CHAPTER 20 - Boom Voyage
Nightshade and the cybernetic Liwans had only just escaped the cave tunnels when the ground began to quake beneath their feet. Normally, Nightshade would have commanded everyone to hit the floor, but the sudden rush of warm air blowing out of the mouth of the cave sent his instincts into overdrive.
“Everyone run,” he shouted at the top of his lungs. Young and old, scrambled across the rocky terrain trying desperately to get away from whatever was behind them. Seconds later, a blast of fire and smoke streamed out of the tunnel with the ferocity of a rocket taking flight.
“Look,” Gibb shouted, above the roar of the ground. He pointed his robotic arm toward the landscape behind them where the towers of the factory once stood. To everyone’s shock, the spine of towers began to rise, belching black smoke as they went. Tearing up through the ground, the once subterranean fortress suddenly became skyborne - a flying fortress.
“What is it?” Toli gasped in awe.
“It looks like...some kind of giant, metal...moth?” Gibb said in disbelief.
Nightshade nodded his head in agreement. It did rather look like a moth. A flying wing with a spiky spine and a fire in its belly. For a moment they all watched in disbelief at the curious sight of the fortress in the sky. The awful truth suddenly hit Nightshade - his squad was still on board.
Rushing up the hill Nightshade hurried back to the parked Dragoon only to find it had already been destroyed by the enemy. All that was left was a pile of rubble.
Gibb arrived a few moments later, noting the distraught expression Nightshade wore. “What is it?” he asked firmly. He placed his metal paw on the slender mouse’s slumped shoulders.
“It’s nothing, I just...” Nightshade felt a lump grow in his throat. He didn’t know how to express the emotions he was feeling. It wasn’t just his squad trapped aboard that enemy ship... those mice were his closest friends. Gibb understood completely.
“No need to explain,” he said in return, “You risked your life to save my tribe and my family. You’ve given us our freedom. Now, you have my word that we will not abandon you in your time of need.”
Nightshade looked up at the altered Liwan with disbelief.
“I can’t ask you to...”
“You don’t have to. We’re volunteering for the job. Isn’t that right bucks? Who here wants to help this skinny little fella save his friends?” Gibb announced to the Liwans. His question was met with a hardy cheer from the others. Even Tal and Toli jumped up and down in excitement.
“There you see,” Gibb stated proudly, “It’s unanimous. We’re with you.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it but...I just don’t see what you can do to help. Not unless you can fly.”
At this, Gibb gave a curious wink and said, “Mice with wings. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Nightshade had no idea what Gibb meant, but he figured he was about to find out.
Ziro awoke to a hard slap in the face.
“Come on kid, snap out of it,” a vaguely familiar voice shouted at him. His mind was a fog, and his vision no better. He had to force himself to shake off whatever was weighing his eyelids down and tried to find his sight once more.
“He’s coming to,” the voice shouted again, this time accompanied by a more colorful blur. “That’s right, we need you to wake up...now!”
Another slap. This time Ziro felt awake enough to respond.
“Ouch!” he shouted back. “Knock it off.”
“Not until I see the whites of your eyes, kid,” the voice answered him. “I will slap you again if I have to. I’m actually enjoying it.”
This time, Ziro recognized the voice as that of his brother, Nitro. He forced his eyes open for good and focused on the mouse he had despised for so long.
“Morning, sleeping beauty,” Nitro scoffed. “You’re in a heap of trouble here and I ain’t getting you out of it alone. How are the others?”
A second voice answered from behind Ziro, this one he recognized immediately. It was Magenta.
“They’re coming around, but this webbing is too sticky...I can’t get them loose. I need something sharp.”
Ziro turned his head and caught Magenta’s eyes. The last time he had seen her she was betraying him for Alpha in Liwa. Now he was glad she was alive, but beyond that...he didn’t know what to think of her.
“I found her knife in the caves,” Ziro said, nodding toward his boot. Nitro recovered the weapon, tossed it to Magenta and walked away. Magenta knelt beside Ziro and cut at the sticky webbing with her knife, one strand at a time.
