Chapter Twenty-Eight

"A Brisby dead already?" The wizened paw clutched at its armrest, its owner’s voice full of sly and awful hope, though a touch irritated. "This speeds things up. You were just supposed to put a scare into them with that fire. Mustn’t be so hasty, Turner, now they’ll be out for blood. Yours in particular, I think—Martin and Teresa Brisby know your name, so the others do." The Commander, a deceptively skinny whipcord of a rat, considered springing up and giving Turner another scar, but opted for the diplomatic approach. "I suppose you can’t help it—ever since that doctor did his trick on your head, you’ve been awfully impulsive. Perhaps we should reconsider putting any more candidates through the operation. That’s on hold for now anyway, with our doctor dead. Your impatience has gotten us into a bind either way."

I’ll give you a bind, Turner clicked his tongue. Bind you with adamantine chains and cast you back into the fiery pit, where you belong. "It was about time for direct action, sir."

"Are you talking about the Brisby brat, or the doctor?" The older rat smirked toothily, the paw straying, teasingly, toward the pistol-like needle gun lying on the low table by the armchair.

Turner winced, mostly for effect. You don’t scare me any more. I wonder if you realize that and you’re just playing with me. Wouldn’t put it past you. "I get your meaning, sir. I didn’t trust the doctor--he was having second thoughts about turning traitor." A big enough lie, and maybe the old monster will buy it, Turner prayed.

"He was not born one of us. Finding him dead will be another blow to Justin’s pride. It must sting a bit already—that Cynthia creature was on watch. I’ll bet right now he wishes he’d never turned over his precious Guard to her, what with his crippled stepson burned to a crisp."

"You mistake me, sir," Turner cut him off. "We set the fire, and it would have killed Timothy if he were alone. This last year the deaf girl’s moved in with him, and the pair from Rescue Aid—I hear they all found their way into a safe room." And one of the coils of rope I left lying around, hopefully—

The Commander chuckled, half in admiration. "You never tell me the whole story, Turner. What sort of wheels are turning in your head? No, don’t answer. But answer this—one of your wrecking crew told me that after you had the fire burning well, you dropped something down an airshaft."

"Who’s spying for you?" Turner made a show of lovingly stroking his belt of withered ears. "I’d love to take an ear or two from the snitch."

"It’s not in my interest to have him broken and ruined right now. You need to have a deeper understanding of discipline, Turner—too many of my best rats have gotten on your wrong side and ended up crushed. Try reprimands, or assigning work detail—your methods are wasteful."

How dare you?! Lecturing me on being more gentle! There’s more blood on your paws than I will ever see, and most of it is innocent blood. "You try getting an honest day’s work out of these vermin. They think of nothing but a moment’s pleasure. Without me to crack the whip, they’d give up your cause and leave you a bitter, defeated old wreck. You’re halfway there already, if you ask me."

"Quiet!" the commander snapped. Turner was quite the one for crossing lines today. "Don’t talk strategy to me. Don’t talk strengths and weaknesses. You’re trouble when you think, Turner. I should have had the doctor cut deeper. You’d be more useful to me as dumb muscle." The Commander drummed his claws on the chair, sinking back into it and sighing. He put on a friendlier tone and beckoned Turner closer with a spindly paw.

"I can hear you fine from here," Turner growled sullenly.

"No, no, Turner, you can’t. I order you to come here so you can hear me speak gently."

Turner’s distrust meter rose several notches, and he stood still. "You only speak gently when you want something."

"Want?" The Commander’s body bunched and coiled as he raked at the armrests. "You know what I want. I want you to crush the spirit out of Group A the way you’ve done to the rest of our enemies so far. I want to put something sharp through Justin’s other eye after he sees his twice-cursed pair of half-breeds Matt and Rouse thrown off a cliff. I want to see Elizabeth Brisby-Justin’s eyes up close when I put a needle in her heart at point-blank range instead of hoping for a lucky sniping shot next time. I want to make Timothy crawl at my feet and drag himself along with his arms, since his treacherous father Jonathan died before I could get my paws on him. I want to dig up Nicodemus’ bones and use his skull for a doorstop." The Commander took a deep and heavy breath, and spread his paws, setting his features into an unsettling approximation of a smile. "But Turner, Turner, I want it done according to plan." He patted the table where the needle gun rested.

Turner cautiously crouched by the table, ready to spring away, keeping his eyes on the Commander. "I don’t give this—" he snapped his pawpads with disdain, "—for your plans. You’re all for terror and wearing them down by inches—I take direct and effective action and get called on the carpet for it."

"You know what we hope to do, Turner."

Quit saying we, you sick bastard! Turner’s mind flashed. "Yes, yes, I know," he snarled sullenly. "We need as many of them alive as we can take. But the leaders are expendable--we’ll make examples of them. Especially the Brisbys and Justin’s brood--mice and half-breeds." If I play my cards right, you won’t be making any more martyrs, you murderer. I would love to turn you into a bad memory.

"My young, impetuous, hot-blooded enforcer, that’s what you are. Quite right, we can’t destroy everyone living in Thorn Valley; we need as wide a gene pool as possible, within our own species of course." Here he fixed a distasteful glare on Turner again. "You’re one to talk about half-breeds, Turner. It was incredibly stupid of you to let that mouse Hackwrench live after your squad had their way with her. Now that she’s in Thorn Valley, they’re bound to set her to work strengthening defenses. She’s good with machines and weapons," the Commander caressed his needle gun with a claw. "As good as I am, maybe better. Given time, she could equip the entire Guard with weapons as silent and deadly as this little toy of mine. She does have the weakness of preferring non-lethal ammunition, but I’d kill her in a second to erase the threat she represents to us."

"What’s stopping you?" Turner huffed, though he knew the answer well.

"One of my few soft spots. I hesitate to kill family, though you’re pressing your luck lately, son. And I hear she could be carrying your child."

Lightning-quick, the Commander lashed out to pin Turner's massive paw down, snatching the needle-gun and jerking the trigger. With a PFFFFT! sound, a single needle slammed through Turner's paw and into the wood of the table. Turner howled in surprise and pain as blood sprang up through his fur and he wrenched the paw away. The tiny sliver of metal, crimsoned now, stood half-embedded in the table. "What's that supposed to prove?" Turner snapped, stalking away from his father and keeping an eye on the needle-gun. "You're nothing without your coward's weapons. I'll meet you paw-to-paw any day." He ripped away a strip of cloth from his own shirt and began to bind his wound.

"Not with that paw, Turner, and not today." The Commander pried the needle free from the table and rubbed Turner's blood between his pawpads. "As to proving anything--let's just say it proves you need to be more careful where you spill your bodily fluids."

Button images by Keith Elder