CHAPTER 15: Black is Back
Ziro felt like throwing up...again. Only this time, it had nothing to do with the ride. Unlike the WURM, the Dragoon was as exceptionally smooth as it was speedy. No, this sudden urge to empty his stomach had everything to do with where they were heading...and why. He knew what would be waiting for him at the Academy, and it wasn’t going to be fun.
The journey was over in an impossibly short time. Ziro had been so wrapped up in his thoughts it hardly seemed time had passed at all. As the engines whirred down the squad began to speculate.
“We couldn’t possibly be at the Academy already, could we?” Streak wondered. “No transport is that fast.”
“No. We’re not at the Academy,” Nightshade stated. “We travelled North.”
“North of Liwa?” Demo asked. “I didn’t know there was anything north of Liwa except for the mountain range and...well...more wasteland.”
“Precisely,” Nightshade said. “Something is up.”
The hatch that separated the cargo hold from the forward compartment swung open in tandem with the rear ramp which lowered once again, opening to a world bathed in midnight. Alpha Squad moved through the cargo hold on their way to the exit. Ziro made a point to look the other way, especially when Magenta passed by. He had no sympathy for traitors.
Nitro was last to make his way to the exit. He paused at the outer ramp just long enough to take one last look at his captives.
“Sorry to keep you four waiting,” he taunted. “We have a slight detour to take care of. Seems your friend, the Colonel, is camped out in the Pestilence hive. We’re going to bring him in, like real Elites.”
He patted the restraining cuffs hanging off his belt and smiled. The smile faded quickly, however, when he became aware that his little brother didn’t even seem to be listening to him; staring off into an empty corner of the room. Realizing he wouldn’t be getting any rise out of his brother, Nitro bolted out the door.
Even after the door had latched shut, Alpha squad’s laughter could still be heard as they marched away.
Demo tugged at the magnetic restraints holding him against the wall and growled, “Next time let me have a piece of your punk brother, will ya Chief?”
Ziro said nothing.
“Am I missing something?” Streak asked, “Why would Black be working with the Pestilence? He’s a Mech Mice legend. A hero, not a traitor.”
“Mice change,” Ziro sighed. “Maybe they offered him a better position.”
Nightshade couldn’t find the logic in it, “But what would he gain by ordering us into Liwa?”
“Yeah,” Streak agreed. “We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for his orders. If he’s really working with the Pestilence, why would he want us to alert the Academy? Wouldn’t he want to keep it a surprise?”
Ziro shook his head and sank back with a shrug. “Who cares? Don’t you get it, we’re done for anyway.”
“What are you talking about?” Demo tried to encourage his commander. “We can still fight this. Once the General learns we were just following orders, he’ll let us off the hook.”
“No,” Ziro said simply, “It’s over. I’m done fighting.”
The faces of Streak, Demo and Nightshade had looks of pure shock - as if this was the first time any of them had ever seen their commander give up. And, in fact, it was.
“You mean, you’re quitting?” Streak questioned.
Ziro sighed, “Because now I know what it means to be an Elite. The Mech Mice don’t need guys like us...they need more Nitros. Tough, cold-blooded mice, who care more about the mission than the mice they serve. I’m not that guy. That’s why, when we get back, I’m resigning from the Academy for good.”
The mood was heavy and might have remained that way until Alpha returned if a mysterious voice hadn’t broke the silence.
“Then you’d be making the biggest mistake of your life,” the raspy voice announced.
All ears shot up, as the unexpected arrival remained hidden from sight.
“Who’s there,” Demo demanded, his voice echoing off the walls of the cargo hold.
A clatter of noise from behind one of the storage panels drew the squad’s attention across the room. Out of the shadows, the ancient Liwan that had watched Ziro so keenly at the feast emerged from the corner of the room and stepped into view. His dark robe covered all but the tip of his snout. Ziro was confused, why had the old mouse stowed away on the ship?
“The question isn’t who am I, but who are you,” the mysterious mouse prodded.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ziro answered half-heartedly. “We’re a bunch of nobodies who were too naive to realize we never belonged out here to begin with.”
“Wrong!” the stranger shouted, with more strength in his voice than Ziro expected him to have. “You are the ones the Liwans have been waiting for. You are the Five prophesied by the stars to save them.”
Ziro rolled his eyes, “Yeah, well I hate to disappoint the stars, old man, but in case you haven’t noticed there are only four of us and things aren’t exactly going our way right now. When this transport arrives at the Academy, we’re going to be cut from the program.”
The stranger nodded slowly, seeming to agree with Ziro. Then, he lifted a claw and pointed decidedly at Ziro’s chest and offered a word of wisdom.