"I thought you'd left us forever," Ziro whispered to Magenta in a hushed tone.
"Ha," Magenta laughed, "It'd take a lot more than an overgrown centipede for me to bite the dust."
"No..." Ziro stammered. "I mean... I thought you'd deserted us. Back in Liwa."
Magenta stopped cutting for a moment. "Oh."
Ziro's voice grew edgy. "Would it have killed you to support us when we were being arrested?"
“What did you want me to do? Turn myself in too?”
“Well, yeah...no...I mean...maybe,” Ziro said. “It would have been a nice gesture.”
Magenta rolled her eyes and shook her head as she cut the last of the webbing free. “Look, if I had, I wouldn’t be rescuing you right now, would I? Besides, staying with Alpha meant that I was able to stick up for you guys and talk some sense into Nitro."
"I..." Ziro didn't know what to say.
Magenta helped Ziro to his feet and knelt down to tuck her knife back in her boot. As she did, she looked up and smiled at Ziro. “Thanks,” she said, standing up.
“Uh... you too,” Ziro replied, hoping to break the awkwardness of the moment.
Just then, the floor shuddered and the room began to tilt. Magenta momentarily lost her footing and stumbled into Ziro, nearly toppling both of them over again. He couldn’t help but notice the flustered look on her face as she called across the room to Nitro who was seated at a nearby console.
“What’s going on, Nitro?”
“It wasn’t me,” Nitro explained. “This thing won’t shut off autopilot.” Nitro tapped a monitor in front of him where a large digital clock counted down the final minutes until detonation. “We’ve got less than twenty minutes until we reach the Burrow, so if anybody has any ideas now is the time to start throwing them out. Any luck with an exit, Boggs?”
“Nope, everything’s locked down,” Nitro’s only surviving squad member replied. “We might be able to blast through the elevator doors, but there’s an army of bugs waiting for us down there. What we need is a serious can opener to cut through these walls.”
“Hang on a sec,” Ziro said as Black and Demo began to find their way back to consciousness. “How did you guys get here and why is this building moving?”
Magenta explained how she and the two surviving Alpha members had snuck into a ventilation shaft and made their way up to the the control center unseen. They had heard everything about Axel and his plans and were even about to drop in to help when he made his escape with the shard. “That’s when he locked the room and activated this flying fortress, setting us on a collision course with the Burrow,” she concluded.
“So let me get this straight,” Demo asked, finally fully awake. “We’re on a one way trip back to the Academy...with a cargo hold full of sap bombs.”
“Yup,” Nitro answered from his console.
“Not good,” Demo said, still a bit groggy from being drugged.
“Tell me about it,” Nitro replied.
“Why don’t we just go back out the way you guys came in?” Ziro asked.
“Not enough time,” Nitro explained, “Besides, it’s up to us to stop this thing from colliding with the Burrow. We botch this mission we lose a lot of mice. Either we save the day or die trying.”
“It’s guts and glory time, boys.” Black said with a grin. “This is the stuff heroes are made of.”
For a moment everyone considered the weight of the moment, then they all set to work trying to find answers to the problem. As he thought, a single name crept into Ziro’s head.
“Enzo,” he said abruptly out of the blue.
“Excuse me?” Magenta asked.
“You know, Axel’s brother, I bet if anyone knows how to unlock Axel’s auto-pilot, it would be Enzo. At the very least he can warn the Burrow of the attack.”
“Fine by me, kid,” Nitro grunted his approval. “Only one problem, how do we reach him. All communications are jammed.”
“Not all communications,” Streak said, rushing over to Axel’s fallen communications helmet. He picked it up and examined the curious device. It was heavier than he had imagined at first.
“Streak, you’re a genius,” Magenta said as the short team member strapped on the massively oversized helmet. He looked ridiculous, but at least it covered his sap crusted hair.
“Let’s see what this thing can do,” Streak said, as he punched in Enzo’s extension into the panel on the side of the helmet. “Call Enzo.”
The lights on the helmet began to flash and spark as the communicator made the connection. In mere moments, a projection of an old doe in curlers and wrapped in a towel appeared in front of Streak. Surely this was a bad connection. Streak winced at the sight, closing his eyes in hopes of erasing the image from his mind.
