CHAPTER 8 - Middle of Nowhere
Tension was high as the squad waited in earnest for the creature to reappear. With blasters raised and vengeance on their minds, they scanned the waters.
“First shot is mine,” Ziro said. Nobody argued the point. With wide eyes, and ears up, they bided their time.
Eventually, a series of subsurface rumbles sent quivers through the sinkhole. Something big was on the move beneath the water. A trail of bubbles zigzagged their way toward the shoreline, stopping a few paws from where the mice stood. For a time all was silent, and then… SPLOOSH!
A beastly form covered in black sludge burst out of the depths with a mechanical groan. It erupted with such force that a torrent of bone-chilling water sloshed over the banks and doused the squad from head to tail knocking Streak completely off his feet. Holding his balance, Ziro clawed his trigger and took aim at the sludge-covered heap towering over him but before he took the shot Ziro hesitated.
Even through the darkness, there was something familiar about the shape of the mass. Then, it began to shake wildly, flinging bits of sludge, slime and snake guts all over the squad. Before it was done, Ziro was covered in the putrid muck.
“Oops, sorry about that guys,” a booming voice echoed in response.
“Demo?” Ziro muttered, recognizing the voice straight away. It couldn’t be. He wiped the mire from his face and squinted at the form in front of him. The mouse was hardly recognizable at first, but it was Demo all right. He was piloting his Heavy XR Suit and covered in sludge. Ziro could hardly believe his eyes.
“Last I checked.”
“But that thing in the pond…how did you?”
From inside his suit cockpit, Demo motioned toward his chest and the mechanical suit repeated the gesture. “Nobody messes with my suit and lives to tell about it. Let’s just say that thing won’t have the guts to try that again.”
As if on cue, a jelly-like glob of black goo slipped off his cockpit window and fell to the ground with a wet splat! There were smiles all around as the team regrouped to assess their situation. The tunnel on the far side was completely caved in, which meant the only way out of this mud hole was up.
The sinkhole walls were much too steep to climb by paw, they’d have to use other means to ascend to the surface.
“Okay team,” Ziro commanded, “Claws up, we’re going topside.”
In near unison, Magenta, Streak, Nightshade and Ziro all activated their grappling claws. Razor sharp hooks emerged from beneath their wrist communicator and launched sky high. The claws landed just outside the rim of the sinkhole, and sunk into the earth. The silk line that connected the hooks to the mice shimmered in the dim light. It was thin, but sturdy enough to hold the weight of a mouse. Spider silk - amazing stuff.
“Hey, Tin man, last one up is a rat’s rear end,” teased Streak, eyeing Demo and his suit of steel. Streak engaged the grappling winch and sped up the line. Demo didn’t have any grappling claws in his suit. It was built for firepower, not scaling walls. Still, he had other means.
“Oh, it’s on,” Demo’s eyes lit up. He was always up for a challenge. Besides, he had been dying to test the limits of his suit.
Demo fired up the jump jets which were mounted on the back of his suit and rocketed a quarter of the way up the far wall. Pushing against the mud, he glanced back across the gap and repeated the process jumping his way back and forth toward the top of the sinkhole. From below, he looked more like a mechanical baboon than a mouse, but he was gaining on Streak, rapidly.
Streak crested the ridge of the pit. Blinking in the sunlight he caught a glimpse of a monolithic form, silhouetted before him. As his eyes adjusted he realized it was Demo. His jaw dropped.
“Mess with a Heavy and your gonna get crushed,” Demo bragged.
Streak frowned sourly. He never liked being second at anything.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the squad joined them on the surface. One quick glance at the desolate terrain was all it took to realize they were nowhere near Liwa. As far as the eye could see the world was a wasteland of rocks and dust. The few plants that dotted the landscape were shabby and frail. It could have been another planet for all they knew.
“Stranded in the middle of nowhere,” Ziro muttered, “Nice.”
Nightshade went to work immediately, trying to determine where they were.
Ziro’s wrist communicator lit and chirped with an incoming message from Colonel Black. Ziro answered. The holographic image of Black projected out from the communicator, hovering a half-tail over the ground. Black’s back was facing the camera, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Commander Ziro! Ziro, come in…do you read me?” Black growled.
“Here, Sir,” Ziro replied, awkwardly talking to the Colonel’s backside. Streak tried not to laugh.
“Huh? Where in the blazes? I can’t see a blasted thing with this newfangled radio… What’s that, Mildra? Oh for crying out loud, why didn’t you say so?” Black turned around to face the recorder and looked as flustered as ever. “Ah, there you are, Ziro. We received a distress signal from your transport. I need a status update!”
