CHAPTER 14: Falling Apart
“What are you doing here?” Ziro demanded. The last person in the world he expected to see in Liwa was Nitro and the Alpha squad. Then again, they always did have a knack for ruining his life. Why should today be any different?
“I could ask you the same thing,” Nitro snarled, meeting his half-brother’s glare with one of his own.
“We’re on recon, if you must know,” Ziro boasted. “Black’s orders.”
“You? On a mission?” Nitro couldn’t contain his laughter. He turned to his squad and shouted. “Hey guys...hear that? They actually think they’re on a real mission.” The rest of the Alpha Squad chuckled dumbly along with their leader.
Ziro clinched his paws. He had half a mind to run over and punch the pompous jerk directly in the snout. He would certainly deserve it.
“What’s your deal, Nitro,” Magenta asked, stepping between the two brothers, “Not enough rookies back at the Academy to pick on?”
Nitro hadn’t noticed Magenta until that moment. Their eyes met and his expression softened from one of aggression to confused intrigue.
“Mags? What are you doing way out here with these losers, babe?”
“My job,” Magenta said plainly. “And they aren’t losers.”
“Whatever,” said Nitro, disinterested in any show of support for Ziro’s squad. He eyed her bandaged shoulder and furrowed his brow. “Another injury, eh? Tough break. You know, it was a shame we had to cut you from the team. I always thought we worked good together...real good.”
“Yeah, you were torn up about it. Took all of two seconds to ditch me.”
“Hey, I did what I had to do. I was a bit surprised though to hear you took your name off the Alpha squad reserve list. You know there’s a long line of mice who would give their tail to have a shot at working with me.”
“What can I say. I’m not really a ‘reserve’ type of gal.”
“Your loss,” Nitro said, dismissively. He turned his attention back to Ziro and the matter at hand. “Anyway, I’m only here to convey General Hatchet’s direct orders to your squad: you are to return to the Academy immediately to answer for your crimes.”
“Crimes? What crimes?” Ziro asked.
“Oh, now I wouldn’t know any of the classified charges,” Nitro was toying with him now. “But reports are: leaving Academy grounds without orders... hijacking and destroying a transport... stealing an XR Mech Suit...operating in the field without a fully registered squad... engaging an unidentified target... and generally endangering the lives of your squad through reckless behavior? You get the idea.”
Ziro was shocked. Surely it was all a mistake. Looking around at his team, they were just as baffled at Nitro’s claims as he was.
“Now, hang on a minute...” Demo challenged, having bristled at the mention of his XR suit. “Nobody stole nothing. We were sent here on the Colonel’s orders himself, show him Ziro.”
Ziro nodded anxiously and tried to access the mission orders on his wrist computer, but the device came up blank. It was as if the orders never existed. “I don’t understand. They were just there...”
Nitro couldn’t hide his smug expression now even if he wanted to. “What’s not to understand? It’s pathetic really, inventing a fake mission so you could con your squad into supporting you on this wild fantasy of yours. Why did you do it, Ziro? Couldn’t take Black disbanding your squad?”
“That’s NOT what happened,” Ziro replied emphatically. “Colonel Black gave the orders for this mission himself. There must be some kind of mix-up. Look, I’ll call him right now and he can straighten this whole mess out...”
“Good luck with that. Black is gone. He was relieved of command yesterday and will be tried for treason as soon as the General can find him.”
“Treason? For what?” Streak asked.
“Well, I’m not really at liberty to say, but turns out there is evidence the old coot was abusing his power to secretly deliver supplies to some fringe remnant of the Dark Union. Anyway, he’s gone missing and our mission is to find him and bring him in. Unless of course, you know where he is?”
Ziro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. With Black gone, there would be nobody to plead his case. Suddenly, Ziro felt like a stooge.
“You’re lying,” he said, not willing to let Nitro get the best of him again.
“Think about it, Ziro. Why on earth would anyone approve a bunch of misfits like you to field recon? I mean, seriously...you’re a bunch of nobodies. Always have been, always will be.”
That was the last straw. Ziro lost control of his temper and tackled Nitro, dropping him to the ground in front of everyone. The two rolled around in a flash of fists, fangs and fur as each of the two brothers struggled for dominance over the other. Ziro was merciless, he held nothing back. For the first time in his life he was beating Nitro...literally. Ziro had moved so quickly, it was all Nitro could do to keep his arms up to protect his face.
Ragtail and Boggs, two of Nitro’s larger mice started toward the fight, threatening to break it up.
“Leave them be, boys,” Magenta said, raising her blaster to target them. The two backed sheepishly away. Evidently, Magenta’s reputation for being a deadly shot still carried weight within the Alpha Squad.
The wrestling continued around the fire pit, sometimes too close for comfort. The longer it went, the more Ziro struggled to maintain the upper hand. Then, with a well placed kick, Nitro managed to turn the tables, knocking Ziro’s feet out from under him and landing him on the ground. Nitro took full advantage of the moment, pinning his little brother and choking him. Somehow in the skirmish, Nitro managed to lock a pair of magnetic restraining cuffs onto Ziro’s arms.
With a black eye and bent whiskers, Nitro stood up over his defeated brother once more.
“Grrraah,” Ziro yelled, struggling to separate the cuffs and free himself. It was, of course, no use. He was furious with himself for letting Nitro beat him once more.
“You’ll never learn, will you,” Nitro said, spitting one of his teeth out into the fire. “Face it, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be better than me.”
It was the truth, Nitro had always been a better soldier than Ziro. But it didn’t make it any easier to hear.