“Oh, no...you’re not Enzo!”
“Enzo? General, what are you talking about? Is this some kind of prank?” The old doe griped. Her voice was shrill but full of concern. “Why are you calling me at home? Where’s my husband...is he with you? If he is, you tell that Augustus Black he better get home in one piece.”
“Augustus?” Streak asked aloud, “Do you mean the Colonel?”
“He ain’t the Colonel in this house,” she explained.
Black slapped his paws to his face. “You idiot! That’s not Enzo... You dialed my wife!”
Streak looked flustered. “I didn’t invent the crazy hat. How am I supposed to know how to use it?”
Black couldn’t help but hear his own voice in Streak’s complaint. He had to chuckle. “Here, hand it over. Let me talk to her,” he said, pulling the helmet off Streak’s head and attaching it to his own. If Streak looked funny in the hat, Black looked down right ridiculous. His size alone made the hat look twice as big as it did on anyone else.
“Zelda are you there?” he called out, struggling to keep the visor in view so he could see her.
“Of course I’m here, General, you just called me. What’s going on?”
“Listen...sugar lips,” Black explained, “It’s me, Augustus. I don’t have much time to explain, but I need you to do something for me.”
“Augustus? What are you trying to pull, General? Stop goofing around and don’t you dare call me sugar lips or I’ll...”
“Zelda it’s ME!” Black bellowed, “I can’t explain how, but somebody has rigged the communicator to broadcast fake orders from the General and I need your help.”
“Oh my,” Zelda said. “Is everything all right, smoochie?”
Black paused, suddenly realizing that if things didn’t go well this could be the last time he talked to his wife. For the first time in a long time, Black’s voice got choked up. “Actually, Snookums, something has come up and if things don’t go well in the next few minutes the entire Academy and Burrow may be blown to bits. I...I have a chance to save everyone, but I’ll need your help. Can you forward this call to Enzo? He’s a lab rat at the Burrow.”
Zelda nodded, her eyes welling up with tears. She had been in this situation far too many times over the length of the Colonel’s career. Still, she never got used to it.
“I have his extension now,” Zelda said at last. “But one thing before I let you go, Smoochie?”
Black swallowed hard, “Yes, sweetie? What is it?”
“Kick some tail for me,” Zelda said, angrily.
Black smiled to himself. “That’s my girl.”
The call ended as Zelda transferred the Colonel (who looked like the General) to Enzo’s office. Luckily, Enzo answered. After a short explanation of what was going on, Enzo began to piece together the details of his own brother’s deception.
“I was wonderings where my brothers had been goings, but I never expects he was ups to anythings like this,” Enzo explained. “It’s nots like hims.”
“Yeah, well believe it or not...it’s happening,” Black explained. “So what can we do? Is there an override for this auto pilot? Maybe some kind of power failure reset boot thingy like he did to the bugs?”
Enzo stroked his whiskers and considered the idea.
“Power failures, you says?” Enzo asked, furrowing his brow in intrigue. “Hmmm...that mights actually works if you makes full powers blackout... evens zee backup powers.”
“Just tell us what do we need to do, Enzo,” Black said.
The process involved typing a series of commands into a pair of computer consoles - a foreign language to Black. Nitro quickly took control of the helmet to work with Enzo in hacking both the ship’s main and backup power grids. Soon, two terminal screens sat waiting to run the separate shut down commands. Nitro motioned Ziro into the seat beside him.
“Your timings must be exacts,” Enzo explained. “You must both press yous buttons at the sames time. When you comes online again, someone musts be ready to pilot the ships.”
“I’m on it,” Demo volunteered, taking a seat at what had to be the flight controls.
Nitro and Ziro nodded to one another, holding a claw over their respective keyboards. If this was going to work, they’d have to do it together.
“On three,” Ziro said. “One, two...THREE.”
In unison, the two brothers pressed their buttons and immediately, everything went dark. The rockets fell silent.