Ziro cleared his throat and tried his best to explain the situation.
“We’ve hit a snag, Sir.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Black snarled.
“The track was compromised. We crashed into pit, killed a pond monster…everyone’s okay, but...”
Black wasn’t interested.
“Don’t bore me with the details, Commander. The reason I’m calling…the ONLY reason I’m calling…is to make sure you’re still up for the task, or if we need to find replacements.”
One thing was certain; Black had a way of making you feel disposable. It served as a not-so-subtle reminder that he could pull them from the mission at any time. The message was clear - perform or be replaced.
“Yes sir…I mean, no sir…” Ziro replied, dutifully. “We’ll continue the mission sir, on foot.” At this, the Colonel gave a devilish grin. Maybe these runts weren’t such pushovers after all? They had guts.
“That’s what I like to hear, Commander. Now, listen up. Sources tell me there’s been a considerable shortage in Liwa crops. The trouble started after our final patrol left the region a few seasons ago. If my suspicions are right, Liwa may be aiding the Remnant. Find out what you can. Get evidence. Remember, this is recon. Observe and report. Don’t try to be heroes. You’re my eyes in the field – that’s all. Got it?”
Ziro nodded eagerly. He couldn’t help but sense there was something more to the Colonel’s urgency than just a field training exercise. Maybe what they were doing might actually be important. The others felt it too.
“Well,” the Colonel barked, “don’t just stand there, get a move on.”
Bleep! Just like that, the holographic image disappeared.
“Yes sir,” Ziro saluted out of habit, even though no one was there to receive it. With the Colonel gone, he could refocus on his team.
“Sir,” Nightshade said, “I have our position.” A map appeared on Nightshade’s wrist. A blinking dot identified their location and beside it, a name.
“Io?” Ziro had never heard of it.
“The borderlands,” Magenta answered, accenting her statement by cocking her blaster. “Not exactly a friendly place to be having a picnic.”
“Agreed,” Nightshade added, “Out here we are vulnerable and Liwa is still a full day’s hike north, however…”
“Too far, we’d never make it,” Magenta interrupted. She scanned the skies with both the wisdom of a huntress and its prey.
Zrat. Zrat. Zrat.
She fired three quick shots into the sun, dropping a trio of flies to the dusty ground between them. Streak was impressed, but confused.
“Are you saying we’re supposed to be afraid of…flies?” Streak asked. He reached out to pick up one of the goo-covered insects by its wing, but Magenta slapped his hand away before he could touch it.
“Out here, it never hurts to be too careful,” she explained, picking up the largest of the three flies to inspect it closer. Satisfied, she tossed it in her mouth. With a loud CRUNCH, she bit down on the creature and swallowed. “Eat…or be eaten, kid. No two ways about it.”
“Actually, there is another way,” Nightshade said, hoping to continue where he had been cut off.
All eyes returned to the slender black mouse.
“If we head east, instead of north, we could reach the Forest of Rama before nightfall. It’s a bit out of the way, but our only chance at cover for the night. From there we can make our way through the forest to the northern regions.”
“We don’t have much choice. It’s getting hotter by the minute,” Ziro commanded, shading his eyes from the afternoon sun. “Let’s move out.”
To help pass time, Streak suggested they chant one of their marching cadences from the Academy. Magenta rolled her eyes from the front of the pack as the others called out their marching tune.
“We are Mech Mice,” Ziro started. “THIS IS TRUE!” The others shouted back. “Mess with us,” “YOU’LL BE BLACK AND BLUE!” “When evil stirs,” “THERE AIN’T NO FEAR,” “The Mech Mice guard,” “ALL ALWAYS NEAR.”
This went on for the next hour with several variations of the chant. All the while, Magenta kept her distance. She wasn’t into the whole “Rah, Rah!” team-building thing. Being outnumbered she didn’t have much of a choice. She did her best to endure it for a few more rounds until they started in to a chant she couldn’t stand:
“One day I saw a butterfly,” “Wink at me as it flew by,” “I offered him a piece of bread…”
At this point, Magenta had heard enough. The whole thing was getting on her nerves nearly as much as the relentless heat. It had to end. She decided to inject a bit of her own flavor into the final line and shouted it out, overriding the squad’s usual lyric with one of her own.
“AND THEN SHOT OFF HIS PUNY HEAD!”
For a moment, the squad was quiet. Then Demo and Streak burst into gut wrenching laughter. Somewhere along the way the enthusiasm level of the chants had dropped significantly. The heat had been draining them dry.
“Melting-mozzarella! Who turned up the heat?” Streak complained in between puffs; his usual energy sapped by the relentless sun.