“I hate you,” Ziro scowled at his brother through his own swollen eye.
“Yeah well, the feeling is mutual.”
For a moment, the two mice just glared at each other, silently daring one another to say something more. Neither did. A small tear formed at the corner of Ziro’s eye. It was then he realized, deep down he actually despised himself for hating his brother so much. Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore what his squad thought of him, or the Liwans for that matter. It didn’t matter if he got to be the hero or if he ever got to be an Elite or not. He just wanted to get out from the shadow of Nitro once and for all. He wanted this rivalry to be over.
Scanning the crowd, Ziro’s gaze fell upon the old mouse draped in the black cloak. His unseen gaze from beneath the cloak felt more like a mirror now. The shadow of the hood reminding Ziro of the hollowness of his own pursuit to be better than his brother.
Nitro’s voice broke the silence. “Arrest them all and lock them up in the Dragoon.”
One by one, Nitro’s crew secured Ziro’s squad members in restraining cuffs until at last they came to Magenta.
“Hold up,” Nitro called out. He snatched the cuffs from Ragtail and motioned him aside. Magenta turned away in disgust, doing her best to ignore him. “You know,” he said in a lowered voice, “Technically, Squad R59’s active roster doesn’t list you as Lieutenant.”
That got her attention. She directed her glare at him. “What are you getting at?”
“I’m saying you don’t have to go down with these losers,” he paused long enough to let his point sink in. “Unless that’s what you want. Your choice.”
Magenta glanced back at the others, standing in a row with arms clamped in front of them, waiting to be loaded onto the transport. Was that what she wanted? Saying she was with the squad would be a one-way ticket to getting kicked out of the Academy. She was too good of a soldier for that.
“No,” she answered coldly. “My work here is done anyway.” Then, turning to look Ziro right in the eye she added. “It was just another job. Nothing personal.”
Her words cut Ziro deeper than any knife.
“Why, you ungrateful, back-stabbing, traitorous, coward!” Ziro scowled, his face twisted with the pain of betrayal. “We trusted you. I...I trusted you...I...” He was at a loss for words. After all they had been through, it was hard to imagine Magenta was ditching them this easily. Then again, who could blame her, really. She had her career to think about.
Nitro stepped between Magenta and Ziro, before another word could be said. “Can it, Rookie. She’s made her choice. Mags, gather your things and load up. The sooner we get out of this dump, the better.”
Mele approached Nitro, her voice quivering, “But what about our village? Our tribe? The Pestilence will be back tomorrow, and in greater number too! Only they won’t be here for stealing harvest... they’ll be here for revenge. We can’t possibly defend ourselves, we’ll all be killed. You have to help.”
Nitro pushed her aside, “Lady, I’ve got my orders. You are on your own until the General decides to authorize action, that’s all there is to it.”
“But what will we do?”
“Run for the hills for all I care. It’s not my problem. I’m came here on a mouse hunt, not some mercy mission.”
With that said, Nitro boarded the Dragoon. Alpha squad followed behind, pushing Demo, Nightshade, Streak and finally Ziro past Mele, past the crowd of Liwans and past the two little pups desperate for heroes to save their father. Their eyes were wide and wet...their hopes crushed.
Inside, Ziro and the others were magnetically restrained against the cargo hold walls. Ragtail and Boggs returned with Magenta a moment later, dragging the “stolen” XR suit and blasters into the cargo hold. Magenta moved quickly past Ziro and the squad, taking her belongings, and a bucket of sap through the hatch to the forward compartment where the crew sat.
“What’s that?” Nitro asked, eyeing the sap bucket from the pilot’s chair. He wrinkled his snout when he saw the beetle floating inside.
“Evidence,” Magenta said, plunking it down on the floor. A bit of sap dripped down it’s side.
Nitro scowled. The sticky farming bucket was completely out of place in the polished titanium interior of the transport.
“Lock it up in one of those, would you?” He waved over at one of the many storage compartments flanking each wall. “And wipe up that slop. I run a clean ship here.”
As soon as the other squad members were on board, the commander swiveled his chair back to the controls. He pressed a button and the rear ramp raised to shut and the engines began to hum.
“Burrow Command, this is Alpha Squad reporting from Liwa region. We have the rogue squad in custody. No sign of Black.”
“We copy you, Alpha,” Base tower replied. “Return to the Bur...”
The communication was suddenly overridden with the arrival of another video message projected on a small monitor. It was General Hatchet himself. Magenta wasn’t the only mouse on board scrambling to salute.
“Nitro!” the square shaped mouse with furrowed grey eyebrows and a peppered black crew cut bellowed. “Status report!”
“R59 has been captured. We are bringing them to base now, sir.”
“Negative! New orders,” Hatchet said abruptly, an eternal scowl painted on his face. “Thanks to the brilliant work of our research rats, we have deciphered new... a new message from Black to Ziro. It says ‘return to hive’ and contains coordinates. We are forwarding these to you now.”
Nitro looked down at the panel as it received the new data.
“What are your orders?”
“Stop Black from getting here... there. Shoot on sight.”
“Yes, sir,” Nitro replied, though with perhaps a hint of a question. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the transmission ended.
Nitro entered the coordinates into the Dragoon’s navigation system and a pinpoint of light identified the destination on a nearby wall map.
“It’s just on the far side of the northern ridge of mountains,” Boggs said. “Definitely within range.”
Nitro smiled cruelly, “Buckle up everyone, we’re gonna go to catch us a shrew.”
With the push of the throttle the Dragoon rumbled across the terrain with ease, leaving Liwa in a cloud of dust.