“The sun must set before a new day can begin. The question is, are you ready for a new dawn?”
Ziro wasn’t easily encouraged. “Look, we’re not the ones you want, okay? Alpha Squad are the real heroes you’re after.”
This time the stowaway nearly exploded with impatience, “Oh, for crying out loud, you sissy. If I had wanted to send Alpha out here I would have done so in the first place!”
Suddenly, the grizzly voice of the old mouse sounded oddly familiar. Ziro’s heart jumped in his chest as the stranger threw back his hood to reveal none other than...
“Colonel Black?” All four mice gasped in near unison.
There was a sly grin on the shrew’s snout from the joy of knowing he had just pulled one over on everybody.
“Of course it’s me,” he growled. “You didn’t think I’d send you on a test mission without checking in once in awhile, did you?”
“But you’re so...tall?” Nightshade pondered aloud, trying to piece together what he had failed to miss before. Black threw the robe off, revealing a pair of stilts beneath.
“It’s called recon, you dope,” he exploded with pride. “The way we used to do it. You don’t need no cloaking technology to disappear.”
Black wore a tattered grey field uniform as ragged as he was old. It was the kind you saw in photographs from the first war against Verminion.
“But you’re...” Ziro paused, “your supposed to be...”
“On the run?” the old shrew offered with a curious grin. “I am...but it’s not the way you think. You kick the hornet’s nest and you’re bound to get stung. Seems somebody didn’t like us poking around here in Liwa. That’s why I sent you in as bait. I knew it had to be someone with the power to intercept our messages and keep squads away from this region.”
“The General?” Streak wondered.
“That’s my hunch. But I still need proof.”
Ziro was trying to keep up, “But what does he have to gain? I mean, what could he possibly have in common with the Pestilence?”
“A war,” Black answered simply. “It’s no secret that the General’s power hungry. He’s bored out of his skull too. If I know anything about the old war buck, he wants to taste real action again, to blow things up.”
“I can respect that,” Demo said, “...kind of.”
“Create an enemy, and you create a war,” Black continued.
“But why steal the Liwan’s sap?” Nightshade wondered.
“Who knows? Perhaps he’s found a way to fuel his mechanical army on the stuff. All I know is this could be our chance to catch him by surprise and get the evidence we need to bring him down. If we’re lucky, we’ll even save some Liwans too. That is...unless you still think you aren’t the mice for the job.”
All eyes fell on Ziro for the answer. He cleared his throat. “But we were just pawns. What good can we do?”
At this the pint-sized Colonel pushed a crate in front of Ziro, hopped up on it and stared him dead in the eyes, “I didn’t send you up here because you were pawns...I sent you because you had heart. I knew you would do the right thing, even if it was hard. That’s the caliber of mice I need in a squad. So, what do you say? Let’s finish this, together.”
Ziro pondered the question. He looked to each of his remaining squad members and one by one they nodded their approval.
“What do we have to lose,” Ziro decided.
“That’s the spirit,” Black said, slapping a button on the wall beside the captive squad members. The magnetic cuffs released immediately, letting the squad’s arms fall free at once. Ziro rubbed his wrists and looked up just in time to catch sight of the old Colonel tossing a blaster at his chest. He caught it and cocked it. Black nodded at the mouse with respect.
While Demo started to suit up in his XR suit, Nightshade headed up to the forward compartment to retrieve the hive coordinates. A few moments later he returned with the bug bucket in paw.
“Do we have the coordinates for the hive, ‘Shade?” Ziro asked.
“Negative, commander,” Nightshade answered. “The navigation system is locked down.”
“Crumbs,” Demo grunted, “How will we find the hive without it?”
“I may have an idea,” Nightshade replied, raising the bucket in front of himself. The eyes on the drone were no longer flashing anymore, they were completely lit up. The legs of the critter scrambled wildly in a futile attempt to escape whilst submerged in sap. “It seems we’re not the only one trying to get back to the hive. Watch this!”
Nightshade turned the bucket in the opposite way and the beetle managed to rotate itself back, facing east. In fact, no matter which way the bucket was turned, the bug always moved toward the east.
“Oh, I get it. It’s like having a compass,” Demo blurted out.
“Something like that,” Nightshade explained. “But I don’t know how long it will last.”
“Well, what are we waiting for. Let’s get a move on.” Streak said excitedly.
And so, with the Colonel leading the way, the squad exited the craft and headed out in search of the danger of the hive. They were just in time to witness the rising of the eastern sun. It was a new day for Squad R59, and Ziro was starting to think they might actually have a chance.
As usual, he was overly optimistic.