oh ho, you must be them! The one’s Black sent, right?”
Ziro extended his paw and cleared his throat.
“Name’s Ziro…Commander Ziro…and this is my squad,” he said with as much formality as he could muster. The mole eagerly reached out and shook paws with the mouse, transferring the grime from his own paw to Ziro’s in the process.
“I’m Rudd, maintenance engineer for the northern lines. Sorry bout the mess. I don’t get visitors in this area very often. To be honest, I didn’t think we still sent squads up to Liwa. Mostly this is the place we put all the stuff no one wants anymore.”
Ziro wasn’t so sure he liked the sound of that. After all, they were here now. Were they no longer needed? He pushed the thought from his mind and tried to focus on the mission at hand. He turned his attention to the vehicle.
“I assume this is our transport,” he asked, in a somewhat broken voice.
“That she is, lad. And a finer piece of machinery you won’t find anywhere else in these tunnels.” No sooner had the mole said this than a metal handle fell off the door and clattered noisily on the floor. The mole picked up the handle and without even the slightest pause, added, “I was just finishing a few minor repairs on her when you arrived. I’ll have that back on in a twitch of a whisker.”
Ziro shot an embarrassed glance at his team. Their great mission wasn’t exactly off to a glorious start.
“Are you sure she’s…uh…safe,” Ziro squeaked.
“Safe? Of course she’s safe. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts,” Rudd said proudly. He tapped the fallen door handle against the side of the sled. It echoed like a giant oil drum. “Even made a few adjustments meself.”
“Easy for him to say,” Demo half-whispered to Streak, “It ain’t his hide on the ride.” Rudd noticed the concern on their faces but he didn’t seem too worried. It’s hard to rattle a mole.
“Anyways, yer heavy suit and field supplies are being loaded in the cargo container. Why dont’s ya go on in and find yer seats. I’ll finish up the repairs real quick like.”
Ziro and Rudd exchanged nods and the maintenance mole set to work reattaching the handle to the cargo bay door. While the rest of the squad started toward the entrance of the forward transport, Demo turned the other way.
“Oh yeah! Now that’s what I’m talking about…” Demo gawked as a robotic claw arm moved across the platform with a large item in its grasp. Streak joined the big mouse to see what all the commotion was all about. “My first real suit,” Demo sighed, completely oblivious to everything else except the heavy suit being loaded in the transport. “Isn’t she a beauty.”
“I guess,” Streak replied. He couldn’t help notice a slight tear forming in the corner of Demo’s eye but he wasn’t about to say anything. Demo put his hand on Streak’s head and messed up his hair.
“You know what they say, little buddy. The two biggest days in a Heavy’s life are the day he first gets his suit, and the day he dies in it. Thanks for sharing the moment.”
“Well you can’t die yet,” Streak said, playfully punching Demo on the arm. “We still have a WURM to ride.”
“Oh right,” Demo said, sarcastically. “thanks for reminding me.”
The squad filed into the front most sled. The interior of the transport was a bit less of an eye sore, but not by much. There were two captain’s chairs in the cockpit, and four jump seats immediately behind them. It was tight quarters, to be sure, but the U.R.M.S. weren’t built for comfort – it was a utility vehicle.
Near the front of the vehicle, just under the four circular porthole windows that overlooked the track, lay a large control panel with dozens of flashing lights and a central monitor. With the most piloting experience, Demo took the controls alongside Magenta and started loading the coordinates for Liwa into the auto-pilot. The others harnessed themselves into the remaining seats in anticipation of Rudd’s return. Ziro tried to relax, but he hated riding in these things. He’d only done it once before and had nearly lost his lunch. He spotted a safety card in a pocket alongside his seat and pulled it out.
“You do know nobody ever reads those things,” Magenta said. Ziro nodded. He pretended to drop it on his lap, but cast a glance down anyway when Magenta wasn’t looking.
It provided an illustrative detail of a typical WURM ride. The pictures were simply drawn and almost humorous in places if it weren’t about to be happening to you.
The first diagram in the sequence portrayed a crew of mice strapped securely into their seats. Ziro put a mental check in the box. The second picture showed the rocket igniting and the vehicle racing down the tunnel tracks at nearly 200 tails per second. At this he cringed. Already he could feel his stomach turning. Below this, an insert illustration showed the passengers all smiling in their seats, except for one who had was holding a paper sack to his mouth. Ziro swallowed and tried not to think about it.
He skimmed over the rest of the pictures without truly paying attention to them. Even though he had only ridden a WURM once before, what followed had left an indelible mark on his life. There would be the sudden ratcheting stop as the transport reached its final destination. The crew would disembark the vessel and make their way to the chutes where they would be sucked up to the surface in a heartbeat. Ziro shuddered at the thought of the moments ahead and tried to remind himself that it was part of being an Elite Guard. Even though this was only a training mission, he was now one step closer to fulfilling his lifelong dream and making his family proud.
“Well, that should do it, yes,” Rudd said, poking his head through the side door, and startling Ziro from his thoughts. “The repairs are finished and the track is clear, see. Is everybody strapped tight?”
Demo nodded in reply. “Coordinates are set, we’re ready for launch, and it’s a good way to die if this rust bucket doesn’t hold.”
“She’ll hold, right,” Rudd said, giving the thumbs up. “Ears up, mice!”
“Ears up,” the squad shouted in unison.
Rudd smiled and slammed the door shut, latching them in the notorious WURM. There was no backing down now. No escape from the horrors of tube travel.
Demo pressed a red button, and the rocket engine began to ignite. He adjusted a few dials, as the roar from the rocket grew steadily louder. The entire transport started to shake and rattle from the building pressure of the rocket’s power. At times, Ziro wondered if the whole thing would rattle apart before they left the platform.
“Hold on to your tails, kids…this is where it gets fun,” Demo shouted. He released a lever and the transport shot forward like a bullet from a gun. Before Ziro could even say a prayer, they were hurling down the black throat of a winding tunnel toward Liwa.
“Yeeeeeehaw!” Streak shouted, clearly enjoying every minute of it. Ziro felt sick…with each lurch and drop in the track, every turn or jolt, he could feel his stomach sickening. Even so, he couldn’t force the smile off his face. It was the best moment of his life.
Mission One had begun.