The squads held their collective breath as the flying fortress began to bank downward, falling toward the ground. It only took a few seconds for the power to restore, but it seemed like an eternity.
All eyes remained glued on the terminal screens as they lit up with a new string of commands.
> Restart Please wait... Initiating rocket systems. > Autopilot: Searching for navigation coordinates... Not found.
With a jolt, the rockets ignited again lifting the Mothship skyward once more. Everyone let out a sigh of relief as Demo eased the controls back to level them out. As Colonel Black worked with Demo to set a new course, Nitro redialed Enzo on the helmet to share the good news.
“So ze reboots works, yes?” Enzo said as he came back on screen.
“Good as gold,” Nitro began to answer.
“Hold on,” Ziro interrupted, pointing back to the monitor. “Something’s happening.”
> Autopilot: Transferring backup coordinates from S.A.P... Autopilot engaged.
“Hey!” Demo complained loudly. “What’s going on? The controls just locked up on me. It’s pulling us back.”
“The navigation reset its coordinates,” Magenta said grimly. “We’re still heading for the Burrow.”
“Axel eez the smart one,” Enzo said calmly. “He always the one to say we nevers can have too many backups. That is usuallys a good thing.”
“Except when you need to wipe it out,” Nitro countered.
“Ask him what ‘S.A.P.’ could mean,” Ziro urged Nitro.
“S.A.P, you says?” Enzo said. “That is here... In the simulator. The Simulation Archive Program. We wrotes that program togethers.”
“Can you shut it down?” Nitro asked.
“Yes. I can. To shuts down the S.A.P. requires full powers blackout on the Burrow. But...” Enzo hesitated. His face fell as he realized the implications of taking that action. “This means I could lose seasons of simulations work.”
“Yeah, well if it doesn’t work, we’re all going to lose more than a simulation,” Nitro explained. “It’s a chance we’re going to have to take.”
“Hmmm...there is anothers problem,” Enzo said. “An orders for a full powers blackout on the facility can only comes from the General.”
Nitro looked to the Colonel for answers. Black just rolled his eyes, “Who does it look he’s talking to?”
Overhearing Black’s comment, Enzo giggled and saluted the fake General Hatchet on his communicator. “Sure enough, Generals. Okays by me. I will prepares the shut down heres. You must rerun the shut down on the ships too.”
When all of the commands were synced and ready to execute, Enzo explained to the squad that the burrow would also shut off the entire communication system for up to a couple minutes. They’d be on their own.
Once again, everything fell silent after the buttons were pressed. The squad held on tight as the reboot sequence repeated. This time, everyone kept quiet until the screen reached the critical command line.
> Autopilot: Transferring backup from S.A.P... Transfer failed. System not found.
“Autopilot disengaged,” Demo blurted out. “It worked! We have full manual control...I think.”
It was good news, but it didn’t change the fact that they were now heading into a near vertical nose dive toward the ground. The engines hadn’t recovered nearly as quickly from this second power loss.
“Pull up! Pull up!” Nitro screamed as the screen began to flash a bright red alert.
Demo took the controls, pulling heavily back on the lever that operated the lift. At the last second, the giant moth ship turned upward skimming the tree tops. Demo banked the ship, turning it away from the Burrow and charting a new course toward the wastelands of Erg.
There was a brief sigh of relief, and everyone began to cheer at a job well done. They had managed to save the Burrow and their own hides from certain disaster. But the celebration was cut short when the countdown screen activated once more.
“Uh... why is that thing still counting down?” Streak wondered, tapping the screen.
“It’s the bombs...” Ziro said, in sickening disbelief. “They’re still armed to explode. This ship is on a self destruct timer.”
Silence fell across the room as the trapped heroes grappled with their impending doom. But even the silence was shattered by the renewed sound of pounding and buzzing at the elevator doors. The power reset had done more than just reset the auto-pilot. It had also reset the bugs communication system. Whatever temporary hold Axel had put on them was lost now - they were back online and aggressive as ever, fighting their way back into the control room. Demo handed the control of the ship to the Colonel and rushed to help in the defense of their room.
Unless a miracle happened, there would be no escaping this time