Demo grunted his agreement. “They sure don’t train you for this part in the simulators.”
“At least you get the free ride,” Streak jabbed a claw up at the Mech suit Demo was operating. “How ‘bout a lift big fella? What do ya say?”
Magenta rolled her eyes and gave the younger mouse a friendly push back into formation. “Seriously, Streak, you sound like a whining pup. What’s next, ‘Are we there yet?’”
“Now that you mention it…” Streak called forward to his Commander. “So what is it, Ziro. Are we there yet?”
Ziro wiped the sweat from his own brow and tried his best to pass off the news as no big deal. “If we pick up the pace, it’ll only be about another hour or so.”
The squad let out a unified groan. The silent march continued until Ziro added, “And, once we reach the forest, we’ll have to switch into full recon mode – so, no more chants.”
“Now that,” Magenta chuckled, “that’s what I call good news!”
“So Chief,” Streak asked, “Anything we should know about Liwa before we get there?”
Ziro deferred the question to Nightshade who always seemed to know obscure data when you needed it. Nightshade repeated what he knew with near textbook perfection.
“The Liwan mice are farmers mostly,” he explained. “Berries, nuts, things of that nature. However, their biggest resource is tree sap. They tap the trees and sell it as syrup and glue.”
“Sounds like a real exciting life,” Magenta noted sarcastically.
“Hey, my mom used to use their syrup on my grubs,” Demo explained. “Real tasty stuff. Maybe we can snag a few jars to take back. You know, as souvenirs.”
“We’re not here to sight-see, Demo” Ziro reminded him. “We’re not even supposed to BE seen.”
“Fine,” Demo sighed, “Call it evidence.”
Ziro shook his head, and pressed forward across the rugged terrain.
“Curiously enough,” Nightshade continued, “Even though they fall under the protection of the Mech Mice, they are simple mice. They don’t use any form of machinery in their colony.”
“Whoa. That ought to slow harvesting down. What are they, gluttons for punishment?” Streak asked.
“Actually, their tribe believes it’s an abomination for mice to engage in what they call the Dark Arts. Our technology isn’t exactly acceptable to their elders.”
“Somebody should remind them of that the next time we save their tails,” Magenta replied.
The sun was very nearly set by the time the squad crested the final ridge of Io. Ahead of them, the black forest of Rama seemed like an oasis from a dream in comparison to the rocky terrain they’d experienced for the past hour. Ziro couldn’t believe their good fortune. All along the treeline a small stream of glistening water separated the forest from the wasteland.
“Is that what I think it is,” Streak shouted happily, rushing down the hillside in anxious pursuit of the treeline. “It’s water! Real, running water!” In no time flat Streak reached the edge of the stream pulled off his suit and dove head first into the refreshing water.
“What are you guys waiting for?” Streak called out, “It’s amazing!”
Nightshade and Demo took off down the hillside, anxious for rest and relaxation. Ziro paused for a moment and smiled as he watched his squad enjoying their moment of success. Magenta eyed him warily. Though she’d never admit it, she had started to appreciate Ziro’s leadership. It occurred to her that despite all their faults, this squad had something she hadn’t experienced before in a team...a true bond.
“You really like these guys, don’t you,” she prodded.
“Yeah, I’d trust them with my life,” he said, realizing that for the first time Magenta had actually initiated a conversation that didn’t feel forced. It wasn’t much, but it was progress. He decided to see how far he could take it. “We’re family.”
“Hmph,” Magenta smirked. “Yeah, right.”
Ziro didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to, he just watched and laughed as Demo ejected from his Mech Suit and splashed into the stream with spectacular cannonball style. Magenta eyed Ziro again. He pretended not to notice.
“Come on,” Ziro said. “Race you to the stream.”
“You’re crazy,” Magenta replied, “I’m not going in there. I’m not interested in being leach bait.”
Ziro took off after his squad.
“Family,” Magenta mumbled under her breath as she started down the hill. The word held so many negative memories for her it felt like a curse word. Abandoned by her father, neglected by her mother, Magenta was on her own a full season younger than most pups. In the wild, she learned how to fend for herself, to trust no one. It was survival of the fittest and she never looked back.
Only after she surveyed Mech Mice elite guard in action did she realize the potential it offered. She joined up that day as a way of getting her aggression out. She made Elite squad in her first year, paired with Nitro and the Alpha team. She was really good at her job, but it didn’t matter. When Nitro got tired of her, he cut her from the team...just like everyone else in her life. Family!
She was so lost in thought as she sauntered down the hillside, she didn’t even hear the owl gliding up behind her, until it’s talons were in her back